Poster(s) of the Week – Hammer Studios Part 2: Dracula

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You can say what you like about the quality of Hammer’s horror output between 1957 and 1976 (and you could say quite a lot), but where they did excel was in the luridness of their promotional materials, and particularly their posters. Their series of Dracula-based movies are a great case in point, with their exaggerated declarations of terror, vivid colour schemes, damsels in partially-dressed distress, and arresting depictions of violence. Back in the late Fifties and on through to the early Seventies, Hammer mastered the art of the exploitation poster (and in time the art of the exploitation movie), but rarely as effectively as they did with their Frankenstein and Dracula movies. Here, in the second of a two-part Poster(s) of the Week, are the terribly sensational posters used to advertise a series of movies that got worse and worse the longer the series continued. What’s interesting is the way in which the posters mirrored the lacklustre content and declining success of the series, with the later entries being represented by posters that are nowhere near as eye-catching as their predecessors. Nowadays though, and despite Hammer’s recent resurgence, these movies are still the focus of much nostalgia and appreciation. And the same can be said for their posters.

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Swiss Army Man (2016)

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D: Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan / 97m

Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross

Stranded and alone on an island in the Pacific, Hank Thompson (Dano) has decided to end it all. He’s going to hang himself. But as he’s about to do so he spies a man’s body lying on the shoreline. Hoping the man (Radcliffe) is still alive, Hank forgets about killing himself and rushes to the man’s side. But he’s too late. The man looks as if he’s been in the water for too long, and it’s also not long before the accumulation of the gases inside his body begin to make themselves known. At first, Hank is annoyed and dismayed by the noises (and smells) coming from the man’s corpse, but when the tide starts to carry him back out to sea, Hank realises that the dead man’s flatulence is the answer to his being stranded on the island. Hank straddles the dead man’s back, points him away from the island and lets the escaping gases propel them both across the open ocean. And then he falls off…

Hank comes to on another beach, but this time he’s not on an island somewhere. He’s made it to US soil. And so has the dead man. Feeling a debt of gratitude to the dead man, Hank takes his corpse with him as he begins his trek back to civilisation. That first night he seeks shelter in a cave. The next morning, the corpse begins to speak, hesitantly at first, and then with increasing fluency. His conversation, though, is naïve and childlike, and Hank finds himself having to explain much about life and love and the nature of relationships. The corpse, who Hank names Manny, sees a picture of Hank’s “girlfriend”, Sarah (Winstead), on Hank’s mobile phone. He becomes obsessed with meeting her, so much so that to appease him, Hank constructs a hideout in the woods where he can teach Manny the best way to approach her, and how to talk to her without sounding stupid.

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When they move on, they discover that they’ve been nearer to civilisation than either could have expected. And by chance they find themselves in Sarah’s back yard, where her daughter, Chrissy (Ribero) is playing. She’s curious about them at first, but Manny starts talking about being dead and then alive thanks to Hank. Chrissy becomes scared, and Sarah comes out to see what’s going on. When she sees Hank and Manny, she calls the police. In turn, EMT’s arrive to take away Manny’s body, and Hank’s dad (Gross), whom he’s distant from, also turns up. But Hank can’t bear to be separated from Manny, and so he makes one last desperate act of compassion, one that astounds everyone.

At one point in Swiss Army Man, Hank tells Manny that, “You can’t just say anything that comes into your head, that’s bad talking.” Judged against the things that Hank doesn’t say, it’s a self-serving rebuke that highlights just how uncomfortable he is with his own thoughts. If, as seems likely – and despite the best efforts of writers/directors Scheinert and Kwan to make it seem otherwise – that Hank is imagining Manny’s return to life as a way of coping with his own issues of being alone (and not just on the island), then Hank is arguing with himself. Or more accurately, attempting to persuade himself that he doesn’t have to be alone, and that he can find happiness in a relationship with Sarah. But where you might expect Manny to act as a deus ex machina, a source of resolution for Hank’s emotional fragility, what Scheinert and Kwan do in their script – and achieve thanks to two standout performances by Dano and Radcliffe – is make Manny the unbridled id to Hank’s more cautious super-ego.

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It all makes for a fascinating and delicately balanced examination of one man’s lack of faith in himself. In the same way that we never learn how Hank came to be on the island in the first place, we never learn who Manny really is and why he came to be washed up there either. But it makes perfect sense if you accept that Manny’s physical self is real, and that his subsequent, miraculous ability to talk is due to Hank’s attempts to work out, or through, his own emotional distance from everyone. For Hank, Manny offers him a chance to examine his life and begin to make a difference. But Manny’s “approach” to life is the antithesis of how Hank approaches life; it’s no coincidence that Manny appears to be more “alive” than Hank.

By “resurrecting” Manny and making him Hank’s companion and eventual friend, Scheinert and Kwan have created a unique cinematic relationship. There’s a troubling sequence around the hour mark where Hank dresses up as Sarah in order to teach Manny what to say and how to behave around her. From this we can discern the exact nature of Hank’s relationship with Sarah, and also just how important it is to him. The sequence is troubling for the way in which Hank readily becomes Sarah, and readily accepts the off-kilter “courtship” that ensues. It all leads to a moment that is both uncomfortable for the audience and potentially cathartic for Hank, but he backs away at the last second, content still to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

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It’s been said elsewhere, but Swiss Army Man is definitely unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. As if its basic premise isn’t bizarre enough, Scheinert and Kwan’s decision to include metaphysical and reality-bending aspects to the narrative makes it even more extraordinary, and so too is their decision not to shy away from the more singular side effects of being a corpse (“Manny, I think your penis is guiding us home”). As mentioned before, the movie benefits greatly from the performances of Dano and Radcliffe, both actors unsurprisingly committed to their roles and unsurprisingly affecting, and effective, as two halves of the same person. Dano’s offbeat acting style suits Hank immensely, his tremulous delivery and poignant facial expressions matched perfectly by Radcliffe’s mostly static gaze and conscience-free dialogue.

Aside from Dano and Radcliffe’s involvement, the movie has plenty else to recommend it, from the two Daniels’ sense of the absurdity of Hank’s situation and his decreasing mental stability, to the crisp, carefully composed cinematography of Larkin Seiple, a catchy indie soundtrack, and a deliciously tart sense of humour that helps alleviate the inherent darkness of the material. It’s not a perfect movie – amongst other things there are too many continuity problems for that – but it is one that brings its own rewards if you’re willing to go along with it. Scheinert and Kwan are to be congratulated for coming up with such an unusual, and diverting, cinematic experience.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie that defies easy categorisation – and for once, that’s a good thing – Swiss Army Man is likely to divide audiences, and be unapologetic for doing so; if you go with it then it’s an outlandish yet entertaining treat, but if you don’t then you’re missing out on one of the most original, inventive and surprising movies made in recent years, and one replete with enough fart jokes to keep anyone and everyone happy.

Mini-Review: De Palma (2015)

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D: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow / 110m

With: Brian De Palma

It’s a great idea: take a movie maker whose career spans over fifty years, put him in front of a camera, and let him talk about that career in as much detail as he can. It’s a great idea, and it’s a simple one, and Brian De Palma is a perfect choice. He’s had a career with its fair share of ups and downs, critical and commercial successes and failures, and he’s not hesitant about defending some of the “poor choices” he’s made over the years. From his early days making student shorts such as Woton’s Wake (1962), De Palma is captivating and incisive about his work. He talks about each movie he’s made – some in more depth than others – but always with a view to explaining what he feels went right and what went wrong with each movie, and why. He talks about his disagreements with the studios, with screenwriters (De Palma is possibly the only director who worked with Robert Towne and thought he wasn’t doing a good enough job), and occasionally with actors (his remarks about Cliff Robertson are hilarious).

In terms of actual movie making, De Palma is a knowledgeable, avuncular storyteller, able to recall the reasons he made certain movies, the battles he had to fight to get some of them made, and why some weren’t as successful as others. His reasoning at times is a little self-serving (he still thinks The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) holds up as a movie), and he’s dismissive of the critics and their views (unless that critic is Pauline Kael, who championed his work when few others would). He has some great anecdotes to tell about the likes of Robert De Niro and Sean Connery, and he’s not afraid to talk about the accusations of exploitation and Hitchcockian mimicry that have dogged his career.

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There are well-chosen clips from each of De Palma’s movies, and most serve as visual references for his opinions and recollections. Here and there are revelations that many people won’t be aware of, or have seen, such as the alternative ending to Snake Eyes (1998), and his use of Michael Caine’s double in Dressed to Kill (1980). There’s a whole mineful of useful, interesting information being relayed here, and De Palma is an engaging, smart, occasionally witty interviewee; listening to him talk about the perils involved in getting a movie off the ground is like a masterclass in itself (and it’s happened to him way too often for comfort). But you also get a good sense of how tenacious he’s been in the past, and how determined he’s been to make the movies he’s wanted to make.

If there’s one issue that De Palma the movie is unable to address, it’s that De Palma the man goes unchallenged throughout. By giving De Palma a free pass, he’s allowed to make several remarks that would normally require further exploration (see The Bonfire of the Vanities). This leads, on occasion, to a number of moments where the viewer may be tempted to ask their own questions in the hope that De Palma somehow picks up on them. Someone once observed that “all directors are egomaniacs”, and while De Palma seems a little less egocentric than most, eagle-eyed viewers will notice that he rarely accepts any blame for those of his movies that didn’t work out so well. But then, De Palma is telling his story, not someone else’s, and like any artist who creates alternate realities for a living, sometimes the line between truth and reality can get blurred by self-interest.

Rating: 8/10 – fans of Brian De Palma will find his reminiscences and opinions of great interest, and even casual admirers will be drawn in by his winning (and occasionally) belligerent approach; as mentioned already, De Palma is a great idea, and one that could (and should) be used to capture the views and experiences of his contemporaries – so, calling Mr Spielberg, and Mr Scorsese, and Mr Coppola…

Question of the Week – 24 September 2016

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With the news earlier this week that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting divorced “for the good of the family”, there’s a feeling that their break up was inevitable. After all, they’re not the first couple to make a movie together and then decide it’s not working (the marriage, not the movie; though sometimes it is both). Having made the less than absorbing By the Sea (2015) – about a failing marriage, no less – the end of Brangelina appears to have occurred as an expected consequence. Make a movie where you play a couple who are no longer happy with each other, and as Woody Harrelson’s character in Now You See Me 2 (2016) puts it, “Bingo, bango, bongo!”, you’ve got a predictable case of Life imitating Art.

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And they’re not the first couple to end up fighting each other in the tabloids and/or a courtroom. Who can forget the unlikely pairing of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – as a real life couple, not as an on screen one – in Eyes Wide Shut (1999)? Again, a serious movie about relationship troubles, and soon afterwards, a marriage in tatters. And on a lighter note there’s the always doomed Bennifer, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, in the so-bad-it’ll-only-be-a-cult-movie-when-everyone’s-dead celluloid disaster, Gigli (2003) (Jeez, was it really that long ago?). At least they didn’t have to fight over the kids.

Of course, and all joking aside, married couples who act together don’t always split up. Take Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith who appeared together in Autómata (2014) – oh, hang on, no, they split up the same year. Well, if not them then there’s Ben Affleck (him again) and Jennifer Garner – oh no, hang on, they split up last year, and they didn’t even make a movie together. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all (just ask Brad Pitt, who now gets to add suspected child abuser to his resumé). So with all that in mind, this week’s Question of the Week is:

Should married couples who act, appear in movies together, and should they appear as a couple fighting to save/end a doomed marriage?

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ARQ (2016)

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D: Tony Elliott / 88m

Cast: Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Shaun Benson, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem, Adam Butcher, Tantoo Cardinal

In the future, a man (Amell) wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning and there’s a woman (Taylor) sleeping next to him. Suddenly, men wearing air filtration masks burst in; when the man resists them he’s rendered unconscious. When he wakes for the second time, he and the woman are tied to chairs in the basement. The men are threatening, but will leave if the man gives them his “scrips”, credit notes they believe he has a large supply of. The home invaders leave the couple to think about it. The man finds a way to free himself and the woman. The man attempts to escape and is killed in the process.

In the future, the man (whose name is Renton) wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning and there’s a woman (whose name is Hannah) sleeping next to him. Suddenly, men wearing air filtration masks burst in; when Renton resists them he’s rendered unconscious. When he wakes for the second (fourth?) time, he and Hannah are tied to chairs in the basement. The men are threatening, but will leave if the man gives them his “scrips”, credit notes they believe he has a large supply of. The home invaders leave the couple to think about it. The man finds a way to free himself and the woman. Aware that, somehow, this has already happened, he forms a plan to kill the intruders by releasing cyanide gas into the ventilation system. While he turns on the system, he waits for Hannah to release the gas. But she doesn’t, and is revealed to be in collusion with the men. Renton hands over the scrips but is then shot and killed.

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Renton wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning… and his predicament is beginning all over again. He formulates another approach but this backfires as well, and so on, until one by one, Hannah and the intruders become aware that they’re all stuck in a time loop, one that lasts for around three hours and fourteen minutes, endlessly repeating itself. The cause is a device, the ARQ (pronounced Ark), that Renton was working on for the Torus Corporation, and which he stole from them when he realised that its properties as a perpetual motion machine could be used as a weapon. The intruders, and Hannah, are members of a rebel group called The Bloc, and Renton is convinced that they’re after the ARQ and the need for scrips is incidental. Not wanting to let either side get their hands on the ARQ, Renton tries to figure out a way of escaping the time loop, saving himself and Hannah, and foiling the plans of the Torus Corporation and the Bloc.

Writer/director Tony Elliott’s first feature, ARQ is a quirky, sincere sci-fi drama that is refreshingly free of the kind of initial setting up period that would normally introduce us to the characters and their surroundings before letting them loose in the overall plot. Instead, Elliott throws us and Renton straight into the thick of things, and with a great deal of aplomb, lures his main character, and the viewer, into thinking that a solution to the time loop can be easily arrived at – and despite our knowing that nothing that easy is likely to happen; this is a time paradox movie after all.

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With each successive loop, the movie creates more and more unexpected twists and turns, and in doing so, proves remarkably refreshing to watch. Of course, things get increasingly worse with every loop, and there’s an awful lot of dying involved (mostly by Renton), but Elliott’s script retains a fair degree of optimism as Renton’s efforts to solve the problem of the time loop and the ARQ’s role in it gathers momentum and urgency. The necessary internal logic that keeps everything as credible as possible is strictly maintained – for the most part – and one huge flaw aside, keeps the viewer hooked and wanting to see what happens next (the flaw involves the ARQ and what’s needed to shut it down). As Renton’s dilemma becomes more acute – can he afford for even the Bloc, the nominal good guys in this story, to have the ARQ? – Elliott works hard to maintain a level of suspense that also allows the relationship between Renton and Hannah to be explored in some detail.

Their back story allows for a degree of ethical debate, but thankfully it’s not at the expense of the movie’s more acute thriller elements. But it does add some much needed emotional depth to what would otherwise be a straighforward sci-fi thriller. Both Amell (best known for roles in TV shows such as The Flash and The Tomorrow People) and Taylor (also a TV alumni from shows such as 666 Park Avenue and Jessica Jones) strive for an honesty and a sincerity in their roles, and while they both stumble occasionally thanks to minor inconsistencies in Elliott’s script, their commitment to the material is evident in every scene and every twist and turn of the narrative.

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The story plays out in a claustrophobic home setting, with a splendid mix of futuristic and old-fashioned production design courtesy of Oleg M. Savytski that makes Renton’s home look entirely practical for his needs and not just the script’s. If occasionally it feels like it’s a home designed to replicate a warren, with too many corridors and rooms for comfort, it merely adds to the level of anxiety created by the recurring time loop and the feeling that there’s no escape. Even when Elliott allows Renton and Hannah a brief respite by letting them go outside, they’re too uncomfortable with the open space (and a further mystery) to stay there. They return inside, and their brief sojourn is forgotten, another wrinkle in the machinations of the ARQ.

Elliott makes good use of his limited resources and keeps things moving intelligently and with a good deal of visual flair, despite the gloomy, and sometimes oppressive, atmosphere. The ARQ itself is nothing more than a revolving drum, and doesn’t always carry the weight of being such an important component of the story. Elsewhere, Elliott’s decision to make one of the intruders into an all-out bad guy adds unease to the narrative, and allows the story to go off in some unexpected directions. It’s this willingness to change the storyline and take chances with the material and the characters that is, ultimately, the movie’s biggest strength. And if these chances don’t always pay off, it’s a small price to pay for a largely solid and deliberately unprepossessing movie that tries hard to be different – and largely succeeds.

Rating: 7/10 – some viewers may be put off by the familiarity of some of the twists and turns thrown up by the time loop, but ARQ isn’t afraid to mix expectations and surprises, and it often manages to transcend both; a small-scale triumph then – not without flaws though – and a movie that has been carefully thought through from the off, it’s been assembled with a fair degree of skill and precision.

The Jackals (1967)

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D: Robert D. Webb / 96m

Cast: Vincent Price, Diana Ivarson, Robert Gunner, Bob Courtney, Patrick Mynhardt, Bill Brewer, John Whiteley

The mid- to late Sixties were a strange time for Vincent Price’s career. Prior to making The Jackals, the actor had teamed with Roger Corman to make a series of gothic horrors based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, made a handful of TV appearances in the likes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, showed he could do camp as well as anyone else in two movies as Dr. Goldfoot, and proved especially hammy (though to good effect) with occasional appearances as Egghead in TV’s Batman. And then he made this: a Western filmed in South Africa – and possibly the oddest movie in his filmography.

A remake of Yellow Sky (1948), which starred Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark, The Jackals begins with shots designed to establish its South African setting. We see zebras and elephants, and other animals, while a drum- and xylophone-based music score stands out awkwardly in the soundtrack’s foreground. We also see some snippets of tribal dancing until a group of cowboys are shown riding through the South African countryside. Soon they reach a small town, where they rob the bank. In the getaway, one of them is shot and killed. The group’s leader, Stretch (Gunner), persuades the rest to traverse an inhospitable desert area as a way of losing the posse chasing them. When they get to the other side, they find a ghost town, and the two remaining people who live there.

One is a young woman, Willie (Ivarson). She wants the men to go, but her grandfather, Oupa (Price), invites them to stay for as long as it takes for their horses to be well-rested. The men soon learn that Oupa is a prospector and has been working a nearby gold mine. At first, they intend to steal everything that the old man has accumulated, but Stretch’s attraction for Willie leads to his having a change of heart, and he strikes a deal with the old man that is meant to avoid any bloodshed. But two of Stretch’s men, Dandy (Courtney) and Gotz (Mynhardt), have their minds set on taking all the gold, and having their way with Willie. The longer they stay, the more that tempers flare, and Stretch’s command is called more and more into question, until Dandy can’t wait any more – and tries his best to remove his “competition”.

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Why Price made this particular movie isn’t known. It’s likely he signed on because it meant a chance to visit South Africa, it’s also likely it was because it meant a change of pace and character for someone who had become somewhat typecast as a horror star (it didn’t help that he went from this to making Witchfinder General (1968) for Michael Reeves). Whatever the reason, the finished product is not one of his best; though he is the best thing in it, by a longshot. With a twinkle in his eye, and a laugh not too far from his lips, Price plays Oupa like the kindly old man he was in real life. He’s the only member of the cast who appears to be behaving normally (given the circumstances), and the only actor who can speak his/her lines without sounding like they’re still learning them.

But Price, despite being top-billed, is actually playing a supporting role. Off screen for much of the movie, Price has to leave the heavy lifting to contract players Gunner and Ivarson. Alas, neither of them are particularly convincing, especially as a romance develops between their characters and they’re required to look as if they’re attracted to each other. Gunner went on to make one more movie, playing the astronaut Landon in Planet of the Apes (1968), while Ivarson made three more movies before leaving the business. It’s easy to see why both actors didn’t have longer careers; Gunner looks tense and uncertain throughout, and makes hard work of his dialogue. Ivarson spits out her lines with venom, mistaking her character’s insecurity for hatred, and her performance is maddingly one-note as a result. Watching them both, you just wish and pray that they’ll loosen up at some point; sadly, they don’t.

They’re not helped by the vagaries of the script, a combination of Lamar Trotti’s 1948 screenplay and Harold Medford’s undistinguished update. The characters have all the traits of often-seen stereotypes, from Courtney’s scheming Dandy (the only one who looks as dapper as his name), to Brewer’s good-natured oaf, and on down to Whiteley’s callow youth. And with lines of the calibre of, “I just wanted to show you how safe you’d be if I really wanted to get rough” (spoken by Stretch after he forces himself on Willie), the movie strays too close to misogyny for comfort – and not just the once.

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In the director’s chair, Webb adopts a tired, bare minimum approach that doesn’t help either. Scenes come and go in a perfunctory manner, as if most of them were assembled from first takes (there are a lot of continuity issues here), and lack the vitality needed to keep the audience involved with the material. Even the final shootout, usually the one aspect of a Western that most directors manage to get right, is so flatly choreographed and shot that by the time it’s over, it’s as much a relief for the viewer as it is for the characters. This was Webb’s last outing save for a couple of documentaries, and as swansong’s go isn’t one that can be recommended. As well as being unable to extract decent performances from his cast, he’s unable to elicit good work from his DoP, David Millin, or rescue the movie with his editor, Peter Grossett.

There’s too much that doesn’t work in The Jackals, and the whole thing is saddled (no pun intended) with a score that is completely South African in flavour and style, and which never matches the content or the mood of the narrative. All it does is remind the viewer that they’re watching a Western that’s been made in South Africa, and even though it’s a 20th Century Fox movie, it’s clear that concessions were made in order to get the movie agreed to and completed. As a further consequence of the movie’s low budget and scaled-back production values, it all leads to the realisation that whenever anyone is walking or running, it’s not footsteps that appear on the soundtrack but the sound of hoofbeats instead.

Rating: 4/10 – pretty meagre stuff, with poor performances from everyone except Price, and ineffectual direction from Webb, making The Jackals a disappointing experience from start to finish; as a curio it has a certain caché, but unless you’re a fan of Price there’s very little here to reward the casual viewer, and even less for regular Western enthusiasts.

NOTE: At present there is no trailer available for The Jackals.

10 Reasons to Remember Curtis Hanson (1945-2016)

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Curtis Hanson (24 March 1945 – 20 September 2016)

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Like many of his contemporaries, Curtis Hanson grew up with an appreciation of movies made in the Golden Age of cinema (1930-1960), so much so that in his own movies he made references to the period, or had his characters watch movies made and released back then. Early on, after dropping out of high school, Hanson found work as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine. His first movie credit might come as a surprise: he co-wrote the screenplay for The Dunwich Horror (1970). Two years later he was able to get his first project made as writer and director and producer, the unsuccessful psycho horror thriller, Sweet Kill (1972). It was an experience that appears to have hampered Hanson’s career insofar as he didn’t direct again until 1979. The early Eighties saw him struggle to make any headway, with projects such as Losin’ It (1983) failing to gain the kind of response that would have boosted his career (and despite the presence of a young Tom Cruise).

But Hanson persevered, and in 1992 had a breakthrough hit with another psycho horror thriller, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. It proved to be the fillip he needed, and from then on his career was assured. His choices became more varied, and he moved from genre to genre with an ease and a versatility that belied his previous work. His ability to work on projects that were outside of his own personal experience, in particular, and to find the core truth of them was always impressive. He was also able to extract some amazing performances from the actors he worked with, from Russell Crowe to Michael Douglas, Toni Collette and Paul Giamatti. Hanson was an intuitive director, intelligent and creative, visually astute and emotionally honest with his characters. Watching his movies will always be a joy – well, maybe not Evil Town (1987); no, really, don’t bother, there’s a reason he’s credited as Edward Collins – but now they’ll come with the bittersweet thought that Hanson’s particular approach to movie making won’t be repeated any more, and we’ll have to bear his loss along with all the other talented individuals 2016 seems intent on taking from us.

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1 – White Dog (1982) – co-screenwriter only

2 – The Bedroom Window (1987)

3 – The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

4 – The River Wild (1994)

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5 – L.A. Confidential (1997)

6 – Wonder Boys (2000)

7 – 8 Mile (2002)

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8 – In Her Shoes (2005)

9 – Too Big to Fail (2011)

10 – Chasing Mavericks (2012)

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Poster(s) of the Week – Hammer Studios Part 1: Frankenstein

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You can say what you like about the quality of Hammer’s horror output between 1957 and 1976 (and you could say quite a lot), but where they did excel was in the luridness of their promotional materials, and particularly their posters. Their series of Frankenstein-based movies are a great case in point, with their exaggerated declarations of terror, vivid colour schemes, damsels in partially-dressed distress, and arresting depictions of violence. Back in the late Fifties and on through to the early Seventies, Hammer mastered the art of the exploitation poster (and in time the art of the exploitation movie), but rarely as effectively as they did with their Frankenstein and Dracula movies. Here, in the first of a two-part Poster(s) of the Week, are the terribly sensational posters used to advertise a series of movies that got worse and worse the longer the series continued. What’s interesting is the way in which the posters mirrored the lacklustre content and declining success of the series, with the later entries being represented by posters that are nowhere near as eye-catching as their predecessors. Nowadays though, and despite Hammer’s recent resurgence, these movies are still the focus of much nostalgia and appreciation. And the same can be said for their posters.

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Next time: Hammer Studios Part 2: Dracula

Welcome to the World of High Concept/Low Return – Don’t Breathe (2016) and The Shallows (2016)

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Don’t Breathe (2016) / D: Fede Alvarez / 89m

Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang, Daniel Zovatto, Franciska Töröcsik

You can hear the pitch even now: “What if these thieves tried to steal a lot of money from someone, and that someone was blind and he trapped them in his house and turned the tables on them?” A grateful production executive greenlights the project in seconds, and sometime later, the finished project is hitting screens with all the fanfare required of an original thriller (Don’t Breathe is being advertised and touted as a horror movie. It’s not; but more of that later.)

However, the grateful production executive clearly abdicated any responsibility for the project once he gave it the go-ahead. If he hadn’t, then maybe he could have insisted that the basic storyline, the marginally interesting characters, and the increasingly silly narrative be better developed before filming began. Sadly, it wasn’t, and the intriguing pitch that started everything off goes nowhere fast before throwing itself head first into the Comedy Zone in its last twenty minutes.

Every year the critics – and audiences – latch on to a movie they believe is a cut above the rest when it comes to other thrillers/horror movies/comedies etc. Don’t Breathe is one such movie, but as it does so little to justify its elevated importance, it’s tempting to wonder if the critics – and audiences – have seen a completely different cut of the movie; and if they have, why aren’t we allowed to see it? The basic premise is somewhat intriguing – three delinquents, Rocky, Alex and Money (Levy, Minnette, Zovatto), decide to go for broke on their next robbery/home invasion, but come up against a blind man whose resourcefulness (and unnerving ability to be in the wrong place at the right time) puts them in a life or (mostly) death situation.

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Alvarez is a rising star in the horror firmament, and his remake of Evil Dead (2013) was better than expected. But here he’s in classic thriller territory, with a group of “innocents” being pursued by a relentless killer (Lang’s preternatural blind man), and finding themselves pushed beyond their limits. And though Alvarez is undoubtedly talented, here it’s obvious that he doesn’t have any answers when a script breaks its own rules – repeatedly. The blind man is referred to as an Army veteran, and because he’s played by Lang, we know he’s going to be a hard man to beat. But where a blind person’s other senses are often enhanced, here they come and go on a whim and a prayer. One minute he can hear extremely well, enough to pinpoint someone’s position in a ventilation system, the next he can’t hear a heavily wounded Minnette sneak up on him.

The problem with Don’t Breathe is that it wants to be a thrill ride with bloody (but non-horror) moments, but it forgets to add the thrills. A string of attempts to escape the house are repeatedly set up for Rocky and Alex to fail (Money exits stage left early on), and the plot’s major “twist” seems at first to be “great”, but it’s more of a way to keep the plot from collapsing in on itself (and pad out what would otherwise be a pretty meagre running time). In the end, the script, by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, runs out of steam and values unfortunate laughs over the muted tension it’s achieved earlier on. And as for the coda, well, let’s just say that clumsy is as clumsy does, and the end of the movie is very, very clumsy indeed.

Rating: 5/10 – with no one to care about or root for, Don’t Breathe becomes an exercise in soulless thriller tropes that let’s down the viewer continually once the blind man makes his presence felt; notwithstanding an eerie sequence in the basement when the lights go out, and some excellent production design, the movie will have long-standing fans of the sub-genre yawning at the absurdity and hamfisted nature of it all.

 

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The Shallows (2016) / D: Jaume Collet-Serra / 86m

Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Angelo José Lozano Corzo, José Manuel Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Diego Espejel

As with Don’t Breathe, you can hear the pitch just as clearly: “What if a surfer, a lone woman even, gets trapped on a rock two hundred yards from land, but can’t get there because there’s a huge great shark stopping her?” And once again, a grateful production executive greenlights the project in seconds, and sometime later, the finished project is hitting screens with all the fanfare required of an original thriller. And yet…

The problem with The Shallows, however, is that, like Don’t Breathe, you don’t get a chance to really care about the main character, Nancy (Lively). We get to spend an awful lot of time with her, and while her predicament is scary enough on its own, it isn’t really enough in general terms for it all to work as well and as harmoniously as it would like. We get some back story – Nancy’s making a pilgrimage to the beach her mother, who has died recently, fell in love with twenty-five years before – but it’s very perfunctory and serves to pad out the script at the movie’s beginning. Then we have an extended section that shows just how good a surfer Blake Lively’s stunt double is, before Nancy’s leg gets chomped on and she makes it to the rock (along with an injured seagull).

And then the movie does something unforgivable: it makes Nancy’s predicament boring to watch. As if realising that having its heroine stranded on a rock with nowhere to go isn’t quite as cinematic as it hoped, the movie brings in a drunken Mexican (and brings back two surfers from earlier on), and serves them up to the shark as a way of re-engaging the audience’s interest (the drunkard’s death is particularly nonsensical, and any viewer who doesn’t hang their head in despair at the way in which he goes to his death, should give up now if they think it makes any sense whatsoever). Then it’s full speed ahead to the final showdown, Nancy vs shark, and the kind of over the top outcome that provokes laughter instead of relief.

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After a string of uneven yet mostly effective thrillers starring Liam Neeson – Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) – Collet-Serra seems unable to do anything positive with Anthony Jaswinski’s tension-free script. From the decision to shoot most of the movie against a green screen (making most shots and scenes look false and oddly lit), to failing to address issues of continuity (how do the two surfers fail to see the drunkard’s remains on the beach when they come back?), Collet-Serra allows the fractured narrative to play out with barely an attempt at tightening things up, or avoiding treating the viewer like a numpty (sure, you can “stitch” a bite wound with just a couple of pieces of jewellery and not bleed out – no problem).

As the injured yet resourceful Nancy, Lively is a good enough actress that she can overcome some of the more bizarre decisions her character makes – resetting a seagull’s dislocated wing, anyone? – but for most of the time she’s either yelling in pain or shouting for help. Some of the earlier scenes are geared around showing off her figure, and there’s a particularly gratuitous surfboard-cam cleavage shot that adds nothing to the sequence it appears in, but as the movie progresses she keeps covered up and her predicament is kept to the fore – until the end when she’s required to strip back down to her bikini. We may be in the twenty-first century but in certain regards, it seems, the times they aren’t a-changin’ (or are ever likely to).

Rating: 4/10 – a thriller that plays out by the odd numbers alone, The Shallows does everything it can to fall short of expectations and commitment; with its unhappy use of CGI, and an overbearing score courtesy of Marco Beltrami, it’s a movie that brings apathy and indifference to the table in ever increasing portions.

The Meddler (2015)

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D: Lorene Scafaria / 103m

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Michael McKean, Jason Ritter, Jo Jordan

Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) is recently widowed. She has a daughter, Lori (Byrne), who lives and works in Los Angeles in the TV industry. At a loss as to what to do with her time, and despite being financially comfortable thanks to her late husband Joe’s foresight, Marnie chooses to focus her attention on Lori. But Marnie has no idea that her attentions are overbearing, and she ignores Lori’s protests that she’s trying too hard to involve herself in her daughter’s life. When Lori gets an plus-one invitation to a friend’s baby shower, Marnie invites herself along. Lori doesn’t show but Marnie is a hit with her daughter’s friends, and soon she’s spending more and more time with them, particularly Jillian (Strong), who reveals her wish to be married but who can’t afford it.

Marnie persuades Jillian to let her pay for the wedding, and soon she and Jillian’s friends (and Lori’s) are planning all the details, including the bridal outfit. Meanwhile, Lori announces that she’s going to New York for a while. The pilot she’s working on is being filmed there, and it makes sense for her to be there if any problems arise. Marnie throws herself into helping others, from the Genius at an Apple store, Freddy (Carmichael), to an elderly lady (Jordan) at the hospital where she volunteers. She even meets a retired policeman called Zipper (Simmons) when she inadvertently wanders into the background of a movie that’s being shot, and is mistaken for an extra.

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A trip to New York to visit Lori and Joe’s family goes awry, and Marnie returns to Los Angeles chastened and beginning to realise just how much her grief has been channelled into helping others at the expense of herself. She spends more time with Zipper, and comes to Lori’s aid when she has an emergency. Jillian’s wedding goes off without a hitch, and Marnie is given a special mention for her help in organising it all. But Marnie still has to make a decision about whether or not she wants to continue as she is – constantly occupied yet unhappy – or begin a new stage in her life, one that will see her still helping others but not out of personal necessity.

While it’s an apt description of Marnie’s character (for the most part), The Meddler is only so apt when it applies to Marnie’s relationship with her daughter. Away from this, it’s not quite so appropriate, as Marnie’s actions are more altruistic than interfering. This leads to a curious fracturing of the narrative, as the scenes where Marnie uses her financial good fortune, and in the case of the old lady in the hospital her compassion, carry a less distinctive dramatic weight than in those where she spars with Lori for her daughter’s attention. It’s hard to determine if writer/director Scafaria, here following up her feature debut Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), intended it this way, or if it was something that was decided on in post-production.

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What emerges is a movie that is able to examine an aging woman’s experience of grief and the twofold way in which she assimilates and deals with it. On the one hand, her relationship with Lori suffers because Marnie isn’t able to tell her daughter just how much she’s still hurting from the loss of the man who was so important to both of them. Instead she tries to protect and control Lori’s life to the extent that she’ll be kept perfectly safe – and Marnie won’t need to worry about losing her as well. That her actions are having precisely that very effect is the irony that compounds the situation, and stops things from being resolved between them. Scafaria makes a clever decision in their early scenes by playing up the humour inherent in the idea of an overbearing mother (at one point Lori suggests her mother take up a hobby; Marnie’s reply? “Maybe you could be my hobby!”). But the humour is gradually eroded and left behind in favour of exchanges that highlight the pain both women are suffering, and the additional pain their discord is causing each other.

Scafaria has created an emotionally complex, unfailingly brave character in Marnie Minervini, and she’s been blessed with the involvement of Sarandon in the role. The actress inhabits the part so completely, and with such ease, that it becomes a quiet masterclass in screen acting. Sarandon’s performance is so subtle, and so shaded, that often it seems she isn’t doing anything at all. And yet, every expression, every gaze, and every physical movement is in service to the character’s emotions, and her struggle to make sense of her continuing grief. To some degree we’re used to Sarandon giving impressive performances, but here she excels in a role that isn’t flashy, isn’t contrived, and isn’t weighted down by unnecessary layers. Sarandon doesn’t even attempt to make Marnie sympathetic beyond the fact of her being a widow; any sympathy Marnie receives from the viewer is earned through Sarandon’s careful attention to the character and the lessons she learns along the way.

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If there’s one criticism that could be levelled at the movie, it’s that Sarandon’s performance is so good that it eclipses those of the rest of the cast. By comparison, Byrne and Simmons et al fall just that little bit short of impressing as much. It’s not their fault, nor is it Scafaria’s – Sarandon is just that good – but it does make the movie feel a little uneven, as if the secondary characters, while important to the overall story, lack the necessary colour to make them stand out. In any other movie it probably wouldn’t be a problem, but here it detracts from the effectiveness of the various relationships.

Elsewhere there’s still much to admire, from the storyline involving the old lady in the hospital who keeps using a hand to make circles in the air, and which is given a poignant resolution; to the brief scene with Joe’s relatives where a very important clue as to the depth of Marnie’s grief is revealed; and Zipper’s owning chickens, which leads to the line, “Turns out, for the optimal combination of happiness and productivity… All roads lead to Dolly [Parton].” These are all minor moments in the overall fabric of the movie, but their understated nature is perfectly in tune with the gentle, good-natured approach Scafaria brings to the material. It’s a simple story, told simply and well, and at no point is the viewer left on the outside looking in. The humour is there, the drama is there, and the pathos is there, and it’s all impeccably put together by its writer/director in conjunction with its editor, Kayla Emter.

Rating: 8/10 – movies like The Meddler come along maybe once or twice a year, and often go overlooked, which is a shame, as Scafaria’s heartfelt tale of unaddressed grief is moving, life-affirming and overwhelmingly positive in its outlook; Sarandon is magnificent, Scafaria directs her own script with skill and clarity, and the movie offers a slew of rewards for anyone lucky enough to see it.

Skiptrace (2016)

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Original title: Jue di tao wang

D: Renny Harlin / 107m

Cast: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Bingbing Fan, Eric Tsang, Eve Torres, Winston Chao, Youn Junghoon, Shi Shi, Michael Wong, Kuo Pin Chao

Here’s a question for you: when did you last enjoy – really enjoy – a Jackie Chan movie? Was it Dragon Blade (2015)? Or Chinese Zodiac (2012) perhaps. Or was it even further back? The Karate Kid (2010) maybe. If it’s been even further back, don’t worry, it’s likely you’re not on your own.

Back in 2012, Chan told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that Chinese Zodiac was going to be his last action movie. He was getting too old, and he felt the world was “too violent”. And for a whole year it seemed that Chan was sticking to his word… and then he went and made Police Story: Lockdown (2013). So much for that, then. And now he’s back again with another action movie, Skiptrace, and this time, it’s… practically dead on arrival.

Let’s try another question: when did you last enjoy – really enjoy – a Renny Harlin movie? Was it The Legend of Hercules (2014) Or Devil’s Pass (2013)? Or something from the time when his name on a picture was reason enough to see it, say back in the Nineties. Unlike Chan, Harlin has never announced his “retirement” from action movies, and now he’s back with Skiptrace, and this time… well, you get the picture.

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There are many, many, many movies that are made because somebody somewhere thought they would be a good idea. Movies like Skiptrace, which are made both for a domestic market (in this case, China and Hong Kong) and a wider, international market, show up each and every year. Some succeed in gaining that wider, international success the makers hope for – the Internal Affairs trilogy, for example – while the majority barely make an impact. In between are movies such as Skiptrace, with its bankable, internationally famous star; less bankable but still well-known co-star; even less bankable but still fairly well-known director-for-hire; country-hopping locations; uninspired action set-pieces; and a patience-testing script that has no intention of making any kind of sense at any point in the movie.

The plot, such as it is, has Chan’s dogged cop, Bennie Chan, still trying to avenge the death of his partner (Tsang) at the hands of criminal mastermind the Matador. Nine years have passed since that terrible event, and Bennie has spent the years since in trying to prove that high-profile businessman and philanthropist Victor Wong (Chao) is the Matador. Of course he’s been unsuccessful, and his latest attempt leads to the kind of property destruction that warrants his being told to take a month’s leave of absence. In the meantime, his deceased partner’s daughter, Samantha (Fan), has infiltrated Wong’s organisation in an attempt to find some evidence against him… but she’s drawn a blank too. It’s not until con man and gambler Connor Watts (Knoxville) turns up at a casino run by Wong and witnesses a murder that Bennie has a solid chance of bringing Wong to justice.

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So far, so straightforward. But the script, already over-complicating things by having Bennie as Samantha’s guardian, introduces us to Connor by putting him in jeopardy in Russia thanks to an ill-advised relationship with a mobster’s daughter. A series of non-linear flashbacks to the previous twenty-four hours reveals Connor’s actions at the casino (including winning a large amount of money), his meeting Samantha, trying to avoid the Russian mobster’s goons (out to bring him back to Russia so he can be put in jeopardy), witnessing a murder in the process, and coming into possession of a mobile phone that will reveal the identity of the Matador. Too much already? Don’t worry, there’s more – much more.

What follows is a tortuous road movie that sees Bennie and Connor eventually learn to respect and admire each other, and which takes in such locations/developments as the Russian bowling alley where Connor finds himself in peril, a train that both men jump from as soon as they hear the ticket inspector approaching, buying the slowest vehicle in Mongolia without ensuring it has enough petrol to get them anywhere, an encounter with a group of Mongolian tribespeople (more of which later), a game of bluff and double bluff at the Chinese border that sees them arrested, their opportune “rescue” by the Russian mobster’s goons, a whitewater raft ride, and eventually, a zipline escape from Wong’s men.

There’s more still, but it’s all too tiring, a series of desperate attempts by the screenplay – step forward writers Jay Longino and BenDavid Grabinski, whose first collaboration this is – to keep viewers from nodding off or asking themselves why they’re still watching after the first half an hour. If the events listed in the previous paragraph sound exciting, don’t be fooled: even handled by Harlin, not exactly a slouch when it comes to action movies, those sequences lack energy and are shot through with the kind of slapstick humour that Chan’s movies are famous for. And it needs to be said: Chan is getting on. His decision to “retire” back in 2012 should have been followed through, because in Skiptrace you can see just how slow he’s become. The speed and intricacy of his past fight scenes are absent here, with blows and parries signposted well in advance and Chan being given more than enough time to get into position for each.

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And then there’s the encounter with the Mongolian tribespeople. It’s a standard sequence to begin with, a misunderstanding leading to Connor and then Bennie squaring up against the tribe’s best fighters. The misunderstanding is resolved and the tribespeople take to the pair as if they were long-lost relatives. A feast ensues, and after a few too many drinks, Bennie begins to sing a song. A young woman joins him, and soon everyone is singing along as well, word perfect and in perfect harmony. The song is Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, and it’s possibly the most bizarre moment you’ll ever see, and hear, in a Jackie Chan movie. It’s also the best example of how haphazardly the script has been assembled, with sequences obviously arrived at and decided on before a plot was actually dreamt up.

Like so many of these productions, the editing is the worst aspect of all, leaving the movie looking like a cinematic patchwork, with shots truncated and poorly framed, and the performances (such as they are) suffering as a consequence. Chan is his usual amiable self, unstretched by the material, while Knoxville’s comic relief portrayal of Connor serves as a reminder that when a script is this bad the actor doesn’t have a way of countering it. Elsewhere, the supporting cast do what they can with their underwritten roles, with only ex-WWE wrestler Torres standing out thanks to her impressive physicality. Harlin is a bland presence in the director’s chair, his regular visual flair absent from the mix. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who directed Die Hard 2 (1990) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). But then, it’s hard to think of anyone who could have made something even halfway decent from the material on offer.

Rating: 3/10 – not the finest moment in Chan’s career, Skiptrace is hard to sit through and barely acceptable as entertainment; with all the vitality of a contractual obligation, the movie crams in a surfeit of incidents that, ordinarily, would keep at least another two movies happy – but ultimately, it doesn’t have any idea of what to do with them.

Trailers – Christine (2016), Nocturnal Animals (2016) and Annabelle 2 (2017)

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Thankfully, Christine is not an unwanted, unexpected remake of the 1983 John Carpenter movie about a haunted car, but instead the true life tale of a haunted woman, Christine Chubbuck. Chubbuck was a US TV news reporter working in Florida during the late Sixties, early Seventies. She battled depression and suicidal thoughts before killing herself live on TV in July 1974. In telling her story, director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich have created a compelling, richly detailed account of Chubbuck’s life and struggle with her personal demons, and the movie features what many critics are already describing as a “career-best” performance from Rebecca Hall. From the trailer we can see that the era when Chubbuck was alive has been painstakingly recreated, and that the cinematography by Joe Anderson is an integral part of what makes the movie look and feel so fresh and nostalgic at the same time. A tragic tale, to be sure, but Christine seems keen to be true to Chubbuck’s awkward yet painfully endearing persona, and which also doesn’t appear to shrink from exploring the “issues” that led to her untimely death at the age of just twenty-nine.

 

Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford’s first movie since A Single Man (2009). A movie that features a narrative full of twists and turns, it sees Amy Adams’ art gallery owner apparently threatened by the existence of a novel written by her ex-husband (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel reads like a revenge tale, a way of his getting back at her for something she did to him that was really terrible. She recognises herself in the story, and comes to believe that he’s written it deliberately to make her afraid that the story will come true. Adams, after her disappointing turns in the likes of Big Eyes (2014) and the less than stellar DC outings involving Superman, here gets to grip with a meaty, dramatic role that better suits her abilities than having to play second fiddle to a green screen. But it’s still, first and foremost, a Tom Ford movie: stylish, elliptical in places, and beautifully lensed by Seamus McGarvey, making it a feast for the senses as well as the intellect.

 

The inclusion here of the first, teaser trailer for a sequel to a spin-off movie that nobody really wanted, is, on the face of it, a little strange in itself (the original didn’t even merit inclusion in the Monthly Roundup it should have been a part of; yes, it’s that bad). But three things warrant giving the trailer for Annabelle 2 the equivalent of a hall pass: one, that’s Miranda Otto holding the cross, an actress who rarely makes bad movies; two, its director is David F. Sandberg, fresh from his success as the main creative force behind Lights Out (2016); and three, it keeps things commendably brief and doesn’t rely on a manufactured jump scare to get you, well… jumping out of your seat. These may not be enough to stop the movie from being as bad as its predecessor, but for the moment, this is one teaser trailer which understands that, when it comes to horror, less really is more.

Mini-Review: Café Society (2016)

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D: Woody Allen / 96m

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Corey Stoll, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Anna Camp, Sheryl Lee

In the Thirties, naïve young Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) leaves the safety of his parents’ (Berlin, Stott) home in the Bronx to move to Hollywood and start a new life. Taken under the wing of his uncle, super-agent Phil Stern (Carell), Bobby is shown around town by Stern’s secretary, Vonnie (Stewart). He quickly falls in love with her, despite her having a boyfriend, and they spend a lot of time together. But when the man in Vonnie’s life reneges on a promise to leave his wife for her, she allows herself to be wooed by Bobby, and in time he asks her to marry him and go with him to New York (he’s bored by the shallowness of Hollywood and its denizens).

But Vonnie’s “boyfriend” finally leaves his wife and she chooses to marry him instead of Bobby. Heartbroken, and hardened by the experience, Bobby returns to New York where he goes to work with his older brother, Ben (Stoll), running a nightclub called Le Tropical. Ben has criminal ties, but keeps Bobby clear of any involvement. Eventually, Bobby meets and marries a recent divorceé, Veronica (Lively). They have a child, and the club becomes a focal point for the famous, the infamous, and everyone in between. Now settled firmly into the roles of husband, father and successful businessman, Bobby’s world is turned upside down when Vonnie pays a visit to Le Tropical with her husband, and it becomes clear that they still have feelings for each other.

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Woody Allen’s latest, annual, offering is an outwardly frivolous affair that touches on many of the tropes that have kept his movie career going for nearly fifty years. There’s the relationship between an older man and a (much) younger woman; love denied; philosophical enquiries into the natures of life, love and art; class merits and social acceptance; ambition; and all wrapped up in a slightly more jaundiced approach than is usual. Beneath the glamour and the glitzy lifestyles on display in both Hollywood and New York, Allen makes it clear that happiness is much harder to find than it appears. It also appears to be much more of a commodity, as Bobby’s offer of a romantic life in New York is spurned for a superficial one in Hollywood.

Allen once again assembles a great cast with Eisenberg as yet another on-screen substitute for The Man Himself, and Stewart putting in her best performance in quite some time as the (not really) conflicted Vonnie. But it’s the supporting characters who steal the show, in particular Bobby’s aunt Evelyn (Lennick) and her pacifist husband, Leonard (Kunken). Their problem with an abusive neighbour provides a much needed break from the predictable nature of the central romance, while Stoll’s droll gangster is worthy of a movie of his own. It’s this imbalance that hurts the movie at times, as the romance between Vonnie and Bobby, though given due emphasis by Allen’s screenplay, isn’t as compelling as you’d expect. It’s the distractions from the main storyline that work better as a result, and while Allen peppers things with his trademark wit (“First a murderer, and now a Christian!”), it’s not enough to offset the familiarity of a romance seen too often before.

Rating: 7/10 – Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography is Café Society‘s biggest draw, along with its cast, but this is ultimately a Woody Allen movie that sees him revisiting familiar ground to sporadically good effect; enjoyable enough then, but there’s a sense that Allen’s once-a-year workload is still providing similar returns with each new movie.

Question of the Week – 13 September 2016/Trailer – Rings (2016)

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Forget the obvious question: why make another Ring movie? Instead, watch the trailer:

 

…and then ask yourself this very simple question:

Wouldn’t it be great if Samuel L. Jackson showed up and said, “I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHERF*CKING RINGS ON THIS MOTHERF*CKING PLANE!”?

(Or is it just me?)

I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)

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D: Billy O’Brien / 103m

Cast: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Christina Baldwin, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Lucile Lawton, Anna Sundberg, Raymond Brandstrom, Michael Paul Levin

Welcome to the small US town of Clayton where the mutilated remains of one of the townsfolk ends up at the Cleaver-run funeral home. It’s actually the second such corpse to end up there, but the owner, April Cleaver (Fraser), isn’t too happy about the boost in business – given the circumstances. The same can’t be said for her son, John (Records), who views (literally) the bodies with a kind of excitement. Which isn’t surprising, as John has been recently diagnosed as a sociopath.

John ticks all the boxes for incipient sociopathy: bedwetting, pyromania and animal cruelty, but he’s self-aware and has a set of rules that he follows in order that he doesn’t act out on his violent impulses. He has a friend, Max (Brandstrom), that he hangs out with and does “normal” stuff, and he has a liking for a girl who lives across the road, Brooke (Lawton) (though he doesn’t know how to approach her, or talk to her even when she speaks to him). Aside from his mother, his aunt Margaret (Baldwin), and older sister Lauren (Sundberg), the only other people he interacts with are his therapist, Dr Neblin (Geary), and the elderly couple across the street, the Crowleys (Lloyd, Noah).

After the discovery of the second body, John starts to notice a mysterious man wandering around town and acting suspiciously. One day he follows the man, who bumps into Mr Crowley. Crowley is going ice fishing and the stranger invites himself along. John follows them out to a lake and watches as the stranger makes to stab the old man in the back. But John is astonished to see Crowley whirl round and using some kind of black, stick-like growth that shoots from his hand, kill the man instead. And then it gets weirder still…

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What John sees causes him no end of confusion and indecision. But he’s also fascinated, impressed even on one level, and says nothing to anyone about what he’s seen. He begins to follow Crowley around town, until one afternoon the old man visits a barber’s. Once the other customers are gone, and the barber is distracted, Crowley locks the door and puts the Closed sign in the window. While he proceeds to kill the barber, John sets off the security alarm. Two policemen arrive, but when one of them discovers the barber’s body, Crowley kills both of them as well. Shocked, but also scared of putting anyone else in harm’s way, John decides that it’s down to him to do something about Crowley’s killing spree. But can he do it without betraying his own set of rules, and without giving in to the urges he manages to suppress?

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Dan Wells, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a dark comedy/drama that manages to work on several levels, and with a good deal of style and panache. Visually it’s a very dour, moody piece, even when Clayton is buried under a couple of feet of snow. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is an obvious asset, whether it’s capturing the look and feel of a small town teetering on the edge of hysteria, or reflecting on the dark emotions that drive both John and Mr Crowley. (It’s a banner year for Ryan, with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey also lensed by him and due out.) As the movie progresses and the streets of Clayton become emptier and emptier, Ryan’s camerawork helps increase the sense of isolation experienced by the characters, and heightens the drama. For a relatively low budget movie, Ryan’s work is exemplary and helps elevate the somewhat uneven material.

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This unevenness is due to the twists and turns of the story, some of which work perfectly – Crowley’s first on-screen kill – and some of which don’t – John’s mother being put in harm’s way near the end. In adapting Wells’s novel, O’Brien and co-screenwriter Christopher Hyde have rightly emphasised the struggle John has in keeping his impulses in check, but they’re less successful in examining and relating the reasons why he keeps Crowley’s secret to himself. He’s clearly appalled by both the fact of Crowley’s being a serial killer, and the manner in which he carries out his kills, and also that he’s been doing it for a very long time (there’s a nod to Lloyd’s role in the Back to the Future trilogy, as one of Crowley’s younger identities is called Emmett). This is at odds with his sociopathy, which is played with and included as and when the script requires it. Other emotional outbursts are also at odds with Dr Neblin’s diagnosis, and there’s even room for a last-minute joke to further call his condition into question.

Notions of sociopathy aside, John is a wholly sympathetic character that, strangely enough, audiences should be able to identify with. As a teenager, he has trouble fitting in, and as a protagonist he’s pro-active in ways that we’d like to think that we would be in a similar situation. As he and Crowley play their game of cat and mouse, it’s easy to root for him because even when he appears to have killed someone – a definite no-no according to the rules – John’s reaction is one of horror rather than indifference. What’s also very clever (and very cleverly handled) is the way in which Crowley is allowed to go from homicidal maniac to a character every bit as sympathetic as John, and with a compelling motive for his actions as well.

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Threaded throughout the story are moments of rich, dark humour – John’s way of dealing with a bully, Max’s father being interviewed on TV while he’s part of an angry mob – and John’s family background is given its fair share of screen time, revealing greater depths to the characters than is usual. As the fractured family, Fraser is under-used as John’s mother, while Baldwin is the strong-willed yet fair aunt, and Sundberg pops in and out of the narrative to remind viewers that John isn’t the only one trying to figure out their place in life. As John, Records gives an intuitive, carefully modulated performance that matches the character’s feelings of paranoia, while Lloyd provides a perfect mix of pathos and menace as the neighbourly serial killer with an even darker secret.

O’Brien ensures the movie is never less than intriguing, and directs at an unhurried, deliberate pace which suits the material and gives the narrative room to breathe. He’s also able to ensure that when things get really weird, the viewer isn’t put off by these developments or left stranded in open disbelief (a likely occurrence if this was in the hands of a less confident director). And the denouement, when it arrives, is unexpectedly touching, a surprise that is pulled off with aplomb, and which makes the movie a much more rewarding experience than usual.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire about I Am Not a Serial Killer, from its familiar small town vibe to its potent murder scenes, and the many ways in which it manages to subvert those small town vibes in order to heighten the drama; Records and Lloyd make for great adversaries, the special effects in the movie are used sparingly and to good effect, and the whole thing is far more entertaining and enjoyable than its semi-morbid title would have you believe.

Zoom (2015)

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D: Pedro Morelli / 93m

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alison Pill, Mariana Ximenes, Tyler Labine, Don McKellar, Claudia Ohana, Michael Eklund, Jennifer Irwin, Jason Priestley, Clé Bennett

A worker in a factory that produces state of the art love dolls. A movie director trying to make an artistic masterpiece. A model who discovers she has a talent for writing. Three people who aren’t connected. Or are they?

That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself if you watch Zoom, a freewheeling, energetic look at three lives that may or may not be intertwined, and one of which is presented in the same rotoscopic animation style as A Scanner Darkly (2006). Unafraid to take chances with its narrative, the movie invites the viewer along on a cleverly structured, and constructed, meta-ride that rewards them over and over again as the movie progresses. It’s a likeable, good-natured movie that appears to veer off in unlikely directions in an effort to be “different”. But this veering off is a major part of the movie’s charm, and while some twists and turns may seem frivolous, they all add to the huge amount of fun that can be had from Matt Hansen’s lively screenplay.

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It certainly begins in an unexpected fashion, with two workers at a love doll factory, Emma (Pill) and Bob (Labine), having sex surrounded by the fruits of their labours. It’s both funny and disconcerting to see Emma and Bob being “watched” while they copulate, but it’s done in such a matter-of-fact way that the disconcerting aspect soon goes away (even if the love dolls’ voyeuristic perspective doesn’t). Alas, Bob’s post-coital attempts at conversation soon fall flat and he makes unflattering comments about the size of Emma’s breasts. An aspiring comic book artist, Emma has drawn a picture of herself as a voluptuous warrior princess; using this and Bob’s attitude as a spur for doing so, she goes ahead and has a breast enlargement.

Emma has also been chronicling the story of a movie director, Edward (Bernal), as he nears completion of his latest feature. Edward is known for making popular action movies but wants to make an artistic statement this time round, a fact he’s trying desperately hard to hide from studio head Marissa (Irwin). Meanwhile he lives a hedonistic lifestyle, often bedding two women at the same time. When Emma decides to put an end to this behaviour by severely reducing the size of his penis, Edward’s resulting loss of confidence begins to affect his ability in making his movie. And when Marissa finally sees a rough cut that ends too abruptly for her liking, Edward is persuaded to oversee further shooting that will add an action climax much like the ones he’s famous for.

Edward’s movie is about a Brazilian model, Michelle (Ximenes), whose career is far from fulfilling. An encounter with a publisher leads her to turn her back on modelling in order to write a novel. She leaves behind her less than supportive boyfriend, Dale (Priestley), and heads for a beach town in Brazil where she continues to write her story about a young woman who works in a love doll factory and wants bigger breasts. As Zoom continues, each story, already inextricably linked, reveals different facets of the wider story being told, and challenges our notions of what’s real and what’s fantasy.

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Morelli juggles the various storylines and multiple perspectives with a confidence that draws out the subtle nuances and refinements of the script. Visual clues and riffs abound throughout, and there are a number of verbal references that serve to enhance the quick-witted nature of the narrative, and it all helps to take the viewer on a multi-stranded journey of discovery that never skimps on invention. Emma and Bob find themselves in possession of a large quantity of cocaine, the sale of which will help pay for the breast reduction she now wants. Michelle finds herself on the verge of a relationship with local bar owner, Alice (Ohana). Edward goes to ever-increasing lengths (no pun intended) to reassert his masculinity, even as his control over his movie defaults to his scheming colleague, Horowitz (McKellar). Each story grows closer and more connected to each other, until Hansen and Morelli manage to pull off something of a magic trick: three narratives become one and they all fit seamlessly together.

A tremendous amount of thought has been put into Zoom, and though a handful of scenes have the feel of having been added during shooting, the movie as a whole has a gleefully anarchic approach that is helped immeasurably by the commitment of its cast. Bernal, his performance augmented by the comic book style animation his storyline is presented in, plays Edward as a combination of preening pleasure seeker and tortured artist, and does so without making his character seem at odds with himself. Ximenes has arguably the most dramatic role, but acquits herself well, portraying Michelle’s determination and vulnerability with a poise and conviction that feels entirely natural. Labine provides his usual slacker screen persona (which isn’t a bad thing; he hasn’t worn out his welcome in the way that Seth Rogen has, for example), Michael Eklund adds another oddball role to his CV as a love doll customer with an uncomfortable demeanour, and McKellar is suitably venal and crafty as Edward’s “successor”.

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But it’s Pill who most impresses. As the outwardly mousy Emma, Pill delivers a pitch perfect portrayal of a woman with bigger (pun intended) plans than anyone can imagine. Always undervalued and unappreciated for herself, Emma has a better focus on her life and what she wants than anyone else, and Pill is the movie’s consistent source of emotional honesty. Her open, expressive features (even when hidden behind some very large frames) have the ability to convey so many different feelings and emotions that watching her is always a pleasure. Just watch her in the scene where she tries to insist that her breast enlargement be reversed; the combination of her countenance and her vocal delivery is expressed with such delicacy that it’s a shame when the scene ends.

Zoom premiered a year ago today at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, but has since been released in only a handful of countries. This is a shame as it’s an imaginative, skilfully handled tale that wears its quirkiness on its sleeve with pride, and offers anyone lucky enough to see it a very good time indeed. Morelli, Hansen, the cast, and everyone else involved in the movie should all be congratulated for achieving something that doesn’t conform to the moribund excesses of current Hollywood movie making.

Rating: 8/10 – an extremely pleasing mix of animation and standard photography, Zoom establishes each of its three storylines with speed and efficiency, and never relaxes in its efforts to surprise and entertain the viewer; a small-scale gem that deserves a wider audience – like so many other indie movies out there – it’s diverting and rewarding in equal measure and well worth checking out.

“Meh” Movies and Me – Part 2

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When I posted “Meh” Movies and Me on 8 September, that was meant to be that. I had a list of movies going forward that I planned to watch and review, and none of them were big-budget, “event” movies made with conspicuous excess and an unhealthy reliance on CGI (well, all except The Legend of Tarzan). The first movie on the list was Black Tar Road (2016), and that was meant to be followed – today – by Zoom (2015), and then I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016). But instead of watching either movie I re-watched an old favourite, To Be or Not to Be (1942), and episode six of Jessica Jones (what can I say? I lag behind when it comes to TV series’). Why did I watch these instead? That’s a fair question, and the answer is simple, albeit in two parts.

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Firstly, I wondered if I’d over-reacted. After all, I’d had a bad run, three movies in a row that had earned themselves 3/10 because they were basically rubbish. They were movies that really should have been vetoed at the idea stage. But they were made, they attracted well-known names to them, and they were all heavily promoted as if they were must-see movies. Now I like Jason Statham, and I like Idris Elba, and I like… Rose Byrne, and if they all appeared in the same movie together I would probably make a point of seeing it as soon as possible. But instead they made a trio of movies that were as soul-destroying as watching that last Rolo get away from you (apologies to anyone outside of Britain who doesn’t get that last analogy/joke). They made a trio of movies that they should have known – from day one – were going to be bad. Actually, not just bad, but appalling. I’m all for actors being employed and able to pay their bills each month, but can their mortgage really mean more than their self-esteem – or their reputation?

And so, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, no, I hadn’t over-reacted. I’d been right, right to challenge the status quo, and right to call out anyone who makes a movie with the knowledge that it’s going to suck; and especially if they use millions and millions of dollars to make it. But after watching and reviewing Black Tar Road (and on the whole, liking it quite a bit), I realised that I needed a bit of a cooling off period. I needed to watch something that would remind me that mainstream movies can be entertaining, that they can have well-constructed and thought out scripts, that the cast can take those scripts and use them to create wonderful, memorable characters, and that directors can be bold and decisive and in tune with the material and above all, take risks. And so, To Be or Not to Be, which has all of those things. And Jessica Jones, which has them too, but in a different way.

But I said the answer was in two parts, didn’t I? Well, the second part is a little less obvious. When you’ve seen as many movies as I have – 14,432 and counting as of today – then you get a little set in your ways and your opinions. Not about whether or not a movie is an appalling piece of crap and doesn’t deserve to see the light of day – that’s a constant that should never be discouraged. No, it’s when you’re five or ten minutes into a movie and you know exactly how it’s going to end (and how it’s going to get there), and what’s going to happen to the characters. There are signs everywhere and most of them aren’t very subtle, which is why some movies feel like ninety minutes or more of déjà vu. Black Tar Road is such a movie, and though I liked it, it has a predictable nature to it that is as off-putting (to me) as watching a movie where you’re led by the hand from scene to scene.

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One of the great things about To Be or Not to Be is that even if you watch it more than once, it retains a freshness and an easy charm that’s never diminished. This is due to the quality applied to the material in every department. And Jessica Jones, while conforming to many of the expectations of contemporary television, regularly and repeatedly tries to subvert those expectations in order to keep its audience engaged and coming back for more. With this in mind, shouldn’t movies be doing the same? Shouldn’t they be trying to subvert our expectations? I think they should be, but maybe I’m in a minority. Maybe everyone else is happy with the status quo and watching movies that continually fail to meet the demands of modern audiences. And maybe that’s what today’s movie makers are counting on: that we just don’t care enough to complain, or change our viewing habits for the better.

And that really is that.

Black Tar Road (2016)

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D: Amber Dawn Lee / 85m

Cast: Amber Dawn Lee, Noelle Messier, James Black, Darin Cooper, Jeff Chassler, Ron Allen, Eugenia Care, Leif Gantvoort

You’re an aspiring actress who wants to be known for more than roles as The Hottie in short The Bigfoot Hunters (2013), or as Hippie Barfly in lame horror Butterfly (2010). So what do you do? Simple: start your own production company and put your other talents as a writer and a producer and a director to the fore. Amber Dawn Lee did exactly that in 2010 when she formed Abovo Films. Six years on and we have the first feature made by Lee through her own production company, the abrasive romantic drama, Black Tar Road.

Originally titled A Junkie Love Story before its release, Black Tar Road is a bleak, occasionally disturbing look at love amongst the ruins of two women’s lives as they come together and find a semblance of happiness while nothing around them changes. Heather (Messier) is a hooker who finds her customers at a local truck stop. She’s tall, skinny, and by her own admission, not the prettiest woman to look at. But she has nowhere else to go, and no real ambitions to better herself other than to travel west to Pasadena. But even then she has no idea what she’ll do when she gets there. Charlie (Lee) is a trucker, working off a debt to a criminal gang by transporting illegal items around the American southwest. She’s a drug addict, too, injecting heroin at an often alarming rate but somehow managing to function. Beyond clearing her debt she too has no ambitions or plans; the only difference between her and Heather is that she at least has travelled, even if it is behind the wheel of a truck.

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Their relationship begins in an offhand, casual way, in a bar. There’s an attraction on Charlie’s part that happens straight away, but Heather is looking for a friend to help make her life more bearable. She’s not looking for love as she doesn’t think it’s real anymore. Charlie thinks along similar lines, but the ease with which they come together as friends makes it inevitable that they’ll fall in love. As both director and writer, Lee doesn’t shy away from how broken these two women are, nor how much they want to feel normal (whatever that means for them). As their friendship develops and becomes sexual as well as more emotional, Lee’s script allows them a respite from the pain and disappointment of their regular lives. Together, they can block out all the bad stuff and ignore it for a while, but thanks to their own failings and their own individual problems, all that stuff is still going to be there to trip them up.

As Heather and Charlie become closer and more committed to each other, as well as the idea of their being a couple, there’s the likelihood that we’ll get to know more about them. Up til now, Lee has provided very little back story for either character, and while this doesn’t hinder our understanding of the two women, it does create a distance between them and the viewer that restricts the amount of sympathy we feel for them. Heather was popular in high school, and is reminded of this from time to time, but we don’t know the circumstances that have led her into prostitution. Likewise, Charlie’s addiction to heroin is presented as an integral, and important, part of her lifestyle and character. Lee refrains from exploring each character’s unwillingness to change (or at least try to); instead she makes their determination not to change a kind of feminist badge of honour, as both women try to convince each other, and the audience, that this is who they are and they don’t need to be any different.

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Lee paints a pretty miserable picture of both women’s lives from the outset, and the first half an hour may test the patience of viewers who don’t like their movies to be quite so grim, but once Heather and Charlie begin their relationship in earnest, then Lee allows the movie to breathe a little. She lets the two women experience joy and hope in equal measure, and changes the parameters by which they relate to the world. Lee shoots several scenes in black and white to highlight the difference that their romance means to them, how simple their lives have become in these moments of intimacy and love. These are affecting moments, driven by the closeness and the bond between Heather and Charlie, and by Lee’s careful, though obvious, signposting of the way in which things might change for the worst.

As the beleaguered women, both Lee and Messier are on fine form. Lee plays Charlie as a more internalised role, a mostly quiet(er) counterpoint to Messier’s garrulous Heather. Charlie’s drug habit leaves her looking haggard and on the verge of death a lot of the time, and Lee isn’t afraid to look suitably ghastly. Heather has a nervous laugh that animates her face in a way that shows off her insecurity around other people; like Lee, Messier isn’t afraid to look worn-down or exhausted. Both actresses express a degree of fearlessness in their roles that adds texture and a coarse vitality to their roles, but they’re equally adept at showing the vulnerability and the tenderness that Heather and Charlie are able to show each other, and no one else.

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For all its positive qualities though, Black Tar Road does founder at times, and Lee makes some narrative decisions that don’t make a lot of sense. Charlie does something that should see her pursued by the police, but once it’s done and she’s panicked a bit over it, it’s forgotten and never mentioned again. It’s a very unlikely outcome, and some viewers may well continue watching the movie waiting for this “something” to come back and bite Charlie in the ass. That it doesn’t is unfortunate, and the sequence in which it occurs ends up feeling like an unnecessary addition to Charlie’s storyline. Heather, meanwhile, looks after her grandmother, who is borderline catatonic. This never amounts to anything significant, unless it’s to show that Charlie and Heather aren’t entirely self-centred; if that’s the case, then it’s a very clumsy way of telling viewers something they’ll already have guessed for themselves. There’s also way too many scenes of Charlie shooting up and then waking up – often in the street – some time later; each time, she comes to, she gets up, and carries on as if it’s never happened.

At times unremittingly bleak – Heather contributes a voice over in the opening ten minutes that will have some viewers convinced this is going to be a suicide tale – Black Tar Road uses a framing device to provide a degree of optimism as to the movie’s eventual outcome. But said optimism is ultimately in short supply, and while this is in keeping with the not-so-cautionary tale that Lee is telling, any viewer approaching this movie expecting a happy ending, may be better off looking elsewhere.

Rating: 7/10 – a gritty drama that doesn’t send its main characters on a search for personal redemption – and is all the better for it – Black Tar Road overcomes some narrative fumbles along the way to become a low-key, bittersweet tale of love against the odds; at times earnest and impassioned, and buoyed by two impressive performances from Lee and Messier, the movie may appear too dour for its own good, but it’s a look on the dark sides of hope and personal need that succeeds more often than it fails.

“Meh” Movies and Me

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If you type in the words “meh meaning” into Google, it’ll give you 762,000 results in 0.59 seconds. The first result will include the following definitions:

exclamation
1.
expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm.
“meh, I’m not impressed so far”
adjective
1.
uninspiring; unexceptional.
“a lot of his movies are … meh”

It’s appropriate (and a little unsurprising) that one of the examples mentions movies. Recently, I’ve watched a few movies that have prompted that very response: meh. The movies in question have been Mechanic: Resurrection, Bastille Day, and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (all 2016). These are all very bad movies, movies so bad that they carry their own aura of awfulness about them. They are to moviemaking what Donald Trump is to race relations, or Liam Hemsworth is to Method acting (yes, that bad). And they, along with many other movies reviewed here this year, all have one thing in common: their makers (apparently) didn’t seem to care that they were so bad. How else can you explain the dire nature of all three movies? And not just those movies, but the myriad others that have been released this year? Movies such as Grimsby, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Misconduct? All featuring big names in their casts, all made by well-regarded moviemakers, and all with the potential to surprise, reward and entertain us.

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But they all fell short of that ambition, and horribly so. And it’s these movies that the multiplexes offer us year after year, week after week, and no matter how many times we’re disappointed and made to feel that we’ve wasted our money on tickets, we still go back, year after year, and week after week. And nothing changes.

Well, thedullwoodexperiment, in its own small way, is calling time on the credibility-free blockbuster; the unnecessary, lacklustre sequel; the poorly executed original concept movie; and any movie that attempts to fool people into believing that it’s better than it is just because it has a couple of big names heading up the cast list (and especially if their roles only amount to cameos). These movies will no longer get the exposure that a main review would give them – they already get enough of that from other blogs and websites, critics, and a wide variety of journalistic outlets. As of today, these movies’ presence on this site will be reduced to the standard mentions given to movies in the Monthly Roundups.

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Instead, thedullwoodexperiment will focus on bringing more thoughtful and thought-provoking movies to a wider audience, and from a wide variety of genres and sources. Some may be dramas, some may be comedies, some may be documentaries or defy easy categorisation – some will definitely be foreign language movies. But all of them will be chosen with the intention of bringing something a little different to the table, and giving exposure to movies that might not otherwise get as much of a look-in as they deserve. I’m pretty sure that I’ll get it wrong from time to time, and some of these more thoughtful and thought-provoking movies will turn out to be anything but. But they will have been chosen because they don’t follow the standard formulas and predictable plotting of more mainstream features. Until Hollywood and the large independent production companies and distributors, e.g. Warner Bros. and Lionsgate, realise that they need to up their game considerably, then this site will boycott them as much as possible until they do.

Who cares? you might ask. Well, increasingly, I do. And as the song has it (kind of), “It’s my party, and I’ll review what I want to”. Now, let’s see where that takes us…

Tim Burton’s 10 Most Successful Movies at the International Box Office

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A consistently quirky and visually inventive director, Tim Burton’s career has followed a steady path through some of the most iconic settings in recent cinema history, from the cod-Gothic streets of Gotham, to a future(past?)-Earth ruled by apes, to the haunted woods of 18th Century New England, and the outer limits of Lewis Carroll’s vivid imagination. For over thirty years, ever since the release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), the wild-haired director has taken us on startling journey after startling journey, and kept us entertained throughout. If his more recent output hasn’t exactly overwhelmed critics and audiences in the way that previous movies have, Burton still has the capacity to excite and stimulate his admirers in a way that few other directors can. This explains the level of anticipation surrounding his latest feature, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (due later this year), a movie that seems a perfect fit for Burton’s own “peculiar” sensibility. Whether or not it will be as successful as the movies listed below, no one knows – yet – but if it is, then it will be interesting to see just how successful it is… and how far up the list it lands.

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10 – Corpse Bride (2005) – $117,195,061

A companion piece to Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with its songs, portrayal of a darker world beyond ours, and stylised animation, Corpse Bride has a lyrical quality to it that highlights the sweetness of the relationship that develops between the nervous Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) and the Corpse Bride herself, Emily (Helena Bonham Carter). Burton’s love of animation and its visual possibilities shines through here, as he depicts a world at once familiar and yet also removed from our own, and tugs at our heartstrings in often surprising, yet affecting ways.

9 – Big Fish (2003) – $122,919,055

A terrific cast – headed by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney – and Burton’s use of fantasy to illustrate the differences (and similarities) between a father and son, helps Big Fish to branch out in unexpected dramatic directions for most of its running time. After the critical debacle of Planet of the Apes, Burton’s foray into what could be loosely termed the Great American Saga is a winning, immensely enjoyable fable that mixes drama, comedy and a delightful imagination to create a uniquely heartfelt story, and is one of Burton’s shamefully under-appreciated features.

8 – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) – $152,523,164

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – making a musical together? While the subject matter may well have been a good fit for Burton given his love of Hammer horror movies, an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler Broadway success looked like it would fall as flat as Depp’s singing voice. But an arresting production design, plenty of gory throat cuttings, vivid presentations of the songs, and a well-chosen supporting cast all help to make Burton’s incursion into the world of the musical a triumphant success, and one of the best of its kind in recent years.

7 – Sleepy Hollow (1999) – $206,071,502

One of Burton’s more enjoyable romps, Sleepy Hollow is another movie that seems to have been tailor-made for him. The bleak New England setting, the palpable sense of fear amongst the townfolk, and a memorable villain in the Headless Horseman, all contrive to make the movie an ominous yet light-hearted escapade that has a great deal of energy and purpose about it. The period setting, and its science versus the supernatural angle, is deftly handled, and Johnny Depp gives one of his better performances as the in over his (potentially decapitated) head policeman, Ichabod Crane.

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6 – Dark Shadows (2012) – $245,527,149

A big fan of the original televison show that ran from 1966-1971, Burton’s take on the Collins’ clan of vampires and their home town of Collinsport, Maine proved to be a misfire that relied way too much on its comedic elements (which aren’t that funny to begin with), and never managed to find a consistent tone. Johnny Depp serves up a prime slice of ham, Eva Green tries to match him, and Burton’s direction feels like it was put together in the editing suite. Even the visuals have a flat, uninspired air about them, as if Burton and his team realised early on that their passion for the project wasn’t going to be enough.

5 – Batman Returns (1992) – $266,822,354

For some, Batman Returns will always be the best of the quartet of Caped Crusader movies made back in the late Eighties/Nineties, and in terms of the story and the plotting, they’d be right. It also sees Burton’s wild and wonderful imagination given even freer reign than on the first movie. Another triumph of production design, Burton’s Gotham is a heavily stylised, bleakly functional place that is the perfect backdrop for its tale of good versus evil. And any movie that features Michelle Pfeiffer in figure-hugging black leather…

4 – Planet of the Apes (2001) – $362,211,740

If there’s one movie in Burton’s oeuvre that really shouts “massive mistake!” it’s the often unbearable-to-watch Planet of the Apes. Remakes of beloved classics rarely turn out well, and this proved the rule. Whether it’s the miscasting of Wahlberg, the terrible script that couldn’t be its own thing and had to keep referencing the 1968 original, the recurring sense of déja vu that dogs the movie as a result, or the defiantly daft-as-a-box-of-frogs surprise ending, the problems are all topped by Burton’s almost complete lack of engagement with the material. There’s a sci-fi movie that Burton could direct out there somewhere, but this definitely isn’t it.

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3 – Batman (1989) – $411,348,924

By the time Burton was earmarked to make Warner Bros.’ new take on Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, he’d achieved a modicum of success and respect thanks to his two previous features, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988). Batman, though, launched Burton’s career into the stratosphere. It was a brave move on the part of Warner Bros., but Burton rewarded them with a take on the Dark Knight that was at once visionary, bold, and inherently psychological. With strong performances from Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger (usually overlooked, and unfairly so), it’s biggest coup was Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a dazzling, out-there portrayal that in its own, surprisingly effective way, is a match for any other interpretation of the character that’s, well… out there.

2 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – $474,968,763

Roald Dahl and Tim Burton seem like an obvious combination, and it took a while for them to be “teamed up”, but the results were mixed to say the least. While financially successful, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lacks a lot of the charm of the original, and some of the additions to the script shift the focus away from Charlie himself, and onto Willy Wonka (something Dahl probably wouldn’t have approved of). Along with the movie in the No. 1 spot, it’s also a movie that has been production designed to death, leaving each new “moment of wonder” much like all the rest, and blending into one. Burton reflects on notions of fatherhood and abandonment – a common theme in his movies – but here they feel tired, leaving only Freddie Highmore’s quietly impressive performance for audiences to respond to.

1 – Alice in Wonderland (2010) – $1,025,467,110

Burton’s most successful movie at the box office is not his best, and like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features a riotous production design that helps paper over the cracks of a wayward script and equally wayward performances. Burton’s usual flair for the bizarre is firmly on display but in such a watered-down fashion that it’s difficult to work out if he was fully engaged with the material (he’s always seemed more at home working on a movie’s pre-production than on the actual shoot). Looking back at the movie, it’s hard to see why Alice in Wonderland has been so successful, as it’s colour-rich phantasmagoria lack the kind of emotional investment to make it all work as it should, and Johnny Depp provides yet another irritating performance. But ultimately it’s Burton’s distance from proceedings that hurts the movie most, and makes it a less than rewarding experience.

alice-in-wonderland

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

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neighbors-2

aka Bad Neighbours 2

D: Nicholas Stoller / 92m

Cast: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ike Barinholtz, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein, Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elise Vargas, Zoey Vargas, John Early, Hannibal Buress, Selena Gomez, Kelsey Grammer, Lisa Kudrow

Meh (see also Mechanic: Resurrection and Bastille Day).

Rating: 3/10 – a disastrous sequel that should be subtitled The Movie Laughs Forgot, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is another “comedy” that barely succeeds in raising a smile, let alone any genuine outbursts of laughter; a lame retread of the original, the cast sleepwalk through their roles, the script allows for long stretches of tedium, Stoller appears to have been on holiday for the whole of shooting, and any chance of a good time is dismissed from the off, leaving the audience to wonder how on earth this was made in the first place.

Bastille Day (2016)

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Bastille Day

D: James Watkins / 92m

Cast: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Kelly Reilly, José Garcia, Thierry Godard, Anatol Yusef

Meh (see also Mechanic: Resurrection).

Rating: 3/10 – uninspired, heavy-handed, preposterous, and as dead on arrival as the four victims of its fictional bombing, Bastille Day limps along from one turgid, barely credible scene to another with all the panache and style of a boxer who’s on the ropes and seeing double of everything; not even Elba’s stoic presence can save this Euro-mess of a movie, an action thriller that insults its audience at every turn, plays fast and loose with its own narrative, and which flags up every single plot development with all the subtlety of a punch in the face.

Question of the Week – 4 September 2016

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Finally… it’s the Disney animated movie you’ve been waiting to see for so long that it’s almost as if it was never going to be released. You’re an adult, sure, but you’ve been watching Disney’s animated movies since you could run around in your garden pretending to be Mowgli. But there’s a problem: the movie’s being released during the school holidays. The screenings at your local cinema will be full of fidgeting, talking, drink-slurping, popcorn-munching, easily distracted children. They’ll continually ask their parents what’s going on, or who a particular character is, or why somebody is doing something. And if they don’t like the movie, they’ll start to complain that they’re bored and they want to go home, or that they want to see another movie altogether. They will tax your patience to the very limit. And you will sit there inwardly fuming – at the children, at their parents for bringing their unruly offspring with them to the cinema, and at whatever deity you choose to call out for letting this situation happen every single time you go to see a so-called children’s movie.

But what can you do? You can’t tell a child to be quiet/behave/sit still or you’ll take its head off (definitely not advisable). But what other option is there? Well, there’s one, but it will need cinema chains to think outside the box a little bit. All of which leads us to this week’s Question of the Week:

Should there be adults only showings of children’s movies such as Finding Dory or Ice Age: Collision Course?

Unruly kid

Monthly Roundup – August 2016

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The Magnetic Monster (1953) / D: Curt Siodmak / 76m

Cast: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Michael Fox

The Magnetic Monster

Rating: 6/10 – a sample of selenium, bombarded with alpha waves, becomes a lethal danger to mankind as it develops exponentially – and only the A-Men from the Office of Scientific Investigation can stop it; an exposition heavy sci-fi thriller that takes time out for (stranger) domestic interludes involving Carlson and Bryan, The Magnetic Monster packs a lot in to its relatively short running time and is unexpectedly entertaining for all its techno-speak and overly serious demeanour.

Haunt (2014) / D: Mac Carter / 86m

Cast: Harrison Gilbertson, Liana Liberato, Ione Skye, Jacki Weaver, Brian Wimmer, Danielle Chuchran, Ella Harris, Carl Hadra

Haunt

Rating: 3/10 – a family move into a house where tragedy struck the previous owners, and the son (Gilbertson), along with abused neighbour Sam (Liberato), discovers that the place is haunted by a vengeful spectre; muddled, confused and scare-free, Haunt aims for unsettling and frightening but misses by a mile thanks to weak plotting, a jumbled storyline, stock characters, absentee direction, and an overbearing score (and that’s without mentioning the performances, particularly Weaver’s – which is dreadful).

Ice Age: Collision Course (2016) / D: Mike Thurmeier, Galen T. Chu / 94m

Cast: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, Simon Pegg, Keke Palmer, Adam Devine, Wanda Sykes, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Jennifer Lopez, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jessie J, Nick Offerman, Chris Wedge

Ice Age Collision Course

Rating: 5/10 – while Scrat does his best to keep his acorn safe aboard a spaceship, his actions lead to a massive meteorite heading for Earth, which in turn leads to Manny (Romano) and the usual gang having to formulate a plan to avoid the extinction of them all; while the series can still manage to sprinkle a handful of inspired visual gags throughout each entry (and this is no different), the law of diminishing returns is having a savage effect on the storylines, with this outing proving less than inspired, and leaving the characters teetering on the edge of becoming their own caricatures.

Little Red Monkey (1955) / D: Ken Hughes / 71m

aka The Case of the Red Monkey

Cast: Richard Conte, Rona Anderson, Russell Napier, Sylva Langova, Colin Gordon, Donald Bisset, John King-Kelly, Bernard Rebel, Arnold Marlé, John Horsley

Little Red Monkey

Rating: 7/10 – when several nuclear scientists are murdered, and the culprit appears to be a little red monkey, Scotland Yard and a visiting US State Department agent have to make sure that defecting Professor Leon Dushenko (Marlé) doesn’t end up dead as well; an agreeable, fast-paced thriller, Little Red Monkey mixes international espionage, early Cold War paranoia, romance, and intrigue to good effect, and thanks to the script by Hughes and James Eastwood, has a discreet Hitchcockian vibe that benefits it tremendously.

A Perfect Day (2015) / D: Fernando León de Aranoa / 106m

Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Mélanie Thierry, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic, Sergi López

A Perfect Day

Rating: 7/10 – a group of aid workers in the war-torn Balkans try to have a dead body removed from a well that provides drinking water, and are met by every type of obstruction possible – bureaucratic, cultural, and just plain bizarre; A Perfect Day‘s very good cast can’t mitigate against the episodic nature of the story, or de Aranoa’s offhand treatment of some of the minor characters, but otherwise this is a pointed, unsentimental look at the quieter horrors that war can throw up, and when it wants to be, uses black humour as a trenchant counterpoint to all the tragedy.

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)

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Mechanic Resurrection

D: Dennis Gansel / 99m

Cast: Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Sam Hazeldine, John Cenatiempo, Toby Eddington, Femi Elufowoju Jr, Anteo Quintavalle

Meh.

Rating: 3/10 – a terrible sequel that lies dead on the screen, Mechanic: Resurrection features some of the worst green screen work ever (the opening fight in Buenos Aires), a plot that makes absolutely no sense at all, and performances from all concerned that border almost on perfunctory – if only they could have made that much effort; action movies don’t have to tie up every loose end or narrative loophole, but this has a script that just doesn’t know when to give up and go home, making it one of the worst experiences you’re likely to have at the cinema all year.

Steven Soderbergh’s 10 Most Successful Movies at the International Box Office

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An indie movie maker through and through, Steven Soderbergh has made some of the most compelling and thought-provoking movies of the last thirty years. From his breakout Sundance hit sex, lies and videotape (1989), Soderbergh has tackled projects in a wide variety of genres and with an appropriately wide variety of results at the box office. Some have failed to make back the money they cost to make – Gray’s Anatomy (1997), The Good German (2006) – while others have underperformed (see the Top 10 below). But he has had some successes, mostly thanks to a certain franchise, but even outside of those movies, and despite his decision to retire from making movies in 2013, Soderbergh has remained a director you can never quite pin down. If nothing else, this list reflects the diversity of his output, and is a reminder of the quality of his work over the years.

10 – The Informant! (2009) – $41,771,168

A movie that never quite achieved the recognition it deserves, The Informant! uses its real life story in a way that refutes the “zany” approach presented in its trailers, and by doing so makes it much more rewarding. This is due to the combination of Scott Z. Burns’ clever screenplay, Soderbergh’s relaxed direction, and Matt Damon’s beautifully judged performance as deluded whistleblower Mark Whitacre. Ripe for rediscovery, it’s a tragic farce that has far more going on under the surface than most casual viewers will be aware of.

The Informant!

9 – Side Effects (2013) – $63,372,757

Soderbergh brings his usual intelligence and cool approach to thriller-dom with this convoluted and surprisingly well-constructed story set around medical ethics and the nature of psychopathology. While that may sound too highbrow for some, Side Effects revels in its Hitchcockian twists and turns – Soderbergh wanted to recreate the look and feel of old suspense movies for a modern era – and manages to keep audiences guessing all the way to its final reveal.

8 – Out of Sight (1998) – $77,745,568

The oldest Soderbergh movie on the list is also possibly his best, a funny, dramatic, odd couple romance (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard) that features a career-best performance from Jennifer Lopez, and George Clooney in the role that cemented his reputation as an A-lister. Soderbergh is clearly having fun with the material, and it’s easily one of his most visually entertaining movies as well, thanks to his use of stylised colour palettes and freeze frames to highlight significant moments in the story.

7 – Contagion (2011) – $135,458,097

A timely warning about the nature of pandemics and the ease with which they can spread, along with the inability of governments to deal with them in a constructive way, Contagion may have too many storylines (some of which don’t add much to the narrative), but is still an intelligently mounted, urgently prescient movie that uses its multi-national cast to (mostly) good effect – sorry, Marion Cotillard – while maintaining a focus on the pandemic’s impact on regular, individual lives.

Contagion

6 – Magic Mike (2012) – $167,221,571

If you had any doubts about Soderbergh’s ability to tackle a variety of genres and stories, then this behind-the-scenes look at the lives of a group of male strippers should have dispelled any lasting uncertainty. Raucous, raunchy and down to earth, Magic Mike features a terrific performance from Matthew McConaughey, the kind of off-colour humour you’d expect given the characters, and a succession of stage routines that should have female viewers leaning forward in their seats – a lot.

5 – Traffic (2000) – $207,515,725

Another contender for Soderbergh’s best movie (and winner of four Oscars, including one for Soderbergh himself), Traffic is a jolt to the senses that grips from the beginning and never lets go. Examining the drug trade from both sides of the US/Mexico border, from the highest echelons of US law enforcement to the infrastructure of a Mexican cartel, Stephen Gaghan’s impressively detailed script is given more than due justice by Soderbergh, and features equally impressive performances from the likes of Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Oscar-winning Benicio Del Toro.

4 – Erin Brockovich (2000) – $256,271,286

2000 was an amazing year for Soderbergh, what with this and Traffic being released to critical and commercial acclaim. Based on the true story of its titular character, an Oscar-winning Julia Roberts has probably never been better as the no-experience paralegal who brings down a polluting Californian power company through a landmark class action suit. Threaded through the obvious drama are several moments of beautifully judged humour, and Roberts’ teaming with Albert Finney is inspired. All in all, a strong contender for Soderbergh’s most enjoyable and rewarding movie.

Erin Brockovich

3 – Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) – $311,312,624

By the time this second sequel rolled around, Soderbergh and Clooney et al were determined not to make the same mistakes that made Ocean’s Twelve so underwhelming. While still not perfect, Ocean’s Thirteen is definitely more entertaining than its predecessor, even if it tries too hard to be as charming as the first outing, but audiences were willing to give the movie a chance. That it did as well as it did at the box office may well be due to brand recognition, and the popularity of its cast, but it’s also a movie that sees Soderbergh come as close to going through the motions as he’s ever done.

2 – Ocean’s Twelve (2004) – $362,744,280

A sequel to Ocean’s Eleven was always going to come along at some point, but when it did no one could have predicted it would be such a humourless, drama-free non-event. Easily the worst movie of Soderbergh’s entire career – yes, even worse than Underneath (1995) – Ocean’s Twelve is the very definition of a lacklustre movie. It’s almost as if Soderbergh and the returning cast decided to make a movie that was the very antithesis of Ocean’s Eleven, leaving it flat, unsatisfactory, unnecessarily confusing, and too reliant on “reveals” that are in no way foreshadowed anywhere else in the movie.

1 – Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – $450,717,150

Soderbergh’s most successful movie is probably his most well-known and well-regarded feature, a sharp, funny, engaging, clever, mischievous rascal of a movie that recreates the tone of the 1960 original and lends it a (then) modern sensibility that still holds up well fifteen years later. The scam is beautifully staged, the cast make it all look so easy, and the whole thing is handled with Soderbergh’s customary visual flair. It’s a movie that creates tension and expertly crafted edge-of-the-seat moments at every turn, and all of it while the movie is winking at the audience as if to say, “Well? Can you guess what’s happening?”

Ocean's Eleven

10 Reasons to Remember Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

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Gene Wilder (11 June 1933 – 29 August 2016)

Gene Wilder

Often wild of eye and generous of grin (and self-confessed Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist), Gene Wilder was an actor who was recruited into comedy by Mel Brooks – and thank Mel for that! It could all have been so different, though. Wilder’s career began in the late Fifties. He trained with Uta Hagen at the HB Studio before being accepted into the Actors’ Studio and taking private classes with Lee Strasberg. In the early to mid-Sixties, Wilder began to make a name for himself in various stage productions, until a production of Mother Courage and Her Children introduced him to Anne Bancroft, who in turn introduced him to her husband, Mel Brooks.

Having regarded himself as a serious, dramatic actor, Wilder acclimated quickly to comedy, and this despite making his feature debut in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aside from a handful of TV movies, Wilder didn’t stray from comedy for the rest of his career. But in doing so he provided us with so many wonderful, comic performances that if there had been any more diversions from comedy, it would have seemed like a betrayal.

He was well-known for his work with Brooks (five movies), and Richard Pryor (four movies). These collaborations cemented his fame and fortune, and brought him critical as well as commercial success. During the Seventies, Wilder made a string of movies that traded well on his ability to portray an unhinged loon with complete credibility. No matter what the scenario, Wilder’s high-pitched, hysterical expressions of incredulity were always funny to watch, even with repeated viewings.

Following his retirement from movies in 2003, Wilder decided to concentrate on writing, publishing a memoir as well as several novels and a collection of short stories. His philosophy was simple: “I’d rather be at home with my wife. I can write, take a break, come out, have a glass of tea, give my wife a kiss, and go back in and write some more. It’s not so bad. I am really lucky.” And so are we, to have such an enduring legacy of movies to enjoy for generations to come.

The Producers

1 – The Producers (1967)

2 – Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

3 – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

4 – Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles

5 – Young Frankenstein (1974)

6 – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

7 – Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak

8 – Stir Crazy (1980)

9 – The Woman in Red (1984)

10 – See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Blood Father (2016)

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Blood Father

D: Jean-François Richet / 88m

Cast: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, Michael Parks, William H. Macy, Miguel Sandoval, Dale Dickey, Thomas Mann, Richard Cabral, Daniel Moncada, Ryan Dorsey, Raoul Trujillo

The recent career of Mel Gibson has seen him appear in one movie per year since 2010 (with the exception of 2015). While personal troubles have dogged him over the last ten years, and caused him no end of embarrassment – and given Ricky Gervais the opportunity to make one of the best jokes about an actor, ever – Gibson has tended to stick to the action genre that has stood him in such good stead in the past. Aside from his role in The Beaver (2011), Gibson’s choice of roles has seen him engage fitfully with the material on offer, and he’s been the villain in two action sequels that should have been much, much better: Machete Kills (2013) and The Expendables 3 (2014).

But now, with Blood Father, Gibson finally has a role he can really sink his teeth into, and the result is a performance that serves as a (much-needed) reminder of just how good an actor he really is. An adaptation of the novel by Peter Craig, and co-written by Craig and Andrea Berloff, the blood father of the title is an ex-con by the name of John Link. He’s been out of the joint for a year, and sober for two. He lives in a trailer outside a small town in New Mexico, and is a tattooist by trade. He’s also divorced, and has a seventeen year old daughter, Lydia (Moriarty). But Lydia has been missing for the last three years, ever since she ran away from the home she shared with her mother and her mother’s third husband. John has hopes of finding her one day, but without any clues as to her whereabouts, it’s unlikely he will.

Blood Father - scene3

It’s Lydia who finds him. Having gotten involved with a junior member of a Mexican cartel, Jonah Pincerna (Luna), Lydia finds herself in very deep trouble when Jonah raids the home of someone who’s been stealing from him. As a test of her loyalty he asks her to kill the woman there; Lydia ends up shooting Jonah instead. On the run, and with no one else she can call, Lydia contacts John and he arranges to meet her. He takes Lydia back to his trailer, but it’s not long before Jonah’s crew turn up looking for her. The ensuing gunfight prompts John to leave and take Lydia with him, and to find out more about Jonah and his connections. After a lucky escape from the police, John discovers that the cartel have sent a hitman (Trujillo) to kill Lydia.

A reunion with an old army buddy, Preacher (Parks), goes awry when he attempts to claim the missing persons reward money put up when Lydia ran away. She and John manage to get away, and at a motel they change their appearances, John shedding his beard and Lydia dyeing her hair blonde. While John travels to a nearby penitentiary to visit an old friend, Arturo Rios (Sandoval), who has concrete information about Jonah, Lydia is persuaded to take herself to a public place by John’s sponsor, Kirby (Macy), and trust no one. But it’s a set up, and Lydia is abducted. Her abductors contact John, and a rendezvous in the desert is arranged, but it’s a rendezvous that is likely to end in both of them being dead…

Blood Father - scene2

Fans of Mel Gibson the actor will be glad to see that his performance in Blood Father is very definitely a return to form. Ostracised and pilloried for the racist remarks he’s made in the past, Gibson seemed to be getting by on the goodwill of others – Jodie Foster, Robert Rodriguez, Sylvester Stallone etc. – and while he’s still a highly watchable actor in his own right, there was always a feeling over the last few years that Gibson wasn’t trying too hard, that the work he was taking on couldn’t have been challenging for him, and so he wouldn’t rise to the challenge. Here, though, Gibson has found a role that is not only challenging, but inspiring, rewarding, and above all, one of the best fits for his skills as an actor.

Inevitably, there’s more than a smidgeon of Martin Riggs lurking inside the character’s DNA. Witness John’s response to the arrival of Jonah’s henchmen and the gunfight that follows: he’s dismissive of them, and once they open fire and he has to deal with them he gives angry voice to the variety of ways that their appearance will lead to his breaking parole. He’s pissed off, he’s mostly unconcerned by their firepower, and he can’t wait around for the police – the sensible thing to do – because he’s convinced they won’t believe a word he says. Playing John with a fatalism that speaks volumes for the character’s mindset, Gibson gives one of the best performances of his entire career, and proves as mesmeric an actor as he was back in the late Eighties, early Nineties. As he scowls and growls his way through the movie, Gibson also imbues John with a subtle vulnerability that adds depth to the character and makes his need to reconnect with Lydia entirely credible.

Blood Father - scene1

Thanks to the combination of Gibson’s performance, Craig and Berloff’s astringent screenplay, and Richet’s sharp, purposeful direction, Blood Father is more than just a standard action drama punctuated by brief, kinetic bursts of violence. It has an off-centre sense of humour, is sure-footed enough to keep John and Lydia’s relationship free from sentiment, makes very good use indeed of its stunning New Mexico locations (beautifully lensed by DoP Robert Gantz), and above all, maintains a level of tension that many other so-called thrillers fail to achieve for even a fraction of the movie’s running time. As a return to form, Gibson couldn’t have picked a better vehicle or character, and the movie is proof positive that he’s still as mercurial an actor as ever, and that when the right role comes along, he’s nigh-on untouchable.

Rating: 8/10 – with deft supporting turns from the likes of Sandoval and Macy allied to Moriarty’s low-key, sympathetic portrayal of Lydia, Blood Father is more than just a vigorous action thriller; despite its awkward title, the movie explores themes of loss and regret, hope and sacrifice, that elevate the narrative beyond its basic, conventional set-up and make it one of the more astute “relationship dramas” out there.

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

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Now You See Me 2

D: Jon M. Chu / 129m

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Morgan Freeman, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin

Ten questions you need to ask yourself while watching Now You See Me 2:

  1. Why would prison authorities allow convicted criminal Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) access to computer equipment that would enable him to make threats against the Four Horsemen (“You will get what’s coming to you. In ways you can’t expect.”)?
  2. Pigeons? (Yes, pigeons.)
  3. How does Lula (Caplan) know so much about the Four Horsemen, including the reason why Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher’s character from the first movie) isn’t around any longer?
  4. Why is Dylan Rhodes’ (Ruffalo) attendance at a Four Horsemen “event” more suspicious to his FBI colleagues than his talking into his sleeve?
  5. How convenient is it that Bradley has just the form Rhodes needs to get Bradley out of jail?
  6. Chase McKinney (Harrelson) – unfortunate stereotype or unfortunate stereotype?
  7. How likely is it, in a sequence that lasts nearly four and a half minutes, that not one of the security guards notice the playing card as it’s whipped, zipped and slipped from one Horseman to another?
  8. How do lines such as, “But I don’t agree that we have a sackful of nada, ’cause we’re all here. That’s a sackful of something” get past the first draft stage?
  9. When did the FBI’s remit extend outside of the US?
  10. Could the screenplay by Ed Solomon have ended on a more absurd, ridiculous note than the surprise reveals made by Bradley?

Now You See Me 2 - scene

Rating: 4/10 – another poorly constructed sequel that plays fast and loose with logic, Now You See Me 2 wants the audience to like it as much as the mass London crowds go crazy for the Horsemen; slickly made but soulless, only Caplan makes an impact, and the magic tricks lack the first movie’s sense of fun, leaving the movie to rattle on for two hours without anyone having to care what happens to the characters (which is both a bonus and a relief).

Alive Inside (2014)

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Alive Inside

aka Personal Song

D: Michael Rossato-Bennett / 78m

With: Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Gregory Petsko, Samite Mulando, Bobby McFerrin, William Thomas, Michael Rossato-Bennett

It’s estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease. If this figure is correct then the US healthcare system is in for a rocky ride in the decades to come, as that figure rises in line with a rapidly aging – and longer living – population, and the cost of medication to treat the condition rises right alongside it. But what if there was an alternative to the use of drugs such as NAMENDA XR®, or Aricept, an alternative that was also cheaper to implement?

Step forward Dan Cohen, founder of Music & Memory, “a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology”. Michael Rossato-Bennett’s inspiring documentary introduces us to the former consultant/trainer for the U.S. Department of Education as he attempts to convince healthcare professionals and pretty much anyone who will take notice, of the beneficial effects of music on the memories and cognisance of Alzheimer’s sufferers. Originally, Rossato-Bennett was meant to follow Cohen around for one day only, filming his attendance at a care home and recording the effects – if any – on the residents there. Using iPods and music choices that reflected the eras when these people were young, Cohen was able to prove that music could “reawaken” Alzheimer’s sufferers, and retrieve memories long believed lost.

Alive Inside - scene2

Cohen found a perfect example in Henry, a ninety-four year old who was withdrawn and barely able to speak. Within moments of Henry’s being fitted with headphones and music from his youth played for him, he reacted with spontaneous enthusiasm. Henry responded in a way that amazed everyone, and the longer he listened the more articulate he became. He was able to tell Cohen how the music made him feel, and soon he was able to sing independently of the iPod, revealing a deep melodic voice almost unaffected by the passing of the years. (At this point, Rossato-Bennett decided one day of filming Cohen wasn’t enough: he followed him for the next three years.)

Other patients benefitted from Cohen’s approach to palliative care. While the drugs they were taking each day did little to alleviate their isolation, Cohen’s iPods brought people out of their lethargy. Families could reconnect with their loved ones again, and those sufferers who were still able to understand what the disease was doing to them were able to appreciate the renewed lease of life this music therapy afforded them. People like Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic who felt every emotion so intensely that her life was like being on an emotional rollercoaster. Cohen’s “intervention” saw her do away with the walking frame she’d been using constantly for the previous two years, and dance. And for the first time in a long time, she could honestly say she was happy.

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With such dramatic but telling effects on a range of Alzheimer’s sufferers, it would seem absurd for the US healthcare system to ignore Cohen’s work. But you’d be wrong (if unsurprised). As Gregory Petsko, Professor of Bio-Chemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University puts it so tellingly, he could write a prescription for a thousand dollar drug and no one would bat an eyelid. But if he wanted to prescribe a forty dollar iPod, then questions would be asked. It’s at this point that Cohen begins to encounter all manner of excuses from doctors and care providers unwilling to adopt his unique methods. (It’s not mainstream enough for them.)

Cohen perseveres though, focusing on the US care home system, but he makes a limited amount of headway, despite continued, and incontrovertible, evidence that his idea works. When the uptake of iPods ends up being less than one per cent, an exasperated Cohen throws in the towel. But the story doesn’t end there. Some time later, footage of Henry is posted on Reddit, and it goes viral, and now Cohen is appearing on television and promoting his use of iPods…

There’s a great deal of joy to be had from Alive Inside. Joy at seeing Alzheimer’s sufferers regain a semblance of their old selves, joy at knowing that this particular form of therapy works independently of any drugs, joy at seeing the relief and happiness it brings to families and loved ones, and joy that Cohen’s efforts haven’t all been for nothing. There’s something incredibly powerful and uplifting in seeing someone who is withdrawn – mentally, emotionally and physically – emerge as if from a deep sleep and re-engage with their past and their present surroundings. There are several of these moments in the movie, and rather than become expected or commonplace, each is a moment to be thankful for, a transformation that reinstates identity and awareness.

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In between these powerful moments, Rossato-Bennett is astute enough to provide viewers with historical, social, medical and political contexts for the current state of care home facilities, particularly in light of the introduction in 1965 of Medicare and Medicaid. By treating Alzheimer’s sufferers as patients, the elder care programme has effectively mistreated millions of people in the forty-plus years since; they’ve been victims of a system that has failed to do anything other than make them physically comfortable for as long as possible. As one esteemed physician and researcher puts it, he’s worked in the field of dementia for thirty-eight years and he’s not been able to do anything as productive for dementia sufferers as Cohen has with his iPods. It’s admissions like these that add to the emotional impact of seeing the effect of music on so many people, especially when you have someone as authoritative as Oliver Sacks confirming that musical memories are able to withstand the ravages of Alzheimer’s far better than other kinds of memory. (If this is the case then why the hesitation in adopting Cohen’s idea?)

Cohen himself comes across as a committed, dedicated individual with a great deal of empathy for the people he meets, be they Alzheimer’s sufferers, care providers such as nurses, or the families struggling to come to terms with the premature “loss” of a loved one. As the movie follows him on his quest to improve the lives of so many “lost souls”, his approach and consideration of others serves as a reminder that we should cherish our time with our elders, and recognise their value as individuals, even if they are distant or unresponsive. It’s an important message, and one that shouldn’t be diluted or allowed to fade away. Thanks to Cohen and his efforts, and the reawakening of a man named Henry, that’s unlikely to happen anytime in the near future.

Rating: 8/10 – an impressive, solidly mounted documentary, Alive Inside skimps on statistics in its attempt to put across its feelgood story, but that’s a minor quibble when there’s so much that’s delightful to be had; Rossato-Bennett should be congratulated for his efforts, as his movie tells what could have been a remarkable if dour story with careful consideration and passion.

For further information about Dan Cohen and his work, visit http://musicandmemory.org

Oh! the Horror? – Cryptic (2014) and Visions (2015)

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These days it’s easy to make a horror movie, and these days it’s even easier to be taken in by movie makers who promote their product as being one thing when it’s actually another. Here are two movies that, on the surface, look like horror movies and even have a basic horror movie set-up. Closer attention though reveals two movies that in reality are closer to thrillers with horror overtones than out and out scarefests.

Cryptic

Cryptic (2014) / D: Bart Ruspoli, Freddie Hutton-Mills / 93m

Cast: Ed Stoppard, Dan Feuerriegel, Ray Panthaki, Philip Barantini, Vas Blackwood, Ben Shafik, Sally Leonard, Robert Glenister

Five gangsters, their banker, their lawyer (and a random drug addict), find themselves in a crypt containing a strange metal coffin – and have strict instructions not to open it until their boss arrives later that night. With wild stories about a vampire killing off their fellow gangsters, it’s not long before the group begins to wonder if their boss has captured the creature in the metal coffin, and they’re all there to exact revenge on it when their boss turns up with the key. Tensions arise, however, with the idea that one of them might be the vampire instead, and accusations abound. With guns and knives all too ready to be employed, the group’s initial solidarity begins to disintegrate, and when one of them is found dead with wounds that could have been made by a vampire, suspicion and paranoia are the order of the night.

As the group struggles to reconcile their boss’s orders with the possibility of being locked in with a real “live” vampire, they become obsessed with the contents of the metal coffin. Now believing it contains weapons that could kill the creature – if it is one of them – they argue over whether or not to try and open it. Some, like banker Steve Stevens (Stoppard), are all for leaving the coffin alone and waiting for their boss. Others, such as loose cannons the Jonas brothers (Feuerriegel, Barantini), are all for opening it and using whatever’s inside to defend themselves (even though there’s no guarantee weapons are inside it). With an uneasy truce between the two sides looking unlikely to last, another death makes it impossible, and things quickly escalate…

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A very low-budget British independent project, Cryptic is a rough diamond of a movie that mixes often corny humour with outbursts of blood-soaked violence and an East End vibe that works surprisingly well given its single location set-up and coolly bizarre scenario. That writers/directors Bart Ruspoli and Freddie Hutton-Mills have managed to stretch their very basic plot over ninety-three minutes and kept it entertaining is a tribute to their inventiveness, and the obvious fun they had in putting it all together. Even if the narrative does get bent out of shape now and again thanks to some fervent story ideas, and the need to keep its oh-so-important subplot ticking along in the background, Cryptic still manages to hold the attention and reward the viewer’s time.

Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills are aided by a more-than-game cast who invest their characters with recognisable traits and motivations, even when the action descends into unbridled psychopathy. Stoppard leads the pack as the suave, acerbic banker who refuses to let himself be rattled by the notion of a vampire in their midst, while Feurriegel and Barantini sidestep the script’s occasional need to caricature their characters by highlighting their solidarity as brothers even when they’re violently at odds with each other. And Blackwood is a delight as Meat, possibly the dumbest gangster ever, who buys his weapons on the Internet. They and the rest of the cast are hugely responsible for just how good the movie is, and it’s to Ruspoli and Hutton-Mills’ credit that they chose their cast so effectively and so well. By buying into the absurdity of the situation, their efforts make the movie a treat to watch.

Rating: 7/10 – an unexpected gem amongst the plethora of low-budget tosh the British Film Industry has released in recent years, Cryptic is deserving of a wider audience, and all because it’s clearly a movie that its creators have spent more than five minutes putting together; with a wicked streak of humour running through it from start to finish, and an edge that is only employed when necessary, this is proof that East End gangster movies don’t all have to be pony and trap.

 

Visions

Visions (2015) / D: Kevin Greutert / 82m

Cast: Isla Fisher, Anson Mount, Gillian Jacobs, Jim Parsons, Joanna Cassidy, Eva Longoria, Bryce Johnson, John de Lancie

Moving to Paso Robles to reopen a vineyard they’ve purchased, Eveleigh and David Maddox (Fisher, Mount) are expecting their first child. Having been on anti-depressants following a car accident a year earlier, Eveleigh has come off them thanks to her pregnancy, but is beginning to experience strange visions that lead her to believe that there are supernatural forces at work in their home. David isn’t so convinced, especially when their realtor confirms that the property doesn’t have a bad history. At the insistence of her OB/GYN doctor (Parsons), Eveleigh resumes taking anti-depressants and the visions cease.

Some months later, Eveleigh is persuaded to come off her anti-depressants by her friend, Sadie (Jacobs). But the visions return, and Eveleigh’s paranoia surrounding them leads her to believe that David is somehow involved. She delves further into the vineyard’s history, and discovers that a century earlier, paranormal activity prompted the then owner to burn it down. And Eveleigh’s research reveals pictures drawn by a medium who tried to contact spirits in the house; the pictures show Eveleigh and David. When her doctor and some of their friends mount an intervention, Eveleigh is forced to realise that her visions are not as she first thought, and are even more frightening for what they really mean.

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There’s a twist in Visions that, all things considered, comes too late to save the movie from its determination to be bland and unremarkable. Despite a plot that requires Fisher to be put in jeopardy from the beginning, Lucas Sussman’s convoluted screenplay throws in everything bar the kitchen sink in its efforts to distinguish itself from every other “haunted house” movie. The result is a movie that promises much but delivers very little, from Fisher’s anguished mother-to-be, to Mount’s too-good-to-be-completely-true husband, and all the way to the “surprise” villains that audiences should have spotted a mile off. Greutert’s last movie was Jessabelle (2014), a movie that gave new meaning to the phrase, “so-bad-it’s-bad”, but here he’s on firmer ground, even if that ground contains the occasional narrative quicksand.

But the central mystery isn’t as gripping as it needs to be, and Fisher is often left stranded by the sudden twists and turns that her character’s visions propagate. Mount is left stranded by the script’s decision to involve him only occasionally, while supporting characters come and go without making any impact (including Parsons’ doctor, a role that does nothing to allay any suspicions that the actor can only play The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper). As the fitful tension begins to escalate, the movie – also edited by Greutert – at least makes an attempt at providing real thrills, even if they’re of the cheap and nasty kind. But all this pales beside the notion that the sins of the future are as dark and disturbing as the sins of the past; they’re not.

Rating: 4/10 – an unremarkable “chiller”, Visions tells its dull story with a modicum of creativity, but sadly, remains an underwhelming experience; Fisher is given the enviable task of not only being pregnant but “possessed” as well, but isn’t given enough support by the script to make some (or all) of her possessions come to her.

Question of the Week – 24 August 2016

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In today’s must-have-it-as-soon-as-possible society, the use of sites such as Pirate Bay and KickAss Torrents means that the availability of movies is that much more widespread, and the choice of movies that much greater. A look at Pirate Bay today reveals the availability of movies such as Wiener-Dog and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, titles that are either still showing in cinemas or have yet to be released on DVD/Blu-ray. Whether or not you agree with the illegal downloading of movies, what’s evident from the popularity of these sites and the sheer volume of movies that can be accessed, is that this avenue of access is here to stay. The studios and production companies trot out the usual cries of woe about loss of sales and how it’s harming future investment, but this phenomena has been around for a long time now, and cinema sales are still pretty buoyant each year. What seems incredible is that the studios et al haven’t found a way of embracing the system these sites offer, and making huge profits from our need to see movies as soon as possible. So, with that in mind, this week’s Question of the Week is this:

Should all movies, whatever their source, be available across all platforms – cinema, home video, digital download, streaming, pay-per-view – on the same day of release?

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Spaceman (2016)

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Spaceman

D: Brett Rapkin / 90m

Cast: Josh Duhamel, W. Earl Brown, Winter Ave Zoli, Ernie Hudson, Carlos Leal, Caroline Aaron, Claude Duhamel, Stefan Rollins, Wallace Langham

If you’ve heard of Bill Lee, one-time pitcher (and a left-handed pitcher at that) for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, then chances are you also know about his drug-related background, his independence and need to challenge authority, plus his support for Maoist China, Greenpeace and school busing in Boston (amongst others). He was a well-known counterculture figure who appeared in an issue of the pro-marijuana magazine, High Times, and who once threatened to bite off the ear of an umpire in a 1975 World Series game. In later life, while still involved with baseball on a variety of levels, he was also asked to run for President of the United States on behalf of the Rhinoceros Party (his slogan: “No guns, no butter. Both can kill.”) If nothing else, Bill Lee has led an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.

Which makes Spaceman all the more confusing for focusing on the period that immediately follows the end of his professional career. Fired for one challenge to authority too many (walking out before a game in protest at the release of a fellow player), Lee (Duhamel) expects to get right back in the game, so confident is he that his unique skills as a pitcher will be more than enough to offset his off-the-pitch behaviour. But when the offers don’t come rolling in, Lee finds himself at a loss. His agent (and friend), Dick Dennis (Brown), keeps getting the runaround when he tries to contact the big league teams, and soon the message gets through: nobody wants him because everyone is tired of his shenanigans. He’s also thirty-six, and time isn’t on his side.

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Lee’s also trying to do right by his three kids. He’s separated from his wife (Zoli) and can only have them over by arrangement. He’s as unorthodox a parent as he is a baseball player, but his relationships with his children are one of the few aspects of his life that he gets right. Otherwise, Lee smokes a lot of weed, drinks a lot of booze, and dreams of making it back into the Big Leagues. But the offers don’t come, his eventual divorce sees him deprived of any visitation rights, and to cap it all he receives an invitation to play for a Canadian seniors team. Intrigued and offended at the same time, Lee attends one of their matches, and helps them win. His need to play keeps him with the team for a while, until Dennis swings him a tryout for San Fran at their training facility in Phoenix. Lee motors all the way down there, only for the head coach (Langham) to dismiss him, and for Lee to learn that he won’t ever be taken back into the Big Leagues. A coaching offer comes along too, but the lure of playing sees him contemplating returning to Canada and resuming playing in the Seniors’ league.

Director Brett Rapkin has been here before. In 2003, he and fellow movie maker Josh Dixon joined Lee on a trip he was making to Cuba. The resulting footage made up the bulk of the documentary Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey (2006). Ten years on and Rapkin’s decision to revisit Lee’s life (or at least a part of it) has led to his making a movie that starts off strong with Lee’s determination to stand up for his teammate, but then it settles into an amiable groove that is pleasant to watch but eventually becomes so placid that not even the scene where he loses his visitation rights scores any dramatic depth.

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By focusing on a period when Lee wasn’t playing baseball, it seems that Rapkin (who also wrote the screenplay) has chosen to explore the nature of the man behind the legend. But when the man is the legend, there’s little room for any real exploration, and so we have several moments where Lee informs anyone who’ll listen that he needs to play baseball, several scenes where Lee mooches around at home in his Y-fronts, and even more scenes set in a bar where he squanders his time in playing the wounded, unappreciated hero. With the introduction of the Canadian seniors team, the movie does find something more interesting to focus on, but even then it continues to be more amiable than sharply detailed.

As the Spaceman, Duhamel makes up for his appearance in the dreadful Misconduct (2016) by infusing Lee with a great deal of charm and affability. The employment of a scruffy beard adds to the character, while his scenes with Zoli reveal the pain Lee is suffering at the collapse of his marriage (something that didn’t happen in real life). But on the whole, Duhamel has little to work with, and while he’s able to give a warm, occasionally disarming performance, he’s too confined by the conventional nature of the material and the flatly handled narrative. The supporting cast have even less to hang a performance on, with only Zoli making any kind of impression, playing Lee’s wife with a brittle dismay that seems all too appropriate.

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While the movie as a whole is affectionate in its view of Lee and his anti-establishment outbursts, and his self-aggrandising, it does make an effort to remind viewers that for all his grandstanding he was an exceptional pitcher. At the San Fran tryouts, and before he’s sent on his way, Lee’s gift with a baseball is used to outclass an arrogant batsman, a scene that trades on an overly familiar scenario in sports movies while doing so with a valid sincerity (look closely at any shots of Lee pitching though and you’ll see that the shot has been reversed; Duhamel isn’t a leftie). Sadly, there are too few scenes of Lee doing what he did best, but thankfully, when there are they lift the movie out of the doldrums.

Rating: 5/10 – not a bad movie per se, but one that never aspires to be anything more than good-natured, Spaceman struggles to find any dramatic traction that might keep an audience from losing interest; ultimately, Rapkin’s debut feature shows him working at a purposely even keel and forgetting to add some highs and lows to give texture to his otherwise genial look at a baseball hero and his fall from the Big Leagues.

Suicide Squad (2016)

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Suicide Squad

D: David Ayer / 123m

Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Ike Barinholtz, David Harbour, Common, Alain Chanoine, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller

At the beginning of 2016, DC Comics fans had two movies to look forward to in the coming year: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Anticipation for both these movies was almost stratospherically high. But Batman v Superman proved to be a messy affair that lacked coherence and couldn’t even give audiences a rousing showdown between the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel. Critically pounded, and causing a division between fans that in some quarters got way too heated, the movie fell short of making a billion dollars at the box office, and was judged a disappointment. Earlier this month, an extended cut of the film was released on home video, and though the extra footage tidied up a few things left adrift in the theatrical cut, the general consensus was that the additional thirty minutes didn’t make it a better movie.

Fans quickly turned their attention to Suicide Squad to save the day, and the hype began all over again. In development since 2009, the movie arrives now with all the fanfare of a Second Coming. Promoted and advertised and pushed for all it’s worth (IMAX screenings feature a new, Suicide Squad-inspired countdown that’s a nice but unnecessary gimmick), this was Warner Bros.’ chance to prove that they were listening when critics and fans alike said Batman v Superman was too dark and sombre. Director David Ayer promised there would be humour, and the tone would be lighter. Has he delivered? Predictably, the answer is yes and no.

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Suicide Squad is, first and foremost, just as messy as it’s DC Extended Universe predecessor. Its plotting is murky and frustratingly lacking in detail, character motivations vary wildly (sometimes in the same scene), there’s the usual over-reliance on a surfeit of destruction-porn, and no one to root for or care about, even though the script does try its best to make Deadshot (Smith) and El Diablo (Hernandez) at least halfway sympathetic. What fun there is to be had can be found in the opening twenty minutes as we’re introduced to each member of the squad, from the assassin who never misses with a gun, Deadshot, to meta-humans such as Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and El Diablo, wicked witch Enchantress (Delevingne) and her human host June Moone (also Delevingne), thief extraordinaire Captain Boomerang (Courtney), and brain-fried Daddy’s Lil Monster, Harley Quinn (Robbie). Watching these characters interact with and defy authority at every turn gives hope to the direction the movie is heading in, but that hope is short-lived.

Assembled by government spook Amanda Waller (Davis), the squad is a fail-safe option if someone were to come along with Superman’s abilities and use them for evil. With explosive devices implanted in their necks to stop them absconding, the squad, led by Colonel Rick Flag (Kinnaman), are tasked with a mission in Midway City when Enchantress and her brother Incubus (Chanoine) begin building a machine that will destroy all other weapons on the planet and – well, this is one of those plot points that sounds great but is actually quite lame and badly thought out. With Flag and the squad further augmented by expert swordswoman Katana (Fukuhara), escape specialist Slipknot (Beach), and two teams of soldiers, they venture into the randomly destroyed city in search of a High Value Target to rescue. But Waller and Flag have been less than honest about the mission, and the squad must decide if working together is a more appropriate way forward than going their own ways.

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It’s clear from the start that Suicide Squad wants to be edgy and smart, caustic and irreverent, and provide a great time for its audience. But as the movie progresses, and once the introductions are over, it soon becomes clear that these so-called supervillains are going to be trapped by the demands of a script that wants to show that, deep down, they’re all really good guys at heart. As a result, this leads to a watering down of the original concept – Worst.Heroes.Ever. – that should be revised to read Best.Antiheroes.Ever. Yes, they’re largely antisocial, and yes they have their issues with authority, and yes they haven’t got a problem with killing people (mostly), but by the end they’ve all bonded and are like one big happy dysfunctional family. It’s enough to tug at the heart strings.

And then there’s the Joker (Leto). Much has been made of Leto’s insistence on staying in character for the duration of the shoot – Smith has quipped that he didn’t meet Leto until after filming was completed – and the Joker’s heavily tattooed look. But it’s all immaterial as Leto is on screen for around fifteen to twenty minutes in total, in a subplot that sees him try to rescue Harley Quinn from being part of the squad. With the Joker reduced to a supporting role it’s hard to qualify Leto’s performance. Yes it’s mannered, heavily so, and completely different from any previous interpretations, but the script depicts him as a lunatic gangster figure rather than the Clown Prince of Chaos. The character has room for development, then, but right now his need to rescue Quinn keeps him working to a standard plotline and any antic diversions seem forced.

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In what is fast becoming the one area in which Warner Bros. seems unable to act on the recommendations of others, Suicide Squad ramps up the destruction on offer, with endless gunfights and property devastation the order of the day. It’s all accompanied by one of recent cinema’s more overwhelming and intrusive scores (courtesy of Steven Price), a blaring cacophony of dramatic musical cues and declamatory passages that reinforce just how much the movie is like being hit repeatedly over the head (and by Harley Quinn’s mallet at that). Ayer can’t stop things from getting too overwrought in the movie’s final half hour, and inevitably any subtlety is made to hide in the shadows where it can’t interfere with anything.

Against all this the cast do their best, with Smith atoning for some recent poor choices by making Deadshot likeable and charismatic. Robbie has the most fun, and is the most fun to watch, but after a while the chirpy attitude and cheesy wisecracks begin to grate, and Ayer does away with any development the character has made as if it never happened, leaving her no different from how she was at the start. Davis essays the real villain of the piece, but once that particular “surprise” is established the character stops being interesting, as does her motivation, and she’s wisely sidelined. Kinnaman does stolid with ease but fails to make Flag memorable, while Hernandez makes El Diablo a surprisingly well-rounded character, less of a supervillain, and more Hulk-like in terms of his anger issues.

The movie is further hampered by Ayer’s insistence on giving the movie a noir feel instead of a comic book feel, and John Gilroy’s haphazard, wayward approach to the editing. Other odd moments/decisions stand out: Deadshot looking like a pimp when he’s out with his daughter; Enchantress swaying like a woman trying to keep up an invisible hula hoop; several flashbacks that slow the movie’s rhythm; a scene where El Diablo reveals a tragic consequence to his ability that feels out of place; and an origin story for Quinn that involves falling into a chemical vat for the sake of it.

Rating: 5/10 – slightly better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (but only slightly), Suicide Squad still has enough problems to stop it from becoming the first DC Extended Universe movie to overcome the series’ usual pitfalls; shedding its claim to being edgy and different with every minute that passes, the movie is further proof that Warner Bros. and DC need to work harder on their game plan, and that copying Marvel isn’t necessarily the right idea.

Jason Bourne (2016)

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Jason Bourne

D: Paul Greengrass / 123m

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Gregg Henry

The original Bourne movie trilogy was smart, inventive, thrilling, and a massive boost for the ailing spy genre. It made an action hero of Matt Damon, featured action sequences that were fresh and exciting, and had an emotionally complex through-line that bolstered the already intense plotting. At the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, David Webb had gained the answers to questions that had plagued him ever since he’d been saved from a watery grave by the crew of a fishing boat.

Except… he hasn’t, not really. The closing lines from The Bourne Ultimatum – “I remember. I remember everything.” – are repeated here at the movie’s beginning, and are followed by a montage of scenes from the original trilogy (as far as this movie is concerned, The Bourne Legacy (2012) never happened). But in amongst these memories are flashes of scenes we haven’t seen before. And when Jason Bourne snaps out of his reverie, we find him in the back of a truck and heading for an illegal fight ground in Greece. Clearly the years since he took down Treadstone and Blackbriar haven’t been good to him: despite his fighting prowess he still looks lost. And the bad dreams, or reveries, he’s experiencing aren’t helping. For someone who “remembers everything”, he’s having some of the most spectacularly disturbing and disorienting dreams ever. And he can’t make sense of them, especially the ones that involve his father, Richard Webb (Henry).

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Help comes in the familiar but unexpected form of ex-CIA analyst Nicky Parsons (Stiles). Having hacked into the CIA mainframe, she’s done so with the aim of helping Bourne learn more about his past, and has discovered that his father had a greater role in the Treadstone programme than Bourne has been led to believe. But in hacking the CIA, Nicky has become a target and her contacting Bourne in Athens leads to his getting “back in the game”. With CIA operatives on their trail, as well as an Asset (Cassel), Bourne gains access to the information Nicky hacked, and once he becomes aware of his father’s involvement, he finds his enrolment in the Treadstone program wasn’t as clear cut as he thought. But as before, his reappearance has senior members of the CIA, including Director Robert Dewey (Jones), unwilling to let Bourne expose their Black Ops programs. Using a combination of the Asset and the head of the Cyber Crimes Division, Heather Lee (Vikander), to track down Bourne and eliminate him once and for all, Dewey plots to keep the CIA’s secrets as hidden as ever.

Fans of the Bourne Trilogy are generally dismissive of The Bourne Legacy, the Jeremy Renner starring addition to the series that failed to add anything new to the mix, and which felt like an uninspired retread of everything that had gone before. Matt Damon famously turned down the chance to cameo in Legacy, and made it clear that he wouldn’t return to the franchise unless Paul Greengrass was back on board as well. Well, Damon got his wish, and Greengrass is back as the movie’s director. But perhaps Damon should have made another stipulation: that Greengrass didn’t write the script.

Jason Bourne has many of the same attributes that The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum share. There’s the generous use of “shaky cam”, Christopher Rouse’s exemplary editing, excellent location work, and a series of intense and very well-staged action sequences (one of the series major strengths). But there’s one aspect that’s missing this time round, and aside from Greengrass’s muscular directorial style, it’s perhaps the series’ most important component: the contribution of Tony Gilroy. As screenwriter of the first two movies, and co-screenwriter of the third (though his input was drastically reduced), as well as Legacy‘s writer/director, Gilroy helped guide the series from its inauspicious beginnings to a position of critical and commercial success worldwide. His scripts had intelligence, depth and subtlety, and his villains were drawn with a vividness and care that made them worthy adversaries.

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But without Gilroy (no doubt a casualty of The Bourne Legacy‘s poor reception), Jason Bourne proves just as disappointing as its unacknowledged predecessor. Nearly ten years on from the events of Ultimatum, Bourne is still an emotional mess, haunted by memory fragments that cause him pain and regret. He looks awful, and Damon plays him like a man besieged. For a man who found all the answers he needed, Bourne looks even more tormented than when he was in the dark. The movie never really attempts to explain why this is the case, preferring instead to give audiences a tortured Bourne without expanding on his back story. As a result, his decision to jump back in, prompted by some spurious nonsense involving his father, seems perfunctory instead of necessary.

With Bourne himself treated in such a cavalier fashion – he’s really just a one-man wrecking crew here – the other characters fare just as badly. Dewey is a stock villain, one step removed from twirling an invisible moustache and muttering “mwah-ha-ha!” whenever the script has him do something nefarious. Jones has no chance with the role, and there are times when his awareness of this comes through loud and clear; just watch his scenes with Vikander, and ask yourself if he looks committed. Cassel’s Asset is fuelled by revenge for the torture he suffered through Bourne’s exposure of the Blackbriar program, but as the character spends an inordinate amount of time running around chasing Bourne without actually catching him, his anger (and his back story) gets shoved to the side. And then there’s Heather Lee, the Cyber Crimes head who acts as this movie’s Pamela Landy. There’s supposed to be some mystery as to which side she’s on (she helps Bourne in various ways while pushing a separate CIA agenda), but thanks to Greengrass’s less than subtle direction, Vikander never looks anything other than extremely distrustful.

Film Title: Jason Bourne

And then there’s the small but important matter of how Bourne gets about. From Greece he travels to Berlin, then to London. He does so on his own, without any help from anyone, and manages to elude detection at every turn (a facet of the series that was usually, and very cleverly explained away – but not here). And yet when he travels from London to Las Vegas he does so by commercial aircraft, and though he receives assistance from Lee in getting through US Customs, it still begs the question how UK Customs didn’t flag him up in the first place. (Also, it seems that outside of Athens and Las Vegas there’s not the CCTV infrastructure to allow the CIA to track Bourne efficiently anywhere else.) And stop and think about this: in Las Vegas, at an expo for a communications platform that Dewey wants to appropriate – don’t ask – Bourne picks up various conveniently placed bugging devices that he uses to get to Dewey, all of which begs the question, what plan did he have originally (as he couldn’t have known they were there beforehand)?

Gaping plot holes like these only add to the realisation that Jason Bourne is a less than rewarding, less than necessary sequel to four previous movies (three of which had already told the story effectively and with impressive style), that throws in a handful of rousing action sequences, makes Bourne indestructible, has a subplot involving a communications platform – actually, still don’t ask – and features some of the blandest characters in the whole series. Greengrass is a mercurial director, with a great visual style, but he’s not as good a screenwriter as he might think, and along with Rouse, he makes things too simplistic for the movie’s own good. The end result? A movie that only takes off when it’s throwing punches or chasing SWAT vehicles.

Rating: 5/10 – a missed opportunity to enhance and expand on the series, Jason Bourne trades on nostalgia instead of bringing something new to the franchise; Bourne looks tired throughout, as does Jones, and by the movie’s end the viewer will feel exactly the same way.

“Science or no science, a girl’s got to get her hair done” – 10 Female-centric Sci-fi Quotes from the 1950’s

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The Fifties were a great time for sci-fi movies. But if you were an actress appearing in a low budget sci-fi movie – in a starring role or even further down the cast list – then chances were you’d be saddled with some of the lamest, dumbest, sometimes sexist dialogue this side of an Ed Wood feature. To “celebrate” those “difficult roles” that actresses such as Joan Taylor, Mara Corday and Andrea King did their best to play straight (against almost impossible odds), here are ten quotes that show just what they were up against.

1 – “So I decided after one bad marriage to bury myself in science.” – Ann Anderson, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

It! The Terror from Beyond Space

2 – “The only reason I open my trap is to keep my teeth from chattering.” – Vicki Harris, Target Earth (1954)

3 – “Well, flying battleships, pink elephants, same difference.” – Sally Caldwell, The Giant Claw (1957)

4 – “How is it you’re so strong, Ro-Man? It seems impossible.” – Alice, Robot Monster (1953)

Robot Monster

5 – “Can’t I just dust around the fingerprints?” – Mrs. Porter, The Blob (1958)

6 – “Miz Hawthorne, she deal with the Evil One.” – Louann, the maid, The Alligator People (1959)

7 – “It’s the Sermon on the Mount… from Mars.” – Linda Cronyn, Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars

8 – “I love you, Doug, and I must kill you!” – Lambda, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

9 – “For a few dollars you can hire a woman who’ll fulfill all your fetishes. And when you get tired of her you can run down to the employment agency and hire another.” – Claire Anderson, It Conquered the World (1956)

10 – “Caught me unprepared. I’ve been cooking over a hot creature all day.” – Marisa Leonardo, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

20 Million Miles to Earth

NOTE: The quote in the title is from Tarantula (1955), and is spoken by Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton.

10 Reasons to Remember Arthur Hiller (1923-2016)

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Arthur Hiller (22 November 1923 – 17 August 2016)

Arthur Hiller

Born in Edmonton, Canada to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Poland in 1912, Arthur Hiller grew up in an environment where a love of music and theatre was instilled in him from a young age. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the start of World War II, and became a navigator, flying numerous missions over Europe. In the early Fifties he began directing for Canadian television; this led to his being offered a job directing with NBC. Over the next ten years he worked steadily in television, contributing to shows such as Playhouse 90, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Route 66.

During this period he made his feature debut, the coming-of-age romantic drama The Careless Years (1957), but it wasn’t until he worked for Disney on Miracle of the White Stallions (1963) that his movie career began to take off. By then, Hiller’s ability to work within different genres was standing him in good stead, enough for him to move away from television (almost) altogether. After 1965, his TV work consisted of three episodes of the series Insight, episodes that were made over an eleven-year period. Hiller soon allied himself with screenwriters of the calibre of Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, and developed a reputation for making comedies that had a surprising depth to them.

1970 saw the release of Hiller’s most famous, and enduring movie of all, Love Story. The success of the movie cemented his success, and throughout the Seventies, Hiller had a run of hit movies that made him an A-list director. His was a brisk, authoritative style, but there was also a looseness, a sense of fun to his movies that made them more enjoyable than most comedies of the era. He was inspired by a post-War screening of Rome, Open City (1945), and he never lost sight of the emotional truth of his movies, even if some of his later works, such as Carpool (1996) weren’t as effective – or as amusing – as they could have been.

In 1989, he took on the role of President of the Directors Guild of America, a position he held until 1993, when he became President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the next four years. He made one last movie, the less than pardonable National Lampoon’s Pucked (2006) (a career nadir for both Hiller and its star, Jon Bon Jovi), before retiring. Hiller will be fondly remembered for the way in which his movies resonated with audiences, their effortless likeability, and the almost timeless quality they carry, and the unassuming yet quietly confident way in which he directed them.

The Americanization of Emily

1 – The Americanization of Emily (1964)

2 – The Out of Towners (1970)

3 – Love Story (1970)

4 – Plaza Suite (1971)

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5 – The Hospital (1971)

6 – The Man in the Glass Booth (1975)

7 – Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak

8 – The In-Laws (1979)

9 – The Lonely Guy (1984)

10 – Outrageous Fortune (1987)

Outrageous Fortune

600 Miles (2015)

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600 Miles

Original title: 600 Millas

D: Gabriel Ripstein / 84m

Cast: Tim Roth, Kristyan Ferrer, Noé Hernández, Harrison Thomas, Armando Hernández, Mónica Del Carmen, Orlando Moguel, Gilberto Barraza, Harris Kendall, Ángel Sosa

Trading on long static shots and a stately pace in which to anchor its two leading characters, first-time writer/director Gabriel Ripstein has made a movie that takes an interesting (if not original) idea and transforms it into a movie that moves bluntly from scene to scene, and rarely seeks to engage with its audience. It’s a crime drama where the crime is incidental, a road trip movie where the journey is nothing more than a journey, and a buddy movie which lacks any real sense that its two main protagonists have really bonded (this is particularly thrown into sharp relief thanks to the movie’s final two scenes, the second of which has a real sting in the tale).

It also takes a long while to bring its two central characters together. Arnulfo (Ferrer), along with his bully of a friend, Carson (Thomas), smuggles guns into Mexico for a cartel. He’s a young man who lacks self-confidence, and he wants to impress his bosses, but he’s awkward and unsure of himself when he’s around them. Several runs go without incident, and Arnulfo begins to feel more confident. He meets a girl he likes and begins a (very) tentative romance.

600 Miles - scene3

What Arnulfo is unaware of is that his activities are being monitored by ATF agent Hank Harris (Roth). Every time he and Carson buy guns to take into Mexico, Harris is right there to collect the details of their purchases. When he finally has enough evidence to arrest them, Harris approaches Arnulfo’s truck while he waits outside a gunsmith’s for Carson to come out. Carson manages to overpower Harris before leaving Arnulfo with the problem of what to do with him. Panicked by the whole thing, Arnulfo puts Harris in the back of the truck, and not knowing what else to do, decides to drive the six hundred miles to the cartel’s base. He believes that the cartel will be able to use Harris for information.

But six hundred miles is a long way, and though Harris is stuck in a hidden section of the truck until they cross the Mexican border, once in Mexico, Arnulfo lets him ride up front, albeit tied up. And so begins a long, drawn-out section of the movie where Harris and Arnulfo get to know each other a bit better – but not in such a way that they can call themselves newfound friends. In fact, if anything, their relationship (such as it is) has the feel of a fait accompli, a way for Ripstein to pass the time until he can get to the inevitable showdown at cartel HQ. (There’s also an attempt at emotional confliction due to the fact that one of the cartel bosses is Arnulfo’s uncle.)

600 Miles - scene1

Alas, for all of Ripstein’s efforts, 600 Miles is as arid as the Mexican desert vistas we see in the movie. By taking an almost documentary approach to the material, and by stripping back the narrative to almost bare minimum levels, Ripstein has ensured that the movie looks good but is scarce on incident, and his characters seem to be devoid of an inner life. As a result, it’s difficult to care what happens to Harris and Arnulfo, and it’s even harder to imagine their journey together as being anything other than a chore for both to get through. Even though Arnulfo is trying to do “the right thing” as he sees it, his naïve decision has potential consequences that even he should be able to foresee. That he doesn’t is too ingenuous for the movie’s own good, and there are further instances where Ripstein’s dramatic needs – such as they are – mean that Arnulfo undergoes too many emotional transformations for them to work effectively.

As the troubled young man, Ferrer adopts a shy, deferential demeanour that fits well with the character’s insecurity and lack of worldly experience. By contrast, Roth is all silent stares and dishevelled authority. He’s a weary man in a weary job, as inured by ennui as Arnulfo is by immaturity. He’s not even very good at his job, pointing a gun at Arnulfo and not announcing his ATF status, and allowing himself to be kidnapped in broad daylight. Roth is good at playing understated characters, but he has so little to work with, not even a basic character arc, that even he can’t give the kind of magnetic, internalised performance the movie needs from the role.

600 Miles - scene2

What the viewer is left with is a movie that promises much in the way of well-judged characterisations, clever insights into the male psyche, and occasional outbursts of violence, but which fails to engage except on a superficial level. It’s a symptom of low budget, arthouse fare that we get interminable scenes of people staring out of or through windows, or lapsing into prolonged silence as if the mere fact of their being silent was evidence enough of some inner turmoil or struggle. In most cases this muted behaviour feels more like padding than incisive direction, and Ripstein’s efforts to convince us that these two characters are more than what we see never ring true.

Sadly, the movie is also let down (though not quite as badly) by Ripstein’s involvement in the editing, along with Santiago Pérez Rocha León. Between them, both men have shaped the style and rhythm of the movie in such a way that instead of feeling languid and somewhat pastoral in nature (which would have helped), it instead feels sluggish and lacking in passion. Certain scenes end abruptly, while others go on beyond their natural lifespan; it’s hard to know which way each scene will go. What is undeniably a plus for the production is Alain Marcoen’s simple yet highly effective cinematography, a great example of how to make a movie look dazzling even when using natural or low-level lighting.

Rating: 4/10 – audiences may well feel that 600 Miles is a triumph of style over substance, and while they might have a case, it’s Ripstein’s lack of directorial experience that hampers the movie and stops it from fulfilling its potential; Roth and Ferrer do their best to elevate the material, but they have so little to work with that ultimately, their efforts are in vain.

Happy Birthday – Ben Affleck

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Ben Affleck (15 August 1972 -)

Ben Affleck

Few actors have had the career that Ben Affleck has (mostly) enjoyed. From his first appearance in the rarely seen drama The Dark End of the Street (1981) up until his more recent appearances as the Caped Crusader in both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad (both 2016), the Berkeley-born multi-hyphenate has made a number of critically acclaimed movies, been one half of the critically derided Bennifer, and staged a comeback thanks to a series of critically acclaimed directorial outings. In front of the camera he’s better as a brooding, contemplative anti-hero than the comic actor he was asked to be so often in his early career, while behind the camera he’s proved he can deliver some of the finest dramatic movies of recent years. And of course, he’s a two-time Oscar winner, for co-writing Good Will Hunting (1997) with Matt Damon, and for being a producer on Argo (2012). It would seem that his future is now inextricably linked with the DC Extended Universe – though we shouldn’t hold that against him – so it may be that his profile won’t extend much beyond that particular arena in the coming years. But even so, Affleck has enough clout within the Hollywood industry now to ensure that whatever he does in the coming years, it will be warmly received and showered with awards (unless he dons a batsuit). Here though are five movies he’s made that are worth seeing because of his involvement.

Changing Lanes (2002) – Character: Gavin Banek

Changing Lanes

A simple traffic accident leads to outright hostilities between a young lawyer (Affleck) and an alcoholic insurance salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) in Roger Michell’s cautionary tale, a movie that cleverly shifts its sympathies between both men while also condemning their behaviour at every turn. Affleck subverts his natural charisma to good effect in a performance that is the epitomy of “sweaty desperation”.

Boiler Room (2000) – Character: Jim Young

Boiler Room

Affleck essays a supporting role here, playing the boss to Giovanni Ribisi’s aspiring investment broker in a movie that is unapologetically hard-boiled and rapacious. It may be Ribisi’s movie – and he’s very very good in it – but Affleck is unnervingly convincing as one of the co-founders of the firm he works for, and gives a scene-stealing performance early on that few actors of his generation could have provided.

State of Play (2009) – Character: Stephen Collins

State of Play

An uneven but still gripping adaptation of the original BBC series, this sees Affleck as the potentially corrupt congressman who may or may not be involved in a string of murders being investigated by his old friend, a newspaper journalist (played by Russell Crowe). Affleck takes a role that could have been strictly by-the-numbers, and imbues it with a complexity that matches the narrative and makes for a worthy adversary for Crowe’s dogged journalist.

Going All the Way (1997) – Character: Gunner Casselman

Going All the Way

As the extrovert buddy to Jeremy Davies’ introverted ex-serviceman in post-Korean War America, Affleck takes on a role that requires him to flaunt his obvious sexuality, and he rises to the challenge with gusto. Whenever he’s on screen he’s like a magnet for the eyes, a jock you can’t underestimate, and a character with much more depth than is usual for this type of role. Knowing this, Affleck gives an affecting performance, and steals the movie right from under Davies’s nose.

Hollywoodland (2006) – Character: George Reeves

Hollywoodland

For some, this is Affleck’s finest hour as an actor. As the increasingly haunted, yet charming Reeves (who played Superman on TV in the Fifties), Affleck gives a subtly shaded performance that reveals Reeves’ inability to deal with the pressures of fame, and highlights Affleck’s skills as an actor. Full of wonderful intuitive touches, it’s a supporting performance that feels like a lead role, and is mesmerising to watch, all a tribute to Affleck’s research, and commitment to the (real-life) character.

Before I Wake (2016)

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Before I Wake

D: Mike Flanagan / 97m

Cast: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Antonio Evan Romero

Made in 2014 but only released now thanks to its US distributor, Relativity Media, filing for bankruptcy last year – which explains the credit “and introducing Jacob Tremblay” – Before I Wake is a horror thriller that takes the idea of dreams (and nightmares) that are able to come to life, and have a lasting physical effect on the “real” world. The focus is on a young boy, Cody (Tremblay), who has the ability to, literally, make dreams come true. After a string of foster placements break down because of this ability, Cody is placed with Jessie and Mark (Bosworth, Jane), a couple who have decided to foster following the death of their young son, Sean (Romero).

Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane star in Relativity Media's "Before I Wake". Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media Copyright: © 2014 QNO, LLC

Cody settles in and at first all is well, despite his unwillingness to get a good night’s sleep. Instead he uses caffeinated drinks to stay awake, all so he can ensure that he doesn’t have a nightmare and summon the Canker Man, a force for evil that devours its victims. Cody believes the Canker Man killed his mother, and is responsible for the disappearance of some of his previous foster carers. But while he may have nightmares that bring the Canker Man to life, Cody also has regular dreams, and ones that give life to Cody’s chief interest: butterflies. Soon, Jessie and Mark are revelling in the appearance of dozens of these magnificent creatures; at least, until Cody wakes up – then they disappear in a puff of smoke.

Cody’s interest in Sean leads to his appearing one night, and as real as when he was alive. Jessie is quicker to associate Sean’s “return” with Cody’s dreams than Mark is, and she soon takes advantage of the situation, ensuring Cody sleeps so that she can spend more time with Sean. Once Mark becomes aware of what she’s doing, and highlights how inappropriate her behaviour is, it proves to be too late. Cody has a nightmare, and the couple have their first experience of the Canker Man, a terrifying creature that threatens them both. Following on from this, Jessie decides to find out more about Cody’s life before she and Mark began fostering him, and to see if his past holds any clues that will help deal with the threat of the Canker Man.

BIW - scene3

There are lots of horror movies that take place in a dream world, or in the realm of waking dreams, but very few where dreams are allowed to manifest themselves outside of these arenas. The beauty of Before I Wake – at least in its first thirty to forty minutes – is that it patiently sets up the rules of its scenario and does its best to adhere to them. During this period we see a particular cause and effect to Cody’s dreams that shows writer/director Mike Flanagan, and co-writer Jeff Howard, have thought their movie through, and have done their best to ground it from the start. However… once Jessie begins looking into Cody’s past, all that patient build up and attention to detail is abandoned, and the movie loses its identity to become yet another generic horror thriller (Flanagan refutes the idea that this is a horror movie, preferring the term “supernatural drama”; he has a point but it only goes so far).

This leaves the movie feeling dramatically rich and engaging in its first half, tackling as it does issues of grief, dependency, overwhelming sadness, and the deliberate exploitation of a child. Jessie may well be grieving still for Sean (the movie takes place six months after his death), but the way in which she so readily accepts Cody’s gift and uses it for her own needs, is in many ways more horrifying than the Canker Man himself. Mark calls it abuse, and he’s right. It’s such a breach of trust that the script runs the risk of making Jessie unlikeable as well as selfish, but thanks to Bosworth’s sympathetic performance, this is avoided. There are moments, though, when it looks as if the Canker Man is going to have a run for his money in the villain stakes. (And what a different movie it would have been if Jessie’s motivation had remained the same throughout; how would the audience have felt about her then?)

Kate Bosworth stars in Relativity Media's "Before I Wake". Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media Copyright: © 2014 QNO, LLC

But as already mentioned, the script hives off from this approach into much more familiar, and prevalent, territory as Jessie delves into Cody’s past. This involves the easy theft of his social services file (complete with the location of the children’s home he’s sent to once things have escalated beyond the point where Jessie and Mark can deal with everything themselves), a visit to a mental institution to talk to a previous foster parent, Whelan (Mihok), and a confrontation at the children’s home where all the staff appear to have gone home for the night. Again, the credibility built up until now is left to drift off by itself, discarded in favour of a showdown between Jessie and the Canker Man that is thankfully brief, and true to the nature of, and reason for, Cody’s dreams.

Flanagan is a talented rising star, and while Before I Wake has its problems, he’s still able to show a confidence in the material, as well as the visual design, that bode well for any future endeavours. He’s also able to coax a good performance from the criminally under-used Bosworth, and shepherds Tremblay through his first lead role in fine style (even if his sing-song voice can be a bit grating at times). Sadly, Jane gets sidelined by the script too many times for comfort, but at least he’s in good company, with Gish (as a harried social worker) and Mihok allowed just enough time to move things forward when necessary. Some viewers may find themselves struggling to connect the dots once Jessie relates Cody’s unfortunate history, and some may even feel that it’s all too contrived, but at least Flanagan doesn’t pitch a special effects laden  climax at his audience. There are a few scares along the way, but none that will trouble anyone who’s seen any recent scary movies, and no last minute idea for a sequel (hallelujah!).

Rating: 6/10 – a bunch of narrative inconsistencies and moments where the movie goes “off reservation” aside, Before I Wake is a hybrid horror/thriller that provides enough tension in its first half to help overlook the failings of the second; Bosworth is good value as always, and there are genuine moments of beauty thanks to Flanagan’s use of a kaleidoscope of butterflies as a potent indicator of Cody’s dream state.

Question of the Week – 13 August 2016

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Currently, there is no more divisive subject in mainstream cinema than the quality of the Warner Bros.’ movies set in the DC Extended Universe. Ever since Man of Steel rebooted the Superman franchise back in 2013, the merits of each successive movie in the DCEU (as it’s referred to) have been subjected to the critical equivalent of a full-scale autopsy. On the one hand you have fans of the DCEU who rail against any notion of these movies being anything other than entertaining, excellent examples of modern superhero movie making. On the other hand you have the naysayers (fans or otherwise) who decry these efforts as dreadful, cynical money-making exercises. There’s very little middle ground, although there are some folks out there who are able to voice more constructive opinions, but these opinions aren’t really being heard in the maelstrom of vitriolic arguments that seem to be the only response DCEU fans and their “opponents” can muster when confronting each other.

Marvel vs DC

There are as many fans and detractors on the Marvel front. The air of superiority that Marvel fans lord over DCEU fans, and which stems mostly from Marvel’s continued dominance at the international box office, can often lead to the same arguments that dominate the DECU debates though. This movie is bad, that movie is better, they should do this, the movies would be better if they did that. Everyone except for the writers and producers and directors seems to know what will make these movies work. (Already, and with nearly a year to go before its release, Wonder Woman has been referred to as “a mess”, as if this is of any relevance to anything. Think about it.) With so much time and money and effort involved in making these movies, you’d hope that the results would be better each time, but there’s clearly something wrong with the DCEU movies that isn’t happening (as much) with Marvel’s output. Which makes this week’s Question of the Week a simple one:

Why do the current spate of DCEU superhero movies still inspire such devotion and passion when they’re clearly not working to their full potential – or is that the point?

I Am Wrath (2016)

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I Am Wrath

D: Chuck Russell / 91m

Cast: John Travolta, Christopher Meloni, Amanda Schull, Sam Trammell, Patrick St. Esprit, Rebecca De Mornay, Asante Jones, Paul Sloan, Luis Da Silva Jr, Robert Forte Shannon III, James Logan

You’re an ex-Black Ops veteran turned law-abiding car engineer about to work for Honda (probably). You come home from a job interview and meet up with your wife who’s working on an independent review of a proposed water pipeline that’s being backed by the state governor. Both of you are approached by a shady looking guy who wants help paying his parking ticket. You warn him off but he gets offended. The next thing you know, you’ve been hit over the head and are on the floor, then the shady looking guy pulls out a gun and shoots your wife. She dies instantly. Thanks to your knowledge of cars, you recognise the sound of the car engine the shady looking guy and his two accomplices drive off in. Later, at the police station, the detectives assigned to your wife’s murder are sympathetic and helpful. Even later, those same detectives tell you they’ve got someone who may have been involved. At a line-up, you pick out the shady looking guy thanks to the distinctive fly tattoo he has near his right eye. And right then and there, the rug gets pulled out from under you: the detectives don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. The shady looking guy goes free. Now what do you do?

IAW - scene1

Well, if you’re John Travolta, and the movie you’re starring in is called I Am Wrath, then you tool up and go after the man who killed your wife, and his two accomplices. But what is it that prompts you to do this? Is it a profound sense of justice needing to be done? Is it anger and a need for revenge? Is it because you’re fed up with leading a “normal” life and you want to get back to killing bad guys? Or is it because a Bible the priest at your wife’s funeral gave you, lands open at a particular place (Jeremiah 6:11 to be precise) after you’ve thrown it to the floor? And is it because the phrase “But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in” is featured there, and it seems like God’s giving you permission to go out and kill some people? Well, praise the Lord. Seems he doesn’t mind people committing murder after all.

This is exactly how Travolta’s character, called Stanley Hill (and since when did Travolta ever look like a Stanley?), comes to make the momentous decision to take the law into his own hands and seek vengeance on shady looking guy and his pals. If you’re in any doubt as to how good or bad this movie is at this point, then rest assured the scene with the Bible is as far from cinematic gold as it’s possible to get. Travolta hurls the good book to the floor. It lands cover side down and open at the aforementioned passage. Travolta looks over at it. He gets up, a look of consternation on his face. As he approaches the Bible he begins to look as if he already knows what he’s going to read when he picks it up. And once he does, there’s no doubt: it’s a sign! And he knew it was a sign! Stanley has been given a sign from God (even though he’s not a praying man)! Say Hallelujah everyone!

IAW - scene3

Unfortunately for I Am Wrath, any further religious overtones or connotations are abandoned with undue haste. Save an artless confessional scene much later on, the script and direction steer well clear of any religious undertones and concentrate on Travolta – aided by Meloni as his pal from their Black Ops days – and his mission to avenge his wife’s death. Along the way he discovers a conspiracy that involves the police, a local crime lord, and – shock! horror! – the state governor. What could have been an intriguing, finely balanced exercise in the nature of faith versus morality, instead becomes yet another tired actioner where one man and his friend take on a whole bunch of bad guys, break every law going in the process, and are cheered as heroes for “taking out the trash” (quite literally at one point).

First optioned as a vehicle for Nicolas Cage back in 2012, and with William Friedkin set to direct, the project derailed six months later. Watching this finished result, it’s hard not to see why, as it’s difficult to tell if Paul Sloan’s script – he also plays crime lord Lemi – is the same now as it was then, free from any revisions or amendments. It’s a screenplay that signposts everything so far in advance, that even the most naïve or inexperienced of viewers would have no trouble predicting each step or move made by the characters before they happen. From Travolta reassuring his daughter (Schull) that the drive-by shooting that nearly killed her will be the only time she’s put in danger (yeah, right!), to the police (Trammell, Jones) being in the pocket of both the crime lord and the governor, to the epilogue that apparently sees Travolta at the mercy of a “surprise” (not really) gunman, I Am Wrath diligently avoids doing anything that might be construed as original or different.

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Those with fond memories of The Blob (1988), or The Mask (1994), might be encouraged by the presence of Chuck Russell in the director’s chair, but any hopes that  the fourteen year hiatus since The Scorpion King (2002) has left him pumped and raring to go should be abandoned from the start. It’s clear that Russell is just a director for hire, and his bland, uninspired approach to the material reflects this idea all too well. He’s unable to motivate his cast either, with Travolta going through the motions, Meloni playing the sidekick with a (much needed) sense of humour, Schull reduced to creating a character out of whatever reaction she’s required to have from scene to scene, St. Esprit oozing venom like it’s expected of him whatever the circumstances, Trammell and Jones playing detectives who don’t have an ounce of depth between them, and Sloan snarling away at everyone in lieu of providing a proper characterisation. It’s all as bad as it looks, dispiriting too, and without even a sense of its own absurdity to redeem matters.

Rating: 3/10 – another nail in the coffin of Travolta’s career, I Am Wrath is disjointed, mediocre, passionless, and calamitous in equal measure, with lacklustre direction, a weak script, perfunctory performances, and woeful continuity (look for Travolta’s disappearing/reappearing forehead contusions); when movies look and sound this stale, you have to wonder what could possibly have motivated everyone to have taken part, the answer to which would probably make for a better movie than this one could ever be.

Trailers – Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Split (2017) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

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If you don’t know who Desmond T. Doss was, then prepare to be amazed. The trailer for Hacksaw Ridge introduces us to a man whose pacifist leanings led to his being the only non-weapons carrying member of the US Army during World War II, and who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and courage in rescuing over seventy-five men during the Battle of Okinawa. It’s an incredible tale, and judging from the trailer this could very well be in contention for a whole slew of awards once it goes on general release in November 2016. Advance word is overwhelmingly positive, and many people who’ve seen the movie already are praising its director, Mel Gibson – making his first movie behind the camera since Apocalypto (2006) – for the way in which he presents both the intensity and horror of the conflict on Okinawa, and Doss’s personal faith and its effect on the men around him. Andrew Garfield looks to have finally found a movie that allows him to step up to the mark in terms of his acting ability, and there’s advance word that Vince Vaughn (seen briefly here as a drill sergeant) gives his best performance yet in a movie. If all this early praise is to be believed, then this could prove to be one of the finest war movies ever made, and a reminder that Gibson, whatever his personal problems in recent years, is still a damn fine movie maker.

 

The latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, Split looks like an attempt at making a disturbing psychological thriller based around the notion that a kidnapper with multiple personalities – 23, in fact – is doing so at the behest of the strongest, most fearful personality of the lot… the Beast. It remains to be seen if Shyamalan can pull off this particular storyline with anything like the degree of credibility it needs (and having James McAvoy playing the central character, Kevin(!), will certainly help his chances), or if the mechanics of the narrative will require McAvoy to shift personalities at too rapid a speed for things to remain plausible. This being Shyamalan, it’s hard to tell, but what can be discerned from Split‘s first trailer is that he’s going for a taut, gripping viewing experience, the kind he hasn’t really tried before, and one without any supernatural elements either. It’s easy to dismiss Shyamalan as a writer/director, but The Visit (2015) was a welcome semi-return to form, and he’s such a strong, distinctive, visually arresting director that it’s about time his skills as a writer were able to once again match those he has as a director.

 

At first sight, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword looks like a spirited romp through an alternative Arthurian timeline, one where the fabled King begins life as a child of the streets, but still ends up removing Excalibur from its stone and ruling a kingdom. And while there’s nothing remotely wrong with the idea of retelling the Arthur legend in such a way, what is obviously, clearly, undoubtedly, unquestionably and visibly wrong here is the way in which that idea has been executed. Guy Ritchie may be a very talented director, and he may have assembled a very talented cast – Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and, erm, David Beckham – but the tone of the movie is plainly off by a country mile. Martial arts fight sequences, modern day humour, large-scale battle sequences straight out of the Peter Jackson Middle Earth Playbook, and a visual style that apes any number of other fantasy movies made in recent years; all these aspects and more make the movie feel derivative and lacking in originality. While it’s evidently been created with the intention of being one of 2017’s must-see tentpole movies, here’s a prediction: come next March we’ll all be asking the same question, “Why, Guy, why?”

Money Monster (2016)

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Money Monster

D: Jodie Foster / 98m

Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo

Lee Gates (Clooney) is the host of TV show, Money Monster. Gates acts as an advisor for anyone looking to invest their money in stocks and shares, but he does so in a hyped-up, devil-may-care fashion that makes him seem sharp and ahead of the game. From the opening dance routines to his frequently ad hoc approach to any scripted segments, Gates talks and behaves as if he can’t ever be wrong. As he gears up to present the latest edition of the show, Gates is expecting to interview Walt Camby (West), the CEO of IBIS Clear Capital, an investment company whose main trading algorithm has developed a glitch and “lost” $800 million, leaving some of their investors high and dry. But Camby is off the grid, and his chief communications officer, Diane Lester (Balfe), is left to field Gates’s questions.

Once on air, the show is interrupted by a delivery man (O’Connell) who appears on set and reveals he has a gun. He forces Gates to put on a vest that’s crammed with C4, and threatens to detonate the explosives unless he gets some answers as to why IBIS’ algorithm went so badly wrong. The delivery man, whose name is Kyle Budwell, is appalled that Gates, and everyone else, is just accepting Camby’s line that it was all just a glitch. Why, he asks, isn’t anyone asking how it could have happened, and why is everyone not as angry as he is, especially as Gates, on a previous edition of the show, told his viewers that investing in IBIS was safer than investing in savings bonds.

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The police are quick to arrive, and the show is allowed to carry on broadcasting live. Gates’s producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), is stuck in the unenviable position of having to keep both Gates and Kyle calm, and to keep the on-set camera and sound team from being hurt as well. Soon the police – and Gates – learn that Kyle inherited $60,000 when his mother died and he invested it all in IBIS shares; now he has virtually nothing except a job that pays fourteen dollars an hour and a pregnant girlfriend, Molly (Meade). Meanwhile, Diane begins to suspect that all isn’t as it seems at IBIS when her senior colleagues prove less than helpful as she tries to piece together what happened to make the company lose so much money in one hit. And as she begins to work out what happened, so too does Patty and Gates. As the mounting evidence points to fraud on a massive scale, Camby resurfaces, and he and Gates and Kyle find themselves on a collision course to reveal the truth.

If you’re thinking that Money Monster sounds like a fast-paced financial thriller where Wall Street is the bad guy, and Clooney portrays a champion for the little guy who exposes fraud and corruption wherever they rear their ugly heads, then you’re going to be disappointed. It is a financial thriller, that much is true, but the pacing is a little haphazard, and any tension inherent in the material is worn down by director Jodie Foster’s unwillingness to have the movie edited appropriately (and it’s not as if her editor, Matt Chessé, hasn’t any experience in this area – he’s worked on both World War Z (2013) and Quantum of Solace (2008) before now). This is best expressed in a horribly lengthy sequence that sees Gates and Kyle walk from the TV studios to Federal Hall, surrounded by armed police and baying crowds. With precious little happening apart from Clooney looking anxious and O’Connell looking like he can’t work out what’s going on, the sequence comes to a contrived end long after you’ve begun hoping that they’ll get there already.

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With the movie’s thriller elements lacking energy or defined purpose, there’s the small matter of the McGuffin, the $800 million. Such is the muddled approach to the story as a whole, that the script – by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Rouf – never really decides if it’s important or not. That Camby is behind its disappearance is never in doubt, but Kyle’s motivations for challenging its public perception as a glitch manage to change from scene to scene. One minute he wants the money back so all the investors who’ve lost out can be remunerated, the next he wants an explanation as to how the money could have vanished in the first place, and then he’s looking for an admission of guilt. With the script unable to decide what Kyle wants, it leaves O’Connell adrift and having to do the best he can with a character who keeps telling Gates he’s not stupid, but who is then outed by his girlfriend as being exactly that (and when she does, it’s harsh).

Clooney is left stranded a lot of the time, especially in the twenty minutes or so after Kyle’s arrival on set. But when Gates is given stuff to do – argue about the state of his life against Kyle’s, plead with the public to buy IBIS shares in order to save his life – he’s stuck with dialogue that feels and sounds clunky and unconvincing. Clooney is a very good actor, but not even he can do anything with lines such as, “We take care of each other. It’s in our DNA. Not because an equation tells you to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do.” Roberts is likewise hampered by a role that requires her to be too many things at once: TV producer, hostage negotiator, amateur detective, and grudging friend (to Gates). She does her best but in the end has to coast along with the vagaries of the script like everyone else.

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The script tries to make the apparent complacency of ordinary investors as much to blame for financial disasters as it does the banks, the investment companies and the government, an argument that sounds edgy but is quickly shelved once Camby’s apparent perfidy is placed front and centre, and there are some Gosh No! moments when Kyle trots out a few financial conspiracy theories, but on the whole this is a movie with a script that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say, and sadly, a director who doesn’t quite know how to get it into better shape. There are stretches where Money Monster is quite listless, content to cruise along in neutral and wait until the next plot development hoves into view. What that means for the viewer though, is a movie that never grips as it should, and never engages consistently with its audience.

Rating: 5/10 – only moderately rewarding, Money Monster lacks discernible energy and stumbles around trying too hard to be an efficient thriller (without quite knowing how to be one); a disappointment then given the talent involved, this could have been a lot more interesting, and a lot more entertaining, if it hadn’t been so rambling in its approach and its execution.

 

Stranger on Horseback (1955)

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Stranger on Horseback

D: Jacques Tourneur / 66m

Cast: Joel McCrea, Miroslava, John McIntire, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Gates, Emile Meyer, Robert Cornthwaite, Jaclynne Greene, Walter Baldwin, Emmett Lynn, Roy Roberts

Like each decade before it, the Fifties saw Hollywood and the independent studios make low budget Western after low budget Western. Trying to wade through them now is like trying to read a library of books that have no title pages: it’s difficult to tell if any one Western is better or worse than any other. But Stranger on Horseback (a title that’s not entirely accurate), is one low budget Western that deserves a closer look, and perhaps, over sixty years after it was made, a reassessment.

Adapted from the story by Louis L’Amour, the Stranger in question is actually circuit judge Richard Thorne (McCrea). Arriving in a small town on a routine visit, he soon learns that there has been a murder recently, but that the man responsible hasn’t been arrested. When he asks why, he discovers that the town is owned and run by Josiah Bannerman (McIntire), and that the man who committed the killing is Bannerman’s son, Tom (McCarthy). Despite several warnings from the town sheriff, Nat Bell (Meyer), and Bannerman’s legal counsel, Colonel Buck Streeter (Carradine), that Josiah won’t allow it, Thorne voices his determination to ensure that Tom Bannerman is arrested and committed for trial.

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News of this development reaches Josiah, and he charges Tom with persuading Thorne to accept his hospitality. Tom’s presence in town leads, unsurprisingly, to his arrest, with Thorne being aided by Bell. With Streeter manoeuvring himself into place as the trial prosecutor, and less than veiled threats made by Josiah’s men as to the likelihood of a trial taking place, an uneasy stalemate exists while Tom languishes in jail. In the meantime, Thorne begins to piece together the events surrounding the murder, while also making an impact on Tom’s cousin, Amy Lee (Miroslava). Her attentions lead to Thorne meeting Josiah, and the last chance of a peaceful outcome in regard to Tom going to trial. Realising that there’s no chance of a trial – fair or otherwise – taking place in town, Thorne decides to spirit Tom away during the night and make for the nearest town, Cottonwood. But his ruse is quickly discovered, and Josiah and his men rush to head them off before Thorne and Bell can get Tom, along with two witnesses to the shooting, to the safety of the nearby town.

For a low budget Western that runs a somewhat paltry sixty-six minutes, Stranger on Horseback is definitely deserving of a much better level of recognition amongst modern day audiences. Directed by the hugely talented Tourneur, this was one of a number of Westerns he made in the Forties and Fifties, and his second with McCrea as the lead. One of Tourneur’s strengths as a director was his ability to draw out strong performances from his casts, and then ally them to a palpable sense of mood. In doing so he made his movies stand out by virtue of their credibility and an often surprising emotional depth. Stranger on Horseback is no exception, with McCrea perfectly cast as the tough, no-nonsense judge whose reputation means he doesn’t have to carry a gun unless absolutely necessary. McCrea made a lot of Westerns in the Fifties, but this is easily one of his best, his performance far more subtle and measured than the material might seem to deserve. In tandem with Tourneur’s assured direction, McCrea makes Thorne the kind of hero whose integrity and law-abiding nature is never in question.

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But it’s not just McCrea who puts in a great performance. This is a movie with a glut of them. As Thorne’s love interest, Amy Lee, Miroslava gives an insightful portrayal of a woman torn between loyalty to her family and the chance of freedom that an unexpected romance gives her (a subplot involving Amy Lee’s impending marriage to the town banker (Cornthwaite) is handled with a sobering disinterest on her part and a tired resignation on his). (Sadly, this was Miroslava’s penultimate movie before she committed suicide aged just thirty, and from her role here it seems certain that her skills as an actress, her ability to find a sympathetic core to the characters she played, would have led to even better performances over time.)

As the proud land baron Josiah Bannerman, McIntire is a terrific adversary for McCrea, his egoism a perfect counterpoint for Thorne’s rectitude. McIntire was a great character actor, often quietly giving memorable performances in the background of bigger movies, and although his presence here requires a degree of repetition in terms of relaying the same threats over and over, he nevertheless imbues Josiah with a sincerity of intent and action that overcomes an awkward last-minute reversal of purpose. And then there’s the wonderful John Carradine, cadaverously charming as ever as the smooth-tongued, lizard-like Colonel Streeter. His scenes with McCrea are a testament to his talent as an actor, his delivery and equanimity in the part a perfect example of what can be done with a supporting role if you have the skill and the encouragement of your director. It’s also a performance that foreshadows his role as Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); both portrayals are hugely enjoyable, and both highlight just how good Carradine was when given a halfway decent script to work from.

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Further down the cast list, McCarthy is appropriately callow as Tom Bannerman, while there’s a beautifully judged performance from Meyer as the sheriff who finds newfound courage thanks to Thorne’s arrival (Meyer is one of those actors whose face is so familiar, you’d swear you’ve seen him in more movies than he’s actually appeared in). Tourneur brings out the best in everyone, and in doing so, elevates the very basic plot and storylines in Herb Meadow and Dan Martin’s screenplay, making it a richer and more rewarding experience than anyone could have predicted.

While the movie is a great, unsung example of low budget Western movie making, unfortunately there is one issue it can’t presently overcome. Existing copies of the movie have become so degraded that the gorgeous Arizona locations – filmed in Ansco-color – are now a riot of over-exposed colours and blurred details. It’s so bad that when we first see McCrea riding into town it looks as if he doesn’t have a face. This is a movie in desperate need of restoration. Let’s hope a pristine copy surfaces at some point, and the movie can be seen as it was meant to be.

Rating: 8/10 – a superior Western thanks to the involvement of Tourneur, Stranger on Horseback is a richly rewarding movie with some outstanding performances to further add to its stature; with only a rushed conclusion to keep it from being a complete and utter classic, this is still a prime example of a low budget Western that shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored purely because of its provenance.

Edge of Winter (2016)

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Edge of Winter

D: Rob Connolly / 89m

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Percy Hynes White, Tom Holland, Rachelle Lefevre, Rossif Sutherland, Shiloh Fernandez, Shaun Benson

Set in the (very) snowy Canadian wilderness, Edge of Winter begins with an awkward meeting between Elliot Baker (Kinnaman), his ex-wife, Karen (Lefevre), their two sons, Bradley (Holland) and Caleb (White), and Karen’s new husband, Ted (Benson). The reason for the meeting is due to Karen and Ted heading off on a cruise holiday and needing Elliot to look after the boys. Everyone looks and feels uncomfortable, and it’s clear from Karen’s behaviour that Elliot isn’t exactly her first choice, but he is the boys’ father.

We never learn the reason why Elliot and Karen’s marriage ended, other than that the boys were “more mature” than their father. But his nervous attitude and eagerness for their visit to go well serves as a signal that all is not well with Elliot himself, and that it’s unlikely he’ll get his wish. Of the boys, Bradley is the more withdrawn and unhappy at having to spend time with his father. He’s a teenager and probably remembers more about the breakup of his parents’ marriage than he’d like (though how long they’ve been divorced is something else we never learn). On the other hand, Caleb, who is a few years younger, is more open to the idea.

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The boys’ discovery of Elliot’s hunting rifle should be the opportunity for him to lay down some boundaries, but instead he offers to take them where they can learn to shoot. On the trip, Elliot lets his sons know just how important their visit is to him, and even goes so far as to confiscate Bradley’s mobile phone so that it doesn’t become a hindrance to their all getting on. When they arrive at the place where they can learn to shoot, Bradley’s first experience of firing a rifle concludes with his being embarrassed and refusing to carry on. Caleb is more enthusiastic, and he does well. When it comes time to leave, Elliot lets Bradley drive, but an argument between the brothers leads to their car skidding off the road and into a ditch. Unable to get the car free, the trio are forced to spend the night there. And while they wait, Elliot learns something that has a tremendous effect on him.

The next morning, and with Elliot claiming that it’s too far for them to walk back to the highway, they head off to reach a cabin by a lake that Elliot says is near enough for them to get to. When they get there, both Bradley and Caleb begin to wonder just how long their father is planning to stay there before trying to get home. Elliot himself is less than forthcoming, and the sudden arrival of two fishermen leads to the realisation that their father may not even want to get back home, and that maybe what he really wants is for the three of them to stay at the cabin indefinitely…

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From the very first moment we see Elliot – dealing with a debt problem on the telephone – we know that all is not well with him. He looks pale and uncertain about things, anxious and agitated in a way that speaks volumes about his character right from the off. Whether this is the way the script describes him, or a decision made by Kinnaman in terms of his portrayal, or the way that first-time feature director Connolly advised the actor to portray Elliot, his agitated state works as a clumsy kind of cinematic shorthand: this is a man on the edge. But aside from having money problems, we never learn very much about Elliot, or the reasons for his being so anxious. Instead we’re left with a poorly constructed portrait of a man trying to connect with his sons who doesn’t understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate, and who has no cognisance of the harm he’s doing in trying to bond with them.

As a result, Elliot’s behaviour stretches the viewer’s patience. With little or no back story to fill in the gaps, he becomes the movie’s weakest link, called upon to propel the narrative forward by virtue of some equally weak plotting. The arrival of the fishermen inevitably leads the movie into confirmed thriller territory, but it’s at the expense of what little credibility has been achieved so far. Elliot’s determination to keep his sons with him becomes increasingly preposterous (just how deluded is he to believe that hiding out at the cabin indefinitely is a good idea?), and his efforts to “keep them safe” are as equally preposterous on both a dramatic and a conceivable level.

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The movie isn’t helped by the pedestrian pace adopted throughout. Connolly, along with editor Greg Ng, fails to realise that this isn’t an indie character study (even though there are elements of this buried in the script), but a slowburn thriller that should be highlighting the horror inherent in its basic storyline: that the biggest threat to the two boys’ safety is their own father. Instead it downplays any terror in favour of clumsy interactions between the characters, developments in the plot that defy rational explanation (the burning of the cabin, for one), and a reveal that begs the question, how could Elliot have done this without anyone else knowing? There’s no sense of urgency to help make the final twenty minutes more exciting than the rest of the movie, and no sense that the boys are in any real danger. Instead, the script (by Connolly and Kyle Mann) lumbers through an unconvincing series of confrontations and encounters until ending on a whimper rather than a bang.

Rating: 4/10 – with its cast able to provide only adequate performances thanks to the under-developed script, Edge of Winter is a disappointing and unrewarding experience; not even the beautiful Canadian locations can compensate for a movie that consistently avoids meeting its audience’s expectations, and which wastes too much time in achieving very little of merit.

Question of the Week – 7 August 2016

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This week has seen the release of the first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is due out next year. I won’t dwell too much on the content – you can see for yourselves below what it’s made up of – but what does seem baffling is the point of releasing it at all. The movie won’t be released until July 2017, so with around a year to go, why put out a trailer, and a teaser trailer at that, that allows us just the briefest glimpses of material that, if Nolan’s previous movies are anything to go by, will be part of a movie that runs for over two hours? I can understand the idea of whetting our appetites, but as the trailer tells us so little (which isn’t completely a bad thing, not in these days of trailer overkill), why bother? As a collection of random images it’s fine, and you could argue that Nolan’s take on the rescue mission will be a suitably atmospheric one, but still – did it need to be released a) so far ahead of the movie’s arrival, or b) with so little in it to pique our interest? With all that in mind, this week’s Question of the Week is as follows:

Is there a genuine place for the teaser trailer in today’s modern marketing strategy, or is it just an outdated tool that’s no longer useful in promoting a movie?

Sharknado: The 4th Awakens (2016)

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D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 85m

Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Masiela Lusha, Tommy Davidson, Cody Linley, Ryan Newman, Imani Hakim, David Hasselhoff, Cheryl Tiegs, Gary Busey, Christopher Shone, Nicholas Shone

The title says it all. In fact, it says too much, because in hitching their bandwagon to that of Star Wars, and unleashing a torrent – a veritable Forcenado, if you like – of bad in-jokes and awkwardly added references to their own franchise, the producers of the Sharknado series have pretty much indicated that their confidence isn’t as high as it was this time last year, when Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! proved surprisingly enjoyable. Judging by the look of the movie, there was a much smaller budget available this time, despite the series’ growing success, and the calibre of familiar faces making cameo appearances couldn’t be maintained either.

But Star Wars isn’t the only movie to be given the subtlety-free tribute treatment. There’s also Pirates of the Caribbean, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Twister (“It’s a cownado!”) to name but a few. This leaves the already fragmented plot, what there is of it, feeling like it was made up as filming went along, with returning screenwriter Thunder Levin handing out new script pages each day. As the series’ put-upon hero, Fin Shepard (Ziering), aided by the same core group as in number three, is called upon to battle a variety of shark-infested tornados when a high-tech defense system designed to stop them from forming in the first place, goes wrong. Cue a trio of sharknados, all of which mutate thanks to whatever blatantly ridiculous idea Levin had that day. As a result we have a sandnado, an oilnado, a firenado, a bouldernado, a lightningnado, the aforementioned cownado, a hailnado (a hailmarynado might have been more appropriate), a lavanado, and to top them all, a nukenado.

SHARKNADO: THE 4TH AWAKENS -- Pictured: (l-r) Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard, Masiela Lusha as Gemini -- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Syfy)

Part of the series’ appeal – at least until now – has been its self-awareness, and the audience’s knowledge that the makers aren’t taking any of it seriously at all. The series’ humour has been an asset in this respect, but here it’s so tired, and conveyed with such a lack of energy that the one-liners which would previously have raised at least a smile, now induce groans instead. To paraphrase the tagline from Alien, In Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, no one can hear you sigh. Even the celebrity cameos, usually the source of much of the series’ merriment, aren’t able to raise the stakes, and there’s precious little fun to be had when the likes of Alexandra Paul and Gena Lee Nolin are drafted in (for a Baywatch-themed skit with Hasselhoff), only for them to be summarily eaten moments later (now if they’d managed to get Donald Trump…).

For many though, the main source of amusement will come from the so-bad-they’re-terrible special effects. Sharknado: The 4th Awakens reaches new heights (or should that be lows) in low-budget special effects, with some of the worst CGI ever committed to the small screen. The tornados themselves give new meaning to the word “appalling”, while any attempt at combining two separate film elements always looks like the worst kind of cut and splice effect, with backgrounds looking a different colour to what’s intended, and any of the cast unlucky enough to be in the foreground often highlighted by a soft white outline. While none of the Sharknado movies will ever be known for their use of cutting edge computer wizardry, the lack of attention to detail, and a “that’ll do” attitude harm the movie even more than usual.

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And if the movie’s less than half-hearted approach to special effects hurts it, spare a thought for the acting – if it can be called that. Out of everyone, Ziering can be considered lucky: he’s got the most physical role, he has no choice but to play it seriously, and even though he knows it’s all as daft as a box of frogs, all he has to do is keep a straight face when he says his lines. As Fin’s supposedly dead wife, April, Reid also keeps a straight face throughout but instead of making the best of things she looks like she’s wondering when her character is really going to be killed off and she can get out of making these movies each year (it doesn’t help that Reid isn’t the best of actresses and uses the same expression for any and all feelings or emotions).

Further down the cast list we have Lusha as Gemini, a character that’s new to the series but who helps Fin in his endeavours (though exactly what her relationship is to Fin is never explained). She’s a replacement for the part of Nova, played in previous instalments by Cassie Scerbo, and while she attacks the role with relish, she’s too intent on making everything she does overly dramatic; as a result she offers a one-note performance that does her no favours. As Fin’s kids, Linley, Newman and the Shone twins are adequate but have little to do; Hakim’s character, though the latest member of the Shepard family (son Matt’s wife), also has little to do but run around after everyone else; Hasselhoff is in the same boat; Davidson tries to inject some much needed energy into his role as the tycoon behind the high-tech defense system, and succeeds largely because he makes more of an effort than anyone else; and then there’s Gary Busey, on board as April’s father and a mad scientist-type, who literally recites the majority of his lines standing up behind a table. It looks like he did all his work in under thirty minutes, or possibly twenty.

SHARKNADO: THE 4TH AWAKENS -- Pictured: Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard -- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Syfy)

In charge once again is Ferrante, directing with all the flair and excitement of a man who can see any chance of a better career ebbing away with every entry in the series (and the movie ends on a set up for Part 5 – lucky guy). In conjunction with returning DoP Laura Beth Love, Ferrante drops any pretence at knowing how to frame a shot or a scene, or how to give direction to a cast who can only muster the enthusiasm to pick up their paycheck. It makes for an often embarrassing collection of stitched together moments that barely add up to a fully-fledged movie.

Rating: 2/10 – for a series that was improving – however gradually – with each successive entry, Sharknado: The 4th Awakens is a massive backward step, and easily the worst entry to date; shoddy in almost every department, with just Chris Ridenhour and Christopher Cano’s driving score to recommend it, the makers have got to go a long way to justify any further adventures for the unlucky Fin and his family.

Love & Friendship (2016)

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Love and Friendship

D: Whit Stillman / 93m

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry

It may seem like an odd corollary, but Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published Lady Susan, and a certain Monty Python sketch involving the Piranha Brothers (Doug and Dinsdale) have something in common. In the Python sketch, Michael Palin as low-level criminal Luigi Vercotti talks about Doug as being the more vicious of the two gang leaders:

“Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.”

“What did he do?”

“He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious.”

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You could add mieosis to the list, or rhetoric, or even polemics – they’re all there in Stillman’s screenplay, all in service to one of the year’s funniest movies, and proof (as if it were truly needed) that Jane Austen had a wicked sense of humour, and enjoyed attacking the social mores of her time; no one was safe, high- or lowborn. In transferring Lady Susan to the screen, Stillman has retained the epistolary nature of the novella, allowing the audience to be swept along with the recent widow’s attempts to secure advantageous marriages for both herself and her daughter, Frederica (Clark)… while also brokering an affair between herself and the married Lord Manwaring. In the process, barbs are dispensed with precision, honeyed slanders voiced with mannered simplicity, and insults hurled with joyous abandon. There’s no turn left unstoned by the movie’s end, and nobody who doesn’t find themselves somehow injured by an unkind remark (even if they don’t know they’ve been injured – some remarks pass by so quickly the characters don’t even realise it’s happened).

This is the overwhelming joy of Love & Friendship: the ease with which the characters are disarmed by unexpected, cutting remarks, and the way in which their reactions are to stare in disbelief like rabbits caught in the headlights, trying to fathom just what to say in return – and then the moment is gone and they’re left there, still staring in shock. Stillman includes so many of these moments there’s a danger of his overdoing it, but the range of insults is so varied that everyone’s a winner, and every moment is assured a smile from the viewer. As Lady Susan (Beckinsale) weaves her tangled web of intrigue, she does so with a shrewd cunning that’s completely impressive. She’s the predatory shark in petticoats who cares for no one but herself and her assured future (or her daughter’s assured future, as that will lead to hers as well).

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Watching the movie is like indulging in a massive bowl of whipped cream and citrus lemon sauce, a confection that’s rich and rewarding and a bit of a guilty pleasure. But it shouldn’t be, as Stillman elicits superb performances from his cast, with Beckinsale on particularly fine form as Lady Susan, revelling in her machinations and throwing out carefree lines such as “Facts are horrid things” with an amused detachment that fits the character perfectly. It’s good to see Beckinsale – along with Sevigny, reunited with Stillman after eighteen years – being given such a juicy role after so many bland fantasy outings. Maintaining an equilibrium and a sense of purpose while treating everyone around her – bar her good friend, Mrs Johnson (Sevigny) – with utter contempt, Beckinsale as Lady Susan is a poisonous delight, cunning, devious, and wholeheartedly shameless in her efforts to get what she wants. But there’s also grace and subtlety in her performance, a measured approach to the character and the material that reaps dividends when she’s called upon to be deceitful or just outright lying.

But it’s not just Beckinsale who puts in a fabulous performance. As Lady Susan’s confidant, Mrs Johnson, Sevigny has what looks to be the thankless role of best friend who’s there just so the main character has someone to show off to. But Stillman is too good a director, and Sevigny too good an actress, to let this happen, and even in her scenes with Beckinsale, Sevigny’s quiet attention and marvelling at the deplorable behaviour of Lady Susan’s relatives is too good to be ignored or undervalued. And she’s on even better form when the contents of a letter causes problems both for her and for Lady Susan.

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On the spear side of things, there’s a pitch perfect exercise in buffoonery from Bennett as the idiotic Sir James Martin, whose halting, almost stream of consciousness dialogue is matched by the actor’s use of physical tics and surprised facial expressions; he’s like a child for whom everything is new and endlessly fascinating (he finds peas to be an amazing discovery). There’s a scene where he turns up unexpectedly at the home of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law (Edwards), and spends approximately two minutes waffling horrendously about almost nothing at all, and its one of the funniest things you’ll see this year, a perfect match of physical discomfort and mental truancy.

As befits an adaptation of a novella, the story is very slight, and does boil down to very little at all, but Stillman wisely concentrates on the characters and their idiosyncracies rather than the plot, and there’s reward enough in seeing them adrift – often – in a sea of their own making. It’s a romantic comedy, and a recalcitrant comedy of manners, and a comedy of hilarious misdirection that bubbles with energy and glee at providing so much mischief. Stillman doesn’t make very many movies these days, which is a shame, but let’s hope Love & Friendship is the beginning of a more prolific period in his career because it would be a shame if he spent another five years (the time since his last movie, Damsels in Distress) away from our screens.

Rating: 9/10 – a perfect mix of period drama (with sterling work by costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh and production designer Anna Rackard), and pin-sharp levity, Love & Friendship is perfectly designed to ensure a good time will be had by all; Stillman interprets Austen with authority, Beckinsale has a great time as the unprincipled Lady Susan, and the viewer is treated to one of the few comedies released this year that doesn’t rely on crass jokes or gross-out humour – and is all the more impressive for it.

The Bronze (2015)

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The Bronze

D: Bryan Buckley / 100m

Cast: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Cecily Strong, Haley Lu Richardson, Christine Abrahamsen

The cast of hit TV show The Big Bang Theory are all talented actors and actresses. But although they’ve all found fame and fortune through appearing on the show, some of them want to be known for more than their TV roles. And that’s a fair enough ambition. In recent years, Kaley Cuoco has broadened her horizons with movies such as Authors Anonymous (2014) and Burning Bodhi (2015), while Simon Helberg has worked with his wife, director Jocelyn Towne, on I Am I (2013) and We’ll Never Have Paris (2014). Now it’s Melissa Rauch’s turn to branch out, and in doing so, she makes sure that the image of her as the helium-voiced, large-breasted Bernadette Wolowitz (neé Rostenkowski) is done away with completely.

With her hair tied back and sporting a mono fringe that keeps her eyes hooded for the most part, Rauch’s incarnation as 2004 bronze-winning Olympic gymnast, and hometown heroine, Hope Ann Greggory is as far from the squeaky, shiny Bernadette as you could get. She’s rude, crude, unnecessarily aggressive, has an ego the size of the Olympic rings, and is content to live off her past glories as an Olympic gymnast. Stores and restaurants in her hometown of Amherst, Ohio let her have freebies, while her long-suffering father, a postman called Stan (Cole), has to contend with her stealing money from the mail he delivers. She won’t get a job, looks down on everyone around her, has never been in a relationship, and always wears her 2004 TeamUSA jacket with sweatpants.

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Years before, after suffering a recurring injury that ended her gymnastics career, Hope fell out with her mentor, Coach Pavleck (Abrahamsen). But with Pavleck’s recent, untimely death, Hope receives a letter that gives her the chance to inherit $500,000 from Pavleck’s estate – but only if she coaches Amherst’s newest hope for gymnastic glory, “Mighty” Maggie Townsend (Richardson), and gets her to the upcoming Olympics. Threatened by the idea that Maggie might eclipse her fame and become Amherst’s new town heroine, Hope agrees to coach her but the training regime she comes up with leads to Maggie putting on weight, being unable to focus, and messing up her gymnastic routines. But Hope’s efforts to sabotage Maggie’s future come to a halt when ex-Olympic Gold medallist Lance Tucker (Stan) baits her into coaching Maggie properly. Now all that remains is for Hope to coach Maggie in such a way that she’ll not only impress at the National Finals, but at the Olympics as well… but can Hope be that selfless?

Well, the answer to that one is obvious. Anyone who’s ever seen this type of movie, where the curmudgeonly, grumpy, outrageously inappropriate central character gets to say outrageously inappropriate things at every opportunity (and get away with them), will be unsurprised by the way in which Rauch and her co-screenwriter husband Winston have dictated the arc of Hope’s redemption. And while there’s more than a whiff of formula about everything, what some viewers may perceive as a major failing on the Rauchs’ part, is actually something that makes the movie far more interesting than expected.

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Although The Bronze is ostensibly a comedy, there are character elements that feel more at home in a drama, particularly a grim psycho-drama about a character who is unable to connect with other human beings due to a lack of compassion, and through mutual dislike. Take away the “humour” in Hope’s situation and you have a scenario that’s terrible for the way in which it shows how a person clinging desperately to fame, paves the way for, and ensures, their own downfall. Hope is a parasite, living off old glories and refusing to adjust to the reality of her present situation; she’s in so much denial she’s practically drowning. As a character with serious mental health problems, Hope is fascinating to watch, but as a foul-mouthed, shameless self-promoter whose attitude is “funny”, she’s not so fascinating.

Rauch appears so determined to portray Hope as a kind of anti-Bernadette that she moves too far in the opposite direction, spraying venom at everyone around her, and particularly at Stan, whose acknowledgment of his daughter’s situation is key to the main storyline. There are moments where Hope’s derisory treatment of her father begs the question, why would she be so dismissive of him and his love for her? On what level does that make her feel better? (Both are unfair questions: the movie makes no effort to explain Hope’s motivation for being nasty, she just is.) With other questions like these bouncing around throughout the movie – would love interest Ben (Middleditch) really find her so attractive as a person after being mistreated by her so often, and so callously? – The Bronze becomes an exercise in belief suspension that is increasingly hard to maintain.

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With its central character proving immensely unlikeable, even when she begins to slowly change into a more rounded individual (it’s a movie convention that seems extra tired here), it’s left to the supporting characters to make an impact, but thanks to the script, no one is allowed to overshadow Hope or her story arc. Cole is as good as ever, though under used; Middleditch and Stan are polar opposites as Ben and Lance, two caricatures of how men apparently behave; Richardson gives new meaning to the phrase “silly goose” (but not in a good way); and Rauch channels her inner bitch  with ruthless determination, setting her jaw against any notion of broadening the character’s appeal.

First-time feature director Buckley fails to make much of an impact, but does manage to generate some interest when Hope and Lance spin and whirl around her hotel room in a wonderfully choreographed sex scene that features sterling work from Rauch and Stan’s body doubles. It’s the one scene in the movie that stands out from all the rest, and without it, The Bronze would remain stubbornly parochial in its approach. Visually there’s nothing new here, and tonally it sticks to its hard-hearted groove even when it’s meant to be uplifting. In trying to move away from her role as Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory, Rauch has certainly managed to create a completely opposite character, but sadly, Hope isn’t someone you want to spend too much time with.

Rating: 4/10 – disappointing and badly misjudged, The Bronze is rarely funny, and thanks to its rampant female misanthropy, something of a chore to sit through; there’s the essence of a powerful drama buried beneath all the name-calling and rude behaviour, but unfortunately, that’s not the story that Rauch has chosen to tell.