50's sci-fi movie, A Perfect Man, Action, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ana Girardot, Barry Sonnenfeld, Cameron Mitchell, Cat, Cell, Chandler Riggs, Christopher Walken, Comedy, David Tomlinson, Devil's Crag, Diana Dors, Drama, Edward Kemmer, Eliminators (2016), Flight to Mars, Frances O'Connor, Giant from the Unknown, Hard Target 2, Horror, Hostile takeover, Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary, James Bobin, James Nunn, Jennifer Garner, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey, Lesley Selander, Literary adaptation, Marguerite Chapman, Mars, Maurice Elvey, Mercy (2014), Mia Wasikowska, Murder, Myanmar, Nine Lives, Peter Cornwell, Pierre Niney, Reviews, Rhona Mitra, Richard E. Cunha, Robert Knepper, Roel Reiné, Sally Fraser, Samuel L. Jackson, Scott Adkins, Sequel, Shirley Knight, Stephen King, The Mad Hatter, The Red Queen, Thriller, Tod Williams, Vargas, Wade Barrett, Wonderland, WWE Films, Yann Gozlan
Cell (2016) / D: Tod Williams / 98m
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Clark Sarullo, Ethan Andrew Casto, Owen Teague, Stacy Keach, Joshua Mikel
Rating: 4/10 – a mysterious cell phone signal turns people into crazed, zombie-like creatures, but one man (Cusack) is determined to find his son while society disintegrates around him; a Stephen King adaptation (and co-scripted by him), Cell is another reminder that his work rarely translates well to the screen, and this is no exception, being dramatically incoherent, a waste of its talented cast, and lumbered with an ending that makes absolutely no sense at all.
A Perfect Man (2015) / D: Yann Gozlan / 104m
Original title: Un homme idéal
Cast: Pierre Niney, Ana Girardot, André Marcon, Valéria Cavalli, Thibault Vinçon, Marc Barbé, Sacha Mijovic
Rating: 7/10 – aspiring author Mathieu Vasseur (Niney) isn’t getting anywhere until he finds an unpublished novel and claims it as his own, a move that leads to fame, fortune, blackmail, and ultimately, murder; a clever, twisty thriller that benefits from a splendidly nervous, anxious performance from Niney, A Perfect Man may have many familiar elements, but it’s a movie with a great deal of style, and it holds the attention in such a way that there are times when you won’t realise you’re holding your breath.
Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953) / D: Maurice Elvey / 80m
Cast: David Tomlinson, Diana Dors, Bonar Colleano, Sidney James, Diana Decker, Audrey Freeman, MacDonald Parke
Rating: 5/10 – returning to the UK with his new bride (Decker), US soldier Laurie Vining (Colleano) is horrified to learn that he may still be married to his first wife, glamour girl Candy (Dors), a situation that leads to his desperately trying to avoid his new bride – or anyone else – from finding out; a bedroom farce based on a successful stage play, Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary has dated somewhat, but for fans of the cast and this type of Fifties UK comedy, there’s much to enjoy, from the frantic mugging of Colleano and Tomlinson, Elvey’s efficient direction, and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Dors.
Eliminators (2016) / D: James Nunn / 94m
Cast: Scott Adkins, Wade Barrett, Daniel Caltagirone, James Cosmo, Ty Glaser, Olivia Mace, Lily Ann Stubbs
Rating: 3/10 – when a home invasion means his Witness Protection identity is compromised, ex-Federal Agent Martin Parker (Adkins) finds himself the target of a hitman (Barrett) and forced to go on the run; a WWE Films production shot on location in and around London, Eliminators is a bog-standard actioner that stretches credulity, invites disbelief, and warrants avoidance as it does its best to cram in as many dull action scenes as it can in ninety minutes, and serves as yet another reminder that being a WWE superstar doesn’t mean you can act.
Giant from the Unknown (1958) / D: Richard E. Cunha / 77m
aka The Diablo Giant; Giant from Devil’s Crag; Giant from Diablo Point
Cast: Edward Kemmer, Sally Fraser, Bob Steele, Morris Ankrum, Buddy Baer, Jolene Brand, Gary Crutcher, Billy Dix
Rating: 4/10 – animal mutilations and murder plague a small town – and that’s before a giant Spanish conquistador is released from suspended animation by a lightning bolt, and threatens both the town’s inhabitants and the research team trying to ascertain if the legend about him is true; not the best example of a Fifties “creature feature”, Giant from the Unknown takes so long to get going that it’s nearly over before it’s begun, features a raft of irritating performances, and is so flatly directed by Cunha that once the Giant is awakened, you can’t help but pray that he’s the first victim.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) / D: James Bobin / 113m
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Ed Speelers, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Barbara Windsor, Timothy Spall, Matt Vogel, Paul Whitehouse
Rating: 5/10 – Alice (Wasikowska) returns to Wonderland to save the Mad Hatter (Depp) from suicidal depression(!) and the attentions of Time (Cohen) and the Red Queen (Carter) who are working in tandem and holding the Hatter’s family hostage for no convincing reason you can think of; another sequel no one asked for (and nowhere near as successful as its predecessor), Alice Through the Looking Glass is ravishing to look at, boasts some fine visual effects, and a great performance by Cohen, but everything else is a mess: bloated, derivative, witless, and with yet another wasteful performance from Depp (who clearly can’t be bothered).
Hard Target 2 (2016) / D: Roel Reiné / 104m
Cast: Scott Adkins, Robert Knepper, Rhona Mitra, Temuera Morrison, Ann Truong, Adam Saunders, Jamie Timony, Peter Hardy
Rating: 4/10 – ex-MMA fighter Wes Baylor (Adkins) finds himself in Myanmar with one simple objective: reach the Thai border while he’s pursued by a motley group of “hunters” who are out to kill him; a movie that definitely comes under the heading of “another sequel no one asked for”, Hard Target 2 is betrayed by its low budget origins, a script that lurches from one unmemorable action scene to another, and Knepper’s one-note portrayal of the villain.
Nine Lives (2016) / D: Barry Sonnenfeld / 87m
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Walken, Robbie Amell, Malina Weissman, Cheryl Hines, Mark Consuelos, Talitha Bateman
Rating: 3/10 – businessman Tom Brand (Spacey) has no time for his wife (Garner) and daughter (Weissman), so what better way for him to learn the value of family (and some humility in the process) than by stranding his mind in the body of a cat?; the kind of inane, superficial comedy that Hollywood churns out with mindless regularity, Nine Lives gives Garfield 2 (2006) a run for its money in the stupid stakes, and hammers another nail into the coffin of Barry Sonnenfeld’s once-glorious career.
Flight to Mars (1951) / D: Lesley Selander / 72m
Cast: Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines, Lucille Barkley, Robert Barrat
Rating: 5/10 – the first manned flight to Mars gets there safely only to learn that the planet is inhabited, and by a human-like race that may or may not have an ulterior motive for helping them return to Earth; early-Fifties sci-fi hokum that throws in a tepid romance and some very, very short skirts for the female cast, Flight to Mars retains an odd charm – perhaps because of its naïve approach – that helps alleviate some of the more daffy moments the script insists on doling out.
Mercy (2014) / D: Peter Cornwell / 79m
Cast: Frances O’Connor, Shirley Knight, Chandler Riggs, Joel Courtney, Mark Duplass, Dylan McDermott, Amanda Walsh, Hana Hayes, Pepper Binkley
Rating: 4/10 – after a spell in a nursing home, Grandma Mercy (Knight) comes home to be looked after by her family – daughter Rebecca (O’Connor) and grandsons George (Riggs) and Buddy (Courtney) – but soon exhibits strange behaviour, behaviour that includes warning George that a supernatural force is coming to get him; adapted from the short story Gramma by Stephen King (yes, him again), Mercy aims for creepy and menacing, yet succeeds instead in being confused and uninspired, and with laboured direction and performances, a situation that devotees of King adaptations will appreciate, having been there many times before.
Actors, Bereavement, Comedy, David Frankel, Death, Drama, Edward Norton, Grief, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Letters, Love, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Review, Time, Will Smith
D: David Frankel / 97m
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd
Sometimes, a movie arrives with very little fanfare or advance notice (in comparison to the supposed blockbusters of the day), and features a cast that makes the average viewer say to themselves, “Wow! What a cast! This movie’s got to be good!” Collateral Beauty is one of those movies, with its dream cast in service to a story that deals with unyielding grief, and which does so by employing magical realism as its main approach to telling the story. It’s meant to be an uplifting, emotionally dexterous movie – set at Xmas – that will leave viewers with a warm glow in their heart as they leave the cinema.
Alas, Collateral Beauty – and despite the best efforts of its dream cast – isn’t actually that movie. What it is, is a tragedy wrapped up in a comedy wrapped up in a magical realist fantasy wrapped up in an awkwardly staged feelbad movie. It’s a movie that revels in the pain and suffering of a group of individuals who are the very definition of stock characters. Some effort has been made with Smith’s character, a marketing executive whose six year old daughter has recently died from brain cancer. Unable to let go of his grief (and not really wanting to), Howard still shows up for work but spends his time creating elaborate domino structures and neglecting the business he built up with best friend, Whit (Norton). With the company on the brink of losing their biggest contract thanks to Howard having “zoned out”, Whit needs to prove to a prospective buyer that Howard, who has the controlling interest, is sufficiently non compos mentis for the sale to go ahead without his involvement.
But how to prove this? How, indeed. The answer arrives, like a gift from Heaven, in the form of budding actress Amy (Knightley). Through a process too unlikely to relate here, he hires Amy and her friends, Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (Latimore) to act as Love, Death and Time respectively, concepts that Howard has been writing to. Yes, Howard has been railing against Love, Death and Time for stealing his daughter away from him. Whit’s idea is for the trio to pop up at random and talk to Howard in various public places. These encounters will be filmed by a private investigator (Dowd), and the actors removed digitally before the footage is shown to the buyer, thus making Howard seem, at the very least, delusional, or at worst, completely bonkers.
Now, the thing to remember here is that Whit, along with his colleagues, Claire (Winslet) and Simon (Peña), is Howard’s friend. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. His friend. Who with Claire and Simon decides to play charades with a man whose grief is all-consuming and all in order to save the company where they all work. They want to do this not, in the first place, to help Howard deal with his grief, but so that they can save their jobs. And this is meant to be a good idea, both in practice and as the basis for a movie.
But not content with having them play mind games with their boss, the script also gives them their own problems to deal with. Whit has a young daughter who hates him because he had an affair that led to her parents’ divorce (as she puts it, he broke her heart). Claire has sacrificed her longing for a child in order to be successful at work. And Simon, who has fought off a serious illness twice before, is having to face up to the possibility that the third time might not be the charm. Throw in Naomie Harris’s grief counsellor, Madeleine (the only person Howard seems able to talk to about how he feels), who has also lost a daughter, and you have a group of people you’d cross the room to avoid at a feelgood seminar. They do glum with a capital G-L-U-M, and each time the script – by Allan Loeb, who has penned such classics as Here Comes the Boom (2012) and Just Go With It (2011) – indulges in their suffering it does so in a way that’s detrimental to the central storyline: Howard and his grief.
There’s also the problem of the movie’s tone. Collateral Beauty is about death, and the sorrow felt and experienced by the people left behind; it’s also about how grief can twist and contort feelings of pain and guilt into something much more violent and harmful. But Loeb’s script doesn’t want to address these issues head on, as quite rightly, this would make the movie a bit of a downer (and then some). So instead of making a straight-up drama about grief and loss, Frankel et al have made a middling comedy about grief and loss. While the themes in play remain serious, they’re all dusted with a light-hearted sheen that never feels right and never sounds right. The comedy elements distract from the drama of the piece, and in such an awkward, “oh no, they didn’t” way as to be confusing to the viewer. Is this a drama about grief, or a comedy about grief? But there’s no point in asking, as the movie doesn’t know any more than anyone else does.
With the whole premise undermined from the very beginning, Collateral Beauty becomes an exercise in perpetual wincing. When actors of the calibre of Norton and Winslet can’t make the material work then it’s time to head home and call it a day. Scenes come and go that make no sense dramatically, but seem intended to provide a level playing field for all the cast so they have enough moments to add to their showreels. As the actors with no background in psychotherapy but given carte blanche to say anything they can think of, Mirren, Knightley and Latimore are acceptable, but rarely do anything that takes them out of their thespian comfort zones (there’s also a suspicion that Mirren is playing a version of herself that fans have come to expect rather than an actual character).
Smith at least tries to inject some much needed dramatic energy into his role, but until the very end, when Howard is required to undergo an about face because the script needs him to, he’s held back by the script’s decision to make him appear either vague or angry (or sometimes, vaguely angry). Norton and Winslet coast along for long stretches, and a restrained Harris is the voice of wisdom that Howard desperately needs to hear. That leaves Peña, whose performance elicits some real sympathy late on in the movie, and who proves once again that he’s a talented actor who needs to be given better opportunities and roles than this one.
Overseeing it all is Frankel, whose previous movies include Marley & Me (2008) and Hope Springs (2012). You can understand why he got the job, but with the script unable to decide what approach it wants to take, Frankel is left stranded and unable to find an effective through-line with which to link everything together. It never feels as if he’s got a firm grasp on the narrative, or any of the underlying subtleties that Loeb’s script managed to sneak in when the writer wasn’t looking. In the end, he settles for a perfunctory directing style that keeps things moving along on an even keel but which doesn’t allow for anything out of the ordinary to happen. There’s no real dramatic ebb and flow here, and sadly, like so many other directors out there today, he’s not able to overcome something that is one of the movie’s biggest flaws.
Rating: 4/10 – near enough to “meh” as to be on close, personal speaking terms, Collateral Beauty is bogged down by its schizophrenic script, and an over-developed propensity for ridiculousness; rarely has magical realism felt so false or poorly staged, and rarely has a movie about grief instilled the same feeling in its audience for having seen it in the first place.
D: Morten Tyldum / 116m
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia
The spaceship Avalon is on its one hundred and twenty year journey from Earth to colony planet Homestead II. On board are two hundred and fifty-eight crew and five thousand passengers, people looking to build new lives on the colony planet. Everyone is in a state of suspended animation, asleep in hibernation pods until the Avalon is a few months from reaching its destination. Thirty years into the journey, the ship is struck by a massive meteorite. Following this, one of the passengers, engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) is woken from hibernation. The only passenger who’s awake, and with no way of resetting the hibernation pod to put him back to sleep, Jim finds the only company he has is that of an android barman named Arthur (Sheen).
After a year by himself, Jim is joined by Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer looking to find a story in the migration from Earth. As time goes by, a romance develops between them. But the ship is constantly malfunctioning, sometimes to the extent of putting Jim and Aurora’s lives at risk. They do what they can to fix things as they happen, but it becomes obvious that there’s a bigger problem to contend with – they just don’t know what it is. When crew member Gus Mancuso (Fishburne) is also awoken by mistake, the trio begin to make a concerted effort to locate the source of all the malfunctions. But when they do, the potential arises for one of them to have to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the ship…
Ostensibly a sci-fi movie about a stricken ship and the stranded souls on board, Passengers works best as a romantic drama, but even then it lacks the depth and the courage of its own convictions. Jim and Aurora make for a seemingly perfect couple, but thanks to the way in which the movie is advertised, what you don’t learn until seeing the movie is that their relationship is founded on a lie. So you have a broad, generic romance where two people inevitably fall in love, and just as inevitably part ways before coming together again for the sake of the movie’s big finish (and an unnecessary coda). Lawrence and Pratt work well together, and there’s a certain amount of chemistry between them, but unfortunately the emphasis is on the spaceship rather than their characters’ straightforwardly handled romance.
Tyldum’s last feature was The Imitation Game (2014), another movie that lacked a sense of tension (or urgency) as it told its story, and his work here is no different, failing to make the ever-expanding crisis on board into the pulse-pounding race against time it needs to be to be fully effective. Instead, Jon Spaihts’ script has Pratt mouthing romantic platitudes at every opportunity, while Lawrence endeavours to make her character’s novelistic intentions at all interesting. Only Sheen rises above the blandness of the material, and he does so by means of some very detailed micro-expressions. Unsurprisingly, the movie looks very good indeed, with Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography highlighting and complementing the sterling production design of Guy Hendrix Dyas. But when a movie fails to make you care if either or both of the main characters lives or dies, then there’s definitely something that’s not working as it should be.
Rating: 5/10 – a decent premise that’s handled with too many broad brush strokes, Passengers wastes its cast on a characters in peril narrative that should have been given more prominence, and a romance that remains tepid throughout; Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but even they look as if they’ve lost interest by the time the third act hoves into view, and Tyldum never quite seems to know how to knit everything together into a satisfying whole.
Debbie Reynolds (1 April 1932 – 28 December 2016)
As if 2016 already hasn’t been a terrible year in terms of the stars we’ve lost, it seems that none can have been so tragic as the death of Debbie Reynolds. Coming just twenty-four hours after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, Reynolds’ passing is as much a jolt to the system as Fisher’s unexpected demise. There’s a saying that no parent should outlive their children, and it looks clear that the shock of losing her daughter contributed to Reynolds being added to the (too) long list of people the entertainment world has been robbed of this year. But like everyone else we’ve had to say goodbye to, Reynolds has left us with an impressive body of work to remember her by.
Her career began when she was just sixteen years old and she won a beauty contest where she impersonated Betty Hutton. Four years later, and with no practical experience, Reynolds was chosen to be Gene Kelly’s dance partner in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). It wasn’t her first movie, but it was certainly her biggest challenge to date, and she was so good it was like she was making her twentieth screen appearance, and not her sixth. Success after success followed throughout the Fifties, but in the Sixties her career began to slow down. She found other projects to occupy her time, such as buying a Californian hospital with plans to turn it into a profitable business venture. She also founded the Hollywood Motion Picture Collection, a museum dedicated to movie memorabilia that included over three thousand costumes, from Judy Garland’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
in the Seventies she made her Broadway debut, and though she appeared in only a handful of productions, her talent guaranteed her good reviews (it was also during this period that she picked up the nickname “Princess Leia’s mother”). Much later, she found her way into the consciousness of a younger generation through her recurring role as Grace’s mother in the TV show Will & Grace (1999-2006). She continued to work sporadically both in movies and on the small screen, but mostly she did voice work on animated productions such as Kim Possible (2003-2007), and even an episode of Family Guy.
She was a glamorous star who during her lifetime knew what it was to be down on her luck, even admitting at one point to living in her car. But throughout her career, whether she was up or down, Reynolds kept on smiling and proving herself to be a strong draw when a role came along. Her Fifties heyday was a remarkable period, and she was a remarkable performer during that period, and like many stars from that era, she became an instantly recognisable actress whose name equalled quality. Like everyone else we’ve had to say goodbye to this year, she’ll be sorely missed.
1 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
2 – Susan Slept Here (1954)
3 – The Tender Trap (1955)
4 – Bundle of Joy (1956)
5 – The Mating Game (1959)
6 – The Pleasure of His Company (1961)
7 – How the West Was Won (1962)
8 – The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)
9 – Divorce American Style (1967)
10 – Charlotte’s Web (1973)
At first glance, the poster for Julie appears to lack anything that would make the movie a must-see, but that would be doing it a disservice, because while it does seem like it’s not even trying, there’s much more going on than you might be aware of.
A thriller where Day’s terrified wife tries to escape the murderous clutches of her husband (played by Louis Jourdan), the poster adopts a psychological approach to the plot that actually makes the movie a more enticing prospect than it actually is. First, there’s the image of Julie and husband Lyle shown in the top left hand corner. There’s a possibility that they’re enjoying a romantic clinch, but upon closer inspection it’s clear that Day is trying to resist Jourdan’s “advances”. It’s all you need to realise that something’s not quite right between them, and it acts as a kind of shorthand for the central dynamic that the movie will expand on.
But where the poster really excels is with its depiction of Day running – for her life – along the zigzag line that dominates the poster (even more so than Day’s shocked face). With her efforts to escape Jourdan precipitated by that dangerous embrace, the poster shows her running away from him, and getting further and further away, but it also highlights her fear and distress at the situation she’s found herself in. Her body language makes it all too obvious. This is the crux of the movie: Julie’s attempt to escape from Lyle, to save herself, and the poster and its kinetic imagery perfectly encapsulates the urgency of the character’s need to find safety.
Less successful – or necessary – is the inclusion of Day’s face and its shocked expression. There’s a phrase: “over-egging the pudding” that applies perfectly here, as Day’s head takes up too much room on the poster as a whole, and almost takes attention away from the clever inclusion of the fleeing Julie and her descent of the zigzag line. She looks like she’s just been told something so shocking that she doesn’t know quite how to respond to it, and while it’s easy to understand the image’s inclusion, it dampens the carefully constructed impact of the rest of the poster.
For the rest of the poster, it’s business as usual, with the four main cast members listed on the left and Day’s name given a slight twist to differentiate her from everyone else (black lettering not green). The title is given a pleasing orange tone to temper the awkward font used, and there’s the unsurprising highlighting of Arwin Productions, Doris Day’s own production company. And only then do writer/director Andrew L. Stone and producer Martin Melcher get a look in.
Lastly, there’s the tagline, a question designed to pique the potential audience’s interest, and one whose answer can be construed as “something bad” (as though the images of Day running for her life weren’t a big enough clue). It’s the kind of question that will always get people thinking, and hopefully intrigued enough to watch the movie. Overall it’s a poster that successfully advertises the movie it’s been tasked with promoting, and it does so in a far more subtle, and impressive way than this one:
Carrie Fisher (21 October 1956 – 27 December 2016)
Carrie Fisher was the daughter of Hollywood “royalty”: Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, so it was perhaps fitting that she will be best remembered as Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars (1977) and three of its sequels. But there was more to Fisher than just a role in a space opera, even one cherished by millions, and away from that galaxy far, far away she was also a writer and well-liked celebrity. She wrote the novel Postcards from the Edge, and scripted the movie version too (it was released in 1990), and had a successful “career” as a script doctor, polishing dialogue and scenes for movies as diverse as Hook (1991), Outbreak (1995), Coyote Ugly (2000), and all three Star Wars prequels. She also wrote her cameo scene in Scream 3 (2000). Though she had several battles in her private life – with alcohol and prescription drugs – and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Fisher remained a fighter throughout.
Away from the Star Wars movies, Fisher’s acting career wasn’t always as compelling as she may have liked, but when she was asked if playing Princess Leia was the dark side of the Force in her professional career, she had this to say: “Oh, no. It was fun! I was young. People want it to be a problem for me. No. Those are great movies. Why shouldn’t I be proud of being in that? The dark side? You ever see Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) or The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)? How about Under the Rainbow (1981)? Was Star Wars the dark side? There’s so much competition for that one.” While it’s true that playing the Princess with the bagel-bun hairdo has proved to be her career high, let’s not forget that she made significant contributions to a lot more movies besides. And here are just ten of them.
1 – Shampoo (1975)
2 – The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)
3 – Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
4 – Appointment With Death (1988)
5 – The ‘Burbs (1989)
6 – When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
7 – Sibling Rivalry (1990)
8 – This Is My Life (1992)
9 – Wonderland (2003)
10 – Stateside (2004)
D: Adam Wingard / 89m
Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Twenty years after his older sister, Heather, disappeared in the Black Hills woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland, James Donahue (McCune) comes into possession of a video that he believes is evidence that his sister is – somehow – still alive. Determined to find out for sure, he co-opts film student Lisa Arlington (Hernandez) – who is making a documentary about Heather’s disappearance and James’s search for answers – and friends Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid) into going with him. The night before they’re due to set off into the woods, they meet locals Lane (Robinson) and Talia (Curry), who agree to go with them.
Having set up camp on the first night, Lane tells the rest of the group stories he’s heard about the history of the Blair Witch. That night, noises from the surrounding woods wake James and Lisa; they discover Lane outside the camp and looking scared. The next day, the group discover lots of stick figures hanging from the trees and that they’ve slept until two o’clock. Freaked out by this, they decide to go back, but after several hours of trying to retrace their steps, they find themselves back at the campsite. Circumstances lead to Lane and Talia leaving the group and attempting to make their own way back.
The remaining four are forced to stay there overnight. Peter disappears, and when James tries to find him he encounters Lane and Talia instead. They tell him they’ve been lost in the woods for five days. The couple are allowed to stay in camp, though Lisa is suspicious of them. James sets his alarm for seven o’clock in the morning, but when it goes off it is still pitch dark. There are also, more, larger stick figures hanging from the trees. Lane runs off, and something happens to Talia that terrifies the rest. James, Lisa and Ashley become separated. When James and Lisa find each other again, they hear what they think is Ashley screaming. With it now raining heavily, they discover the same house where James believes he’ll find his sister…
When The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, it was a massive, unexpected success. Made on a budget of $60,000, it accrued nearly $250 million worldwide and to this day, is one of the most successful independent movies ever produced. It spawned a sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) that was the antithesis of the original’s tone and approach, and which was so mangled in post-production by distributors Artisan Entertainment, that they wrecked any chances of it being even a fraction as successful as its predecessor. And now, we have a second sequel, one that ignores the events of Book of Shadows, and attempts to recreate the style and tone of the original movie.
The key word here is “attempts”. Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard have decided, somewhat wisely, to take viewers back to the Black Hills woods, but in doing so, have unwittingly reminded everyone just why The Blair Witch Project was such a major success. It was a movie that dared its audience to say this isn’t real, that three people haven’t really disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the Black Hills woods in Maryland. It also made a virtue of its found-footage approach, and was all the more impressive for it. It was a simple, very effective way of detailing the increasing terror being experienced by Heather and her two friends, Mike and Josh. But since then, the found-footage genre has been done to death and back again, and its very moribund nature is the biggest obstacle any movie maker has to overcome in tackling a movie such as this one. We’ve seen too many people who are lost in the woods and are being menaced by malevolent forces. We’ve seen too many movies where the footage consists of distressed video images that tell us nothing of what’s happening, and are often set up just to provide jump scares.
And Blair Witch is no different. Barrett and Wingard – who are no slouches when it comes to horror movies – fail to provide us with anything new, or memorable. Instead they fall back on the tried and tested formula of several other, similar movies – A Night in the Woods (2012), Evidence (2011), and Willow Creek (2013), to name but a few – and make the same mistake that everyone else makes: they don’t provide us with anyone to care about. This leaves the movie feeling more like a (very) belated cash-in designed to wring a few more dollars out of an unsuspecting fanbase and/or potentially interested public. The makers went to a lot of trouble to ensure that Blair Witch wasn’t on anyone’s radar during its production, and right up until its first showing at this year’s Comic-Con, it was known as The Woods. Perhaps they already knew this wasn’t going to be as good as they’d hoped.
In the end, the movie falls way short of being a worthy successor to The Blair Witch Project, and it falls way short of being even an above average found-footage movie. Several times, and particularly during the events that take place in the house, there are shots that are clearly made by a third person. The editing, by Louis Cioffi, is haphazard and draining, stretching some scenes out to longer than necessary, while truncating others unnecessarily, and Wingard’s control of the material is similar in execution, with a lack of focus that undermines the narrative – such as it is – and keeps the audience at a distance.
The movie makes yet another huge mistake in showing the Blair Witch herself (however briefly), where the original didn’t have the inclination or the need, being scary enough without her – and it doesn’t help that she looks like the second cousin of the creature from [Rec] 2 (2009). When a sequel doesn’t follow through on one of the most important and effective decisions its predecessor made, then you know that no one’s paying close enough attention. And if they’re not, why should you?
Rating: 4/10 – professionally made but lacking in real smarts, Blair Witch arrives like an unwanted guest at a funeral – they knew the deceased, but can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about them; a sequel that squanders its predecessor’s legacy, it soon runs out of things with which to engage the audience and worse still, it can’t even come up with an ending that is even halfway as disturbing as the fate that befell Heather.
D: Harold M. Shaw / 23m
Cast: Charles Rock, George Bellamy, Mary Brough, Edna Flugrath, Franklyn Bellamy, Edward O’Neill, Arthur M. Cullin, Wyndham Guise, H. Ashton Tonge
The third movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale – after versions released in 1908 and 1910 – Harold M. Shaw’s masterful retelling remains a must-see for fans of the original story, and for fans of silent cinema as well. Shaw’s interpretation retains most of the key elements and scenes from Dickens’ novella, and thanks to a roster of good performances, brings them to life with a minimum of frenzied arm waving or histrionic face-pulling.
The story begins as ever in the counting house of Ebenezer Scrooge (Rock). His lowly clerk, Bob Cratchit (G. Bellamy), makes the mistake of lighting a piece of coal in the fireplace in an effort to keep warm. Enter Scrooge, aghast at Cratchit’s nerve, removing the coal, and throwing a couple of sprigs of holly down onto the floor for good measure. Not even a visit from his nephew, Fred (F. Bellamy) and his niece, Belle (Flugrath) with an invitation to join them at Xmas, can overcome his mean-spirited mood. And as if that wasn’t enough, he has to contend with a visit from two charity workers looking for donations. What’s a miser to do with all these demands on his time and his money?
The answer is make no changes whatsoever. At the end of the day, Scrooge visits a local tavern; even there his attitude spoils the evening for the other patrons. Meanwhile, Cratchit has returned home to the bosom of his family, and with his wife (Brough) and children – including poor old Tiny Tim – is able to be happy and carefree. Scrooge arrives home, but is startled to see the face of his old business partner, Jacob Marley (O’Neill), appear in place of the door-knocker. Scrooge, rattled by this, retires to bed but is soon visited by Marley’s ghost, who warns the old skinflint that he’ll be visited in turn by three ghosts.
The first, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Cullin), is a jolly, holly-bedecked phantom who takes Scrooge firmly by the wrist and drags him away back into Scrooge’s childhood, back when he was a much happier person than he is now. Reminded of better times makes Scrooge upset. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Guise) shows him how he’s regarded by others, from Bob Cratchit and his family, and his nephew Fred’s family and friends, and he learns that his manner has alienated him from them. The third ghost, that of Christmas Yet to Come (Tonge), shows Scrooge his tombstone, the blunt summation of his life. Returned to his bedroom, Scrooge wakes the next morning, determined to make amends…
This is a fine, straightforward adaptation that tells a very familiar story with a great deal of invention and, on occasion, wit. That it’s very faithful to its source is another aspect that helps the movie provide an entertaining experience, and Shaw handles the various scenes where Scrooge behaves atrociously with a restraint and a purpose that rescinds any idea that he wants to make an out-and-out melodrama. With his cast restricted from making too many broad, sweeping gestures with their arms – a staple of early movie making – or wild, gurning faces, Shaw ensures that, by playing it as naturally as possible, the audience reaps the reward of seeing more genuine feelings and emotions than would have been the norm back in 1914. Of course, there’s still the odd moment where this still happens, but they don’t detract from the overall effect.
Another plus is the decision to make Scrooge’s experiences with Marley and the three Ghosts a matter of his viewing things and events as seemingly a ghost himself. Using the simple technique of super-imposition, Shaw has Scrooge appearing as transparent as the Ghosts are themselves, a trick that reinforces the lack of control Scrooge has over these ghostly ministrations, and makes for some interesting scene transitions. If you look carefully as the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge away from the “safety” of his bedroom, you’ll see the old miser begin to dematerialise slowly as they leave the room. It’s not a flashy effect, by any means, but it is a neat little touch that adds greatly to the effectiveness of the scene.
Again, Shaw is helped greatly by his cast, who all portray their roles with a credibility that anchors the story, and stops it from becoming just another costume drama, albeit one derived from a much-loved classic of literature. Rock is a convincing miser, but is most effective when realising the error of his ways, his despair and dismay written plainly on his face; when Scrooge is confronted with his tombstone, a moment that could have provoked an excessive amount of gesticulating and wild expressions, Rock conveys his character’s shock and horror with a minimum of fuss, and still manages to convey the utter terror that has been instilled in him.
As Bob Cratchit, George Bellamy provides a more mirthful performance, his wide-eyed surprise at his employer’s behaviour always a pleasure to witness lurking in the background, and balanced by the mournful look he gives when he donates what little money he has to the charity workers. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the difference between the two characters, and also the reason why Cratchit has no qualms about drinking a toast to Scrooge at Xmas-time: he’s too good at heart not to. Elsewhere, O’Neill is a suitably mournful Jacob Marley, Brough is an amiable presence as Mrs Cratchit, and each of the Ghosts is presented (mostly) in the way that Dickens originally conceived them (seeing Tonge’s face does let the side down, though).
Rating: 8/10 – an atmospheric, sensitively handled version of Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol proves that silent era movies weren’t all about the “grand gesture” but could be considered, thoughtful, and emotionally astute; it’s all too easy to overlook silent movies that adapt literary successes, but when one is as successful at condensing the material as well as this movie does, then it shows that anything is possible – just like a committed miser having a change of heart.
NOTE: Unsurprisingly, there is no trailer for this movie.
D: Gonzalo López-Gallego / 97m
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lynn Collins, Jim Belushi, David H. Stevens, Karli Hall, Derek Boone, Nathan Stevens
In a small, dusty town near the US-Mexico border there’s a new sheriff about to settle in. He’s a replacement for the current sheriff, Leland Kilbaught (McShane) who’s been suspended pending an investigation into his shooting and killing a young man, Clive Mercy (Nathan Stevens), attempting to smuggle bullets across the US-Mexico border. The new sheriff, Wallace (Wilson), brings with him some emotional baggage, thanks to an old relationship with Marla (Collins) that still prompts some animosity on her part. While Wallace attempts to fit back into his hometown, Clive’s brother Ken (David H. Stevens) waits in Mexico for him to arrive. When his contact from the Mexican cartel threatens him with death if his brother doesn’t turn up, Ken figures he’s got nothing to lose. He kills the contact and steals a load of money in the process.
Ken’s actions have a knock-on effect he couldn’t have predicted. Wallace begins to look into his brother’s case and starts to put two and two together. Figuring out Ken’s involvement, Wallace begins to look for him, unaware that the cartel have tasked a killer called Atticus (Leguizamo) with getting to him first. Wallace and Atticus find Ken at the same time; in the ensuing fight, Atticus cuts off Wallace’s right hand. Wallace escapes and manages to reach Kilbaught’s home. While his successor recovers, Kilbaught discovers that a local businessman, a car dealer called Shep Diaz (Belushi), is behind the runs the Mercy brothers have been making. With his dealership on the rocks, Diaz has been using the smuggling operation to prop it up. But the cartel aren’t satisfied that he wasn’t involved in Ken’s actions, especially when the money he stole isn’t found straight away. With Wallace determined to bring Diaz to justice, and protect Marla who becomes unfortunately involved in it all, Atticus is sent once more to clean up all the loose ends…
Fans of slow-burn, violent crime thrillers set in the American Southwest will find much to enjoy in López-Gallego’s latest feature. Assembling a great cast and setting them to work on a script that doesn’t provide anything new in the way the story pans out, but which nevertheless is admirable for its simplicity, López-Gallego has made a movie that resonates far beyond anything you might expect. One of the main reasons for this, is that well assembled cast. Wilson – a last-minute replacement for Timothy Olyphant – excels as the new sheriff who’s tested by the loss of his hand, but who won’t give up protecting the love of his life – even if she doesn’t want anything to do with him. Wilson has a knack for playing the everyday hero, and he uses that knack to provide an unexpectedly riveting performance, and one that makes the viewer wish he’d make more of these kinds of movies instead of any more Conjuring or Insidious sequels.
He’s more than ably supported by the likes of McShane – all grizzled disregard for the law and its finer distinctions – and Leguizamo as the hired killer who just won’t stop. Both are fine actors, and they inhabit their roles like second skins, with Leguizamo in particular, reminding us what a dangerous presence he can be. But both men are upstaged by a resurgent Jim Belushi, his performance as the duplicitous car dealer, Diaz, a shot in the arm for a career that has seen him take on too many undemanding minor roles in recent years. Diaz is as amoral as they come, and Belushi plays him to perfection, highlighting the sweaty, greedy machinations that will ultimately betray him.
The script – by newcomer Nils Lyew – plays with relative notions of revenge and karma, property and theft, and sneaks in a thin line of religiosity via Atticus’s relationship with Lilly. He further grounds the various relationships – criminal and otherwise – through keen observation and how each character deals with a variety of physical pain and emotional distress. The self-contained nature of events, and the way in which Lyew isolates the characters against the bleached desert backdrop, adds further to the sense of tragedy that percolates through the narrative once Kilbaught fires his gun. And that last scene? Justice or revenge? Actually, it’s both, and completely understandable as both, thanks to the previous interaction of the characters involved.
It’s a very violent movie in places, and López-Gallego doesn’t shy away from showing both the violence and the often bloody aftermath (though one character does appear to cheat death very conveniently at one point). Consequences are the order of the day, for everyone, and no matter how hard they try to avoid them, those consequences have a way of catching up with them and adding an extra layer on top. Even Wallace, who becomes the anti-hero of the story, insists on taking a path that will lead to more and more pain, but he’s a fatalistic anti-hero, and in his own way, just as stubbornly recidivist as Kilbaught.
Set against a pitiless desert backdrop, The Hollow Point has enough tension and undiluted malice for two movies, but López-Gallego is more than up to the task of maintaining that tension and then stretching it further, making some scenes feel hyper-realistic in the process. This isn’t a bad thing, as it all adds to the grim sense of inevitability that powers each confrontation and showdown, and each twist and turn in the narrative. As a result, the viewer is never too sure just how things will turn out, or even if the (relatively) good guys will triumph in the end. López-Gallego is also the movie’s editor, and he adopts an initially measured approach that develops over the course of the movie into a more rapid, insistent rhythm. It also helps that he has the assistance of regular DoP José David Montero, whose lensing brings out the rugged beauty of the desert surroundings, and the rundown, seen-better-days façades of the town and its buildings.
Rating: 8/10 – an underrated gem that could all too easily fail to atrract the attention it deserves, The Hollow Point benefits from a clutch of great performances, a tough, uncompromising script, and the careful ministrations of its director; it’s rare to see such a moderately budgeted project achieve so much and with such apparent ease, but this really is a movie that deserves a wider audience.
In the Sixties, there were a plethora of adventure comedies born out of the success of the James Bond movies, and Masquerade was one of them. The movie itself is a spirited, engaging romp that takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s hugely enjoyable. There are no such problems with the poster, though, as it happily tells you all you need to know about the movie and right from the first glance.
Like many similar-themed movies of the period, Masquerade‘s poster revels in a sense of uproarious fun that it hopes will attract viewers to its cause. There’s a lot going on, both here and in the movie, and the poster is a more than adequate reflection of the exploits that Cliff Robertson, Marisa Mell etc. get up to. From the very top of the image where we find an Arab sheik astride a camel settled on the tail of a helicopter, to the bottom where we see a dangling belly dancer juggling a bomb, the poster is practically yelling at us, “This movie is so much fun!” By carefully recreating the mood of the movie, the poster acts as an extension of the movie, and reinforces the idea that the viewer will have a whale of a time.
But there are plenty of strange things going on in the poster as well, things that easily draw the eye and furrow the brow. For one there’s the hand with the gun appearing from within the umbrella held by Cliff Robertson. Then there’s the disembodied arm seen to the right of the image and emerging from the bridge brandishing a blade. Why both of these elements are present is a puzzle as they have no equivalent in the movie, and their very random nature seems to point to the artist having a) free rein over the poster’s content, or b) been given some very bizarre, but specific instructions (or maybe he saw a different version of the movie).
There are other strange elements, all of which – when taken by themselves – leads to the inevitable conclusion that no small measure of anarchy was required in the creation of the poster. There’s the man plummeting head first (from the bridge?) whose identity is too obscure to recognise. There’s the man dangling from the helicopter, who’s equally hard to identify; the rush of horsemen seemingly intent on hurtling over the edge of the cliff; the red car that has left the cliff road; and the man hanging off the bridge and seemingly about to join the horsemen and the red car. All humorous elements, and all in service to the notion that there will be an awful lot of unintentonal and accidental deaths in the movie (which is funny, right? Well, of course it is).
But hang on, there’s romance on display as well, represented by Robertson’s deferential, protective attitude towards his glamorous co-star, Miss Mell. And yet, once again, malice and potential death aren’t too far away: she’s trying to stab him! The poster hints at a love/hate relationship (even though it’s obvious she’ll fall into his arms by the end of the movie), and Robertson’s grin surely means he’s not worried by her attempt to kill him, but again, it’s all part of the fun.
The various elements that go to making up the main image are crammed together in a relatively small space, but with enough space deployed to stop it all from looking too messy. To the left is one of those requests that were born in the Fifties, a plea from the producers meant to play on the goodwill of the audience, but also meant to imply that there was something so strange/wonderful/impressive that the audience would want to tell everyone about it. But here this intention is undermined by the completion of the tagline (or the second part), that mentions the removal of “cloaks and daggers”. It’s a smart and witty line, and again serves as a reminder: “this movie is so much fun!”
The text is an awkward mix of styles and colours, but fortunately the main credits and the way they’re listed don’t detract from the overall effect of the poster, although it would have been nice to see Michael Relph and Basil Dearden – the co-conspirators if you like on this project – given more prominence. But this poster isn’t bothered about the dry, academic stuff, this poster is all about giving its target or expected audience as good a time looking at it, as they’ll have a good time watching the movie. And for the most part, it succeeds, unlike this British example from the same year:
Original title: You Better Watch Out
D: Lewis Jackson / 100m
Cast: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Brian Neville, Joe Jamrog
Xmas is a time for family – or so they say. If you’re young Harry Stadling, Xmas is a time for discovering that Santa Claus is actually your father playing dress-up and spending adult time with your mother rather than coming down the chimney and leaving presents for you and your brother, Philip. Disillusioned by this terrible discovery, Harry’s view on Xmas becomes twisted. As an adult, Harry (Maggart) spies on the children in his neighbourhood and makes notes on their behaviours in two large volumes: Good Boys and Girls 1980 and Bad Boys and Girls 1980. He works as a senior employee at a factory that makes children’s toys, but he’s tolerated more than respected, and one of the men who works the line, Frank Stoller (Jamrog), exploits his good nature. As Xmas approaches, Harry’s need to make people conform to his view of the importance of the Yuletide season – or his “tune” as he calls it – leads to his dressing up as Santa Claus on Xmas Eve and distributing presents.
Except, Harry’s plan doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. As well as handing out gifts for everyone at a children’s hospital, Harry finds himself handing out retribution to those who don’t share his love of Xmas, or respect how special it is. With his exploits attracting the attention of the police, Harry finds himself chased by a bloodthirsty mob who don’t take kindly to the “Xmas cheer” he’s dispensing. A narrow escape leads him to seek out his brother, but Philip (DeMunn) has his own issues surrounding Harry and the festive period, issues that mean a further escape for Harry, but not quite the one he’s looking for…
Christmas Evil is not your typical slasher movie set at Xmas, and is vastly different from movies such as Black Christmas (1974) or Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). For one thing, it takes its time in establishing the mental state of its central character, the emotionally detached Harry. This is very important to the overall storyline, as writer/director Jackson strives to make Harry a character the audience can at least have some sympathy with, and not regard as just some whack job intent on killing people for no reason (or because he got a present without any batteries, or a Barbie doll instead of Action Man). This means the movie gets off to a slow start, as Harry struggles to maintain an outward air of calm – as much as he can, at least – while everyone around him fails to recognise how important Xmas is to him.
Once the prologue set in 1947 is over with (and Harry’s childhood rejection of the Xmas myth is in place), the movie begins a few months before Xmas actually comes around. This again allows Jackson the time and space to show the gradual deterioration of Harry’s mental state, and the casual malice he endures both at work and closer to home through his brother, Philip. With Philip feeling obliged to look after Harry as well as his own family, there’s a tension and an animosity there that Harry feels deeply. At one point he watches from outside his brother’s home, and sees the perfect picture of a happy family at Xmas-time. Etched on Harry’s face is a mixture of dismay and envy that explains everything you need to know about Harry’s view on Xmas, and why he’s so torn by his feelings about it. He can’t quite reconcile the good with the bad, or the notion that there can’t be one without the other.
While Harry finds himself struggling to find a balance that will help him deal with his feelings, certain events conspire to push him towards more violent responses, including the offhand remarks of his bosses at the factory, and the (until then) suppressed need for revenge on Frank Stoller. It’s notable that for every bad thing that Harry does, he does an equally positive thing as well, and Jackson is clever enough to ensure – even if this is a “slasher” movie – that Harry’s predicament can’t be viewed in plain old black and white. He’s helped in large part by the performance of Maggart as Harry, a singular portrayal that is surprisingly nuanced beneath all the outer trappings of increasing mania and moral confusion. Maggart’s career is littered with television appearances (including an episode of ER in 1995 where he played a Santa Claus figure), and very few movies; this is his finest hour without a doubt. Imbuing Harry with a strangely affecting melancholy, and showing his descent into madness by reining in any possibility of histrionics, Maggart gives an intuitive, unforgettable performance, and Jackson is wise enough to give him the room to explore the character as fully as he can.
But while on the acting front this is Maggart’s movie, on the cinematography side it’s Argentinian DoP Ricardo Aronovich’s. Persuaded by Jackson to work on the movie, Aronovich’s sombre lighting design and tight close ups on Maggart’s face make for a claustrophobic, unnerving visual approach to the material. There are moments where he also creates a kind of chiaroscuro effect, particularly when Harry is being chased by the torch-wielding mob, the flames creating an odd halo effect that seems almost supernatural. His framing and spatial awareness is impressive too, making much of what takes place look and feel like the real world and not some composite assembled for yet another movie.
In the end, Jackson’s commitment to his own script and the way in which it should be presented, pays off handsomely. At first glance, Christmas Evil looks like a hundred other gory slasher movies from the early Eighties, with their high body counts, splatter effects, and invincible killers. It also looks and feels like a low-budget slasher flick – Aronovich’s involvement notwithstanding – and it has a grimy, gloomy atmosphere that isn’t exactly an original approach. But as noted above, the movie takes its time before it provides its first kill, and it and all the subsequent kills are shot as cutaways, put together neatly and given a disturbing air by editors Corky O’Hara and Linda Leeds. These scenes have an almost sordid feel to them, thanks to the combination of mood and lighting, and Harry’s inability to quell his angry feelings.
There’s humour too, threaded throughout the movie, and like in any good, serious drama, it’s allowed to take centre stage on just the one occasion, when the police are trying to get witnesses to identify Harry from a line up of Santas. Otherwise, Jackson focuses on themes relating to family, loyalty, unmerited expectations, greed, and the endemic hypocrisy that the festive season seems to instill in everyone, where the phrase “goodwill to all men” really is just that: a phrase. There’s a sense that he’s tried to “keep it real”, and while he may not succeed in everything he’s attempted, he’s definitely got more right than he has wrong.
Rating: 8/10 – a superior horror thriller, featuring a great performance from Brandon Maggart, and a remarkably astute screenplay from its director, Christmas Evil is a much better movie than anyone could have ever expected (John Waters calls it “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”); as a portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of his own conflicted feelings about the Yuletide season (and with a subtext of PTSD thrown in for good measure), it’s unexpectedly compelling, and makes good use of its Xmas backdrop, limited budget, and confident, measured pacing.
NOTE: The following trailer has French subtitles.
D: Roger Ross Williams / 89m
With: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walter Suskind, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried
In Roger Ross Williams’ moving documentary, Life, Animated, we are introduced to Owen Suskind, a twenty-three year old on the verge of graduating from school and moving into his first apartment. There’s nothing special about that you might think, but for Owen it’s all an incredible achievement, because when he was three years old, Owen went from being an outgoing, happy child to a withdrawn, non-communicative autistic child. It happened virtually overnight, without any warning. But in one, very big way, Owen was fortunate. He had the love of his family: his father, Ron; his mother, Cornelia; and his older brother, Walter. After the initial shock of seeing Owen so unalterably changed, they all rallied round him and did their utmost to make his life as comfortable and as rewarding as possible. They simply never gave up hoping that Owen, somehow, would come back to them.
They had to wait four years, though, for the first sign that Owen wasn’t stranded in his own mind. A single line of dialogue from Disney’s The Little Mermaid – “Just your voice” – was said by Owen at a moment when that particular phrase related to what was happening in the Suskind home. The family began to realise that Owen could relate to what was going on around him by referencing dialogue from Disney movies. What they learned was astounding: Owen hadn’t just memorised certain lines of dialogue from Disney’s animated movies, he’d memorised all the dialogue from Disney’s animated movies. And later, Owen correctly deduced that Walter didn’t want to grow up like Peter Pan or Mowgli from The Jungle Book. By expressing such an emotionally complex idea, and at still a very young age, the Suskinds became convinced that they could communicate further with Owen, and using Disney movies, connect with him on a level they couldn’t have predicted before then.
Fast forward fifteen years and Owen is a (largely) well-adjusted young man on the cusp of leading an independent, adult life, away from his family and on the verge of getting his first job. And he has a girlfriend, Emily (who’s also autistic). He still spends a lot of time re-watching Disney movies, but now he’s better able to make sense of the “real world” thanks to the life lessons that Disney includes in its releases (on his first night alone in his apartment he watches Bambi – the one time the correlation seems forced, even though there isn’t another movie that would fit the circumstance). But even though things are going well for him, Life – animated or otherwise – still has the ability to add to the challenges he already faces…
What makes Life, Animated such an appealing viewing experience is, in part, its refusal to push an agenda. Where the majority of documentaries want you to take sides on whatever issue they’re focusing on, here it’s a different matter entirely. The story of Owen Suskind is an unforeseen triumph against the odds, and Williams is canny enough to show the before, the during and the after of Owen’s descent into autism. He also gives plenty of time to Owen’s family, to show how they felt and how they adapted during the years Owen was growing up. You get a clear sense both of how difficult it was for them, but also how tight-knit and committed they all were, to each other, and to Owen. Just in case anyone might be thinking that Disney are getting all the credit for Owen’s “recovery”, then guess again; his very dedicated family must take most, if not all, of the credit.
Williams tells the story of the Suskinds using a mixture of home movie footage – seeing Owen in his pre-autism years is particularly evocative, but is then trumped by a shot of him standing, just staring into space – talking heads recollections, and traditional hand-drawn animation courtesy of French outfit Mac Guff. It’s this last element that adds a huge degree of charm to a movie already in danger of charming its audience to death, but if that seems like a negative, then guess again. Charm is something the movie has in abundance, and the animated sequences act as further examples of the movie’s ability to bewitch and enchant, and tell the story in ways that talking about Owen and his journey just won’t do.
It’s through these sequences that we learn that Owen is an aspiring writer, with his tale of a hero whose job it is to keep Disney sidekicks such as Jiminy Cricket safe from harm. Mac Guff do a great job of expressing this tale, and also of replicating the world as Owen sees it himself. It’s easy to understand why Owen identifies so much with Disney’s sidekick characters, as he himself has always felt like someone on the outside, not the main hero. It’s interesting, also, that this is how Owen sees himself, as someone who needs to protect others, and the movie draws all this out thanks to some candid on-camera moments by Owen and by his quoting from his original story. From this also, we get a glimpse of just how vocal he is when challenged or cornered, and it all gets too much for him.
While Owen seems inordinately happy, there are plenty of moments where the audience is reminded that he’s really a “big kid” without all the manners or insights that go with being an adult. His relationship with Emily doesn’t go according to the Disney plan, which leaves him adrift, and there’s a wonderful moment where Walter laments the fact that Disney don’t “do sex”, something that would make certain things a lot easier to deal with if they did. There are references too to his time at school, and the bullying he experienced, as well as the dark days that shrouded that period, but again it’s the love and support from his selfless family that saw him through it all, and to a point now where he can travel to France to address a symposium on autism (and make his opening remarks in French).
While Owen’s remarkable comeback from a kind of catatonic autism is entirely worthy of Williams’ attention (not to mention the Disney movie club he runs, and which has two very special guests at one of the meetings), what really makes this documentary special is the love and care and determination of Owen’s family to ensure he has the best life possible that makes this such a moving and often incredibly profound movie. Ron, Cornelia and Walter all deserve the highest praise for how they tackled the issue of their son’s sudden onset of autism, and the moments where their love for him, and their commitment to him, shine through with an emotional honesty that can’t help but bring a tear – or two, or more – to the eye of the unwary viewer.
Rating: 9/10 – with Disney waiving any editorial control over the footage used in the movie, Life, Animated benefits immeasurably from Williams’ considered and astute use of the various storytelling formats used to tell Owen’s miraculous tale; a terrific achievement, and one that highlights the strengths in play within the Suskind family, this is immensely enjoyable, and a movie that makes the term “feelgood” seem hopelessly inadequate in describing the effect it can have on the viewer.
You’re an accomplished comedienne known for being “edgy” (whatever that really means), and for your award-winning TV show. In 2015, you appear in a comedy drama playing a thinly-veiled version of yourself that picks up a fair degree of critical acclaim. The world, it seems, is your oyster. You can choose your next movie project with the confidence of someone who has put a great big dent in people’s conceptions of who you are. The movie you made is Trainwreck, and you are Amy Schumer. And the project you’ve decided to make next is Snatched (2017).
So, with that in mind, this impromptu, unexpected Question of the Week is really quite simple:
Amy Schumer – what were you thinking?
D: Robert Zemeckis / 124m
Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Betts, Camille Cottin, August Diehl, Matthew Goode, Thierry Frémont, Anton Lesser
French Morocco, 1940. Max Vatan (Pitt), a Canadian officer attached to the British army, is on a mission to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. He rendezvous’s with a French resistance fighter called Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard). Posing as a married couple, they obtain an invitation to a party that will be attended by the ambassador and several other high-ranking Nazi officials. In the meantime, their posing as a married couple begins to awaken in each of them feelings for the other. When the mission is over, Max and Marianne realise they have fallen in love; he asks her to come to London so they can marry. After a few months waiting for the red tape to be worked through, Marianne is allowed to join Max, and when she does she reveals that she’s expecting their child.
With their child, a girl, born during an air raid, Max and Marianne’s life begins to settle down into a more sedate existence. With Max rumoured to be in the running for a promotion, he’s called in one day by his superior officer, Frank Heslop (Harris). Frank introduces him to an S.O.E. operative (McBurney) who wastes no time in telling Max that they suspect Marianne is a German spy. Max refuses to believe it, but he’s charged with aiding the S.O.E. in their investigation. He has to receive a telephone call later that night, write down the details of the call and leave them where Marianne will see them, and then wait forty-eight hours until the S.O.E. will know one way or the other if the details have been transmitted to Germany. And there’s a further catch: if Marianne is revealed to be a German spy, then Max has to be the one to kill her.
Despite being told not to, the next day Max decides to launch his own investigation. Aiming to prove Marianne’s innocence, he tracks down a British officer (Goode) who knew her before Max did. But the officer is unable to help him. At a party they’re hosting that night, Max sees Marianne talking to an old man (Lesser) he doesn’t recognise; the man turns out to be a jeweller, but Max’s suspicions are increased. With time running out, Max has no option but to travel to Occupied France and seek out the one man he’s certain can tell him if Marianne is who she says she is, a resistance fighter named Paul Delamare (Frémont). He finds the man in gaol, and learns something about Marianne that will answer the question of her guilt or innocence once and for all.
Some directors – many, in fact – have careers that initially show a lot of promise, are very successful once they’ve made four or five movies and have become internationally well-known, but then find their later projects failing to attract both the same audience levels and continuing critical acclaim. Robert Zemeckis is just such a director. Used Cars (1980) is a great, largely unsung comedy that features one of Kurt Russell’s best performances. The Back to the Future trilogy cemented his place in movie history, and Forrest Gump (1994) reinforced his stature as a mainstream director. But since then, and with the possible exception of Cast Away (2000), Zemeckis’ output – including three excursions into the world of performance motion capture – has been less than stellar, and The Walk (2015), a movie that looked as if it could arrest the slow decline in Zemeckis’ career, proved not to be up to the task.
And sadly, with Allied, Zemeckis has still to reverse that decline. Working from a tired, ineffective screenplay by perennial under-performer Steven Knight, Zemeckis has tried to make an old-fashioned romantic drama that harks back to classic wartime movies such as Casablanca (1942), while also presenting said drama with a more modern visual sheen. The mix, though, doesn’t aid a movie that is difficult to engage with, and which never does enough to make you care about either Max or Marianne. With no one to root for, Knight’s screenplay becomes a matter of pushing the basic storyline through to an incredibly unsatisfactory ending, one that will have audiences shaking their heads in disbelief (though there are plenty of other occasions where they’ll be doing this as well). And Zemeckis, a director whose visual acuity shouldn’t be in doubt, doesn’t seem able to enhance the narrative in any meaningful way, leaving Don Burgess’s cinematography to look and feel as tired as everything else – which is an incredible thing to realise, as Burgess is Zemeckis’ usual DoP, and has lensed non-Zemeckis movies such as Enchanted (2007) and The Book of Eli (2010).
Against this surprisingly dour visual backdrop, Pitt and Cotillard are left “holding the bag” as they try to inject a sense of immediacy into proceedings, and also try to convince the audience that they’re involved in a great love affair. Thanks to Knight’s script, though, neither star has a chance, as they’re hampered by some awful dialogue – “There’s a thing called the soul. I’ve looked into her soul.” – and the kind of motivations that don’t sound credible once they’ve been said out loud. Cotillard fares better than Pitt, but that’s only because she has less to do. Left stranded by virtue of having to carry the movie’s second half on his own, Pitt looks pained and unhappy, and though this could be attributed to his character’s state of mind, it always seems more likely that it’s a reflection of the star’s awareness that the movie isn’t turning out as well as it should.
The rest of the cast pop in and out of the narrative, often for one or two scenes, and fail to make any impact. Harris is the kind of gruff, good-natured senior officer we’d all like to think existed at the Ministry of Defense, McBurney plays an historical predecessor of the role he portrayed in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015), and Caplan is tucked away at the back of a few scenes as Max’s (apparently) openly lesbian sister, Bridget. While some of these characters are important in terms of moving the story forward, none of them have any depth, and again, thanks to Knight’s tortuous way with dialogue, none of them sound convincing (check out the dialogue Harris is stuck with in the movie’s denouement).
With Zemeckis bringing very little to the project other than his name and an occasional flash of the visual style that he’s most famous for, it’s difficult to work out what attracted him to the project, and very seriously, why he completed it. Coming so soon after The Walk, perhaps he didn’t have as much prep time as he’s used to. Perhaps the initial concept became altered and irretrievably lost during production, leaving Zemeckis stuck with seeing it through. Perhaps he did, genuinely feel that this was a project that he could make an entertaining, thrilling, exciting movie out of. Whatever the reason for his participation, this leaden, dreary, unappealing movie is the result, and it does the man and his career no favours at all.
Rating: 5/10 – yet to recoup its $85 million budget at the international box office, Allied is a movie that tests its audience’s patience, and gives it very little to care about; a dismal experience overall, and a reminder that the combination of a big name director and big name stars doesn’t always guarantee good value or an entertaining couple of hours.
aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
D: Gareth Edwards / 133m
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, James Earl Jones
Rogue One is like the bride at a wedding: it’s got something old – an implied storyline from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope; something new – characters we haven’t seen before; something borrowed – the plot of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi; and something blue – Donnie Yen’s contact lenses. It also has a hard time deciding what kind of Star Wars movie it wants to be, whether it’s closer in spirit to Episode IV, or thanks to the technology employed, nearer to the look and feel of Episode I. With no clear decision made, the movie ends up being neither; instead it equates itself as an awkward mix of the two, where the perceived low tech of Episode IV clashes with the confused storytelling of Episode I. Make no mistake, this is a Star Wars movie, but it’s an amalgam of moods and irregular narrative necessities that stop it from becoming as impressive as it wants to be.
We’re in trouble right from the start, with a prologue that introduces us to Death Star designer and loving father Galen Erso (Mikkelsen). Having helped the Empire to begin building their big, bad planet killer, Erso has somehow managed to get away with his wife, Lyra, and young daughter Jyn, and avoid detection on a remote, largely uninhabitable planet. But big, bad Empire honcho Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) has found him, and plans to take Galen back with him to help finish building the Death Star. Soon, Lyra is dead, Jyn is hiding in a hole in the ground, and Galen is whisked off to continue in his task of facilitating the Empire’s desire to commit repeated intergalactic genocide. Later, Jyn is discovered by half-human, half-tin man Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), and taken under his resistance fighter wing.
There are several things wrong with this sequence, and they’re indicative of the problems the rest of the movie has to try and cope with (and largely unsuccessfully). First there’s the matter of the Death Star itself, which is still being built at this point, and which needs Galen’s presence in order to be completed. This begs the question, is the Death Star being built bit by bit as Galen comes up with the design bit by bit, or has he designed it all but there’s no one else who can understand what his design entails? And then Lyra, who has initially fled with Jyn, leaves her daughter, faces down Krennic with a blaster, and is killed for her trouble by his guards, making her death entirely pointless. Jyn sees all this and runs and hides in the aforementioned hole in the ground that is camouflaged by a large, fake rock. And while Krennic’s guards look for her, and are right next to where she’s hiding, we witness Jyn peering out through a gap in the “rock” – a gap that allows us to see her eyes and nose, and which even blind Jedi disciple, Chirrut Îmwe (Yen), could have spotted. But she remains there until Gerrera arrives to save her – even though there’s no reason for him to know she’s there in the first place.
There are more illogical steps throughout, and as it progresses the movie becomes more and more confusing, and narratively complex, as the plans for the Death Star require the Rebel Alliance – in the form of Cassian Andor (Luna), his robot sidekick, K-2SO (Tudyk), Îmwe and his friend, Baze Malbus (Jiang), and later, Empire pilot turned rebel Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), and not to mention a now adult Jyn – to trek here, there and seemingly everywhere in their efforts to track down a copy of its plans, and so enable the rebels to have something to do in Episode IV (when they’re not playing second fiddle to a farm boy, a scoundrel, an old man and a Wookiee, not to mention the wheezy guy in the black helmet who pops up here a couple of times).
In the process of this search, mistrust between characters is overcome, an old villain (not Vader) makes a semi-welcome return (you might be excited until you get a closer look at him), battles are fought, lives are lost and/or sacrificed, stormtroopers are dispatched by the bucket load, good triumphs over evil, and the whole unconvincing mishmash of ideas dovetails nicely into the beginning of Episode IV. There are a couple of standout moments: Vader taking his red lightsabre to a corridor full of unlucky rebels, Îmwe’s martial arts takedown of a dozen or so stormtroopers (it’s always good to see Yen in action), and though they’re sometimes blatant (though also necessary) in their placement, there are plenty of riffs and pre-echoes of events in Episode IV to keep the fans happy.
Ultimately it’ll be the fans who will take this installment of the re-ongoing Star Wars franchise to their hearts, but for newcomers to the saga, or even those who are keen to see what all the more recent fuss is about, this will be a bit of a struggle. Part of the problem is that no matter what obstacles are put in the way of Jyn and the rebels, we all know the outcome. With a pre-ordained conclusion ahead of us, it’s also difficult to care about any of the characters, despite the best efforts of a cast who aren’t exactly lightweights. But Luna is too earnest; Jones runs him a close second; Tudyk contributes yet another robot-with-attitude performance (why do robots have to have an attitude?); Yen and Jiang make for a great, if underused, team; Mendelsohn vacillates between scowling menace and angry outbursts in a fruitless search for something to make Krennic more interesting as a villain; Whitaker and Mikkelsen both lack for screen time and never overcome their minor character status; Ahmed does wide-eyed and shell-shocked for too long; and the great James Earl Jones is brought in for a scene where, unfortunately, Vader’s dialogue only serves to muddy the waters of what’s happening even more than they’re muddied already.
With the script – by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy – moving safely from one join-the-dots scene to the next, and providing little in the way of depth, Rogue One has to fall back on its visuals, and in that respect, the movie holds a little potency. There’s still no one shot that will invoke awe or a sense of wonder (like the Star Destroyer taking up more and more room at the top of the screen at the beginning of Episode IV), and while there’s plenty of beautiful moments to take in, even the Death Star at one point emerging from hyperspace, there aren’t quite enough to make this installment stand out from the rest.
As a so-called stand alone movie, Rogue One doesn’t fit the bill, as it’s too busy reminding everyone of its connection to the series’ opener, and as an additional entry to the franchise timeline, it’s further entrenched in the overall story arc. In charge of it all, Gareth Edwards does a great job of arranging all the elements (even if he can’t overcome the clumsiness that comes with them), and he ensures that the movie hits the required number of beats on time and to its best advantage, but this is still Star Wars-by-numbers, a functional if unnecessary addition to the series, and if it doesn’t tarnish the legacy of the overall franchise, it still doesn’t quite add anything to it either.
Rating: 7/10 – superficially entertaining with its blockbuster mentality and slick, professional appearance, Rogue One lacks the heart and charm of the original trilogy, and plays out its tale efficiently and with any emotion firmly kept in check; a movie then that mimics the series’ best values without appreciating or embracing them fully, and which should leave the impartial viewer feeling more than a little let down by it all.
D: Ernst Lubitsch / 99m
Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, Inez Courtney, Charles Smith
The first thing to know about The Shop Around the Corner, is that, for roughly the first nineteen minutes, it’s set during the summer. There’s not a snowflake or jingle bell in sight. There’s just Matuschek’s gift store, and the people who work there, waiting for the owner, Mr Matuschek (Morgan), to open up the store for another day. There’s Pepi (Tracy) the errand boy, Alfred Kralik (Stewart), the senior sales clerk, and the other sales clerks: Mr Vadas (Schildkraut), Mr Pirovitch (Bressart), Flora (Haden), and Ilona (Courtney). Later, Kralik is approached by Matuschek with the idea of selling a musical cigarette box; Kralik dismisses the idea for a number of reasons, and Matuschek reluctantly acquiesces.
But Kralik hasn’t heard or seen the last of the musical cigarette boxes. When Klara Novak (Sullavan) comes to the store looking for work, it’s her impromptu sale of one of the boxes that gets her a job, Matuschek’s respect, and Kralik’s reluctant admiration. But a mutual animosity soon takes over, and Klara and Kralik bicker with each other over almost everything. By the time Xmas is just a couple of days away, nothing has changed between them, but the relationship between Kralik and Matuschek has. The store owner no longer takes Kralik’s advice, or delegates important work to him. A row over who should stay on after work on the window displays leads to Matuschek firing Kralik, and much to the dismay of everyone else.
Kralik leaves, dejected. The only positive thing he has going for him is a first date with a girl he’s been penpals with since before the summer. Their correspondence has led to this first meeting, but Kralik isn’t sure he should go, partly because he’s nervous, and partly because he’s feeling down. He takes Mr Pirovitch with him to the cafe where they’re supposed to meet, and gets him to see what his penpal looks like. Surprise, surprise, it’s Klara. Kralik goes in and acts as if he’s there by chance, and soon learns that Klara’s romantic idealisation of her penpal is so complete that he is regarded as far inferior in comparison.
Meanwhile, a major development involving Matuschek and the real reason for Kralik’s dismissal leads to the store needing a stand-in manager. Kralik takes on the role, much to everyone’s surprise (and relief), though Mr Vadas’ position has become untenable. With Xmas Eve upon them, Klara has arranged another meeting with her penpal, though she’s still unaware that the man of her dreams is also her boss. The only thing Kralik is unsure of is how she’ll react when she learns about his deception.
Well, we all know the answer to that one, don’t we?
The Shop Around the Corner, adapted from a stage play by Miklós László and scripted by Samson Raphaelson, is a sheer delight from start to finish, another feather in the cap of Ernst Lubitsch’s career that is as entertaining today as it was seventy-six years ago. From the opening scene where the staff at Matuschek’s gather outside the store, the viewer is treated to a mini-masterclass in characterisation, a narrative and acting shorthand that obviates the need for long stretches of dialogue. Each character is recognisable instantly, and with their individual quirks acknowledged from the start, from Mr Pirovitch’s amiable passivity to Ilona’s youthful, fun-loving exuberance, to Mr Vadas’s irritating peacock-like strutting. Stock characters, perhaps, but already the kind of characters the viewer knows they’re going to enjoy spending the next hour and forty minutes with.
And so it proves. With the further introduction of Mr Matuschek – gruffly pompous – and Klara – sweet yet determined – the roster of characters is complete, and the small matter of the central romance is instigated. Around this, Raphaelson’s superb script adds layer upon layer of throwaway moments, from Pirovitch’s disappearing every time Matuschek wants someone’s “honest opinion”, to Pepi’s impersonation of Flora on the telephone (to avoid carrying out an errand for Mrs Matuschek). There’s a wealth of little moments like this, all designed to add extra merriment to a romantic comedy that fizzes and sparks when its central characters are sparring (but not sparing) with each other. Sullavan and Stewart play their roles to perfection, she disparaging everything he does, while he tries to find a way of evening the score. Both actors are a pleasure to watch, never missing a beat – either comedic or dramatic – and Sullavan’s breezy demeanour is complimented by Stewart’s often bemused, distracted presence.
They’re matched by Morgan’s ebullient turn as Matuschek, his story arc taking a darker turn as the movie progresses. There’s a moment where Matuschek realises that he’s made a huge, dreadful mistake, and the actor’s mournful, disconsolate expression speaks volumes as to the depth of his misjudgment. What follows is the movie’s most dramatic, and most affecting moment. Lubitsch imbues this scene with a quiet power that allows it to linger in the memory long after the movie has concluded, and it’s a mark of his skill as a director that it in no way disrupts the otherwise sparkling dialogue and engaging narrative. The German émigré displays a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material and a stylish wit throughout (the so-called “Lubitsch touch”), and he finds nuances in Raphaelson’s screenplay that add further lustre to a movie that is funny, sad, uproarious, charming, elegant in its construction, and unrelentingly appealing.
Rating: 9/10 – a perennial favourite amongst fans of Xmas-based movies, The Shop Around the Corner is a movie that effortlessly raises the spirits and puts a lingering smile on the viewer’s face; undeniably entertaining, it’s like an old friend you haven’t seen in years but who also holds a very dear place in your heart, and once you’ve seen them, you can’t wait until you see them again.
The oldest item yet to feature on Poster of the Week, this Russian-made poster for the German silent epic, Helena (1924, aka Helen of Troy), is a great example of avant garde design, and features the bold use of a limited range of colours. It’s striking, grabs the attention, and offers lots of detail that draws the viewer’s attention (and a little unwillingly at that).
The image is the key factor in the poster’s design, with Vladimir Gajdarov’s Paris posing regally as if bathed in the rays of the setting sun, his handsome, aquiline features made all the more dramatic by his closed eyes and proud bearing. He’s like a god, his striking countenance offering no doubt that here is the movie’s hero in all his costumed splendour. His tanned, sun-blessed skin tones and wavy brown hair complement each other perfectly, and they blend seamlessly into the burnt orange flare of his tunic, and then on down into his right arm. Only the silver-grey of his breastplate breaks up the effect, but its presence there works, the juxtaposition of the deep reds and the shiny silver-grey proving arresting.
As we pan across the bottom half of the poster, there’s Paris’s helmet, an almost isolated pocket of silver-grey that features strange whorls and curlicues. It’s as if there should be a pattern there, something to occupy the eye as it lingers on the helmet, but the effect isn’t that considered or organised. Each swirl is independent of the others, and each has its own flow and purpose (even if, ultimately, we don’t know what that purpose is). Paris holds his helmet in place with rigid formality, an extension of his pose to the left.
But what’s this? There’s something odd going on in the poster’s centre. There’s something keeping Paris and Helen of Troy apart. At one end, by Paris’s left hand, it looks like it could be a fur, but it’s clearly attached to some kind of material that at its other end is too sharply defined to be from an animal (it also looks as if Paris would impale himself on it if he leans forward too far). This part of the image doesn’t make any sense, even if you accept that it’s the cockade to Paris’s helmet, and especially with the way that Edy Darclea’s Helen is leaning over it in her efforts to be closer to Paris. She looks both uncomfortable and awkward in her positioning. Her gaze, such as it is with her eyes being closed, isn’t even in line with that of Paris’ gaze, and her smile seems both unlikely and inappropriate.
Helen is further let down by the artist’s choice of hat wear. With its truncated top and red circles it’s the Ancient Greek equivalent of a bobble hat, but without the telltale bobble to give it all away. Her skin tone is problematical as well, with its light orange appearance looking too pale against the reds and greys near to her. And what we can see of her tunic reveals a distinct “peasant blouse” effect, an unlikely choice given the period. All this – and let’s forget about the lone ringlet allowed to drape itself over her shoulder – serves to make Helen a less effective component of the overall image than her lover, Paris. Deliberate? We’ll never know, but it’s strange that one side grabs the attention for all the right reasons, and the other side does the same but for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, this being a Russian poster, the text is in Cyrillic, with the main title given prominence near to the top right hand corner. Down in the right hand corner we have the movie’s two sub-titles: Part 1 – The Elopement of Helen, and Part 2 – The Fall of Troy, while crammed into the space below Paris’s right hand is what appears to be details of a limited engagement at one of Moscow’s cinemas. But if you have to spare a thought for anyone connected with this production, then it’s the principal cast of Darclea, Gajdarov, and Albert Steinrück that come off worst: they’re the names squashed between the back of Paris’s head and the edge of the poster. However, the text does make for a nice counterpoint to the main image, and even if it’s been added wherever there’s a space, it’s still effective in terms of the overall image.
This type of avant garde poster was a common sight in Russia during the 1920’s and while there are issues with the depiction of Helen, this is still a poster that draws you in and rewards on several levels. The colours are a pleasing mix of saturated and restrained, and despite Paris’s rigid bearing, contains enough “fun” elements to make it an enjoyable poster to look at, and much, much better than this French version (apologies for the grainy resolution):
D: Richard Tanne / 84m
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Tom McElroy, Stephanie Monday
It’s 1989, and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter), a young lawyer with a firm in Chicago, is preparing to spend the afternoon with an associate who she’s mentoring. The young associate’s name is Barack Obama (Sawyers), and while Michelle’s parents (Calloway, Van Lear) tease her about it, she insists she’s not going on a date. When Barack arrives to pick her up, he’s late, there’s a hole in the passenger footwell of his car, and it’s clear that he smokes (which Michelle isn’t too keen on). And she learns that the community meeting he’s invited her to attend with him, isn’t until much later. Taking a further stand with Barack, she tells him they’re not on a date. He agrees (reluctantly), but adds that it won’t be a date until Michelle says so.
With time to kill, the pair attend an exhibition at a local arts centre. As they look at and voice their feelings about the artwork on display – by the artist Ernie Barnes – slowly but surely they begin to learn about each other. Michelle warms to Barack (though not too quickly), while he is obviously attracted to her. They talk about their backgrounds, make snap judgments about each other, and generally discover they have a liking for each other that Michelle, at least, is surprised by. From the arts centre, they go for a walk in the park, talk some more about their families, and in particular, Barack’s relationship with his mother and father.
At the community meeting, Michelle witnesses Barack take on the role of confident, impassioned orator, as he takes up an issue that’s causing the community to feel disparaged. He encourages them to look at things from a different perspective. Afterwards, Michelle tells Barack how impressed she was – even if it did seem like a set up, what with her being there. Barack admits he may have hoped for such an outcome, but instead of taking him to task – as she would have done earlier in the day – Michelle appears to be okay with his minor subterfuge.
The two have dinner, and learn more about each other’s religious leanings, before attending a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. As they leave, Michelle is temporarily by herself, and she meets one of the partners at her law firm, Avery Goodman (McElroy), and his wife (Monday). When he asks her why one of the characters in the movie acted in the way that he did, she’s lost for an answer. When Barack reappears, he has an answer for Avery’s question. Avery is impressed, and suggests to Michelle that she ensure Barack’s time at the firm is beneficial. When they’re by themselves again, Michelle rounds on Barack and tells him why this should never have been a date: because of how it would look at the firm. Chastened, Barack takes Michelle home, but not before he makes one last stop…
It’s such an obvious conceit – show the first date between two famous people (and before they were famous) – that it’s somewhat surprising that it hasn’t been done before. A project begun by writer/director Richard Tanne back in 2007, Southside With You is a warm, big-hearted piece of romantic conjecture: what would that first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson have been like? Would they have hit it off straight away, or would they have discovered a common enmity, a hurdle too big to overcome at the first attempt? The latter seems to be the case early on, what with Michelle’s refusing to classify their going out together as a “date”, while Barack’s oh-so-puppy-dog approach doesn’t appear to be gaining any traction either.
One of the things that makes this imagining of real life events so charming is its refusal to litter the script with presentiments of the future, those moments when (usually) dialogue hints at greater things to come. Even the one time that Michelle suggests Barack try his hand at politics, it’s all said and done with in a matter of seconds. The movie remains firmly in the here and now of 1989, never deviating from its carefully constructed sense of time and place, and keeping its two main characters anchored to their lives as they were then. This leads to a raft of information about the movie’s prospective lovebirds that most people won’t be aware of, such as Barack’s father dying at the relatively young age of forty-six, or that Michelle was living at home to help with her father, who has MS.
Their verbal sparring, an often witty joust between two fiercely intelligent people certain (for the most part) about their place in the world, informs most of the movie’s running time, and makes for some spirited exchanges between the two. It’s here that the performances sparkle and come into their own, with Sumpter’s slightly waspish turn as Michelle slowly softening as the movie progresses. As she lowers her guard thanks to Barack’s easy-going presence, Michelle becomes more relaxed – and more likeable. It’s an impressive performance, subtly shaded for the most part, and hopefully will allow Sumpter the opportunity to take on more high profile roles in the future. But good as she is, it’s Sawyers’ performance as Barack “O-what-a” that holds the attention. Looking a good deal like the real Barack Obama, and sounding exactly like him, inflections and all, Sawyers inhabits the role with ease, avoiding any possible accusations of mimicry and providing viewers with a fully-rounded portrayal of a young man hoping to convince his “date” that that’s exactly what she is.
Tanne takes full advantage of his lead actors’ skill in their roles, and lets them do all the “hard” work, while he orchestrates things with deceptive ease. The time he’s spent writing and refining Southside With You has clearly paid off, and the simplicity of it all adds immeasurably to the movie’s charm and appeal. With a warmth to its cinematography – courtesy of Patrick Scola – and a winsome, winning score by Stephen James Taylor, the movie is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. The only question that remains is what Barack and Michelle think of the movie. They do have a copy…
Rating: 9/10 – with two standout performances from Sumpter and Sawyers, and a precision-tooled script, Southside With You entrances and beguiles in equal measure; a romantic drama with heart and soul, as well as humour, it’s the kind of low budget indie movie that wins heaps of praise, but is seen by very few – and in this case, that’s a crime, pure and simple.
D: Nate Parker / 120m
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union
The Birth of a Nation reaches our screens trailing controversy and dismay by being an historical movie focusing on certain direct issues, but having to deal with other indirect issues as well (but more of these later). A retelling of the Southampton County, Virginia rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831, in which a slave uprising started by Turner led to the deaths of around sixty-five white people – men, women and children – and over two hundred and fifty black people. Turner managed to recruit around seventy slaves and free men to his cause, but the rebellion was quashed after a couple of days. Turner avoided capture for over two months before he was discovered hiding in a field. He was convicted at trial and sentenced to be hanged.
Those are the bare bones of a tale that director/writer/actor Nate Parker has chosen to make into The Birth of a Nation. For anyone unaware of the Southampton County rebellion, this movie will likely prove illuminating on a basic level, but Parker has chosen to make his own version of the rebellion, ignoring certain facts and events in order to make a more dramatic movie (as if a rebellion wasn’t dramatic enough). So, this isn’t an historically accurate movie, it’s an interpretation of the events that took place in Southampton County up to and including the rebellion. It’s important to make this point, “up front” as it were, because in doing so, Parker has actually managed to make a movie that lacks the impact the rebellion must have had at the time.
We see Nat first as a child. He’s taken by his mother (Ellis) to a tribe of blacks living in the woods. They tell him that the birthmark he has means he’s destined to be a prophet. This sets the tone of the movie: that Nat will grow up into an adult whose destiny is to change… well, actually, we never know, because Parker never gets around to telling us. Of course, he’ll eventually fight for freedom and seek to overturn injustice, but as a young child he’s encouraged to read by his owner’s mother (Miller), and is treated with all appropriate fairness for the time and the place he’s a part of. Young Nat takes to the Bible, and from there we see him grow into a young man who is a credit to both himself and the family who remain his owners, and who are now embodied by his childhood friend, Samuel Turner (Hammer).
So for the best part of an hour, Nat is well respected and regarded by Samuel and everyone around him, and life is good, despite the obvious limitations such as needing a written pass to travel outside the grounds of the Turner estate, and being struck repeatedly for offering a kindness to a white woman. He gains a reputation as a preacher, persuades Samuel to purchase a young woman, Cherry (King), who later becomes his wife, and manages to avoid raising the ire of local slave catcher, Cobb (Haley). But although Nat is well aware of the position that he and his fellow slaves are in, and the various ways that things can go wrong for them all, he lacks any will to do anything about it.
It’s only when Nat is hired out as a preacher, and begins to see just how bad things are at other plantations, that he begins to rethink things. One particular incident, followed by the brutal assault of his wife by Cobb and his men, leads Nat to anger, and a desire for revenge against “the white man”. He gathers a number of other slaves, and they begin their rebellion by attacking Samuel and his household before heading to other parts of the county, killing indiscriminately as they go. It’s not long before they come face to face with Cobb and his men, and a fight to the death ensues. Nat manages to escape and goes into hiding.
All this is pretty standard fare, with Parker portraying Turner as a man who turns his back on the society that’s treated him well enough until he begins to question that society more closely. Which actually makes the small matter of motivation a bit of a problem, because Parker the screenwriter doesn’t give Parker the actor anything to work with, other than a handful of Bible passages that he gets to deliver in an angry fashion, or, when he’s confronted by Cobb, as a defiant call to arms. Parker struggles in all departments to show us the anger and the passion behind Nat’s decision to rebel, or why he would descend so quickly and easily into violence. Yes, there’s the appalling treatment of slaves, yes, there’s the institutionalised racism of the times, and yes, there’s the personal injuries done to him and Cherry, but in Parker’s hands none of this adds up to Nat being the instigator of a rebellion. The change comes about too quickly, and as with many movies, this change appears to come about solely because the movie needs to move on.
Against other movies such as 12 Years a Slave (2013) or A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion (1982), The Birth of a Nation – a title that doesn’t mean anything in the context of what happens in the movie itself – is too restrained in its approach to be entirely effective. Aside from one very disturbing scene involving a slave being force fed, Parker keeps everything on an even dramatic keel, with plot and story developments coming along when required, and all played out in a way that keeps the viewer at a distance. The look and feel of the movie owes a lot to the style and structure of Roots (1977), but without that series’ attention to character, or its narrative drive. Here, by the time Nat gets around to starting his rebellion, the average viewer will be glad to have gotten through all the sub-par dramatics that have gone before, and will be looking forward to the movie gaining some forward momentum.
Performance-wise, it’s Parker’s movie, with the likes of Hammer (subdued surliness), Boone Jr (straggle-haired insouciance), Miller (pained resignation), Haley (gnarly aggression), and King (unfaltering sweetness) reduced to minor roles, and having the barest amount of depth or characterisation to work with. But it’s also Parker’s movie in terms of direction, and here he’s found wanting. And like so many other directors working from their own scripts, he’s not able to find solutions to the problems that one provides for the other. There are jarring moments where continuity is derailed (one involving Samuel will have audiences shaking their heads in confusion), moments where the pace of the movie slows to a crawl, and moments where Parker’s inexperience as a director leaves the movie avoiding any complexity in the story he’s telling.
In the right hands, Nat Turner’s story could have been a powerful, impassioned examination of an event that had far-reaching effects on how slavery was regulated, and which could be said to have made things far worse for the slaves of the antebellum South. But for now we’ll have to make do with Nate Parker’s version of events, which strives to make a hero out of an ordinary man who advocated wholesale bloodshed as the drive for his rebellion, and who was found hiding in a hole covered by fence rails rather than nobly giving himself up as Parker shows here. And Parker, whose past has distracted too many people from focusing in the right direction, has made a movie that ultimately lacks cohesion, and in doing so, has possibly done a greater disservice to Turner’s legacy than anyone since those tumultuous days in Southampton County, Virginia.
Rating: 4/10 – a broad, uninspired approach to an important moment in black history, The Birth of a Nation lacks finesse, complexity, and energy; Parker’s attempts at multi-tasking do the movie no favours, and there’s a stale air of tiredness about the whole thing that transmits itself to the viewer, all of which makes the movie a bit of a chore to sit through.
D: Luke Scott / 92m
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox
As the song has it, “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…” Not once you see Kate Mara’s risk assessment consultant, Lee Weathers, driving to a facility hidden deep in the woods where a science experiment, codenamed L9, is going badly wrong. The experiment in question is the creation of a human/nano technology hybrid. The hybrid (Taylor-Joy) looks like a young woman, is called Morgan, is actually five years old, and has recently stabbed one of the team, Kathy (Leigh), repeatedly in the face and blinded them in their left eye. With a psych evaluation planned to take place that will determine whether or not the project continues, Lee’s role is to make the final decision, either to continue the work or to shut it down.
For everyone’s safety, Morgan is confined to a room that has toughened glass from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. She appears to understand the need for this, but the team are overly apologetic about the incident with Kathy. They all state that it was their fault and not Morgan’s; they should have known better, should have been paying better attention to her current mental state. Lee takes none of this for granted, but does accept that they treat Morgan more as a human being than as a thing. When the psychiatrist, Dr Alan Shapiro (Giamatti), arrives the next day to conduct his assessment, his approach goads Morgan to anger, and a violent outburst means that Lee has no option but to shut down the project.
She’s stopped, though, by the team. Rendered unconscious, she awakes in Morgan’s safe room, while the team’s own efforts to control the situation – and Morgan – start to unravel at an alarming rate. By the time Lee finds a way out of the room, Morgan’s determination to be free from the confines of the facility has proven disastrous for the team, and she makes her escape, taking along Amy (Leslie), who is the one member of the team that Morgan considers is her friend. But Lee is equally determined to find Morgan and make sure that the project is shut down once and for all.
Morgan is director Luke Scott’s first feature, a step up in terms of money and opportunity following his clever and impressive short movie, Loom (2012). That movie augured well for the future, but with Morgan it seems that Ridley Scott’s son has been let down by a poorly realised script, and the faint whiff of post-production interference. There’s little about the movie that works as well as it should, and long-time fans of this type of speculative sci-fi will be dismayed by the many ways in which the narrative shies away from making any kind of moral statement.
Another screenplay picked out from the Black List (this time 2014’s), Morgan begins with a shocking act of violence, and continues with not one character reacting or behaving normally in its wake. Everyone carries on as if it was a minor incident, one that’s hardly worth bothering about. Morgan behaving strangely is to be expected, but when the team behave even more strangely than she does, and right from the start, then it only serves to undermine the drama that follows. Only Michelle Yeoh’s mother figure acts as if she has any idea of the consequences to Morgan’s actions, but she’s allotted so little screen time that she becomes the occasional, and token, voice of reason, trotted out to offer a limited balance to everyone else’s strange behaviour.
Things are further hampered by the character of Lee, played with stony-faced antipathy by Mara. It’s a role that’s difficult to talk about without revealing too much of why the character is at the facility in the first place, but while she’s an outsider given over to remaining so, Mara provides a better performance than expected, giving Lee an unexpected likeability even though she’s pretty much there to conduct a corporate hatchet job if necessary. As the movie progresses, her minimal social skills are stripped away, and Mara again strikes a careful balance between “assassin for hire” and consultant doing her job. She’s matched by Taylor-Joy, whose bleached looks and unnerving stare never quite manage to morph into the features of someone you could trust implicitly. Though her motivation becomes more and more strained as the movie continues, her performance highlights the emotions that Morgan has managed to express, even though she can’t understand them properly.
Alas, the rest of the cast aren’t given nearly enough to make their roles worthwhile, and as you might expect, some are just waiting around until Morgan decides that everyone is surplus to requirements. The final half hour ups the ante in terms of action, and Mara and Taylor-Joy enjoy some well-choreographed fight scenes, but even then there’s a distinct lack of tension or energy. Scott seems unable to inject the necessary spark to make things that much more exciting, and the movie suffers as a result. As it heads towards an inevitable conclusion, one that it’s set up right from the moment we first see Lee in her car, Morgan begins to look and sound and feel like another great idea for a movie given the least amount of commitment by all involved. That’s not entirely true, but there are large stretches where the viewer won’t be able to shake off that feeling at all.
Watching Morgan, there’s an obvious correlation with Ex Machina (2015), but this is a different movie with a different agenda, and nowhere near as complex. The script by Seth W. Owen isn’t as fully rounded or well thought out as it needs to be, and Scott never really finds a way to avoid the pitfalls that Owen has left in situ. And watching the movie unfold, and the speed with which it changes direction from a somewhat intriguing sci-fi thriller to all-out action drama, it does smack a little of interference in the post-production stages, as if the producers had realised that the movie was in danger of losing its audience altogether if it didn’t change tack. On the plus side, the movie does have a decent score courtesy of Max Richter, and Tom McCullagh’s production design does help to anchor the movie in a more realistic fashion than the script does.
Rating: 4/10 – what could have been an intriguing, thought-provoking movie is scuppered by poor narrative choices, a lack of credible characterisations, and a shift in tone two thirds in that alters the movie’s trajectory as if no one would notice; a good idea given a lacklustre presentation, Morgan will only satisfy those viewers who don’t expect much from sci-fi thrillers, or are comfortable looking at things only on a superficial level.
D: Ben Younger / 117m
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli, Peter Quillin, Jean Pierre Augustin, Edwin Rodriguez
True stories from the world of sport always aim for the inspirational, to show an individual or a team face up to and defeat the odds (which are often stacked against them). There’s room for self-doubt, absolutely there is, and there’s room for the odd setback or stumble along the way to – usually – championship glory, the miracle comeback, or both. Bleed for This, the true story of boxer Vinny Pazienza (Teller), is a movie that includes a miracle comeback and championship glory. As such it should be a powerful, gripping feelgood story that grabs the audience’s attention and sympathies from the start, and then puts them through the same emotional wringer that the main character(s) went through. Well, the key phrase is “it should be”. Bleed for This, however, looks and sounds as if it doesn’t know what an emotional wringer is, let alone be able to put an audience through it.
The problem here is that, prior to the car accident that saw Vinny Pazienza suffer a broken neck (which could have meant his not walking ever again, let alone boxing), and way before he decided he was going to ignore doctor’s orders and work out while still wearing the halo that allowed his neck to heal normally, the boxer’s life wasn’t one that warranted a movie being made about it. He’d had a relatively successful career early on as a lightweight, but fighting at junior welterweight he found himself on a title losing streak. He moved up to junior middleweight, and began winning again, culminating in winning WBA World Jr. Middleweight Championship against Gilbert Dele. But then came that fateful car accident, and four steel screws in his head.
Now, Pazienza’s life becomes interesting, now it becomes the kind of story that the movies would be interested in telling. And so, twenty-five years after that career-threatening injury, we have Bleed for This, the true(-ish) story of Vinny Pazienza’s recovery and return to the ring. It has all the hallmarks of a traditional tale of triumph over adversity, of how one man overcame tremendous physical trauma to continue doing the one thing that gives his life meaning. But as you watch the movie, as you see Vinny Pazienza’s story unfold, there’s one thing you’ll be asking yourself: namely, where’s the passion?
For, despite the drama and the incredible journey Pazienza took getting back into the ring, the movie version of that journey is about as exciting as watching the man train for two hours. Somewhere along the way, writer/director Ben Younger did something unforgivable: he forgot the passion. Sure there are times when Pazienza gets angry, but he’s also determined, sour, happy, uncertain, and resentful in equal measure. He experiences all the emotions you’d expect someone to experience in these circumstances, but the movie doesn’t allow any one of those emotions to have more screen time than the others, or to appear to have had any more effect on him. In essence, it’s all too neat.
Bleed for This is a movie that signposts a tremendous struggle ahead, as Pazienza begins working out in the basement of his parents’ home. Aided by his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Eckhart), Pazienza lifts weights, regains definition (and the small degree of self-respect the script allowed him to lose after the accident), and shocks everybody with his progress. At least, he would shock everybody, but Younger approaches this section of the movie as if it were nothing more than a necessary bridge between the Dele fight and the eventual showdown with Roberto Duran (which wasn’t his first fight after the accident, that was with Luis Santana). There’s roughly a year between the accident and the comeback fight, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to Younger. It feels like a much shorter period because Younger’s impatient to get Pazienza back in the ring, to get to that miracle moment he believes the audience is waiting for. He also can’t resist throwing in a bit of family drama, with Pazienza’s father (Hinds) suddenly revealing a sense of guilt for pushing his son too hard earlier in his career.
There are other times where the basic story gets padded out with superfluous moments that add little or nothing to the main narrative. It’s established from the very first shot of Rooney that he’s an alcoholic. But it keeps cropping up, and never goes anywhere; even when he’s arrested for attempted drunk driving, there’s no fallout or consequence to it. Where some movies would use this as an excuse to remove him from the corner for the big fight, thereby adding extra pressure on the fighter etc. etc., here it’s just padding, and flimsy, unnecessary padding at that. And then there’s the background machinations of fight promoters the Duva’s (Levine, Gelber), who are regularly accused of putting their interests ahead of Pazienza’s, as if the notion that they’re self-serving fight promoters has come completely out of left field (apologies for the mixed sports metaphor).
But if that wasn’t enough, if the pedestrian plotting, and the stale characters, and the excessive padding, just weren’t enough to make the movie difficult enough to enjoy already, Younger executes the coup de grace by fumbling the fights themselves. A mess of choppy editing, awkward camera angles, tight close ups, and fragmented jabs and blows, the fights do all they can to hide the fact that Teller can’t box. Maybe he didn’t have enough prep time to look convincing, maybe he was hired for his acting ability and not his ability to throw a punch – either way, Teller isn’t going to be heralded for showing off his “skills” in the squared circle.
As for the performances, Teller is hampered by the restraint Younger shows in his script, and several of the more dramatic moments in the movie show Teller in a good light, but it’s in the sense that he’s realised he’s only going to get so many opportunities to really shine. Eckhart is stuck with the worst receding hairline since Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place (1971), while Sagal and Hinds do their best with characters who are two steps removed from being Italian-American parental stereotypes.
There is a decent, emotionally gripping drama to be made from Vinny Pazienza’s comeback against the odds, but Bleed for This really isn’t it. It’s professionally made, and technically at least, doesn’t fault, but the way in which the story has been told is less than successful. Younger neutralises the drama that occurs outside the ring, and in doing so, fails to recognise that in this case, that’s where the drama ultimately lies. And by doing that he lets down his talented cast, the audience, and the man who went through all of it – and who now gets to see a movie about him that can’t focus on him properly, or present effectively the struggle he went through to be worthy of a movie about his life.
Rating: 5/10 – with Bleed for This lacking a cohesive screenplay and a real sense of its main character’s determination not to give up (which scares him because it’s too easy), this is one biopic that lets everyone down; it also lacks flair, and a sense of urgency, and only impresses thanks to Larkin Seiple’s gloomy, shadow-filled cinematography (a surprisingly good fit for the material), and a robust sound mix that at least makes the fight sequences feel more aggressive than we can actually make out.
Animation can often provide a better, more enjoyable, and more memorable viewing experience than the majority – in fact, the vast majority – of live action movies. You could always count on Disney, and though they went through a creative rough patch during the Seventies and early Eighties, they bounced back and are now as strong a creative force as they’ve ever been (and perhaps more so). But in the last fifteen to twenty years the House of Mouse hasn’t had things all its own way. The arrival of animation studios from the likes of Dreamworks and Sony, as well as the emergence of Pixar, has brought animation into a new Golden Age, and so much so that animated movies are now some of the most consistently high-earning movies released each year. It shouldn’t be a surprise that two of this year’s animated releases have made over $1 billion at the international box office, or that the Top 5 in this list have all crossed that mark. So, here they are: the Top 10 animated movies at the international box office.
10 – Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) – $886,686,817
The third entry in the Ice Age series is also the one where the rot began to set in, but like the previous chapters before it, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs was the animated box office champ for its year, and proof that its creators, Blue Sky Studios, knew they had a franchise that would keep on paying dividends. On its own, the movie is an uneven, less humorous entry than its predecessors, but it does feature a great vocal performance from Simon Pegg, and some suitably over-the-top visuals, making it a treat for younger viewers but not so much for anyone over the age of, say, fifteen.
9 – Shrek 2 (2004) – $919,838,758
It may be hard to believe now but Shrek (2001) wasn’t quite as good as most people’s memories will tell them. It was certainly a novel approach by Dreamworks, but what worked most was the inspired voice casting, and a level of disrespect for fairy tales that raised most of the laughs. But Shrek 2 is the series’ pinnacle, a movie that embraces all those old fairy tale tropes and extracts the humour from them rather than by trampling on them first. It also has a decent story, the welcome addition of Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots, and a sleeker, bolder visual style than its predecessor. Plus it deserves credit for keeping Eddie Murphy in the list of the Top 10 Actors at the Box Office.
8 – Finding Nemo (2003) – $940,335,536
One of Pixar’s most enduring and well-loved movies, Finding Nemo is an almost perfect blend of storytelling, visual design, voice acting, and direction. Only the rhythm and the pace of the movie’s middle section lets it down, but this is still head and shoulders above most of the movies on this list, and is a reminder that when Pixar get it right there’s no touching them. In its day a box office juggernaut, the movie has earned its place in cinema history and continues to delight successive generations of movie goers, a testament to its ingenuity and charm.
7 – The Lion King (1994) – $968,483,777
Although The Little Mermaid (1989) was the movie that showed Disney had turned the corner on the creative funk that had dogged them through the Seventies and early Eighties, it was The Lion King that really showed they were back on track. A perfect blend of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation with fleeting uses of rotoscoping, allied to one of the best musical soundtracks Disney have ever produced, and a story that was by turns, humorous, gripping, tragic, life-affirming, and satisfying, The Lion King is still the animated Disney movie that all the company’s successors have to live up to.
6 – Despicable Me 2 (2013) – $970,761,885
Buoyed by the success of the first Despicable Me (2010), Illumination Entertainment probably knew they had a surefire winner when they began making this sequel, and so it proved. Landing just shy of the $1 billion mark, it’s not the best of sequels – indeed, its storyline is possibly the weakest of all the movies on the list – but it does have those little yellow cash generators, the Minions, and an infectious visual style that you can’t help but smile at, even while you’re groaning at the jokes. With a third movie to come in 2017, the continuing success of the franchise seems assured, which can’t be a bad thing now that Disney has consumed Pixar.
5 – Zootopia (2016) – $1,023,761,003
This year’s surprise hit from Disney is possibly the House of Mouse’s finest hour, a whip-smart anthropomorphic comedy that has a strong storyline, subplots that enhance the main narrative, two wonderful performances from Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, winning characters, and of course, Flash the sloth. A joy from start to finish, we can only hope that Disney doesn’t make any sequels, and that they allow this to stand alone as one of the best animated features of this or any year.
4 – Finding Dory (2016) – $1,027,190,583
Not as good as Finding Nemo, but more successful (go figure), Finding Dory benefitted from a built-in audience who have been waiting for a sequel ever since the first movie was released, and because it didn’t stray too far from the set up of the original. Pixar needed this to be a hit, and they got their wish, but with Cars 3 up next – not the most auspicious of sequels they could have decided to release – it may be a while before the company that revolutionised computer animated movies adds another of its features to the list.
3 – Toy Story 3 (2010) – $1,066,969,703
The ne plus ultra of animated movies – sorry, numbers one and two – Toy Story 3 is quite frankly, the best second sequel ever made. A bold gamble by Pixar to make a movie about the relinquishing of childhood, and to make the ending both sad and life-affirming at the same time, this shows Pixar in complete control of every aspect of the production and seemingly with ease, showing everybody else how it should be done. A perfect way to end a trilogy, and even though Toy Story 4 will be with us in 2019 (and which will answer the question, what happened to Bo Peep?), it’s got a long way to go before it’s as good as this entry in the series.
2 – Minions (2015) – $1,159,398,397
Minions‘ place at the number two spot just goes to show what can happen when a minor character (or in this case, characters) proves more entertaining than the main character. Gru was fun, but the Minions were endlessly funny and endlessly adorable. A spin-off movie of their own was always likely, and Illumination Entertainment came up with a great idea for their solo outing, a kind of potted history of the little yellow devils search for a villainous boss down the ages. It’s still not their best outing – that would be Despicable Me (2010) – but with no immediate plans for a sequel, there’s a good possibility that their position so close to the top won’t remain that way for very long.
1 – Frozen (2013) – $1,276,480,335
These days, Disney can do no wrong. In recent years they’ve released mega-successes at the box office, won Academy Awards, and thanks largely to the stewardship of John Lasseter, made successful animated movie after successful animated movie. Frozen is the studio’s most successful venture, a mighty crowd-pleaser that mixes great songs and inspired comedy, even if Sitron the horse is a dead ringer for Maximus from Tangled (2010). Inevitably, a sequel is in the works, but whether or not it will have the same emotional heft that Frozen has remains to be seen. And whether or not it has the ability to outdo its predecessor, well, only time and a billion pre-teen girls will decide.
Original title: Hîchirimen bâkuto – nôbarydu takahadâ
aka Black Cat’s Revenge; Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo; The Tattooed Swordswoman
D: Teruo Ishii / 85m
Cast: Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Satô, Hideo Sunazuka, Shirô Ôtsuji, Tôru Abe, Yoshi Katô, Yôko Takagi, Tatsumi Hijikata
Akemi (Kaji) is the head of the notorious Tachibana gang. During an attack on a rival gang, she kills the gang’s leader and inadvertently injures his sister. A spell in prison sees Akemi bond with five of her fellow inmates and they all have part of a larger dragon tattoo inked onto their backs. Three years later, and Akemi is head of the Tachibana clan again but she has determined to go straight. This doesn’t sit well with some of her followers, particularly Tatsu (Ôtsuji), who plots with a rival yakuza gang leader, Dobashi (Abe), to have her overthrown. Tatsu ensures that two of the Tachibana clan are killed by Dobashi’s men so as to incite war between the two gangs, but Akemi is forebearing and doesn’t rise to the bait.
Shortly after, Dobashi is approached by a blind woman, Aiko (Tokuda), who offers him her services as a swordswoman. Impressed by her skill with a blade, Dobashi accepts. But before he can devise the next stage of his plot against Akemi, one of her friends from prison is found murdered, and with her tattoo removed from her back. A note attached to the body promises further violence and makes it clear that Akemi is the ultimate target. Matters between the two gangs escalate, including the murder of Akemi’s uncle (Katô) and the kidnapping of his daughter, Chie (Takagi). With the aid of a wandering fighter-for-hire called Tani (Satô), Akemi eventually decides to face Dobashi head on, but finds herself facing the blind woman instead.
Blind Woman’s Curse is a weird concoction, combining as it does a vengeful blind woman, warring yakuza gangs, an eye-rolling, wild-haired hunchback, an opium den full of topless female addicts, gory violence, references to William Tell, a curse involving a black cat, an underwater torture sequence, a hint of the supernatural, and a third gang leader who wears a bowler hat and a loose, buttock-revealing red loincloth. There’s rarely a dull moment, or a shot that doesn’t make the viewer sit up and take notice, but even with all this going on, there’s a nagging feeling that all these elements don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. As the movie progresses, the various plot strands sometimes tie themselves up in so many knots that they need the aid of a samurai blade to solve things. By the time Tani and Chie escape the underwater torture devised for them by Dobashi, and do so miraculously and without explanation, it’s clear that the movie – scripted by director Ishii with Chûsei Sone – is in a hurry to reach a conclusion, and if the movie’s internal logic needs to be sacrificed, then so be it.
And yet, the bizarre combination of elements does work for the most part, and the movie does have its fair share of entertaining set-pieces – the opening slow-motion, rain-soaked battle between Akemi’s men and a rival gang is a good example. It’s all shot with a mix of painterly formality and tense immediacy by Shigeru Kitaizumi, and for once, the editing (by Osamu Inoue) doesn’t hamper the flow and rhythm of the movie in the way that a lot of similar Japanese movies of this ilk are affected. Ishii, better known for the ten-movie Abashiri Prison series, brings out the usual themes of honour and regret, and makes Akemi a more solemn character than might be expected. He also keeps any humour to a minimum, choosing instead to focus on the theme of revenge. It all adds up to a better-than-average outing within the genre, and well worth seeking out.
Rating: 7/10 – Ishii’s take on yakuza versus yakuza is an intense, often thrilling example of Japanese movie making gone berserk; Blind Woman’s Curse throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and in the process proves largely rewarding, even if it does go off at a tangent too many times for its own good.
Giant from the Unknown (1958)
At first glance, the poster for Giant from the Unknown seems like a random collection of typographical styles, two primary colours and one secondary colour, a damsel in distress, and a lightning effect that appears to have been included for no particular reason at all. And that’s without the titular giant’s werewolf-like appearance (“My, what a lot of chest hair you have.” “All the better to frighten you, my dear… hopefully”). But it’s a poster that is deceptively effective – or effectively deceptive? – and which uses the apparently random nature of its elements to provide a strangely compelling overall image.
The movie itself is about – and I quote – “A very large, degenerate, Spanish conqueror [who] is freed from suspended animation by lightning and goes on a killing spree in a small town.” So that explains the lightning bolt. Then there’s the depiction of the Giant (who we now know is from Spain and not the Unknown – wherever that is). The artist has come up with an image that, ultimately, is misleading, but with its unruly hair and wild-eyed stare, and allied to a hairy, sharp-nailed hand, is much more of a beast than a giant. Fortunately he’s also proportionately bigger than the woman he’s menacing (though you do have to wonder what his little finger is doing). He’s a commanding figure when all’s said and done, and his stare seems to be directed right at you, which is unnerving considering he’s just an image on a poster.
The woman he’s towering over should be more eye-catching, what with her flimsy red dress, splash of hair, petrified gaze, and exposed flesh. The artist has seen fit to remove the strap from over the woman’s right shoulder, an excision that is at once exploitative and also a way to further highlight her vulnerability. The Giant doesn’t exactly look lascivious, but the inference is clear: that flimsy red dress won’t be there for long once he catches her. Of course, this is from 1958, and there was absolutely no chance of the poster image being replicated within the movie, but certain target audiences of the time would have hoped like crazy that it was.
The largely green background aids the two central images to stand out more, and gives the title a chance to “pop”, it’s sharp-edges and crowded conjoined lettering serving to accentuate the strangeness of the movie. (It’s also interesting to speculate that the woman is reaching desperately to grab the word “the” and maybe save herself.) Above the title is the movie’s tagline, a typical piece of hyperbole that even moviegoers of the time wouldn’t have been fooled by. The typeface used is unexpectedly dull, and doesn’t fit the random nature of the other elements – unless that’s the point of it, and a touch of random dullness was somehow a requirement.
The remaining type details the main cast members, and is in a more traditional black. But there’s an obvious – glaringly obvious – omission: the name of the director (in this case Richard E. Cunha, who was also the movie’s DoP). Either this was a tremendous oversight, or a deliberate decision by Screencraft Enterprises, Inc.; either way, not seeing a director’s name on a poster doesn’t exactly add confidence in the finished product’s likelihood of being good/entertaining/worth seeing, even if it is called Giant from the Mountain.
But all in all, this is a poster that, while largely generic for the time it was produced, exerts a strange fascination, and has an odd hypnotic nature to it. It’s a diamond in the rough, a poster that’s truly from the Unknown, and a better advert for the movie than it perhaps deserves. It’s certainly better than this Mexican lobby card that was used (note the difference between the artist’s impression and the actual Giant):
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.
D: David Mackenzie / 102m
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Kristin Berg, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin
Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine, Foster) are brothers who carry out bank robberies. They target branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, hitting two of them in the same morning. They are working to a plan of Toby’s devising, and they cover their tracks to the extent of burying the cars they use in the robberies, and taking the money across the state line into Oklahoma and laundering it at an Indian casino. Once the money has been laundered, they then get the casino to issue their “winnings” in the form of a cheque… which is made out to Texas Midlands Bank. Why? Because thanks to a reverse mortgage provided by the bank to the brothers’ recently deceased mother, their ranch will suffer foreclosure if the outstanding mortgage isn’t paid. And that’s without the oil that’s been found on their ranch as well…
The police investigation is headed up by Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his long-suffering partner, Alberto Parker (Birmingham). Hamilton is near to retirement, and his experience tells him that the bank robbers have a specific sum they’re aiming for; once they’ve got it they’ll stop – even though Tanner carries out an impromptu robbery on another bank. Realising that they’ve got a beef with Texas Midlands Bank, Hamilton persuades Parker to stake out one of the bank’s other branches, and they wait for the robbers to show up. With only one more robbery needed to net them the rest of the money they need, Toby and Tanner arrive at another branch altogether, only to find it’s been closed down. They decide to rob another branch in a bigger town, which also means a bigger risk.
The robbery is not a complete success. The brothers get the money they need but find themselves pursued by gun-toting locals. They manage to split up, and soon Tanner finds himself followed by the police. As he heads into the nearby hills in an attempt to escape, Toby takes the money and tries to get across the border and return to the Indian casino. But first there’s the small matter of a police checkpoint…
A modern day Western set in West Texas (but shot mostly in Eastern New Mexico), Hell or High Water‘s sombre screenplay used to be known as Comancheria. Neither title really does justice to a story that revolves around money and the way in which its importance is felt keenly by those who don’t have it, or how casually it’s regarded by those that do have it. This part of West Texas is peppered with roadside signs offering both financial and religious solutions for dealing with personal debt, but none of these signs have been put there by the banks or the loan companies that are deemed responsible for so much of the debt and deprivation that the average West Texan endures as part of their daily life.
But Toby Howard isn’t going to accept the loss of his family’s ranch (or the oil found below it). He’s not going to become another victim of the financial institutions that plague the area with their fire-sale mentality and lack of humanity. Along with his brother, Tanner, he’s going to fight back, he’s going to make Texas Midlands Bank accountable to him. It’s a classic David vs Goliath tale, except that in this case, Goliath doesn’t even know he’s in a fight. Taylor Sheridan’s perceptive, yet harsh screenplay makes it clear who the villain of the piece is, and it’s not the brothers, even if Hamilton and Parker firmly believe they are. And it adds to the harshness of the story that Hamilton never stops viewing the Howards as villains, even when he begins to work out why they’re robbing banks in the first place. Where the viewer can have a large degree of sympathy for their plight and their solution, Hamilton has only one judgment to give: they’re criminals, pure and simple.
Mackenzie keeps things this simple throughout, and does so against a backdrop of financial ruin and macho posturing that serves as a vindication for Tanner and Hamilton’s behaviour. Tanner’s a hothead, unpredictable and rash; you never know if he’s going to jeopardise Toby’s plan or see it through without incident. Foster has played this kind of role before, but here he injects a sense of melancholy that makes Tanner more tragic than perhaps he has a right to be. It makes his performance all the more impressive: Foster knows that Tanner is as close to a stereotype as this movie gets, but he ignores that and makes the character as intriguing and beguiling in an off-kilter way as he can.
Bridges is equally impressive, his brooding, jowly features looking out and around from behind his sunglasses, his massively non-PC comments about his partner’s racial background funny, but only in a “long-time married couple” sense. But Sheridan’s script doesn’t let Hamilton have it all his own way. When he says, proudly, “This is what they call white man’s intuition,” Alberto is quick to respond, and in a perfectly deadpan manner: “Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.” All humour aside, though, Bridges projects a stern, authoritarian personality for Hamilton; he’s a man caught at the end of a career that has seen so many changes it’s almost overwhelming, so much so that once his retirement arrives, he can’t rest or leave the past behind.
These two roles, and the complexity that both actors bring to them, threaten to leave Pine way behind in the acting stakes, but he’s more than a match as the mastermind behind it all, his downtrodden, put-upon character finally taking a chance on himself in a desperate time of need. Pine isn’t exactly the most intuitive of actors – you can see the wheels turning in most of his performances – but here he does something quite remarkable: he imparts a stillness to the role that makes Toby all the more worthy of our time and attention. Foster may have the flashier role, but it’s Pine who provides the moral and emotional compass for the movie to navigate by.
All this is set against some stunning desert landscapes, perfectly lensed and lit by DoP Giles Nuttgens, and acting as unconcerned characters occasionally drafted into the story for effect. Those wide open expanses, with their unending vistas and rippling heat hazes speak of a far-off country where the promise of a better life is just over the horizon – if only the brothers could get there. But Toby’s plan is much more prosaic than that, and Mackenzie uses the character’s yearning for a better life for his children to highlight Toby’s innate nobility. Mackenzie and Nuttgens are aided by exceptional editing by Jake Roberts – the movie has an elegiac feel throughout that lends itself so well to the movie’s internal rhythm – and there’s a wonderfully melancholy, rueful score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Rating: 9/10 – a movie that rewards the viewer on so many levels, Hell or High Water takes its financial vigilante characters down a hard road indeed, but makes the prize as compelling and profound as possible, and without dumbing down the narrative; the three leads are magnificent, and the whole mise-en-scene is handled with care and confidence by all concerned, leading to a movie that is by turns haunting, complex, thrilling, and emotionally draining.
aka Sully: Miracle on the Hudson
D: Clint Eastwood / 96m
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, Holt McCallany, Ann Cusack, Molly Hagan, Jane Gabbert, Sam Huntington, Michael Rapaport
On 15 January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, suffered a catastrophic bird strike that left both engines disabled. It had been in the air for approximately three minutes, and its pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Hanks) had to make a decision: to turn back and attempt an emergency landing at either LaGuardia or nearby Teterboro Airport, or make a forced water landing on the Hudson River. Sullenberger was certain he wouldn’t make it back to either airport and so adopted the latter option. With one hundred and fifty-five people on board, it was a manoeuvre that could have ended in tragedy, but thanks to Sullenberger’s forty year-plus experience, he was able to land the plane safely. And with the emergency services and local commercial vessels quickly on the scene, the passengers and crew were rescued in under twenty-five minutes. Later, a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that it “has to go down [as] the most successful ditching in aviation history.”
Such an event was always likely to be transferred to the big screen, and in the hands of veteran director Clint Eastwood, the story of Chesley Sullenberger and Flight 1549 has been granted a sober re-telling that suits both the man and the nature of the landing. On the surface, Sully is a movie that seems far removed from the intensity and heightened emotion of the event itself, as much of what occurs is played out against a wintry visual patina in keeping with the time the forced landing took place. But like Sullenberger himself, Eastwood – in terms of directing – has over forty years’ experience behind him, and in bringing Todd Karmanicki’s script to the screen he adopts a straitlaced, measured approach to the material that avoids any possibility of sensationalism or unnecessary hyperbole.
This is important because while the story of Flight 1549 is one of heroism on an unprecedented level – as Sully himself says at one point: “Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time” – the forced water landing isn’t the focus of the movie, even though we see it from two different perspectives. The focus is Sullenberger himself, a self-contained, humble man who found himself questioning his actions in the wake of the forced landing. It may seem counter-intuitive to examine the mindset of a hero suffering doubts in the aftermath of the very act that defines them as a hero, but it’s what makes Sully a much more rewarding experience than you might expect.
This decision is aided immeasurably by Hanks’s performance as Sullenberger. Anyone who’s seen Captain Phillips (2013) should remember the final scene where Phillips is being tended to by a navy medic, and the shock of what he’s been through begins to hit home. It’s a bravura moment, with Hanks’ expression telling you everything you need to know about how he’s feeling. He does the same here, brilliantly revealing the tremendous doubts Sullenberger experiences immediately following the landing and later during the NTSB investigation. As he imagines what could have happened, such as the plane crashing into the centre of Manhattan, Hanks is completely convincing as a man whose instinctive response to impending disaster saved the lives of so many. As he struggles to accept his own role in the forced landing, and what it means not just for himself and everyone else aboard, but for a wider public for whom plane crashes in New York have a whole different meaning, Hanks ensures that Sullenberger’s humility and humanity remain to the fore throughout. This is a man who wouldn’t rest until he knew everyone on board was safe and alive.
Hanks’ performance anchors the movie in a way that allows the script to explore the complex relationship between a man and his view of himself in exceptional circumstances. The actor adequately portrays the effect of the enormity of what happened on Sullenberger, and the lingering, pessimistic anxiety that threatened to undermine his self-confidence. For the purpose of the movie, that anxiety is allowed to overshadow his heroism, and through the one-sided machinations of the NTSB investigation, to be brought into question. But while Sullenberger’s heroism is never in any doubt, the NTSB investigation reveals a tactless insincerity about the nature of corporate responsibility, as it puts more faith in computer simulations that say the plane could have landed safely at LaGuardia, than the experience and knowledge of one of the best pilots around.
This is not the script or the movie’s finest hour. Demonising the Board and its representatives is the movie’s one truly sour note, a decision no doubt arrived at to offset a perceived lack of drama elsewhere. In these instances, there aren’t any bad guys, but Karmanicki ensures that the Board in this movie are emotionally hostile, professionally obtuse, and working to an unspecified agenda. It’s like watching a McCarthy hearing all over again, and Eastwood doesn’t make any attempt to downplay the Board members’ hostility to Sullenberger and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Eckhart), until the error of the Board’s ways can be confirmed once and for all as both unrealistic and a poor narrative choice.
Hanks aside, this isn’t a movie where the performances are required to be more than perfunctory, although Linney as Sullenberger’s wife, Lorraine, is memorable thanks to the odd cadence of her portrayal and an underlying, yet unconfirmed, sense that all isn’t well in their marriage. As Skiles, Eckhart sports a moustache that seems to have been flown in from the Seventies, while the three-headed “monster” that is the Board (O’Malley, Sheridan and Gunn) is treated so unfairly – and so at odds with what really happened – that all three border on caricature, an unfortunate choice that doesn’t do the movie any dramatic favours.
The movie concludes with Sullenberger achieving a victory over the Board that allows for a moment of narrative grandstanding, and which is at odds with Sullenberger’s introspective nature. It also appears to offer a feelgood moment when the feelgood moment of the movie has already passed: the moment when it’s confirmed that everyone got off the plane and everyone has survived. But Eastwood uses these moments to highlight just how much of a big deal Sullenberger’s actions actually were. And why shouldn’t he be feted and applauded? To everyone outside the Board, he’s a bona fide hero, doubts and all. He’s an heroic individual, and the movies love those kind of characters (possibly) above all else. And they love them even more if they don’t automatically embrace that heroism.
Rating: 7/10 – memorable more for its examination of a man uncomfortable with the notion of being a hero than the actions that gained him that title, Sully is a muted drama that never quite “soars” in the way that audiences may expect, but which hits home in several unexpected ways instead; bolstered by a terrific, awards-worthy performance from Hanks, this is a quietly impressive movie that benefits from not embracing the standard tropes of the “hero” drama, and proves surprisingly rewarding as a result.
D: Joe Dante / 106m
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances Lee McCain, Scott Brady, Jonathan Banks, Dick Miller, Judge Reinhold, Glynn Turman, Corey Feldman, Keye Luke, Edward Andrews, Harry Carey Jr
In amidst all the destruction and mayhem caused by the Gremlins of the title, Phoebe Cates’s bank teller (and barmaid) Kate Beringer takes time out to tell fellow bank teller Billy Peltzer (Galligan) the reason why she hates Xmas. It’s an awful tale, simply but effectively told by Cates, and at the end of it, you can understand exactly what she means. And in a movie that thrives on being as subversive as possible, it’s the most subversive moment in the entire movie. Forget about the Gremlins singing along to “Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It’s off to work we go” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – “They’re watching Snow White. And they love it.” – or having one of them “expose” himself to Kate, her monologue sums up everything that the movie wants to say about the festive season: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
And yet, despite this, Gremlins occupies a warm place in the hearts and minds of pretty much everyone who’s ever seen it. Despite the way in which it trashes several Xmas conventions – peace and goodwill to all men? Yeah, right – Gremlins is a movie that always satisfies, no matter how often you watch it. Right from the start, when Hoyt Axton’s terrible inventor, Randall Peltzer, tries to impress upon kindly Chinese store owner Mr Wing (Luke) the virtues of the Bathroom Buddy, it’s clear that nothing’s going to go right for him, or for anyone else in the movie. And that’s part of the movie’s charm: waiting to see just how bad it gets.
And so, we settle in to wait, to see just how bad it will get. Along the way we see some other examples of Randall’s knack for building inventions that don’t work, such as the clockwork egg slicer, and we meet the horrible Mrs Deagle (Holliday), a character so odious that she regales Billy with thinly veiled threats about what she would do to his dog, Barney, if she had her way. And then there’s Judge Reinhold’s preening, acid-tongued assistant bank manager, Gerald, a nasty piece of work who wouldn’t hesitate to fire Billy if he had the chance. And lastly, dear old Murray Futterman (Miller), an ex-GI with a racist streak that’s wider than the Grand Canyon. It seems the town of Kingston Falls isn’t quite the nice little town it appears to be.
Inevitably, little Gizmo begets a quintet of other furry Mogwai, led by the very anti-social Stripe. The story then introduces us to Mr Hanson (Turman), the local science teacher. Billy gives him one of the Mogwai, and though Mr Hanson’s intentions aren’t as cruel or nefarious as some of the other characters we’ve met, it’s when he starts performing multiple blood tests on the creature that we know he’s got to go on the Naughty List with Mrs Deagle et al. And then, the creature gets to eat after midnight…
While this particular Gremlin is claiming his revenge, Stripe and his scaly cohorts are wreaking havoc in the Peltzer kitchen. At this point, the movie does something unexpected. With all the horrible people living in Kingston Falls for the Gremlins to exact “justice” on, it’s the quiet, unassuming (and nice) Lynn Peltzer (McCain) that is one of the first targets (after the unfortunate Barney of course). What follows is one of the movie’s best sequences, as Lynn takes the fight to the Gremlins after the initial shock of finding them in her kitchen has worn off. Watch McCain closely as she goes from frightened housewife to tough-as-nails Gremlin-killer; it’s a standout moment for the actress, a once-in-a-career opportunity that she grabs with both hands and, in today’s modern parlance, “smashes”.
And just as inevitably as Gizmo begat Stripe and friends, so Stripe begats hundreds more of the little blighters, and they proceed to go on a rampage through the town. The movie transforms itself from a charming, slightly innocuous looking family feature into a full-on riotous comedy horror, and for the next forty-five minutes there’s more mayhem and anti-social behaviour on display than in a raft of Seth Rogen movies. And Mr Hanson’s death isn’t the only one. What is happening? How can a movie that’s introduced us to such a cute and cuddly little creature suddenly go all psycho on us?
Of course, the movie is called Gremlins, and not Mogwai. But the best thing about Joe Dante’s inspired direction (working from an equally inspired script by Chris Columbus) is that he embraces the carnage. He’s keen to show off all the terrible things that the Gremlins are capable of, and he’s just as keen to revel in it all. He encourages the viewer to do the same, to enjoy the town’s destruction, to cheer it on even though the “good” townsfolk of Kingston Falls need to be saved from this unexpected retribution. It’s yet another example of how subversive Gremlins is: you can’t help but cheer them on.
With that in mind, it also explains why Billy and Kate are so dull. As central characters you should want to like them, but Dante isn’t interested in having us root for them. Sure, they have to win out in the end – in 1984, even the most subversive of mainstream movies couldn’t let evil triumph over good – but they’re just so uninspiring, and so bland. You get the feeling that if they were to have children their offspring would be the most boring kids alive. But against Stripe and his tribe of over-achieving disaster-mongers, Billy and Kate can’t help but look and feel tedious and simple-minded. It’s a contrast the movie has to stick with, but certainly, there are times when you wish they weren’t.
In the end, good does triumph over evil, and the Gremlins are vanquished. But just as the viewer prepares to endure the feelgood homilies that are part and parcel of ordinary US home life at Xmas (especially in the movies), the script has one last trick to play on the viewer, one last subversive moment to round things off with. Mr Wing shows up to collect Gizmo, and in the process, makes it clear that the Peltzer’s are entirely irresponsible, and don’t deserve to keep the furry little creature. Just as they’re congratulating themselves on saving the town (what’s left of it), the movie reins them in and reminds them (and us) that if it wasn’t for them, then none of it would have happened in the first place. It’s a great way to end a movie (even if they had to go and spoil it by hinting that Billy might have a shot at being responsible in the future), and leaves only one question unanswered: if all the Gremlins bar Stripe were blown up in the movie theatre, does that include the ones that were busy disrupting Rockin’ Ricky Rialto’s radio show?
Rating: 9/10 – an Eighties movie that – surprisingly – hasn’t dated, Gremlins is a classic of narrative misdirection and sly, devilish humour; watch it with a jaundiced eye and you’ll get much more out of it than if you were to take it at face value, and be prepared to be entertained on such a darkly comic level that you’ll be wondering for a long time to come, if Gremlins is really the family movie it appears to be.
NOTE: This is the first of four Xmas Classics to be featured on thedullwoodexperiment. The other three will appear between now and Xmas Day.
D: Zack Whedon / 112m
Cast: Aaron Paul, Annabelle Wallis, Garret Dillahunt, Dean Redman, Zachary Knighton, Enver Gjokaj, Terry Chen, Michael Kopsa
The Black List is an annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. 2012 was a pretty good year, with screenplays for the likes of Arrival, John Wick, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Hell or High Water all making the list. But so did the screenplay for Come and Find Me, which just goes to show that the Black List doesn’t always get it right.
Written by Zack Whedon (brother of Josh), the script aims for being several things at once: a romantic drama, a thriller, and a mystery. In addition, it seeks to include meditations on what it is to really know someone, and the permanence of love. It’s an ambitious script, and one that has clear intentions to be more than just another run-of-the-mill why-has-my-girlfriend-suddenly-disappeared-when-we-were-so-happy-together? style of movie. Signs of these intentions can be seen throughout Come and Find Me’s drawn-out running time, but however effective these elements may have been on the page, it’s Whedon the director who sabotages any chances they had of being just as effective on the screen.
At the beginning, Aaron Paul’s graphic web designer, David, gets on a bus where he spots an attractive blonde (Wallis). When she gets off the bus, so does he. He follows her. Eventually she turns and asks him bluntly if he’s following her. David looks appalled, says no, and carries on past her. Soon, she is following him until they reach a house that they both claim is where they live. David opens the door, the woman goes in without being invited. Inside they find a photograph that shows they know each other… Now, at this point, viewers who have seen way too many movies will know exactly what happens next. But for anyone who hasn’t seen way too many movies, this is an exciting start: how can two people live in the same house and apparently not know each other? Is this going to be some kind of variation on The Lake House (2006)?
Well, no, it isn’t. If Whedon had written a mystery drama that evolved from this opening sequence, and had kept the mystery unfolding piece by tantalising piece then Come and Find Me would have been an entertaining, enjoyable movie. But instead, he explains away this early “mystery” and goes in a different direction altogether – but one we’ve seen in the movies, and on television, and in books and plays, time and time again. And he doesn’t bring anything new to the table, or find a way of presenting his tale with any kind of visual flair or panache.
After watching Come and Find Me for a while – say, twenty minutes – the average viewer will be wondering if the bland shooting style, with its dour lighting scheme and flat imagery, is going to continue throughout. Well, it does. Whedon’s framing is a major letdown (which makes you wonder if DoP Sean Steigemeier had any say in the matter), and he constantly shoots from a low angle, as if this will add to the drama unfolding on screen. But all it does is prove annoying and distracting, and make the average viewer wonder if Steigemeier’s back was okay, what with all this low level camera work. With its drab interior design adding to the movie’s visual problems, even when it heads out into the countryside, Whedon and his crew do their best to downplay any of Nature’s beauty. A shot from the top of a hillside looking toward a row of other hills should be a jaw-dropper; instead it’s literally, just a backdrop.
But even that isn’t the worst of the movie’s problems under Whedon’s stewardship. The central mystery, once it’s explained, proves to be underwhelming, but there’s still a long way to go as David engages in a less-than-riveting series of bluff and counter-bluff in his efforts to bring the bad guys to… to… well, actually, we never know if he’s looking for justice, revenge, a combination of the two, or something else entirely, as Whedon doesn’t think to tell us. Throughout, David has one motivation: to find out what happened to his girlfriend, Claire. But he does so in such a ham-fisted, you-won’t-believe-he-did-that kind of way that it’s a wonder he gets as far as he does. He’s a passive-aggressive victim who’s never as ahead of the game as he thinks he is, and as a result, and despite Paul’s best efforts, he remains unsympathetic throughout.
Paul is a good choice for the character of David, but like so much of the movie, is undermined by Whedon’s inexperience in the director’s chair. Everyone else is a supporting character, and though the likes of Dillahunt and Gjokaj do their best with less than challenging material, there’s no chance than anyone is going to stand out from the crowd. Even Wallis, whose role is largely seen through a variety of flashbacks, gets to be less than a fully fledged character and more of a cypher; or more awkwardly, a McGuffin.
When it comes to first-time writer/directors, Whedon is another in a long line of movie makers who believe they can get it right on their maiden attempt, but often the opposite is true. Such is the case with Come and Find Me. Perhaps there should be a moratorium on first-time writer/directors. Perhaps directors shouldn’t make their own scripts until they’ve been directing for a while, and have worked on other writers’ scripts. Perhaps then they’ll have a better understanding of how to assemble a movie without undermining it at the very same time. Who knows? It might lead to them making better movies.
Rating: 4/10 – leaden, and with an ending that will leave most viewers slack-jawed through disbelief, Come and Find Me is a misfire on almost every level; lacking a clear purpose, or any depth or subtext, the movie plods along, then stumbles along, then plods along again etc. in its quest to be an absorbing mystery thriller, when it’s plain to see that it’s so far from that ambition as to be in a different universe altogether.
Action, Adam Schindler, All'ultimo sangue, Andrew Stanton, Animation, Annalise Basso, Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies, Beth Riesgraf, Bury Them Deep, Colin Firth, Comedy, Craig Hill, Dominik Hartl, Drama, Elizabeth Reaser, Ellen DeGeneres, Ettore Manni, Felicity Jones, Finding Dory, Fort Osage, Gabriela Marcinková, Home invasion, Horror, Inferno (2016), Laurie Calvert, Lesley Selander, Literary adaptation, Mike Flanagan, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Paolo Moffa, Patrick Dempsey, Plague virus, Prequel, Renée Zellweger, Rod Cameron, Romance, Romantic comedy, Ron Howard, Rory Culkin, Sequel, Sharon Maguire, Shut In, Ski-ing, Thriller, Tom Hanks, Western
Bury Them Deep (1968) / D: Paolo Moffa (as John Byrd) / 109m
Original title: All’ultimo sangue
Cast: Craig Hill, Ettore Manni, Giovanni Cianfriglia (as Ken Wood), José Greci, Francesco Santovetti, Luciano Doria, Pino Patti (as Giuseppe Sorrentino), Ruggero Salvadori
Rating: 5/10 – when an Army payroll is stolen by notorious outlaw Billy Gun (Cianfriglia), expert tracker Clive Norton (Hill) is hired to get it back, but in the process he finds himself up against a variety of obstacles, not the least of which is Billy’s brother, El Chaleco (Manni); an average Spaghetti Western given a much needed dose of energy thanks to Manni’s muscular, spirited performance as the conniving El Chaleco, Bury Them Deep rarely rises above its perfunctory level, and despite cramming in several lengthy action sequences.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) / D: Mike Flanagan / 99m
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack
Rating: 6/10 – it’s 1965, and the Zander family – single mother Alice (Reaser) and her two daughters, Lina (Basso) and Doris (Wilson) – become imperilled by an evil spirit thanks to the misguided use of a ouija board; a prequel to the events seen in Ouija (2014), this does nothing new in terms of scares and special effects, but thanks to the involvement of Flanagan, at least gives you characters you can actually relate to and care about, and which is a rare and valuable thing indeed.
Finding Dory (2016) / D: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane / 97m
Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Rating: 7/10 – Dory the blue tang fish (DeGeneres) starts having flashbacks to when she was younger and lived with her parents, and these in turn prompt her to try and find them, much to the continuing consternation of clown fish Marlin (Brooks) and his more positive son Nemo (Rolence); a sequel to one of Pixar’s most cherished movies, and one of this year’s most anticipated releases, Finding Dory lacks the original movie’s winning charm, and settles instead for being a guilty pleasure retread of Finding Nemo, while being saved from a lower score thanks to DeGeneres wonderful, and still inspired, vocal performance.
Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016) / D: Sharon Maguire / 123m
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Sarah Solemani, Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson, Neil Pearson, Joanna Scanlan, Kate O’Flynn, Celia Imrie, Ed Sheeran
Rating: 7/10 – at the dreadfully old age of forty-three, Bridget (Zellweger) feels like love is passing her by, until two one night stands – with old flame Mark Darcy (Firth) and new beau Jack Qwant (Dempsey) – lead to her being pregnant but unsure as to which one of them is the father; a welcome return for Bridget, and with much of the pizzazz and feelgood humour of the first movie, but the whole “who’s the father?” storyline is a poor conceit to hang a whole movie on, and it shows, leaving standout moments such as Bridget miming to House of Pain’s Jump Around, as a much better reason for splurging on this latest installment.
Shut In (2015) / D: Adam Schindler / 90m
aka Deadly Home; Intruders
Cast: Beth Riesgraf, Rory Culkin, Martin Starr, Jack Kesy, Joshua Mikel, Leticia Jiminez, Timothy T. McKinney
Rating: 5/10 – when Anna (Riesgraf), who’s agoraphobic, doesn’t attend her recently deceased brother’s funeral, the three men who arrive at her home to rob her soon find that Anna has a dark secret that will endanger them all; a brave attempt to do something different in the home invasion genre, Shut In nevertheless remains an intriguing idea that never coalesces into a completely successful whole, but does feature a terrific performance from Riesgraf.
Inferno (2016) / D: Ron Howard / 121m
Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish
Rating: 6/10 – despite suffering from short term memory loss, symbologist Robert Langdon must endure a race against time in order to stop the release of a deadly toxin that will wipe out billions of people; another year, another Dan Brown adaptation, but this time it’s an adaptation that’s at least bearable, thanks to Tom Elkins’ and Daniel P. Hanley’s editing skills, an enjoyable, knowing performance from Khan, and a script that doesn’t hang around getting bogged down by endless exposition, which, considering Brown’s reliance on it in his novels, is a massive step forward should The Lost Symbol or any further novels be adapted for the screen.
Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies (2016) / D: Dominik Hartl / 77m
Cast: Laurie Calvert, Gabriela Marcinková, Oscar Dyekjær Giese, Margarete Tiesel, Karl Fischer, Patricia Aulitzky, Kari Rakkola
Rating: 5/10 – a formula for producing snow proves extremely harmful if ingested, and soon the guests at a remote mountain top ski resort are knee deep in zombies, both human and animal; similar in tone to the Dead Snow movies, Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies combines daft humour with gross-out gore and flying body parts a-plenty, but as usual with this type of movie, it pays lip service to cohesive plotting, or credible characters, and focuses instead on providing a series of inventive zombie kills – which is pretty much the only aspect it gets right.
Fort Osage (1952) / D: Lesley Selander / 72m
Cast: Rod Cameron, Jane Nigh, Morris Ankrum, Douglas Kennedy, John Ridgely
Rating: 6/10 – homesteaders looking to head west through Indian country are exploited by a crooked businessman (Ankrum) and have their lives put at risk by his decision to cheat said Indians out of the rewards of a peace treaty, leaving would-be wagonmaster Tom Clay (Cameron) to get the bottom of all the corruption; an enjoyable way to spend seventy-two minutes thanks to Selander’s typically intuitive direction, Cameron’s no-nonsense approach to dialogue, and the joy of watching so many standard Western tropes being trotted out and given such a good airing.