Sunday, 18 February 2018

Review #1,305: 'Justice League' (2017)

So here it is. After four years and four movies of universe-building and origin stories, the heroes of Warner Bros.' DC Universe are finally brought together to face down a common foe and unite under the Justice League banner for the very first time on the big screen. Such an impressive roster of supers in a time when superhero mania is at its highest should have been a safe bet at the box-office, especially since Marvel's B-list characters like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange have been pulling in $500-600 million worldwide. How Justice League limped to just $700 million worldwide on the back of little to no fan anticipation speaks volumes about audience investment in this DC Universe. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman won back some faith, but returning director Zack Snyder has learned nothing from the criticism and backlash Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice received.

This is the same turgid, ugly and CGI-infested world started by Man of Steel, complete with one-note characters, headache-inducing fight scenes and plain bad storytelling. Yet, due to Snyder leaving the project in post-production as a result of tragic family circumstances, this makes up roughly half of the movie. The rest is purely Joss Whedon's input, after The Avengers' helmer was brought in to tighten up the film, re-write certain scenes, and take charge of the necessary re-shoots. Reports have surfaced recently that Snyder's rough cut was simply unwatchable, and sensing another critical panning, Warner Bros. simply cut their losses. Even the re-shoots were news worthy, as Henry Cavill, sporting an impressive moustache for his role in the upcoming Mission: Impossible - Fallout, was under contract to keep the facial hair, and so his upper lip would need to be altered with special effects. Naturally, the final film - which had a reported $300 million sunk into it - is a catastrophic mess.

Superman is dead, and the world has sunk into a state of despair. After taking down an alien scout during one of his crime-busting jaunts, the ageing Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Ben Affleck), senses that a bigger threat is coming to Earth. A rich man in a stealthy suit won't be enough to tackle such an enemy, so he proceeds to round up his new friend Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and hunt down those meta-humans glimpsed on Lex Luthor's laptop in Batman v Superman. There's Arthur Currie, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the long-haired, tattooed Prince of Atlantis, Barry Allen aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), a motor-mouthed, incredibly annoying young man whose superpower is to run really, really fast, and finally Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a half-human, half-machine hybrid who was created by his father with the help of a mysterious artefact called a Mother Box. There's two more boxes, and a giant alien warlord named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) hopes to snatch up all three.

You can work out almost on a moment-by-moment basis which segments were filmed by Snyder and which by Whedon. One second, were in the dour, unattractive world of Snyder's mind, where every character broods and walks in slow-motion. The next, we get quippy Batman and bright colours. Justice League became such a farce in post-production that I get the feeling the heads at Warner Bros. simply wanted rid of it, as this simply isn't the finished version of 300 million dollars worth of input. Steppenwolf's appearance changes from one scene to the next, and Cavill's moustache-removal is one of the most unnerving things I've seen on film. "We're not enough," claims Batman, and so Superman is dug up and brought back to life for the final act. Despite his weird CGI face, Cavill is actually one of the few pleasures of Justice League, as we finally get to see the hopeful, unstoppable Superman we have been waiting three movies to see. Sadly, his comeback is far too late to save the movie. For all its plot-holes, poorly-constructed action scenes and many other flaws, Justice League's biggest crime is that it is, inexplicably, just plain boring.

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, Ciarán Hinds
Country: USA/UK/Canada

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Justice League (2017) on IMDb

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Review #1,304: 'The Cloverfield Paradox' (2018)

If by some miracle Julius Onah's The Cloverfield Paradox is remembered in the years to come, it won't be for its qualities as a sci-fi actioner or its position in the intriguing and mysterious Cloverfield franchise, but for its rather ingenious marketing campaign. Audiences were aware of its existence under the name God Particle, but like the previous two entries in J.J. Abrams' monster series, everything about the movie was kept under wraps. Cue the Superbowl, where production studios clamber to show their latest trailers to the largest audience in the U.S., and the film, now under the name of The Cloverfield Paradox was finally unveiled. Much to everybody's surprise, they wouldn't have to wait several months to see it in the cinemas, but it would be available to stream on Netflix straight after the game. Now, you don't even need to leave the house to see the latest blockbuster in all its glory, but could watch it in your pants while intoxicated, with Doritos crumbs dotted down your front.

As I stated earlier, this was an ingenious move, but only on one side of the deal: Abrams and Paramount. Obviously sensing an utter stinker, they managed to flog this tarted-up straight-to-DVD effort to Netflix for more than $50 million. It started strongly, but the viewing figures started to die away as audiences sobered up. Hampered with a horrible, TV-level script, a willingness to steal from far better films, and a central mystery that gets explained to us before the story has even kicked in, The Cloverfield Paradox is barely a movie but a string of cliches played out by an enormously talented cast, which includes the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Ziyi, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie and annoying comic relief Chris O'Dowd, all of whose eyes look oddly glazed over. If I had paid £9 or whatever ridiculous price the cinema is these days, I would be asking for my money back. Luckily I have Netflix, so I get to watch this crap for a small monthly payment. 

Set in 2028, the Earth is experiencing a global energy crisis and the crew aboard the orbiting Cloverfield Space Station are humanity's only hope. They aim to unleash the Shepard particle accelerator, which will generate infinite energy and save our species. Some, however, believe this will open up parallel universes and alternate dimensions, allowing demons and monsters into our world, tearing a hole in reality as we know it. When things start to get freaky, we know precisely what has happened, so are forced to suffer being two steps ahead of the crew for the remainder of the film. Things liven up slightly when a mysterious passenger winds up on board, played by the radiant Elizabeth Debicki, but by this time I was tired of seeing all my predictions come true. The Cloverfield Paradox feels like a forgotten straight-to-DVD relic from the early 2000s, dusted off and re-edited to loosely tie in with Cloverfield franchise. How they convinced Netflix to cough up $50 million is beyond me. Abrams should have done the decent thing and spared us of this nonsense altogether.

Directed by: Julius Onah
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Chris O'Dowd, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki
Country: USA

Rating: *

Tom Gillespie

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) on IMDb

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Review #1,303: 'Suburbicon' (2017)

The town of Suburbicon was the picture-postcard image of the American Dream and wholesome family values for Americans in the 1950s and 60s. No doubt for many, it still is, with its picket fences, perfectly-trimmed lawns, cheery residents, and clean, crime-free streets. But of course, this Norman Rockwell painting come to life is only a utopia if you're white, and so the foundations of this suburban slice of apple pie are rocked when a black family, the Mayers, move in. The chatty and chubby postman suddenly starts to stutter and quickly back away at the sight of them, and neighbours gawk open-mouthed while they water their lawns. Soon enough, town meetings turn to right-wing rallies, Confederate flags start to appear, and the black family find their home surrounded by an angry white mob calling for them to pack up and get out.

Set in 1959, before the Civil Rights Act would make such an occurrence a hate-crime, Suburbicon has plenty of satirical bite and good intentions, but feels like a blender stuffed with half-baked ideas. Strangely enough, the arrival of the Mayers and their subsequent experiences isn't the focus of the film, but instead plays out as a sub-plot, escalating in the background while the main (and way less interesting) story unfolds. Snatched up by George Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov, Suburbicon was once a canned Coen Brothers project from the 1980s, a story of a shocking crime hidden away behind the plastic smiles of American suburbia, and may have possibly served as the inspiration for the Brothers' 1996 masterpiece Fargo. But Clooney, here directing his sixth feature film - and the first in which he doesn't appear in the front of the camera - is politically-minded and insists on making the film's themes contemporary. The result is an unfocused, all too mannered mess.

Looking much more like your typical resident of Suburbicon, Matt Damon's Gardner Lodge is a bespectacled, slightly overweight family man who lives with his disabled wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe). One night, Nicky is awoken by his father who tells him to get dressed and come downstairs. There waiting are two strange men, who intimidate and humiliate the family before knocking them all out with chloroform. The result of this horrific home invasion is the death of Rose, and the remaining family, including Rose's twin sister Margaret (also Moore), are apparently rocked by the experience. Margaret moves in to offer emotional support, and Gardner stoically tries to get on with things despite everyone offering their condolences at every turn. But is there something more sinister at play? Why does Nicky witness his father visiting his aunt's bedroom late at night and failing to pick the two men (played by Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) out of a line-up when they are apprehended by the police?

Clooney wants you to ask these questions, but the film takes it time to answer them. Suburbicon often plays like a mystery, trying to keep you guessing despite the fun really lying in watching its characters deal with the consequences of their actions. It's far too restrained to be as savage as it needs to be in order to be compelling, and really shines a slight on the Coen's talent for bringing their stories to life. We should be laughing as Gardner's walls close in around him and wincing at his efforts to escape them, but instead we're lumped with figuring out the plot and distracted by the increasingly hostile mob gathering outside the Mayers' place. Thank God then, for Oscar Isaac, who pops up as a charismatic, moustached insurance investigator who doesn't quite buy Gardner and Margaret's game. It's a great role, one I would have expected Clooney himself to play, and livens up the entire movie as it starts to really struggle to handle the many plot-threads. Suburbicon has aspirations to be a movie for the history books: the story of walls, hostility and chaos clearly tie in with Trump's America. But as much as I like him, Clooney isn't the director for such a task, and Suburbicon is too much of a confused slog to pack much of a punch.

Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell
Country: UK/USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Suburbicon (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Review #1,302: 'Wet Hot American Summer' (2001)

With the sheer volume of teen sex comedies being released in the wake of unexpected smash-hit American Pie in 1999, Wet Hot American Summer flew way under my radar in 2001 and didn't come to my attention until Netflix announced that they were releasing a prequel series in 2015. It was a strange time when the likes of Chris Klein and Breckin Meyer threatened to become movie stars, but near enough all of the cast of Wet Hot American Summer have since established themselves as movie stars or famous faces in the comedy circuit and are still going strong. The film, directed by Role Models' David Wain, has also gone on to garner a cult following, thanks to its gleefully absurd sense of humour, anarchic storytelling approach, and 1980's setting.

Set on the final day of summer camp in 1981, Wet Hot American Summer tells its 'story' in the form of vignettes, with most of the characters looking to get their end away one way or another. There's Beth (Janeane Garofalo), the camp's director who finds herself inexplicably attracted to shy astrophysics assistant professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Coop (played by co-writer Michael Showalter) has the hots for fellow counsellor Katie (Marguerite Moreau), but her attention is taken up by her rebellious and obnoxious boyfriend, camp badass Andy (Paul Rudd). Other characters include Gail (Molly Shannon), the heartbroken crafts teacher, Gene (Christopher Meloni), the intense Vietnam veteran who has a habit of accidentally revealing his bizarre sexual habits mid-conversation, Victor (Ken Marino), who must run miles back to camp if he hopes to get laid, and Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper), the seemingly picture-postcard couple who aim put on the greatest talent show the camp has ever seen.

Most people's enjoyment of Wet Hot American Summer will hinge upon their willingness to accept the film's goofiness. It's a gag-a-minute: some jokes land, but most don't. It works best when at its most silly, like the sight of Marino struggling to jump over a tiny roll of hay in the road on his quest to lose his virginity, in a gag that brings Father Ted to mind, or Garofalo's one-hour trip into town that quickly descends into crack-smoking, granny-robbing depravity. But the film leans on the charm of its ensemble to get by, and with the sheer volume talent on show (Meloni and Rudd have never been funnier), it works well up to a point. As a nostalgia piece, it lovingly nails the era long before the likes of Stranger Things and It, and the result is a hybrid of Meatballs, Porky's and Friday the 13th. It's main problem is that it's lampooning something which isn't quite ridiculous enough to make fun of, so rather than a clever parody, it often resembles yet another entry in the teen sexy comedy wave that was thankfully dying out by 2002. Still, I understand the appeal and the cult following, but it feels like I'm slightly too late for the party.

Directed by: David Wain
Starring: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Paul Rudd, Zak Orth, Christopher Meloni, A.D. Miles, Molly Shannon, Ken Marino
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Wet Hot American Summer (2001) on IMDb

Friday, 9 February 2018

Review #1,301: 'Geostorm' (2017)

It's been happening to major releases for decades, but nowadays near enough every big-budget blockbuster comes with its very own straight-to-DVD knock-off. Recently, cult label The Asylum have released the likes of Ghosthunters to coincide with 2016's GhostbustersKing Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to sponge off the success of Guy Ritchie's equally terrible King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and even Operation Dunkirk to dupe ill-informed shoppers into thinking it was Christopher Nolan's awards-grabber Dunkirk. When I first saw the trailer for Geostorm, I was convinced that The Asylum had stretched their purse-strings a tad, and that Gerard Butler had finally done the decent thing and stepped away from the big screen. It turns out that Geostorm is actually meant to be a proper movie, and that The Asylum's cash-in was in fact called Geo-Disaster.

With its horrendous special effects, ham-fisted action and completely nonsensical premise, I refuse to believe that I'm the only one who couldn't fathom that this was an actual blockbuster attempt. Geostorm may just be one of the stupidest movies ever made, and the real horror is that the final product is actually the result of 15 million dollar re-shoots after audiences reacted badly to test screenings way back in 2015. If this is a result of expensive re-shoots and a two-year hiatus, then I'm almost curious to see what state it was in beforehand. I can only imagine that the original version wasn't quite as hilarious, although Butler was always attached to play Jake Lawson, the brain-child of a giant climate-controlling satellite dubbed 'Dutch Boy', so it must have been at the very least amusing. Dutch Boy monitors and influences the planet's weather after mankind has ravaged the Earth and turned it into a melting-pot of devastating storms and extreme temperatures.

He may be highly intelligent, but as he's played by Butler, he's also punchy and obnoxious, and has his toy taken away from him by a Senate cub-committee after he refuses to cooperate. Jake's brother Max (Jim Sturgess) is placed in charge instead, but Jake's skills and experience in the field may be called upon again when Dutch Boy starts carrying out seemingly random attacks and threatening to cause a 'geostorm' - a super-storm of which none will survive. Abbie Cornish is also in the movie for some reason, even though she's way above this sort of schlock. Soon after starting to navigate through the unnecessarily complicated plot you will realise that very little of Geostorm makes sense, and you can probably work out who the bad guy is by reading the cast list. However, for all its utter stupidity and boring set-pieces where millions are indifferently massacred by bad CGI, I can never say that Dean Devlin's Geostorm was boring. It made me laugh more than once (albeit unintentionally), and although I say this through gritted teeth, it's moderately entertaining, if brainless fluff.

Directed by: Dean Devlin
Starring: Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Andy Garcia, Ed Harris
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Geostorm (2017) on IMDb

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Review #1,300: 'The Room' (2003)

Terrible movies flood our screens every year. Some will make you want to demand your money back or simply tear your eyes from their sockets in a bid to end the suffering, but chances are, once it's finally over, you'll never think about it again. There are plenty of terrible bad movies, but great bad movies - those that truly stick with you - are in an incredibly short supply. There's a real art to creating something so jaw-droppingly bad, so head-scratchingly awful that you start to question your very existence. Tommy Wiseau's The Room, commonly referred to as the Citizen Kane of bad movies, has this art perfected. When the film trickled into selected theatres back in 2003, nobody could have predicted the impact it would have. Nobody, that is, apart from narcissistic writer, director, producer and star Tommy Wiseau.

Only Wiseau undoubtedly had visions of being showered with admiration and awards, even timing the film's release to qualify for the Academy Awards. Instead, The Room quickly developed a reputation as a side-show, screened regularly as part of the midnight movie circuit where audience members would shout the movie's memorable catch-phrases and hurl plastic cutlery at the screen. Wiseau has since explained that The Room was always meant to be a black comedy and never intended for it to be taken seriously, but that's about as believable as the director's claims that he was born in America. In fact, nothing about The Room is believable, from the wobbly-looking sets and wooden actors to the stilted dialogue and painfully long sex scenes. When you discover that this actually cost $6 million to make - somehow funded by Wiseau himself - you'll be wondering how the hell it ended up looking like an Australian soap opera.

Wiseau plays Johnny, a wealthy banker who seemingly possesses no character flaws. He has the appearance of a weather-beaten vampire with a head full of tar-dunked hair and a voice that resembles Christopher Walken if the King of New York actor was born in Eastern Europe and had suffered a stroke. His "future wife" Lisa (Juliette Danielle) has grown bored with Johnny and infatuated with his handsome best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). Despite pleas from her mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) to stay with the man who will take care of her financially, Lisa seduces Mark. After a night of drinking, Lisa falsely accuses Johnny of hitting her ("I did not hit her! I did naaaht!"). But being the optimistic, all-round great guy that he is, Johnny doesn't let this get in the way of emotionally supporting his young neighbour Denny (Philip Haldiman), the man-boy orphan who Johnny treats like a son, or to throw on a tuxedo for a game of catch with his buddies.

The Room resembles a 100-minute sitcom episode during which one or two sets are visited by a roster of minor characters that in no way resembles real life. Sub-plots, such as Denny landing himself in trouble with a gun-wielding drug dealer or Claudette's revelation that she has cancer, are introduced only to be never discussed again. Rather than exploring the characters by actually giving them something to do other than walk into a room and offer mundane advice, Wiseau would rather give us no fewer than four extended sex scenes, three of which involving the filmmaker's bare arse thrusting against Danielle's stomach. Scenes play out on rooftops and alleyways that are clearly sets with a green-screen backdrop, raising the question of why Wiseau didn't simply shoot on location. But thanks to endless establishing shots of San Francisco landmarks, we know that they're definitely not in a Los Angeles studio. It would be easy to talk about The Room for hours and not even scratch the surface of just how strange yet utterly fascinating it is. See it, hate it, and then love it. And tell your friends to do the same.

Directed by: Tommy Wiseau
Starring: Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero, Juliette Danielle, Philip Haldiman, Carolyn Minnott
Country: USA

Rating: *

Tom Gillespie

The Room (2003) on IMDb

Monday, 29 January 2018

Review #1,299: 'The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie' (1989)

When we last saw the first and only superhero from New Jersey with superhuman size and strength, he was returning from his journey of self-discovery in Japan to banish the evil Apocalypse Inc. corporation from his home town of Tromaville. The Toxic Avenger Part II was certainly a sluggish affair, but contained enough genuinely funny moments - specifically watching the terrified Japanese public run from the hideous monster - to justify its existence. Troma being Troma, they were never going to let their most famous and bankable character disappear after just one sequel, and in fact they released Part III, subtitled The Last Temptation of Toxie, later the same year. Yet clearly the brainstorming sessions didn't produce anything of note, as this third entry is not only clearly out of ideas, but uses deleted scenes from the previous instalment to stitch together what they obviously feel passes for a plot.

It begins much in the same way as before, with Tromaville living a peaceful existence due to Toxie's successful efforts to banish crime once and for all. While he previously passed his time working at the home for the blind, Apocalypse Inc. saw the end to all that when they blew it up. Now, Toxie (played by Ron Fazio and John Altamura) sinks into a deep depression due to sheer boredom, spending most of his time moping around the junkyard he calls home with his loyal blind wife Claire (Phoebe Legere). When the chairman of Apocalypse Inc. (played by Rick Collins) learns that Toxie needs $357,000 to pay for an operation to restore Claire's sight, he takes advantage, employing the superhero as his assistant and enforcer, manipulating him into keep the town's residents in line and ensure that Tromaville can be used as the company's toxic waste dumping ground.

It's a re-hash of everything that came before, which almost feels like a slap in the face for those of us who stuck with Part II to the very end, despite its exhaustive running-time. There's almost a complete absence of genuine wit, with returning directors Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz relying mostly of goofy slapstick and cheap effects to bulk up the running-time (which again runs at a painful 100 minutes). It's at its best when Toxie is disposing of bad guys, starting with a scuffle at a video store in which the disfigured brute mutilates and executes a gang in various horrific ways, including mincing one of their hands in a VHS player while onlookers scream in terror, in a set-piece that will have you questioning his status as a 'hero'. But with Troma's notoriously tight budgets, these moments are in short supply. The climax aims to up the daftness factor as high as it will go, but after 30 minutes of watching bad gore effects followed by the reactions of the shocked crowd gathering to watch, you'll likely wish that you were the one getting their head smashed to a pulp.

Directed by: Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Herz
Starring: Ron Fazio, John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie (1989) on IMDb

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review #1,298: 'The Last Boy Scout' (1991)

Tony Scott's The Last Boy Scout arrived at a time when the macho action thrillers popularised in the 1980's were starting to die out. This, combined with its odd Christmas-time release, meant that the film would go on to underwhelm at the box-office, although it would prove a hit in the rental market and reignite Bruce Willis' action career after the failure of Hudson Hawk. It also took a beating from critics, many voicing their displeasure at the foul-mouthed dialogue and particularly brutal violence. It's a shame really, as looking back, The Last Boy Scout really represents the pinnacle of this overly masculine sub-genre, even though it arrived at a time when audiences were growing tired with it.  Yes, it's preposterous, crude and slightly misogynistic, but it's also funny, clever and features screenwriter Shane Black at his most quotable best.

The movie begins with making a mockery of American Football's televised musical intros, before diving right into the thick of the action on a particularly dark and rainy night. Running back Billy Cole (Tae Bo guru Billy Blanks) is having a great night on the field before outside pressures and a hit of PCP lead him to shoot up half of the opposition before turning the gun on himself. Deadbeat private investigator Joe Hallenback (Bruce Willis) is acting as a bodyguard for young stripper Cory (Halle Berry), whilst dealing with his own marital problems in a cheating wife and brat daughter. When Cory is killed, her boyfriend - disgraced former quarterback Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) - finds himself reluctantly buddying up with Joe to slowly unravel a conspiracy that may expose corruption on a massive scale, and offer an explanation for Billy Cole's mysterious suicide. Their snooping isn't appreciated however, and they soon find themselves the target of a criminal gang desperate to cover their tracks and see their plan through to the end.

The Last Boy Scout was famously dogged by production problems, where producer Joel Silver was often cited as the cause of it all. Silver and Willis allegedly took over production, forcing Scott to film scenes he didn't approve of and altering Black's script so much that the finally story barely resembled his original idea. Scott would take revenge in his next film True Romance, where the role of a controlling, cocaine-fuelled producer was modelled on Silver. On top of everything else, Willis and Wayans hated each other. Impressively, these troubles somehow can't be seen in the final product. The chemistry between the two leads is one of the movie's strongest suits, and the plot unravels coherently with more car chases and shoot-outs than you could ever hope for. Scott shoots the film with a glossy commercial aesthetic that works well in the context of the tacky world the film is looking to expose. But the real winner here was Black, who pocketed a cool $1.75 million for his efforts after suffering a setback in his personal life. Despite the changes, this still has the writer's fingerprints all over it, even eclipsing what is undoubtedly his most popular work, Lethal Weapon. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Chelsea Field, Noble Willingham, Taylor Negron, Danielle Harris, Halle Berry
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Last Boy Scout (1991) on IMDb

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review #1,297: 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner suffered greatly at the box-office when it was released in the summer of 1982, but has enjoyed an astonishing re-evaluation in the proceeding decades as one of the greatest and most innovative science-fiction movies of all time. During the last 35 years, talk of and ideas for a sequel have been constantly thrown around, with Scott often voicing his interest in returning to the future world of Replicants and Blade Runners. After much fan-fretting, the follow-up is finally here, only with Denis Villeneuve at the helm, but seeing what Scott has done to his other masterpiece Alien in the last few years, his departure is most welcome. With 2016's Arrival, Villeneuve hinted that he may just be cinema's next sci-fi visionary, and now with Blade Runner 2049, he has only gone and confirmed it.

In 2049, Replicants are still living amongst us. With many of them retreating to solitary lives outside of the city, Blade Runners such as Ryan Gosling's K are still employed to hunt down and 'retire' any Replicants in hiding. When investigating farmer Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K uncovers a shocking secret that will change everything that is known about Replicants and their poistion as dangerous and disposable property. K's boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) wants the matter swept under the carpet before the truth starts to leak out, and tasks the highly competent Blade Runner with taking care of it quickly and cleanly. Also taking an interest is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the head of the company now leading in the way in the manufacturing of Replicants following the demise of the Tyrell Corporation. He sends his Replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to uncover the truth and to stop K, who is having his own identity crisis, before he makes the whole thing disappear for good.

One of the many issues people had with Blade Runner back in 1982 was its pacing. It runs at under two hours, but is certainly in no hurry to rush into the next action scene or to offer any easy answers. Blade Runner 2049 takes the same approach, thankfully, choosing to gently stroll around this world and let you absorb its ugly beauty. The sequel spends less time in the rainy metropolis of Los Angeles, choosing instead to explore the snowier, desolate regions outside of the city and the glowing, inhospitable ruins of Las Vegas. It's all brought stunningly to life by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who must be a shoe-in for the Oscar) and production designer Dennis Gassner. This unhurried approach may explain why Villeneuve's film - despite massive fan and critic anticipation - under-performed at the box office. It also runs at a whopping two hours and 40 minutes, so anyone who failed to bring a cushion to the cinema may have been shuffling in their seats, but Blade Runner 2049 is one of a small collection of movies that justifies its lengthy running-time, numb backside or not.

Resurrecting his third iconic character in 9 years, Harrison Ford also returns as Rick Deckard, the former Blade Runner and possible Replicant who was last seen fleeing with Sean Young's Rachael. Ford appears much later in the film than I was expecting, especially when you consider how prominent he was in the marketing campaign. But Villeneuve has wisely chosen to make this K's story, refusing to re-introduce Deckard until he becomes necessary to the plot. K is a Replicant and knows his place in society, and his journey is one of loneliness, doubt and contemplation. His isolation is highlighted further by Joi (Ana de Arnas), the holographic girlfriend who finds herself in her own philosophical quandary, and who no doubt represents our own over-reliance on technology while we experience less actual human contact. Blade Runner 2049 is bold film-making, refusing to pander to the mainstream crowds or to simply drool over the original, cementing itself as a great work of science-fiction in its own right. It doesn't live up to the original, but it's damn close, and that's an achievement few thought possible.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Lennie James, Dave Bautista
Country: USA/UK/Hungary/Canada

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Review #1,296: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' (2017)

The films of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos are polarising to say the least, deliberately tailored to the art-house crowd seeking something new and potentially shocking, but rarely sitting well with general audiences. Both Dogtooth and The Lobster were difficult movies to watch for many different reasons, yet what makes Lanthimos so interesting is the skill in which he makes an audience feel uneasy. His latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is his most troubling picture yet, and I mean that in a good way. For the first hour of the film Lanthimos allows us to gaze through the windows of a seemingly happy middle-class family, before peeling back the layers to reveal the dysfunction beneath. Think a touch of Cronenberg, a hint of Bunuel, and a large dollop of Haneke, and your somewhere in the right area.

Highly-skilled surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) has battled through alcoholism to maintain a position of respect and authority at the hospital he works. He is happily married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), and enjoys spending time with children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and his teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy). The impressively-bearded Steven also maintains a relationship with a confident young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan), walking and talking by the lake, and meeting in a diner to eat together. If it was anyone other than the subtly unnerving Martin, it would be easy to interpret their first scene together as some kind of strange first date, but it's clear they share some history together. Out of nowhere, Bob suddenly loses feeling in his legs, leaving both his father and specialists baffled at the mysterious condition. As Bob declines in health, Martin grows in confidence, dating Kim in secret and turning up unannounced at the hospital to see Steven on a daily basis.

To say any more would spoil the 'joy' to be had with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, as you spend the first half of the film out of the loop and likely expecting Steven and Martin's relationship to be revealed as sexual. Lanthimos takes his time to provide answers, carefully guiding you into the blood-drained Murphy household and taking you on long walks via Steadicam down endless, cold-white hospital corridors, before unleashing a revelation that will take Steven to the brink. Not all the big questions are answered however, and Lanthimos makes sure they don't need to be. As the mystery illness worsens and others start to show similar symptoms, the film keeps the focus on the central conflict between the handsome, successful doctor and the quietly menacing teen. Farrell continues to impress as he moves away from the pretty-boy roles that dogged his early career, but Keoghan, last seen in Dunkirk earlier this year, steals the film as the delicately threatening Martin. He's rarely anything less than pleasant, but there's just something not quite right, and Keoghan underplays the role to perfection. It's a touch overlong, and a sexual encounter in a car feels unnecessary, but Lanthimos is only fine-tuning his craft, and it feels like his masterpiece is only around the corner.

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone
Country: UK/Ireland/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) on IMDb

Monday, 22 January 2018

Review #1,295: 'Blade Runner' (1982)

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has had such a profound affect on the science-fiction genre across every medium that we are still seeing imitators today. If the opening shot of the dark, futuristic landscape of 2019 Los Angeles seems at all familiar, it's either because you've witnessed this cinematic masterpiece before, or seen an ill-fated attempt to recreate this grim, claustrophobic future elsewhere. Blade Runner's classic status now seems almost ironic, given the film's disastrous reception upon its original release, and the countless different versions released since. Among others, there was the original 'workprint prototype', the U.S. theatrical cut, the international theatrical cut, the broadcast version, and The Director's Cut. I think most would agree with me when I say the 'Final Cut' is the definitive version, trimmed of Harrison Ford's rambling narration and the tacked-on happy ending that borrowed unused footage from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

In the future, the Tyrell Corporation has manufactured bioengineered humans known as Replicants, commonly used for slave labour off-Earth. Granted the intelligence of their makers, the Replicants tend to start questioning their purpose, often resulting in mutiny and violence. To counter this, Tyrell has limited their lifespan to four years in the hope that they will die before such thoughts can even enter their mind. However, four Replicants (Rutger Hauer's leader Roy Batty, Daryl Hannah's Pris, Brion James' Leon and Joanna Cassidy's Zhora) have rebelled against their masters and made it back to Earth. It is the job of 'Blade Runner' Rick Deckard (Ford) to hunt the foursome down and 'retire' them before they can cause any real damage. Deckard questions the morality of his job, especially when he meets Tyrell's latest creation, the stunning Rachael (Sean Young), a Replicant who isn't aware of what she is.

Blade Runner is simply astonishing on a number of levels. When Vangelis' score - a majestic combination of the classical and synthesised - kicks in early on, Scott's film becomes an experience on a whole other plain. The production design, which is a noir-ish hybrid of choking, rainy streets and golden interiors blackened by shadows, had never been seen before and hasn't been so effectively moulded since. This feels like a wholly tangible future, lived-in and almost familiar, and although we may not have flying cars, super-beings crafted by science or Atari as a thriving corporation, the future depicted in Blade Runner isn't much different to the world we live in today. The sets, special effects, music and editing are all combined by Scott to create a world we can almost touch. The fleeting moments of violence, something the film was criticised for on its original release, are fast, shocking and ugly. There's a scene in which a death occurs in slow-motion through various panes of glass which is almost beautiful to behold, but even this plays out with an air of tragedy. The line between good and bad is certainly blurred here.

I haven't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, but common opinion is that Blade Runner eclipses its source and then some. It's the stuff of dreams for science-fiction aficionados, going way beyond its thriller premise to touch on some big philosophical questions and ponder the very definition of being human. Hauer's masterful portrayal of Batty ends with a monologue improvised by the actor, and his speech is one the most memorable and quoted pieces of dialogue in cinema history for good reason. It is moving and stirring and will catch you off guard, forcing you to reflect on everything you have just seen for days after. Ford is impressive too, downplaying the goofy charisma of Han Solo and Indiana Jones and growing into the beaten-down, conflicted bounty hunter. But the real star here is Ridley Scott himself, who has never made a finer film, crafting a landscape that would go on to be the go-to aesthetic for dystopian futures. It would take either a stupid or unnervingly brave director to make a follow-up, but if any director has the ability to expand this universe into something even more spectacular, it's Denis Villeneuve.

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James
Country: USA/Hong Kong

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Blade Runner (1982) on IMDb

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Review #1,294: 'Motor Psycho' (1965)

The last of three movies directed by exploitation legend and pioneer of the 'nudie cutie' Russ Meyer in 1965, Motor Psycho is one the filmmaker's few 'normal' movies, that is one not filled to the brim with impressively-breasted babes and scrawny, sex-mad males. It instead falls into the biker gang category, one of the many branches of the 'juvenile delinquent' sub-genre which emerged as parents and the media alike voiced their concerns about the increasingly rebellious youth culture of the time. Similar in many ways to one of Meyer's other 1965 movies (and undoubtedly his most popular film), Faster Pussycat... Kill! Kill! (Mudhoney was also released that year), Motor Psycho substitutes the strong, revenge-fuelled gang of women led by the unforgettable Tura Satana for a trio of tortured men, and the result is actually pretty good.

The gang, led by demented Vietnam veteran Brahmin (Steve Oliver), have taken a liking to antagonising the locals of a small town, firstly terrorising a young, beautiful women trying to relax with her passive, hen-pecked husband, before their intentions turns even nastier. They torment veterinarian Cory Maddox (Alex Rocco, who played Moe Green in The Godfather) before raping his wife while he is away from home flirting with a voluptuous horse-breeder. He returns to find his wife battered and abused, but it is "nothing a woman isn't built for," according to the local sheriff (played by Meyer himself). Maddox decides to take matters into his own hands, gradually tracking Brahmin and his cronies as he follows their path of destruction. He comes across Ruby Bonner (Faster Pussycat's Haji), the wife of a man the gang have just murdered in cold blood, and the two partner up to end the gang's reign of terror once and for all.

Any fans of the director going into Motor Psycho hoping to see a collection of naughty vignettes featuring some of his familiar roster of beauties will likely be disappointed, although the film is another fine example of Meyer's skill with editing, cinematography and use of music. A minimal budget rarely hampered Meyer, and Motor Psycho is fast-paced and jazzy, and surprisingly features a handful of decent performances. This was one of the first times a damaged Vietnam veteran had been portrayed on screen, and Oliver has fun going way over the top as the sadistic, angry young leader. For a film dealing with rape (and Meyer takes the subject matter seriously), it is also very funny in places. Most memorable is a scene in which Maddox is bitten by a snake and demands Ruby to suck out the venom. "Suck it! Suck it!" he screams as he forces her head onto the wound. It would seem that Meyer couldn't resist a little playful innuendo. This is a competent little western revenge B-movie, often released under the more eye-catching title of Motorpsycho!.

Directed by: Russ Meyer
Starring: Alex Rocco, Haji, Steve Oliver, Holle K. Winters
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Motorpsycho! (1965) on IMDb

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Review #1,293: 'It' (2017)

After what was a difficult and drawn-out development process, few would have expected It, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name and re-imagining of Tommy Lee Wallace's 1990 mini-series, to be such a colossal hit. The project first went into development back in 2009, with David Kajganich penning the screenplay for Warner Bros., who were understandably concerned with adapting such a hefty and thematically complex novel into one feature film. Cary Fukunaga signed on as director in 2012, with the production duties moving to New Line and Will Poulter lined up for the lead, before they both parted ways due to creative differences and scheduling conflicts. Mama's Andy Muschietti signed up as director in 2015, and filming finally commenced in 2016, with Bill Skarsgard on board as the titular alien clown. It was all a bit of a mess, but when the trailer debuted on Youtube and smashed the record for most views in 24 hours, it became clear that It would be a bona fide hit.

Since its release, It has pulled in $700 million off a $35 million budget, and is now the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, and the third highest-grossing R-rated movie. And for good reason. It is happy to deliver jump shocks and conform to the genre's tropes, but this is a handsomely-shot and wonderfully-acted coming-of-age drama too. It is The Goonies meets Stand by Me, only with a child-killing clown lurking in the background. Tim Curry's performance in the 1990 original is iconic and pretty scary, and I'm disappointed we'll never get to see what Will Poulter would have done with the role, but Bill Skarsgard proves to be a menacing presence underneath the thick clown make-up and razor-sharp teeth. The opening scene in which he confronts young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) from a storm drain ("You'll float too...") is nastier than Wallace's version, and sets the tone for Muschietti's film. It doesn't shy away from the gruesome side of horror, and certainly doesn't take it easy on the kids at the heart of the story.

A year after Georgie's disappearance, his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) still hasn't given up hope. Much to his father's annoyance, he maps out the entire sewer system of Derry, Maine to calculate where his brother may be hiding, or where his corpse may have washed up. The stuttering youngster is part of the 'Losers Club', a gang of bullied school kids who enjoy spending their summers exploring the town's surrounding areas on their bikes, but always wary of mulleted bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Making up the rest of the gang are hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), timid rabbi's son Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and the motor-mouthed Richie (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard). They start to piece together an explanation for the alarming number of disappearances in the town's history when tubby new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) researches the history of his new home. Everything seems to point to a deadly entity lurking in the sewers named Pennywise, a shape-shifting clown who changes his appearance based on the children's individual fears. It also appears to sexual abuse victim Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and slaughterhouse worker Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who both find a refuge in the Losers Club.

The decision to move the action from the 50's to the 80's seems like a no-brainer, especially for those of us who were born in the decade of perms and massive shoulder pads. It ramps up the nostalgic appeal, and the film is at its best when recapturing the spirit of the best coming-of-age movies. Yet for all of It's positives, Muschietti plays the horror frustratingly safe. It's competently done, but every time Pennywise jumps out from the darkness or contorts his body to an inexplicable degree, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen all of this before. Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma used King's source material to create something more unique and expressive, but it isn't too difficult to spot where Muschietti's jump-shocks will be coming from. It is often creepy, but never scary. I sincerely hope that directors will soon learn that computer-generated ghouls simply don't work, and that practical effects actually add the level of physicality required to frighten. While it may not make you sleep with the light on, It still makes for engrossing drama, unafraid to tackle difficult issues such as bullying, child abuse - both physical and sexual - and primarily the loss of innocence. It's now a long wait for Chapter Two.

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton
Country: USA/Canada

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

It (2017) on IMDb

Friday, 12 January 2018

Review #1,292: 'Neds' (2010)

After spending much of the 1990's making a name for himself as an intense character actor in the likes of Trainspotting and My Name Is Joe, Peter Mullan announced himself as a director to watch with 1998's Cousins. He followed that four years later with the powerful The Magdalene Sisters, but didn't make another film until eight years later with his most personal project to date, Neds. His tough upbringing in a rough area of Glasgow meant that his talents in front of the camera would normally be employed in tough, intimidating roles, and Mullan drew upon his experiences as a young man for Neds, a social realist drama depicting an academically promising young boy's descent into gang culture and into the footsteps of his notorious older brother.

'Neds' stands for Non-Educated Delinquents, a term I heard often during my time living in Edinburgh, and one applied to the sort of tracksuit-wearing hooligans also labelled as 'scallies' or 'chavs', depending on which area of the UK you're from. The 'ned' here is John McGill, played by Greg Forrest as a youngster growing up in 70's Glasgow who hopes to use his intelligence to make something of himself, but finds himself pulled onto the streets due to a number of factors: from his disinterested, cane-happy teachers to the pressure of living up to his brother's reputation. He grows taller and broader (to be played by Conor McCarron) and quickly makes a name for himself, participating in petty crime and street fights, and rebelling against his school education. His home isn't a happy one, and the family live under the tyrannical rule of John's father (played by Mullan). Mr. McGill isn't much to look at, but he has a presence terrifying enough to silence a room when he enters, and a tendency to come home drunk and bawl abuse at his long-suffering wife.

Mullan has a real talent for staging tense situations, with some of the events played out in Neds no doubt taken directly from real experiences. A booze-fuelled neighbourhood party quickly deteriorates into smashed windows and a mass brawl, with the thugs brandishing the ugliest of weapons designed to cause maximum harm. There's heart and humour too, and Mullan manages to keep John sympathetic throughout, despite his questionable behaviour. Despite his concentration, Mullan drags the film out longer than is needed, and a number of the climactic scenes are suited to be the film's final moment. A swerve into drug-fuelled surrealist territory is well-intended but doesn't really work when wedged into the film's ultra-realist aesthetic, and the scene feels out-of-place and unintentionally amusing. Still, this is raw, unflinching film-making from a director clearly hoping to draw attention to the plight of youngsters growing up in such grim working-class surroundings, where respect is earned through brutality and allegiances are decided by which side of the bridge you live on.

Directed by: Peter Mullan
Starring: Conor McCarron, Greg Forrest, Joe Szula, Mhairi Anderson, Peter Mullan
Country: UK/France/Italy

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Neds (2010) on IMDb

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Review #1,291: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' (2017)

Say what you will about George Lucas and the way he took the Star Wars franchise dangerously close to laughing stock territory with the prequels, but he was certainly a man with a plan. The original trilogy told a satisfying story, but Lucas always knew what came before, and what would come after. As stilted as the prequels were, they never faltered in telling the story that The Phantom Menace had mapped out. When the rights to the franchise were sold to Disney in 2012, Lucas passed on his ideas of an all-new trilogy, set after the events of Return of the Jedi and bringing in characters both old and new. Although elements from these early drafts made their way into J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens in 2015, it became clear that Disney had their own ideas, which are, as Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi would suggest, to make it up as they go along.

The Force Awakens set up plot threads and introduced shady characters to be explored in future instalments, such as just how Maz Kanata got her hands on Luke Skywalker's lightsaber and just who the hell is Snoke, the new Emperor-like big bad? Fans were foaming at the mouths dreaming up theories to tie the strands together, and The Last Jedi was the film that would answer at least some of the questions. In hiring an independent filmmaker like Rian Johnson, they have hired a man intent on delivering his own vision, and it becomes clear quite early on that the events of The Last Jedi will not bring everything into place. It takes ideas conjured by The Force Awakens and makes a point of throwing out of the window. The result is an emotional sci-fi extravaganza which has divided audiences down the middle, with one half calling for te film to be removed from canon, and the other marvelling at Johnson's balls in turning a billion-dollar franchise on its head.

I can confidently say that I am in the latter category. While The Force Awakens was a fun shout-out to the original trilogy, even following the story of A New Hope almost to a tee, The Last Jedi is determined to make you care for the previously one-dimensional characters of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and question everything you knew about old-hand Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Skywalker is now so beloved within the annals of pop culture (both in universe and in our world) that there's almost a regal quality to Hamill's presence. When he first appears on screen, it's like seeing somebody dead brought back to life, and his reaction to Rey's passing of the lightsaber will likely catch you off guard. With the knowledge of Carrie Fisher's tragic passing a year ago, you'll likely be choking back the tears as Leia Organa first graces the screen. The Last Jedi has the power to make you feel in ways you would never think possible from the Star Wars franchise, especially when you remember those uncomfortable romantic scenes with Anakin and Padme from Attack of the Clones.

Not everything works however. At two and a half hours, it's too long, and Johnson's decision to take Finn (John Boyega) and his new Rebel pal Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a thirty minute detour to a casino in search of a hacker simply doesn't work. It's a sub-plot that doesn't really serve a purpose other than to give Finn something to do while Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) clashes heads with Rebel Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and to set up a showdown with fan-favourite Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). This meandering story aside, The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and by a comfortable margin. Many fan complaints about The Force Awakens were due to Abrams' film lacking originality, and although it provided one genuine shock with the death of a major character, it played things very comfortably. So I find the backlash aimed at Johnson's film quite dumbfounding, and personally, having my expectations subverted made for a far more engrossing experience. But with fan presence in every corner of social media, it's clear that you'll never please all the people all the time, but you can please about 50% of us.

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on IMDb


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