Friday, 22 September 2017

Review #1,240: 'Baby Driver' (2017)

It feels like decades have passed since British writer/director Edgar Wright pulled away from Marvel's Ant-Man, apparently in fear of the studio's insistence on having the action take place within their Cinematic Universe and jeopardising his singular vision in the process. And it feels even longer since the underwhelming closure to the 'Cornetto Trilogy', 2013's The World's End, graced the big screen. But Wright has clearly been making the most of his spare time, finally completing the script for a movie that has been clattering around his head for over 20 years (he had the idea back in 1994). Drawing inspiration from a line in Simon & Garfunkel's song Baby Driver ("They call me baby driver, and once upon a pair of wheels," and a collection of his favourite petrol-head movies, he has delivered what is by far his most accomplished work to date.

Shortly before the release of Baby Driver, Wright hosted a film festival entitled 'Car Car Land' - a collection of his favourite car chase movies, featuring everything from William Friedkin's The French Connection to Walter Hill's The Driver. It has been quite rightly said that great cinematic action feels like a dance - elegant, brutal, and pieced together with delicate invention and skill. It is fitting that Wright named his festival after one of the finest musicals of recent times, La La Land. He has also taken this theory quite literally with Baby Driver, a movie as much at home with dazzling musical numbers as it is with high-speed pursuits and gun-fire, combining them beautifully without a hint of smugness. Our hero the getaway driver times his entire life to the beat ever-blasting into his ears from his loaded collection of iPods. A menial task such as making a sandwich becomes a toe-tapping dance number.

His name is Baby ("B-A-B-Y, Baby," as he confirms to practically everybody he meets), and his hipster blend of skinny jeans and sunglasses may have been grating without Ansel Elgort. Like Channing Tatum, his physicality and grace prevents you from taking your eyes off him once he starts to move, and cinematographer Bill Pope make sure to capture these moments in all their glory (including one terrific tracking shot at the start). Baby needs his music to block out the tinnitus constantly ringing in his ears, but also to remind him of the music-loving mother he lost in the very accident that caused his affliction. His short life has been spent in the debt of gangster Doc (Kevin Spacey), who employs the youngster's superhuman skills behind the wheel as a getaway driver for his ever-changing roster of low-life bank robbers. Each of them eye Baby with both curiosity and suspicion, when all he wants to do is pay off what he owes and leave town with adorable waitress Debora (Lily James). But one last job is never one last job.

Opening with a bank job that will leave you stunned at both the editing and choreography (no CGI is used), there's an early sense that Wight may have blown his load too early. But this only kicks off two hours in the hands of a craftsman who truly understand the mechanics of cinema. Not just action cinema, but musical and dramatic, and the film offers its fair share of belly laughs too. It's as much of an exaggerated world as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but contains itself in its own little world. The characters are larger-than-life but tangible, incredibly brought to life by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal. There's an almost ever-present soundtrack, with the characters speaking and moving in sync with the rhythm, which lend the film a unique energy. When the music stops and the soundtrack screeches to reflect Baby's tinnitus, we long to be thrown straight back into Wright's fantasy world. The car chases, the love story, the testosterone-fuelled exchanges - there's nothing new here, but Edgar Wright knows this. Baby Driver is so swaggeringly confident and stylishly hypnotic that it becomes a genre film like no other, causing most other action movies to hang their heads in shame.

Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonz´lez, Jon Bernthal
Country: UK/USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Baby Driver (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Review #1,239: 'Terror In A Texas Town' (1958)

While the eye-catching poster promises "Iron Hooked Fury!" and pitting a harpoon against a six-gun, the curiously forgotten B-movie western Terror in a Texas Town, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, is a positively downbeat little movie. Starting with a handsome, square-jawed hero walking into battle with a clad-in-black gunslinger, it appears at first glance that we are on familiar ground. But the film then flashes back, and all the western tropes we had been expecting are subtly subverted, similar in many ways to Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking masterpiece Johnny Guitar four years previous. The screenwriter is credited as Ben Perry - a name you'll likely be unfamiliar with. Yet this was in fact a front for Dalton Trumbo, the great Oscar-winning writer who was then under scrutiny from Senator McCarthy and blacklisted from Hollywood. With this knowledge, the oddness of Terror in a Texas Town suddenly makes sense.

In the - you guessed it - small Texas town of Prairie City, the hard-working farmers earning little from their land are struggling to fight off the advances of the unscrupulous land baron McNeil (Sebastian Cabot), who is using his wealth and influence to buy up the whole area for reasons not immediately clear. Some of the townsfolk are playing hard-ball, refusing to give their homes and livelihood to a man they never see. So McNeil brings in tough-as-nails gunslinger Johnny Crale (an outstanding Nedrick Young), a broken career-criminal who is happy to caress his pistol whenever a deal doesn't go his way. He murders Swede Sven Hansen (Ted Stanhope) when he refuses to sign a contract. A day later, his sailor son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives to greet the father he hasn't seen in over a decade, only the learn of his murder and that the land left to him is now the property of a greedy businessman.

It quickly becomes clear that the hero-versus-villain showdown the opening scene promised us will be nothing like we expected. The dashing American hero is in fact an immigrant without the skills of a quick-draw or the wits to take on McNeil on his own, and the black leather-donning Crale may just be in the midst of developing a conscience after years of killing and the loss of his gun hand. What makes Terror in a Texas Town so interesting is the way it merely hints at the two central characters' personalities and past, leaving these could-be archetypes as intriguing enigmas. Trumbo makes a point of highlighting the ranchers' ignorance of McNeil's Machiavellian role in the events, choosing instead to focus their hatred on the muscle. It isn't difficult to imagine that Trumbo's exile and unforgivable treatment at the hands of his own country didn't influence this apparently off-the-conveyor-belt B-picture. It has been unfairly forgotten by the decades, but Terror in a Texas Town is ripe for re-discovery as one of the strangest and most compelling westerns American has ever produced.

Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Nedrick Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Mazzola
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) on IMDb

Monday, 18 September 2017

Review #1,238: 'Animal Factory' (2000)

Steve Buscemi's first feature as director was Trees Lounge, an engaging drama about the bored, alcohol-drenched inhabitants of a small town, and their day-to-day interactions. For his second, Buscemi explores many of the same themes of aimlessness and having too much time on your hands, but changes the setting and tone entirely. Adapting Eddie Bunker's novel of the same name (the real-life ex-con also shares script writing duties with John Steppling), Animal Factory is about as unglamorous as prison drama gets. With a heightened sense of realism, violence and rape lurk at every turn, often happening so quickly that you barely have the chance to comprehend it. Buscemi and Bunker also find time to explore an engaging father-and-son relationship, albeit one taut with tension and distrust.

After receiving an incredibly harsh sentence for drug possession, young Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is packed off to prison where his youthful looks quickly attracts unwanted attention. Proving himself to be completely ill-equipped to handle the danger he faces, he is taken in by the shaven-headed Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who teaches him the ropes and how to spot a threat. A man of little physical prowess, Earl has risen to a position of authority by using his background in law to improve the living and working standards of his fellow inmates. Surrounded by his gang of trusted bruisers (including Danny Trejo, Mark Boone Junior, and The Wire's Chris Bauer), Earl promises to protect the vulnerable Ron. Pondering Earl's true intentions, Ron at first keeps the smiling convict at arm's length, until a bond is formed that just may help the young offender to make it out alive.

By shaping the drama in the most unsensational way imaginable, Buscemi adds the necessary grit to Bunker's knowing words, with many of Bunker's novels taking inspiration from his own time in the slammer. Performances impress across the board, as you would expect from an ensemble taking direction from such a seasoned pro (who also appears). In particular, there are memorable roles for Mickey Rourke, playing Furlong's motor-mouthed, transvestite cell-mate, and, of all people, Tom Arnold, who is unnervingly convincing as a predatory rapist with his eye on Ron. But the film belongs to its two leads. Dafoe brings extra layers to his somewhat sensitive gang leader, and Furlong, one of many promising young actors who emerged in the 90s to disappear into the ether, is particularly effective as the protagonist. Changing his behaviour to suit his surroundings, we see the prison sculpt him into the type of career criminal the system's suppose to prevent. While the matter-of-fact approach prevents it from generating any real momentum - despite an attempted prison-break climax - Animal Factory is quietly powerful in small moments.

Directed by: Steve Buscemi
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, Mark Boone Junior, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, John Heard, Chris Bauer
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Animal Factory (2000) on IMDb

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Review #1,237: 'Night Moves' (1975)

Cited by many critics as one of the best and most important American movies of the 1970s, Arthur Penn's Night Moves hasn't stood the test of time in terms of popularity. The legacy of the nouvelle vague in France had inspired a whole generation of American film-makers to try new things, and to subvert genres as much as the studios would allow them. This led to a re-emergence of the film noir, a genre stuck very much in the 1940s and 50s. With its chain-smoking, loose-skinned leading men and devilish, glamorous ladies, its tough demeanour is very much a product of the time. A couple of decades later, and filmmakers such as Roman Polanski, with Chinatown, and Robert Altman, with The Long Goodbye, found new ways to explore this dark world and its shady characters, and are widely remembered for it. But no film has been as successful at cutting to the heart of what drives these self-loathing deadbeats and the manipulating bombshells distracting them as Arthur Penn's Night Moves.

Private investigator and former American football star Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) works freelance, preferring to gulp down coffees during long stakeouts on his own time than to be on the payroll of a larger agency. His wife Ellen (Susan Clark) tries to shake him out of his stubborn ways, but he's just an old-fashioned sort of guy. This lone wolf approach is in his blood, as after he turns down Ellen's invitation to the cinema, he monitors the situation anyway, discovering that his wife is having an affair in the process. Meanwhile, former actress Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) hires Harry to track down her missing, promiscuous daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith). A conversation with mechanic Quentin (James Woods) leads Harry to a thrill-seeking movie stuntman, and then to the Florida Keys, where he discovers Delly hiding out with her stepfather Tom Iverson (John Crawford), and a striking woman named Paula (Jennifer Warren).

As a straight-forward detective story, Night Moves will likely divide an audience. With its unhurried approach and eagerness to explore Harry's troubled home-life and self-destructive behaviour, the jarring tones may not suit everybody's tastes. Night Moves is much more about the character than the case he is on. The movie mainly succeeds in this balancing act because of the performance of Gene Hackman, an actor working at the very top of his game. In the 70s, he was part of a group of actors who rebelled against Hollywood gloss, and portrayed real people in real situations. Harry is ultimately a good-hearted guy, tragically failing to see the irony when he demonstrates his knowledge of 'check mate' moves in chess to Paula, with sight of own possible fate in the unravelling mystery. As the plot moves on and Harry finds himself caught up in far more than he had bargained for, the revelations become increasingly confusing. But I didn't care:  It's the kind of convolution warmly embraced by the Coen Brothers in neo-noir The Big Lebowski. It isn't a masterpiece, but Night Moves deserves to be remembered as one of the most important American movies of its decade.

Directed by: Arthur Penn
Starring: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Edward Binns, John Crawford, Melanie Griffith, James Woods
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Night Moves (1975) on IMDb

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Review #1,236: 'Alien: Covenant' (2017)

Ridley Scott's ambitious but ultimately flawed Prometheus attempted to somewhat distance itself from the Alien franchise, or at least the silly money-spinner it had become. While very much set within the Alien universe, Prometheus made a crack at some big themes, particularly man's obsession with meeting its maker, but ended up leaving us with far more questions than answers, with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the decapitated synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) leaving to find the Engineer's planet to find the answers to the very questions we are left with. After the success of the brilliant The Martian, Scott seems eager to get back into the familiar stalk-and-eat/impregnate routine of his genre re-defining Alien. Indeed, Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to prequel Prometheus, but Scott seems more interested in straight-up horror than further exploring the deeper themes of its predecessor.

It's 11 years since the Prometheus expedition, and the spaceship Covenant is drifting through space on its way to a distant planet that its crew and passengers hope to colonise. Two thousand colonists lie in stasis, and only the crew are awoken when a stellar neutrino burst almost destroys the ship. As repairs go underway, they pick up a faint radio transmission from an uncharted planet, which sounds suspiciously like John Denver. Following the death of the ship's captain (played by James Franco, who appears for roughly 30 seconds), the newly-promoted Oram (Billy Crudup), against the wishes of second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), makes the decision to follow the signal in the hope of finding another habitable planet. When they touch down, they find an alien ship, a sea of extraterrestrial corpses, and the planet's seemingly lone inhabitant, the long-haired synthetic David. Soon enough, a couple of crew members become infected by alien spores, and the rest you already know.

1979's Alien, which still has the power to terrify, has little in way of plot or alien action. Its power comes from the simplicity in which its story unfolds, and the fantastic ensemble of actors bringing to life the human interaction between those brief moments of sheer menace. They talked about shitty working conditions and bad pay, and felt like actual people rather than just the clothes they wore. There was something fascinating about watching these blue-collar types, hundreds of years into the future, and seeing that we haven't changed one bit. In Alien: Covenant, characters are defined by the things they say about themselves or their accessories. One of the first things Oram reveals is that he is a man of faith, as if the audience is too stupid to work out for themselves that the story essentially represents humanity's search for God. Chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) is a cowboy because he wears a cowboy hat and, well, his name is Tennessee. Daniels rocks a white vest and a tough, slightly sad demeanour, so we instantly think of Ripley without any actual character development required.

The film spends most of its time having the characters explain the plot to each other. At one point, a character proclaims that so little of what is happening makes sense, and I refuse to believe I'm the only one to spot the glaring irony in this statement. Characters are introduced and killed off before we had the chance to care about them, while most of the audience will still be trying to figure out how all this 'black goo' fits into the overarching story. Thank the Engineers then, for the presence of Michael Fassbender. He was the best thing in Prometheus, and it's no different here. Doubling as both the American-accented synthetic upgrade Walter and his unhinged, English-accented predecessor David, his scenes are the film's eeriest. Scenery is chewed, certainly, and there is a ridiculous, homo-erotically charged moment I won't spoil, but it's only during these moments that Covenant doesn't feel like a re-tread of every other Alien movie there's been, only done worse. Covenant's main problem is that it is trying to explain and expand on a mythos that doesn't require it. In Alien, the alien arrived without explanation and that was part of its appeal. It was a slimy, unpredictable unknown, and perhaps we now know too much.

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir
Country: UK/USA/Australia/New Zealand/Canada

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Alien: Covenant (2017) on IMDb

Friday, 8 September 2017

Review #1,235: 'Alien Resurrection' (1997)

Despite plummeting into a fiery furnace while carrying an unborn alien queen inside of her at the climax of David Fincher's messy-but-interesting Alien 3, Fox saw more money to be made in carrying on the franchise started by Ridley Scott back in 1979. For the fourth instalment, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, hot off the success of The City of Lost Children, was brought in to inject some life in the stuttering series, bringing a unique aesthetic to the ongoing battle between us puny humans and the superior xenomorph. Sadly, this unique aesthetic is muted and ugly, perhaps even more so than the incredibly miserable Alien 3, and the European sense of humour and quirkiness Jeunet also brings to the table doesn't quite fit the tone of the Alien series. If this was a stand-alone, unconnected genre movie, Alien Resurrection may now be fondly remembered as an offbeat, cyberpunk oddity.

It's 200 years since Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley sacrificed herself to finally rid the universe of the xenomorphs, but humanity's stupidity apparently hasn't wavered in that time. Ripley is cloned by some mad scientists from a single drop of blood, for the sole purpose of removing the queen inside of her (how the queen got inside her from the cloning process isn't quite explained), and turning its offspring into weapons and/or subjects of experimentation. She tells them, "she will breed, you will die," but naturally this falls on deaf ears. As the inevitable happens and the aliens free themselves from their cells, Ripley falls in with a rag-tag group of mercenaries. But Ripley is different; she can smell nearby aliens and seems to possess super-strength, and when she receives a jab to the face, her blood burns through the spaceship's floor. She clearly shares a bond and possibly DNA with her 'children', and the grizzled space pirates don't know whether they should trust her.

Alien Resurrection is the worst of the franchise for two reasons. One is that the film is so damn ugly. Aside from the wonderfully weird moment in which Ripley writhes in the slimy tentacles of her 'daughter', there isn't one shot that feels truly cinematic. The sets look expensive, certainly, but there's a TV-quality running throughout, backed-up by a pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer show Joss Whedon script, which often feels like a precursor to the wonderful Firefly. The second is the casting of Winona Ryder as daughter-figure Call. Ryder is a terrific actress, but every line she utters here is without conviction. She stands out like a sore thumb when sharing scenes with such reliable character actors as Ron Perlman, Michael Wincott, Dominique Pinon, Dan Hedaya and Brad Dourif. Jeunet amps up the gore factor, which is something the Alien series was never about, and neglects suspense and terror in the process. The climax is weird and disgusting, and may have been delightfully bonkers if this was unshackled by a franchise tag and was the director's way of letting loose with a generous budget. But this isn't the Alien I know and love.

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman, Gary Dourdan, Michael Wincott, J.E. Freeman, Brad Dourif, Dan Hedaya
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Alien Resurrection (1997) on IMDb

Review #1,234: 'Wonder Woman' (2017)

It's incredibly sad to read about how many milestones Wonder Woman touches on, especially in this day and age where a high-profile Twitter user must consider every message they post to the world in fear of being racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain insensitive. Despite the influx of superhero movies since Marvel kicked off their Cinematic Universe in 2008 with Iron Man, and despite the abundance of long-standing and hugely popular female superheroes existing in the comics, and despite audiences calling out for a female-led superhero film ever since Scarlett Johansson donned the leathers as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, studios have failed to deliver one in 12 years. Perhaps the studios were scared they would have another Elektra on their hands, but that movie failed because it was terrible, and was a spin-off from the also-terrible Daredevil.

The DC Extended Universe, in the face of the critical mauling they received last year with the double-whammy of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, can only be applauded for taking the much-overdue 'risk' of launching a female-led franchise with Wonder Woman, a movie that not only represents so much in terms of moving cinema out of a stone-age mentality and into the modern world, but surpasses all expectations in a time of superhero overkill. Wonder Woman is, above all, charming, funny and exciting, and will hopefully help steer the DCEU back on track after an incredibly wobbly start. Making her introduction in Batman v Superman and emerging as one of the few positive things to be said about Zack Snyder's overblown and poorly-constructed smack-down, Wonder Woman begins in the present day but flashes back to the time glimpsed in the black-and-white photograph sent to her by Ben Affleck's Batman, when World War I was in full flow and her heart was won by a spy named Steve.

The young Diana grows up on the island of Themyscira, a beautiful hidden paradise created by Zeus to be a home for the Amazons, a tribe of fierce female warriors tasked with protecting the world from the Greek God's evil, warmongering brother Ares. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), attempts to shield her from the horrors of war and forbids her to practice combat, while her auntie Anitope (Robin Wright) realises her potential and trains her in secret. Zeus left the islanders a gift, a weapon called the 'Godkiller', which will prove decisive when the battle with Ares finally stirs. Cue the arrival of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an Allied spy who stumbles on the island while fleeing the Germans. He brings death and war with him, and the Amazons want to kill him before Diana intervenes, revealing he saved her life. The tribe want nothing to do with a war waged by man, but Diana suspects Ares may be puppet-master behind the conflict that has taken millions of lives. Against her mother's wishes, she travels with Steve to London, where he reveals to his superiors German plans to release a devastating new mustard gas created by General Ludendroff (Danny Huston) and Spanish chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya).

The word 'man' carries a special significance, and director Patty Jenkins carefully weaves this idea into the film without rubbing it in your face. As well as the violent, dangerous 'world of men' lurking across the waters, there is also No Man's Land, the stretch of mud and rubble separating the two warring fronts. This is a place that no man can hope to survive, and this sets up the triumphant moment seen in the trailers in which Diana deflects machine-gun fire with her bracelets and shield before taking out anybody daft enough to stand in her way. This scene is made all the more powerful by Gal Gadot, who puts in a terrific performance despite her lack of acting experience and puts all the doubters to rest, proving to be just as savvy with comedy as the action. The fact that we care so much about her also means that the CGI-heavy climax, which seems to be trend with DC, can almost be forgiven. Thanks to well-written character development and some charming chemistry between Gadot and the ever-brilliant Chris Pine, there is a real emotional investment that was lacking in DC's previous misfires. In terms of origin stories, this doesn't rewrite the rule-book, but the importance and significance of Wonder Woman should not be underestimated.

Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya
Country: USA/China/Hong Kong/UK/Italy/Canada/New Zealand

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Wonder Woman (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Review #1,233: 'King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword' (2017)

Guy Ritchie may just one of the luckiest film directors in history. After making his name with Cockney gangster movies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, he released a double-bill of stinkers so bad that even the utterance of their titles provokes sniggers. Swept Away and Revolver almost killed the career of the Brit before it truly took off, with his highly publicised relationship to Madonna proving far more interesting to the tabloids than any of his desperate output. He returned to his roots with RocknRolla, a motor-mouthed crime comedy which, although sitting well within his comfort zone, was good enough to remind us of why we liked him in the first place. Since then, he's found big-budget success with the Sherlock Holmes films and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (although the latter tanked at the box-office, it was generally warmly received by those who saw it), and has been handed the keys to his very own franchise, the eternally rebootable story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

It's unclear just how much more input Ritchie will have on this new take on Arthurian legend, as he has just started production on Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin, starring Will Smith as the genie. That, combined with the box-office failure of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, would surely suggest that this series was dead on arrival, or at least will see it taken in a new direction by Warner Bros., who had been trying to get something off the ground ever since the more grounded 2004 version starring Clive Owen. If this is true, then thank the cinema gods, as this annoying, sickly and exposition-heavy turkey was never going to interest a new generation of cinema-goers in a legend that has fascinated many for years. It trips up during its very first moments, as giant, CGI elephants knock down CGI buildings and send CGI people to their death, removing all the elements that make this old-fashioned myth so endearing by employing a contemporary attitude. Haircuts, fashion and dialogue all fit Ritchie's lad's mag aesthetic.

Everything needs to be big and shiny, and King Arthur opens with a set-piece most movies would choose to climax with. King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is locked in a war with warlock Mordred and an army of mages, with the kingdom of Camelot under threat from their magic. Assisted by his magical sword Excalibur, the King triumphs, only to be betrayed by his evil, pampered brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who arranges a coup to usurp the throne. Only Uther's son Arthur escapes with his life, pushed down a river to be raised by prostitutes in, as you would guess from a Ritchie film, Londinium. He grows up to look like Charlie Hunnam and practises hand-to-hand combat. He also dabbles in petty theft with a small gang of cheeky chappies while unaware of his true heritage. When Uther's sword reappears stuck in a rock near the castle's ground, Vortigern rounds up all the men in the nearby areas to attempt to pull it free. He who succeeds is the true heir to the throne, and therefore destined for the chopping block.

This all sounds like a classic hero's journey set within the medieval fantasy genre, but Ritchie is so intent of shoving modern-day sensibilities down your throat that it's easy to quickly forget the true essence of the story. There are endless visual gags involving a story narrated in the present while we flash back to the actual event, a gimmick employed by Ritchie many times before (but was done far better in Ant-Man), and an abundance of camera-swirling action scenes that resemble a video game cutaway scene. At times, it is the cinematic equivalent of that G-force ride at the fairground, in that you cling to whatever you can and hope it ends before you vomit. At the centre of it all is Hunnam, who follows his turn in Pacific Rim with another charisma-free performance. He is drawn as a tough- working-class hero who would be more comfortable in a pub brawl than ruling a country, but comes across as the kind of meat head seen on a night out starting fights while others insist he's a good guy really. A dick head with a magical sword and royal blood is still a dick head. Many of its flaws could be forgiven were it not such a massive bore. Instead, this will likely induce a headache more than any sense of wonder.

Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) on IMDb

Monday, 4 September 2017

Review #1,232: 'Alien 3' (1992)

After the overwhelming success of James Cameron's follow-up to Ridley Scott's creature feature classic Alien, the direction in which the franchise could go from there was a mystery. Surprisingly, 20th Century Fox made the risky move of hiring an untried director who had made a name for himself in music videos, but didn't have a feature to his name. That man was David Fincher, and the experience almost turned him off movies for good. Frustrated by studio interference, constant script rewrites and budget issues, Fincher turned his back on the film once it hit the editing room, and has since disowned the film completely. The result was a box-office disappointment which received mostly negative reviews, possibly the result of an unyielding, miserable tone, or the fact that the final product was stitched together from scenes shot during an incredibly problematic production.

Even in a series that includes Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus, Alien 3 is still very much the dark horse of the bunch. Fans mostly loathe the film, but there are some who believe the film to be some sort of unrealised masterpiece. After all, this was made by the director who would go on to helm Se7en, Fight Club and Gone Girl, although you would never guess it. I sit somewhere in between. 2003's 'Assembly Line' cut (which Fincher refused to take part in) establishes some much-needed coherency, bulking up the role of Paul McGann's character and introducing more fluidity to the story. The new cut certainly doesn't cover up the movie's main issues, but it is a refreshingly downbeat spectacle, reasserting the alien's genetic superiority and terrifying prowess after Cameron's entry blew a small army of them away in spectacular fashion. There are also some terrific performances by a mainly British cast.

Alien 3 didn't do itself any favours by killing off fan favourites Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) during the very first scene. After narrowly escaping with their lives following the events of Aliens, an alien egg inexplicably found itself on board their ship, hatching while the crew slept in stasis. An escape pod containing Hicks, Newt, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the mangled android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is launched when a fire starts on board, eventually landing on 'Fury' 161, a penal colony and lead-smelting works housing sex offenders and murderers of the worst kind. Led by the imposing Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), the inmates have also turned to God. They are all bar-coded and shaven-headed due to a lice infestation, and look like they haven't seen the sun in years. Ripley, the only survivor, confides in prison doctor Clemens (Charles Dance), who is willing to perform an autopsy on the dead to ensure no alien lives inside of them. He also displays a bar-code.

Of course, it isn't long until another alien has hatched and is hunting down any poor sap in its way, as it seeks to reproduce and overrun. Writers David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson made the correct choice in returning to the series' routes with a lone alien stalking its prey. Cameron went bigger, but you can't really go any bigger than that. Fincher stages some scary set-pieces, particularly one involving a terrified Paul McGann and very close encounter for Ripley. The main issue lies in between these moments, with the film too busy establishing the new setting, introducing an all-new cast of characters, and bridging the gap between the end of the second movie and the beginning of this to gather any real momentum. Fury 161 is also a horrible place to spend over two hours in, especially with the threat of rape and murder at every turn. With the Assembly Cut now the definitive version, Alien 3 is certainly not the complete mess it is still considered to be by many. It's rough and ugly, yes, but this arguably adds more grit and ferocity to the terror. It's hard to think of what could have been had Fox realised the talent they had on their hands.

Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown, Danny Webb, Lance Henriksen
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Alien 3 (1992) on IMDb

Friday, 1 September 2017

Review #1,231: 'Hounddog' (2007)

It has been said that when it comes to cinema, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Controversy can spread word-of-mouth and natural curiosity faster than most ad campaigns, propelling a film that may have flown under most people's radar to surprise success and welcome notoriety. This isn't always the case however, as Deborah Kampmeier's Hounddog proves. Following a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, the film faced protests for a scene in which Dakota Fanning's character is raped (she was 12 at the time of filming). Hounddog went onto to be a critical and box-office failure, and has since faded into obscurity. In fact, the gut-wrenching power of the hard-to-watch rape scene and the performance of Fanning are the only good things to be said about this slow-moving and cliche-ridden drama.

It's the late 1950's. Lewellen (Fanning) is a precocious young girl living in rural Alabama with her deadbeat dad (David Morse), and next door to her religious disciplinarian grandmother (Piper Laurie). She spends most of her spare time performing awful renditions of her favourite Elvis Presley songs, or down at the local watering hole with her friend Buddy (Cody Hanford). The two share the odd kiss and inspect each other's private parts with fascination. We're told that Daddy is abusive, and clearly gets violent with his new girlfriend (listed as 'Stranger Lady' in the credits and played by Robin Wright). However, he is struck by lightning one night and reduced to a simpleton, becoming reliant on his tom-boy daughter and terrified she will abandon him. Lewellen's main concern is nabbing tickets for Elvis's visit to town, until a horrific attack turns her world upside down.

In an attempt to capture Lewellen's poverty and the general barrenness of the Deep South setting, Kampmeier has pasted together images of rusty, decrepit vehicles parked on overgrown lawns and damp, sweaty interiors, combined with the constant chirping of crickets. It's beautifully filmed, but this kind of imagery has been used countless times before. It often feels like a foreigner's idea of Alabama, all string vests, small-town ignorance and God-fearing. You wait for the story to kick into gear, but it never does. Instead, the film seems to revel in putting Lewellen through one horrible experience after another, with seemingly no point. She seeks guidance from local snake-catcher Charles (Afemo Omilami), who teaches the girl about the blues which inspired Elvis, and the two share a few scenes in which he comes across as the cliched wise black man. Hounddog is terrible on almost every level, but thank God for Fanning, who even outshines seasoned veterans like Morse and Wright.

Directed by: Deborah Kampmeier
Starring: Dakota Fanning, David Morse, Cody Hanford, Piper Laurie, Robin Wright, Afemo Omilami
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Hounddog (2007) on IMDb

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Review #1,230: 'Beat Girl' (1960)

Beat Girl, known as Wild for Kicks in the U.S., was another entry in the juvenile delinquent sub-genre started by the likes of High School Hell Cats and Teenage-Age Crime Wave, which took a look at the 'troubled' youth of the post-World War II generation when rock 'n' roll was moulding the clean-cut teenagers into misanthropic tearaways. Directed by Edmond T. Greville, Beat Girl is far too silly and melodramatic to leave any lasting impact, but there is a joy to be had with watching a bunch of pretty 1960's teenagers mope and complain in what would likely be classed as acceptable rebellious behaviour nowadays, and to see Swinging 60's London in all its glory.

The story concerns Jennifer (Gillian Hills), the 'beat girl' of the title, and her struggle to accept a new addition to the household. Her rich and rather liberal father Paul (Black Narcissus' David Farrar) dotes on his young, beautiful daughter, but remains concerned about her late night partying and dead-beat friends. Her behaviour takes a downturn when he brings home his new young and gorgeous French wife Nichole (Noelle Adam), who Jennifer takes an instant disliking to, as most children of divorce do. Nichole makes all the effort to bond with her new step-daughter, but Jennifer would rather be hanging out at the local jazz dive with her friends (including real-life musician and teen idol Adam Faith). After a chance encounter reveals Nichole's past life, Jennifer becomes intent on revealing the big secret to her work-obsessed father.

My main issue with Beat Girl is that it isn't totally clear whose side we're meant to be on. On one hand, the parents are shown as forward-thinking and modern while the youngsters (including a baby-faced Oliver Reed) squabble on a dusty floor over a half-drunk bottle of gin. On the other, the apparently misguided youth act out for good reason, and ultimately pose no actual threat ("Fighting's for squares, man!"). The film improves when it dabbles in the sleazy side of London, particularly as Jennifer's curiosity over strip joint Les Girls leads to shady club owner Kenny (Christopher Lee) trying to recruit the jailbait as one of his main attractions, which also leads to the sight of some surprisingly revealing routines. This is exploitation after all, and there's a wonderful sense of grime in these moments. Ultimately, Beat Girl suffers from long periods of off-putting melodrama and silly dancing, but there is a tremendous raunchiness to the film also.

Directed by: Edmond T. Gréville
Starring: Gillian Hills, Noëlle Adam, David Farrar, Christopher Lee, Adam Faith
Country: UK

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Wild for Kicks (1960) on IMDb

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Review #1,229: 'Aliens' (1986)

The biggest obstacle faced by a studio looking to cash-in on a surprise success that resonated well with both audiences and critics is the direction in which to take it. The seemingly obvious call would be to study the original and pick apart the ingredients which helped form, in the case of Alien, an instant science-fiction classic. While the sequel faced trouble getting the greenlight as Fox procrastinated over a project they felt was a costly risk, this delay in production was only leading to the sequel rights falling into the hands of the perfect guy for the job. Production on The Terminator was facing a lengthy delay due to scheduling conflicts, so director James Cameron found himself some spare time to pen a script. Only this wasn't to be called Alien 2, but Aliens, as Cameron sought to embrace the scope and ambition he would later become famous for.

While Alien features gruff space truckers, Aliens is led by a band of buzz-cut space marines, and Cameron's idea was not to continue with the slow-burn, show-little approach of the original, but a relentless assault on the senses. It's certainly isn't that Cameron doesn't know how to generate tension (the slow beeping of the motion tracker and the moment trapped inside a room with a face-hugger is clear evidence that he does), but he has a different method of pay-off. A long build-up following by a genuinely terrifying jump-scare made you hold your breath in Alien, but when the indecipherable blobs turn into a huge hoard of the remorseless, slimy killing machine, it's difficult to catch it. It's incredibly long, with a climax that seems to go on forever. But Aliens truly puts you through the wringer, to the point that, by the end, you loathe the xenomorph just as much as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

After spending 57 years in stasis, Ripley is picked up and rescued by her employers the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, the very company that sent the crew of the Nostromo to their doom. Her wild claims of a perfect alien hunter are dismissed, mainly because the planet it was originally discovered on was colonised years ago, and her flight officer license is revoked. When communication with the colony is inevitably lost, shifty company representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) convinces Ripley to join an expedition back to the alien planet to investigate and exterminate any alien lifeforms discovered. She reluctantly agrees, and finds herself on a mission accompanied by a rag-tag squad of marines, who all seem trigger-happy but incredibly naive about the dangers they will face. When they arrive, the only survivor is a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), who speaks of monsters who mostly come out at night... mostly.

Sigourney Weaver is so terrific in this film that she received Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, something almost unheard of in the sci-fi/horror genre. Having learned that her daughter had died of old age just two years before she was rescued, her relationship with Newt and her eventual showdown with the alien queen is given a whole new layer. She is backed up by a supporting cast who help distinguish themselves in the platoon of grunts, with special mention going to Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein and, of course, the late Bill Paxton. They help elevate the film from an exciting sea of bullets and spattered alien carcasses to an engrossing thriller featuring characters you genuinely hope will make it out alive. Of course, they all don't, but Cameron makes almost every death memorable and occasionally oddly powerful. I still prefer the quiet horror of Alien, but I can completely understand why many prefer the deafening terror of Cameron's vision, but it can quite rightly take its place among cinema's greatest ever sequels.

Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein
Country: USA/UK

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Aliens (1986) on IMDb

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Review #1,228: 'Alien' (1979)

Before the stream of sequels, spin-offs, video games, board games, and it's own incredibly underwhelming origin story, and before this year's shameless yet occasionally entertaining rip-off Life, there was Ridley Scott's Alien, a masterclass in how to create an A-picture out of a B-list idea and budget. Even before that of course, there was Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, but Scott infuses his film with such elegance, sheer horror, and it's very own mythos (which would be tirelessly explored in the aforementioned extended multi-media universe), that to label the seminal sci-fi classic as plagiarism of Bava's interesting, if schlocky, 60's space opera would be preposterous (although it clearly draws inspiration). As a favourite of most children growing up in the 80's and 90's, Alien joins the likes of Jaws, Back to the Future, The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as one of the untouchable genre classics.

The crew of the Nostronomo, a starship freighter owned by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation are awoken from hypersleep by an urgent message from the on-board computer, Mother. A signal has been detected coming from a nearby planetoid, and by the terms of their contract they are obligated to investigate. The crew are a rag-tag bunch of what can only be described as working-class space truckers; scruffy, chain-smoking, and constantly complaining about pay. Many of them, including Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), object to the unnecessary risk, but Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) overrules. Touching down on the dark, desolate planet, they quickly come across a crashed alien ship containing the dead body of a large, unknown species. Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) probes further, eventually discovering what appears to be a nesting area. One of the eggs opens, and a spider-like creature attaches itself to his face, rendering him unresponsive but alive.

It's isn't difficult to work out how things unravel from this point. After the shock of the 'chestburster' scene (which I still recall seeing for the first time as a youngster), Alien follows the tradition of the slasher flick. But one of the many things that separates the film from the formulaic tedium of the slasher genre is the care Scott takes with showing you very little. The brief glimpses of the xenomorph, growing rapidly as the film progresses, are terrifying enough, but it's the long moments between the kills that makes Alien so engrossing. The design of the ship's interior is dark and dank, almost reptilian in appearance, purposely sculpted to make it seem that the creature could pop out of any corner of the screen, at any time. Our fears are confirmed in one particularly effective sequence involving the search for the ship's cat Jones, where what appears to be some harmless tubing in the background suddenly turns into an oozing, snarling face..

Now one of the most iconic monsters in cinema history, the xenomorph is a clever accumulation of our worst fears. A creature of pure survival, it serves only to prolong the existence of its species, whether it be to wipe out any possible threat, or using its victims as hosts for its offspring. James Cameron's admittedly excellent sequel threw more of them at the screen, and the subsequent films opted for CGI. But there is nothing scary about special effects, and Bolaji Badejo's performance inside the suit proves that practical effects can stand the test of time, and completely terrify when employed correctly. The alien isn't the only star of the show however, as Sigourney Weaver's badass survivor Ripley is one of the silver screen's most recognisable and much-loved heroines, in a role that could have been a simple 'last girl' routine in the hands of a lesser actor. She is backed up by a fantastic cast that also includes Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, all making their archetype characters feel alive. But the real star is Scott who, having gone off the boil in recent years, reminds us of a time when he was capable of delivering pure cinematic magic.

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Country: UK/USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Alien (1979) on IMDb

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Review #1,227: 'Free Fire' (2016)

The decade following the release of Quentin Tarantino's two-punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction saw many independent filmmakers clamouring to try and recreate the magic of those crime movies, which catapulted the one-time video store clerk to directorial super stardom. Stripped of his ear for witty dialogue and everything else that made them stand out, most of these imitations simply consisted of bad men pointing guns at each other whilst talking pop culture. This craze has since died down, but based on Ben Wheatley's latest venture Free Fire, there are those still longing to recreate the magic of those 90's classics. Free Fire is the cinematic equivalent of pillaging your toy box as a child and have the most colourful figures shoot it out with one another for the flimsiest of reasons. However, this isn't entirely a bad thing.

In 1970's Boston, a bunch of mean-looking men and one woman meet at an abandoned warehouse to finalise an arms deal. IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) meet with intermediary Justine (Brie Larson), and eventually with charming connect Ord (Armie Hammer looking very comfortable rocking a 70's beard). Arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) has some bad news in that he doesn't have the guns ordered, but the Irishmen push ahead for the deal anyway. A rocky introduction seems to be heading towards peaceful resolution, until Vernon's associate Harry (a hairy and bespectacled Jack Reynor) recognises junkie Stevo (Sam Riley) - one of Chris and Frank's gang - from a violent confrontation the night before. Negotiations quickly escalate into a stand-off between both parties, and a huge shoot-out ensues. With a briefcase full of money and a truck load of guns there for the taking, everyone's motivation and loyalty is quickly under scrutiny.

After tackling the lofty concept of socioeconomic commentary in messy misfire High Rise, Wheatley has fallen back on a simplistic and indulgent crowd-pleaser. With many an object to hide behind in the expansive warehouse setting, the witty dialogue of the opening thirty minutes becomes a cycle of leg-and-shoulder wounds and ricocheting bullets. It's a rather childish concept, but it manages to entertain by refusing to take itself seriously. Fracturing loyalties and double-crosses play second fiddle to guessing who will die next and just how they will meet their doom, backed by an impressive line-up of character actors. Outside of a couple of gruesome deaths, the script by Wheatley and long-time writing partner Amy Jump offers few surprises. Perhaps the couple needed to recuperate after their ambitious but ultimately disappointing attempt to bring High-Rise to the big screen. Whatever the reasoning for tackling a project so knowingly lacking in scale and originality, I enjoyed it, and hopefully now it's out of their system they will be capable of delivering a film as masterful as their jewel in the crown, Kill List

Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor
Country: UK/France

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Free Fire (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Review #1,226: 'The Mummy' (2017)

Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy marks the arrival of Universal's 'Dark Universe', the studio's attempt at re-branding its flagpole monsters from the archives as a kind of flawed superhero team who will no doubt be brought together to face off a big bad sometime in the future. With a plan to introduce the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy seems an odd choice to start, given the recent not-so-well received trilogy starring Brendan Fraser that kicked off as recently as 1999. It's a humongous task, but one need only look at the success of Marvel to learn that billions of dollars can be raked in if enough care is taken when building the expansive world from the ground up, teasing the characters and events to come while telling a satisfying self-contained story at the same time.

But one can also looks at DC's venture into universe-building to see how it can fall flat on its face, although it now thankfully seems back on track after the success of Wonder Woman. The Mummy makes the grave mistake of laying all of its card on the table, trying to be everything from a horror to an old-school adventure to a Tom Cruise blockbuster, while never convincing as any. Tying this new world of gods and monsters together is Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyll, the Nick Fury who will eventually unite the team under a secret society called Prodigium, the Dark Universe's version of S.H.I.E.L.D. Shortly after he introduced, he fails to get to his drugs on time and turns into Mr. Hyde, a type of evil Ray Winstone only with super strength, in a scene that verges on the downright embarrassing. Is it not enough to simply mention the name and let the audience generate their own excitement? No, as The Mummy aims to be nothing more than a show-all, CGI-reliant Michael Bay movie that throws so much shit at the screen that it becomes impossible to care about anything you're seeing.

Tom Cruise plays Nick Morton, an unconvincing cheeky-chappy antique hunter-cum-thief who also works for the U.S. Army in some capacity. He's in Iraq with his assistant Chris (comic relief Jake Johnson), and it isn't long before the town around them is torn apart in a hail of bullets. In a stroke of luck, they uncover a massive Egyptian tomb for Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Nick just wants the loot, but as eye-candy archaeologist and exposition-machine Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) informs us, the discovery is big news. Nick's impatience gets the better of him and he accidentally releases the tomb in a splash of mercury and CGI spiders. It's love at first sight for Ahmanet, who takes an instant liking to Nick's botoxed face and wants him as a vessel for the return of Egyptian God Set. And so begins her vague plan to destroy London with an army of CGI monstrosities and fart clouds, as she sets out to recover a ruby found in a recent excavation.

The Mummy is made all the more frustrating by offering tiny glimpses of the film it should have been. A stand-out plane crash set-piece and an impressive performance from Boutella (who was a badass in Kingsman: The Secret Service and stole the show in Stat Trek Beyond) hint at an exciting and modern adventure-horror movie, but the script by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman seems more concerned with pandering to a mainstream crowd and bending the story to the strengths of its lead actor, despite this being one of his worst performances. It switches between horror, comedy and action, often within the same scene, cramming in baffling exposition and universe-building on top. 1999's The Mummy had many of the same problems, but the first film at least had a goofy charm. What this means for the franchise going forward is anyone's guess, although things to seem to be moving forward despite this film's critical and commercial failures. But will anyone seriously want to see a stand alone film about this interpretation of Dr. Jekyll?

Directed by: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

The Mummy (2017) on IMDb


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