Friday, 20 April 2018

Review #1,326: 'The Post' (2017)

Steven Spielberg's The Post is the great director's most handsome film in years. Shot quickly and clinically while he waited for the effects to be finished for Ready Player One, the film, if anything, is a sign of just how masterful he is at his craft. Starring A-list heavies Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, The Post tells the story of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by disgruntled military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, which revealed that the President knew the war in Vietnam could not be won early on in the conflict. Many young men were drafted anyway, and sent to their deaths half a world away from home. The New York Times had the story first, but were threatened with a court injunction in an attempt to halt the publication of a series of planned articles which would damage the reputation of many high-ranking officials, including the President himself.

It's a story Spielberg felt needed to be told now, and for good reason. There are many parallels to the modern day, only nobody here is forced to live out their days hiding in an Ecuadorian embassy or assassinated with poison. When The Washington Post is handed the story themselves (by a hippy girl who dumps a package on the first desk she sees), editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) immediately decides that the revelations must be released to the public. Being the intelligent man he is, Bradlee had long suspected that the Times had their hands on something huge, and refuses to be silenced by the government of a country whose right to free speech is written in its very constitution. The Post depicts the newspapers search to locate the source of the leak, and Bradlee's relationship with publisher Kay Graham (Streep). The heiress and socialite has her own reservations about the newspaper's upcoming stock market launch, and how the Papers will affect the reputation of her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).

There's an earthy, smoky quality to the 1970's-set The Post. Spielberg manages to capture the sweaty urgency of some of the great movies to emerge from Hollywood in its greatest decade, with All the President's Men being the most obvious comparison. In a world now filled with information at the swipe of a thumb, it's exciting and invigorating to see Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) spills his pay-phone quarters onto the floor as he desperately searches for a pen, or the sight of Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) holed up in a motel with thousands upon thousands of printed pages stacked all around the place. The large ensemble, which also includes Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg and David Cross, is impressive across the board, and although its hardly a stretch for such seasoned screen giants, Streep and Hanks - the former a fumbling yet oblivious feminist icon and the latter a cranky but good-hearted fighter - help the film to be incredibly watchable. It doesn't offer any further insights into a story many will already know, and Ellsberg is somewhat sidelined, but The Post is a timely stance against anyone looking to threaten the right to free speech and the freedom of the press.

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon
Country: USA/UK

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Post (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Review #1,325: 'All the Money in the World' (2017)

It wouldn't be fair to Ridley Scott's latest film to dwell too much on the revolting allegations that came out regarding Kevin Spacey and his sexually aggressive behaviour, yet the 80 year-old's reaction to the news and subsequent quick-thinking led to one of the most impressive aspects of All the Money in the World. Filming had already wrapped with Spacey in the lead donning heavy prosthetic makeup, but Scott quite rightly opted to remove the disgraced actor from the final product entirely, save for one scene in which his face is digitally replaced. Scenes were re-shot in an astonishing nine days, with Scott's initial first choice Christopher Plummer now playing the role of tycoon J. Paul Getty.

The result is not a film that appears to be quickly patched together, but one that seamlessly pieces together the old footage with the new. As Getty, you will believe that Plummer was present for the duration. He effortlessly balances Getty's occasional playfulness with his more tyrannical and stubborn sides, and he cuts an impenetrable yet enigmatic figure. Questions surrounding his refusal to pay his grandson's ransom when the 16 year-old is kidnapped in Rome forms the film's biggest mystery. Is he concerned that coughing up the dough will only inspire the kidnapping of more vulnerable heirs to vast fortunes? Does he believe that John Paul Getty III (played by Charlie Plummer, no relation) arranged the whole thing himself to get a slice of the action? Or is he simply a stingy old man, seeing no reason to spend a dime on something he sees as a bad business deal?

At the time, oil-rich Getty was not only the richest man on the planet, but the richest man there had ever been. It would seem that he never invested without the promise of a return. The old coot spends much of his time in dark, grandiose rooms within his spectacular mansion, pouring over the latest figures as if every cent must be accounted for. When he is informed that his favourite yet wayward grandchild has disappeared, his eyes never leave the books. We are informed via flashback that Getty III's parents, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), divorced years earlier due to the latter's drug abuse, with the mother receiving full custody. This, in J. Paul's eyes, was a betrayal, and possibly the first time he has lost something he couldn't simply throw money at. There's also the possibility that malice may be driving the stinking-rich old man's complete disinterest in paying what is a small sum in the context of his vast fortune. It takes the arrival of a severed ear make him re-consider.

Like many of Scott's recent efforts, All the Money in the World has its flaws, albeit far fewer than the likes of Robin Hood or Alien: Covenant. If there is a blemish on what is a stellar cast, its Mark Wahlberg as Getty's former CIA operative adviser Fletcher Chace. While everybody else disappears into their role, he can only muster his Boston everyman act and sticks out like a sore thumb. For a film that initially takes its time developing the characters and their backgrounds, it can't help but introduce tired tropes which didn't occur in real life, such as the sympathetic kidnapper Cinquanta (Romain Duris) and a climax involving a desperate chase through the streets. Still, Scott manages to keep us engrossed in the story, ramping up the tension with a frantic pace whether you know how it played out in real life or not. This is the director back to his The Martian best, and how he cannot seem to replicate this quality when he diverts into the Alien franchise is a head-scratcher. And  Christopher Plummer is truly exceptional.

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher PlummerMark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

All the Money in the World (2017) on IMDb

Friday, 13 April 2018

Review #1,324: 'The Dark Mirror' (1946)

There were few directors so suited to the film noir genre as Robert Siodmak, whose lengthy career produced everything from B-movie horrors (Son of Dracula) to exotic adventures (Cobra Woman) and forgotten westerns (Pyramid of the Sun God). However, he is best remembered for his work in the noir genre, which spawned tough, pretension-free crime dramas such as Phantom Lady, Cry of the City and Criss Cross. His movies often employed a kind of gimmick as a hook, with his finest film The Killers jumping back and forth in time to keep the audience guessing. One of Siodmak's lesser-known pulpy efforts, The Dark Mirror, leaned towards psychoanalysis as well as the more familiar sleuthing from a craggy-faced, weather-beaten detective. The advancements in mental health studies was all the rage with many screenwriters during the 1940s, and although much of what is said is utter nonsense, it helps give this lively noir a refreshing edge.

Quick-witted detective Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) takes on the case of Dr. Frank Peralta, who is found dead in his apartment with a knife in his back. Investigations advance quickly, and after interviewing various witnesses, all the clues points to one woman alone: Peralta's lover Terry Collins (Olivia de Havilland). Many saw her leave the scene shortly after a loud thud was heard from the apartment, and the doctor's appointment book confirms a rendez-vous with the attractive young lady at the time of the murder. Yet when Stevenson corners Terry at her work after various witnesses make a positive identification, she has an alibi that cannot be disputed. Utterly perplexed at the mystery, the veteran dick visits her home to pose a few more questions, only to discover that Terry has, as you probably would have guessed by this point, and identical twin sister, named Ruth. One committed the crime and the other is innocent, but both exercise their right to keep their trap shut to avoid incriminating themselves.

Refusing to believe in such a thing as 'the perfect crime', Stevenson brings in Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), a doctor who frequently encountered both women at their place of work, and who also happens to be an expert in the study of twins. The Dark Mirror doesn't convince when it comes to psychologically evaluating the sisters, but if you can suspend your disbelief and roll with the film's coincidence-reliant plot, this is one of the most engaging noirs the genre has to offer. It's also helped a great deal by the central performance of de Havilland, who takes great delight in playing with the siblings' differing personalities. Their interactions are made even more delightful thanks to some seamless visual effects. The use of clever split-screens make it seem that two different actresses are indeed speaking to one another, putting efforts to recreate the effect as recent as the 1990s completely to shame. There a noticeable tonal issues, particularly with some musical choices heard after Stevenson's wisecracks which grate with the film's darker moments, but The Dark Mirror is yet another of Siodmak's quirky noirs deserving of more recognition.

Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Lew Ayres, Thomas Mitchell, Richard Long, Charles Evans
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Dark Mirror (1946) on IMDb

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Review #1,323: 'Flowers in the Attic' (1987)

The Dollanganger children - the elder Cathy (Kristy Swanson) and Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams), and young twins Cory (Ben Ryan Ganger) and Carrie (Lindsay Parker) - live an idyllic life with their photogenic mother (Victoria Tennant) and caring, successful father (Marshall Colt). That is until the day of their father's birthday brings the devastating news that he has been killed in a car accident, leaving the four kids without a father figure and their mother with dwindling savings. When their money runs dry, Mother takes them to their grandparents' mansion in the country, where she hopes to reconnect with her dying father in the hope of being written back into his will. When they arrive, they are met with disdain by Grandmother (Louise Fletcher), who has long felt that her daughter's marriage and family was an abomination. As Mother attempts to crawl back into her parents' good books, the children must be locked away unseen in the attic to be told over time by their only remaining parent to endure the isolation just a little while longer.

V. C. Andrews' novel Flowers in the Attic was incredibly successful when it was released in 1979, selling over 40 million copies worldwide, gathering a huge following of young readers, and spawning no fewer than three sequels. The author wisely insisted on script approval when selling the rights for a film adaptation, turning down a number of screenplays before settling with Jeffrey Bloom's version. The producers had already turned down Wes Craven's violent and disturbing vision, deeming it too disturbing for a mainstream audience, despite the director's recent success with A Night on Elm Street. Bloom's script stayed true the novel's controversial themes of incest, but the final product, also directed by Bloom, did not play well with test audiences, who were freaked out by the sexual activity between the two oldest siblings, and unsatisfied with the climax.

The production was a notoriously troubled one. When the producers got nervous after the test screenings and insisted on re-shooting the ending, Bloom stepped away, and an unknown replacement was brought in to helm the new scenes. The result has one salivating at the thought of a juicier, more harrowing version with Craven behind the camera, as Flowers in the Attic is a tame, frustrating and ultimately boring affair. It is a film completely disinterested in detail, choosing instead to force us into accepting the children's predicament with no real understanding of how they took so long to figure it all out, and why don't simply make a run for it. Cathy and Chris come across as idiotic, irresponsible and weak, despite the best efforts of Swanson and Adams. Fletcher, evoking her intimidating presence from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, gives it her very best, but she can't save this damp squib from instantly fading from memory.

Directed by: Jeffrey Bloom
Starring: Louise Fletcher, Victoria Tennant, Kristy Swanson, Jeb Stuart Adams
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Flowers in the Attic (1987) on IMDb

Monday, 9 April 2018

Review #1,322: 'Phantom Thread' (2017)

A new film from writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson is always a cause for celebration among film buffs. Apart from his underwhelming 1996 debut Hard Eight and 2014's messy Inherent Vice (which I still enjoyed despite the constant head-scratching), Anderson's output is always something to savour with repeat viewings. But his latest, a sumptuous and idiosyncratic love story set in 1950's London, is not only noteworthy for being the work of the one of the finest filmmakers of recent times, but for the announcement that this will be the final big screen appearance of Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor whose frequent returns to cinema after long periods away always mark a reason to sit up and get excited.

Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a famous fashion designer who creates the most wonderful and elegant dresses for the ladies of high society, who clearly pay top dollar for his services. He is charismatic and handsome, but also impulsive and quick-tempered. Woodcock is a man of routine who insists on starting the day with a large breakfast and, most importantly, quiet. We first meet him sharing the breakfast table with his latest squeeze, and he scowls at the sight of a pastry offered by her. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who he shares his large residence with, has witnessed her brother's cycle of excitement and boredom with attractive ladies many times before, and quickly sets up plans to remove the poor girl from their home and his life. He talks of his late mother and a growing sense of unease. It's clear he's in dire need of a new muse to keep the creative juices flowing.

His mood quickly improves when he has breakfast at a nearby hotel and has his attention grabbed by the clumsy yet beautiful Alma (Vicky Krieps). He invites her to dinner and does most of the talking, telling stories of his past and his fondness for sowing hidden messages within the dresses he creates. In his own suit jacket, he keeps a lock of his mother's hair. Alma is swept away by this charming man, and agrees to a dress fitting despite the intimidating presence of Cyril. Soon enough, she notices a gradual change in Woodcock's mood, and Cyril braces herself for the inevitable. But Alma loves and feels that she understands the mysterious and exciting genius, and concocts a plan to keep a hold of him forever. Indeed, Phantom Thread is possibly the oddest and most mesmerising love story since Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson's 2002 dark comedy and still his greatest film to date.

The director has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and Phantom Thread is infused with an aura of Kubrick, and a heavy lashing of Hitchcock. It's probably his most straight-forward film, but there is an obliqueness to the story also. The narrative veers off into almost fairy-tale territory, as Alma sets in motion her grand scheme. It all moves along at a dazzling, hypnotic pace with the assistance of Johnny Greenwood's classical score and Anderson's constantly gliding camera. If this is truly the final performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, he is certainly ending in a high note with one of the finest performances of his career and further cements his place as one of, if not the, finest actor to ever grace our screens. Manville is also fantastic as the cold and shrewd Cyril, a woman who has seemingly dedicated her life to her mummy's-boy sibling, with whom she shares a relationship that often feels incestuous. Krieps is radiant, simmering with intensity as she refuses to become yet another muse to be shown a quick exit. Phantom Thread is not for everyone, but Anderson's films never are. Despite the period setting, this is a truly modern love story, and one with the power to both warm the heart and genuinely horrify.

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Brian Gleeson, Gina McKee
Country: USA/UK

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Phantom Thread (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Review #1,321: 'Annihilation' (2018)

The debate surrounding Netflix's validity as a cinematic platform was in full swing last year, with Cannes Film Festival announcing that the streaming service will no longer be able to enter their original movies into competition, following a negative reaction by audiences who jeered and booed whenever their logo flashed on screen. Should only movies released in cinemas be classified as 'true cinema', or is this just blatant, ignorant snobbery? Great directors such as Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder have all produced fantastic work for the small screen, so should films be judged on their quality alone, regardless of how they were released to the general audience?

With The Cloverfield Paradox, Netflix have proven they can offer an alternative to a production company sweating on the success on something they have poured millions of dollars into. The fact that it was a steaming pile of hot mess aside, Cloverfield drew far more viewers than it would have ever dreamed of if released on the big screen. With Annihilation, director Alex Garland's first film since 2014's fantastic Ex Machina, Netflix were used a compromise when Paramount weren't happy with the film's ending, which they were concerned would be 'too weird' for a mainstream audience. Garland stuck to his guns, and Annihilation is now available to us as the director intended. Despite the mass of crap they produce on a monthly basis, the billion-dollar company clearly love cinema, supporting artists without being too concerned about whether or not it will make money, as the subscriptions will still be paid regardless.

The strongest argument is that when the final product is as thrilling, engaging and original as Annihilation, who the hell cares if it was projected onto a cinema screen or not? (It did receive a limited release elsewhere, but not here in the UK) Garland's second movie backs up the idea that the 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe is one of the most important voices in science-fiction at the moment. Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation sends a group of women into an scientific anomaly known as 'The Shimmer', without making a big deal of the absence of a male lead one would expect from such a genre piece. Our protagonist is Lena, played by Natalie Portman, a cellular biology professor grieving over the year-long disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Believed to be long-dead, Kane suddenly reappears one night, unable to recall where he has been or how he made it home. After he starts to cough up blood, they are both abducted on the way to the hospital at gun-point by a special government unit and taken to a secret facility called Area X.

It's here that Lena learns of The Shimmer, a mysterious oily dome covering much of the southern coast and constantly expanding. Many have made their way into the otherworldly place, but none, save Kane, have made it back out. Communication cuts out as soon as anyone enters, so the one overseeing expeditions, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is just as clueless as anyone else. She plans to join the team recruited for the next expedition, which consists of physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Keen to uncover the truth about Kane's time spent within the Shimmer and how he made it out alive, Lena persuades Ventress to allow her to join the group, using her military background and scientific expertise to plead her case. Things quickly turn weird as they pass through the seemingly inexplicable border, as the unit wake up to find they have been in there for three days and cannot remember a thing. As they venture further into the Shimmer and towards a lighthouse believed to be sheltering the source of its power, they witness the law of physics increasingly defied and reshaped.

Annihilation had the same effect on me as 2016's Arrival. It feels important to a stagnating genre, offering both riveting set-pieces and exploring areas of science that will have you constantly engaged in order to have any hope of understanding the story's revelations. As plants start to interbreed, strange animals emerge as terrifying amalgamations, and time feels like it has no place or purpose, the film offers convincing explanations. You may not work them out until days later - and Annihilation will likely linger for a long time afterwards - but it will all make sense, even if the climax offers one of the strangest, most beautiful, and undeniably creepiest scenes in recent memory. But this isn't just for science boffins. A found-footage moment that brought back terrifying memories of Event Horizon and an encounter with what can only be described as half bear/half wolf with a scream to give you nightmares only heighten the growing sense of unease as the movie progresses. Garland has the courage to run with his ideas and glory in the ambiguity of it all, and he can only be commended for refusing to alter his vision for any gutless studio heads. Cannes should really reconsider.

Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong
Country: UK/USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Annihilation (2018) on IMDb

Monday, 2 April 2018

Review #1,320: 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925)

Silent movie star and all-round horror icon Lon Chaney was known as the 'Man of a Thousand Faces'. His gift for make-up and prosthetic work meant that he was able to transform himself into some of the most iconic characters of the silent era, such as the masked Phantom of Phantom of the Opera, and Quasimodo in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Chaney didn't become a legend simply for his skills with a make-up brush, he was also a damn fine actor. Having grown up with two deaf parents, Chaney became incredibly skilled at pantomime, something that would benefit him when he was eventually promoted to silent film. The Phantom himself is what people remember and take away from the story, not the plot, the dialogue or the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber's later musical adaptation, and much of this is thanks to Chaney's memorable incarnation, which was only the second on film (1916's Das Phantom der Oper is now lost).

Adapted from Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le Fantome de l'Opera, the story is centred around Paris Opera House, which has recently been acquired by two men who laugh off any suggestion that a cloaked ghost known as 'The Phantom' stalks the halls at night. The new season is about to open with Faust, led by prima donna Carlotta (Mary Fabian), whose understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) has made a rapid rise from a mere chorus girl to potential star-in-waiting. Somebody is clearly a fan of Christine, as Carlotta's mother (Virginia Pearson) receives a letter demanding that Christine be given the lead, otherwise a great tragedy will befall her daughter. The note is signed by the Phantom, but Carlotta sings anyway. Soon enough, she is taken ill, and Christine steps in to wow the audience and her fiance Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). Visited by the shadowed Phantom late one night, she is told that she has been touched with a divine voice, and nothing can now stop her career, as long as she agrees to obey the wishes of her new master.

She soon discovers that these wishes involve her heading through a secret passage into the catacombs beneath the Opera House and living out her days in solitude with a disfigured creature who hopes she will return his love. The Opera House was built upon some kind of palace complete with torture chambers, and Christine is whisked off on horseback and gondola to the Phantom's secret lair. This sequence is captured with a dream-like quality, blurring the lines between reality and nightmare, although it has a sense of eerie beauty to it also. The eventual unmasking of Phantom, or Erik as he reveals himself to be, is one of the most famous images in cinema. Even though you know the moment is coming, Chaney's expression of shock and rage at being revealed to the world still has the ability to send a shiver down the spine. It is a shot that wouldn't have had quite the same impact if not for Chaney's involvement, and the actor also manages to squeeze some sympathy out of his bitter, twisted and completely insane romantic. It's far from the best chiller to emerge from the silent era, but it is undoubtedly one of the most influential.

Directed by: Rupert Julian
Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) on IMDb

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Review #1,319: 'Dig!' (2004)

The fickle nature of the music industry is well known. Most bands will try and flounder with a whimper; true visionaries will fail to find an audience or be deemed as too great a risk by the corporate machine; and the pretty but talent-free will strike it rich with one instantly forgettable tune after another. It's been documented in film before, but never in such brutal, in-your-face detail as Ondi Timoner's documentary Dig!. The cameras followed bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre for seven years, covering their friendship during the bright-eyed, let's-change-the-world beginnings to the bitter rivalry that formed between them as one made it big and the other struggled in infamy.

Both bands wanted to start a music revolution - one that would see artists take back control from the industry heads who ultimately lacked vision - by refusing to sell out. The Dandy Warhols' professionalism and willingness to bend as long as it avoided breaking meant that their star rose with increasing speed, before Bohemian Like You was snapped up by a mobile phone company and they became an overnight sensation, particularly here in the UK. This savviness is mistaken for bending over by BJM frontman Anton Newcombe, and soon Dandy lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor is receiving strange packages containing shotgun cartridges. Meanwhile, Newcombe's increasingly threatening behaviour towards everyone around him sees his band often struggle to make it through a set without brawling on stage. BJM were descending quickly from the next big thing to a circus sideshow.

Despite the chaos on screen, Timoner never loses sight of Newcombe's raw talent. His actions can be blamed on mental illness, egomania or copious amount of heroin, but he is the real deal, pouring everything into his work and banging out records at a miraculous rate (they released three albums in 1996 alone). The genius and madness meld together to create an image of a man worn down by his philosophy, someone who preached love but only ever gave any to himself. His descent is both tragic and funny, and every fight, argument and storm-out is captured by Timoner's ever-present camera. For a film ultimately echoing Newcombe's views on a corporate mechanism more interested in money than artistry, Dig! somehow forgets the music itself. The odd bar or snippet can be heard here and there, but it's usually interrupted by some act of self-destruction or other. Ultimately however, Dig! is a fascinating study of the idea of selling-out and a must-see for music fans, serving as a cautionary tale for anyone considering starting a band.

Directed by: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Joel Gion, Matt Hollywood
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Dig! (2004) on IMDb

Monday, 26 March 2018

Review #1,318: 'Rawhead Rex' (1986)

As well as delivering some of the shoddiest straight-to-video horror efforts ever made, the 1980s were also notorious for making stars of the real brains behind most projects - the writers. Popular authors such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz saw their names frequently advertised above the movie's title, used as the main selling point over any actors attached or the director in charge of the adaptation. One of the biggest names to emerge in the decade was Clive Barker, whose pull-no-punches approach and love of the stomach-churning side of sexuality provided a racier alternative to the milder King and Koontz. He would really make his mark in 1987 with his directorial debut Hellraiser, but before that came Rawhead Rex, adapted from a short story from Volume 3 of his Books of Blood series.

Just why Barker seemed so intent on bringing Hellraiser to the big screen himself is made perfectly clear after watching Rawhead Rex, a cheap, schlocky monster movie which Barker himself wrote the screenplay for, but quickly disowned after seeing the final product. Set in Ireland, Rawhead follows American Howard Hallenback (David Dukes), who drags his whole family to the cold, wet countryside in a bid to discover his roots and research sites that may be of religious and historical significance. But little does he know that nearby, a farmer has moved a sacred stone and unleashed the snarling demon Rawhead Rex upon the world. The peculiar priest Declan O'Brien (Ronan Wilmot) starts to act even more bizarrely when he encounters a strange vision after laying his hand on the church altar. Soon enough, mutilated bodies are being unearthed and citizens are vanishing, and with the police seemingly clueless, it's left to Howard to uncover the truth and send the monster back where it came from.

Directed by George Pavlou, Rawhead Rex is a terrible movie, losing points on everything from the camerawork to the acting (although Dukes actually isn't bad). The monster itself looks like hastily clumped-together paper mache school project, with a permanent open-mouthed expression unable to disguise the clear signs that the actor inside is struggling to see where they're going. It's offensive to the Irish, and just about anybody else with reasonable taste in cinema. Still, like many horror movies from the 1980s that receiving a pounding from the critics before gathering dust in the local video store, this is tons of fun for anybody with a weakness for tongue-in-cheek trash. It has a sense of humour, and certainly isn't afraid to have the most helpless of victims be dragged away by the rabid beast when you really expect them to turn up alive. Barker was understandably embarrassed but this certainly doesn't damage his reputation, and is enough to tide us over until Barker hopefully gets around to his long-planned remake.

Directed by: George Pavlou
Starring: David Dukes, Kelly Piper, Hugh O'Conor, Ronan Wilmot, Niall Toibin
Country: UK/Ireland/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Rawhead Rex (1986) on IMDb

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Review #1,317: 'The Shape of Water' (2017)

Guillermo del Toro's latest immersive fantasy spectacle began life as a remake of one of the Mexican director's favourite movies of all time - the iconic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon. When he pitched his plans to Universal, perhaps as part of their troubled 'Dark Universe' franchise which kicked off last year with spectacular misfire The Mummy, he wanted to tell a love story between the Gill-Man and a woman from the perspective of the titular creature. This idea, which sounds like a dream for film buffs but a turn-off for studio executives, was rejected outright, presumably being for too risque for mainstream audiences. Del Toro stuck with it anyway, and the script turned into The Shape of Water. Would the same film have nabbed the Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards if it was titled Creature from the Black Lagoon? I think not, so it worked out well for everybody apart from Universal, who are probably still licking their wounds from last year's Tom Cruise-starring horror show.

The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute lady who lives in an almost dreamlike apartment above a barely-used cinema called The Orpheum. We quickly learn everything we need to know about her in a wonderfully edited opening sequence, in which she boils eggs, masturbates in the bath, and pays a visit to her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), all before heading off to a top secret government facility where she works as a cleaner. Giles spends most of his time alone with his cats in his apartment, paying the bills by drawing product advertisements, occasionally venturing out to buy pies from a nearby diner and lust after the young man behind the counter. Elisa's best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) saves her a space in the queue for the clocking-in machine every morning, and has learned sign language so the two can chit-chat whilst carrying out their mundane job of cleaning piss up off the floor and, much to Zelda's befuddlement, the ceiling.

This is 1962 America, where the happy (and white) nuclear family is the very definition of achieving the American dream, but also where minorities are still looked down upon. It's no accident that Elisa, who rarely stops smiling even when she is treated differently for her affliction, is closest to and most comfortable around a gay man and a black woman. The arrival of a strange amphibian humanoid from a swamp in South America and the loving bond it gradually forms with Elisa represents a threat to this very American way of life, at least in the eyes of Richard Strickland, a brutish military official who caught the creature, played with sheer menace by Michael Shannon. Strickland wants to cut the creature open to learn if its abilities can be forged into some kind of weapon, and to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets. Mild-mannered scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to keep it alive for further study, but Strickland is given the green light by his superior.

What follows is a daring break-out and Elisa's efforts to keep the stranger hidden in her apartment. The story isn't exactly ground-breaking, and you can probably work out where the film is heading quite early on. However, The Shape of Water isn't a film about surprises and twists, but a strange tale of forbidden love to utterly immerse yourself in. Most directors would struggle to capture a sex scene between a beautiful woman and a slimy fish man with a straight face, but del Toro somehow makes the whole thing feel natural, and most importantly, incredibly beautiful. Longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones does some stellar physical work as the creature, forging a chemistry with Hawkins without the benefit of facial expressions or dialogue, relying on otherworldly howls and the odd bit of sign language to communicate. It warrants comparison to del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and although it's not as good as the 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, it shares much of its creepy magic and vintage character design, and also reflects on a country's troubled past. It's the riskiest and best work del Toro has done since. Suck in a deep breath and take a plunge.

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

The Shape of Water (2017) on IMDb

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Review #1,316: 'Paddington 2' (2017)

Paul King's Paddington was one of the great surprises of 2014: a re-imagining of a world-famous character beloved not only to children, but to the adults who grew up reading Michael Bond's stories or watching the various television incarnations since the 1970s. Aesthetically, it shared very little in common with the charmingly old-fashioned and quaint little adventures penned by Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, but shared much of its heart. Most who saw Paddington fell quickly under its spell, which was a wonderful amalgamation of Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's proudly artificial visual splendour and the stiff upper lipped playfulness of Ealing Studios. This sequel's arrival is more than welcome, if not only to make us forget what's happening out there in the real world, but to allow us to spend more time in the company of Ben Whishaw's endearingly clumsy yet optimistic bear.

In almost every way, Paddington 2 is an improvement on its predecessor. The return of King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby is a no-brainer, and they have not only grown in confidence and in their willingness to push their kooky boundaries even further, but they have fixed what was arguably a weak link first time around - the villain. Nicole Kidman had a ball as evil taxidermist Millicent Clyde, but here they have tried something less terrifying for kids in Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up thespian who dreams of bringing his one-man show to the West End, but finds himself in humiliating dog-food television adverts instead. Casting Hugh Grant was a stroke of genius, and it's no stretch to say that this is the finest he has ever been. He's pompous and full of himself, but takes pride in his ability to disappear into his characters. His desire to spark his festering career back to life leads to the theft of a valuable pop-up book from the store of Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), which holds clues to the location of a treasure chest hidden somewhere in London.

Phoenix Buchanan may steal the film, but the attention rarely strays too far from the titular hero, who is once again voiced pitch-perfectly by Whishaw. He was Colin Firth's last-minute replacement first time around when the Kingsman actor's efforts didn't quite feel right, and it's difficult to imagine any other actor behind Paddington's soft features and wide-eyed curiosity. When we first meet him, it's clear that the charming little bear's community wouldn't quite function without him. The Brown family, again played by Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters et al, are happily getting on with their lives, although dad Henry is experiencing a midlife crisis at work and with his ageing appearance. With Aunt Lucy's 100th birthday coming up, Paddington finds the perfect present in the pop-up book of London in Mr. Gruber's store, which he hopes will compensate for the elderly bear never being able to see the big city for herself. He starts to work odd jobs to save up for the pricey gift, but all suspicion falls on Paddington when Buchanan steals the book for himself.

He is sentenced to ten years in prison for the crime, and if that seems unnecessarily harsh, you'll understand why when you see the film. This may seem like a somewhat grim direction for a family film to take, but thanks to a mishap involving a stray red sock in the laundry room, the scenes within the jail are some the film's funniest. This is also thanks to the character of Knuckles McGinty, the fearsome chef played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson who Paddington naturally befriends over some marmalade sandwiches. Paddington 2 is unashamedly fanciful stuff, presenting a fantasy vision of London where the sun always shines and people on the street always greet you with a smile. It's an image many foreigners will no doubt have of the capital, but there's nothing wrong with playing up to this, especially when the film's fantasy sequences are quite as wonderful as they are. Production designer Gary Williamson and animation director Pablo Grillo are a crucial part of this, and King, who always displayed a flair for the fantastical in his early TV work, surely also had a hand in Paddington 2's overall magical feel.

Directed by: Paul King
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Tom Conti, Peter Capaldi
Country: UK/France/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Paddington 2 (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Review #1,315: 'Coco' (2017)

With Coco, Pixar reminds us once again why they are the creme-de-la-creme when it comes to American animation, with another emotionally resonant and visually breathtaking picture that will have both adults and children sobbing into their sleeves. This is their finest work since game-changer Inside Out in 2015, again tackling complex themes most studios would shy away from exposing their young audience to, and doing so with a technical flourish and completely free from the white-washing so common in American films dealing with a culture and folklore from overseas. I'm not ashamed to admit that I wept like a baby at Coco, the first time I had done so since, again, Inside Out.

Despite the title, our protagonist is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12 year-old wannabe musician who seems destined to follow his elders into the family shoe-making business. 96 years earlier, Miguel's great-great-grandmother forbid the sound of music in their house when her song-writing husband left town in search of his dreams. As a result, Miguel is forced to teach himself guitar and worship his idol Ernest de la Cruz, a famous crooner who was killed in an unfortunate on-set accident, in secret. His grandmother Abuelita (Renee Victor) is keen to enforce the rule, literally shoeing away a mariachi who asks Miguel to play for him. His refusal to follow his family's ban leads to an argument and a supernatural encounter, after which Miguel can only communicate with those from the other side who have crossed over to take part in the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Miguel's only hope of returning to his family before he fades away himself is with a magical marigold petal willingly handed to him by an ancestor. It doesn't take long to locate great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and some other faces familiar from photographs, but the matriarch will only allow him to return if he promises to give up music forever. With the help of lovable scoundrel Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a large-tongued stray dog, Miguel journeys across the Land of the Dead in search of the musician ancestor his family have been banished from mentioning. with only an old photograph with the face torn away for help. But could it be that Miguel was always destined to follow his muse, and that Ernest de la Cruz himself, who came from the very same town, may hold all the answers?

Pixar take every opportunity to illuminate the screen once we cross over with Miguel into the bright, almost psychedelic land of his ancestors, which is protected by dazzling alebrijes and connects itself to our world by a glowing marigold petal bridge. Yet beneath the surface there is a richly textured script by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, complete with fully realised characters, fluid storytelling and heavily-researched attention to detail. Ana Ofelia Murguia as the titular Mama Coco does some stellar voice work, easing us into those lip-quivering final scenes assisted by Pixar's wonderful animation, as does Benjamin Bratt as the self-admiring de la Cruz, a man who does well for himself in a world in which you can only exist whilst you are remembered on the other side. And this being Disney, it wouldn't be complete without a signature song, and Remember Me, written by married team Kirsty Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez of Let It Go fame, is another winner. The song might be stuck in your head for days, but the emotional impact of this tale of family, music and death will last much, much longer.

Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Voices: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Coco (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Review #1,314: 'I, Tonya' (2017)

What I know about the world of ice-skating wouldn't fill the back of a postage stamp. I'm familiar with Torvill and Dean's famous gold-medal winning routine at the 1984 Winter Olympics, but that's probably because I'm British and have seen their performance repeated during near enough every Olympic event since. Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya doesn't care if you like ice skating or not, because as soon as its troubled protagonist Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) hits the ice to the likes of Cliff Richard's Devil Woman and ZZ Top's Sleeping Bag, you'll be too caught up in the action, which are comparable to Baby Driver's car chase scenes, to care. But of course, if you know anything about Tonya Harding at all, you'll know this could never be just about ice skating.

One of my biggest gripes with biopics is the issue of historical accuracy and artistic license. Often a film can resemble a moving Wikipedia page as a result, and the other times it can be accused of glorifying its subject. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I, Tonya plays with this idea by admitting its based on questionable statements, and so tries to film it all to let the audience decide for themselves. Tonya, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her abusive husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), security guard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), and a handful of others who were caught up in the whole Nancy Kerrigan debacle, all give their testimonies to camera as the action jumps back and forth in time. Characters sometimes break the fourth wall to outright deny what we're seeing is true, and this playful, fast-moving approach is what gives I, Tonya its zing. It reminded me of Adam McKay's excellent The Big Short, which also featured Robbie talking to camera.

Saying that, the film clearly has more sympathy for Tonya than it does for the abusers and low-lives around her. Born into a white-trash community with a sharp-tongued, bully of a mother looking after her, Tonya felt compelled to skate from a very young age. Trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) doesn't train girls of her age, but soon changes her mind after meeting LaVona and seeing the 4 year-old come alive on the ice. At 15, she is one of the best skaters in the U.S., and one of a few who can pull off a triple axel jump. She is the only one to brave it in competition as well, but despite her abilities, the judges refuse to warm to her unconventional music and clothing choices, and general 'white trash' reputation. Against her mother's wishes, she starts to date Jeff, who quickly becomes abusive whenever Tonya speaks up. She pushes on anyway, trying to reinvent herself in order to meet the expectations of a snobby sport.

Of course, the action builds up to the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan, an incident that shocked the sporting world and is still surrounded by controversy. As for Tonya's level of involvement, that's for you to decide. Gillespie's film could be accused of ignoring one of the victims caught up in the story, but to have focused more attention on Kerrigan could have taken the action away from Tonya, whose film this is. As for the performances, they are stellar across the board. It's a shame Margot Robbie wasn't up against such a formidable opponent in Frances McDormand for this year's Academy Awards, as her transformation here would have surely seen her take home a golden statue most other years. Janney and Stan are excellent too, with both managing to squeeze some sympathy out of their loathsome schemers, and Hauser appears to have wondered in from another movie until you see the real-life footage of Shawn at the end credits. I, Tonya is an intelligent, unconventional, highly entertaining and darkly funny re-telling of a difficult subject matter, with a knockout performance at its centre.

Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

I, Tonya (2017) on IMDb

Monday, 12 March 2018

Review #1,313: 'Goto, Isle of Love' (1969)

Polish-born, French-based filmmaker, animator and artist Walerian Borowczyk is mainly remembered for his erotic works such as The Beast and The Margin, and has been described as "a genius who also happened to be a pornographer." Before he dabbled in eroticism, he produced many animated shorts before his first feature-length piece, the wonderfully weird Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre. His first live-action film, Goto, Isle of Love, employed similar tactics to his hand-drawn experiments: a desolate island setting, limited camera movements, and frustratingly (yet fascinatingly) odd and unrelatable characters. The result is somewhat isolating, but often reminiscent of the surreal genius of Georges Franju, Luis Bunuel and Borowczyk's friend and sometime collaborator Chris Marker.

Tidal inundation has seen the island of Goto cut off from the rest of Europe for three generations. It has seen three leaders since - Goto I, Goto II, and the current ruler Goto III (Pierre Brasseur) - and the monarchy rules as a dictatorship, 'protecting' the island from outside dangers and influences. There seems to be little to do on the island, so Goto keeps himself and his wife Glossia (Ligia Branice) entertained by staging fights between prisoners. Petty thief Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean) manages to survive his battle with a towering lug-head and wins the sympathy of Goto. Grozo's reward is a job building fly-catchers and showing off his work to a classroom of under-educated children. He also uncovers an affair between Glossia and handsome captain-of-the-guard Gono (Jean-Pierre Andreani), and grows bolder and more ambitious in his scheming as he seeks to claw himself up the social ladder.

On an island populated by criminals, no-hopers and aristocrats, Glossia emerges as the only sympathetic character. Played by La Jetee's Ligia Branice, she longs to escape this grey, mundane world, her eyes shining with tears as she watches the boat she hoped to sail away on sank before her. With little to hold on to on an emotional level, Goto becomes an observational piece, a commentary on an isolated society with an obvious anti-dictatorship stance. This is a world so lacking in stimulation that the object which draws the most fascination is a cutting-edge fly-catcher stolen by Gozo and flogged as his own design. It's deliberately farcical but lacking in humour, with the world made even more soul-crushing by the stark black-and-white photography and Borowczyk's preference for limited camera movements. It's an interesting piece but one that will likely leave you feeling cold, but certainly a work of art deserving of rigorous study.

Directed by: Walerian Borowczyk
Starring: Guy Saint-Jean, Ligia Branice, Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Pierre Andréani
Country: France

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Goto, Island of Love (1969) on IMDb

Friday, 9 March 2018

Review #1,312: 'The Death of Stalin' (2017)

After spending most of the 1990s helping create the likes of The Day Today and I'm Alan Partridge - two of the greatest comedy works to have ever come out of Britain - satirist Armando Iannucci really made a name for himself with The Thick of It, a political farce centred around a bunch of politicians and spin doctors within a fictional government department going to ridiculous lengths to further their own careers and avoid the sack at the behest of an unseen prime minister. This led to the brilliant spin-off feature film In the Loop, before he would go on to tackle U.S. politics with acclaimed HBO series Veep. These groundbreaking satires now seem like they were a mere warm-up for his most ambitious project yet, The Death of Stalin, which covers the panic-stricken aftermath following the demise of one of the Soviet Union most notorious dictators, Joseph Stalin.

For the film, Iannucci has gathered together some of the finest British actors working today: those who are as comfortable with improvisation as they are with brooding monologues. Michael Palin is Molotov, the nervously chirpy minister who remained loyal to Stalin after the execution of his wife; Andrea Riseborough is Svetlana, Stalin's emotionally crumbled daughter; and Rupert Fried is the drunken son Vasily. Most impressive of all is Simon Russell Beale as the reptilian Lavrenti Beria, a man renowned for his love of rape and torture who is now desperately picking up the scraps and trying to seize power. Working against Beria is Steve Buscemi's Khrushchev, the former cabinet jester who may actually be the country's best bet. Trying to hold it all together is Jeffrey Tambor's timid Malenkov, who despite unwavering loyalty to his leader discovers his name on a death list before the big guy drops dead, and is installed as acting Premier shortly after.

There are many belly laughs to be enjoyed in The Death of Stalin, but Iannucci's approach to the subject matter often approaches horror territory. While the worst the players in The Thick of It faced was public embarrassment or a dressing down from Malcolm Tucker, here one ill-timed comment can land you with a bullet in the head. It's an incredibly scary place, where characters stroll nonchalantly through grey buildings as screams and gunshots hum in the background, and people are taken from their homes by armed officers for some imagined slight. The comedy and tragedy are incredibly well-balanced, and intensifies the absurdity of political life to genuinely concerning levels. Watching the terrible events unfold as these desperate men stutter and scurry around like rats, willing to back-stab and manipulate their colleagues without pausing for breath if it means buying themselves some extra time, is irresistible. As you would expect, Iannucci's script (co-written by David Schneider and Ian Martin) is expletive-laden and sharp as a dagger, and the entire ensemble are at the top of their game. It's unlikely The Death of Stalin will ever see a release in Russia, but someone should definitely suggest Putin adds it to his IMDb watchlist.

Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko
Country: UK/France/Belgium

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Death of Stalin (2017) on IMDb


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