The Road To Ragnarok: The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) Review

Way, way back before 2012’s “Avengers Assemble”, The Hulk and Thor came face to face in “The Incredible Hulk Returns”, the first in a trilogy of TV movies reviving the much-loved show.

David Banner (Bill Bixby) has been living quietly, without the emergence of the Hulk, as Dr David Bannion, a research scientist at an institute researching Gamma radiation. As far as disguises go, it’s hardly the most cunning but it seems to have foxed supposed ace reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). Close to a cure, Banner is recognised by an old student of his, Donald Blake. As if being recognised wasn’t enough of a risk, Blake has a secret of his own: he is mystically bonded to an ancient Norse warrior called Thor, who he can summon using an enchanted hammer. As Thor and The Hulk come to blows, a criminal gang sets their sights on stealing the new Gamma reactor and selling it as a weapon.

There’s no doubting the ambition of this TV movie, just as there’s no denying its ambition far exceeded the grasp of its budget. “The Incredible Hulk” was always cheesy in its portrayal of Marvel’s green giant but thanks to the performances of Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno it succeeded despite the production limitations. This time around, in trying to do justice to two superheroes, it can’t quite hide the strain.

It’s an interesting twist on the Thor we generally know. In this interpretation, Thor and Donald Blake are completely separate entities and Thor is, like The Hulk, very much a depowered version of his comic book incarnation. Mjolnir (never named as such in the movie) is smaller and free of any worthiness small print. It’s the result of an attempt to use this as a backdoor pilot for a new weekly TV series focussing on Thor, only reimagined as an “Odd Couple” buddy comedy crime fighting procedural. As daft as it sounds, there’s enough to Steve Levitt’s Donald Blake and Eric Kramer’s Thor that suggests that it might have worked, even if it would have been kitsch as hell. Kramer’s performance as Thor might be fine but his costume is abysmal. At least “Game Of Thrones” makes its use of Ikea rugs hard to notice whereas here it looks like the production stole a discarded seventies sheepskin rug from a dumpster on the way to the set.

Filled with the usual pathos and propped up by Bixby’s committed performance and Ferringo’s fright-wigged flexing, it’s an entertaining enough addition to the TV series. It was successful enough to justify two further TV movies before Bill Bixby’s untimely death brought production to a final halt. It may look painfully dated by today’s standards but it plants the seeds of what would eventually blossom into the Marvel Universe we know and love today.

5/10 

Advertisements

Descendants 2 (2017) Review

Stretching the definition of ‘Original’ almost to breaking point, Disney Original Movie “Descendants 2” takes us back to the world where all the Disney Classics have been reimagined and remixed into a glossy tween fantasy soap opera.

As Mal (Dove Cameron) struggles to acclimatise to a life of being good, back on the Isle of the Lost, resentment is growing amongst the villains left behind, particularly Uma (China Anne McClain), daughter of Ursula the Sea Witch. When the pressure gets too much, Mal rashly decides to return to the island. King Ben (Mitchell Hope) and her friends travel in disguise to the island to bring Mal back but Uma is waiting for them and puts her plans into action.

This bright and breezy sequel was actually one of the most anticipated movies of 2017 in the Craggus household, at least in the four-year-old audience quadrant. Returning director Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical”) doesn’t want to mess with what apparently worked the last time. He sticks to the status quo, so we get more syrupy, overproduced, auto-tuned musical numbers and a cast of colourful characters dressed from the “Suicide Squad” wardrobe department’s reject bin. Rather than the start of something new, the story sees Mal gradually drifting back to her old ways. We know she’s starting to succumb to her evil instincts because as she slowly returns to being a bad hombre, her newly platinum blonde hair develops a really bad ombrée. The theme of being bad by birth yet being given a chance to bop to the top is what powered this exploitation of Disney’s back catalogue and the sequel looks at what it takes to stay there while giving another protagonist the task of breaking free from their circumstances.

The performances are a little better this time around, although not all of the cast have made the same amount of progress. Dove Cameron’s performance is still a little flat but Sofia Carson is much much better. Of the newcomers, it’s China Anne McClain who impresses the most, stealing the movie from the returning cast in every scene she features in. Side stories about the other ex-evil teens seeking dates for the forthcoming Cotillion provide opportunities for the some of the background characters to step forward a little with Mulan’s daughter Lonnie (Dianne Doan) getting a much more prominent role. Carlos (Cameron Boyce) gets a fun storyline with a magically talking dog but the film doesn’t use it nearly enough.

There’s a sense of cost-cutting in much of the early scenes – many of the streets of the Isle Of The Lost are clearly redressed studio corridors but the money’s clearly been saved for a lavish pirate ship set – admittedly used for a well-choreographed rap battle and swashbuckling battle – and some ever so slightly ropey CGI as the movie keeps trundling on past its natural endpoint (it’s one minute shorter than the first one but feels about half an hour longer) to deliver a SyFy Original-style rehash of the ending of “The Little Mermaid”.

“Descendants 2” is every bit as twee and derivative as the first one, albeit now cynically confident that it’s a viable franchise rather than a lavish one-off. It may leave this Disney fan cold, but it was a smash hit with its target audience which means the promised but thus far unconfirmed threequel is almost a certainty.

3/10 

My Little Pony: The Movie (1986) Review

It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time, not so long ago, when toy companies would licence out their IPs to animation studios to crank out a quick cash-in feature film, caring less for the quality of the end result than they do now. In 1986, having seen the success enjoyed by Parker Bros/ Kenner after “The Care Bears Movie”, Hasbro decided it was time for their saccharine equines to trot their way to the box office.

While the Little Ponies are preparing to celebrate the first day of Spring at the Dream Castle, the evil witch Hydia watches from the nearby Volcano of Gloom. She commands her daughters, Draggle and Reeka, to ruin the festival but they only mess up so Hydia decides to do it herself, releasing the Smooze.

A joint production by Sunbow Productions and Marvel Productions, their logos are where the rosy glow of nostalgia started and finished with this movie. The animation, by Toei Animation and, astonishingly, AKOM (who would go on to work on “Animaniacs” and “Batman: The Animated Series” amongst many, many others), is desperately poor and there’s a lack of personality to any of the Pony characters, let alone the apparently endless parade of other creatures meant to up the cute factor and/ or provide Hasbro with another potential product line. The musical numbers, such as they are, are truly, truly, truly atrocious and feel like halfway through the production, some cigar-chomping Hasbro exec demanded that the film have songs to pad out its non-existent storyline for the full eighty minutes and followed their suggestion up with: ‘I mean, how hard can it be?’

Limp, disjointed and lazily repetitive, there’s nothing in this movie which even begins to show why the My Little Pony range was so popular and beloved. To take the affection, enthusiasm and imagination of so many children (as well as so much money from their parents) and give them this in return borders on abuse. As usual, there are a few celebrity voices along for the ride, but they’re wasted in pointless peripheral roles and cursed with turgid and repetitive dialogue. It’s incredible to think this box office bomb went on to spawn multiple TV series and, now thirty years later, another feature film, especially when you think of what usually happens to horses this lame.

2/10 

The Death Of Stalin (2017) Review

There’s something deeply disturbing about the fact it’s so easy to laugh at “The Death Of Stalin”. Were it not for the fact these events all actually took place, this absurdist comedy from Armando Iannucci could be dismissed for simply being too far-fetched for its own good.

When Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a devastating stroke and dies, the members of his inner circle, the Presidium, begin jockeying for power. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD, looks likeliest to cement his grip on power but Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is preparing a coup of his own.

As you’d expect from Iannucci, aided in writing duties by David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, he wrings every last drop of satire and black humour from Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin’s original graphic novel. The initially surprising decision to dispense with the need for cod-realistic accents turns out to be a masterstroke, giving the proceedings an earthily surreal, Pythonesque quality, and allowing the all-star cast to revel in the sharp and incisive script. While Beale, Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov steal the lion’s share of the laughs, it’s in Jason Isaacs that the film finds its star performer, his boorishly jovial take on Georgy Zhukov, the head of the Soviet Army, delivering many of the film’s lightest and darkest moments.

The cast is brimming with comic talent and it must have been as much of a pleasure to makes as it was to watch. There’s one scene, at a post-mortem meeting of the Presidium where Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) leads his comrades on a Möbiusian argument of what the right thing to do might be that’s a masterclass of comic timing, not only from Palin but the rest of the cast too, that is those that weren’t just sitting there, basking in Palin’s performance.

Make no mistake, though, this is a brutal and savage political drama, detailing the true dark hypocrisy and corruption at nearly every level of the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War, much like the original “Ghostbusters”, the comedy comes from the performances and delivery of the dialogue, rather than the script itself; just a little tonal shift that turns this egregious tragedy to political farce. The authorities in modern-day Russia are looking closely at the film, considering banning it lest it ‘destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society’. The authorities in America could do worse than look closely at this film too, for an instructive lesson on where they may themselves be heading.

8/10 

The Snowman (2017) Review

With apologies to Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Kristen Bell

Do you want to see “The Snowman”?
It’s not really all that good,
It’s got Fassbender
And Ferguson
But neither’s in the nude…
They adapted Nesbø’s novel
And now we’ve got
This dreary murder myst’ry
Do you want to see “The Snowman”?
You might not want to see “The Snowman”
Are you sure?
Well let’s see…

So what’s not good about “The Snowman?”
The plot is riddled through with holes
I think the makers overreached themselves
They should have had more time
Or realistic goals
(Hang in there, Tomas!)
It gets a little ropey
At the halfway point
The story just melts away…

(Drip-Drop, Drip-Drop, Drip-Drop, Drip-Drop, Drip-Drop)

Look, the cast is brilliant
But they’ve got nothing to do
The killer’s obvious, the motive’s not,
Bad Kilmer dubbing too.
It could have been a classic
Of Nordic Noir
Instead it’s ‘Norwege Nil Points’
It’s very pretty, is “The Snowman”
But it’s pretty much “The Snowman”
We don’t want.

4/10 

To The Devil A Daughter (1976) #MonthOfSpooks Review

I’ve often used @TheMarckoGuy’s #Month Of Spooks as a chance to catch up on classic horror movie’s I’ve never seen before but this year, I decided to revisit a film which freaked me all the way out when I first saw it at probably far too young an age.

John Verney (Richard Widmark) is an American occult novelist, stying in Europe. When Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), the daughter of his close friend Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott) comes to stay with him, he finds himself in a battle to save her soul from a group of Satanists, led by Father Michael (Christopher Lee). The excommunicated priest and his followers plan to use Catherine in a ritual which will turn her into a vessel for the devil on Earth.

In a way, The Bible is the original compendium of creepypasta so it’s no surprise its fertile ground for horror stories and movies. Black magic and bringing forth the Devil’s representative on Earth wasn’t exactly a (heh) revelatory new concept, even when Denis Wheatley wrote the novel from which this film is adapted and although the most famous cinematic treatment of the myth would be in “The Omen” trilogy, “To The Devil A Daughter” would inadvertently be this young cinephile’s first encounter with the Anti-Christ.

I discovered this film at the tender age of 11 or 12 in a time-honoured and tragically extinct way: it was on the end of an e-180 video cassette, unintentionally recorded by parents who couldn’t figure out how to programme the VCR so would press record and just leave it running while they went to bed. The identity of the intended recording has been lost to history, but it lasted less than an hour because ITV’s late night movie that night was an obscure Hammer Horror from the mid-seventies.

It’s a sexually charged and lascivious interpretation of Wheatley’s novel, and after it was made he forbade Hammer from ever adapting his work again. This would put it on a par with “The Cat In The Hat” – which similarly provoked the Dr Seuss estate to forbid any further live-action adaptations – showing just how evil and wrong “To The Devil A Daughter” is. Admittedly, the reason it was changed so much is because Wheatley’s original novel wasn’t all that good but the original screenwriter who was so dismissive of Wheatley’s work, Christopher Wicking, saw his work heavily rewritten and changed during shooting and eventually disowned the movie too. It’s not clear anyone involved actually liked this film. Star Richard Widmark had to be talked out of quitting on a regular basis throughout the shoot and Christopher Lee wouldn’t make another Hammer film for 35 years after this.

Of course, I was blissfully unaware of all this behind the scenes malarkey, as I sat, agog, watching as Scaramanga brooded and plotted to impregnate the young and beautiful Nastassja Kinski with the seed of Astaroth. The film is notorious for a surprisingly explicit orgy sequence which is part hallucination, part rape, part twisted fantasy but it’s the full frontal nudity of its young star and a gratuitously horrific ‘reverse birth’ scene featuring a demon baby which seared itself on my young eyeballs.

Rewatching it now, the nudity and sexual content feels deeply, uncomfortably exploitative and unnecessarily explicit, especially considering that Kinski at the time could have been no older than fifteen and was likely fourteen when filming took place. Its sleazy, salacious production ethics aside, it’s a adequate, if somewhat pedestrian, supernatural thriller with occasional moments of shocking darkness and a cast far better than it deserves: Honor Blackman, Frances De La Tour and Anthony Valentine join Lee, Elliott and Widmark in cashing their pay cheques and moving on as quickly as possible.

They say you should never meet your heroes and they should probably also say you should never revisit the legendary half-forgotten movies of your youth. Dragging “To The Devil A Daughter” into the present day light has robbed it of any nostalgic mystique it had in my memory and replaced it with the knowledge of a satanic potboiler so clichéd that even Beelzebub himself would probably want a paternity test.

5/10 

Star Trek: Discovery – Choose Your Pain (S1E05) Review

*SPOILERS*

There’s plenty to chew over in this week’s cold open but chew it well because you might choke on what follows in the rest of the episode.

Having been called in by Starfleet Command to be told off for doing exactly what he was ordered to do, Lorca finds his journey back to the Discovery interrupted by a Klingon raiding party. Meanwhile, Burnham begins to suspect the frequent use of the spore drive is actually harmful to ripper, the giant space tardigrade. As Saru assumes command to lead the mission to rescue Lorca, he finds himself questioning his own command ability when he encounters opposition from Burnham and others.

So far in “Star Trek: Discovery”, by shuttle seems to be the riskiest way to travel anywhere. Whether it’s microscopic subspace particles or Klingon raiding parties, we’ve yet to see a shuttle complete its journey. It’s not even clear why Lorca took the shuttle given he’s apparently been merrily gallivanting around the galaxy using the spore drive without a care in the world. Why not just spore-pop back to Starfleet, have a chat and then set off again? Because the episode needs to put Lorca in a shuttle to make the episode happen at all. Nothing in the narrative of “Choose Your Pain” is organic, except of course, for our poor tardigrade, Ripper, who we learn is feeling a little peaky.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, our first real glimpse of Lorca’s dealings with Starfleet Command reveals that he doesn’t play well with others and hints at the fact his reputation generally within the fleet is only marginally better than that of ‘convicted mutineer’ Michael Burnham (although at most she committed attempted mutiny). In any event, by being kidnapped in Episode 5 of his own show (and in only his third episode), Lorca surely now holds the record for the quickest abduction of a starship captain?

The episode then splits its remaining running time between the ethical dilemma on the Discovery and Lorca’s experiences as a captive on the Klingon vessel. On board Discovery, it looks like the “Equinox” comparison was decidedly on point. Clearly, the ongoing attempts to get the spore drive to function are going to be one of the main plot threads of the season and it seems that everything they try is going to come at a significant cost. There’s even a tantalising hint of the Mirror Universe right at the end.

There’s an interesting moment when Saru, in a moment of self-doubt, tries to compare himself to Starfleet’s most decorated Captains. The computer lists Robert April, Christopher Pike, Philippa Georgiou, Matt Decker and Jonathan Archer. As well as being the first live-action canonical mention of Robert April, the list underlines that you stand the best chance of being highly decorated if you’re in command of a ship called Enterprise. It’s also quite telling that despite his legendary reputation, Lorca doesn’t make the list.

And why is that? Well, it turns out that our dynamic and heroic captain lost his previous command within the first month of the Klingon War. How this squares with his reputation as a strategic and tactical genius will have to be sorted out in a future episode because all we find out in this one is that he was the only survivor of the USS Buran and that he destroyed the ship, killing his crew rather than let them be captured by the Klingons. He suggests this is because he knew the fate that awaited them as prisoners and did it to spare them. That’s kind of, sort of, nearly convincing right up until the point that he and fellow Starfleet prisoner Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif, the final addition to the main cast) escape from captivity because ‘escaping is a two man job’. If the two of them could manage it, surely the chance to survive and escape was worth the risk? The entire episode is full of Starfleet officers acting in extremely un-Starfleet ways and while we all appreciate a little rebel in our heroes, it would be nice to see them doing the right thing quicker. I can’t help but feel that Kirk or Picard and their respective crews would have had this episode wrapped up in half the time.

Also in the Klingon prison cell is one Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson), originally played with pantomime camp menace by Roger C Carmel in two episodes of the original series (“Mudd’s Women” and the far superior “I, Mudd” when you learn that his ‘beloved’ Stella was anything but). It’s yet another continuity shout-out for fans but increases the risk of the series tripping over its own continuity. Remember, according to the timeline, it’s currently December 2256 give or take a stardate or two. Spock is already serving onboard the USS Enterprise under Captain Pike, Scotty has been in Starfleet for twenty-five years already, McCoy for three. Kirk himself is just about to be assigned to the USS Farragut as a lieutenant and is mere months away from encountering a gaseous haemovore. Discovery is so proximate to these events that it’s going to become faintly ridiculous that there’s no mention of the ship or its exploits in the other series and we never see these major characters in Discovery. Mudd’s youthful self is just as selfish and devious as his older appearances but he’s darker and more hostile towards Starfleet here, a real bitterness on behalf of the ‘little guys’ who aren’t soaring around in starships. There’s enough in Wilson’s performance, though, that you can draw a reasonably straight line to Carmel’s performance, so once again, I’ll give them the benefit of the continuity doubt.

The name of this episode finds its way into dialogue again this week. A lot. And, as if to make up for last week, Lorca namechecks “Battle At The Binary Stars” just for kicks. The dialogue also adds another weapon to the Star Trek canon: in addition to phasers and photon torpedoes, the Discovery has been equipped with F-bombs. It’s a gratuitous, puerile moment that feels instantly embarrassing and inappropriate for a franchise which surprised its audience when Kirk said “bastards” for the first time.

The series is really starting to suffer from the imbalance between its ongoing arc which still isn’t particularly clear or consistent – there’s no progress on Voq’s situation after last week’s events – and the standalone plots. The revelations about Lorca’s past raise more questions than they answer but the questions are of the ‘do the writers really know what they’re doing?’ variety rather than character intrigue and the Klingons already feel tired and overused despite not appearing all that often. I’m guessing we’ll see the now-scarred Klingon interrogator again, though.

There’s a nice reveal of the nature of Stamets’ relationship with Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) which would have been a nice surprise had it not already been spoiled in the series’ desperation to virtue signal for early publicity. It’s also interesting that Stamets, noted irritable, arrogant dick is the most orthodox Starfleet character in this episode.

“Star Trek: Discovery” has delivered its first really poor episode. Any more like this and my rekindled interest in new “Star Trek” will curl up into an extreme state of cryptobiosis too.

4/10 

The Monster Squad (1987) #MonthOfSpooks Review

As the years went past and cinematic tastes changed, Universal’s Monsters found a new home as beloved perennial TV favourites, gathering new generations of fans year after year and breaking out into popular culture through Saturday morning cartoons and reinterpretations. As the cinema reinvented and reinterpreted the creations, Universal’s pantheon continued to be the benchmark they were measured against but even as cinematic horror tastes turned darker, more violent and more gruesome, there was a loyal following just waiting for their beloved monsters to return.

Dracula’s back, and he’s brought The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and the Gill-Man with him. Seeking an amulet which will give him the power to rule the world, Dracula travels to America 100 years after Van Helsing failed to use the very same amulet to trap the vampire in purgatory. The only thing standing in his way is a gang of kids and their scary movie fan club: The Monster Squad.

The film opens with a prologue of Van Helsing trying to defeat Dracula once and for all using a magical amulet and an incantation which must be read by a virgin. It’s a beautifully staged sequence and it’s a delightful touch to have armadillos scuttling around as a nod to one of the quirks of 1931’s “Dracula”. In fact, one of best things about “The Monster Squad” is its affection and respect for the classic Universal horrors. The creature designs – by Stan Winston – for The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Gill-Man are beautifully realised and respectfully updated. Frankenstein’s Monster is taken back to Jack Pierce’s original design too, rejecting the Herman Munster mega brow of later incarnations.

The knowing and witty script from writer/ director Fred Dekker and co-writer Shane Black (who I assume agonised over a way to somehow set the story at Christmas before giving up) is peppered with references and nods to the original films but still finds a way to make the monsters’ machinations feel modern and contemporary. Their characters are lifted straight from the source movies, especially Frankenstein’s Monster’s emotional arc and The Wolf Man’s desperation when not in wolf form. Admittedly, the film has fewer ideas on how to use The Mummy effectively and, apart from retrieving Frankenstein’s crate from the swap, The Gill Man is largely absent until a cameo appearance in the finale.

Overdue for a real renaissance and rediscovery in this, its 30th Anniversary year, “The Monster Squad” is rich in the eighties Spielberg/ Stephen King vibe that’s so in vogue at the moment while retaining everything that made the originals so beloved. Even the special effects work makes the effort to homage the 1930s and 1940s albeit it with modern 1980s film techniques.

The performances are just what you need for this kind of horror comedy romp, with the kids covering off the roster of usual suspects: nerdy, overweight, cool etc. and there’s even an adorably precocious little sister, played by Ashley Bank, who’s reminiscent of Drew Barrymore’s performance in “E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial”. It’s a good job the kids are well versed in monster lore too because of course, the adults ignore the mounting monstrous evidence around them and the bickering parents are oblivious to their kids’ warnings too. Thankfully, there’s the always reliable Leonardo Cimino, as ‘Scary German Guy’ to give the fiendish phantasmagoria some gravitas and a poignant reminder of what true monstrosity is. Although the film tries to keep the horror elements at the right level, the tone does veer a little too dark and violent at times to really be considered family fare in the way, say, “The Goonies” was. It’s the unevenness of its tone which goes a long way to explaining its initial box office failure and the development of a cult following once it was rediscovered by young (and young at heart) adults who embraced it as the coolest monster movie their twelve-year-old selves never saw.

By today’s standards it may seem tame but in its amped-up Saturday Morning cartooniness and sincere affection for its subject matter, it’s probably the best Universal monster movie not made by Universal. It’s also a film which might just benefit from the same treatment given to “Logan” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” because in black and white it could look like a long lost classic.

8/10 

The Babysitter (2017) Review

Slashing its way onto Netflix this Friday 13th, McG’s “The Babysitter” is a Hallowe’en “Home Alone” delight.

When his parents leave for a weekend getaway, 12-year-old Cole (Judah Lewis) doesn’t really mind that he’s the only kid in his class who still has a Babysitter. And, to be fair, who would if their babysitter was the super-awesome, smokin’ hot Bee (Samara Weaving)? But Bee isn’t as cool as she seems, as Cole finds out when he decides to stay up past his bedtime and spy on what babysitters do when the kids have gone to sleep.

There’s something almost endearing about how workmanlike and obviously the film lines up all of its Chekhov’s Guns in a neat row for later, but once the fun begins, there’s a joy in figuring out just where and when they’re going to pop up. The movie’s masterstroke, though, is in the character of Bee, the literally too-good-to-be-true babysitter of your dreams/ nightmares. Samara Weaving’s performance is terrific, reminiscent of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn without being a direct knock-off and she and Cole have so much fun and such a rapport that even when things go bad, you’re still kind of rooting for her too.

Speaking of knock-offs, there’s a good amount of borrowing from the classics of the slasher genre like “Friday The 13th” and “Halloween” albeit with a very “Scream”-like ironic awareness. Cast-wise, it might have been nice to have a bit more fun with Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino’s mum and dad but they serve their purpose and then exit stage left, popping back to lend a hand a bit later on. Bee’s friends are a mixed bunch, with Hana Mae Lee (“Pitch Perfect”) and Andrew ‘King Bach’ Bachelor providing plenty of laughs (Bachelor is one of the movie’s MVPs and deserved way more screen time) while Bella Thorne riffs on the horror movie cheerleader cliché. Then there’s Robbie Amell, who may bring sick abs but also brings abs-olutely nothing else to the party. Apart from appearing shirtless and being hilariously, repeatedly, called out on it, Amell is what he usually is: flavourless beefcake. He’s so lacking in charisma, he forms a kind of blandness singularity, a beige event horizon from which no remains of personality can escape.

Director McG is more than aware of this, however, and has plenty of tricks and treats up his sleeve to keep the pacing and thrills dialled all the way up from the moment spin the bottle spins out of control. Clumsy set-up aside, there’s a devilishly black sense of humour at work in the script from Brian Duffield (“Insurgent”) and this is a horror movie which has its tongue (and occasionally a kitchen knife) firmly in cheek.

You probably couldn’t ask for a better movie treat for Friday the 13th, a splash of gore, a variety of imaginative death scenes and a killer sense of humour. Don’t tell mom The Babysitter’s awesome.

8/10 

The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017) Review

The latest entry in the Lego feature film franchise is also its most blatantly cynical toy commercial, offering little in return for your forked over ticket money other than a needlessly starry cast, a weak storyline and a massive middle finger to fans of the original cartoon series.

When evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) launches yet another attack on the island of Ninjago, it’s up to the Ninjas to repel him once again. Unbeknownst to Lord Garmadon, the Green Ninja (Dave Franco) is his estranged son Lloyd and when Garmadon gains the upper hand in the final battle for Ninjago, Lloyd disobeys his sensei and uses the ultimate weapon, drawing the monster Meowthra down on the island. To save the day, the Ninjas must journey to a hidden castle in search of the ultimate, ultimate weapon.

The original TV series on which the movie loosely draws from (itself based on an existing Lego toy line) tells the story of Master Wu, who sets out to train elemental ninjas in the art of Spinjitsu, battling Garmadon, his master The Overlord and their army of snake men. It offers a witty and wryly wise action comedy adventure with surprisingly strong character development over the course of its (so far) eight seasons.

The movie version jettisons nearly all of this mythology and the original voice cast in favour of a celebrity-voiced generic martial arts adventure that plays out like a Mega Bloks “Power Rangers” knock-off rather than the prestige Lego movies we’ve come to expect. The changes might not be so aggravating were they not so comprehensively and surgically aimed at selling merchandise.

You’ve bought your tickets and been provided with a flaccid and uninspired script which exists merely to pad out the running time and join the good bits they showed you in the trailer, so why not pick up the video game? Maybe you’re coveting the prominently featured Green Ninja Mechadragon? Or the Fire Ninja Mecha? Or maybe the Mecha Man Garmadon builds once he sees the other ninja have them? Hell, why not just go all out and splurge £109 on the Master Wu’s sailing junk Destiny’s Bounty model where several key scenes are set? At the very least buy a lunchbox, yeah?

Younger fans of the TV show may find the voice cast changes and complete discontinuity from their favourite TV show disappointing or unsettling. Even the personalities of the characters have changed without good reason and the brief nod to the TV series when Lloyd’s ringtone is revealed to be the theme tune just rubs salt into the wound. If any of these changes resulted in a better movie, they could easily be overlooked but they don’t. “The Lego Ninjago Movie” tries desperately to mimic “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie” but it has less than a tenth of the wit of the former and none of the energy and brio of the latter. It’s incredible to think this dreary brickfest was overseen by Phil Lord and Chris Miller themselves although suddenly, I can see Kathleen Kennedy’s point of view. Do yourself a favour: binge watch some of the TV show and wait for this cynical cash grab to turn up on Netflix.

4/10 

Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) #MonthOfSpooks Review

For over a decade, Universal had been content to recycle and remix their roster of monsters in increasingly crowded crossovers, even matching them up with Abbott and Costello for a fun-filled romp but the world was changing, and with it the audience’s taste for terror. The full moon might have been setting on the gothic monsters of old, but the growing public interest in scientific exploration, new technology and the possibilities of space travel was providing fertile new ground for big screen scares. Having heard of a myth of a race of half-man/ half-fish creatures living in the Amazon, producer William Alland started work on what would be the next great Universal monster.

When a scientific expedition deep in the Amazonian jungle discovers evidence of a hitherto undiscovered creature fossilised in the rocks, Expedition leader Dr Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) leaves his assistants to guard the discovery while he goes to recruit more help to study the find. Having convinced his colleagues to mount an expedition, Dr Maia returns to find the camp destroyed and his assistants killed. The expedition continues its investigations, heading to the nearby Black Lagoon, where they are shocked to discover the species which left the fossil is still very much alive.

Loosely based on a tale as old as time, that of “Beauty And The Beast”, there’s an element of latent racism at play in “Creature From The Black Lagoon” as there was in many of the ‘invasion’ sci-fi fantasies of the 1950s. Yes, the peril of the red menace was foremost in people’s minds but it’s hard to ignore the subtext of the underlying fear of the exotic foreign newcomers stealing away ‘our’ women. It’s why the image of the alien/ monster/ creature carrying away the leading lady is so iconic. It’s not the primary or even secondary allegorical driver at play in the movie but it lurks in the film’s psychological depths nonetheless.

The movie is primarily concerned with the idea of science and scientific exploration pushing too far, too fast and recklessly endangering humanity in its rush to discovery, an understandable dread in this newly forged post-nuclear age. The film opens with an awkward introductory lecture which tries to balance elements of creationism with geological evidence and evolutionary theory in a way which would sadly probably elicit more protests and complaints today than it may have down at the time. There’s also a strong environmental theme at play, as the scientists’ contempt for nature and ecology in pursuit of their goal and willingness to intrude into and indiscriminately pollute undisturbed ecosystems makes you sympathise with the creature.

Lonely and misunderstood, there are elements of the Gill-Man’s psyche that owe a debt to “Frankenstein” but it’s in his design and performance that he really carves out his own identity. The creature design is fantastic and, although it was tweaked in the sequels that followed, the original is by far the best. The inspired Gill-Man design was the work of Disney animator Millicent Patrick, although credit would be given to Bud Westmore for over fifty years. Although the ‘star’ of only three movies, the Gill-Man was so popular and memorable that he may be the most merchandised of all the Universal monsters.

Two actors performed the Gill-Man role: Ben Chapman for the above water scenes and Ricou Browning (who would go on to direct the underwater scenes in “Thunderball”) played the creature in all the underwater sequences. Like “The Invisible Man”, “Creature From The Black Lagoon” is a technical marvel. Filmed in 3D, which presented technical challenges of its own, it’s the underwater scenes which impress the most. The attention to detail is astonishing. The creature never emits bubbles to betray the diver within, meaning the actor had to hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time to get the desired shots, all the while swimming in a tank with real barracuda, moray eels and snapping turtles.

Directed by Jack Arnold, fresh from his success with “It Came From Outer Space”, Universal’s first 3D movie, there’s a vibrant, bright energy to the film, counterpointing and even heightening the horror elements of the story. Films like “Predator” can trace their ancestral roots to the creature design and even modern blockbuster masterpieces like “Jaws” owe something to the first film to really exploit the terror of that chilling feeling of something brushing past your foot as you swim in a lake or stream and what might be lurking just below the surface of the water. The Gill-Man was a new kind of monster for a new age of fearful film fun. We had trespassed into his world and he didn’t need the cover of darkness to pursue us into ours.

 8/10 

 

The Ritual (2017) #MonthOfSpooks Review

A quick, contemporary #MonthOfSpooks detour, looking at “The Ritual”, released in UK cinemas on Friday 13th. Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, the movie takes us into the woods for a chilling supernatural survival horror that would put even Bear Grylls off his grubs.

When a group of friends’ lad’s night out ends in tragedy as they inadvertently walk in on a  store robbery, Luke (Rafe Spall) manages to hide while his friend is murdered. Later, the friends decide to honour their mate by fulfilling his wish to go hiking in the Swedish mountains. It all goes well despite the group’s lack of outdoors experience until Dom (Sam Troughton) sprains his ankle, forcing the guys to abandon the mountain trail and take a shortcut directly through the forest. As the forest closes in around them, they begin to question the wisdom of their decision, especially after finding a freshly disembowelled animal corpse hanging from the trees. Lost and frightened, they stumble across an abandoned shack filled with bones and strange artefacts. Slowly, they realise they are definitely not alone in the woods and something intends they never leave.

There are definite shades of “The Blair Witch Project”, especially in the early stages of this creepy and atmospheric survival horror. Spall’s performance, morose and weighed down by survivor guilt, casts a wonderfully melancholy pall over the movie, despite the archetypical British banter and dry humour which becomes ever more brittle as the situation deteriorates. Where it differs from “The Blair Witch Project” is that it actually provide answers to the questions and mysteries it raises, and those answers are possibly more supernatural than you might be expecting.

Produced by Andy Serkis, “The Ritual” absolutely makes the most of its stunning location. Director David Brucker and cinematographer Andrew Shulkind capture and exploit the eldritch nature of the forest so perfectly, it becomes the most important character in the movie. Dark, ancient and claustrophobic, the camera movement through the trees as the sunlight filters through is like some kind of demonic barcode, stark and merciless. The production design, likewise, is superb and the runes and artefacts which increasingly litter the forest add a palpable foreboding to the already creepy ambience.

There’s such a richness of setting and mood that it’s a shame it’s such a brief film. Clocking in at 94 minutes, it’s a necessarily pacy affair and by the end feels a little rushed, leaving many of its best ideas unexplored and despite it fulfilling its own narrative promises, it all feels a little bit too superficial and quickly resolved at the end.

6/10 

Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) #MonthOfSpooks #Review

Having pioneered the ‘shared universe’ concept by producing a slew of crossover monster movies, Universal decided to go one meta step further and crossover movie genres as well. Tempting Bela Lugosi back to arguably his most famous role as “Dracula“, as well as Lon Chaney Jr as “The Wolf Man” and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster, Universal set these fearsome fiends against their funniest foes yet: Lou Abbott and Bud Costello.

Two hapless freight handlers, Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello) find themselves caught up in Dracula’s scheme to replace the brain of Frankenstein’s Monster with a more pliable mind but Lawrence Talbot is determined to stop them.

The great thing about this comedy horror is that it takes both elements seriously, never short-changing one in favour of the other. If you remove the comedians from this film, Dracula’s plot still holds up and it would have made a pretty good addition to the Universal canon as a straight horror movie but there’s just so much fun to be had, you’ll be glad it wasn’t.

Horror and humour have always mixed well and Abbott and Costello make the most of the sandbox they’re allowed to play in. It wasn’t their first foray into spooky comedy, having made “Hold That Ghost” in 1941 but it’s probably the first time their co-stars were every bit as famous as them.

It’s a joy to see Bela Lugosi play Dracula for only the second – and final – time in a feature film, especially given he displays such good comic timing. Boris Karloff, who declined to return as the monster but happily helped promote this film, is once again replaced by Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster. The monster makeup, by Bud Westmore who by this point had taken over from the legendary Jack Pierce, is much closer to the modern, “Munster”-ish look and there’s a Fred Gwynn-esque quality to Strange’s performance given he’s almost constantly struggling to keep a straight face in light of Lou Costello’s freewheeling ad-libs.

The plot, involving Dracula’s scheme and an insurance investigation into the ‘damaged cargo crates’ which contained the monsters, provides ample room for comic set pieces and the castle setting is a treasure trove of secret passages, revolving doors and high farce as hapless Wilbur struggles to convince Chick there’s anything amiss. In an action-packed finale which rivals any of the straight Universal monster movies before it, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man are all dealt with and the movie even has time for a sly cameo from yet another famous Universal monster.

It’s a knockabout, spooky chuckle-fest with some great special effects, including some great animation courtesy of Walter Lantz (of Woody Woodpecker fame) and if there’s no room in your Hallowe’en celebrations for a little spoopy fun, then are you even Hallowe’ening?

8/10 

 

The Wolf Man (1941) #MonthOfSpooks Review

Universal originally tried to introduce werewolves to its roster of monsters in 1935’s “Werewolf Of London” but the film flopped at the box office and it would be another six years before Universal would shoot for the moon once again.

After learning of the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) returns to his ancestral home in Wales to reconcile with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry quickly becomes interested in a local girl named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who runs the local antique shop. When Gwen is attacked by a wolf during a moonlight stroll, Larry saves her but is bitten in the process. Larry heals quickly but is told by a gipsy that he has been bitten by a werewolf and is fated to become one himself.

The film boasts a great cast, although the (unseen) mother of the Talbot family must have been an imposing woman given the height difference between Rains and Chaney. Rains, so imposing in “The Invisible Man” is dwarfed by his gigantic co-star. The film also features a young Ralph Bellamy, best known to modern audiences as Randolph Duke from “Trading Places” as well as a brief cameo from Bela Lugosi as a gipsy similarly cursed by lycanthropy.

Set in the same quasi-mythical Britain as “The Invisible Man”, it has the same turn of the century timelessness as many other Universal monster movies but its sensibilities seem more contemporary than most. The directness and insistence of Larry’s courtship of Gwen is a little bit squirmy, even by the standards of the day. He’s barely arrived home before he’s using his father’s telescope for tom-peepery on the local village girls followed by some ‘gee shucks’ creeping in person.

For such an apparently rare event, werewolves certainly seem to be a popular topic of conversation in the village and when a band of gipsies arrive the stage is set for the film’s set piece. The performances are decent throughout and Lon Chaney Jr particularly gives it his all in the dual role of the increasingly troubled Larry and as the eponymous Wolf Man. While not everything is in place, much of the Hollywood rules and traditions of werewolves are established in this movie. Even the famous saying quoted by many of the characters in the movie, ‘Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright’ often believed to be a genuine gypsy or eastern European saying, was actually created by screenwriter Curt Siodmak.

Curt Siodmak is responsible for helping popularise the idea of a person becoming a werewolf through being bitten, the importance of silver in dispatching a werewolf and also that werewolves are marked by a pentagram. Now, the pentagram shown in the movie isn’t what we would consider a pentagram by today’s horror movie standard, more a basic five point star, but its inclusion in the movie was a secret triumph for Siodmak. Inspired by his experiences in Nazi Germany, Siodmak was archly aware of the allegorical power of murderous monsters who pick out their next victim by marking them with a star. It’s doubly uprising that it managed to get past the notoriously anti-Semitic and pro-German Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Association which censored film production throughout the thirties and forties.

Complementing Siodmak’s excellent screenplay is the make-up work by the legendary Jack Pierce, the man behind the masks of all Universal’s most popular monsters. Originally, Siodmak’s screenplay was much more ambiguous around whether or not Larry actually turned into a werewolf or not but the studio, aware of the audience’s enthusiasm for creature feature, insisted it was made more explicit and thus another iconic look was born.

It’s not all gipsy curses, pentagrams and grisly wolf attacks, though. There’s a nice streak of humour through the movie as well, mainly provided by the bumbling sidekick Twiddle (Forrester Harvey) whose first name might as well be ‘Take A Note’.

Despite its heavyweight cast, there’s a lightness overall to the movie and it definitely feels pulpier than its more gothic predecessors. It’s still enormous fun, though – and clearly, Lon Chaney Jr enjoyed himself as he would return to play Larry/ The Wolf Man in three sequels and the Abbott & Costello comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”.

7/10 

 

Hot Air (2016) Review

Winner of the Comedy Vanguard Jury Award at the Austin Film Festival 2016, “Hot Air” is a quirky and gentle romantic comedy which starts with…ahem…a bang.

‘Major’ (Jere Burns) is an incorrigible conman who fakes his own death under his real name to get the authorities off his tracks only to discover he has a son when Lesley (Matthew Gray Gubler) turns up at the funeral. Initially horrified, then intrigued, Major is disappointed to discover his son is something of a wuss and decides to hang around and help his son out, like some kind of grifting guardian angel. But Major finds it harder to resist temptation than he thought.

There’s a lot of fun in watching Major getting to know his estranged son while trying to maintain a certain image. For someone being pursued by the FBI, there’s something endearing about Major’s ineptness once he’s thrown off his game by the decency and honesty of his son.

Determined to help his sandal-wearing boy stop being pushed around by the workmen on his building site and escape from being friend zoned by the love of his life, the engaged Summer (Schuyler Fisk), both characters start to rub off on each other in unexpected ways.

Jere Burns is tremendous as the callous grafter with the niggling sense of conscience, manifesting in the Clarence-like pilot (Gary Cole) who appears to Major when he needs some nudges. There’s an instant chemistry between him and Matthew Gray Gubler’s Lesley whose sincerity and homespun nobility spark and spar in a witty and well-crafted script from writers Jeremy M Goldstein and Derek Sieg, who also directs.

Managing to balance a love triangle, burgeoning unlikely friendships, a redemption arc and an FBI investigation without feeling overstuffed or rushed, “Hot Air” is a charming, funny and big-hearted independent romantic comedy, well worth a watch. It’s available to rent from the movie’s website https://www.hotairthemovie.com/ and you can watch the trailer below.

7/10 

Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) #MonthOfSpooks Review

Initially reluctant to do a sequel to the smash hit “Frankenstein”, director James Whale finally relented when Universal agreed to give him full creative control. With the studio out of his way, the only thing standing between Whale and his ultimate vision was Joseph Breen and the Hays Code.

Having survived the inferno at the windmill due to an underground waterway, Frankenstein’s creature escapes. As the monster tries to find his place in a world which fears and rejects him, Frankenstein is goaded into returning to his work by an even madder scientist, intent on making a bride for the monster.

There’s some lovely model work once again to open the movie and this time, instead of a prologue from one the cast in front of a curtain, we get a fully staged stormy night prologue featuring Mary Shelley herself (who gets her full due in the credits this time too). She’s enjoying an evening with husband Percy and a deliciously florid and camp Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) who cajoles her into sharing the story of what happened to the creature of her book after the windmill.

Thus Frankenstein’s monster becomes a pioneer of the principle that ‘the monster always comes back’ which would become such a staple of horror movies in the decades to come. “Bride Of Frankenstein” properly opens by restaging and expanding the finale of the last film, adding in new scenes and, oddly, playing up the possibility that HEnrty Frankenstein is dead even though we the audience know from the previous movie that…ahem…he’s alive!

Whale takes the opportunity to add in a few new characters to events, including a welcome (or not, depending on personal taste) return for Irene O’Connor (the landlady from “The Invisible Man”) as a maid from the Frankenstein house.

Played once again by Boris Karloff (so famous by now that he;s billed merely as ‘Karloff’), there are a few changes to the monster for this sequel. The creature is more bloodthirsty than before and its mere moments after his first appearance before he claims his first couple of victims. To be fair, the entire village has just tried to burn him to death so I suppose we can give him the benefit of the doubt, even if the couple he kills are the parents of Maria, the little girl he accidentally killed in the first movie. It’s a particularly nice touch that the monster make-up has been improved and updated, reflecting the burns the monster has suffered, creating a scarier yet somehow more sympathetic appearance.

The new Mrs Frankenstein, played this time by Valerie Hobson, safe to say, is somewhat hysterical about her husband’s fondness for blasphemous scientific experimentation and, despite everything that happened before, Frankenstein retains his ambition to create life. Mind you, now he’s married, its high time somebody had  a word with him to let him know there’s an easier and more fun way to create life. I guess that wouldn’t have been allowed by the censors.

In the event, it takes the appearance of the Mephistophelian Doctor Septimus Pretorius (a deliciously mendacious Ernest Thesiger) to kick off the monster mash, convincing Frankenstein to work on creating a mate for the monster. There’s a sinister, predatory quality to the way Pretorius grooms the monster, cruelly manipulating the creature’s loneliness and naïve innocence. Despite his wariness of allowing the monster to speak, Karloff uses it to the full advantage and turns in an astonishingly tender and emotional performance. The monster’s encounters with various folk throughout the picture highlight the complexity and depth of the character. His relationship with the blind man is genuinely touching and Karloff manages to squeeze every ounce of pathos from the witty and beautifully structured script, making the hurt the monster must feel being rejected by his ‘father’, Frankenstein, palpable.

As good as the original “Frankenstein” was, “Bride Of Frankenstein” is better in every way. The score, sets, special effects and lighting are all better, still technically impressive even today. It’s constantly fascinating to me that the lighting and cinematography in black and white films can be more challenging than for colour films and there’s an astonishing level of skill on display. The script, while suitably dramatic, is laced with Whale’s mischievously black humour, razor-sharp wit and wonderful performances. The bride of Frankenstein herself (played by Elsa Lanchester, pulling double duty after also appearing as Mary Shelley) has a mere three minutes of screen time but the make-up, hair design and performance are so instantly iconic that she remains one of the most recognisable of Universal’s pantheon of fiends. The final lines of the movie, spoken by Karloff as the monster, are amongst my favourites of any movie and cement the reputation of James Whale’s final horror movie as the original sequel which was better than the original. Without a doubt, “Bride Of Frankenstein” is the pinnacle of Universal’s golden age of monster movies.

10/10 

Star Trek: Discovery – The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry (S1E04) Review

*SPOILERS*

Don’t you just love the episode title? Very “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky”. Sadly nobody actually says the episode title but it’d be tricky to drop it into casual everyday conversation unless, I guess, the conversation started with ‘What would be an overly-florid way of summarising Lorca’s command philosophy?’

When the USS Discovery is assigned by Starfleet command to go to the assistance of a mining colony under attack by the Klingons, Lorca (Jason Isaacs) demands that Stamets (Anthony Rapp) gets the spore drive operational while at the same time assigning Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) to find a way to weaponise the creature recovered from the USS Glen. Meanwhile, back in the wreckage of the battle of the binary stars, Voq (Javed Iqbal) struggles to rally T’Kuvma’s followers as their supplies dwindle.

There’s a lovely, dramatic opening sequence once the recap has finished as we get an internal molecular view of the replication process. As the various particles come together, fusing into a complete uniform, it’s an ironic metaphor for the various storylines this episode tries in vain to weave into a cohesive fabric.

We dive into the Spore Drive this episode and, contrary to my previous theory, they get it to work quite quickly, albeit in a way which would be unacceptable a century or so later to Captain Janeway in “Equinox”. It’s also interesting that Lorca’s view of the Spore Drive is as a first strike weapon, which is a distinctly un-Starfleet way of thinking. On the plus side, we get an early answer to Discovery’s distinctive saucer design. I guess ‘Black Alert’ is Starfleet’s version of ‘scream if you wanna go faster!’  It’s reassuring, though, that for a series so keen on mysteries, its apparently not going to string them out for too long. Last week’s mysterious menagerie comes straight back and is explained immediately.

There’s a lot of sass and shade throwing going on in this episode, mostly from Saru and Lorca. Saru’s low key passive aggressive bitchiness in his dealings with Burnham continues to delight, especially when he might be saying one thing but his threat ganglia are giving her side-eye. Underneath it all, though, you can tell there’s still a strong friendship there, slowly recovering from the shock of Burnham’s mutiny; a very contemporary spin on the Spock/ McCoy dynamic of the Original Series. Meanwhile, Lorca’s busy throwing shade at the rest of Star Trek, deriding the attitude of ‘wide eyed explorers’ and scientific exploration for its own sake, although it’s a neat touch to hear him name drop Elon Musk in the same breath as The Wright Brothers and Zefram Cochrane.

Elsewhere in the episode, we’re keeping up with the Klingons and it’s here the episode drops the ball. Somehow we’re meant to believe that both the Klingons and Starfleet left the detritus of the battle untouched for six months? Having assassinated T’Kuvma, Starfleet didn’t take possession of the vessel and take its crew prisoner? They must have returned to pick up the USS Shenzhou’s crew, so, leaving the USS Shenzhou adrift seems careless if not downright wasteful. Mind you, the Klingons apparently just forgot that T’Kuvma’s vessel had pioneering cloaking technology for six months before returning.

At least Voq hasn’t been idle during the time. In between snacking on the remains of Captain Georgiou (eugh, gross), he’s amped up T’Kuvma’s messianic street cred, something the returning Klingons are aware of despite not having any contact with Voq and the rest of T’Kuvma’s people for six months. Meh, the whole Klingon side of the episode feels awkward, clumsy and, again, is lumbered with subtitles which are doing increasingly heavy lifting as the conversations become more complex. It really feels like the writers suddenly realised they hadn’t moved the Klingon story on at all since the pilot so they needed to do an awful lot of catch up. And catch up they did, and it was awful.

So, an episode of two halves: the Starfleet one good, the Klingon one bad. I’m enjoying the Tardigrade navigator – hope he gets a proper Starfleet commission and becomes a member of the crew, but looming over it all is the fact the Spore Drive never gets widely adopted. It was nice to have the old Trek trope of ‘you’re the only ship in range’ pop up again, one of the amusingly consistent inconsistencies in all flavours of “Star Trek” is, despite the vastness of the United Federation of Planets’ fleet, only ships with their own TV shows are ever in range of emergencies.

The performances are still great, although again the Klingons feel very stiff and staged, thanks to the ungainliness of their spoken language and their scenes having to be read rather than watched. There’s a sacrifice which ranks up alongside Pa Kent’s “Man Of Steel” exit for its sheer stupidity and unnecessariness which also suggests Trek has a real problem with female Security Chiefs but generally the fun comes from the character interactions; Lorca/ Stamets, Burnham/ Saru. On a side note, the cameo from Nebula (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) was unexpected, but I guess opens up a potential crossover opportunity for future series. 😉

For all its eponymous portentousness, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry” is a bit of a box-ticking exercise, tidying up some elements and bringing others up to date. Four episodes in and we’re still setting up this corner of the Trek universe. I mean, we haven’t even met all of our main characters yet (there is a new vacancy in Security, though). I’m enjoying it, but it still feels like we’re moving on full impulse and I’m starting to get impatient for the jump to Warp.

6/10 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) #Review

With the exception of perhaps “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, has there ever been a (belated) sequel which arrived under so much pressure of expectation as “Blade Runner 2049”? Picking up the baton from Ridley Scott’s lionised 1982 sci-fi noir, visionary director Denis Villeneuve leaps us further into the chillingly realistic dystopian future.

Following the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation and the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem in the early 2020s, the Wallace Corporation came to the rescue of both, introducing synthetic farming techniques and restarting the manufacture of replicants. K (Ryan Gosling) is one of a new breed of replicants, working as a ‘Blade Runner’ for the LAPD, hunting down older models of his own kind. When his latest case results in the discovery of replicant remains, K finds himself investigating a secret which has remained hidden for thirty years and could destroy the fragile balance of human civilisation.

Where Scott’s vision was focussed on the dark, claustrophobic mean streets of Los Angeles, Villeneuve brings us the vast desolation of open spaces and environmental ruin. Although it purports to be agnostic about which version of “Blade Runner” brings you to watch this continuation, there’s an innate dismissal of the Theatrical Cut’s bucolic ending of forests and rivers (which never made sense anyway because, given the choice, who would grind out a grimy existence in the soiled city streets when they could live in the lush and verdant countryside?)

One thing there’s no ambiguity about this time around is the nature of our protagonist. K is very definitely a replicant, albeit one without some of the limitations imposed on the Nexus-6s. As a Nexus-9, he has an open-ended lifespan and is allowed, more or less, to live as an independent citizen as long as he regularly undertakes Voight-Kampff-like baselining examinations. “Blade Runner 2049” won’t answer your burning question of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant or not but cunningly provide sufficient evidence to validate whichever side of that mystery you believe to be true.

Arguably, Villeneuve has taken the greatest strength of the original movie – its visuals – and built upon them, creating one of the most visually stunning movies of this or indeed any year. Together with cinematographer Roger Deakins, he’s created a feast for the eyes, a constantly dazzling cavalcade of beauty, using colour, light and shadow in breathtaking ways. It’s unfortunate indeed that Sony’s egregious addiction to product placement has been allowed to blight an otherwise perfect visual cinematic experience. Atari and Coca-Cola may, at least, feel authentic within the world as presented, but the self-promotion of Sony products grates and the idea that all vehicles in this post-apocalyptic American dystopia are Peugeots is jarringly unlikely. Plot-wise, “2049” is more coherent than the original and certainly more linear, meaning K gets to do some actual detective work. There’s a linearity to the plot which may disappoint those fans overly fond of the originals inscrutability but the clarity of narrative purpose will come as a refreshing relief to those tired of Ridley Scott’s onanistic philosophising which has blighted the “Alien”. The soundtrack, too, homages Vangelis’ score without being quite so self-satisfied and occasionally intrusive.

Gosling is terrific as the replicant who, despite full awareness of his nature, quietly yearns for more, finding solace and connection to a virtual reality software partner who – in a delicious nod to the original – may or may not be more than the sum of her algorithms. Harrison Ford’s aged Deckard isn’t too far removed from his aged Han Solo, skulking around off the beaten track with a hairy sidekick in conspicuously lacking the leading lady we last saw him with. He’s something of a destabilising element in the third act of such a tightly controlled film and, once he’s filled in the necessary missing pieces of the puzzle, becomes more baggage than contributor. Antagonist wise, Leto’s Niander Wallace is somewhat anaemic and underwhelming but thankfully counterpointed by Sylvia Hoeks as his replicant assistant Luv, one of sci-fi greatest on-screen villains. Her performance is almost a dark mirror to that of Sean Young in “Blade Runner”, her ruthlessness almost palpable in even the slightest movement or expression and she electrifies the screen in every scene she appears.

In its further exploration of the nature of existence and what it means to be human, the story of “Blade Runner 2049” is surprisingly – and satisfyingly – inextricably linked to the characters and story of the original, but in exploring the nature of replicants, it starts to unpick at the internal logic of the world it presents. At the heart of both films is the same conundrum which consumed Frankenstein: the creation of life but in blurring the lines between humanity and replicant, the story poses questions there aren’t good answers for. Wallace laments his inability to create replicants in sufficient quantities or quickly enough, but the potential solution he’s trying to get his hands on is likewise not particularly rapid, especially in terms of producing fully functional adults. Also, if you were creating something which is designed to perform those tasks and duties a human being is ill-suited to do, why would you build something which has the same inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities as humans? What are replicants, anyway? If they’re entirely biological, they’re effectively eugenicised clones (but if so, it shouldn’t be difficult for Wallace to figure out what he’s trying to achieve) but if they’re bio/mechanical in nature, why make them unnecessarily vulnerable to things like stabbing, drowning or being shot? Replicants certainly seem more trouble than they’re worth, in both movies.

Just as visually stunning and innovative as the original, but blessed with a better story, better pacing and a more engaging emotional core, “Blade Runner 2049” proves itself to be the superior model without the need to retire or erase its predecessor.

9/10 

The Invisible Man (1933) #MonthOfSpooks Review

There’s a real shock right at the start of Universal’s “The Invisible Man” as it proudly proclaims its membership of the NRA. Thankfully, it’s a reference to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration of 1933 and not the politicised mass murder apologists of today. Good job too, because “The Invisible Man” needs no help in piling up the victims. He’s by far the deadliest of Universal’s original monster menagerie, with a death toll rising about 120 in his first movie alone.

On a snowy night, a mysterious masked stranger arrives at the Lion’s Head Inn in Sussex, demanding room and board. TH stranger is Dr Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), desperately seeking the formula to reverse his invisibility. But the longer he remains invisible, the more toxic the effects of his original formula become, driving him into a murderous, megalomaniacal rage.

Adapted by R C Sherriff from H G Wells’ original novel, the film is fairly faithful to the source novel, only making a few tweaks to better fit it into the Universal formula. Now it’s the invisibility serum that causes Griffin’s madness rather than him being a nasty piece of work to begin with but otherwise how would we be able to accept the standard Universal trope of a loving and lovely fiancée and her mentor-like father? It’s not surprising that, apart from that, the film sticks quite closely to the book as H G Wells’ contract gave him final script approval. That didn’t stop Universal from commissioning a myriad of scripts which strayed further and further away from Well’s story. During this point, producer Carl Laemmle Jr was courting Boris Karloff to play the part but after prolonged disputes over payment, the actor left the project and, when James Whale was brought in to replace yet another director, his first choice was Claude Raines. James Whale also brought a puckish streak of black humour to the film, mining the subject matter for both its horrific and humorous potential.

Some of the performances may feel a little too broadly comic at first for a horror movie; as if the hospital orderly from “Dracula” had been given a whole movie to himself. This is especially true of the scenes in The Lion’s Head Inn featuring its shrill landlady (Una O’Connor). Thankfully the comedic farce is balanced by a superbly sinister vocal performance from Raines and special effects work which remains breathtaking to this day.

The entire film is an utter delight for fans of practical and in-camera special effects work. The groundbreaking techniques developed for this film by John P Fulton, John J Mescall and Frank D Williams continue to provide hours of fun some 80-odd years later trying to figure out just how they pulled off some of the more ingenious shots. Whale makes sure to keep the story rattling along at a fair old pace, ensuring the special effects are always in service of advancing the narrative and not the other way around. Griffin’s journey from troubled anti-hero to arch-villain is well explored and his ingenious use of his invisibility to advance his agenda creates a real sense of panic and paranoia, touching on concerns of privacy and security which remain pertinent to today. Perhaps more supervillain than monster, “The Invisible Man” ultimately meets his end thanks to the wintry conditions (let’s all salute his courage not to…ahem…shrink from his task in the cold) and it’s only in the film’s final moments, on his deathbed, that star Claude Raines actually appears on screen. It’s a sad farewell for his fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) but at least we the audience have the reassurance that she’ll eventually cheer herself up with a nice sea voyage to return the Heart Of The Ocean to the resting place of the RMS Titanic.

It’s another slice of prime spooky entertainment from Universal and the first one to really feel as if it were set in the contemporary period of its production (as opposed to the vaguely 19th century feel of its predecessors). The black humour on display in this film would go on to become one of the hallmarks of James Whale’s next, last and perhaps best horror film of his career: “The Bride Of Frankenstein”.

8/10 

Blade Runner (1982) #Review

Back in the early eighties, giddy on “Star Wars”, I’d picked up my visual scanning for any other movies which starred my favourite heroes. “Hanover Street” cruelly tricked me – I mean, it had “Han” in the title and starred Harrison Ford so it must be great right? Not for this 8-year-old “Star Wars” fan. I was too young to be aware of films like “Apocalypse Now” but “Blade Runner” made itself known to me by being adapted by Marvel and appearing, serialised, in the backs pages of the weekly “Return Of The Jedi” comic.

I eventually got to watch it – quite a few times – when it was released for rental on VHS, back in the day when it was basically one of the only three sci-fi movies available for rental (the other two being “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Star Wars”). Back then I kind of liked it, I think, but I definitely didn’t understand it. I probably liked the flying cars and the brief action bits but the rest of it would have whooshed right over my head. I might have watched it a few times as a teenager, but it always felt like a film I should like rather than one I did like. Fast forward a quarter of a century and I haven’t watched it for years, and of course I’d never watched any of the alternative cuts but with “Blade Runner 2049” coming out, I figured it was time for The Craggus to finally watch “Blade Runner”.

Blade Runner: The Theatrical Cut

So, first of all, obviously its visually amazing. Much like its early VHS rental stablemate “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, “Blade Runner” loves its beauty passes. Astonishing vistas of the dark and foreboding Los Angeles of the future – the then unthinkably distant 2019 – and the grimy, dirty, neon-scarred streets it’s such a distinctive look that “Blade Runner” now is almost more well known for its influences on films which came after it than for its own story.

It may be because the story isn’t that great, certainly not in this version. Its noir detective ambitions are somewhat thwarted by the fact its main character does very little actual detecting unless you count opening a few drawers and then saying ‘enhance’ twenty times in a row. The constant voiceover, delivered by a clearly reluctant and disinterested Ford mixes toxically with his restrained performance to slow the already leisurely pace down to a somnambulistic crawl.

When the film isn’t focussed on Deckard, it’s much better and much more interesting. The replicants stories are more vital, real and alive than any of the humans presented to us and Rutger Hauer is easily the best thing in it.

My main other takeaway from the original theatrical cut is that it might be better called “The Foley Cut”. I rarely comment on the technical aspects of films I watch at home because I have zero confidence that I’ve optimised my set-up but as I watched both versions on the same TV, I’m going to just say it: the sound mix on the theatrical Blade Runner is appalling. The foley artist did good work, I’m not faulting that, but all of the sound effects are so disproportionately loud that they intrude into every scene, the most egregious example being when Deckard guns down Zhora as she runs.

Ambitious and striking, with some sensational moments, “Blade Runner” as it initially ran in cinemas may have been hugely influential but it’s not all that great in and of itself.

6/10 

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

I was wary about watching this directly after sitting through the film once, in case familiarity bred contempt. I needn’t have worried, “The Final Cut” is like a different film. If anyone ever needs to be convinced of the power and importance of editing to a film, “Blade Runner” is the go-to example.

Fresh, visually spectacular and somehow more expressive in the absence of leadenly inappropriate exposition, seeing the “Final Cut” for the first time really opened my eyes to the scope of the film.

Scott’s preoccupation with the themes of the relationship between creator and creation and the ultimate meaning of existence which would dominate “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” have their roots here and his definitive version of the movie he considers his most personal and complete, but he’s much more successful in exploring them in this grimly dystopian urban nightmare than on the existentially gore-drenched surface of alien planets. Deckard feels more interesting now that his inner monologue is internalised and wordless, allowing Harrison Ford’s deceptively subdued performance to shine through. The replicants are still the more interesting characters, but there’s a better balance to the storytelling and the story flows better in this revised edit.

There’s not really much else to say about “Blade Runner” that hasn’t been said a hundred times in a hundred different ways by people far more steeped and invested in the film than I am. I still don’t love “Blade Runner”, but I do respect and admire it a great deal, not just for its influences and impact on the sci-fi genre but for its thought-provoking storytelling and visual splendour. It’s not perfect, but then perfection would be a thematic betrayal of the film itself and leave nothing to the imagination.

8/10 

The Mummy (1932) #MonthOfSpooks Review

“The Mummy” is the first of Universal’s monster movies to be based on an original idea instead of being adapted directly from an existing work. What it lacks in pedigree, it makes up for in classy production values, attention to detail and continuing the series’ surprising subtextual depth. Where “Dracula” was all about sex and “Frankenstein” focused on humanity’s arrogance and fear of others, “The Mummy” offers a pointed critique of cultural colonialism wrapped up (ahem) in an unexpectedly poignant love story.

In 1921 a field expedition in Egypt discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Imhotep, condemned to burial alive for his crimes, alongside a roll of papyrus: the Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life. When a young member of the expedition reads the scroll out loud, Imhotep comes to life, driving the young man insane. Ten years later, Imhotep returns to the British Museum’s expedition, seeking to use them to reunite with his lost love Ankh-es-en-Amon , who he believes has been reincarnated.

Opening, as is so far customary with the Universal horrors, with an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, the ambitions of “The Mummy” are revealed through the delightful model work used simply to deliver the movie’s title ‘card’. Once again, the set design and production values are superb, especially in a later flashback scene where Imhotep shares a vision of his ancient past life with his beloved.

Karloff is once again immense in the title role, his dedication to and mastery of his craft apparent in every frame of his work. He manages to keep Imhotep a fearful and foreboding figure yet also a sympathetic one as he pursues his single-minded objective of reuniting with his lost love. The lighting of the film, and of Karloff, in particular, lends the magnificent sets a sense of authenticity and antiquity. While the film’s implicit criticism of the pillaging of historical sites by western nations is clear, the characters themselves occasionally lapse into condescension of Egyptian culture as more primitive and superstitious than the supposedly enlightened West.

Unexpectedly, the 1932 version of “The Mummy” has little time for the now favoured cliché of the shambling, bandaged moaning cadaver and much of the action has Imhotep wizened but restored to almost humanity as he pursues his plan to recover the soul of his beloved and restore her to life too. In fact, he rarely kills with his own hands, instead – like the personification of popular myths such as the curse of Tutankhamun’s Tomb – he reaches out invisibly through magic to control, coerce and even dispose of those who stand in his way. Despite the absence of an unravelling, perambulating corpse covered in rotten bandages, the film like its stablemates still sets up many of the tropes and traditions of ancient Egypt’s contributions to sci-fi and horror, becoming a touchstone for everything from “Bubba Ho-Tep” to Doctor Who’s “Pyramids Of Mars”.

While Karloff’s performance is superb, the same can’t be said for his co-star and leading lady Zita Johann. A celebrated and renowned stage actress, she famously feuded with the director Karl Freund, who himself was a famous cinematographer (“Metropolis”) making his directorial debut. However the animosity played out off camera, it clearly has an impact on screen in her wildly uneven performance.

What’s interesting is how much of this movie informed the 1999 remake with Brendon Fraser and Rachel Weisz. While the tone is very different and the emphasis moves from subtle dread to action and adventure, much of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-Amon’s story and motivations remain intact and form the bedrock for the Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling. Unlike the terrible 2017 Dark Universe reboot, though, there’s no intention here to set up a new franchise. In fact, unlike Universal’s other monster movies, “The Mummy” is the most standalone picture of them all. When they did get around to making another, 1940’s “The Mummy’s Hand”, it was a reimagining of the story featuring a mummy named Kharis, who would go on to appear in a further four movies and bring the bandaged, arms outstretched monster into pop culture.

It’s another atmospheric and classy success for Universal, rewarded by box office success and cementing Karloff’s position as one of Horror’s true greats.

7/10 

Spoof: Based On A True Movie (2017) Review

Once in a while, down in the depths of Netflix or Amazon Prime, you come across something so odd looking, it would be a dereliction of duty not to watch it. Or maybe that’s just me? In any event, it happened to me today while browsing for something to watch on Amazon Prime, I came across “Spoof: Based On A True Movie”.

I believe I’ve gone on record before, admitting my unrepentant love of silly parodies so this sounded right up my street. A hundred parodies, running from ten seconds up to a minute, one after the other until they start to blend together? Sign me up!

A mix of animation, CGI effects and a small cast, “Spoof: Based On A True Movie” is less a movie and more like finding a mildly funny sketch on Youtube and forgetting to switch off the autoplay feature so it loads up the next video, and the next, and then the next and so on. They may start out a bit basic, resembling countless throwaway gags you and your friends may have thought of while watching your favourite movies but it’s not long before some sparks of genuine comic flair appear and while the hit rate will depend on personal taste, many of the skits are genuinely funny, with my personal favourites being “The Pink Panther” and the “Nosferatu” sequences. Tonnes of your favourite movies get a look in, though and even the initially less successful jokes get better as they become running gags. Bond movies, Hitchcock movies, “Jaws” and the Indiana Jones films are all ripe or the mocking and the creativity and wit which goes into each segment belies the overall movie’s simplicity.

If you’re a movie buff who laments the loss of Vine, this may just be the comedy portmanteau for you. Created and Directed by Jonathan Zarantonello, this movie ended up being much more fun than I expected and I’ll be digging into his back catalogue to explore more of his work off the back of it. If you’re a fan of Channel 4’s zany 1990 sketch comedy “The Adam And Joe Show” or the pop culture sophomoric scattergun silliness of “Robot Chicken”, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here, and it’s available absolutely free if you’ve got Amazon Prime so what have you got to lose? If you’re in Europe, you can watch it here and if you’re in America, it’s available here. Yes, there’s a lot of dross in the depths of VoD, but occasionally you’ll find a little gem. “Spoof: Based On A True Movie” is one of them.

6/10 

Flatliners (2017) Review

I’m pretty sure that, in a limbo competition, no matter how low the bar is set, it’s still considered cheating to dig your way under, but that doesn’t stop 2017’s “Flatliners” from boring straight down, aiming for rock bottom.

Driven by a family tragedy, ambitious medical student Courtney (Ellen Page) seeks to find out what happens when you die and ropes in four of her friends to help revive her after stopping her heart. When the experience seems to offer some surprising benefits, the others rush to try it for themselves but it’s not long before darker, more unpleasant side effects begin to manifest.

Much less stylized than its predecessor, this take on “Flatliners” sets itself in a more realistic world, if realistic to you is fourth-year medical students living in spacious apartments, driving new cars, studying and doing residency rounds to the wee small hours and yet always looking immaculate. It’s archly aware that you, the audience, know what the characters are going to set out to do so it doesn’t waste time showing us the characters coming up with, discussing, debating or rationalising the idea of deliberately ending their lives with the intention to resuscitate only minutes later. Nope, instead Courtney issues her friends Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) a cryptic invitation to meet her in a hospital subbasement at one in the morning only to explain her plans once they arrive.

Without much convincing, they agree to help but when the resuscitation proves far more difficult and complex than they anticipated, they’re forced to call on their other friends Ray (Diego Luna) and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) to help. When Diego Luna’s atrocious haircut fails to shock Courtney back to life, they have to take extreme measures and only just manage to bring her back from the dead. And yet, despite the desperate difficulty encountered in reviving Courtney, it only takes about a minute for one of the group to glibly decide they want to be next to kill themselves and come back again. I mean, YOLO, right?

There’s no point in this movie where the characters don’t make stupid decisions, driven by a confused and atrocious script which can’t make up its mind what it wants to be or wants to say about death and near-death experiences, apart from pushing a clear anti-abortion, confession is good for the soul agenda.

The remake does try to add a few new ideas to those the original played with, the way a reluctant child plays with a wilted piece of broccoli on its plate which it has to eat otherwise it won’t get any pudding, but then fails to do anything more with them. 2017’s “Flatliners” just piles more unwanted broccoli onto the plate as if that’s a solution to the toddler’s dining dilemma.

There’s potential aplenty in the idea that a near-death experience enhances your sense of being alive and ‘shocks’ your brain into working more efficiently, improving recall and perception, but beyond showing temporary suicide could be the party drug and study aid of choice, this joie de mourir doesn’t pay off in any other way. In a forced third act, the film tries to pivot into being an out and out horror movie, throwing a bunch of horror clichés at the screen in the hope they connect meaningfully to what’s gone before. Instead, it makes things more ridiculous as the hallucinations waste time and effort scuttling around in the background where the audience might be able to see them but the character experiencing the hallucination absolutely can’t. The absurdity is all capped off by one of the characters being absolutely outraged that recreationally killing yourself and then reviving might have a downside. Brilliant medical students indeed.

Given the feeble material they have to work with, it’s no surprise the cast show little appetite or enthusiasm and even the mild amusement provided by Kiefer Sutherland cameoing as Ted Danson cosplaying as Gregory House quickly wears off. This is a needless remake which magnifies the flaws of the original and then piles on the misery. It deserves to die quickly and let’s hope this time Sony put a Do Not Resuscitate notice on their file.

2/10 

Frankenstein (1931) #MonthOfSpooks Review

Universal’s 1931 production of “Frankenstein” opens with a preamble from actor Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a brief cautionary announcement before the opening credits ‘How do you do? Mr Carl Laemmle [the movie’s producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a friendly word of warning: We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation; life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to uh, well, – we warned you!’

It’s a cute touch and so iconic it was homaged not once, but twice by “The Simpsons” for the very first “Treehouse Of Horror” and then again in “Treehouse Of Horror V”. The warnings for the audience’s safety would become an oft-used marketing trope, especially for the B-movies of the forties and fifties, but it’s just one amongst an array of memorable imagery that James Whale’s “Frankenstein” would bequeath to the world of entertainment.

Based on the novel by Mary Shelly, here somewhat misogynistically credited as Mrs. Percy B. Shelley, “Frankenstein” tells the story of scientist Professor Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a man mocked and dismissed by his peers who becomes obsessed with the notion of creating life. Using cadavers, body parts and a stolen brain, he assembles a creature into which he manages to breathe life, with terrible consequences.

In many ways, “Frankenstein” was a tremendously brave film to make for a major studio in the 1930s. Although it was produced pre-Code, it deals with a number of contentious subjects and it’s probably due to its subject matter rather than the horrors of the story that the producers felt it wise to try and put a disclaimer in front of the picture. The movie opens with a scene of grave robbing and the story of a man defiantly seeking to usurp God could have easily been construed as deeply blasphemous, indeed the famous line of dialogue ‘Now I know what it’s like to be God!’ had to be edited out when the film was re-released after the Hays Code of censorship guidelines were implemented in 1934. The controversial and heart-breaking scene of the creature and little Maria by the lake was also cut short by censors at the time and remained lost for several decades until rediscovered in the archives of the British National Film Archives and restored to the film we can see today. It’s quite possibly the finest scene of the movie and acts as the catalyst for the final calamity to unfold – it’s hard to imagine the film working as well as it does without it.

It’s lauded by many as the best adaptation of Shelley’s work to date and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways, it’s not really a horror film, it’s a macabre tragedy and the creature, Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, along with everyone he inadvertently harms, is the unhappy victim of ‘Henry’ Frankenstein’s ambition. It’s no wonder the character became the poster boy for mad scientific hubris. Even Ian Malcolm’s famous line from “Jurassic Park” – ‘Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ – is a direct call back to Frankenstein and his creations.

Watching “Frankenstein” now, it reminded me a lot of when I watched “Citizen Kane” for the first time, very, very (shamefully) late in movie buff life. Like Orson Welle’s epic, James Whale’s realisation of the gothic science fiction of “Frankenstein” has been homaged, referenced, spoofed and copied so frequently and comprehensively that I felt like I had actually watched the film before. The one surprise, given its now close association with the character, is the absence of Igor. Frankenstein does have an assistant, but his name is Fritz (played by Dwight Frye) but it would be more than a decade later that Frankenstein’s loyal and archetypically hunchbacked sidekick would really coalesce into being.

The performance of the entire cast is very good but there’s no denying that the film is made indelible by the terrific performance of breakout star Boris Karloff. In what could easily have been a goofy, superficial monster role, he turns in a performance of tremendous physicality, the movements awkward and compromised by the assemblage of body parts, and a personality by turns childlike, wondrous, enraged and fearful. The image of a torch-wielding mob bearing down to destroy something or someone different and differently abled carries added piquancy now and helps to illuminate Karloff’s performance by delivering the movie’s most relatable and complex character. It’s quite remarkable that by the end, when the film delivers its ‘happy ending’ and Henry Frankenstein recuperates with his new bride and his father looks forward to them having children, it feels bitter and unjust.

Of course, the monster’s status as a tragic anti-hero wouldn’t survive far into the many sequels and reinterpretations and he would eventually become known more as a lumbering, violent monster but thanks to the success of this movie, his trademark flattened head and bolted-on neck would remain in the public consciousness forever more.

9/10 

Flatliners (1990) Review

Nineties with a capital 9, stripped of the rose-coloured shroud of nostalgia, Joel Schumacher’s morbid thriller emphasises the ‘flat’ in “Flatliners”.

Inspired by the near-death experiences of patients, a  group of brilliant, ambitious medical students decide to probe beyond the veil to establish empirically what happens when you die. But as each of them becomes haunted by what they saw, they must find a way to make peace with their experiences.

Stuffed with Brat Pack actors, Schumacher brings the same campily gothic aesthetic to “Flatliners” that he would later dial all the way up to 11 in “Batman & Robin”. Unfortunately, the ludicrously grandiose set design and general post-industrial atmosphere simply serve to undermine any sense of realism whatsoever, leaving the flights of fantasy with nothing to ground them. Everything is lit with the subtlety of a sledgehammer in stark orange or bright blue to give you a ready indicator as to whether something good or bad is happening, which is handy because your attention will wander as much as the plot does. Even if you’re not paying attention, though, you’ll still notice some of the clumsiest on screen set adjustments to accommodate the forthcoming camera movement you’ll ever see.

Essentially a high-concept morality play about atoning for past (or sometimes present) sins, it’s all terribly vague and vaguely terrible. Kiefer Sutherland – who despite being a poor medical student apparently lives in a giant mansion from a high-class fragrance commercial – hides possibly the worst secret of the bunch. But then again they’re all phenomenally bad scientists, withholding vital information from each other, making a mockery of the pretence they’re invested in scientific research rather than a low-wattage Twilight Zone clip show. Despite raising some interesting philosophical, metaphysical and theological questions, the film doesn’t care to address them at all, preferring to focus on the banal, small stories of the characters.

All flash and very little bang, the only flatline that sticks in the mind was my level of interest in the self-indulgent narcissistic guilt trips of these unlikeable characters, except for Sutherland’s Norman, whose level of guilt is so far removed from the context of the others that his ultimate redemption feels grotesque. If people are calling the new remake a disappointment, I can’t help but wonder if they’re setting the original’s bar low enough?

4/10 

Star Trek: Discovery – Context Is For Kings (S1E03) Review

*SPOILERS*

Oh, “Star Trek: Discovery”, you’re a cunning one. Here we are on our third date and you know what that means. Do we have a future together or was it just a brief fling? No wonder you kept the best of your new goodies until this episode. Because make no mistake, “Context Is For Kings” is the real “Star Trek: Discovery” pilot. The previous two episodes were effectively a prequel to this prequel. #Prequelception.

During a prison transfer, now notorious mutineer Michael Burnham’s transport shuttle runs into trouble only to be rescued by the starship Discovery. With no option but to remain on the ship while the shuttle is repaired, Burnham is pressed into working in engineering aboard this most secretive Starfleet vessel. When the Discovery’s sister ship suffers a catastrophic accident, Burnham joins the away team and must prove her value to her reluctant shipmates.

Where the previous two episodes gave us the beginning of the overall series arc, in terms of characters it told us a fairly self-contained story, jettisoning nearly all of the cast once its tale was told. “Context Is For Kings” offers us, the viewers, a royal banquet in terms of new characters, mysteries and intriguing plot threads to explore in the coming episodes.

Chief amongst these are Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), a secretive, manipulative and authoritarian leader. Clearly focused on gathering the best and the brightest Starfleet has to offer, he’s vastly more morally flexible than any other Captain Trek has shown us before. He’s interested in talent and potential, not necessarily the social niceties and abilities to play well with others. He clearly cares little for crew morale, because the heads of department we meet in this episode (Chief Of Security Landry (Rekhta Sharma) and Astromycologist Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp))are borderline unpleasant and outright hostile at times.

Jason Isaacs makes an instant impression as Captain Lorca. Sardonic and stern, its nevertheless obvious that his directive nature is a result of his confidence and competence for the mission he’s been given, which is to win the war with the Klingons. He becomes one of the few Starfleet captains ever to actually say the name of the episode as dialogue and by the end, he’s piled up a number of secrets and hints of agendas, including having his own…ahem… menagerie (and an infertile Tribble). Lorca clearly likes to plot., scheme and manipulate events, which is a great aptitude in a galactic war, but if he plotted to get Burnham onto his ship, was the death of the prison shuttle’s [unexpectedly tiny] pilot a deliberate part of his plan or just some unfortunate collateral damage. So far, I could believe either interpretation. I’ve got the feeling that the “Star Trek: Discovery” writer’s room takes Chekov’s Gun very seriously so I’m interested to see how everything that’s being thrown on the table in this episode it picked up and pays off later.

Aside from Lorca, Landry and Stamets, the other major introduction this episode is Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). She’s a bright, excitable, almost cynically constructed audience proxy. She’s also instantly likeable, very different from nearly every other main Trek character we’ve ever seen and may be my new favourite character (although I reserve the right to find her annoying in a few episodes’’ time).She may start off as a prototypical ‘special snowflake’ with her allergies and ‘special needs’ but it will all depend on how she develops. She’s possibly the most intriguing character when you put her in the context of Lorca’s demanding and extremely selective approach to recruitment. What makes this fourth-year cadet so special that she merits a place on Lorca’s starship?

Speaking of the USS Discovery, she looks gorgeous. Tweaked and polished since the early reveal, the finished project looks tremendous both inside and out and I’m looking forward to exploring more of her as the series progresses. As to her origins, there’s a steely pragmatism and disregard for the conventions of Starfleet that hints at the involvement of Section 31 (if the black badges and registration number NCC-1031 weren’t clues enough). Just to underline how potentially unfriendly a place Discovery is, the mess hall apparently runs of the same rules and principles as High School cafeteria.

As is often the case with “Star Trek” series, the third episode (even if it is part of the pilot) is a money-saving ‘bottle show’, although it uses another favourite Trek trope of a ‘sister’ ship which gives the feeling of going elsewhere thanks to different lighting and Dutch angles. It’s a surprisingly horror-tinged visit to the Glenn, kind of “Star Trek” does “Event Horizon” in its execution, with a welcome return to the Jeffries tubes for some “Alien”-style escape work. The central MacGuffin of the episode is the USS Discovery’s experimental ‘spore drive’. Again, this rubs up against the constraints of being a prequel because unless there’s another bifurcation of the timeline ahead, we already know that this experiment will never work out as planned because, for the next hundred years or so at least, starships use dilithium crystal-powered warp drives. The way it’s portrayed, however, bears a striking resemblance to the extinct and ancient Iconian network which was touched on in all three ‘Next Generation’-era series, so I wonder if that will somehow cointo to play down the line.

It still feels like Trek to me, and actually is skewing closer to “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” at the moment, which is possibly the highest praise I can give it. With the pilot shenanigans hopefully now out of the way, let’s see where “Star Trek: Discovery” takes us now it’s freed up to boldly go.

8/10 

Dracula (1931) #MonthOfSpooks Review

Once again, What The Craggus Saw is joining in with TheMarckoGuy’s Month Of Spooks. Last year, it prompted me to finally get around to watching the classic Hallowe’en movie, “Halloween”. This year, I’ve used it as an excuse to go all the way back to where modern cinema horror began, exploring the original Universal Monster movies, starting with “Dracula”.

Ancient vampire Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) makes arrangements to move to England, enslaving his solicitor Renfield (Dwight Frye) as he does so. Once he arrives in England, he charms Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston), the owner of the asylum which neighbours his property of Carfax Abbey and begins to seduce and prey on his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Only the eccentric Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) suspects that the Count may be more than he appears.

“Dracula”, like many of the original Universal horrors of the 1930s, sets the iconic template for the character which all subsequent adaptations are defined by, whether they are homaging and reimagining it or defying and subverting it. There’s a lot to enjoy in this atmospheric and eerie production. Lugosi is just wonderful as the charming yet sinister Count. Utterly magnetic, he dominates the screen in every scene he’s in and he has such a charismatic presence that it’s an easy leap to believe in his powers of mesmerism and control.

The film opens with the hapless Renfield obliviously on his way to Borgo Pass to meet a coach provided by his employer Count Dracula. He is warned off his journey by some wary villagers who are really quick to mention that the Count is a vampire, basically laying it out in detail to a sceptical Renfield. It’s an interesting scene because we’re used to versions nowadays where the superstitious and fearful villages tend to speak of the occupants of Castle Dracula in euphemism and innuendo but not this little hamlet. Nope, they just put it all out there, give him a crucifix and send him on his way when they can’t persuade him not to go.

All of the Transylvanian sequences are technically impressive. Tremendous set design, mattes and model work creating seamless, iconic visuals. Although there are quirks here and there – armadillos haven’t yet managed to become an important part of the Dracula mythology despite their appearance in the castle. Not known to be native to Romania, Armadillos have been sighted in Transylvania County, North Carolina, so I’ll give them a pass.

Adapted from the stage play which in turn had adapted Bram Stoker’s source novel, the deliciously melodramatic dialogue manages to make the leap to the big screen, again defining the character for the decades to follow. There’s quite an unexpectedly racy and sexual undercurrent to the film, fusing for all time the concept of vampires with a dangerous, seductive sexuality which is largely absent from the original text.

Despite its technical limitations – it’s not as visually impressive and innovative as the Spanish language version Universal made simultaneously – it stands the test of time, as eternal as its eponymous character. There are some odd performances in the rest of the cast; Van Helsing is often as creepy, if not creepier, than Dracula himself (and where is he meant to be from? Occasionally Scotland, by the sound of it). Renfield’s conversion to willing and manically crazed acolyte may be too fast and furious but it’s the almost Shakespearian unsubtly of the comic relief character of the asylum attendant (Charles K Gerrard) that sticks (out) in the mind the most. In amongst all the camp (to modern audiences) melodrama, though, there are genuine moments of cinema magic. I’ve already called out the scenes set in Transylvania but the battle of wills scene between Van Helsing and Dracula is a masterclass of acting from both performers, probably my favourite scene of the whole movie.

It may seem extremely tame by today’s blood-soaked, no holds barred horror movie standards, but it’s a deliciously creepy, deceptively innocent retelling of the classic tale, setting for all time the standards by which all future Draculas would be measured. There’s no doubt the Count is genuinely immortal, and Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance has played a huge part in making that so.

8/10 

Gerald’s Game (2017) Review

I vividly remember reading “Gerald’s Game” the first time, because it’s maybe the only book that’s ever made me physically jump while reading it. On first consideration, Stephen King’s story of psychological survival horror, notably lacking in overtly supernatural elements, would seem unfilmable yet writer/ director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”) has nevertheless fashioned the twisted tale of child abuse, sexual power plays and desperate survival into a taut and chilling thriller.

Seeking to reinvigorate their troubled marriage, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) travel to their remote lakehouse for a romantic and adventurous weekend. But when Gerald’s fantasy gets out of hand and he dies suddenly of a heart attack, Jessie finds herself trapped, handcuffed to the bed and unable to escape.

Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard do a terrific job of bringing the novel’s mostly internal narrative to vivid, cinematic life. Greenwood and Gugino both pull double duty as figments of Jessie’s mind both helping and hounding her through the ordeal. As hallucinations, dreams and fleeting moments of lucidity start to bleed into each other, it forces her to revisit the darkest chapters of the past as well as the struggle to stay alive in the present.

The film really capitalises on the inherent creepiness of isolation and immobilisation, the growing dread as the seemingly simple needs of survival like a drink of water suddenly become near insurmountable problems. There’s a satisfying neatness to the seemingly inconsequential actions of the characters in the opening minutes of the movie which come into play later as Jessie’s internal avatars nudge and prod her memories. Best of all, the moment which made me jump while reading the book, was every bit as creepy as I wanted it to be in the movie.

It’s a brilliantly crafted, suspenseful movie driven by superb performances by Gugino and Greenwood. Its horror is all the stronger for being fully grounded in reality and despite its deceptively limited scope, definitely not one for the squeamish.

8/10 

Star Trek: Discovery – Battle At The Binary Stars (S1E02) Review

*SPOILERS*

Well, here we are after the first flush of rekindling my romance with Trek. Can “Star Trek: Discovery” manage the ‘tricky second date’? TL;DR version? Yes…and no.

With Burnham’s mutiny halted, Georgiou confines her to the bridge and awaits Starfleet reinforcements. When her attempt to communicate peacefully with the Klingons results in the Klingons opening fire without warning, the resultant battle leaves the Shenzhou badly damaged. As the Klingons press their advantage, repeatedly exploiting Starfleet’s peaceful overtures, Georgiou and Burnham put aside their differences to launch a last, desperate counterattack.

The strength and history of the friendship between Captain Georgiou and Lieutenant Commander Burnham was obvious from the previous episode thanks to the chemistry between Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green but this episode opens with a flashback giving us a glimpse of their initial meeting seven years previously as Georgiou reflects on her decision to send Burnham to the brig. There’s something a little bit Jerry Ryan 7 of 9 of Martin-Green’s performance as Burnham’s immediate post-Vulcan persona but as the flashbacks start to flesh out the timelines of these characters, the curse of the prequel starts to come into sharper focus. If Sarek handed Burnham over to Starfleet seven years prior to the start of the series, that would make it the year 2249. One year later, Sarek would so oppose his half-human son Spock joining Starfleet that it would create a rift between them that would last for eighteen years. So far, the underlying theme of “Star Trek: Discovery” is that Sarek has been a far better father to his adopted human daughter than he ever was to either of his sons. I wonder if it’s because of the psychic hotline he apparently has with Burnham that allows communication across light years without technology?

For all its action, “Battle At The Binary Stars” feels both sluggish and rushed. The new Klingon messiah’s hard-on for racial purity brings the series back to Trek’s allegorical social commentary roots with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the point where they may as well be illuminating their bridge with tiki torches but the actual space battles are disappointingly anaemic. What were the creators thinking with the literal ‘pew pew’ phaser effects? The feeble dashes of light lack any kind of impact, dramatic or, it would appear, destructive yield. I know “Star Trek” isn’t really about the space battles but this continued obsession (carried over from the Kelvinverse movies) that starships should battle light Star Wars’ fighters is really grating. Nicholas Meyer understood that starships would fight like capital ships, hence “The Wrath Of Khan” providing the spacefaring equivalent of two 18th century frigates trading cannon fire. That hand drawn, painstakingly animated sequence is miles better than what “Discovery” shows us here.

There’s not much tactical genius on display here by either side in the battle. The Klingons employ a bizarre crashing tactic for no real reason or gain, apart from T’Kuvma seems to want to prove something that nobody has actually questioned: that he can make his ships invisible. Perhaps he’s forgetting that he proved that in the last episode, or he misread one of his underling’s subtitles. “Star Trek Discovery” needs to step away from the subtitles for the Klingons sharpish; it’s one of the primary reasons this episode feels so sluggish and the stilted, awkward delivery of the language by the actors makes it seem like it’s not their native language, so why bother? There’s another Meyer-esque nod in this episode as Georgiou and Burnham’s transporting over the to the stricken Klingon vessel feel very “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”, only this time it’s war, not peace, which hangs in the balance.

Character-wise, the show maintains its early promise. Doug Jones’ Saru continues to intrigue, even if he is being unsubtly set up to be the Spock/ Data of the series but because of the decision to focus more on action, the character moments feel too hurried. Burnham’s tactically astute suggestion to the Captain that capturing T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) rather than killing him would have long-term strategic benefits is completely undone when she herself kills him. I think it’s meant to represent a loss of emotional control in response to what’s just happened, but there’s something in the script/ shots/ editing which doesn’t quite sell the moment, undercutting the impact of what’s happened. Emotional inconsistency are tricky to get right in these kind of serialised dramas and without enough history with the characters, it can easily come across as incompetence rather than unfortunate. The episode then races forward further still to Burnham’s court-martial where she’s sentenced to life in prison for her actions and the audience discovers that “Star Trek: Discovery” doesn’t have a two-part premiere, it’s a three-parter and we’re going to have to wait until the 2nd October for the ‘resolution’/ actual beginning of the adventures of the Discovery.

It’s a shame we won’t get to spend more time with Captain Georgiou, although I hope we might still get flashbacks. She seemed like a Captain who would have got along very well with Picard had they not been separated by 80-odd years. Burnham, on the other hand, probably would have been great friends with [later seasons] Janeway.

Being so swept off my feet by the return of Trek, I didn’t comment much on the opening credits or theme last time out, but I’m not overly keen. They’re a little too “Doctor Foster”/ “House MD” for my taste. It’d be nice to see some space in there somewhere, and a couple of beauty passes for old time’s sake and while the theme is pleasant enough, it’ll take a while to grow on me. Right now it feels like it’s trying to please too many masters and the riffs on the classic fanfare feel awkward and inorganic. So, there you go. Praise and petulant cannon pedantry: I guess my inner Trekkie really is back.

6/10 

Star Trek: Discovery – The Vulcan Hello (S1E01) Review

Things haven’t been great between me and “Star Trek” for some time. Oh sure, we still go through the motions, remembering birthdays, anniversaries all the while secretly reminiscing about the good old days when we were inseparable, glued to the screen as Kirk, Picard, Sisko and even Janeaway roamed the universe.  The magic died around the time Trek stopped growing and moving forward and started navel-gazing into its own past. “Nemesis” was an insulting wilted bunch of gas station flowers to mark a significant milestone but it was “Enterprise” that killed the passion and offered instead a dull, lifeless routine until eventually, I ghosted the whole franchise. Oh sure, we’ve flirted since with a few movie dates but they’ve just hollow attempts to recapture the magic of the early days and I’ve usually come home, grabbed a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and binge-watched TOS, TNG and DS9. But wait, here “Star Trek” comes again, messing up my mind and filling up my senses, standing in front of this Trekker, asking me to love it again.

Investigating a damaged relay station near a binary star system on the edge of Federation space, the USS Shenzhou discovers an object being masked from their sensors. When First Officer Michael Burnham volunteers to investigate the object herself, she is attacked by and accidentally kills a Klingon. Before long, a Klingon warship decloaks and a stand-off ensues but when the Klingons activate a galactic beacon, the command crew of the Shenzou find themselves divided on how to respond.

From the start, there’s something about “Discovery” that feels instantly, authentically “Trek”, despite all the shiny new modern design and effects work. The bridge crew of the USS Shenzou is bristling with distinctive personalities, unlike the dreary “Star Trek: Enterprise” contingent, proving that the best Trek is diverse Trek, not just the petty ethnicities of Earth but beyond to the various races of the Federation. Nice to see that a descendant of Daft Punk has managed to rise up the ranks too.

Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) quickly establishes herself as one of Trek’s most intriguing characters. Curious, determined, righteous and reckless, she’s fascinating, as her adopted older brother might say.

The episode clips along at a fair old pace and the script manages to make the necessary introductory information dumps and exposition feel somewhat natural. We’re still in ‘pilot’ mode at this point, so it’s hard to judge the supporting cast fully as we’re not really sure who’s going to be along for the ride long term. Of course, I wouldn’t be a Trekker if I didn’t have one petty, technical gripe and so, for this episode, it’s this: why was a spacesuit the obvious choice to investigate the mysterious object in the asteroid field? Surely a shuttlecraft would have been just as effective and considerably safer?

A lot will be made, no doubt, of the design and technology on display given this is meant to be placed in the Prime universe a mere ten years before the events of “Star Trek: The Original Series”. I don’t even mind the ‘controversial’ adoption of the Enterprise’s insignia to represent all of Starfleet. Yes, there’s part of me that finds it a little bit of an irritation that nothing looks like it will evolve into the blinking lights and primary-coloured buttons and switches of The Original Series’ aesthetic in a decade but the pragmatist in me accepts that it simply wouldn’t be feasible to have a series steeped in that look be taken seriously nowadays. If Trek is to live longer and prosper, it needs to beam up a whole new generation of fans. It will never accomplish that with slavish recreations of past glories to satiate the dwindling population of change-averse die hards. Of course, the best way to do that would be to reject any more prequels and start moving into the future again but apparently, Nemesis broke everything. Thanks for nothing, Stuart Logan.

The Klingon redesign is an interesting one; familiar enough but also distinctively new enough, borrowing heavily from “Star Trek Into Darkness” and also quite liberally from the Remans in “Nemesis” (so maybe thanks for one thing, Stuart Logan). I did have a wry smile at a glimpse of what looked like pink blood when the Klingon is killed, a hint of Nicholas Meyer’s influence *ahem* bleeding through?

Superficial, cosmetic design discontinuities I can accommodate but I’m less comfortable with the story behind “The Vulcan Hello”. The idea of a Vulcan ship ever adopting a shoot first policy seems diametrically opposed to the teachings of Surak, especially as shown in “TOS: The Savage Curtain”. It’s one thing to make the ships shiny and cooler looker, it’s quite another to fundamentally rewrite the underlying philosophy of an entire species. Mind you, the Vulcans aren’t quite as scrupulously honest as we’ve always thought, with Sarek being the case in point: he’s surely only one more secret child away from appearing on Vulcan’s equivalent of “The Jerry Springer Show”.

I always thought one of “Star Trek: Enterprise”’s biggest mistakes was in trying to explain the disparity between the Original Series appearance of the Klingons and their movie to Next Generation looks. It’s fan-wanking unnecessariness of the first order and, if nothing else, underlines the perils of prequels made decades after the original. It’s a danger that “Discovery” will need to navigate skilfully to legitimately claim it’s boldly going where no Trek has gone before but given it ends its first episode on a full-blown mutiny cliff-hanger, there’s no doubting its ambition. For now, I’m encouraged, optimistic and my hailing frequencies are very much open.

8/10 

Borg vs McEnroe (2017) Review

Gripping, insightful and quietly powerful, “Borg vs McEnroe” brings us a thoughtful examination of sporting drive and athletic rivalry at a watershed moment for international tennis.

In the run-up to the 1980 Wimbledon Championship, Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) contemplates the possibility that he could become the first person ever to win five consecutive Wimbledon titles but his path to glory may be blocked by the brash, aggressive up and coming enfant terrible of tennis, John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf).

Gudnason does a fantastic job of capturing the cool charisma and sex appeal of Borg at the height of his fame and while it may be an easy target to say LaBeouf could just put on retro tennis whites and be himself to essay a young John McEnroe, assisted by a smart script, he delivers a much more complex and nuanced performance, adding layers beneath the temper tantrums and doubting of umpires’ seriousness.

In fact, although the film primarily focuses on Borg, there’s a neat parallel between the two athletes revealing the same incendiary drive and will to win that would propel them both to the top of their sport. While Borg was – and is in the film – the more easily likeable of the pair, the film gives us a deeper understanding and sympathy for McEnroe, showing him in a light I had never considered.

“Borg vs McEnroe” is a beautifully balanced piece of docudrama, weaving a rich tapestry of their lives and, while counterpointing their stark differences, revealing the fundamental similarities which would later see them become firm friends.

The 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Singles final is recreated in all its titanic glory, losing none of its breathtaking drama as McEnroe discovers that resistance is far from futile, pushing Borg to a punishing fifth set. There’s a vindication for Borg’s cool, calm and collected focus in his eventual triumph and a career-defining redemption for McEnroe as he manages to keep his temper in check and let his tennis speak for him, earning the forgiveness and admiration of the Wimbledon crowd and the wider world.

8/10 

Strange Days (1995) Review

Long before she became the queen of clinically detached but nerve-shreddingly tense true life docudrama, Kathryn Bigelow directed this vastly underrated, far-sighted techno-thriller. Now finally released on BluRay, it’s time, from the bizarre present day of 2017, to reappraise the Strange Days of 1995.

Lenny Nero, a former cop turned street hustler makes a living dealing in SQUIDs: recordings of the wearer’s memories and physical sensations. But when a friend of his is murdered, Lenny discovers a SQUID recording made by the killer, drawing him into a conspiracy involving the LAPD as the city teeters on the brink of anarchy on the eve of the millennium.

Written and produced by James Cameron, “Strange Days” paints a bleak picture of the end of the 20th century. Filmed almost entirely at night, this Los Angeles of 1999 is a grimy, neon smeared post-industrial nightmare. So far, so cliché, but it’s the conceit of the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) that gives the film its edge. A prescient glance into humanity’s future, it’s a dark and brutal satire of the rise of social media and VR, especially those ‘live’ broadcasts through Facebook or Periscope. Although the sharing of personal thoughts and experiences is more visceral than we have the technology to do today, “Strange Days” absolutely nailed the fact that the drug of choice for the 21st century would be narcissistic nostalgia and vicarious voyeurism.

Deliberately dark and violent – the film was directly inspired by the Rodney King tapes – Bigelow expertly blends techno-thriller stylings with noir tropes to produce an edgy and provocative cocktail, powered by some cracking performances. Ralph Feinnes is great as Lenny the sleazy SQUID broker, selling illicit thrills recorded by his network of pimps and dealers within his own warped ethical framework. He’s backed up by Angela Bassett in fierce, ass-kicking mode as bodyguard and limo driver “Mace” Mason.

The film doesn’t shy away from themes such as racism, abuse of power, rape and even touches on gender and sexual fluidity but manages not to make the more explicit scenes gratuitous or exploitative, thanks to Bigelow’s presence behind the camera.

An antecedent of films such as “Memento”, the unfolding of the conspiracy through piecing together the memories of those involved gives “Strange Days” a satisfying mystery at the heart of all the nihilistic pre-dystopian urban decay and there’s enough twists and turns to satiate even the most demanding thriller fan.

8/10 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) Review

Kingsman: The Secret Service”, a gleefully disrespectful, violent and funny action reworking of “My Fair Lady” was an unexpected delight, right up until it ended on a decidedly bum note. Regrettably, in tuning up for the sequel, write Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughan have taken that same note as the opening for their latest composition in the key of F.

Desperate to step out of the shadows and take her place as the world’s most successful businesswomen, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) sets her sights on decriminalising the drug trade by holding the world’s users and governments to ransom. To make sure nothing interferes with her scheme, she takes out Kingsman in a pre-emptive strike, leaving only Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) alive. Guided by a mysterious doomsday plan, Eggsy and Merlin travel to America only to discover a parallel organisation who may provide them with their only hope of stopping The Golden Circle.

It’s emerged recently that Matthew Vaughan (here directing the first sequel of his career) is very keen on making a “Man Of Steel” sequel for the DCEU, so it’s archly amusing that his opening shot of Kingsman’s London office is a sly pull back through the ‘S’ of Kingsman, resplendent against the red-orange tuxedo jacket in the window. Sadly, it’s as close to sparkling wit as the film gets, because from then on, it’s a bit of a slog.  Where the first “Kingsman” was cheeky and brash, “The Golden Circle” is arrogant and crude.

The messy plot starts jarringly abruptly. There’s no getting reacquainted with the characters and we’re straight into the action as Eggsy is attacked and has to fend off gangs of attackers in a night-time action sequence through the streets of London (which you’ll already have seen from the trailer). The script feels muddled and mangled, the seams where it’s been wrestled into some semblance of coherence absurdly clumsy and obvious for a film where exquisite tailoring is one of its key principles. Its low arrogance is, of course, an empty shell because for all its bravado, “The Golden Circle” is a film utterly devoid of the confidence and gravitas its eponymous organisation claims to hold so dear.

There’s no faith the audience will remember even the biggest plot points or events from the previous movie so we are treated to numerous flashbacks to the original, yet “The Golden Circle” works hard to encourage you not to bother remembering the past because it disposes of it so quickly and cynically, fridging several returning characters with nary a shrug and undermining the credibility of the Kingman organisation as it does so. Not content with simply showing us clips from the previous film, there are also several scenes which restage the original set pieces, including yet another barroom ‘manners maketh the man’ sequence which is just embarrassing. There’s a sophomoric enthusiasm for profanity throughout the dialogue but it’s curiously coy when it comes to gore. It’s still fond of its digital blood spatters and yet a gloriously trigger happy showdown in the Alps leaves the snow a pure, pristine white.

To take the story to the next level, Kingsman needed their own version of SPECTRE. Instead, we’re offered the aptly named The Golden Circle: shiny and alluring but completely hollow. As a criminal mastermind, Poppy is all quirk and no substance, made all the more distasteful for the fact that her presence as the nominal main villain is a token gesture of equality to disguise a lazily sexist script where women are largely victims, assistants or tools. About half an hour too long, aimlessly meandering and over-padded to cover up for the enormous plot holes, it can’t seem to settle into a cohesive narrative groove long enough to develop any of its ideas fully. It also doesn’t help that the trailers have given away all of the movie’s ‘surprises’ and shown you most of the best action beats to boot. The most craven aspect of the film’s actions though is in its obvious desire but utter lack of courage to skewer Trump through its portrayal of the American President (Poppy may be the ‘bad guy’ but the President is the real supervillain). I guess they didn’t want to risk losing all the Fox News inserts that prop up the flabby narrative with ham-fisted exposition.

Many of the attention-grabbing names on the poster amount to walk-on cameos and only Egerton and Moore really seem to muster any enthusiasm for the overstuffed and overlong narrative. Channing Tatum – clearly being set up for a potential American spin-off movie – is fridged in a very different way from poor Roxy (Sophie Cookson) while Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges just seem bored. Elton John’s much-touted appearance walks a very fine line between awkward woodenness and amusing self-parody but the whole ‘special guest star’ gimmick feels more suited to a TV show Christmas special rather than a top-tier action movie.

Ultimately, the wholesale Americanisation of the series undermines nearly everything that made the series unique and interesting in the first place. The existence of the vast resources and reach of the Statesman organisation mangles the franchise’s own logic. If Kingsman was such a threat to Poppy’s scheme, wouldn’t Statesman have been an even bigger threat? Yet Poppy never even seems to be aware of their existence, despite her ‘world-threatening’ scheme being pedestrianly Americentric. Where was Statesman during the whole Valentine affair in the first movie? The ease and speed with which Kingsman is utterly destroyed and then reinstated also robs their existence and exploits of any dramatic heft. What value do heritage and history have when they’re as replaceable as an empty toilet roll?

If “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was the Savile Row-tailored Harry Hart personified in film form, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Eggsy’s mum’s thuggish ex-boyfriend Dean, shoved into an off-the-peg suit from Walmart with a cowboy hat jammed on his head.

5/10 

Mindhorn (2017) Review

While Hollywood occupies itself with pillaging and rebooting the classic TV of the seventies, eighties and nineties, Julian Barrett (“The Mighty Boosh”) and Simon Farnaby (“Horrible Histories”, “Rogue One”) satirise both both originals and retreads by faithfully homaging a completely fictitious TV show: “Mindhorn”.

Richard Thorncroft (Barrett) is a washed-up, has-been British TV actor. At the height of his fame in the late eighties playing TV detective Mindhorn – blessed with an electronic eye that can literally see the truth – Thorncroft’s ego and high living got the better of him. Insulting the show, it’s Isle of Man Setting and his castmates, he left them all for the bright lights of Hollywood. Twenty-five years later, he’s overweight, balding and eking out a meagre living doing commercials. But when he is called back to help apprehend an Isle Of Man murder suspect who believes Mindhorn is real, Thorncroft senses his chance to turn his life around.

If you’re a fan of “The Mighty Boosh” then you’ll know Barrett is a master of wringing every last drop of comedy and pathos from the lives of self-important but ultimately underwhelming and unfulfilled men, but Thorncroft is more than just a warmed over version of Howard Moon with a jaunty eyepatch. Knowing nods to the antics of the great hellraisers of the past, like Oliver Reed, as well as an acute sense of the idiosyncratic ingredients which elevated ordinary TV shows of the past to pop culture icons make sure that the characters have a rich backdrop against which to play out their silliness. In fact, there’s something so endearingly, authentically naff about the recreated 80s scenes of “Mindhorn” that you almost start believing it was a real TV show and this is the latest trendy ironic reboot.

It may owe something to films like “Galaxy Quest” and it’s not just Steve Coogan’s presence which evokes aspects of “Alan Partridge” but it feels fresh thanks to the likeably daft and mildly grotesque performances of the cast. Its plot may be stretched thinner than Thorncroft’s girdle but “Mindhorn” relies on its characters, not its plot to drive things forward. It’s a delightfully bonkers, lighthearted comedy and, even if it never quite has the courage to fully commit to its own craziness, it’s still got bags of quirky charm.

7/10 

The Jungle Bunch (2017) Review

Based on a French cartoon series, “The Jungle Bunch” movie is a soft reboot of possibly the one kids’ property I’ve never encountered before. But if you’re bracing yourself for another artless animated cash grab like “Norm of The North” or “Robinson Crusoe”, you might be in for a pleasant surprise.

When the evil koala Igor is defeated and exiled to an island like the marsupial Napoleon he is by the Champions, a team of heroes who protect the jungle, he reveals his final trap, burning the jungle to the ground. Years later, the jungle has regrown and is under the protection of a new team of protectors: The Jungle Bunch. But Igor is planning his return, and this time intends to destroy the jungle completely.

It’s actually quite good fun, thanks to its cute character design and straightforward story. It may owe a considerable debt to the breakout penguins of “Madagascar” amongst others but it has just enough going on for it to feel like its own thing, and the Jungle bunch themselves are a likeable lot (my favourite being Miguel, the Hulk-like Gorilla). It took a mere twenty minutes of the movie for the littlest Craggling to turn to me and say excitedly, ‘This is a very better movie than “The Emoji Movie”!’. She was absolutely right.

In a way, it’s a shame the voice performances are so unremarkable because there’s some genuine wit and invention in the animation and script where the Jungle Bunch, determined to prove themselves as worthy successors to The Champions go up against a villain whose scheme homages “Superman: The Movie” and “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom”.

It may not keep the attention of older children, but it enchanted the four-year old I saw it with and amused me enough that it wasn’t a chore to watch. I can’t, hand on heart, say it’s worth forking out full price ticket money for, but it’s definitely one to go and see when it inevitably hits the ‘Kids Club’ showing circuit.

6/10 

mother! (2017) Review

I have a near-pathological dislike of people coming into my home uninvited or unannounced. I remember when we first moved into the house we live in, it had a front door which, if it was unlocked, you could just open and walk in, as friends, relatives and in-laws were wont to do. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a reasonably sociable chap but the idea of just walking in to someone’s house without their by your leave is anathema to me. On that level alone, Daren Aronofsky’s “mother!” presented me with an unsettling and anxious proposition. In addition to that, I’ve also experienced one or two catastrophic burst pipe floods which have made me preternaturally wary of wood which suddenly begins to creak, discolour or rot away, adding another layer of dread to proceedings. Of course, Aronofsky’s last feature was itself concerned with a calamitous flood and having delved deep into the Old Testament for “Noah” it’s pretty clear from “mother!” that Aronofsky hasn’t come back yet.

A poet struggling with writer’s block (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) are living in a large, isolated house. They pass their days in an uneasily idyllic peace, she slowly and painstakingly restoring the house, he staring at a blank page willing the words to come. Their tranquil existence is shattered by the arrival of a stranger whom the poet welcomes in, as in his house there are many rooms. The stranger is followed shortly by his wife and eventually their two sons, utterly shattering the beatific lives of the couple. Eventually, the strangers are cast out and things seem to return to the bucolic nirvana of the couple’s lives, especially as she discovers she is pregnant and the poet’s writer’s block shatters into inspiration, only to take a darker turn as the poet’s new work inspires fanatical devotion.

Anchored by an initially stiff but ultimately sensationally compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence, “mother!” is, by turns, disturbing, baffling, horrific and blackly hilarious. It’s certainly the most batshit crazy film to be released by a major film studio this year – and maybe any other year. Gliding under the radar as an updated and surreal riff on “Rosemary’s Baby”, instead Aronofsky delivers an excoriating deconstruction of the Bible, highlighting as he does so one of its most vociferously disputed and expunged characters.

“mother!” is a gift for cinephiles, a veritable Garden of Eden lush with potential interpretations and debatable analyses, but the biblical source material is impossible to ignore. For me, Aronofsky interprets the events of the Old and New Testament, through his allegorical lens, from the point of view of Asherah, the all but erased and ignored wife of God.

It’s through her devotion to her husband that we come to see the myth of creation as she works tirelessly to rebuild their home after a devastating fire, but her husband is fascinated by the visitors who come to praise him and his work, making room in his house for them and involving himself in their family dramas and tragedies. It’s her husband who, inspired by the forthcoming birth of his child, reveals a brand new book which brings even more devoted acolytes to him and prompting him to offer them his only child.

Bardem is perfect as the archetypical Creator, beneficent, inscrutable, capricious and vain. His indifference to his wife’s feelings are a constant source of the uneasiness which runs through the movie as it explores, explodes and refashions Christian doctrine into a heinous and distressing freak show, red in tooth and claw, ultimately destroying everything and compelling God to once again bring the universe into being. Of the interlopers, Michelle Pfeiffer steals the limelight, and almost the entire movie, with a deliciously subtle and cunning performance.

You might marvel at it, you may even embrace its darkness, brutality and pitch black humour (as I find myself doing the more I reflect on it), you should certainly admire it but, I think, it will be a rare individual who loves this film. There will be a lot of people who hate it. It’s a horrific horror movie, horribly compelling, deeply traumatic and weirdly both cathartic and intolerable. “mother!” is the cinematic purgatory we need and deserve for a summer spent idolatrising substandard sequels and remakes.

10/10 

Harbinger Down (2015) Review

In 2010, Amalgamated Dynamics were hired to create the practical special effects for the 2011 “The Thing” prequel. Before the film was released, however, the majority of the effects work was digitally replaced in post-production by CGI. Amalgamated Dynamics were apparently pretty upset about it – it wasn’t the first film they’d been involved in where their work was replaced before release – and eventually, they set up a Kickstarter campaign to produce their own movie, ‘in the spirit of “Alien” and “The Thing”. The result is “Harbinger Down”.

When a group of graduate students studying the effects of global warming on a pod of Beluga whales in the Bering Sea aboard the fishing trawler Harbinger recover a crashed Soviet spacecraft entombed in a block of ice, they thaw out their discovery only to find it’s teaming with tardigrades, which the Russians were experimenting on to see how they reacted to intense doses of space radiation. Before they know it, these radioactive soviet water bears are scuttling all over the ship, turning the crew into shapeshifting alien monsters.

While it must be galling to learn that something you’ve worked so hard on has been scrapped without your knowledge, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to have one set of special effects replaced by CGI may be considered a misfortune, to have it happen more than once starts to look like carelessness. A great deal of what ends up on screen in “Harbinger Down” suggests that hubris rather than capricious Hollywood executives may be the real monster here.

The special effects, practical as they are, are for the most part pretty good; competent if not exactly innovative, offering a fond homage to the grisly sci-fi horror B-movies of the 1980s. Unfortunately, the direction and performances of the cast owe much more to the zero-budget z-list Asylum movies of the 21st century which have so callously discarded the practical effects work the makers value so highly. With the exception of Lance Henriksen, who just seems bored, everyone else is so wooden and lifeless that I wasn’t worried about the ship sinking given the cast could be used to build a sturdy raft. The story, such as it is, cobbles together elements and set-pieces from half a dozen other, better movies and makes no attempt to establish a logical narrative flow.

In some markets, this schlocky, often incoherent, deeply derivative movie is called “Inanimate”, which may be a tribute to its cast’s inability to emote properly but in any event is a bafflingly inert name to give a sci-fi horror action movie which this purports to be.  I can only presume the bulk of the Kickstarter money was paid to Lance Henriksen to convince him to appear in this utter waste of time and money.

2/10 

Guilty Pleasures: My Stepmother Is An Alien (1988) Revisited

Court is back in session and first in the dock is jolly 1988 sci-fi romantic comedy “My Stepmother Is An Alien”.

When a Klystron tube experiment conducted by Dr Steven Mills (Dan Aykroyd) runs out of control and sends a radar beam to a distant galaxy, the inhabitants send Celeste (Kim Basinger) on a secret mission to discover the source of the beam and reverse its effects.

A high concept comedy where the high likely refers to the condition of the production team rather than loftiness, it’s hard to believe this throwaway, frothy sci-fi comedy started out life envisioned by its original writer, Jerico, as a dark allegory about child abuse. Can you imagine the writers’ room as Frank Galati, Richard Benner, Susan Rice, Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris, Paul Rudnick, Debra Frank, Carl Sautter and Jonathan Reynolds rewrote and rewrote until the bleak child abuse allegory became a springboard for Kim Basinger to sing the theme tune from “Popeye”, Dan Aykroyd to impersonate Jimmy Durante and Jon Lovitz to hone his lecherous oddball schtick?

There’s plenty of comic potential in the alien ‘fish out of water’ scenario and Kim Basinger is good value for all the crazy things the script asks her to do. Celeste’s gradual seduction by the human experience is well played and, as you’d expect from an 80s comedy, quite bawdy for a PG-rated movie.

Celeste isn’t alone on her secret mission on Earth, she’s accompanied by a sinister sidekick (voiced by Ann Prentiss) who manifests as a phallic eyeball who rises from Celeste’s handbag to dispense witheringly acerbic observations and remind Celeste to keep on mission. Still, it’s nice to see the dianoga finally getting some work after being typecast in “Star Wars”. Aside from its big name stars, the film is also notable for ‘introducing’ Alyson Hannigan and, with remarkable foresight, first pairing her with a very young Seth Green ten years before “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” would bring them together again. It even has the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feature debut of Juliette Lewis.

The erosion of Celeste’s focus on her mission is the face of so many human sensations and experiences suggests you could make an admittedly tenuous case that Jonathan Glazer’s “Under The Skin” is a dark, existential reimagining of “My Stepmother Is An Alien”, but while you were busy doing that, you’d miss just how much silly fun this all is.

This movie came out when I was in my early to mid-teens and it probably doesn’t harm its nostalgic appeal that I had a massive crush on Kim Basinger at the time (who didn’t?) plus Aykroyd was gently starting his descent from his decade-long heyday but his role as a goofy scientist kind of evokes fond memories of Ray Stanz. The heavy referencing of Jimmy Durante might have sailed over my head at the time but the awareness it created has remained with me ever since. “My Stepmother Is An Alien” is a real cosy, comfort movie for me, taking me back to carefree Saturday afternoons at the local two screen ABC cinema when daft jokes and cheesy special effects were all I ever wanted.

6/10 

VERDICT: NOT GUILTY!

Vampires Suck (2010) Review

I’m unapologetically fond of dumb spoof movies. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I am. Oh, I can embrace the abstract intellectualism of Jonathan Glazer or disdain the nihilistic art house pretension of Nicholas Winding Refn till the cows come home, but a little bit of me is forever the sniggering school kid who watched, wide-eyed, as “Airplane!” made an indelibly crass mark on his psyche. Now that’s not to say I love all parody movies unconditionally or uncritically, far from it. There are truly great ones: “Top Secret!”, “The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad” and even “The Kentucky Fried Movie” but there are also terrible ones like “A Haunted House 2” or “The Hungover Games”. Happily, if possibly controversially, I’m here to make the case for “Vampires Suck” as being closer to the former than the latter.

Mopey teen Becca (Jenn Proske) moves to Sporks to live with her dad and enrols at the local school where she falls under the spell of brooding Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter), oblivious to the affections of old family friend Jacob (Christopher N. Riggi). She soon comes to realise that Edward is, in fact, a vampire and that their romance is doomed.

From the rundown ramshackle barn which serves as the stable of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, “Vampires Suck” succeeds mostly because it remains focussed on a single main target, the “Twilight” series. Yes, it’s puerile, sophomoric and recklessly scattergun in its approach but the end result is no more absurd or offensive than the fact that the actual “Twilight” saga managed to entrap so many talented and fine actors in its tangled, turgid web. It may be my complete antipathy to Stephanie Meyers’ magnum opus than makes me predisposed to give “Vampires Suck” an easy ride, but it’s hard not to laugh when it’s landing punches on the very things you think are stupid about the original.

Jenn Proske mercilessly skewers Kristen Stewart’s moodily affected performance and Matt Lanter nails the comic contradictions of a 118-year-old teenager as they lampoon the utter ridiculousness of a love story based on a girl choosing between necrophilia and bestiality based in a high school. It’s not worthy, important cinema or trenchant social commentary but so what? You can dine on haute cuisine every day, but still sometimes yearn for a greasy kebab from the van after a few pints. In fact, have a couple more beers to wash down that kebab while you’re watching this and you might just have a bit of fun yourself.

4/10 

American Assassin (2017) Review

A victim of a terrorist attack after proposing to his girlfriend, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) vows to avenge her death and sets out to track down the terrorists himself. His vendetta brings him to the attention of the CIA who induct him into the secret Orion black ops programme run by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) under the supervision of CIA Deputy Director (Sanaa Lathan) but when a plot to assemble a nuclear weapon by Iranian dissidents is uncovered, Mitch finds himself thrust into a mission where the stakes are more than personal.

“American Assassin” starts out like a right wing, hawkish, MAGA wet dream; all the bad guys have brown skin, women are unreliable and not to be trusted, moral and ethical oversights are mere inconveniences to be circumvented in order to deliver a Big Gulp-size serving of jUStice. If Dick Cheney was a movie, he would be “American Assassin”. It’s mildly gratifying, then, that it eventually transpires that the real bad guy is a home-grown white terrorist although his motivations are a little bit muddled. The twist is unlikely to bother the popcorn shovelling, red MAGA hat-wearing crowd too much because by the time the film attempts this pivot, we’re knee deep in corpses of colour and ‘merica is galloping to the rescue of the apparently helpless Europeans whose only role in this movie is to serve as the playing field for a convoluted grudge match between Iran, America and Israel. As a projection of the worldview of America’s current spineless bully-in-chief, the movie’s geopolitical stance is everything you’d expect. The Islamic terrorists are running around Europe utterly unchecked, attacking at will and if the USA doesn’t step in to save the Iranian nuclear deal (that neither side seems particularly keen on), then who will?

So far, so par for the course with globe-trotting spy adventures, but the film’s tone actively works against it as soon as the admittedly effective opening beach attack scene concludes. Having been in development since 2008, it so desperately wants to be a kind of “Bourne Begins” but ends up being more like “Kingsman: The Secret Service” without the irony and with zero sense of humour. Like Bond – who more successfully adopted the more muscular Bourne approach – its completely unprepared for the fact the action movie paradigm has shifted once again, thanks to the aforementioned London tailoring establishment and the stylistic vendettas of “John Wick”. Steeped in a ridiculously po-faced machismo, the more seriously the movie takes itself, the sillier it becomes. It can’t even apparently see the contradiction in fetishising America’s ability to project military power without limits or oversight in a film which offhandedly shows that a lone actor makes more progress infiltrating a key terrorist cell in eighteen months than the entire intelligence apparatus does in years. This is toxic masculinity American style, and you’d better believe it’s serving up a super-sized portion of cojones, hold the logic and common sense.

Keaton’s archly hardass Orion commander, in particular, is aggressively, stupidly inconsistent; full of bombastic, testosteronic nonsense posing unconvincingly as grizzled gnomic wisdom. It’s hard to regard him as credible due to the fact he consistently favours the clearly incompetent and monstrously conspicuous quarterback-size ‘secret’ agent for covert field work over our hero, for narrative convenience. From what we’re shown, all he seems to teach them is how to take a beating. Indeed the gratuitous torture scene (awkwardly forced into the movie to secure the ‘so hot right now’ 18 Certificate/ Hard-R rating the movie thinks it needs) heavily implies that he’s actually just a super-hardcore BDSM enthusiast who uses black ops missions as his ‘cover’.

Director Michael Cuesta seems to have no idea how to effectively convey the passage of time and, thanks to some clumsy editing, at one point, seems to suggest Mitch has completed the stringent and extreme Orion training regimen in about two days. The film’s big action finale is a complete clusterfuck of incompetent filmmaking and real world ignorance. Factors such as countdown times and the speed at which boats can travel make for amusing viewing and a simple google search of ‘what happens when a nuclear explosion occurs underwater?’ reveals 662,000 results (in 0.74 seconds), most of which show where the makers of this movie get their expensive yet still disappointing CGI showcase wrong. I’d also remind them of the electromagnetic pulse but it feels like kicking them when they’re down. Nevermind the movie and its characters are utterly unconcerned with the effects of a forty-metre tsunami less than 25 miles off the coast of Rome will have on the city, or the rest of the Meditteranean as a matter of fact, just as long as the 6th Fleet has only suffered some minor damage, everything is USofA-okay.

Hamfisted, humourless and horribly tone-deaf, this is one of 2017’s biggest disappointments. The blame shouldn’t be placed at the door of O’Brien, Keaton or Taylor Kitsch, who do their best with the clichéd, atrocious dialogue and plot they have to work with, but the only thing this “American Assassin” has surely killed off is the potential for a cinematic franchise.

4/10 

Greedy (1994) Review

Something of a lost movie, “Greedy” features a cracking cast of 1990s comic talent in an old-fashioned farce as a family vie for their elderly uncle’s affections and, more importantly, vast fortune.

Uncle Joe (Kirk Douglas) isn’t getting any younger or any less curmudgeonly. He’s also a millionaire, which is why his family is trying so very hard to get into his good books. When they discover he has acquired a sexy young nurse – who they suspect has designs on the old coot’s fortune herself – they decide to track down Joe’s favourite nephew Danny (Michael J Fox) and use him to make sure the money goes to those who deserve it.

As someone who counts “My Stepmother Is An Alien” as one of their favourite guilty pleasures, a film that opens with Jimmy Durante was always going to pique my interest. In a funny sort of way, “Greedy” feels like a film out of time, a 50s screwball comedy too late in 1994 for the brief renaissance they enjoyed in the 80s. The ingredients are all there and the cast is terrific but something doesn’t quite click and it never feels like it achieves its potential.

Kirk Douglas is great value as the sly Uncle Joe while Michael J Fox and Nancy Travis are dependably likeable as the heroes of the tale but much of the comedy comes from the duplicitous and deplorable family members plotting and scheming to get their hands on his money. The late Phil Hartman again demonstrates what a loss his death was and Ed Begley Jr and the rest of the cast provide a rich array of comic potential.

It’ll happily pass a rainy afternoon and leave you with a smile on your face, but, I always felt like I was waiting for it to kick into a high gear it never manages. “Greedy” is well-crafted, genially performed and competently directed by Jonathan Lynn but despite everything it has going for it, it somehow manages to be a little less than the sum of its parts.

5/10 

It (2017) Review

I remember when I first saw “Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone” in the cinema, it was one of the strangest cinema experiences of my life. I didn’t feel like I’d just watched a film of the boy wizard’s adventures, I just felt like I’d re-read the first book in two and half hours, so close was the vision on screen to how I’d pictured it when reading. I had a similar feeling after watching this new version of “It”. Not that it was just how I’d pictured the book while reading, more that it was every bit as good as I always think the 1990 version is before I re-watch it and have to admit to its flaws. It’s been 27 years since the miniseries was broadcast and we last heard from Pennywise, that sinister Derry sewer dweller, so of course he’s back, this time in cinemas, to feed on audience fear of clowns.

There’s something terribly wrong in Derry. Again. With disappearances of children running at six times the national average and a willfully blind eye being turned by the adult population, it’s down to Bill Benburgh and his ‘Loser’ pals to prove that his brother’s disappearance was the work of a malevolent and monstrous entity living beneath the cursed town.

Reboots generally have a bad name but this new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel might just change all that. Respectful of the 1990 TV movie adaptation that precedes it the movie keeps scenes that worked so well, giving them a little polish on the way, while returning to the source material to bring a multitude of new scenes to the screen for the first time. It honours the 1990 original while surpassing it in almost every respect. “It” is fundamentally a novel of childhood fears and trauma which are finally exorcised later in life and by remaining more faithful to the novel, Andy Muschietti manages to bring much more of the book’s dark subtext to the screen, while layering in a joyfully authentic bond of camaraderie between the members of the Losers club.

As good as the cast of the 1990 Loser’s Club was, the class of 2017 is better. Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben Hanscom) and Sophia Lillis (Beverly Marsh) are the clear standouts, with Beverly especially having more agency and development this time out. Chosen Jacobs (Mike Hanlon), Jack Dulan Grazer (Eddie Kaspbrak) and Wyatt Oleff (Stanley Uris) are good value too although they get less to do while Finn Wolfhard makes a fine Richie Tozier, his “Stranger Things” familiarity is a little distracting. Their earthly tormenter Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is more vicious this time around too, a visceral and palpable threat to our heroes and often an opportune reminder to how inured the population of Derry has become to the darkness in which it dwells.

However, as before, the real star of the show is Pennywise the dancing clown, the shape-shifting monster’s preferred form. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a revelation; new and different from what has been done before yet taking nothing away from Curry’s iconic performance. More overtly malevolent than before, there’s still a playfulness to him but it’s much crueller and darker mischievousness playing at the edges of Pennywise’s manifestations.  Where Curry’s Pennywise lurked in the shadows much of the time, Skarsgård’s clown is often front and centre of his macabre machinations, making his desire to feed on the fear of his victims a more personal vendetta. Of course, the delicious irony of the story of “It” is the creature brings about its own demise by singling out the Losers and, by attempting to drive them apart, forging their bonds of friendship. Much like Voldemort and Potter, come to think of it.

The film looks fantastic, updating the action to 1989 and focussing solely on the young Losers, giving the characters more time to breathe and develop without the to and fro flashback structure of the TV movie. It successfully recreates that oddly timeless Stephen King style of Americana which was homage so adroitly in “Stranger Things” and while the film obviously has the benefit of modern CGI techniques, there’s an admirable commitment to practical effects wherever possible, strengthening the metatextual connective tissue between the two adaptations and ensuring that the illusions feel very real indeed.

While it plays with horror tropes and jump scares, “It” doesn’t set out to terrify in the way some of the horror audience has come to expect from the modern day gore-soaked, fetishized violence of the genre, instead it’s a masterfully atmospheric blend of adolescent anxieties and supernatural, vaguely Spielbergian adventure, tension and dread. This is exactly what the rebooted “Poltergeist” should have been like and shows how badly that misfired.

Andy Muschietti’s “It” is a playful, tense and creepy masterpiece, an instant classic and easily one of the very best Stephen King adaptations of all time.

10/10 

It (1990) Review

A lot of people have been going back to rewatch (or maybe watch for the first time) the 1990 TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” in anticipation of the forthcoming feature film remake. And why not? Dated as it is, there’s a lot to like but it’s almost solely renowned for one central performance: Tim Curry’s Pennywise.

Something is terribly wrong in the town of Derry. When a little girl named Laurie Anne goes missing while her mother is taking in washing from a brewing storm, Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) realises that a childhood horror that plagued him and his friends 27 years earlier has returned.

Originally broadcast as a TV mini series across two evenings, 1990’s “It” delivered the story through an intricate series of flashbacks, beginning in the ‘present’ day of 1987 and flashing back to the 1960s with the first part focussing mainly on the past and the second part primarily set in the present. Originally slated to be directed by George A Romero, he had to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts and it was eventually directed by one of its screenwriters (and former John Carpenter protégé) Tommy Lee Wallace.

Adapting such a huge novel into a three hour telemovie (bolstered to a four hour run time by ad breaks) necessitated leaving a lot of material from the novel out of the TV adaptation but while it left out much of details and, especially, back stories for the adult Losers’ club members, the adaptation held on to Pennywise as the central thread of the whole show.

Arguably more successful in bringing the 1960s setting to vivid life thanks to a well-rounded and talented young cast, the present day cast is more of a mixed bag, with Richard ‘John Boy Walton’ Thomas a notable weak link as the grown up Bill Denborough, especially as he’s picking up the baton from the late, lamented Jonathan Brandis who’s performance as young Bill is note-perfect. The present day scenes are also lumbered with a lazily glamorous soap opera air, especially during the one-by-one phone call scenes recalling the Losers to Derry and they all somehow seem cheaper than the 60s-set sequences. Restrained by its TV roots (and, especially in the later stages, budget), the relatively gore-free adaptation nevertheless manages to provide a plethora of iconic horror moments, largely thanks to the work of Tim Curry.

From his first appearance in the storm drain, his performance is terrifyingly magnetic, lending credence to the idea that this is a creature which can hold an entire town in its spell. There’s something about the way Curry can move his lips while he speaks, making them seem eerily out of sync with the words coming out of his mouth that is chilling and the speed with which his Pennywise turns from playful to malevolent gives the monster a terrifying unpredictability. Often he’s scarier when it’s just the actor under makeup than when he’s enhanced by prosthetic teeth or contact lenses, such as when he leans in for a bite. It’s the malevolent energy of Curry’s performance that underpins everything else the series provides and mitigates many of the shortcomings of the practical creature effects of the time. The TV miniseries may be a little coyer around some of the darker edges of the children’s stories, but it still packs a punch, like when the balloon rises from the plug hole of Beverly’s bathroom sink and bursts, spraying the room with bright red blood, invisible to the willfully blind adults of Derry.

Marking King’s return to TV for the first time since 1979’s “’Salem’s Lot”, “It” is rightly regarded as a worthy adaptation of the author’s work, especially as he wasn’t directly involved in the production. It boasts many good performances and a couple of great ones combined with smart direction and a script which makes the most of the production’s resources to bring the novel to life. It will be interesting to see if the new production of “It” manages to portray the childhood struggle against Pennywise as well as the TV miniseries did and how it will handle the altogether more difficult adult return to Derry.

7/10 

American Made (2017) Review

If you thought off-the-books, quasi-legal internecine government shenanigans were a practice brought to the White House by a tangerine reality TV buffoon, wait until you get a load of what was going on the last time a former celebrity became commander in chief.

Telling the mostly true story of Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who became a smuggler for the CIA, the Medellin Cartel and the White House through the late seventies and early eighties, Doug Liman’s breezy and brazen biopic is as coked out as the cargo hold of Barry’s plane. Fizzing with a manic, restless energy, the film barrels along thanks to an energetic performance from Cruise, who looks like he’s having fun for the first time in years. While’s he’s not always entirely convincing as the sleazy, selfish and morally unrestrained pilot/ smuggler/ gun runner, he seems genuinely invested in the role, bringing something other than a remix of ‘Ethan Hunt’ to the screen. The film likewise benefits from the absence of Cruise’s recent hallmark of ego-boosting, age-defying stunt work in favour of a more down to earth, grubbier kind of action comedy.

Unfortunately, the film is so agog at the sheer fantastical bravado of its subject that it doesn’t really have time to get under the skin of its subject in any great details and there’s precious little character development for any of the supporting cast who drift in and out of Barry’s life without real context, making the story feel a little bit lightweight despite its heavy subject matter. Tonally it’s got a lot in common with “The Wolf Of Wall Street”, if that film were heavily edited down to fit an arbitrary broadcast slot and while both offer the illicit buzz of an anti-hero gaming the system to a nearly impossible to believe degree, the high from “American Made” doesn’t last nearly as long.

7/10 

The Limehouse Golem (2017) Review

On the surface, “The Limehouse Golem” seems like just another Victorian murder mystery, a Sherlockian tribute act riffing off the legend of Jack The Ripper but it’s what beneath the surface, behind the façade that drives the narrative and gives it a thematic power which helps it rise above its clichéd although handsomely executed trappings.

A series of brutal and grisly murders has shaken the community of Limehouse in Victorian London and Scotland Yard assigns Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) to identify the culprit and bring them to justice. When music-hall star Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) is accused of poisoning her husband on the same night as the last Golem murders, Kildare discovers evidence linking Cree to the Golem murders and determines to solve both cases before Elizabeth is hanged for her crime.

From the flamboyant and enigmatic music hall impresario Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) to Inspector Kildare himself, the film is as much a treatise about dramatis personae as it is a pulpy penny dreadful. Positively dripping in macabre ambience, the plot provides a satisfyingly complicated series of intertwining unreliable narratives keep you on your toes while the ongoing trial gives a real sense of the ticking clock as the story leaps nimbly between present day and flashbacks like Spring Heeled Jack himself. There’s also a fascinatingly anti-Holmsian emotionalism to Inspector Kildare’s investigation, clouding his intellectual rigour and compromising his deductive reasoning in interesting ways. Behind the respectable facades presented by nearly all of the characters skulk their true selves, their sexualities and secrets repressed by and hidden because of the demands of society at large, giving the narrative a rich complexity which keeps you guessing until the final, twisted revelations.

Bill Nighy makes a fine Victorian detective, but it’s in Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth the film provides its most intriguing characters. The production values are excellent, recreating the grimy and dark Victorian London of collective imagination perfectly with Director Juan Carlos Medina deftly walking a fine line between atmospheric Victoriana and gratuitous Guignol. Ultimately, though, the true horror of this gothic tragedy is not in its grisly and gruesome murders but in the implacably cruel Victorian patriarchy which holds the lives of both the inspector and Elizabeth Cree in its vice-like grip.

7/10 

Inhumans (2017) Review

Remember a couple of years back when we were being teased by Vin Diesel about his potential casting as Black Bolt as the MCU geared up to introduce The Inhumans in a big budget feature film? Good times. Flash forward to the present day and instead, we get ‘visionary’ showrunner Scott Buck’s take on Marvel’s best chance to mine the outsider superhero perspective since Fox have all the X-Men.

The Inhumans live in the city of Attilan, on the Moon, hidden from and rarely interacting with the Earth, ruled by their King, Black Bolt (Anson Mount) and his wife Medusa (Serinda Swan). However, when Triton (Mike Moh) – sent to Earth to help any emergent Inhumans caused by the worldwide Terrigen contamination of Earth’s water supply (as shown in the third season “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) – is apparently killed, Black Bolt’s brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon) uses the event as the catalyst to stage a coup, taking over the city of Attilan and plotting the Inhumans’ return to Earth.

If you’re not familiar with Marvel’s The Inhumans, don’t worry, neither is Scott Buck and he certainly makes no effort to address that in his clunky and ineffective pilot script for the first two episodes. There are no clever or cunningly subtle introductions to the characters or their power sets to help us invest in the main characters and even complicated mythology like the Terrigen Mist and Terrigenesis goes unexplained as Buck assumes you’ve watched some of “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or will just Google it later. He’s clearly not interested in offering a jumping on point for new viewers.

It opens with a chase scene through the Hawaiian jungle filmed with such skill and panache that it looks like the production crew travelled all the way to Oahu and then decided to just film at the nearest roadside stop they could find before switching to the moon for a little needless sexy-time scene between Black Bolt and his wife before we get stuck into the least intriguing court intrigue you’ve seen on screen this side of Dorne.

With a divided Royal Family, social unrest amongst the lower classes of Inhumans and a burgeoning threat from the human authorities added into the mix, in the hands of a talented – or even competent – showrunner, “Inhumans” had the potential to become Marvel’s sci-fi superhero answer to “Game Of Thrones” but notorious cheapskates ABC decided to hire the guy who couldn’t make the simple kung-fu fantasy of “Iron Fist” work then mugged IMAX for co-production funding which they promptly splurged on an extended Hawaiian vacation.

Everything about the series feels cheap and underdeveloped. The effects – with the exception of Lockjaw, the fully CGI giant teleporting dog – are adequate at best and sometimes downright terrible, Medusa’s prehensile hair and the CGI Attilan being the main culprits. The costumes and makeup are atrocious with Medusa again bearing the brunt of the parsimony as her costumes look like off-the-peg polyester fancy dress numbers although Gorgon’s hooves also deserve derision. Expanded onto the IMAX screen, the paucity of the production values is cruelly exposed, as is the lack of anything approaching visual flair from director Roel Reiné, who takes the vast canvas afforded him by the IMAX format and fills it with flat televisual blandness.

When the disappointingly action-light story does rouse itself into life, it’s listless and clumsily shot and when the characters do use their powers, it’s wildly inconsistent: Karnak (Ken Leung) can predict the immediate future using probability with enough speed and accuracy to figure out a way to escape from a sudden ambush but then can’t manage to climb down a small cliff without losing his footing and falling? Scenes and character actions are similarly incoherent like Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor), Chief of Attilan’s Royal Guard, managing to go from calf-high surf to drowning in metres deep ocean (hell of a rip tide on that beach apparently) before being rescued by some local surfer dudes who he then proceeds to tell all about The Inhumans, their city on the Moon and their current constitutional troubles. Exactly the kind of behaviour you’d expect from your chief of security.

Despite the exotic and extra-terrestrial settings, everything feels drab with the tropical and urban environs of Hawaii coming across as especially torpid. There’s a key moment where Medusa’s head is shaved, depriving her of her powers (not a spoiler as a shorn Medusa is shown in the trailers) which should be incredibly powerful, evoking as it does all of the dark historic imagery associated with the dehumanising act of shaving off an individual’s hair against their will but thanks to the terrible way it’s shot and edited, it ends up being a kind of botched, over-wrought  and inadvertently risible melodramedy, especially as you can’t help but suspect the dramatic violation of the character’s essence was driven more by budgetary limitations than dramatic imperative.

It really is one of the most disappointingly inept pilots I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, you can see the seeds of what a show can become even through a misfire of a pilot but Buck’s script is so badly structured and directed and edited with such arbitrary contradictions of tone and style that it’s difficult to believe anything decent can be salvaged from this turgid and tepid opener.

We could have had Vin Diesel. Instead, we get this awkward hybrid of daytime soap opera acting and home movie costumes and effects. “The Inhumans” may be a lesser known corner of the Marvel pantheon but it has so much potential, this series feels like a real waste. Don’t feel too bad if, after contemplating all that, you find yourself getting a little [Terrigen] misty-eyed. You won’t be crying alone.

4/10 

Logan Lucky (2017) Review

Steven Soderbergh may be returning to the Director’s chair for the first time since 2013’s “Behind The Candelabra” but “Logan Lucky” sees him settle comfortably back into his comfort zone, albeit with a sly spin on an old favourite.

The Logan brothers, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), decide to throw off the local gossip about their family being cursed with bad luck and pull off a daring heist during a NASCAR race in South Carolina.

Despite its down-home, country roads stylings, this is a slick and wildly entertaining heist caper and there’s something to be said for watching a master craftsman like Soderbergh at work in a genre he knows so well. Shorn of the glitz and glamour of the world of Danny Ocean, though, there’s a rough and ready charm to “Logan Lucky” as those good ol’ boys rely on low cunning and even lower tech to pull off their plan.

It’s blessed with an eclectic and starry cast in which the standout performance is a superb comedic turn from Daniel Craig as explosives expert Joe Bang but almost everyone has their moment to shine in this ‘Hillbilly’s 11’. The only bum note comes from a woefully miscast Seth MacFarlane and once you’ve seen the film you’ll understand why he hasn’t appeared in any of the trailers despite his name being prominently featured on the posters.

The witty script is peppered with quotable exchanges and memorable moments, especially an unexpected critique of “Game Of Thrones” but the story does get a bit disjointed during an uneven and awkward third act, although the game performances from the cast get it through and everything is tied up nicely at the end.

By fermenting a post-Trump blue collar malaise with a sour mash of down-home humour and sharp wit, Soderbergh has brewed up some intoxicating cinematic moonshine and we can only hope we haven’t seen the last of the Logan brothers.

8/10 

The Dark Tower (2017) Review

I’m a pretty big Stephen King fan, although admittedly I’ve been a bit lax in keeping up with the prolific author’s output since around “Cell”. The first time I read “The Stand”, I did it in one sitting, forgoing sleep to finish it sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning (having started it on Friday evening).  If pushed, my absolute favourite is a three-way tie between “Salem’s Lot”, “Needful Things” and “Insomnia”, all of which I’ve read multiple times. I’m telling you this by way of an apology and explanation for the fact that despite my love for the author and his work, I’ve never read any of the “Dark Tower” books. I’m not sure why, just never got around to them. Maybe, thanks to this movie, that will finally change.

When Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young boy plagued by visions of a man in black, a dark tower and a mysterious gunslinger, finds that his visions are driven by the events of a parallel world, he finds himself drawn into the eternal conflict between the heroic gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), sworn to protect the Dark Tower and the Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey) who seeks to destroy the tower, which sits at the centre of all universes and keeps all of creation safe.

There’s nothing “The Dark Tower” reminded me more of than the trend in the eighties for glossy American TV series or miniseries to be crudely chopped and edited down into exhibition friendly running times and then shipped to the UK (and other markets no doubt) as a feature film. The pacing is quick and very choppy and everything just kind of lollops along in an ungainly but entertaining fashion. The thing is, and again I say this as someone who – although passingly familiar with the Crimson King – hasn’t read any of the source material, had this been a quick theatrical cash in edited down from a more expansive TV show, it’s a show I definitely would want to watch.

The film is almost intoxicating in the headiness of the ideas on offer but it simply doesn’t have the time or inclination to dwell on anything. It offers enough material for at least four hours of movie without ever sagging or feeling stretched and in compressing it down to a laughably brief 90 minute runtime, it’s like being offered the entire menu from “Beauty And The Beast”’s ‘Be Our Guest’ only to watch the delicacies whizz past your eyes without being allowed to taste any of them. This film hasn’t so much forgotten the face of its father, it’s just rushing by so quickly it probably didn’t have a chance to recognise him.

The cast is tremendous, with McConaughey, in particular, relishing his villainous role. Elba’s Deschain, although saddled with an overabundance of gnomic dialogue, is still an intriguing and imposing character and both hint at plenty of backstory and details which go tantalisingly unexplored. Tom Taylor makes for a great audience surrogate, bringing a touch of the kind of kid-friendly fantasies you got in the eighties to the mix and it’s in that league that “The Dark Tower” actually finds its niche. Whatever dark machinations occurred in the Sony studios editing suite, what Director Nikolaj Arcel has brought to the screen looks great. The hard-to-shake feeling this is a chopped up collection of a TV pilot and the first couple of episodes suggests there’s a longer director’s cut of the film somewhere and maybe, as “Game Of Thrones” has shown, TV is the best place for this kind of intricate and detail rich fantasy storytelling.

As I’ve made clear, I can’t comment on its accuracy or blasphemy against the original novels. What I can say is this is a pretty good fantasy adventure yarn, perhaps a little bit retro in its aesthetic but richer for it. If the secret to show business success is ‘always leave them wanting more’, then “The Dark Tower” succeeds for me. I want to see more of the adventures of Roland and Jake, I want to learn more of the Dark Tower and the world(s) it resides in. I guess I’ll just have to read the books.

7/10 

Detroit (2017) Review

With serendipitous timing and real world resonance that borders on opportunistic, “Detroit” arrives in cinemas to emphasise the perilous nature of present day America and it’s far too recent shameful past.

Detroit, 1967. The city is in the grip of growing discontent which is spilling over into racially-charged rioting driven by large scale disaffection and an aggressively misjudged and deeply prejudiced policing approach. After an opening animated montage in the style of Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Great Migration’, the film abandons its eponymous city-wide focus and narrows on down to the handful of characters who will come to be involved in the film’s main focus: the Algiers Motel incident.

Bigelow’s trademark directorial style is something of a double-edged sword here. Her pseudo-documentary visual approach immerses you in events, making everything that unfolds feel tragically inevitable no matter how much you’re willing events not to unfold as they must inevitably do so. But in adopting such a detached, ‘just the facts’ approach there’s a degree of superficial reportage to proceedings and while objectively presenting the facts of the case as they were is at least more than was done at the time, there’s no attempt to provide a wider context or an experiential viewpoint.

The film draws its strengths from the performances, particularly those of Will Poulter, Algee Smith and John Boyega. Poulter plays dirty Detroit cop Philip Krauss, the prime instigator of the events which were to take place at the Algiers Motel and turns in a fiercely malevolent performance of a callously confident,  institutional racist who believes himself to be above the spirit and justified in perverting the letter of the law. Smith’s role as gifted singer Larry Reed provides the audience with a principled, morally affronted and impotently furious surrogate, unable to forget and understandably unwilling to forgive while Boyega’s nobly neutral security guard (reminiscent of Denzel Washington in the power of his silences) provides the cautionary example that stoic cooperation is no protection from a corrupt and broken system.

Running the gamut from evil to cowardly, the representatives of the state, army and police throughout the film repeatedly demonstrate their culpability in the tragedy which unfolds either through direct vicious action or, all too often, in turning a blind eye and failing to intervene and prevent the atrocities.

While the film examines the Algiers Motel incident in excruciating, uncomfortable detail – reminiscent of but less visceral than “12 Years A Slave”, the monstrous injustice of the judicial failures which followed the incident are given only a cursory overview, an egregious omission for a film which should have – especially in the current socio-political climate – pressed home the insidious dangers of inherently racist institutions, a malignancy far more pervasive and damaging than the actions of a few murderous individuals. Devoid of the same level of attention being paid to the system which allowed the Algiers Motel incident to happen, there’s a distastefully voyeuristic aspect to the movie.

“Detroit” is still a potent and timely film, but fine performances aside, I’m not sure who this film is for. Those who lived through these times and still suffer at the hands of emboldened racists need no reminders of how far America has failed to come and the film’s willful emphasis on individuals over institutions blunts its warning for today.

8/10 

A Ghost Story (2017) Review

Poignant, reflective and dreamily melancholic, “A Ghost Story” offers, at first glance, a simple story of a soul anchored in space but not time.

When a musician (Casey Affleck) is killed in a car accident, he returns to the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara) as a ghost and must watch as time – and the world – moves on around him.

With “A Ghost Story”, writer and Director David Lowery delivers a contemplative and narratively fungible work to the big screen, powered by a remarkable performance by a lead actor who spends most of the movie wearing a white sheet. Light on dialogue, it’s in quiet symbolism and intricate physicality that “A Ghost Story” finds its power, from the dark torment of Mara’s internalised grief to Affleck’s growing sense of frustration at his apparent purgatorial house arrest.

Although Affleck’s considered and restrained movements provide the ghost with a surprising amount of emotion, credit must go to costume designer Annell Brodeur for creating such a deceptively simple aesthetic, retaining the almost cartoony sheet-with-two-eye-holes motif but expertly tailoring and layering the fabric into a flowing, physical yet spectral cloak. As events move on around him and he endures the voyage through the life of his house, the film reveals a beautifully elliptical approach to its storytelling.

There’s much that’s left to the viewer’s imagination and empathy to enrich the narrative, making “A Ghost Story” something of a haunted mirror for the viewer. There’s an ambiguity in the performances for you to colour the experiences from your own perspective. Were the couple happy before the accident ended their time together? What ultimately will release the ghost from his haunting? There are no obvious answers thanks to a deliberate and delicious ambiguity in both structure and timeline and you’ll use your own emotional palette to shade the empty spaces.

7/10