Monday, 20 November 2017

Review #1,265: 'Cars 2' (2011)

Pixar's Cars is now remembered as one of the great studio's rare misfires; a formulaic animated movie that had far more to offer to the children in the audience than to the adults paying for them to be there (although I think it's one of their most misunderstood movies and well worth a re-visit). Despite this, it was a box-office smash and a dream in terms of merchandising. A few years ago, Pixar may have thought twice about extending the story of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the town of Radiator Springs without having something new to say, but ever since Disney took over, they've taken a more relaxed attitude towards bending to audience demand and churning out an underdeveloped and unworthy sequel. The result is Cars 2, a mess of a movie with an absence of any real laughs that feels like a straight-to-DVD short stretched out over 106 minutes.

Now a four-time Piston Cup champion, the world-famous Lightning McQueen returns to Radiator Springs to see his old friends, much to the delight of best chum Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). However, formula champion Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) challenges McQueen to join him in the World Grand Prix, an event created by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to advertise his new fuel Allinol. McQueen, along with Mater, Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Guido (Guido Quaroni), Fillmore (Lloyd Sherr) and Sarge (Paul Dooley), heads to Tokyo, where Mater's buffoonish behaviour starts to grate on the racing star. Meanwhile, weapons designer Professor Zundapp (Thomas Kretschmann) and his cronies are taking out cars using an electromagnetic pulse in an attempt to scupper Axelrod's plans and secure oil profits. This catches the attention of international super-spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his partner Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who mistake Mater for a fellow spy and hire the clueless tow truck to help with their mission.

This may sound like a bold move for a franchise built on low-key themes of friendship and humility around a traditional fish-out-of-water story, and Cars 2 fleetingly captures the imagination as McMissile swings onto an enemy oil rig, gadgets at the ready. But this is no longer Lightning McQueen's story. Instead, they push Mater, the comic relief best served in tiny doses, front and centre. Not only do his shenanigans increasingly annoy, they are also painfully unfunny. Many of the memorable supporting cast from the first movie are either heavily sidelined or given the boot altogether, and the story is so disjointed that it's difficult to keep up with the endless roster of forgettable, newly-introduced characters. Kids will love it though, and that's all that really matters when it comes to box-office receipts. There's enough colour, slapstick and racing action to keep them  on their seats, and the animation again is truly wonderful. While this may get a pass if released by Dreamworks, mediocrity never used to be on Pixar's radar, and the high standards are still expected. One need only look at their Toy Story trilogy to see how inspired their sequels can be, which makes the middling antics of Cars 2 all the more crushing.

Directed by: John Lasseter
Voices: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Thomas Kretschmann, Bonnie Hunt
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Cars 2 (2011) on IMDb

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Review #1,264: 'The Streetfighter's Last Revenge' (1974)

In Tony Scott's True Romance, from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Christian Slater's Clare Worley takes his date to the movies to see Sonny Chiba's Streetfighter trilogy. When he is questioned about Chiba's questionable 'heroics', Worley responds that, "he ain't so much a good guy as he is just a bad motherfucker." A long-time fan, Tarantino hits the nail on the head here (he would go on to cast his idol in the Kill Bill films). While Bruce Lee was wowing the world with the speed and agility of the martial arts, Sonny Chiba was demonstrating its brutal, more unforgiving side. In The Streetfighter's Last Revenge, Chiba's anti-hero Takuma Tsurugi is at his most sadistic. He may have punched a guy's eyeballs out of his head in the previous instalment, but here he calmly burns a thug alive in an incinerator.

Much of the appeal of Chiba's movies lies with his sneering approach to the ancient arts, where he is far more comfortable sadistically beating a bad guy to a bloody pulp than he is with finding inner peace. This trilogy-closer has upped his mean streak, and made things a hell of a long weirder. The Streetfighter was excellent, Return of the Streetfighter was passable, and The Streetfighter's Last Revenge comes across as a bunch of scenes discarded from the previous movies for being too bonkers. Not only is Tsurugi a near-unstoppable punch, kick and throw machine, but he now dons Mission: Impossible-esque face masks to disguise his identity, and at one point bears vampire fangs for unexplained reasons. There's also a villain even James Bond would chuckle at: A mafia hitman who dresses like a mariachi with a giant sombrero and shoots invisible laser beams out of his hands.

The plot itself is incredibly simple. Tsurugi is hired to rescue Go Owada (Akira Shioji) from a police riot in exchange for a hefty payment. When he goes to collect his loot, he is handed a bag of cut-up newspaper and is attacked by the Owada family's men. Furious, he decides to take revenge on the gangsters. There's also a stolen tape and a master foe in Kunagami (Koji Wada). Noticeably less violent than the previous entries, this third feature shares more in common with a spy film than the martial arts genre. As a result, it's less fun, and only manages to pique the interest when at its most idiosyncratic and just plain daft. It's also nice to see exploitation icon Reiko Ike in a supporting role as Chiba's wannabe sidekick. But ultimately, Last Revenge stutters through a threadbare story, failing to deliver the sort of gory chopsocky that made the original so wonderful. Clearly the weakest of the trilogy.

Directed by: Shigehiro Ozawa
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Reiko Ike, Etsuko Shiomi, Yutaka Nakamura
Country: Japan

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

The Streetfighter's Last Revenge (1974) on IMDb

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review #1,263: 'Pete's Dragon' (2016)

As Disney wade through their back catalogue of animated classics to introduce to modern audiences, the wealth of pure quality at their disposal borders on the embarrassing. By the end of 2016, favourites such as Maleficent (a spin on Sleeping Beauty), Cinderella and The Jungle Book had already been and gone, to varying degrees of success. Next on the agenda, much to many people's surprise, was Pete's Dragon, a live-action remake of a pretty crappy mixture of animation and live-action from 1977, a film many won't have even heard of, and the few who have actually seen it will have long forgotten. The choice for the director's chair was also curious: The job fell to indie director David Lowery, who up to this point was known only for his little-seen outlaw movie Ain't Them Bodies Saints. It seemed as though Disney were taking a "may as well get it over with" attitude towards re-imagining one of their more obscure works, but 2016's Pete's Dragon is actually the best and loveliest of their recent crop.

It's the 70's, a five year-old Pete is heading on a road trip with his parents in search of adventure. The plan is turned on its head (much like their vehicle) when a deer runs out into the road, causing them to crash and killing Pete's parents in the process. Within moments of fleeing the wreckage and making it in the woods, Pete finds himself confronted by a giant dragon. Five years later, and Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) has forged a bond with the dragon, who he names Elliot, and has turned feral in the forest. Their home is shrinking every day, thanks to a lumberjack crew ran by Jack (Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban), so it isn't long until their discovered. Luckily for them, Pete is seen by good-hearted park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose father (played by Robert Redford), tells stories of the day he encountered a huge green dragon in his youth. As Pete longs to go home while also warming to his new surrogate family, Elliot misses his friend, and finds himself hunted by prize-seeker Gavin. 

This is a tried-and-tested Disney formula, so expect few surprises here. What is most surprising, and utterly charming, is the way Lowery goes about his business. There is plenty of genuine heart and care taken with developing its characters. Even the 'villain' of the piece shows genuine concern for Pete's well-being when he is discovered ragged and howling, and Jack isn't the cold habitat-slayer you would expect. Although there is an impressive CGI dragon complete with tail-chasing and a cute wet nose, the story stays remarkably low-key, comparable in many ways to Steven Spielberg's E.T. before the government goons enter the story. If there's a major criticism to be, it is that Gavin's sudden ambition to slay the dragon comes out of nowhere, and seems included simply to create a foe for Elliot while Pete is off in society. For a film that handles the human drama so well, it simply isn't needed, although it sets up a climax exciting enough to slightly make up for it. If you haven't seen the original, then save yourself the trouble, as 2016's Pete's Dragon is a rare example of a remake that leaves the original well in its wake. 

Directed by: David Lowery
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Pete's Dragon (2016) on IMDb

Monday, 13 November 2017

Review #1,262: 'Wind River' (2017)

If you weren't already aware going into Wind River of just who is the brains behind this tough, tense and distinctly masculine drama, then it won't take very long for you to guess that it is Taylor Sheridan, the so-hot-right-now scribe behind the likes of Sicario and Hell or High Water. Rounding off his trilogy based around the American frontier, Sheridan directs for the first time here, and proves to be as equally adept with bringing his work to life as he is with penning it. To dub him the new Cormac McCarthy may be slightly condescending to the talented writer, but the comparisons are certainly there to be made. This is the world of tough, lean men doing what they have to do in order to survive or get by in their increasingly dire economic surroundings, and it's certainly a setting Sheridan feels comfortable in, or at least wishes he was part of.

While Sicario placed us in the terrifying, claustrophobic choke-hold of the Mexican drug cartels and Hell or High Water delivered outlaw hi-jinks with serious social and economic undertones, Wind River is a movie of quiet, simmering tension played out against the backdrop of the freezing, desolate mountains of Wyoming. Hard times have come to the titular Indian Reservation and the surrounding areas, but so little apparently occurs here that a police force of over 6 officers is trusted with covering an area the size of a large city. When a young Native American girl (Kelsey Asbille) is found barefoot and dead in the snow 5 miles from the nearest residence, the minuscule department find themselves clearly ill-equipped for the investigation. The girl died from suffocating on the blood in her lungs, brought on by the sub-zero temperature, but she has also been raped. The man who found her, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), uses his knowledge and experience as a hunter to start making connections.

Renner has spent so many years in superhero costumes or starring in forgettable, little-seen box-office under-performers that it's easy to forget just how he made the jump from supporting character actor to leading man material. In movies like The Hurt Locker and The Town, he demonstrated an uncanny skill at playing introverted characters emotionally scarred by past experiences. Yes, he was an outright psychopath in Ben Affleck's thrilling The Town, but it always felt like he was masking something deeper. Lambert is living with his own trauma. He pays visits to his Native American ex-wife to see his son, but their separation was clearly brought on by tragedy. In a moving monologue to the father of the murdered girl (a marvellous Gil Birmingham), he reveals through choked-back tears that his daughter had passed years earlier. It's quite possibly the best work he's ever done; utterly convincing as the strong, silent hunter who can spot a snowmobile track from a mile away, and as a potential romantic interest for FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).

She is sent from her office in Las Vegas, and arrives completely ill-prepared for the brutal conditions of Wind River. When she quickly realises she's out of her depth, Banner leans on Lambert to help her navigate the perilous conditions and vast landscape. It's a character seen many times before - even in Sicario - and although Olsen is perfectly fine, her role seems somewhat diminutive and over-reliant on her male counterpart. It's an issue Sheridan should perhaps address in his next venture, but Wind River proves that he is more than capable of visualising his own work. He shoots the wilderness as a cold, unforgiving place, where only the toughest - humans or animals - can survive, turning them wilder and more primitive in the process. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis also give the land a mystic ambience, similar in many ways to their work on The Proposition. Although it does digress into Quentin Tarantino territory and the final pay-off seems over-eager to highlight good from bad, Wind River deserves some recognition come awards season, as does Sheridan as a director to watch.

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Asbille, Jon Bernthal
Country: UK/Canada/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Wind River (2017) on IMDb

Friday, 10 November 2017

Review #1,261: 'Sorcerer' (1977)

Due to its catastrophic failure at the box-office and underwhelming reception from critics, William Friedkin's Sorcerer will always find itself linked to the that floppiest of flops, Heaven's Gate. Yet while Michael Cimino's over-ambition caused costs to skyrocket (taking down iconic studio United Artists in the process) and the thought of a bum-numbing, slow-burn western proving rather unappealing to audiences, Sorcerer's failure is often chalked down to the timing of its release - alongside Star Wars, which, of course, rapidly became a pop culture phenomenon and a box-office smash. On paper, a remake of French classic The Wages of Fear seems like a terrible idea, but Friedkin's gruelling and visceral thriller has quite rightly received a critical re-evaluation of late, with many recognising it as The Exorcist director's greatest achievement.

Other than the basic set-up, Sorcerer shares little in common with Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic. It spends a lot of time establishing the four main characters and the sins that will eventually bring them together. In Mexico, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) casually assassinates a man using a gun with a silencer; in Israel, Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist disguised as a Jew, causes a deadly explosion in Jerusalem; in France, businessman Victor (Bruno Cremer) is rumbled for fraud and given 24 hours to pay back an unrealistic amount of money otherwise he'll be turned into the authorities; and in the U.S., Irish gangster Jackie (Roy Scheider) sees a robbery go tits-up and a price placed on his head by a powerful mob boss. Their destiny lies in Porvenir, a remote village in Latin America. Following an oil well explosion, a lucrative job becomes available for four lucky men. Only the work entails transporting damaged dynamite containing unstable nitroglycerin across 200 miles of jungle, mud roads, crazy locals, and a broken down rope-bridge.

It takes a while for the unsavoury foursome to shift into gear, but when the engines start rumbling, backed by Tangerine Dream's hypnotic score, Friedkin takes us on a punishing journey into the heart of darkness. Like Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Klimov's Come and See, Sorcerer makes the experience seem physically draining. The troubled shoot is etched on the character's faces; sun-scorched, sleep-deprived and eyes bulging with madness, you can really feel their torment. The scene that adorns the poster, in which the two bulky trucks must navigate across a rotten and flimsy rope-bridge in hammering rain, is truly one of the most nail-biting set-pieces ever made. It's a miracle they even managed to film such a complicated and dangerous-looking sequence, and this adds a real physicality to the action. There are pacing issues as the film over-milks its introductions, but the international cast are a pleasure to watch during these early vignettes. The Exorcist will always remain at the very top of the pile, but Sorcerer is certainly Friedkin's most misunderstood work, and one that deserves recognition as one of the last great movies from the New Hollywood era.

Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Sorcerer (1977) on IMDb

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review #1,260: 'Thor: Ragnarok' (2017)

One of the fairest criticisms aimed at Marvel's now 9 years in-the-making Cinematic Universe is that mastermind Kevin Fiege has worked out the perfect superhero blockbuster formula and has stuck with it. It's a cookie-cutter approach, so much so that entries like Iron Man, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange seem almost indistinguishable on paper. The MCU has now raked in over $13 billion at the box-office, so it's clearly doing something right. But recently, Marvel have deliberately selected directors capable of leaving their fingerprints, such as Ryan Coogler being handed the task of tackling the Africa-set Black Panther (due next year), and Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi - a choice met with both confusion and sheer excitement on its announcement - to handle the Norse apocalypse. Although I enjoyed 2011's Thor for all its Shakesperian campiness, 2013's sequel The Dark World was mediocre at best, and the God of Thunder was in major need of a kick up the arse.

In fact, the sight of 'the strongest Avenger' receiving a boot up the backside wouldn't look out of place in Waititi's bright, 80's-inspired cosmic wet-dream. Marvel's have always peppered the heroics with humour and sight gags, but Thor: Ragnarok represents the first time they have opted for full-blown comedy with an occasional action scene in between. Waititi was clearly hired for this very reason, and anybody who fell in love with vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and last year's surprisingly touching Hunt for the Wilderpeople will find plenty of laughs here. The director's goofy, playful sense of humour can be found all over Ragnarok, and anybody concerned that this will be to the detriment of taking the film's end-of-the-world premise seriously can be rest assured. Characters are offed or mutilated without pausing for breath, and the climax changes the universe of the MCU forever. The good guys also face their most formidable threat yet, the Goddess of Death herself, Hela (a striking Cate Blanchett).

We first meet up with Chris Hemsworth's Thor as he lies chained-up and imprisoned by fire demon Surtur, after having spent the last two years travelling the cosmos searching for those pesky Infinity Stones. When he finally arrives home, he finds his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) posing as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), allowing Asgard's many enemies to gain more power as a result. They travel to Earth and, with the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), locate their father, who is apparently waiting to die in Norway. He warns his sons that Ragnarok is coming, as is their sister Hela. After a skirmish that sees the hammer Mjolnir destroyed, Thor is blown into space and lands of Sakaar, where most of the universe's garbage ends up. He is captured by scrapper Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is forced to become a gladiator for the amusement of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Here he meets his old friend Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has been in Hulk form for the past two years and clearly enjoying his life as a celebrity warrior.

Waititi promised a buddy road-trip through the cosmos and that is exactly what we get. Hemsworth has always had a gift for comedy and he is given free reign here, with the bulk of the dialogue made up of improvisation. Ragnarok is truly daft and care-free, even finding the time to squeeze in jokes about masturbation and a wormhole called 'The Devil's Anus'. The director himself also shines on camera as well as behind it, lending his voice to the gently-spoken rock monster Korg, who steals every scene he is in. There are weaknesses: Not all the jokes land, and Blanchett's Hela comes across as a one-note distraction from the events on Sakaar, where Thor, Loki, Valkyrie, Banner and a Jeff Goldblum at his most Goldbumiest are having a much better time. But when Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song kicks in near the end, you'll be too busy punching the air to care about such flaws. Very much like how The Winter Soldier finally nailed Captain America after a stumbling start, Ragnarok elevates Thor from the runt of the litter to one of the leaders of the pack, reminding us just why he's called the God of Thunder.

Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Review #1,259: 'Cohen & Tate' (1988)

With a momentary glance at the poster, Cohen & Tate appears to be somewhere in the realm of those buddy cop thrillers that proved so popular in the 1980s, with tough-guy poses and its two central characters named right there in the title accompanied by an ampersand. At least that's the impression I got. In fact, Eric Red's directorial debut is anything but. Part road movie and part tense thriller - and occasionally struggling when switching between the two - Cohen & Tate is a menacing, violent and often plain mental neo-noir, with a chilling performance by Roy Scheider at its centre. Often veering into territory marked by the Coen Brothers, Red, who also wrote the script, demands that you spend 90 minutes with two bickering, cold-blooded killers as the life of a child hangs in the balance. And it proves to be a pretty riveting experience, even though it requires you to suspend your disbelief for the duration.

We open at a farm house, where a seemingly all-American family are in hiding for unexplained reasons. FBI agents surround the house, but that doesn't stop hit-men Cohen (Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin) from breaking in and murdering everyone in sight except the 9 year-old son, Travis (Harley Cross). Instead, they whisk him away in their car to deliver him to their bosses. What they have in store for him is unknown, as the eponymous anti-heroes are as much in the dark as we are. Yet they have made a terrible blunder: On the radio they learn that the father has survived and has already given descriptions of the killers to the police. The hot-headed Tate wants to ice the child right there and then, but the wiser, more level-headed Cohen insists on finishing the job as planned. Sensing distrust between the two men, Travis takes the opportunity to turn them against each other and plan his escape.

The film plays out from there as a series of vignettes, usually involving the increasingly volatile Tate going off the rails and threatening to kill young Travis. These screaming outbursts are repeated so often that it becomes unintentionally comical, similar in many ways to Bill Paxton's over-the-top character in Near Dark, which was also written by Red. Scheider, however, subtly oozes menace. He may be the more balanced of the two, but it's easy to believe that he's capable of executing a child. The mean-spirited tone works in favour of the film, which ultimately delivers its thrills most effectively when things turn really nasty. The majority of the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the car, and the film's main strength is the sharp and often amusing dialogue between the titular bad men. It's ridiculous and messy, but it's damn good fun, any film in which a character eats a box of matches to prove how crazy they are is a winner in my book.

Directed by: Eric Red
Starring: Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross, Cooper Huckabee
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Cohen and Tate (1988) on IMDb

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Review #1,258: 'Heli' (2013)

Tongues quickly began flapping after the screening of Amat Escalante's Heli during the Cannes Film Festival, where it was in competition for the Palme d'Or. It's reputation as a brutal and unflinching look at the effects of the drug trade in Mexico even caught the attention of BBC News here in the UK, which is where I first heard of the film. Escalante went on to win Best Director at Cannes, and probably deservedly so. Heli is a beautifully directed film, and wonderfully shot by cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman. Yet it's matter-of-fact approach and insistence on painting all of its characters with broad shades of grey also makes it difficult to fully engage with. Almost everybody here is flawed in one way or another, and we are locked in a place that saw society crumble long ago.

Essentially a film of two parts, the first half lends much of its focus to 12 year-old Estela (Andrea Vergara) and her relationship with the much older police cadet Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). When he isn't being put through brutal and frankly bizarre training routines (he is made to roll in his own sick), Beto promises Estela a better life. One stolen load of cocaine later, and the military (or the cartel - lines are deliberately blurred here) burst into Estela's family home, taking her and older brother Heli (Armando Espitia) off to God-knows-where. The destination is the home of low-ranking cartel members, who proceed to torture and mutilate Heli and Beto. The second half focuses on the aftermath, and the toll the experience takes on Heli. Widespread corruption and brutality leaves a lasting mark on everybody.

The majority of Heli's power comes from its sudden bursts of violence. Even animals and children aren't safe here, and the film sets the tone during its opening scene, a long-take journey on the back of the truck that ends with one of them hanged from a bridge. It's main talking point is the torture sequence, which is one of the grisliest scenes ever committed to film. Not only are genitals set ablaze in one long take, but children are in the room, slouching on sofas and barely batting an eyelid. It's strong and effective stuff, but there's comes a point when you start to wonder if the film has a point to make. The cartel trade has seemingly locked Mexico into a never-ending cycle of violence, but this is nothing new. Heli is best enjoyed from a purely technical point of view, with an uncomfortable, tense atmosphere throughout, even injecting certain scenes with Herzogian strangeness. Still, it's a lot to sit through only to feel the strange sense of emptiness I felt when the credits rolled.

Directed by: Amat Escalante
Starring: Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara, Linda González, Juan Eduardo Palacios
Country: Mexico/Netherlands/Germany/France

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Heli (2013) on IMDb

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Review #1,257: 'Diary Of A Country Priest' (1951)

Robert Bresson is known for his stark and stripped-down worlds, where actors were employed as mere 'models' would rather than conduits of expression. The script and story would be where the emotion would resonate, and this would create a rather cold, blank exterior, when in fact there would be great power, grace and humanity lurking beneath its icy surface. Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson's third feature, was the first time the French director would fully embrace this approach, going so far as hiring non-professional actors for the bulk of his cast. Claude Laydu, who plays the titular priest, gives a performance of such complexity that it is often cited as the greatest in the history of motion pictures. Scenes would be re-shot if Bresson felt his actors were, well, acting too much, and Laydu often looks like he's suppressing so much he's going to explode.

When you understand what Bresson's goal was with Diary of a Country Priest, Laydu's performance becomes almost transcendent. The unnamed priest, who arrives in his new parish of the small commune of Ambricourt at the beginning of the film, is a weak, sickly presence. He is young, but small, gaunt and gently-spoken. Suffering from an unknown stomach ailment, he gets by on a diet of bread, fruit and wine. Ambricourt's inhabitants are mainly made up of poor but tough peasants and farmers, whose lives are so gruelling that they have little time for God. His arrival is met with scorn and distrust, and their reaction triggers feelings of rejection in the young priest. Even the children laugh at him, and Mass is attended by a sole woman whose intentions are far from Christian. He confides in the Priest of Torcy (Adrien Borel), a respected, straight-talking man of the cloth, who mentors the bewildered young man on what is expected of him. "A priest should never be loved," he is told, but seems perplexed at the cruelty of the world around him, and the lack of love within it.

The film really centres around a conversation between Laydu and the Countess (Rachel Berendt), an ageing woman who has never gotten over the death of her son, and whose husband is openly having an affair with a younger woman. The result of this conversation has the village gossiping, and it is this that sparks a remarkable show of faith by the young priest. Bresson's bleak approach compliments these moments well, refusing to over-blow the priest's epiphany before he inevitably starts to wrestle with it, recording all of his thoughts in a small diary. Laydu's performance is masterful, and it was surprising to learn that he later developed a puppet show for children, a world away from his sullen presence here. Alongside Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Rossellini's Francesco, giullare di Dio, Diary of a Country Priest is a masterpiece about Catholicism made by an agnostic or atheist, using the Bible's teachings and the institution itself as a way to tell more humanistic story of human anguish and struggle.

Directed by: Robert Bresson
Starring: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyre, Adrien Borel, Rachel Bérendt, Nicole Maurey
Country: France

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Diary of a Country Priest (1951) on IMDb

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review #1,256: 'Cars' (2006)

Ever since Pixar first wowed cinema-going audiences across the globe with their feature-length debut Toy Story, the company has become the standard for cinematic excellence. Not only for their constantly groundbreaking animation and ability to entertain both children and adults alike, but for the quality of their scripts and the amount of genuine heart that pours out of them. Yet for every WALL-E, The Incredibles or Inside Out there's always a Monsters University, A Bug's Life or Brave. These films still get a pass because, after all, "it's only a kid's movie," but the disappointment is all the more crushing with the knowledge of Pixar's capabilities. Cars is firmly in the latter category, falling into the traps of a familiar plot and a script that isn't quite up to scratch.

Cars' reputation has been damaged ever further in the decade since its release, and this is no doubt thanks to the lazy and bitter-tasting sequels and spin-offs, something the company has churned out at an increasing rate ever since Disney took over. I must admit that I didn't think much of Cars back in 2005. It lacked excitement and a character to really root for, and the story of a cocky upstart learning learning a valuable lesson to change their outlook on the world can be seen in countless other children's movies. However, on my second viewing I found moments of tenderness between the cracks, an old-fashioned romanticism to really warm the heart. The movie is about more than a young race car named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his quest to escape the forgotten town of Radiator Spings to reach the Piston Cup. It's also about the changing face of America and the way its capitalist nature is leaving the little guys behind.

One aspect of Cars that was never criticised was its cutting-edge animation, and the way it brought the loud, dangerous world of racing and the country's glorious landscapes to beautiful life. It is still utterly glorious to look at, whether it be a wide shot of a darkening horizon or a close-up of buck-toothed tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). The small town off Route 66 is full of other colourful archetypes, voiced by the likes of Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin and George Carlin. The problems I had with the film the first time around are still present - the climax should be a lump-in-the-throat moment but is oddly devoid of emotion, and the film offers no surprises at all - but they just didn't seem to bother me as much. The hefty running-time (just shy of 2 hours) also whizzed by, despite the lack of genuine laugh-out-loud moments. So forget Cars 2, Planes and those awful-looking straight-to-DVD spin-offs you ignore in Tesco, and give Cars another chance.

Directed by: John Lasseter
Voices: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, George Carlin, Michael Keaton
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Cars (2006) on IMDb

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review #1,255: 'Ghost In The Shell' (2017)

Hollywood remakes of beloved foreign-language movies are rarely a welcome idea, but Ghost in the Shell seemed particularly doomed from the get-go. Alongside the cries from fans claiming the industry has officially run out of ideas, and from those who hold the original close to their heart and fail to see any other purpose in a remake other than to allow the fat cats to count the green, the announcement of Caucasian Scarlett Johnansson's casting in a role originally voiced by an Asian actor generated all-too familiar claims of 'whitewashing'. Tempers were only inflamed when it was rumoured that Johnasson's appearance was to be digitally-tweaked to make her appear more Eastern-looking, an idea that was quickly abandoned. Predictably, Ghost in the Shell arrived in cinemas back in March to underwhelming box-office.

As a result, I approached Rupert Sanders' 2017 re-do with a sense of trepidation and caution, knowing full well that it would lack the philosophical musings of the Masaume Shirow manga the story originated from, and the big questions raised by Mamoru Oshii's landmark anime adaptation. After all, this is a blockbuster wannabe starring one of the most in-demand actresses around, so of course the makers will feel the need to dumb everything down to suit a mainstream audience (even though Christopher Nolan has proven more than once that a film can be complex and intelligent and still rake in the cash). It is perhaps thanks to my low expectations that I found much to enjoy with Ghost in the Shell. Like the 'shells' depicted in the film, it's certainly hollow and jittery, but as a piece of entertainment, I was never bored, and the visuals offer plenty of colour and detail to distract from the straightforward plot.

Taking inspiration from everything from Shirow's manga, Oshii's 1995 movie and its 2004 sequel, and the hugely popular spin-off series, certain scenes will certainly feel familiar while the story of a shady corporation turning human beings into weapons against their will feels like it could be lifted from most Blade Runner-inspired science-fiction movies of the past couple of decades. Major (Johansson) is the first cyborg to employ a fully mechanised body with the mind, or 'ghost', of a human. Her employer, Hanka CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), decides to use her in the fight against cyber-terrorism, which has become a real problem since the majority of the population have now been cybernetically enhanced. She works at Section 9 with her gruff partner Batou (a bleach-blonde Pilou Asbaek) and boss Aramaki ('Beat' Takeshi Kitano), and they are forced into action when Hanka finds itself under attack from a mysterious hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt).

Oshii's 1995 incarnation tackled big themes such as humanity and identity, offering explosive moments of action to allow some relief from the head-scratching central plot. The result was one of the best animes of all time. Sanders' Ghost in the Shell has much smaller ambitions, and feels very much like a product of the post-Matrix world we now live in, even though the Wachowskis were mainly inspired by Oshii's film. It works only as spectacle, and this world of spider-legged geisha robots and giant animated advertisements really does catch the eye. The action, while hardly breaking down barriers, has a physicality behind it, and the punches and bullets land with a force that really pushes its 12A certificate to the very limits. As the lead, Johansson has proved time and time again that she is accomplished with the physical demands of such a role, and she gives Major a hunched, stompy awkwardness, despite the blandness of the character. It will never justify its existence to the die-hard fans of the original, but Ghost in the Shell 2017 offers enough visual panache and energy to engage those curious enough to check it out.

Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt
Country: UK/China/India/Hong Kong/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Ghost in the Shell (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Review #1,254: 'The Beguiled' (1971)

As the opening titles of The Beguiled flicker by with a collection of grainy photographs from the brutal American Civil War, it would seem we're in familiar tough, manly action territory, especially when the names of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood flash on screen. These feelings appear to be confirmed as Eastwood grizzled Union officer John McBurney comes into shot, clearly wounded and hanging on for dear life following a bloody battle with Confederate soldiers. He is discovered by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a 12 year old student at the nearby Seminary for Young Ladies, who quickly takes a keen interest in the handsome but battered young man. As some bloodthirsty Confederate soldiers trot by and they are forced to hide, John plants a lingering kiss on the child's mouth, which immediately cause feelings of discomfort for the viewer. No, The Beguiled is not your typical Siegel tough-guy actioner, but something all the more fascinating and complex.

John is eventually smuggled back into the school run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), a woman with a secretive past of her own. She wants the Union soldier gone immediately, but the soldier is charming and badly wounded, so she and the fellow ladies of the school tend to his injured leg and give him a bed. He is kept under lock and key, but he is often visited by the curious ladies, including virginal teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and precocious 17 year old student Carol (Jo Ann Harris). With Martha still insistent on turning him over to Confederate troops once he has regained his strength, John seizes the chance to seduce as many of them as he can, taking full advantage of their time away from men and natural curiosity towards the opposite sex. He becomes unnervingly comfortable with his methods of manipulation, and is soon playing the women off one another. But these ladies have seen it all before, whether it be a father, a sibling or a drunken soldier stumbling onto the school grounds with cruel intentions.

The Beguiled is a film about jealousy, sexuality and bitterness, so it's no surprise that it flopped and didn't go down well with fans of Siegel's tougher, more straight-laced output. The film also threatens to venture into horror territory, as emotions begin to spill over and John's scheming becomes apparent. There were cries of misogyny upon the film's release, but although the claim is certainly open for debate, this is not a film by a director who hates women. To label the film misogynist would be to cruelly over-simplify it, as the likes of Martha and Edwina aren't just coy women to be easily taken advantage of, but incredibly complex characters both scarred and enlightened by past experiences with men. John is clearly the most loathsome character, an evil man who uses his physicality and charm to worm his way into their lives and gain their trust, and Siegel makes little attempt to make him sympathetic. It's an incredibly claustrophobic and intense experience, with career-best performances from Page and Hartman. It is Siegel's favourite of his extensive filmography, and it isn't difficult to see why.

Directed by: Don Siegel
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Pamelyn Ferdin
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Beguiled (1971) on IMDb

Monday, 23 October 2017

Review #1,253: 'Tower Of London' (1962)

Tower of London represented the first time Roger Corman and star Vincent Price had worked outside of the American International Pictures studio, and likely soon regretted the decision shortly into the shooting process. Producer Edward Small had approached Corman with the idea of making a film based on Richard III, and the thought of tackling Shakespeare clearly appealed to the B-movie auteur. Knowing that audiences were tiring of his still-popular Edgar Allen Poe cycle, Corman could stick to his gothic, cobweb-laden style, only this time under the guise of the Bard. Tensions began to simmer almost straight away, as Small only informed Corman that the film would be shot in black-and-white days before filming was to commence. Price had a legion of fans anyway, but the box-office receipts quickly started to dwindle as word-of-mouth got around that the film was not in colour.

The result is a mixed bag. Part a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III and part remake of Rowland V. Lee's superior 1939 effort of the same name, Tower of London still has plenty to offer to fans of these low-budget spook stories, and Price has so much fun that his performance would be more digestible if served with mayonnaise and bread. He plays the sneering, hunchbacked eldest brother of the dying King Edward IV (Justice Watson), and is shocked and angered when his younger brother George, the Duke of Clarence (Charles Macaulay), is named Protector of the Realm instead of him. It isn't long before George finds himself in a vat of wine with a knife in his back, and Richard sets about turning family against family in his bloodthirsty quest for the throne. Price actually played the Duke of Clarence in Lee's previous film, and it almost feels like Price takes great pleasure in stealing the lead role and disposing of his replacement.

Although Corman was working away from home, the aesthetic is certainly recognisable. The sets are small but detailed, but there aren't many of them. Price schemes and snarls in only a handful of locations, but Corman counteracts this by focusing more on the supernatural elements. The ghosts of those Richard kills frequently haunt him, driving him to a paranoid madness that results in the death of his beloved wife. Price goes way over-the-top in these moments, even for an actor who was well-known for delighting in ham, but watching him engulf the screen never gets old. The budget restrictions set in place by Small were even too much for Corman, and he insisted their three-picture contract be torn up after the film was released. The result is a laughable climax that has ended before you even realise it has begun, and the great Battle of Bosworth Field is reduced to a few silly close-ups and re-used stock footage from the 1939 version. It doesn't demand much at 79 minutes, but Tower of London feels limp and hurried when compared to the lushness of Corman and Price's Poe adaptations.

Directed by: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Michael Pate, Joan Freeman, Richard Hale, Sandra Knight, Justice Watson
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Tower of London (1962) on IMDb

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Review #1,252: 'Star Wars: Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi' (1983)

As a child, I owned all of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS, purchased when 'remastering' was all the rage and the iconic sci-fi saga found itself on the receiving end of a much-needed cleaning-up. This was, however, before George Lucas tampered with his already-near-perfect legacy, adding unneeded special effects and elongating certain scenes for seemingly no other reason to show how far CGI had come (although it now looks incredibly dated). Despite the perfection of episodes four and five, my go-to Star Wars movie on a boring Sunday afternoon was always Return of the Jedi, the third instalment now widely remembered as the poorest of the bunch. I don't quite know what it was about Jedi that always caused me to reach for it. It certainly wasn't the Ewoks, those cuddly fur-balls shoe-horned in to sell more merchandise, although they aren't as annoying or distracting as I remembered.

Jedi is most certainly the least effective of Lucas' creation, but there's still plenty of charm and excitement to solidify the entry as, at the very least, a satisfying closure to the saga, despite Disney's welcome efforts to further explore the Star Wars universe. The Empire Strikes Back broke up its characters but managed to keep a firm grasp on the various story-threads. Jedi does the same again, but is less successful at holding all the action together. Nevertheless, the characters get to enjoy an early reunion at Jabba the Hutt's palace on Tatooine, where the slug-like abomination hangs Han Solo (Harrison Ford), still frozen in his carbonite prison from the last movie. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) all arrive at various intervals as part of a rescue operation, as does Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the latter having completed his Jedi training and going about his business with a brooding confidence.

A horrific car crash may have robbed Hamill of some of his boyish good-looks, but it did nothing to dampen his skills as an actor. Skywalker's newly-found intensity, which no doubt stems from his flourishing grasp on the Force and skill with a lightsaber, is matched by Hamill's execution. He stops by to see Yoda (Frank Oz), who confirms that Darth Vader is indeed his father and a fallen Jedi, and has a brief chat with the spirit of his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Skywalker's thread is by far the most interesting, inevitably heading towards a showdown with his father and the puppet-master behind the Empire, the rasping Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). Although Vader's brutality has been turned down as he plays lap-dog to his boss, audiences back in 1983 must have been holding their breath as the Emperor tortures Luke in an attempt to turn him to the Dark Side, and Vader is clearly shown to be wrestling with his allegiance.

The rest of the action fares less well, as Han Solo and Leia find themselves captured by the community of Ewoks who seem to want to eat them, while C-3PO bares a close resemblance to the God the little critters worship. Their aim is to take down a generator controlling the energy shield of a brand new Death Star - yes, they have somehow managed to nearly complete a bigger, meaner planet-killer in a remarkably short space of time. Lando and the remaining Rebel Alliance are forced to repeat the climax of A New Hope, and while it's certainly a spectacular battle, it can't help but feel like more of the same. Jedi is best remembered as a series of memorable moments than a truly great film. It's easy to forget the film's messy narrative and cynical desire to boost merchandise sales, especially as a child, but it's hard to forget Leia in a gold bikini, Jabba's grotesque rat-like pet, the high-speed chase through the forests of Endor, or the shockingly crap death of fan-favourite Boba Fett. Nowhere near the annoying child-pandering misfire some believe it to be, but also some way off the magnificence of its predecessors.

Directed by: Richard Marquand
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Ian McDiarmid
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) on IMDb

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review #1,251: 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005)

It may now be 12 years old, but Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, is still more relevant than ever. At the time of its release, the debate around gay marriage was raging, and continued to do so in the subsequent years. Thankfully, same-sex marriage is now practised in many countries across the world, although it would still be deemed a crime and a sin elsewhere. But anyone who thinks that the themes explored in the film only relate to a relationship between two gay men or women have profoundly missed the point. The story applies to the love between any two people which may be considered taboo, or just plain wrong in society's eyes, whether this be for religious, political or sexual reasons, and this is something that will continue to be a talking point for many years to come.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two down-on-their-luck young cowboys in 1963 Wyoming. They arrive at Brokeback Mountain looking for work, and are hired by the bigoted Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd sheep over the summer months. The work is hard and dangerous, and the pair spend most nights winding down passing a bottle of whiskey. After one particularly heavy night of drinking, Jack makes a move on Ennis and the two make passionate, almost violent love. Aware of society's attitudes towards gay men, the two agree that their relationship must be kept secret and their feelings locked away, and they part ways determined to forget the experience. They both marry (their wives are played by Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway) and have children in the following years, but neither can forget the time spend together on the mountain.

Ang Lee's primary focus has always been on character. Even his worst film, the superhero misfire Hulk, spent far more (most would say too much) time concentrating on the human side of its lead instead his angry, green alter-ego. Following Ennis and Jack over the course of a couple of decades, we experience Ennis' inner turmoil and Jack's complete frustration, with the latter's anger stemming from both society's refusal to let them be who they want to be, and Ennis' dismissing of Jack's idea to buy a ranch with him so they can live out their days together. Jack is more accepting of his own sexuality, occasionally attempting pick-ups in bars and often forced to pay prostitutes in dingy alleys. Haunted by an experience with his father as a child, Ennis is in a constant battle with himself. Angry at the discrimination he would face were he display his true emotions in public, and possibly disgusted at himself for possessing such feelings, he stoically drinks and smokes his nights away after his marriage falls apart.

The script, by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, refuses to over-simplify the characters and force labels on them. It isn't entirely clearly whether the two men are homosexual, bisexual or even heterosexual, as their relationship is built on something far more transcendent. It's one of the many reasons why the film shouldn't be remembered as that 'gay cowboy movie'. Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both terrific, and received Academy Award nominations for their efforts. Ledger is undoubtedly the standout as the buttoned-up, tight-lipped tough guy repressing a range of emotions he doesn't full understand behind his incredibly sad eyes. Tragically, he wouldn't completely shake off his pretty boy image until three years later - the year of his death - after The Dark Knight. It is a film that will no doubt resonate with most people whose feelings fall outside of what society considers the 'norm', and will continue to do so for many years to come. On top of that, Brokeback Mountain is simply a beautiful piece of cinema, with one of the most heart-breaking final scenes ever filmed.

Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid
Country: USA/Canada

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Brokeback Mountain (2005) on IMDb


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