Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Review #1,452: 'Horror Express' (1972)

With a cast list boasting the names of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and a claustrophobic setting aboard a high-speed train, it would be easy to assume that Horror Express is another low-budget gothic effort from Hammer, or perhaps a portmanteau effort from Amicus. It is neither, and is in fact a joint Spanish and UK production made at a time when gothic horror was falling out of favour with audiences, who were being treated to more graphic, socially-aware films such as Night of the Living Dead, and psychological horrors from the US. Helmed on a measly budget by Spanish director Eugenio Martin (so low-budget that the shadow of the camera and cameraman is clearly present in the very first shot), Horror Express actually deserves more attention. It may not be particularly original, but it's shockingly entertaining, utterly bonkers, and provides an interesting sci-fi twist to a familiar genre piece.

Stuffy British anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) discovers the mummified remains of what appears to be a primitive human in a Manchurian cave. With hopes of this find-of-the-century providing some insight on the missing link in human evolution, Saxton packs the body into a wooden crate and hops onto the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow. Before boarding the train however, a Chinese thief attempts to pick the crate's lock, and is found dead just moments later with his eyes completely white. The discovery also catches the eye of Saxton's friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), who pays a baggage handler to cut a hole in the box so he can sneak a peek. The porter is too found dead soon after, and the crate empty. With the beast now loose aboard a moving train, it isn't long until the bodies start to pile up. Saxton and Wells are on the case, but the commotion also catches the attention of Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena), Polish countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa) and crazy Orthodox monk Father Pujardov (Robert DeNiro lookalike Alberto de Mendoza).

It's a strange but enticing mixture of Agatha Christie and The Thing from Another World. The discovery that their foe is actually a body-hopping alien capable of devouring memories and knowledge with each kill allows for some whodunnit fun to be had in between the many gory moments, and gives the film a strange sci-fi kick that, while completely ridiculous, adds something different to an otherwise straight-forward monster flick. The special effects have also aged rather well. It isn't scary, but the sight of corpses frozen in shock with their eyes rolled to the back of their heads makes for a rather creepy sight, and graphic scenes of surgical procedures means that Martin's picture has a welcome nasty edge that helps it to distance itself from Hammer's campier gore. You can pick the film apart, but Horror Express is simply outrageously entertaining and never lets up. Once the horror starts, each scene seems to want to double-down on what came before, even introducing Telly Savalas late on as an intimidating, vodka-swilling Cossack officer named Captain Kazan. A must-see for any fans of European horror from the Lee/Cushing era.

Directed by: Eugenio Martín
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Telly Savalas
Country: UK/Spain

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Horror Express (1972) on IMDb

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review #1,451: 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' (2002)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance kicks off Korean director Chan-wook Park's unofficial 'Vengeance' trilogy, which continues with standout Oldboy, before concluding with the stylish Lady Vengeance. While the violence may seem like it's taken straight out of a movie by Quentin Tarantino or Eli Roth, Sympathy doesn't over-simplify this complex tale of revenge like, say, Kill Bill does, nor does it seem out of place as the intricate narrative spins further out of control and its characters resort to increasingly desperate measures. Park opted for a pulpier approach with the jaw-dropping Oldboy and a more lyrical, hyper-stylised aesthetic with Lady Vengeance, and while this may be down to dropping cinematographer Byeong-il Kim, the quiet realist bent of this trilogy-opener makes it the most accessible, and by far the most thought-provoking entry.

Deaf-mute factory worker Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) has just been fired from his job. With his sister (Ji-Eun Lim) in desperate need of a kidney transplant and willing donors in short supply, Ryu takes all of his savings to a black market organ dealer gang who not only fail to deliver, but steal one of Ryu's kidneys too. With a donor now found by the hospital but no money to pay for it, Ryu and his radical anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) concoct a plan to kidnap the daughter of rich company president Dong-Jin Park (Kang-ho Song). All seems to be going according to plan until Ryu's sister catches wind of the plot and kills herself, and things unravel quickly from there. Events lead Park to take matters into his own hands, stopping at nothing until he gets his hands on the couple brazen enough to take his daughter. But Ryu, who is down a sister and a kidney, is also on his own revenge mission to find and kill those responsible for setting him off on such a bloody and irredeemable path.

While most revenge thrillers attempt to hold a mirror to its hero and the carnage in their wake, the line between good and bad is drawn pretty clearly. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance attempts to muddy these lines as much as possible, to the point where any of the characters here could easily be fill the bad guy role in other movies. Ryu and Park are both fundamentally 'good', but are driven to gruesome extremes by emotions too complex to fit neatly into one category or the other. The violence here is shocking. Mostly its warranted, but sometimes the film veers into exploitative territory. An extended torture scene is cruel, and a moment depicting a group of masturbating teens is simply off-putting, although I feel it is meant to be comedic. But the extreme Asian films of the early 2000s were always trying to out-do whatever came before, and Park never allows the violence to become a gimmick or overshadow the themes at play. In the end, you'll be empathising with everybody while questioning their actions, and while it may not reach the dizzying, electrifying heights of Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance makes for an engaging and fresh take on the ugly, cyclical nature of revenge.

Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae, Ji-Eun Lim, Bo-bae Han
Country: South Korea

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) on IMDb

Friday, 15 February 2019

Review #1,450: 'Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle' (2018)

Whenever a director needs to lend a computer-generated character a much-needed dramatic weight and dimension, Andy Serkis is all but guaranteed to be at the top of anybody's list. The actor took the breath away as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and again as the magnetic Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy. So it makes perfect sense that his directorial debut would be motion-capture heavy, with the master himself playing one of the CGI characters. Adapting Rudyard Kipling's novel The Jungle Book has long been a passion project for Serkis, and the film, which was originally entitled Jungle Book: Origins, was scheduled for a 2016 release and set to compete against Disney's own remake of their 1967 classic. To allow more time to work on the special effects, the release date was pushed back to 2017, and then to 2018. As Warner Bros. seemingly became concerned at the idea of a potential box-office bomb, the distribution rights were eventually sold to Netflix. 

This transition to the small screen works both for and against Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Although he has voiced his delight at Netflix acquiring his film, it's difficult to believe that Serkis wasn't disappointed that such a personal project wouldn't be seen on the big screen. On the other hand, this has allowed for a much darker tone, and thus bringing it closer to Kipling's original text, without any concern for classification. It's a 12A on Netflix, but I feel the censors may have requested some cuts for a cinema release, and probably rightfully so. This doesn't feature any song-and-dance numbers or King Louie, and the once-cuddly Baloo the sloth bear is now a scarred brute with a Cockney accent. The story is familiar enough, with an orphan boy being left to die in the jungle before being carried to safety by the wise black panther Bageera (voiced by Christian Bale). A wolf pack takes him in, and the boy grows up to be Mowgli (Rohan Chand), only the wolves are never quite convinced of his importance and the man-cub struggles to find his place. 

All is relatively happy until the fearsome, man-killing Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives to kill Mowgli, who he feels threatens the very jungle itself. Cumberbatch is far more terrifying than Idris Elba's incarnation, and the effects work is rather astonishing. This level of quality is not maintained however, as for every jaw-dropping close-up of Bageera's face, there is a wolf that looks bizarrely unfinished. And this unevenness runs throughout the film, not only with the special effects, but also with the tone. Serkis' attempt to deliver a different take on the story is admirable and warranted, but the darkness occasionally veers into outright horror. The climax of the film is shockingly brutal when compared to the lighter moments before, and the fate of one of Mowgli's close friends is one of the most disturbing things I've seen for a very a long time. It's undeniably jarring, and will likely scar any unsuspecting children watching for life. While Serkis may struggle to find the perfect balance, it's a bold piece of work by a thoroughly underappreciated actor that at least strives to grasp the deeper themes within the story.

Directed by: Andy Serkis
Starring: Rohan Chand, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Naomie Harris, Andy Serkis, Peter Mullan, Matthew Rhys, Freida Pinto
Country: UK/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018) on IMDb

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Review #1,449: 'Bird Box' (2018)

Perhaps it's because the dystopian survival horror has been done to death of late, or maybe it's because John Krasinski's vastly superior and similarly themed A Quiet Place is still fresh in the mind, but there's something strangely hollow about Netflix's latest smash-hit and water-cooler conversation starter. Bird Box became the inspiration for a series of dangerous YouTube stunts that resulted in the social media platform issuing a warning to anyone thinking about taking part in the 'Bird Box Challenge', but sadly, given the film's potential, this is perhaps all it will be remembered for in the years to come. All the pieces are in place for a tense 90 minutes, but Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier's film plays out over a mostly dull 2-and-a-bit hours, with little more than two memorable set-pieces and a strong central performance from Sandra Bullock to hold it all together.

Like an uneasy blend A Quiet Place and The Happening, the planet has been overrun by a mysterious force that causes people to go insane and commit suicide. While the family of Krasinski's memorable horror were forbidden to make any sounds, the players in Bird Box aren't permitted to see. Just one glance at the unknown creatures stalking the streets will cause their eyes to turn a murky purple and instantly seek a way of ending their own life, and when we first meet Malorie (Bullock), she is about to embark on a dangerous journey down river with two children in the hope of locating a sanctuary they heard about over a walkie-talkie. Flash back five years, and the pregnant Malorie witnesses the collapse of society first-hand, as a routine car ride back from the hospital turns into a mindless bloodbath. She escapes into the home of shouty misanthrope Douglas (John Malkovich), and is forced to hole up with a bunch of genre archetypes (played by Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, BD Wong and Lil Rel Howery, amongst others).

With the doors locked and the windows covered up, it seems like Malorie and her new friends have it made. But for reasons never entirely explained, the creatures don't drive everybody to suicide. If you're crazy, you are instead driven to expose those lucky enough to be hiding out to the mysterious force. It might be an attempt to keep things cryptic, or it may be sheer laziness, but the rules of the game remain frustratingly unexplained. These creatures - who we never see - sometimes announce their presence with a gust of wind, and sometimes not. One person infected will immediately jump out of a window, but another will take minutes to turn, allowing them time to say something meaningful before they croak. The monsters clearly possess the power to move objects, so why don't they at least try to enter homes? We are left to fit the pieces together ourselves, but very little adds up. The likes of Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13 sustained a bristly atmosphere by making us care about the characters, but reliable actors like Rhodes and Malkovich are never allowed to be anything more than 'love interest' or 'annoying right-wing nut'. It isn't all bad - one set-piece involving a short car ride to get supplies with only a SatNav computer screen to guide them is wrought with tension - but in the wake of A Quiet Place, which understood the mechanics behind what makes an effective survival horror, Bird Box feels like a missed opportunity.

Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, BD Wong, Tom Hollander
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Bird Box (2018) on IMDb

Monday, 11 February 2019

Review #1,448: 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' (1989)

Say what you will about the rapidly decreasing quality of Woody Allen's work of late, or about the writer/director/actor's character in the wake of the recent horrific allegations made against him, but look back at his filmography and there's a wealth of brilliance to be found. As he became a household name thanks to some of the most hilarious comedies of the 1970s, Allen moved away from playing the clown and into more serious territory. The comedy was still there, but as a fan of Ingmar Bergman and Marcel Ophuls, he was always eager to explore the darkness rooted in our souls. One of his most sobering works is also one of his best. Released in 1989, Crimes and Misdemeanors asked the question posed by many a philosopher: Can you live with yourself after committing a murder or will the shame gradually eat away your soul?

The man at the centre of the story, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), seems to have it all. He's a respected doctor with a loving family and a group of adoring friends, and the film opens with a lavish dinner held in his honour. On the surface, Judah is a happily married man, but he holds a dark secret. Over the past few months, he has indulged in an affair with flight attendant Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), enjoying short breaks away and taking long walks on the beach. Only now Dolores is threatening to reveal his secret, sending a letter to Judah's wife which he manages to intercept at the last minute, and calling from the gas station down the road with ideas of turning up at the family's door. When she refuses to listen to Judah's pleas, the doctor turns to his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has connections to the mob, for help. Jack has a simple answer: He will hire someone to murder Dolores and Judah won't have to lift a finger.

While all of this is going on, struggling documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen) is thrown a gig by his brother-in-law - the obnoxious, self-obsessed sitcom writer Lester (Alan Alda) - and meets cute associate producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow) on the job. Unhappy in his own marriage, Cliff can't help but fall in love, but Lester has her in his sights also. It took me a while to figure out why these two seemingly unconnected stories were unravelling side-by-side, but it soon becomes clear that this is a film about the absurdity of guilt. Judah and Jack had it drilled into them from a young age by their rabbi father, but now they appear to be literally getting away with murder. Cliff may want to cheat on his berating wife, but he is ultimately a 'good' guy, yet life doesn't seem to want to throw him any luck. There's also a key character in Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who still maintains a lust for life despite his deteriorating eyesight. It plays like a thriller, but it's also very funny. There's a depressing theme constantly at play, but Allen ensures that the story remains insightful, engrossing and occasionally heartbreaking. One of Allen's shrewdest and most humanistic pictures to date, assisted by a flawless ensemble.

Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Sam Waterston, Joanna GleasonClaire Bloom, Jerry Orbach
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) on IMDb

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Review #1,447: 'Cinderella 2000' (1977)

The Golden Age of Porn kicked off in 1969 following the release of Andy Warhol's Blue Movie and spread across the globe from there. Pornography always consisted of a few magazines found under your father's mattress, but Warhol helped usher the form into mainstream cinemas, and soon enough even movie critics were taking them seriously. The likes of The Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat were huge hits on modest budgets, and aspiring filmmakers were keen to take advantage once they had a camera and a few willing participants. One of the many tricks employed by these filmmakers to draw in audiences was to adapt a well-known story that required no rights purchase or special permission, and fairytales offered a bottomless barrel of stories to plunder. Al Adamson's Cinderella 2000, which transports the action to a near-future where society is ruled over by a dictator and 'fornication' is outlawed, is one of the most famous examples of these smutty fairytales.

The beautiful young Cindy (Catharine Burgess) lives with her horny stepmother (Renee Harmon) and two stepsisters Bella (Bhurni Cowans) and Stella (Adina Ross). Because sex is strictly prohibited by order of the totalitarian government ruled by 'The Controller' (Erwin Fuller), the women have never had sex, and spend most of their time trying to seduce moutachioed guards or writhing around on the floor. Young stud Tom Prince (Vaughn Armstrong) is one of the few deemed worthy enough by the Controller to make love, but the poor horndog has grown dismayed by the lack of passion shown by his partners. After voicing his concerns, the Controller agrees to hold a grand ball to ease the public's sexual frustrations. With the help of her Fairy Godfather (Jay B. Larson), Cindy is soon suited and booted and ready for the party. Of course, she is the only one to catch Tom's eye, and the couple enjoy a night of steamy passion. But when the clock strikes midnight, Cindy dashes off back home. Desperate to find the woman who reignited the fire within him, Tom sets off on his search, and he is prepared to sleep with every woman in the country if he must.

Cinderella 2000 is a rather bizarre concoction, blending sci-fi, musical, comedy and, of course, erotica, with often psychedelic results. While I'll certainly never see the film again, the sheer weirdness of it all means that I'm not likely to forget it anytime soon. There's a robot who strictly enforces the Controller's rules while singing about his desire to 'plug' himself into the other sexy devices around him. At least that's what I think he was singing about, as his voice is so muffled his dialogue is barely comprehensible. There are also Benny Hill-esque romps under the covers and sets so wobbly even Herchell Gordon Lewis would blush. Of course, it all adds to the charm of these kinds of films, but charm is always better in hindsight. To actually sit through the film - which runs for 100 minutes - is a chore. Cinderella 2000 just about gets away with it thanks to some surprisingly catchy musical numbers, a quirky sense of humour, and a script so completely bonkers that you just have to admire the creativity.

Directed by: Al Adamson
Starring: Catharine Burgess, Jay B. Larson, Vaughn Armstrong, Erwin Fuller, Renee Harmon
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Cinderella 2000 (1977) on IMDb

Monday, 4 February 2019

Review #1,446: 'Widows' (2018)

When 12 Years a Slave took home the Best Picture Academy Award back in 2013, many of us expected director Steve McQueen to go even bigger and more ambitious with his next project. After all, his previous films Hunger and Shame were hardly lacking in scope and weight. It's taken five years to finally arrive, but McQueen's new film Widows, adapted from the 1983 ITV drama series of the same name, takes his work into a whole new territory: the genre movie. Yes, Widows seemingly follows the traditions of the great heist movies of old, with Michael Mann's Thief and Heat coming immediately to mind, taking a crack team and handing them a near-impossible task which they must plan with expert precision if they ever hope to pull it off. It would seem that, on paper at least, McQueen has taken it down a notch, but by taking on such a familiar story, the writer/director has given himself an even greater task.

Widows opens with the immediate aftermath of a heist gone awry. We watch from inside a speeding van as the wounded gang make their getaway, with their gun-toting victims and the police giving chase. The twist is that they all perish in a warehouse explosion, with the stolen $2 million going up in flames with them. The gang's widows are the ones left feeling the aftershocks: not only are they left grieving for their husbands, but the guy they stole from - alderman campaigner and community leader Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) - wants his money back. Veronica (Viola Davis) takes the reigns when she finds her husband's notebook, which contains a detailed plan for a heist worth $5 million. Two of the other widows - Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodrgiguez) - have their own financial problems, so they agree to take on the job when Veronica comes a-knocking. They really have no choice. It's either find the money, or Jamal's psychopathic brother Jatemme (a frightening Daniel Kaluuya) will kill them and take everything they own anyway.

McQueen's task here is to deconstruct a slice of popcorn cinema and add the kind of punch and social commentary that made his previous work so great. He does so effortlessly, carefully developing each of the leads and making their story believable, later drafting in a fourth member in the form of Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a single mother working multiple jobs to pay the rent. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) keep the action fast-paced and brutal, so the 130-minute running time breezes by. If there's a complaint to be had, it's that the film is too short and often feels crammed with too many characters and side-stories. Thrown into the mix is Jamal's campaign opposition Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who has had past dealings with Veronica's husband Harry (Liam Neeson) but has come to the realisation that the political manoeuvring of his elderly father (Robert Duvall) is no longer feasible. Like the series it was based on, Widows may have worked better unravelling over the course of a few episodes. But this may have prevented McQueen from reminding us why he is one of the most important directors working today, as he takes the time to deliver a jaw-dropping shot from the side of a car that shows how quickly a city landscape can shift from dire poverty to luxurious wealth, and a run-in with some trigger-happy police that will remain with you long after the credits have rolled.

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Carrie Coon
Country: UK/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Widows (2018) on IMDb

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Review #1,445: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (2018)

Bohemian Rhapsody started out life way back in 2010, with Sacha Baron Cohen set to star as Queen's hypnotic frontman Freddie Mercury. With band members Brian May and Roger Taylor heavily involved in the development, Baron Cohen eventually left, citing creative differences with the way they wished to approach the story as the main reason for his departure. The years went by, and in 2017, the wheels were well and truly in motion with Bryan Singer in the director's chair and Rami Malek in the lead role. The production was famously dogged with problems, and when Singer was eventually fired for unprofessional behaviour (reports say he was frequently disruptive on set, even failing to turn up for three days straight), it felt like the film would never see the light of day. But Dexter Fletcher filled the vacant director's chair and Bohemian Rhapsody was released to huge box-office numbers, and recently received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor, amongst others.

Remarkably, despite the film's difficult production, there's no sign of patchwork or a clash of directorial styles. Bohemian Rhapsody actually has much greater problems, and while anybody looking for an easily-digestible Queen sing-a-long with find much to love here, anybody hoping for a deeper re-telling of one of the music's most enigmatic figures with likely be baffled at the film's eagerness to share the credit and Wikipedia-entry approach to story-telling. We briefly get to see Mercury before he took to the stage, working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow while his parents worry about his lack of academic ambition. His experience as a young immigrant is summarised by a single racial slur, and the film isn't too concerned with exploring this any further. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who wrote last year's similarly formulaic Oscar-baiter Darkest Hour) felt like this would be too much of a drag for the audience, so he quickly moves to Mercury introducing himself to Smile guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), coincidentally mere seconds after the band loses its lead singer.

A few montages later and the band now known as Queen (bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) completes the group) are signed up by manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and land a contract with EMI Records. The characters act and talk like they already know how the story turns out, and the film only manages to scratch beneath the surface when dealing with Mercury's relationship with love-of-his-life Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and her gradual realisation of his sexuality. The rest consists of band squabbles that always seem to conclude with the writing of a hit song, rock movie cliches like the alcohol-fuelled parties and accelerating ego, and cartoon supporting characters (Mike Myers' meta appearance as EMI executive Ray Foster spectacularly misses the mark). By aiming for 12A/PG-13 certificate, Mercury's story is oddly sexless. For a man that radiated sex and sexiness with every air-punch and pout, the lack of raunchiness adds an unwelcome TV-movie quality. It only really comes alive when Malik is allowed to do his thing on stage, climaxing with an extended Live Aid performance that will have you singing along and waving your arms. It's a great impression by Malik, if hardly a great performance, and it helps reminds us of how great Queen really were and how timeless their sound is. Bohemian Rhapsody has certainly made me a bigger Queen fan, but this isn't the biopic the band deserve. That being said, I haven't come across a single person that agrees with me, so what do I know?

Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers
Country: UK/USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) on IMDb

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Review #1,444: 'A Cruel Romance' (1984)

Eldar Ryazanov's A Cruel Romance is a true gem of Soviet cinema; an under-seen period piece set in 1877 that is lavish, funny and devastating in equal measures. The bulk of the action is set in the fictional town of Bryakhimov on the bank of the Volga River, where many merchant men have made their fortune and now seek a wife. The Ogudalovas were once the richest family in the area, but now matriarch Kharita (Alisa Freyndlikh) struggles to pay her mortgage after the death of her husband, but still mingles with society's higher-ups in the hope of finding a husband for her three daughters. Two of them are now married, with the wedding of second daughter Olga (Olga Krasikova) to an overbearingly jealous prince from Tiflis opening the film. This is all witnessed by Larisa (Larisa Guzeeva), the most beautiful and desirable of the Ogudalova sisters, who is happy to see her sibling sail off to a new life, but feels shame at the thought of being sold off like property.

Larisa is the last remaining singleton, and there's no shortage of suitors, despite the fact that she will come without a dowry. The richest merchant in town, Mokiy Parmenovich Knurov (Aleksey Petrenko), harbours strong feelings towards Larisa, but he is married and too old. Perhaps better suited is Larisa's childhood friend Vasiliy Danilovich Vozhevatov (Viktor Proskurin), but he is not quite rich enough to take a bride without a dowry. Yuliy Kapitonovich Karandyshev (Andrey Myagkov), a postman of low social status, is madly in love with Larisa, or perhaps with how such a beautiful woman will feed his ego. Yuliy frequents the parties thrown by Kharita in the hope of convincing her, but is usually left embarrassed or overshadowed by the more charismatic men at the events. Yet Larisa only has eyes for one man, the rich, handsome and exciting Sergei Sergeyvich Paratov (Nikita Mikhalkov), a travelling merchant who surrounds himself with music-playing gypsies who utterly adore him. After spending a wonderful evening together, Paratov suddenly sets sail without saying goodbye, leaving Larisa at the mercy of the increasingly obsessive Yuliy.

Told in two parts, the first segment roughly covers the span of a year, while the second is merely a day and night. Larisa's sweeping romance with the reckless Sergei and his subsequent disappearance is a more personal story of a poor woman's seemingly hopeless search for love, while part two, which sees Sergei return and plot his seduction, makes larger statements about Russian society as a whole and the type of men that rot it to the core. As the merchants get together at a dinner party hosted by Vasily, these powerful, intelligent men toy with the drunk postman like an ant under a magnifying glass. It's often incredibly funny but uncomfortable to watch, and these brilliantly-acted scenes help build a sense of impending doom, particularly with the way Knurov watches over the Ogudalova family fortune like a vulture and plots Larisa's future like an all-knowing puppet-master. While it creeps slightly into melodramatic territory near the end, A Cruel Romance is a gorgeous costume drama with a ravishing score and haunting cinematography, capable of both sweeping you up into its arms and delivering a few cruel blows along the way.

Directed by: Eldar Ryazanov
Starring: Larisa Guzeeva, Alisa Freyndlikh, Nikita Mikhalkov, Andrey Myagkov, Aleksey Petrenko, Viktor Proskurin
Country: Soviet Union

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

A Cruel Romance (1984) on IMDb

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Review #1,443: 'Monster (Humanoids from the Deep)' (1980)

B-movie super producer Roger Corman has been called a lot of things over the years, usually by those opposed to his special brand of gore-and-boobs exploitation which was specifically designed to get those teenage behinds in seats and the profit margin tilted just enough in his favour for the next low-budget project. But say what you will about Corman - who is still active in the business at the age of 96 - the guy certainly knew what he was doing. Having viewed an early cut of Barbara Peeters' Monster (Humanoids from the Deep), he felt that it was fat too tame to compete in a marketplace that was beginning to be dominated by slasher flicks, so brought in another director to add more sex and violence. The result is now a cult classic, but also one that feels like two films awkwardly spliced together into one.

In the small fishing village of Noyo, the salmon are disappearing from the waters and tensions are mounting between the local fishermen and the Native American community. The arrival of a canning corporation sees the tension increase even further, as the Natives will lose their fishing rights should the cannery open. Tasked with keeping the peace is Sheriff Jim Hill (Doug McClure), who can see the argument from both sides but sees his patience tested by angry fisherman Hank Slattery (Vic Morrow). The answer to everybody's problems appears to arrive in the form of Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), a beautiful biologist who announces that, through the magic of genetic engineering, the local waters will not only be replenished with more salmon than ever before, but they will be bigger, faster and tastier. As it turns out, the lack of salmon in the water is the least of the sheriff's problems. After a fishing boat mysteriously explodes, dogs turn up dead and mangled, and the local women start being sexually harassed by slimy green humanoids from the deep.

With slasher movies rapidly becoming teenagers' preferred choice in the drive-ins and fleapit cinemas usually targeted by B-movie producers, Corman turned to a variety of genre classics for inspiration. The obvious inspiration is Creature from the Black Lagoon, but you can also see Jaws, Alien, Corman's own Attack of the Crab Monsters and even It's Alive in there, and this mixture of old and contemporary lends further to this feeling that you are watching multiple films at the same time. Monster can never really decide if its a town-in-peril drama with an environmental message, or a straight-forward rubber-suited-monsters-attack-scantily-clad-teenagers horror picture. Much of the movie moves at a slow pace, setting up a narrative that ultimately proves inconsequential when the deliriously over-the-top climax arrives and the town is set upon by a small army of the rapey creatures. Admittedly, the climax is a hell of a lot of fun, but it comes so later that it fails to make up for haphazard storytelling that came before. A special mention must go to the monster costumes which, although clearly men in suits, are suitably repulsive, if far from scary.

Directed by: Barbara Peeters
Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub, Anthony Pena
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Humanoids from the Deep (1980) on IMDb

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Review #1,442: 'White Boy Rick' (2018)

If you've ever read up on Richard Wershe Jr, the drug kingpin whose life became the stuff of legend in the prion system over the years, you'll likely be aware that he was used as an FBI informant at just 14 years of age, while the Bureau funded his empire to keep him slinging on the streets and in the loop with any other criminal activity happening in his city of Detroit. After the FBI higher-ups discovered his age, they ditched him, and the dealer known as 'White Boy Rick' was eventually busted for selling cocaine and sentence to life in prison, a ridiculous sentence handed out via some Draconian law that has since been discarded. It's a fascinating, frustrating story that you wouldn't believe if it wasn't true, but Yann Demange's new film White Boy Rick doesn't quite know how to tell it. With so much to be told, the film seems to cast aside the central plot in favour of a domestic drama which, although terrifically acted by the whole cast, doesn't know where its priorities should lie.

We first meet the young Rick (Richie Merritt) at a gun show with his father Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey). Despite his baby face and bum-fluff upper-lip hair, Rick is confident and street-smart, teaming up with Old Man Wershe to hustle a salesman into selling two machine guns for a ridiculously knocked-down price. Rick Sr. deals guns for a living, but the business is far from prosperous, and he dreams of someday owning a video store and living within the law. His daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) has picked up a nasty drug habit, and the family-of-three regularly have shouting matches in the street. Luckily, Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and Grandma (Piper Laurie) are just down the street to lighten the mood. After pulling off a few arms deals with gangster 'Lil Man' Curry (Jonathan Majors), Rick Jr. works his way into the cocaine business under the wing of an African-American gang. It doesn't take him long to get busted, but FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane), along with Detroit PD Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry), are quick to pounce, handing the juvenile a fat pouch of cocaine to keep him in action, promising protection in exchange for information.

It's around this point that the script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miler starts to lose control, struggling to grasp the message it's trying to convey in a blur of competing plot threads. The family drama at the very centre of Rick's life is given the most attention, and it's engrossing, often devastatingly raw stuff. Powley and McConaughey are standouts, the former wrestling with an addiction spiralling rapidly out of control and the latter blaming himself for the path his son has decided to take. Rick Sr. hates drugs because they devastate lives, yet his guns are used for multiple murders across the city. The domestic scenes are so well done that you almost forget there's another story being told, one that is setting Rick up for a lengthy term in slammer. So when these moments arrive, you never really understand what's going on.

Why exactly would the FBI put so much trust in a 14 year-old relatively new to the drugs scene, and just what does White Boy Rick do on a day-to-day basis? We don't really see him selling drugs, or spending money, or setting up contacts, or building this so-called empire, so Rick's real status and influence remains a mystery. Even his occasional meetings with Snyder and Bird are brief and bereft of information. Demange wants to make the point that Rick was ultimately set up by a government willing to ruthlessly exploit a minor for their own benefit, yet with so little time developing his criminal activities and relationship with the authorities, this aspect almost feels like an afterthought. As a portrait of family dysfunction, White Boy Rick excels, but if you want to really learn about how Richard Wershe Jr went from bread-line gun-runner to FBI informant to a landing a brutally unfair life sentence, I would opt for a Google.

Directed by: Yann Demange
Starring: Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Brian Tyree Henry, Jonathan Majors, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

White Boy Rick (2018) on IMDb

Monday, 21 January 2019

Review #1,441: 'Bad Times at the El Royale' (2018)

Bad Times at the El Royale, the latest offering from former Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Lost scribe Drew Goddard, was shrouded in secrecy before its release. The trailer promised a dazzling ensemble, a noir-ish crime aesthetic, and a hotel setting where the characters would likely spend the whole film double-crossing each other or figuring out what the hell is going on. This mystery hinted at something more, even something special, but Bad Times is little more than a sporadically fun throwback to the dialogue-heavy crime capers of the 1990s, which were mostly inspired by Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, even though Hollywood had walked on similar terrain going back decades. It reminded me of Ben Wheatley's recent Free Fire, which pitted various groups against each other in a singular location. And just like Wheatley's disappointment, Bad Times tricks you into believing you're on the road to a shocking revelation, before underwhelming as it struggles to live up to its promise.

Inspired by the Cal Neva Lodge & Casino, the El Royale is a kitchy and somewhat shady hotel located on the border between California and Nevada in 1969. A line separating the two states is proudly displayed within, with each side offering different draws. Catholic priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is already there when the film begins, apparently staring into space as our next player arrives, singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a member of a Supremes-esque group on her way to Vegas to make it as a solo act. As the two strike up a conversation and enter their home for the night, slick-haired salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is also there, waiting patiently at the reception for a room he is intent on reserving. We are soon joined by the fourth member of this mysterious group, no-nonsense hippy chick Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), who proudly signs the register with a 'Fuck You'.  Eventually they are given their rooms for the night by the nervous Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who appears to be the hotel's only employee. As day becomes night, backstories and true intentions unfold before the arrival of unpredictable cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

Telling the same story from multiple perspectives was a fad that thankfully burnt itself out by the early 2000s as audiences grew aware that they were being forced to watch the same thing over and over again with little to no pay-off. Goddard does his best to mix things up and keep the unravelling story intriguing enough to hold our attention for the most part, but at two hours and twenty minutes, there's a lot of needless padding to unnecessarily wade through for what is ultimately a routine crime thriller. The film creates a major problem for itself in the opening scene by delivering a well-staged set-piece that concludes with an explosion of violence, something the rest of the film never really feels like topping. If you've ever seen Goddard's Daredevil on Netflix, you'll be lamenting the lack of dizzying camera-work and knuckle-bruising action. What ultimately saves Bad Times is the cast, who are all eager to make their mark when given the opportunity from some one-on-one time. Particularly Bridges, who seems to wander in from another film to deliver a heart-breaking monologue that reveals more information about his past, as well as his current state of affairs, and Hemsworth, who repeats his Ghostbusters trick by stealing the entire film with only a modest amount of screen time. Bad Times doesn't justify its hefty running-time, but you'll likely be left remembering its good parts.

Directed by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) on IMDb

Friday, 18 January 2019

Review #1,440: 'Eye of the Needle' (1981)

Ken Follett's novel Eye of the Needle was a huge hit for the Welsh author when it was first published in 1978, mixing spy thrills and an unlikely romance as the Allies were preparing for D-Day during World War II. The film adaptation, which followed just three years later, simplifies Follet's text to fit a more comfortable three-act structure, and to deliver a more exciting thriller to audiences who were, at the time, being hit with spy movies left, right and centre. Eye of the Needle isn't your typical adventure yarn however, placing a dead-eyed Nazi spy at the centre of the story and throwing him into the arms of a lonely wife. The result is a thrilling, if often contrived film that is happy to toss logic out of the window as long as it offers the chance for another tense stand-off. The plot eventually lays the outcome of the entire war at the feet of the two leads alone on a remote Scottish island, and somehow gets away with it.

It's London, 1940, and an easy-going Brit named Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland) chats with a friend as young men around them head off to war. Nobody yet knows it, but this charming Englishman poses a greater threat to the Allies' war effort than any enemy overseas, as he is actually Heinrich Faber, a Nazi spy known as 'the Needle' who is transmitting information back to his superiors in the Fatherland. When his nice old landlady accidentally catches him speaking German into a radio, Faber brutally stabs her in the belly with a stiletto, the weapon of choice that earned him his nickname. Fast forward four years later, and British Intelligence are finally on to him, and must track him down before he reveals their country's biggest secret to the enemy. Faber has obtained photographs of an airfield full of fake plywood planes, designed to convince Hitler and his spies that the invasion will arrive in Calais, and not the beaches of Normandy, giving the Nazis a chance to end the war swiftly and brutally. However, on his journey back home, Faber's boat is smashed onto the rocks by high wind, washing him up on the nearby Storm Island, which has a population of 4.

The early scenes are juxtaposed with the happy wedding of Lucy (Kate Nelligan) and David (Christopher Cazenove), a young couple whose special day comes to an abrupt end when they crash their car on the way to their honeymoon. The accident results in David having his legs amputated, causing him to grow bitter and angry, choosing to spend most nights getting drunk with the alcoholic lighthouse keeper as his wife looks after their son and longs for affection. It's here that the two stories meet, with Faber washing up on the island and playing the role of mysterious stranger. There's an erotic scene between Faber and Lucy that is now dated and rather awkward, but mostly their dangerous romance is developed with care. They are stripped down as two lost souls both physically and mentally trapped, and the two leads are terrific. Faber is still dedicated to the cause however, and, as he coldly dispatches anyone that stands in his way, director Richard Marquand never lets us forget his evil nature. Yet the way the plot is forced into place to allow these strangers to cross paths is clunky to say the least. It seems strange that Faber couldn't simply radio the information back to Germany before he sets out to deliver the physical evidence, and seemingly clever characters do incredibly stupid things to allow themselves to be stuck with the needle. It's worth seeing for the fantastic central performances and the down-and-dirty atmosphere, but Eye of the Needle doesn't do quite enough to stand out in the plethora of spy movies from the same era.

Directed by: Richard Marquand
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Kate Nelligan, Ian Bannen, Christopher Cazenove
Country: UK

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Eye of the Needle (1981) on IMDb

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Review #1,439: 'Alice in Wonderland' (1951)

Long before animation pioneer Walt Disney wowed the cinema-going world with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - one of the first feature-length animated films ever made - in 1937, the innovator was long dreaming of adapting Lewis Carroll's books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its follow-up Through the Looking Glass. He made a short adaptation called Alice's Wonderland, which mixed live-action and animation, for the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in 1923, but never let go of the idea after the studio went bankrupt and he left for Hollywood. Disney's dream wouldn't be fully realised until 14 years after Snow White, when Alice in Wonderland was finally unveiled in 1951. The film flopped upon release, with audiences failing to be seduced by the many colourful yet incredibly weird characters on show, but through television screenings and subsequent revivals, Alice is now an established classic amongst Disney's animated classics.

As her sister reads under a tree, the young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) dreams of adventure, choosing to explore her own imagination rather than the tales told in books. As she sings by a riverbank, she spots a white rabbit (Bill Thompson) carrying a huge pocket watch. The White Rabbit is late for an important meeting and dashes off into a large rabbit hole. Ever curious, Alice follows him, eventually entering a world in which logic has no place, everything is backward, and everybody is ever so slightly mad. Her adventure into this strange new world leads her to the rather frightening identical twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both voiced by J. Pat O'Malley), a garden of singing flowers who soon reveal their weirdly fascist outlook, a hookah-smoking caterpillar (Richard Haydn), the mischievous Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway), and, of course, a truly mad tea party hosted by the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) and March Hare (Jerry Colonna). This bizarre world known as Wonderland seems to offer no way out, so Alice seeks help from the tyrannical and homicidal Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), who has a fondness for removing heads.

There is really no meaning or hidden depths to be found in Carroll's books, and Disney's adaptation is no different. It seems to exist simply as a celebration of the wonders of childish imagination and an opportunity for creative abandon. The result is a nonsensical story with little time for structure or purpose, but one that has stood the test of time through the wonderful characters it imagines. It's an often frustrating experience that offers little sense of direction, and I wouldn't be surprised if some younger viewers were put off by the narrative's excessive randomness or utterly terrified by some of the more sinister characters on show. Yet Disney knew exactly how he wanted to portray these characters, and backed by some stellar talent behind the microphone, Alice in Wonderland prevails as a series of memorable vignettes. The Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat are now embedded into the fabric of pop culture, and that is mainly thanks to Disney and his team of animators. These are truly insane, even malevolent, characters, but Disney knows how to make them lovable, even when they are toying with our protagonist or leading her further into the madness. It's more a nightmare you can't wake up from than a children's adventure story, and while it won't top many people's lists of favourite Disney movies, there is a unique sense of wonder here that could not be found in Tim Burton's over-stylised 2010 remake.

Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Voices: Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton, J. Pat O'Malley
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Alice in Wonderland (1951) on IMDb

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Review #1,438: 'First Man' (2018)

Fifty years have passed since the Apollo 11 mission sent three astronauts into outer space and onto the surface of the moon for the first time in the history of mankind. The arrival of First Man, Damien Chazelle's part-Neil Armstrong biography, part-NASA procedural, naturally raises the question of whether the U.S.'s greatest achievement in still relevant in today's political and economic upheaval. Rather than taking the chest-puffing, flag-planting patriotic route to reassure people that America is still indeed great, Chazelle's turns this story - which isn't just about Armstrong - into a celebration of the efforts of everybody involved in the space program, and how they overcame incredible odds to finally set foot on the moon. The brave souls involved did so with the knowledge that a mere loose wire or an unforeseen spark in the electrics can spell certain death, and that nothing but a rickety wall separates them from the warmth of the cramped cockpit and the infinite darkness of space.

Chazelle puts us on edge from the get-go and straight into the adrenaline-fuelled life of an astronaut, as Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, struggles to re-enter the atmosphere while piloting the X-15 rocket plane. It's a masterclass of editing, sound design and cinematography, as the death-trap rattles and clunks while alarms blare in the background. And then, it's silence, as the blue clouds come into focus and we touch down in the desert. It's a trick performed time and time again by Chazelle and his technical staff, carving a clear but thin line between peril and safety, as well as allowing the audience to breathe again. The various missions and tests carried out as NASA prepares for the incredible (and beating the Soviets in the process) are captured with expert precision, keen to recreate these real-life events with painstaking accuracy, while injecting these moments with enough cinema magic to keep the palms sweaty. I'd love to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson's thoughts. A special mention must also go to composer Justin Hurwitz, whose otherworldly score - which employs theremins and synthesizers to hark back to the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s - creates a strange, unsettling mood, bursting into glorious life when the final moments arrive.

But First Man isn't just a matter-of-fact account of NASA's finest hour. While some key players are somewhat drowned out (Pablo Schreiber's Jim Lovell makes a somewhat fleeting appearance and Corey Stoll's Buzz Aldrin is painted as little more than an arsehole), this is also an incredibly personal story of an introverted man whose mind seems to be away with the stars long before he leaves Earth. Haunted by the loss of his young daughter, Armstrong is quiet and straight-laced, even addressing his own sons like press at a news conference. It takes a special actor to pull this off, and Gosling seems to excel when playing the silent, stoic type, radiating charisma with a mere glance and emoting so much when doing so little. The film takes a slight detour into schmaltz with a sub-plot involving Armstrong carrying the bracelet of his dead daughter, but given the central character's withdrawn nature, it's easy to understand why Chazelle felt that it was required. There's also solid support from Jason Clarke as Ed White, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, and Claire Foy, who is given a bit more to do as Janet Armstrong than the wives-at-home usually get in astronaut films. With time, First Man will be the definitive moon landing movie. While it's a stunning procedural, Chazelle directs the thing like a conductor, forging a spiritual journey in a world that laughs at the idea of feeling God's presence.

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham
Country: USA/Japan

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

First Man (2018) on IMDb


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