Monday, 15 October 2018

Review #1,407: 'Poltergeist III' (1988)

The promotion and subsequent release of Poltergeist III was overshadowed by the death of 12 year-old star and face of the franchise Heather O'Rourke, from cardiac arrest and septic shock brought on by a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis. The studio, who understandably wanted to avoid any claims that they may be looking to take advantage of such a devastating tragedy, kept advertising to a minimum, although they had previously pressured director Gary Sherman into completing the film against his wishes. Poltergeist III was a critical and commercial flop, putting an end to the franchise that should have really stopped with Tobe Hooper's original. A lack of promotion cannot be blamed entirely though, as the rushed final edit is an incoherent mess with precious few links to the mythology established in the first two entries. They should have known they were in trouble when original stars JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson turned down the chance to return.

In an attempt to freshen up the series, the action is moved from a suburban home to a luxury skyscraper: A 100-story colossus complete with its own mall and art gallery. In charge of the tower is Bruce Gardner (Tom Skerritt), the new husband of Patricia (Nancy Allen) - the sister of JoBeth William's character. As well as having to adapt to newly married life, Pat is also having to deal with her daughter from a previous marriage, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), so the last thing she needs is the arrival of spooky Carol Anne (O'Rourke), who seems to bring trouble with her wherever she goes. I don't recall an explanation given for why the Freeling family would suddenly send the daughter they almost lost twice to an auntie they've never mentioned, but the script by Sherman and Brian Taggert isn't concerned with making too much sense. It's happy to simply drag out the franchise as far as it will go and ignore what made the previous films so popular with audiences. The Freelings always fought off the supernatural forces at play with their unbreakable family bond, but Poltergeist III sidesteps establishing this newly family unit in favour of lazy jump shocks.

The Gardner's don't seem particularly adept at taking care of a traumatised 12 year-old either, happily leaving her in the care of their irresponsible teenage daughter and enlisting her in a special school, where sceptical psychiatrist Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire) believes the spooky events experienced by Carol Anne and the people around her are brought on by some kind of mass hypnosis. This leaves plenty of time for Carol Anne to be harassed by Reverend Kane (Nathan Davis, replacing the late Julian Beck), who still wants her to lead them all into the light. The film quickly dissolves away into a series of set-pieces plucked at random from Cinema's Big Book of Characters in Peril, involving falling through ice and killer cars revving in the underground car park. Without the family bond so purposefully developed over the course of the last two films, these moments lack any dramatic weight. Sherman would prefer to have the characters yell each other's names repeatedly at the expense of actual dialogue, and in one case is happy to toss away one supporting character without any explanation at all. On the positive side, there are some fantastic 'in camera' effects deployed as the spirits use mirrors to communicate with the living world, and the presence of Zelda Rubinstein and Tom Skerritt's moustache is always a pleasure.

Directed by: Gary Sherman
Starring: Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Lara Flynn Boyle
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Poltergeist III (1988) on IMDb

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Review #1,406: 'Upgrade' (2018)

Leigh Whannell's Upgrade feels like the type of film made for Netflix; a sort of mid-level science-fiction story constructed around one intriguing idea, and bulked up with elements from other, better genre movies. It's also the type of film I would consider for a few seconds whilst flicking through my Netflix queue, before opting for something else with a more compelling premise. Set in the very-near future, the film's main hook comes from a game-changing microchip that, when surgically planted in a willing - or unwilling host - allows body and foreign body to communicate with each other. Of course, it doesn't stop there. The implant can also turn down your nerve endings so you don't feel pain, and - with the host's permission - can fully operate your body and turn you into a hand-to-hand master. This comes in handy for grease monkey Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) when the plot demands he seeks revenge on some baddies.

As well as possessing one of cinema's all-time most ridiculous names, Grey spends his time fixing classic muscle cars and drinking beer. This near-future is complete with iHomes and self-driving cars, but Grey is far more comfortable getting his hands dirty. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), on the other hand, works for one of the big tech companies and has fully embraced this new digital, hands-free world. Opposites do attract however, and Grey invites his wife along to the isolated home of tech genius Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), his most high-profile customer. Eron, who is clearly inspired by Elon Musk, is withdrawn, strange and undeniably brilliant, and also eager to show off his latest invention: a microchip he dubs "a new, better brain." On the journey home, their car experiences a catastrophic error, sending the couple down dark streets before crashing and overturning. Injured, they are then preyed upon a gang of masked criminals, who murder Asha and cripple Grey. Waking up paralysed from the neck down and understandably angry, Grey is offered a solution when Eron makes a rare public appearance at the hospital.

If all of this sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it before in countless other movies. Upgrade's greatest achievement is that it doesn't make you wish you were watching something else, and instead pulls you along into its world. This is mainly down to some spectacular action scenes, which combine well-choreographed hand-to-hand fighting with some nifty camerawork, which bends and turns along with Grey as he dishes out violence with a look of both confusion and excitement splashed cross his face. There's something hilarious about a body acting independently of the face, and Whannell wisely chooses to play up these moments. Marshall-Green is often unfairly referred to as a bargain-bin Tom Hardy (who is currently dealing with his own parasitic second personality in Venom), and while he fails to convince as a leading man, he's clearly enjoying himself. Produced by Blumhouse Productions, who churn out huge hits with incredibly modest budgets, Upgrade is infused with a grainy, B-movie aesthetic that give it an exploitation vibe and slightly grimy feel. I mean that as a compliment, and it's a shame that the excitement generated by the outrageous action scenes couldn't be replicated in the generic beats of the main story.

Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Harrison Gilbertson, Betty Gabriel, Benedict Hardie
Country: Australia

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Upgrade (2018) on IMDb

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Review #1,405: 'Escape from Alcatraz' (1979)

Before their falling out, director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood made some great films together, beginning with Coogan's Bluff in 1968 and ending with arguably their finest work, Escape from Alcatraz in 1979. Like Eastwood's character Frank Morris, Escape from Alcatraz is lean and no-nonsense, set completely within the walls of the infamous island prison. It's also a masterpiece of visual storytelling, with Siegel displaying a skill for capturing the routine of life in Alcatraz, from the small individual cells to the mundane work cycles, all combining to create an overall sense of hopelessness for those destined to rot away on the Rock. Morris has been placed there because he has escaped from every other prison he's been sent to, and nobody escapes from Alcatraz. He is quickly informed by a fellow inmate that should you even manage to get out of your cell, it's a mile away from land and the cold will kill you before the next prisoner count.

This revelation would crush the souls of most men, but Morris simply sees it as another challenge to overcome and quickly starts to plan a break-out. It will take time however, so he must endure the harshness of prison life in the meantime. Alcatraz is a place of punishment, not rehabilitation, and the quietly sadistic warden, played by Patrick McGoohan, appears to be proud of the prison's reputation of making good prisoners, not citizens. We are gradually introduced to the other inmates: There's the eccentric Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who convinces a new arrival that he is actually Al Capone, artist and amateur botanist 'Doc' Dalton (Roberts Blossom), black librarian English (Paul Benjamin), and eventually Morris' old acquaintances and brothers Clarence (Jack Thibeau) and John Anglin (Fred Ward). Morris quickly makes an enemy in Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), when he clobbers the would-be rapist for making advances in the shower room. With Wolf waiting impatiently in solitary for revenge and the threat of a cell move looming, Morris steps up his efforts, finding hope in the crumbling concrete around the grille in his cell.

The escape itself is a magnificent, meticulously researched sequence that arrives at the climax, but before that we are ushered into the harsh realities of prison life, and what it takes to survive and maintain your sanity in such brutal surroundings. Siegel skilfully builds dramatic tension in a suffocating, cramped confinement. Alcatraz was no ordinary prison. It was an intricate machine designed to crush the spirits of those serving time, where a luxury could be taken away in an instant for the pettiest of reasons, leaving you with nothing but walls and your thoughts. Siegel doesn't necessarily side with the prisoners - with one exception, they all certainly deserve to be locked up - but he is keen to point out that such mental abuse doesn't do anybody, especially society, any good. This sense of injustice is certainly what seems to be driving Morris, and you'll be willing him on when the date is finally set. The escape is actually relatively straight-forward, but Siegel makes it nail-biting nonetheless. This also fits in with the whole docudrama feel, sticking closely to how it actually went down back in 1962. The ending eerily lets you ponder their fate for yourselves. They were never seen again, nor were their bodies discovered.

Directed by: Don Siegel
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Roberts Blossom, Jack Thibeau, Fred Ward, Paul Benjamin, Larry Hankin
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Escape from Alcatraz (1979) on IMDb

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Review #1,404: 'The Quick and the Dead' (1995)

By 1995, the western genre had all but disappeared completely from our cinema screens. Black-and-white tales of cowboys and Indians in America's Old West was the stuff your granddad would watch on television during the day and claim they just don't make 'em like this anymore. They didn't stop completely however, with the likes of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man making an earnest attempt to infuse the genre with a psychedelic, folksy edge, and George P. Cosmatos' Tombstone turning the events at the OK Corral into an explosive action thriller. Some, like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, while adding a more sombre tone, successfully stuck the traditions of the genre, while others, like Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, simply took an old-fashioned premise and ran with it. If you're looking for revisionism or an interesting take on an iconic time in America's history, then The Quick and the Dead ain't the film for that, but you may just find yourself having a bit more fun that you expected.

The town of Redemption was once a thriving community, but it now rests in the hands of the ruthless mayor and former outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman). Herod enjoys a nice house while taxing his citizens 50% on any money they make, and apparently relieves his boredom by hosting a quick-draw contest every year. Gunslingers from all across the country arrive to take part - but God knows why, given the obviously high risk of death - including the mysterious Ellen (Sharon Stone), who shares a history with both the town and Herod himself. Also in town is Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cocky teenager with a steady hand who also believes he is Herod's unacknowledged son, and a repentant outlaw-turned-preacher named Cort (Russell Crowe). Cort is dragged into the contest against his will by Herod's cronies, and the boss man is seemingly angered at his former associate's new anti-violence stance. There's backstory and melodrama, but it's all just an excuse for a series of stand-offs in a town where it always seems to be high noon.

While subverting expectations by enlisting a woman to play the central gunslinger, Raimi may as well have cast a broom in a wig, as Stone struggles to convincingly brood and frown and maintain any kind of interest in her character. Faring considerably better are DiCaprio and Crowe, who were just a few years off Titanic and Gladiator and the global stardom that followed. Their charisma and star quality are as clear as day, especially when they share a scene with the one-note Stone. For a film that boasts a wonderful supporting cast (Roberts Blossom, Tobin Bell, Keith David, Lance Henriksen and Gary Sinise are just some of the familiar faces), they all cower in the shadow of Gene Hackman, who somehow manages to turn some truly atrocious dialogue into Shakespeare. Yet the real star is Raimi's crazy camera lens. Before he was bringing Peter Parker's swinging exploits vividly to life in Spider-Man, he was crash-zooming on the faces of readying gunslingers and capturing daylight through a bullet-hole in the belly. It's silly, outrageous and wonderful. The problem is everything that comes in between, from the dreary central hero to the unengaging backstories.

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobin Bell, Roberts Blossom, Kevin Conway, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Pat Hingle
Country: Japan/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

The Quick and the Dead (1995) on IMDb

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Review #1,403: 'Man with a Movie Camera' (1929)

David Abelvich Kaufman was born on January 2nd, 1896 in Bialystok, Ukraine, and came of age during the Russian Revolution, joining the movement headed by Lenin and Trotsky that would eventually overthrow the Russian Republic. At some point during this time, Kaufman changed his name to Denis Arkadievich to avoid the persecution of Ukranian Jews. He studied music and medicine until he found his true calling in the arts, writing essays on Futurism and French avant-garde and developing a keen interest in cinema, something he viewed with both curiosity and frustration, calling out traditional, sentimental cinema as "leprous". Learning his trade developing newsreels for Cinema Week and changing his name once again to Dziga Vertov, the filmmaker set out to develop something nobody had ever seen before: a film without narrative, characters or dialogue.

Man with a Movie Camera, released in 1929, did away with traditional storytelling techniques to the point that no story would be told at all, at least not in the way that audiences were - and still are - accustomed to. Vertov would spend over 3 years on the film, shooting in Soviet cities Moscow, Kharkiv, Kiev and Odessa to capture the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life, from faces on the street to the labourers keeping the cities in motion. But this is no ordinary documentary, and to call it a documentary at all is somewhat misleading. Vertov and his group, the kinoks, were rooted firmly in modernism and Marxist ideologies, and Man with a Movie Camera aimed to push the limits of what could be achieved with a camera and clever editing. What may sound like a dour experiment for the academics is actually incredibly entertaining, with Vertov having plenty of fun playing with his toys. After a short burst of intertitles, we see an audience arrive for a screening, their seats magically lowering themselves down before the film begins. Later, we see a woman editing a scene we've just watched.

It's a film being made before our very eyes, and Vertov even manages to make you feel part of the process. Not only do we have the pleasure of some dazzling, innovative camerawork, but we also get to see how such a shot was achieved. The only 'character' of the film is the man with a movie camera, played by Vertov's brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. We see him scaling great heights and perched on the side of a moving car, or lounging in the shallow sea as he shoots a crowd gathered at the beach. The film would pioneer techniques still used to this day, including the likes of double exposure, slow-motion, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, and in one of the most delightful segments, stop-motion animation. With an average shot length of 2 seconds - the same as many blockbusters today - it thunders along like a well-oiled machine, backed by The Alloy Orchestra's rousing score. Everything is constantly in motion, from the trains, trams and factories, to the people going about their business. Vertov juxtaposes life and death, marriage and divorce, happiness and hardship, almost like it's happening simultaneously. It's a head-spinning experience that remains one of the most significant moments in cinema history, and to think it was done over 50 years before Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi attempted the same.

Directed by: Dziga Vertov
Starring: Mikhail Kaufman
Country: Soviet Union

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) on IMDb

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review #1,402: 'Hold the Dark' (2018)

Whether you appreciate his genre-hopping and wince-inducingly violent movies or not, nobody could ever accuse director Jeremy Saulnier of lacking ambition. From the grisly, low-budget revenge picture Blue Ruin to the greasy punks/neo-Nazi stand-off of Green Room, Saulnier has always demonstrated the will to subvert our expectations, to carry us off into seemingly safe territory before slapping us across the face with a moment of utter savagery. It seems strange then, that Saulnier's most ambitious movie to date, the Alaskan-set 'mystery' Hold the Dark, debuted on the small screen via Netflix. The word mystery is in inverted commas because this is one of a few genres Hold the Dark dips its toes into, making for an unsettling and surprising film, but also a frustrating and confusing one. The scope is noticeably broader than Saulnier's previous efforts as the action hops between different continents and viewpoints, but Saulnier and writer Macon Blair fail to maintain a firm grasp of the story.

In a small town out in the Alaskan wilderness a few children have gone missing - suspected of being taken away by wolves - and Bailey Sloane is the latest to disappear. His mother, Medora (Riley Keough) writes to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a naturalist who has written a book about his experiences killing a wolf, in the hope that he will hunt down the animals responsible. He agrees, curious of Medora's motivations, and the two damaged, introverted characters form a quiet bond through shared loneliness. Meanwhile, Medora's husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), a soldier fighting in Afghanistan (the film takes place in 2004), is notified of his son's abduction. His own wife describes him as an animal, and we quickly understand why. A towering, fearsome figure, Vernon is a man who believes that murder is wholly justified, even necessary, when it comes to protecting the ones you love. When he arrives in town, all hell breaks loose, attracting the attention of the unprepared and unequipped local police force, led by chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale).

The synopsis is vague because to reveal any more would be to spoil the film's most interesting aspect, its sheer unpredictability. The first hour draws you in with its sombre and almost threatening atmosphere, as it seems to set up a familiar man vs beast scenario, and the ethical conundrums that come with it. It then takes a sharp, violent turn with a riveting set-piece that comes out of nowhere, and from then on you won't have a clue where you're heading. The main problem is that the film doesn't seem to know either, and when we finally arrive at a certain destination in the story, we don't really know where we are. The clashing tones and genre switches of Saulnier's previous movies felt organic and exciting, but the pieces don't quite fit together in Hold the Dark. If you were to view individual scenes, there's some great work here. Saulnier understands how to grab your attention and execute moments of brutality that don't feel gratuitous or exploitative, and an extended shoot-out that successfully blends horror and action is the film's most shocking and memorable moment. Wright is terrific too, but his pained whispers aren't enough to save this from being Saulnier's weakest film to date, made all the more frustrating by the fact that there are moments of brilliance throughout.

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Hold the Dark (2018) on IMDb

Friday, 5 October 2018

Review #1,401: 'True Romance' (1993)

It's been many years since I last saw Tony Scott's True Romance, huddled up in my bedroom as a young teenager in fear of being caught with my older brother's VHS. I loved it then and I still like it very much, but it never struck me before just how much of a boy's fantasy the film is. This is a story in which a comic-book store worker forms a relationship with a gorgeous hooker-with-a-heart and successfully avenges her mistreatment at the hands of a despicable pimp, all before riding off to Hollywood with a case full of cocaine and dreams of an early retirement in mind. This is no surprise when you see who was behind the script - a young Quentin Tarantino - who at the time of writing was working in a video store dreaming of bigger and better things. But the fact that this is a fantasy isn't a bad thing. True Romance sweeps you up into its universe of outlaw love, mean-spirited gangsters and the ghost of Elvis Presley and doesn't allow you to pause for breath.

The hero at the centre of the story is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater). We meet him in a bar trying to chat up a woman by expressing his love for Elvis and inviting her to join him in a Sonny Chiba triple bill playing at the local theatre. You can almost imagine Tarantino speaking these words and being hit with a rejection, but Clarence is Tarantino's creation, so he has popcorn spilled over him by an attractive blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) as he sits watching one of The Streefighter films alone. The two hit it off and spend the night together, before she reveals she is actually a call girl hired by his friends (the name should have been a hint). But she actually falls in love with Clarence, and him with her, and the two are quickly married before Clarence's attention turns to the pimp who is still holding her belongings, the milky-eyed and dreadlocked Drexl (Gary Oldman). Their confrontation leaves Clarence in possession of a suitcase chocked full of cocaine, so the newly weds head to Los Angeles to find a buyer, with the help of their clueless contact and aspiring actor Dick (Michael Rapaport).

Their road trip allows the opportunity for some familiar faces to flex their acting chops with the assistance of Tarantino's impeccable screenplay, including the likes of Dennis Hopper as Clarence's estranged father, Christopher Walken as fearsome gangster Don Vincenzo, Brad Pitt as Dick's useless stoner roommate Floyd, and a noticeably thinner James Gandolfini as one of Vincenzo's more sadistic thugs. It's a fast and furious two hours, with so much going on that you're barely given time to stop and realise that nothing much really adds up. The film sweeps you up into its silliness, forcing you to bow down to its own particular brand of cool. If you've seen Tarantino's directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, then many of True Romance's story beats will feel familiar (the story carefully moves its characters into place so they will eventually be in the same room at the same time with loaded guns pointed at each other), but Scott's style and energy make the ride exhilarating. The two leads are charming, with Slater convincing as a geek-turned-loose cannon and Arquette portraying just the right blend of cute and sexy, but the real star is Tarantino, who somehow manages to turn an adolescent fantasy into an exciting thrill ride.

Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini
Country: USA/France

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

True Romance (1993) on IMDb

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review #1,400: 'This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse' (1967)

The idea of going bigger and bolder when tackling the sequel to a surprise hit is nothing new, as evidenced by Jose Mojica Marins' follow-up to cult Brazilian horror classic At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. The first film managed to achieve cult status in its native country and with anybody lucky enough to see it elsewhere in the world, so director, co-writer and lead star Marins managed to bag a noticeably larger budget and used this to further explore the darkest regions of his mind. The result - the wonderfully-titled This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse - is little more than a shameless re-hash of the previous story, but as a piece of psychedelic gothic horror, it manages to outshine its predecessor in every way. At the end of Midnight, Marins' Ze do Caixao, or 'Coffin Joe', was left for dead by supernatural forces. But now he's back, and more determined than ever to find the perfect bride to carry his child.

While the villagers hid in fear of Joe last time around, they have since grown weary of his superior attitude and suspect him of the many disappearances that took place in their community. However, without sufficient evidence to bring him to trial, Joe is released to carry on with his undertaker duties and his search for the mother of his future son. Assisted this time by a hunchback named Bruno (Jose Lobo), Joe imprisons some of the village's most beautiful young ladies and tests them in order to prove their worthiness. Sadly, the test involves an army of spiders, and while one woman, Marcia (Nadia Freitas), remains calm, the others panic and are thrown into a pit to be killed by snakes. While Marcia is deemed unsuitable to bear his child, she is employed as a spy while Joe sets out to seduce the beautiful Laura (Tina Wohlers), the daughter of a local colonel who shares Joe's twisted outlook and logic.

Marins only stepped into the role of Coffin Joe when the original actor dropped out before the first film started production, but this proved to be a stroke of luck as it's difficult to imagine anybody else donning the top hat, neatly-trimmed beard and grotesque, talon-like fingernails. Joe is more cunning this time around, using his wits to frame a local strongman for the murders and to escape some violent confrontations. A curse placed upon him by one of his victims slowly drives him mad, leading to one of the film's most exceptional set-pieces. In his dreams, Joe journeys into hell, a cesspit of cruelty and torture shot in bold colour (the rest of the picture is grainy black-and-white). Bloody limbs and body parts emerge from the stone walls and poor souls are whipped and beaten continuously is a never-ending carousel of savagery. It's a nightmare that even terrifies Joe, and this segment provides a disturbing window into Marins' imagination. This second entry into the Coffin Joe series moves a mile-a-minute, offering everything from phoney-looking backdrops to smoke-machine special effects as it touches on almost every taboo imaginable, but this excess is all part of its charm, and what makes the world of Ze do Caixao so unique.

Directed by: José Mojica Marins
Starring: José Mojica Marins, Tina Wohlers, Nadia Freitas, Antonio Fracari, Jose Lobo
Country: Brazil

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) on IMDb

Monday, 1 October 2018

Review #1,399: 'The Scarlet Empress' (1934)

With the Motion Picture Production Code or, to give it its more popular name, the Hays Code, introduced in 1930 to ensure that cinema didn't corrupt the morals of the American populace, many directors came up with ingenious ways to find loopholes in the code, or employ cinematic trickery to create an illusion of what the Hays Code considered amoral. Some directors, however, seemed to ignore the Code completely, and somehow got away with it. Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, a deliberately provocative piece celebrating the sexual freedom of one of history's most enigmatic figures, Catherine the Great, seems to go out of its way to annoy the censors, yet the film remained miraculously untampered with. To say that von Sternberg takes liberties with his artistic license would be a vast understatement, but The Scarlet Empress was the director's "relentless excursion into style," to quote the great man himself.

If this was made today by the BBC, I'm sure that Ofcom would struggle to deal with the scale of complaints. The film begins with Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich), the young and beautiful daughter of a German prince, who is summoned to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser) to produce an heir for the Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). She is informed by the handsome, womanising Count Alexei (John Lodge) that the Grand Duke is strong and handsome, with thick locks of ebony hair. Of course, this isn't the case, and when Sophia finally arrives at her new home, Peter emerges as a grinning halfwit unfit to father a child and even less suitable to wear the crown. Renamed Catherine by the Empress, the seemingly wide-eyed innocent bride-to-be embarks on an affair with the rogueish Alexei, and turns her seductive eyes to the soldiers of the Russian army. While the Grand Duke is busy drilling holes into the wall of his mother's bedroom with twisted Freudian curiosity, Catherine starts to plan her ascension.

Every scene is a feast for the eyes, with lavish interiors, fetishistic costumes, suggestive shadows and doors so thick and heavy they require a run-up to close them dominating every frame. It suggests an oppressive, backwards country in real need of new ideals. The tables, walls and chairs are all sculpted to portray monstrous figures: some are gargoyles, and some seem to be people contorted in the grips of death. It's a horrible place, and von Sternberg chooses to juxtapose this with Catherine's sexuality, as her confidence and desire increase with every scene. The way von Sternberg does this is undeniably seductive, further sensationalised by his obsession with Dietrich's flawless face. You wouldn't be able to tell if she is even a good actress from this, as von Sternberg often chooses to express the character's feelings without the need for dialogue. A long, lingering look through a closing door suggests a burgeoning desire, and the flickering of a candle as Catherine's breathing becomes heavier shows her lust. How The Scarlet Empress didn't cause more of a stir I'll never know, but we are better off for it. If you want a quick-fire history lesson then check Wikipedia, but if you seek a rich, gothic atmosphere mixed in with thick layers of eroticism and rich, exquisitely-detailed visuals, then this ticks all the boxes.

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

The Scarlet Empress (1934) on IMDb

Friday, 28 September 2018

Review #1,398: 'Sicario 2: Soldado' (2018)

Denis Villeneuve's Sicario was one of the most memorable thrillers of 2015, but it wasn't a film that exactly cried out for a sequel. Nevertheless, talk of a follow-up has been batted around ever since its release, with Villeneuve originally attached to direct. He dropped out to follow his childhood dream of directing Blade Runner 2049 however, with Italian director Stefano Sollima eventually signing on to helm the next chapter in the story of former sicario turned vengeful assassin Alejandro, played with a trademark steeliness by Benicio Del Toro. Original writer Taylor Sheridan was back on board to further explore the moral and social decay on both sides of the border, themes he had tackled before in the likes of Hell or High Water or his directorial debut Wind River. But there seems to be something missing from Sicario 2: Soldado, particularly the way Villeneuve questioned the ethics of the manner in which the US dished out its unique brand of justice.

The first Sicario brought us into this world of shady government agencies and barbaric Mexican drug cartels through the eyes of Emily Blunt's rookie, but she is nowhere to be seen here. This leaves us with cocky, flip-flop wearing CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is brought in by the Department of Defence to combat the drug cartels who, by definition, are now considered terrorists. Targets are easier to execute when they are distracted, so Graver suggests instigating a war between the two dominant cartels and profit from the ensuing chaos. Taking out the leaders will only breed more splintered cartels so, with the freedom to operate without rules, Graver employs black operative Alejandro Gillick to help him and his team kidnap the daughter of a cartel kingpin, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner). All goes to plan until the team are betrayed by the Mexican police, leaving Alejandro stranded in the desert with Isabel and Graver on the receiving end of a roasting from his incredibly pissed-off superiors.

Villeneuve and Blunt aren't the only ones who don't return: cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Johann Johannsoon (who passed away earlier this year) are also absent. Thankfully, their replacements Dariusz Wolski and Hildur Guðnadottir are able to replicate the same sweltering, doom-laden atmosphere of the first, as well as injecting some of their own sense of dread and tension into the film's ambience. Del Toro is once again a dazzling presence, managing to find the shred of humanity left in a brutal character still emotionally devastated by his family's murder and hungry for vengeance. Brolin is a highly charismatic actor, but while we get to see the occasional twinkle in his eye, Sollima's questionable stance seemingly in favour of the gung-ho tactics employed by the American forces relegates Graver to a one-note character. Soldado misses Villeneuve's concern for the consequences of such careless tactics and the limits of American intervention overseas, but the action scenes are executed unflinchingly with nerve-shredding realism. Soldado chooses to end with an invitation for at least one more chapter in this story, and while the desire to tell a complete story with time and care is admirable, Soldado feels oddly unfinished as a result.

Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Elijah Rodriguez, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Shea Whigham
Country: USA/Mexico

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) on IMDb

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Review #1,397: 'Catfight' (2016)

As the title may suggest, the story of Onur Tukel's Catfight revolves around two women beating each other to a bloody pulp. It's where the film finds its most laughs, and these scenes - played out over the years like a modern-day The Duellists - don't pull their punches, although the frequent smackdowns are imagined in a very slapstick-y style, complete with over-the-top slappy sounds effects. The first of these fights takes place at a pompous party in a Manhattan apartment, where suit-wearing types are toasting a big deal that will serve them well in an upcoming war. It's where down-on-her-luck artist Ashley (Anne Heche) is helping her girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) cater and serve drinks, and where she encounters trophy wife Veronica (Sandra Oh) for the first time in decades. Veronica's passive-aggressive snootiness is too much for Ashley, and they end up beating tens tons of shit out of each other in a stairwell.

It's the first of three encounters between the ladies over the course of the film, and it leaves Veronica in a coma for the next two years. When she finally wakes up, she is hit by the news that both her husband and son are dead, and all of her money has been drained by hospital care and a downturn in the economy brought on by the ongoing war. Ashley, on the other hand, is doing incredibly well for herself. Her angry and confrontational art has suddenly become popular in these troubled times, and she milks it for all it's worth. Yes, Catfight is set in an alternate near-future, where the U.S. are engaged in a bloody conflict that has seen the draft reinstated and where everybody seems to be a special kind of terrible person. We are kept up-to-date over the years by a talk show that everyone seems to watch, complete with a comedy monologue to-camera which always ends with a fart gag. It's a grotesque reality, and the film aims its jabs at the left, the right, the rich, and the poor, and even finds time to giggle at crazy doomsday preppers and those stupid enough to buy crappy art.

It's original satire that may catch you off-guard if you don't know to expect going into the film, but it's also awkwardly on-the-nose. We loathe Veronica but come to sympathise with her when she is stripped of her family and assets and is forced to stay with her former help, and the same then happens with Ashley in reverse. Their stories mirror each other almost scene-by-scene, and while I'm sure the director felt that such an approach would be clever and off-the-wall, it comes across as plain lazy writing. There's no subtlety to the way the film executes its satire, and while this may be the point given the way the central characters go at each other like rabid dogs, it blunts the film's edge and gives it a lighter, almost cartoonish feel. Catfight works best when it allows the darkness to creep in, especially when Oh and Heche are simply allowed to spit venom at each other. It's saved by the strength of the performances, with Oh turning in an especially terrific performance and again questioning why she can't seem to land bigger roles. Catfight is an interesting story told with immaturity and a heavy hand, but with a touch more seasoning, Tukel could be one for the future.

Directed by: Onur Tukel
Starring: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Amy Hill, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Ariel Kavoussi
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Catfight (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Review #1,396: 'No Way Out' (1950)

Despite possessing all the handsome features expected of a male star in the 1950s, actor Richard Widmark ended up playing some of the most loathsome and outright disgusting characters of his era. After his star-making turn in Henry Hathaway's terrific Kiss of Death, Widmark found himself typecast as villains and anti-heroes in the subsequent years, before reinventing himself as a hero later in life. Looking back at Widmark's career, his performances are savage even by today's standards, and he perhaps never played a character so utterly vile as that of mobster Ray Biddle in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out. Biddle is both gangster and racist, the worst type of person, and starts the film being wheeled into a hospital with his brother after a robbery gone wrong.

The Biddle brothers have both been injured in a shoot-out with the police, but elder brother Johnny (Dick Paxton) is more seriously ill than it would appear. Tasked with taking care of the hoodlums is Dr. Luther Books (Sidney Poitier), an intern who has just earned his license to practise medicine and the first African-American doctor to work at the hospital. Concerned with Johnny's slurred speech and erratic behaviour, Brooks suspects a brain tumour and starts a spinal tap, only to be bombarded with racist abuse from Ray. Johnny dies soon after, and Ray naturally accuses Brooks of murder. After consulting with chief medical resident Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), they both agree on the diagnosis, and also that an autopsy is the only way to know for certain. But state laws only permit an autopsy with a family member's approval, and Ray isn't going to give it. With racial tension across the city brewing, Brooks and Wharton visit Ray's ex-wife Edie (Linda Darnell) in the hope that she can make Ray see sense.

By keeping the majority of the story within the hospital setting, Mankiewicz and co-writer Lesser Samuels (who would go on to pen the great Ace in the Hole for Billy Wilder) keep the animosity at a personal level. The film would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Brooks must remain stone-faced as he is abused by Ray after genuinely trying to save his brother's life, and Poitier is magnificent in an very early role. His relationship with Ray, who refuses to see sense even when given proof, is incredibly raw even by contemporary standards. Ray is the catalyst for the trouble at the film's centre, and his actions cause a rippling effect throughout the surrounding neighbourhoods, with the inhabitants of an-all black area gearing up for a fight with the whites from Ray's neck of the woods. This highlights the fact that the themes the film is keen to explore aren't just confined to the hospital, but represent a problem of a much wider scale. It's a film that is sadly still relevant today, over 60 years later, and Widmark's ferocity only makes the experience all the more powerful.

Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Harry Bellaver
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

No Way Out (1950) on IMDb

Monday, 24 September 2018

Review #1,395: 'Monkey Shines' (1988)

Only the very best directors can take a flimsy story and make the most out of it, and this is precisely the case with Monkey Shines, adapted by George A. Romero from the novel by Michael Stewart. Of course, Romero is best known for Night of the Living Dead and it's spectacularly gory follow-up Dawn of the Dead, but Monkey Shines actually takes a surprisingly careful, reserved approach to this tale of a killer monkey, and takes the time to slowly develop the relationship between the central character and his simian helper. The film begins with Allan, played by Jason Beghe, a former track champion who clearly takes his workout routines incredibly seriously, packing his back pack with rocks and leaving the house for a morning jog with the sun barely risen. His active lifestyle is quickly cut short when he is hit by a bus, and wakes up days later as a quadriplegic.

When he returns home assisted by a mouth-operated wheelchair, his friends and family have all gathered to welcome him but nothing will ever be the same again. His shallow girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner), who fears her life will now be dominated by looking after her partner, has shacked up with Allan's unbearably smug surgeon Dr. Wiseman (Stanley Tucci with a head of hair), and his scientist best friend Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow) is a junkie who shows up late for the welcome party. But Fisher, who has been experimenting on Capuchins by injecting them with human brain tissue, may have the solution to Allan's problems. After consulting with Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil) - an expert in assigning quadriplegics with monkey helpers - Fisher supplies Allan with his star pupil, 'Ella' (who is actually voiced by Frank Welker). The two hit it off immediately, and the bond between them becomes so strong that Ella can seemingly predict Allan's needs before he even asks (or points his laser pen).

Ella doesn't solve all of Allan's problems however, and Allan still vents his frustration at his uncaring nurse and her annoying bird, as well as his overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten), who insists on sticking her nose in where it's not wanted. What follows would sound preposterous on paper, but Romero keeps the story engrossing and oddly believable by refusing to give into excess. The delightful exploding heads and exposed innards of his zombie movies simply wouldn't work here, although the film does offer a violent and shocking ending. This is on a similar low key to Romero's vampire masterpiece Martin, and the director's keen eye for character building leaves us fully invested in the man-and-monkey relationship, despite the bloody trail left in their wake. There's a truly great 90 minute film here, but Monkey Shines runs at just shy of two hours, occasionally losing focus to shift the action to Fisher's strained relationship with his boss (Stephen Root) or Allan's mother's insistence on moving in, both sub-plots that don't really lead anywhere and stretch the film out longer than it needs to be. But with Romero's passing just last year, Monkey Shines is a great reminder that the horror icon didn't only deliver in the zombie genre.

Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, Janine Turner
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Monkey Shines (1988) on IMDb

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Review #1,394: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' (2018)

During the countless times I watched George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy as a child, teenager and adult, I don't recall ever wondering how Han Solo became the sarcastic, smirking smuggler that definitely shot first. Ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm and announced that not only would they be continuing the story that began back in 1977 but would also be giving some of the fan-favourite supporting characters their very own spin-offs, there's been a split in the fandom between those gagging for anything Star Wars related on the big screen again and those opposed to a project that would both render the many beloved novels set in the Star Wars universe as un-canon, and undermine the story already told. Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi is either loved or hated (I loved it), but the one announcement that brought all the fans together in united opposition was Han Solo's very own spin-off, which would be set in the past and not feature the man who helped make the character so iconic, Harrison Ford.

You may not care just how Han won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, or how he met Chewbacca, or how he got his hands on that cool blaster, or how he made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs - but Solo: A Star Wars Story is going to tell you anyway. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it does give Solo a sense of weightlessness and the feeling of a filler episode in the middle of television series with too many episodes. With such little stakes at play, the success of Solo comes down to the charm of its actors, and the casting of Alden Ehrenreich was a very shrewd move indeed. He isn't a famous name, or even a pronounceable one, but his scene-stealing performance in 2016's Hail, Caesar!, where he managed to overshadow the likes of George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Brolin and Ralph Fiennes, bristled with star quality. Harrison Ford could never be replaced and Ehrenreich seems to know that, so while every now and then you get a glimmer of Ford's smile and his iconic one-handed shooting stance, Ehrenreich makes the role his own, replicating the charisma and infusing it with a youthful innocence.

We first meet Han hot-wiring cars on Corellia, an awful planet where orphaned children are forced to steal for slug-like gang-boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). With their lives in danger from the local gangs, Han and his lady friend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) decide to make a break for it, but at the airport they are separated, with Han fleeing to join the Imperial Navy and Qi'ra taken away by her pursuers. Three years later, Han is serving in the Military after being kicked out of the Flight Academy, fighting as an infantryman on a planet called Mimban. There he encounters a gang of criminals posing as Imperial soldiers led by the enigmatic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and attempts to blackmail them into letting him join them. Instead, he is thrown into a pit for desertion, where he meets the formidable Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). They escape and manage to convince Beckett to enlist them for a job to steal a shipment of coaxium. Now officially an outlaw, Han is brought into a dangerous world controlled by a criminal syndicate called Crimson Dawn. Beckett answers directly to crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), whose favourite advisor is a young lieutenant named Qi'ra.

Solo likely won't convince those soured by The Last Jedi or especially those who failed to see any potential in Han Solo origin movie in the first place, but it may be a nice, if forgettable, surprise for some. Like the other 'Star Wars Story', Rogue One, Solo was hit with numerous problems during production, the most notable being the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and the subsequent hiring of Ron Howard. Star Wars has always been a rule-bound universe, and Lord and Miller's loose, improvised style was perhaps too much for studio executives looking for a guaranteed hit. Howard was a reliable, safe choice, but one has to wonder how much fun Solo could have been in the hands of those responsible for 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie. What we have is a perfectly entertaining adventure movie that is surprisingly coherent given the patchwork built into it, but nothing worthy of the Star Wars banner. History will remember the film as the first Star Wars flop, and will cause historians to wonder why they didn't choose to given Donald Glover's Lando his own movie instead. On a positive note that will no doubt unite the fan-base, a box-office return of south of $400 million seem to have woken Disney executives up to the idea that there is such a thing as too much, too soon.

Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) on IMDb

Monday, 17 September 2018

Review #1,393: 'A Prayer Before Dawn' (2017)

Opening with a shot of the muscly, pale-skinned and heaving back of our protagonist, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn - his first feature since the eye-opening Johnny Mad Dog in 2008 - begins and ends with British newcomer Joe Cole, and the talented young actor dominates every scene in between. Best known for his role in Peaky Blinders, Cole delivers a performance of pure ferocity, and if there's any justice, this will do for him what the likes of Bronson and Starred Up did, respectively, for then up-and-comers Tom Hardy and Jack O'Connell. Based on Billy Moore's brutal memoirs of his time served in one of Thailand's most unrelenting penitentiaries, the film tracks his journey from the only Westerner in his cell with a target on his back to Muay Thai champion. While it may dabble in the tropes of the prison and boxing genres, it never really relaxes into either, making for an unsettling and visceral two hours.

Rather than opting for a comfortable, straight-forward narrative, Sauvaire prefers to capture the sweaty, overbearing atmosphere of Moore's new lodgings, heightening the sound design so every breath sounds like it's coming from your own head, and every punch rattles your brain. David Ungaro's cinematography makes the most of the tight, damp spaces, as the inmate's bodies pile over each other like sardines in their overcrowded cells. The film feels almost like an invasion of your personal space, and the fact that Billy sticks out like a sore thumb only increases the feeling that danger lurks around every corner. Billy's physicality and willingness to fight may save him from regular beatings and even earn him a level of respect amongst his heavily-tattooed, dead-eyed cell-mates, but he is still forced to watch the gang-rape of a young newcomer to remind the Westerner of his place. Although the story leads up to a climactic fight, it avoids cliche by offering no sense of build-up. Billy simply must fight in order to survive the night and battle his own pent-up demons.

Without a main character to carry your interest, A Prayer Before Dawn may be too much to bear. But Billy, whose reasons for being in Thailand in the first place and dealing the drugs that landed him in the slammer aren't explored, is a true force. Never asking for your sympathy, Billy struggles with heroin addiction - fed to him by a prison guard played by Only God Forgives' Vithaya Pansringarm - and is more than willing to beat somebody half to death to earn his fix. The rage that drives him comes from deep within, and his anger and self-destruction carries us along with him. Even when he is finally allowed to train in the gym, thanks for a routine cigarette bribe, his tendency to self-sabotage sees him almost screw up everything he's worked for. Billy also finds solace in a ladyboy named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), who is in prison for murdering her father and is kept in a separate part of the prison for obvious reasons. They form a bond through shared feelings of misplacement, and these scenes offer a reprieve from the unrelenting harshness of Billy's everyday routine. It's a tough watch, but there's always much to admire in a film that can leave you so mentally and physically exhausted.

Directed by: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Starring: Joe Cole, Pornchanok Mabklang, Vithaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai
Country: UK/France/China/Cambodia/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

A Prayer Before Dawn (2017) on IMDb


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