Monday, 16 July 2018

Review #1,364: 'The Stranglers of Bombay' (1959)

The closing title card of this lesser-known title from Hammer's back catalogue reads "if we have done nothing else for India, we have done this one good thing." Referring to the British East India Company's governance over India for over a hundred years, The Stranglers of Bombay depicts the disappearance of thousands of India's population at the hands of the 'Thugees', an organised gang of murderers and thieves who operated relatively undetected for more than 600 years, and how their operations were eventually brought to an end. It is a subject that would no doubt be handled more delicately if tackled today, and I'm sure that those sensitive to modern PC standards may be somewhat offended by the film, but Stranglers is well-balanced and ultimately apologetic for the Company's occupation, finding a positive note in what was a barbaric time.

Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe) of the East India Company is the only person interested in the reports of over a thousand disappearances, attempting to bring the mystery to the attention of his superiors. However, Colonel Henderson (Andrew Cruickshank) is more concerned with solving the mystery of how English merchants' caravans are similarly disappearing without a trace. To get Lewis off his back, Henderson agrees to an investigation, but opts to hand the reigns to the inexperienced and pompous Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson). Frustrated at Connaught-Smith's bungling and the general disdain he has for the Indian people, Lewis quits the Company to carry out his own inquiry, and uncovers a murderous cult who make sacrifices in the name of their god, Kali. Led by the High Priest of Kali (George Pastell), the gang's influence goes all the way to the very top, which is how they have managed to remain in the shadows for centuries.

The Stranglers of Bombay is low on horror but higher on adventure. The violence is implied rather than shown, but the film doesn't shy away from their grotesque acts. Eyes and tongues are removed, but most are garrotted with a ceremonial silk scarf. It's off-camera, but nevertheless effective. When the action is away from the thugees, the story plays out more like a period detective thriller, as Lewis plunges himself deeper into this secret world while the population denies the group's very existence. It's no surprise then to learn that frequent Hammer collaborator Terence Fisher is behind the camera, who would always shoot efficiently and make his films appear more expensive than they actually were. The absence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is almost always felt when watching a Hammer horror, but leading man Guy Rolfe proves to be a perfectly watchable leading man, earning our sympathy as the one decent white man in a company of incompetent and uncaring fellow officers. While more attention could have been given to the suffering of the Indian people, the film's heart is certainly in the right place, making it one of Hammer's most interesting, while not their most thrilling, entries into the genre.

Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Allan Cuthbertson, Andrew Cruickshank, George Pastell, Jan Holden
Country: UK

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) on IMDb

Friday, 13 July 2018

Review #1,363: 'Spider-Man 2' (2004)

With the popularity of superhero movies now at an all-time high, thanks mainly to the runaway success of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, there's a reason that the likes of Richard Donner's Superman and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 are still considered two of the finest examples of the genre. These skilled, experienced film-makers were allowed to fully explore the character beyond the cape and build a tangible world from the pages of the comics they clearly admired. Raimi's 2002 introduction to the wall-crawler was a bigger hit than the studio could have ever imagined, so he was granted even more creative control on the direction to take the story for the follow-up. We last saw Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker turn his back on the love of his life as he struggled to juggle his personal life with the heroics required of possessing such great power, and Spider-Man 2 spends much of its opening hour dealing with the aftermath.

It's a slow build, but one which highlights Raimi's attention to detail. Peter Parker is just as important as his alter-ego Spider-Man, and this sequel explores the idea that one may have to be sacrificed for the other. Parker, a highly gifted student, is struggling to meet his homework deadlines, find time for his beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and his instinct to follow every police siren sees him sacked from a pizza delivery job. When his doubts start to cause his web-shooters to dry up, he decides the time has come to hang up the costume once and for all. His grades improve, but it may be too late to rekindle any romance with Mary Jane, who has agreed to marry her handsome astronaut boyfriend (who also happens to be the son of Parker's boss, the gloriously unethical J. Jonah Jameson played by the irreplaceable J.K. Simmons). However, thanks to his best friend Harry Osborne (James Franco), Peter lands a gig shadowing the world-renowned scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). When a fusion experiment goes tragically wrong, Octavius is transformed into the eight-limbed Dr. Octopus, and Spidey's heroics are called upon once again.

As with all the great superhero villains, 'Doc Ock' is a distorted reflection of our hero. As Peter's powers burden him with great responsibility, Octavius - a good guy under the control of his newly acquired robotic tentacles - wrestles with his own alter-ego. In a genre so often watered down with CGI action, it's refreshing to see so much attention devoted to developing the characters' arcs. If anything, Spider-Man 2 is less engaging when the focus lingers on the hero/villain smackdowns. With more creative control at his disposal, Raimi cannot resist returning to the genre he made his name in back in 1981 with The Evil Dead, which is still one of the inventive horror films ever made. He particularly indulges himself during the now-famous scene of Octavius waking up in theatre, and Raimi throws the camera at his victims POV-style in truly glorious fashion, using all the genre tricks in his arsenal to horrify the viewers without having to venture into R-rated territory. Frustratingly, we are left to wonder why the studio felt the need to meddle with Raimi's vision for the third entry into the series, which was a travesty, and the reason for the director's eventual departure from the franchise. Spider-Man 2 is also a nostalgia trip to a time when a superhero could exist in their own world without the need to be part of some larger expanded universe.

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Spider-Man 2 (2004) on IMDb

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Review #1,362: 'Ready Player One' (2018)

When I was kid and the Super Nintendo was most people's console of choice, I played Street Fighter II a hell of a lot, often venting my frustration whenever I lost a fight (my blood boils at the very mention of Sagat). My grandmother took the controller to a computer shop in order to buy a replacement and, seeing my teeth marks etched into the control pad, the guy behind the counter asked if we had a dog. It was at this point I realised that I didn't quite have the temperament for gaming, and pretty much stayed away ever since. For this reason, I went into Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One thinking that I wasn't the target audience, but I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, so approached the film with an open mind. It struck me early on that this in fact isn't a movie for gamers, but for fans of pop culture. Barely thirty seconds go by without a recognisable character, vehicle or weapon gracing the screen. You could watch Ready Player One a hundred times and still miss something.

It's 2044 and many of the planet's great cities have turned into slums, with much of the population crammed into small apartments stacked on top of one another. To relieve themselves of this miserable reality, most regularly escape into a virtual reality world called OASIS - created by genius and innovator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) - which allows the player to do pretty much whatever they want, be it climb a mountain with Batman or participate in huge battles without the fear of being hurt or killed. The recent death of Halliday was followed by the announcement that three hidden keys have been hidden somewhere in the game that will lead to an 'Easter Egg'. The one to find it will be handed full ownership of OASIS, and with it unimaginable power and wealth. One participant is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned 17 year-old who lives with his aunt and her bully of a boyfriend in a slum known as The Stacks. Every day he escapes the real world to take part in a seemingly unwinnable race to find the first key.

The sheer volume of pop culture references would normally distract from the story being told, but Spielberg maintains a grip on the action and lays out this new world and its many rules in a coherent manner. The novel by Ernest Cline (which I haven't read) was actually heavily inspired by Spielberg's movies, but aside from the appearance of Jurassic Park's T-Rex, Spielberg mostly avoids referencing himself. He is probably the best man for the job, especially when you consider how Spielberg's fantasy-based movies were so memorable because they kept at least one foot on the ground. Ironically, if there is a big criticism to be thrown at Ready Player One, it's that it struggles to engage when the action is outside of the OASIS, and only really comes to life when within the virtual world. Perhaps this is the point, but when the hero's ultimate quest is to save the real world from falling under the control of an evil corporation named Innovative Online Industries and its slimy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), it becomes difficult to truly grasp the stakes.

It's irresistible fun to be inside a world without limits, and the special effects department do an exceptional job of envisioning it. Each character can create their own avatar (Wade turns himself into a dashing hipster named Parzival), and purchase weapons and gadgets famous from pop culture. One character is even building an Iron Giant. Wade falls for a manga-eyed rebel named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) who, as his best friend is keen to point out, could be a fat guy in his mother's basement for all he knows. He frets over what outfit to wear for their date, changing from Michael Jackson to Duran Duran before settling on Buckaroo Banzai. Spielberg has fun playing around with these elements, and it's all scarily believable. But Ready Player One isn't concerned with exploring the psychological and social consequences of such a widespread and immersive gaming experience, and asks that you simply enjoy the ride. And this is perfectly fine, since the ride is thoroughly entertaining. You will likely find yourself urging the movie to go deeper, but by the time Mechagodzilla arrives to battle an army that includes the likes of Bowser, Duke Nukem and Superman, you'll be too busy swimming in Nerd-vana to care.

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Hannah John-Kamen
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Ready Player One (2018) on IMDb

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Review #1,361: 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924)

Whenever conversation happens to turn to the topic of silent comedy, it isn't long until Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton are mentioned. The likes of Fatty Arbuckle and Laurel and Hardy get honourable mentions, but Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton form a Holy Trinity, completely untouchable when it comes to their bodies of work. Debate rages on about who was the best: Chaplin had the heart, Lloyd delivered the thrills, and Keaton was a pure innovator, and not only for the comedy genre, but for cinema as a whole. The Kid and Safety Last! are two of the finest examples, but has there ever been a more jaw-dropping silent comedy than Keaton's Sherlock Jr., both in terms of laughs and sheer invention? I think not, and even at just 45 minutes, Sherlock Jr. is still one of the funniest movies ever made, and manages to squeeze more jokes, stunts and ground-breaking cinematic trickery than most feature-length movies could ever dream of.

A hapless theatre projectionist and janitor (played by Keaton) dreams about being a great detective, studying the topic in between sweeping floors and finding customer's lost dollars. He also has a sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire), who he buys a $1 box of chocolates on his way to visit her, changing the price tag to $4 in a bid to impress her. But he has a rival in his quest for the girl's affections, a dodgy and dapper character known as 'the local sheik', played by Ward Crane. We meet the sheik as he is pawning a pocket watch for $4, which he stole from the girl's father, and purchases a $3 box of chocolates in a bid to win the girl's love and steal her from the poor projectionist. When the father (Buster's dad Joe Keaton) notices the watch is missing, the sheik slips the pawn ticket into the projectionist's pocket, framing him for the crime. After his detective skills backfire and he is banished from the girl's home, the dismayed projectionist returns to his work and falls asleep as the movie Hearts and Pearls plays.

The rest of the movie takes place within the projectionist's dream, where he fantasises about being the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Jr. At first it seems like a strange direction to take the story, but moving the action into the realm of fantasy allows Keaton to test the limits of what could be done with a camera back in 1924. He leaps into the screen as the audience watches on, using expert framing and cutting techniques to place the character into a number of perilous situations. One moment he is on a cliff's edge, the next he is surrounded by a pack of hungry lions. From then on, Sherlock Jr. simply doesn't let up, delivering a carousel of genuinely dangerous stunt work and hilarious sight gags. A personal favourite of mine is the game of billiards, during which Keaton pulls of a number of extraordinary tricks shots with the added excitement of knowing that one of the balls is actually a cleverly-disguised bomb. Unbelievably, critics panned it upon its release, labelling it as unfunny and strange. Nearly 100 years later, it is recognised as one of the most innovative films of its day, and rightly so.

Directed by: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane, Joe Keaton
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Sherlock Jr. (1924) on IMDb

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review #1,360: 'A Quiet Place' (2018)

Looking at his page on IMDb, former star of the American version of The Office John Krasinski has previously directed two features, neither of which I have seen or even heard of. It would seem like the third time's a charm, as his latest, the riveting horror A Quiet Place, is just about as accomplished and tightly-directed as you would expect from any seasoned veteran. Teaming up to co-star with his real-life wife Emily Blunt, Krasinski has crafted one of the most memorable and genuinely scary horror movies in recent memory, and one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2018. Taking place in the now-familiar territory of a post-apocalyptic landscape, A Quiet Place shares more in common tonally with John Hillcoat's The Road than, say, George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road.

It's the near-future and it's apparent that great misfortune has fallen upon the Earth's inhabitants. The Abbot family, consisting of father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Blunt), and their three children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and youngest Beau (Cade Woodward), are trying desperately to survive, foraging for supplies, food and whatever else that may prove useful in an abandoned library. On their journey home, an accident occurs which devastates the family and reveals to us precisely what has befallen our planet, and why the Abbot's were so keen to make as little noise as possible. They are surrounded by spider-legged creatures with the strength to break through steel with ease and the speed to reach its intended victim in a split second. The hideous creatures are completely blind, but have hearing so powerful that they are able to pin-point a sound with uncanny accuracy, and reach the source with lightning speed.

After this mood-setting opening scene, we wisely jump forward in time over a year. The Abbots have seemingly taken every precaution imaginable: they walk barefoot on sand-covered floors, eat their meals from leave rather than breakable plates, and only communicate with sign-language. Krasinski, along with co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, have fun with laying out traps and red-herrings for their characters to possibly fall prey of, like an exposed nail near the bottom of a flight of wooden stairs, or the fact that Evelyn is heavily pregnant. But it's careful not to fall into the traps of genre cliche and predictability, as the Abbots are apparently a step ahead of their tormentors. Lee spends his spare time tracking the creatures' paths and calculating their numbers, as well searching for a way to possibly kill them. He also tries to build a working hearing aid for his deaf daughter, after many failed attempts. With Regan also feeling responsible for the tragedy at the film's opening, her relationship with her father is strained.

A Quiet Place is as much about both the fragility and strength of the family unit as it is about unseen monsters in the dark. Krasinski and Blunt themselves have children together, and no doubt fed their own experiences, fears and difficulties into their characters, albeit placing them in a more extreme and hostile environment. This also helps us to connect with the characters, fearing for their safety when that inevitable damning sound is made, and feeling genuine concern at the idea of a parent failing to protect their child. The action is intensified, and A Quiet Place really earns it scares. Every movement is a jump-shock waiting to happen, but it's scary for the build-up and the knowledge of what comes after. The performances are great all round, with Millicent Simmonds - who is deaf in real life - making a real impact, surely cementing her status as one of the most promising young actors around. Krasinski has a done an impressive job of dodging being known forever as the guy from The Office and proving himself to be a strong dramatic actor, but he'll be best remembered here for his skills behind the camera. A Quiet Place turns what could have been a routine jump-shocker into an unbearably tense 90 minutes with a real beating heart.

Directed by: John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

A Quiet Place (2018) on IMDb

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Review #1,359: 'Moulin Rouge' (1928)

Paris's iconic Moulin Rouge has proved an inspiration to many filmmakers down the years, including the likes of Jean Renoir, Baz Luhrmann and Woody Allen, who were all clearly fascinated by the venue's vibrant cabaret act and reputation as the home of the modern can-can. You would have to go all the way back to 1928 to witness one of cinema's earliest (if not the earliest) brush with the Moulin Rouge, although the scenes of the dancing girls bare little resemblance to the famous hangout. German-born director Ewald Andre Dupont made films in both Hollywood and London, and is perhaps best known for Variete and Piccadilly, but he also made this little-seen melodrama, filmed at Elstreet Studios, in 1928.

The star attraction at the city's most popular hangout is undoubtedly Parysia (Olga Tschechowa), a striking lady who performs to an adoring crowd on a nightly basis, dazzling the audience with songs, dances and shakes of her feathers. She is over the moon when she receives a letter from her daughter Margaret (Eve Gray) announcing her pending arrival. Parysia hasn't seen her child for a few years since she left for boarding school, and she's all grown up with a new man at her side. That man is Andre (Jean Bradin), who believes that he's met the perfect partner until he witnesses his future mother-in-law's stage performance for the first time. Andre falls in love, and declares his feelings to the shocked Parysia, who is determined to see her daughter happy by setting off to persuade Andre's stern, rich father than Margaret is worthy, despite his distaste for the goings-on at the Moulin Rouge.

Dupont's forgotten silent is a strange beast. It is essentially a rather relentless melodrama with little insight into human behaviour, which climaxes with a breathtaking high-speed car chase that would put many modern-day blockbusters to shame. At the film's centre is the odd love triangle between mother, daughter and a handsome charmer, but Dupont ignores the fact that Parysia would realistically want her offspring as far away from this letch as soon as possible once he declares his undying love for the mother of his fiancee. For a movie entitled Moulin Rouge, there's very little of what the venue is best known for, aside from a bit of uncomfortable black-face. From a technical standpoint, it is absolutely wonderful, with the director making full use of his leading star with close-ups and effective camera movements. Tschechowa is a legend of silent cinema, and it isn't difficult to understand why she was courted by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. For the most part, this is pretty dull stuff, but the climax will leave you breathless and hugely impressed.

Directed by: Ewald André Dupont
Starring: Olga Tschechowa, Eve Gray, Jean Bradin, Georges Tréville
Country: UK

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Moulin Rouge (1928) on IMDb

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Review #1,358: 'Letter to Brezhnev' (1985)

Written by Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard, both Liverpudlians, Letter to Brezhnev tells its story in Thatcher-era Liverpool, where the only options in this grey city were the dole or dead-end factory jobs. It was a modest hit back in 1985, attracting international interest, but has since been oddly forgotten when compared to other social realist films from Britain around the same time. Those who do remember the film often refer to it as a romantic comedy, and it is of sorts, but Letter to Brezhnev is really more of a romantic drama, with some surprising political undercurrents. It's a very simple premise: two bored, fun-seeking young women hit the town and hook up with two dashing Russian sailors, with one couple falling deeply in love. But this relatable tale struck a chord with its fans, particularly for those who grew up during this particularly bleak time for Britain.

Boisterous blonde Teresa (Margi Clarke) earns her keep at a local factory, where she spends most of the day with her hand up a chicken's backside. She works hard during the day, so at night she seeks alcohol, men, and cheap thrills, including stealing the wallet of a potential partner and legging it. Her best friend Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) however, is looking for love, and feels something special when she catches the eye of handsome sailor Peter (Peter Firth). Peter is a Russian sailor who has docked for the night, and along with his friend Sergei (Alfred Molina), hopes for a taste of the famous Liverpool nightlife. Teresa takes an instant liking to Sergei's hulking physique, while Elaine and Peter form a deeper connection. After a wonderful night, the Russians sail back to the Soviet Union the next day. Elaine cannot get Peter out of her head, and with political tensions between Russia and Britain brewing, she writes a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, pleading for information on her lost love. She receives a plane ticket in return, but her family and the British government won't let her go without a fight.

Letter to Brezhnev was made on an incredibly tight budget, which Bernard often struggles to hide. The direction is flat and the camerawork occasionally amateurish, and the colour of the picture resembles the slightly degraded photographs of myself as a baby from the same year. Yet these restraints also increase the film's appeal as a time capsule, and anybody who enjoys seeing the Britain of the past on film as much as I do, will likely be fascinated. Although Firth and Molina receive top billing, somewhat unfairly, Letter to Brezhnev belong to the leading ladies. Clarke in particular finds multiple layers in what could have been a stock best friend character. She boasts having a "degree in men" and will never turn down a free drink, but there's a subtle sadness to her beaming smile and her acceptance of a life destined for routine. A pre-Prick Up Your Ears Alfred Molina also makes the most of a relatively small role that only requires a few mumbled lines in Russian, and he has the uncanny ability of saying as much with his eyes as he could with words. Funny and touching (and also a secret gay movie), Letter to Brezhnev is a beautiful story of love during times of hardship.

Directed by: Chris Bernard
Starring: Alexandra Pigg, Margi Clarke, Peter Firth, Alfred Molina
Country: UK

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) on IMDb

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Review #1,357: 'American Made' (2017)

The toothy, clean-cut charm of Tom Cruise seems like an odd choice for the role of notorious drug trafficker and CIA operative Barry Seal who, during the 1970s, flew copious amounts of cocaine from Central America to the United States, as well as running guns to the Nicaraguan Contras on behalf of the American government. But the Barry Seal of Doug Liman's American Made isn't that far from Top Gun's Maverick, and the comparison is hard to avoid when we see Seal cheekily entertaining himself at the expense of his passengers and co-pilot while on a routine flight for TWA. Cruise slides into the role comfortably, running with the movie's lightning pace and offbeat humour. But his involvement also highlights Liman and writer Gary Spinelli's reluctance to explore this true story - which had devastating consequences for all countries involved - in more depth.

Set during a time when men ruled the sky and air hostesses were expected to drop their skirts at the very sight of a uniform, pilot Barry Seal is somewhat frustrated with his comfortable life, making a bit on the side by smuggling cigars into the US. This illegal side business is what attracts the attention of a CIA agent calling himself Monty Shafer (a brilliant Domhnall Gleeson), who asks Seal to fly over Central America to snap pictures for the American government. Seal's photographs are about as perfect as Shafer could hope for, and so he is rewarded with his very own plane and hangar and promoted to collecting information from Manuel Noriega of Panama in exchange for cash. Soon enough he is transporting guns to the US-backed Contras, and attracting even more attention. Only this time it's from Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and his volatile partner Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) of the Medellin cartel, who want Seal to fly massive amounts of cocaine to Louisiana.

With the CIA turning a blind eye to Seal's drug trafficking exploits, Seal rakes in so much money that he is forced to bury huge quantities in his yard. This rags-to-riches-to-rags story is told in a conventional, linear fashion, with Liman resisting any urges to go all Scorsese on the subject matter. This kind of true life tale is nothing new, but it is a tale worth telling, especially when you factor in the American government's role in the shady operations, who arguably gave birth to the kind of man Barry Seal went on to become. Despite baring absolutely no resemblance to the real Seal, Cruise proves to be a great host, recording his story to camera on a wonderfully shoddy VHS in the movie's only brush with narrative flair. The main issue with American Made is that it claims to have a mind-blowing story to tell, but anyone who has seen the dizzying documentary Cocaine Cowboys or Netflix series Narcos will possess more information about how deep this thing went than the movie actually reveals. It aims to tell an entertaining story, and it certainly does just that, but the fact that it refuses to fully explore the consequences of Seal's actions means that it can never be anything more.

Directed by: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones
Country: USA/Japan

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

American Made (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Review #1,356: 'Spider-Man' (2002)

While Bryan Singer's X-Men will always be remembered as the film that kicked off the superhero craze of the 2000s, it was Sam Raimi's Spider-Man that truly knocked it out of the park, both in terms of critical reaction to a genre often unfairly sneered at, and box-office returns. It broke the opening weekend record, surpassing that of the first Harry Potter film, going on to gross over $800 million worldwide. Every studio executive with the rights to a comic-book hero started to lick their lips, and the subsequent years was a mixed bag to say the least. For every X-Men 2 there was a Ghost Rider, and for every Batman Begins there was a Catwoman. Raimi's Spider-Man is still fondly remembered as one of the best during a frustrating time for comic-book fans, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe raised the bar.

Nerdy young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) lives in a New York suburb with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Next door is the object of his affection, the beautiful, red-haired Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but she's currently the arm candy of resident douchebag Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello). The only person he can call a friend is Harry (James Franco), the son of millionaire Oscorp founder Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Peter seems content with his position at the bottom of the school popularity hierarchy, until a visit to Oscorp sees him bitten by a radioactive spider. The bite grants him the power of super strength, agility and reflexes, as well as the ability to scale walls and fire webbing out of his wrists. But when Norman experiments on himself with a performance-enhancing drug after learning he is be ousted by the company board, he goes insane and dons a green goblin suit, reeking havoc on the city and its new hero, Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is now 16 years old, and is quite remarkable how well it has aged. Naturally, the special effects are now nowhere near as seamless as they once were, but the sight of Spidey swinging through the streets of New York with Raimi's gliding camera behind him is still a sight to behold. The technical aspects aside, Spider-Man still holds up because it takes its time to develop the characters and their relationships. Peter is certainly a bit of a cry-baby, but Maguire shares great chemistry with Dunst, and there's certainly an argument in favour of their iconic upside-down kiss being the most romantic moment in comic-book movie history. However, the film undoubtedly belongs to Dafoe, who hams it up to such extremes that it's almost impossible not to root for him, despite the shoddiness of his costume. Richard Donner's Superman is obviously the crown jewels when it comes to superhero origin stories, but Spider-Man isn't that far behind, paving the way for little B-list heroes such as Tony Stark to announce himself to the world. And we all know how that went.

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, J.K. Simmons, Joe Manganiello
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Spider-Man (2002) on IMDb

Monday, 25 June 2018

Review #1,355: 'The Iron Giant' (1999)

The roaring success of Disney's The Lion King (no pun intended) in 1994 inspired something of an animation boom, during which various production studios attempted to cash in on the trend to varying degrees of success. Warner Bros. Feature Animation had a moderate hit with Space Jam, but underperformed with the likes of Cats Don't Dance and Quest for Camelot. They had one bona fide hit with The Iron Giant, a truly wonderful little feature adapted from Ted Hughes' 1968 novel The Iron Man. It didn't leave much of a dent at the box-office, but found a loyal audience on home video. In the 19 years since its release, The Iron Giant is fondly remembered as one of best animated features of the 1990s, and saw director Brad Bird poached by a little up-and-coming studio called Pixar.

In the fictional town of Rockwell, Maine in 1957, the residents are busy gazing up at the sky in fear of the Soviet Union's satellite Sputnik spying on them, and school children are shown Duck and Cover style educational films to prepare for a nuclear attack. In the surrounding forest, a huge object crashes down to Earth, alarming local fisherman Earl (M. Emmet Walsh). 9 year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) spends his nights watching cheesy sci-fi movies and dreaming of owning his own pet. His mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) thinks they cause too much mess, a point that seems to be proven when young Hogarth accidentally releases a squirrel into the local diner. With his mother working late one night, Hogarth wanders into the woods and comes across the object Earl insists he saw: a giant alien robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) that enjoys munching everything from train tracks to the local power station.

This kind of allegorical coming-of-age tale has been done before (think E.T. but with an adorable weapon of mass destruction), but rarely with such charm and genuine emotion. It's influence can be felt in everything from the recent Pete's Dragon remake and A Monster Calls, and it's no surprise that the film continues to attract new fans. The Iron Giant questions what would happen if a gun could feel. The titular giant occasionally turns aggressive in the face of possible danger, as the alien's true purpose becomes increasingly and unnervingly clear. But with no memory of his mission, it's down to Hogarth to teach metal hulk kindness, and the youngster does so in a way that only an innocent could. A moment in the woods sees the unlikely friends come across the corpse of a deer. At first, the giant cannot comprehend death as he can regenerate, but Hogarth manages to teach him about the finality of death. It's incredibly powerful, and it's message is even more relevant today than it was almost 20 years ago. We all have choices in life, and sometimes simple human kindness and empathy can be infinitely more powerful than brute force.

Directed by: Brad Bird
Voices: Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Christopher McDonald, Vin Diesel, M. Emmet Walsh, John Mahoney
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

The Iron Giant (1999) on IMDb

Friday, 22 June 2018

Review #1,354: 'The Neon Demon' (2016)

The arrival of a new movie by Danish director and enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn is always a cause for excitement. Not because the filmmaker's name is any kind of guaranteed stamp of quality, but because of our natural curiosity to see just how far he is willing to push his audience. His 2011 smash and Hollywood breakthrough Drive was a surprise treat: a neon-lit journey into the underbelly of L.A. that featured a career-defining performance by Ryan Gosling. His follow-up Only God Forgives was a massive disappointment and received a near-universal panning, but there was enough style there to maintain the belief that Refn was still capable of delivering something special. Sadly his next film, The Neon Demon, is similarly hollow, kicking up such a stink at Cannes that it inspired mass booing, although just as many were cheering it.

Where the L.A. of Drive was dangerous and seductive, the City of Angels depicted in The Neon Demon is one cut straight from a glossy fashion magazine. Models are dolled up to look like corpses, staring dead-eyed into the lens as the shady photographer watches ominously. The city's latest arrival is porcelain-skinned beauty Jesse (Elle Fanning), who natural golden curls and cute nose draw jealousy from her cosmetically-enhanced rivals. She has just celebrated her 16th birthday, but a modelling agency talent spotter (played by Christina Hendricks) advises her to claim she's 19, should anybody ask. She soon catches the eye of some of the best photographers in the business, all of whom seems instantly enchanted by her looks and youth. As make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) puts it, Jesse just has that 'thing'. That thing is innocence, but such a quality cannot last in a cut-throat industry where models eat each other alive.

There's always been a grimy quality to Refn's movies, even in his most polished output. The Neon Demon is his closest brush with horror, and the director initially seems like the perfect fit for the genre. Yet this button-pushing slog will likely inspired yawns and frustration rather than gasps and shudders. It seems like Refn has a list of taboos he's eager to tick off his body of work, and The Neon Demon is happy to indulge in everything from necrophilia to cannibalism. It's a premise built on the flimsiest of metaphors, and the resulting message ultimately seems to be that some men are sleazy, women can be bitches, and the fashion world is vacuous and materialistic. Sub-plots are introduced, such as an incredibly dull love interest (Karl Glusman) and an unscrupulous motel owner (Keanu Reeves), but they lead nowhere and serve no real purpose to the story. It's provocative for the sake of being provocative, which wouldn't be a huge problem if the film wasn't so utterly ponderous. Like his fellow countryman Lars von Trier, Refn is eager to shock, but there can be little to no impact when there is a complete lack of substance.

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks
Country: Denmark/France/USA/UK

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

The Neon Demon (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Review #1,353: 'The Man Who Could Cheat Death' (1959)

Its 1890, and a mysterious hidden figure stalks the smoggy streets searching for his next victim. The atmosphere and imagery may bring to mind the crimes of Jack the Ripper, but the setting here is in fact Paris, although I'm convinced this opening was purposely designed to evoke the planet's most notorious serial killers. The Man Who Could Cheat Death is an early effort by Hammer Film Productions, based on the Barre Lyndon's play The Man in Half Moon Street, during the era when the famous British studio was emerging as the most popular name in horror, usurping Universal Studios, who dominated the genre during the 1930s and 40s. Hammer produced a different breed of horror, one that was ghastly and sexy, and audiences lapped it up. But this is one of the studio's tamest and most plodding efforts, despite the presence of Terence Fisher behind the camera and Christopher Lee in front of it.

The story surrounds sculptor, doctor and socialite Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring), who we meet entertaining his dinner guests with the unveiling of his new work. Bonnet's model Margo (Delphi Lawrence) marvels at the magnificent bust, but the eligible bachelor is eager to rush everyone out of the door when attendees start asking about purchasing the works of art he never sells. Bonnet thinks he's alone, and opens a hidden safe containing a bubbling green liquid he seems incredibly desperate to drink. Only Margo has stayed behind and startles him. When she refuses to leave, Bonnet kills her, but not before his skin seems to age and his eyes are drained of colour. The good doctor is in fact 104-years old, and must drink the potion to maintain his youthful appearance. On the eve of undergoing vital surgery that will keep him young forever, his old friend Dr. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle) reveals he has suffered a stroke, and will be unable to perform the operation. With the police on his trail and the potion running dry, Bonnet must find a new surgeon fast before his crimes against nature are uncovered.

The main problem with The Man Who Could Cheat Death is that any potential mystery to the story is blown by the film's very title. We know that Bonnet has somehow cheated death and that the green liquid must be the thing sustaining his power, so the majority of the running time is filled with inane conversations and philosophy 101. There's also a love interest in Janine (Hazel Court), Bonnet's beautiful former muse who appears to be dating stoic surgeon Dr. Pierre Gerard (Lee), although it's clear she only has eyes for the man who was sculpted her. It's a glorified cameo for Lee, who makes more of an impression with a relatively small role than Diffring manages as the lead, and it's easy to wonder how much better the film would have been with the roles reversed. With limited sets and a minuscule cast, Fisher seems happy to continue the aesthetic of the story's theatrical roots, and unwilling to embrace the potential hideousness of this part Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, part The Picture of Dorian Gray tale. It isn't the worst of Hammer's back catalogue, but it's a hell of a distance away from their best.

Directed by: Terence Fisher
Country: UK

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) on IMDb

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Review #1,352: 'Missing' (1982)

The Hollywood debut of Greek director Costa-Gavras caused quite a stir when it was released in 1982. Based on a true story, Missing is a damning condemnation of U.S. foreign policy, criticising their efforts to locate missing American citizen Charles Horman (John Shea) when he goes missing in 1973 Chile, as well as suggesting their direct involvement. The country had just experienced a military coup, and the new leaders have declared martial law, placing a curfew on the population under threat of death. The sound of machine-gun fire is commonplace, as are military raids on homes and the disappearance of thousands of citizens. Worst of all, bodies litter the streets, watched over by dead-eyed soldiers who seem to do as they please. Charles, a left-wing writer, has simply vanished, sucked up into a system of brutality. And nobody seems eager to find him.

We're with Charles for a long period before his disappearance, and Costa-Gavras keeps us just as much in the dark as his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) and father Ed (Jack Lemmon), the latter arriving frustrated with the little progress his daughter-in-law has made. Their ideologies clash almost immediately. Beth is very much on board with her husband's politics, while Ed is a devout Christian scientist with complete trust in his country's Embassy's desire to locate a fellow citizen. The performances are genuine and heartfelt. The characters themselves are recognisable and relatable in an otherwise terrifyingly alien, oppressive world, which serves as a wake-up call to Ed, who would otherwise be eating breakfast at home oblivious to the plight of Chile's people. The most powerful moments of Missing involve Ed battling his way through waves of bureaucracy and the empty promises of diplomats.

Costa-Gavras manages to build an atmosphere of relentless tension in a place where failing to find yourself a taxi to make it home in time for the curfew could see you dragged away for execution. Yet this is built around Ed and Beth's difficult relationship, and the film emerges and ultimately triumphs as a thoroughly engaging character study rather than a political thriller. Tiny, throwaway moments hammer their struggle and mental anguish home, particularly a moment where Ed descends a set of stairs and, without realising it, starts to ascend the one opposite. It takes a moment before he realises, shakes his head, and turns around, and you really feel for the guy. Costa-Gavras deliberately infuses Missing with a sense of timelessness, failing to confirm the story's year and location, introducing the idea that this could be happening anywhere, at any time. Coups and dictators come and go, and the people suffer for it. Those who choose to ignore it may eventually become the cause.

Directed by: Costa-Gavras
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron, Charles Cioffi
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Missing (1982) on IMDb

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Review #1,351: 'My Friend Dahmer' (2017)

The antics of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer following his graduation from Ohio's Revere High School in 1978 does not make for pleasant reading. He was responsible for the mutilation and murders of 17 men and boys, with his activities including injecting hydrochloric acid in the skulls of some of his victims in an attempt to induce a zombie-like state, the collection of body parts, necrophilia, and cannibalism. When Dahmer was arrested in 1991, multiple severed heads were found in his apartment, as well as human organs in the freezer wrapped up like leftover take-away. Dahmer attended school with cartoonist John 'Derf' Backderf, and the two became friends. When Derf saw his old pal's face splashed across the pages of every newspaper in the country after his capture, he reflected on his school days, eventually penning the award-winning graphic novel My Friend Dahmer.

There's always a risk when dramatising the life of a serial killer of sensationalising the subject matter or, perhaps even worse, trying to make us feel sorry for them. Director and screenwriter Marc Meyers' adaptation of Derf's comic has no such interests, opting instead to keep the focus solely on Dahmer's experiences during his high school years and up to his encounter with a hitchhiker who would become his first victim just three weeks after graduating, in the hope of trying to understand what would drive a handsome young man to go on to commit such terrible and sickening crimes. Dahmer, played wonderfully by former Disney child star Ross Lynch, is strange and withdrawn when we first meet him. Of course, this is no different to any child who feels out of place or socially awkward, and deep down he desired affection or at least the next best thing, attention. He starts to cause scenes by pretending to be disabled, acting out in lessons or in the hallways until he establishes himself as class clown.

This attracts the attention of Derf (played by Alex Wolff) and his crew, who are looking to stir up some mischief before they finally graduate. They play on Dahmer's willingness to do just about anything for a giggle, egging him on to sneak into as many club yearbook photos as possible and doing his handicapped shtick on demand. It's funny at first, before becoming incredibly tragic, and his friends start to feel the same way. Dahmer's mental state isn't helped by the break-up of his parents, and is eventually abandoned by his mother at home, leaving the troubled boy to withdraw further into his darkest fantasies. My Friend Dahmer succeeds in trying to understand Dahmer's downfall and how such a fate may have even been avoided if events went a slightly different way. It doesn't attempt to explain it or, thankfully, excuse it, avoiding the biography trap of unrealistically portraying a defining moment that led to whatever deed or life they are famous, or infamous, for. It's all rather sad, but utterly engrossing. My Friend Dahmer is that incredibly rare thing: a very good serial killer biopic.

Directed by: Marc Meyers
Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts, Anne Heche, Vincent Kartheiser
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

My Friend Dahmer (2017) on IMDb

Monday, 11 June 2018

Review #1,350: 'Cargo' (2017)

Cinema has been over-saturated with zombie flicks ever since Danny Boyle made them cool again with 2002's 28 Days Later, with everyone from small-time filmmakers hoping to make it in the business to huge production companies tackling the undead, all with varying, but mostly disappointing, results. Even the master himself, George A. Romero, with a new trilogy of apocalyptic horrors failed to manage to breathe any new life into the genre he practically created. But every now and then a film will come along with something new to say, or at least offer a fresh perspective, such as Sang-ho Yeon's Train to Busan from last year, which got by on pure adrenaline and a breakneck pace, as well as placing its characters in an interesting dilemma.

Like Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, some zombie movies stride to explore deeper concerns. While Dawn made fun of our growing consumerist society, this new effort from directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, Cargo, turns its eye to white guilt and Australia's treatment of Aboriginals. The already sparsely-populated Outback may seem an odd setting considering the walking dead's real strength lies in their sheer numbers, but Cargo isn't interested in delivering a splatter-fest. Instead, the focus is on a much smaller scale, exploring this brutal terrain through the narrow eyes of a father, Andy (Martin Freeman), and his one year-old daughter. (Plot spoilers follow in the next sentence) After losing his wife, Andy is bitten early on, so he is forced to leave the comforts of the boat he and his family have been sailing on for what must be a long time, in search of a new guardian for his defenceless child.

The government has been nice enough to hand out preparation packs for the population, which include every from a manual to a countdown device to a handy suicide pack. The length of time a character takes to turn is normally decided by their role in the story or the pay packet of the actor, with anyone disposable becoming a rotting lump of gun/baseball bat/crossbow fodder in mere seconds, and those of any importance allowed enough time to say something profound or whisper goodbye to their loved ones before attempting to eat their face. Here, it's much clearer. Infection takes near enough 48 hours to completely take over, with uncontrollable fits and coughing up brown mucus all things to look forward to as your body gives way. On his trek, Andy encounters a young Aboriginal girl named Thoomi (a fantastic Simone Landers), who is on her own quest to locate her wandering dead father. Thoomi and her tribe believe that you turn when your soul is lost, but there are plenty still alive and kicking out there whose souls have long turned rotten.

The dark side of the human race is embodied by Vic (Anthony Hayes), a large, sweaty chap who scavenges whatever he can from the zombies, having executed them after luring them with human bait. Those humans are the Aboriginals, locked up in huge steel cages with fresh meat hung around them to generate a smell. One of these is Daku (the great David Gulpilil), and his tribe is out searching for him. There's a tendency to employ indigenous people to lament our lost spirituality, but here they are perhaps the only ones truly prepared for life without comforts or a large, connected society. As the rest of the world tears itself apart, they band together and welcome others. Cargo still occasionally revels in genre tropes, but carries them out effectively, and an earlier introduction for Thoomi would have done the film wonders. Overall, this is pretty stirring stuff with a strong performance by Freeman, who gets to flex his dramatic muscles for once. Cargo isn't scary because of the snarling zombies, but by playing with our concerns of our loved ones' survival once we are gone.

Directed by: Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke
Starring: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Simone Landers, David Gulpilil
Country: Australia

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Cargo (2017) on IMDb


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