Thursday, 16 May 2019

Review #1,480: 'Fighting with My Family' (2019)

Wrestling movies don't come along very often, at least not those that take the sport seriously. Perhaps the idea of adults dressing up in ridiculously skimpy costumes and acting out a pre-choreographed fight is theatrical enough already, so a leap to the big screen would be ultimately redundant, or maybe the sport is simply too niche to guarantee a healthy return on a studios investment. But ever since The Wrestler put Mickey Rourke through the ringer, there has been a newfound respect for wrestling and the athletes who push their bodies to the very limit, particularly from those who have never sat down to watch a WWE event in their lives. Fighting with My Family continues this trend, loosely retelling the story of Saraya-Jade Bevis , aka Paige, who emerged from a working-class wrestling family in Norwich, England to become a WWE champion.

The film begins in 2002, with wrestling-mad 10 year-old Zak Knight getting pumped for the start of a WWF pay-per-view event before his younger sister Saraya turns over the channel to watch her favourite show, Charmed. Fast-forward a decade, and the two siblings have embraced their parents' passion for wrestling and have adopted ring names of their own. Zak (Jack Lowden) has become 'Zodiac Zak' and Saraya (Florence Pugh) is now 'Britani Knight', and they perform regularly at their wrestling club. The dream of dad Ricky (Nick Frost) and mum Julia (Lena Headey) is for their kids to make the transition to the big leagues, and tapes are regularly sent off to promoters in the hope of catching their eye. They finally receive a call from WWE trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and receive an invitation for try-outs, but after a gruelling audition, only Saraya, now using the stage name Paige, is selected.

As Zak is sent into a spiral of anger and depression, Paige struggles to work out who she is in Florida's sun-drenched world of golden-skinned models. Somewhat an outsider even back home (outside of the close-knit wrestling community), she feels isolated, mentally unprepared for the rigorous workout schedules and the standards required for the big-time. Fighting with My Family often flirts with cliche, but this is a sports movie after all. It works by developing characters we can relate to and truly root for, regardless of how ridiculous you may find the whole wrestling craze. This is down to the combined efforts of writer/director Stephen Merchant, who seems like the unlikeliest candidate to helm a wrestling picture, and the cast, who are all entirely believable.

Pugh in particular finds the right balance of inner vulnerability and the outer toughness Hutch no doubt signed her up for, and Merchant helps bring out these traits with the right balance of comedy, drama and sentiment. Frost is also perfectly cast, showing once again that he's a terrific actor in his own right and not just Simon Pegg's sidekick. For wrestling fans, there are plenty of cameos to spot, with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson showing up for an extended cameo that may feel like a gimmick until you learn of his role in Paige's real-life story. Above all, Fighting with My Family is a heartfelt tale that celebrates embracing the inner weirdo and the sport that welcomes such misfits with open arms - if you're tough enough.

Directed by: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Country: UK/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Fighting with My Family (2019) on IMDb

Monday, 13 May 2019

Review #1,479: 'Planet of the Apes' (1968)

"You maniacs! You blew it all up! God damn you all to hell!" The image of the sweaty, bare-chested Charlton Heston beating the floor as the truth finally hits home at the climax of Planet of the Apes is now one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. If you saw the film as a kid, chances are this will be the scene you'll remember, or the famous "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" line, as Heston's fallen astronaut George Taylor reveals himself as an intelligent being to his simian captors. It's been lovingly parodied through the subsequent decades, and its memory somewhat tarnished by Tim Burton's abysmal 2001 remake, so it's easy to forget just how revolutionary Franklin J. Schaffner's film was for mainstream science-fiction cinema, and just how much it has inspired the genre with its legacy ever since.

Astronauts Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) rest in deep hibernation as their spaceship speeds through the galaxy at light-speed. While the crew have aged just over a year, by the time the craft crashes down on a strange, but seemingly habitable, planet, two thousand years have gone by back on Earth. With no hope in sight, the three space travellers decide to trudge through the deserts of this unknown rock and eventually come across fresh water, stopping for a well-earned bathe despite the ominous presence of crude scarecrows looming over them. When their clothes are stolen, they encounter what appears to be a community of humans, only these are dressed in rags and don't communicate verbally. Out of nowhere, they are raided by figures on horseback, who hunt the fleeing humans to either kill or capture them. The aggressors are rifle-wielding gorillas wearing armour, and Taylor and Landon are ensnared and carried off to Ape City to be studied and experimented on by an intelligent ape society.

While it's easy to get caught up in all the action and adventure, it's the social, political and religious observations that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. Planet of the Apes is the stuff of truly great science-fiction, a genre that allows us to be whisked off to a different time or space that feels oddly close to home. Schaffner's film paints a pretty pessimistic picture of humanity, as Taylor, prior to hibernation, ponders the planet he thinks he'll eventually return to, and whether humanity will have moved on from the conflict-ridden world he was eager to leave behind. The world he is eventually plunged into is much like our own, or is certainly heading that way. Taylor is viewed as a threat, foretold in ancient religious texts that sound suspiciously like our own, while blinkered scientist Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) dismisses the idea of evolution despite the pleas of psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). The Oscar-winning make-up is also staggering, standing shoulder to shoulder with anything from the modern era. More than fifty years after its release, Planet of the Apes is better, and sadly more relevant, than ever. There's a reason this story is still being told.

Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, Linda Harrison
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Planet of the Apes (1968) on IMDb

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Review #1,478: 'Assassin's Creed' (2016)

Despite numerous critical and commercial failures over the last quarter of a century, Hollywood just cannot turn away from trying to capitalise on an industry that continues to out to out-gross them. Video game adaptations have been a thing ever since Nintendo tried and catastrophically failed to bring to life the colourful world of Mario and Luigi with 1993's Super Mario Bros., and it's become a running joke ever since that there has never been, and will unlikely ever be, a decent console-to-big-screen adaptation. But the $1 billion-plus success of Capcom's Resident Evil franchise lingers in the minds of many a studio head, so pretty much every year a new cast and crew are put together to develop a game series with a promise to break the trend. 

While the likes of Prince of Persia and Rampage are perfectly serviceable fluff, they are way overshadowed by the unbearable awfulness of a Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or a Max Payne, or whatever hot turd Uwe Boll is serving up that month. We have gone through the disappointment too many times to believe it when a director promises to stick to the source material, but eyebrows were raised when it came to the inevitable movie adaptation of Ubisoft's hugely successful Assassin's Creed series, which plunged you into a centuries-old battle between the Knights Templar and a shadowy group known as the Assassins. Not only was Justin Kurzel, director of the truly unsettling Australian drama Snowtown and Shakespeare epic Macbeth, to helm the film, but Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, two of the most respected actors in the business, were also signed up for the leads. Could this be the movie to finally bridge the two mediums and match the success of its source material?

The short answer is no, but by no means is Assassin's Creed a complete disaster. Its main problem is that it depicts two worlds from two different periods in time, but forgets to make them both interesting. We have the Inquisition-era Madrid, where hooded assassins move stealthily through the crowd armed with daggers and their wits, as they attempt to bring down those in power who seek peace in the land through control. The Assassins also long for peace, but peace gained through freedom, and they don't want a McGuffin known as the Apple of Eden, which somehow possesses the power to block humanity's free will, falling into their hands. This war has raged on for centuries, and in the modern era - a glum grey world full of murky corridors and empty rooms - the Templar continue their search for the Apple, employing a new technology that allows people to travel into the memories of their ancestors, to track down the allusive object through the centuries. 

We spend the bulk of the time in the present day, as convicted criminal Cal Lynch (Fassbender) is saved from the electric chair by Sofia (Cotillard) and spends much of his time brooding in his cell over the murder of his mother. I get the feeling that writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage want to keep you in the dark about who the good guys are here, but as soon as Jeremy Irons arrives with his black turtleneck sweater, you pretty much know how this is going to play out. The plot is an odd mixture of overly complicated and incredibly stupid, and much of the screentime is spent having these characters explain it to each other and the audience, or at least those in the crowd who have never played the game (like myself). When Cal finally straps up and enter the body of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, the movie springs into life, although this bleached-out world of questionable special effects and wannabe-Indiana Jones action may have seemed all the more exiting by the sheer dreariness of the alternative. 

Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Country: USA/France/UK/Hong Kong/Taiwan/Malta

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Assassin's Creed (2016) on IMDb

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Review #1,477: 'Phantom Lady' (1944)

German-born filmmaker Robert Siodmak fleed Adolf Hitler twice throughout his career, journeying to and flourishing in France after Joseph Goebbels called him out in the press, and later in Hollywood as the Nazis spread through Europe. It was in the U.S. that he made the pictures he is now most fondly remembered for: tough, dark and distinctly unpretentious film noirs like The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City and Criss Cross, many of which are considered some of the best the genre has to offer. Before he was allowed the chance to place his stamp on his works, Siodmak churned out screwball comedies like Fly-by-Night and even a Universal horror film, Son of Dracula. His first venture into noir came in 1944 with Phantom Lady, a film that leaned more towards Hitchcockian thriller territory than the hard-boiled crime dramas that would come later.

Every great noir needs a chump, and we are introduced to Phantom Lady's unfortunate patsy Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) as he sits slumped at a bar. He has tickets for a show but his date has stood him up, so he innocently asks the only female in the bar, played by Fay Helm, if she will accompany him. The woman, whose name we don't learn until much later in the film, is clearly emotionally unstable, initially turning down Scott's offer before agreeing under strict terms: they won't reveal their names or discuss anything personal. They go to see the show, where the mystery woman's rather outrageous hat is also being worn by the star on the stage, Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda), enraging her and amusing the diminutive band drummer Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.). The night ends with a hurried goodbye, and Scott returns home to find three policemen waiting for him. As they lead him to the bedroom, his wife lays dead, strangled with one of Scott's own neckties.

Of course, Scott has a perfect alibi, but he never learned her name, and everybody they encountered that night - a bartender, a taxi driver, and even Monteiro - all deny seeing the woman. Facing the death penalty, Scott's only hope to unravel the mystery is his beautiful and loyal secretary Carol (Ella Raines) and sympathetic Police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez). Phantom Lady's biggest failing in trying to replicate the genius of Hitchcock is the near complete absence of suspense. The wrongfully-accused thriller was done far better by the man himself over a decade later with The Wrong Man, and when Scott's old pal Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) shows up halfway through, all sense of whodunit goes flying out the window. Still, Phantom Lady gets by on sheer class. Siodmak elevates the plot-hole ridden story with his trademark weaving of light and dark, and influences brought over from the days of German Expressionism makes this a more visually stimulating experience. It's also a lot of fun: the outrageous plot shares more in common with an Argento giallo than a Raymond Chandler paperback.

Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Thomas Gomez, Fay Helm, Elisha Cook Jr.
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Phantom Lady (1944) on IMDb

Monday, 6 May 2019

Review #1,476: 'Avengers: Endgame' (2019)

It feels like an eternity since the bald, purple alien madman Thanos (Josh Brolin) assembled his impressive gauntlet with all of the infinity stones and snapped half of our universe out of existence. It was a bold move by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and although there were many fanboys in the crowd who knew beforehand that what they were seeing was essentially the first part of two-act structure, the sight of many beloved superheroes dissolving into nothingness was a shock for those who had never read a comic-book in their life.

It's actually only been a year since Avengers: Infinity War, but the secrecy surrounding the plot of Avengers: Endgame (the title was only revealed a few months ago) has kept audiences desperate to see how the remaining heroes will react to their failure. The main question hanging over Endgame's head is how they will handle the devastation left over by Infinity War, and whether certain characters who met their demise last time around will in fact stay dead, or, as is the case in the comic-books, find their way back into the story via one of various means (cloning, parallel universes, time travel, etc.).

Without spoiling anything, Endgame establishes quite early on that there are indeed irreversible consequences to Thanos' victory, and no amount of magic or technological advancement can set things back to how they were. The decimation happened, and those lucky, or unlucky, enough to be left behind are forced to deal with it. Those that didn't fall victim to the snap consist of the original Avengers crew - Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who we find drifting hopelessly in space with only Karen Gillan's Nebula for company.

There's also Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, an integral member of the crew and surprise no-show in Infinity War, who perhaps has more reason than anybody to avenge the loss of half of all life. The sight of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) disappearing before our eyes may have been shocking, but Endgame's opening scene pulls the snap right back to a personal level. With his family gone, Hawkeye adopts a new persona and has taken it upon himself to take out criminal organisations Punisher-style.

As the trailer pointed out, people find a way to move on, but our heroes don't. Bolstered by the arrival of uber-powerful hero Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), the gang - along with Don Cheadle's War Machine and Bradley Cooper's Rocket - head into space to make Thanos pay for what he has done. Naturally, things don't go quite according to plan, but when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) - previously believed to have been a victim when in fact he was trapped in the Quantum Realm - re-emerges with Pym technology and an ambitious plan, the Avengers are handed a glimmer of hope.

I'm deliberately leaving out specific plot points for fear of spoilers. This is a three-hour film, but every second counts in some way to moving the complex plot forward or explaining the mind-bending mechanics at work. While Infinity War barely paused for breath, Endgame begins on a sombre note, before launching us into a breathlessly exciting second act that serves as both as inventive way for our heroes to stand a fighting chance, and a celebration of Marvel's ground-breaking 22-film, 11-year spanning arc.

The third act, a colossal battle between the forces of good and evil that is almost too overwhelming to comprehend, throws lots of fancy effects and punch-ups at the screen. In most other big-budget epics, these climactic smack-downs are when my attention start to wander, but here they are involve characters I have watched evolve over the course of a decade and have grown to love, and when that Alan Silverstri score kicks in at just the right moment, the heart-flutters are inescapable. I'd also be lying if I said I didn't well up on multiple occasions. After all, we knew contracts were up and we'd be forced to say goodbye to at least one of the original heroes, but the future also looks bright for Marvel. For the moment, until Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives in a couple of months at least, Endgame is a near-perfect way to wrap up 11 years of storytelling and character-building, and a warm thank you to the fans who have been there since 2008.

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Karen Gillan
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Avengers: Endgame (2019) on IMDb

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Review #1,475: 'The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part' (2019)

Before Phil Lord and Christopher Miller surprised everybody with one of the best films of 2014, the idea of a movie based on a toy line seemed like a rather hopeless idea. Yes, the building blocks and miniature figures of Lego have been adored by both children and adults alike for decades, but they are still produced by a company whose main focus is naturally on your wallets. It felt inevitable that The Lego Movie would be a soulless feature-length advertisement, but not only did it feature some of the most eye-popping CG animation in recent memory (which also felt hand-crafted), it also melted our hearts by taking the action into the real world, where we discover that events are being conjured by the imagination of a young boy. His father, an avid collector played by Will Ferrell, had forgotten the true meaning of playtime. Lego, after all, is about whatever you want it to be.

The Lego Movie wasn't just great, it was awesome. It was also unfairly snubbed by the Academy, but with a worldwide box-office gross of just shy of $500 million, Lord and Miller's film was a huge hit and seemingly the beginning of a lucrative new big-screen franchise. The Lego Batman Movie was next, successfully capitalising on the appeal of Will Arnett's supporting character and opening up Lego's own DC universe. The juggernaut started to creak and show signs of fatigue with The Lego Ninjago Movie however, which arrived the same year as Batman, so the brand was allowed a bit of time to breathe before its next instalment. The big question is does The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part steer this yellow-tinged universe back on course, or has it burnt itself out? The good news is that this sequel is far more the former than the latter, but despite the skills of Lord and Miller on the screenplay (Mike Mitchell has moved in to direct), it does suffer slightly from sequelitis.

The end of The Lego Movie saw the arrival of the real-world family's young girl on the playing field, and with her comes unicorns and Duplo, both unwelcome arrivals in the world built up by the young boy. As a result, Bricksburg has become Apocalypseburg, a Mad Max-esque wasteland turned to dust by the invading Duplo aliens. While Wyldstyle/Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) finds the wastelands a perfect place in which to brood and gaze seriously into the distance, Emmet (Chris Pratt) maintains an upbeat attitude, enthusiastically purchasing his morning coffees and listening to remixes of his favourite song, Everything Is Awesome. Despite being plagued by visions of Armageddon, Emmet builds Lucy their dream home, but their attempts to live a normal life are scuppered by the arrival of intergalactic traveller Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), a mini-doll from the 'Systar System' who has come to take the strongest leader away to marry Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Naturally, that leader is Batman, and he along with Lucy, Benny (Charlie Day), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman) and Unikitty (Alison Brie), find themselves kidnapped and taken to another galaxy.

The premise sounds fun and that's precisely what it is. It maintains the madcap energy of the first film and brings back memorable characters, throwing in more meta-jokes and visual gags than you can shake a stick at. But The Lego Movie was fun and so much more, and Lord and Miller really set the bar high for any future sequels. The Second Part keeps the family thread going, this time with Mom (Maya Rudolph) trying to keep the peace between older son and younger daughter, but doesn't bring anything new to the table. One of the funnest aspects of the original was tying to keep up the amount of characters from both pop culture and real life showing their faces, but the supporting cast seems much thinner this time around. There's a joke about Marvel not returning the calls, and in fact no characters from the world of Disney show their faces. More focus could have been given to other DC figures who show up, particularly Channing Tatum's Superman and Jonah Hill's Green Lantern, who both seem to be having a great time behind the microphone. It's still a rollicking ride, and it only seems like a slight let-down because, somehow, we have come to expect something special from these Lego romps. The film boasts a new catchy song called, um, Catchy Song, which warns 'This song's gonna get stuck inside your head." And in your head it will certainly remain, but the rest of the movie sadly won't.

Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Voices: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will ArnettTiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Maya Rudolph
Country: Denmark/Norway/Australia/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) on IMDb

Friday, 3 May 2019

Review #1,474: 'Amour' (2012)

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has been provoking - often outright antagonising - his audiences for decades, from the home invasion horror of Funny Games, to the ugly suburban murder of Benny's Video, to the bleak, post-apocalyptic vision of the future from Time of the Wolf. His 2012 effort, Amour, winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is his most compassionate film to date, although Haneke's compassion still feels like a sledgehammer to the chest and a knife to the heart. The title, which translates as 'love' from French, is about precisely that, but this is not the syrupy, sentimental love we're used to from cinema, but the kind experienced by any couples lucky enough to have enjoyed a long-lasting relationship into old age.

The couple are retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who both enjoy a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle in Paris. We are introduced to this grey-haired pair as they attend the concert of Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), one of Anne's former star pupils, and their subsequent car journey home. This is the only glimpse we are allowed of their everyday life, as once they arrive home to discover that someone has attempted to break in, we never leave the building again. The next morning, as they sit down to breakfast, Anne becomes unresponsive, gazing blankly into space as Georges tries to snap her out of it. Before the old man can get help, she is back to normal, completely unaware of this momentary void. Anne has suffered a stroke, and after an operation on her blocked carotid artery goes wrong, she is left wheelchair-bound and paralysed down one side.

In anybody else's hands, this could be a story of overcoming hopelessness and helplessness, and of a couple undeterred in the face of looming death. But Haneke isn't interesting in sentiment, and opts instead to observe the loving couple as Anne deteriorates further, pleading for an end to the pain and humiliation after a second stroke, while Georges cares for her as best as he can. Anne makes her husband promise never to take her back to the hospital, so their apartment becomes a tomb where any visitor is an unwelcome intrusion. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) makes the occasional visit from London, where she lives with her British husband Geoff (William Shimell), to offer help, but she doesn't understand the emptiness of her offer. She isn't there for the diaper changes, the periods when Anne can do nothing but moan in pain, and Georges' struggle to move her whenever she needs to visit the bathroom.

It's tough, gruelling stuff, but it's heartbreaking in a way that anybody in a loving relationship can relate to. It's something we simultaneously hope to reach and ultimately dread, and there's a real unflinching honesty in the way Georges and Anne react to their new predicament. The idea that old age eventually catches up to everybody is hammered home by the casting of Trintignant and Riva, who have naturally grown into their 80s and are barely recognisable from their glamorous 60's heyday. However, Amour is not an exercise in misery. Haneke handles these characters with incredible delicacy, hinting at an unshakeable bond that, despite a few wobbles down the years, has only strengthened with time and has long since evolved into something greater than the word love can truly express. Amour certainly puts you through the ringer, but you'll likely emerge with a greater appreciation for your loved one.

Directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell
Country: Austria/France/Germany

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Amour (2012) on IMDb

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Review #1,473: 'Monsters vs. Aliens' (2009)

When it comes to big-screen animation, it's pretty widely accepted that Pixar frequently mines critical and commercial gold whilst their biggest rival, Dreamworks Animation, provides the fluff. Pixar certainly possess the largest awards cabinet, but Dreamworks know how to attract an audience, with the likes of Shrek, MadagascarKung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon all developing into successful franchises with memorable characters. With the market now aggressively over-saturated with animated efforts for the whole family, a few of their titles have flown under the radar, and sometimes unfairly. 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens is one such example: a fun, funny and heartfelt throwback to 50's B-movies that spawned some spin-off shorts, but wasn't successful enough to warrant a sequel.

In California, Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is waiting to marry her vain TV weatherman fiance Derek (Paul Rudd), who has just announced the news of a job offer in another state. Before the wedding ceremony kicks off however, a huge asteroid crashes down on top of Susan. and although she appears unaffected at first, the mysterious energy given off by the rock causes her to grow to enormous size. With her head now peaking through the roof and the guests running for their lives, the military are quick on the scene, capturing Susan and taker her to a secret government facility ran by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), who has been hoarding a collection of strange monsters for decades.

There she meets fellow captives B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a boneless blob of blue goo; Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), a genius half-man, half-insect; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a hybrid of sea creature and ape, and Insectosaurus, a gargantuan mutated bug. Their futures look increasingly bleak, but when alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) arrives on Earth in search of the crashed meteorite, US President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert), gives Monger the go-ahead to put his freaky prisoners to the test and straight into battle with the intergalactic invader.

B-movie fans will spot the homages immediately, and there's enough of a modern twist to the rag-tag gang of 'monsters' to delight any children watching. The references are obvious: there's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, The Fly, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Mothra, but the characters are so lovingly crafted and terrifically voiced by a talented cast that they feel more love letter than straight rip-off. Although there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon's film, working from a script by no less than five writers, fails to be consistently funny, and the arrival of Gallaxhar is a one-note plot device designed to bring everybody together. But there are some exciting set-pieces, particularly whenever the weirdly adorable Insectosaurus is involved, and there is enough heart woven into its fabric to make Monsters vs. Aliens one of Dreamworks' most underappreciated animations.

Directed by: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Voices: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) on IMDb

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Review #1,472: 'Revenge of the Boogeyman' (1983)

If there was ever a horror film that didn't require a sequel, Ulli Lommel's cult 1980 hit The Boogeyman is it. Telling the story of two siblings who accidentally release the spirit of their mother's dead boyfriend via a magical mirror, The Boogeyman is a hokey, stupid, and instantly forgettable film, although I can understand why certain fans of the genre may hold it in higher esteem. Following its surprisingly successful limited run, Paramount Pictures were keen to hand Lommel, a bad-boy German arthouse director, a substantially larger budget for the follow-up, but the filmmaker became annoyed at their refusal to allow him to work on other projects outside the realm of horror.

Lommel eventually made Revenge of the Boogeyman, or simply Boogeyman II, out of sheer frustration, and the result was one of the most notoriously terrible movies ever made. You get the sense that the sequel is one giant middle-finger to all those pesky studio heads who were only interested in squeezing some quick cash out of a mediocre horror film that proved an unexpected hit with the horror crowd. Lommel even casts himself as a movie director tasked with adapting the events of the first film for the big screen, who also questions Hollywood's opportunistic, closed-minded approach. You could almost admire Lommel's arrogance if Revenge of the Boogeyman didn't also feel like a huge middle-finger to the audience, who are not only forced to sit through some of the most laughable and badly-constructed set-pieces ever committed to screen, but also over forty minutes of flashbacks which consist of recycled footage from the previous film.

The 'story' follows lone survivor Lacey (Suzanna Love) as she travels to Hollywood to stay with friends and recuperate after the trauma she suffered at the hands of the 'boogeyman'. After recapping her tale, she is quickly pounced on by a bunch of Hollywood types who are keen to profit on her misery. God knows why, but Lacey carries a piece of the cursed broken mirror with her wherever she goes, so it isn't long until the party guests start turning up dead. And how spectacularly they die. There's death by toothbrush, death by exhaust pipe through the mouth after being hit on the backside by a ladder, and worst of all, death by that most terrifying of household items, shaving foam. Looking as though it was shot over a weekend and patched together without any resemblance of a script, Revenge of the Boogeyman is an insult to film and filmmakers, and anyone seeking to find the most reprehensible of all the 'video nasties' need look no further. To make matters worse, Lommel went back to try and salvage the film, releasing a 'Redux' version in 2003. Apparently, somehow, it's even worse.

Directed by: Ulli Lommel
Starring: Suzanna Love, Ulli Lommel, Shannah Hall, Sholto von Douglas, Bob Rosenfarb
Country: USA

Rating: *

Tom Gillespie

Boogeyman II (1983) on IMDb

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Review #1,471: 'The Sisters Brothers' (2018)

French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has made a name for himself by focusing on morally-conflicted lead characters surviving any way they can in an environment they have no real control over. Whether it be the brutal prison setting of A Prophet, the street brawls of Rust and Bone, or the Sri Lanka torn apart by civil war in Dheepan, Audiard seems most at home when tossing his lead character in the deep end and observing as the survival instincts inevitably kick in. There is perhaps no greater time and place to explore humanity at its most savage and uncivilised as the Wild West, so Audiard feels right at home among the shootouts, saloon fights and general lawlessness of his latest film, the curiously-titled The Sisters Brothers.

Based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers follows the titular siblings Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), two apparent opposites who seem to tolerate each other for their shared bloodline only. While their overall outlook on life couldn't be further apart, one skill the pair undoubtedly share is a knack for killing, and their exploits have granted them an almost mythical status throughout the land. They are hired killers in the employment of a shady businessman known only as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), and their latest job is to track down and kill chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from the old man. Their journey takes them from Jacksonville to San Francisco, but the mission is plagued by misfortune. Encountering everything from bear attacks to venomous spiders to rival hired hands, these mishaps allow plenty of time for the brothers to reflect on their life choices and their future, if they are ever to make it out alive.

As the elder of the brothers, Reilly's Eli hopes to eventually settle down and walk away from a life where death seems to await them at every turn. The drunken, unpredictable Charlie believes their lives couldn't get any better, and cannot imagine a world where his brother is not at his side. Little by little their backstories are revealed, and although he shares his younger sibling's flair for murder, it becomes clear that Eli's life would have turned out quite differently if he wasn't forced to pick up the pieces left in the wake of Charlie's destructive nature. The two actors are so good together that the film slows down when the action moves away from them, and more time is spent developing the relationship between Warm and softly-spoken private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Morris is actually working with the Sisters, but has a change of heart when Warm reveals his water-based formula that will potentially turn the tide for gold prospecting.

While these little detours slightly derail the film's pace, they prove intriguing enough in their own right. Despite the brutality of their surroundings and the natural hostility of the unexplored frontier, Warm and Morris are tidier, more articulate, and completely at odds with the survivalist nature of the anti-heroes of the title. They hint at a changing world, and the way the Old West is imagined by cinematographer Benoit Debie - shot in Spain - would be more at home with the auteur-driven revisionist westerns of the 1970s, but not so different to cause traditionalists to scoff. The key ingredients are all there: bursts of violence, whiskey-drenched brothel visits, and a long, perilous journey across country; but there is a sensitive, character-driven drama at its core. It was billed as a comedy of sorts upon its release, and although there are certainly laugh-out-loud moments, they serve only to reinforce the humanity lurking within its murky characters.

Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Rutger Hauer
Country: France/Spain/Romania/Belgium/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Sisters Brothers (2018) on IMDb

Friday, 19 April 2019

Review #1,470: 'Glass' (2019)

When M. Night Shyamalan's Split came out three years ago, I doubt anybody was expecting what appeared to be a relatively low-key kidnap thriller to eventually reveal itself as a supervillain origin story of sorts, as well as a sequel to the director's finest film, Unbreakable, released a whopping 16 years previous. Despite its flaws, Split was a success with audiences, and it seemed that Shyamalan's reputation - relegated to near-joke status following a string of utter stinkers like Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender - was starting to claw its way back to the dizzy heights of his early career, when he was dubbed the next Steven Spielberg after scaring audiences with The Sixth Sense and, to a lesser degree, Signs. Shyamalan doesn't do middle-of-the-road. He's either at the top of his game or testing our patience, but Glass, the inevitable third instalment of this 19-years-in-the-making trilogy, may be the first time he's dabbled with both extremes.

Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the abusive victim whose 23 other personalities serve to protect him, is still at large. His activities have led to the press dubbing him 'The Horde', and he is currently holed up with four young cheerleaders, the next potential victims of his cannibalistic hunger and his most feared personality of all, the hulking 'Beast'. Meanwhile, super-strong David Dunn (Bruce Willis) juggles his time between running a security business with his son Joseph (an all-grown-up Spencer Treat Clark), and fighting crime.

On top of being damn near indestructible, David - named 'The Overseer' by fans of his work - can also sniff out crime by mere touch, and a chance encounter with Crumb leads him to an abandoned warehouse, where the girls wait bound and terrified. The two superhumans slug it out, but before one can outmatch the other, they are set on by a SWAT team directed by the unnervingly mild-mannered psychologist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She specialises in cases in which the patient believes they are a comic-book character, and takes David and Kevin to a grungy institution where an old friend awaits them.

The old friend, of course, is Samuel L. Jackon's Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, named after the rare brittle-bone disease from which he suffers. Split is still fresh in the memory, but if - like me - you haven't seen Unbreakable since it was released 19 years ago, it may take a while to fill in the blanks, because Shyamalan isn't willing to refresh your memory. Glass was an intriguing (and surprising) foe for David last time around, but would a man who is simply more intelligent than most really be lumped into the same category as a man who can survive a train crash and another who can scale bare walls? Nevertheless, the actors are all on top form, with Willis' gruff, underplayed performance finding a nice balance with McAvoy's manic character-switching, and when he isn't being laboured with exposition, Jackson has fun as the guy who is always one step ahead.

The strength of the performances makes it seem as though all of the movie's budget went into paying the actors to up their game, as it's difficult to judge where else it was spent. The first two-thirds builds an intriguing atmosphere, despite spending too much time pondering the question of what it would be like if superheroes really existed (doesn't every superhero film tackle this in one form or another?). Shyamalan blows it in the last act, delivering an underwhelming showdown that will leave audiences wondering what the hell the writer/director was thinking. It won't have many calling for more from this unexpected cinematic universe, but it's certainly worth a gamble.

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Glass (2019) on IMDb

Monday, 15 April 2019

Review #1,469: 'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World' (2019)

Loosely based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell, the How to Train Your Dragon series has grown to become the jewel in the somewhat small and dusty crown of Dreamworks Animation. With Pixar killing it near enough year in, year out, the adventures of reluctant Viking leader Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusted Night Fury pal are the closest thing that Dreamworks have ever come to the quality and visual splendour of its most fearsome rivals. If you've kept up with the series since its debut in 2010, you'll have watched Hiccup grow out of his father's shadow into a battle-scarred warrior and forward-thinking frontiersman, who brought a close to his tribe's never-ending war with the dragons to discover the fire-breathing beasts actually make for useful and loving friends. The second instalment veered into incredibly dark territory, signalling a maturing tone that matched the protagonist's transformation from nervous kid to an innovator destined to change the lives of his people forever.

The third and presumably final entry into the series, The Hidden World, doesn't darken the tone further - it is still a kids' film after all - but you get the sense from very early on that we are heading inevitably towards an emotional parting of ways. Hiccup and his friends continue their quest to rescue captive dragons and bring them back to the village of Berk to live in harmony with humans. The problem is that they've become so good at their search-and-rescue missions that their home is now overcrowded with the lumbering beasts. Hiccup believes their only hope lies in 'the hidden world, a mysterious and possibly make-believe haven at the edge of the world spoken of by his late father Stoick (Gerard Butler). But cracks start to appear in the young chieftan's plans when his dragon and best friend Toothless happens across a Light Fury, the female of his species. Wild and distrusting of humans, the female bolts from Toothless' advances any time Hiccup shows his face to help, and it becomes clear that if he is ever to see his best bud happy, he must also let his dragon run free.

As ever, there's a dragon-hating antagonist to jeopardise Hiccup's plans in the form of renowned hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), whose own mind-controlled dragons have the ability to vomit acid and melt pretty much anything in their wake. He certainly looks and sounds cool, but Grimmel shares much of the same motivation as the bad guys that come before him, and the character really symbolises the film's overall reluctance to dig that little bit deeper. For me, How to Train Your Dragon 2 really stepped up the game for this franchise, but it feels like returning director Dean DeBlois is happy to ease off the accelerator and ride this trilogy-closer out. If this were practically any other series, The Hidden World would be a delightful surprise, offering up great moments like the opening night-time raid and the sight of Toothless clumsily attempting win over his potential mate, the latter proving to be one of the most charming and heart-warming scenes of the entire trilogy. But with the knowledge of how great this could have been, The Hidden World is a disappointment, fizzling out with an ending that undoubtedly satisfies, but when compared to the emotional wallop of, say, Toy Story 3, plays it rather safe.

Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Voices: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) on IMDb

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Review #1,468: 'Dead Snow' (2009)

When it comes to B-movie hooks, they don't come any more mouth-watering than the promise of a horde of Nazi zombies stalking a group of horny, dim-witted teenagers. The set-up mirrors that of countless slasher and zombie movies, and writer/director Tommy Wirkola is more than happy than roll with the genre tropes. Wirkola even places a chubby film buff amongst the crowd of soon-to-be Nazi chow so he can throw in a few nods and winks to an already knowing audience as they trudge through the Norwegian snow to the cabin in the woods that awaits them. But even he is too dim to recognise the obvious danger that waits in store for them, and just like the movies Dead Snow is paying homage to, you wait with eagerness for their inevitable and gory demise. Fans of classic horrors The Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead will lap it up, but Dead Snow takes far too long to find its stride. But by the end, those lucky enough to remain breathing finally pluck up the courage to fight back with the few tools at their disposal, and the barrage of blood, guts and Nazi corpses is just enough to make it worth the wait.

The film opens with a terrified young woman being chased through the snow by a group of bloodthirsty zombies dressed in SS uniforms. The woman, who is revealed to be Sara (Ane Dahl Torp), was due to meet up with her medical student friends for a weekend of tobogganing, snow-fights and potential casual sex. Luckily for them, Sarah's friends have decided to travel separately. After an exhausting hike through the mountains, the gang finally arrive at the cabin and immediately start drinking. Although Sara's no-show plays on some of their minds, a party is thrown, and all seems fine and dandy until a mysterious traveller (Bjorn Sundquist) arrives with a history lesson guaranteed to kill their buzz. Decades ago, near the end of World War II, a band of SS officers fled the advancing Russian army and met their end in the unforgiving snowy mountains. Ever since, whispers have been heard of an undead Nazi army roaming the area, killing and eating anyone that stands in their way. They are searching for treasure stolen during the war, and the prize chest just happens to be stored underneath the cabin. Soon enough, one by one, the hapless students start to disappear.

For the bulk of its running time, Dead Snow covers very familiar terrain, paying tribute to everything from Friday the 13th to The Evil Dead, as well as more recent efforts, such as Scream, which also leaned into genre cliches and employed them as a narrative tool. Dead Snow isn't as clever nor anywhere near as accomplished as those that inspired it, and spends way too much time moving the pieces into place and establishing relationships you'll have forgotten before the credits have rolled. But when Wirkola finally loosens his top button and starts to unleash the carnage, it doesn't fail to disappoint. There's something oddly beautiful about the sight of blood splashed across snow, and Dead Snow has plenty of both. The luscious, tranquil setting is truly glorious to behold, but don't let the beauty fool you, this is a world of deadly avalanches and fascist zombies. Just like in space, nobody can hear you scream in the Oksfjord wilderness, and it may just set off a landslide that will leave you buried beneath six feet of snow. The movie's top tip: before you start to try and dig your way out, be sure to spit so you know which way is up. Dead Snow may not fully grasp the potential of the idea of Nazi brain-munchers hunting their prey, but by the time the hammers and chainsaws are broken out, you'll feel a pleasant wave of satisfaction.

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Lasse Valdal, Evy Kasseth Røsten
Country: Norway

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Dead Snow (2009) on IMDb

Monday, 8 April 2019

Review #1,467: 'SS Experiment Camp' (1976)

Much of the outrage drummed up by so-called 'moral crusaders' concerned with how violent and tasteless movies were affecting our impressionable youth during the 1980s was based primarily on how these types of film advertised themselves. The rise of VHS led to home media companies taking full advantage of highlighting how grisly and amoral the film supposedly was, and this led to the now-iconic covers of The Driller Killer, which depicted a man receiving a nasty drill to the head, and Cannibal Holocaust, which splashed the image of one of the titular flesh-eaters chowing down on some human intestines on its casing. These films were placed on the infamous 'Video Nasty' list in the UK, and the two aforementioned titles are indeed pretty nasty. Others that found themselves on the banned list - that did nothing but provide free promotion - were actually hiding a cheaply-made and laughably executed production underneath. Sergio Carrone's SS Experiment Camp, one of the lesser-seen titles on the list, is one such example.

The eponymous camp of the title is a base constructed by the Nazis during World War II to conduct shocking experiments involving attractive Jewish women and some of the Fatherland's most dashing studs. Before being entered into the programme, the women must swear their allegiance to the Fuhrer, otherwise they face torture and eventually a trip into the ovens. Those wise enough to agree to their captors' demands are led to a dorm complete with bunk beds, so the girls can chat like teenagers at a sleepover, and are watched over by a lesbian (what else?) commander. When they are eventually called into action, they must have sex with handsome German men - sometimes even underwater! - while a sympathetic Jewish doctor carries out more sinister experiments with ovary transplants. German officer Helmut (Mircha Carven) ends up falling in love with one of the inmates, and in exchange for her safety, he rather stupidly agrees to take part in a highly secretive experiment with the Colonel von Kleiben (Giorgio Cerioni). Helmut doesn't know it, but von Kleiben has recently lost his balls during the war, and is finding life without intercourse a little hard to take.

Yes, this is a movie set during one of the greatest tragedies in human history about a guy who loses his gonads and can't have sex with the woman he loves. With a video cover showing a dying woman hung upside down while a smirking Nazi officer looks grimly on, Mary Whitehouse and her cronies likely called for the film to be banned for the gruesome horrors that surely lurked beneath that poster. If they had actually taken the time to watch it, they would probably laugh as dead bodies jerk unconvincingly while dodgy-looking flames bounce in front of them, or be puzzled at why a unit of German soldiers look and act like Italian footballers cracking wise in a changing room. Tasteless? Certainly. Most of the increasingly silly torture scenes focus on the victim's jiggling breasts. Horrifying? Well, yes, but not in the way the film intended. For a film that can boast a scene in which its lead character bursts into a room and asks "what have you been doing with my balls?", SS Experiment Camp is a tedious and repetitive experience. It has some unintentional humour, but then there's 90 additional minutes of atrocious acting and awkward dialogue to wade through. The nazisploitation genre is pure trash but it can occasionally offer the odd guilty pleasure, but this is no Ilsa.

Directed by: Sergio Garrone
Starring: Mircha Carven, Paola Corazzi, Giorgio Cerioni, Giovanna Mainardi, Serafino Profumo
Country: Italy

Rating: *

Tom Gillespie

SS Experiment Love Camp (1976) on IMDb

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Review #1,466: 'Mary Poppins Returns' (2018)

With many studios these days greenlighting reboots, spin-offs and remakes, it's actually quite refreshing to get a good old-fashioned sequel to a beloved classic. It worked for Blade Runner, and - somewhat surprisingly - it also works for Mary Poppins. A sequel to Robert Stevenson's 1964 family classic has been stuck in development hell for decades, with original author P. L. Travers proving notoriously difficult to work with. She despised what Walt Disney had done to her work, although she admired certain aspects, so while she was still alive, a follow-up would only see the light of the day on her own very strict terms. We almost saw the return of the nanny who is practically perfect in every way in the 1980s, with a screenplay by Travers and her friend Brian Sibley, but Julie Andrews' reluctance to return meant the film quickly fell apart. Some 55 years later, Poppins finally returns in the form of Emily Blunt, and there is plenty to enjoy for both adults who adored the original growing up and children new to this unique world.

It's 1930, and siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are all grown up. They remember the nanny who raised them but believe the magic she displayed was all part of their youthful imaginations. Michael is now a widowed banker and takes after his father, while Jane mirrors her mother in that she is ever the optimist. Still living at Cherry Tree Lane and forced to raise his three children - Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) - on his own, things aren't going well for Michael. With grief consuming him, the bills have gone unpaid, and the bank, headed by new chairman William Wilkins (Colin Firth), have served a notice threatening to repossess the house if the loan isn't paid back in full. Spirits are lifted by the re-appearance of Mary Poppins, who offers to look after the children while the adults get their affairs in order. With the help of cheery Cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Annabel, John and Georgie are whisked off into a world of musical numbers and talking cartoon animals, and learn that when you think you've reached the bottom, the only way is up.

There's not much going on in terms of plot in Mary Poppins Returns, but things weren't much different last time around. Director Rob Marshall and writer David Magee are far more concerned with pulling you into a fantastical world of catchy songs, breathtaking dance numbers, and lovingly rendered hand-drawn animation. Tunes like 'Tip a Little Light Fantastic' and '(Underneath the) London Sky' are clearly trying to copy iconic moments from the original (with Miranda playing the Dick Van Dyke supporting role), but composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman have found a way to wonderfully capture the essence of the original while adding a modern twist. Blunt, who seems to be fan-cast for just about every upcoming role, proves to be the perfect choice for Poppins. Stern but playful, strict yet mischievous, she embraces Andrews' iconic performance and adds much sparkle of her own, displaying a knack for comedy timing that went unjustly unrecognised by the Academy. She wouldn't be complete without an enthusiastic sidekick, and Miranda is on great form, speaking with an accent that fares only slightly better than Van Dyke's, but that was all part of what made the original so memorable. Mary Poppins Returns isn't quite practically perfect in every way, but as far as sequels to childhood staples go, it rarely fails to charm or tug the heartstrings.

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) on IMDb


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