Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Review #1,161: 'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa' (2008)

When an animated family film unexpectedly strikes a chord with its young audience and develops into an unexpected hit, as was the case with 2005's Madagascar, the most common problem faced with the inevitable sequel is where to take its collection of rag-tag anthropomorphic heroes next. The original's premise was relocating a bunch of animal characters who had been raised in a New York zoo to be adored by the paying customers to the less-welcoming island of Madagascar. It was a promising idea, but the film fell flat thanks to some blocky animation and a lack of imagination and jokes. With the first sequel, returning directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath have pulled the same trick again, only this time dumping its hapless entourage onto the brutal plains of Africa, with Hollywood again apparently forgetting that Africa is a continent, not a country.

After the adventure on Madagascar, zoo animals Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and a small group of militaristic penguins have fixed the crashed plane and are readying to fly back home. Also joined by unhinged lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), they crash again in Africa after running out of fuel, and eventually find themselves at a watering hole, where they are overjoyed to discover more of their own species. Alex also reunites with his mother (Sherri Shepherd) and father Zuma (Bernie Mac), with the latter the alpha of his herd. While the others are each given roles in their animal society, Alex must prove himself to be worthy of his position of heir and title of  'King of New York', while fellow lion Makunga (Alec Baldwin) waits eagerly to take control.

It's a very similar route taken by Ice Age and their increasingly tedious sequels. When the big idea has been used up, simply introduce a long-lost family member and give the comic relief side-kicks their own meandering side-stories. Melman, due to his hypochondria, becomes the village's witch-doctor; Marty struggles to stand out in a herd that looks and talks in the exact same way as he does; and Gloria is courted by a douchebag while she misses the true love right in front of her eyes. The only relief on offer is when the penguins are on screen, and their extreme competency with any given task and frequent bashing of an annoying old lady never fails to raise a chuckle. When they're not the focus, we are stuck with the incredibly uninteresting Alex and a bunch of generic life lessons for the kids watching. If you were content with the little charm of the first Madagascar, then chances are you'll find something to like her. For the rest of us, this is a slow trudge through familiar ground chocked full with broad slapstick prat-falls.

Directed by: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Voices: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Bernie Mac, Alec Baldwin
Country: USA

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) on IMDb

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review #1,160: 'Amsterdamned' (1988)

In Amsterdam's Red Light District, a young prostitute catches a taxi home and is almost raped by the driver, but she manages to fight him off and flee before any harm comes to her. Sadly for her, there's also a murderous lunatic on the loose, who stabs the poor lady to death and drags her bloody corpse into the nearby canal. Her body is discovered in gruesome fashion as her lifeless body is displayed on a bridge, only be smeared across the top of a boat filled with screaming tourists. As the body count rises, gruff detective Eric Visser (Huub Stapel) is assigned to the case, but this killer proves particularly difficult to catch. As well as possessing a high level of intelligence, the masked psychopath also uses the many canals running throughout the city for shelter. With pressure building from his bosses, he must work fast before the killer strikes again.

Almost like a warped advert for tourists, Amsterdamned portrays the great city in all its beauty. We see everything the city has to offer; the canals, the Rembrandt paintings, the breweries, and of course, the Red Light District. If it didn't include the many brutal murders, this could have been made by the tourist board. The city provides the backdrop for a string of stylishly-executed slayings, including a beheading by moonlight and a knife through a dinghy you won't soon forget. It also finds the time (and the budget) for a terrific, outlandish speed boat chase between the killer and Visser (put together by the brilliantly-named Dickey Beer), which pulls out all the stops and puts many films with much bigger budgets completely to shame. Infused with a giallo-esque sensibility, director Dick Maas makes an entire city feel somehow claustrophobic.

At almost two hours, Amsterdamned also long outstays its welcome, padding the film out with unnecessary sub-plots that seem to either disappear (Visser's relationship with his teenage daughter is given a lot of focus of early on, but then the film seems to forget about her completely) or fizzle out into nothing. While these moments are often filled with amusing dialogue (the strange sense of humour will likely have you laughing at loud on occasion), they also deliver long stretches of boredom. However, with its silly title and by-the-numbers premise, Amsterdamned is far better than it has any right to be, and will certainly surprise anyone going in expecting a routine slasher picture. Trimmed of some fat, this could have been something to write home about, but this is still an entertaining and creative little Euro-horror.

Directed by: Dick Maas
Starring: Huub Stapel, Monique van de Ven, Serge-Henri Valcke, Hidde Maas
Country: Netherlands

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Amsterdamned (1988) on IMDb

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Review #1,159: 'Unknown White Male' (2005)

What if you could wake up one morning and re-boot your brain, rid yourself of all the emotional baggage built up throughout the years and sever relationships with those who you perhaps feel are holding you back or influencing you in a negative way? If you could somehow throw away 30 years of your memory, would this change the person you are, and perhaps even shape you into a less cynical and all-round nicer person? This is the question pondered by first-time filmmaker Rupert Murray in his documentary Unknown White Male, a film that follows his good friend Doug Bruce following a sudden attack of amnesia which left him wandering the streets of New York without knowledge of who he is and where he was.

In 2003, Doug woke up on a subway train in Coney Island with only a backpack full of seemingly random objects and a scrawled telephone number to offer any clue to his identity. Stumbling into a police station, he rang the number and spoke to a lady who had no idea who he was. Moved onto a psychiatric hospital, it felt like Doug would never be allowed to leave until the daughter of the lady on the phone recognised him as an old boyfriend and quickly picked him up. Despite being able to remember certain facts such as the names of a few cities in Australia, everything was gone, and suddenly his friends and family became strangers. Murray joins him as he pieces the puzzle together, reuniting with his loved ones who accept the new Doug with open arms. When he was once 'cynical' with 'an edge', he now has a more optimistic, untainted view on life.

There's a lot riding on whether or not you actually believe the story being told, as although I would like to believe that it's true personally, there are some faintly questionable moments. Is it sheer luck that Doug was a photographer who decided to capture his first week with memory loss on film, or that one of his best friends was a budding documentary filmmaker? Perhaps. Regardless, Unknown White Male is a clumsily put-together and amateurish piece of work which places you in the company of a bunch of people who aren't particularly likeable. With the loose approach taken, it would have worked better as a short, but as a full-length feature, it would have been improved with more scientific background into the rare condition and expert analysis. There are moments that work well, such as Doug's amazement at the crowd gathering outside Buckingham Palace to witness the changing of the guard, but the sheer sloppiness of the film makes it a wasted opportunity to tell a fascinating story.

Directed by: Rupert Murray
Starring: Doug Bruce
Country: USA/UK

Rating: **

Tom Gillespie

Unknown White Male (2005) on IMDb

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Review #1,158: 'I, Daniel Blake' (2016)

Anyone who may be under the impression that Britain's great social realist Ken Loach has lost the sense of social injustice that has defined his magnificent track record since his milestone BBC television play Cathy Come Home (1966), may be rest assured that there is a still plenty of fire in the prolific English director's belly. In what feels like an angry reaction to the Tories' austerity measures and the tabloid cries of 'Benefits Britain', I, Daniel Blake feels like a war cry to unite the skilled, working-class grafters who continue to be chewed up by a bureaucratic system that is leaving the elderly and those truly in need behind, forcing them to demean themselves for the assistance and care they truly deserve.

In Newcastle, Daniel Blake (played by stand-up comedian Dave Johns) is informed by his GP that he has a heart condition that will keep him out of work for the foreseeable future. Apprehensively, but on his doctor's recommendation, he heads to the Job Centre to sign on. He is eager to get back to work, but is confident that a lifetime of hard manual labour and steady work has surely earned him the right to seek aid in his time of need. He is denied employment and support benefits, despite his GP's note, and is systematically passed from one department to another, each of which require him to fill in a form online (he's so clueless with computers that he runs the mouse up the side of the monitor at one point) and provide evidence that he is actively seeking employment, despite his inability to work. So begins a ludicrous, Kafka-esque battle against a system seemingly eager to make the process as difficult as possible.

It's an incredibly depressing subject matter, and a topic which tends to lead to extreme reactions, depending on who you speak to and whose opinion they've recently read and decided they agree with. Yet this is certainly not a depressing film, it's actually incredibly funny. There's a real warmth to the script by Paul Laverty, and a real tenderness to the relationship between Daniel and single mother Katie (Hayley Squires); a Londoner who has been moved up North to the next available residence, itself a damning indictment of the soaring house prices in the capital and the government's eagerness to upscale 'urban' neighbourhoods. Struggling to find a job and faced with the same bureaucratic barriers as Daniel, she starves herself so her children can eat hot food, and is caught shoplifting. Perhaps you've shaken your head at the single mother on the bus struggling to control her screaming children, but Loach shows us what life might really be like for those truly in need.

In a truly Loachian touch, there's also much joy to be had in the company of working class. Daniel forms a friendship with his young neighbour China (Kema Sikazwe), a cheeky chap who is selling authentic trainers at a cut-price by shrewdly importing them directly from the warehouse (the scene in which Daniel meets his Chinese contact via Skype is one of the film's most hilarious moments). Despite the serious subject matter and occasional heart-breaking moment, there's a weird sense of optimism to the film's sense of injustice. Like a rallying cry to anyone left behind by the system, a triumphant and incredibly satisfying scene of defiance, from which the film gets its title, occurs towards the end of the film. As one would expect, Loach downplays it, ensuring that his message is properly received with a sobering climax. There's talk of Ken Loach going into retirement, and if this proves to be his final film, he's gone out with a bang, delivering from one of the finest movies of his career.

Directed by: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe
Country: UK/France/Belgium

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

I, Daniel Blake (2016) on IMDb

Monday, 13 March 2017

Review #1,157: 'O.J.: Made In America' (2016)

On June 12th, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of lauded American football player and all-round superstar O.J. Simpson, was murdered, along with her friend Ron Goldman. Both were stabbed multiple times, with Nicole's injuries so severe that her head was almost completely severed from her body. The crime scene was appalling and was clearly the aftermath of a frenzied attack, with all evidence pointing to O.J.. What followed was truly the biggest media sensation of our time; a circus in the ugliest sense of the word which divided America between blacks and whites. The case continues to fascinate, and despite the many documentaries covering the trial, Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America finds new ground to cover, interviewing practically anyone caught up in the trial and juxtaposing O.J.'s story with that of the horror of growing up black in Los Angeles.

Released as a five-part mini-series on ESPN for their 30 to 30 series, Made in America also made a limited appearance on cinema screen, and received its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Controversially, this qualified it as a feature and for the Best Documentary Academy Award (which it won), and watched as a whole the film runs at a whopping 7 hours plus. But anyone who states it was undeserved needs to watch the film again, as this is about as detailed, powerful and utterly gripping as documentary film-making gets. It seems to cover just about every angle, bringing in anybody who was anybody in the events leading up to the murder and the aftermath for revealing interviews, as well as boasting a stunning collection of archive footage. It's meticulously researched stuff, and even if you know the long-studied case back to front, you will still find something new. 

Starting way back, we are taken through O.J.'s rise as a star college football player, leaping over or barging through anybody who stood in his way. He was worshipped almost like a God, and took this success to an unhappy period as a professional playing in Buffalo, where he was away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. We move through his tearful retirement to his move into acting, where he appeared in the likes of Capricorn One (1977) and The Naked Gun (1988), and his successful run as the face of Hertz. There's also his initially sweeping love affair with a beautiful young blonde named Nicole Brown, before the reports of domestic violence began. We witness a black man becoming a superstar in a white world that falsely preached equality, and he sat comfortably in that world while his fellow African-Americans were suffering terrible abuse at the hands of the law. Time and time again we witness a black man, woman or child murdered, beaten or treated like a dog by the police, only for them to be acquitted of the crime. Payback, it would seem, was on the cards, as the trial of O.J. Simpson began.

We are left in no question as to whether or not O.J. did it. He comes across as a master manipulator, ready to throw anybody under the bus - and have them be grateful at the same time - if it will give him a foot forward. A controlling, egotistical bully who would leave visible prints of his boot on Nicole's face, he is truly the worst kind of scumbag. The outcome of the trial certainly isn't excused (the prosecutor reminds the court late on that nobody seems to remember than Nicole and Ron were the actual victims), but it goes some way to explain it. You can feel the anger brewing as the film goes on, and through some truly disturbing footage of the Rodney King beating and the murder of Latasha Harlin, makes you angry with them. It portrays an entire country divided, with the trial playing out as an obvious metaphor for a nation in complete disarray, while the disgusting flaws in the American Justice System are exposed to a bleary-eyed prosecution. It's a work of true scholarship and unyielding ambition, and a frightening indictment of just how little has changed. 

Directed by: Ezra Edelman
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

O.J.: Made in America (2016) on IMDb

Friday, 10 March 2017

Review #1,156: 'Moonlight' (2016)

Nobody was more surprised at the Academy Awards on February 26th 2017 when Moonlight was announced as the winner of Best Picture than the cast and crew behind the film, especially since it followed a colossal balls-up that saw La La Land handed the award before the people behind-the-scenes realised that Warren Beatty was reading from the wrong envelope. It was one of the true underdogs in the line-up, and one that I suspect that most viewers at home hadn't even seen. Diversity has long been an issue in Hollywood, and the #OscarsSoWhite debacle of 2015 certainly drew attention to the problem. But anyone thinking that Moonlight, with its all-black cast and African-American writer and director, was handed the trophy as a sort of guilty apology to a minority that has struggled to find a voice in cinema, is simply wrong: Moonlight is one of most engaging and powerful films of the year, and certainly the most personal.

Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Barry Jenkins' film chronicles the journey of Chiron from childhood to manhood in Liberty City, Miami. Living with his emotionally abusive, crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), the young Chiron (known as 'Little'), is bullied by his schoolmates and is found hiding out in boarded-up apartment by Cuban-born drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). The youngster is taken under the gangster's wing, and becomes a surrogate by offering him a place to hang out to escape his troubles. In one of the most moving scenes, Juan tells Chiron that there is no shame in being gay, and that he should never let anyone call him 'faggot'. A few years later and now a teenager, Chiron is still being bullied, but finds comfort in a friendship with the outgoing Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It is with Kevin that Chiron has his first sexual encounter, and one that will trouble him for the years to come.

As a young adult and now fully immersed in the gangster lifestyle in Atlanta, Chiron is beefed-up and blinged-up, seemingly growing into his once-guardian Juan. Apparently living a life of isolation and emotional disconnect, a phone call from an old friend takes Chiron back to his hometown to discover who he truly is. The third and final segment is where the film is at its most emotionally exposed, and it's while watching these tender moments that it becomes apparent just how little we see gay black men portrayed on screen, and especially with such vulnerability. Not only does it champion both black and gay cinema, but it opens up a whole new world, fixing its eyes on a forgotten and ignored part of society, essentially one that is not dominated by characters that are white, male or heterosexual. These are numerous independent coming-of-age tales released around the same time each year, but never have I seen one with such a strong personal touch.

Clearly inspired by the work of Lynne Ramsay, Moonlight is social realism with a dreamy, otherworldly tint. While what we see on screen is incredibly naturalistic and believable, the fantastic soundtrack, combined with James Laxton's graceful cinematography, makes it feel like we're witnessing this world through somebody else's eyes. Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes all play Chiron at the three stages of his young life, and they are all incredible. A shy, near-mute child, a lonely and scared teenager, and then a lost, regretful adult, Chiron suffers inwardly, and the three actors do a staggering job of emoting the many subtle aspects of the character. It's shame that we get to spend such little time with Juan, but that is only due to the strength of Ali's performance - one that won him the Best Supporting Actor gong. It's a triumph for low-budget, ambitious film-making, and of course one for equality. But most importantly, Moonlight will resonate with anyone who has felt different, alone and ignored in this world.

Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Moonlight (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Review #1,155: 'The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp' (1943)

Colonel Blimp started life as a satirical cartoon for the London Evening Standard by Sir David Low. An ageing, plump, pompous and eternally red-faced blowhard, Blimp was Low's idea of the militaristic upper-classes; the kind of chest-puffing Jingo who would voice his frequently contradictory declarations from a Turkish bath wearing nothing but a towel. At first, it would seem that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is directly adapting the political cartoons, as the old man Colonel is rudely disturbed from his sleep in a Turkish bath by a group of youngsters who have arrived early for a planned war game, to declare that such chivalry in war will not be practised by the enemy. We then go back 40 years, and any hint of satire makes way for a story of romance, friendship, and growing old.

During the Boer War in 1902, the young Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) receives a letter from Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) in Berlin, who warns him that a known rogue named Kaunitz is spreading anti-British propaganda. Going against orders, Candy travels to Germany and ends up causing a scene by provoking Kaunitz. To settle matters, a duel is arranged with a randomly-chosen German officer, who turns out to be Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). While recovering from their wounds in a military hospital, the two men hit it off and begin a friendship that will last for more than 40 years. Moving through the First and Second World Wars, we follow Candy as he rises through the military ranks, fails and succeeds in love, before finding himself an old man, greatly outdated and socially displaced.

It's astonishing that this film got made at all. On top of being rather experimental in terms of tone and narrative structure (it feels very much like the English equivalent of Citizen Kane), Colonel Blimp was shot in glorious - and expensive - Technicolor during wartime, running at almost three hours when most films wouldn't dare to push 100 minutes. Winston Churchill tried to ban it, believing it to be an anti-war propaganda piece poking fun at the idea of 'British-ness', when it is anything but. Instead, the film deliberately gives out mixed signals, lovingly embracing the idea of gentlemanly conduct during a bloody war, while pondering the necessity of brutality, especially when faced with an enemy who play like the Nazis did (and were doing at the time, of course). While British propaganda was making sure to send a clear and strong message about the enemy, Colonel Blimp makes one of its main characters a sympathetic German, and is clear to highlight that these nations will be friends again in the future.

Livesey is staggering as Candy (who later becomes Wynne-Candy). The make-up work is absolutely flawless, easily trumping the big Hollywood productions we get these days. The man genuinely ages before our eyes, and Livesey manages to entirely convince as a man gaining experience and weariness through the years. He may be a man whose values are slowly becoming obsolete, but he remains a good man, and a thoroughly lovable one. Walbrook delivers an understated performance, and brings a tear to the eye during a monologue in which tries to convince British officials why they shouldn't deport him back to Nazi Germany, and Kerr juggles three roles - as Candy's lost love Edith; his wife Barbara; and his driver 'Johnny' in his later years - with absolute ease. It has remarkable scope yet is incredibly intimate, and it's a film that should have been branded across every cinema screen in the country by the War Office. Quite possibly the finest film ever to emerge from our rainy shores.

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook, John Laurie
Country: UK

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) on IMDb

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review #1,154: 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them' (2016)

Despite the enormous financial success of the eight-part Harry Potter series, adapted from J.K. Rowling's equally successful books, they never seemed to reach the heights of greatness that their box-office receipts would suggest. The main problem the few directors chosen to adapt the novels faced was having to condense the increasingly bulky word count into a coherent 2 hour plus movie. They were never anything less than fun and enchanting, but the films suffered from cramming in too many plot-lines and character backgrounds, and often felt like they were frantically lunging from one scene to the next. With Potter's time at Hogwarts now over, many wondered where Rowling would go next, and if she would even return to world of wizards, witches and house-elves at all.

To the fan's delight, she chose to keep her first screenplay within the same universe as Hagrid and Voldemort, but instead focus on a character frequently mentioned in the books as an author and good friend to headmaster Dumbledore. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the name of the textbook Harry, Hermione and Ron would often brood over, and Newt Scamander the man behind it. The development of this revered encyclopaedia of the many weird and wonderful creatures unknown to mere muggles is the focus of Rowling's first movie attempt, and the action jumps back in time to 1920s New York to find the young Newt - played with a delightful hunched eccentricity by Eddie Redmayne - discovering a world completely different the one in his native Britain.

He is in the U.S. to raise awareness of the need to protect the beloved creatures of the world, and comes with a magical bag stuffed with the oddities. But much like the dangerous world Harry Potter grew up in 70-odd years later, the wizarding community live in fear of an evil wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (I won't spoil who plays him), who has recently murdered several aurors all over Europe. However, Newt has more pressing issues when some of his fantastic beasts escape, and his suitcase accidentally ends up in the hands of bumbling wannabe-baker and muggle ('no-maj' in American) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Teaming up with recently-demoted auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Newt must round up the creatures wreaking havoc while convincing the Magical Congress that his pets aren't to blame for several unexplained deaths happening across the city.

There's certainly a lot going on in this movie, and early on it feels like Rowling is asking a hell of a lot of the audience in taking in this new ensemble of new characters and a whole new kind of wizarding world (wizard-muggle relationships are strictly banned here). Yet the story quickly falls into place, and Rowling delights in creating a wonderful array of genuinely fantastic beasts, each with their own unique look, quirks and special abilities. With a hushed voice and gently inquisitive personality, Newt instantly brings to mind Sir David Attenborough, one of the greatest human beings on this planet. His briefcase is like a tardis, containing an entire zoo of exotic creatures, each with their own habitat to suit their needs. When Newt takes the awestruck Jacob for a grand tour, it's almost like watching an episode of Planet Earth, and this use of commentary on the state of species' endangerment in the real world adds a bit of depth to the story.

Although Alfonso Cuaron certainly made the best entry into the Potter film franchise, David Yates has been the steady hand to guide the series since number 5, so it's of no surprise that he was chosen to take the reins again. Like before, he brings a flair to the magical moments, and the special effects constantly impress (while they may not be up to the recent Jungle Book's standards). Yet the best scenes are during the quieter moments, and in particular a scene at dinner involving a dazed Jacob and Tina's sexy sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and their charming flirtations. Newt's friendship with Jacob forms the emotional backbone of the story, and Fogler damn near steals the entire film. There's also fine support from Colin Farrell as a shady Congress official, and Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller as a fanatical mother and son rallying no-majs against wizards. While the climax may descend slightly into fight-the-CGI-fart-cloud nonsense, it just feels good to be back in Rowling's world again.

Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight
Country: UK/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Review #1,153: 'Brain Damage' (1988)

Largely ignored on its original release but subsequently gathering a loyal cult following over the years, Brain Damage will no doubt appease fans of director Frank Henenlotter's other darkly humorous and outrageously gory works Basket Case (1982) and Frankenhooker (1990). Bringing his trademark sense of humour and mixing it up with lashings of tongue-in-cheek blood-letting, Brain Damage also strives to deliver a message, and is admirable for the anti-drug theme running throughout. With America in the midst of an AIDS and crack panic at the time, Henenlotter paints a very bleak picture of a New York City in crisis, as a parasitic killer searches for unwitting victims.

Average Joe Brian (Rick Hearst) wakes up one morning feeling disorientated, finding his bed sheets soaked through with blood. He doesn't seem to be cut, but when he looks in the mirror he finds a strange parasitic creature on his person. Looking like a turd with eyes and big teeth, it also has a name, Aylmer, and speaks in a dignified foreign accent (voiced by John Zacherle). Injecting Brian through the back of the neck with a blue liquid that gives the unsuspecting goofball a drug-like sense of euphoria, Brian gets hooked on the stuff, and Aylmer exploits his addiction for food. Only Aylmer has a taste for human brains, and so Brian must spend his sober hours searching for human victims. Alienating himself from his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry), Brian also faces the threat of the symbiote's former owners, who have been going cold turkey ever since it fled.

Cut to pieces on its original home video release but later restored, it isn't difficult to see why the ratings board demanded the removal of certain scenes. A wonderfully wince-inducing scene in which Brian pulls his own brain out of his ear for what seems like an eternity found itself on the cutting-room floor, as did the uncomfortable scene where a woman is eaten alive while appearing to be performing fellatio in an unnecessarily sexualised moment of pure exploitation that left me genuinely horrified, and not in a good way. The story and characters are engaging enough to keep the film interesting, while the obvious lack of budget means that the acting is sub-par and the special effects are often laughable, if not charming. The main strength is Brain Damage's depiction of a drug addict going to increasingly desperate measures in order to procure his fix, and Hearst is surprisingly good in the role. Fans of Henenlotter should keep their eyes peeled for the appearance of a certain man with a basket.

Directed by: Frank Henenlotter
Starring: Rick Hearst, John Zacherle, Jennifer Lowry, Gordon MacDonald
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Brain Damage (1988) on IMDb

Friday, 3 March 2017

Review #1,152: 'Passengers' (2016)

Some of the greatest science-fiction films ever made are creepily prophetic, depicting a not-too-distant future in which technology has become a necessity rather than a luxury. The characters in Morten Tyldum's Passengers are in the middle of an intergalactic journey to another planet, with Earth now seemingly picked clean of all of its natural energy and resources. While this somewhat terrifying idea may seem unlikely (or maybe I'm giving humanity too much credit), the technology on board the starship Avalon, such an electronic meal dispenser and the android bartender, could very well happen tomorrow in our increasingly tech-reliant times. Passengers does well in setting up some big ideas, before descending into a tonally-uneven rom-com-cum-disaster movie.

Along with 5,000 others, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is on his way to Homestead II, a newly-established colony for humans rich or skilled enough to earn their place. 30 years into a 120-year journey, the Avalon is struck by a meteor shower which causes parts of the ship to malfunction. While the ship is highly capable of repairing the damages, Jim's hibernation pod glitches and opens 80 years too early. At first, he believes that he has a month of luxury and socialising to enjoy before arriving at his destination, before he is hit with the realisation that he is the only one awake, and will die of old age long before any of the other crew members will wake up. Spending his time trying to break into the ship's control room and drinking his sorrows away with android Arthur (Michael Sheen), he spots sleeping beauty Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and starts to fall in love with her video profile.

After an entire year alone, Jim makes the decision to wake her up, essentially condemning her to die with him. She is naturally devastated at first, but hits it off with the charming and handsome Jim, who has convinced her that she was awoken due to a ship malfunction also. Aurora is also a gold-star member, which means that she has access to lattes and bacon while the working-class Jim has been enduring instant coffee and porridge. A happily-ever-after space romance would not make for a very interesting movie, so the couple are torn apart when the Avalon starts to experience some serious hitches and Arthur blurts out the truth to Aurora. With the ship going haywire, Chief Deck Officer Gus (Laurence Fishburne) is also woken up prematurely, and it doesn't take him long to realise that the ship is overloaded with trying to fix the multiple problems caused by the meteor shower two years earlier, and may not last much longer.

While establishing itself early on as a character study asking some interesting questions and teasing us with the idea that our protagonist is in fact not the dashing charmer one has come to expect of Pratt, but a morally-conflicted creep, Passengers becomes eager to please the wider audience. Essentially turning into a formulaic love story with some generic action thrills, the film manages to get by on the strength of its two highly charismatic leads. While its clear they are pretty much playing themselves, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the two certainly have chemistry to burn and enough screen presence to dismiss the need for the CGI thrills that follow. It received a rather unfair roasting from the critics, but perhaps they were (understandably) expecting much more from what is an enticing set-up that ultimately chickens-out of its potential. I went in expecting mediocrity, but what I got was passable, if forgettable.

Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Passengers (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Review #1,151: 'The Girl With All The Gifts' (2016)

Colm McCarthy's The Girl with All the Gifts, written in novel form and for the screen in tandem by Mike Carey, seems to have aspirations of greatness: To be that great British horror movie many of us are waiting for, and harking back to iconic pieces of horror/science fiction literature such as Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. McCarthy, who has mainly worked for television (directing episodes of Ripper Street, Doctor Who and Peaky Blinders amongst many others), certainly makes a valiant effort to help distinguish the film from a seemingly endless wave of zombie movies, but the plot rarely strays from the tropes of the post-apocalyptic road trip.

The titular girl with all the gifts is the exceptionally intelligent Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a child who appears to live in a dark cell within an underground military bunker. She is routinely ushered into English lessons strapped to a wheelchair with her arms, legs and head restrained. We soon learn that such extreme measures are taken because Melanie is a 'hungry' - someone infected by a mysterious fungal disease responsible for turning most of humanity into flesh-eating zombies. Only she is one of a few born infected with the virus who is also capable of interacting with the uninfected, and she and her classmates are believed by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) to be the key to a cure. When the base is attacked by a hoard of the undead, Caldwell flees with Melanie, taking kindhearted teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton) and grizzled soldier Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) to find a safe place to finish the experimentation.  

To her credit, Nanua more than holds her own against seasoned veterans such as Close and Considine, and Melanie's sweet, curious nature combined with her instinct to kill is the film's strongest suit. However, this is more of an ensemble piece, and by taking the attention away from Melanie to focus on explaining the epidemic and placing the group into a simple get-from-A-to-B storyline, it loses its edge. The sagging middle aside - which often feels like a better-filmed episode of The Walking Dead and offers only one memorable set-piece involving a swarm of sleeping living dead - events are book-ended by an intriguing beginning and thoughtful ending. The opening is successful in luring you in before deteriorating into a midst of exposition and gun-fire, and the final moments, which ponder a different kind of future, highlight just how great things could have been.

Directed by: Colm McCarthy
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sennia Nanua, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close
Country: UK/USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Review #1,150: 'Manchester By The Sea' (2016)

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan hadn't made a movie for 11 years before Manchester by the Sea, a sombre drama that began to draw attention during a critically successful festival run. Receiving acclaim for You Can Count On Me back in 2000 before moving on to Margaret in 2005, the latter film spent five years in post-development hell due to a lack of budget and multiple lawsuits before limping into theatres in 2011. Such a frustrating experience would normally cause a director to fade into obscurity, but Lonergan has returned with a bang with one of the finest films of the year to prove that he is a film-maker of unfathomable potential.

The withdrawn Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor working in Quincy, Massachusetts, spending his days fixing leaky pipes, taking out the garbage, shovelling snow, and generally taking whatever shit the tenants of the apartment block he works in dishes out. Living in a tiny, one-bed room, Lee is quiet but prone to violent outbursts, spending most nights drinking away whatever sorrows rest on his shoulders and starting fights with anybody who looks at him the wrong way. One day, he receives a phone call and is informed that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, coincidentally sharing the same surname as his character) has suffered a heart attack. By the time he arrives in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Joe has passed away, and Lee is tasked with arranging the funeral and putting his brother's affairs in place.

I've admired Casey Affleck ever since I saw Good Will Hunting (1997) and later in his brother Ben's thrilling Gone Baby Gone (2007). But his performance in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ultimately convinced me that he is one of the finest actors of his generation, and I felt that he deserved to beat the lauded Javier Bardem to the Oscar that year. Deservedly, he won Best Actor for his work here. It's a rare skill for an actor to be able to portray such a range of emotions when massively underplaying the part. Lee is as bottled-up as one can get, clearly reaching the point of just not giving a fuck anymore. When he returns to town, people whisper his name with both anger and sympathy. Something has happened to turn him into a socially-awkward, sullen shadow of a man, but Lonergan chooses to reveal the past slowly through flashbacks.

In smaller roles, Chandler, Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol are also as impressive as expected, but, Affleck aside, the majority of the screen-time is given to Lucas Hedges as Joe's son Patrick, who is now placed into the care of a reluctant Lee. Patrick doesn't react to his father's passing as one would expect, and instead remains a chirpy, outgoing teenager proud to have two girlfriends on the go. It's a lively, highly charismatic performance, and the complete opposite to the mopey young adult I was expecting. Themes of grief and regret run throughout the film, but the relationship between Lee and Patrick provides many moments of warmth and much-needed humour. Most writers would opt for award-baiting, tear-jerking moments of emotional outpouring, but Lonergan understands that life is rarely like that, and some wounds simply do not heal. The power of Manchester by the Sea lies within this honesty, with the windy, snowy backdrop acting almost as a window into its characters' souls.

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol
Country: USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Manchester by the Sea (2016) on IMDb

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Review #1,149: 'Moana' (2016)

While Walt Disney Animation Studios have been providing escapism for both children and adults since the 1930s, their attitudes towards more 'exotic' cultures and portrayal of certain racial stereotypes - especially in their early days - have always raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this is why they are now leading the charge in diversity, and after gobbing up billion-dollar franchises and taking them underneath their wing are now dishing up hugely successful blockbusters led by strong-willed heroines and multi-ethnic ensembles. Following the unexpectedly poignant Zootopia earlier this year, the studio have struck gold once again with Moana, a dazzling if comfortable step back into more traditional Disney territory.

As the daughter of chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) of the Polynesian island Motunui, the young and naturally curious Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) has a duty to remain with her family to watch over her people. But she has dreams of sailing out to sea to explore the unknown lands beyond the horizon, and it would seem that the sea agrees with her, as it parts to reveal a precious stone early on before her father insists that she return home. The island has always provided everything the inhabitants need to survive and flourish, but without warning, fish numbers are starting to dwindle and the coconuts are rotting, and it would seem that an age-old fable of the theft of island goddess Te Fiti's heart is to blame. The story names powerful demigod Maui as the thief, and tells how he was later shipwrecked by a lava demon after losing the heart and his magical fish hook. Defying her father's wishes, Moana goes in search of Maui to restore the heart and save her island from starvation.

Written by, amongst others, Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker, Moana is incredibly straight-forward, reaching back to the likes of The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997) for a proven formula that served them so well during the studio's renaissance. The film often reflects on this, with Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, who always sings and does it well) pointing out that although she may not be a princess per se, she has the look, spirit and animal sidekick to fit the profile. It doesn't take long to pick up on the fact that you're not watching anything striving for originality, but you'll be too taken aback by the gorgeous visuals on show and the stellar voice acting bringing these familiar Disney archetypes to life to care. Very much a warmer companion piece to Frozen (2013), Moana feels both classical and very modern.

Also like Frozen, there are many memorable tunes to enjoy, here by Broadway composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and Oceanic musician Opetaia Foa'i, although none of which will reach the dizzy heights of 'Let It Go'. One particularly toe-tapping number comes from Jemaine Clement as a treasure-hording crab, whose unmistakably Flight of the Conchords-esque twang may suggest he had more input that simply providing the vocal chords. Yet for all the jaw-dropping animation and comic relief prat-falls of pet rooster Heihei (Alan Tudyk), the main strength of Moana is Moana herself; stubborn, intelligent and incredibly capable, she doesn't rely on men to save the day, nor does she get distracted by a love interest. It's here that Disney manage to subtly subvert expectations without rubbing your face in it, creating a well-rounded and believable character in the process. An extremely worthy addition to Disney's princess canon, Moana proves that a dose of heart and imagination can reignite even the most done-to-death of formulas.

Directed by: Ron Clements, John Musker
Voices: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Moana (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review #1,148: 'Hacksaw Ridge' (2016)

Whatever your opinion is of Mel Gibson, the once-Hollywood A-lister turned exile following that infamous drunken rant at the police back in 2006, it's unlikely that any other living director could have told the tender and bloody story of World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss with quite the same mixture of visceral horror and religious bent. There have been a myriad of movies recounting the acts of heroism and barbarism that occurred during the conflict, but most fail to stand out or tell their tale in a way that is unique. Gibson has defied his (understandable) haters and crafted a fine piece of work, and a story that will no doubt be compared to the actor/director's own personal plight.

Essentially a movie of two parts, both in terms of tone and quality, screenwriters Robert Schenkkan (HBO's The Pacific) and Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) take the conventional biopic route by going way back to Doss's childhood living with his mother (Rachel Griffiths) and abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) in Virginia. He is raised a Seventh-day Adventist and works in the local church, and as he eventually grows into Andrew Garfield, starts to romance the pretty girl who will later become his wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). These early scenes have a corny gloss to them, like watching a big-budget Lifetime movie with a slightly better script. While the incredibly cute romance between the couple is beautifully played by the two main leads, the movie doesn't really get going until Doss follows his brother in volunteering to fight against the Japanese.

Undeterred by his restrictive religious beliefs, which forbid him to even touch a gun, Doss hopes to do his part by working as a medic. He first must go through boot camp, where he quickly finds himself in hot water with his drill instructor Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) when revealing himself to be a conscientious objector. Rejecting a ticket home by way of psychiatric discharge, Doss becomes an outcast in his unit and is bullied by his fellow recruits. A stint in army jail and a trial ensues before Doss is eventually allowed to rejoin his squad before they are shipped off to the Pacific. It is during the Battle of Okinawa, and more specifically the mission to secure Maeda Escarpment - nicknamed 'Hacksaw Ridge' - that Doss will prove his worth, while the unrelenting horror of war explodes around him.

Anyone familiar with Gibson's previous work will know what to expect: No punches are pulled in the truly horrific battle scene, which lasts for pretty much the entire second half. Doss rushes somewhat elegantly through exploding heads and young men holding their own guts, as a seemingly endless wave of Japanese screamers lunge at them with rifles and swords. To call this the most disturbing depiction of war would be untrue (Elem Klimov's Come and See will forever hold that title), but it's damn near close. Though the splatter is relentless, it also manages to wear you down psychologically, so you can almost feel the weight of every bullet-ridden body Doss manages to drag to safety. Garfield is terrific, managing to charm with a near-permanent goofy grin that makes it seem like Doss knows and is comfortable with exactly what life expects of him. Somewhat surprisingly, so is Vaughn, who injects what I expected would be a cliched boot camp montage with some laugh-out-loud humour. Bravo then, and welcome back Mel (haven't we forgiven actors for much worse?).

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths
Country: Australia/USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) on IMDb

Review #1,147: 'War On Everyone' (2016)

Irish-born, London-based writer/director John Michael McDonagh's previous two films, The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014), were jet-black comedies set in his native country, and both featured knockout performances from their lead, Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh's debut features were warmly received by critics, especially Calvary, which played out a rather twisted revenge tale against a backdrop of religious guilt. Neither managed to generate much commercial success, but nevertheless made McDonagh hot property and offered him the chance to work in the U.S., much like his brother Martin after In Bruges. Has John gone the way of his brother and delivered a misfire in the mould of the messy Seven Psychopaths?

Well in a way, yes. More akin to the broad, bad-taste tale of a corrupt, hateful cop on a journey of redemption in The Guard than the contemplative weight of Calvary, War on Everyone moves the action to Albuquerque, New Mexico and replaces Gleeson with the sharply-dressed, acid-tongued duo of Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena as bad cop and badder cop. Skarsgard plays Terry Monroe, an alcoholic, Glen Campbell-loving giant of a man who is prone to violence. Pena is Bob Bolano, an intellectual family man who enjoys philosophical arguments with his wife (Stephanie Sigman) while berating his fat children. They are the worst kind of cops imaginable; both are corrupt beyond belief, taking cuts of every stash or bundle of money they find, and generally fucking up scumbags left right and centre.

McDonagh has great faith in his actors to make these truly despicable characters seemingly defined by their quirks likeable, and it's a testament to the leading men that they actually manage to pull it off. Pena can do this kind of thing in his sleep - he could be playing Hitler and will still charm the pants off anybody watching. The real revelation is Skarsgard, showing a real knack for comic timing after previously being resigned to more stoic roles. Apparently Garret Hedlund pulled out at the last minute, and what a stroke of luck that turned out to be. At almost 6"5 and permanently hunched, Skarsgard often resembles a slow-witted giant come to stomp the place to pieces, instantly banishing all memory of the ripped hunk of The Legend of Tarzan. The duo's chemistry really holds the film together, as the remainder is little more than a mishmash of violence, colourful characters and homages.

Another way to make loathsome characters more sympathetic is by pitting them against someone even more heinous. Here the big villain is English aristocrat James Mangan (Theo James), a narcissistic psychopath whose planned heist with Muslim convert and police informer Reggie X (Malcolm Barrett) ends in a bloodbath. Terry and Bob still want their cut though, but the well-spoken Lord may prove too powerful to intimidate, especially with police chief Gerry Stanton (Paul Reiser) and City Hall breathing down their necks. It's not a particularly interesting story to build a collection of shakedowns, car chases and shoot-outs around, but some relief is offered in the relationship between Terry and former stripper Jackie (Tessa Thompson), who form a sweet romance amidst all the misanthropy. A certain step back after the mastery of Calvary, War on Everyone will offend some but have others in stitches, and I'm somewhere in between.

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Peña, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephanie Sigman, Malcolm Barrett, Paul Reiser
Country: UK

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

War on Everyone (2016) on IMDb


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