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Underwhelming closure to an unexpected cinematic universe
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.
Plays it frustratingly safe
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.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Rarely fails to charm or tug at the heartstrings
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.
Heart-warming nostalgia trip
By the time Transformers: The Last Knight rolled around in 2017, even the most hardcore fans of Michael Bay's Transformers franchise were getting tired of it all. The Last Knight, which was the fifth entry into the series, marked ten years of Bay's butt-numbing, explosion-heavy epics, which substituted the charm of the original 80's television show and toy line for faceless CGI constructs bashing each other to pieces, lame comedy, and an increasingly creepy attitude towards its female actors. Bay teased his departure from the franchise after three movies, but went on to make another two, and it's always been clear that the problem lay with the director's inability to engage the audience on an emotional level and refusal to deliver anything but headache-inducing action and softcore pornography. Eyebrows were raised when Paramount announced that one of its few memorable characters, Bumblebee, would receive his own spin-off. Yet they were significantly relaxed when they learned that Travis Knight, director of the acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings, would helm the project, and not Bay.
Opening with a battle between the Autobots and Decepticons on their home planet of Cybertron, it's immediately apparent that all this universe required was a fresh pair of eyes. Yes, this sequence isn't much more than a computer-generated smackdown between huge alien robots, but at least we can tell them apart. The Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced as ever by Peter Cullen) is leading a resistance against their oppressive foes, but seeing his side are losing badly, Prime sends scout B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth to set up base for their eventual rendezvous. Crashing down in 1987 California, the diminutive Autobot immediately encounters a unit of government soldiers, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), on a routine training exercise, and is met with open hostility. Left grievously wounded after an attack by Decepticon Blitzwing (David Sobolov), B-127 transforms into a Volkswagen Beetle to lay low while awaiting rescue. Meanwhile, teenager and amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), still grieving after the death of her father years ago, finds the rusty banger and decides to repair it as a pet project, hoping to impress junkyard owner Hank (Len Cariou) in the process. But when that final piece slips into place, Charlie finds way more in the piece of junk she names Bumblebee than she was expecting.
While Bay quickly forgot about the fans who loved the cartoons, toys and comic books growing up, Knight eagerly embraces them. Rewinding the timeline back to the 1980s, Knight mixes the inevitable action set-pieces with heartfelt drama, which stems not only from Charlie's relationship with the clumsy yet adorable yellow lunk, but also from her grief and anger that her mother has already moved on. As Bumblebee stumbles around the house trying his best not to break anything, you can't help but think of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. His prat-falls are made funnier because you have grown to love the character, and by evoking such an established 80's classic, Bumblebee engulfs you further in its pure nostalgia trip. Most importantly, there's a sense of fun and playfulness that was lost in the crotch-grabbing and flag-waving of Bay's cinematic haemorrhoids. Charlie and Bumblebee's bonding sessions are sweet and charming, and Steinfeld's performance is undoubtedly key to this. An endearing mix of awkward teenager and highly capable mechanic, Charlie wears vests and listens to The Smiths, and where Bay may have had her in hot pants leaning over a car, Charlie would much prefer to be underneath it. Her character helps paint an even clearer line between this semi-reboot and Bay's parasitic universe, and finally, I'm excited from the next Transformers film again.
Fails to get to the cold heart of its subject
After spending most of his career larking around with Will Ferrell in the likes of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, writer/director Adam McKay took a huge leap towards 'serious' film-making in 2015 when he released The Big Short, a funny, intelligent and unexpectedly engrossing account of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The Big Short may not sound like much fun on paper, but McKay latched onto this idea, making the tedious subject of subprime loans and triple-A ratings interesting by entwining it with pop culture, employing the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to dumb it down for the audience in a manner that was too wickedly clever to ever be patronising. With Academy recognition now under his belt, McKay strides into his next project - a biopic of one of the most fearsome yet enigmatic political figures in U.S. history - with confidence, and dare I say it, a touch of arrogance.
McKay is eager to perform the same trick again with Vice, a sporadically inspired but frustratingly blunt quasi-biography that feels to penetrate the skin of its subject or answer the big question of just what was the driving force behind the man who turned the symbolic position of Vice President into one of great power and influence. Rather than dig deeper, McKay prefers to allow Dick Cheney's actions to speak for themselves, occasionally cutting away to a visual metaphor, such as, in the case of Cheney's key meeting with Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush, a cheetah bringing down its prey. Cheney is a man McKay clearly views as a highly functioning psychopath, tracking his journey from working under Steve Carell's Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon Administration, to his opportunistic lunge for control in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He fought to grant more power to a President he easily manipulated, praying on his short attention span and lack of political know-how, and to legalise torture, finding a massive legal loophole in the shape of Guantanamo Bay.
Vice is structured like a classic coming-of-age movie, with its 'hero' rising and falling, before dusting himself off and getting to his feet to rise again. After President Ford (Bill Camp) is voted out of office, seemingly closing all political doors for Cheney, McKay rolls the credits and pans away from the Cheney household, before an abrupt phone call reminds us that this story has barely begun. Like many of the jokes in Vice, the credit-roll-fake-out is funnier in theory than execution, and the film often takes the trickery so far that it threatens to undermine the seriousness of the subject matter. Satire must be funny, but it must also carry an emotional wallop that McKay struggles to find. At the centre of it all is Christian Bale's powerhouse performance, which explores a man whose obsessiveness could be compared to that of the actor's own extreme approach to his craft. Once again Bale takes his own body to the limit, piling on the pounds to resemble a man who suffered multiple heart attacks throughout his life (it becomes a running gag in the film), and adopting a deep growl capable of subtle intimidation. The performances of Bale, Carrel and Rockwell are all worth the entry fee alone, but Vice stutters to engage on a deeper level, failing to explain just how an oil company CEO can seize control of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and execute his plans with such cold indifference.
Cuaron's best and most personal film to date
You wouldn't know it, but director Alfonso Cuaron has being paying homage to one of the women that helped raise him as a child throughout his career. This woman, Liboria Rodriguez, is clearly close to the filmmaker's heart, and he cast her in cameos in a few of his films, including 2001's Y Tu Mama Tambien. Now, Rodriguez is the topic of her very own film, Roma, Cuaron's ode to the network of women that were key to his upbringing in 1970s Mexico. Of late, Cuaron has mainly focused on big-budget movies for Hollywood, such as last year's Gravity, the riveting thriller Children of Men, and the best Harry Potter film of the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but he has dialled things way down for his latest. Roma is about as small-scale as you can get, focusing on a humble maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City, but complete with the director's trademark dizzying camerawork and gorgeous cinematography.
In a debut appearance, Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, a maid working in an affluent household in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood in Mexico City. The four children are incredibly affectionate towards her, scrambling for a cuddle when they sit down to watch television, and parents Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) clearly rely on her as they get on with their busy lifestyles. But there are cracks starting to appear in the marriage. Antonio squeezes his bulky, show-off car into the narrow garage every night, hinting at the father's growing dismay with his surroundings, and he quickly grows frustrated when Cleo fails to clean up the dog s**t littering the patio. However, as happy and content as she may appear on the surface, Cleo has to deal with her own problems when she falls pregnant to a martial-arts obsessed military type who is nowhere to be found. With her employers' marriage falling apart and a baby on the way, Cleo struggles to juggle attempting to hold the family together for the sake of the children, and the idea of starting life as a single mother.
Trying to summarise the plot of Roma is no easy task. This is a slice of life plucked from Cuaron's own memories, shot in luscious black-and-white that almost feels like remembering the past through an old photograph. Roma is about class, politics and poverty, but mainly it wishes to tell a story of an unseen hero whose stories are rarely told. It's a film of moments that leave a mark despite how inconsequential they appear, very similar to the neo-Realist films of Satyajit Ray and Robert Rossellini, somehow telling a story that feels vast and epic in scale while keeping the focus on an incredibly personal level. Cuaron is a true craftsman, and, with regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki unavailable, actually steps up to the role of cinematographer. This compromise actually worked out in the film's favour, as you couldn't imagine anyone else recreating a time and place from one's childhood with such detail and intimacy. Liboria Rodriguez is clearly a huge inspiration in Cuaron's life, and here the director steps aside to shine the spotlight on her and many other that disappear into the crowd. It was a surprise to learn that Roma would be distributed through Netflix, but after seeing the film, it's hard to believe that any studios would take a gamble on what is essentially a collection of memories played out on screen. But what beautiful memories they are.
Così dolce... così perversa (1969)
Plodding early giallo from Umberto Lenzi
The giallo may have been pioneered by the great Mario Bava and spectacularly refined by Dario Argento, but Umberto Lenzi was developing the techniques and stylings we now know and love from the mid-1960s. Before he became known for schlocky horror trash like Eaten Alive!, Nightmare City and Cannibal Ferox, Lenzi was toying with rich socialites and exploring pulpy, dime-store stories that often involved ridiculous, labyrinthine plots, psychedelic interiors, and beautiful, untrustworthy women. These are all ingredients of the giallo, and some of these early Lenzi efforts hint at a director with an eye for kitschy visuals, something that certainly doesn't come to mind when you watch a native tribesman scalp a poor traveller in the despicable Cannibal Ferox. These eye-catching visuals are certainly present in his 1969 film So Sweet... So Perverse, but there isn't much else to hold the attention in this plodding soap opera.
Handsome, jet-setting socialite Jean Reynaud (Jean-Louis Trintignant) enjoys a lavish lifestyle of cocktail parties and shooting ranges, but he has grown bored and frustrated with the lack of passion in his marriage to the beautiful Danielle (Erika Blanc). To counter this, Jean sleeps with anybody who happens to catch his eye, including his friend Helene (Helga Line), and his head is turned by the woman who has just moved upstairs, Nicole (Carroll Baker). When he hears screams coming from above, he rushes to Nicole's aid, learning that she is stuck in an abusive sexual relationship with her husband Klaus (Horst Frank). As they spend more time together, the couple inevitably fall in love, yet whenever they escape for a weekend, Klaus always manages to track them down. After a night of passion, Nicole reveals that she and Klaus have actually been paid a hefty sum to lure in and eventually kill Jean, but that the one doing the hiring has not yet revealed themselves.
With such a cool-sounding title (yet another famous trait of the gialli), there is nothing sweet and little perverse about the film itself. Argento eventually set a high standard for story-telling and the slow-building of tension within a vital set-piece, and the likes of Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino added gory violence and a graceful style into the mix, but So Sweet... So Perverse is frustratingly tame, failing to ignite much interest in the plot or generate any excitement when events take a more sinister tone. Where Lenzi ultimately excels is in the glossy cinematography and dazzling interiors, which are garish enough to amusingly satirise the world of these detached characters and their materialistic lifestyles. Images of sun-drenched locations, expensive suits and beautiful, provocative women add a sleazy glamour and seductive glaze to the film, a hedonistic way-of-life Lenzi is happy to indulge as he shrewdly condemns it. It isn't quite enough to prevent So Sweet... So Perverse from becoming little more than a curious cinematic artefact, that ultimately paved the way for better directors to come along and take this new genre by the scruff.
Captain Marvel (2019)
Formulaic, certainly, but Marvel knows how to entertain
It says a lot about the mammoth universe built by Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel over the past 11 years that merely the glimpse of a modified pager displaying the colours of their costume is enough to generate a huge amount of buzz around the arrival of a new superhero. Captain Marvel's introduction was teased during the traditional post-credits stinger of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, and now, just under a year later, Brie Larson's Carol Danvers finally makes her bow. Black Panther became a cultural phenomenon, and Infinity War delivered and then some on its promise to bring this breathtaking (first) saga closer to an end, so the small-scale and light-hearted Ant-Man and the Wasp was a welcome, if underwhelming palette cleanser. Captain Marvel is the studio's first female-led superhero film, so there's a weight of expectation behind Marvel once again.
There has been a wave of ugliness online in protest against the idea of female empowerment and Brie Larson's pro-feminist comments before the film even premiered, but an opening weekend of north of $500 million has silenced the haters and, with any hope, brought us closer to a future when a hero's gender or sexuality is irrelevant to a film's success. Captain Marvel is far from perfect. In fact, it relies heavily on Marvel's tried-and-tested origin story formula we saw a lot of when this universe was still in its first phase, although directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck toy around with the structure enough to keep things slightly less familiar. Anyone who was keen to write Captain Marvel off as an example of forced diversity should take the time to actually watch it. Don't get me wrong, the film takes a strong pro-feminist stance and tackles issues plaguing our modern world, but it does so with subtlety. Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel is strong, confident, even arrogant at times, but just like Tony Stark or Dr. Strange, she is also flawed, troubled and - despite the mystery surrounding her ancestry - recognisably human.
The warrior known as Vers (Larson) is a member of Starforce, an elite band of soldiers operating within the Kree Empire tasked with infiltrating the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifting aliens they have been at war with since before they can remember. Vers is troubled by dreams that feel like memories she does not remember, but her commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) trains her to put aside her emotion to focus on the enemy. During a mission to rescue one Starforce's own, Vera is captured by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who proceeds to dissect her memories before they all crash down on a strange, primitive planet. That planet is Earth, and the year is 1995. It isn't long before an eager, two-eyed agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is drawn to this mysterious stranger and is caught up in her desire to uncover the secrets of her past, along with learning of an intergalactic war that may one day threaten his home. With the help of old friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and a cat named Goose, Vers discovers that she was born Carol Danvers, and that everything she has been taught about who she is and what she's fighting for may actually be a lie.
Although Marvel have done period before with Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, Boden and Fleck were clearly having fun revelling in some 90's nostalgia. Although some of the music choices are a little on-the-nose, the appearance of a Blockbuster store and the sound of a dial-up internet connection will delight those, like me, who grew up in the decade. The big joke is that while Carol embarks on galaxy-hopping adventures with the Kree, down here on Earth everything takes an age to load. Captain Marvel switches seamlessly between these two extremes with good humour, and for a character that is destined to become the franchise's next cosmic powerhouse, the low-key approach to her origin actually works in the film's favour. It also allows time for Larson to develop the character, whether it be bouncing off Jackson's one-liners or discovering her old self with her best friend. Larson is great: strong but not over-powered, cocky but endearing. Despite Mendelsohn's scene-stealing, Larson ensures that it'll be Captain Marvel's appearance you'll be eagerly awaiting in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. Formulaic? Certainly, but Marvel knows how to entertain, and they can't exactly re-define the genre with every film.
The Reckoning (1970)
A true forgotten British gem
Indicator are a small British blu-ray label who seem to have made it their ultimate goal to unearth some of the best and weirdest forgotten gems from Britain's cinematic past, routinely releasing titles I've never even heard of that turn out to be well worthy of a remaster and rediscovery. One such title is Jack Gold's The Reckoning, a tough, lean thriller about a no-nonsense businessman who travels up North seeking vengeance. Sound familiar? The Reckoning has been compared to Get Carter, which was released the following year, and the two films certainly share some similarities. Yet tonally and thematically the two are worlds apart, with Gold's film more eager to explore class divide and national identity than Carter's more straightforward revenge fantasy. The Reckoning may also be the better film: a punishing experience full of off-putting characters that leaves more of a lasting impression than what many consider to be Michael Caine's finest hour.
It tells the story of Mick Marler (Nicol Williamson), a corporate ball-buster who has worked his way up the ladder over the years with a combination of ruthless business savvy and sheer intimidation. He seems satisfied with his high income and strong social standing, but also has a button-pushing, gold-digging wife (Ann Bell) to contend with. After putting the pieces in place for a business manoeuvre that will favour both himself and his boss (as well as doing away with his biggest rival), Mick heads up north to Liverpool to visit his working-class Irish family. Immediately upon arrival, he discovers his father has died from a heart attack, but is disturbed when he discovers bruising on his father's body. After doing some digging, Mick learns that his father got into a fight with some English 'teddy boys', suffering the fatal heart attack after being punched and kicked to the ground by one of the gang. With his Irish blood boiling inside of him, Mick decides that he must avenge his father, but he also has responsibilities back home.
Torn between his two worlds, Mick goes on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately makes him even more loathsome. When he is in the South, he laughs at the idea of being bound by blood and tradition to avenge his father, but when he is back North, a beast is awoken inside him, and he is irresistibly drawn to embracing his primitive instincts. It's a tough, ugly film that asks you to stick with this part-thug, part-corporate psychopath for just shy of two hours, but John McGrath's screenplay - based on the novel by Patrick Hall - trusts the audience to at least try to understand the man who breezes between two equally brutal, yet entirely different, worlds. This isn't action-packed or even violent as you would expect from a man-on-a-revenge-mission movie, but takes its time to develop this hateful yet fascinating character who used his working-class upbringing to batter his way into the world of lavish dinner parties and fast cars, and was both intrigued and repulsed by what he found. Williamson is excellent, managing to emote both outer ferocity and inner turmoil at the same time, and it's a puzzle why the actor didn't go on to land bigger roles. While it's chaotic at times, The Reckoning is a true forgotten gem that highlights how important the work carried out by Indicator really is.
A wheezing, sickly bore
After a cameo in Zack Snyder's 2016 car crash Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and a team-up appearance in 2017's equally disastrous Justice League, the time feels right for one of comic-book lore's goofiest superheroes, Aquaman, to receive his own standalone origin story. After all, Jason Momoa's hulking, tattooed fish-whisperer was one of the surprising standouts of DC's flop team-up event, and with the campy orange-and-green costume replaced by a long-hared and shirtless Kiwi Adonis, the character can now be played straight-faced. Wonder Woman proved that DC could produce quality with the right director pulling the strings, and they pulled off a coup with James Wan, a filmmaker whose talents I have long admired despite many of his films missing the mark for me. So it pains me to say that Aquaman is yet another tonally uneven and bloated effort from Warner Bros. that never quite knows if it wants to make you laugh or feel, with a marathon running time which, by the time is gets round to its umpteenth climax, is about as welcome as a fart in a wetsuit.
In 1985, lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) comes across a beautiful woman washed up on the shores of Maine. The woman is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a princess from the underwater nation of Atlantis who has escaped an arranged marriage and a gang of Atalantian stormtroopers. Tom takes her in and the two naturally fall in love, resulting in the birth of the half-Atlantian, half-human Arthur. When her enemies come calling, Atlanna must return to the ocean, leaving Tom to bring up young Arthur on his own. The baby grows up to be the beer-swilling gym-devotee we saw in Justice League, but there is trouble a-brewin' down in the depths. Arthur's half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite the kingdoms of Atlantis and wage war on the surface, who have been polluting their home for decades. But Orm knows that he will never be accepted as the true leader while Arthur, who has no desire to take the throne, is still alive. Mera (Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), comes to warn Arthur, but they don't stand a chance against the might of Atlantis without the Trident of Atlan, a magical weapon buried somewhere in the Sahara desert.
Aquaman certainly isn't short of ideas; the problem is that Wan doesn't quite know how to cram them all in. We are taken across continents on land and to multiple kingdoms under the water. With a desire to capture the adventurous magic of Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, the film actually trips over its own ambition, squeezing in side characters such as Atlantean Mr. Miyagi Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and the fearsome pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), as well as a variety of underwater races we are expected to remember and littering the story with clunky CGI smackdowns. Wan crafts a colourful, vivid world, full of giant sea-horses and advanced technology, but it shares more in common with the weightless. computer-generated locations of The Phantom Menace than the tangible flamboyance of Black Panther's Wakanda. Yet all of this could be considered a mere niggle had the leads been up to the task, but Momoa and Heard have all the chemistry of two strangers making awkward small-talk in a lift. Momoa is an impressive specimen and possesses the charisma to bring this character to life (see Justice League), but here he is denied a moment to have that quiet moment of reflection or to reveal the flaws to his character that would help make him interesting. A wheezing, confused and sickly bore.
Creed II (2018)
Surprisingly emotional, exciting and joyous
One of the many surprise pleasures of Ryan Coogler's Creed was not only its ability to find much life in what was a tired, decades-sprawling franchise, but the way it managed to add emotional weight to the events of Rocky IV, a crowd-pleasing fan-favourite that remains the cheesiest and most ridiculous entry into the series to date. While the death of Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed was shocking and unexpected, it was followed by an air-punching victory for the Italian Stallion underdog during which he also won the Cold War for the U.S., all backed to the most 80s of soundtracks. By following the early career of one of Apollo's illegitimate children Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Creed added an unexpected gravity to the consequences of the former's reckless lifestyle, mixing family tragedy into what was otherwise a traditional sports movie.
With Adonis now having dealt with his personal demons over his father's neglect and untimely death, Steven Caple Jr.'s follow-up Creed II faces its own battle in keeping the young fighter's story interesting, as well as delivering an exciting boxing movie without bowing down to cliches. Having lost the fight but won the night at the climax of the previous film, Adonis has gone on to win the Heavyweight Championship and achieve global stardom with trusted old dog Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at his side. He proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is concerned that her own hearing loss may be passed down to their unborn child, and with few fighters talented enough to pose Adonis a real threat, he agonises over building a legacy worthy of his father and trainer. Ripples start to appear in his close relationships and personal drive, which only work against him when a figure from Rocky's past re-emerges with a challenge that could not only lose Creed the title, but end his career entirely.
That man is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who over the years has worked tirelessly to mould his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) into one of the most most formidable bruisers on the planet. The film begins with them exiled in Ukraine after the embarrassment of Ivan's defeat in Rocky IV, and their relationship is actually the film's most interesting aspect. Ivan hopes that by making his son the world champion his country will welcome him back, but their bond is fractured and strained as a result. It's a thread that should have been explored in more depth, since it's infinitely more interesting than Adonis awkwardly practising his proposal speech. But the melodrama is backed up with a lot of heart, and Stallone's Balboa is again the thread that ties it all together. Dealing with his own family issues on top of dreading the thought of watching another Creed die in his prime at the hands of a Drago, Stallone is magnificent, capable of delivering chills as his voice is heard for the first time off-camera. It's a step down from the electricity of Creed, but it was always going to be. For what is essentially a remake of Rocky IV, the fact that Creed II manages to be emotional, exciting and joyous despite embracing genre cliches is a monumental achievement in itself.
Four Rooms (1995)
One of the biggest disappointments of the 90s
The early 1990s saw a rise in independent film-making that gave a voice to the wannabe auteurs and allowed them to handpick their own posse of preferred actors. This movement was spearheaded by the likes of Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, and backed by disgraced scumbag Harvey Weinstein. Fresh off the huge success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino was becoming a household name, and his unique brand of motor-mouthed, pop-culture-heavy dialogue and extreme violence was striking a chord with moviegoers both young and old. He took this unexpected fame and influence and used it unite a group of indie up-and-comers - Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodruguez - for an offbeat anthology film about a young bellhop named Ted (Tim Roth) and his encounters with the various oddballs staying at his hotel.
The result was Four Rooms, and there's a reason Tarantino chooses to forget his own segment behind the camera when his trailers announce the new film as the nth of his career. It begins promisingly with a quirky animated intro that sets the goofy, unpredictable tone of the film, before diving into a collection of stories that appear to have been dreamt up in between bong hits. One thing Four Rooms has going for it is that the short films improve as we progress, but even Tarantino's final section reeks of narcissism and smugness. Anders' first story, about a coven of witches (including Ione Skye, Madonna, Alicia Witt, Lili Taylor, Sammi Davis and Valeria Golino) attempting to resurrect a goddess, may have worked for an episode of Charmed, but falls flat as the opener of what is supposed to be a collaboration between some of cinema's most exciting maverick filmmakers. Rockwell's short plonks Ted in the middle of psycho-sexual game between married couple Sigfried (David Proval) and Angela (Jennifer Beals).
The first two segments may have raised a titter if the writers didn't have such a tin ear for comedy and had a lead actor with a natural gift for over-the-top comedy. I love Tim Roth and he has had many great roles, but his twitching, shrieking Ted belongs in a cartoon. Rodriguez and Tarantino's efforts fare better because they rely less on Roth's prat-falls and more on their own self-indulgences. The performance of Antonio Banderas as a ridiculously posturing father who leaves his children under Ted's protection is a particular highlight from the third story, as the children naturally decide to make Ted's night a living Hell. Tarantino's climactic entry is full of memorable dialogue and pop culture insights, but the director, who also plays the main role, fails to inject much life into what is otherwise a plodding re-hash of his favourite episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Anthology films are always hit-and-miss, but Four Rooms fails to register a single hit. What was supposed to be a triumphant coming-together of a new wave of hip filmmakers is instead a limp and uneven slog through a tide of bad comedy and even worse ideas. One of the biggest disappointments of the 90s.
Too concerned with moving the chess pieces into place to deliver a coherent story
Aside from Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (the less said about his more recent adaptation of The Hobbit, the better), no cinematic journey into the realms of the fantastical has captured the imagination of audiences in recent years quite as much as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, a cash-making juggernaut for both Warner Bros. and the author herself. When the franchise came to a conclusion in 2011, it was never going to be away from our screens for very long, and the 'Wizarding World' universe was expanded in 2016 with the surprisingly charming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Like Harry Potter, Beasts managed to find a nice balance between wand-swishing set-pieces, enduring us to a new set of compelling characters, and building a tangible new world for it all to take place in. And with Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander - a shy and awkward David Attenborough type - at the centre of it all, the pieces were in place for an engrossing - and different - saga to get out teeth into.
The delicate balance found by Rowling and director David Yates the first time around is sadly nowhere to be found in this follow-up, The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is part two of a five-part story, so introductions are brushed aside in favour of plot, plot and some more plot. The first hour is taken up by bringing this new group of characters back into the fold, finding Newt grounded by the Ministry of Magic following his shenanigans last time around, just as a new threat rears its ugly face in the form of Johnny Depp's muggle-hating Grindelwald. The bad wizard is searching for the troubled Credence (Ezra Miller), who has emerged in Paris with a circus performer called Nagini (Clauia Kim), but Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is already on the case. It seems as though everybody is searching for Credence. Even the young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who is mysteriously reluctant to face his old friend-gone-bad himself, tries to convince Newt to go to Paris in his stead. Muggle Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is also back with his memory mainly in tact, as is his girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is struggling to deal with a Ministry ban on Wizard-Muggle relationships.
The Crimes of Grindelwald throws everything it can into the mix: a rain-soaked battle in the air, Newt caught up in no less than three romantic entanglements, a detour to Hogwarts, and more name-drops and Easter eggs than you can shake a stick at. It's an unfathomable wall of information, punctured by an occasional set-piece that only truly come to life when the titular (and frustratingly sidelined) beasts are involved. The Harry Potter films dodged this bullet by allowing the audience to grow into this world, and often grow up with the characters, but Fantastic Beasts goes all out without really justifying its flagrant disregard for coherency, or earning the right to take such an approach. Although he is often pushed out of the spotlight by the many side-plots occurring, Redmayne just about holds it all together with another endearingly twitchy performance, and Law, who combines some of Michael Gambon mannerisms with a more youthful swagger, proves to be a shrewd bit of casting. Ultimately, this follow-up is too busy moving the chess pieces into place to focus on character, and many are pushed into the background as a result. There are great revelations, but after two hours of trying to keep up with who's who and what's what, they don't have much impact. It isn't enough to derail the series completely, but I'll have a hard time remembering where the hell we are by the time the third entry rolls around.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Fun and creative, but struggles to find its heart amidst the chaos
While 2012's Wreck-It Ralph is far from Pixar's most accomplished achievement, it was a fun tale of friendship and nostalgia as our two lovable heroes romped their way through a variety of games, both modern and retro. Despite the appeal of its characters, the ending hardly cried out for a sequel, but the world created by Rich Moore and his team of animators offered endless possibilities with which the story could be taken. With demand for 80's and 90's nostalgia at an all-time high, you have to wonder why a sequel took a whole six years to arrive. While one of the main appeals of Wreck-It Ralph was seeing a bunch of familiar characters from your childhood weaved into the story and placed into everyday situations, this follow-up takes Ralph and best pal Vanellope out of their pixelated comfort-zone and into a brave new world of pop-up ads and nightmarish comment sections.
Six years have also passed for arcade-game villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) and glitchy Sugar Rush racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who both enjoy a routine-based life of doing their video game duty by day and knocking back root beers together at night. But while Ralph finds comfort in familiarity, Vanellope longs for something different. In an attempt to cheer up his best friend, Ralph creates a special new track in Sugar Rush, but the stunt backfires when the steering-wheel breaks in the real world and Vanellope is left without a game. However, the shiny new arrival at Litwak's Family Fun Centre and Arcade - the internet - may offer a glimmer of hope in the form of eBay, where one user has a replacement steering-wheel up for auction. So, the two friends venture into this digital metropolis of corporate logos and dead-eyed avatars to buy the part, only they don't have any money to back up their winning bid.
Of course, there's always money to be made on the internet if you know how, and with the help of Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the algorithm at video site BuzzzTube, Ralph racks up the likes and hearts by becoming a viral sensation. Vanellope's friendship with Ralph is tested when she discovers dangerous open-world racing game Slaughter Race and finds a like-minded friend in bad-ass racer Shank (Gal Gadot). There's a message about the dangers of toxic friendships in there somewhere, but the sweet relationship developed more carefully the first time around is often drowned out by the sheer noise of this online world. There are many great ideas here, such as Alan Tudyk's KnowsMore, an search engine who is always over-eager to predict what you're going to say, and Bill Hader's J.P. Spamley, a click-bait pop-up ad who acts like a desperate, down-on-his-luck salesman. A detour into a Disney fan-site initially reeks of self-promotion, but the company sends itself up rather well, conjuring up an inspired moment involving the entire roster of Disney princesses. Ralph Breaks the Internet is fun and packed with creativity, but struggles to find its heart amidst all the eye-catching chaos.
Pánico en el Transiberiano (1972)
With a cast list boasting the names of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and a claustrophobic setting aboard a high-speed train, it would be easy to assume that Horror Express is another low-budget gothic effort from Hammer, or perhaps a portmanteau effort from Amicus. It is neither, and is in fact a joint Spanish and UK production made at a time when gothic horror was falling out of favour with audiences, who were being treated to more graphic, socially-aware films such as Night of the Living Dead, and psychological horrors from the US. Helmed on a measly budget by Spanish director Eugenio Martin (so low-budget that the shadow of the camera and cameraman is clearly present in the very first shot), Horror Express actually deserves more attention. It may not be particularly original, but it's shockingly entertaining, utterly bonkers, and provides an interesting sci-fi twist to a familiar genre piece.
Stuffy British anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) discovers the mummified remains of what appears to be a primitive human in a Manchurian cave. With hopes of this find-of-the-century providing some insight on the missing link in human evolution, Saxton packs the body into a wooden crate and hops onto the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow. Before boarding the train however, a Chinese thief attempts to pick the crate's lock, and is found dead just moments later with his eyes completely white. The discovery also catches the eye of Saxton's friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), who pays a baggage handler to cut a hole in the box so he can sneak a peek. The porter is too found dead soon after, and the crate empty. With the beast now loose aboard a moving train, it isn't long until the bodies start to pile up. Saxton and Wells are on the case, but the commotion also catches the attention of Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena), Polish countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa) and crazy Orthodox monk Father Pujardov (Robert DeNiro lookalike Alberto de Mendoza).
It's a strange but enticing mixture of Agatha Christie and The Thing from Another World. The discovery that their foe is actually a body-hopping alien capable of devouring memories and knowledge with each kill allows for some whodunnit fun to be had in between the many gory moments, and gives the film a strange sci-fi kick that, while completely ridiculous, adds something different to an otherwise straight-forward monster flick. The special effects have also aged rather well. It isn't scary, but the sight of corpses frozen in shock with their eyes rolled to the back of their heads makes for a rather creepy sight, and graphic scenes of surgical procedures means that Martin's picture has a welcome nasty edge that helps it to distance itself from Hammer's campier gore. You can pick the film apart, but Horror Express is simply outrageously entertaining and never lets up. Once the horror starts, each scene seems to want to double-down on what came before, even introducing Telly Savalas late on as an intimidating, vodka-swilling Cossack officer named Captain Kazan. A must-see for any fans of European horror from the Lee/Cushing era.
Struggles to find the perfect balance
Whenever a director needs to lend a computer-generated character a much-needed dramatic weight and dimension, Andy Serkis is all but guaranteed to be at the top of anybody's list. The actor took the breath away as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and again as the magnetic Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy. So it makes perfect sense that his directorial debut would be motion-capture heavy, with the master himself playing one of the CGI characters. Adapting Rudyard Kipling's novel The Jungle Book has long been a passion project for Serkis, and the film, which was originally entitled Jungle Book: Origins, was scheduled for a 2016 release and set to compete against Disney's own remake of their 1967 classic. To allow more time to work on the special effects, the release date was pushed back to 2017, and then to 2018. As Warner Bros. seemingly became concerned at the idea of a potential box-office bomb, the distribution rights were eventually sold to Netflix.
This transition to the small screen works both for and against Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Although he has voiced his delight at Netflix acquiring his film, it's difficult to believe that Serkis wasn't disappointed that such a personal project wouldn't be seen on the big screen. On the other hand, this has allowed for a much darker tone, and thus bringing it closer to Kipling's original text, without any concern for classification. It's a 12A on Netflix, but I feel the censors may have requested some cuts for a cinema release, and probably rightfully so. This doesn't feature any song-and-dance numbers or King Louie, and the once-cuddly Baloo the sloth bear is now a scarred brute with a Cockney accent. The story is familiar enough, with an orphan boy being left to die in the jungle before being carried to safety by the wise black panther Bageera (voiced by Christian Bale). A wolf pack takes him in, and the boy grows up to be Mowgli (Rohan Chand), only the wolves are never quite convinced of his importance and the man-cub struggles to find his place.
All is relatively happy until the fearsome, man-killing Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives to kill Mowgli, who he feels threatens the very jungle itself. Cumberbatch is far more terrifying than Idris Elba's incarnation, and the effects work is rather astonishing. This level of quality is not maintained however, as for every jaw-dropping close-up of Bageera's face, there is a wolf that looks bizarrely unfinished. And this unevenness runs throughout the film, not only with the special effects, but also with the tone. Serkis' attempt to deliver a different take on the story is admirable and warranted, but the darkness occasionally veers into outright horror. The climax of the film is shockingly brutal when compared to the lighter moments before, and the fate of one of Mowgli's close friends is one of the most disturbing things I've seen for a very a long time. It's undeniably jarring, and will likely scar any unsuspecting children watching for life. While Serkis may struggle to find the perfect balance, it's a bold piece of work by a thoroughly underappreciated actor that at least strives to grasp the deeper themes within the story.
Bird Box (2018)
A missed opportunity
Perhaps it's because the dystopian survival horror has been done to death of late, or maybe it's because John Krasinski's vastly superior and similarly themed A Quiet Place is still fresh in the mind, but there's something strangely hollow about Netflix's latest smash-hit and water-cooler conversation starter. Bird Box became the inspiration for a series of dangerous YouTube stunts that resulted in the social media platform issuing a warning to anyone thinking about taking part in the 'Bird Box Challenge', but sadly, given the film's potential, this is perhaps all it will be remembered for in the years to come. All the pieces are in place for a tense 90 minutes, but Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier's film plays out over a mostly dull 2-and-a-bit hours, with little more than two memorable set-pieces and a strong central performance from Sandra Bullock to hold it all together.
Like an uneasy blend A Quiet Place and The Happening, the planet has been overrun by a mysterious force that causes people to go insane and commit suicide. While the family of Krasinski's memorable horror were forbidden to make any sounds, the players in Bird Box aren't permitted to see. Just one glance at the unknown creatures stalking the streets will cause their eyes to turn a murky purple and instantly seek a way of ending their own life, and when we first meet Malorie (Bullock), she is about to embark on a dangerous journey down river with two children in the hope of locating a sanctuary they heard about over a walkie-talkie. Flash back five years, and the pregnant Malorie witnesses the collapse of society first-hand, as a routine car ride back from the hospital turns into a mindless bloodbath. She escapes into the home of shouty misanthrope Douglas (John Malkovich), and is forced to hole up with a bunch of genre archetypes (played by Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, BD Wong and Lil Rel Howery, amongst others).
With the doors locked and the windows covered up, it seems like Malorie and her new friends have it made. But for reasons never entirely explained, the creatures don't drive everybody to suicide. If you're crazy, you are instead driven to expose those lucky enough to be hiding out to the mysterious force. It might be an attempt to keep things cryptic, or it may be sheer laziness, but the rules of the game remain frustratingly unexplained. These creatures - who we never see - sometimes announce their presence with a gust of wind, and sometimes not. One person infected will immediately jump out of a window, but another will take minutes to turn, allowing them time to say something meaningful before they croak. The monsters clearly possess the power to move objects, so why don't they at least try to enter homes? We are left to fit the pieces together ourselves, but very little adds up. The likes of Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13 sustained a bristly atmosphere by making us care about the characters, but reliable actors like Rhodes and Malkovich are never allowed to be anything more than 'love interest' or 'annoying right-wing nut'. It isn't all bad - one set-piece involving a short car ride to get supplies with only a SatNav computer screen to guide them is wrought with tension - but in the wake of A Quiet Place, which understood the mechanics behind what makes an effective survival horror, Bird Box feels like a missed opportunity.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Could you live with murder on your soul?
Say what you will about the rapidly decreasing quality of Woody Allen's work of late, or about the writer/director/actor's character in the wake of the recent horrific allegations made against him, but look back at his filmography and there's a wealth of brilliance to be found. As he became a household name thanks to some of the most hilarious comedies of the 1970s, Allen moved away from playing the clown and into more serious territory. The comedy was still there, but as a fan of Ingmar Bergman and Marcel Ophuls, he was always eager to explore the darkness rooted in our souls. One of his most sobering works is also one of his best. Released in 1989, Crimes and Misdemeanors asked the question posed by many a philosopher: Can you live with yourself after committing a murder or will the shame gradually eat away your soul?
The man at the centre of the story, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), seems to have it all. He's a respected doctor with a loving family and a group of adoring friends, and the film opens with a lavish dinner held in his honour. On the surface, Judah is a happily married man, but he holds a dark secret. Over the past few months, he has indulged in an affair with flight attendant Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), enjoying short breaks away and taking long walks on the beach. Only now Dolores is threatening to reveal his secret, sending a letter to Judah's wife which he manages to intercept at the last minute, and calling from the gas station down the road with ideas of turning up at the family's door. When she refuses to listen to Judah's pleas, the doctor turns to his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who has connections to the mob, for help. Jack has a simple answer: He will hire someone to murder Dolores and Judah won't have to lift a finger.
While all of this is going on, struggling documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen) is thrown a gig by his brother-in-law - the obnoxious, self-obsessed sitcom writer Lester (Alan Alda) - and meets cute associate producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow) on the job. Unhappy in his own marriage, Cliff can't help but fall in love, but Lester has her in his sights also. It took me a while to figure out why these two seemingly unconnected stories were unravelling side-by-side, but it soon becomes clear that this is a film about the absurdity of guilt. Judah and Jack had it drilled into them from a young age by their rabbi father, but now they appear to be literally getting away with murder. Cliff may want to cheat on his berating wife, but he is ultimately a 'good' guy, yet life doesn't seem to want to throw him any luck. There's also a key character in Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who still maintains a lust for life despite his deteriorating eyesight. It plays like a thriller, but it's also very funny. There's a depressing theme constantly at play, but Allen ensures that the story remains insightful, engrossing and occasionally heartbreaking. One of Allen's shrewdest and most humanistic pictures to date, assisted by a flawless ensemble.
Effortlessly deconstructs the heist movie to jaw-dropping effect
When 12 Years a Slave took home the Best Picture Academy Award back in 2013, many of us expected director Steve McQueen to go even bigger and more ambitious with his next project. After all, his previous films Hunger and Shame were hardly lacking in scope and weight. It's taken five years to finally arrive, but McQueen's new film Widows, adapted from the 1983 ITV drama series of the same name, takes his work into a whole new territory: the genre movie. Yes, Widows seemingly follows the traditions of the great heist movies of old, with Michael Mann's Thief and Heat coming immediately to mind, taking a crack team and handing them a near-impossible task which they must plan with expert precision if they ever hope to pull it off. It would seem that, on paper at least, McQueen has taken it down a notch, but by taking on such a familiar story, the writer/director has given himself an even greater task.
Widows opens with the immediate aftermath of a heist gone awry. We watch from inside a speeding van as the wounded gang make their getaway, with their gun-toting victims and the police giving chase. The twist is that they all perish in a warehouse explosion, with the stolen $2 million going up in flames with them. The gang's widows are the ones left feeling the aftershocks: not only are they left grieving for their husbands, but the guy they stole from - alderman campaigner and community leader Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) - wants his money back. Veronica (Viola Davis) takes the reigns when she finds her husband's notebook, which contains a detailed plan for a heist worth $5 million. Two of the other widows - Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodrgiguez) - have their own financial problems, so they agree to take on the job when Veronica comes a-knocking. They really have no choice. It's either find the money, or Jamal's psychopathic brother Jatemme (a frightening Daniel Kaluuya) will kill them and take everything they own anyway.
McQueen's task here is to deconstruct a slice of popcorn cinema and add the kind of punch and social commentary that made his previous work so great. He does so effortlessly, carefully developing each of the leads and making their story believable, later drafting in a fourth member in the form of Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a single mother working multiple jobs to pay the rent. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) keep the action fast-paced and brutal, so the 130-minute running time breezes by. If there's a complaint to be had, it's that the film is too short and often feels crammed with too many characters and side-stories. Thrown into the mix is Jamal's campaign opposition Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who has had past dealings with Veronica's husband Harry (Liam Neeson) but has come to the realisation that the political manoeuvring of his elderly father (Robert Duvall) is no longer feasible. Like the series it was based on, Widows may have worked better unravelling over the course of a few episodes. But this may have prevented McQueen from reminding us why he is one of the most important directors working today, as he takes the time to deliver a jaw-dropping shot from the side of a car that shows how quickly a city landscape can shift from dire poverty to luxurious wealth, and a run-in with some trigger-happy police that will remain with you long after the credits have rolled.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Bohemian Rhapsody started out life way back in 2010, with Sacha Baron Cohen set to star as Queen's hypnotic frontman Freddie Mercury. With band members Brian May and Roger Taylor heavily involved in the development, Baron Cohen eventually left, citing creative differences with the way they wished to approach the story as the main reason for his departure. The years went by, and in 2017, the wheels were well and truly in motion with Bryan Singer in the director's chair and Rami Malek in the lead role. The production was famously dogged with problems, and when Singer was eventually fired for unprofessional behaviour (reports say he was frequently disruptive on set, even failing to turn up for three days straight), it felt like the film would never see the light of day. But Dexter Fletcher filled the vacant director's chair and Bohemian Rhapsody was released to huge box-office numbers, and recently received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor, amongst others.
Remarkably, despite the film's difficult production, there's no sign of patchwork or a clash of directorial styles. Bohemian Rhapsody actually has much greater problems, and while anybody looking for an easily-digestible Queen sing-a-long with find much to love here, anybody hoping for a deeper re-telling of one of the music's most enigmatic figures with likely be baffled at the film's eagerness to share the credit and Wikipedia-entry approach to story-telling. We briefly get to see Mercury before he took to the stage, working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow while his parents worry about his lack of academic ambition. His experience as a young immigrant is summarised by a single racial slur, and the film isn't too concerned with exploring this any further. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who wrote last year's similarly formulaic Oscar-baiter Darkest Hour) felt like this would be too much of a drag for the audience, so he quickly moves to Mercury introducing himself to Smile guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), coincidentally mere seconds after the band loses its lead singer.
A few montages later and the band now known as Queen (bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) completes the group) are signed up by manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and land a contract with EMI Records. The characters act and talk like they already know how the story turns out, and the film only manages to scratch beneath the surface when dealing with Mercury's relationship with love-of-his-life Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and her gradual realisation of his sexuality. The rest consists of band squabbles that always seem to conclude with the writing of a hit song, rock movie cliches like the alcohol-fuelled parties and accelerating ego, and cartoon supporting characters (Mike Myers' meta appearance as EMI executive Ray Foster spectacularly misses the mark). By aiming for 12A/PG-13 certificate, Mercury's story is oddly sexless. For a man that radiated sex and sexiness with every air-punch and pout, the lack of raunchiness adds an unwelcome TV-movie quality. It only really comes alive when Malik is allowed to do his thing on stage, climaxing with an extended Live Aid performance that will have you singing along and waving your arms. It's a great impression by Malik, if hardly a great performance, and it helps reminds us of how great Queen really were and how timeless their sound is. Bohemian Rhapsody has certainly made me a bigger Queen fan, but this isn't the biopic the band deserve. That being said, I haven't come across a single person that agrees with me, so what do I know
Humanoids from the Deep (1980)
Feels like two movies spliced into one
B-movie super producer Roger Corman has been called a lot of things over the years, usually by those opposed to his special brand of gore-and-boobs exploitation which was specifically designed to get those teenage behinds in seats and the profit margin tilted just enough in his favour for the next low-budget project. But say what you will about Corman - who is still active in the business at the age of 96 - the guy certainly knew what he was doing. Having viewed an early cut of Barbara Peeters' Monster (Humanoids from the Deep), he felt that it was fat too tame to compete in a marketplace that was beginning to be dominated by slasher flicks, so brought in another director to add more sex and violence. The result is now a cult classic, but also one that feels like two films awkwardly spliced together into one.
In the small fishing village of Noyo, the salmon are disappearing from the waters and tensions are mounting between the local fishermen and the Native American community. The arrival of a canning corporation sees the tension increase even further, as the Natives will lose their fishing rights should the cannery open. Tasked with keeping the peace is Sheriff Jim Hill (Doug McClure), who can see the argument from both sides but sees his patience tested by angry fisherman Hank Slattery (Vic Morrow). The answer to everybody's problems appears to arrive in the form of Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), a beautiful biologist who announces that, through the magic of genetic engineering, the local waters will not only be replenished with more salmon than ever before, but they will be bigger, faster and tastier. As it turns out, the lack of salmon in the water is the least of the sheriff's problems. After a fishing boat mysteriously explodes, dogs turn up dead and mangled, and the local women start being sexually harassed by slimy green humanoids from the deep.
With slasher movies rapidly becoming teenagers' preferred choice in the drive-ins and fleapit cinemas usually targeted by B-movie producers, Corman turned to a variety of genre classics for inspiration. The obvious inspiration is Creature from the Black Lagoon, but you can also see Jaws, Alien, Corman's own Attack of the Crab Monsters and even It's Alive in there, and this mixture of old and contemporary lends further to this feeling that you are watching multiple films at the same time. Monster can never really decide if its a town-in-peril drama with an environmental message, or a straight-forward rubber-suited-monsters-attack-scantily-clad-teenagers horror picture. Much of the movie moves at a slow pace, setting up a narrative that ultimately proves inconsequential when the deliriously over-the-top climax arrives and the town is set upon by a small army of the rapey creatures. Admittedly, the climax is a hell of a lot of fun, but it comes so later that it fails to make up for haphazard storytelling that came before. A special mention must go to the monster costumes which, although clearly men in suits, are suitably repulsive, if far from scary.
White Boy Rick (2018)
A blur of competing plot threads held together by some terrific performances
If you've ever read up on Richard Wershe Jr, the drug kingpin whose life became the stuff of legend in the prion system over the years, you'll likely be aware that he was used as an FBI informant at just 14 years of age, while the Bureau funded his empire to keep him slinging on the streets and in the loop with any other criminal activity happening in his city of Detroit. After the FBI higher-ups discovered his age, they ditched him, and the dealer known as 'White Boy Rick' was eventually busted for selling cocaine and sentence to life in prison, a ridiculous sentence handed out via some Draconian law that has since been discarded. It's a fascinating, frustrating story that you wouldn't believe if it wasn't true, but Yann Demange's new film White Boy Rick doesn't quite know how to tell it. With so much to be told, the film seems to cast aside the central plot in favour of a domestic drama which, although terrifically acted by the whole cast, doesn't know where its priorities should lie.
We first meet the young Rick (Richie Merritt) at a gun show with his father Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey). Despite his baby face and bum-fluff upper-lip hair, Rick is confident and street-smart, teaming up with Old Man Wershe to hustle a salesman into selling two machine guns for a ridiculously knocked-down price. Rick Sr. deals guns for a living, but the business is far from prosperous, and he dreams of someday owning a video store and living within the law. His daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) has picked up a nasty drug habit, and the family-of-three regularly have shouting matches in the street. Luckily, Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and Grandma (Piper Laurie) are just down the street to lighten the mood. After pulling off a few arms deals with gangster 'Lil Man' Curry (Jonathan Majors), Rick Jr. works his way into the cocaine business under the wing of an African-American gang. It doesn't take him long to get busted, but FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane), along with Detroit PD Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry), are quick to pounce, handing the juvenile a fat pouch of cocaine to keep him in action, promising protection in exchange for information.
It's around this point that the script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miler starts to lose control, struggling to grasp the message it's trying to convey in a blur of competing plot threads. The family drama at the very centre of Rick's life is given the most attention, and it's engrossing, often devastatingly raw stuff. Powley and McConaughey are standouts, the former wrestling with an addiction spiralling rapidly out of control and the latter blaming himself for the path his son has decided to take. Rick Sr. hates drugs because they devastate lives, yet his guns are used for multiple murders across the city. The domestic scenes are so well done that you almost forget there's another story being told, one that is setting Rick up for a lengthy term in slammer. So when these moments arrive, you never really understand what's going on.
Why exactly would the FBI put so much trust in a 14 year-old relatively new to the drugs scene, and just what does White Boy Rick do on a day-to-day basis? We don't really see him selling drugs, or spending money, or setting up contacts, or building this so-called empire, so Rick's real status and influence remains a mystery. Even his occasional meetings with Snyder and Bird are brief and bereft of information. Demange wants to make the point that Rick was ultimately set up by a government willing to ruthlessly exploit a minor for their own benefit, yet with so little time developing his criminal activities and relationship with the authorities, this aspect almost feels like an afterthought. As a portrait of family dysfunction, White Boy Rick excels, but if you want to really learn about how Richard Wershe Jr went from bread-line gun-runner to FBI informant to a landing a brutally unfair life sentence, I would opt for a Google.
Eye of the Needle (1981)
Doesn't do quite enough to stand out in the plethora of spy movies from the same era
Ken Follett's novel Eye of the Needle was a huge hit for the Welsh author when it was first published in 1978, mixing spy thrills and an unlikely romance as the Allies were preparing for D-Day during World War II. The film adaptation, which followed just three years later, simplifies Follet's text to fit a more comfortable three-act structure, and to deliver a more exciting thriller to audiences who were, at the time, being hit with spy movies left, right and centre. Eye of the Needle isn't your typical adventure yarn however, placing a dead-eyed Nazi spy at the centre of the story and throwing him into the arms of a lonely wife. The result is a thrilling, if often contrived film that is happy to toss logic out of the window as long as it offers the chance for another tense stand-off. The plot eventually lays the outcome of the entire war at the feet of the two leads alone on a remote Scottish island, and somehow gets away with it.
It's London, 1940, and an easy-going Brit named Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland) chats with a friend as young men around them head off to war. Nobody yet knows it, but this charming Englishman poses a greater threat to the Allies' war effort than any enemy overseas, as he is actually Heinrich Faber, a Nazi spy known as 'the Needle' who is transmitting information back to his superiors in the Fatherland. When his nice old landlady accidentally catches him speaking German into a radio, Faber brutally stabs her in the belly with a stiletto, the weapon of choice that earned him his nickname. Fast forward four years later, and British Intelligence are finally on to him, and must track him down before he reveals their country's biggest secret to the enemy. Faber has obtained photographs of an airfield full of fake plywood planes, designed to convince Hitler and his spies that the invasion will arrive in Calais, and not the beaches of Normandy, giving the Nazis a chance to end the war swiftly and brutally. However, on his journey back home, Faber's boat is smashed onto the rocks by high wind, washing him up on the nearby Storm Island, which has a population of 4.
The early scenes are juxtaposed with the happy wedding of Lucy (Kate Nelligan) and David (Christopher Cazenove), a young couple whose special day comes to an abrupt end when they crash their car on the way to their honeymoon. The accident results in David having his legs amputated, causing him to grow bitter and angry, choosing to spend most nights getting drunk with the alcoholic lighthouse keeper as his wife looks after their son and longs for affection. It's here that the two stories meet, with Faber washing up on the island and playing the role of mysterious stranger. There's an erotic scene between Faber and Lucy that is now dated and rather awkward, but mostly their dangerous romance is developed with care. They are stripped down as two lost souls both physically and mentally trapped, and the two leads are terrific. Faber is still dedicated to the cause however, and, as he coldly dispatches anyone that stands in his way, director Richard Marquand never lets us forget his evil nature. Yet the way the plot is forced into place to allow these strangers to cross paths is clunky to say the least. It seems strange that Faber couldn't simply radio the information back to Germany before he sets out to deliver the physical evidence, and seemingly clever characters do incredibly stupid things to allow themselves to be stuck with the needle. It's worth seeing for the fantastic central performances and the down-and-dirty atmosphere, but Eye of the Needle doesn't do quite enough to stand out in the plethora of spy movies from the same era.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
More of a nightmare you can't wake up from than a child's adventure
Long before animation pioneer Walt Disney wowed the cinema-going world with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - one of the first feature-length animated films ever made - in 1937, the innovator was long dreaming of adapting Lewis Carroll's books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its follow-up Through the Looking Glass. He made a short adaptation called Alice's Wonderland, which mixed live-action and animation, for the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in 1923, but never let go of the idea after the studio went bankrupt and he left for Hollywood. Disney's dream wouldn't be fully realised until 14 years after Snow White, when Alice in Wonderland was finally unveiled in 1951. The film flopped upon release, with audiences failing to be seduced by the many colourful yet incredibly weird characters on show, but through television screenings and subsequent revivals, Alice is now an established classic amongst Disney's animated classics.
As her sister reads under a tree, the young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) dreams of adventure, choosing to explore her own imagination rather than the tales told in books. As she sings by a riverbank, she spots a white rabbit (Bill Thompson) carrying a huge pocket watch. The White Rabbit is late for an important meeting and dashes off into a large rabbit hole. Ever curious, Alice follows him, eventually entering a world in which logic has no place, everything is backward, and everybody is ever so slightly mad. Her adventure into this strange new world leads her to the rather frightening identical twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both voiced by J. Pat O'Malley), a garden of singing flowers who soon reveal their weirdly fascist outlook, a hookah-smoking caterpillar (Richard Haydn), the mischievous Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway), and, of course, a truly mad tea party hosted by the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) and March Hare (Jerry Colonna). This bizarre world known as Wonderland seems to offer no way out, so Alice seeks help from the tyrannical and homicidal Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), who has a fondness for removing heads.
There is really no meaning or hidden depths to be found in Carroll's books, and Disney's adaptation is no different. It seems to exist simply as a celebration of the wonders of childish imagination and an opportunity for creative abandon. The result is a nonsensical story with little time for structure or purpose, but one that has stood the test of time through the wonderful characters it imagines. It's an often frustrating experience that offers little sense of direction, and I wouldn't be surprised if some younger viewers were put off by the narrative's excessive randomness or utterly terrified by some of the more sinister characters on show. Yet Disney knew exactly how he wanted to portray these characters, and backed by some stellar talent behind the microphone, Alice in Wonderland prevails as a series of memorable vignettes. The Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat are now embedded into the fabric of pop culture, and that is mainly thanks to Disney and his team of animators. These are truly insane, even malevolent, characters, but Disney knows how to make them lovable, even when they are toying with our protagonist or leading her further into the madness. It's more a nightmare you can't wake up from than a children's adventure story, and while it won't top many people's lists of favourite Disney movies, there is a unique sense of wonder here that could not be found in Tim Burton's over-stylised 2010 remake.
The House That Jack Built (2018)
A stand-in for von Trier's self-satisfied smirk
Seven years ago, Danish provocateur Lars von Trier found himself banned from the Cannes Film Festival after making a rather ill-timed joke about sympathising with Hitler during a press conference for Melancholia. For a festival that seems to inspire walk-outs and boos from audiences who have apparently never seen a film before, it was never going to be too long until von Trier wriggled his way back in. After all, for a director famous for clitoris-removal and the mocking of disabled people, the lure of free advertising from appalled cinema-goers would surely be too strong to resist. For his return, von Trier brought The House That Jack Built, a two and half hour serial killer movie that often feels like a stand-in for the director's self-satisfied smirk. Not only does the film feature animal cruelty, infanticide and open mocking of the #MeToo movement, but the anti-hero at its centre talks frequently at length about his real obsession. You guessed it: the Third Reich. This is a giant middle-finger to the Cannes board.
Jack (Matt Dillon) is a serial killer who, by the end, boasts more than 60 victims. He mainly kills women, but he also kills men and children if the subject is just right for his unique brand of 'art'. At the start of the film, he discusses his life and the nature of evil with an unseen man, played by Bruno Ganz, who we don't see until the very end. He defends his grisly past-times as artistic expression, claiming that everyone who died at his hands will be forever immortalised in his work. His story is recounted as a series of incidents, the first of which involves Uma Thurman as an impossibly stupid victim stranded by the road-side. Convincing Jack to give her a ride to a nearby garage that can fix her car jack, she almost talks the stranger into killing her, even handing him the murder weapon. When the brutal, sudden murder occurs, we almost feel a sense of relief. You can imagine von Trier stroking his chin and grinning at the thought of us feeling like she deserved it. Over the course of a decade, Jack ponders his favourite kills, taking the occasional detour to discuss architecture, literature and the work of Glenn Gould, and to repeatedly build and knock down his dream house.
For a film that understandably caused outrage at its premiere, The House That Jack Built isn't gory and full of spatter, but that isn't to say the film isn't frequently repugnant. An old lady is strangled to death for comic effect, a duckling has its leg snipped off, and worst of all, a child's corpse is contorted with wires and preserved in Jack's walk-in freezer, positioned in the background of many scenes just in case we happen to forget. Such blatant button-pushing would be forgivable, of even admirable, had this trudging vanity project been remotely convincing. Instead, its two and a half hours that feels two and a half hours, with a miscast Dillon delivering monologues on the beauty of genocide and the evolution of architecture while von Trier plans his next trick to make you feel uncomfortable. The film's best performance is delivered by Riley Keough as a young woman Jack cruelly names Simple. Jack toys with her low self-esteem before dispatching her in a horrendous manner, but there's real humanity lurking in this scene, and a real sense of dread conjured up by von Trier. The whole thing is almost saved by a climactic journey through a Hell seemingly inspired by the covers of death metal albums, which manages to be both truly eerie and cartoonishly comical. But then you remember what you had to get through to get there, and wonder how to get your 150 minutes back.