Life (2017)

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This is some Re-Animator shit. Astronauts (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds) aboard the International Space Station are on the cutting edge of one of the most important discoveries in human history: the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. As members of the crew conduct their research, the rapidly evolving life-form proves far more intelligent and terrifying than anyone could have imagined. For Calvin, as American schoolchildren name him, is not just a life force he’s a force of destruction! And he starts eating every living organism in sight until there are just two left and one of them has given an intractable order not to be rescued … The only pleasure possible to have in this Alien knock-off (aside from the odd witty line from the Deadpool writers behind it, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernnick) is watching some of the most unlikeable actors around getting totalled in truly horrible ways. And you’ll only be surprised by the Twist Ending if you’ve never seen a movie. Oh dear. Directed by Daniel Espinosa.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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What have I done? Adapted loosely from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, this continues the saga in a reboot that, for this viewer at least, worked brilliantly in the first episode and not at all in the second (horrible cast, horribly shot). Matt Reeves however is back to direct this and it’s fierce, chilling and captivating, in every sense. Caesar (Andy Serkis) now has a psychological battle (against Koba) and an actual war against an American military whose renegade paramilitary California outfit (the Alpha and the Omega) run by the ruthless colonel Woody Harrelson imprisons apes in a quarantine facility aka work camp where parent apes are separated from their children.  Torture is random and regular while a collaborator ape, Donkey, brutalises his fellows. The allusions to the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazis are inevitable not to mention the theory of eugenics which originated in that great state. Caesar’s personal motive  is now revenge after his wife and younger son, Cornelius, are murdered in raids. He takes off with his own small band of brothers – orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Rocket (Terry Notary) – and they rescue a little human girl whom they christen Nova (Amiah Miller) who has been rendered mute but is quite the brain. Then they find a seemingly witless addition to their group (Steve Zahn) who repeats the mantra ‘bad ape, bad ape’ but turns out to be quite the strategist. He’s been in hiding since the killer simian flu outbreak. This is quite a bleak but utterly compelling fast-moving narrative with one big scene (a tad too on the nose?) between Caesar and Harrelson in which the prototypical neo-Nazi lays out his reasoning (fighting a holy war for the future of mankind) and explains how he killed his little boy rather than have him disabled by this strange illness causing the loss of speech. Harrelson looks like he did in Natural Born Killers which is probably a reference too far. The crucifying of Caesar (and others) has clear Biblical allusions (water, desert, one rebel and his few followers) and the suffering can be tough to watch. But the action is at a cracking pace. This aspires to mythical qualities and has them in abundance. You might find there is resonance with the current political situation – in many territories – or that might also be a reference too far. Whatever. There is a great but deathly dangerous escape and a tragic sacrifice. You either roll with this or you don’t. I do! Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, adapting from Pierre Boulle’s source novel which started the whole thang.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

High-Rise (2016)

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How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

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Aka Big Time Operators. Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers are shocked to find that his great-uncle’s bequest is the Bijou Kinema aka The Fleapit and the neighbouring Grand has a grasping owner who makes them an offer they refuse – they bluff that they’re going to reopen. Unfortunately commissionaire Old Tom (Bernard Miles) – one of three old-timers in the Bijou’s inherited staff including bookkeeper Mrs Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford) and drunken projectionist Mr Quill (Peter Sellers) – lets slip to a Grand employee that it’s all a show:  so then they have to go through with it. Dodgy equipment, low crowds and a constant supply of American B-westerns don’t help. But a sexy ice cream salesgirl (June Cunningham) brings an audience and Old Tom makes up for his mistake and the Grand is burned to the ground … A fun story of English eccentricity but coming from the pen of William Rose (and John Eldridge) we might presume it’s actually an allegory for Keeping Calm and Carrying On. Produced by Launder and Gilliat and Michael Relph, directed by Basil Dearden, in a kind of Ealing Comedy shot by Douglas Slocombe with added Leslie Phillips and Sid James plus a score from William Alwyn. Charming!

Mojave (2016)

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A rich and unhappy Los Angeles artist takes off to the desert and meets a homicidal maniac who follows him home and wreaks havoc in his life. This curiosity from award-winning screenwriter William (The Departed) Monahan shows how a solipsistic turn can be rather problematic for a writer turned director and the casting doesn’t help:  Garrett Hedlund is pretty believable if not sympathetic as the fashionably scruffy Angeleno experiencing some sort of fugue but Oscar Isaac (Hernandez Estrada, whatever) is his usually laughable ludicrous self and sunders the screen story from the moment he appears (indeed there’s no reason as to why he actually appears at all). The subplot with lawyer Walton Goggins and whoring studio head Mark Wahlberg brings a kind of Entourage feeling to this immersion in discomfiting affluence while the requisite French girlfriend Louise Bourgoin increases the sense of literariness that suffuses a film already awash in references to Greed. Pretentious, toi? I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m far too self-absorbed to bother.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It’s no accident that weatherman Phil Connors shares his name with the beaver that surfaces (or not) every February 2nd to forecast the end of winter:  Punxsutawney Phil is a metaphor for the crisis besetting a man whose cynicism needs a serious reboot. He relives the same day. Over and over again. The irony for the viewer is that the more often you see this film, the repetition becomes more meaningful, the karma more poetic, the lessons more refined. A work of utterly incomparable comic genius approaching philosophical brilliance, written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis from a story by Danny Rubin. Simply classic.