The Great Wall (2016)

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I’ve been a fool, I’m done with it. Two European mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) searching for black powder become embroiled in the defence of the Great Wall of China against a horde of Tao Tien or monstrous creatures. Matt Damon versus giant lizards. Or, in the immortal words of Jimmy Kimmel on Oscars night, A Chinese Ponytail Movie. Mercifully short at 89 minutes, this is dire in that special way reserved for Asian films translated into English – except this was actually written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy from a story by Max Brooks, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz. Directed by the artist FKA Zhang Yimou. Bananas.

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The Island (2005)

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I have discovered the Holy Grail of science – I give life! Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) lives in a sterile colony, one of thousands of survivors of The Contamination who dream of going to The Island. One of his friends is Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and she doesn’t believe him when he dreams things he knows he hasn’t experienced and then discovers they are clones waiting to have their organs harvested for humans outside somewhere:  he sees a moth in a ventilation shaft when visiting his engineer friend McCord (Steve Buscemi). They are really living in an elaborate organ lab run by Merrick (Sean Bean) who hires mercentary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) when Lincoln and Jordan escape to the real world … McGregor and Johansson are superb as the clones who realise their humanity and make you stick with a drama that takes a little while to get going in that sterile facility that we have seen a hundred times. But when it takes off it never stops and it’s pretty heart-pounding. This takes potshots at eugenics, organ harvesting, the modern day obsession with breeding that leads to murderous mass surrogacy programmes, and ultimately the kind of control by tech billionaires that we all rightly fear:  the penultimate scene using a gas chamber tells you all you need to know about where we are all heading in this Nazified world of ours which seems even more relevant 12 years after this was released. The ultimate irony about this clone drama is that it is itself a clone – of a novel called Spares and 1979 movie The Clonus Horror to the extent that a massive seven-figure settlement was made by DreamWorks to the plaintiffs. Nonetheless it’s a gripping portrait of futureshock and all that it implies for contemporary life. Be very afraid. 2019 is just a breath away! Screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci from a story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Directed by Michael Bay.

Matilda (1996)

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– Get in the car Melinda! – It’s Matilda! Whatever. Matilda (Mara Wilson) is born into a family that can’t stand her. She’s a genius among trolls and wants to go to school. Father (Danny DeVito) is a gangster and mother (Rhea Perlman) is a tramp. This gifted offspring channels her frustration at their raised voices and anger into telekinesis and when she’s bullied by the violent principal Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) at Crunchem Hall (say it quickly) Elementary School, class teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davitz) feels her pain and befriends her. Trunchbull is her late father’s step- sister in law and had her put out of the house where her beloved doll is still in her childhood bedroom. When Matilda convinces her of her powers they set out to retrieve it … Roald Dahl’s classic gets a good adaptation by Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord (with some changes) but it’s DeVito’s direction that grabs you:  using his typical style of low angles and forced perspective, you are emotionally placed in little Matilda’s horrible domestic experience and left in no doubt as to how she feels – born to the wrong people, displaced in the wrong home, needing friends. For children of all ages, with Paul Reubens as one of two FBI agents expertly dispatched by the little girl.

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.

Ghost (1990)

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It’s amazing, the love inside. You take it with you. Potter Molly (Demi Moore) and banker Sam (Patrick Swayze) are young and in love and living together and planning on a long happy life together. When he’s murdered after uncovering a money laundering scheme run by his colleague Carl (Tony Goldwyn) at the bank where they work, Molly is distraught and attends a wacky fake medium Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) who pretends she communes with the dead. Then she’s shocked out of her own skin when Sam really speaks to her – only she can see him – and wants to let Molly know she’s in danger from Carl … Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay channels both religious belief (guardian angels in the form of ghosts) and the supernatural (vengeful spirits) in this odd mix of fantasy, ghost story and thriller. The weird thing is it actually works, and how. Why? Because the characters are totally believable and you want them to be happy. Plus it’s set in a very recognisable modern world of yuppies and charlatans. That’s a very canny approach to writing. People we really like, wonderfully played in a genre-bending comic-fantasy-drama. There are several standout scenes here but let’s face it, you’ll never look at a potter’s wheel the same way again. Wonderful! Directed by Jerry Zucker.

The Skull (1965)

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All I can say to you is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade! This adaptation of Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s short story by producer Milton Subotsky whose Amicus Productioons made this is a credible chiller. Directed with his usual visual aplomb by the cinematographer Freddie Francis who made so many horrors and shockers as a director, it tells the story of esoterica specialist Dr Maitland (Peter Cushing) who acquires said skull from his usual source Marco (Patrick Wymark), paying no heed to the warnings about its peculiar effect on the owners including nineteenth century phrenologist (Maurice Good), the graverobber who boiled down the trophy and became the first in a series of men who turn into maniacal killers under its influence. Maitland wishes to return the skull when he learns it was stolen from fellow collector Sir Matthew (Christopher Lee), who doesn’t however want it back after the effect it had on him.  Maitland pays no heed … This boasts an array of cheaply achieved but remarkably atmospheric effects with the use of the point of view shot (from the skull!) a simple solution for both ramping up the tension and suggesting something diabolical at work. There’s a terrific kidnapping sequence which may or may not be a nightmare – including a red room! And a judge! Well played by a wonderful cast that includes Jill Bennett as Maitland’s wife, Nigel Green as the credulous Inspector and the leads are of course the stuff of legend. Beautiful to look at with an interesting score by avant garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who did several for Amicus.

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Crack in the World (1965)

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We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. So when geothermal scientist Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) figures that deep-mining magma in the earth’s core which resulted in a fissure in the earth can be remedied – with a nuclear device! you know you’re in for an epic disaster. His colleague Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) can’t dissuade him from this mega end of days move and their quarrel is emphasised by the woman they have in common Maggie (Janette Scott). She was involved with Ted before she married Stephen, who is concealing the fact that he’s about to die. That gives her desire to have his child an edge to this cracking drama when the two guys knock their very cerebral heads together about what to do. Very impressive staging, shooting and effects lend this tightly constructed doomsday scenario a lot of believability and style. Spain stands in for Tanganyika in a screenplay by Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet. Directed by Andrew Marton.

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.