The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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This house – it knows we’re here. Elderly millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver) is obsessed with the afterlife and hires sceptical scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) to lead a team into the infamous Belasco House, supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a notorious six-foot five serial killer. Though the rational Barrett does not believe in ghosts, the other members of his group ding, including devout spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and psychic medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has been in Belasco House before and is the only survivor of a previous visit and has therefore seen what horrors can befall those who enter it...  The house tried to kill me – it almost succeeded. Fabled novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted his own Hell House and transposed it from New England to the old country for financial reasons where it was directed by John Hough (who would also direct the cult Disney horror Watcher in the Woods there a half-dozen years later). This pits science and the rational against the paranormal, with fascinating excursions into the psychosexual – it ain’t too often you see a ghost having its way with a young lady. And Franklin’s presence, a dozen years after that spectacular classic of a haunting, The Innocents, is a guarantee of this film’s integrity and she rewards us with a dazzling performance. Hunnicutt is no less effective although her eroticism is literally in another kind of dimension. Frankly any film that commences with the following statement has me at hello:  Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true (Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty). The building’s negative energy has amazing repercussions for these investigators and McDowall has one of his best roles as an unlikely hero, with an unbilled cameo by one of Brit horror/exploitation’s key actors rounding things out as things end rather explosively but paradoxically, giving this a very human affect in a story of things unseen and the detritus of perversion. One of the very best horror films of the Seventies, probably inspired by Aleister Crowley. Shot at Bolney, West Sussex, Blenheim Palace and Elstree Studios. If you’re that clever why are you still a prisoner in this house?

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Toy Story 4 (2019)

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It’s time for the next kid. Nine years after Andy has left for college and he’s been separated from Bo Peep (Annie Potts), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) helps his new kid Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) when she gets upset at her first day of kindergarten where she makes her new toy Forky (Tony Hale) from a spork.  Forky believes he’s trash but Woody teaches him he’s Bonnie’s friend. When the family goes on an RV road trip and Forky jumps ship, Woody sets out to get him back and they fetch up in a secondhand shop where they get trapped by a doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who desperately wants a voicebox to nab a human friend and Woody has what she needs.  Her henchmen ventriloquist dolls The Dummies (Steve Purcell) help her. In their quest to reunite Bonnie with Forky, the gang assemble with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) pressing his own buttons to access his inner voice and Woody is reunited with Bo who’s found a new existence living in the middle of a travelling carnival.  There’s a race against time to make sure Bonnie doesn’t take off before finding her new friend… I am not a toy, I was made for soups, salads, maybe chili, and then the trash. Freedom! We know over a quarter century pretty much everything that toys are thinking about and here the thread of the lost toy narrative continues with Bo having a life as an independent girl, Forky experiencing an existential crisis and Woody seeing that there can be a life beyond the needs of his human child owner. Perhaps the store where most of the action occurs is a limited palette in terms of narrative possibility but there are good in-jokes, real jeopardy, sorrow and lessons. The toys can be scared of other toys too – my goodness those dummies! Bolstered by another set of songs from Randy Newman, this is a bittersweet conclusion to one of cinema’s classic series, but here we have a child who has a stronger emotional bond with a utensil than with the toys purposed for human relationships and two and a half decades of our own responses. Maybe it’s Pixar’s way of saying to us all, Grow Up, as the gang is surplus to most requirements here and the narrative is not unified in the way one has come to expect. Ironically then, beware of leaving early – the credits are worth waiting for as we are deftly pushed away to lead our own off-screen lives. Directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Bolsom, based on a story by them and Rashida Jones, John Lasseter, Will MacCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes. He’s not lost. Not anymore. To infinity…

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

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That’s poetry, not proof. It’s 1927. The Magical Congress of the USA is transferring Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to be tried for his crimes but he escapes with the aid of his associate Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie). In London, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) an old pure-blood classmate from Hogwarts who has always been somewhat disturbed and is now engaged to Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who works in the Auror office at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Newt turns down the request to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Paris but Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) persuades him to change his mind because Grindelwald is searching for Credence in order to help him implement a New World Wizarding Order … She has eyes just like a salamander. The JK Rowling franchise trundles on and it gets off to a speedy start, with Grindelwald assuming someone else’s identity and making good his escape. This triumph of production design and effects has lots of things to recommend it, not least big plot moves in a heavily stuffed story that’s laced with humour and irony. It’s based on the pull of family ties – brothers, sisters, the need to know your true identity – and that’s what balances a fun adventure that has a lot of good moments, a more rounded and sympathetic Newt and a great sense of jeopardy from Depp as the deranged proto-fascist albino seeking to elevate wizards above muggles. Familiar faces, well developed characters, a lot of narrative threads and a lot more to come. Adapted by Rowling and directed by David Yates. We were closer than brothers

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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As I live and breathe. Grown up father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children get some help from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) when the bank closes in on their home where his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out following the death of Michael’s wife a year earlier … Cleaning is not a spectator sport. Perhaps it was inevitable that following the successful transposing of the classic film into musical theatre that Disney would go back to the toybox and raid one of their most significant creations, a live-animation hybrid that lingers long in the imagination and the heart. With songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and set in ‘The Great Slump’ which we presume is sometime in the Thirties, this is a combination of race against time and treasure hunt, as the shares certificate that will save the family home is in the place least likely to be found – or the most obvious, if you know anything about movies/kites. There is a highly unlikely romance between Jane and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary is rather astringent and inconsistent, the dour interior and visual designs lack the antique spark of the original and there are real longeurs in between the fantasy sequences. Breaking the contract with the audience, there is jeopardy in these, featuring a kidnapping that harkens back to The 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats. You might recognise Willie the Operatic Whale in ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ but there seems to be a real disconnect with the story and some diversionary tactics – Miranda has a speechifying song part in ‘A Book is Not the Cover’ that could be out of his own Hamilton; Meryl Streep shows up as Mary’s foreign cousin and has an upside down song (‘Turning Turtle’) which has little to do with anything. It’s odd that the true heart of the original only starts to be suggested in the finale, a coda to the action that visually resonates and pops practically perfectly off the screen – at last. Directed as well as he directs everything else by Rob Marshall, who adapted with David Magee and John DeLuca, at least this isn’t a remake and James Corden isn’t in it but Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are. Everything is possible, even the impossible

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

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That hole is a gateway. And it leads, straight down, to hell. Now, who wants to buy some drugs? Yorkshire boy Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent to a strange public school by his concerned mother Kay (Isabella Laughland) where he has to share a room with the rather eccentric and bullied snuff-sniffing Willoughby (Asa Butterfield). He finds his predecessor hanged himself. He falls for ‘goddess’ Clemsie (Hermione Corfield) but is warned off and gets homesick in this weird institution run by The Bat (Michael Sheen) with a horrible house called Andromeda where students undergo strange rituals. Useless master Meredith (Simon Pegg) spends all of his downtime Skyping former love Audrey (Margot Robbie) who has clearly found a new romantic interest in South Sudan. When a company called Terrafrack run by Bat’s mate Lambert (Alex Macqueen) unearths a huge sinkhole emitting a terrible methane cloud it appears it has disturbed some strange subterranean creatures in the woods. And there’s an eco protest group nearby where Woody (Nick Frost) has a stash of drugs he wants to sell but there’s more to him than anyone suspects … We’re going to let them run our fucking country? From a screenplay by debut director Crispian Mills and Henry Fitzherbert, this is the latest Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaboration, following their Cornetto Trilogy but they are minor characters, sidelined by attractive teens.  This is a story with the evils of fracking at its heart that traffics in charm rather than terror in episodic fashion. No more than Don’s mother, it has aspirations above its station in its references and a swipe at class difference, with a photo of Malcolm McDowell in the great If… on Willoughby’s wall. But it’s a schlock horror not a shock horror with lowbrow laughs, social commentary, some gore and a backstory that harks at myth. This may not be great but it is efficient genre cinema with oodles of good humour (and bad nature) and we might expect good things from the scion of Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting, never mind that he was also the frontman of Kula Shaker. The ecstasy of death

Space Cowboys (2000)

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I can’t fill up a spaceship with geriatrics.  In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, they were pushed aside for a chimpanzee by nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). The team retired, but the dream of going into space has never died. Forty years later, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into NASA to see Gerson who’s now a NASA project manager. A Cold War Russian communications satellite is freeflying and out of control and the archaic control system is based on Frank’s old SKYLAB design. He gathers the old guys from the Right Stuff days – widower Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and pastor Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and they go through the rigorous  training of any young team,  trying to do in 30 days what would normally be done in 12 months. Then Frank is told he can’t go up but he also finds out one of his team has cancer. When he finally assembles everyone and they’re joined by Ethan (Loren Dean) and Roger (Courtney B. Vance) the younger astronauts supposedly there to do the real work, he sees that the satellite is nuked, a violation of the Outer Space Treaty You don’t need to be putting foolish notions in the head of a fool. From a screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, star and director Eastwood fashions an old geezer take on the men on a mission movie, with a nostalgic harking back to the test pilot days when the moon was still a dream in the sky. Gathering a cast of veteran actors (Jones has a big role, Sutherland some comic moments, Garner is poorly served) they literally go through the motions of contemporary space flight and have to face some difficult home truths as well as the inevitable jeopardy.  That the premise’s hook is that the KGB stole the designs in the first place tells us a lot about what might really been going on all this Hot Non-War time with those lovely Russians. There’s all the technology and the moon yearning to consider but really this is about a bunch of ageing flyers achieving their ambitions and getting to their final destination with some romance provided on the ground by Marcia Gay Harden with medical advice from Blair Brown. The coda of course is a tribute to Dr Strangelove and you can’t say much better than that in the original geriaction movie that is quite literally the final frontier. An amiable, charming work, filled out with the smooth sounds of regular Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus. They were around when rockets were born

 

Venom (2018)

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You know for a smart guy you really are a dumbass. TV investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the notorious and brilliant founder of the Life Foundation who is constantly announcing new supposedly life-enhancing initiatives.  Eddie opens up confidential files belonging to his district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which causes her to lose her job and leave him. He is fired by his TV station for his impropriety. While investigating one of Drake’s experiments in symbiotes (aliens merging with humans), Eddie’s body merges with the alien Venom – leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fuelled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so puzzling and yet so intoxicating but Drake sends out his team to ensnare him… Do you ever feel like your life is one monumental screwup? How bad is this? Perhaps it should have been called Contempt if that misnomer wasn’t already the title of a classic of French cinema. Dreadful acting (Hardy is no movie star, just a terrific actor prone to insane levels of idiot savant mugging way too early here, tipping us off about the high comedy to come), terrible writing, stupid plotting and lazy presumptions. It takes about forty minutes or so for this film to finally find its feet as a satirical fantasy by which time I had found myself wondering how many more superhero movies can deal with silly sloppy seconds, bizarre virtue signalling in diversity casting (this year’s Elon Musk avatar is played by a Pakistani) and dumb allusive socio-cultural commentary including a leading lady dressing like Britney circa Baby One More Time. However once Eddie is hilariously taken over by The Host I was moved to think about the magnificently bad Saoirse Ronan movie of that name; the fourth level of jihad (‘feast upon the infidel as would a parasite upon a host’) which of course is all about the Islamic takeover of the white world; and the edicts of mindfulness (proto-neo-liberal zealotry extolled by Google’s Jolly Good Fellow along with all other Big Tech surveillance monsters); and it was then that I realised that this is in fact an expertly crafted warning about all sorts of contemporary ills:  mass immigration, uncontrolled technology, globalisation, narcissism, unsupervised pharmaceutical experiments and endless superhero movies. Obviously it’s set in Northern California, the boomer and millennial nightmare running the world. It’s dark and Blade Runner-y, as if we needed reminding that Philip K. Dick was telling us all about fifty shades of surveillance for at least forty years in the last millennium. This, then, is what happens to the universe when you’re busy buying Starbucks coffee and checking your iPhone and doping yourself with anti-depressants that persuade you that totalitarianism is okay while disinhibiting your urge to protest, and scarfing medical marijuana which is the real cure for your paranoia about the internet, and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with anything, it’s your attitude to it that needs to be corrected because you’re pathological and everything Mark Zuckerberg does may not be ethical but by crikey it’s legal! Be afraid, suckers. Make the new the primary focus of your life. Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel adapted the Marvel characters created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie and it was directed by Ruben Fleischer, responsible for an outing called Gangster Squad, a production that was so hypnotically awful I forgot what it was about while I was watching it (mission accomplished) to the point that I lost the plot and practically lost the will to live. Is it me? Even Jesus Christ himself would say, Enough. Get it over withCrucify me, guys. Instead we have expertly crafted lines like, God has abandoned us… I won’t. And the voice inside Eddie’s head that tells him, Your world is not so ugly after all.  And Anne finds that power is indeed a bit of a sneaky thrill: Oh  no! I just bit that guy’s head off!  Sheesh. Maybe this works after all, Spider-Man in reverse. Like civilisation, this is poisoned.

Booksmart (2019)

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We haven’t done anything. We haven’t broken any rules. Bookworms Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discover on the eve of graduation that other supposedly loser kids in their class are also going to the Ivy Leagues but had fun en route and tonight there’s a party at class VP Nick’s (Mason Gooding) that promises to be the blowout that might be their only opportunity to say they partied through high school. But getting there isn’t as easy as calling a Lyft … I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a fifteen-sixty on the SATs. A script that had been lying around for a decade gets the Will Ferrell and Megan Ellison stamp of production approval and actress Olivia Wilde makes her directing debut in a self-conscious work about female empowerment that wears its millennial credentials in a frequently impenetrable linguistic armour falling far short of the classic teen movie it so obviously wants to be. Cliques, misunderstandings, a cool teacher, finding your true self whilst not being a bitch to other people whose faults you gleefully point up and gossip about, remaining unaware of your own undeserved superiority complex – these coming of age tropes are played out as a night on the town at three different parties teaching life lessons with an R rating exhibiting drug use and some fashionable sexual inclinations. Lourd plays her heart out utterly inappropriately as the rich girl who literally shows up everywhere but her performance belongs in an entirely different film. Jason Sudeikis (aka Mr Wilde) has fun as the school principal who dreads encountering these ambitious ladies and then turns out to be their Lyft driver trying to earn a few bucks to survive on top of his pathetic salary. Feldstein and Dever do their best with strangely underwritten roles (was it me or did someone say ‘Beanie’ in a scene and it was kept in?!). This just hasn’t a lot to hang on its structure and it feels overconceptualised as a kind of millennial virtue signaller with a Lesbian protagonist and some rather oddly convenient ‘characters’ who don’t ring true either dramatically or emotionally.  In its effort to create big statements about dorks who get their comeuppance, truth got left behind. There’s a surreal animated adventure in drug use which turns the  girls into anatomically inappropriate dolls and a good joke about a serial killer pizza delivery driver, but … laughs? I wish there had been more in a movie which also seems to want to say something about class but bugs out. There is nothing profound here so we’ll have to call it the empress’s new politically correct clothes even with its sympathetic portrayal of queerness in a teenage girl. LGBQT @ SXSW: IMHO, OMG.  That’s the trouble with acronyms and labels. Everything is acceptable, nothing is wrong. The young have so much to teach us. Is it that year already? Yawn. Don’t believe the hype. Sadly. Written by Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. Directed by Olivia Wilde.  You can make yourself cum using only your mind? That’s like the one thing my mind can’t do

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!