Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

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Nobody knows the fuck who I am any more. In Los Angeles 1969 fading TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered a job on an Italian western by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) assists him in every area of his life including driving him after he’s lost his licence for DUI and gofering around home on Cielo Drive where Rick occupies the gate house next to the rental where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zuwierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in. One day at Burbank Cliff picks up a hippie hitch hiker Pussycat (Margot Qualley) who wants a ride out to the Spahn Movie Ranch where he used to work and it appears owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being held hostage by a bunch of scary hippies led by an absent guy called Charlie and personally attended to by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff tees off the hippies by punishing one of their number for slicing a whitewall tyre on Rick’s car. Meanwhile, Rick confronts his acting demons doing yet another guest villain on a TV episode with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and considers spending 6 months in Italy, after which the guys return in August 1969 while next door a heavily pregnant Tate suffers the hottest night of the year and the Spahn Ranch hippies are checking out the residents on Cielo Drive … When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell. How much did you want to see this? And talk about repaying fan faith. What a huge ensemble cast, to start with, and with so many pleasant surprises:  Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the owner of the fabled ranch where Manson holed up;  Clu Gulager (!) as a bookseller (with a Maltese Falcon on his counter); Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet; Michael Madsen (remember him?) as the Sheriff on the Bounty Law TV show; Kurt Russell as a TV director (and more besides) with Zoë Bell as his kick-ass wife; and Luke Perry in his last role; and so many more, a ridiculous spread of talent that emphasises the story’s epic nature. It’s a pint-size take on Tarantino’s feelings about the decline of Hollywood, a hallucinatory haunted house of nostalgia, an incision into that frenzied moment in August 1969 that symbolically sheared open the viscera lying close to that fabled town’s surface. It’s about movies and mythology and TV shows and music and what it’s like to spend half your day driving around LA and hearing all the new hit songs on the radio. It’s about business meetings at Musso & Frank’s (I recommend the scallops); and appointment TV; and it’s about acting:  one of the best sequences is when Rick is guest-starring opposite an eight-year old Method actress (Julia Butters) who doesn’t eat lunch because it makes her sluggish and she expounds on her preference at being called an Actor and talks him into giving a great performance. All of which is a sock in the jaw to critics about Tarantino’s treatment of women, even if there’s an array of gorgeously costumed pulchritude here, much of which deservedly gets a dose of his proverbial violence (directed by and towards, with justification), among a selection of his trademark tropes. It’s likely about Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman turned director Hal Needham or that of Steve McQueen (played here by Damian Lewis, I can even forgive that) and James ‘Bud’ Ekins. It’s about an anachronistic TV actor whose star has crested but who wants to upgrade to movies after a couple of outings – and there’s an amazing sequence about The Great Escape and what might have been and actors called George. But it’s more than that. It’s about a town dedicated to formulating and recalibrating itself for the times and it’s about the joys of moviegoing. Watching Robbie watch herself (actually the real Sharon) on screen is so delightful. She’s a little-known starlet and her joy at her own role in The Wrecking Crew is confirmed by the audience’s laughter when she wins a fight scene. Robbie is totally charismatic in a role that has scant dialogue but she fills the film with her presence: a beautiful woman kicks her shoes off and enjoys watching herself – take that! The detail is stunning, the production design by Barbara Klinger just awe-inspiring. This is a film that’s made on film and cut on film (Super 8, 16, 35) and intended for the cinema. It’s shot by Robert Richardson and it looks simply jaw-dropping. It’s about friendship and loyalty and DiCaprio is very good as a kind of buttery hard-drinking self-doubting star; his co-dependent buddy Pitt is even better (it’s probably Pitt’s greatest performance) as the guy with a lethal legend attached to his name (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t) who doesn’t do much stunt work any more and some people don’t like his scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on The Green Hornet but it’s laugh out loud hilarious. This is leisurely, exhilarating, chilling, kind and wise and funny and veering towards tragedy. It’s a fantasy, a what-might-have-been and what we wish had been and the twist ending left me with feelings of profound sorrow.  As we approach the end of another decade it seems a very long fifty years since Easy Rider formulated the carefully curated soundtrack that Tarantino has made one of his major signifiers, and it’s exactly fifty years since Sharon Tate and her unborn son and her friends were slaughtered mercilessly by the Manson Family. People started locking their doors when they realised what the Summer of Love had rained down, and not just in Hollywood. Tarantino is the single most important filmmaker of my adult life and this is his statement about being a cinéphile, a movie-lover, a nerd, a geek, a fan, and it’s about death – the death of optimism, the death of cinema, the death of Hollywood. It’s also about second chances and being in the right place at the right time. Just as Tarantino reclaimed actors and genres and trash and presented them back to Generation X as our beloved childhood trophies, Rick’s fans remember he was once the watercooler TV cowboy and give him back his mojo. This film is where reality crosses over with the movies and the outcome is murderous. The scene at the Spahn Ranch is straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook.  Practically Chekhovian in structure, this reminds us that if there’s a flamethrower in the first act, it must go off in the third. Tarantino is telling us that this is what movies can be. It could only be better if it were a musical, but, hey, it practically is. I thought I’d been waiting for this film for a year, truth is I’d been waiting for it half my life. Everybody don’t need a stuntman

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Times Square (1980)

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We are having our own renaissance. We don’t need anti-depressants, we need your understanding. Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) is a Brooklyn runaway and street musician constantly hassled by the New York City cops and when she fakes a fit they dispatch her to a psych ward for some scans because there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with her. Pam Pearl (Trini Alvarado) is a dreamy kid who wants to escape her overbearing politico father (Peter Coffield) the wonder boy at the mayor’s office and  she writes to a late night DJ Johnny Laguardia (Tim Curry) as Zombie Girl. She winds up in the same hospital room as Nicky and they form an uneasy friendship. Nicky is convinced that Pam’s poems could help her with her music and they run away, taking refuge in an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson and working at a strip club (with their clothes on). Nicky writes music and their story as The Sleez Sisters is covered by Johnny as they grow an army of teen girl fans … A new iconoclast has come to save us – it’s The Sleez Sisters! A Thelma and Louise for teens, this is the soundtrack of my young life – starting with Roxy Music’s Same Old Scene and featuring everything from Gary Numan’s Down in the Park to Patti Smith’s Pissing in the Street, it’s a hugely sympathetic, fascinating time capsule of the Times Square Renaissance when it was apparently safe to be a girl on the street and Hard Times, Oklahoma Crude and The Onion Field were playing in the local fleapit. There is a fairytale fantasy quality to the setting and this mismatched pair’s adventure as they tear through the city and recognise each other’s characters as they truly are – I’m brave, you’re pretty, declares Nicky. She is so on it, it’s not true. And she says what everyone feels when they’re young:  I don’t expect to live past twenty-one that’s why I’ve gotta jam it all in now. Her Jaggeresque affect is emphasised on several levels – her appearance, her cockiness, and the line, This is for Brian Jones and all the dinosaurs that disappeared as well as the blond guitarist who backs her onstage. Johnson gives a towering performance as the husky-voiced freak destined to be a frontwoman in a band; and Alvarado is immensely appealing as the rich girl who needs to break free; while Curry is definitely the sideshow, offering pithy comments as he narrates their runaway journey with all the astonishment and empathy he can muster as someone keen to up his 4AM listenership as well as feeling some adult concern for a troubled starstruck kid who’s probably off her meds. When the girls have got what they need from each other their response to the schism is radically different and it’s moving.  They are both artists seeking an outlet for their expressivity but feel the limits of their age – 16 and 13 respectively. When they break free, you feel nothing will ever stop them – they are so brave in comparison with the adults who surround them. There is a father-daughter issue in the film and that scene of Aristotelian recognition when David sees Pam in the Cleo Club could have been horrible but it works okay.  Irony is writ large in the humorous use of I Wanna Be Sedated banging from the boombox Nicky totes around the hospital prior to the girls’ escape. There are lots of incidental pleasures in this prototypical essay on the culture wars – Elizabeth Pena in the opening scene; trying to spot author Billy Mernit as one of the band The Blondells (he’s written a great book on Hollywood romcoms); figuring out that the birthdate for Alvarado’s character is the actress’s own (it’s on the bus advert). And let’s not overstate the impact of the best soundtrack of any film of the Eighties, produced by David Johansen, who duets with Johnson. The Manic Street Preachers covered her song, Damn Dog. What a talent Johnson was but the producer Robert Stigwood who apparently promised much for her did not turn up the goods and she has completely disappeared off our radar. Written by the film critic, songwriter and King of Marvin Gardens scribe Jacob Brackman from a story by the director who has done so much to popularise disc jockeys in cinema, Mr Allan Moyle: may he take a bow for being so good to his female fan club by making this because running away and living a punk rock life never seemed like a great idea until this came out with its energy and spit and fury.  What is he telling us? That the amazing music you listen to is never quite as important as the music you hear within. All together now, Spic nigger faggot bum – Your daughter is one!

Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

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Children believe what we tell them.  Jean Cocteau’s masterful interpretation of the classic fairytale proved hugely influential on a certain Walt Disney – this is a film of actual moving parts with arms holding candelabra, illuminating and grasping. The tale of thwarted masculinity transformed by the love of a young woman finding her own way as she searches for her father starts out as a story of the quotidian but magic lies beneath:  the crystallising of the term magic realism. A truly beguiling fantasy, beautifully staged and intriguingly performed by Jean Marais as the monster/prince and Josette Day as Belle, this is a shimmering post-war dream of ornamentation and desire, a sensual miracle of cinema, a poetic exegesis on the liberating power of love. Co-directed by René Clément. How will I find my way home? I got lost in the forest

Angelica (2017)

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You pursue your own desire at your family’s expense. In the Victorian era, a young wife Constance (Jena Malone) and her husband Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard) go through a difficult time in their marriage after the arrival of their baby Angelica,  heightened by a mysterious ghost that enters their house. They have been advised to stop having sex following a traumatic birth and Barton is wholly frustrated by his wife bringing their daughter into the marital bed and eventually insists Angelica have her own room. When he resumes sex with Constance little Angelica experiences shared visions with her mother which become dangerously physical – but only in the child’s room.  When Constance pays a visit to Barton’s workplace she discovers he is carrying out horrific animal experiments.  Housekeeper Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) advises Constance to consult her spiritualist friend Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) whose intervention gives her small respite. Then Barton finds his daughter’s bed on fire and believes his wife is mad … My child suffers pain the precise moment I am submissive to my husband. Adapted from Arthur Philips’ titular novel, this is a precisely nuanced treatise on sexual repression in the Victorian era. Told in the form of an extended flashback from the sick bed of Angelica’s mother (with Malone playing the grown up Angelica) where she wants to explain the disappearance of Barton when Angelica was young, it utilises every trope from Gothic literature to dramatise the horrors of desire unleashed.  An exquisitely beautiful, rather mysterious film about women’s power that is let down only by the rather underpowered acting of the leads. Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose father is fabled Pop Art legend Roy, with mesmerising production design by Luciana Arrighi. The mother’s confession has a suitably ironic (actual) climax.  Find your pleasure elsewhere

 

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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The key is playing to win instead of trying not to lose. NYC:  Chinese-American economics lecturer Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is happy to accompany her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding in Singapore. She’s surprised to learn that Nick’s family is extremely wealthy and that he’s considered one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. She meets up with college friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) who lets her in on the open secret. Thrust into the spotlight, she has to deal with jealous socialites, including his ex Amanda (Jing Lusi); quirky relatives (the aunties); and something far, far worse – Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh)… It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. So wrote Jane Austen a couple of hundred years ago and the plot of Pride and Prejudice is writ large here in an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. It’s a rock solid romantic comedy which morphs into a maternal melodrama before allowing the com to rear its head again in a pleasing conclusion in which the young economics lecturer uses game theory to best her dragon lady (potential) future mother-in-law in a face-off involving mahjong. (She might be clever and an economist but she doesn’t know she’s dating one of the wealthiest men in Asia. Hmmm…) Also in common with the works of Austen, the fathers are mainly absent – dead (maybe) or in Shanghai on business unless you count Peik Lin’s dad, played by Ken Jeong in the one really funny family here:  this is a matriarchy and what a vicious society it makes. At Minty’s (Sonoya Mizuno) bachelorette celebration Rachel has a bloody gutted fish left on her bed with nasty serial killer graffiti painted above because she’s not exactly a hit with the superficial Mean Girls;  Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) has married someone without money and he’s cheating on her – and it’s her friendship with Rachel that clarifies this family’s values and mirrors the ups and downs of her own bruising encounters. Rachel’s foreignness as a naturalised American is a problem, her perceived quest for happiness an issue, her ambition unacceptable. But it’s whatever Grandma (Lisa Lu) says that goes in a world of ritual, legacy and habit. The shape of your nose is auspicious Eleanor tells Rachel of her origins which are not as obscure as her single mother led her to believe. Her outsider status is confirmed and then some. The Asian lifestyle is fetishised through food and flowers and shopping and overpowering and gaudy production design – the fetid chaos of the region is well captured, the fabulous wealth jaw-dropping, the Chinese covers of Western pop songs jar at first and then please:  though it’s anyone’s guess as to why Coldplay’s Yellow features. The performances are spot-on but it’s Awkwafina who proves her comedy chops. It’s all a bit much until Yeoh’s story of jealousy and viciousness is integrated into an overstuffed menu, creating a sorbet effect:  otherwise it’s sickly sweet and a bit sticky, a fluffy fairytale with sparkles and gloss and jewels galore, a millennial soap opera with massive dollops of money. The final party scene is simply spectacular. Directed by Jon M. Chu. JFK just smells of salmonella and despair

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.

Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

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Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee! During the Battle of Britain, Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a cunning apprentice witch, decides to use her supernatural powers to defeat the Nazi menace. She sets out to accomplish this task with the aid of three  children who have been evacuated from the London Blitz and they go along to get along after a difficult introduction – they’re city kids stuck in the wilds of rural England and she’s forced to take them into her very big house where she serves healthy food which is utterly alien to them. Joined by the hapless Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the head of Miss Price’s witchcraft training correspondence school in London, the crew uses an enchanted bed to travel into a fantasy land and foil encroaching German troops as well as dealing with an unscrupulous conman … Well it’s a very snowy day here at Mondo Towers so there was nothing left but haul out Uncle Walt to toast up my chattering tootsies. This is a childhood favourite, a long and entertaining part-animated fantasy comic WW2 drama with not a little music thrown in to complete the Poppins-a-like formula perfected by the studio during the previous decade. Lansbury has the role purportedly rejected by Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson returns as the slightly bewildered adult male – albeit Mary Norton’s wartime books which provide the source material have no relation to the earlier film. The Magic Bedknob, Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks provide the arc of the narrative which is enlivened by integrated cartoon and musical sequences. Let’s face it, it takes the House of Mouse to turn WW2 into a delightful musical fairytale with songs by the Sherman brothers, a fantasy football match on a desert island, a resourceful Territorial Army and a very cool cat making for totally bewitching family fun. Hurray! Screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, directed by Robert Stevenson.

The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex (it’s a pretty crass allegory) for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.