Thursday, 29 December 2016

Akira

Year of Release:  1988
Director:  Katsuhiro Otomo
Screenplay:  Katsuhiro Otomo and Izo Hashimoto, based on the manga Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
Starring:  Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama, Taro Ishida, Mizuho Suzuki, Tetshusho Genda
Running Time:  125 minutes
Genre:  animation, anime, science-fiction, action, cyberpunk

In 2019, the metropolis of Neo-Tokyo has been built over the ashes of Tokyo, which was destroyed in World War III.  Neo-Tokyo is under martial law riddled with violent anti-government terrorists, and religious cults, while the streets are owned by vicious teenage biker gangs.  After an encounter with a strange, wizened child, biker gang member Tetsuo Shima (Sasaki) finds his own psychic ability awakened.  With his devastating powers increasing exponentially, Tetsuo's ability awakens dormant superbeing Akira.  Meanwhile Tetsuo's best friend Kaneda (Iwata) and resistance-fighter Kei (Koyama) fight to stop him before it's too late.

Akira is possibly one of the most important anime films ever made, and one of the films most responsible for introducing anime to western audiences.  In fact, it is probably one of the most important science-fiction films of the 1980s, with it's influence being felt in numerous films and TV shows since then.  Co-written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, based on his own epic-length manga series which ran in Young Magazine from 1982 until 1990, this is an eye-popping visual spectacle, with practically every frame bursting with colour, detail and incident.  If you ever get the chance to see it in a theatre, then do so, because the film loses so much when the image is shrunk down to TV-size.  The film races along at a breakneck pace, and it has aged surprisingly well.  It maintains a real apocalyptic vibe.  It does suffer from incoherence at times (Otomo once commented that it had not occurred to him that people would see the film who had not already read the manga), and the pacing is sometimes clunky,  however, this remains an overwhelming experience, and a must-see.

 

    

 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  David Yates
Screenplay:  J. K. Rowling, inspired by the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling
Starring:  Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell
Running Time:  133 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy

In 1926, British wizard Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures, which are specifically banned under US wizarding law.  It turns out that the situation is pretty grim for the magical community in New York.  A militant, "No-Maj" ("non-magical", the American term for a person with no magical ability or connection) group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society claim that wizards and witches are real and dangerous, and that they should be wiped out, and a dangerous dark wizard is on the loose.  When Newt's suitcase is accidentally opened, all his creatures are released, forcing him to team up with demoted Auror (kind of a wizard police) Tina Goldstein (Waterston), her glamorous psychic sister Queenie (Subol) and amiable No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) to find and recapture the monsters before they expose the wizarding world.

This is technically a spin-off from the Harry Potter film series, based on the hugely successful novels by J. K. Rowling.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is referred to several times in the novels as a text-book, and Rowling published an edition of the book in 2001 to raise funds for the Comic Relief charity.  This isn't really based on the book, instead it was an original screenplay by Rowling.  Despite occasional references to Hogwarts and Dumbledore, this is wholly separate from the rest of the Harry Potter series.  It's fun to have a look at more of the Rowling universe, and retaining the same production team as the Harry Potter film series it feels close enough to it to be part of the same world, but different enough to feel fresh, and it's own beast (no pun intended), even if at times it feels closer to Doctor Who (especially Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander, who could almost be the next Doctor).  The special effects are incredible, and create a real sense of wonder.  It also feels like a self-contained movie rather than just an introduction for other films in the franchise.  It doesn't really have the emotional centre that Harry Potter has, but it is a very promising beginning for further adventures in the wizarding world.

            
 Jacob (Dan Fogler), Tina (Katherine Waterston), Queenie (Alison Subol) and Newt (Eddie Redmayne) learn about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Arrival

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay  Eric Heisserer, based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
Starring:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Running Time:  116 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction

Twelve giant objects appear floating above apparently random places around the globe.  Linguist Dr. Louise Brooks (Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner) are called in to investigate an object hovering above Montana.  As they try and find a way to communicate with the alien creatures inside, the international situation quickly deteriorates into fear and panic, and it becomes a race against time to discover the alien's purpose before global war breaks out.

If your a fan of science-fiction, then you have likely seen about a million and one films about aliens arriving on Earth, or humans discovering aliens in outer space, and almost immediately being able to communicate with them.  This film shows how difficult communication would likely be.  If humanity was to encounter an alien race, their terms of reference, the way their minds would work, would be so different to ours, it would be extremely difficult to find any common ground.  This is not an action-packed alien invasion film, it is serious-minded science-fiction dealing with big issues such as the nature of time and memory, communication between species, human aggression and connection.  There are shades of films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind  (1977) and Interstellar (2014) but this is very much it's own film.  There is at least one element at the end that felt a little pat, but this is a minor quibble, and this remains one of the best science-fiction films of recent years, mixing suspense, food for thought and emotion.  It benefits from some incredible performances with Amy Adams proving that she is one of the greatest actresses working today.

Amy Adams in Arrival

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Exotica

Year of Release:  1994
Director:  Atom Egoyan
Screenplay:  Atom Egoyan
Starring:  Bruce Greenwood, Don McKellar, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Arsinee Khanjian, Sarah Polley
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre:  Drama

This dark, multi-layered drama focuses on the staff and clients of a Toronto strip-club called Exotica:  Lonely accountant Francis (Greenwood) is obsessed with a young exotic dancer, Christina (Kirshner), which arouses the jealousy of the club's resident DJ, Eric (Koteas), who is also in love with Christina.  Meanwhile Francis becomes involved with pet-store owner Thomas (McKellar), who runs a smuggling operation based around trading rare animals.

Back in the mid to late 1990s, Atom Egoyan was one of the leading lights of Canadian cinema, and this was the film that really made him a star director.  As with many of his films, various initially apparently unrelated stories, set in the past and present, interweave and coalesce into a whole towards the end.  The film conjures up a distinct feel right from the opening shot, as the credits play over a long tracking shot of a variety of hothouse plants and flowers while Mychael Danna's memorable, sinuous, Indian-influenced score plays and the opening line: "You must ask yourself, what brought them to this point?"  The decor in the Exotica club is full of images of jungle plants.  The film was marketed initially in some places as an erotic thriller, which conjures up images of the kind of cheap movies that come on late-night cable with dull plots and a couple of soft-focus sex scenes, and Exotica  really isn't that at all.  Given the fact that it is set in a strip club obviously there is a fair amount of nudity, mostly in the background, and there is a powerfully sensuous atmosphere in the film, but it is not a sex movies, nor is it really a thriller, although there are thriller elements in it.  It's a well-constructed film, with some great performances, and a fantastic soundtrack (including the best use on film of the late, great Leonard Cohen's song "Everybody Knows").  Not all the various storylines are resolved in the end, but it remains a haunting, powerful and deeply rewarding exploration of grief and desire.       


      Mia Kirshner and Don McKellar in Exotica


Friday, 2 December 2016

Go

Year of Release:  1999
Director:  Doug Liman
Screenplay:  John August
Starring:  Sarah Polley, Desmond Askew, Taye Diggs, Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf, Jay Mohr, J. E. Freeman, Timothy Olyphant, William Fichtner
Running Time:  102 minutes
Genre:  Crime, comedy, drama

This film consists of three interlinked stories set over a Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning.  In Los Angeles, convenience store clerk Ronna (Polley) needs extra money to make her rent and attempts to double-cross the local drug dealer (Olyphant).  Meanwhile, Ronna's fellow clerk, Simon (Askew), sets off for a wild weekend with his friends in Las Vegas, where he becomes embroiled in a series of misadventures involving a wedding party, a fire and an angry strip-club owner (Freeman).  Also a couple of TV actors (Wolf and Mohr) are coerced into taking part in a sting operation by a sinister detective (Fichtner).

This film plays like a teen movie version of Pulp Fiction (1994) and, released by Columbia, it feels a lot like a major studio's attempt to emulate the hip indie movies that Miramax were specializing in at the time, and so isn't really as edgy and cool as it sometimes seems to think it is.  However, having said that it is an entertaining film, funny, fast-moving and fairly light-hearted.  The film is well-written and the individual stories are well-constructed, and each has it's own feel.  It's well cast and full of familiar faces many of whom would go on to bigger things (look out for Melissa McCarthy in her feature film debut), Sarah Polley in particular is a stand-out.  While it is very much a product of it's time, it has aged fairly well, and is always enjoyable.

Katie Holmes and Sarah Polley in Go

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Lost Highway

Year of Release:  1997
Director:  David Lynch
Screenplay:  David Lynch and Barry Gifford
Starring:  Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty
Running Time:  134 minutes
Genre:  Mystery, neo-noir, horror

Fred Madison (Pullman) is a saxophonist, and has a strained relationship with his mysterious wife Renee (Arquette).  The couple begin receiving a series of strange video tapes showing the exterior and interior of their house.  When Renee is savagely murdered, Madison is accused of the crime and sentenced to death.  However, on death row he transforms into young mechanic Pete Dayton (Getty).  One of Dayton's frequent clients is mercurial gangster Mister Eddy (Robert Loggia), and he finds himself becoming dangerously infatuated with Mister Eddy's seductive girlfriend Alice (Arquette again).  Then things start to get a little strange.

This is possibly one of the strangest films that David Lynch has made.  In fact watching it sometimes feels as if your watching two separate films spliced together.  The first part of the film, plays like a nightmare.  The whole thing is dreamlike, the camera slowly drifting through the Madison's cavernous, shadowy house, full of strange rumblings and odd lights, much like the camera in the videos they are sent.  The character's movements are slow, and their dialogue slightly off-tempo.  The second, much longer part of the film, plays very much like a nineties' neo-noir, at least initially, about a guy being drawn to a dangerous woman.  The scene where Mister Eddy beats and screams at a tailgater could have come straight from a Quentin Tarantino film.  The script was co-written by Lynch with novelist Barry Gifford (whose work Lynch had adapted in Wild at Heart (1990)), and Lynch was inspired to make the film by a phrase in Gifford's short story collection Night People (1992), and the opening scene in the film was based on an incident that actually happened to Lynch, where someone buzzed his intercom to inform him that "Dick Laurent is dead".  Lynch claims that he has no idea who the caller was or who Dick Laurent was.  This film won't be to everyone's tastes.  It's allusive, challenging, disturbing, deeply strange and offers up no easy answers to it's many mysteries.  However, if you pay attention you can come to an interpretation of the film.  There are some classic Lynch moments and characters here, particularly Robert Blake as the genuinely creepy Mystery Man.


  The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) in Lost Highway

         

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Babadook

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  Jennifer Kent
Screenplay:  Jennifer Kent, based on the short film Monster by Jennifer Kent
Starring:  Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This genuinely creepy Australian film focuses on single mother Amelia (Davis) whose husband died taking her to the hospital to give birth to her now six year old son, Samuel (Wiseman).  Amelia spends her days working in a retirement home and looking after her son.  She has very few friends, the only person she is really close to is her sister, Claire (McElhinney) who has no understanding of what she is going through.  Sam suffers from insomnia and is obsessed with imaginary monsters, which he has built homemade weapons to fight.  One night Amelia reads to Sam from an anonymous pop-up book called Mister Babadook which describes a monster called The Babadook which torments an kills people once they become aware of it's existence.  Amelia is deeply disturbed by the book's unsettling story and graphic imagery, and Sam is terrified, convinced that the Babdook is real.  Amelia soon comes to believe that he may be right.

This film is less a ghost story and more a harrowing examination of a woman's mental breakdown.  Amelia is a deeply unhappy woman, lonely, unsatisfied at work, living soley for her troubled son, unable to get over the death of her husband.  Essie Davis provides a powerful performance as Amelia, haunted by far more than ghosts.  To be properly scary a horror film has to connect with real primal fears, and this does: a fear of growing mad, a fear of a parent harming their child, and a child's fear that their parent may stop loving them or even hurt them.  It's also a film about grief and how to live with it.  The Babadook itself, a pale-faced monster with a tall stovepipe hat and sharp claws is barely shown in the film, and bears some resemblance to the concept of the "Shadow People" of urban legend.  The overwhelming, shadowy creature can be seen in purely symbolic terms.  Taking place almost entirely in a creepy, run-down house, prone to electrical failures, the scares are mostly character driven and slow-burning.  It conjures a strange fairy-tale atmosphere, particularly in it's use of old cartoons, and Georges Melies silent fantasies that Amelia watches on TV.  Jennifer Kent originally wanted to film the movie in black-and-white, and uses a kind of washed out palette with muted colours, making everyone look haunted.  This is one of the most genuinely frightening horror films of the past few years and I would think taht some viewers, particularly parents, will react to it on a very primal level.

    Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis hunt The Babadook

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Galaxy of Terror

Year of Release:  1981
Director:  Bruce D. Clark
Screenplay:  Marc Siegler and Bruce D. Clark
Starring:  Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Taaffe O'Connell, Robert Englund, Grace Zabriske, Sid Haig
Running Time:  81 minutes
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction

The crew of the spaceship Quest are sent to a remote planet to investigate the disappearance of an earlier craft.  The rescue team soon discover a strange alien pyramid , and are attacked and gruesomely killed one by one by strange creatures, corresponding to their individual fears.

This is one of numerous rip-offs of Alien (1981) that seems to infest cinema in the early 1980s, on their way to clogging up the bargain basement racks of video stores the world over.  Produced by B-movie maestro Roger Corman on an obviously low budget, this film is graphically gruesome in a  way that would be funny, if it wasn't for a notorious scene where a female crewmember (played by Taffee O'Connell) is stripped, sexually assaulted and killed by a giant slime covered maggot-like monster.  The film is oddly constructed, with what should be an essentially simple plot complicated by bizarre subplots that are either never properly developed or just dropped entirely.  The eclectic cast includes Erin Moran (Joanie from Happy Days) alongside genre stalwarts such as Grace Zabriske (Twin Peaks), Sid Haig (House of 1,000 Corpses) and Freddy Krueger himself Robert Englund.  The film's strength is it's imaginative production design, from future director James Cameron, who also worked as the Second Unit Director, in fact echoes of the spaceship sets in this film can be seen in Cameron's Aliens (1986).

This isn't the worst of the Alien rip-offs, but your best sticking with the original.  The sex scene is exploitative, and many people may find it very offensive, so proceed with caution.

Robert Englund faces a Galaxy of Terror

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Doctor Strange

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Scott Derrickson
Screenplay:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, based on the character created by Steve Ditko
Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt
Running Time:  115 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, science-fiction, action, superhero


This is a film based on the Marvel Comics character and is part of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.  In New York City, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is an acclaimed neurosurgeon, until he is badly injured in a car accident.  Unable to return to surgery because of nerve damage to his hands, Strange is confronted with the loss of his purpose in life.  Desperate to heal his hands by any means necessary, Strange's quest leads him to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he enconters the Ancient One (Swinton), and her followers, known as "Masters", including Mordo (Ejiofor), who Strange befriends, and stern librarian Wong (Wong).  The Ancient One takes Strange on as a pupil, training him in mystical practices and sorcery.  However, Stange soon becomes aware of the dark side of sorcery, when a renegade (Mikkelsen) threatens to unleash dark and terrible forces.

This is very much a superhero origin story and follows a path that we have seen many times before.  There is also the problem that Strange's powers and the film's mythos are quite complex and so there is a lot of exposition necessary.  However in the confines of this, the film manages to work.  It's smart, funny and full of action.   Cumberbatch has a lot of charisma and makes the, at times, pretty unlikable Strange an interesting and amusing character, however no one else really gets a chance to shine, being there to provide  exposition or conflict.  The character of the Ancient One in the comics is a Tibetan man, the film swaps the gender and, controversially, the ethnicity of the character, in another example of Hollywood whitewashing.  Another problem is that Rachael McAdams is completely underused as Strange's colleague and love interest, and really has more or less an extended cameo.

However the film has a lot going for it, and is well worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.  For one thing it is possibly the closest thing you can get, legally, to a full on psychedelic trip.  The special effects are absolutely stunning, with buildings and entire cities becoming beautifully complex, floating, changing Rubik's cubes (ask someone who remembers the 80s).  It has a distinct look and style, and may be too oddball for some True Believers.  Speaking of which, look out for the obligatory cameo from Stan Lee, and remember to stay until the end of the credits.

           Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange

Friday, 21 October 2016

"Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch

Year of Publication:  2011
Length:  392 pages
Genre:  Fantasy, crime

Police Constable Peter Grant is a rookie in London's Metropolitan Police, and is tasked to guard a headless corpse discovered on the street, and ends up taking a witness statement from a ghost.  He is approached by Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who shows him a secret side to London, a world of magic, ghosts and vampires.  Becoming Nightingale's magical apprentice, Peter finds himself working with Nightingale to police the supernatural world of London.  Peter soon finds himself embroiled in a family feud between two human personifications of the River Thames.  However, London finds itself gripped by a bizarre series of unexplained violent attacks, and Peter has to solve the mystery before it claims the lives of his friends.

This novel is a thoroughly entertaining blend of urban fantasy and police procedural.  It manages to work as both, it's detective story elements are suspenseful and intriguing and the fantasy elements are gripping, and the two blend together well.  It's sometimes dark but, told through the first person perspective of Peter Grant, there's a strong vein of laconic humour running through the book.  It's an imaginative tale, with well-drawn characters and an engaging protagonist.  Sometimes uneven in tone, it tends to veer between light comedy and quite graphic horror, this is still a well-written, fast moving tale that appeal to both fantasy fans and thriller fans looking for something different.

    

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Inferno

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Ron Howard
Screenplay:  David Koepp, based on the novel Inferno by Dan Brown
Starring:  Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Irrfan Khan
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  thriller, adventure
 
In present day Florence, Italy, Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in a hospital bed with concussion, bizarre apocalyptic visions and no memory of the past couple of days.  He immediately finds himself being hunted by hired killers and, along with a hospital doctor Sienna Brooks (Jones), goes on the run.  The two find themselves embroiled in a plot by a scientist who intends to "save" humanity from it's overpopulation crisis, by wiping out billions of people with his deadly "Inferno" virus.

The above is not a spoiler.  We learn about the Inferno virus before the opening credits have finished.  This will be familiar ground to fans of previous Dan Brown adaptations, such as The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009).  It's structured like a scavenger hunt, with Langdon and Brook deciphering clues secreted in ancient works of art and Dante's The Divine Comedy which sends them to the next clue.  The outcome is never really in doubt, and the film drags in it's first hour, but it does pick up pace, and the ending is quite exciting.  The story is of course completely ludicrous as the plots and double-crosses mount up.  However the idea of Langdon being incapacitated and not able to make full use of his greatest asset, his mind, in initially interesting but it rapidly fades away.  The villains are also intriguing in that they genuinely believe they are doing the right thing, although I suppose that is true of most people.

The film is well-cast, with Tom Hanks as appealing and engaging as ever, and Felicity Jones and Sidse Babett Knudsen providing strong support.

 Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones search for clues in Inferno

Friday, 14 October 2016

"The Bricks That Built the Houses" by Kate Tempest

Year of Publication:  2016
Length:  399 pages
Genre:  slice-of-life

The novel follows the lives of a group of 20-somethings in London:  Becky is an aspiring dancer, working as a waitress and part-time masseuse. Harry sells drugs to rich people in clubs and at parties, while dreaming of setting up a bar/restaurant/performing arts venue/community center.  Harry is in love with Becky, but Becky is dating Pete, Harry's jealous, bitter, unemployed younger brother. They struggle with dead-end jobs, complex friendships and relationships, violent maniacs, politics and angry drug-dealers, all the time trying to pursue their dreams and escape the emptiness of their lives in south-east London.

Kate Tempest is an acclaimed poet, rapper and playwright, this is her first novel.  The prose is deft with some beautiful passages, and a strong ear for dialogue.  The novel moves between past and present, detailing the early lives and backgrounds of the characters.  The book treats it's characters  with real compassion, even when they make bad choices.  It also portrays a powerful portrait of inner-city British life.  This is a passionate, engaged, relevant novel, written with real heart.  Some of the storylines conclude a little too neatly at the end, but this is a minor criticism.  It's a great book.

        

Monday, 10 October 2016

Drive

Year of Release:  2011
Director:  Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay:  Hossein Amini, based on the novel Drive by James Sallis
Starring:  Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks
Running Time:  100 minutes
Genre:  crime, thriller

Ryan Gosling stars as the unnamed Driver, a mechanic and part-time movie stunt driver who occasionally moonlights as a getaway driver.  Living a quiet, solitary existence, his only friend is his employer / manager Shannon (Cranston).  However, the Driver soon finds himself drawn to his neighbor Irene (Mulligan) who lives alone with her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), her husband, Standard (Isaac), is in jail.  However when Standard is released and forced into taking part in a robbery, the Driver has to take extreme measures to protect Irene and Benicio.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a fantastic visual stylist, and here he turns Los Angeles into a seductive, neon-drenched netherworld.  Despite being set in the present day, the film has a kind of retro, 1980s feel about it, accentuated by Cliff Matinez's pulsating synth score, but the Driver himself could almost be a Western hero, the Clint Eastwood-style Man With No Name.  Certainly, with his silk jacket emblazoned with a scorpion logo on the back, the blank-faced Gosling turns in an iconic performance with very little dialogue, communicating a lot with just a quick look and the twitch of his mouth.

Mostly, this is a slow-moving film, but it is punctuated with sudden bursts of graphic violence (warning:  the violence is pretty shocking, especially as it often erupts so suddenly).  The storyline is fairly predictable, although this isn't really a plot driven film, it's a mood piece.  Also Carey Mulligan really isn't given much to do at all, and the other principal female character, Christina Hendricks' Blanche, has barely any screen-time at all.  However, Bryan Cranston is striking as the always unlucky Shannon.

It may be too slow and too brutal for some, but it is a ride worth taking.

Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling in Drive    

Saturday, 8 October 2016

When Marnie Was There

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenplay:  Masashi Ando, Keiko Niwa and Hiromasa Yonebashi, based on the novel When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson
Starring:  Sara Takatsuki. Kasumi Arimura
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre:  drama, fantasy, animation

This animated film is an adaptation of the popular children's novel When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson, transposing the setting from 1960s Norfolk, England to modern day Japan.  Anna Sasaki (Takatsuki) is an introverted 12 year old, who suffers an asthma attack at school.  Her worried foster mother sends Anna to spend the summer with relatives of hers in the country, believing that the air will do Anna some good.  Anna becomes fascinated by a dilapidated old mansion across the marshes, known as The Marsh House.  One night Anna meets a mysterious girl called Marnie, who lives at the Marsh House.  The two form a firm friendship, and Anna learns some secrets about Marnie and about herself.

This was made by Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli, and was their last film before the studio went on a hiatus following the retirement of studio head Hayao Miyazaki and may be their final film.  If it does prove to be their last film, this is a wonderful farewell.  It doesn't reach the heights of their best work, but it is visually stunning, and has enough emotion and sense of wonder to provide a more than worthwhile addition to the studio's peerless roster.  It is a surprisingly dark film that touches on very bleak subject matter, such as bullying and parental neglect, and considering it's aimed at children, it may be disturbing for some.  The story spins an intriguing mystery, and deals with the connections among family and friends, and past and present.  

       When Marnie Was There

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Dune

Year of Release:  1984
Director:  David Lynch
Screenplay:  David Lynch, based on the novel Dune by Frank Herbert
Starring:  Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Jurgen Prochnow, Jose Ferrer, Kenneth McMillan, Sting, Sean Young, Everett McGill, Dean Stockwell, Patrick Stewart, Virginia Madsen, Max von Sydow
Running Time:  131 minutes
Genre:  science-fiction

This adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 science-fiction novel is generally considered a disaster, and right off the bat I have to say that it's really not that bad.  The story is set in a distant galaxy and involves two feuding families from two different planets:  The Atreides from the planet Caladan, ruled by patriarch Duke Leto (Prochnow), with his concubine Lady Jessica (Annis) and their son Paul (MacLachlan); and the Harkonnens from Geidi Prime, ruled by the sadistic and grotesque Baron Vladimir (McMillan) and his nephews, Feyd-Rautha (Sting) and the Beast Raban (Paul Smith).
The Atreides and Harkonnens are both desperate for control of the desert planet Arrakis (nicknamed Dune), a world devoid of natural water, riddled with deadly, giant subterranean sandworms,  and sparsely populated by a mysterious people known as the Fremen.  Arrakis is however vital, because it is the only source of the "spice melange", the most valuable substance in the universe, which can extend life and expand consciousness.  It's most important property is the ability to "fold space" thereby making interstellar travel possible.

This is a deeply frustrating film because there is a lot about it that is really great, and so much that is really bad.  It's worse problem is that it tries to condense Herbert's long, complex novel, which involves an intricate back-story into a too short a time, and this isn't a short film.  In the event much of the film's dialogue is purely exposition to advance the plot, with a lot of voice-over narration to explain what the hell is happening.  However it is a visually stunning film, with some of the most striking sets and production design that I have seen, and it does create a number of unique worlds and at it's best creates a genuine sense of wonder.  It also hasn't dated too much, except for some special-effects shots, and the very 1980s soundtrack by Toto and Brian Eno.  Watching it is a unique and unforgettable experience, with Kenneth McMillan creating, in Baron Harkonnen, one of the most memorable screen villains in history.  In fact, the Harkonnen scenes are genuinely nightmare fuel.  Again most of the good-looking characters are heroic, and evil is depicted by physical ugliness.  Francesca Annis is impressive as Lady Jessica, who provides the emotional heart of the film, but otherwise there are a lot of great actors standing around in fantastic costumes and sets, struggling to make an impression.

David Lynch famously repudiated the film, and dislikes even discussing it in interviews, and given the fact that he has never made any secret of the fact that he dislikes science-fiction, he was kind of an odd choice to direct it, but there is a lot of Lynch in it's visuals and style.

You may love it or you may hate it, but it is such a striking and unique experience, it is well worth checking out.

 Kyle MacLachlan versus Sting, while Patrick Stewart looks on in Dune                  

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Hell or High Water

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  David Mackenzie
Screenplay:  Taylor Sheridan
Starring:   Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham
Running Time:  102 minutes
Genre:  thriller, crime

This neo-Western crime thriller tells the story of the Howard brothers, divorced father Toby (Pine) and violent, ex-con Tanner (Foster) who embark on a string of bank robberies throughout Texas, always targeting branches of the same bank, in order to stop the foreclosure of their family's farm, and also to take revenge on the bank.  they are pursued by a pair of laconic Texas Rangers:  Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Birmingham).

This is similar in style to Coen Brothers films such as Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men  (2008), but it stands up on it's own, and is probably the best thriller of the year.  The film is suspenseful, exciting and often very funny.  The audience is on the side of the troubled Howard brothers, and Toby Howard's desire to provide for his children but we're also in no doubt about the wrongness of their actions.  While Toby is calm, collected, reasonable and abhors "unnecessary" violence, Tanner is a violent maniac with a hair-trigger temper and at the very least terrorizes any number of innocent cashiers.  Jeff Bridges is at his best as the wisecracking, ageing and world-weary Texas Ranger, and his relationship with his Native American / Mexican partner Alberto is genuinely touching.  There is a real sense of a long-standing friendship there.  They insult each other  and crack wise on each other constantly, but there Bridges and Birmingham play it with real heart.  Chris Pine also deserves praise for his portrayal of the essentially decent  Toby Howard.  The film takes place among washed out, sunbleached Texas landscapes, full of dying small towns, and houses and farms either foreclosed or selling up, and endless billboards advertising quick cash loans, providing contemporary social relevance.   It's also very much a guy film, there are very few key roles for women, and Tanner Howard is portrayed as a violent misogynist.  The film's haunting score is provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.


Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
 

Monday, 3 October 2016

From Up on Poppy Hill

Year of Release:  2011
Director:  Goro Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, based on the manga From Up on Coquelicot Hill by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi
Starring:  Masami Nagasawa, Junichi Okada, Keiko Takeshita, Yuriko Ishida, Jun Fubiki, Takashi Naiko, Shunsuke Kazama, Nao Omori, Teruyuki Kagawa
Running Time: 91 minutes
Genre:  animation, comics, drama, coming of age, romance

This animated film from Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli, is set in Yokohama, in 1963.  Sixteen year old Umi Matsuzaki (Nagasawa) balances schoolwork with helping to run the boarding house where she lives with her younger sisters and her grandmother.  At school, she meets Shun Kazama (Okada) who writes for the school newspaper and is heavily involved in a student campaign to save a large ramshackle building which houses the school's various clubs, from demolition.  While at first she dislikes Shun, Umi becomes drawn into the campaign to save the building, and she and Shun draw increasingly close.

This is a gentle, nostalgic, romantic, coming-of-age drama.  In contrast to better known Studio Ghibli films, such as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) and Spirited Away (2001) this features no supernatural or fantasy elements whatsoever.  Co-scripted by acclaimed writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, from a 1980s manga, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki's son, Goro, whose previous directorial credit was Tales From Earthsea (2006).  This is not one of the best Studio Ghibli films, but it is still a more than respectable addition to their hallowed filmography.  It's a gentle, sweet film, devoid of conflict, depicting a kinder world in lush vibrant colours, however it doesn't ignore some of the darker aspects of 1950s and 60s Japan.  While some of the animation isn't as polished as some of the other Ghibli films, and towards the end there is maybe one plot contrivance too many, this is still a great film for children and adults.

"There's no future for people who worship the future, and forget the past." - Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada)

     
From Up on Poppy Hill
      

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Strangers on a Train

Year of Release:  1951
Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay:  Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde, based on the novel Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Starring:  Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock
Running Time:  101 minutes
Genre:  crime thriller

Guy Haines (Granger), an amateur tennis star, wants to marry senator's daughter Anne Morton (Roman), and pursue a political career.  First of all, though, he has to get a divorce from his unfaithful wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott).  On a train he chances to meet charismatic psychopath Bruno Anthony (Walker).  The two fall into conversation, and Bruno proposes that they "swap murders", he will kill Guy's wife, if Guy will kill Bruno's hated father.  His theory being that if there is no connection between the murderer and the victim, than there is much less chance of the killer being caught.   Bruno succeeds in killing Miriam, and then tries to force Guy to complete hi side of the bargain.

This film, based on the debut novel of celebrated crime author Patricia Highsmith, has an arresting premise that has been reused several times in movies and television shows.  It features one of the most memorable set pieces in Hitchcock's work, the prolonged stalking and murder of Miriam at a  fairground, the murder itself being shown as a reflection in Miriam's discarded glasses.  It also works with the cat and mouse game between Guy and Bruno, as Bruno stalks Guy and tries to convince him to fulfill his side of the deal.      It's at it's weakest in the family scenes with Guy and his girlfriend Anne, and her father (Leo G. Carroll).  Anne is kind of a dull character who is really only there as a love interest, and her father has nothing to do at all, he's kind of a sober, wet blanket who is only there to dispense sage advice.  As Anne's kid sister, Barbara, Patricia Hitchcock (the director's daughter) provides most of the humour.  Farley Granger is good as the everyman caught in a vortex of suspicion and paranoia as he becomes a murder suspect while being stalked at every turn by the implacable Bruno.  As the charming but ruthless murderer, Robert Walker brings a  touch of humour to Bruno, who is one of Hitchcock's most sinister villains.  From the very strange relationship he has with his doting mother, to his relentless pursuit of Guy, Bruno is a very ambiguous character. He is also as obviously gay as a character could be back in 1951
This is a suspenseful tale, stylishly told. If the pacing slows down towards the middle it is more than made up for with a thrilling climax.  Look out for Hitchcock's cameo as a man exiting a train carrying a double bass early in the film.

    Farley Granger and Robert Walker are Strangers on a Train

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Year of Release:  1976
Director:   Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay:  Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis
Starring:  David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey
Running Time:  138 minutes
Genre:  science-fiction, satire

A mysterious man, Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), comes out of nowhere an sets up a hugely successful electronics conglomerate, World Enterprises, using revolutionary technology.  In reality, Newton is a humanoid alien in disguise, who plans to use the profits he earns through his company, which he has set up with patents on his advanced alien technology, and the inventions he has developed with it, to construct a huge spaceship to ship water back to his home planet which is dying due to severe drought.  Newton does indeed become fabulously wealthy, however he soon becomes corrupted by human vices such as alcohol, television, sex and money.

This fascinating film is a science-fiction movie like no other.  It's long, frustrating, fascinating, beguiling, pretentious, funny, dark and wonderful  by turns.  It also works as a satire on modern American life.  The imagery, which is heavy on symbolism, is largely taken from outside the science-fiction genre.  This was David Bowie's debut feature film and it is the role he was born to play.  With his quiet performance as the pale, emaciated alien everything about him is otherworldly, even before he reveals his true appearance (hairless, with yellow cat's-eyes and no genitals).  Candy Clark also impresses as sweet, lonely hotel maid Mary-Lou, who falls for Newton.  As with many Nicolas Roeg films, this is full of rich, striking often surreal images and a barrage of cinematic tricks, although it's a lot more linear than many of his other works of the period.  The several brief flashback scenes to Newton's homeworld are the most traditionally science-fiction elements of the film, and create the sense of a genuinely alien world with very few props and effects.
It is also a scathing satire on human weakness, corruption and cruelty, as the delicate alien embraces and becomes victimised by the darker side of human nature.  This is a film that would probably never get made now, it's too slow, too cerebral, too allegorical, too dark, too sexual and too obscure for modern day Hollywood science-fiction.

You may not enjoy this film, but you should certainly see it, at least once.

   David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth

Monday, 26 September 2016

Bicycle Thieves

Year of Release:  1948
Director:  Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay:  Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, from a story by Luigi Bartolini
Starring:  Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Vittorio Antonucci
Running Time:  85 minutes
Genre:  drama

In post-World War II Rome, Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani) is desperate for work to support his wife Maria (Carell), his son Bruno (Staiola), and his baby.  He is overjoyed when he is offered  a job putting up posters.  However, on his first day of work, his bicycle, which he needs for his job, is stolen.  With the police either unwilling or unable to help him, Antonio, with Bruno in tow, is forced into an increasingly desperate search through the backstreets, alleys, black markets and tenements of Rome to find his stolen property.

During World War II, many Italian film studios were bombed, and many actors were called up to fight.  As a result, in the immediate post-war years, Italian filmmakers found themselves with very few facilities or actors.  However, they managed to make a virtue out of a necessity.  Filming largely on locations, with light-weight cameras, and using often non-professional actors, they developed a style which became known as "Italian neorealism", a semi-documentary approach, which continues to influence filmmakers today.  Bicycle Thieves is seen as one of them greatest works of neorealism.  This is a powerful look at poverty and desperation, with it's unflinching look at a man and his son, as their world crumbles around them, from the joy of morning to the despair of evening.  The film was cast entirely with untrained non-professional actors.  Lamberto Maggiorani was a factory worker, and 8-year old Enzo Staiola was cast when director Vittorio De Sica noticed him watching them on the street, while helping his father sell flowers.  Both of them turn in devastating performances, with the image of Staiola gazing into the camera towards the end of the film becoming an icon of Italian cinema.  It may be hard for some to understand how the loss of a bicycle can mean so much, but for the Riccis it's everything.  Without the bicycle, he can't work, if he can't work, they don't eat.  It's as simple and brutal as that.  This is a film that is as powerful and as relevant today, as it was nearly seventy years ago.

         Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani in Bicycle Thieves

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay:  Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
Starring:  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard
Running Time:  133 minutes
Genre:  Western, action

The year is 1879, and the small mining town of Rose Creek is plagued by ruthless industrialist Bart Bogue (Sarsgaard), who wants control of the entire town.  After Bogue turns a town meeting in the local church into a massacre, young widow Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband was killed by Bogue, and her friend Teddy (Luke Grimes) ride out to find gunfighters to help protect the town.  They find bounty hunter Sam Chisholm (Washington), who has a personal grievance against Bogue, gunfighter and gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheux (Hawke), and his associate and expert knife fighter Billy Rocks (Lee), wanted outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), grizzled frontiersman Jack Horne (D'Onofrio) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier).  These seven have to protect a town of farmers against a ruthless army.

This is a remake of the classic 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, which in turn was a remake of the 1954 film Seven Samurai.  This is a hugely entertaining, classical Western, full of the traditional tropes of the genre, there is even a scene where the piano stops playing when a  character shoulders into the saloon.  I have to confess, I am a huge fan of Westerns, and this film left me with a big smile on my face.  It's a good old-fashioned romp, in the best sense, full of action, and daring-do, with a dash of humour and emotion (the final moments have real emotional weight).  Washington and Pratt provide real movie-star charisma.  Aside form a more diverse cast, this is very much a traditional Western, and doesn't really do much that hasn't been done before, but for old-school Saturday matinee fun, it certainly delivers.

Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee are The Magnificent Seven

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Year of Release:  2000
Director:  Joe Berlinger
Screenplay:  Dick Beebe and Joe Berlinger
Starring:  Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner
Running Time:  90 minutes
Genre:  horror, supernatural

Recently released from a psychiatric hospital, Burkittsville resident Jeffrey (Donovan) decides to cash in on the phenomenal success of the recently released movie The Blair Witch Project, set in and around his small home town.  Selling merchandise from his website, he also starts up a Blair Witch tour to take tourists on a camping trip around the woods to see the sites featured in the movie and associated with the Blair Witch legend.  Equipped with an arsenal of video and recording equipment, his first tour group consists of Stephen (Turner) and his pregnant wife Tristen (Skyler) who are writing a book about the Blair Witch phenomenon, Erica a Wiccan who wants to commune with the spirit of the Blair Witch, and Kim a Goth who claims to be psychic.  The first night they are interrupted by a rival tour group, but Jeffrey and friends trick them into going elsewhere.  The following morning they wake up with no memory of the previous night, to find up that Stephen and Tristen's notes have been completely destroyed, and Jeffrey's tapes have been buried.  However far more horrific discoveries await them, and their situation becomes more nightmarish as they try to find out what happened during the night.

This was rushed out exactly a year after the release of The Blair Witch Project.  It opens up with a disclaimer claiming that the film is based on a true story, and the director Joe Berlinger had previously, and subsequently, worked only as a documentary film-maker, but this abandons the found footage format of the original film for a more conventional style.  The film opens with a series of news reports about the success of The Blair Witch Project, and the negative impact that it had on the town of Burkittsville.  Initially, at least, it is almost a commentary on the first film, the groups represented by the tour group were all the most drawn to and affected by the original.

This was slated by critics and audiences on it's original release, and is widely seen as a failure.  When I first saw it in the cinema back in 2000, I loved it.  I thought it was cool, gory fun.  Watching it this evening, there is still a lot to like, but I think it could certainly have been better, and there are scenes in this movie where a much better film seems to be trying to get out.   Director Berlinger claimed that the film was originally intended to be much more ambiguous and really a psychological horror film, but it was re-edited by the studios, with additional scenes of gore added.  To be fair, it's not really a bad film.  It's entertaining and it moves along fast enough.  Some of the performances leave a lot to be desired, it doesn't make a lot of sense, and the second half in particular is pretty confused, but it is nowhere near as irritating as a lot of these "fractured reality/dream" horror films.  It does feel like very much a product of it's time, with the loud goth-rock soundtrack, and flashily edited gore.

  Stephen Barker Turner, Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan and Tristine Skyler in Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Blair Witch

Year:  2016
Director:  Adam Wingard
Screenplay:  Simon Barrett
Starring:  James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson
Running Time:  89 minutes
Genre:  horror, supernatural

James Donohue (McCune) finds an online video which seemingly contains an image of his sister Heather, who disappeared twenty years previously in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while investigating the local legend of the Blair Witch.  Believing his sister may still be alive, James heads off into the woods, accompanied by his friends Peter (Scott), Ashley (Reid) and film student Lisa (Hernandez) who intends to film their search for a documentary.  They are joined by Burkittsville locals Lane (Robinson) and Talia (Curry) who uploaded the footage.  Before long a series of strange and frightening events befall them.  

This is the second sequel to the influential The Blair Witch Project (1999), following the unsuccessful Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2 (2000).  As with the original film, this is a "found footage" movie, where everything is allegedly filmed by the characters on screen.  While in the original this was novel and innovative, here it looks kind of tired, due to the flood of found footage films that unleashed themselves after the success of Blair Witch Project.  By and large this has the same basic structure as the original, except everything is bigger: instead of the original trio, here there are six people lost in the woods; whereas in the first film they had a couple of cameras, here they have an arsenal of DV cameras, spy cameras, ear-mounted headset cameras, and a drone.  Also, while the original film thrived on subtlety and ambiguity, there is nothing subtle here, with sudden jump scares, loud noises, crashing trees, and tents, equipment and people shooting into the sky and crashing back to earth.  This turns it into a fairly conventional horror film, also, unlike the original, you are left in no doubt that the threat is supernatural, and the Blair Witch feels thoroughly demystified by the end.  There are some tense scenes and some elements, such as the way time and space become distorted, are quite effective.  However, the characters are pretty much one dimensional and spend most of the time bickering or screaming.  The found footage style quickly becomes tiresome and frustrating, with the jerky, grainy images.

Valorie Curry runs afoul of the Blair Witch

          
  

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

Year of Publication: 2002
Length:  505 pages
Genre:  Fiction, fantasy, surreal

In present day Japan, fifteen year old Kafka Tamura runs away from home, under the shadow of his father's dark prophecy, in order to find his mother and sister, and finds refuge in a small-town library, with a mysterious boy and a beautiful middle-aged librarian, with a dark past.  Meanwhile, gentle elderly Nakata, who has never recovered fully form a bizarre incident in his childhood, supplements his disability allowance by tracking down lost cats, until a brutal murder sends him off on his own bizarre odyssey.  In this world cats can talk to people, fish and leeches rain from the sky, a forest hides soldiers apparently un-aged since World War II, the identity of a murder victim, as well as the killer, is unclear, people are haunted by the ghosts of the living, the boundaries between past and present, life and death, and parallel worlds blur and collapse.

This is a beguiling, surreal, dreamlike novel.  Often baffling, sometimes frustrating, occasionally funny, sometimes sexy, frequently infuriating and also heart-breakingly beautiful at times.   This is not a book that gives up it's secrets willingly, and it offers very few answers to it's many questions.   Reading it is at times like falling into a dream,  and it requires a lot of concentration from the reader.  It moves at a sedate pace, particularly the Kafka storyline.  Murakami fans will immediately recognise many of his hallmarks: cats, books, music (particularly classical and jazz) and food all appear frequently and prominently in the novel, as well as the typical Murakami protagonist, who drifts through the story, letting events transpire around them.

Murakami is, in my opinion, one of the greatest novelists around, and, while this may not be one of his best books, it is still heavily touched by his unique genius.  It's worth surrendering to this frustrating dream, to experience the uniqueness of his imagination and, most of all, for passages that will lodge in your mind and heart.

    

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Passport to Pimlico

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Henry Cornelius
Screenplay:  T. E. B. Clarke
Starring:  Stanley Holloway, Margaret Rutherford, Barbara Murray
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  comedy

This is a fairly early example of the so-called "Ealing Comedies", a series of films from Britain's Ealing Studios, which were notable for their gentle whimsy.  In Passport to Pimlico, an unexploded World War II bomb is accidentally detonated revealing an underground chamber full of treasure, and  a Royal charter stating that Pimlico, a small borough of central London, is legally part of the French Duchy of Burgundy.  The residents of Pimlico immediately decide to embrace their newfound status as Burgundians, and declare independence form the rest of Britain.  However while it is initially a lot of fun (they tear up their ration books and identity cards, enjoy unlimited opening hours at the local pub, and shopping on a Sunday), the necessity of supplies, not to mention law and order, prove to be serious problems.

This is a quintessentially cosy comedy.  There is some extremely gentle satire on postwar British life, but mostly it's the cinematic equivalent of a coffee and a biscuit on a wet Sunday afternoon.  While there are some solid laughs in the film, mostly it's very gentle whimsy.  It's entertaining enough to keep a smile throughout, but mostly that's about it.  It's the kind of film you can switch on and know that there's nothing to worry about in it, nothing likely to offend, and you'll have a couple of laughs.  There are good performances, and there are enough witty lines and plot developments to keep what is basically a one-gag going.  There could be more bite to the satire and some of the darker elements to the situation never get explored, although that's not really so much a criticism, sometimes it's great to have something completely light and funny, with nothing to worry about, particularly these days.  It is also a look at a bygone world, with bombed-out buildings, and rationing and so on.

           Barbara Murray and Stanley Holloway in Passport to Pimlico

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Blair Witch Project

Year of Release:  1999
Directors:  Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Screenplay:  Jacob Cruse and Eduardo Sanchez
Starring:  Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams
Running Time:  81 minutes
Genre:  horror

It's hard to picture, seventeen years on, the phenomenal impact that The Blair Witch Project had when it was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in late 1999.  It managed to split audiences among those who were caught up in the film's ambiguous chills and genuinely frightened by it, and those who thought it was 81 minutes of tedium, and annoyingly shaky camera work, that could have been made by anyone with a bunch of pals and access to some woods and a video camera.  The idea, as we are informed in the opening titles, is that in October 1994 three film students (Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard) and Mike (Williams)) go missing in the forests around the small Maryland town of Burkittsville while filming a documentary about a gruesome local legend.  A year later their footage is found, and it is this footage that is allegedly presented to the viewers.

The film made use of a very innovative marketing campaign, selling the entirely fictional film as if it was a true story, with the help of television "documentaries" and being one of the first films to really utilise the power of internet marketing, at a time when the Web was just becoming widespread, and also of course word of mouth.  The film was promoted by issuing "MISSING" posters for each of the three characters (all of whom shared the same name as the actor playing them) even the venerable Internet Movie Database got in on the fun, listing the cast as "missing presumed deceased".  Of course, the cat was out of the bag before long.  This small film became the most successful independent film of all time, and popularised the "found footage" sub-genre of horror although  Blair Witch Project wasn't the first to use the technique (that honor probably goes to Cannibal Holocaust (1980)).  The film keeps it's horror ambiguous, an approach that beguiled some viewers and frustrated others.  The ending in particular is open to interpretation.  It's even debatable as to whether there is anything supernatural going on at all.

Looking at it now, on DVD, away from all the hype, the film has lost a lot of it's impact, particularly after the glut of found footage horrors that came in it's wake.  It's not without it's merit though.  A good horror film needs a basic fear to latch on to in the viewer, with Blair Witch Project it's being lost, alone and frightened with no way out.  I would venture to suggest that most of us have had experience of being lost at some point in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, I'm sure very few of us have been stuck out in the woods and tormented by a powerful supernatural force, but you may have been stuck out late in an unfamiliar part of town, or stranded in a strange place and unsure how to get back.

There have been two sequels to date:  Book of Shadows:  Blair Witch 2 (2000) which was released exactly a year later, and is widely regarded as a disaster, and Blair Witch (2016).

 Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Soft Skin

Year of Release:  1964
Director:  Francois Truffaut
Screenplay:  Francois Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard
Starring:  Jean Desailly, Francoise Dorleac, Nelly Benedetti
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  Drama, romance

This French-Portuguese film from legendary French New Wave director Francois Truffaut tells the story of celebrated academic Pierre Lachenay (Desailly) who lives a comfortable life in Paris with his wife Franca (Benedetti) and young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin).  During a trip to Lisbon to give a lecture he becomes infatuated with young airline stewardess Nicole (Dorleac) and they strike up an affair.  Despite their best efforts, Pierre and Nicole drift towards tragedy.

Despite being nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and the fact that Truffaut was riding high on the international success of The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), The Soft Skin was a major box office disappointment.  It's a pity because this is a very good film.  An essentially dark and somber drama, this still sparkles with Truffaut's style, albeit toned down from his previous works.  This is a morality play, a drama about the workings of adultery and it's devastating consequences.  You know it's going to end badly from the start, even with some humorous scenes towards the middle involving a horrible dinner party and Pierre trying to be polite to a host who just won't leave him alone.  The abrupt climax hist something of a false note, but it woirks due to the strength of the performances.  This film pays a lot of attention to the workings of the various deceptions Pierre uses to keep his philandering a secret from his wife and his friends and colleagues.  Jean Desailly turns in a fantastic performance as the weak but calculating husband, he manages to give heart to a very unlikable character, who is hard to warm to because most of what happens to him is his own fault, however Desailly makes him at least vaguely sympathetic, but Nelly Benedetti owns the screen with a searing performance as the wronged wife who gives a brilliant savage tongue-lashing to a man who harasses her on the street.

Francoise Dorleac (who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve) also gives a great, quiet performance as the mistress, giving some depth to a fairly under-written character.  Interesting art imitated life, because Truffaut left his wife for Dorleac.  Dorleac never got the chance to become the major star she could have been, because she tragically died in a car crash in 1967 at the age of 25.

       Jean Desailly and Francoise Dorleac in The Soft Skin

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Cafe Society

Year of Release:   2016
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott
Running Time:  96 minutes
Genre:  comedy-drama, romance

It always seems like with the release of any Woody Allen film the big question is whether or not he is once again back to his best.  In a career spanning almost fifty theatrical films, Cafe Society is not among his very best, but it is far from his worst.  Set in the 1930s, the story tells of naive, idealistic young Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) who moves to Los Angeles from New York City to work for his Uncle Phil (Carell), a big-time Hollywood agent.  Bobby soon finds himself in the glittering world of 1930s "cafe society", and falls in love with the beautiful Vonnie (Stewart), who happens to be already involved with a married man.

It's a comedy-drama film with the emphasis much more on the drama than the comedy.  It has some laughs, particularly a philosophical discussion between an elderly couple that walks the thin line between comedy and drama very well, and almost recaptures the feel of Allen's earlier works.  The trouble is that I couldn't shake the feeling, that, given another couple of drafts of the script, this could have been a really great film.  The performances are very good, Jesse Eisenberg managing not to fall into the trap of doing a prolonged Woody Allen impression as the lead, and Kristen Stewart once again showing that she is a great actress, lending real weight and heart to the role.

This also must be one of the best looking films that Allen has ever made.  Photographed by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, each location and period in the story has it's own distinct palette and feel.  For example, the Hollywood scenes are bathed in a kind of golden glow, like a late afternoon in summer, while the earlier New York scenes have a more monochrome washed out palette, punctuated by vivid bursts of colour.

As another love letter form Woody Allen to the 1930s to his beloved New York City, which surely has seldom looked lovelier than it does at the end of this film, it delivers.  While far from his best, this is sure to please Allen fans, and should engage those wishing to unfamiliar with his work.

        Jesse Eisnberg and Kristen Stewart enjoy some Cafe Society

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Usual Suspects

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Bryan Singer
Screenplay:  Christopher McQuarrie
Starring:  Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  crime, thriller

This became one of the iconic films of the 1990s, launching director Bryan Singer and stars Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro into the front ranks of Hollywood.  Following a horrific gun battle which leaves twenty seven dead, the sole survivor, small time con man "Verbal" Kint (Spacey) tells FBI agent Kujan (Palminteri) of the events leading up to the massacre, starting six weeks earlier in New York City, when Verbal met thieves McManus (Baldwin), Fenster (del Toro), Hockney (Pollak) and Keaton (Byrne) at a police line-up.  In the holding cell they come up with an audacious robbery, that brings them into contact with lawyer Kobayashi (Postlethwaite) who claims to represent the mysterious and legendary criminal mastermind Keyser Soze.

The film is mostly constructed in a flashback structure moving between Kujan's interrogation of Verbal and Verbal's telling his story.  It's a fast-moving and intriguing story that mostly seems to be moving one way, telling a story that will doubtless be familiar to any thriller fan, but then takes some real turns, leading up to what is one of the most famous final twists in movie history.  Writer Christopher McQuarrie won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award.

The film has some great performances, Kevin Spacey won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.  However, the casting of white English actor Pete Postlethwaite as the apparently Indian Kobayashi strikes something of a false note, although the false note might actually be intentional.  Also the only prominent female character, Keaton's lawyer girlfriend Edie played by Suzy Amis, barely has any screentime, and really has nothing to do.

The film is full of quotable lines, and Singer directs with a distinct style, creating some memorable images.  Several scenes have really entered the annals of pop-culture.  It's not a perfect film by any means, many of the characters are quite cliched and, aside really from Verbal and Keaton, the rest of the gang of crooks just seem to be there to fill up space.  It's worth watching though, because it is very entertaining, and the climax is still effective.


 Round up The Usual Suspects: Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio del Toro, Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey

      

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Year of Release:  2013
Director:  Isao Takahata
Screenplay:  Isao Takahata and Riko Sagacuchi, based on the folk tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
Starring:  Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto
Running Time:    137 minutes
Genre:    Drama, fantasy, animation

This is one of the most beautiful films ever made.  made by Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli, and based on the traditional Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, with first appeared in print in the tenth century, and was old even then, the story revolves around an elderly bamboo cutter,   Miyatsuko (Chii), who discovers a miniature girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot.  Miyatsuko and his wife decide to raise her as their own.  The girl grows and learns astonishingly rapidly.  Miyatsuko discovers gold, jewels and fine clothes in the bamboo grove, again hidden in glowing shoots.  With his new-found wealth, Miyatsuko moves his family to the capital and buys their way into the gentry, having his daughter formally named Princess Kaguya (Asakura).  Her astonishing beauty captivates those around her, and Kaguya soon finds herself trapped.

The animation is stunning in beautiful charcoal, crayon, pastel colours, it has the look and feel of traditional Japanese art.  The story moves slowly, and has a surprisingly dark conclusion, but it's full of beautiful moments, it looks and feels like a dream, taking the viewer into a remote world.  The film constructs the social world of 10th century Japan, but Kaguya is a very modern character, who just wants agency over her own life, and finds herself being thrust into situations by her well-intentioned father, wants to return to the time when she felt truly happy.  As with many Studio Ghibli films, this has a real feel for the natural world, and a forgotten rural life.

Possibly too slow and dark for some viewers, if you surrender to this beautiful dream of a film you will be rewarded with one of the most uplifting and devastating experiences you are ever likely to see on screen.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Sicario

Year of Release:  2015
Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay:  Taylor Sheridan
Starring:  Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  crime, drama, action, thriller

This is a powerful crime thriller.  Following a raid on a suspected Mexican drug cartel's safehouse, young FBI agent Kate Marcer (Blunt) is recommended for a task force led by CIA agent Matt Graver (Brolin) and involving the ruthless and mysterious Alejandro (del Toro).  The task force's mission is to bring down the powerful cartel which owned the safehouse.  However, as the operation progresses, Kate becomes increasingly concerned about the task force's brutal tactics, and dubious morality.

There has been no shortage of gritty thrillers about drugs and guns on the Mexican-American border, but this is certainly one of the better ones.  It's a complex story that deals with the moral questions of the "War on Drugs", and how it has the potential to corrupt the very people whose job it is to protect, and the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are completely blurred here.  The title, "sicario", is Mexican for "hitman", and that applies both to the cartels and the task force assigned to bring them down.  

In the lead role Emily Blunt has too little to do, initially she is the audience surrogate, as the new person on the team she is there to get the situation and the mission explained to her/us.  However, she becomes the heart of the film.  She provides the film's humanity and moral compass, along with Daniel Kaluuya as Kate's protective partner and friend.  Benicio del Toro shines as the quietly terrifying Alejandro who is mostly quietly in the background until he snaps into action in truly shocking ways.

The pacing flags at times, and the story is a little shapeless, but this is well above the typical crime thriller and provides much food for thought.  The action scenes are well handled  and exciting.  It's a fascinating, and at times gripping thriller, and by the end it is devastating.

      Emily Blunt in Sicario


Monday, 22 August 2016

Mystery Train

Year of Release:  1989
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Starring:  Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi,
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  comedy-drama

This film collects three separate but connected stories, all set during the same 24 hour period in Memphis, Tennessee, linked by a run-down hotel, a single gunshot and the legacy of Elvis Presley.  A teenage Japanese couple visit Memphis on a rock 'n' roll pilgrimage, Mitsuko (Kudoh) is crazy about the King, while Jun (Nagase) is more of a Carl Perkins man.  A young Italian widow, Luisa (Braschi), is stranded in Memphis during an unexpected 24 hour layover while escorting her husband's body back to Italy. A hapless barber, Charlie (Buscemi), is unwittingly involved in a liquor store robbery by his drunk, English brother-in-law (Strummer).

This is a slow, melancholy movie.  It's funny but it is comedy of the most deadpan sort.  Jarmusch once commented that he makes films out of the parts that other directors cut out, and this really feels like that.  It's a film full of long pauses, meandering conversations and long sequences of characters wandering around.  It is strangely affecting and haunting though.  The stories with the Japanese couple and the Italian widow capture the feeling of being in a strange city, far from home, and the story about the barber features one of the best scenes of drunkenness on film.  The story with the barber is probably the most mainstream segment, and is Tarantinoesque before Quentin Tarantino, including a conversation about Lost in Space that could almost have been written by Tarantino.  The stories are connected by scenes with Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the night manager of the hotel and Cinque Lee as a porter, who provide some of the film's funniest moments, with Hawkins being able to bring the laughs and express so much with just one look.  There are some great performances from Kudoh, Nagase and Braschi.  Buscemi's put-upon barber and Strummer's aggressive Brit are hilarious together.  Music is ever present in the film, Elvis Presley is referenced in all three of the stories, the Japanese couple are fascinated by American rock 'n' roll, and there are several musicians in the cast:  Soul singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer who was frontman for British rock group The Clash, and Tom Waits lends his gravely tones as the voice of a late-night radio DJ.  

Jarmusch's brand of cool, deadpan whimsy won't appeal to everyone.  It is slow and not much happens for a lot of the film, but it is one of Jarmusch's most accessible films and the epitome of American indie cool.  If you think you might have a taste for underground or more indie films, this is a good place to start.  It's also a haunting paean to American pop-culture which will resonate in the mind long after the end credits have rolled.

   Late Night Grande Hotel:  Cinque Lee and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Wind Rises

Year of Release:  2013
Director:  Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay:  Hayao Miyazaki, based on the manga Kaze Tachinu by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring:  Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishjima, Masahiko Nishimura, Stephen Alpert, Morio Kazama
Running Time:  126 minutes
Genre:  animation, biography

This animated film from acclaimed writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi (Anno), who dreams of flying, and aware that he can never become a pilot due to his poor eyesight, decides to become an aeroplane designer, under the influence of celebrated Italian aircraft designer Count Caproni (Alpert).

The film tells Horikoshi's story from childhood until the end of World War II, taking in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and his doomed romance with the beautiful Naoko (Takimoto). This is a beautiful film, featuring some of the most stunning animation to be seen on screen. The film shows one of the main dichotomies of Miyazaki's work, an avowed pacifist, he has a fascination with the machinery of war, particularly aircraft.  The film depicts flight as a "cursed dream" evolving from pure, honorable motives, but corrupted for military purposes.

This shows the ability of animated film to depict drama in a way that live action film can't.  Moving between Horikoshi's dreams and reality, it's vibrant images make the past come alive.  It may be too slow-moving for some, and it's debatable how close it sticks to the real story (I'm no expert on the real story, but by all accounts it does take liberties with Jiro Horikoshi's real life), but it is a beautiful and powerful film, with a stunningly moving climax.  Miyazaki has said that he was inspired to make the film by a statement from Jiro Horikoshi that "All I wanted to do was create something beautiful."  By which criteria this film is a resounding success.      
  

Jiro and Naoko in The Wind Rises

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Martian

Year of Release:  2015
Director:  Ridley Scott
Screenplay:  Drew Goddard, based on the novel The Martian by Andy Weir
Starring:  Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie
Running Time:  141 minutes
Genre:  science-fiction, drama

This thrilling science-fiction survival story is adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Andy Weir.  The manned Ares III mission on Mars is aborted early due to a violent storm, during the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is hit by a piece of debris and, presumed dead, is left behind on the surface of Mars.  Watney finds himself completely alone on a desolate planet, and faced with finding a way to get in contact with Earth, and keeping himself alive long enough to be rescued, with a rapidly diminishing supply of food, drink and air.

The film moves between Watney's desperate attempts to survive on Mars and the efforts back on Earth to retrieve him.  It's an exciting, straightforward story, which is gripping, despite the fact that it is basically about one man alone on a planet.  Matt Damon makes Watney a likeable and engaging anchor for the film, and he has strong support from a large and impressive cast.  It benefits from the switching back and forth between Mars, Earth and the mission's spaceship, opening up the narrative and making it far more than a one man show.  It's a deeply human film, about people trying to save one life.  All the conflict in the film comes from people arguing about how best to do that.

It is worth pointing out that this is a science-fiction film but there are no aliens or killer robots or anything like that, instead it tries to be relatively realistic.  Although it is worth pointing out that in reality, a Martian storm would only really be like a light breeze, rather than the raging hurricane depicted in the film.

By and large it is pretty faithful to the Weir novel and the dialogue is witty and there is plenty of humour to alleviate the tension, and quirky and amusing details such as the frequent 1970s songs on the soundtrack (the only music that Watney has available to him in his shelter).

Aside from a couple of moments of introspection there is little of the angst and despair that the situation might engender, which strikes a bit of a false note.  However this is a hugely enjoyable film.


 
    Matt Damon is The Martian