Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Every person matters
Amidst the megahits of Q4 (is winter the new summer?) comes this quiet sleeper from Steven Spielberg. It's a chamber piece defined by soft words and silent gestures. Even the true story upon which it's based is a relatively unseen bit of history. Although it's such an interesting story, you wonder why.
You've seen the big beats in the trailer. But this is a movie of details as tiny as the secret messages that unshakeable Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) receives on the sly. He's captured and fast-tracked through the American justice system. Insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) represents him, but he's powerless against a guilty-by-default verdict.
Then the Ruskies capture a US spy and an American student. As a US citizen ostensibly representing no one but his clients, Donovan is bunged off to a divided Berlin to negotiate a swap: one Russian for two Americans. The devil's in the detail and, as Donovan discovers, there are so many damned details.
Spielberg is cinema's top craftsman. We know this. But he does little here to draw attention to that consummate skill and I mean that as a compliment. The "quiet camera" of Lincoln continues. And as a story it's as much a humanitarian one as Lincoln, although the script here (sharpened up by the Coen brothers, who are presumably to thank for the plentiful ironic humour) is less labyrinthine, less grandiose. More on-the-nose.
So is Thomas Newman's music, sadly, which sounds like one imagines a Spielberg movie should be scored, all sugary clarinet softness. It jars with the austere Cold War mood and only really making sense in the final scenes, where a creeping schmaltz lurks. The Lives of Others this ain't.
That's not to belittle the human emotion the film possesses, which is mostly convincing. Abel's "standing man" speech is a keeper. But beyond that, Bridge of Spies is a film of Big Themes: what nationality means; what professional duty means; and the arbitrariness of national borders. Donovan is genuinely baffled by the hypocrisy of his superiors, regarding Abel as merely a human being doing a job the same job many US spies are asked to do.
Rylance, subtle and dignified, is a shoe-in for a Supporting Actor gong. Hanks, meanwhile, makes it look effortless, somehow forging a relatable everyman out of an iron-nosed lawyer. These are actors at the top of their game.
Intense, involving, and intelligent: if you're looking for something patient and quietly moving at the multiplex, look no further. It might look like minor Spielberg, but it's a major dramatic success.
Blood Rage (1987)
That is not cranberry sauce!
Variously known as Blood Rage (home video version), Slasher (original title card), and Nightmare at Shadow Woods (theatrical cut), this ropey hack-'em-up took four years to get a US release after having been filmed in 1983. It was hardly worth the wait but there's some fun to be had in its maniac twins setup.
To be fair, only one of the twins is actually maniacal. When they were kids, Terry butchered a mid-coitus stranger and blamed it on Todd. 10 years later, Todd escapes from his psychiatric unit, apparently on the rampage. But in reality it's just Terry again, all grown up and getting jealous and enraged about his mom's engagement. Someone is slaughtering folks in the neighbourhood, and now Terry has the perfect alibi.
Harking from a time when the mentally ill were definitely perpetrators rather than victims, here we have one of those slasher pictures where people are too busy going off into the woods alone to call the police and let them know a murderer is on the rampage.
There's some cracking gore, although the anxious editing in the theatrical cut means we often get only a glimpse before cutting away to some half-assed Freudian exchange or another teenager soaping in the shower. Stick with the so-called "hard" version (included in the Arrow Video boxset I saw) for the real deal.
While performances are consistently terrible, Mark Soper as the twins possesses an appropriately unsettling glare, and one-time Woody Allen fave Louise Lasser has an absolute ball as the cripplingly neurotic, boozing mother.
As a work of filmcraft it's a notch above Troma, but sadly not funny, well-made, or scary enough to land itself a place in a camp Halloween horror medley.
Possibly the film's greatest pull is the period. Locked in time by Richard Einhorn's elaborate synth score, the voluminous hair and bad sportswear are virtually sufficient in themselves to carry us through the 80-odd minutes.
Ostre sledované vlaky (1966)
1968's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to this debut feature from Jiri Menzel, which concerns the comedic and tragic events at a small railway station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia during the Second World War.
Essentially a coming-of-age story, the film focuses on Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar), a young man learning the ropes as a station guard. He's surrounded by unwise elders, including an outwardly moralistic stationmaster, as well as a visiting councillor, whose Nazi-endorsing propaganda falls on deaf ears all round. But all Milos wants to do is get his end away with flirty conductor Masa (Jitka Bendova) without falling prey to premature ejaculation.
Certainly, like his father, Milos has no intention to actually do any work until, that is, his sexual frustration is harnessed by a beautiful Resistance agent, who convinces him to blow up a Nazi ammunition train. Perhaps he's influenced by the spirit of his grandfather, a hypnotist who tried and failed to halt the fascist occupation by stopping tanks through the power of suggestion.
Considering Menzel was just 28 at the time, his control of the material is remarkable. It's a deliberately tonally-awkward film, juxtaposing broad sex comedy with, amongst other things, a surreal air raid, a properly distressing suicide scene, and brutal gut-punch of an ending.
So, the tone is mutable, the style is formal, and the comedy is deadpan the influence on modern filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Jared Hess is in abundance.
For all its whimsy and kinkiness and ironic jabs at moral imperialism (one character wails to his wife about the decline of social morality as he lusts over the dispatcher's saucy cousin), the ultimate message that youthful lust can be so easily appropriated for the cause of another's ideology is dead serious. Milos is a mostly passive entity throughout, and his only moments of assertiveness are self-defeating acts of violence.
I recently saw Milos Forman's The Firemen's Ball, another risqué comedy from the Czech New Wave. For me, Closely Observed Trains is the pick of the two, thanks largely to the relatable presence of the clueless youth through whom we watch the authoritarian madness unfurl. It's genuinely funny in places, and secretly quite moving.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Spot the Scorsese
A young Martin Scorsese directed bits of this creepy psychological thriller about Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, the "Lonely Hearts Killers" who murdered a shockingly large number of women in a two-year spree in the late 1940s. As the camera prowls and the framing draws deliberate attention to itself, you can sense Scorsese before, that is, he was sacked and replaced with Leonard Kastle. This would be Kastle's only film, and it's pretty good all things considered.
How true is this "true story"? Not very. For a start it's clearly set at the time it was made (1969), and yet states in the epilogue that Ray (Tony Lo Blanco) and Martha (Shirley Stoler) met their fate twenty years earlier. But how about the more general truth of fiction? Here the film succeeds, focusing on the psychology of this chunky, frumpy lady and her lithe Latino partner-in-crime; the bitter jealousy and the vile scheming, and the growing tensions between them. It works well, thanks to a smart script with a sharp edge of ironic wit.
Martha is a sad-sack who is empowered at work but desperately lonely at home. Ray is a vile opportunist whose control is cracked by the juvenile love he shares with Martha. It's a story of its time. These days the couple wouldn't need to lure the lonely through newspaper ads they could swindle all their money over the internet. But Ray and Martha are hands-on and in-your-face, and the film portrays a collection of increasingly sinister encounters as they convince a series of sad spinsters to part with their cash. Ray wields charm like a scimitar, while Martha is like a wrecking ball.
With its suburban sitting room setting and its unsettling blend of the OTT and the naturalistic, the influence on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is clear. When the killing begins, Kastle doesn't shy away. The death-by-hammer scene is genuinely shocking, even by today's standards.
Mostly the movie eschews graphic violence in favour of tense episodes laced with morbid, mordant wit. You can see why it was disregarded at the time, just as you can see why it's being reconsidered today. For all its melodrama (Gustav Mahler parps over the serial killers' domestic dramatics) and its sleazy exploitation appearance, it's surprisingly subtle and has flashes of real craft. It is undoubtedly a genre-evading oddity but an accessible one which will be enjoyed by anybody looking for something clever, nasty, and funny.
Ted 2 (2015)
The original Ted gave us the story of a lonely boy named John who wished his stuffed bear would come alive. Jump forward a couple of decades and the cute kid had become a layabout 30-something, mirrored by his foul-mouthed, horny buddy Ted. Aside from the unusual central pairing, the setup was a typical "bros versus hoes" comedy. It had its moments and made half a billion, so here's the sequel, and for me it's the slightly better film.
John (Mark Wahlberg) is now divorced from Lori, while Ted (Seth MacFarlane) is just married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). When the teddy/human couple goes to adopt a kid it draws attention to the fact that he is not human he's technically property. John, Ted, and newbie lawyer Sam (Amanda Seyfried) set about taking the case to court, asserting that Ted's ability to love is proof of his human status.
If this sounds like a sentimental setup that's because it is. What we have here is a strange mix of puerile humour and long monologues about what it means to be human. At the film's heart is a very sombre message which is hard to swallow when borderline race jokes run up against dead serious reminders of America's history of slavery.
As with the first movie, your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your appetite for the Family Guy breed of comedy. I was personally pleased with the sequel's more solid plotting and unusually weighty themes, but still less-than-enamoured with the bullying tone of some of the humour. It's hit and miss: the sperm donation clinic sequence is hilarious; the celebrity cameos, less so. There's a great scene which amusingly alludes to both Jurassic Park and Contact. But then Patrick Warburton returns as Guy and his alpha aggression marks the movie's nadir.
For a scat-comedy, MacFarlane goes beyond the call of duty as director. Combined with the brilliantly bouncy orchestral score (think John Williams in chase sequence mode), with sweeping cranes and dollies and plentiful cityscapes MacFarlane evokes the formal aesthetic and adventure spirit of classic 80s family screwball albeit with dirtier gags. I like how characters meeting Ted for the first time don't show any shock at his form, which shows admirable resistance to the modern comedy nuisance of self-reference.
The Hasbro subplot, in which Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) returns as a disempowered toy company employee, doesn't really go anywhere and basically exists as a very long build-up to a final, fantastically cruel gag involving a lethal Starship Enterprise. It's a decent joke, but by then you'll be feeling the overgenerous runtime.
Ted 2 is a worthwhile sequel, sporadically funny and at times oddly thought-provoking. Fans of the first won't be disappointed, and latecomers to the party can easily jump aboard. Its combination of vicious humour and cuddly moralising is jarring, however a pity, because a more inclusive script which wasn't at war with itself might have made for a great modern fable.
You won't be laughing
Peter Ferdinando plays Michael, a bent cop trying to partially unbend himself. He's just made a deal with some very naughty Albanian gangsters, only to find they're being investigated by his division and he's being stitched up for a murder he didn't commit. He's up against it: His colleagues are a bunch of racist drunks; his arch-nemesis David (Stephen Graham) has just returned as his senior officer; and a clean-cut cop named Taylor (Richard Dormer) is on a mission to clean up the Met. Meanwhile, Michael takes it upon himself to rescue a trafficked woman named Ariana (Elisa Lasowski), while trying to keep his own girl Lisa (MyAnna Buring) from been chopped into little pieces. Laugh-a-minute stuff, then.
The film starts boldly with a heavily stylised raid, followed by a scene in which Michael's crew drink and snort and mouth off about "Pakis". The script is as visceral as the violence; unpretty but pretty authentic. The best of the dialogue and the most engaging character dynamic occurs between Michael and David, and the film could have done with more of their tense, skilfully acted showdowns, and slightly fewer scenes of people receiving terrible news by telephone. But that's not to deny the film's grip. There's a genuine sense of danger throughout, and the central theme of cops "crossing a line" is consistently observed throughout even if Michael's shambolic descent is telegraphed from the start.
"This isn't the 80s," one character remarks, although the sophomore feature of writer-director Gerard Johnson owes more than a little to the crime movie giants of that decade. Its yawning cityscapes and blue hues are like Michael Mann on tour in London, while the street level stuff all shadowed alleys and vice-filled backrooms are straight from Abel Ferrara. Indeed, Bad Lieutenant comparisons are particularly noticeable. Its more recent influences include Gaspar Noe's stalking camera-work and Nicolas Winding Refn's doom-scored spasms of ultraviolence. If all that appeals then great, but don't go in expecting to see anything new or particularly refined.
Hyena is a decent gritty Brit-crime thriller, sophisticated in aesthetic if not in content. It's beautifully shot and lit, and the performances are strong particularly Ferdinando in the lead, the underused Graham, and Kill List's Neil Maskell. Its preoccupations tap into (and exploit) modern fears of police corruption and immigration effectively. Yet all the way up to its ambiguous (read: mildly unsatisfying) ending it feels more like a set of long-established clichés updated to the twenty-teens than a bold new voice in home-grown gangster film.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
It will be back
Quite why the marketing geniuses behind this movie chose to betray the pretty good twist in this movie (the identity of the new Terminator) instead of the pretty ordinary one (the identity of Genisys) is beyond me, as it clearly negates the impact this mediocre sequel-to-two-sequels-too-far.
The Terminator and Judgment Day were simple movies with strong themes. A future war came to 1984 and the experience made a soldier of Sarah Connor. By the second movie, she was the same brutalised machine that Kyle Reese was and like him, throughout the narrative, she gradually revealed a core softened by hope. That's where the story ends for me, but here we are again and judging by the sequel-bait ending, here we will be again. "Can you see the future?" asks Kyle (Jai Courtney) of John Connor (Jason Clarke). I think we all can when it comes to the franchise machine.
Unlike Jurassic World, Genisys isn't as bad as the sequels it's pretending don't exist. It riffs endlessly on the first two movies. This time around we get to see the events that led to the T-800 (an impressive digitally-youthed Arnold Schwarzenegger) being sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah (Emilia Clarke), and John sending Kyle on the chase. So, much of the first act is a shot-for-shot re-tread of James Cameron's original which is nice and nostalgic and all, but the problem with reminding us of a much better movie is that one is constantly distracted by the memory of a much better movie.
Then the overplotting begins, and it turns out there's a time-travel unit available here in 1984, which allows Kyle, Sarah, and "Pops" (more on that later) to leap forward to 2017 to stop Skynet just before it goes online. That's right: Terminator Genisys hinges upon a fundamentally nonsensical narrative decision. Why jump to 24 hours before the machines take out humanity? They could have spent the next 30+ years carefully planning the downfall of Skynet before it ever gets off the ground, their lives dedicated to the cause of pre-correcting their own timeline. But heck, it wouldn't make much of a movie, so they choose to time-jump and set themselves against a ticking clock.
As all this is explained and the number of key dates continues to expand: 1984, 2029, 1973, 1997 etc you're occasionally almost fooled into thinking you're watching convincing characters playing out engaging drama. But it's a façade. This isn't smart or deep, it's just wordy, and the plot is complicated without being thoughtful or emotive or profound. At one point Arnie remarks that the bad guy "talks too much". Too true, Pops. This new Infiltration Unit's special weapon is monologuing us to death. He's like a Bond villain stuck on Evil Plan Exposition mode.
Let's talk about "Pops". Seriously, this is what has become of the remorseless Model 101. In 1991 the flipping of the antagonist/protagonist role was bold; now it's been kneaded into something silly and mild: a pantomime version of a once-great baddie. A deleted scene from T2 that bloody smile is used three times.
Yet Arnie is the one with the charisma here, mostly because he has the fewest lines of the main players. Emilia Clarke tries her best but she's lumbered with a script which is functional at best and laughably verbose. In Courtney's Kyle there's absolutely no sense of the weary, traumatised soldier. As he and Sarah bicker and mope like Twilight teenagers, there's no discernible chemistry between the actors.
As for the director, Alan Taylor is no better than Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) or McG (Terminator Salvation). His style is well, styleless. The action scenes are messily edited and confusing. Thanks to Paramount's nervous marketing splurge, we've all seen the big central setpiece with the bus on the bridge, which culminates in a rip-off of the trailer sequence in Spielberg's The Lost World, only less impressively staged and lacking tension. Just another floaty CG action scene slipping by without impact.
The final showdown takes place on a bland, busy set, and it's boring as hell. Some kind of hologram keeps taunting the heroes, and they repeatedly shoot out the projector units again and again, ad infinitum. It's an infuriating pixel circus, and it leads to a Big Reveal, which is plain dumb and nonsensical, shamelessly assuming we'll come back for the sequel.
Which we probably will, because no matter how many times the studio gives a bunch of money to another hack director we keep watching them. Next time, though, they won't have the goodwill born of nostalgia to help them. So, perhaps they'll come up with something original, bold, exciting, and thought-provoking. Or perhaps it'll simply be another competent, soulless, machine-made dud.
A throwback to a vision of the future
In Tim Burton's Ed Wood, a cheapshot movie producer snorts at Ed's desire to create art on a shoestring. The irony is, of course, that however artistically credible he imagined himself, Ed Wood made junk anyway. There's a sweet spot where good intentions, lack of talent, and thriftiness meet, and Cannon Films regularly found it. The Asylum's mockbusters might be keeping the bad movie dream alive, but can you imagine a modern mini-studio greenlighting the likes of Superman, alongside Death Wish, alongside Shakespeare?
Cannon was set up in the 1960s but rose to prominence/notoriety in 1980 when it was sold to Israeli cousins Yoram Globus (the money man) Menahem Golan (the would-be moviemaker). This is where Mark Hartley's breakneck documentary joins the sordid story. Talking heads directors, editors, and actors provide snappy anecdotes and bitesized insights into the passion and incompetence of two upstarts who, for a time, upset the Hollywood establishment. And then spent $25m on an arm-wrestling movie.
Though remembered for Chuck Norris nonsense and some seriously ropey fantasy and sci-fi (Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce will make you question the value of cinema), at their peak Cannon were bashing out nearly 50 films a year. This left room for 'proper' movies from the likes of Franco Zeffirelli and Godfrey Reggio; Cannon even bagged an Oscar for Best Foreign Film at their mid-eighties peak. But for every Company of Wolves or Barfly there were five Charles Bronson Z-movies, so Cannon will always be remembered for the balderdash, churned out chiefly to take advantage of the burgeoning home video market.
Indeed, this is the perfect Eighties trash story, beginning with The Happy Hooker, the strangely apt story of a European prostitute coming to the US and sticking two fingers up to the Hollywood elite. The party ended with Cyborg in 1989, a Van Damme oddity which has little to do with cyborgs and whose creative failure rests partly on the shoulders of Albert Pyun, who would later find cinema's comic book nadir with his mouth-dryingly terrible Captain America. Cyborg was built with bits of Masters of the Universe, which gives us a clue as to the state of Cannon's finances at the turn of the decade. A brief 90s relaunch provided nothing of interest.
Perhaps there's a three-hour version of this documentary which delves into more depth and supposition about the essential culture clash that meant Globus and Golan failed spectacularly, time and time again, to grasp the mood of the nation they adored. But then the film would lose its briskness and humour, and Hartley's superb Uzi-editing would go to waste. It's a shallow documentary about men with shallow dreams, and it's enthralling for it.
The only real art to emerge from Cannon were exceptions that proved the rule. That rule being: Make 'em quick and make 'em cheap. By the time the bloated excess of Masters of the Universe was vomited into the multiplex (I recall that particular disappointment sorely) audiences expected more. Hartley's film may ultimately overstate the influence of Cannon although with a new Terminator movie potentially about to join Jurassic World, Avengers, and Furious 7 at the top of the year's box office, the business model that spawned five Death Wishes and three Delta Forces does seem disturbingly prescient.
The Terminator (1984)
Every bit as relentless and single-minded as the latest Mad Max instalment and possessing a similar number of car chases The Terminator was the 1984 calling card of both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sure, the latter had a couple of lousy Conan films under his belt, but here was a role that would make him a star and give cinema an antihero every bit as iconic as Hannibal or Joker.
The story is fantastically simple. In the future, machines take over, exterminating humanity from the post-nuclear wasteland. The human resistance is led by a man named John Connor. The machines send a "Terminator" unit (Arnie himself) back through time to kill John's mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton). Meanwhile, the humans send a protector, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). The chase begins.
Imagine knowing nothing about this world. Imagine the shock of seeing Arnie laid low with a shotgun, only to rise time and time again. For the first third of the movie, beyond a title card, precious little is explained. All we're seeing is a woman stalked by two moody men. The idea for The Terminator was apparently born of a fever-dream, and with its flashback-forward structure and descending darkness it is drenched in sweaty helplessness.
It's also a masterclass in efficiency and visual storytelling. When it comes to filling in the backstory (here, a future-story), Cameron expertly brings convincing emotional weight to his exposition scenes. Reese is the emotive counterpoint to the dead-cold 101: his mission is driven by love. Not some cheesy, possessive love; Reece carries with him the hope of humanity. He loves John Connor (whom, intriguingly, we never see), so how can he not hold a near-biblical reverence for the mythic mother? Before Judgment Day gave us the powerful and handsome activist, the 1984 origin shows us the gentle, pretty Sarah. (Emilia Clarke has her eyes.) Yet her ascent to soldier is entirely believable given the unbelievable events swirling around her. Sarah is no damsel in distress; she's a warrior waiting for the right distress to unleash her potential.
The poodle-perms and mecha-synth music will either be seen as dating the film, or delivering pleasing period delights, depending on your viewpoint. But what will never date is the film's brutal purity. As we gaze at the poster for Genisys, with Arnie and Sarah pressed together in unity, let's not forget how scary and thrilling it was to see her terrorised... and then turn around and terminate his metal ass.
The Devil's Violinist (2013)
Unconvincing period biopic
Niccolò Paganini (David Garrett) is a virtuoso violinist, stolen from Italian obscurity by the serpentine Urbani (Jared Harris) and brought to swinging 19th century London on the request of struggling promoter John Watson (Christian McKay). There his lascivious urges and his musical genius find equal outlet, until his heart is attuned to Charlotte (Andrea Deck), with whom he shares a harmonious partnership. Tragedy encroaches, however, as those who brought Paganini to the top conspire to cast him into the gutter once more.
What is the truth of Paganini? Bernard Rose's biopic plays fast and loose, which shouldn't matter because art strives for universal truths. Yet such striving often leads to cliché, as has happened here. As an instrument the violin lends itself well to furious solos, so the transition from classical musician to rock god is easy throw in some long shaggy hair and stubble and sunglasses and we've basically got ourselves a Georgian Ozzy Osbourne. Not that the film is terribly anarchic. Early on we get some Dogma 95-influenced hand-held camera and hack 'n' slash editing but it soon gives way to familiar period stageyness.
Rose's film exists in the same realm as Milos Forman's Amadeus and touches on some of the same themes genius emerging from chaos, both a creative and destructive force but it's a relatively shallow movie, and one whose TV budget cannot be elevated by its impressively crashing classical soundtrack and its smoggy capital exteriors. Forman's film had a force-of-nature at its centre in the form of Tom Hulce. The Devil's Violinist has David Garrett, who's a wonderful violinist but no actor. Alarm bells ring when a character is meant to be thinking hard about something and actually grabs their chin.
But then, could any actor have provided a sympathetic portrayal? How charming is any man this juvenile; this unprofessional? Why should we care for a man who whinges about being "misunderstood" in one breath then dismisses his fans with the next? How do we side with someone who claims to love another and then accidentally shags a complete stranger with the same hair colour? Better writing and an actual actor might have helped us answer these questions.
Garrett isn't very well-supported, to be fair. Harris turns a scheming snake into a pantomime villain. Joely Richardson is gobsmackingly miscast as a cockney troublemaker. And while Alien Isolation fans may be pleased to see Andrea Deck in her full feature debut, I wouldn't expect the scripts to start piling on her doormat on the basis of this. But then, again, Charlotte is bafflingly written: she's genuinely repulsed by Paganini a player and a player only to spin on a sixpence once she hears him knock out a few notes, melody apparently trumping manners.
Rose has a firm hold of his film's darkly humorous tone, and the musical performances are, inevitably, spectacular (almost worth the rental fee alone, if for some reason an actual David Garrett Live DVD isn't available). But the decision to build a movie around a real musician backfires horribly, and with a bland and over-familiar script ("Who is the real you?" one character genuinely asks) it has to go down as a handsome, tuneful failure.