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The Predator (2018)
3/10
A bunch of thrown-together Easter eggs and action beats you've seen a million times before
12 December 2018
Despite its unwavering popularity through the decades, the Predator franchise has failed to find its feet ever since it took off in 1987 with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers battling an alien foe in the jungles of South America. It's sequel, Predator 2, was an overblown mess, and it took twenty years for the threequel, Predators, to arrive and instantly be forgotten. The thirty years that have passed ever since John McTiernan's original seemed to have been one constant effort to steer the series back on course, so it must have seemed like a no-brainer to hire Shane Black, who played one of Arnie's unit first time around, to reignite some interest in the rasta-haired intergalactic travellers. After all, directors with their own sense of style and vision are rarely hired for big-budget blockbusters, and perhaps Black could inject the same level of wit and zip as he did with the likes of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys.

It pains me to say this, but how tragically wrong they were. This effort to reboot a dying franchise fails on almost every level, from the recycled plot and cast of stock characters, to the forced humour that never so much as raises a giggle, despite the actors' attempts to convince you that they're all having a good time. From the get-go, Black hits us with gun-toting action and CGI blood-spraying, and does so at an alarming rate. One can only wonder if Black had hoped we would be too distracted by the carnage and endless exposition to realise how stupid the film actually is, but it's hard not to notice when the main character begins the film by mailing alien tech back to his family from Mexico under the government's nose. Former army sniper turned mercenary Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holdbrook) is busy on a retrieval mission when he witnesses an alien craft crash to Earth. His crew are wiped out, but Quinn manages to flee with an alien helmet which he sends to his estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). While Quinn is interrogated by the government, the Predator is taken to the lab for experimentation. Yes, you've already guessed what happens next.

As the Predator wreaks havoc and more arrive for the fight, Quinn is thrown in with a bunch of military prisoners, who all are crazy in their own way. They consist of Trevante Rhodes, Augusto Aguilera, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key and Alfie Allen, and provide most of the film's 'humour'. They are supposed to be lovable but really aren't, but Quinn evidently trusts them enough to leave them alone with an unconscious Olivia Munn. Had they been given a personality, or some actual funny lines of dialogue, the gang may have helped cover up many of The Predator's flaws, but the film has the same uncomfortably conflicted feel of Black's Iron Man 3, which struggled to juggle the director's independent sensibilities with the restrictions of a franchise. It's flashy, colourful and rarely pauses for breath, but doesn't have a style of its own. People are thrown into huge objects to get up like nothing has happened, there's military tough-guy speak, and somebody at one point even yells "get to the chopper!". It's a bunch of thrown-together Easter eggs and action beats you've seen a million times before. I doubt this is the last we've seen of the extraterrestrial trophy-hunter, but it's certainly time to lay him down to rest for a while.
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7/10
It isn't Lee's best work, but arguably his most ambitious
11 December 2018
Although he is still producing an impressive body of work, it feels like Spike Lee has been away from the mainstream for an age. When Jordan Peele brought him the unbelievably true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, Lee jumped at the chance to tackle what would be his biggest joint since 2013's rather pointless Oldboy remake. If the movie didn't tell you as much at the introduction, you would likely have a difficult time believing that what you are seeing actually (well, kinda) happened. Based on Stallworth's memoir Black Klansman, Lee takes the story and successfully manipulates it into a commentary on racial hostility in the U.S. and its circular momentum throughout the country's history. Not only that, but BlacKkKlansman is also a funny police procedural that tips its outlandish hat to the blaxsploitation movies of the era.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has just become the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs police department. He is eager to make a mark, but finds himself assigned to the records room, locating files for his racist co-workers. After making his desire to work undercover known to his superiors, Ron is tasked with infiltrating a rally involving civil rights leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), where he meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of a black student union. Assigned to the intelligence division, Ron spots an advert in the paper for a KKK recruitment drive and, with his best white man voice, bags himself a meeting with Walter (Ryan Eggold), the president of the local chapter. His fellow officers are quick to point that not only did Ron give Walter his real name, he also happens to be black. Enter Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), the Jewish co-worker who takes the job of working his way into the ranks of the ever-suspicious Klan, while Ron does his part on the phone to try and land a conversation with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).

BlacKkKlansman is certainly not without its flaws. Lee's desire to envelop Ron and Patrice's blossoming romance into the KKK's plan to carry out a terrorist attack leads to some glaring pacing issues, and an eagerness to hold up a mirror to the growing far-right attitudes of the Trump era can often be heavy-handed. Yet Lee's interesting style - mixing comedy with serious issues and often within the same scene - pulls you along for the ride, with the director showcasing a rarely-seen talent for suspense. Flip's assignment is fraught with problems, from the volatile and suspicious Klansman Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), to the fact that Ron's voice sounds oddly different on the phone to real life. Some of the supporting characters are perhaps a bit too cartoonish for the film's overall tone, the script from Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, is incredibly sharp and witty without taking anything away from the seriousness of the underlying themes at play. Lee goes straight for the jugular, ending with shocking footage of the car attack at the 2017 Unite the Right rally to remind us of how little has changed, and how the threat never really went away. It isn't Lee's best work, but its one of his most vibrant and cinematic joints, and arguably his most ambitious.
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Mickey One (1965)
6/10
As infuriating as it is inspiring
10 December 2018
Arthur Penn's Mickey One is a great example of a film that could have made real waves had it arrived at the right time and found the right audience. Sadly, audiences were perhaps unprepared for this radical new approach to film-making, at least for an American studio, as the film's free-wheeling, care-free attitude and style, heavily influenced by the burgeoning French New Wave in Europe, was a turn-off for critics. Despite attracting attention at the Venice Film Festival, Mickey One bombed hard at the box-office, and has faded into obscurity ever since. Had it arrived a few years later, when Hollywood really started to embrace new ideas and the visions of filmmakers, it may now be more highly regarded, although with its offbeat, freestyle-jazz swagger, Mickey One would still infuriate as much as it would inspire.

Mickey One (Warren Beatty) is a handsome, successful stand-up comic in Detroit enjoying a hedonistic life of alcohol, women and gambling. When a night of over-indulgence causes him to lose a wad of cash at the craps table, he flees the city for Chicago, knowing that the Mafia will be after his head for failing to pay his debts. He lays low, renting a tiny apartment and taking a job washing dishes at a restaurant. Unsatisfied with his situation, Mickey can't resist the lure of the clubs, and is soon in the front row heckling a fellow comic and stealing his laughs. He gets himself an agent and eventually returns to the stage, taking lowly gigs as he remains wary of the target on his back. Mickey can sing, play piano, and spit jokes at the drop of a hat, so it isn't long until he lands a spot at an upscale club called Xanadu. With his paranoia raging, Mickey struggles to decide whether or not to take the job, and the predicament isn't helped by the arrival of a beautiful, yet unwanted flatmate named Jenny (Alexandra Stewart).

Mickey One is a very odd film indeed. Scattershot in style and heavy on visual metaphors, it dazzles and demands your attention, but is about as infuriating as being forced to spend the night in a jazz club when you hate jazz. It introduces Mickey - which isn't even his real name - via a dizzying montage before throwing him out in the cold as he looks to duck any gangsters coming his way. We barely get to know him before being pulled along on his existential journey of self-discovery, and Penn is happy to grind the story to a halt in favour of a long conversation in a room (a la A bout de souffle). Still, its difficult to resist being swept along in its uncompromising rhythm and savouring some of the truly bizarre imagery on show. The sight of people trampolining in front of a bridge comes out of nowhere, as does a demonstration by a man credited as 'The Artist' (played by Kamatari Fujiwara), which involves a huge, self-destructive machine called Yes that quickly catches fire. I have no idea what it all means, but it's delightfully unique. And that about sums up Mickey One as a whole: you probably won't know what the hell just happened, but you'll have a memorable time.
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Edtv (1999)
6/10
Spookily prophetic but pulls its punches
5 December 2018
It's too bad for Ron Howard's Edtv that its arrival came shortly after Peter Weir's masterful The Truman Show, a film received with adoration by both critics and general audiences alike. Both are satires that comment on the state of trash TV and how audiences will watch literally anything providing they follow a comfortable (and manipulated) narrative, but both took their own unique approach. Jim Carrey's Truman was of course completely unaware that millions tuned in every day to see him live out his life in a supposedly Utopian confines of a television studio, but Matthew McConaughey's video store clerk slacker happily signs up to have bulky cameras and a boom mic follow his every move. Edtv certainly lacks the bite and incredibly dark undertones of Weir's masterpiece, and is content with structuring events around a familiar rom-com narrative, but Howard's film gets its message across with sufficient charm and wit, and almost twenty years later feels spookily prophetic.

True TV producer Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres) pitches an idea to her stuffy boss Mr. Whitaker (Rob Reiner) that will involve following one individual, 24/7, as they go about their everyday lives. Whitaker reluctantly agrees, so the camera crew heads out into the city to find what they hope will be a new superstar. Ray Perkurny (Woody Harrelson) is eager to grab the limelight, hauling his girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman) and younger brother Ed in front of the camera to endure his obnoxious jokes. Cynthia, charmed by Ed's good looks and humble outlook, opts for the younger brother, and so EdTV is born. Ratings are terrible at first, with Ed waking up with a hand down his pants to a horrified audience, but start to improve as it becomes clear that Ed harbours feelings for Shari. Soon a narrative forms, much to Cynthia's liking, as Ray accidentally reveals to the world that he's a cheating scumbag, and Ed's absent father Hank (Dennis Hopper) turns up in an attempt to reignite their relationship.

As the audience grows, so does their influence on the show's events, with polls and talk shows about EdTV seem to litter every channel. With Shari reluctant to play out a romantic relationship in front of a camera crew, a beautiful and willing supermodel (played by Elizabeth Hurley) is thrown into the mix to spice things up. With the power to voice your opinion on a global scale now at everybody's fingertips, along with the ability to hit record at any given moment, Edtv is stunningly accurate at depicting the toxicity this level of access can influence. The film seemed to know exactly where our pop culture was heading, and it reminded me of the unnerving time I observed a family member watching Big Brother housemates live as they slept motionless in their beds. Yet as events are forced to play in a more traditional, consumable manner, Edtv pulls most of its punches, and the story becomes more about Ed's will-they-won't-they relationship with Shari than the abyss of toxic waste we were steering ourselves toward. Despite the best efforts of an incredibly talented cast - Martin Landau delivers a particularly fine performance as Ed's stepfather - the film is never vicious enough to hold the attention for a running time of over 2 hours.
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6/10
A couple of standouts, but ultimately doesn't gel or flow
4 December 2018
The Coen brothers have long weaved their love of the western genre into their movies, whether it be capturing its core essence with the likes of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, or tackling the genre head-on with No Country for Old Men and True Grit. Their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which makes its way onto Netflix after a limited theatrical release, sees the siblings hark back to the horse operas of old. Initially marked as an anthology series, it soon evolved into a feature of six unrelated stories, bound together only by the imaginary pages of the short-story book we as the viewer are supposed to be reading. The final product suffers from the same problems faced by any film attempting the portmanteau format - a couple are great, some are either frustratingly short or unnecessarily drawn-out, and at least one you'll be struggling to remember after the credits have rolled.

There's also the feeling that Buster Scruggs blows its load far too early, as the titular Ballad, featuring one of Tim Blake Nelson's best performances, struts into town on the back of a horse carrying the smoothest country singer and deadliest gunslinger in the West, and knocks it out of the park. It's a bizarre little tale that mixes the yodell-y crooning of those white hat vs. black hat genre pictures of old with bursts of the ironic, darkly humorous violence the Coens are so well known for. The tunes are wonderful, the cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel) is ingeniously inventive (watch out for that shot from inside the guitar), and Nelson is a lively narrator. It ends too soon, and you can't help but think that a standalone feature for the sharply-dressed Buster Scruggs may have been warranted instead. The next story, Near Algodones, sees James Franco's roaming thief hold up the wrong bank and come under fire from the gun-toting teller, played by Stephen Root. It's supposed to be a funny tale of irony and karma, but ultimately feels like an afterthought in the wake of Scruggs' more well-rounded story.

Meal Ticket is more sombre in tone, following opportunistic impresario Harrison (Liam Neeson) and his performer, the legless and armless Artist, who is played with great poise by Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films). There is a great idea here, one fraught with tragedy and sorrow, but it simply doesn't have enough time to fully develop its ideas. Slotting nicely alongside Buster Scruggs as a stand-out piece is All Gold Canyon, in which Tom Waits' grizzled prospector digs for gold in an untouched valley. It's like the opening scene of There Will Be Blood, only this also has a nice surprise in store as the weather-beaten old man searches for 'Mr. Pocket', the place in the ground holding his grand prize. The remaining two stories, The Gal Who Got Rattled and The Mortal Remains, touch on romance and horror elements, as the characters are transported by wagon train and stagecoach, respectively, to the destination that may or may not await them. They round off a mish-mash of tones and themes, and although they each have individual merits, they simply don't gel together or flow naturally. Fans will no doubt find some wonderful stuff here, as I did, but recommended only for Nelson and Waits, whose stories are up there with some of the Coens' very best.
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8/10
May just be one of the finest action movies ever made
22 November 2018
Over the course of twenty-odd years, Tom Cruise has clung to the side of an aeroplane as it soared into the sky, had a knife held millimetres away from his eyeball, and ran down the side of the world's tallest building, all for the sake of the Mission: Impossible series, a franchise that no-one would have dreamt would still be packing cinema screens two decades later when it began back in 1996. Cruise's enthusiasm for putting himself at genuine risk of death has seen these movies continuously trying to outdo each other, and the sixth in the series, Christopher McQuarrie's Fallout, is not only the most ambitious in scale and clinical in its execution, but may also just be one of the finest action pictures ever made. I never believed the sight of Cruise running across the outside of the 119th floor of Dubai's Burj Khalifa would ever be topped, but Fallout delivers not one but two superior set-pieces, and that's not even mentioning the rooftop-hopping that saw Cruise break his leg and carry on with the scene.

Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Mission Force team are tasked this time with intercepting three plutonium cores in Berlin before they fall into the hands on an organisation called The Apostles, a terrorist group made up of survivors from The Syndicate. Joined by Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), the team fail in their mission when Hunt refuses to let one his own die. As the terrorists make off with the plutonium to sell to a mysterious buyer called John Lark, Hunt receives a dressing-down from CIA director Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett), who is furious at their failure to secure the weapons of mass destruction. She forces Hunt to take on CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) as a shadow, and the odd couple head off to Paris to track down Alanna (Vanessa Kirby), an arms dealer they believe has connections to Lark. Double-crosses and high-speed chases ensue, as well as Tom Cruise's trademark run, as all paths start to lead back to Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the formidable villain from last time.

Christopher McQuarrie is the only director to have returned for a second stab at the Mission: Impossible gig, and the choice seems odd given how lacklustre Rogue Nation proved to be. But whatever he failed to grasp last time around he confidently nails here. McQuarrie and Cruise pull out all the stops, executing everything from a terrifying night-time sky-dive to a helicopter chase that sees Cruise plummet from the chopper's rails to the cargo swinging 40 feet below like veteran masters of the genre. The sheer risk and danger of some of the stunts pulled off here is gobsmacking, and Cruise can now comfortably sit alongside the likes of Jackie Chan as one of the greatest action stars ever. Cruise isn't the only star of course: Cavill particularly impresses as the deadpan slugger with a moustache so impressive it manage to cock up Justice League's re-shoots. Rhames and Pegg, who are both given larger roles than usual, can now banter like colleagues who have worked with each other for four movies, and reliable support is given by the likes of Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin and Michelle Monaghan. At two and a half hours, it can be argued that there's at least one climax too many, but I doubt anyone will be checking their watches.
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Incredibles 2 (2018)
8/10
Will surely win over a whole new generation of fans
17 November 2018
The superhero genre has changed massively in the 14 years since Pixar and Brad Bird's spectacular The Incredibles. We now live in a world where a talking raccoon and sentient tree can make their way into the general audience's hearts and an African king can rake in over $1 billion at the box-office. The genre arguably reached its peak in terms of ambition, scope and pure spectacle earlier this year with Avengers: Infinity War, so a sequel to Bird's excellent and heartfelt 2004 romp was becoming increasingly unlikely - and unnecessary - as the years rolled by. Whether the creatives had a change of heart or Disney simply insisted, Incredibles 2 has finally arrived to try and prove that it's still relevant in a time when it feels like we get another superhero movie every month. With a heavy dose of visual pizzazz and a ton of heart, Incredibles 2 certainly hits the mark while naturally paling in comparison to its relatively flawless predecessor.

Completely ignoring the 14 years that have gone by in real time, this sequel picks up immediately after the climax of the first film, with the suited-up Parr family - Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) - facing off with the newest villain in town, The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Their scuffle with the burrowing thief causes collateral damage throughout the city, and in response the government shuts down the Superhero Relocation Program, leaving the Parrs homeless and without financial support. They are offered a glimmer of hope when CEO and superhero fan Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) reveals his desire to put the crime-fighters back in the public eye and remind the world of their importance. Helped by his tech genius sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston favours the clinical elegance of Elastigirl's powers over Mr. Incredible's destructive brute strength, so while she is out battling a mysterious new criminal called Screenslaver, he is tasked with tending to the kids.

Splitting up the central characters is a popular approach for many sequels, and here it seems like a natural way to further explore the themes of family bonds and individuality of the first film. Elastigirl savours her chance to shine, demonstrating a range of formidable powers which allow for some spectacular and beautifully-rendered action sequences. Most of the biggest laughs come from Mr. Incredible's struggle to handle his new responsibilities, as his face becomes increasingly haggard and grey with stubble. Dash needs help with his maths homework and Violet has boy troubles, but his biggest obstacle is ensuring Jack-Jack doesn't cause accidental mass destruction with his combination of laser vision, dimension-hopping and morphing into a literal flaming devil. Jack-Jack is usually the kind of animated character that has adults rolling their eyes, but his combination of wide-eyed innocence and clumsy displays of limitless power is utterly charming, in particular his encounter with a hungry (and soon to be sorry) raccoon. Incredibles 2 doesn't offer anything new to the genre or anything in the way of surprise, but it does its thing with style and care, allowing every character - including the returning Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone - their moment in the spotlight. 14 years after thrilling one generation, this sequel is sure to bring the next one on board.
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9/10
One of the most devastating anti-war pictures ever made
11 November 2018
Many films have depicted the horrors of war and the loss of innocence that comes with it, but it's no coincidence that the very best tend to be viewed through the eyes of children. The big Hollywood productions tend to shy away from this angle for the simple fact that recent wars haven't been fought on their turf, leaving it to Europe and Asia to explore how war not only devastates the childhoods of youngsters, but destroys the development of their personality. Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, making his feature debut, was keen to explore this idea in Ivan's Childhood, and the result was a work of art that can sit alongside the likes of Come and See and Grave of the Fireflies as one of the finest films to take this approach. We open in a dream, although we don't know it yet. Young Ivan Bondarev (Nikolay Burlyaev) is enjoying happier times with his mother as birdsong plays in the background. There's a huge noise, and the expression of Ivan's mother's face suddenly changes.

We wake, with Ivan, from the dream and into the stark reality of life on the front during World War II. Ivan stumbles out of the windmill attic he's slept in and make his way across a battle-worn Soviet landscape, eventually reaching a swamp. Dodging enemy fire, the child makes it all the way across in near darkness, making contact with a small Russian platoon commanded by the young Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeniy Zharikov). The brash and short-tempered Ivan insists that Galtsev contact headquarters to announce his arrival, while the inexperienced leader eyes the battered young soldier before him with curiosity. Eventually making the call, Galtsev is told by Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolay Grinko) to give the boy a pen and paper so he can make his report on the positions of German soldiers, as well as giving Ivan a much-needed bath and hot meal. Having grown fond of Ivan, Gryaznov and his fellow soldiers aim to move him to military school, where he'll be safe from the fighting. But Ivan, after watching his family murdered before him, burns with the desire for revenge, revealing that if he is sent away he will only escape and join the local partisans.

Like all of Tarkovsky's work, there isn't really a definitive plot driving Ivan's Childhood. Instead, Tarkovsky uses the characters and setting as a means to explore deeper themes, like war, fear, rage, loss and, of course, childhood. The film flicks between dreams and reality, often leaving the viewer unaware of which state they're in, as Ivan is spurred forward by the traumatic events he has endured. He is cynical and battle-hardened like the men around him, but he is still a boy, leaping into the arms of an officer and friend like a son greeting his returning father. As Ivan, Burlyaev is tasked with playing a character torn in half, often having to switch between the two sides of his personality in the very same scene. He pulls it off miraculously, cementing his place as one of the most powerful child performances of all time. Burlyaev is able to retain a youthful demeanour while possessing the look of someone much older and wiser, the most difficult feat faced by any young performer looking to play a child forced to grow up too fast by the adult world around him. At the end, Tarkovsky leaves us haunted by images of endless death and pointless savagery, making Ivan's Childhood one of the most devastating anti-war pictures ever made.
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Crimson Peak (2015)
6/10
A very mixed bag
4 November 2018
If you were to task both critics and general audiences with naming their favourite active directors, I would place a bet on Guillermo del Toro being the first name on the lips of many. The Mexican monster-lover has the unique ability to juggle both passion projects that clearly mean a lot to the filmmaker, and large-scale blockbusters to appease the studios, and this one-for-me, one-for-you approach has allowed to him to bring to the screen some incredibly personal stories which would have otherwise been left to linger in the director's imagination. So for every The Devil's Backbone, we got a Hellboy, and for every Pan's Labyrinth, we got a Pacific Rim. 2015's Crimson Peak was del Toro's first attempt at blending these two styles. Movie lovers could admire the breathtaking visuals and attention to detail, while the general audience could enjoy a juicy gothic mystery featuring some of the industry's most attractive stars. The result is a very mixed bag.

In turn-of-the-century New York, heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) dreams of becoming an author, but finds herself dissuaded at every turn by the men holding the power. Her father, wealthy businessman Carter (Jim Beaver), is visited by English travelling salesman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is seeking investment for his clay-mining machinery. The dashing bachelor is shut down by Carter, but catches the eye of Edith, and two begin a romantic affair. When Carter dies, Edith marries Thomas and travels to his home Allerdale Hall in Cumberland, a decaying mansion dubbed 'Crimson Peak' due to the red clay oozing up from the ground. Joining them will be Thomas' ice-cold sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who seems to harbour a resentment for her brother's new wife. But Crimson Peak has stories to tell, and Edith's unexplained connection to the spirit world means that she is frequently visited by hideous tormented ghosts carrying warnings. Back in the U.S., former suitor Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) is conducting his own research into the Sharpes and their shady history.

Del Toro has always excelled at building tangible worlds which seem to live and breath alongside the characters, and the rotting interiors of Allerdale Hall is one of the director's greatest achievements. Lush with exquisite detail, the house pulses with menace, tormenting Edith with locked doors and taps that spurt red before running clear. There's even a hole in the ceiling that allows snow to gather at the bottom of the main staircase, and the splashes of bold colour evoke the likes of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Hammer. It's a feast for the senses, and it's just enough to distract from the mediocrity of the main story and the inclusion of CGI spectres. The mystery unravels quite beautifully, but the problem is that you'll already be two or three steps ahead. Nothing that happens in Crimson Peak will come as a surprise, especially after you've quickly realised that anyone with an English accent can't be trusted. The film loses its physicality somewhat when attempting to deliver the scares, as twisted ghosts crawl and squeal their way towards Edith. Computer-generated apparitions will never be scary, and Crimson Peak packs way more impact when catching you off guard with moments of extreme violence that will make you wince and cry out without averting your gaze. Rank this somewhere above Pacific Rim and below Hellboy II.
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9/10
The perfect balance of comedy, drama and action
2 November 2018
Earlier this year, when Disney finally completed their takeover of 21st Century Fox, Marvel fans rejoiced at the idea of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four finally being brought into the fold and into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the silly, family-friendly Fantastic Four we got back in 2005 and its only-slightly-better sequel in 2006, Josh Trank's much-anticipated 2015 reboot failed spectacularly, causing Fox to shelve the tainted franchise indefinitely. Since Kevin Feige and the MCU can seemingly do no wrong, we will finally be getting an interpretation worthy of Marvel's first family. What most fans didn't realise however, is that we already had a great Fantastic Four movie, only it wasn't made by Marvel and didn't feature the likes of Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch. No, I'm not referring to Roger Corman's 1994 disaster, but the one made by Pixar Studios called The Incredibles, which is still to this day one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.

The world has been blessed with the arrival of superheroes: super-powered beings who dress up in masks and tights, battling crime in their spare time to the adoration of a grateful public. But with the rise of superheroes comes the rise of supervillains, all with equally outlandish costumes, nicknames and powers. Public opinion suddenly shifts when famous hero Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) saves a man from suicide, and the lawsuits start to hit the caped crusaders. In response, the government starts the Superhero Relocation Program, designed to hide the supers in society and keep their crime-fighting antics at bay. Years later, Mr. Incredible is living a dull suburban existence with his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and their three children Violent (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack. His work at an insurance company brings him no joy, so he helps the vulnerable to find loopholes in the company's policies to ensure they pay out, and spends some nights with old buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) listening to a police radio. But life seems to have meaning once again when he is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), who offers the overweight lug a top-secret mission on a secret island base.

Pixar is famous not only for the quality of their movies, but for how their products can be loved by anybody in any age group. Children will enjoy the bright colours and spectacular action, adults will appreciate the sly wit, and just about everybody will fall for the heart. Yet despite its somewhat glossy appearance, The Incredibles is Pixar at its most mature. While the film does gift its characters super-strength, super-speed and invisibility, The Incredibles is really about dysfunction and the trappings of family life and a 9 to 5 job. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have reached crisis point, with the latter left to dealt with children only just discovering their powers while the former is off daydreaming about the glory days. It's what drives the drama, and is ultimately what makes you hold your breath when they are in danger or want to punch the air when they suit up to face their foe. Such an honest depiction of marital life doesn't make for depressing viewing however, with writer/director Brad Bird mixing in some fine slapstick humour and the mic-dropping costume designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself). 14 years after its release, it still remains one of Pixar's finest, and Bird finds the perfect balance of comedy, drama and action as he did with his other animated classic, The Iron Giant.
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Ramrod (1947)
7/10
Tough, twisty horse opera that shares more in common with the film noir genre
28 October 2018
Feuding landowners have always been a popular subject matter for the old-school B-movie westerns, and on face value Andre De Toth's Ramrod appears to be cut from very familiar material. The presence of co-stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake no doubt attracted punters charmed six years earlier by their performances in Preston Sturges' masterpiece Sullivan's Travels, and they would be forgiven if they thought they were in for some light-hearted white hat vs. black hat cowboy fun, with a little bit of romance sprinkled in for good measure. In fact, Ramrod couldn't be further away from Sturges' romp in terms of tone, with De Toth revelling in the cynicism of all but one of its central characters. Based on a story by legendary Western author Luke Short, this is a tough, twisty horse opera that pushes its characters into morally murky territory, sharing more in common with the film noir genre than the tropes of a western.

As the film opens, we are already at the boiling point of a conflict between powerful ranch owner Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) and sheepherder Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald). Walt wants to bring sheep to the land, a big problem in cattle country. Caught in the middle of the feud is Connie Dickason (Lake), the beautiful and headstrong daughter of rancher Ben (Charles Ruggles). Her father wants Connie to marry Ivey, but she detests his bullying, violent manner and prefers to marry Walt instead. As it turns out, Walt doesn't have the stomach for a fight and flees town, leaving his Circle 66 ranch to Connie. Rather than caving to Ivey's demands for the land, Connie hires the stoic Dave Nash (McCrea) as her 'ramrod', or foreman, who feels indebted to Walt for taking him in when he was at his lowest. Dave accepts, but only on the promise that he is allowed to deal with Ivey peacefully, and without resorting to violence. He hires the free-spirited Bill Schell (Don DeFore) as back-up, but as Ivey and his gang employ increasingly brutal methods and Connie loses patience with Dave's restraint, alliances are forged and broken as the conflict spirals out of control.

Despite the magic they made together working with Sturges, I've never been particularly fond of either McCrea or Lake as actors. They have the screen presence, certainly, but they can both come across as empty shells. They are undoubtedly the weakest aspect of Ramrod, a film that is otherwise riveting from start to finish. The story is complicated enough to hold your interest for the duration, with supporting characters emerging to play a more important role that you were expecting, and revealing hidden layers that provide plenty of twists and turns. Indeed, Ramrod would be pretty pedestrian if Dave's methods proved to be the only way, and as his grip on the situation loosens when the back-stabbing and dirty dealings start to play out, the film heads into pure film noir territory. As the bodies start to pile up and the gun-fire becomes more frequent, De Toth forces his characters down some incredibly dark paths and doesn't wimp out of the difficult corners he backs them into. This is tough and exciting stuff, made all the more interesting by the way De Toth toys with the myth of black against white. The weakness of the leads is countered by some excellent supporting players, in particular Foster and DeFore.
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9/10
Ravishing dissection of the Eisenhower era
27 October 2018
German-born film maker Douglas Sirk grew up watching the ground-breaking expressionist films his country pioneered in the 20's and 30's, when movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu were making full use of shadow techniques and angular sets that were as wonderfully warped as the minds of their characters. After fleeing the Nazis with his Jewish wife, Sirk - born Hans Detlef Sierck - worked in Europe before arriving in Hollywood, where he would ultimately become remembered for his ravishing melodramas. One of his most popular, All That Heaven Allows, saw Sirk fully embracing the expressionist pictures of his birth country, adapting these techniques for 1950's Americana, and employing them to expose the ugly underbelly of a Technicolor world he would make equally as beautiful.

The middle-aged Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is still trying to make sense of life after the death of her husband. Her children, who insist she purchases a television to fill up her spare time, are all grown up and pursuing careers of their own, while her friends at the stuffy country club seem unhealthily invested in finding her a new husband. There's no shortage of men lining up to declare their interest, but the only man to truly catch her eye is the dashing Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), the gardener who tends to the neighbourhood's shrubs and bushes. He's certainly handsome and charming enough, but Ron is below Cary's social status, favouring a care-free life with close companions and building whatever he needs with his own hands. This doesn't bother Cary, and if anything is the reason she falls completely in love with him. But everybody around her takes offence at a widow shacking up with a younger man, and look down their noses at a man who doesn't fit in with their ideal social balance.

Wyman is superb as a woman who knows her heart's desire, but hesitates at the idea of upsetting those holding up the foundations of a privileged life. It isn't that she doesn't want to leave a life of dull conversations and social gossip - on the contrary she is profoundly bored with it - but it's all that she knows. Having been ushered into this world by her late husband, the thought of a life without assurances is simply terrifying. Her own children even turn their backs at the thought of a younger man seducing their mother, and see Ron as a threat to their inheritance. Sirk brings this conflict to life with lashings of vivid reds and blues, reflecting both mood and temperament, as Cary desperately struggles to contain the waves of uproar lapping through her community. As the gossips bicker and the older single men puff out their chests, Sirk dissects the seemingly harmonious and postcard-perfect family unit of the Eisenhower-era, and finds an ugly heart beating beneath. It's the kind of thing David Lynch would explore more overtly a couple of decades later, employing the same soap-opera sheen as Sirk does here to give the world an even more vacuous feel. All That Heavens Allows is also a gorgeous and engrossing love story, lending joy to what is otherwise a damning social commentary
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R.I.P.D. (2013)
2/10
Like Men in Black. Only not good.
22 October 2018
Ryan Reynolds may have gone out of his way to try and obliterate the memories of some of the terrible movie choices he's made over the years during the post-credit scenes of Deadpool 2, but the sheer scale of the misfires he's been caught up in never ceases to amaze. One of the standouts in his filmography of horrors is R.I.P.D., an adaptation of Peter M. Lemkov's comic book of the same name which comes across as a misguided mash-up of Men in Black and Ghostbusters and whose biggest boast is that it's probably just a tiny notch better than how terrible you've no doubt heard it is. The Men in Black comparisons are unavoidable from the get-go, and while the comic was released just as the love for Barry Sonnenfeld's smash-hit was at its highest, Robert Schwentke's adaptation has no excuse for such lazy regurgitation. Seriously, if you replace Will Smith with Ryan Reynolds, Tommy Lee Jones with Jeff Bridges, and aliens for monsters, you have the same movie. Only this isn't good.

Crooked Boston detective Nick Walker (Reynolds) buries gold stolen during active duty in his back garden, hoping the loot will provide a nice rest egg for him and his wife Julia (Stephanie Szotak) in the future. After deciding he doesn't need the money or the guilt on his back, Nick decides to turn it over into evidence, but not before revealing his intentions to partner Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon). During a police raid, Bobby informs Nick that he cannot allow the gold to be handed in, and shoots his partner dead. But death is not the end, Nick learns, and on his journey into the afterlife he is hauled into the office of the Rest in Peace Department, a force designed to capture any souls who refuse to pass over and instead remain on Earth, known as 'deados'. His humourless boss Mildred Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker) partners Nick with rugged former United States Marshal and Civil War veteran Roychepus 'Roy' Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges), a gruff figure from the days of the Wild West who speaks like a cowboy with a mouth full of cotton balls.

As R.I.P.D. was the beginning of what the producers hoped would lead on to a fully-fledged franchise, there's a lot of explaining to do. Before the plot involving the Staff of Jericho, the end of the universe as we know it, and the obligatory sky beam even kicks in, there are characters to introduce, rules to set in place and a mythology to establish. When the film isn't busy reeling off exposition, it's a chaotic mish-mash of jarring tones and woefully-realised action, as Nick and Roy bicker their way through the city searching for their targets, employing seemingly random questions and, for some reason, curry, to expose the undead's true, monstrous form. Bouncing aimlessly between slapstick comedy, tedious drama, endless chase scenes, and some hideously rendered CGI action, R.I.P.D. is a cesspit of half-baked ideas. Such hideousness could even be forgiven if the film raised the odd chuckle, or threw in a surprise every now and then, or it's lead star wasn't sleepwalking through the entire thing. Bridges, who actually seems to be relishing the chance to flex his goofy chops, certainly tries his best to liven things up, but even a seasoned Oscar winner isn't enough to save this from the cinematic rubbish pile.
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22 July (2018)
7/10
Brave, powerful film-making
21 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
British writer and director Paul Greengrass has spent half of his whole career documenting real life tragedies with equal amounts of verve and respect. The likes of Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips were equally difficult to watch and to look away from, paying tribute to those caught up the real-life events, who are likely still living with the traumatic memories, yet delivering an emotional, visceral cinematic experience at the same time. The two styles should contradict each other, but they really don't, and it's what makes Greengrass a special film-maker. But even he couldn't escape the controversy that came with his latest film, 22 July, a re-telling of the 2011 terrorist attack on Norway's Utoya island, an event still fresh in the minds of anybody old enough to remember the news reports. Is the film simply too soon? And does a Brit even have the right to try and make sense of a Norwegian tragedy?

22 July arrives mere months after Erik Poppe's Utoya: July 22, a Norwegian production that placed a fictionalised character at the centre of the massacre as it unfolds in real-time using one long take. Poppe's movie was even more controversial, raising questions about the ethics of applying such cinematic flair to an event that still feels like an open wound to many. Greengrass is more concerned with the aftermath: how Norway reacted as a country and how the actions of Anders Behring Breivik are still felt throughout the world. The massacre itself, which took the lives of 69 people attending a Labour Party youth camp, is mercifully short, but undeniably horrifying. One attendee in particular stands out: the bright, articulate and well-liked Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli). We first meet him delivering a short speech about the ethnic diversity of his own town, speaking out in favour of everything Breivik hates. At the same time Breivik, played with a haunting steeliness by Anders Danielsen Lie, has posted his online manifesto and is fitting a home-made bomb to a van outside the Prime Minister's office. Whilst on his journey to Utoya, Breivik had already murdered 8 people.

Viljar survives the attack but is left blind in one eye and with bullet fragments lodged dangerously close to his brain. While Breivik is processed through the courts, Viljar provides a much-needed ground-level view. Through Viljar, 22 July also finds its emotional beats, as his physical and emotional recovery builds towards a final confrontation in court, where Breivik is also granted the opportunity to say his piece. The system may have given Breivik some time in the spotlight, Greengrass certainly doesn't, at least not in the way the delusional, self-styled "leader of men" no doubt envisioned. It commends both due process and Norway's refusal to allow events to descend into a circus. As a result, Breivik is systematically broken down and disarmed, and if the film is ultimately about our truly dark times, some satisfaction can be gained by watching a monster stripped of his delusions of grandeur. Greengrass trips up with his decision to shoot the film in accented English, going half in the right direction by casting unknown Norwegian actors but stopping short of full immersion. For such an otherwise authentic document, it's a baffling decision, but 22 July is still brave, powerful film-making that reminds us with genuine concern of what little has changed since that day seven years ago.
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Upgrade (2018)
6/10
Exciting sci-fi constructed around one great idea
13 October 2018
Leigh Whannell's Upgrade feels like the type of film made for Netflix; a sort of mid-level science-fiction story constructed around one intriguing idea, and bulked up with elements from other, better genre movies. It's also the type of film I would consider for a few seconds whilst flicking through my Netflix queue, before opting for something else with a more compelling premise. Set in the very-near future, the film's main hook comes from a game-changing microchip that, when surgically planted in a willing - or unwilling host - allows body and foreign body to communicate with each other. Of course, it doesn't stop there. The implant can also turn down your nerve endings so you don't feel pain, and - with the host's permission - can fully operate your body and turn you into a hand-to-hand master. This comes in handy for grease monkey Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) when the plot demands he seeks revenge on some baddies.

As well as possessing one of cinema's all-time most ridiculous names, Grey spends his time fixing classic muscle cars and drinking beer. This near-future is complete with iHomes and self-driving cars, but Grey is far more comfortable getting his hands dirty. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), on the other hand, works for one of the big tech companies and has fully embraced this new digital, hands-free world. Opposites do attract however, and Grey invites his wife along to the isolated home of tech genius Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), his most high-profile customer. Eron, who is clearly inspired by Elon Musk, is withdrawn, strange and undeniably brilliant, and also eager to show off his latest invention: a microchip he dubs "a new, better brain." On the journey home, their car experiences a catastrophic error, sending the couple down dark streets before crashing and overturning. Injured, they are then preyed upon a gang of masked criminals, who murder Asha and cripple Grey. Waking up paralysed from the neck down and understandably angry, Grey is offered a solution when Eron makes a rare public appearance at the hospital.

If all of this sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it before in countless other movies. Upgrade's greatest achievement is that it doesn't make you wish you were watching something else, and instead pulls you along into its world. This is mainly down to some spectacular action scenes, which combine well-choreographed hand-to-hand fighting with some nifty camerawork, which bends and turns along with Grey as he dishes out violence with a look of both confusion and excitement splashed cross his face. There's something hilarious about a body acting independently of the face, and Whannell wisely chooses to play up these moments. Marshall-Green is often unfairly referred to as a bargain-bin Tom Hardy (who is currently dealing with his own parasitic second personality in Venom), and while he fails to convince as a leading man, he's clearly enjoying himself. Produced by Blumhouse Productions, who churn out huge hits with incredibly modest budgets, Upgrade is infused with a grainy, B-movie aesthetic that give it an exploitation vibe and slightly grimy feel. I mean that as a compliment, and it's a shame that the excitement generated by the outrageous action scenes couldn't be replicated in the generic beats of the main story.
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8/10
A masterpiece of visual storytelling
11 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Before their falling out, director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood made some great films together, beginning with Coogan's Bluff in 1968 and ending with arguably their finest work, Escape from Alcatraz in 1979. Like Eastwood's character Frank Morris, Escape from Alcatraz is lean and no-nonsense, set completely within the walls of the infamous island prison. It's also a masterpiece of visual storytelling, with Siegel displaying a skill for capturing the routine of life in Alcatraz, from the small individual cells to the mundane work cycles, all combining to create an overall sense of hopelessness for those destined to rot away on the Rock. Morris has been placed there because he has escaped from every other prison he's been sent to, and nobody escapes from Alcatraz. He is quickly informed by a fellow inmate that should you even manage to get out of your cell, it's a mile away from land and the cold will kill you before the next prisoner count.

This revelation would crush the souls of most men, but Morris simply sees it as another challenge to overcome and quickly starts to plan a break-out. It will take time however, so he must endure the harshness of prison life in the meantime. Alcatraz is a place of punishment, not rehabilitation, and the quietly sadistic warden, played by Patrick McGoohan, appears to be proud of the prison's reputation of making good prisoners, not citizens. We are gradually introduced to the other inmates: There's the eccentric Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who convinces a new arrival that he is actually Al Capone, artist and amateur botanist 'Doc' Dalton (Roberts Blossom), black librarian English (Paul Benjamin), and eventually Morris' old acquaintances and brothers Clarence (Jack Thibeau) and John Anglin (Fred Ward). Morris quickly makes an enemy in Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), when he clobbers the would-be rapist for making advances in the shower room. With Wolf waiting impatiently in solitary for revenge and the threat of a cell move looming, Morris steps up his efforts, finding hope in the crumbling concrete around the grille in his cell.

The escape itself is a magnificent, meticulously researched sequence that arrives at the climax, but before that we are ushered into the harsh realities of prison life, and what it takes to survive and maintain your sanity in such brutal surroundings. Siegel skilfully builds dramatic tension in a suffocating, cramped confinement. Alcatraz was no ordinary prison. It was an intricate machine designed to crush the spirits of those serving time, where a luxury could be taken away in an instant for the pettiest of reasons, leaving you with nothing but walls and your thoughts. Siegel doesn't necessarily side with the prisoners - with one exception, they all certainly deserve to be locked up - but he is keen to point out that such mental abuse doesn't do anybody, especially society, any good. This sense of injustice is certainly what seems to be driving Morris, and you'll be willing him on when the date is finally set. The escape is actually relatively straight-forward, but Siegel makes it nail-biting nonetheless. This also fits in with the whole docudrama feel, sticking closely to how it actually went down back in 1962. The ending eerily lets you ponder their fate for yourselves. They were never seen again, nor were their bodies discovered.
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5/10
More fun than expected
10 October 2018
By 1995, the western genre had all but disappeared completely from our cinema screens. Black-and-white tales of cowboys and Indians in America's Old West was the stuff your granddad would watch on television during the day and claim they just don't make 'em like this anymore. They didn't stop completely however, with the likes of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man making an earnest attempt to infuse the genre with a psychedelic, folksy edge, and George P. Cosmatos' Tombstone turning the events at the OK Corral into an explosive action thriller. Some, like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, while adding a more sombre tone, successfully stuck the traditions of the genre, while others, like Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, simply took an old-fashioned premise and ran with it. If you're looking for revisionism or an interesting take on an iconic time in America's history, then The Quick and the Dead ain't the film for that, but you may just find yourself having a bit more fun that you expected.

The town of Redemption was once a thriving community, but it now rests in the hands of the ruthless mayor and former outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman). Herod enjoys a nice house while taxing his citizens 50% on any money they make, and apparently relieves his boredom by hosting a quick-draw contest every year. Gunslingers from all across the country arrive to take part - but God knows why, given the obviously high risk of death - including the mysterious Ellen (Sharon Stone), who shares a history with both the town and Herod himself. Also in town is Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cocky teenager with a steady hand who also believes he is Herod's unacknowledged son, and a repentant outlaw-turned-preacher named Cort (Russell Crowe). Cort is dragged into the contest against his will by Herod's cronies, and the boss man is seemingly angered at his former associate's new anti-violence stance. There's backstory and melodrama, but it's all just an excuse for a series of stand-offs in a town where it always seems to be high noon.

While subverting expectations by enlisting a woman to play the central gunslinger, Raimi may as well have cast a broom in a wig, as Stone struggles to convincingly brood and frown and maintain any kind of interest in her character. Faring considerably better are DiCaprio and Crowe, who were just a few years off Titanic and Gladiator and the global stardom that followed. Their charisma and star quality are as clear as day, especially when they share a scene with the one-note Stone. For a film that boasts a wonderful supporting cast (Roberts Blossom, Tobin Bell, Keith David, Lance Henriksen and Gary Sinise are just some of the familiar faces), they all cower in the shadow of Gene Hackman, who somehow manages to turn some truly atrocious dialogue into Shakespeare. Yet the real star is Raimi's crazy camera lens. Before he was bringing Peter Parker's swinging exploits vividly to life in Spider-Man, he was crash-zooming on the faces of readying gunslingers and capturing daylight through a bullet-hole in the belly. It's silly, outrageous and wonderful. The problem is everything that comes in between, from the dreary central hero to the unengaging backstories.
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10/10
The best documentary - if you can call it that - ever made
9 October 2018
David Abelvich Kaufman was born on January 2nd, 1896 in Bialystok, Ukraine, and came of age during the Russian Revolution, joining the movement headed by Lenin and Trotsky that would eventually overthrow the Russian Republic. At some point during this time, Kaufman changed his name to Denis Arkadievich to avoid the persecution of Ukranian Jews. He studied music and medicine until he found his true calling in the arts, writing essays on Futurism and French avant-garde and developing a keen interest in cinema, something he viewed with both curiosity and frustration, calling out traditional, sentimental cinema as "leprous". Learning his trade developing newsreels for Cinema Week and changing his name once again to Dziga Vertov, the filmmaker set out to develop something nobody had ever seen before: a film without narrative, characters or dialogue.

Man with a Movie Camera, released in 1929, did away with traditional storytelling techniques to the point that no story would be told at all, at least not in the way that audiences were - and still are - accustomed to. Vertov would spend over 3 years on the film, shooting in Soviet cities Moscow, Kharkiv, Kiev and Odessa to capture the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life, from faces on the street to the labourers keeping the cities in motion. But this is no ordinary documentary, and to call it a documentary at all is somewhat misleading. Vertov and his group, the kinoks, were rooted firmly in modernism and Marxist ideologies, and Man with a Movie Camera aimed to push the limits of what could be achieved with a camera and clever editing. What may sound like a dour experiment for the academics is actually incredibly entertaining, with Vertov having plenty of fun playing with his toys. After a short burst of intertitles, we see an audience arrive for a screening, their seats magically lowering themselves down before the film begins. Later, we see a woman editing a scene we've just watched.

It's a film being made before our very eyes, and Vertov even manages to make you feel part of the process. Not only do we have the pleasure of some dazzling, innovative camerawork, but we also get to see how such a shot was achieved. The only 'character' of the film is the man with a movie camera, played by Vertov's brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. We see him scaling great heights and perched on the side of a moving car, or lounging in the shallow sea as he shoots a crowd gathered at the beach. The film would pioneer techniques still used to this day, including the likes of double exposure, slow-motion, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, and in one of the most delightful segments, stop-motion animation. With an average shot length of 2 seconds - the same as many blockbusters today - it thunders along like a well-oiled machine, backed by The Alloy Orchestra's rousing score. Everything is constantly in motion, from the trains, trams and factories, to the people going about their business. Vertov juxtaposes life and death, marriage and divorce, happiness and hardship, almost like it's happening simultaneously. It's a head-spinning experience that remains one of the most significant moments in cinema history, and to think it was done over 50 years before Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi attempted the same.
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Hold the Dark (2018)
6/10
Peppered with brilliance but Saulnier's weakest film to date
7 October 2018
Whether you appreciate his genre-hopping and wince-inducingly violent movies or not, nobody could ever accuse director Jeremy Saulnier of lacking ambition. From the grisly, low-budget revenge picture Blue Ruin to the greasy punks/neo-Nazi stand-off of Green Room, Saulnier has always demonstrated the will to subvert our expectations, to carry us off into seemingly safe territory before slapping us across the face with a moment of utter savagery. It seems strange then, that Saulnier's most ambitious movie to date, the Alaskan-set 'mystery' Hold the Dark, debuted on the small screen via Netflix. The word mystery is in inverted commas because this is one of a few genres Hold the Dark dips its toes into, making for an unsettling and surprising film, but also a frustrating and confusing one. The scope is noticeably broader than Saulnier's previous efforts as the action hops between different continents and viewpoints, but Saulnier and writer Macon Blair fail to maintain a firm grasp of the story.

In a small town out in the Alaskan wilderness a few children have gone missing - suspected of being taken away by wolves - and Bailey Sloane is the latest to disappear. His mother, Medora (Riley Keough) writes to Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a naturalist who has written a book about his experiences killing a wolf, in the hope that he will hunt down the animals responsible. He agrees, curious of Medora's motivations, and the two damaged, introverted characters form a quiet bond through shared loneliness. Meanwhile, Medora's husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard), a soldier fighting in Afghanistan (the film takes place in 2004), is notified of his son's abduction. His own wife describes him as an animal, and we quickly understand why. A towering, fearsome figure, Vernon is a man who believes that murder is wholly justified, even necessary, when it comes to protecting the ones you love. When he arrives in town, all hell breaks loose, attracting the attention of the unprepared and unequipped local police force, led by chief Donald Marium (James Badge Dale).

The synopsis is vague because to reveal any more would be to spoil the film's most interesting aspect, its sheer unpredictability. The first hour draws you in with its sombre and almost threatening atmosphere, as it seems to set up a familiar man vs beast scenario, and the ethical conundrums that come with it. It then takes a sharp, violent turn with a riveting set-piece that comes out of nowhere, and from then on you won't have a clue where you're heading. The main problem is that the film doesn't seem to know either, and when we finally arrive at a certain destination in the story, we don't really know where we are. The clashing tones and genre switches of Saulnier's previous movies felt organic and exciting, but the pieces don't quite fit together in Hold the Dark. If you were to view individual scenes, there's some great work here. Saulnier understands how to grab your attention and execute moments of brutality that don't feel gratuitous or exploitative, and an extended shoot-out that successfully blends horror and action is the film's most shocking and memorable moment. Wright is terrific too, but his pained whispers aren't enough to save this from being Saulnier's weakest film to date, made all the more frustrating by the fact that there are moments of brilliance throughout.
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7/10
Coffin Joe is back for an entertaining sequel
2 October 2018
The idea of going bigger and bolder when tackling the sequel to a surprise hit is nothing new, as evidenced by Jose Mojica Marins' follow-up to cult Brazilian horror classic At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. The first film managed to achieve cult status in its native country and with anybody lucky enough to see it elsewhere in the world, so director, co-writer and lead star Marins managed to bag a noticeably larger budget and used this to further explore the darkest regions of his mind. The result - the wonderfully-titled This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse - is little more than a shameless re-hash of the previous story, but as a piece of psychedelic gothic horror, it manages to outshine its predecessor in every way. At the end of Midnight, Marins' Ze do Caixao, or 'Coffin Joe', was left for dead by supernatural forces. But now he's back, and more determined than ever to find the perfect bride to carry his child.

While the villagers hid in fear of Joe last time around, they have since grown weary of his superior attitude and suspect him of the many disappearances that took place in their community. However, without sufficient evidence to bring him to trial, Joe is released to carry on with his undertaker duties and his search for the mother of his future son. Assisted this time by a hunchback named Bruno (Jose Lobo), Joe imprisons some of the village's most beautiful young ladies and tests them in order to prove their worthiness. Sadly, the test involves an army of spiders, and while one woman, Marcia (Nadia Freitas), remains calm, the others panic and are thrown into a pit to be killed by snakes. While Marcia is deemed unsuitable to bear his child, she is employed as a spy while Joe sets out to seduce the beautiful Laura (Tina Wohlers), the daughter of a local colonel who shares Joe's twisted outlook and logic.

Marins only stepped into the role of Coffin Joe when the original actor dropped out before the first film started production, but this proved to be a stroke of luck as it's difficult to imagine anybody else donning the top hat, neatly-trimmed beard and grotesque, talon-like fingernails. Joe is more cunning this time around, using his wits to frame a local strongman for the murders and to escape some violent confrontations. A curse placed upon him by one of his victims slowly drives him mad, leading to one of the film's most exceptional set-pieces. In his dreams, Joe journeys into hell, a cesspit of cruelty and torture shot in bold colour (the rest of the picture is grainy black-and-white). Bloody limbs and body parts emerge from the stone walls and poor souls are whipped and beaten continuously is a never-ending carousel of savagery. It's a nightmare that even terrifies Joe, and this segment provides a disturbing window into Marins' imagination. This second entry into the Coffin Joe series moves a mile-a-minute, offering everything from phoney-looking backdrops to smoke-machine special effects as it touches on almost every taboo imaginable, but this excess is all part of its charm, and what makes the world of Ze do Caixao so unique.

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No Way Out (1950)
8/10
Powerful picture featuring a ferocious performance by Richard Widmark
25 September 2018
Despite possessing all the handsome features expected of a male star in the 1950s, actor Richard Widmark ended up playing some of the most loathsome and outright disgusting characters of his era. After his star-making turn in Henry Hathaway's terrific Kiss of Death, Widmark found himself typecast as villains and anti-heroes in the subsequent years, before reinventing himself as a hero later in life. Looking back at Widmark's career, his performances are savage even by today's standards, and he perhaps never played a character so utterly vile as that of mobster Ray Biddle in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out. Biddle is both gangster and racist, the worst type of person, and starts the film being wheeled into a hospital with his brother after a robbery gone wrong.

The Biddle brothers have both been injured in a shoot-out with the police, but elder brother Johnny (Dick Paxton) is more seriously ill than it would appear. Tasked with taking care of the hoodlums is Dr. Luther Books (Sidney Poitier), an intern who has just earned his license to practise medicine and the first African-American doctor to work at the hospital. Concerned with Johnny's slurred speech and erratic behaviour, Brooks suspects a brain tumour and starts a spinal tap, only to be bombarded with racist abuse from Ray. Johnny dies soon after, and Ray naturally accuses Brooks of murder. After consulting with chief medical resident Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), they both agree on the diagnosis, and also that an autopsy is the only way to know for certain. But state laws only permit an autopsy with a family member's approval, and Ray isn't going to give it. With racial tension across the city brewing, Brooks and Wharton visit Ray's ex-wife Edie (Linda Darnell) in the hope that she can make Ray see sense.

By keeping the majority of the story within the hospital setting, Mankiewicz and co-writer Lesser Samuels (who would go on to pen the great Ace in the Hole for Billy Wilder) keep the animosity at a personal level. The film would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Brooks must remain stone-faced as he is abused by Ray after genuinely trying to save his brother's life, and Poitier is magnificent in an very early role. His relationship with Ray, who refuses to see sense even when given proof, is incredibly raw even by contemporary standards. Ray is the catalyst for the trouble at the film's centre, and his actions cause a rippling effect throughout the surrounding neighbourhoods, with the inhabitants of an-all black area gearing up for a fight with the whites from Ray's neck of the woods. This highlights the fact that the themes the film is keen to explore aren't just confined to the hospital, but represent a problem of a much wider scale. It's a film that is sadly still relevant today, over 60 years later, and Widmark's ferocity only makes the experience all the more powerful.

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Monkey Shines (1988)
7/10
A reminder that Romero didn't only deliver in the zombie genre
24 September 2018
Only the very best directors can take a flimsy story and make the most out of it, and this is precisely the case with Monkey Shines, adapted by George A. Romero from the novel by Michael Stewart. Of course, Romero is best known for Night of the Living Dead and it's spectacularly gory follow-up Dawn of the Dead, but Monkey Shines actually takes a surprisingly careful, reserved approach to this tale of a killer monkey, and takes the time to slowly develop the relationship between the central character and his simian helper. The film begins with Allan, played by Jason Beghe, a former track champion who clearly takes his workout routines incredibly seriously, packing his back pack with rocks and leaving the house for a morning jog with the sun barely risen. His active lifestyle is quickly cut short when he is hit by a bus, and wakes up days later as a quadriplegic.

When he returns home assisted by a mouth-operated wheelchair, his friends and family have all gathered to welcome him but nothing will ever be the same again. His shallow girlfriend Linda (Janine Turner), who fears her life will now be dominated by looking after her partner, has shacked up with Allan's unbearably smug surgeon Dr. Wiseman (Stanley Tucci with a head of hair), and his scientist best friend Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow) is a junkie who shows up late for the welcome party. But Fisher, who has been experimenting on Capuchins by injecting them with human brain tissue, may have the solution to Allan's problems. After consulting with Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil) - an expert in assigning quadriplegics with monkey helpers - Fisher supplies Allan with his star pupil, 'Ella' (who is actually voiced by Frank Welker). The two hit it off immediately, and the bond between them becomes so strong that Ella can seemingly predict Allan's needs before he even asks (or points his laser pen).

Ella doesn't solve all of Allan's problems however, and Allan still vents his frustration at his uncaring nurse and her annoying bird, as well as his overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten), who insists on sticking her nose in where it's not wanted. What follows would sound preposterous on paper, but Romero keeps the story engrossing and oddly believable by refusing to give into excess. The delightful exploding heads and exposed innards of his zombie movies simply wouldn't work here, although the film does offer a violent and shocking ending. This is on a similar low key to Romero's vampire masterpiece Martin, and the director's keen eye for character building leaves us fully invested in the man-and-monkey relationship, despite the bloody trail left in their wake. There's a truly great 90 minute film here, but Monkey Shines runs at just shy of two hours, occasionally losing focus to shift the action to Fisher's strained relationship with his boss (Stephen Root) or Allan's mother's insistence on moving in, both sub-plots that don't really lead anywhere and stretch the film out longer than it needs to be. But with Romero's passing just last year, Monkey Shines is a great reminder that the horror icon didn't only deliver in the zombie genre.
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6/10
Entertaining adventure, but nothing worthy of the Star Wars banner
23 September 2018
During the countless times I watched George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy as a child, teenager and adult, I don't recall ever wondering how Han Solo became the sarcastic, smirking smuggler that definitely shot first. Ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm and announced that not only would they be continuing the story that began back in 1977 but would also be giving some of the fan-favourite supporting characters their very own spin-offs, there's been a split in the fandom between those gagging for anything Star Wars related on the big screen again and those opposed to a project that would both render the many beloved novels set in the Star Wars universe as un-canon, and undermine the story already told. Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi is either loved or hated (I loved it), but the one announcement that brought all the fans together in united opposition was Han Solo's very own spin-off, which would be set in the past and not feature the man who helped make the character so iconic, Harrison Ford.

You may not care just how Han won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, or how he met Chewbacca, or how he got his hands on that cool blaster, or how he made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs - but Solo: A Star Wars Story is going to tell you anyway. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it does give Solo a sense of weightlessness and the feeling of a filler episode in the middle of television series with too many episodes. With such little stakes at play, the success of Solo comes down to the charm of its actors, and the casting of Alden Ehrenreich was a very shrewd move indeed. He isn't a famous name, or even a pronounceable one, but his scene-stealing performance in 2016's Hail, Caesar!, where he managed to overshadow the likes of George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Brolin and Ralph Fiennes, bristled with star quality. Harrison Ford could never be replaced and Ehrenreich seems to know that, so while every now and then you get a glimmer of Ford's smile and his iconic one-handed shooting stance, Ehrenreich makes the role his own, replicating the charisma and infusing it with a youthful innocence.

We first meet Han hot-wiring cars on Corellia, an awful planet where orphaned children are forced to steal for slug-like gang-boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). With their lives in danger from the local gangs, Han and his lady friend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) decide to make a break for it, but at the airport they are separated, with Han fleeing to join the Imperial Navy and Qi'ra taken away by her pursuers. Three years later, Han is serving in the Military after being kicked out of the Flight Academy, fighting as an infantryman on a planet called Mimban. There he encounters a gang of criminals posing as Imperial soldiers led by the enigmatic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and attempts to blackmail them into letting him join them. Instead, he is thrown into a pit for desertion, where he meets the formidable Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). They escape and manage to convince Beckett to enlist them for a job to steal a shipment of coaxium. Now officially an outlaw, Han is brought into a dangerous world controlled by a criminal syndicate called Crimson Dawn. Beckett answers directly to crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), whose favourite advisor is a young lieutenant named Qi'ra.

Solo likely won't convince those soured by The Last Jedi or especially those who failed to see any potential in Han Solo origin movie in the first place, but it may be a nice, if forgettable, surprise for some. Like the other 'Star Wars Story', Rogue One, Solo was hit with numerous problems during production, the most notable being the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and the subsequent hiring of Ron Howard. Star Wars has always been a rule-bound universe, and Lord and Miller's loose, improvised style was perhaps too much for studio executives looking for a guaranteed hit. Howard was a reliable, safe choice, but one has to wonder how much fun Solo could have been in the hands of those responsible for 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie. What we have is a perfectly entertaining adventure movie that is surprisingly coherent given the patchwork built into it, but nothing worthy of the Star Wars banner. History will remember the film as the first Star Wars flop, and will cause historians to wonder why they didn't choose to given Donald Glover's Lando his own movie instead. On a positive note that will no doubt unite the fan-base, a box-office return of south of $400 million seem to have woken Disney executives up to the idea that there is such a thing as too much, too soon.

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8/10
Leaves you mentally and physically exhausted
17 September 2018
Opening with a shot of the muscly, pale-skinned and heaving back of our protagonist, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn - his first feature since the eye-opening Johnny Mad Dog in 2008 - begins and ends with British newcomer Joe Cole, and the talented young actor dominates every scene in between. Best known for his role in Peaky Blinders, Cole delivers a performance of pure ferocity, and if there's any justice, this will do for him what the likes of Bronson and Starred Up did, respectively, for then up-and-comers Tom Hardy and Jack O'Connell. Based on Billy Moore's brutal memoirs of his time served in one of Thailand's most unrelenting penitentiaries, the film tracks his journey from the only Westerner in his cell with a target on his back to Muay Thai champion. While it may dabble in the tropes of the prison and boxing genres, it never really relaxes into either, making for an unsettling and visceral two hours.

Rather than opting for a comfortable, straight-forward narrative, Sauvaire prefers to capture the sweaty, overbearing atmosphere of Moore's new lodgings, heightening the sound design so every breath sounds like it's coming from your own head, and every punch rattles your brain. David Ungaro's cinematography makes the most of the tight, damp spaces, as the inmate's bodies pile over each other like sardines in their overcrowded cells. The film feels almost like an invasion of your personal space, and the fact that Billy sticks out like a sore thumb only increases the feeling that danger lurks around every corner. Billy's physicality and willingness to fight may save him from regular beatings and even earn him a level of respect amongst his heavily-tattooed, dead-eyed cell-mates, but he is still forced to watch the gang-rape of a young newcomer to remind the Westerner of his place. Although the story leads up to a climactic fight, it avoids cliche by offering no sense of build-up. Billy simply must fight in order to survive the night and battle his own pent-up demons.

Without a main character to carry your interest, A Prayer Before Dawn may be too much to bear. But Billy, whose reasons for being in Thailand in the first place and dealing the drugs that landed him in the slammer aren't explored, is a true force. Never asking for your sympathy, Billy struggles with heroin addiction - fed to him by a prison guard played by Only God Forgives' Vithaya Pansringarm - and is more than willing to beat somebody half to death to earn his fix. The rage that drives him comes from deep within, and his anger and self-destruction carries us along with him. Even when he is finally allowed to train in the gym, thanks for a routine cigarette bribe, his tendency to self-sabotage sees him almost screw up everything he's worked for. Billy also finds solace in a ladyboy named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), who is in prison for murdering her father and is kept in a separate part of the prison for obvious reasons. They form a bond through shared feelings of misplacement, and these scenes offer a reprieve from the unrelenting harshness of Billy's everyday routine. It's a tough watch, but there's always much to admire in a film that can leave you so mentally and physically exhausted.
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8/10
Astonishing heist film that breathes new life into a well-worn genre
16 September 2018
For decades the movies have taught us how the perfect heist goes down. You need a group of big personalities - all experts in a required field - an intricate plan, blueprints to map out the target, and the best gadgets a cheeky crook can buy. And of course, you need a handsome, charismatic leader, usually in the form of a Frank Sinatra, George Clooney or Sandra Bullock. Yes, a director such as Steven Soderbergh knows how to deliver a robbery with style, panache and a sense of fun, but the real world operates a little differently. American Animals, based on the theft of some rare and valuable books from the Transylvania University library by four kids who seemingly had no reason to dare such a feat, has great fun combining these two worlds. Director Bart Layton, who warmed up with 2012's true crime documentary The Imposter, relays this tale as both documentary and dramatic reconstruction, like Touching the Void but with more interaction between the actors and real-life subjects.

It sounds like "look at me" film-making, and it arguably is, but the film is stitched together so wonderfully that you can only sit back and admire the swagger of it all. The world Layton captures is incredibly dark indeed, one of degrading fraternity initiation ceremonies and endless supermarkets isles lined with colourful food packaging designed to create the illusion of choice. At least, that's how our two protagonists - anti-heroes may be the more suitable term - see it. Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is a talented art student who feels like there must be more to life than this. His best friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), the joint-smoking loudmouth who is up for anything, feels very much the same, only he's way more angry about it. During a routine tour of the University library, Spencer learns that the lightly-guarded building houses the valuable The Birds of America by John James Aubudon, and only a nice old lady is there to watch over it. Stealing it should be easy, so Spencer confides in Warren, who quickly takes the lead in planning and executing the audacious heist.

There's a wonderful moment during American Animals where the foursome (Jared Abrahamson's Eric Borsuk and Blake Jenner's Chas Allen are also drafted later on) imagine their plan playing out. It's like ballet, with every cabinet opening with ease and every book gathered up falling gently into their bags. And of course, they're all wearing tuxedos. Earlier on we see Spencer and Warren doing research, only people don't write books about the perfect robberies they've carried out, so they're left with movies. The likes of Rififii, The Killing and Reservoir Dogs are their textbooks, so it's no surprise when they're caught off-guard when the reality of the situation smacks them in the face. The biggest obstacle is the nice old lady, Betty Jean Gooch (the always-great Ann Dowd), who they imagine will fall gracefully into an unconscious state after a zap from a taser. In reality, she kicked, screamed and wet herself, but the boys carried on with their plan anyway. With the real Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas telling their own stories to camera, American Animals could have run the risk of softening or even glamorising this story, but Layton is careful to point out the consequences, and the rippling effect it had on everybody caught up in it. It's an astonishing piece of work that ramps up the tension to unbearable levels, crafted by a film-maker keen to breathe new life into a well-worn genre.
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