Film of the Week: What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

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Taika Waititi directs himself, Jermaine Clement and Jonathan Brugh in a mockumentry following some pretty old vampires “flatting” together in modern Wellington.

After quickly  and expertly establishing the characters and setting,  WWDITS settles into a consistently funny and affectionate look at a bunch of misguided, out of time bloodsuckers. Weird, gleefully naive and with wonderful turns of phrase this downmarket bunch of horrors gently hit comedy gold so many times that I shan’t be surprised if I grow even more attached to it and them with each future viewing. Your (and my) new favourite comedy is dead but delicious.

9

The Boy (2016)

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William Brent Bell directs Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans and Jim Norton in the woman looks after a creepy childlike doll potboiler.

Perhaps the worst trip to the movies I’ve been on in ages. Why is this 97 minutes? You can literally see the cast staring at the clock for the first 85 waiting to reveal the dud twist.  There are two filler dream sequence jump scares for fuck’s sake, one involving a ridiculous amount of lit candles near soft furnishing for any house with a fully paid ‘leccy bill. During that dull dull dull treading water time so many nits present themselves to be picked that zero fear and tension is generated. You are just so distracted mulling over why they thought that would be a believable shot. Our scream queen emerges from the shower in full make up. A black cab drives out to the countryside (“that’ll be £19,000, please Miss”) and then the cockney driver passes on instructions from the house (“Not my facking job, maaaate”) then seemingly is still waiting out there a day later (“S’alright guvnor, I left the meter running.”) There are a full cast of British actors on set who could have just said “Don’t let her travel hundreds of miles in a black cab to establish we are in Great England, you’ll make us all look like prized plums.” It is so ineptly made you don’t even trust the obvious red herring character to be a red herring. You can’t credit the film makers with the imagination to bother actually pulling the wool over your eyes. The most significant thing to happen in the first hour is a sandwich is made. When the big reveal smashes out at us there are a few seconds of shock but then nothing else of value really transpires. Credits roll on a purposely bloodless, sexless time waster that wouldn’t hold its own as a weak quarter short in an old portmanteau. Bishop Len Brennan from Father Ted plays the doll’s Dad and genuinely looks embarrassed to be the closest we get to a big name… at least in the Hammer / Amicus days we’d have a slumming it but beloved Bette Davis or Joan Fontaine sort to psychobiddy some camp mania into this watery dross.

1

Trumbo (2015)

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Jay Roach directs Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren and Louis CK in this Hollywoodised take on a blacklisted Hollywood writer’s fight to regain his standing.

I walked into this with concerns. I love Cranston but this felt like a middle income home for his talents, plus we’ve already had a good Trumbo documentary this decade, a stumbling block that effected The Walk after Man on Wire last year. A meaty central part for its feted lead, a period Hollywood setting and simple glossy look. Alarm bells. Would this be a mere redundant rehash to give our Walter White a lead movie role to thrash about in? And for the first half hour Trumbo appears to be exactly what it threatens to be – a TV movie with awards bait aspirations. Yet after the set up (where the real life great, commie writer is blacklisted, convicted and released) Cranston’s powerhouse central performance gets to bounce around in quite the romp of a plot. The decision to focus on Dalton Trumbo’s never ending efforts to keep writing, get paid, keep his family and friends solvent, and eventually recognised for his black market work adds a pleasing caper vibe to the proceedings. A vibe so effective it becomes big smile captivating. The ensemble cast never stop shining (and this is a flick where the quality of the casting goes very deep and way far down into the credits) and the motivated, proactive hero engages in a way that other awards whore roles would merely wallow in the unfairness of his situation. Trumbo is a grand piece of entertainment that tell a dark chapter in LA-LA land in broad, accessible strokes. The irony is, just as Trumbo regains his livelihood and stature by continually winning uncredited Oscars, that there is no joint award at the Academy for the type of top notch ensemble work on show here. The fact that the excellent Cranston does not dominate…. that John Goodman, Elle Fanning and especially a hissable Helen Mirren get to sparkle too…. proves what an expectation exceeding treat Trumbo actually is.

8

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

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Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel direct Leslie Banks, Joel McCrae and Fay Wray in this man hunts fellow humans early actioner.

A B movie, filmed with a lot of the same elements as King Kong while effect works on that masterpiece were being finished, that served as an inspiration for a lot of spare little actioners right up until this very day (and allegedly the Zodiac killer in real life too). An exploding steam ship and a chase across the swamp are great little action beats but the mainly drawing room set dialogue makes up the bulk of the hour runtime. Luckily Leslie Banks’ enthusiastic portrayal as a psychopath makes these worthwhile too. His Zaroff is the antecedent for many a Bond villian with his panache, manners, henchmen and secret island. Not the classic you’ve been lead to believe but a solid, short, cheap thriller from yesteryear.

7

 

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

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Marc Webb directs Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans in this repeat of the mouthy web crawler’s origins.

Unnecessary, dour and just does not work. There’s not one sequence, recasting or visual choice that is an improvement on Sam Raimi’s original trilogy which had only just shut up shop when this was rushed into production. No one is all that bad in it, but once a haunted Rhys Ifans goes full green and scaly lizard avatar my engagement with the narrative just sputtered to a ridiculously loud halt. Stuff carried on happening for half an hour or so to the detriment of the few character beats I was enjoying. Emma Stone works hard as Gwen Stacey and gets some pretty outfits and framing, it’s nice to see Denis Leary onscreen again as her tough cop dad… but that’s not nearly enough to justify this blockbuster’s existence when you know what fun you could be having with Maguire, Dunst and those colourful comic book styling at the boxset next door.

3

 

The Witch (2016)

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Robert Eggers directs Anna Taylor- Joy, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson in this 1630’s New England set arthouse horror.

A beautifully crafted film with a majestic pace, fine performances and a neat ending. It is hard to be critical of a mere genre film that aims to hit the detailed and intelligent qualities of a Kubrick, Ridley and Glazer as such intentions are so rare and so admirable. Sadly though when Eggers does abruptly shift into pure horror we are pulled out of the realism and the creeping dread by blasts of silliness that would be forgivable in a lesser slasher. The Witch sacrifices atmosphere for daft shock images a little too often, and at one point wholesale lifts from The Shining in a sequence that deflated a lot of my investment as a viewer. 40 minutes in and the first good scare is blatantly stolen from Room 237 like towels and miniature shampoos at check out time. Once again a trashier film would be forgiven for cribbing from the best, Eggers error is he shows so much potential to create his own indelible images for the horror canon, so to go for quite so the easy pass feels a genuine cheat. Frustrating as The Witch now stands as the quintessential coven film that everyone somehow forgot to actually make until this point, tying in nicely to The Crucible, The Craft and Suspiria. As an exercise in world building and ensemble directing Eggers now has an excellent calling card, yet for a satisfying night out the rest of us really need to be already in the mood.

6

The Thing (2011)

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Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. directs Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Ulrich Thomsen in this direct prequel to John Carpenter classic. 

What do Predator 2, Die Hard 4.0, Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and Terminator: Genisys have in common? They are all flawed film, critically reviled, rejected by the vocal sections of their fan base, that I quite enjoy merely as fun romps in movie worlds I already loved. I am an unimaginative studio exec’s wettest dream. I can forgive and embrace a lot of these less loved return trips to genre faves even if they aren’t classics. Do they reach the dizzy heights of their originals? No….but they do take us on an undemanding adventure around the same foothills without even aiming for those summits. Not every sequel has to be The Godfather Part 2, and by the same logic not every sequel that fails to be an improvement is automatically a terminal lurch in the wrong direction that the internet naysayers would have you believe. Bond and Fast & Furious series have both shown you can fuck up an entry or two and still eventually make a belated best in the franchise. Very few cash-ins (Hobbits and Star Wars prequels aside) actually pollute their wells. And by this point you can probably guess I’m going to be quite positive about The Thing prequel. Getting its errors out of the way – the studio enforced CGI, literally filmed over already achieved practical effects, are a bit rushed and bloodless but apart from those in the finale not terrible; the ensemble is a bit bland and perfunctory; it is not and never really could be as good one of the greatest movies ever made – there’s still monogamous pleasures. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is, as always, a compelling female lead. Different from MacReady, aiming for a warmer Sigourney Weaver type performance in contrast to Kurt Russell’s hippyfied John Wayne. The bleak air of paranoia is mimiced perfectly. When we do spring into action, it feels high stakes and pleasantly chaotic. It is slavishly connected to its source, the plot includes deliberate poignant beats to leave the Norwegian camp and us the viewer exactly where we should be so you can move right back into watching the 1982 classic with no jarring anomalies. As a lovingly crafted, if reverse engineered,  jigsaw piece the two films slot perfectly into each other despite 29 years distance. That is a fine achievement. Ignore the opening list I reeled off, this The Thing belongs with The Force Awakens, Jurrasic World and Fury Road as an in-trend legacy-quel that wants to expand in a verdant pre-existing cinema universe, not blandly reboot it. Like its monster, it has lay dormant and now wants to perfectly replicate what it is succeeding. The Thing 2011’s main issue is the studio interrupted the effects work mid transformation leaving it as freakishly half finished as The Thing itself when cornered. If you can look past that frustrating failure then the story, lead and atmosphere is quite a convincing duplicate.

7

Film of the Week: The Last Boy Scout (1991)

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Tony Scott directs Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans and Taylor Negron in this quintessential Shane Black buddy thriller.

This is how you do an action film. Bruce Willis delivers the kind of lead performance he can’t even be bothered to bring to a Die Hard sequel any more. The zingers fly, the threats are palpable… the bullets, squibs and the explosions dominate. The plot is so mental on paper, leading to those kinda surreal moments only Black can get away with writing (two shoot outs in crowded stadiums where the cops don’t open fire (TWO!?), escape by puppet, a dead squirrel hangover, loads of bombs bad guys accidentally set off). He has always been a less showy Tarantino churning out a slicker, sweatier brand of two guns and a snappy “fuck you” fun. Forget the constant implausibility, enjoy the ride to stubbly sober redemption. Friday night perfection.

10

Bullet to the Head (2012)

 

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Walter Hill directs Sly Stallone, Jason Momoa and Christian Slater in this hitman revenge actioner.

Some inventive comic book framing, a nice turn from Momoa as a “Bad Guy who should win” and a final fight between he and Sly involving antique fire axes are all that stops this from being a very blah Parker novel rip-off. Whenever the characters interact you get the feeling every role or line was written with DTV king 50 Cent’s limited acting abilities in mind. The fact that Curtis didn’t even turn up and they had to cast decent character actors in all the parts doesn’t help improve the plod to that eventual spike of a closing battle. Still after ending on a high we then get three unnecessary epilogues. What is this? A beer and pizza night Return of the King?

5

 

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

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Wes Craven directs Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund and himself in this meta reboot of the franchise he accidentally started a decade earlier.

The original, Dream Warriors and this are the only Freddy flicks you ever need care about. All have varying degrees of input from Craven to their benefit, whereas the others feel like rush jobs or misguided spoofs of his first vision. This attempt to ground the horror phenomenon of Fred Krueger back to reality after he had appeared as a pregnant rapper, a children’s toy and a cereal brand is not really as scary or as smart as it needs to be in retrospect yet the ambition is clearly there. Equally the lead performance from Langenkamp stretches her, she is a scream queen not a thespian, so when the film ventures into demanding Babadook / Repulsion-esque set pieces she cannot handle the demands, exposing her stunt casting abilities. There are some fun effects, creepy passages and inventive plotting – enough of each to make this more than a flip exercise in self awareness. Not the film within a film to convert the uninitiated to slasher horror but significant for fans of the genre. NB. It was also the first 18 rated film I illicitly saw on the big screen.

7