Film of the Week: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Stanley Kubrick directs Peter Sellers, George C Scott and Sterling Hayden in this Cold War comedy.

The second Kubrick I’ve watched this year that has gone down just a slight notch in my estimation. The slow methodical pace gets a little in the way of the satire, there’s definitely room for a few more gags. That does not downgrade its masterpiece status though. Still as a comedy it aches in your bones afterwards, as an imaginative take of the how world might have ended it feels eerily accurate. Superb production design, a relatively restrained Sellers straightmanning while “proper actors” Scott and Hayden blast out these big, masculine but terrifyingly daft turns cut this above pretty much any comedy churned out by professionals clowns. Amazing stuff moment by moment.

9

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Me Before You (2016)

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Thea Sharrock directs Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin and Charles Dance in this quirky carer falls for a Dignitas bound posh cripple romance.

Efficiently done charmer which remarkably skips over any potential bad taste moments the pairing and plot inherently throws up – the devaluing of disabled life, the class issue, the hints of rich family instigated prostitution and the awkward business of consummating the pairs’ obvious horn for each other. These issues are lightly waltzed around, leaving a chocolate box Beauty and the Beast style romance that just happens to end at an infamous Swiss Clinic. Claflin cuts a dashing figure (Bond in a decade?) while everyone’s favourite Khaleesi manages to overcome some mightily silly outfits (meant as shorthand for her untapped creative potential and positivity) and some initially grating facial mugging to win her first big screen success. Her headlining turn in this wholesome weepie should continue to keep her in leading parts once her Game of Thrones beauty meets the inevitable chop.

6

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

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Roland Emmerich directs Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth and Maika Monroe in this late to dinner sequel to a key 90s blockbuster.

Imagine you’ve been invited over to someone’s house for a beer and movie night and your host suddenly decides, just as you settle into the armchair, that he wants to watch the last four episodes of the eighth series of a sci-fi show (one you only ever gave the pilot a chance way back when) instead. That’s what buttnumber Independence Day 2 feels like as an experience. It also feels like three hours despite clocking in at 120 minutes. Characters you’ve got only vague memories of, interact over back stories you’ve clearly missed, while others are missing, been retconned, recast or replaced with facsimiles. Jeff Goldblum’s in it so it must at least be watchable? He’s a bit half arsed and only really book ends the film.  Bill Pullman seems to have had some kind of stroke / breakdown in the real life interim and they’ve just wrote his returning part around that problem. The audience feels awkward whenever he’s onscreen. What about the new guys? Frustratingly I still can’t tell the Hemsworths apart onscreen  but I am pretty sure the guy playing dead Will Smith’s son is actually in a hastily rewritten part originally intended for alive Will Smith. That makes the most sense given how he interacts cool but fatherly with everyone whether they be younger or older than him… And if that is true it can only mean whichever Hemsworth is trapped in a rewritten role originally intended to be for alive Will Smith’s son (let’s assume the fictional one even if Will Smith didn’t). Mind bending that such noticable tweaks are snagging all over the compromised production. And why do I care? Nothing exciting comes of any of this… Not even when the troops are tantalisingly left behind enemy lines on the mothership at the midway point, only for that idea to be abandoned after one cheap Falling Skies shoot out. Maika Monroe and Angelababy at least get a couple of sexy tough moments, like diluted Vasquezes with access to some hair straighteners and foundation. Speaking of Aliens, the film finally kicks into life once you have long, long given up on it in and are collecting your bags and coats. After the big finale the franchise’s wriggly counterfeit of the Alien Queen chases a school bus through the desert. That bonus level epilogue is the first time human characters are put in engaging peril, the destruction is given some recognisable people-in-shot scale to compare it to, and Emmerich returns to his trademark series of cool trailer moments stylings that he made his daft name on (see Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and White House Down… And yes I did mean to include Godzilla 1997 on this list). Whereas the 1996 entry was a pop disaster movie with an achingly of its time cast and bit of UFO Top Gun as the cherry on top, this is a begrudging futurist war movie with no idea what blockbuster it wants to rip off… Independence Day would have been my suggestion.

3

Tale of Tales (2016)

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Matteo Garrone directs Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassell and Toby Jones in this gory and sexy blend of forgotten fairy tales.

Bit special this. There’s me complaining just last week, what with Warcraft and Gods of Egypt, there are no good fantasy films these days and then this sumptuous treat comes along. Long takes of believable unbelievable beasts, gorings and beheadings plus a flaying, beautiful dresses, albino twins, ogres, soothsayers, princesses who want love, kings who get distracted, queens who get more than they bargained for, orgies, hags, castles from Escher’s doodle pad  and a big bear hula hooping. A heady blend of The Princess Bride, early Gilliam and The Beast. The Pulp Fiction of magical adventure films if it hooks you. There were restless people in our screening, considering the length and the lack of obvious narrative progression at times… but not in these seats.

8

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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Norman Jewison directs Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger and Warren Oates in this seminal black detective solves a crime in a whistlestop racist town thriller.

A lurid Deep South detective mystery given added depth by dropping (like an atom bomb) Poitier’s defiant and superior Virgil Tibbs into its racist milieu. The tension his skin colour, education and obvious unmatched policing skill generates in this backwards society gives every scene, every interaction a palpable charge. The mystery itself is lightly sidelined, and the dismount at the end when Tibbs is so close to cracking the case but with a lynch mob three paces from his neck, are the only false notes. Everything else pops with believable sweat, anger and hate. Poitier has always been a better actor than the worthy roles his symbolic central casting allowed him during the civil rights era so it is Steiger as small town sheriff, used to lording it over everyone but with little connection to his citizens, who really walks away with this. He gets a complex character, predjudiced but open to change, lonely and disgusted in life but stuck having to keep the wheels falling off his far worse hometown. The quieter, almost flirtatiously respectful, moments between him and the star contain even more controversial power than the shouty, slappy famous bits that get all the praise and made this a classic.

9

Something Wild (1986)

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Jonathan Demme directs Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels and Ray Liotta in this American road movie where a sweet couple of just-mets break the law, attend a reunion and get cornered by a violent ex.

Now here’s a film I probably should have watched years ago. It feels like an adult John Hughes movie (WOW!) then Ray Liotta turns up and it becomes something even darker and violent without losing any of that quirky, pop charm. You could watch it in a 1986 triple bill with Ferris Bueller and Blue Velvet, with Something Wild managing to be the perfect bridge between those two disparate greats. If I watched it on release I reckon this would be a personal favourite, and despite a certain scatty slightness to proceedings and a few scenes that don’t work quite as well, nostalgia and energy would keep it high in my personal esteem. I’m actually gutted I’ve caught Something Wild so late in life (don’t worry I’m not dying) and of all the brilliant films I’ve watched this week Jonathan Demme’s crazy, colourful weekend fling pic is the one I want to watch straightaway again. The soundtrack is a still hip marvel, the cast a rogue’s gallery of cult faces. Tracey Walter, John Waters and Jack Gilpin all pop up. Ray Liotta lands his first significant movie blow here – a charismatic but deadly psycho who turns the film on a hinge when he arrives. Jeff Daniels is fine as the Everyman whose minor rebellions lead him away from a path of sadness and to an unexpected jolt of attraction and self determination. Melanie Griffith is a revelation though. I always enjoyed her in Body Double, Working Girl and Cecil B Demented but here she shows chops beyond her lovely Betty Boop voice and sex appeal. It like finding the missing jigsaw piece in the puzzle of her success. Her Lulu is an iconic star turn. I get the feeling this will get rewatched a few times this year, mainly to be seduced by her bipolar siren and the below score will rise until familarity breeds into blissful movie heaven content.

8

Rashomon (1950)

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Akira Kurosawa directs Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō and Takashi Shimura in this tale of a murder recalled from 4 different viewpoints.

This is a moment I feared when starting this movie diary. Watching a classic I should have made time for years ago, finding it merely OK, then having to publicly say so. Now all 4 readers are going to know I prefer Fast and Furious films to bonafide masterpieces. Rashomon is a fine little film – the beautiful framing of the shots imaginative, the performances strong (if a little overwrought) and the spartan use of three simple sets an impressive trick. The truth is something we decide, and sometimes, for our own sakes,  we choose not to see the woods for the trees. Got it. Our take on reality is corrupted by our own weaknesses and doubts, memory is the first casualty. Great. But aside from an exhausting scrabble in the woods (where two combatants grow even more breathless as they fight on and on) plus an id driven turn by a randy, unfiltered Mifune, you watch Rashomon for its historical importance and its revolutionary filmmaking not for any real entertainment value or modern emotional relevance. Important but no longer essential viewing.

6

Film of the Week: Ghostwatch (1992)

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Lesley Manning directs Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles in this “live” ghost hunting reality show mockumentry that shocked a nation.

So Film of the Week isn’t a film… Sorry. There’s a part of me that wanted to leave the suppressed by the BBC since broadcast Ghostwatch alone, unrefreshed as a formative memory of my childhood. I watched it live that Halloween in our Bordars Road terraced house only a mile or so from the Northolt setting. I remember not being convinced entirely, it came with a “written by” credit at the start, but there eventually were two or three effective scares that have lingered with me over the next quarter decade. Like many people of my vintage, Mr Pipes stayed with us. This, with Jacob’s Ladder and The People Under the Stairs, was one of the first chillers I remember choosing to watch. As a national hoax, intended or not, Ghostwatch took enough people in. Handovers from studio to location are familiarly flubbed, the 0181 811 8181 number to call in on was the same used for any live program, it all convinces. The real life presenters (exactly the type of personalities who would be roped into this if it were an actual BBC live event in 1992) thrown into the narrative hit their marks well and any falseness in their or “the family”‘s performances can be excused as much to the stilted artificially of a live TV broadcast in the 90s as unintentional bad acting. No one really ever revealed themselves with cameras so obviously watching back then (if even now) and the professionals are used to faking enthusiasm to keep the broadcast watchable. So once the subtle scares start coming you could get caught up in it. In context. See that context was important… Once you know it definitely is a work of fiction Ghostwatch can be a drag, especially in its first half. In its need to “pass” as a real live broadcast very little happens for 45 minutes so as in any good swindle the fix is established before the hurrah. So watching it as a retrospective experience with no nostalgic attachment must be frustrating. Like I say, I was uncertain about revisiting it for fear of discovering it wasn’t all that good and only really sought it out as The Conjuring 2 shared so much with my static filled memories of  a young girl talking as Mr Pipes. Both sets of writers used the historic Enfield Poltergiest as a synoptic starting point, and I’d be shocked if the modern blockbuster’s crew hadn’t at least had a screening – much like the clearly inspired but superior Blair Witch Project’s directors must have. Found footage horror, a cycle that has just now ended, took its first steps here. Cinematically, Ghostwatch the one-off, never rebroadcast TV gamble is a key work in horror.  But then in that final half the show begins to creepily spook you out – there’s no Grand Guignol, no jump scares. In fact, it all stays pretty much just out of sight. Your imagination starts to take hold to fill the blanks between the small occurrences; objects smash and move, noises distract the crew, the kids grow more and more distressed, a shot appears on the screen that suggests calm has been restored but in your heart you chillingly know that Pipes now is in control of OB van’s mixing desk… plus a possession and then someone goes under the stairs. It’s still all relatively PG / Lemon and Lime marinade heat stuff but remember people watching couldn’t be sure if it was legit or not. And then there is a nastier, more disturbing undercurrent beyond the disorienting con. The talking heads, phone-in voices and vox pops from the locals are filled with short bursts of campfire ghost tales filled with inception igniting imagery like dog foetus’ strewn and faces eaten by cats. Outside all the “real time” razzmatazz Ghostwatch is riddled with good, old fashioned spooky storytelling, each one building in ferocity and intensity. There is also the subversive use of the word “Gloryhole” frequently said by a key children’s presenter and the almost subliminal shot of her opening a child’s drawing of a spunking cock and having to move swiftly on. A twisted mind is gently working the audience at home while showing very little obvious horror. As a cold experience for the uninitiated it probably should deserve a lower score but I was part of the generation that is a key touchstone for, I rate the trickery, and as a delivery system for some Halloween spoken word chillers, Ghostwatch achieves even more than its smoke and mirrors controversial reputation promises.

8

 

The Long Riders (1980)

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Walter Hill directs James Keach, David Carradine and Stacey Keach in a western following the dissolution of the real life James-Younger gang.

I’m a big Western fan. I’m a big Walter Hill fan. So The Long Riders should be mash potatoes and gravy. But when previously broadcast on telly late night I found myself twice giving up twenty minutes in over the years. I always put that down to tiredness so this week I pereservered. I watched it in four 30 minute rough chunks over six nights, not a perfect viewing experience I know. But there’s something about this slow, jerky blend of diluted Peckinpah style action (in a final escape everything slows to a wailing, howling grind that induces intended nausea among the spraying squibs, shattered sugarglass and endangered horses) and dull woodland set soap-opera that just doesn’t grip. There are things to like – costume design for one is simple but convincing, the hard cuts between scenes can be artful and Ry Cooder’s musical contributions fit. Some performances get lost in the edit but David Carradine’s Cole Younger stands out. It’s also a bit dissonant to see Pamela Reed playing his brazen whore love interest (nudity and all) when you consider she’s mainly known for playing the female foil in Arnie family comedies – for my generation it’s like seeing your next door neighbour in a porno mag. So when in one scene James Remar turns up dressed like Sonny Ladham to have a close quarters Bowie Knife fight to defend her honour you can’t help cheering him on. I guess you’d have to be a Walter Hill fan for that sentence to make any kind of sense… but if you are, then you already know this particular scene makes all that weaker stuff worthwhile.

5

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

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Frank Oz directs Michael Caine, Steve Martin and Glenne Headly in this con man comedy.

Never really laugh out loud funny but consistently amusing throughout – an innocuous little time waster. Star power keeps it coasting along and Headly is the highlight as the naive tourist they set their sights on. Much more than a foil to the big name improvisation and mugging she really should have gone on to bigger things after such a delightful breakout role.

6