Film of the Week: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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John Carpenter directs Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston and Laurie Zimmer in this classic thriller about a police station under siege.

John Carpenter recently sued Luc Besson saying the French filmmaker’s Lockout was too close a rip off of his own Escape From New York… And was awarded a million bucks by the courts. I’m not saying he was wrong to point out the homage. You just have to wonder what Howard Hawks and George Romero made of this utterly winning but not all that original blend of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead? This is a pared down sprint of claustrophobia, cool interactions and hardcore (for ’76)  violence. The killer gangs that lay siege are the fine line between those zombie hordes and later B movie classic The Warriors (an excellent double bill pair up with this). In the station there are great performances from actors who never broke out. Stoker is human and dignified as the different kinda sherrif in charge, Joston an absolute hoot as the smart and deadly sociopath more heroic than anyone ever gave him credit for and Laurie Zimmer as the secretary with more pluck and cold calm than anyone just absolutely tears up the screen. In an alternative universe this would be all of their first leap into continued beloved stardom. Carpenter proves his raw ability to say a thousand things in a silence and energise you with a single but aggressive shot. This is simple but overwhelming action movie mastery before the genre even took solid shape. And then we have that unrelentingly iconic synth score – ratcheting up the menace, making even the mundane seem epic. Pure brilliance.

10

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

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Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi and James Algar direct Basil Rathbone, Bing Crosby and Eric Blore in this animated package presentation of The Wind in the Willows and Sleepy Hollow from Walt Disney.

A fun little double with surprisingly modern animation, a 1940s hip yet faithful adaptation of the sources and captivating central characters in manic Toad and gangly Ichabod. The scarier chases in both tales are truly impressive but on the whole this is a lot of easy, relaxed fun.

7

Suicide Squad (2016)

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David Ayer directs Margot Robbie, Will Smith and Jared Leto in this DC villains on a mission, anti hero action flick.

Mixed emotions. If you thought the underrated Batman Vs Superman was flawed / an interesting mess / just plain awful then back away from the ticket counter now –  this actually is all those slurs, and often. But not a total SNAFU… as while it fails fundamentally in terms of plot, humour and set pieces (fucking hell!), Suicide Squad has a strange energy and some mesmerising star turns that keep you glued to the screen. So the good first; and it’s the great, really. Robbie’s Harley Quinn just walks away with the movie, raises it under a new name and mind washes it to kill its own parents. Sexy, devious, naive and stroppy. She just rocks, turning bad lines into laugh raisers and repetitive action into a slapstick ballet. The movie flags whenever she is off screen. Smith is daftly street as Deadshot too, pleasingly so. Although he could have worn the mask a little more, even Stallone wore Dredd’s helmet for more scenes than this. Mr Jiggy With It hasn’t had this much on brand fun, Fresh Prince with an assault rifle persuasiveness since Bad Boys 2. In fact all the cast do better than expected; Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, Viola Davis’ Waller and Cara Delevigne all have effective moments commensurate to their varying acting talents. Leto’s Joker is fine in performance but the 00’s gangsta rap LP cover makeover is a shortsighted and unnecessary update. He works best as a romantic interest for Harley Quinn than a villian in his own right. But that worthwhile stuff is surrounded, almost overwhelmed,  by a desperately muddled and uncertain movie. Scenes of the exact same plot content are repeated in succession due to reshoots, the soundtrack achingly obvious and noticeably there to cover up gaping chasms in tone after butchering edits and re-edits, the action is unengaging and unshifting in stakes. Intangible threats; a score of blackberry headed mutants we’ve survived once already are defeated in an office and through the next door we get exactly the same amount of blackberry headed mutants, the CGI mega freak can crash scores of helicopters from the air with whiplash accuracy yet merely  knocks anyone whose name is on the poster down to their butts in close quarter combat. You get the feeling the core idea has been lost after constantly trying to tinker with everything. There are easy wrinkles I’d personally have introduced that could have saved the whole schizophrenic endeavour but it feels like a project where too many cooks are already involved. Here’s what I would change. Have very few of Suicide Squad survive the mission. If Harley and Deadshot solely emerged from the dust then you’d feel like the mission truly was a challenge rather than an excuse to give the team something to team about. Sure OneScene and Never Heard Of Him Man didn’t make the finish line but wouldn’t Suicide Squad be a more powerful franchise if everyone but the tentpoles were palpably expendable… Like… Ahem… key inspiration The Dirty Doxen. Likewise actually write an end of game boss that requires them to use their varying powers in unison to defuse the threat – that’s a basic requirement, no? And even more likewise… let them be villains, not mere reluctant, naughty heroes. The drone mutant soldiers that swarm on them in street after street used to be decent humans – maybe a scene where the regular troops sent in with our goodie-baddies can’t open fire on citizens no matter how warped… “Lucky for us, we have these psychopaths who have no such qualms and who’d relish the chance.” I’m basically suggesting go darker and embrace the power the premise naturally gives you to do that. As a DC fan I’m saddened we have a film that actually deserves the scorn it was bound to get anyway… I’m frustrated we’ve been fobbed off with a Joker who at best makes a nice Bill Pullman for a scorching Harley Quinn – the most potent villian in literature should never be second banana… Worst yet a cameoing Batman who hides behind an 11 year old girl from a gun… In an alley. Just wouldn’t happen, who signed off on that… There is no hand on the rudder with a consistent vision for the future. “Add more jokes. Add more Batman.” We end up with not just the wobbliest comic book movie in a long time but not even the best Suicide Squad movie made this year… The original cut cannot have been this shambolic.

5

Sexy Beast (2000)

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Jonathan Glazer directs Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane in this retired safe cracker is persuaded to do one last job after the most terrifyingly pschopathic persuader turns up at his Costa Del Crime villa. 

Cor! This is a scorcher. You can feel the sweat, heat and wrinkly old erections. Beautifully shot and soundtracked by Glazer embracing and amping up the Cockney gangster movie cliche so it becomes deafening background noise for a farce of frustration and threat. The sexuality of all the characters have a treacly liquid quality, our hero Gal wants to reject his old lawless life to embrace a heavenly and monogamous relationship with his ex porn star wife. Yet all these forceful old men keep grabbing at him to pull him away from that and into their orgy of threat, destruction and risk. None more so than Kingsley’s horrifyingly belligerent Don Logan, a man who not doesn’t take “No” for answer but kicks “No” to floor, stomps it to death, spits in its face and calls “No” a cunt. The interplay between him and Winstone’s ostensible hero is captivating, like watching a hostage negotiater trapped in a cage with a tiger. The movie loses something when Don gets his way and Gal performs the heist (still thrilling). Glazer marked himself out here as a future Kubrick or Roeg with his control of genre, jarring rhythm and stark imagery. His later works Birth and Under the Skin are equally artful and impressive, but this is the only one you can watch with your Dad and both walk away both satisfied and entertained.

9

Film of the Week: Papillon (1973)

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Franklin J. Schaffner directs Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and Don Gordon in this thrilling “true” tale of a  French thief and a white collar criminal’s growing friendship as they try to escape the horrors of French Guiana penal colony.

Two of my favourite movie stars pair up, with their grinding acting styles just emphasising the unlikely loyalty and respect that grows between them over the years trying to eke out a little freedom. McQueen in particular lowers the bucket into his acting well deep, no longer relying on his movie star cool to enthrall you. When the brutal system of the penal colony,  and Darwinian tropical nature that dominates it, wears him down it is like the free spirit of the sixties is being eradicated. Schaffner is a fine director of men unwilling to submit to the bars that enslave them. His is such an interesting and underrated output. And he has never directed a better film than here, one that beautifully captures the absurdity of the horrors inflicted on the poor souls oppressed and punished by perverse imprisonment. A prisoner carries a corpse to get extra rations, dream sequences sprung on us are as nightmarish as anything Jodorowsky magics up, McQueen’s rapid ageing as he is put through the deprivation of solitary is shockingly surreal. That attention to the cruel ecosystem surrounding the prisoners; there are so many shots of fighting crabs, snapping crocodiles, netted birds and stray dogs that you can feel like your are in a tougher, grittier Terrence Malick’s film. But whereas Malick’s concerns are of man’s insignificance to nature, here Schaffner is juxtaposing the inhuman with the inhumane. Only a moment of solace occurs between McQueen and some natives who share no language – and it feels like Malick’s ripped this sequence off wholesale for the start of The Thin Red Line. Pretentious symbolism aside, it is entertaining in it buddy movie dynamic, in its action. Each of the escapes are thrilling set pieces. An epic adventure, perfectly executed and with a strong message of hope for all. You can feel Papillon’s distinct thematic echoes in more highly regarded modern films such as Shawshank, Point Break and Schindler’s List. That’s a completely varied bunch of quality influencees. This key work should not be lost to time but rather be held up as a true great of mid 20th century cinema.

10

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

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Shane Black directs Robert Downey Jnr, Michelle Monaghan and Val Kilmer in this meta Hollywood buddy detective romance thriller… Set at Christmas!

Prime Shane Black product containing all his tropes and obsessions except the smarty pants, foul mouthed kid. It brought RDJ up up up from cinematic footnote to Iron Man mega star, the effervescent Michelle Monaghan into a slinky Santa costume with her best written part ever, and Val Kilmer just a little dignity after he flushed his not overly deserved stardom down the drain after Batman. If you love this kind of thing, you’ll love this kind of thing. There’s no real depth to it but an abundance of delicious flavour.

10

 

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) / Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008)

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Jean-Francois Richet directs Vincent Cassel, Cecile De France and Ludivine Sagnier in this epic look at France’s infamous criminal anarchist globe and decade crossing crime spree.

“If there’s ever a film titled Bourne vs. Mesrine, the bout will end in the first round and the crown will return to Paris.” Roger Ebert, 2008. Close but no thumbs up Ebert … but you are right, Cassel is electrifying in his ever dominating 4 hours of screentime as the unpredictable, charming, vicious and unfiltered robber, kidnapper and terrorist. Mesrine, a sociopath with dozens of real life deaths to his name,  might be a troubling subject for such a lengthy celebration (warts and all, but it is a pleasurably amoral party and award ceremony for the voyuer) but to be honest as presented here his unique élan and sheer balls out mayhem deserves the big screen treatment. The only shame is aside from Cassel’s magnificently shifting turn and some big budget action, the mini-series length becomes a little deadening. The often chronological order means the film’s flits between Mesrine doing something outrageous then something not quite as outrageous then something outrageous in 1973 but now cliched cinematically after decades of Scarfaces, Goodfellas and Choppers… and then back to something genuinely shockingly outrageous. A loop of mania and jaw drops of varying numbing severity. It might really work better over four or five more textured hour episode, adding room to gasp in and out between that breathless rush. But then, like Tinkerbell on coke and champagne, lovely, captivating Ludivine Sagnier turns up for the last hour and unleashes some furious screen burn hotness on us, distracting us from Mesrine’s desperate cycle. She needs to be in more films, she is a true movie star, you can’t take your eyes off her whenever she’s on screen (and in a film with a high 60-70s style bimbo and “Bonnie” proof…. that is unabashed praise to walk away with come final credits). Still their violent comeuppance is expertly handled from different points of view throughout the lengthy structure. If there were a few more rest breaks this truly would be a gripping afternoon of crime time cinema.

7/6

 

Serenity (2005)

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Josh Whedon directs Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Summer Glau in this big screen conclusion to the short lived but much loved TV space western Firefly. 

Part Han Solo, part Outlaw Josey Wales, all Nathan Fillion (a loveable actor like Bruce Campbell or Timothy Olyphant that just seems to exude a screwball masculinity that comes from some never seen bygone era), Cap’ Mal Reynolds is about as much fun as you can have in space. And his crew have that lovely facing certain death but there’s still time for sarcy interplay vibe that only Whedon can deliver. As space romps go this is not any better than say Star Trek: Beyond below… at times the rushed effects and TV designed sets look downright clunky and you never shake the feeling you are watching the best scenes from a never made final season compressed awkwardly together… but it came at a time when Star Wars had disappeared up its green screened arse and 1995’s Space Truckers was as about as close as we last got to this kind of cosmic adventure. And Space Truckers wasn’t really fun, cosmic or adventurous… Hopefully you get my point? This is, in spades. Firefly and Serenity were a lone beacon for an all but abandoned genre 10 years ago. It existed on the raggedy edge, giving a glimmer of respite to sci-fi fans that we would get our genre back. Now with a Guardians and Awakening Forces still fresh in the mouth it might not seems quite so important. But at the Ealing ABC, before they knocked it down, that autumn night I caught this, it was like coming home. Who cares about the occasional fuzzy bit of CGI when Glau is so balletic in her smackdowns or Adam Baldwin so self centredly scuzzy in his anti-villian banter? Popcorn.

8

X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963)

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Roger Corman directs Ray Milland, Doris Van Der Vlis and Don Rickles in this B- Movie fable of a doctor who expirements on his eyesight to give himself super-vision, then cannot handle what he sees.

We’ve now reached the age where Tim Burton’s earlier, better works are ripened for remake but this is a title I always associated with Burton. Every year a fresh report that his own take of the 60s cult classic was on the way and this was pre- the Planet of the Apes “reimagining” when Burton had yet to make a soulless dud, three words that have all but defined his later creative output. So I finally got around to watching the original and it’s a curio for sure but not worth your time. Trying to match a similar vibe to tragic but gripping fantasy of The Incredible Shrinking Man, it comes across as merely dour and episodic. Former Oscar winner Milland is clearly slumming it, submitting to the unlikely twists the tale takes his Doc on. And then the shock ending is heavy handedly guessable. A long 80 minutes for little but kitsch rewards.

3

 

Star Trek: Beyond (2016)

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Justin Lin directs Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban in this third / thirteenth entry in the Starship Enterprise based series.

Star Trek means much more to me than even I consider. Natalie and I have started rewatching the Original Series, and I constantly find myself surprised at how many moments I can recall from my childhood cuddled up on the sofa with my Dad and sister after work / school, in the BBC2 slot that had this, a good western or Laurel & Hardy every early evening. Real nostalgic deja vu! I must have watched some of those episode half a dozen times in my youth, yet I would not have considered myself a true fan. The films maybe have never really lived up to the primary coloured philosophical takes on what it means to be human in space, what it means to be part of a society (the crew / ensemble) when such a thing seems alien to you. The plot of the telly episodes often is the small scale, big theme stuff like a stray mimics humans or a crew member loses their humanity, something or someone develops god like powers. Meaty chew for a Western in space with a kick ass cast. The films have always been at their best when they just try to be romps, not stretching the morality play format that hit the spot at 45 minutes but seem overwrought at 120. Sorry Trekkers,  but no one ever expects a Trek to be the best film of the year (the balance between what a rabid fan base and the majority of people who just want a good night at the multiplex is impossible to get perfect – the formers’ demands and nitpicking makes everything else second guessed), and Beyond still doesn’t come close. But it possibly is now my favourite Star Trek flick as it is the most simply entertaining and satisfying. Three films in and these guys have their chemistry down pat – one part mimicry, two parts kids in the playground getting to play their favourite character again (none of that X-Men end of their contractual obligations laziness either!). Karl Urban’s Bones really stands out, his gruff pragmatist’s incredulous reaction getting the big laughs. And Lin brings some 3Dimensional verve to the action. Both the destruction of the iconic ship, and a chase around the wreckage soon after, are series highs in terms of set pieces and exactly the kind of pulse quickening thrills a big summer movie should deliver. So the plot ain’t nothing new, the MacGuffin looks like a toilet cleaner you stick on the rim and Idris Elba’s unrecognisable villain is an afterthought… This is still going to make you leave with a big smile on your face, especially when that magical theme music kicks in.

7