Brainstorm (1983)

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Douglas Trumbull directs Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood and Louise Fletcher in this tale of corporate skullduggery around an invention that records and shares experiences.

Quite possibly the worst film I have watched in a decade. The first hour spins its wheels with blah blah blah over redesigning the headset of the mind recorder doohickey and subdued boardroom meetings about its applications. Then we get various negative examples of its use, a hacking sequence where the security guys just let the hacker hack in “just to see if he is as good as he really thinks he is”, then a bit of corporate espionage mainly in a hotel hallway, then a slapstick grand finale which appears to come straight out of a Macauly Culkin movie with guards falling about in foam and accidentally being picked up by rampant forklift trucks. Walken is subdued… Everyone else seems to be working from differing scripts. Insultingly glaring product placement abounds… The worst scene being when Walken pops downstairs to eat a large bag of Ruffles leaving a psychotic break inducing tape on his headset for his son to accidentally experience. So inelegant, directionless, pointless and lacking any iota of value that you can see why MGM tried to claim the insurance on it as an aborted production when Natalie Wood’s died towards the end of her filming schedule.

1

The Wrong Man (1956)

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Alfred Hitchcock directs Henry Fonda, Vera Miles and Anthony Quayle in this true story of a family man wrongly identified and tried for a series of hold-ups.

A real curiosity from Hitch rather than a frothy or taut entertainment this is almost a docudrama following the mundane bureaucracy of being arrested and charged in the 1950’s US justice system and the draining effect that being accused has on a family financially and mentally. It all proves very dour and depressing, Fonda’s convincing but frustratingly staid lead turn doesn’t help with the watchability. I understand Hitch wanting to turn his incomparable craft to the reality of what it is like to be charged and processed (at times the proceedings feel like an atonement for the romps he made before and after; when being falsely accused would be start of some great romantic adventure rather than a drawn out affair that drives timid housewives to madness) and if it wasn’t for his mastery of image and editing this would be a solely depressing view. Despite the low score (for a classic by a favourite director) I feel a revisit in a couple of years, with expectations adjusted, might shunt this up a few points eventually. It is a superbly crafted film… I was just expecting it to be something else.

6

Death Sentence (2007)

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James Wan directs Kevin Bacon, Garret Hedlund and John Goodman in this yuppie turns vigilante after a gang randomly murders his son in an initiation killing.

Made back before Wan became a box office behemoth with the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises, this oft compelling B Movie amps up a Death Wish basis with his own Saw aesthetic. The opening half hour establishing Bacon’s Risk Analyst’s love of finding order in the chaos and idyllic family life (what sounds awfully like Christian Rock abounds) takes the wind out our sails a little but then scenes of escalating violence and threat occur that reveal a callous disregard for keeping key characters alive. Once you realise no one is untouchable the movie has quite a cutting energy. Wan shows off when he can (he’s the current master of building tension then maintaining it even after big shocks), most of the low budget must have been splurged into an on-foot chase that relentlessly follows Bacon along endless alleyways, kitchens and the various floors of a carpark structure. Bacon also is grand as the man out of his depth who eventually dehumanises himself to the gang’s level to settle the score. Shame the naughty boys themselves seem to have come straight out of a particularly PC comic book rather than having any basis in reality. You almost wish the scenes where they interact were sliced out and you just feared them for their frankly terrifying actions. Pluses and minuses tallied up: Death Sentence occasionally outgrows its own throwaway nature but never consistently flourishes, yet there are a hell of a lot of worse ways to spend a Friday night if you can stomach it all.

6

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

imageTravis Knight directs Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson and Matthew McConaughey in this animated tale of a child warrior trying to outrun the clutches of his black magical extended family.

Visually this is mighty impressive stuff, with rarely a beat passing that isn’t sumptuous, kinetic and lovingly crafted. But as adventure romps go it can be slow moving and slightly alienating, the humour is also obvious and falls flat. The level of care and detail that has gone into Kubo gives me pause, it is a finely manufactured piece of fantasy cinema – undeniably so. As with so much animated product these days, I just did not connect with it on a personal level.

5

Sliver (1993)

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Phillip Noyce directs Sharon Stone, William Baldwin and Tom Berenger in this sex heavy mystery set in an apartment building with hidden cameras in all rooms.

Uneven and uncertain, Sliver is a terrible film on just about every level yet it proves campily enjoyable and occasionally even titillating if you demand nothing more from it than forgettable glossy beauty. Sharon Stone is saddled with a poorly conceived role of passive mystery solver, ethical voyuer and frigid career gal – her motivation and personality slalom about from moment to moment and she’s at her best when she just mentally goes “fuck it” and reprises her Catherine Tramell persona from Basic Instinct. The reshot second half is achingly obvious, with hairstyles and outfits changing between scenes that can only occur five minutes between each other. Three drastic makeovers in one murder heavy night for Shazza by the end. Any whodunnit? aspect is made a mockery of by the painfully obvious reconstructive surgery that has happened to the original plot. In fact the murderer’s identity doolally seems to have so little effect on the populating cyphers it is almost more like a seagull that randomly swoops in to peck at the dump we are staring at, rather than an internal motor to keep this ramshackle machine in motion. It also doesn’t help that Stone has the difficult choice of lovers / suspect between two distinctly unappealing leading men. There is either “might as well be wearing A Raper of Women t-shirt” Berenger, or Billy Baldwin’s creep, who at this point has lost his boyish looks and resembles a melted version of his more talented older brother Alec. This review reads like a 1, doesn’t it? Yet the costume design, sex scenes, surface level framing are all quite tasteful if you let the illogical context wash over you and, like I say, Stone is always extremely watchable even if she could easily be playing four different parts that just happen to all look like Sharon Stone. Shame this was the pinnacle of her stardom, she deserved better vehicles a la The Quick and the Dead. As it stands Stone and some upper class eye candy make this better than it has any right to be.

5

Ben-Hur (2016)

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Timur Bekmambetov directs Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell and Morgan Freeman in this remake of the classic biblical era epic involving slavery, chariot races and the Christ. 

One of those movie experiences that does very little wrong but equally fails to excel in anyway. Two big screen action sequences are solid and the performers likeable and convincing even when having to rush through chapters worth of character arcs in a frustratedly truncated couple of short scenes. Huston only really shows his uniquely coiled star power (a la his Boardwalk Empire breakout part) when in the ship galley pulling oars to the beat of the drums, while Kebbell gives good villian when he’s not having to justify his nastiness nor muse on the error of his ways. The more expansive and unforced Chalton Heston version outshines this noble time passer in just about every aspect.

6

Natural Born Killers (1994)

imageOliver Stone directs Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis and Robert Downey Jnr in this tale of psycho lovers on the run and the media circus that feeds of them.

I first watched this amid a storm of tabloid condemnation, the first truest wave of Tarantinomania and reams of critical praise on the 12 inch portable telly of my childhood bedroom via a grainy pirate VHS. For a rabid Quentin fan, this diluted version of his original screenplay, was the first fumble for me – I could tell it was a turgid mess even then. Two decades later and a chance for a more mature me to reappraise it… No, still godawful. The schizophrenic filming style makes sense (the sitcom framing of Mallory’s home life or the random flashbacks to replay almost subliminal images of dying people before they realise their violent fates from mere moments earlier both have some incongruous power) but the frankly bipolar, and off their meds, acting cacophony does not. Downey Jnr does a wavering Mel Gibson impression, Tommy Lee Jones seems to have just carried on playing Two Face from career nadir Batman Forever and only a one note, but at least committed, Tom Sizemore delivers anything that can be called consistent or compelling. I get Stone’s loudspeaker spouted points about the media and violence but it really doesn’t seem as tangible a target as Wall Street or Vietnam nor as challenging for him as Talk Radio or presidencies proved. He even made a better pulpy QT style crime thriller in U-Turn a couple of years later. This remains a headache to plough through.

3

Movie of the Week: Hell or High Water (2016)

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David Mackenzie directs Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster in this modern western where brothers turn bank robbers to save the ranch before the bank forecloses and a Texas Ranger proves his grit before mandatory retirement.

We’ve had entertaining films, interesting films and more than a fair few messy but fascinating films this year but very few new releases that feel immediately great. Well, Hell or High Water is immediately great, it is a sterling example of craftsmanship from all involved. Director David Mackenzie has been doing quality if quirky work for years (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe, Starred Up) so this feels almost like a delivery on a promise. The genre requirements dial back his more pretentious edges and he luxuriates in the mood and settings and climate. As various talents struggle to revive the Western proper, Mackenzie’s work feels fruitfully on a par with present day (or thereabouts) neo-westerns like No Country For Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and A Perfect World. All amazing company to be in. The casting is uniformly excellent right down to one line roles, a good tombola of enthralling locals and well integrated professionals. It makes all the small interactions seem weighted with heavier subtext so that even the most human exchanges, like ordering breakfast, seems like a puzzle guarding the secrets of the universe. Maybe I just like the mythology of Texas and Texans so much I read more into these things than there ever is. This languid, measured pace also mean the violence when it erupts burns bright and hard. If you don’t forsee tragedy from the start then you clearly don’t know your way around these parts. Acting wise, Bridges marinates in the strong writing and familiar surroundings. He’s a chew of tobacco and a whiskey fart away from his Rooster Cogburn. And there’s nothing wrong with that, another Oscar nom beckons. Pine is taciturn and smouldering in the lead, like his turn in the brave failure The Finest Hours, he seems to want to pursue a very different onscreen persona outside of his franchise fare. Once again, at last, a promise delivered on. And the always overlooked Ben Foster is a scream here as the bad boy of the partnership. Aggressive, charming, barely restrained. His is the kind of home run that makes newcomers stars but no doubt despite being player of the year, he’ll go back to being fifth billed in so-so films – a sad lot for such a long serving, always grafting character actor. Not only does he prove a dynamo next Pine’s more tightly coiled performance but he beautifully undersells many of surprisingly humorous script’s best lines. Nick Cave’s score is also the stuff of denim shirt dreams.

9

 

The Invitation (2015)

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Karyn Kusama directs Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard and John Carroll Lynch in this paranoid thriller where one man suspects dangerous ulterior motives at has ex wife’s awkward dinner.

One of those absolute little gems that you used to catch channel surfing late night but now have you can only hope Netflix puts up an enticing enough blurb to hook you away from its own brand box sets and rights to stream middling blockbusters. This is the kind of treat that makes that subscription worthwhile. A great little thriller filmed in Fincher’s trademark autumnal browns and yellows – also borrowing his Zodiac, who again turns in an exemplary performance not massively dissimilar in silent threat and menace. To reveal too much about what unfurls will ruin the drama, suffice to say Kusama’s on target direction tosses you about so you are never sure whether something terrible is genuinely about to occur… or you are being manipulated by the protagonist’s fear of interacting with old friends and strange new people into sharing his unwarranted paranoia.  A class act.

8

 

Don’t Breathe (2016)

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Fede Alvarez directs Jane Levy, Stephen Lang and Dylan Minnette in this tale of kids who burgle a very dangerous blind man’s house.

Proof that genre beats spectacle – two of 2016’s best movies are out on the same weekend. Both put together talented people in front and behind the camera, a pure but efficiently realised concept, and on a budget that wouldn’t pay for Robert Downey Jnr’s Iron Arm and Iron Leg, let alone a whole Marvel Civil Playground Scrap. We have a great modern horror here. Sure, the characters are to the letter unlikeable but you’ll get so caught up in the perfectly oiled and paced spook house ride, once it is set in motion, to care about the ethics of rooting for their survival. Lang (plus a committed pooch) is a formidable, unrelenting force to be reckoned with – his jerky movement and shell shocked face will creep out even the most hardened horror hound as he lunges and passes and lurks at the viewer. It has twists and turns but if you are a fan of the devastating final set piece in The Silence of the Lambs then you’ll be at least girded mentally for a satisfying hour long extension of exactly that. Don’t Breathe is proudly from The Evil Dead remake team and, just as that blast was a pleasantly nasty surprise, this is ever so well crafted that you have to relish the infinitely exciting possibilities of whatever they conjure up next.

9