John Wick 2 (2017)

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Chad Stahelski directs Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane and Ruby Rose in this action thriller sequel where the Baba Yaga shows exactly how he can kill at least two men with a fucking pencil.

The headlines first: It’s not quite… and only quite… as great. The story lacks the high concept simplicity of retired hitman avenges his puppy, the special guest stars are not nearly as special (Common is noticeably not Willem Dafoe, Ruby Rose nowhere as close as fun Adrianne Palicki’s instant cult favourite Ms. Perkins was) and some of the world building here involving a network of hobos isn’t as inspiring as all the secret rules and currency introduced almost as asides in John Wick the First. Minor gripes though. Keanu continues to ooze deadly perfection in a series of monochrome outfits, the production design is crunchingly eye catching, the sound design is deafeningly involving, the new dog is a cutie and equally loveable return players McShane and Lance Reddick always make big impressions with minimal screentime. Oh… did you come for action? Action galore… my fave was a high beam torchlit catacombs chase where John works from sidearm, to machine gun, to the biggest fucking shotgun you’ve ever seen. Others might be equally impressed by the Modern Art installation finale which is smaller scale but throws our boy Wick into a smorgasbord of Scaramanga’s murder maze, the iconic moments of Point Blank, a peirside Hall of Mirrors and an Escher etching all at once (plus a million bullets). Those and a tantalising cliffhanger ending mean I doubt we’ll get a better purebred actioner out this year and it is not even March yet.

8

The Zero Theorem (2013)

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Terry Gilliam directs Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry  and David Thewlis in this sad sci-fi satire of our online work, social and sexual lives in a dystopian future.

I don’t recognise this world. Not the one on screen, mind. The one on screen with tramps living in piles of rubbish, stain glass illuminated cyber junk shop homes and erotically twee dream states, I recognise keenly. Yes, it’s a Terry Gilliam movie. I recognise the straight from the Brazil-era bureaucracy that controls the protagonists lives to young Lucas Hedges showing up to mimic Brad Pitt’s manic turn in 12 Monkeys. No, I just don’t recognise a world where it takes me 4 years to get around to watching the latest Terry Gilliam creation, and then feeling like it was an utter slog to watch. Sure… Brothers Grimm, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus weren’t up to much but they had glimmers of hope and spunk within their collective troubled productions’ end products. The Zero Theorem merely feels like a lost old man raking over his long past glories and throwing in a few smart cars, references to social media and a plinky plonky cover of a modern song from 20 years ago (Radiohead’s Creep À la a John Lewis Christmas ad) in the begging prayer it makes him seem relevant. So grinding and obvious it is the first Gilliam feature I have no interest in ever revisiting, despite a sweet and sexually enticing turn from Mélanie Thierry. Sad times.

3

Europa Report (2013)

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Sebastián Cordero directs Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist and Sharlto Copley in the found footage space exploration thriller. 

A perfectly watchable little sci-fi that leans into it “found footage” gimmick to obfuscate the low budget satisfactorily  and is benefitted by the fact these missions would have every angle digitally recorded as standard, so as to sidestep the normally frustrating issue of you wanting to scream “Stop filming and run!” at the screen by the second act. Format aside though, this doesn’t excel or fuck up in any way, playing out almost exactly as you’d expect an astronaut disaster movie to.

6

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

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Wes Craven directs Susan Lanier, Michael Berryman and Dee Wallace in this exploitation “classic” where a stranded family get torn apart by some inbred desert cannibals. 

I feel a little guilty now. I slag off The Descent below and here comes my own Master of Horror, Wes Craven, with exactly the same set-up; obnoxious group fall apart when they become meat for a feral family. Let’s ignore the fact the cat and mouse fun and games starts mercifully sooner, I guess what makes The Hills Have Eyes more my thing is Craven satirically blurs the lines of who we are supposed to root for, whereas you get the feeling The Descent’s girl power climbers are supposed to be taken as “cool dudes” no matter how boorishly they behave. The villians here are horrid, malformed and callous but the victims are presented as no better.  Cowards, squabblers, overconfident, looking to exploit an easy buck whereever they can find it, leader Big Bob is a casually racist policeman, the group prayer feels the height of laughable hypocrisy, and that family unit goes to shit the second the kids’ backs are up against the wall… shell shocked mom sure would make good bait for a Home Alone-style booby trap. And isn’t that celebration between brother and sister when they eventually do get the best of an attacker just a little too rhythmic and intimate for siblings? It is a ragged at the edges, full-on  grindhouse experience where the dog gets it, the baby looks delicious and you are supposed to reject all surface sheen civilisation presented as being chuckle worthy. All the violence and taut set pieces comes down to a simple message: kill or be killed. And if that leaves a red, metallic taste in your mouth then that’s exactly where Craven, the former philosophy major turned pornographer, wants to leave you. At first glance this is hardcore, if dated, fun for the depraved or open minded watcher, go deeper and it eviscerates an entire value system… Yours.

7

The Descent (2005)

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Neil Marshall directs Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid and Shauna Macdonald in this gory  British horror where Spelunkers go up against cannibal troglodytes in a cave. 

I have a lot of time for the British Contingent of the Splat Pack (James Watkins, Christopher Smith and Marshall) and also know this is a lot of people’s favourite horror of the last couple of decades. It does nothing for me though. I find the opening hour spent with the catty, shrieking adrenaline junkies hard work as they make bad choice after bad choice and only get the satisfying but temporary thrill of seeing such unlikeable characters get gouged at, gutted and impaled without ever rooting for their scrabbling fight for survival. Effective FX, stunts and jump scares abound in the closing stretch but all in all not my cup of coffee… and I normally love coffee at this strength. Oh well… two strikes and out for The Descent.

5

X the Unknown (1956)

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Joseph Losey and Leslie Norman direct Dean Jagger, Leo McKern and Edward Chapman  in this early Hammer production where scientists and the army try to figure out exactly what form a murderous, radiation chomping monster is taking. 

The relatively unique opening hour which essentially has the structure of a mosaic, as various unassociated people are attacked by “the unknown”, followed by a thrilling enough grand finale where the survivors try to blow a roaming blob up before it devours Inverness make this worth watching (if you are forgiving and enthusiastic for this type of bunkum). It was all done better in The Blob or Quatermass, in fact, it proves no real surprise to find the first draft of the script was intended as a sequel to Nigel Kneale’s classier take on the boffin versus the uncanny tropes represented here.

5

 

Loving (2016)

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Jeff Nichols directs Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton and Martin Csokas in this biography of Richard and Mildred Loving, a regular interracial married couple, whose union came up against the anti-miscegenation in the state of Virginia.

A touching and softly spoken film, made all the more compelling by the fact Negga and Edgerton play the real life protagonists like they are your grandparents – polite, unconfident in the face of authority they don’t understand and just trying to get along with their own little patch of happiness inspite of any injustice that tries to crush them. Loving never attempts to reinvent the wheel but Negga must now be dead centre on every casting directors’ radar,  and Nichols feels more at home bringing his expertise at low key, paranoia heavy set pieces to beautifully framed dramatic endeavours like this or Mud rather than the disappointing genre exercise of Midnight Special.

6

 

Gold (2017)

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Stephen Gaghan directs Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez and Bryce Dallas Howard in this factional take on a down on his luck prospector who sees himself sitting on one of the biggest gold finds of the century.

A Sunday League equivalent to The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas where the excess seems a little more flabbily middle aged and the rise feels almost as glum as the fall. It is film about untold wealth made in the mood and mode of a near permanent Pabst and chaser hangover, some will find that tone and palette dulling over the fitted as standard loooooong running time. That might not dazzle you but as a showcase for McConaughey this gives the faithful what they crave, bad behaviour and aggressive monologues a plenty. Hell, it could just be MMc wandering from strip lit office to jungle to sleazy jacuzzi reciting “Alright, alright, alright!” and I’d be a happy camper. The always lovely Bryce Dallas Howard additionally does noticeably more with the put upon but faithful girlfriend role than most of her equivalents in these go for broke biopics manage. Gold wins by the sheer quality of its leads alone.

7

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Mel Gibson directs Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer and Vince Vaughn in this fantastical but true tale of WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who went into bloody battle to save lives with no weapon, despite oppressive opposition from the Army itself over his stance. 

A powerful film – full of sentiment, gruelling violence and messianic connotations as only Mad Mel (the director) seemingly cares to present and combine well. The initial romance and hour of the brutal reaction of the Army brass to break Doss of his convictions, that fly in the face of what the other men in his unit are being trained to relent on, are effective and affecting. But the movie truly becomes a worthy experience once we enter Hacksaw Ridge itself in the kinetic and haunting second half. Fuck Saving Private Ryan! The theatre of war has never been presented quite so hellish, quite so callously gore heavy in a mainstream American piece of cinema. You are shaken by the sheer terror Gibson creates around his hero before he even tries to present the near impossible and near improbable heroism the Doss actually achieved out there. It adds up to quite the endurance testing thrill ride. You’ll walk out feeling pummelled, entertained, inspired and overwrought all at the same time. Which is not to say the movie is without flaw. The Japanese are presented as almost verminous and considering Gibson’s past transgressions on and off screen, this does make you flinch.  Garfield puts in a mannered turn, some end credit footage of the real Doss underlines this is done for veracity’s sake, but the supporting cast fall further on the side of acceptable rather than stellar. Vince Vaughn in particular through no fault of his acting here, but of his back catalogue entire, yanks you out of the story’s reality every time he’s on screen. You can’t help but get snagged as he barks orders or dives into a foxhole, by the nagging thought “Hey, that’s Vince Vaughn from Wedding Crashers!” rather than a Sergeant trying to lead his men. Just flaws however, the whole is very, very good and you get to see a soldier use a limbless torso as a shield to advance and unleash death on a battalion. What more could you want from a film about a pacifist?

8

King Solomon’s Mines (1985)

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J. Lee Thompson directs Richard Chamberlain, Sharon Stone and John Rhys-Davies in this Cannon Group cheapie epic that takes a classic adventure tale and amps up anything that resembles the Indiana Jones franchise they can afford to rip off.

Even as an impressionable child I knew this couldn’t hold a candle to Raiders, or even Romancing the Stone, but it has matured surprisingly well. OK in dialogue, plotting and invention the script lacks ambition, I even doubt the writers can spell ‘ambition’. But they knew what pages of the Temple of Doom shooting script to photocopy and what pages of Haggard’s original novel to cut and paste in, so… well done them. The low budget antics of the shoot only really show themselves up in the early interiors and once we hit the locations (and the ‘just happy to be there’ cast of thousands locals) the scale and dangerous looking practical stunt work is now quite comparatively epic in scope if not imagination, especially when you consider the money squandered on passionless greenscreen and graphics these days. I’m not going to make the argument that this is a good film but it is a consistently undemanding fun one that frames its artless cliffhangers, just the right side of racist exoticism (and only “just”), a hungry young starlet in the shape of Sharon Stone and a game villian perpetuated by Rhys-Davies well enough that you admire the romp rather than execution. You won’t have a blast but this kicks up enough dust to kill an evening pleasurably.

6