Stargate (1994)

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Roland Emmerich directs Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson in this sci-fi epic about a military mission through a portal to the other side of the galaxy and the alien pharaoh whom enslaves the humans trapped on the other side. 

Egyptology set and costume design pop, and David Arnold’s score (composed while still dayjobbing in a video rental shop) out John William’s John Williams. That’s your only positives – everything else is sub-Spielbergian dregs. Shots are repeated ad infinitum on the cheap, there’s no action for an hour, when it arrives it is about as pulse raising as a glass of lukewarm milk. The finale involves child soldiers trained by a man whose character arc is getting over the fact his child accidentally shot himself – what’s that nasty taste in my mouth? The villian is surrounded by a harem of barely clothed kids – it tastes like shit in my mouth? The Crying Game’s Jaye Davidson allegedly had such a horrid experience on this his second feature he completed his last scene, stripped off naked on set and never worked in a feature again. Kurt usually brings a bubblegum variation on John Wayne to such tosh but even The Duke himself would look more comfortable among all the cliched Chariots of the Gods / John Carter copycating. And the movie wastes creepy/sexy Mr Spader in a wet lead role. Exactly what you don’t want from this premise, exactly what you don’t want from this cast. Devastatingly poor.

3

 

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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Alan J. Pakula directs Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol and Kevin Kline in this drama about a young writer who falls for a troubled couple from the upstairs  of his boarding house – a turbulent drunk and a Polish holocaust survivor. 

Brilliant early acting from Streep and Kline, a worthy attempt by Hollywood to fathom the Holocaust and some nice Brooklyn location work are a little undermined by the unusual focus on MacNicol’s narrator. His story should serve as a mere framing device but instead overwhelms the running time. Each time we get hooked into the powerful drama and captivating central romance we keep shifting back to a wannabe writer’s desire to fuck a tragic figure  so he can type his pretentious literature a bit more believably.

6

M (1931)

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Fritz Lang directs Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke and Gustaf Gründgens in this thriller where the criminals of Berlin hunt down a child killer when the police prove ineffective and obtrusive to their “business”. 

A movie that works best when it is a cold hard portrait of a city in terror; the endless sifting of evidence by the baffled detectives, montages of the worried citizens going about their business and Peter Lorre gliding through the populace on the hunt for young prey. When the “Court of Criminals” gets introduced, the plot kicks off but it all becomes a bit fantastical- John Wick: The Pre-War Years. Having said that their illicit dragnet provides some intense set-pieces, especially when they corner Lorre in a warehouse overnight and attempt to scour it for him before the alarm is raised. You just can’t help but think the unlikely shenanigans of the team of villains dilute Lorre’s fascinating central turn – pitiful yet merciless. Also, I cannot be the only viewer who notices more than a few shots that accidentally (?) echo the Nazi horrors on the horizon. People being herded into trucks, the mob mentality on the streets, the tables full of perfectly organised confiscated belongings. A haunting visual prediction which must merely be based on the infrastructure the authorities already had in place to suppress their undesirables. Fascinating.

8

A Field in England (2013)

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Ben Wheatley directs Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith and Richard Glover in this existential monochrome trip amongst English Civil War deserters. 

So far this is the only Ben Wheatley movie I’d struggle to recommend to the casual viewer. It is testing. Not as compelling as Kill List, nor as loveable as Sightseers, nowhere near as accessible as Free Fire. A Field in England is an intentionally difficult film to enjoy but a film that lingers. An exercise in banal surrealism it owes as much to Waiting for Godot as it does Culloden. I even picked up past the mash-up of Blackadder-esque introductions a hint of The Good, The Bad and Ugly (civil war deserters with clanking guns and big hats hunt for treasure). Unlike Leone’s epic it is no cinematic perfection piece though. You have to concede the double edged sword moments of patience testing ramblings, silent movie blackouts and THAT centre piece strobing trip trouble more than they impress. Men merge into themselves and the sun is swallowed. Smiley and Shearsmith are highly watchable, it disturbs enough to scar. But you wouldn’t rush to get trapped in the long grass again. Interesting mainly as a dry run for the more expansive Wheatley flick, High Rise.

7

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

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Jean Cocteau directs Jean Marias, Josette Day and Jean Marias in this earlier, opulently fantastic take of the fairy tale romance. 

A disclaimer: After years of wanting to catch this version on the big screen, a late work night meant I did annoyingly doze off occasionally in the dark of the matinee. No value judgement on the movie that – it is a gorgeously arch magical treat. I’m ashamed of the few scenes I missed due to involuntary conking out. Of what I did catch, bright eyed and bushy tailed, there was one little sequence that struck me away from all the beautiful design and pretty faces. Belle is nagging the beast in his garden, he gets distracted by a passing deer, gets told off for not listening, wiggles his ears and gruffly apologises… but he is still thinking about that deer, the furry faced fool. It rang home on the landline. All men are beasts, we can’t help ourselves. Next time I enjoy this, I’ll give it my full, lucid attention. It deserves it.

8

Under the Shadow (2016)

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Babak Anvari directs Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi and Bobby Naderi in this period horror about an oppressed rationalist woman in 1980’s Tehran who slowly suspects djinn are trying to take her daughter. 

This made many critics’ end of year best movie lists last year. And I can see why. As a portrait of a woman slowly losing her rights, freedoms and dreams in a war torn Iran it is didactic but effective. Barges Rashidi’s central performance is eye catching and the emotional, political and psychological ramifications of her plight are laid out with an efficient clarity. Maybe a little too efficient to ring true though. For example, the objects the big bad chooses to steal each time have a rich feminist metaphorical value;  an abandoned university textbook, a doll, a Jane Fonda workout video. You are so aware of the points that are being made and statements underlined, it obstructs you from absorbing them as an organic by-product of the entertainment. And that’s where Under the Shadow fails for me. The sparsely explored horror elements are very, very similar to the far superior Repulsion, Dark Water and The Babadook. Whereas those arty genre flicks managed to lace their scares and shocks with a grander intelligence and intention, this lesser rehash just never gets around to fulfilling its basic spookhouse requirements. And therefore pales in comparison. There are a couple of well designed oogie boogie images near the wrap up (what lurks under the bed is a toothy treat) but it proves too little too late. Especially considering the Djinn mythology utilised seems frustratingly fertile. Fine for some, not for me.

5

The Belko Experiment (2017)

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Greg McLean directs John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn and John C McGinley in this efficient Battle Royale in an office block thriller. 

Neat and gory. A simple, unpretentious murder fest. It lacks that invention or that escalation such an endeavour really needs for me to wholeheartedly recommend it to those not into their schlock… but for The Belko Experiment’s  short, nasty runtime I personally was gripped. Lots of likeable C-listers fill the lobby too which never hurts such an outing.

7

 

The Sorcerers (1967)

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Michael Reeves directs Boris Karloff, Catherine Lacey and Ian Ogilvy in this Swinging (west) London chiller about old witches who possess a young man.

There’s lots of reasons why this might outwardly prove appealing to the modern horror fan. Late Karloff, cool hip period scenes of miniskirts and sideburns, shades of recent horror successes Slade House (the last David Mitchell novel) and Get Out in the set-up, and being one of the rare ‘other’ works by Witchfinder General director Reeves. But nothing all that interesting actually happens despite all that intriguing pedigree. As it trundles along I found solace in trying to place the pre-Westway hometown locations. And I doubt there are many of you who can scrape that nerdy pleasure from this flat, mechanical chiller.

4

Wake in Fright (1971)

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Ted Kotcheff directs Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence and Chips Rafferty in this lost Australian shocker about a teacher waylaid for a weekend in a sinister outback mining town. 

Firstly, get ready to see more schooners of beer consumed in one feature length flick than you ever thought possible. A heroic, thirst creating effort. One of those rare, big screen experiences where an hour in you still have no idea what direction the queasy, disturbing narrative is headed in, even if the destination eventually proves to be a little standard. The journey though is a squallid, paranoid treat. An intelligent expoloitation flick which skirts with rationalising fate, ambiguous sexualities and a disgusting sequence of offensive animal harm, your buttons are going to be pushed however you approach it. Effective casting, a cracking credit’s theme and some of the most evocative location cinematography complement a genuinely captivating mystery. And one early line of dialogue by Pleasance’s sage-like bum rings true in life as it does the entire philosophy of the movie: “Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve got to live here, then you might as well like it.” Words to live by. Have a beer, mate!

8

 

 

Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

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Takashi Shimizu directs Megumi Okina, Misa Uehara and Misaki Ito in this Japanese horror hit about a cursed suburban house. 

Overrated nonsense both times I’ve tried it. The IMDB trivia page revealed this is actually the third film in the series which might explain why so much of the discordant mess seems to assume you know far more than you do. Just a series of barely connected random scare sequences which never really exceed the potentially creepy setting. Whack a bit of Hideo Nakata or Takashi Miike on instead. Unless you have a thing for kids slathered in white make up.

4