Danny Boyle directs Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox in this Scottish thriller about flatmates who discover a bag full of money in their spare room… and a corpse.
1994 – My sister came back from a late night showing of Shallow Grave and spent a morning regaling the entire family in our kitchen about its gory shocks. I wasn’t old enough to go see it in all its 18 certificate glory then but I was already in love. Boyle is fantastic at injecting energy into potentially tired early set-ups, making the fantastical have the ring of everyday truth, framing the unpleasant to maximise the nastiness and turning little knowns into bonafide movie stars. McGregor, Eccleston, Fox, Peter Mullan and Ken Stott all impress with quirky, often inscrutably magnetic, performances. And whether Shallow Grave assaults your ethical sensibilities or your stomach lining it plays out as an absolutely unhinged Hitchcockian carve-up. Trainspotting just about pips their debut to the post as McGregor or Boyle’s best but their breakthrough is still the taut stuff of nightmares. If you want a lesson in dark cinematic tension this has matured marvellously. Full bodied thrills.
Jessica Hausner directs Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw and Kerry Fox in this sci-fi drama where a plant geneticist designs a flower that pollinates happiness but might delete all genuine emotions.
Visually this is a treat to look at from the colour coded laboratories to Beecham’s pale, buttoned-up wardrobe. If it was just a film about her choosing her silk tracksuit for household lounging I might give it 10/10. Unfortunately it is a stilted Invasion of the Body Snatchers reduction. Unwilling to deliver terror and happy to leave things so frustratingly open ended so you can scratch your head over whether its an allegory about the pressures of being a working mother, the pharmaceutical industry or conforming to societies ideas of sanity… or even the unfair distrust of mature women in working environments… If you can be bothered to care to scratch. There’s a lot potentially going on beneath the surface but once you take the tight production design out of the equation that surface is very thin. And stretched. Not enough happens to hold your attention for 90 minutes and this feature lasts almost two (painful) hours. The subtle dystopian ideas hinted at could have made better impact in a 20 minutes short. Boring ultimately.
Chris Sanders directs Terry Notary, Harrison Ford and Omar Sy in this adaptation of Jack London’s classic adventure story where a soft dog finds his core as he travels further into the Yukon during The Gold Rush.
One of my favourite stories made without having to bully or mistreat or risk harm to its animal lead. Buck the dog must learn about the harshness of life and the cruelty of man’s club and whip to find his freedom. You can’t practically put a real pup through that to tell the tale. Is the CGI dog photorealistic? No. But like young Bobby De Niro in The Irishman, once you are invested in the characters and the narrative this only jerks you out of the story on very rare occasions. The tale-telling is good. Broad, child friendly, full of epic sweep and engaging peril. I felt fully connected to the adaptation, enjoying the human interactions (Ford does fine at appropriate half star power) and the canine drama. It is a kids adventure story with deeper meanings and messages than your average pap. If I had spawn I’d much rather take my brood to see this and enjoy its values than a Minions 2 or a Peter Rabbit 3.
Michael Winterbottom directs Steve Coogan, David Mitchell and Isla Fisher in this satire (in all but spoken name) of disgraced high street fashion tycoon / sweatshop racketeer Philip Green.
Greed is the kinda film you really want to like. The talent and pedigree are strong – you know everyone’s heart is in the right place and they are capably trying their best. There are just enough funny, barbed moments to fill a trailer. You completely agree with its politics. But it has nothing revelatory to say and the ensemble drift about hoping for better material. You wish it landed twice or four times as many laughs. There’s a real feel of Altman’s Nashville or, perhaps damningly, Pret-A-Porter, where a mass of vapid people hang about an overhyped event. One of those is considered a classic, the other a bomb. I personally can’t tell their qualities apart but they are mirrored here. Or maybe if Winterbottom and Sony didn’t end it all on stats about inequitable wealth within the global garment trade that will shock absolutely no one. The only punch that really lands is a subtle one where a composite character ends up working back at a sewing machine in the UK. I assume the unexplained point is with workers rights and financial safety nets being eroded here after Brexit and a decade of Tory leadership, we are set to become a dystopia for the sweatshop conditions and poor pay lambasted within. Listen, any comedy with Coogan and Fisher featured prominently is going to be worth a peek. They are gifted comic actors both overskilled in portraying society monsters. And the lad who plays a young Coogan, Jamie Blackley, convinces utterly as a young Coogan. Shame the script feels like a raggedy first draft rather than a made-to-measure product.
Terrence Malick directs Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams in this arty-farty drama about love, faith, madness and soil.
If I went to see this at the cinema I wouldn’t have had the option to check my phone continually, pause it to go make a coffee and doze twice during it. Did it have my attention in any way? No. Not one little bit. Bored me senseless. Did it look beautiful? Yes, with a forced, vapid perfume advert kinda aesthetic. Did it have anything to say about its big themes? Not in a delivery system I could in any way, shape or form relate to. Olga Kurylenko puts in a surprising good shift as a gorgeous lost soul but even this is smothered by the trite and overly earnest house style.
Mark L Lester directs Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong and Vernon Wells in this violent actioner where Arnie must rescue his daughter from the mercenaries who want him to assassinate a president.
Exactly 90 minutes. The perfect length. Commando is filled with flowing carnage, smooth stunts, hissable villians, funny one-liners and juddering muscle. The plot is a streamlined marvel… ticking clock, relatable quest (“ALL I CARE ABOUT IS JENNY!”), join the dots action. James Horner’s score is persuasive and hectoring. You get Bill Duke, Dan Hedaya and David Patrick Kelly in side baddie roles. All are dispatched with mordant wit and teutonic cool. Arnie punches his way out of airplanes, shopping malls and motels like they are made of crepe paper. Who knows what is going on in that neighbouring hotel room when he crashes through its wall? Looks like they are filming a pegging video! While not the very best of its form, it does feel like the purest example, which makes it endlessly rewatchable. If you have a thrusting desire to see Arnie take down a toy catalogue of colourful henchmen one scene at a time and then cut through the entire Val Verde separatist army like butter then this is base metal such spears are forged from. If you don’t have 90 minutes but do have a spare 2 then the trailer is also the stuff of legend. “If it is a mission no man can survive… he’s the man for the job!” Yes! YES! Arnold was, is and always will be!
Yûzô Kawashima directs Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Mihashi and Yukiko Todoroki in this Japanese drama where an unemployed couple drift to the outskirts and temptations of a city’s prostitution area.
A really engaging, unjudgmental drama. You get a better idea of post-war Japan city life from this hard-edged soap. The best moments are when the characters are just going about their day serving sake or noodles and wandering the streets looking for each other. Unlike Ken Loach or The Dardennes, Kawashima doesn’t paint poverty as an impossible trap but does capture the desperation and pressure such limited options put on relationships and the soul. Earthy, solid.
Andrei Konchalovsky directs Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay in this prison break disaster movie where two dehumanised convicts hide from a manhunt on a train hurtling to its own destruction.
Harsh cold steel hurtling at you on celluloid. One of the most kinetic movies ever made. Based on an unmade Akira Kurosawa script and brushed up by ex-con and future Mr Blue Edward Bunker. This film is hard-as-nails. Both the early maximum security sequences and the unstoppable engine bulk absolutely pump. Both actors give unhinged, unrestrained performances as the brutes on the run and stuck on a road to oblivion. They were both Oscar nominated, which is a surprise, but not undeserved. This is a hyper sped up, snarling, down and dirty actioner. The existential poetry and more heartfelt character moments actually feel organic to the tough stuff. Essentially you come for the yard shivings, carriage crashes, even madder than the psychos mad warden dangling himself off helicopters and bogwashings but you stay for the surprisingly intelligent drama. An overlooked great.
John M. Stahl directs Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in this drama where a friendship between a widow and her black servant is put under strain when one of their daughters falls for the wrong man and the other tries to pass as white.
Some of the attitudes here would have be seen progressive at the time, they now look ham fistedly racist. But you can tell this is a film with its heart in the right place… and a great one to boot. Beavers and Colbert have wonderful chemistry and all the subplots fascinate. Sure a modern film would explore Fredi Washington’s complicated existence with more nuance and focus but this still manages to say a lot… even if it says it in the uncertain, insensitive voice of the 1930s. A truly brilliant melodrama.