Film

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

12/12/18

That unwieldy title notwithstanding, this is a genuine treat. For those who are wary of watching yet another retread of a tired and over-familiar concept, let me assure you that this doesn’t so much as reinvent the franchise as grab it by the neck, tear it to pieces and start all over again. The result is one of the most exciting slices of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

Troubled teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is struggling to fit in to the straight laced Brooklyn high school where he has recently enrolled. His father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a New York cop, a disciplinarian and a vociferous Spider-Man critic. Miles finds himself gravitating towards his mysterious Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is an adventurous sort, prone to bending the rules. One night, when Miles and Aaron are indulging in a graffiti-art session in a deserted stretch of subway, Miles is bitten by a robotic spider and, shortly afterwards, begins to experience major changes to his mind and body.

Understandably confused, he returns to the subway, just in time to witness regular Spider-Man villain, Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), opening up a portal to a whole series of alternate realities and, for good measure, enacting a murder that will have all staunch web-heads shrieking ‘Noooo!’  at the screen. Kingpin’s meddling with reality is an attempt to reconnect with characters from his past, but his machinations have unwittingly invited five different personifications of Spider-Man to leave their own dimensions and head for present-day New York. I won’t list the alternate Spideys in detail but suffice to say: two of them are female and one is a cartoon pig called Peter Porker. The thing is, does Miles, still coming to terms with his new abilities, have the necessary stuff to join up with them?

Phil Lord’s plot may be bat-shit crazy, but it doesn’t matter one jot because Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse careers along at such a breakneck pace there’s never any time to question the absurdity of it all. What’s more, the eye-popping animation is so extraordinary that it virtually dazzles the viewer into submission with levels of ingenuity and chutzpah rarely witnessed in this genre. There’s a whole riot of styles thrown into the mix, with individual frames freezing momentarily to do homage to veteran artists like Steve Ditko and John Romita, and more experimental sequences that break new ground entirely. It’s fabulous stuff. Oh, and  just wait till you see what they’ve done with Doctor Octopus!

Purists may not approve of some of the liberties that have been taken with the source material, but the fact is that the Spider-Man franchise has already been pretty thoroughly milked (yet another live action movie is due to land early next year), so if you’re going to slip into that distinctive red and blue outfit, you’d better have something different to offer. And believe me, this film has that in abundance.

Oh yes, and this features one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever (voiced by the man himself, of course), which, given his recent demise, makes it all the more poignant. Here he plays the owner of a cheap novelty shop, selling knock-off Spider-Man outfits and pointing to a sign that says ‘No refunds.’ Priceless.

There is only one other viewer at the afternoon screening I attend, and that’s a shame, because here’s one superhero movie that actually deserves closer investigation. Don’t let it swing over the horizon without giving it a spin.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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Three Identical Strangers

 

08/12/18

Three Identical Strangers is a disturbing film, documenting the extraordinary lives of three young men, who – at the age of nineteen – discovered they were triplets, separated at birth.

The initial, heartwarming version of their tale is rather well-documented: in 1980, when they first found one another, Bobby, Eddy and David were big news. They gave countless TV interviews, and embraced their notoriety, strutting their stuff around New York, making the most of their newfound celebrity. They even scored themselves a brief appearance in Madonna’s first movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and seemed to revel in each other’s company.

But there’s a darker side to their story and it’s not comfortable to watch. Because the boys and their adoptive parents were never told that they were triplets; the details of their lives were hidden from them. Why? The adoption agency Louise Wise Services contravened ethical guidelines by withholding this information; what was their motivation?

Science, it seems; or the pursuit of knowledge.

The boys were born in 1961, and nature/nurture was a hot topic. What, Dr Peter Neubauer wondered, could be learned if identical siblings were brought up in different socio-economic circumstances, or parented in contrasting ways? And how better to find out than to collude with an adoption agency, and carefully allocate twins to pre-selected families? Under the guise of monitoring the progress of adopted kids, the similarities and differences in their progress could be observed. Of course he knew he was on shaky moral ground (otherwise, he would have been more open about his plans); nevertheless, the experiment went on. He must have been delighted when the triplets were born.

After an initial third focusing on the brothers’ fairytale discovery, the film goes on to focus on the fallout, the impact on the boys and the men that they became. And it’s devastating really, the effect of Dr Neubauer’s god-complex, meddling with people’s lives to further his own interests.

The doctor himself is dead now, but his assistants’ recollections are chilling, not least because they seem so unapologetic, so unabashed about the nature of their work. The boys all went to decent families; they can’t see the damage they have wrought.

In the main, this is a compelling documentary, dispassionately told, allowing people and events to speak for themselves. I’m a little uncomfortable about the way Eddy’s adoptive father, Mr Galland,  is presented, the blame for his son’s problems laid squarely at his door. He was a strict, unemotional parent, for sure, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t love his son, didn’t try his best to do right by him. Director Tim Wardle’s partiality is on show here: he much prefers the way that David’s father, Mr Kellman, brought him up.

Still, that’s my only complaint. Otherwise, this is a shocking story, rightly – if tardily – exposed to scrutiny. Bravo to those who have worked to tell the tale; shame on those who sought to cover it up.

And good luck to the boys – and to the other twins affected by this twisted social research project, some of whom do not yet know that they have a double somewhere out there in the world.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Anna and the Apocalypse

07/12/18

Last summer, wandering around my home city in the vicinity of the Usher Hall, I came across something entirely unexpected. A strange crowd had collected in front of the building – not the usual ticket-bearing punters, queuing to see the latest concert, but a motley assortment of blood-spattered zombies, growling at me in a most disconcerting manner, while more soberly attired actors handed out inflatable candy canes.

What was it all in aid of, I wondered? One young woman informed me that they were starring in an upcoming film called Anna and the Apocalypse, a movie shot in and around Glasgow, and they were celebrating the fact that they’d just signed a distribution deal with ‘a major player.’ Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. I took the opportunity to snap a selfie with one of the undead and went on my way.

Now, a little over six months later, the film is in the cinemas and, given my unusual introduction to it, I find myself wanting to like it a little more than I actually do. It’s by no means terrible, you understand, but this spirited mash-up of Shaun of the DeadHigh School Musical and er… White Christmas, has the ghost of those rather better films hanging over it and, try as I might, I can’t quite dispel them.

The eponymous Anna (Ella Hunt) is a self-assured teenager who feels somewhat constrained by the sleepy town of Little Haven, where she lives with her father, Tony (Mark Benton). Her mother has recently shuffled off the mortal coil and Anna is considering taking a year out before starting uni, so she can travel and see a bit more of the world. Meanwhile, she interacts with her best buddy, John (Malcolm Cumming), works part time down the local bowling alley and puts up with the caustic remarks of the snide school head, Mr Savage (Paul Kaye). And then, on the night of the high school Christmas concert, a zombie epidemic breaks out…

Of course, given the subject matter, this was always going to be compared with Shaun, but it’s particularly damning when Anna’s best scene is almost a rerun of the one where Simon Pegg’s character pays a visit to the corner shop and, in the midst of total devastation, fails to notice that anything is amiss. Still, there’s plenty to like here, despite that. The songs, by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly are catchy; Hunt (who was absolutely the best thing about The More You Ignore Me) clearly has a big cinematic future ahead of her; and this is sprightly and funny enough to keep a late-night crowd happy.

Who knows, maybe in years to come that festive theme might turn this into a cult Christmas hit – and that’s clearly the filmmakers’ intention, as they pile on the tinsel and mistletoe a little too relentlessly for comfort. I’d also like to see a few genuine scares thrown into the mixture. Though this is as bloody and visceral as the genre demands, it never really unnerves me. And, for good measure, a film shot in Scotland and funded by the Scottish Arts Council, might have worked better if there’d been a few more Scottish actors (and accents) in the mix.

Though… and I could be way off beam here… is that (an uncredited) David Tenant briefly acting the role of one of the undead?

Anyhow, Anna and the Apocalypse is a fun film and, those fancying a giggle could do a lot worse than this.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Producers

29/11/18

It’s hard to imagine the kind of outrage that must have been generated by Mel Brooks’ The Producers on it’s original release in 1967, when it’s tap-dancing Nazi stormtroopers and flamboyantly gay directors must have touched a whole bunch of raw nerves. Adapted as a musical by Brooks and Thomas Meehan in the early naughties, it’s one of those rare creatures, a brilliant film, that became an excellent musical, that became a superb musical film. The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group have some very big jackboots to fill here, but I’m happy to say that they rise to that daunting undertaking with their usual brio.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, this is the tale of struggling theatre impresario, Max Bialystock (Max McLaughlin) and shy, nervy accountant Leo Bloom (Rob Merriam). The two men form an unlikely alliance when Bloom casually points out that a producer might easily take a bigger profit from a disastrous flop than from a major success, provided the account ledgers are suitably cooked. With this in mind, Bialystock sets about procuring two million dollars to fund a new musical by seducing every elderly lady in his little black book – and, once they have the budget, Bialystock and Bloom go in search of the worst show ever written, plus the worst actors to perform it. Pretty soon, they settle on a little piece promisingly entitled Springtime for Hitler

This is unashamedly a creation of its era and happily, there’s been no attempt to soften the outrageous content to suit more modern sensibilities. The cast play it exactly as written, which leads to the only false note, when Bloom insults Bialystok by calling him ‘Fatty,’ (something that worked well enough for Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, but is simply puzzling when applied to the lithe figure of McLaughlin). But that’s a minor niggle in what is, otherwise, a very satisfying production.

McLaughlin and Merriam make an appealing duo, while Georgie Rogers plays Swedish wannabe Ulla with the volume turned up to 11 and Will Peppercorn is a suitably deranged Franz Liebkind, a man who thinks nothing of wearing a German steel helmet and a swastika as leisurewear. Supporting actors make the most of their smaller roles (I particularly like Gordon Stackhouse’s turn as Carmen Ghia, a performance so archly camp that every gesture manages to evoke a belly laugh). But this musical is, of course, the very definition of an ensemble piece with twenty-two actors confidently moving around the small stage, singing and dancing up an absolute storm, even when incorporating their zimmer frames. And let’s not forget, there’s a seventeen piece band in this show, conducted by Caitlin Morgan, who deliver an assured musical accompaniment throughout.

Yes, this is a student show and of course, they don’t have the budget for fancy effects and state-of-the-art scenery, but when it comes to talent, The Producers is positively bursting with the stuff. If you like the original film, you’ll love this and you’re certain to come out, like me, with a great big smile on your face.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

They Shall Not Grow Old

 

27/11/18

I’ve come to this one rather late in the day, partly because of other commitments and partly because I really wanted to wait until I had the opportunity to see it on a cinema screen. I’m glad I waited.

Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary is, of course, a considerable technical achievement, featuring state-of-the-art colourisation processes – but it’s also a powerful evocation of a brutal military campaign. Using archive footage from the Imperial War Museum (much of it getting its first public airing here), They Shall Not Grow Old is primarily the chronological story of the British ‘Tommy,’ following his tortuous path from enlistment to armistice.

Jackson cannily holds back the film’s trump card for a good twenty minutes or so. The images we are first presented with are in a square framed ratio, those speeded-up monochrome visions that we’re already familiar with, the kind that somehow contrive to demote the Great War to the level of a Charlie Chaplin comedy routine. We watch as ranks of new recruits skitter haphazardly across the screen, marching as though auditioning for Mack Sennett. We see countless numbers of young men answering the call of duty, doing their basic training, boarding troop ships to cross the channel, and still Jackson holds back.

And then there’s a spellbinding change when battalions of troops arrive at the Western Front to prepare for the upcoming conflict. Quite without warning, the pace suddenly slows, the screen floods with naturalistic colour and we hear the sounds of mobilisation – the relentless trudge of boots through mud, the rumble of engines, the whinnying of horses – and off in the distance, the forbidding rumble of explosions, the nagging rattle of gunfire. It’s a chilling transition, one that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Quite suddenly, one hundred years of history have evaporated in the blink of an eye and I realise I am looking at real people, many of them just teenagers, who turn their mournful, apprehensive faces to the camera as they stumble by, knowing they are almost certainly going to their deaths.

It’s the film’s most unforgettable moment.

Which is not to denigrate the rest of it, not at all. I listen to the accounts of real veterans who went through the ordeal and somehow survived; and I’m shown the inevitable consequences of war: the heaps of dismembered, bloated bodies; the shattered buildings; the splintered trees; the twisted hell of No Man’s Land. And through it all these young men continue to grin for the camera, give it a sly wave, mumble a quick ‘Hello Mum,’ as they pass by. I feel humbled by seeing them and by experiencing just a little of what they had to go through.

How does the rest of that famous stanza go? ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.

And we do – now. But back then, when those men returned, no one wanted to acknowledge the truth of what they had been through. And I’m still not sure we’ve learned the lessons that would prevent such a horror from ever happening again.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Overlord

26/11/18

War makes monsters of men.’ In Julius Avery’s Overlord, this adage is taken to its logical conclusion as a bunch of evil Nazis, occupying a small village in France, carry out a series of rather nasty experiments on the local population. This canny blend of war movie and 18 certificate body horror is undoubtedly a mash-up, but such beasts are rarely as well handled as this, or as downright entertaining. Indeed, here’s a movie that hits the ground running and goes galumphing gloriously along to its final blood-drenched moments.

Of course, because of the presence of JJ Abrams as executive producer, the film was widely expected to be a fourth instalment in the Cloverfield franchise, but I’m happy to say the C-word is never mentioned here and it’s just as well, since this has its own agenda and fulfils it very effectively.

It’s 1945, the eve of D Day, and we join Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) in a crowded transport plane, preparing to bale out over German-occupied France. Boyce and his fellow paratroopers have been tasked with an important mission. They are to destroy a church steeple in the aforementioned French village, which the Germans are currently using as a communications centre. The success of Operation Overlord depends on its timely destruction (so no pressure there). But within minutes of the film’s start, the plane is taking on fire and, in a totally immersive and nerve-shredding sequence, all hell breaks loose. Boyce barely escapes with his life.

A little later, approaching the village accompanied by a few other survivors, including hard-bitten veteran, Ford (Wyatt Russell), Boyce encounters Chloe (Mathilde Olivier), a young woman struggling to survive under the predations of the ruthless Nazi Commandant Wafner (Pilou Asbaek). She takes the American soldiers into hiding at her aunt’s house… but what exactly is happening in the compound that houses that all-important church tower? Why are so many prisoners being taken there? And why is Chloe’s aunt making all those strange noises in her room?

The gradual metamorphosis from action film to horror movie is effectively done, pushing the envelope a little further with each new revelation, until our disbelief is well and truly suspended – and the very real horrors of war seem to lend extra gravitas to the fantasy elements of the story. The presence of deadly explosive charges adds an extra layer of suspense to the final furlong. It’s breathless stuff. More squeamish viewers should be warned that there are scenes here that may test their resolve to the limit, but those who fancy a B-Movie plot married to A-Movie production values are going to have a whale of a time with this. I know I did.

That said, anyone scheduled to undergo a medical procedure in the near future might want to give this one a miss. It gets very messy.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

Assassination Nation

24/11/18

Salem. Teenage girls. Mass hysteria. And death. Assassination Nation‘s parallels with the witch trials are not subtle. But they are bold and audacious, timely and provocative. This is a fascinating film.

It’s not a retelling of The Crucible, but it riffs on the themes: a society bound by rules so strict that no one really follows them; the chaos that’s unleashed when the underbelly is exposed. And the teenage girls, easy scapegoats for the mob. Why look for someone else to blame when there are sassy, sexy young women strutting about the town, showing off their nubile bodies and their high intellects?

Lily (Odessa Young) is our heroine: an eighteen-year-old with attitude. Her parents are Mr and Mrs Uptight, squarer than a box, but Lily has opinions of her own. She’s smart: when the school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her to task for submitting pornographic drawings for an art assignment, she argues eloquently; these are not mindless ‘shock-the-system’ images, but a considered response to the world she knows. Taken aback, the principal acknowledges she’s right, but asks her to concede: ‘This is high school; it’s not appropriate here.’

And that’s kind of the point of the whole film: that we all collude in pretending reality is something else. We wear our masks and present public selves that are very different from our private selves, and (some of us) outwardly condemn others who are seen to do the very things that we do too. Writer-director Sam Levinson clearly has something to say about this, and he’s not shy about saying it. The utter absurdity of modern American life is mercilessly exposed.

Things begin to fall apart in Salem when an anonymous hacker starts uploading everybody’s secrets: texts and emails, photographic caches, google searches, everything. It’s no longer possible to maintain the illusion that everyone follows the creeds laid out for them, and the fallout is huge. At first it doesn’t seem to matter too much: the mayor is rightly exposed as a hypocrite, standing on a ‘family values’ platform, denying LGBT+ rights, while secretly cross-dressing. But we soon learn that he’s a victim too, that no one can flourish in a world that condemns individuals when they reveal the truth about themselves.

And then, as more people have their private lives revealed, we discover that the mob is hungry for blood. Even the most innocuous photographs are seen as proof of corruption; we’re back in Crucible territory now: if you’re accused, you’re guilty; there’s really no way out. Eventually, inevitably, Lily’s own phone is hacked. She’s been sexting with a married neighbour, so the townsfolk have a lot to say. The baying crowd turns on her and her friends: they are literally out to kill.

This is a vibrant, pulsating movie, that screams its message loudly and proudly – and largely successfully. Oddly, I detest the first fifteen minutes or so, and am actually contemplating walking out of the cinema (something I haven’t done since Heat) but I’m glad I sit it out, because – once that frantic, in-yer-face, split-screen throbbing is over – it all starts to fall into place, and the opening makes sense in context too.

It’s a film for our times, that’s for sure. There are tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings that seem at first to be poking fun at ‘snowflakes’ but turn out to foreshadow scenes that show how relevant these issues really are. There’s a chilling moment where a mob is chanting, ‘Lock him up!’ about an innocent man: no prizes for making the connection here. I said it’s not subtle. But why should it be? Sometimes the most affecting art is created using broad strokes.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the girls become avengers – it’s clear from the posters, after all, but I have some qualms about the way in which weapons are used in this final third. It’s all a bit glamorous, a bit ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ for my liking. But then, I suppose, the truth is this: in a society as rigid and divided as modern America, the suits who make the rules really had better look out. Because the guns are out there. And those they seek to victimise know how to use them too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield