Film

22 July

18/10/18

Since his sterling work on the Jason Bourne franchise, Paul Greengrass has earned a reputation as a master of the action movie but, in 22 July, he pursues a more thoughtful and measured approach to this true life horror story.

In July 2011, white supremicist Anders Breivik, enacted a horrible crime, detonating a bomb in Oslo and, shortly afterwards, travelling to Utøya island to hunt down and kill members of the Norwegian Labour party’s youth league, who were attending a summer camp there. Heavily armed and disguised as a police officer, Breivik killed more than seventy people, most of them teenagers.

Although Greengrass depicts these events in unflinching detail, they only comprise the first third of the film. He then moves beyond the tragedy to focus on young survivor, Viljar Hansen (Jonas Strand Gravil), who, despite being horribly injured in the attack, devotes himself to recovering enough to be able to confront Breivik (chillingly portrayed by  Anders Danielsen Lie) in court. Hansen’s achievement is astonishing and turns what could have been a profoundly depressing film into something more important, more life affirming.

What really impresses here is Norway’s even-handed approach to Breivik’s crime, refusing to ‘monster’ him and treating him with the kind of dignity and fairness that he denied his victims. I particularly like Jon Oigarden’s masterful performance as lawyer, Geir Lippestad, the man who was handed the poisoned chalice of having to defend Breveik in court.

This film is a Netflix Original, so it’s there to be watched whenever you’re ready for it, but be warned, it does feature scenes that some will find distressing. Neverthless, its observations about the rise of right wing politics in Norway (and indeed the world in general) is an important and affecting story that’s well worth investigation.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

10/10/18

There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Venom

09/10/18

First, the good news. Venom isn’t quite as terrible as everybody is saying.

The bad news? It still isn’t great.

Indeed, watching this unfold, I can’t help wondering what it was about the project that tempted top drawer actors like Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed to hop aboard for the ride. It can’t just have been the size of the pay check. Can it? I mean, surely they must have thought the end result would be… well, better than this?

Events start (as they so often do in such stories) with a spaceship crashing in East Malaysia. Billionaire scientist Carlton Drake (Ahmed) has despatched it to a remote asteroid to collect some alien life forms. In the ensuing chaos, one of the captive creatures manages to escape after latching on to a human host. (Yes, I know. So far, so dreadfully familiar.) Drake manages to salvage the other ‘symbiotes,’ as he dubs them, and has them brought to his state-of-the-art laboratory in San Francisco, where he sets about experimenting on them by unleashing them into a succession of live hosts. At first he contents himself with cuddly bunny rabbits but, despite all of his top scientists advising against it, he quickly progresses to homeless people, whom he’s duped into helping him with his ‘research programme.’ Drake, as you’ll have gathered, is not a very nice man. He’s hoping that he’ll find a perfect match, creating a human-alien hybrid, but his first attempts are… messy, to say the very least.

Meanwhile, freewheeling investigative reporter, Eddie Brock (Hardy), tries to do a filmed exposé on Drake, but soon discovers that the man has enough power to get him unceremoniously fired from his job. The problem is, Eddie has ‘borrowed’ some information from the files of his fiancé, lawyer Anne Weying (Williams), which means that she also gets the push. She is angry enough to tell Eddie to stick his engagement ring where the sun don’t shine. Eddie is understandably miffed by all this but, when one of Drake’s employees, Dr Skirth (Jenny Slate), smuggles Eddie into the laboratory, things go spectacularly wrong. He is invaded by one of the alien creatures, endowing him with a range of formidable superpowers and some very unsavoury eating habits. Chaos ensues, as Eddie and ‘Venom’ learn to co-exist. While some of this is reasonably entertaining, the greater part of it suffers from a bad case of over-familiarity.

To give Hardy his due, he does his level best to make this unpromising material work, but the fact that he’s been asked to play things for laughs may not have been the wisest decision. His Eddie Brock is a likeable slacker, who has inadvertently been thrust into very difficult circumstances, and he handles that side of things well enough. But overlong motorbike chases and CGI tweaked punch-ups are not really Hardy’s forte. Likewise, Williams is too much of a trooper not to give this her best shot, but she really isn’t given an awful lot to do and, once again, if you have an actor of such undeniable skill, maybe give her something to convey other than bewilderment?

Like most Marvel films, this eventually heads into one of those extended animated monster-battles, which – while undoubtedly expensive – just become rather tedious to behold. Director Ruben Fleischer must have been confident that this project would fly, because the first post-credit sequence sets up a sequel featuring a very well known actor in a fright wig. I can’t help feeling this is an over-optimistic move. There aren’t  many bums on seats at the viewing I attend. If however, you do feel like hanging on through the interminable credits, it’s worth staying in your seats for a sneak peek at Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, an upcoming animation that, in just a few minutes, manages to knock spots off everything that’s gone before. Maybe Sony Pictures decided they needed to salvage something from the wreckage. Or maybe they’re just proud of their new baby.

Venom is ultimately one for the Marvel-heads – and only the most diehard amongst them, I think. It really didn’t rock my world. Oh, and – of course – there’s a Stan Lee cameo. There’s always a Stan Lee cameo. Don’t worry, it’s mercifully brief.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Wife

08/10/18

The Wife, directed by Björn L Runge, opens in 1992, when novelist Joe Castleton (Jonathan Pryce) picks up the telephone to hear that he has won the Nobel prize for literature. As soon as he realises who is calling, he insists that his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), picks up the extension before any details are revealed: he wants to share the news with her. She’s delighted; they clamber up on to the bed, holding hands, and begin to jump. But it’s not long before we feel the first frostiness between them: “I’ve won the Nobel! I’ve won the Nobel!” Joe shouts, and Joan visibly shuts down. (How does Close do that? There’s not even a flicker on her face, but we see the light fade from her eyes. It’s astonishing.) Clearly, all is not as rosy as it seems…

There’s a revelation at the end of the film that I won’t spoil in this review. I will say, though, that there is no big surprise, and I guess that’s deliberate – it’s not very well concealed. In fact, it’s pretty clear from the trailer where we are headed. But this is much more about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ than it is about the ‘what’ – The Wife is very much a character-led piece, the study of a relationship, and the lies and compromises that make it tick.

Close is extraordinary in the role, combining flinty intelligence and self-control with a much softer, love-fuelled tenderness. Pryce is also very good, his puffed-up pride and self-importance masking his deep-rooted insecurity. We follow Joe and Joan from their first meeting, back in 1958. Young Joan (Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter) is an aspiring writer, studying at the prestigious Smith College; Joe (whose youthful incarnation is played by Harry Lloyd) is her professor. He’s married with a baby, but that doesn’t stop them falling in love. And, more than thirty years later, here they are, proving that their relationship was worth it: they’re thriving. He’s a celebrated literary author; she’s the kingmaker behind the throne. They have two children and one grandchild. Theirs is a story of success.

But their son, David (Max Irons), is not happy. He’s a writer too, and desperate for his father’s approval. But Joe can’t give David the validation he seeks: even though Joan insists that David’s work shows real talent, Joe can only offer muted praise.

In Stockholm, as the big Nobel prize ceremony draws ever nearer, the tension bubbles ominously, and it’s clear that something has to give. But what will prove the final catalyst? Will it be Joan’s simmering resentment at being rendered invisible, relegated to the role of ‘shopping with the other wives’? David’s anger at his father’s implied criticism? Or the slippery Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), would-be biographer, and his desire to write an exposé?

The Wife is an engaging drama, astute in its depiction of the petty details that inform arguments with loved ones, the fondness and fury that bind families together. And it shows us too how we never really know the truth about other people’s lives, only what they choose to let us see.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

A Star is Born

03/10/18

What is it about A Star is Born that makes filmmakers so keen to revisit it?

It first saw the light of day in 1937, when Janet Gaynor and Fredrick March played the original star-crossed thespians. In 1954, Judy Garland spectacularly relaunched her career with it, starring opposite a ‘never-better’ James Mason. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson moved the action from the movie studios of Hollywood to the world of rock music (a version that I have yet to catch up with.) And now Bradley Cooper makes his directorial debut with a version that seems hewn from the same cloth as the the latter outing. Cooper stars opposite Lady Gaga, whose previous big screen appearances have amounted to a guest appearance on Muppets Most Wanted and the lacklustre sequel to Sin City. 

Cooper plays ageing rock star, Jackson Maine, still gamely gigging around the world but beset by the twin demons of tinnitus and rampant alcoholism, with a few lines of cocaine chucked in for good measure. Stopping off at an LA drag bar one evening for a post-concert drink, he witnesses Ally (Lady G) performing a spirited rendition of La Vie En Rose and is instantly smitten by her. Fortunately, she is equally attracted to him. A whirlwind courtship ensues and, almost before we can draw breath, Ally and Jackson are an item, and the pair of them are performing at concerts across the USA, with Ally submitting some of her own songs to each show. Which is all well and good. But then, after one gig, she is approached by Rez (Rafi Gavron), a big time music promoter and a character so repellant that he manages to make us hate him before he’s even uttered so much as a word. Rez offers to make Allie a star. It will mean being styled and packaged, of course, but still, it’s what she’s always wanted, so… what could go wrong?

There are no great surprises here, mainly because the storyline is so familiar – and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that events are soon heading in the direction signposted ‘Tragedy, Arizona.’ Cooper does a great job with Maine, making us care about him even when he’s deep in the throes of his own self-destruction. Sam Elliott as his older brother/manager, Bobby, is good too, somehow managing to look not a day older than he did in The Big Lebowski, twenty-frickin’ years ago.

Okay, so this may not be the five star masterpiece that Garland’s version is. (This one does make me cry a couple of times, while the 1954 movie never fails to reduce me to a blubbering wreck.) But it is, nonetheless, a palpable hit, with decent songs that sound convincingly like proper chartbusters, some nicely sketched supporting characters – I particularly like Allie’s Sinatra-obsessed father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) – and a timely updating from the Academy Awards to The Grammys, with an appearance on Saturday Night Live added to the mix.

The biggest revelation here is Lady Gaga, who is simply mesmerising, both when she’s singing and when she’s acting. At one point, Ally bemoans the fact that potential employers simply haven’t seen her as a good fit for a particular role. Is this what’s happened to Gaga herself in previous attempts to move her career into film? Whatever else occurs from hereon in, it would seem a bright future on the big screen is hers for the taking, if she decides she wants it.

A movie star is born.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Repo Man

28/09/18

Some films are evergreen.

A recent viewing of The Big Lebowski, for instance, reconfirms for me its absolute quality, unaffected by the passage of time, and its worthiness to be considered a true cult movie. Other films do not weather the years quite so convincingly.

I first saw Alex Cox’s Repo Man on its release in 1984, when it felt edgy and ground-breaking. I certainly wasn’t the only critic with that opinion. Cox, of course, went on to consolidate its considerable success with his next film, Sid and Nancy, before flushing his career spectacularly down the toilet with the awesomely bad Straight to Hell (perhaps Straight to Video would have been a more appropriate title).

But a midnight screening at the Cameo is enough to persuade me that an opportunity to reassess Repo Man on the big screen is something I shouldn’t let slip. Oh dear.

This is the story of disaffected punk, Otto (Emilio Estevez), who quits his safe job at a supermarket in order to work with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the titular antihero who earns his bread and butter by snatching back automobiles from owners who have failed to keep up their repayments. At first, Otto is hostile to his co-workers, who he views as establishment figures, but as he comes to know them, so he begins to settle into their unconventional routine. We also meet some of Otto’s former punk friends, who are happily robbing and brawling their way around LA, with no apparent motivation other than to avoid boredom. Meanwhile, the rather strange Doctor Parnell (Fox Harris) is driving a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu around the city. There’s something hidden in the boot of his car that a lot of people, including Bud, are very eager to get their hands on. Could it be the evidence of an approaching alien invasion?

What seemed so subversive back in the day, now looks kind of clunky and artless. The action sequences are decidedly sloppy and there are sections where the actors are clearly improvising their lines and not making a very good job of it. Sure, there are still some nice touches peppered throughout – I love the world building here: the anonymous packaging in the supermarket with some canned products simply labelled ‘food,’ a clever attack on the rise of consumerism – and I still rather like Tracey Walter’s turn as Miller, the ex-hippie car mechanic who seems to have the answers to all of life’s mysteries at his oil-stained fingertips. Estevez is a beguiling presence too, but sadly not beguiling enough to carry the film.

Watching it again after so many years, I can’t help noticing that for long stretches of time, my attention is wandering (and not just because it’s past midnight). Frankly, this isn’t anything like as good as I remember from my first viewing. It may simply be that I’ve changed over the intervening years, that I’ve become more demanding, but whatever the reason, this really isn’t working for me.

And that’s a shame. We often like to carry a torch for the movies that first sparked our passion for the cinema, but in this case the torch has been well and truly extinguished.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Big Lebowski

24/09/18

The news that The Big Lebowski is celebrating its twentieth anniversary has a strangely sobering effect on me. Can it really be that long since I first saw it?  Twenty years? And then comes the knockout punch: my interest in the films of the Coen Brothers goes back much further than that.

In 1984, as a film reviewer and broadcaster for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, I saw their brilliant debut film, Blood Simple, and was lucky enough to interview them afterwards. They were a revelation, Joel and Ethan, these two nerdy kids with weird Minnesotan accents, who gleefully told me how they’d raised enough money to shoot the first three minutes of the film – and how they’d then shown that footage to a bunch of investors and asked them for the money to shoot the next three minutes – and so on and so forth.

I remember thinking that these two would go a long way, but I couldn’t then have guessed at the prodigious output they would eventually be responsible for – how their names would become the closest thing to a seal of quality that the movie world has to offer. Oh sure, we can all name Coen Brothers films that haven’t quite hit all the targets – The Ladykillers, anyone? Intolerable Cruelty? But the truth is, the Coens at their least effective are better than many directors at the top of their game.

Hell, The Big Lebowski isn’t even their best film, but it’s surely their most loved and the one most likely to be accorded the term ‘cult movie.’  At its heart is Jeff Bridge’s iconic performance as The Dude, a man who has developed slacking into a fine art. He may stand for many things we wouldn’t personally encourage, but we cannot help but adore him as he stumbles haplessly through this tale of mistaken identity, cowboy monologues, naked performance art and tenpin bowling. Mind you, there’s more than just Bridges’ efforts behind this beauty. John Goodman as Walter, a man perpetually boiling over with anger management issues, has surely never been better. And there are other, smaller roles featuring brilliant actors all giving it their absolute best – Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, all nailing what amount to little more than cameo roles and giving their characters life beyond the screen. There’s even a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance by David Thewlis that’s nearly worth the price of admission alone.

The plot? Well, now, that’s so throwaway, it barely merits a mention. It’s essentially an excuse to link together a series of comic set pieces, Busby Berkely-inspired dance routines and some of the most quotable one-liners in film history.

I’m clearly not alone in my admiration for Lebowski. The biggest screen at the Cameo Cinema is pretty much sold out on a Monday evening, proof if it were ever needed of the high esteem in which this film is held. When I originally heard about the re-release, I thought, ‘Nah, I’ve seen it so many times before… what’s the point?’

But who was I kidding? The chance of watching it again on the big screen overruled common sense. What else was there to do but put on my ‘Dude’ T-shirt and get on down there? Because this is a film you can watch time and time again, and still find fresh revelations. Plus, viewing it with an audience just reminds you how good it really is.

The Dude abides. He really does.

5 stars

Philip Caveney