Jonathan Banks

Gremlins

06/12/19

If ever I were given the task of choosing the grimmest Christmas-themed movie in existence, Gremlins would have to be a strong contender for the title. This weird yet strangely entertaining fantasy, with its back story of a dead dad stuck up a chimney and dressed as Santa Claus, is (unbelievably) thirty-five years old – and here’s the anniversary re-release to prove it. Produced by Steven Speilberg shortly after the success of ET had powered him to prominence, it’s directed by his protégée Joe Dante.

Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Ashton) is an inventor of (mostly useless) kitchen gadgets. It’s coming on Christmas and he finds himself in an unfamiliar town, desperate to purchase a last minute gift for his ‘kid,’ Billy (Zachary Gilligan). The fact that Billy is in his twenties, with a dull but responsible job in a bank, feels decidedly odd. Why not make him a teenage boy? Surely that would be more convincing?

Anyway, in a bizarre little shop on a quiet back street, Randall buys Gizmo – a cute little animal called a ‘Mogwai’ – and he comes away with just three care instructions. He must never expose Gizmo to bright light, never get him wet and, most importantly of all, he must never NEVER feed him after midnight. (This third instruction is annoyingly vague. At what time after midnight is it OK to start feeding him again? Go figure.)

Of course, Billy blithely disregards all the instructions, whereupon the little ‘Wonderful Life’-style town he lives in finds itself overrun with voracious, scaly beasties who seem determined to over-indulge in all the vices associated with the festive season, half destroying the town in the process.

I haven’t seen this film since its cinematic release in 1984 and my memories of it were that it was ‘quite scary,’ but, in 2019, it plays more like the the Muppets on acid. It’s great fun provided you can overlook the sheer unlikelihood of the plot and the inescapable fact that the majority of characters here act like no real person ever would in such a situation. Also, there’s fun to be had spotting things you might not have been quite so aware of first time around. Isn’t that Steven Spielberg making a silent cameo as an inventor at a convention? Look how young Corey Feldman is! (I’d like to kid myself this is his screen debut but according to IMDB, it’s actually his 28th.) And wait… that hopelessly inept local cop with the oddly shaped nose. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks, AKA Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad? With hair! It is, you know! (And just for the record, this is his 48th screen appearance.)

Like many films from the 80s, there are elements that don’t pass muster now. Making the proprietor of the shop where Gizmo is found, an ‘exotic,’ half-blind, pipe-smoking, Chinese man, for instance, is not something that any responsible filmmakers would attempt in this day and age. But there’s also plenty to enjoy, not least the extended sequence where Billy’s Mom, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), takes on five Gremlins that have invaded her house and uses a range of electrical kitchen implements to despatch them. I love the fact that the evil invaders personify everything that’s wrong with seasonal over-indulgence. And Chris Walas’s scaly creations – while representing what was state-of-the art animatronics thirty five years ago, and now looking a littly bit shonky – are still never less than a delight.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Mudbound

25/11/17

It’s getting to that time of year when rumblings are made about potential Oscar material and it must be said that some of those rumblings have already been directed towards Mudbound. This slow burning historical drama, co-written and directed by Dee Rees and based upon a novel by Hillary Jordan, certainly features the kind of material that often attracts those all-important votes. The fact that it’s a Netflix Original will doubtless cloud the waters somewhat, but the film has received a limited theatrical release (presumably to ensure that it can be considered eligible for such awards), despite the fact that it’s ready to stream right now for anyone willing to stump up their monthly subscription.

The Second World War is in full swing and, with so many able-bodied men away from home, Laura (Carey Mulligan), already in her mid-thirties, finds herself in danger of being left an ‘old maid’. So she’s pleased when she meets up with Henry McCallan (Jason Clarke), a small town businessman with big ambitions, who throws an agreeable look in her direction and hits paydirt. He promptly introduces Laura to his younger, more handsome brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and it’s evident from the outset that the two of them are instantly attracted to each other, but Laura and Henry marry nonetheless and shortly afterwards start a family. One day, Henry casually announces that he’s purchased a farm in Mississippi (as you do) and that the McCallums will soon be relocating there. Oh yes, one other thing. They will also be taking along Harry’s widower father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame). Pappy proves to have all the inherent charm of a grizzly bear with a bad case of hemorrhoids, but Laura decides that she’ll just have to try and make the best of things. Suffering is something she clearly has an aptitude for.

Once in Mississippi, the McCallums discover that Henry has been duped. The palatial home they expected to occupy actually belongs to somebody else and they must make the best of a dilapidated shotgun shack on the farm. They will also be the employers of a black family that works the land – Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their many children. From this point, a life of utter misery ensues for pretty much everyone in the story and matters become more complicated when Jamie decides to join the air force and the Jackson’s oldest boy, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in a tank battalion. Both men endure terrible experiences in the war, but ironically, for Ronsel at least, he is finally free of the Jim Crow laws that still hold sway in rural Mississippi. For the first time in his life, he is treated as an equal.

When the war finishes and the two men return to their respective families, it’s hard for Ronsel to accept that he must once again resume his former position in life – he can no longer even use the front door of his local general store. Traumatised by their shared experiences, Ronsel and Jamie strike up an unlikely friendship – but of course, in this bigoted world, white men and black men are not permitted to be friends – and when word of Ronsel’s adventures in Europe are accidentally made public, there is a terrible price to pay…

If Mudbound occasionally feels a little ponderous, there’s no denying the power of the narrative and the importance of the film’s inherent message. Its penultimate act is as gripping as it is devastating. There are also some nice performances here (Blige seems to be getting most of the Oscar-buzz but Banks’ portrait of a racist, misogynistic scumbag is also chillingly memorable). With its glacially slow pace and unusual attention to areas that don’t usually receive the opportunity of screen time, perhaps the film is actually more suited to being viewed on the small screen, where it’s something you can take a short break from and come back to.

Oscars? Well, if I’m honest, there are already several films I would deem more deserving of next year’s awards, but this isn’t at all bad and it certainly goes a long way to dispel the notion that Netflix are only interested in financing mindless entertainment. Mudbound is a long way from that. Interested parties can check it out at the click of a button – or the eagle-eyed might even spot one of those rare cinematic showings.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney