Samuel L Jackson

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

21/05/21

The Saw franchise always seems to me like a missed opportunity. The first movie, way back in 2004, was a decent low-budget thriller, tightly directed with a clever climactic twist. But its success gave creators James Wan and Lee Whannel carte blanche to go bigger and nastier. Which they promptly did. The result was a long stream of torture-porn specials, where people the viewer didn’t really care about were messily dismembered in a series of Heath Robinson torture contraptions. In the ‘final’ episode, Jigsaw (the eighth film in the series), the ingenious serial killer was caught and put to rest.

So the news that comedian Chris Rock (a self-avowed Saw fan) had plans to ‘reinvent’ the series seemed to offer at least the possibility of something fresh. In Spiral, he plays detective Zeke Banks, who becomes the ultimate victim of a ‘Jigsaw copycat’ killer. See what they did there? The main difference is that the new murderer is killing only corrupt police officers, which Banks’ department seems to be overrun with. Indeed, it feels at times, that he is possibly the only good guy on the entire force. We quickly learn that he once turned in a fellow officer for breaking the rules and, as a consequence of this, he is disliked by his colleagues.

It probably doesn’t help matters that I find myself in full agreement with them. As played by Rock, Banks has all the inherent charm of a dead mouse in a loaf of bread. Those, who like me, were hoping for a sprinkling of witty repartee to leven the usual visceral mix will be sorely disappointed. Rock’s dialogue – if I’m allowed to call it that – is composed mostly of F bombs, directed at anybody who disagrees with him – and trust me, that’s a lot of F bombs. Even his new partner, doe-eyed Detective William Shenk (Max Minghella), comes in for scorn, mainly because he’s a married man with a new baby to think about.

Banks’ dad, Marcus (Samuel L Jackson, who looks like he’s wondering how he ever got himself into this debacle), is also a highly regarded police officer, retired now, but still taking every opportunity to stick his nose into the latest cases, because… well, every retired guy needs a hobby, right? The question is, who is the mysterious killer? If it takes you longer than twenty minutes to work it out, then you really haven’t been concentrating…

From the opening scene onwards, it’s clear that writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger aren’t the tiniest bit interested in breaking any new ground – but breaking limbs, now, that’s a different matter. There’s the usual prurient torture scenes with the camera lingering a little too gloatingly on severed tongues and shattered faces. There’s a labyrinthine series of (frankly ludicrous) flashbacks and, finally, we’re offered a ‘reveal’ which is going to surprise precisely nobody. Ominously, the ending is left hanging, presumably in the hope that Spiral will initiate yet another series of diminishing returns, but I for one certainly won’t be back for more. Once bitten and all that.

This is dismal filmmaking that consistently fails to break new ground. Why not leave it here and look for some new ideas? Just a thought.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Banker

12/02/21

Apple TV

On the face of it, a ‘based on a true story’ film about two guys who decide to set themselves up as landlords sounds like it might make for fairly dull viewing.

But, when I tell you that the true story is set in America in the 1950s and 60s – and that the two guys in question are African Americans – you might begin to appreciate that there’s more to it than initially meets the eye.

In this Apple original, finally available after some protracted – and rather unpleasant – legal wrangles, Anthony Mackie stars as Bernard Garrett, a maths prodigy who, since childhood, has hankered after a career in real estate. He’s well aware, however, that the only way a man of his colour is likely to set foot in the swanky properties he longs to own, is if he’s wearing a janitor’s overalls. Undeterred, he sets to with a will and gradually begins to amass a portfolio. When he spots an opportunity to acquire the buildings where one of Los Angeles’ biggest banks is situated, he approaches wealthy club owner Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) to help raise the necessary finance.

Joe himself owns quite a few properties around the city but has learned from experience that, even in liberal LA, nobody is going to allow two black guys to get away with something as audacious as openly owning such fancy real estate. So they hit on a plan: hiring Bernard’s employee and friend, the handsome, hapless and – crucially – white Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to be the visible ‘face’ of the enterprise. After some intensive coaching – which includes memorising complicated figures and (really important this) learning to play golf – the ruse works like a dream and soon Bernard and Joe (and Matt) are doing very nicely, thank you.

But then Bernard pays a visit to his father in his Texas hometown, and notices a nice little neighbourhood bank, all ready for the taking. Why not just buy the place? Then he can offer loans to the many black families in the area that can’t currently enjoy such a luxury. Joe is against the notion from the start, but Bernard manages to persuade him. Once again, they’ll put Matt in there as a figurehead. It worked before, right? But all three men are to discover that what works in Los Angeles just doesn’t fly in Texas…

The shameful truths behind this story are impossible to ignore. Certainly, for that first transaction, Bernard and Joe’s only crime is that their skin is the wrong colour. Think about that for a moment. Even in the supposedly progressive 1960s, two black men could not be seen to own expensive property. That is, although they could legally own it, in truth they couldn’t do so openly, because if it ever came to light, hundreds of horrified customers would close their accounts and run screaming in the direction of another bank. Kind of puts the great American Dream into sobering perspective, doesn’t it?

If I’ve made the film sound po-faced, it’s not. The screenplay, co-written by director George Nolfi, successfully mines what vestiges of humour there are in the situation, particularly in the early stretches when it all seems like a bit of a lark. Jackson’s caustic one-liners are particularly good. Of course, the treatment that Bernard and Joe subsequently receive at the hands of the American judicial system is anything but funny, though hearing that the case eventually helped to change the law does provide some consolation.

So if you’re ever going to watch a movie about two would-be landlords, this is definitely the one to go for.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Death to 2020

27/12/20

Netflix

I had thought that the hideous happenings of 2020 could never make me laugh.

I was wrong.

Charlie Brooker’s cunningly constructed mockumentary takes a long hard look at the events of this momentous year, and gleefully eviscerates them in his familiar no-holds-barred fashion. (You could argue that he’s been a little too hasty in releasing it with a few days still to go, but hey, it can’t get any worse. Can it?)

Death to 2020 takes me from wincing and cringing to laughing-out-loud time and time again. It’s the comedy equivalent of riding a roller coaster. For once, this is far less of a one-man project than we’ve come to expect from Brooker. There are no fewer than twenty writers attached to this project, and it would seem their best efforts have been cherry-picked. This is essentially a month-by-month retelling of everything that went down in the year 2020, but all viewed from a slightly skewed perspective. It works, big time.

Brooker has also enlisted considerable star-power for this special. Samuel L Jackson is Dash Bracket, focusing his ironic comments on the rise and fall of a certain Mr Trump. Hugh Grant (never funnier) is Tennyson Foss, a historian who can’t seem to differentiate between genuine history and random events from Game of Thrones. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Trump spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, unashamedly denying the president’s heinous actions even as they unfold on video, right in front of her eyes. And Tracey Ullman is rather too convincing as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Charlie Brooker event without the presence of Diane Morgan, and she’s here too, as Gemma Nerrick, a woman so odious that lockdown has actually worked in her favour, a viewer so overdosed on daytime TV she’s constantly muddling real events and the soaps she’s addicted to.

Of course, some will argue that we shouldn’t be laughing at the horror-show in which we’re all so inextricably mired, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Chances are, you will to.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: Far From Home

12/07/19

I’ve never been the biggest fan of superhero movies, but out of the pantheon of comic book contenders, Spidey was always my go-to. I read the comics as a teenager, even sent fan letters to Stan Lee at The Bullpen – and I was delighted when, in 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming finally gave the world a Peter Parker that looked the right age.

If Far From Home isn’t quite the slice of perfection that its predecessor was, it’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable – and somehow, I feel happier with a spandex-clad character who is actually aimed at a teenage audience, rather than grown-ups attempting to relive their time in the sun.

It’s eight years since the events of Avengers: End Game, and the  survivors are coming to terms with the event that they now refer to simply as ‘The Blip.’ Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is in dire need of a little R & R and is fully expecting to find some on his upcoming school trip to Europe. He also plans to tell MJ (Zendaya) exactly how he feels about her, preferably in the most romantic location possible. But Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has other ideas. Now that Spider-Man is a member of The Avengers, he argues, it’s time to step up to the plate and fulfil the promise that Tony Stark saw in him.

Peter keeps his head down and goes on holiday with his schoolmates but, on the first leg of the tour – in Venice – the city is attacked by a gigantic beast made of water. This is one of The Elementals, weird creatures that have come from an alternative reality. Luckily, another superhero pops up to handle the situation. He is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), quickly dubbed ‘Mysterio’ by the local press. Beck tells Peter how The Elementals destroyed his family and he and Peter quickly become friends… but as Peter’s school travel from one picture-postcard location to the next, trouble follows them with a vengeance.

For the first third of this movie, I feel that it lacks a credible villain, but then I realise I’ve been sucker-punched and, after that, everything falls satisfyingly into place. Refreshingly, this is, at heart, a teen movie, with all the tropes you’d expect in that genre. There’s funny interplay between Peter and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon); Zendaya’s MJ is a delight, light years away from the usual suppliant females beloved of this genre; and there’s a delightful subplot featuring a budding romance between Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau).  Even the climactic CGI punch-up feels fresher and more innovative than most of the competition, with one sequence bordering on the psychedelic.

In the end, I am thoroughly won over and very entertained.

Of course, we all know by now to stay in our seats for the post-credit scenes. There are two on offer here and both of them contain some pretty startling stuff.

‘Nuff said.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Incredibles 2

17/07/18

With a fourteen year gap between the first film and this sequel, writer/director Brad Bird can hardly be accused of rushing things into production – and the original was so perfect, it almost makes me wish he’d chosen to leave it as a standalone. But whether we want it or not, here’s a follow-up and it’s very every bit as assured as you’d expect from Pixar.

2 takes us straight to the heart of the action as Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Huck (Dashiell Power) take on the villainous Underminer, who is wreaking havoc in the city centre with the aid of a huge drilling rig. The Parrs are somewhat hampered by the fact that, whilst doing their super heroic duties,  they also have to mind the newest member of the family, baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), but at least they have the help of Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), still the coolest super-dude on the block.

It quickly becomes apparent that not much has changed in the city of Metroville. Superheroes are still outlawed and the Parr family have been reduced to living in a shabby motel, whilst tackling villains in their spare time and generally being vilified by the press for having the temerity to do so.

But things start to look up for the Parrs when they are approached by wealthy communications mogul, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who, with the help of his tech-whiz sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), is planning to make superheroes respectable again and, what’s more,  they have the kind of funds needed to back up such an operation. After some consideration, Winston decides to start the ball rolling by focusing his efforts exclusively on Elastigirl.

This means she now has to go out and fight crime on a nightly basis, while her husband stays home to mind the kids. This would be fine, of course, but unfortunately Jack-Jack is now displaying signs that he too has special powers and, while the others members of the family are content with just one apiece, he has been blessed with many different abilities. Furthermore, if he doesn’t get a cookie exactly when he wants one, he’s apt to turn into a raging monster. (Bird is making a point here, I think…) Elastigirl soon finds herself taking on the mysterious Screenslaver, a villain who specialises in hypnotising victims by making them look at a screen… hmm. That sounds depressingly familiar.

Incredibles 2 does exactly what its progenitor did so well. There are action set pieces aplenty (perhaps one too many, which gives proceedings a slightly saggy middle, but that’s a minor niggle), the 60s style artwork is er… incredible and, best of all, there are the characterisations, the animated faces somehow allowing you to share each person’s inner life. I’ve rarely seen it done as convincingly or as effortlessly as it is here. If the Screenslaver’s secret identity is easily guessable from early on, well, we should remember that these films are aimed primarily at children, even if Pixar do excel at creating material that’s also suitable for big kids like me. All in all, this is a resounding success, so what’s not to like?

And… what do we think? Incredibles 3 in 2032?

Sounds like a plan. I hope to see you there.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

I Am Not Your Negro

19/04/17

In the late nineteen seventies, author and playwright James Baldwin began work on a memoir entitled Remember This House. He worked on it fitfully through the 80s and, by the time of his death in 1987, had only amassed some thirty pages. The piece was never published – indeed, the would-be publishers sued Baldwin’s family in order o to get back the advance they’d paid for the work – but, when director Raoul Peck chanced upon the manuscript, he realised that he had the basis for a powerful polemic.

I Am Not Your Negro is the resulting film – an extraordinarily excoriating and affecting documentary that looks at the treatment of black people in America over the centuries, focusing especially on the murders of three of Baldwin’s closest friends – civil activists Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. Baldwin’s original text is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and there are several filmed appearances of the author himself, an eloquent and erudite speaker, making clear the injustice and infamy handed out to people of colour on an everyday basis. These interviews are interspersed with a profusion of found footage: the homogenised depictions of black people in early Hollywood movies and in the advertising industry through the 50s and 60s; shocking newsreel footage of riots, where black demonstrators are being beaten and brutalised by the police; even hideous period photographs of lynch mobs in the deep South of America posing proudly in front of their victims.

This is by no means comfortable viewing. Indeed, I sat through the film’s duration feeling the oppressive weight of my privilege upon my white shoulders. At times I felt close to tears and I couldn’t help thinking that this film ought to  be mandatory viewing for all those white people who complain that the whole race issue is ‘overdone,’ that there are more important issues on which to concentrate. Peck’s film makes a mockery of that claim. It also shows that Baldwin was way ahead of his time, a lone plaintive voice crying out to an indifferent world.

Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to consider his words in all their wisdom. I would urge you to go and see this important documentary. I’ve rarely seen a more affecting piece of cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Kong: Skull Island

11/03/17

I’ve long had a soft spot for King Kong. I saw the original movie – on TV – when I was very young and instantly fell for Willis O Brian’s famous stop-motion creation; and I’m one of those people who adored Peter Jackson’s affectionate and brilliantly crafted reboot of the story. So the news that Kong: Skull Island was on the cinematic horizon, as a taster to his grudge match with Godzilla, some time next year,  was greeted with a certain amount of cautious anticipation.

This standalone creature feature is a bit of an oddity, a curious mash-up of classic Kong and, of all things, Apocalypse Now. Set in 1973, just after America’s hasty departure from the Vietnam War, we learn of a proposed expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman). Randa claims he’s looking for rare minerals but it’s clear from the outset that he has a hidden agenda. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter platoon to ferry the necessary equipment through the perpetual electrical storm that cloaks the island and, he also ropes in survival expert, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston as the poshest mercenary in history) plus photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to record everything that happens on the trip. The helicopters go in, not to the strains of Wagner, but to the 70s rock soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival and they drop a series of explosive charges on the island in order to scare up anything that might be hiding in the undergrowth. Whereupon, the titular 100 ft tall ape appears out of the smoke and gives the platoon a right royal kicking.

Kong, as imagined by Industrial Light & magic, is a truly magnificent specimen; and as the survivors of the initial assault soon discover, he’s only one of the gigantic creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Worst of all are the Skull Crawlers, hideous two legged lizards that occasionally emerge from underground intent on eating anything they can find. (They ate Kong’s parents so naturally, he bears the a lot of ill will).

OK, so this isn’t exactly a perfect film. The large human cast are inevitably dwarfed by the gigantic creatures pursuing them and any attempts at characterisation can only be sketched in with the broadest of brush strokes. (It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s film spent the best part of an hour with the human characters before they even reached Skull Island, but then he had three hours to play with). And really there are a lot of humans to consider here , though best of the bunch is undoubtedly John C Riley as Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who has been marooned on the island for twenty eight years and who has gone slightly loopy waiting for rescue. (Marlow bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, and this cannot be a coincidence – nor the fact that Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness on which Apocalypse Now is based).

At any rate, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a decent job of stitching it all together. There’s enough references to the original to keep fan boys like me happy and enough major characters being offed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also loved the audacious twist on the ‘soldier sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory’ trope towards the film’s conclusion, which seemed to spell out how futile such gestures are.

This won’t please everyone, but I have to say I was entertained enough and occasionally thrilled by a concept which dared to throw so many new ideas at a classic storyline, that some of them had to stick. Skull Island is a fun place to visit and Kong is still my favourite movie monster.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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01/10/16

Based on the popular novel by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a Tim Burton film, that doesn’t feature his usual cohort of friends/family and is largely set in North Wales. Jake (Asa Butterfield) is unusually close to his secretive Grandfather, Abe (a scenery-chewing Terence Stamp) who often regales him with stories about a children’s home he spent time in during the Second World War.

When Abe is (rather horrifically) murdered by an odd looking monster (one that appears to have stepped out of a Guillermo Del Toro film), Jake accompanies his hapless father, Franklin (Chris O Dowd) to the remote Welsh island where the home was located and which is now no more than a burned out ruin. Jake has a vague notion of finding some answers about his Grandpa’s death, but almost before you can say ‘time travel’ Jake has somehow found his way back to the 1940s, where the home functions in a weird time-loop, presided over by the titular Miss Peregrine (a remarkable turn from Eva Green) who amongst her many talents has the ability to transform herself into a bird of prey. The children at the home all have odd powers of their own which range from invisibility to internal bee-keeping and the possession of a second mouth at the back of the neck. (Always handy). But the home is under threat from the evil creatures that control the monsters. They are led by Barron (Samuel L Jackson) a vile looking shape-shifter with a predilection for eating human eyeballs…

Like most Burton movies, this is often very nice to look at (he started off as an illustrator and that always shows) but there’s something curiously unengaging about the film, which is packed full of over-complicated incident, yet rarely manages to exert any kind of grip on the attention. It seems to go on for an inordinately long time, before it finally reaches a climax in an exotic location (Blackpool) where screenwriter Jane Goldman has to find something useful for every one of those peculiar kids to do. Despite all the monsters rampaging across the screen, there’s no real sense of threat here and it isn’t very enlightened to have the one black actor in the film cast as a child-murdering villain.

There are admittedly a few nice moments dotted about (a spirited tribute to the ‘fighting skeletons’ sequence from Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts being one of them) but ultimately this isn’t Burton’s finest moment. For a film that’s so packed with fantasy elements, MPHFPC is long on exposition and woefully short of magic.

2.9 stars

Philip Caveney