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Film Review Roundup – 21 August 2016

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Welcome to the first Film Review Roundup!

I used to upload these reviews every day, but that was getting a bit much for both you and me. I’m trying something different going forward, it might make life easier for all of us.

Rather than bombard you with daily posts, I’m now compiling them in, at most, weekly drops. This means I can still write my film reviews as and when I have chance and not worry about maintaining a regular schedule.

The posts will still be available individually, the only difference now is that you won’t get daily updates as I post each one. Much better all round, I’m sure you’ll agree.

In future I’ll do a few themed drops, but this will depend on what I’ve watched recently and/or written up. For now here’s the first batch of links to a few random reviews. Click the title to visit that review.

Fail-Safe (1964)

The threat of nuclear armageddon is explored when an American bomber suffers a technical malfunction and prepares to drop its bombs on Moscow. Released around the same time as Dr Strangelove, this is a chilling take on the subject.

Closer (2004)

Four people cross paths in London and their increasingly complex love lives are explored. This started life as a stage play from one time The Day Today collaborator Patrick Marber. The stage play structure is all too obvious, but otherwise there’s some good performances to enjoy.

Love Streams (1984)

John Cassavetes stars and directs as he focuses on the messed up lives of a brother and sister. It’s an interesting piece, and not necessarily one I would go out of my way to watch again.

Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper and Stephen Spielberg’s supernatural classic. Who actually directed it, though? And, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Well, if you’re Tobe Hooper then perhaps, yes.

Hellboy (2004)

A demon is summoned in WW2 but is raised by the good guys. He has to fight undead Nazis and Rasputin. You know, standard.

Love Streams (1984) review

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I’ve said before how I don’t fully appreciate John Cassavetes’ work, and Love Streams is no different. There’s something about the features he directed that don’t quite gel with my appreciation of cinema. It’s entirely likely that I misunderstand the purpose of his films, what he’s trying to say in each of them. On the other hand it could be as simple as saying that we don’t get along.

In the case of Love Streams, it feels like a meandering, confused mess. There’s a plot in there somewhere, something about a drunken, cigarette smoking playboy type Robert (Cassavetes) and his genial but equally broken sister Sarah (Rowlands). They haven’t seen each other for years, so their reunion is a bittersweet moment. More so when he immediately gets out of the house and disappears for a short while. To be emotionally close to somebody else is inviting more pain into your life. Better to be distant, to drink, smoke and sleep with a random assortment of women.

The only thing that really stood out for me was the characterisation. There is a real depth to Robert and Sarah at the very least, their sorrow and malaise mixing to form what would otherwise be a nonsensical and completely obtuse production. Sarah’s the opposite of Robert in some respects. She’s coming out of a messy divorce, marriage being a subject that he would never entertain.

But then even this fails in some instances. Robert’s introduction to his son is handled well, but the boy’s reaction to his long absent father is a mess of contradiction. At first he hates him then, after an impromptu trip to Vegas (thus proving Robert is incapable of looking after anybody except himself), and Robert gets a punch in the face from the stepfather, the boy suddenly loves him. I think it was the punch that sealed the deal, but it doesn’t ring true.

In other areas it does work, if only for being completely loopy and off the wall. Sarah returns from one trip with a cavalcade of animals in tow, as if owning them all will somehow fix whatever emotional pain she is experiencing. The answer of course is that it won’t. For most people one pet, perhaps two would be enough to set you on the right path. When you’re basically bringing the whole zoo home with you, something is clearly amiss.

As it happens I’ve watched four Cassavetes films including this one, and it is perhaps my least favourite of the bunch. If it hadn’t been coloured by Cassavetes discovering that he had six months to live then it’s arguable that it wouldn’t have as much character as it does.

Judging by the high praise that Love Streams received in other quarters I am perhaps in the minority in not hailing this as a classic. It has its positive aspects for sure, but ultimately I was left cold, stood on the doorstep peering in and wondering why all of the people inside looked so depressed.

Poltergeist (1982) review

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I’ll admit, I did go about this the wrong way round, watching the remake when it came out in 2015 before I’d seen Tobe Hooper’s original. The story and imagery are both things that most are now familiar with. A family are haunted by a poltergeist; the static noise on the television; the house being built on an old gravesite. These have since become significant horror tropes that have been played to death in other pictures.

The fact it’s a PG rated horror film from Tobe Hooper, with Steven Spielberg attached as executive producer, almost goes by you without being noticed. It’s still a scary film, no matter what rating it received.

In context the Tobe Hooper original makes much more sense than the remake, what with it being from the age of VHS, television static and burgeoning commercialisation. It also plays out much better – in the 1980s the structure of the family unit hadn’t changed all that much, not when compared to its structure here and now in 2016.

The special effects, too, are impressive for the era. The touchy feely tree, as I shall now dub it, is particularly impressive, as is the similarly touchy feely clown doll. These are important set pieces, if nothing else than for setting up the horrors to come.

Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams are a strong and resilient presence as parents Steve and Diane Freeling, determined to protect their three children from whatever it is that is haunting them. Intrigue at the poltergeist’s ability to stack furniture and move objects from one side of the kitchen to the other is soon replaced by terror as youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is abducted and taken to the other side.

Communicating with Carol Anne through the television, a group of paranormal investigators are brought in to try and recover her and return her to her family. It’s another thing that has since become a genre trope, but here it feels fresh.

Zelda Rubinstein is a wonderful presence in the story, a tiny, squeaky voiced presence as the paranormal expert intending to get Carol Anne back to this world. As great as Jared Harris is (in general and in the remake), Rubinstein is just better for this character. Time hasn’t been kind in that she’s been parodied left, right and centre, but that if nothing else shows how important a role and a film this was.

It’s not necessary for us to travel through to the other side and see what lurks there – the power of the imagination makes it all the more horrifying a notion. It’s a classic Spielberg approach to the unknown.

And on that note it raises an interesting point. Historically there’s a discussion around who truly directed Poltergeist. Did Spielberg ghost direct the film (no pun intended), or was it a full-on Tobe Hooper venture? It’s an argument that’s inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account the tragically early deaths of both of the actors playing the daughters.

Still, with that unfortunate situation to one side, Poltergeist is a classic of the genre.

Hellboy (2004) review

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Hellboy began life in the pages of a Dark Horse comic written and drawn by Mike Mignola, a demon baby brought to Earth but rescued by the forces of good and tasked with protecting the world from evil. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, 2004 saw the release of a live action film featuring the character. And an enjoyable film it was, too.

We meet Hellboy on his first arrival on Earth during World War 2, an unexpected addition to our world after the plan of Rasputin (you know, the mad monk) to bring forth a demon from another realm and instigate Hell on Earth goes wrong. Standard villainy, right there. His initial efforts are thwarted and the story picks up decades later in the present. Hellboy is now working for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) alongside the fishy Abe Sapien and the fiery Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).

Ron Perlman, a regular collaborator with del Toro, is perfectly cast as Hellboy. He is sardonic and generally insecure, yet more than capable of being an action hero. Unless another Ron Perlman emerges, he is almost exclusively the only person capable of playing character in my book. Rather cannily, the fact he is a big, red demon is almost of no importance. Hellboy that is, not Ron Perlman.

Del Toro is a notable director for both his extensive attention to detail and bringing to life the wild reaches of his imagination, and Hellboy is yet another example of how creative his mind can be. Much of the film is presented in a washed out, grim and grimy vision of the world, stemming from those initial scenes of Hellboy’s discovery during World War 2.

The supporting cast are no less excellent. His voice may be dubbed over by Frasier’s David Pierce Kelley, but it’s the live action performance from Doug Jones that brings resident water dweller Abe Sapien to life. Thankfully he was allowed to voice his own dialogue in the second film. Selma Blair is Liz Sherman, a woman who has telekinetic powers that have a tendency to get a bit… fiery. Our way into this world is through Rubert Evans’ turn as John Myers, an FBI agent who joins the agency and has a thing for Liz. That gets awkward because so does Hellboy. That’s not going to end well.

More often than not this sort of film is let down by a lacklustre villain. Not so here. In fact you get three for your money. The mad monk Rasputin, Ilsa von Haupstein and Karl Kroenen. I’ll throw in Sammael as well for giggles, the hell demon who has the ability to re-spawn and multiply after every death.

It is, thankfully, an example of a comic book adaptation that has everything working for it. In terms of cast, script, director and visual flair. It’s dark when it needs to be, but always remembers to balance this out with a cracking fantasy adventure story and real depth to the characters.

Fail-Safe (1964)

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The threat of nuclear armageddon was a very real thing throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, what with the United States and the USSR stockpiling enough nuclear missiles to guarantee mutually assured destruction at the slightest provocation.

And so the plot of Fail-Safe was a genuine possibility back in the 1960s, if not quite for the same reasons depicted here. There’s even a message at the end of the film from the US government stating that such a technical glitch would never have occurred. In any case, it was a scary prospect indeed.

Adapted from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, this Sidney Lumet directed cold war thriller sees an electrical error give a US bomber plane the appropriate codes to begin a bombing run on Moscow.

I could wax lyrical about the cast here. Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda, Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman… All great in their own way.

The droll Walter Matthau as Groet… Groetes… that political scientist guy is superb. He’s a realist, not driven by emotion. It’s arguable that his cold world view is just as dangerous to the situation than the more emotive views held by those in power. In fact it seems to be the military’s position that to engage in any aggressive manner is tantamount to destroying the world.

Dom DeLuise I only mention because he would later go on to bigger things (mostly comedic) but here he’s in a bit part role. Likewise, Larry Hagman would go on to wide fame but here puts in a solid performance as a translator for the President, played by Henry Fonda.

It’s clear why Mubi paired this up with Dr Strangelove. Both films cover miscommunication that could result in nuclear war. Both films are classics from the period, but they differ in that Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies whereas Fail-Safe plays it completely seriously.

While it mostly consists of lots of men standing around looking at display screens with concern on their faces (no women – this was 1964 after all), there’s increasing tension as the unwittingly rogue craft gets closer to Russian borders. Some of the better moments come from a telephone call, of all things – one in which we only see the President’s side of the discussion. At no point do we jump over to Moscow to see their side of things. We hear snatches of conversation, interpreted by Hagman’s character, as negotiations become more tense.

It asks a lot of very pertinent questions about the strength of the Communist belief system, the moral implications of unwittingly attacking the Russians first, whether retaliation is likely to take place or if surrender will occur. It also provides a genuinely surprising ending, one that has an incredible amount of power to it. What lengths would our leaders go to in order to avert a full scale nuclear war? There is always an element of compromise, as horrifying as that might seem. It is this message that gives Fail-Safe its power.

Closer (2004) review

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After an accident in the streets of London throws Natalie Portman and Jude Law together, they begin a relationship. The end.

Only joking.

Relationships are complicated, occasionally messy, and sometimes as foulmouthed as this.

Patrick Marber adapted this from his own stage play, and you can tell. It has the structure of a stage play which means the passage of time isn’t always clear and it doesn’t flow in the same way a story designed for film would. For what it’s worth I have nothing against stage productions, it’s just that what works on the stage isn’t necessarily something that works in film.

Now, that’s not to say that Closer doesn’t work as a film, because it does – just about. It has that stage play setup to it which I’ve never been massively keen on. Better to make a complete break away from the format of the play and make it work in a cinematic context.

While the setup and interactions between the characters feels a little contrived as a result of this, it’s carried by deep themes and some excellent performances. We’re linked to four people, played by Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, and we watch as the character’s lives interact and run across one another.

Each of them in their own way is broken or damaged. Clive Owen’s Larry seems the most clear cut of the four, all of his decisions being made because he’s a caveman, defined by his primeval urges. This is in spite of his prominent position as a dermatologist. But at least he’s honest. Then there is Jude Law’s Dan, a manipulative man who has the outward appearance of a caring man but behind closed doors he is planning on sleeping with as many women as possible. He’s emotionally shallow, further defined by his work as an obituary writer with no career prospects (oh, the irony). He pales in comparison to caveman Larry, but in many respects they represent two sides of the same coin. Batman’s Harvey Dent literally split into two people.

On the lady’s side of the table we start with Natalie Portman’s Alice, a needy, clingy sort of woman – or at least, that is how she portrays herself. There’s likely much more to her than meets the eye. And no, she isn’t a Transformer.

Finally there is Julia Roberts as photographer Anna. She’s less outwardly emotional than any of the others, and I would argue less well developed than the other three characters. Or it could be that her lack of emotional output makes her stand out less amongst the quartet.

Truth and honesty are the themes at play, or the lack thereof. The key to any successful relationship is trust, which none of these four really show. The only exception is Larry – he’s flawed but at least he admits to them openly. Where Closer falls flat is in its narrative. It’s occasionally too complex for its own good and the relationship switches didn’t work for me. But then, I’ve never been in that situation. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t have gone about it the way these four do – you have to know when getting out is a good idea.

Taking a break from creative pursuits… and coming back

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For about a month earlier this year I went on a break from creative pursuits.

There wasn’t a specific reason behind it at the time. Perhaps I was feeling burned out? I had posted one blog a day, every day, from January until the beginning of June. That kind of pace is going to have an impact on you eventually.

It happened just before I went away for a week. Despite best intentions there is often little time for me to write when I go away. That’s not actually a bad thing, you have to take a break and experience the world now and again. On this trip, I did take my iPad and keyboard with me, because you never know.

As it happens, neither had much use over the course of that week.

And that’s just fine. It’s key to realise that you don’t need to be switched on all the time. More so when your writing isn’t (currently) how you earn a living. You are allowed to take a break now and again, even of it’s just long enough to recharge your batteries before jumping back in.

My problem before now had been trying to spread my creativity too thinly. I’m my own worst enemy, focusing on too many projects in one go, and not progressing on any of them. You can very easily worm your way into this spot and not realise it.

In my case, the break helped me focus. It helped me decide what I wanted to achieve, to set clear goals and to set about making them a reality. I want to write full length novels, throwing in the odd short story now and again for good measure.

So that’s what I’ll do.

And now and again I’ll be able to write a blog post about my progress for good measure.

Just don’t expect a post every day. That might very well kill me. And you.

The Gatekeepers (2012) review

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The Shin Bet are Israel’s secret service agency, tasked with maintaining national security in the face of terrorist attacks and civil unrest due to the ongoing situation with Palestine.

This documentary interviews six former heads of the organisation, the only publicly known members of the group. It’s impressive in itself that the director Dror Moreh has managed to get them in front of the camera at all, let alone speak quite candidly about their role.

Each of them discuss their time in power, the political situation at the time (often tense) and what particular threats they had to contend with. The recurring theme is one of terrorist attacks, trying to understand the enemy and why they fight in the manner they have chosen. Do you take out the enemy with a blunt trauma approach, or do you approach the task with finesse? There are varying thoughts on this one point alone, never mind the moral implications of their actions.

Not that everybody agrees that there is a question of morality in such an act. Or, indeed, many of the other responsibilities that the head of Shin Bet had to oversee.

The Gatekeepers isn’t interested in saying who is right or wrong in this disagreement between Israel and Palestine, although the personal opinions of the Shin Bet leadership do of course get aired. Instead it takes the angle of analysing the impact each of these actions has, the subsequent ripples through time.

If there’s one theme I took away from this documentary, it’s that seemingly no matter how much may change, things invariably stay the same. It’s almost a depressing thought, especially bearing in mind that both sides consider themselves to be in the right. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

An insider context is given to important events in Israeli history, and from their perspective offers a human face to the decisions and plans made by secret service individuals. It’s telling that one of their number, after retiring, relies on his wife to “keep him alive”. It’s a stark contrast to what we normally expect from secret service personnel, the traditionally stern and cold hearted type. These men are anything but, and it’s almost certain that those who have worked for Shin Bet, past or present, will be in the same boat.

The documentary uses a mixture of video sources throughout. The standard talking heads aspect is there, mixed with archive news footage and the odd bit of CGI to mix things up a little. It’s a standard approach to documentary storytelling, but what’s important is that it works. You don’t need to have bells and whistles in your presentation to tell a good tale.

And that is precisely what this is. A good, real world tale. One that as yet does not have an ending. It portrays a dark past, a darker future unless something happens to change. It’s a bleak opinion for sure, but then after forty years plus of conflict how else would you view the world?

Gloria (1980) review

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Julie Carmen’s shouting in the first 10 minutes is annoying and set an alarming precedent for the rest of the film. I understand that it’s supposed to convey fear and all that, but it’s genuinely irritating. Angry acting is laughable when it’s like this.

The boy, Juan Adames, is annoying too, like a miniature John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever, all big collars, big hair and big attitude. That he won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor and a Stinker award for Worst Performance By A Child in a Leading Role does not surprise me in the slightest. Nor does it surprise me that this is his only film credit. His high pitched squeal doesn’t get any easier on the ears.

Anyway, to the plot. Gloria is left looking after the boy when the mob circle in on his mother and father. In a plot that has all the usual gangster cliches, they go on the lam as she tries to protect him from those who want him dead. Personally I’d have let them have him, if only to save our poor, poor ears from his voice. And our eyes from his performance. He is truly terrible.

Thankfully Gena Rowlands is exceptional as Gloria, the put upon gun moll. She conveys strength yet fragility, a woman forced to do what she can to survive against the odds. It’s a nice twist on the usual gangster narrative. Rather than a man protecting a woman from the mob, by switching characters and genders around it takes on a whole new vibe.

There’s a definite mother/son vibe to Gloria and Phil’s relationship. Although, with that in mind, he does talk to her as if they are a couple. Run, Gloria! The kid’s a psycho! Except the only running she does is directly to him.

As it turns out, both of them have quite a bit of gumption about them. It’s this that sells the film, despite Juan Adames’ awful performance (no, I won’t stop going on about it), as without Gloria at least it’s just a typically breathless gangster film that jumps from scene to scene without taking much time to breathe. There’s nothing original about it either, the same story had already been played out back in 1980, and has been played out more in the years since.

But what we have works. It does its job without going over and above what the characters would be expected to do. Even if you know almost precisely where it’s headed, it doesn’t matter. It’s the journey and all that.

On the other hand I can’t say I’m a massive fan of Cassavetes’ work on the whole. His later works come across as indulgent and designed solely as an ego stroking exercise. It was like that for Husbands which, despite my generous score, still isn’t that great a film. Technically speaking Gloria is a far more coherent, tighter story but thanks to that annoying kid it’s not high on my “must watch it again” list.

Day of the Dead (2008) review

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One of my all time favourite zombie films is George Romero’s original Day of the Dead. Amongst its many positives it has believable characters, real human drama, great gore effects and an interesting twist on the idea of zombies in the form of Bub, the zombie that can remember aspects of his old life.

Which means this 2008 remake/reimagining needed to do a lot to impress me.

It didn’t.

Ving Rhames is Captain Rhodes, taking on the role after he’d enjoyed making the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004. At the time of this being announced, and having only that Dawn remake to refer to, I was cautiously optimistic about the results. I mean, that film was pretty good and arguably as good as Romero’s original in many respects.

Instead Rhodes is barely in it, a quick appearance, a couple of scenes and then he’s out the door. The focus instead is on Mena Suvari’s Corporal Sarah Bowman (or Cross, it looks like a production mistake), a local girl who ran off to join the military. And, to a lesser extent, it’s about her brother Trevor (Michael Welch). It’s as far from the original as it’s possible to go, although they do spend a bit of time in an underground bunker. So er… that’s nice.

Instead the plot is adapted to suit the zombie market circa mid noughties. That is, there are teenagers involved, running zombies that can also leap great heights, and a great big fat radio DJ. He manages to escape the zombie carnage despite his physical condition suggesting the opposite should be the case. Or so it seems at least.

It’s not entirely bad – just mostly. Mena Suvari is pretty good in the central role. It’s a different sort of role for somebody who is better known for teen comedies like American Pie and Oscar bait like American Beauty. Aside from Suvari, the only other genuine positive point is the way that people turn and become zombies. It isn’t original but it’s presented well. It could have done with a bigger build in the opening with more people slowly turning, but what we have is fine as it is.

And Bub… poor Bub. Rechristened as Bud, he’s a young soldier who gets bitten and turns. But it’s okay everyone, because Bud is a vegetarian and so the thought of eating human flesh doesn’t cross his mind. That they even managed to mess up this a clear indication that the 2008 edition of Day of the Dead is a mess.

It just feels like a colossal waste of time. They would have been better off calling it something else. At least then it could be considered a turkey without having any impact on Romero’s far better film. Gone are all the socio-political allegories, or the notion of a group of people slowly going mad in an underground bunker complex.

It’s vacuous remake gubbins and little else. It would have been far better if they’d positioned this as a direct remake to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and tweaked the script accordingly. At least then it might have stood half a chance.