Monday, 26 August 2019

Tales of Frankenstein

One of the good things about running this blog is sometimes, just sometimes, someone you know knows someone really cool and helps to make the introductions.

Take Donald F Glut, for example. The man who wrote, not that he'll thank me for mentioning this, the novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back – a book I loved reading when less old than I am now.

Turns out, he also wrote episodes for Spider-Man, Transformers and Captain Caveman And The Teen Angels (plus loads of others, but I'm seriously and joyously cherrypicking).

Anyhoo, turns out I know someone who knows him.

Also turns out he's produced a new film – Tales of Frankenstein. Four short stories about that Victor fellow (kinda, in one way or another).

Which is why I got to spend a rather lovely Bank Holiday Monday morning watching a screener of said film.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe doesn't totally suck...

And, thankfully, nor does the film.

It could have been easy to lose the thread as Donald weaves his four tales, helped by a simply wonderful ensemble cast, but this guy knows his bolts (he's been very busy in the horror genre over the past few years).

Essentially what we have here is a love letter to Hammer House Of Horror.

Not just with the subject matter, but in the periods and locations chosen (Bavaria, Transylvania) and the other genres that get roped in for good measure (Sam Spade-esque film noir was a nice touch).

Each tale has its own style and tone, while still being shot through the Hammer lens — lending a warm familiarity to each story.

And the way the whole thing subtlety wraps back round itself just leaves you grinning and nodding.

In between all that, heads are surgically hacked open, hands come to life, the male fantasy of wanting a younger model is put through the wringer and Dracula... no no, that would be a spoiler.

There is an attention to detail here that is quite wonderful to see, and it's one of the things that helps bring the whole film to life, as it were.

Of course, as mentioned above, the cast more than play their part.

John Blyth Barrymore as Vincent, Buddy Daniels Friedman as Dr. Gregore, the sublimely sinister Jim Tavaré as Dr. Karnstein, Tatiana DeKhtyar as Lenore Frankenstein, Len Wein as Helmut and Jamisin Matthews as the hard-chewing Jack Anvil all buy in to what Glut is after and deliver.

Boy do they deliver.

And they're clearly having as much fun being in this as the audience will have watching it.

In an age of reboots, prequels and sequels, it's nothing short of amazing to find indie film makers still trying to put something new out there.

And yes, we know that Frankenstein isn't a 'new' story, but this is a fresh look at an old classic.

Fingers crossed it finds the audience it deserves.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Fast And Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

And so, after the overblown wotsits of Mr Tarantino, it was time for something a bit more cerebral, sedate, down to earth...

....or we could let Mrs Popcorn choose...

You know how this ended, don't you...?

Now, through no fault of our own, we have never actually sat down and watched a Fast And Furious film.

We've meant to, sure, always been keen – but then something happened (holiday, bins need putting out, the cinema is too far away, it's a Thursday) and the chance went begging.

So diving in at volume nine (NINE? REALLY????) seemed like a bit of a stretch. What if we weren't up to speed on the overall narrative arc? What if there were lot of in-jokes? What about all the symbolism and subtext built up over the previous eight (EIGHT????) films?

Oh well, dive in eh? What's the worst that can happen?

Turns out, we hadn't bargained for actually enjoying ourselves.

Who knew?

For those who actually care about plot, this is a simple one – world-killing virus is now in body of one person, so she is wanted by the bad guys, so Hobbs & Shaw have to stop bickering and save her. And the world, obvs.

The woman in question, Hattie, is played by Vanessa Kirby – who proceeds to act the two blocks of testosterone off the screen. Three if you count Idris Elba.

Kirby is sharp, funny, a thoroughly engaging screen presence and can hold her own in a fight. Frankly she should have had this film to herself.

Especially as the two "stars" (Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you may have heard of them) are so busy ensuring they get exactly the same amount of dialogue and screen time they forget to actually get on with the action.

OK, that's a tad harsh, but the dialogue thing becomes really annoying about half way through the film.

Although, that's nothing on Elba. He's either a wooden muscle oaf or acting like his Oscar depends on it. It all depends on if he's acting opposite proper thespian Eddie Marsan.

Seriously, it's like he's in two different films.

We'd love to pick more holes in this crash n smash blockbuster, but in truth... we can't.

No, this isn't highbrow entertainment. Yes, John Wick is a better action film. Yes, Bond and Bourne are better spy films (although Statham does his best early on) – but damn it this film is fun.

The car chases, of which there are as many as you would expect, are stupendous and ludicrous in equal measure. The fights are solid, the dialogue fills in the gaps in the plot just as you'd expect.

And from about 10 minutes in, you'll find yourself just grinning like an idiot.

It may be at an actual joke (and there are quite a few), it might be at just how dumb some bits are – but the fact is, you're smiling and enjoying yourself.

And on at least two occasions we found ourselves tensing up and almost holding our breath as epic stunts unfolded.

All of which was not expected as we took our seats.

Yes, there are more plot-laden films out there. There are arguably better action films. But when The Rock and The Other Rock saddle up and give it their all, you just have to strap in and enjoy the ride.

You can't over think these films, they're just fun – and in this case, have the added bonus of some surprise cameos and a stunning performance from Kirby.

Oscar season looms large on the horizon, so take the summer off and just have some petrol-fuelled fun.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood (18)

There can be any number of reasons why a film review gets delayed around here — sometimes life gets in the way, sometimes it's the film.

On this occasion, it is definitely the film.

A week on, and we still have no idea what to make of Tarantino's latest outburst.

It's not that it's terrible — far from it, he's made worse — or that it's weird.

It's just... well...

Well, for a start it's long. Like arse-numbingly, eye-meltingly long. You'd be seen quicker in A&E on a wet Tuesday.

But let's not start off on a negative footing - Tarantino is one of those directors who commands respect thanks to his body of work.

Which is just as well, looking back at Once Upon A Time...

For the uninitiated, this is the story of fading 50s TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt man/buddy/gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

So it's a a buddy western. Very in keeping with his recent output.

Only it's also about Charles Manson, The Family and Sharon Tate (played brilliantly by Margot Robbie).

So it's actually a thriller.

Only it's about the Hollywood machine, film making, life through a lens, life behind the lens, life in miniature, life in a mirror.

So it's Tarantino indulging himself and pontificating on his first love.


It's all of these things. With some added scenes thrown in just so we can all see how he imagines it would have been if he had got to direct some of his heroes.

Genuinely, at one point it struck us that if Steve McQueen hadn't died back in 1980 this film would not need to exist because Tarantino would have cast him in something and got it out of his system.

As you can probably tell already, this is an epic film. Tarantino has basically taken everything he loves and thrown it at the screen. With some added bits for... well... reasons...

But we'll come back to that. (Don't you hate it when they do that in books?)

While the story is epic, so is the whole feel of the film. This is another monster Western from the maker of The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained — and this is actually a huge positive.

This film looks stunning. It's beautiful. We'd almost go as far as to call it a visual masterpiece.

It's just so huge. And not just from some of the panoramic shots. Even the close-up scenes feel larger than life. On this front, Tarantino has nailed it.

And the performances of the central three are great. Robbie is stunning, weaving silk purses from the various sow's ears she gets handed, while Pitt and Leo are clearly having a blast just hanging out together.

It's just a shame there is no functioning narrative.

Even the most shonky of films (let's take 47 Meters Down as an example here) tends to know what the destination is, where the story is heading — and that feeling is captured and transmitted despite the appalling acting, horrendous special effects and plot holes you could swim a shark through.

But Once Upon A Time? Not so much...

Now, the fact it doesn't take you where you think it is going is fine. That's a delight in a movie.

It's just not quite as delightful when you can't shake the feeling that the director doesn't have a clue either.

As we've already said, Robbie is superb here — but a week down the line we still have no idea why that story line was included.

It is genuinely baffling.

That's not to say there aren't clues. And here, we have to deal with a couple of the trickier areas of the movie.

Obviously, if you have Sharon Tate in your film set in 1969 then you 'have' to have Roman Polanski.

And this is where things get awkward.

The suggestion that Tate liked her men young leaps off the screen like a pre-emptive defence, while the mixed #MeToo messages after Cliff picks up a hitchhiker are enough to make your head spin (yes, good men ask for ID - but it's also, at the same time, not their fault because the woman are such teases...)

In other news, Harvey Weinstein used to produce Tarantino's films. Just, you know, FYI.

And all this is before we get to the final scenes, which is where the film earns its 18 certificate (here in the UK) and the audience loses a little more respect for Tarantino and the treatment of women in movies.

Once Upon A Time should have been the epic pinnacle of Tarantino's Western Trilogy.

Instead, it feels like he threw his whole notebook in the blender just to clear the decks ahead of Star Trek.

As a result, we're left with a mess of a film with questionable sexual politics but one that looks fantastic and has three great central performances.

But man is it long.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Blinded By The Light (12A)

When the world is quietly residing in the crapper, the arts react in one of two ways — reflecting the horror of it all, or large doses of feelgood smush to counteract the gloom.

And, as a rule of thumb, the worse the world is the bigger the dose of smush.

Be grateful, then, for Blinded By The Light — a bright beaming, er, yes, light in the gloom.

On the face of it, Blinded is a simple film about a young lad discovering the songs of Bruce Springsteen while growing up in Luton.

But there's far more going on beneath the surface.

This is also a film about finding your place in the world, standing up for what you believe in and how some people are not all they seem.

While also being about The Boss, obvs.

And while the narrative arc is a tad flimsy at times, and the film itself isn't really sure where it is going, the main cast have enough about them to make this work.

In Viveik Kalra the film has a young star (in his first film no less) who is engaging and captivating — you feel and share all the angst and joy he rollercoasters through as life throws him lemons and Bruce tapes in equal measure.

In Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura the film also has two brilliant young co-stars who help to capture the energy of those early Bruce songs.

Now, yes, this is a particularly saccharin piece of fluff at times, but as the film goes on you realise just how necessary this is as the grim reality of life under Thatcher in the late 80s — and the accompanying rise of racism — is brought to bear.

Growing up in this era, we remember some of how bad it was — but it seems, racist abuse aside, we got off lightly compared to towns like Luton which were hit with massive job losses.

And that's something this film captures well — the sad beigeness of the times.

Which is why song and dance numbers at the market, running about montages and impossibly-taken photos overseas just make you grin so much.

While this film has its problems, the one thing that writer/director Gurinder Chadha has got spot on is the feel of this film.

This can happily sit alongside Gregory's Girl (made in 1980) thanks to the look of this piece — and it can also hold it's head up alongside the likes of Pride for balancing social and political messages with outright fun.

Now, as we said, this isn't a perfect film — the story has no real sense of a destination, there are continuity issues and characters get shoe-horned into scenes for no reason.

But it's to the credit of the cast and overall script that these things fail to make a dent in your grin.

There may come a time when we don't need films like this, even though we'll still want them.

But for now, as the world burns and tilts to the far right, we're glad we have them.

Sometimes you just need to sit down, wallow in smush and grin like an idiot.

(Oh, and if you're wondering — and some of you will be — the answer is six. We bought six Springsteen albums after watching this)

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The Lion King (PG)

*Nasal intake of breath* Of course (cough) it's not live action at all you know....

Yeah Brian, we know. Sigh.

And so every online discussion about Disney's revamp of The Lion King begins — a discussion only derailed by the unveiling of the trailer for Cats.

There are days when I think people go online just to prove someone else wrong.

Now, we're not saying we understand the whys and wherefores behind this latest move by the Disney money machine, but let's be kind and put artistic wossinames somewhere on there.

Not near the top, sure, but on there somewhere.

Because, to be fair, underneath the pixels or colouring in (depending which version you now favour), there is a solid little tale being told.

And for once, it would be nice if this is the thing we could focus on (a point made all the more pertinent as people seem fixated on the ethnic make-up of the cast...).

Now we remember going to see this film when first it toddled onto the big screen, Elton John wailing his little socks off and baby lionses never looking cuterer.

Or something.

Since then, Simba's cartoonish adventures have made it to a sequel (if you are too young to remember Disney's foray into straight-to-DVD follow-ups, well done) and a slightly successful stage-show.

And really, that's what this re-telling of the tail (hey, we were going to do this at some point) is all about — bringing the animation (cartoon 1) and live action (stage show) together with the latest graphics.

And, from that perspective, this film is another sure-fire hit.

The new voices are excellent (John Oliver as Zazu, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Donald Glover as Simba, some young singing sensation called Beyonce as Nala) while James Earl Jones steals the whole show before... well... you know...

And the humour has been updated, and the graphics are beautiful, and Simba's ickle face is just the cutest thing ever.

They could have royally screwed this up, yet somehow Disney dodged that particular poacher's bullet.

That's not to say the film is perfect — far from it.

With great pixels come great responsibility, or something, and by bringing the cartoon 'to life' (shut up Brian, not the time) a key layer has been removed.

You see, back in the day when Simba was drawn using Paint, the very cartoonish nature of the medium cushioned you from the bigger emotional blows — and given Disney's propensity for death and gore, this was a good thing.

Just ask anyone who watched Bambi as a kid.

Oh hell, they're going to do this to Bambi aren't they. Oh sh.... Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, wholesome cartoony goodness.

So, yes, bold colours helped you realise none of this is real. And even then, The Lion King packed an emotional punch.

Now, if by some freak accident you're the person who has never seen The Lion King (OK, other person, Mrs Popcorn won't watch in case she gets upset — she remembers Bambi) we'll skirt round a bit.

But you know when THAT happens, and how the ol' heart strings got tugged? Now imagine that happening with a seemingly real lion you already love because James Earl Jones.

It actually makes The Lion King a darker film.

This is also true of the great Simba unveiling. Suddenly we have real zebra celebrating the very person who will hunt them down and kill them.

That scene's not so cute now...

All of this is, of course, overthinking caused by being all adult and looking at the world through scratched, smashed glasses having lived through the past few years.

For the younger generation, this is a whole new film and it's very important to remember this.

Our youngest nephew was taken to see this version and had the time of his life (well, until he dozed off — two hours is a long time when you're still in short trousers), and that's really the most important thing here.

Disney now own every franchise we've ever loved, and they didn't buy them out of love — these things are cash cows. Or lions.

As such, it's in the corporations best interests to find ways of reissuing the old back catalogue to a new audience.

In doing so here, they have captured the magic of the characters and the songs and made the whole thing look thoroughly modern. Meaning several new generations can enjoy the magic before they become old and jaded like the rest of us.

But it also means we can revisit the magic through their fresh eyes. And maybe, for an afternoon, we can forget the world we live in and instead step into theirs.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Yesterday (12A)

You may have noticed the current social media trend of people feeling the need to speak out about things they have no interest in — because them not liking a popular thing is apparently really important.

We first noticed it with Game Of Thrones ("I've never watched..." — yeah, yeah, no one cares) and then just last week when a lot of white people felt their lack of interest in Stormzy was worthy of comment.

To this illustrious trend, this valuable use of bandwidth and time, we can now add Yesterday, the latest cinematic offering from Richard Curtis.

The main premise seems to be the instigation for the angst, or perhaps it's the fear that a feel-good movie is heading to the top of the film charts and people might actually start enjoying themselves.

Because, even with director Danny Boyle on board, if you're expecting anything other than two hours of having your feels played with then you need go back and start again...

And that's not to say Yesterday is in any way a disappointing film — far from it, but when Curtis is known for doing what he does, and doing it damn well, why complain when that's what he then does?

For those who have missed the main plot device, Himesh Patel plays struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik, a man who can barely get his own friends to listen to his music.

Then, one fateful night, a solar flare knocks out the entire world's electricity for 12 seconds, which is just long enough for Jack to be hit by a bus and end up in hospital.

When he comes round he discovers several cultural touchstones have been wiped from existence — most importantly for the purpose of this film, The Beatles — and he is the only person on the planet who remembers them.

From here, a man who could barely get arrested becomes the biggest rock star on the planet. Living the dream, touring with Ed Sheeran, recording in LA and generally having everything he'd ever wanted handed to him in a champagne flute.

Essentially what this film is, is a look at the joy of discovering something for the first time. The excitement, the joy, the shared experiences. All the things we forget as familiarity sets in.

But what this film is also about is the importance of being happy.

Joining Jack on his musical journey is friend Ellie (played brilliantly by Lily James), the only person he knows who thinks he's genuinely talented and deserving of success.

Yes, yes, the clues are all there, but Jack's a bit dim.

What unfolds is nothing sort of soppy, heartwarming loveliness.

It's not dark, gritty, violent or even sexual, but what Curtis and Boyle have created is a giant hug of a movie that just makes you feel damn good.

And in former EastEnders star Himesh, they have the perfect star for this film.

He has a gentle, engaging screen presence, can sing, play guitar and piano, and delivers every line with note perfect sincerity and believability.

It's impossible to imagine anyone else playing this part.

Obviously the world knows who Lily James is these days (pretty sure Downton Abbey has been screen on the moon), and here she is every bit as good as we have come to expect.

In fact, we're pretty sure we haven't seen a romcom performance this heartmeltingly superb since Felicity Jones in Like Crazy and Chalet Girl.

The rest of the cast are all on it as well, and in fact there isn't a duff performance in the whole movie.

The huge surprise here, mind, is Ed Sheeran.

Not a fan of the Suffolk songster, but (as Simon Mayo brought up on Wittertainment recently) playing yourself is harder than you think and yet Ed managed it with aplomb.

Now, you may have noticed that so far the Curtis element of Yesterday has garnered our focus, but there are two stars behind the camera here.

We already know Boyle can turn his hand to anything, and here he proves this once more adding touches and flourishes that add new layers to the Curtis tropes.

Unusual camera angles, use of graphics, a lightness of touch when needed, trying to keep scenes as natural as possible — all these elements come together to lift Yesterday above the 'standard' romcom.

And he was clearly having a blast doing it. There is joy and delight in every scene of this movie.

Of course, as with all good romcoms, the story is not a straight line. There's added mystery, twists, reveals and general tomfoolery.

All of which is balanced perfectly.

And the eyes get very moist towards the end.

Look, I get it. Curtis isn't cool, or edgy, but he is popular and as such is deemed fair game for those who trade in negatives.

But Yesterday is just a huge chunk of happy in a world gone sad, and given the crap going on right now this is both the film we need and film we deserve.

Will it change your life? Of course not, but then nor will staring at a glorious sunset with a large glass of red in paw — but that doesn't mean you shouldn't just shut up, stop moaning, sit down and enjoy it.

Monday, 1 July 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (15)

There are many things you can say about the new John Wick instalment, but a lack of punctuation in the title is not an issue here.

I mean, come on, seriously? We needed a colon AND a dash?

OK, sure, it's not the thing you take away from this movie but it was genuinely the first thing that struck us as the screening began.

Such trivial matters are soon forgotten, however, as the film gets underway and we join a wet Keanu Reeves jogging through the New York rain, trying to get somewhere by somewhen, dog at his side.

Such details are soon clarified as we discover that Mr Wick has been booted out of the Killing Klub for Reasons (you'll need to have seen JW2 for these to make sense), and as the countdown begins he's en route to going from hunter to hunted.

What follows is standard John Wick fair — stylish, outlandish fight sequences that are basically brutal ballet, all beaten out with tongues firmly in cheek.

And yes, the fight scenes are violent, but they're also fun. And in places, hilarious.

We laughed more in the opening 45 minutes than we have at most of the comedies we've seen in the past 12 months.

And Parabellum (the title is explained by the wonderful Ian McShane).....

(For reasons we're not too sure about, we got sidetracked while writing this — not a usual state of affairs for sure, and almost certainly connected to a bump in the old mental health road. Concentrating on something is a bit of a bugger when the brain isn't playing ball, and completing tasks becomes harder because that takes effort and not doing it is the easy option. Leaving what was going to be a fun, witty, engaging review gathering dust like Bradford's city centre after the financial crash of 2008. But we digress again. Onwards....)

The point we really wanted to make when we started banging on about JWC3P (seriously, who is naming these things?) was the ballet angle.

It's the thing that leaps from the screen, way before the point is laboured.

Each fight scene is beautifully choreographed, exquisitely timed, basically pure physical poetry — and it's these scenes that make the movie.

Sure, there's a plot. There are other characters (McShane is as good as ever, turns out Halle Berry wasn't busy, oh look Fishburn is back...), there are dogs, there are jokes.

And there's Keanu being all Keanu, not pretending to be young, fit and healthy, but a normal 40+ guy who has heard of the gym but was busy that day.

And this is one of the reasons the JW films are so watchable.

There's a middle-aged guy in a suit, getting out of breath and beaten up, but somehow coming out on top.

He rides bikes, drives cars, takes people out with a horse (a fantastically bonkers fight sequence), says stuff, hits folks, shoots a lot of people and ends up looking like we all would if we'd done half that.

Mind you, there's a reason the fight scenes are as good as they are.

They have to be.

Because away from the all the punchy-punchy shooty-shooty fighty dog horse bonanza, they try and add plot.

And this is where the wheels start to come off.

Between each set-piece, Wick has to Go Places and Do Stuff and See People, all of which is leaden and dull.

It's as if the cast, crew and writers don't care about it any more than we do, but feel obliged to chuck it in to fill out the running time (a daft two hours plus change).

I get that they thought maybe they should do something different this time, but they ticked that box with the horse.

No one wants plot.

The John Wick films shouldn't, by any rational measure, work — but they do, and that is down to Keanu and his totally believable portrayal of an assassin having a bad day.

We go and watch them to see endless fights, blood, limbs flying everywhere, and leave grinning like idiots because it's all such damn, dumb fun.

We just need a fast-forward button for this chapter.