Film

The Snorkel (1958)

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Hammer is best known for its decades of hugely successful horror output including the genuine classics Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein, but it wasn’t always like that. The studio had been set up in 1934 and produced a long line of largely unremarkable British movies, before developing a penchant for making film versions of hit television shows.

One such was Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial The Quatermass Experiment which proved Hammer’s stepping stone into the horror genre. But in 1958 this direction was far from set in stone, and the company was still producing films in many different genres including crime and psychological thrillers.

One of these was The Snorkel, and the ludicrous title is probably the reason why you will not have heard of it before – I certainly hadn’t. It completely fails to convey the fact that this is a gripping and actually rather dark affair which if you approach in the right spirit and stick with it to the end proves remarkably tense and chilling. Read the rest of this entry »

Solo – A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Contains no plot spoilers

Long time readers of this blog, if there are such things, will know that I rarely go to the cinema these days. The only films that can tempt me back to the multiplex tend to be the latest instalments in the Star Trek, James Bond and Star Wars franchises and then mainly for sentimental reasons – not having missed a new theatrical release in any of the three series since the late 1970s.

I was starting to think that Solo – A Star Wars Story was about to he the one that finally got away. A busy period of work meant I didn’t have time to get to the cinema for several weeks after it came out (and is also the reason for the lack of new posts here, for which I can only apologise), and its growing reputation as a commercial flop for Disney meant that it was already being ushered out of the local Odeon in favour of evermore superheroes and dinosaurs.

This week was probably my final chance to see Solo on the big screen – and to be honest, I was sort of non-plused about the whole idea anyway and not even sure if I wanted to make the trip. But I did, and I’m glad I did, because I can report with no little relief that I enjoyed the film. Read the rest of this entry »

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) [DVD]

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It was with some trepidation that I approached the latest big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s seminal Murder on the Orient Express. For one thing, my enduring affection for both the novel and Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film meant I was already predisposed to not liking the new kid on the block. For another, I’d heard some very polarised reactions to the new film with some not liking it one bit. I can’t remember the last time that my father was ever as vitriolic about a film as he was after seeing this at the local Odeon.

Given all that, I was surprised by how much I liked the new film. Its by no means a match to the original version, nor even to the delightful 1994 BBC Radio 4 dramatisation by Michael Bakewell starring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot (the pictures are always better on the radio.) But it’s nonetheless a solid, quality production which strikes a balance between sensible reverence for the source text with the necessary updates to appeal to a 21st century cinema-going audience. Read the rest of this entry »

Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Contains some spoilers for both films

It’s hard to believe that when Blade Runner first came out in 1982, it was a major flop. These days it stands as one of the acknowledged great films of the 20th century, but that’s only because history has been reedited in hindsight. At the time it struggled to find an audience, with cinemagoers more interested in the user-friendly likes of Star Wars and ET – The Extraterrestrial than the dark, confusing fare of The Thing and Blade Runner. The very thought that the latter’s reputation would grow to the point where it could spawn a sequel 35 years later could scarcely have been more absurd – which just goes to show how hard it is to predict the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Death on the Nile (1978), Evil Under the Sun (1982)

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We all have our favourite films which are indisputable classics – Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo, The Godfather, The Third Man for example – and find I have to ration them out and not watch them too often, lest their appeal becomes faded by too many viewings. That’s happened with Star Wars: A New Hope, a film that I know every beat, every line, every music cue so well that it’s hard to sit through it these days, or see it with properly appreciative fresh eyes.

But there is a strange sub-class of favourite films that I find I can watch endlessly. They’re not necessarily great films – indeed, part of the appeal seems to be that they’re quite ordinary and flawed. For me, the exemplar of the sub-class is Star Trek: The Motion Picture and it’s not for nothing that it’s been dubbed “the slow motion picture.” Even so, I have to keep a look for it in the TV schedules so that I know when it’s on and can therefore avoid it, because if I happen across it while channel-surfing them I’m liable to stay as stuck to it right to the end credits much as a fly is unable to free itself from flypaper. Other examples of the type are a number of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s, and several of the dodgier James Bond films of the mid-Roger Moore period.

Death on the Nile is another of those motion pictures with the weird, inexplicable alchemy enabling endless rewatches. Read the rest of this entry »

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

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It’s been a while since I’ve been to the cinema to see a fim on the big screen, and I was shocked by how much ticket prices had risen. They’re now the same as a new-release Blu-ray, which at least has re-watch and re-sale value. Small wonder then that these days I limit my theatrical outings to three specific categories of films – new James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars instalments – which I’ve been faithful to ever since the Seventies.

Somewhat to my surprise I duly made it to see Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi before Christmas, and without having suffered any spoilers. I’d even kept away from official trailers in the build-up to the film’s release. I had seen the reviews, and noted that they’d started with euphoric raptures before curdling somewhat with criticism from fans who weren’t happy with the direction the series was going, but I made sure to avoid any details of either praise or gripes until I’d seen the film for myself. Which I now have.

Before I go on, a word about spoilers. I don’t intend to reveal any here – I’d rather everyone saw it in the unsullied state that I managed for myself – but inevitably there will be comments and hints in this review that betray more than a given reader might like. So if you are staying clean and pure from all spoilers, then perhaps it’s better to look away now just to be sure. And just to add, some elements of The Force Awakens are also discussed here since the statute of limitations on spoilers from that film has now expired. Read the rest of this entry »

Passengers (2016)

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Without a doubt, Passengers is a beautiful film to look at. Great care has been made by director Morten Tyldum and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to ensure that every frame is a joy, and the human stars are just as pretty and perfect as the set design and the special effects. But underneath the polished surface veneer there are problems to be found, both in the story by Jon Spaihts and in its on-screen execution. Read the rest of this entry »

The Farthest (2017)

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Today it seems like we have always known what Jupiter and Saturn look like close-up. Open up any book on astronomy, or watch any TV documentary about space, and their iconic appearance is readily available in up-close high definition detail, as familiar to us as any holiday beauty spot on Earth. Read the rest of this entry »

A brief tour of Universal’s monster horror legacy

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Almost five years ago I wrote enthusiastically about the release of Universal Studio’s Monsters – The Essential Collection, a boxset of eight of its most famous golden age horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the first time these iconic movies had been officially released in the UK on Blu-ray in newly remastered high definition versions, and they were a glorious sight to behold

At the time I penned gushing reviews of Dracula and Phantom of the Opera. As it happens I recently rewatched the original 1931 Frankenstein film and was astounded all over again – both by the flawless and beautiful monochrome restoration of a film that’s now nearly 90 years old, and also by how terrific the film itself still is, and how brilliant Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster remains to this day. My only criticism is that it’s so short and over all too quickly, the Monster no sooner brought to life than he is running amok and being hunted by a pitchfork-wielding mob of angry villagers. The clarity is so vivid, you can clearly see the folds and creases in the cloth backdrops used for the sky and clouds.

The Monsters – The Essential Collection boxset was one of my favourite purchases of 2012, and the only drawback to it was that several of the later movies from the Universal horror franchise were not included, among them some of my favourite if lesser-known genre films of the period. I confidently predicted that it surely wouldn’t be long before a second volume took care of that omission; alas, I waited in vain for years for such a boxset to materialise here in the UK, and it never happened. Until now. Well, sort of. Read the rest of this entry »

OJ: Made in America (2016) [DVD]

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A year ago, I found myself unexpectedly drawn into watching the first season of American Crime Story, which dramatised the story of the 1994-5 OJ Simpson trial. While I didn’t specifically follow the original case at the time, it was impossible not to be aware of the key points given the saturation coverage of it in the media at the time. Much of what was shown in Ryan Murphy’s The People vs OJ Simpson turned out to be remarkably familiar to me, and I was surprised by quite how many details I had retained.

The advantage of a dramatisation is that it can take you behind closed doors where cameras were never allowed at the time; and it is also able to shape the narrative into a more understandable format to make the events easier for the layperson to understand compared to the miasma of contemporary news reports and frenzied speculation. That said, a dramatisation does leave you wondering just how much or what we see and hear has been invented, however well-meaningly. You’re left wondering about some of the performances and some of the weird wardrobe and make-up decisions, such as why David Schwimmer is made up as a Word of Sport Dickie Davies lookalike, and why they cast such a bad actor in the role of OJ’s live-in friend Kato Kaelin. That’s because we’re far more critical of the authenticity of a drama in ways that we would never question live television news footage, which confirms that Bob Kardashian really did have a ‘skunk stripe’, and that Kato actually was that weird and the actor totally nailed the portrayal after all.

Even so, much as I liked The People vs OJ Simpson, after ten episodes of OJ drama I had absolutely no appetite to seek out another seven and a half hours of viewing on the subject, factual or otherwise. But then ESPN’s epic OJ: Made In America won the Best Documentary Academy Award in February, and I heard such good things about it that I felt an itch that needed to be scratched – maybe not least because having seen the dramatised version, I now wanted to see how reality measured up. Read the rest of this entry »

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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rogue-1Almost exactly a year ago, the Star Wars saga was triumphantly rejuvenated by the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a film that I really enjoyed and was happy to call “almost certainly the best Star Wars film that anyone could possibly have made in 2015,” despite being somewhat frustrated by the sheer metric tonnage of nostalgia and fan service it contained and just how far it was content to ride on the coattails of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The film’s best assets were its new cast and characters which offered an injection of new life and new hope to the franchise, but The Force Awakens itself was too busy revisiting the past and reheating the same themes and plots of the original trilogy to really get the best out of them. Still, it set things up nicely for Episode VIII assuming that the filmmakers can take advantage of what they now have in their arsenal.

Before that film, however, comes a cinematic intermission in the form of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which clearly positions itself as being a tale from and about the Star Wars universe while not being a part of the main saga itself. Such anthology tales could prove to be the future of the franchise as a whole, with new films headlining Han Solo and Boba Fett already in production, so the importance of Rogue One to the health and wealth of Star Wars can hardly be understated. Read the rest of this entry »

Arrival (2016)

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arrivalThese days, my forays to a multiplex to see a film in its natural habitat are few and far between, and usually limited to a triumvirate of franchises (James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars) on largely nostalgic grounds. Trips to the cinema outside that are exceptional, and for films I similarly hope to be exceptional in and of themselves. Looking back, my last non-franchise theatrical outing was Ex Machina in January 2015 and it didn’t disappoint. It certainly sets the bar high for Arrival, which opened in cinemas this week and had me duly paying my money at the local Odeon after reading uniformly excellent reviews.

Arrival is the kind of film that simply can’t be described: to try to summarise its storyline would be a truly terrible thing, since it must be seen to be properly experienced. To put it in the simplest and most abstract terms, it’s the story of linguist Dr Louise Banks who is called upon by the military to lead a team trying to establish a dialogue with a mysterious spacecraft that has shown up over Montana, one of 12 such UFOs that have arrived on Earth. Unfortunately no one thought to pack a universal translator and Banks is faced with the impossible task of trying to converse with a lifeform that shares none of our common cultural or language touchstones. As the process drags on, frustrations on both sides build to the point where increasing suspicion and misunderstanding threaten a catastrophic outcome. Read the rest of this entry »

The Take (a.k.a. Bastille Day) [2016]

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bastilleWhen this thriller was released in cinemas in April it went by the title of Bastille Day, but its story of bombings and racial riots on the streets of Paris became uncomfortably close to subsequent real life atrocities in France and it was even pulled from theatres after the Nice attacks in July. The home media release of the film was delayed and a new title, The Take, applied – all of which is really very unfortunate. Not only does that change cut the DVD release off from any positive word-of-mouth it might have garnered during its box office run, it also leaves it with a dull and unmemorable new name that makes it look like every other bit of sub-standard direct-to-video fare out there. Which is really rather unfair. Read the rest of this entry »

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013) [BBC Four]

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A slightly late (and brief) review of a new entry to BBC Four’s Nordic Noir slot on Saturday evenings.

keeperEntitled The Keeper of Lost Causes, this 90-minute feature film from Danish production company Zentropa is based on a book by Jussi Adler-Olsen featuring Detective Carl Mørck, the head of a new cold case unit working in Copenhagen. Mørck is there in disgrace after his rash actions in a previous case left one partner dead and another paralysed, so his current team now consists of one administrative assistant – a Syrian immigrant named Assad – and it’s presumed that Mørck will see out his time rubber-stamping old casefiles until he quits. Naturally he doesn’t, and instead becomes obsessed with a case that Assad has unearthed about the disappearance and presumed suicide three years ago of Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), an up-and-coming female politician. The original investigation was sketchy to say the least and so Mørck digs deeper despite warnings from his superiors to drop it. Read the rest of this entry »