Valerian – The Flawed Jewel

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I didn’t know exactly what Luc Besson would be giving us with his big budget adaptation of the Valerian and Laureline comic books, but a sci-fi film with a pro-EU message definitely came as a surprise.

Besson first seriously considered adapting Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin’s long-running comic book series while he was making The Fifth Element. The decision to hold off until special effects caught up with the imagination needed to fully realise the characters and the universe they inhabit was probably a wise one, and it has paid off handsomely.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets literally screams out to be experienced at the cinema, preferably on as big a screen as possible – and in 3D if your local theatre understands how to properly project that format. It is without a doubt one of the most visually luxuriant films you’ll see this year (and possibly many other years), and is a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty.

Besson’s film takes no prisoners, and with little pre-amble launches us into a fully-formed world (or rather, universe) and expects us to embrace the story in progress. It’s an exhilirating rush and one which might leave some viewers who expect to be spoon-fed information a little disoriented (don’t worry, there’ll be another Transformers film for them soon, I’m sure). Valerian is a Luc Besson joint, full of the off-centre tics expected from his work, and is draped in his wonderful Gallic sensibility like a well-cut designer outfit.

It’s decidely not a Hollywood cookie cutter film, instead it’s madly ambitious and joyfully exhuberant though I didn’t feel quite the same eccentric voice as The Fifth Element was being given full reign. Perhaps this film’s astonishing budget led to more pressure on Besson.

Even if this was the case, Besson has mangaged to present us with something wonderous and completely topical, because snuck in between all the talk of extra-dimensional shoppng centres, converters and space pearls is a message that seems to focus on the importance of unity between different races. And with much of the action taking place on Alpha, a space station where millions of creatures from different planets live peacefully and exchange their knowledge and cultures, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the current situation between the UK and the EU seeping through into the fabric of this production. It’s quite a thing to see but with its core message of space unity, Besson has seemingly given us the first “we’re better together, despite the problems”, anti-Brexit, sci-fi fantasy.

Cara Delevingne makes for a fetching and spiky Laureline, the camera loves her and the character is pretty much elevated to the lead role (something which might irritate comic book purists, but fuck them because it works), another quality which sees the film stand out from the crowd. Indeed the film might better be titled Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets, which does lead me to the one big issue I had with Besson’s choices.

Dane DeHaan is a fine actor, but he has a dark, somewhat surly quality which I didn’t feel was right for this role. While there was certainly no need to have Valerian as a wisecracking, Peter Quill/Starlord clone, the chemistry with Delevingne feels somewhat unbalanced at times, and a lighter touch was needed to stop Valerian coming across as something of a creep towards his partner. While this moves their interplay away from cliche, it also undercuts vital empathy and an actor with a little more screen charm would have worked wonders. It’s a shame because this central dynamic is vital to the film, and that spark could have made a big difference. I’m sure he’d disagree (hey, it’s his movie) but for me it’s a rare moment of casting weakness from Besson.

But this unusual misstep shouldn’t deter you from seeing Valerian, for despite this it’s a big, glorious attempt to give cinema something different and in an age of blue and teal colour-graded action movies that’s to be cherished and celebrated. Valerian is a jewel of a film, albeit one with an unfortunate flaw at its heart.

If nothing else, Valerian is a cult film in the making, and I can pretty much guarantee that in fifteen or twenty years time enthusiasts will be singing its praises as one of those films that everyone should have gone to see at the cinema.

Vive le Besson!

Apes Together Strong – War Continues A Great Summer

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Frankly, when Fox announced a (second) reboot of their beloved Planet of the Apes franchise back in 2010 it elicited little more than a resigned sigh from me. When news came that the apes would be fully realised with CGI my heart sank.

As a long-time fan of the original series of films (I saw most of them at the cinema in the early 1970s) I’d already been burned by the reboot attempted by Tim Burton a decade before this most recent announcement, in 2001. That film still arguably stands as Burton’s worst (even though it had some great design and make-up work).

Still I trudged dutifully into the cinema in 2011 to see James Franco kickstart the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and came out two hours later with a pleasantly surprised smile on my face. Rupert Wyatt’s prequel reimagining (and my fingers tremble even just typing that phrase) was a thoughful and engaging movie, and the work of the actors (including Andy Serkis) and animators meshed almost seamlessly to give us an exciting new take on the apes.

My surprise grew to actual anticipation for Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014 and I was not disappointed. The visuals improved again and we were given an even more exciting and thought-provoking story with Caeser (Serkis) doing his best not to lead his apes into war against mankind’s few survivors of the simian plague which had all but wiped them out at the close of the previous movie.

By now I was actually excited to see Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis and co. return for the third film in this respectful but fresh series of films, and I’m happy to say that War for the Planet of the Apes not only met my expectations but far exceeded them.

First a word about the ape work. The actors and animators combine talents here to give the most astonishing performances yet seen in motion capture. These apes live, breathe and feel to such a high level that it simply becomes impossible to look at them as special effects. For me, Caesar, Maurice, Rocket, “Bad Ape” (a hugely enagaging new character) and the other apes have reached a point where you feel the awards bodies should really be bringing in a new category to recognise these remarkable types of roles.

The story opens with Caesar’s clan fighting against a human military faction called Alpha-Omega. Once again Caesar attempts to take the higher ground by moving the apes to another location, one which will see them leave the worsening human aggression behind. But Alpha-Omega’s leader, a mysterious, Colonel Kurtz-like character (played with layered gusto by Woody Harrelson) soon escalates events to a very personal level, taking Caeser on a mission which will see the leader tested as never before.

War of the Planet of the Apes is constantly surprising and totally enthralling, it continues in the vein of the best of the Apes films by telling a story which is both thoughtful and exciting. It leads towards a war of almost biblical proportions, but one whose combatants are something of a surprise. As with the very best summer blockbusters, Reeves and his team give us exactly what they promise, just not in exactly the way we might expect.

Kudos also to the screenplay (by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves), to Michael Seresin’s beautiful cinematography and also to Michael Giacchino for a truly memorable score, one that reminded me of John Barry’s work in several places. These combine to give a movie which really should be experienced at a cinema.

The film is also surprisingly emotional (I was weeping openly at the finish) and if this turns out to be the final film of a trilogy (highly unlikely, right Fox…?), then it will end as a triumph. We have been gifted with two wonderful runs of Apes movies and this latest trilogy is proof that an old idea can have new life breathed into it in the right hands.

Summer 2017 has seen a remarkable run of truly excellent movies and this might just be the best of an exceptional bunch. It’s definitely the best of the new Apes trilogy.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Amazing, At Last!

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Considering Spider-Man has been with us since 1962, it’s somewhat difficult to understand why he’s never come close to appearing on the cinema screen.

Oh sure, there have been five movies, some more successful in their approach than others, but regardless of how close each of them got to capturing that magic quality which has kept the character in print for fifty-five years something always felt… just slightly off.

Sam Raimi and co. certainly got close, especially with Spider-Man 2, which held the gold standard for superhero movies for some time. But I was never happy with the casting of that trilogy, as good as Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are as actors, I never felt they were right for Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Marc Webb swung closer with his stars, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) but the approach taken to the two Amazing Spider-Man films was just completely wrong-headed. Making Peter Parker a disaffected skateboard kid who ends up swinging into his graduation ceremony to kiss the prettiest girl in school was so far removed from what makes these characters special it was absurd. Sadly these entries also felt like the worst kind of committee-led filmmaking.

And both sets of movies shared a very particular missing quality. In the comic books Spider-Man has always been a vital cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, but in the movies the character has always swung through a New York bereft of other superheroes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming corrects that from its opening moments, as we are dropped into a New York recovering from alien invasion with criminals using stolen alien technology, a world where Avengers tower looms large over the city and superheroes are commonplace in everyday life.

But here is where the new collaboration between Marvel and Sony has really paid dividends, in the understanding that our Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man is the contrast to the other characters who fly around seeing off aliens from space and demons from dark dimensions. Spider-Man works best as a street level character, interacting with New Yorkers who cheer or jeer as he goes about his daily web-slinging.

Finally we’re given the opportunity to see Peter explore his newfound powers without the tiresome retread of an origin story, instead following a hero learning from his (plentiful) mistakes. Stakes are kept personally high but distinctly low-key (in superhero terms), from Spider-Man realising just how long it takes to climb the Washington Monument (and suddenly seeing how high up he is at its top) through to the climactic battle between hero and villain.

Speaking of the villain, I’d happily watch Michael Keaton reciting the phone directory and while there are one or two moments I’d like to have seen him given more to chew on, he also manages to bring an interesting, almost political motivation to his character and in one sequence set inside a parked car, a palbable sense of threat and menace in a stand-off involving no costumes, with no powers used or punches thrown. It’s a stand out moment in a film full of them.

The casting is excellent overall, as Peter Parker’s high school friends feel natural and unstereotypical, and director Jon Watts gives the film a John Hughes vibe that’s hard to ignore and impossible to dislike, with a fresh feeling that’s quite distinct from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet completely at home in it. Jacob Batalon’s Ned and Zendaya’s Michelle are particular stand-outs.

As seen in Captain America: Civil War, we’re given a fresh take on Peter’s Aunt May, now played with delightful MILF-relish by Marisa Tomei. She’s not given huge amounts to do in this first outing, but she’s such a fine actress she supports here perfectly and hopefully we’ll see more from her in the already-announced sequel.

Finally, every filmed attempt at Spider-Man stands and falls with its Peter Parker, and here we are given a true representation of the character. Tom Holland simply nails the role, his boyish looks giving Peter an average Joe quality, an awkward, earnest, ordinary teenager blessed, or cursed, with extraordinary abilities, who ultimately uses his powers because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

While this iteration plays loosely with the source material it stays true to the good-natured heart that has seen these characters loved by millions for so long to produce a film that’s as full of charm as it is action set-pieces. It’s a feel-good film about a decent, 15 year old boy, his friends and family and the responsibility he feels to protect them and the world in which they live. It seems like such a simple trick, but it’s been frustratingly elusive.

With their flagship hero returning to the Marvel fold as a result of a studio deal between the company and Sony, we’ve finally been given a Spider-Man who deserves the Amazing adjective.

This is the homecoming Spider-Man fans have been waiting for!

She’s A Wonder! – Jenkins’ Princess Rules!

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Director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman had a lot of baggage to carry when it arrived in theatres. The previous DC Extended Universe movies (Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad) had performed well (though not as well as hoped) at the box office, but were the subjects of vast swathes of critical scorn. Besides this was the more serious battle against Hollywood sexism, where the common perception among those with the power to greenlight productions has long been that women could neither helm nor feature as main stars of big, action franchise movies.

While I’m somewhat late to the game with this review (unusually, Wonder Woman has opened later here in Norway than in many other territories), it has given me the chance to see both of these issues blown out of the water by both the film’s success and critical reaction. The film set records for the biggest domestic opening for a female director ($103.3 million) and the biggest opening for a female-led comic book film, and has, to date, grossed over $500 million worldwide.

And I’m very happy to reiterate the good news. Taken on its own terms Wonder Woman is bright, funny, charming, exciting and a genuine feel-good movie. Taken against the issues weighted against it stepping into the ring you might also call it an outright triumph.

The origin story, well known to comic book fans since American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter brought her to the pages of All-Star Comics # 8 in 1941, is weaved into a World War I adventure which also brings in several of Princess Diana of Themyscira’s supporting characters (including Queen Hippolyta and the Amazons, Steve Trevor and Etta Candy) and in itself is a thoroughly entertaining romp.

Where the film really scores however is in several key ways that contrast sharply with the previous DC movies. Gone is the relentless grimdark misery of Batman vs Superman, the distancing ‘god above us’ approach to Superman and, praise the gods of film craft, the incoherent characterisation, storytelling and editing of Suicide Squad.

Jenkins’ film is generally full of clear storytelling and fun action sequences, even utilising Zack Snyder’s trademark speed ramping to actually help with both clarity and story (its use in an important moment where the Amazons face off against bullets for the first time not only looks cool but packs quite an emotional wallop). There are some genuinely exciting moments of action (Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land on the Belgian Front and her subsequent attack on a German stronghold are… sorry… wonders served more by character than empty cool visuals).

Wonder Woman moves at a breezy clip, from Paradise Island to London and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and, while it does ultimately succumb to the usual climax of two super-powered folk hurling big, heavy things at each other, it at least does so in an almost low-key way that provides a little emotional weight. However it doesn’t quite succeed in making the villainous character involved (I won’t name the actor either so as to avoid spoilers) seem massively threatening, which is a shame and sees some points knocked off.

Jenkins does have two extra special weapons: leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine share terrific chemistry and carry more than their share of the film’s appeal. Pine has slowly become one of our more interesting screen presences, leading one particularly perceptive critic (and he/she will have to forgive my failing memory as to who exactly) to accurately describe him as “a character actor in a leading man’s body.” He’s a pretty face who’s pulled off a number of whip-smart performances and Wonder Woman is no exception, basting Steve Trevor in easy going, old time, movie star charm.

As for Gadot, the camera loves her and she’s well served by Jenkins and her writers (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs) who together make Diana a warm, relatable character. There are plenty of small moments gifted to her which show why the world falls in love with Diana, and Gadot radiates atomic levels of charm while giving us a genuinely heroic hero, and make no doubt about it, one both men and women can root for!

At one point in the film, Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor tells Diana he’s taking her to London to meet with “the men who can” end the war. “I’m the man who can!” Diana replies, completely on point.

Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman? They’re the women who can.

Alien: Covenant – Look On My Works And Despair!

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When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise with Prometheus in 2012 hopes were high that the venerated director would give audiences the kind of scares associated with his original 1979 classic. What we got instead was a disjointed meditation on creation with a group of characters whose actions often seemed more alien than the series’ title creature.

During production of Alien: Covenant word of mouth suggested that Scott and the production team had taken onboard complaints that Prometheus had strayed too far from the formula and that this time… this time… we would see our beloved xenomorph restored to its full, chest-bursting glory.

Picking up ten years after we last saw Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (as Dr Elizabeth Shaw and David) wander off into deep space to find mankind’s creators, we focus now on the crew of the colony ship, Covenant, heading for a remote planet, Origae-6, with two-thousand colonists and a thousand embryos on-board, monitored by an upgraded android resembling the earlier David, named Walter (also played by Fassbender).

Of course things go wrong on the mission and the ship is soon taking a detour to investigate a human signal coming from an alien planet – seemingly also ripe for colonisation.

Before you can say “In space, no one can hear you scream” the landing party runs into further trouble and for a while the film seems to be leading us along a familiar path with new forms of alien creatures, the neomorphs, making short work of everyone.

Then Fassbender’s David reappears and the film lurches into gothic Hammer horror territory. This might seem like an intriguing diversion but while Covenant IS more of a horror movie than Prometheus, Scott and his writers appear to have lost all interest in the alien. The real monster here is David, serving as Victor Frankenstein to the now dethroned star of the franchise.

Events reach a climax on the planet and the survivors return to the Covenant for a bizarre and utterly shoehorned in final fifteen minutes which attempts to recreate elements of both Scott’s 1979 original and James Cameron’s equally loved 1986 sequel, Aliens.

I have too much respect for Scott to suggest that Covenant’s Reader’s Digest abridged-version finale was a studio-dictated necessity but that is, sadly, exactly what it feels like. Events are rushed through and more crew members are dispatched with such rapidity that it would be easy to miss the true (and highly effective) horror enacted by David in the film’s final moments.

There are two movies struggling against each other, the attempted return to the scary roots of the franchise and the story Scott and co. are really interested in, that of David and Walter and the struggle with what they are, where they come from and their quest to find answers among the stars – which provide some of the most interesting moments of Covenant. Sadly, these two movies fail to cohere and we’re left with a story that satisfies neither requirement.

Scott is far too good a director for Covenant to be a disaster: there’s lots to enjoy and admire and there are moments of beauty, of intrigue and of genuine horror (and also, sadly, of unintentional humour… the baby alien raising its arms to copy David is a series low point). Unfortunately the ambition to turn the franchise into something of wider philosophical concerns dilutes the simple funhouse horror of the central creature, leaving him somewhat toothless and the film itself oddly schizophrenic.

Guardians 2 – Galaxy 0 – Gunn Scores Again!

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When James Gunn hit with the original Guardians of the Galaxy, back in 2014, the film took many by surprise. For those of us who had been following both Marvel’s careful universe-building gameplan (up to that point) and Gunn’s career – starting with his days at Troma, through projects such as PG-Porn and onto the low to mid-budget gems, Super and Slither, the tone of Guardians was less of a surprise. More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that so much of Gunn’s off-kilter sensibility shone through the Marvel house style.

Happily, that sensibility has been allowed full reign for the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, perfectly encapsulated by the opening sequence which involves the already in-situ Guardians battling a tentacled space beast accompanied by the glorious harmonies of E.L.O.’s Mr. Blue Sky. Gunn being Gunn, the focus of the battle is kept to the background while we follow Baby Groot dancing along to Jeff Lynne’s most famous tune.

It’s this kind of oddball choice that gives both volumes their charm, and that’s added to by a cast now fitting snugly into their roles. Chris Pratt, Zoe Salanda, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Karen Gillan are all clearly having a ball, and Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff grab their expanded and new roles respectively with relish.

The stand out star of Vol 2 for me however, was Dave Bautista. His Drax is an immensly likeable character and Bautista kills every single line and beat with expert comic timing. Vol 2 has several great laugh out loud moments and Bautista is at the heart of many of them.

Newcomers (to the MCU) Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone provide welcome gravitas and there are several fun and surprising cameos for both casual viewers and Marvel geeks (like me). Russell in particular plays well against Pratt and it’s something of a clash of the charmers whenever they share screentime.

Vol 2 is bold in style and is easily Marvel’s most colourful production to date – in fact the film generally resembles a particularly fine LSD trip, with shining rainbow colours splashed around gleefully. It’s a welcome expansion to Marvel’s usual colour palette, and one which the forthcoming Thor Ragnarok looks set to continue.

Also welcome is the greater emphasis on family relationships – a theme layered across several different sets of characters and one which even manages to colour the McGuffin that drives the plot. If this McGuffin feels a little underwhelming at first (even though it involves the end of the galaxy as we know it) a little reflection reveals surprising depth at the ostensible villain’s plans (I’m being deliberately circumspect here to avoid spoilers).

This emphasis makes for quite an emotional ride too, and you shouldn’t be surprised if your heartstrings aren’t well and truly tugged upon by the film’s climax.

If Vol 2 outstays its welcome by ten minutes or so, and wanders a little too amiably here and there (hello, extended sojourn on the Ravagers’ ship), that’s a small price to pay to spend two hours in the company of such superb characters. Honestly, I’d happily spend two hours with Drax, just revelling in his blunt as a brick one-liners.

This e-number fuelled adventure is a full on funhouse ride and as much of a good time as can be had without losing your underwear, and Gunn has definitely hit two for two. Bring on the promised Vol 3, I say.

*** Oh, and in the tradition of Marvel’s post-credit scenes, Vol 2 features no less than five, and viewers are advised to stay until the very, very end…

Dave Saves You From The Great Escape

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You know the deal. You’ve gathered in the warm, family hearth and home for the holiday season, you’re gorged on meats and sweets and faced with the prospect of sitting down to watch The Great Escape or Harry Potter for the umpteenth time.

Suggested by my friend, Maria Kreutzmann (hey, Maria) allow me to present you with ten alternatives to Steve McQueen or Daniel Radcliffe (although the latter does crop up here, albeit in a much gassier form). These are films which have tickled my cinematic fancy, both in decades past and of more recent vintage. Whether you’d term them cult movies (a much bastardised phrase) is down to your own viewing habits, but you’ll find these choices both close to and way off the beaten track.

Season’s greetings and you’re welcome…

Brotherhood of the Wolf/Le Pacte des loups (2001)
A genuine pleasure from start to finish – a French horror/action, werewolf, martial arts, sexy historical drama featuring Monica Belluci, Vincent Cassel and low rent but personable action star Mark Dacascos. Loosely based on a real-life series of killings that took place in France in the 18th century and the famous legend of the Beast of Gévaudan, this is a fever dream for lovers of exploitation movies and art house films, as it falls squarely between the two, producing something unique and utterly lovable.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Reviewed fully here on Out of Dave’s Head. Kurt Russell, Kurt Russell’s moustache, a Western/cannibal hybrid. What more do you need to know!?

Hammett (1982)
Despite massive tampering from the studio (script rewrites, massive reshoots), Wim Wenders’ American debut remains an interesting curio. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Hammett is a post-modern homage to and an attempted deconstruction of both pulp fiction mysteries and of author Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, etc), that features an excellent cast (Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, David Patrick Kelley and cinema stalwart Elisha Cook Jr) and ends up messy but stylish. It also has another of John Barry’s beautiful, late period scores. Well worth seeking out.

Lady in White (1988)
Criminally underrated and fully deserving of a decent blu-ray release, Lukas Haas stars in a spooky, atmospheric campfire tale that is deliciously layered and will have fans of 1980s Amblin’ and Netflix’s Stranger Things eating out of its hand. Put it together with the recent Woman in Black for a perfectly colour coordinated night of chills.

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Bigger Than Life (1956)
Nicholas Ray’s film packs a powerful punch, a mighty melodrama that gives a full-on Glasgow Kiss to stultifying 1950s morality. Featuring James Mason (who co-wrote and produced) as a hapless schoolteacher whose frustrations at life become more heightened as he becomes addicted to cortisone. This is Breaking Bad for the Rebel Without a Cause generation (not surprising since that was Ray’s previous film), and has a lot to say about our modern attitudes towards addiction and mental illness. It’s also beautiful to look at, featuring beautiful complimentary and contradictory widescreen photography.

Swiss Army Man (2016)
Another film with a full review here on Out of Dave’s Head. Up there as a contender for best film of 2016, right alongside The Greasy Strangler.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
So many wonderful things in this film – the Barry Manilow/drunk sequence, the forest elemental sequence (which should bring a tear to your eye), the beautifully nuanced climax, great performances (Perlman, Doug Jones, Anna Walton, Luke Goss), fabulous practical effects monsters and a gorgeous Elfman score. Not only a vast improvement over the original (which is already a lot of fun) but a brilliant movie in its own right. A monster movie with a great big, soft old heart. Now then, GDT, where the heck is Hellboy 3!?

Pépé le Moko (1937)
A romantic thriller that raises the genre to poetry. A possible inspiration for both Casablanca and The Third Man and a close relative of the soon-to-be-born Film Noir,  Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin), is a criminal on the run in metropolitan France, living in the Casbah quarter of Algiers, where he is out of reach of the local police. Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) sees a way to lure Pépé out of his refuge when the criminal falls for Mireille Balin’s Gaby, the mistress of a rich businessman. Sensual, intriguing and essential, and Gabin’s character was also the inspiration for cartoon star, Pepe le Pew. Now you have to see it, right!?

The Unknown (1927)
One of my favourite silent movies, starring the incredible Lon Chaney (“the man of 1,000 faces”) as an armless carnival knife thrower (who throws with his feet) and a young Joan Crawford as the object of his affections. Crawford has a fear of being held in a man’s arms, which would be lucky for Chaney except for the fact that he’s actually a criminal on the run (which might make it a good double bill with the aforementioned, Pépé le Moko) who hides his fully functioning arms by keeping them bound to his torso. Needless to say, this affair doesn’t go well and The Unknown features a climax just as gruesome as director Tod Browning’s perhaps better known, Freaks.

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The Baby (1973)
Director Ted Post is a firm favourite of mine, with his filmography covering the likes of Hang ‘em High and Magnum Force (with Clint Eastwood), Beneath the Planet of the Apes and a veritable smorgasbord of great TV work (The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Gunsmoke and, um, B.A.D. Cats). But nothing else he did was quite as out there as The Baby, a horror thriller that features an eccentric family which includes “Baby”, a 21-year-old man who acts like an infant. Best seen on a double bill with Jack Hill’s wonderful Spider Baby, which might put you off of families for life. Ideal Christmas viewing, in fact.

Rogue One – The Prequel You Always Wanted

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When Disney/Lucasfilm announced a series of stand-alone films – away from the main trilogy – there was some speculation that this was not perhaps such a great idea, and when the first film announced was the story of the stolen Death Star plans which would lead straight into the beginning of Episode IV (or just plain, old Star Wars to those of us at the front of the queue back in 1977) that speculation turned to dismay in some quarters.

How could you make a successful and exciting film when everyone knows the ending? I suppose we could let James Cameron answer that one but in his absence, I’m here to tell you that those fears were completely unfounded.

British director, Gareth Edwards (he of the 2014 Godzilla reboot) has fashioned a thoroughly exciting and remarkably fresh feeling yarn in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, one that will excite and astound in equal measure. Double that up if you’re a confirmed Star Wars fan.

Featuring a fabulous (and fabulously diverse) cast, including Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker, beautifully shot by Grig Fraser and marvellously scored by Michael Giacchino (utilising some of John Williams’ iconic themes, of course), Edwards gives us a good old, rip-roaring night out at the cinema that’s part war movie, part heist movie and 150% Star Wars movie.

The plot really is straightforward: Jones plays the daughter of Mikkelsen’s Death Star engineer, and the Rebel Alliance use her to try to steal the plans for the battle station before it can become fully operational.

That’s pretty much it, but that’s pretty much all we need. Everything else is a case of wind it up and let it go.

There aren’t vast swathes of depth to most of the characters, one or two performances don’t really work (hello, Forest Whitaker, I’m looking at you… just what the hell was that voice!?), and some of the dialogue is clunky (it’s a Star Wars film, of course there’s clunky dialogue), but there are so many more treasures here it’s hard, if not impossible to let these slides stand in the way of your enjoyment.

As always, Edwards’ sense of scale and scope is magnificent, he really knows how to frame a scene and open up the world with depth and focus. And boy does he know how to throw us into the trenches of war, we’re really allowed to feel the thrum of battle around us – both on the ground and in some of the most thrilling space battles ever put on screen (this is where a 3D screening really pays off, by the way).

The characters are introduced deftly and without fuss, meaning we hit the ground running and rarely pause for breath. Of these new characters, the two standouts are definitely Alan Tudyk (voicing K-2SO, a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid) and the mighty Donnie Yen (who kicks major ass as an almost-Jedi).

There are some neat and very timely shades painted into the dialogue which could be seen as a reflection of political attitudes surrounding us now (that’s definitely how I read them). When asked if she’d be happy seeing Imperial flags planted across the galaxy, Jones’ Jyn Erso replies: “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” It’s a small, simple moment, but it resonates, with so many people in our own world who don’t seem to want to look up.

And, best of all, Rogue One is fully immersed in the Star Wars universe – from blue milk (you either get it or you don’t) to the surprise appearances by… well, let’s leave that open until you’ve seen the film. When you have meet me back here and we can discuss the various merits and demerits of these added touches. Some work better than others (you’ll understand what I mean) but all are introduced for the right reasons and add a certain sense of playfulness to the film. One in particular (if you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who I mean) gets a moment so magnificently brutal and wonderful that you can’t help but hope this won’t be our last return visit with him (…oh yes, it’s a him).

What I can tell you without fear of spoilers is that for the final forty-five minutes of Rogue One I genuinely sat with a huge grin spread across my face, caught up in the machinery of the plot and basking in the warm glow of a very familiar and a very welcome return to a galaxy far, far away.

And really, after Rogue One you’ll never need to watch those other bloody prequels again.

Shin Godzilla. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

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Warning: Here be spoilers.

When Toho announced in 2014 that we would be getting a new Godzilla film and it would be co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno and visual effects by Higuchi, it was a certainty that the men who collaborated on the anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, would be giving us a very different kind of Godzilla.

And so, jump forward to 2016, and that’s exactly what we have. Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence as it’s also known, takes a markedly different approach which will either be seen by viewers as a refreshing stroke of genius or as a huge disappointment.

I fall squarely in the former opinion. The human viewpoint in this film is not on some forced love affair, or crazed scientist caught up in the events of a giant monster stomping through Tokyo, but rather it takes a long, hard look at the stuff we usually don’t see: the politicians, the military, the administration and the bureaucracy thrown into complete turmoil by the emergence of a creature in Tokyo bay that comes up onto land and works its way through the city relentlessly.

That this creature is only the first stage in the development leading to the newest form of Godzilla is just one of the new slants taken by Anno & Higuchi. It’s a strange looking beast, almost comical, which serves to keep viewers on loose footing as we’re then shown how much damage it creates on a very personal level.

And that’s another interesting wrinkle, there are no central lead characters (despite the lead billing of Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara (whose struggles with her English line readings unfortunately shine through all too clearly). Instead, we follow a bureaucratic hive mind of politicians and scientists as they struggle to figure out evacuation plans to minimise the public death toll.

When the final Godzilla emerges again to wreak havoc, the stakes get higher as the U.S. threatens to intervene with nuclear weapons, a course still found abominable by the Japanese, of course. The politicians become caught between a rock and a hard place as they must decide whether to bow to international pressure or strike forward with their own plan.

I found this approach completely refreshing and was absorbed quickly into proceedings. Drawing inspiration from (and heavily alluding to) the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami gave this film a resonating power that really sets it apart from and yet beautifully parallels Ishiro Honda’s nuclear parable in 1954’s original, Godzilla. Anno and Higuchi are highly critical of the bureaucracy that frequently mires Japanese officials into inaction, but they also express positivity and hope of Japan finding its way without international intervention (something I feel has been misread in some quarters as out and out nationalism). Having said this, I can see why this very talky approach will not appeal to all viewers – there are a lot of scenes in board rooms and meeting rooms. Your mileage may vary.

The action when it comes is spectacular. Seeing Godzilla attack the military with an entire bridge is something that filled me with complete joy, and despite one or two shaky FX shots, this is a hugely impressive film visually, with many breathtaking shots. I also loved Godzilla’s astonishingly brutal new radioactive breath, and the newest additions to his arsenal.

The design of this new Godzilla has also proven to be controversial among Godzilla fans (but then change of any kind is always controversial among Godzilla fans). His slow movements and little arms (and biiiig thighs) do take a little getting used to, but I warmed to both approaches by the end.

Without going into full spoiler mode, the final shot is also quite horrifying and chilling (something I’ve not felt in a Godzilla film since Honda’s original) and if a sequel moves ahead – highly likely since this is now the highest grossing live-action Japanese film of 2016 and the highest grossing Japanese-produced Godzilla film in the franchise – then it would prove an intriguing starting point for any new story.

One of the qualities I love best about the Godzilla franchise is its constant ability to reinvent itself – it’s done so many times before and with Godzilla being a worldwide brand thanks to the continued success of the Japanese films and international offshoots such as Gareth Edwards’ 2012 U.S. production – and what I enjoyed about Shin Godzilla is that the big, scaly beast has mutated into something different once again. Don’t like it? Don’t worry, there’ll be yet another type of Godzilla along in twenty or thirty years. Right now, I’m happy with this horrific new incarnation.

Did that come out already!? – Bone Tomahawk

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Every now and then a movie comes along that just calls to you, that feels like someone you meet and instantly know will become a friend. When I first read about Bone Tomahawk, a Western/cannibal hybrid with Kurt Russell, I said to myself “That’s a film made just for me if ever I heard of one!” and sure enough, I was thrilled and delighted with this brutal, wonderful gem.

Taking its place in the compact but often interesting genre of horror Western, S. Craig Zahler has stuffed his story with an excellent cast and structures it as a slow build that expertly winds up the tension. Kurt Russell, who just gets better with age, strides through the film with rugged ease (and another magnificently crafted moustache) and leads a posse out into some seriously badlands to retrieve townfolk taken by a raiding party of not-quite-Native American Indians. To say much more would spoil your enjoyment, but the film mixes elements of John Ford’s The Searchers with the gruesome horrors of Cannibal Holocaust and The Descent.

What gives the film its true power is the first hour spent in the company of the townspeople and the posse, deftly giving us characters to care about and root for. Lost’s Matthew Fox, Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson and the always dependable Richard Jenkins all work well together and there is much humour in the journey, making the eventual horrors even more unbearable.

Thankfully, Zahler resists the urge to go by-the-numbers, and the somewhat low key ending feels satisfying for a film that both plays by genre rules while bending them. The film is a great mixture of charm and brutality that won’t win over everyone but will find itself championed by those with a taste for films that stray off the beaten path.

Saddle up and settle in for the ride, just make sure you don’t eat while you’re watching.