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The Criterion Collection: Solaris Blu-ray review

Andrei Tarkovsky’s extraordinary adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris is quite rightly heralded as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. Languidly paced, heavily imbued with religious and mystical symbolism, and meditating on love, memory, and faith, it is by no means a thrill ride through space. It is instead a film that uses space to look inward and explore what it means to be human.

When a Soviet cosmonaut returns from the space station circling the planet Solaris, with tales of strange sightings, bizarre activity, and mysterious deaths, a psychologist – Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) – is sent to investigate. Solaris is an ocean planet, and the ocean has it’s own consciousness. When scientists and cosmonauts have probed end explored this consciousness, the planet has probed right back. Mining the minds and memories of the crew, they have been driven to madness by what Solaris has shown them. When Kelvin arrives, he finds the remaining crew in a very unstable way.

Before long, the planet explores the mind of Kelvin, and he finds himself being confronted by his dead wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) who committed suicide many years previously. The film evolves into something akin to a philosophical ghost story, with Kelvin being haunted by this physical manifestation of his own memories. Is this a blessing or a nightmare? Tarkovsky explores this with his trademark disregard for traditional narratives and audience expectations. His long takes, and poetic sensibilities eschew what could be a setup for sci-fi-horror, and insteads ask us to ponder what is love, and what does it mean to be human?

Solaris is an extremely long film, and Tarkovsky’s pacing can make it feel even longer, especially in the early parts of the film. Patience and an openness to reflection are key to fully experiencing this film. Despite the weighty themes and subject matter, this remains Tarkovsky’s most accessible film.

If you’ve only ever seen Solaris on the old Artificial Eye VHS release, you have to buy this. It almost goes without saying, but it is startlingly beautiful. With it being such a struggle to get anything made under the Soviet regime, Tarkovsky was a filmmaker determined to make everything he committed to celluloid count, and mean something more than just the image. Hence every frame that makes it to the screen is a work of art.

✭✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
Moana Blu-ray review

2016 was a bumper year for animation, with the likes of Kubo and the Two Strings, Zootropolis, and Your Name all being critical and commercial hits for their respective studios. Added to this already wonderful selection is Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker – the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

Drawing on the myths of the Pacific, the prologue tells of the exploits of shapeshifting demigod Maui – how he stole the heart of Te Fiti (a life giving Island Goddess) and in doing so unleashed monsters, and a slow, creeping death to all life in the Ocean. One of the monsters – a fiery lava demon known as Te Ka – defeats Maui, who loses his powers, and the heart of Te Fiti in the process.

A thousand years later, on the paradise island of Motunui, we meet Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) a feisty and independent young woman, destined to be the chief of her people. She longs to explore the ocean, but is forbidden by the elders. When the fish disappear from the reef, and the fruit turns to rot, and the island starts to die, Moana defies her father and ventures beyond the reef on a quest to save her people, and also discover who she is truly meant to be.

There is nothing particularly new about this story, but it is told with boundless enthusiasm, and bounces along to Mark Mancina’s score, and the tremendous original songs by Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton star gives Moana some of the best songs to appear in a Disney film since the glory days of Menken and Ashman. There were many debacles on Oscar night, but Moana not winning Best Original Song is most definitely one of them. City of Stars is a catchy little ditty, but it barely registers next to “How Far I’ll Go”, or the hilarious and spectacular Bowie-influenced “Shiny” sung by Jemaine Clement’s giant, blinged-up crab, Tamatoa.

On her journey across the great sea, with just a poor demented chicken named Hei Hei (hilariously clucked by the wonderful Alan Tudyk) for company, Moana finds Maui – the arrogant demigod, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and must convince him to return the heart, and undo the damage he has done. Their bickering relationship provides the heart and comedy of the film. Johnson, as we all know has tremendous comic ability, and even gets to show off his not too shabby vocal range with the up-beat and egotistic “You’re Welcome”.

It seems almost a given in modern cinema that 3D animation is staggeringly detailed and visually stunning. I hope I never become so jaded a viewer that I take these things for granted. Moana is a film so beautiful, in so many ways, and so visually dazzling, I find watching this film to be an incredibly emotional experience.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho gives a soaring vocal performance, and imbues Moana with such spirit and strength. She is a modern and capable Disney heroine. When she tells Maui that she is not a princess, he wittily retorts that she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick. But that was old Disney. Jared Bush’s screenplay, following the likes of Brave and Frozen is much more progressive. This is no princess looking for her prince. This is Moana.

Joyous songs, spectacular animation, and an inspiring and diverse central character. This is Disney at the top of their game.

✭✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
Snowden Blu-ray review

One of the most fascinating news stories of modern times, and a real black eye for the Obama administration, the NSA leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden is just the sort of story that Oliver Stone excels at. A thrilling, politically charged, ripped-from-the-headlines biopic, about a man who knew too much, and his life-changing decision to share what he knew with the world.

The film opens in Hong Kong in 2013, with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to tell them what he knows. We then flashback a decade to Snowden as a Special Forces recruit. He is a conservative, patriotic, hail to the Chief, young republican, politically forged in the aftermath of 9/11. When a double leg-break ends his military career before it begins, he winds up taking his self taught computer skills to the CIA.

Stone intercuts the narrative between Snowden working for the CIA, and later the NSA, with the tense meetings with the journalists, hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room. His paranoia effectively portrayed through the visual of him logging onto his laptop underneath a blanket, so that no one can see him typing his passwords. Seeing how he goes from “America…FUCK YEAH!” to Public Enemy Number One, is one of the most fascinating elements of the film.

This emotional journey runs parallel to his relationship with liberal photographer Lindsay, an excellent Shailene Woodley. She is with him on all his assignments around the world – Switzerland, Japan, Hawaii – and their narrative helps to keep the story relatable. Make no mistake, when this film gets techy, it becomes almost impenetrable. It would be easy to zone out, but Woodley and Gordon-Levitt are terrific, and keep the focus on their love story.

Then in Geneva, Snowden is shown not only what the NSA (and CIA and GCHQ) is capable of, but what they are actually doing to their own citizens. The mass surveillance, and constitutional violation of hundreds of millions of people. Does your laptop have a webcam? They are watching. Does your cellphone have a camera? They are watching. Does your cellphone have a microphone? They are listening. Ever used a search engine? They know what you searched for.

This film will make you want to destroy everything electrical you own, and then drop off the grid. It is frightening stuff, and Stone never lets you forget the stakes of Snowden’s actions. His best-case scenario is life in jail. But rendition, torture, interrogation, and execution remain hanging over him. The sequence where Snowden copies the files, and then has to go through security to leave work is a stunning example of expertly crafted tension.

The film boasts an incredible cast – there are so many recognisable faces it is almost distracting – with Joseph Gordon-Levitt at it’s heart. The film lives and dies by his performance, and he nails it. His Snowden is a morally compromised, politically conflicted, flawed young man. It is a superbly balanced performance, and exactly what the film required. Elsewhere we have Rhys Ifans and Nic Cage, both having a whale of a time as his CIA mentors, chewing the scenery to pieces.

What holds the film back are the questions that Stone fails to ask about his subject. Knowing what he knows, and how the Intelligence community operates, why does he keep going back to work for them? After Geneva, why didn’t he leave it all behind? Is he addicted to the intel, or to the power that comes with knowing all this classified information? Is there a streak of self-interest in what he does?

Snowden is a functional thriller about a very politically relevant subject. For a more thorough examination of this story, be sure to seek out Laura Poitras’ Academy Award Winning documentary Citizenfour.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Criterion Collection: Lone Wolf and Cub Box Set Blu-ray review

Based on the now legendary Manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub is perhaps best known to Western audiences through the cult exploitation film Shogun Assassin. An English dubbed re-edit of Baby Cart at the River Styx – with elements of Sword of Vengeance also spliced into the finished product – Shogun Assassin toured the grindhouse circuit in America, and nearly found itself caught up in the Video Nasties scandal here in the UK. This plush re-issue from Criterion brings all original six films to blu-ray for the first time, and even includes Shogun Assassin in the supplementary features.

The saga begins with the harrowing execution of an infant lord, by the Shogun Assassin himself Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama). The intro is leaden with exposition, setting up the politics, the rival clans, and various factions of the all-powerful Shogunate.

When we next meet Ogami, he is a sword for hire, wandering the countryside with his infant son in a baby cart. Flashbacks reveal the tragic murder of his wife by ninjas, and the elaborate plot to set him up as a traitor to the shogun, in order that a rival clan takes over his role as executioner. It is ridiculously complicated for such a simple story.

Each film in the saga, sees Ogami and his son Daigoro getting into various adventures – usually involving being hired to rid the world of some bad guys – whilst also furthering his quest for revenge against the evil Yagyu clan. Not as visually stunning as the samurai films of Kurosawa, or as noble and serious as the Samurai Trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki, the Lone Wolf and Cub films offer a more visceral experience. Stylishly filmed, and bursting with colour, they look great in HD thanks to this new transfer – although there’s perhaps a little too much definition for some of the shonky makeup and fake facial hair.

The inventive action is, and always will be the main selling point for these films. The duels are exquisitely choreographed, and often hilarious in their over the top violence. The frame is frequently filled with lots of lovely bright fake blood, spurting, spraying, and splatting everywhere. The many incredible weapons and uses that Ogami makes of the baby cart is also an endless source of mirth. Likewise with the incredibly expressive face of Daigoro as all this carnage unfolds around him.

Tomisaburo Wakayama is no Toshiro Mifune, but he completely dominates these films with his brooding central performance as the vengeful ronin. An expert martial artist, and veteran of hundreds of film, his portrayal of Itto Ogami remains his signature role.

Lone Wolf and Cub is a cult classic, filled with beheadings, scalpings, dismembered limbs, gratuitous nudity, and more arterial spray than is anatomically possible. It is a pure comic book aesthetic, and it is easy to see how its popularity has endured. Look no further than Tarantino’s Kill Bill for an example of its influence. The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves owes it a significant debt.

As previously mentioned, one of the special features in this box set is the 1980 presentation of Shogun Assassin, given the HD treatment as well. There’s also a new interview with Kazuo Koike, the writer of the original Manga series. The disc also includes a 2005 documentary about the making of the series, entitles Lame d’un pere, l’âme d’un sabre. Finally there is a new interview in which Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse discusses and demonstrates the real sword techniques that inspired the manga and the films.

✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Blu-ray review

It was always going to happen. A franchise that lucrative was never going to rest easy, and so somewhat inevitably (a mere five years after He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was vanquished) J.K Rowling invites us once more back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This prequel of sorts promises something fresh and exciting, set as it is in 1920s New York, but also remains tethered to the original saga. The opening sets up a magical world currently being terrorised by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald – a name no doubt familiar to those who paid attention to the Potter films.

Our new story follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard arriving in America with a suitcase full of magical creatures. One of them escapes, and Newt’s attempts to recapture it lead him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a local No-Maj (an American muggle). There is an unfortunate and rather predictable case swap, and poor Kowalski ends up with a bunch of magical creatures let loose in his apartment.

Meanwhile, Newt is finding New York to be a very politically charged place. There is high tension in the wizarding community, compounded by the enforced segregation from the No-Maj’s. The magical world is ruled by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) a highly regulated political body, a bit like the Ministry of Magic. Acronym fans prepare to be delighted further, as we also have the NSPS to contend with – the New Salem Philanthropic Society. A small group of fanatical witch haters.

When Newt is brought before MACUSA by disgraced auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) we learn that there is a beast loose in New York openly terrorising the No-Maj world, and threatening to expose the magical community. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) the Director of Magical Security is leading the investigation. Is Grindelwald linked to these attacks? Is Scamander? There’s a lot going on in these scenes, with lots of chewy mouthfuls of exposition, and lots of characters destined to be more important in future films.

So we have Newt, Tina, Kowalski, and Tina’s sister Queenie (the fabulous Alison Sudol) running around the city trying to capture magical creatures. Based on the title of the film you’d think this was the main plot, but the film is so determined to set up something bigger and more serious, this just becomes a subplot that slows the narrative down. Elsewhere there is a very dark story strand involving the New Salem folk, riffing on occult horror, and strongly hinting at child abuse and torture. Seriously dark stuff.

Redmayne, cashing in some of his Oscar chips for his first big franchise role certainly looks the part as the young magi-zoologist. Scamander is most definitely a triumph of costume design. The actor however is making some strange choices with his performance. Awkward and introverted to the extreme, he plays Scamander like Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis film, but somewhere on the autism spectrum. It’s an interesting choice – and one suspects it was his, rather than Rowling or director David Yates – but it does not make for a particularly engaging hero.

Visually the film looks good, but not as good as you would hope. Some of the CGI looks rushed, and Yates only scratches the surface of evoking the Jazz era New York of the 1920s. It feels as if he’s holding back by trying to keep Fantastic Beasts looking as if it belongs in the Potter universe. He’s still using that same “grey and ominous” colour palette from the final Potter films. This film should have been bright and exploding with colour. I was hoping for Gatsby with wizards, but instead got Rain Man with drizzle.

There is one lovely sequence however, where the secrets of Newt’s suitcase are revealed for the first time. It is the first moment in the film to have a real sense of magic about it, and remind you of that feeling you had seeing Diagon Alley for the first time. Unfortunately it is too rare a moment, in what is a very grown up film, dealing with dark and scary grown up themes.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
Bleed For This Blu-ray review

Boxing movies are a tough proposition. Whether fictional or based on a true story, there is very little we’ve not already seen, and they are ripe for cliché. There’s a lot of films already out there about working class bruisers, fighting their way off the streets, and then having one last shot to triumph against the odds. Bleed for This ticks all the boxes for the conventional boxing movie, but as a true story of such an extraordinary comeback – perhaps the greatest in sports history – it is never anything but immensely watchable.

The film starts promisingly, with a glimpse into the life of a boxer that is very rarely documented in films – the battle to make weight. As his opponent waits impatiently at the weigh ahead of their title bout, Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) is in his hotel room, wrapped in cling-film, pedaling like a maniac on an exercise bike.

Within the first five minutes, writer-director Ben Younger effectively tells you everything you need to know about Vinny Pazienza. As demonstrated by his attempt to make weight, we know he’s determined. Later that day we see him in the casino playing high-stakes blackjack, so now we also know he’s a gambler. Finally in his press conference before the fight he tells his opponent that he is willing to die in the ring. This all feeds into the decision he makes later in the film.

Vinny loses the fight, ends up in hospital, and is dropped by his manager, who declares to the press that his career is over. With no other options, the washed up Pazienza ends up in the gym of washed up trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), the man who coached Tyson in his prime. Rooney is now an alcoholic mess. These two underdogs are perfect for each other, and Teller and Eckhart are a terrific on screen double act. Rooney convinces Vinny to fight at his natural weight – two classes above his usual fighting weight, and then starts plotting his comeback. There’s a training montage. There’s a fight. Vinny wins against all the odds. The end….right? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

A few days after winning the title, a car swerves into his lane and Vinny is in a head-on collision, resulting in a broken neck. A fraction away from being paralysed, the doctors advise that he should have his neck fused. It will save his life, guarantee against paralysis, but the reduced movement in his neck means he will never fight again. This is unacceptable for Vinny, who instead decides to have ‘halo’ treatment, whereby a brace is screwed into his skull enabling him to heal naturally, and give him the chance to still be a boxer. The doctor tells him that one punch could sever his spinal cord. But we know Vinny is determined. We know he’s a gambler. And we know he’s willing to die in the ring.

The second half of the film intimately portrays the difficulty of Vinny’s recovery. From the overbearing family not sure how to act around him, to the exhausting and agonizing attempt to lift weights for the first time since the accident. Miles Teller absolutely dominates this film, and you can tell he is pouring every bit of himself into this role, and the comeback theme certainly resonates.

Bleed For This is something of a comeback for him too. Whiplash was an astonishing film, but when Hollywood decided to write the narrative for that film’s success it became the Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons show. Teller’s amazing contribution to Whiplash was largely ignored. Then there was the disastrous foray into superhero movies with the Fantastic Four reboot. Then he was cast in La La Land, and then unceremoniously replaced with Ryan Gosling. To top things off there was the cringe-inducing Esquire profile, which led to a lot of snap judgment and ridicule.

This all feeds into his terrific performance as Pazienza. Additionally, for the first time in his career, the facial scars from a car crash in his youth are not covered with makeup, but shown in detailed close-up, adding to the damage of the character.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about where the film goes from here, whether you know the story of his comeback or not. This is a sports film after all. Younger’s portrayal doesn’t show things in quite the way it happened in truth, but it hardly matters. If any story deserves a bit of Hollywood gloss, it is this one.

✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
A United Kingdom Blu-ray review

In her follow up to Belle – a film that tackled both the personal and political in its examination of racism and slavery – Amma Asante explores similar themes but on a much larger canvas. A United Kingdom tells the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), who upon marrying a white English woman, creates a political storm that threatens the future of his country.

The woman in question is Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who meets Seretse when is he is a law student in post-war London. She falls in love with him almost immediately when she hears him speak passionately and idealistically about politics and imperialism. Their romance is quickly and beautifully sketched by Asante, with Seretse’s proposal coming before the film even hits the 15-minute mark. It is believable, thanks in no small part to Guy Hibbert’s excellent writing, but it is the performances of Pike and Oyelowo that really sell it.

Her father disapproves. His friends disapprove. Small-minded idiots attack them in street. But nothing deters them. They are in love, and nothing will get in their way. But their love was more than just a race scandal. There were diplomatic and geo-political consequences to their relationship. And it is through Pike and Oyelowo, and the deft way in which Asante depicts their romance, that we truly believe that their love was strong enough to withstand this pressure.

News of their engagement spreads quickly, and the UK government intervenes in the shape of Jack Davenport’s Sir Alistair Canning. He advises that a black King, installing a white queen would have consequences, not only in the British Empire controlled country of Bechuanaland, but in the neighbouring countries too. The main concern of the British is that it would insult South Africa, who are about to enforce apartheid.

They wed discreetly and the film then shifts to their arrival in Bechuanaland, where Seretse must convince his uncle and the people of his country to support him. If his decision to wed a white woman tears the country in two, it will make them vulnerable to other countries in the region, specifically South Africa. In these scenes, Oyelowo reminds us of his incredible skill at delivering speeches. His call for tolerance and acceptance sadly strikes some very contemporary chords. He wins the support of his people, but the British banish him, leaving Ruth all alone in her new country.

Asante pulls no punches in her depiction of British imperialism. The betrayals, the oppression, and the exploitation all carried out by the colonial powers are a sickening reminder of Britain’s crimes in Africa. With Seretse banished, the British allow an American mining company to begin prospecting the land for diamonds. Jack Davenport and Tom Felton both give suitably sneering, boo-hiss performances as the colonial representatives for the region.

The second half of the film does slow down slightly, as it becomes more of a political drama, and the relationship of Ruth and Seretse takes a back seat. This is of course inevitable when dealing with a true story where the protagonists were separated for a long period of time, but the film sadly does lose something as a result. When Pike and Oyelowo are on screen together the film soars. When they’re not, it kind of stumbles.

The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Asante evokes post-war London beautifully, and the sumptuous visuals filmed on location in Botswana are as good and grand as anything in Out of Africa. Bolstered by terrific, stoic performances from Pike and Oyelowo, A United Kingdom is a romantic, entertaining, and politically important film. It’s a fascinating and overlooked true story that deserves to be widely seen, and should quite rightly mark out Amma Asante as one of Britain’s most exciting and relevant filmmakers.

✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Criterion Collection: Multiple Maniacs Blu-ray review

Where does one even begin to try and review Multiple Maniacs – John Waters’ second feature length film? A film that exists so far outside the realm of conventional cinema it defies all criticism. A film made by outsiders, for outsiders. On first release it played on the underground cinema scene, to audiences of hippies, bikers, and speed freaks. Watching this now, on a pristine Criterion Collection blu-ray somehow seems wrong.

Taking inspiration from the Tate murders, and the Manson family in general, Multiple Maniacs sees Waters’ regular muse Divine (performer and drag queen Harris Glenn Milstead) as the leader of a travelling freakshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. The show – featuring puke eaters, armpit lickers, live sex, and a convulsing smack head trying to go cold turkey – is just a ruse however. The show’s MC, Mr. David (David Lochary) lures in the squares, straights, and rich pigs, so that Divine and her merry band of murdering, thieving freaks can rob them. And kill them if necessary.

There’s no technique evident anywhere in this film. From the hilariously shonky opening credits onwards, there is no real skill on display. Everything looks and sounds amateur. The camera work is terrible, constantly going out of focus. Then you’ve got the actors fluffing their lines, repeating themselves, and improvising all over the place. It is, as the tagline suggests, a celluloid atrocity.

But this is all utterly beside the point. John Waters is a cinematic provocateur, not a serious filmmaker. Certainly not when he made Multiple Maniacs anyway. Even as he matured and moved into making more commercial films in the 80s and 90s, such as Cry Baby, Hairspray, and Serial Mom, he didn’t suddenly become Fellini. But then Fellini never filmed a sex scene in a church between a lesbian and a 300lb drag queen having rosary beads stuffed up her arse.

This film might be trash, but that was entirely Waters’ intention. The end of the 60s was a different world. This was the time of Warhol, Vietnam, Manson, and experimentation. The peace and love era was fading into something nastier and more paranoid. Waters wasn’t trying to create a work of art, he wanted to make something that would shock, and appall, and alienate those daring enough to sit through it. And if you do sit through it, you are treated to a final ten minutes that is so unexpected, and so original, it makes the entire sleazy enterprise worthwhile. I won’t spoil the ending here, but if you don’t know what happens, please don’t look it up. It ain’t divine, but it sure is special.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Light Between Oceans Blu-ray review

After the gritty and emotionally raw double bill of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance allows a few softer edges to enter the frame, in this sweeping and romantic drama. Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a traumatised survivor of the Great War. Scarred by his experiences, he seeks isolation from the world, and takes up a post as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Western Australia.

On the mainland he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander) a young girl sensing escape of her own, and the two fall for each other, sending love letters across the sea until they are eventually married. She moves to the island, and all is well. The honeymoon period for this beautiful couple is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. The pastel skies, the blue ocean, the slow dissolves, and the stirring strings of Alexandre Desplat’s moving score, all come together to give the film a romantic streak a mile wide.

Tom and Isabel long to raise a family, but Mother Nature is seemingly not on their side. After two very traumatic scenes of miscarriage, fate intervenes, and a decision is made that will change their lives forever.

When a small boat is spotted crashing in the waves, Tom and Isabel run into the sea to rescue it, and find it occupied by a dead man, and a baby. Isabel, still grieving her recent loss, and driven by her urgent and powerful desire to be a mother, immediately falls in love, and convinces Tom that they keep the child. Tom goes along with this, but is far more conflicted than Isabel.

Fassbender and Vikander are tremendous in these scenes, tapping into primal emotions. Isabel is finally a mother, and nothing is going to take that from her. There’s a beautiful and harrowing moment, where Tom, conspiring to cover their tracks has to remove the grave marker for his most recent still born child. It’s identity taken by the child they themselves have stolen.

Tom soon discovers the identity of the baby’s real mother (Rachel Weisz), which only adds to his torment. Weisz has very little screen time, and her role is vastly underwritten, but she is a class act, finding depths in the character that were perhaps not there in the writing.

Cianfrance’s pacing of the story, as it was with The Place Beyond the Pines, is the biggest problem with the film. It all grinds to a halt in the lethargic third act, which seems to go on interminably. It’s never a good sign when you start looking at your watch, and it’s an even worse sign when the characters you’ve spent 90 minutes with suddenly start behaving like different people. There are some very contrived character beats in the final third, that completely undermine what you’ve already seen, and serve only to remind you that you are watching a piece of fiction.

It’s a shame, because whilst this was never going to be a big awards contender, it could have been a terrific old-fashioned weepy.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Accountant Blu-ray review

There’s something kind of charming about The Accountant, in it’s complete disregard for the basic language of cinema. It’s as if the filmmakers had three half decent ideas for films, couldn’t decide which one to develop, so crammed them all into a meat grinder, and gave us this flavourless sausage as a result.

Make no mistake, this is a crazy terrible film. Horribly structured, with a plot that sets up things that never happen, offensive characterisations, hilariously bad flashbacks, and a stellar cast being utterly wasted on this garbage. However, it would not surprise me if in years to come, The Accountant has taken on some sort of weird cult appeal. It is unashamedly bonkers, but so earnest and straight-faced in its ridiculousness, it is almost funny. It’s a film Nic Cage should have been in.

Instead we have Ben Affleck, a man who never seems happy to be at the top of his game. Twice now in his career he has reached the top of the Hollywood A-list, and both times he has shown no interest in consolidating his position. Instead he chooses awful projects, ends up as tabloid fodder, and invariably becomes a punch-line. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a forensic accountant, who aside from doing people’s tax returns, has a sideline in cooking the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. That’s not all, he’s also a deadly assassin. Wait there’s more….he’s also autistic, which doesn’t really add anything to the character, other than explain why he’s a mathematics genius. Yes that’s right, The Accountant is another film that treats autism as a superpower.

Wolff is being hunted by Treasury Agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) who might as well be called Basil Exposition, because that is the only purpose he serves. In one truly extraordinary scene two-thirds into the film, Agent King sits down and explains the entire plot. Whatever happened to “show don’t tell”?

Meanwhile the plot revolves around Wolff doing the accounts of a large robotics firm, trying to find out who has been stealing money from the company. Elsewhere there are shady assassins trying to take him out. In the middle of all this, the director Gavin O’Connor keeps flashing back to Wolff’s childhood, where his army bastard father thought that violence would cure him of his condition. There is one unintentionally hilarious, sepia-tinged flashback to an army base in the Far East, where he is being taught how to fight by a martial arts master. It’s like something from an early JCVD movie.

His father growls at one point, “aggression correctly channeled overcomes a lot of flaws.” Not in a script this bad it doesn’t.

✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
Nocturnal Animals Blu-ray review

For his sophomore effort, fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, has adapted Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, and in the process has crafted one of 2016’s most beautiful, provocative, and problematic films. A multi-narrative noir thriller, concerned with revenge, masculinity, and class, but utterly soaked in misogyny. Seriously, this film hates women.

Amy Adams – giving her second awards worthy performance of 2016 to be largely ignored by voters – plays Susan, a rich and successful art gallery owner, unhappily married to an unfaithful husband. One day she receives a parcel from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) – it is the manuscript to his novel: Nocturnal Animals.

As Susan starts to read the novel, the narrative of the book is dramatized by Ford, switching the action from the cool art scene of L.A. to the sweaty, sun-baked hell of West Texas. It tells the story of Tony (also Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered fella taking a road trip with his wife and daughter. They encounter some local roughnecks on a quiet back road in the dead of night. It is a sequence of superbly orchestrated tension and escalating dread. The smell of sex and the threat of violence oozes from every frame. Something horrific happens, and Tony is set on a dark path of vengeance.

We cut back to Susan, appalled at what she is reading. What could have possessed that sweet boy to whom she used to be married, to write something so violent? She begins to think about her relationship with Edward, and so the film adds another layer of narrative as we flashback 20 years to the early days of their time together. Something happened in their past that inspired this book. Something that she did to him. And now the book is his revenge.

Ford handles the time-shifts and film within a film with a deft touch. Each story arc builds and compliments the other. The only element that doesn’t really work is the present-day real-world scenes of Susan reading the book. No matter how beautifully you film it, a person reading does not make for great viewing.

That being said, the film truly is an aesthetic triumph, though I think we’ve been brainwashed to expect nothing less form Ford, despite him only having made two films. It is a beautifully shot film, with an artist’s eye for colour and composition. Adams and Gyllenhaal are excellent, but the real star turn comes from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, almost unrecognisable as the ringleader of the attack on Tony’s family. It is a career best performance.

For all it’s artistic merits however, Nocturnal Animals leaves you with a foul taste in your mouth. Whilst the film is most definitely open to multiple readings and interpretations, the depiction of women is deeply troubling. From the bizarre slow motion opening sequence of obese naked women dancing, to the glamourised tableau of sexual violence, and finally the sadistic psychological abuse meted out on Susan. Does she really deserve this? You’ll have to watch and judge for yourself. But that all of this stems from a man’s wounded masculinity is extremely disturbing. 2016 will long be remembered for a victorious political campaign built on sexism, misogyny, and hate. Nocturnal Animals is very much a film of its time.

✭✭✭1/2

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Criterion Collection: Cul-De-Sac Blu-ray review

A real oddity from the back catalogue of Roman Polanski, Cul-De-Sac is an absurd comedy-cum-psychological thriller. A film with an incredibly bleak view of the world, even by Polanski’s standards, it poses far more questions that it ever attempts to answer. Toying as it does with conventional genres, but then always taking an unexpected turn, Cul-De-Sac can make for a quite frustrating viewing experience.

It begins with a car being pushed along a tidal causeway by an injured man. In the front seat is an even more gravely injured man. They have Tommy Guns. They have clearly been involved in some sort of heist or gun battle gone terribly wrong. The man pushing the car is Dickey, played wonderfully by the gravel-voiced tough-guy American actor, Lionel Stander. The man dying in the front seat is Albie (Jack MacGowran). This immediately throws you off balance. How did a Tommy gun toting American gangster end up in a remote corner of the Northumberland coast? A question the film never answers, and one you imagine that Polanski didn’t give a second thought to.

Dickey seeks shelter at the isolated Lindisfarne home of a married couple, George (Donald Pleasance) and Teresa (Françoise DorlÉac). George is a timid and somewhat effete retired businessman. We learn that he cashed in his fortune, bought this castle, and swept away with his young French bride – the bored and beautiful adulteress Teresa.

Dickey sneaks in and uses their telephone to contact a mysterious Godot-like crime boss (Mr. Katelbach) to help get him and Albie out of this mess. George and Teresa – in the middle of a rather kinky piece of cross-dressing foreplay – discover Dickey in their house, and through force of will and personality alone, he takes the couple hostage.

The setup very much leads you to believe that this will be a typical home invasion horror. But that would be too normal for Polanksi. Once the pieces are in place, Polanski is very much in his comfort zone – making his characters squirm in increasingly uncomfortable claustrophobia and paranoia.

The next hour of the film is devoted to the shifting power struggles between Dickey, George, and Teresa. Polanski uses this unconventional trio to explore themes of class, sex, and masculinity. George has been systematically stripped of his masculinity. Dressed in his wife’s nightgown, and constantly hen-pecked by her, whilst she fucks the young neighbour. Then comes Dickey, this giant, deep-voiced brute to slap him around in his own home.

When some of George’s old friends pay a surprise visit – in order to avoid difficult questions – Dickey is forced to pose as the butler, allowing George to shift some of the power back in his favour – even if it is only fleeting. This sequence is the comedic centre of the film, however the despairing bleakness really drained the laughs out of it for me. Yes there is a certain amusement to be found in the vicious barbs, and absurd farcical scenarios, but the tone of the film is relentlessly grim.

Visually, Cul-De-Sac is never anything but wholly arresting, full of strange angles, close ups and exquisite monochrome. But this is mid-level Polanski at best. Not thrilling, insightful, or funny enough, to ever really pull it all together.

✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Criterion Collection: Mildred Pierce Blu-ray review

Mildred’s been given a makeover. A stunning 4K restoration no less, from the lovely people at the Criterion Collection. Forget the HBO mini-series, this is the definitive release of the definitive version of Mildred Pierce. Appearing on the surface to be a domestic melodrama, this astonishing film – framed as a confessional thriller – effortlessly shifts into an expressionist shadowy noir.

Narrated by Mildred – an Academy Award winning Joan Crawford, who was third choice behind Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck – the film tells the story of a woman utterly determined to give her daughter everything she could ever want. Her daughter Veda (Ann Blythe) however is a vile, scheming, ungrateful, materialistic, social climbing parasite.

Mildred’s myopic devotion to this awful child takes her on a journey from a home-maker, to a hard-working waitress, and eventually a successful restaurateur. But nothing is ever enough for Veda, and we soon catch up to where the film began – with Mildred, resplendent in her fur coat, in a police station, following the murder of her second husband.

This is terrific, tormenting melodrama, anchored by two truly fearless performances from Crawford and Blythe. Michael Curtiz brings a visual flair and hard-boiled pulp technique to proceedings, twisting and subverting this story of a woman living the American dream and turning it into a rotting nightmare. Wonderful stuff.

✭✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
My Oscar Predictions

This has felt like a very long awards season. And now that we’ve reached the final curtain, no one seems to care about the awards anymore, as now it’s all about what the winners are going to say. This says a lot about the current political climate, but also quite a bit about the standard of films up for Best Picture.

Yes they’re all good, but if they truly represent the best pieces of cinematic art over the past 12 months, then my goodness it must have been a mediocre year. I think most people would agree that Arrival, La La Land, and Moonlight more than deserve to be up there – regardless of some of the more recent, sniffy think-pieces that have been written about them. But the rest feel very middle of the road. Making up the numbers, where other far more compelling films could be competing instead – hello Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Kubo and the Two Strings, I, Daniel Blake, Victoria, The Witch.

But hey, forget all that, this is the hand we’ve been dealt, and these are the films we’ve been told are the best, so let’s shower them with adulation, before we quickly forget they exist.

Here are my predictions for where the awards will go.

Picture: La La Land
Actor: Denzel Washington
Actress: Emma Stone
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis
Animated feature: Kubo and the Two Strings
Cinematography: Moonlight
Costume Design: Jackie
Director: Damian Chazelle
Documentary Feature: O.J Made in America
Documentary Short: Extremis
Editing: La La Land
Film in a foreign language: Toni Erdmann
Makeup and Hairstyling: Star Trek Beyond
Original Score: La La Land
Original Song: City of Stars
Production Design: La La Land
Short Film animated: Piper
Short Film live action: Sing
Sound Editing: La La Land
Sound Mixing: Arrival
Visual Effects: The Jungle Book
Adapted Screenplay: Arrival
Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea

I’m notoriously bad at predicting these things, but there you have it. We can all laugh at how terribly wrong I got it in the morning.

John ParkerComment
La La Land review

No point burying the lede. I absolutely adored La La Land. It is beautiful, bittersweet, and incredibly moving. But above everything, it is a whole lot of fun. Never underestimate a film that makes you laugh, cry, and leave the cinema with a beaming smile on your face. La La Land is an old school slice of Hollywood happiness. Bursting with colour, comedy, romance, and catchy tunes you'll be humming for days. A joyous ode to cinema's rich history, riffing on the New Wave films of Jacques Demy, the Technicolor musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age, and tipping it's hat and tapping it's toes in the direction of Casablanca and An American in Paris.

Emma Stone stars as Mia, an aspiring actress going from one dehumanising audition after another. She works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot, and attends Hollywood parties in the hope of one day being discovered, and living the life she has dreamed of since she was a child. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist, reduced to playing Christmas music in a restaurant in order to make ends meet. He is a purist and passionate advocate of jazz - an art form he fears is dying. His dream is to one day own his own club.

They meet, they cute, they sing, they dance, they fall in love. Anyone who has seen (the excellent) Crazy Stupid Love will know these two have chemistry to spare. If you have even the tiniest spark of romance in your soul, you will fall as hard for Mia and Seb as a couple, as they do for each other. Stone has never been better, and looks set for a very busy awards season. An audition she goes to early in the film, where she receives bad news on a phone call, is heartbreakingly good. Gosling is on equally fine form, once again displaying the terrific comic timing he put to such good use in The Nice Guys. It is a classic leading man performance, full of charm, wit, and charisma. He’s also handsome, not sure if you’ve heard.

You may also have heard that they aren’t the most polished singers and dancers. It’s true. They’re still bloody good though; don’t let anyone tell you any different. They’re just not going to trouble Fred and Ginger anytime soon. Let’s face it (*puts on Gandalf voice) there are few who can. That being said, the “A Lovely Night” sequence, as they try to convince themselves that they are not falling for each other, and they dance together in front of that magical amethyst coloured sky, is destined to become a classic.

It is in the second half of the film where Chazelle really starts to get into the meat of his story. Mia and Seb have found love and happiness in each other, but their dreams still remain unfulfilled. What are they willing to compromise in the pursuit of art? Where will their ambition take them? Chazelle's exploration of this conflict is truthful and painful, and elevates the film to greatness.

But even whilst the film delves into weightier themes, his control over the tone is impeccable. The film never loses its sense of fun, and humour, and playfulness. He balances this all the way to the breathtaking finale. A sequence of such bravura, bittersweet brilliance, you can’t fail to be moved. La La Land truly is an irresistible force.

John ParkerComment
The Criterion Collection: His Girl Friday Blu-ray review

Screenwriting is a discipline filled with rules and best practices. It’s one of the reasons there are so many “how to” bibles on the shelves of your local bookshop. The likes of Syd Field, Bob McKee, Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, and many many more have made excellent livings out of showing (never telling) us the best way to write screenplays. One of the most repeated dictums in this complex art form is the “white space rule”. Less is more. Don’t use thirty words when three will do. The more white space there is on the page, the faster the script will read, and thus the reader is more likely to keep turning the pages.

But of course, rules are there to be broken, and you’ll find no finer example of the white space rule being obliterated with words, than Howard Hawks’ comedy masterpiece His Girl Friday. A film so wordy, and with dialogue that comes so thick and fast, keeping up with it is a challenge. This is screwball comedy done to perfection. Fast, fluent, and full of gumption.

Cary Grant plays the unscrupulous newspaper editor Walter Burns, who after learning that his ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell) herself an ace reporter, is about to remarry and settle down in suburbia with a dull insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy), decides to foil these plans and lure her back. Knowing she won’t be able to resist, he asks her to cover one last story, whilst simultaneously scheming to have Bruce arrested for any number of bogus crimes.

The plot fizzes in unexpected directions, turning from a sparky rom-com, to a drama of journalistic ethics, veering off to slapstick screwball, and then becoming a thriller about a death-row criminal. And before you know it, it’s a sparky rom-com again. That this works so well is in no small part down to the talent and chemistry of the fabulous trio of lead actors. But for making this all seem so effortless, when surely nothing could be further from the truth, the credit should of course go to Hawks, and his screenwriter, Charles Lederer. To negotiate such tonal shifts, with so much dialogue flying in every direction, it is a masterclass of both writing and direction.

His Girl Friday is a hilarious, and genuinely timeless comedy, bursting with wit and one-liners. Not many films have aged as well as this one. In the opening two scenes (the newsroom and the restaurant) Grant and Russell establish themselves as one of the all time great screen double acts. Aside from the incredible verbal dexterity, their every expression, gesture, and nuanced phrase is a work of exquisitely timed comic genius. An absolute joy.

✭✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis – Blu-ray review

There are few animated films that can boast a pedigree as grand as Metropolis. Based on Osamu “the Godfather of Manga” Tezuka’s legendary graphic novel, which was in itself inspired by the 1927 Fritz Lang masterpiece, and written for the screen by the creator of Akira, Metropolis was a film always destined for greatness.

A mind-blowing mix of hand-drawn and computer animation, Metropolis tells the story of a vast and splendid futuristic city, where humans and robots live side by side. The exquisite backgrounds and cityscapes are nothing short of spectacular. The vision, the detail, and pure unbridled imagination on display from the filmmakers is awe inspiring. The panning shots across the city, with the “camera” zooming through the mega-structures and down into the subterranean levels are especially incredible.

So engrossing are the visuals in fact, that on first viewing it is difficult to keep track of the plot. That Metropolis has enough plot to fill a 10-part mini series doesn’t make things any easier. Trying to make sense of it all is almost impossible, so I’ll just say that at the centre of the film we have a story about a plutocrat who wants to use the most advanced robot ever built (who is a replica of his dead daughter) to further his plans to dominate the world. Around this we have a detective story, an organ harvesting scientist, a political conspiracy, a working class uprising, a vicious gang of robot killers, a love story, and serious metaphysical questions of identity and being.

Indeed the plot – though ambitious and filled with fascinating ideas – is the weakest element of the film. Some of the character motives are unclear (although some of this may be lost in translation – something not uncommon in Japanese animation) and there are ultimately too many strands for it to come together in a wholly satisfying way. However, the artistry transcends any flaws in the storytelling. And whatever the story lacks in coherence, it doubles down on emotional heft. The final scenes between Tima and Kenichi could extract tears from even the most jaded viewer.

Accompanying you on this visual adventure is a truly extraordinary soundtrack. You would perhaps expect a synth heavy score, a futuristic pulse of electronica. You would be wrong. The director (Rintaro) instead went with discordant New Orleans style jazz. At times this is very distracting, but weirdly also in-keeping with the epic visuals, and frenetic depiction of the vast city. The inclusion of Ray Charles’ version of I Can’t Stop Loving You to play over the climactic sequence however is an inspired choice.

The disc comes in a high-definition presentation, with both Japanese and English audio soundtracks. There are three optional subtitle tracks (US theatrical, Original Japanese translation & newly commissioned subtitles for the English language track. Also on the disc is a feature length documentary – The Making of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. There are interviews the filmmakers, multi-angle animation comparisons, and the original trailer.

✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
The Criterion Collection: Black Orpheus Blu-ray review

Marcel Camus’ Palme D’Or and Academy Award winning Black Orpheus comes to blu-ray this week, thanks to a sumptuous restoration from the good folk at Criterion. This retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a whirling explosion of colour, vibrancy, and swiveling hips, with almost every scene of the film bouncing to the rhythm of the bossa nova beats.

Camus cleverly transposes the story into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during the famous carnival. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) has run away to Rio to escape a man she believes is trying to kill her. He is portrayed in the film as “Death” himself – a looming figure in a carnival skull mask. Eurydice stays with her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia), who along with Orpheu (Breno Mello) and his beautiful and demanding fiancée Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), is a performer in the carnival. Orpheu is a trolley driver, but true to the myth is also a musician and poet. His songs charm and seduce all those who hear them. He and Eurydice fall in love, but the looming spectre of Death, and the violent threat of the scorned Mira drives them apart.

If you are familiar with the ancient myth, then you will no doubt know where all this is going, and it ain’t good. There’s a reason these stories were called Greek tragedies. However, even in the darkness of the underworld, there is a real exuberance to the film. Camus’s simple framing of the action focuses on the kinetic performances of the actors, whilst the non-stop samba music captures the joy and pulse and undeniable malevolence of the carnival.

For viewers who have only seen Rio on film through the hyper violent prism of crime thrillers such as City of God and Elite Squad, then Black Orpheus is unlikely to appeal. A story of dirt poor romantics, who just want to dance and love and sing, based on a tale thousands of years old, I fear will not have the same draw as the dealers and criminals portrayed in modern Brazilian cinema. But they would be missing out. Rio has a long history of being depicted on screen as either a playground for the rich and beautiful, or as being a war zone for the impoverished underclass. Using the classical story as a framework, Camus depicted something altogether different. A tangible picture of Rio’s black community, a world away from Copacabana beach, yet also a stirring fantasy melodrama of love, music, song and dance.

✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment
One last look back….the best (and worst) of 2016.

There haven’t been many years as strange as 2016. We voted to leave the EU. Our American cousins voted to leave the world of rational thought. War raged in the Middle East. Acts of terrorism shook the very core of our society. And in what seemed to be a never-ending parade of heart-breaking grief, some of our greatest and most iconic heroes took leave of this mortal realm.

In a year when all that happened, it seems wrong to trivialise it by talking about film. But that’s exactly what I am going to do. Losing yourself in pop culture has perhaps never been as important as it was in 2016. We have never needed escapism more.

To begin with, it was one of the worst years for studio blockbusters in recent memory. Week after week we were subjected to one bloated catastrophe after another. The tone was set by the shambolic mess of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After that, it seemed that every big release took on the challenge of trying to be louder, dumber, and more boring than BvS. Thankfully, they didn’t all succeed.

Threaded throughout the year were cinematic treats a-plenty. From mega budget superhero flicks, to tiny art-house indies, and fascinating true-life documentaries. We saw the crowning glory of the MCU with Captain America: Civil War. We also got the first Star Wars film outside of the Skywalker saga, with Rogue One. It was rather bloody good too.

At the other end of the budgetary scale we had Taika Waititi’s majestic (or should that be majestical) adventure through the wilds of New Zealand, with The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. There was no shortage of terrific films from the continent this year, including Sebastian Schipper’s extraordinary single-shot masterpiece Victoria.

Creed breathed new (and surprisingly emotional) life into the Rocky franchise. The likes of The Witch, Lights Out, Don't Breathe, and The Conjuring 2 ensured it was a bumper year for horror, whilst Arrival and Midnight Special showed us the beauty and true potential of contemporary science fiction.

Before we get to my personal Top Ten, there are some notable exceptions that I didn’t get around to seeing in 2016. These include I, Daniel Blake, Under the Shadow, Nocturnal Animals, Love and Friendship, and Son of Saul, to name but a few. They are all very much on my “to view” list for this year.

Other notable exceptions are the great films that didn’t quite break the top ten, such as The Nice Guys, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Eddie the Eagle, and Deadpool. A special mention should also be made to two absolute bona fide originals that graced our screens this year – Swiss Army Man, and The Love Witch, directed by auteur extraordinaire Anna Biller. Both are so good, I already regret not including them in my top ten!

Then there's the films that promised so much, but failed to deliver in spectacular fashion. The ones that didn't make us angry, they just disappointed us. Suicide Squad, Independence Day: Resurgence, Jason Bourne, The Magnificent Seven, The BFG, and X-Men: Apocalypse, I am looking at you.

That's enough of the garbage, let's get to the good stuff. Without further ado, here are my picks for the Top Ten Films of 2016.

1. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople - The funniest, most charming, and heart-warming film of 2016. Like a shot of cinematic happiness straight into your bloodstream, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Taika Waititi’s follow up to What We Do in the Shadows is an absolute joy from start to finish. Sam Neill is on exceptional form as the gruff woodsman “uncle” Hec, but it is Julian Dennison as wannabe gangster Ricky – living the skuxx life – who steals the show. Confronting serious issues with the deftest of touches, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a modern masterpiece filled with more heart and humour than a simple comedy about getting lost in the woods has any right to be. Simply wonderful.

2. Arrival - Perhaps the most timely arrival in cinematic history, Denis Villeneuve's beautiful and compassionate science-fiction masterpiece is exactly the film we needed back in November, whether we deserved it or not. As political, social, and racial divides expand into dark thoughtless chasms of hate - where grotesque parasites like Trump, Farage, and their ilk flourish - Arrival is a stunning and humanitarian jolt to the senses. Amy Adams should win awards for her incredible central performance.

3. Captain America: Civil War - From the moment Tony Stark uttered the words “I am Iron Man”, this is what it has all been leading to. All those films and post-credit-stings later, with the threat of intergalactic war looming, The Avengers are torn asunder in spectacular fashion in Captain America: Civil War – the crowning glory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far.

4. Santoalla - A thrilling documentary about a Dutch couple, Martin and Margo, who move to a rural village in Northern Spain to get away from the trappings and regulations of modern society. When Martin suddenly and mysteriously disappears without a trace, a deeply moving and shocking story emerges. 

5. Room - Lenny Abrahamson’s incredible adaptation of the bestselling novel, gave us two of 2016’s most lauded performances. Brie Larson’s Oscar winning turn, and Jacob Tremblay as her young son – both held captive in a tiny room by the man who kidnapped her and raped her. With material this dark, Abrahamson and his two stars expertly walk the tonal tightrope, balancing the horror and tension with moments of true beauty and light. A magnificent achievement.

6. The Witch - A puritan family put down roots on the edge of a dark and ominous woodland. Is there something in the woods that is terrorising them? Or is it something closer to home. This atmospheric and deeply unsettling horror provides no definitive answers. But it will chill you to the bone.

7. Victoria - Most single shot films are a bit of a novelty. A gimmick that wasn’t really done in one take, as you can usually see where the cuts happen. Not so with Sebastian Schipper’s incredible Berlin set thriller. Not only is it definitively one single shot – the film is so gripping, and the characters so engrossing, that you forget it’s all in one take within about five minutes. Utterly extraordinary.

8. Hell or High Water - A modern day Western for post-recession America. Two brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster go on a spree of bank robberies, targeting the particular institution that has been robbing and repossessing land from people across the state of Texas. They are being hunted by Jeff Bridge’s grizzly Texas Ranger, an old school lawman who might as well have spurs on his heels. A terrific and gripping piece of cinema, veined with humour, and featuring a final quiet confrontation that is completely spell-binding.

9. Maggie's Plan - Rebecca Miller’s fifth film is one of the best romantic comedies of recent years. Starring the wonderful Greta Gerwig as Maggie, a young woman who wants to be a mother (just without the complication of a bloke in the picture) the film is at once sweet, funny, intelligent, complex and utterly delightful. This is like classic era Woody Allen. It’s THAT good.

10. Supersonic - I was a teenager growing up in the North West of England when Oasis first came to prominence. To say they were a band that meant a lot to me would be a huge understatement. To say I was predisposed to love this film would also be fair. That being said, it is an absolute riot of a film, carried along by fucking awesome tunes and the incredible dual narration of Liam and Noel. Such funny and honest storytelling is a real rarity. 

Now onto 2017.....it promises to be a good one.

John ParkerComment
Fright Night Blu-ray review

What better way to stave off the Christmas blues, than with the wonderfully timed Boxing Day release of this cult 80s classic, making a long overdue appearance on blu-ray here in the UK. This reviewer fondly remembers Fright Night as a video store staple of a bygone era, renting it multiple times over the years, and basking in it’s hilarious gruesomeness.

Writer-director Tom Holland, beat all those 90s post-modernists like Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson by a good decade, with this sly and knowing comedy horror. Paying a loving homage to classic vampire and werewolf movies, whilst also referencing Hitchcock, and the contemporary teen movies of John Hughes, Fright Night dared to be different in an era where “nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.”

William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, an ordinary enough teenager who lives on a street that kind of looks like the same one from The ‘Burbs, if every house was owned by the Klopeks. He has a girlfriend (Amanda Bearse), he lives with his spaced out single mum, he has a weirdo best friend (cult favourite Evil Ed, played with energetic gusto by Stephen Geoffreys), and enjoys watching Fright Night – a late night horror show presented by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a washed-up ham actor. A kind of D-list version of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. Charley’s only real problems in life are that he sucks at trigonometry, and his girlfriend Amy won’t let him cop a feel. Then a vampire moves in next door.

Not just any vampire either, but the one and only Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) – the smoothest vampire in movie land! Charley tries to convince everyone that Jerry is a bloodsucking vamp, but no one believes him. His efforts ultimately achieve nothing, apart from pissing off Jerry. Not a wise move. With nowhere else to turn, Charley seeks out his idol, Peter Vincent and begs him for help. McDowall is undoubtedly the star turn in Fright Night. He plays Vincent with exactly the right amount of hammy earnestness, and is hilarious as a result.

It all builds to a superbly gory climax, with special effects legend Richard Edlund doing practical wonders with the film’s tight budget. One epic death scene in particular manages to be spectacular, gruesome, and emotional, albeit in a schlocky 80s sort of way. And thanks to Holland’s sharp direction, and winning performances from a game cast, Fright Night accomplishes the holy grail of horror comedies, by being both horrific and funny. Not as easy at it sounds.

To top it all off, the disc is packed with extras. Presented as both a dual-format special edition, and also a limited edition steelbook, the film has undergone a stunning sound and picture restoration. The prize feature, made exclusively for this release is You’re So Cool, Brewster, a new two-hour documentary on the making of the film. There’s also a series of new featurettes with cast and crew interviews, a focus on Tom Holland, and a loving profile of Roddy McDowall: From Apes to Bats, featuring archive footage of the great actor. The disc also includes the 2008 Fear Fest panel, which reunited the entire cast. Director Tom Holland is interviewed in a three-part video with Ryan Turek from Shock Till You Drop. The Steelbook comes exclusively with a new essay by horror film scholar Craig Ian Mann. All in all, it’s a bloody good release.

✭✭✭✭

This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus

John ParkerComment