johnnyboyz

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Now You See Me
(2013)

It's not really a kind of magic, but it is oddly watchable in spite of what is wrong with it.
Actually, my card in the opening was the Queen of something. It was red - Hearts, I think. Honest(!) And yet, it wasn't SUPPOSED to be the Queen of Hearts; it was supposed to be something else, something more obvious and yet at the same time just as random. "Now You See Me" is like that - cheeky without necessarily being obnoxious, playful without being disagreeable. You know what you saw, sort of, and your head tells you one thing while some other part of your body cries out something else. It's a good opening - one that commands your attention as the character literally speaks into the camera, but ultimately one which opens a film unable to command as much awe as it thinks it is able to. Like any slight-of-hand trick, it is more style than substance.

Much has, of course, been written about how cinema itself is essentially a magic trick; an illusion created by projected light and a series of still images moving rapidly in order to create the impression of motion. We know what we watch is often not real, though sometimes it can be, and on other occasions it is difficult to entirely discern. "Now You See Me" is a strange, warped celebration of this fact - a little fatuous, but it uses the bare-bones of the joyous idea of trickery to propel it, and it is good fun while it lasts.

The film tells the story of four New Yorkers, bound by the ability to feign illusion to varying extents, being brought together by an unseen character in order to conduct a series of daring public shows. Danny (Jesse Eisenberg) and Henley (Isla Fisher) are your standard stage-magicians, while Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and Jack (James Franco) more resemble con-artists, with Harrelson in particular specialising in the conspicuous art of mentalism. One day, out of nowhere, they each receive suspicious tarot cards which inform them to frequent a local address (a Youtube analysis by Plebtier questions as to whether or not anyone would actually go), only to find it mysteriously unoccupied but for a small presentation which binds them for the rest of the film.

Within one year, the group, nicknamed The Four Horsemen, are in Vegas conducting what looks like the robbery of a bank on the other side of the world via the bending of space and time. Here, the crew pick a Parisian man out from the crowd; send him into his bank's vault and then seemingly suck millions of currency out, over the ocean, and into the arena - betraying science in the process. And yet it must have happened, because we saw it happen, don't we?

The actions of the Horsemen attract the attention of Mark Ruffalo, who plays an FBI agent by the name of Rhodes, and who, along with a French Interpol agent, seeks to find out just what the Hell is going on. His introduction sees him storm, typical for the archetype, down a corridor in a police station; enter an office; fire off his dialogue and get on with things. Later on, he will sit dishevelled at a bar and consume alcohol in very small glasses. Cliché or diversion? The Horsemen in custody, no one can actually prove anything in spite of the show - are you REALLY going to charge someone for defying physics? Propping the film up is their manager Tressler (Michael Caine), who keeps them under his wing. Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, plays Thaddeus Bradley - an ex-magician who profits from revealing the secrets behind other magicians' tricks and who serves as a sort of direct communiqué to the audience when they are most scratching their heads.

The film repeats what it does during its opening stunt on a further two occasions, the last of which ties in with the film's climax, creating something which is at once quite stupid but strangely watchable. The film is stuck in a strange no man's land between what is believable in the real world and what we consider movie escapism - if we accept that aliens can come down to Earth and turn into automobiles in one film, why can't a handcuffed magician transfer the keys to his cuffs into a coke can AND break free in the process? Because it's impossible, that's why.

It is a curious thing the film has essentially drawn influence from the first "Ace Ventura" for its plot, though more curious is that we are asked to believe a Frenchman could've been so persuaded to go to Vegas in the first place; that this motley group might be able to perform armoured van heists; rig explosive getaways and that Caine would be stupid enough to go back to New Orleans if he had history there. Again, we turn to the analysis of Plebtier - when a character steals a black sedan during an escape, it seems as if he does so by chance, yet the film would have you think it was part of a wider, carefully constructed plan involving a crash on a bridge.

By the time the film ends, what have we actually seen? The idea, though far from watertight, is quite good fun - it is too convoluted, though is a good crack up to the point it stops and I was, to its credit, still into it by the time the final act was rounded off. There is a whole ream of questions one could ask related to FBI background checks; the presence of GPS bugs in cell phones; how you organise all this without even meeting your insider; why Danny and Henley would even turn to high-scale crime in the first place, and I don't think all of it adds up, though I did enjoy the journey to realising that not all of it adds up...

Tomorrow Never Dies
(1997)

Falling well short of its predecessor, Tomorrow Never Dies sputters into life for a while but fizzles out by the end.
Some of the very worst of what can characterise the James Bond franchise saturates "Tomorrow Never Dies": the lazy bricolage; the product placement; annoying political correctness; the emphasis on action and not espionage or mystery, while much of what is supposed to be synonymous with it is often nowhere to be seen: the localities are often drab or urbane; the cars are unexciting; the women too hard bodied. It has a polished, digitalised sheen to it - laser shows and glass skyscrapers dot the experience and there is all but a total absence of plot.

In essence, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is a loose remake of "You Only Live Twice" with bits of "The Spy Who Loved Me" thrown in for good measure - there is the billionaire who seems to mean well; the rising threat of a war between two superpowers and the presence of a female spy from the other side helping out. There is a lot of 'movie' action, whereby second unit material transpires without actual attention to anything, so cars needlessly smash into shop-fronts when there might have been a patron inside; motorcycles come down through residential ceilings, but conveniently avoid crushing people. I read the film was rushed and had its problems during production. It shows.

All said, it is easy to remain on side with the film for its first third, despite its missteps; the opening, goofier than "Goldeneye", sets the pace in depicting a race against time as Bond (Pierce Brosnan) attempts to fly some nuclear weaponry out of an arms bazar before a British rocket wipes everyone out. Was there a need to escape so aggressively? Sure, set the odd explosion off to create a diversion, but what else? Getting out with the plane, a villain in the rear attempts to choke Bond to death, (unwise if you didn't want to crash), as a pursuing jet tries to shoot them down anyway - a situation remedied by the most explosive ejector seat in history and the most penetrative helmet.

Cut to a British warship in the South China Sea, which thinks it's in international waters, but is correctly informed by the Chinese air-force it isn't because, unbeknown to anyone, the ship's radar is being jammed by men working for media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who's looking to capitalise on warfare for monetary purposes. Words are exchanged but nothing happens, so Carver's side sink the battleship from the confines of their undetectable vessel and shoot down a jet. Both sides blame the other. Carver, however, makes two mistakes: his interference of the radar is carried out from his Hamburg base and then, more stupidly, he publishes the story in his newspapers before anyone could realistically have known anything.

This is the cue for, less-so an espionage-driven mystery like "Goldeneye", where contacts are met; investigations made and a puzzle comes together because we know exactly where we stand, but instead for an exercise in second unit material as the already flimsy plot from the forty minute mark comes apart at the seams. Some of the stuff in Hamburg, Bond's first point of investigation, works quite well - the idea of an ex-partner, now the wife of the villain himself, is an interesting idea and there are some good scenes between Bond and Teri Hatcher's character. Milling around is Michelle Yeoh's Chinese agent Wai Lin, who is not given formal introductions and acts more as this spectre looming around doing her own investigations, which I found quite effective. When she first meets Carver, he asks her informally to call him Elliott, despite being married, and so foreshadowing the demise in the relationship with his wife.

Alas, beyond the discovery of the encoder device used to jam the satellites of the ship in the opening, there is very little to get excited about. We are aware of there being a mere forty-eight hours to war between the British and the Chinese, but the film mysteriously lacks tension as the clock ticks down; all of the pieces have been moved into position too early on, and there is nothing left to do but watch the game play out. The idea of a media baron, someone capable of bringing down (or putting in) governments, and implanting views into people's minds via television and magazine content, views they would not normally possess, is, however, still as striking now as it was in 1997. Carver, physically weaker than Trevelyan before, stands as a sort of Lex Luthor to Brosnan's Superman - his stature effectively put across via large mug-shots; tall, dominating glass buildings and quick-witted headline-style putdowns.

But the film is, ultimately, a dud; possessing too many hallmarks of a bad blockbuster - in the end, the set burns because, what else? A character by the name of General Chang plays a pretty important role in the overall scheme of things, but is never even introduced and, so far as I can tell, escapes. Wai Lin and Bond's coming together is efficient enough, but executed too hastily, and let's not look past the fact Yeoh was present to sell tickets in the Far East. All this in mind, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is a difficult entry to get excited about.

Lucky Jim
(1957)

Lacking something which prevents it from truly sparking, but often mildly amusing none-the-less.
It is both predictable, not to mention often a little asinine when discussing these things, but Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" novel works more efficiently than its adaptation. I thought it very easy to admire how well Amis got under the skin of his characters in his 1954 book - the quite crippling uncertainty its eponymous lead faced down in being kept on another year in his job; the fact he loathed the son of his boss; his friend Margaret's depressive state and the uneasy bond they happen to share. Certainly, the film misses a trick in not telling its story from a first person perspective, something which would have really allowed much of what Amis wrote to shine through in the form of voice-overs as the lead wades through the various situational mires he finds himself in.

"Lucky Jim", both the novel as well as this filmic adaptation, seem to occupy a strange place in history. They are works about rebellion, or at the very least the spirit of rebellion, set around a place of education and involving people very much attuned to an older guard coming up against someone whose feelings on much of what the older guard epitomises are, at best, susceptible to distrust. Made prior to the 1960's, it is tempting now to look upon the adaptation (less so the novel, whose writing has enabled it to withstand the test of time) as rather antiquated, in spite of its themes, though this is pre-eminently down to the immense power the counter-culture revolution had not long after it was made. So powerful was it, in fact, that it swept away near enough all that preceded it, including this very film. I imagine there was probably a very small window between about 1957 and 1966 wherein "Lucky Jim" would have been at its absolute zenith as an unruly comedy threatening upset, but not for long after.

We are informed during the film's opening shots that the action is to take place around a red brick university for the new 'Elizabethan age'. It is to be the sort of establishment which looks to the future with heady optimism; desperate to train the Francis Drakes and the Walter Raleighs of tomorrow - those who will become people synonymous with Britain's prestige and, I suppose, the sort of global indomitability you associate with explorers - in essence creators of the empire. Hindsight tells us, of course, that far less has come of the Elizabethan age than perhaps the captions were hoping, never mind the generations born therein it.

Occupying the rooms within the walls of the university itself sit the staff, dressed up in their extravagant gowns in an amphitheatre of wood panelling as they roll through their administrative business. A point is then made of how diametrically opposed our lead is to where he works in this regard when we move from the visuals of the above to surroundings more familiar to Jim Dixon (Ian Carmichael): a small rented room in a modest house sporting a bed; a basin and just enough space for everything he needs. A lecturer in history at the university, Dixon has a number of things to juggle to begin with, primarily as to whether he will be kept on for the following year as the summer approaches by the establishment figure Professor Welch (Hugh Griffith), before obtaining a few more besides.

The joy is supposed to lie in watching Dixon's situation go from bad to worse, as a mountain of problems pile up with little in the way of a quick-fix presenting itself. Much of it is effective because so much of it lies in the fact Dixon is so powerless to solving what he stares down: the lecture he's asked to give on a subject he cannot seem to grasp and disagrees with anyway; getting a straight answer on the future of his job out of Welch who, at the best of times, seems too spaced out to even realise he risks losing Dixon, and a newfound attraction to the girl Welch's son, Bertrand (Terry Thomas), is dating.

This last problem is exacerbated by a friendship Dixon has with a certain Margaret Peel (Maureen Connell), a scatty and sometimes neurotic young woman who does not even appear in the film before other characters have had the chance to inform Dixon to 'watch out' for her. This is something thereafter confirmed to us when, having observed Jim in a casual conversation with yet another woman on campus, she merely assumes they were in a relationship and cannot help but be a little offended. Interestingly, though ultimately to the film's detriment, Peel's suicide attempt out of her husband leaving her prior to the events of the novel seems to have been left out of the film, perhaps for reasons pertaining to the want to have the film appear lighter in tone.

But it is Amis' crisp writing, his paragraphs wherein Carmichael's character outlines what he's thinking and feeling are those which we miss most; the pessimistic, self-deprecating passages in a novel whereby Jim never quite has a grip on things: 'He felt the loyalty we all feel to unhappiness, the sense that that is where we really belong'; the mentioning of three cats somebody once owned named Ego, Superego and ID.; the frank conversations about love and relationships Dixon shares with Peel. Carmichael gives a very good performance with what he' offered of a man, in Dixon, building and building to the end of his tether, though the film too often feels like a series of quirky instances strung together for sake of a farcical laugh to be something one can love.

Idiocracy
(2006)

I'm With Stupid. Thoroughly amusing take on modern American life which is well worth checking out.
I think I understand what's going on here: a film aficionado is supposed to watch "Idiocracy" and laugh at how stupid everyone else is for not watching independent films, right? Or, at the very least, films that actually have something to say about something. Well, maybe it is a little self-gratifying to now and again think of one's self as intelligent and everybody else as not being up to your own standard, but, let's say you were in the position Luke Wilson's protagonist finds himself here... Just how DO you grow crops properly? Or fix economies? Indeed, how many of the famous faces during the opening did you recognise? And how many should an intelligent person spot?

Joking to one side, it is, broadly speaking, too late, isn't it? The world Michael Judge creates in "Idiocracy", some 500 years into the future, has its blueprint in our own time now: Destruction Derbies and WWE are popular; politics is spectacle, White House discourse is a joke; Presidents are blowhards - in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they are also bodybuilders; movies make millions of dollars yet suck; society and popular culture have been saturated by sex and sexuality, and a plummy voice often induces mockery.

If there was one moment in Judge's dystopia which struck me more than any other, it was when the protagonist of a television programme entitled 'Ow, my balls!' (don't ask) is ambushed by a member of the public and kicked in a place you should not need spelling out to you. This was primarily out of the fact it replicates true-to-life instances of people being incapable of telling apart televised fiction from reality, as when especially nefarious soap characters are confronted on public transport by fans of the show or Paul Eddington is congratulated on doing such a great job as Prime Minister, despite only playing a fictitious one in "Yes, Prime Minister". We are already here, aren't we?

"Idiocracy" tells the story of Joe, played by the aforementioned Wilson, who is a lowly desk clerk on an anonymous American air base early in this century. His job, like his life, is safe and easy; he doesn't want trouble and doesn't test himself - just to work for long enough to build up a pension and retire. Joe is dragged out of this bubble by the higher-ups for a hibernation experiment, which is outlined in a manner I usually detest in films via exposition and slides, but is actually here very funny. He is meant to be asleep, or frozen, in a special pod (a little like the crew members of those spaceships in science-fiction for long journeys) for one year so that the authorities can observe its efficiency. Alas, something goes wrong, and due to the secrecy of the experiment, both he and a sex-worker named Maya (Maya Rudolph), whom was also selected for the experiment, awake to find themselves five hundred years into America's future.

This simple enough premise provides Judge the opportunity to hold up a mirror to American, indeed Western, society - what might our attitudes and culture lead us to? What happens when we keep aiming as low as we do? Judge's future struck me, via its architecture and the characteristics of its inhabitants, as an odd amalgamation of Las Vegas and the Deep South - seemingly the two cultural hubs of present-day America Judge fears having the most influence on its future. In the America of "Idiocracy", people are suddenly incapable of stringing together a handful of words and dress atrociously; commercialism reigns, so much so that people actually walk around with advertisements on their shirts. Unfettered materialism and consumption have led to piles of garbage the size of buildings; society is so sexualised that prostitution has infiltrated everyday cafés. Many of the women, in fact, walk around in tight tops which accentuate their cleavage - I imagine this is Judge playing a trick on the audience - if we like looking, we're as stupid as the rest of them, right?

From merely a generic standpoint, there are a lot of laughs, and the material is a lot better than merely dumping a load of stupid characters into a piece and having them say or do stupid things for easy laughs. Joe's lone friend already belonging to this nightmare-world is a certain Frito (Dax Shepard), whose house his hibernation pod initially crashes into, but whose idiocy carries such poised authenticity for the world Judge creates that we can go along with the joke without feeling like the mentally challenged are being mocked.

Crucially, Judge gets the basics right - we like the protagonist and there is a sense of urgency as he seeks to evade capture from the authorities of this brave new world. What Judge has made is something character driven - Joe, when we first meet him, is watching wrestling on TV, bored on the job, and that the film concludes with him running his own violent gauntlet for means of everyone else's entertainment cannot be a coincidence. Eventually, he will also come to learn of responsibility; that having some kind of input is important in life and that you cannot just keep evading this stuff.

More recently, people (curiously on both sides of the political spectrum) have taken to describing the here-and-now as being the arrival of Idiocracy, particularly in the wake of President Trump, but let's remember it was Bill Clinton on TV in 1992 playing the saxophone in his sunglasses which did its bit in sapping the substance out of politics, or dumbing down important decisions. For another comedy which plays by no one's rules which has something to say on contemporary society; culture and where it might take us, see 2013's "God Bless America", but see this as well.

Fehér isten
(2014)

Doggone it - homeless hounds and strained familial relations run wild in this bold Hungarian drama.
Funny how 'God' is 'Dog' backwards. The title, "White God", an often shocking, though not gratuitous or exploitative, Hungarian drama seems to allude to the idea that dogs gaze upon human-beings as Gods: the keepers of sustenance; harbingers of healthcare; source of entertainment; in equal part capable of both love and wrath. How does one pitch the film? Try to image "Homeward Bound", in Hell, with just the lone mutt by himself. Did I enjoy the experience? I suppose so. Will everybody? I doubt it.

Certainly, from a technical standpoint, the film is quite stunning: the logistics involving large packs of dogs are impressively coordinated; the way the film conveys an animal's perspective of the world from the lower levels of the city streets is totally convincing and, most unnervingly, fights between dogs are realistic. It is certainly too sophisticated to be a genre or an exploitation film, so don't be fooled by any promotional material you might have uncovered of it being a 'dogs rising up' horror piece; instead, expect something more nuanced - something which dips into suburban family drama when it isn't treading close to the boundaries of what many might consider to be in good taste.

"White God" opens with some imagery which, I suppose, is designed to sell the film as some kind of horror piece: streets are empty, cars lie abandoned - everyone has disappeared. The whole thing has a sense of "28 Days Later" about it, suggesting something apocalyptical has happened or that we have lost control of society. From nowhere, a young girl cycles through, looking for something, and our appetites are whetted: just how did we get to this point? The film then flashes back to happier times: warm lighting on a summer's day and play in a park between young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen. She is dropped off by her mother at her father's house for a few weeks, her parents separated: we sense they are two very different people, in that she is off to Australia for a business conference - a high-flying, ladder-climbing modern woman - and he works in an abattoir.

We sense Lili and her father, played by Sándor Zsótér, have lost touch - the girl is perhaps, taking more after her mother than her father. He has bought for her a bottle of bubble-making fluid, inferring some time has passed between when last they met - she rejects it; she's 'not a little kid anymore.' Director Kornél Mundruczó moves things on to band-practise after Lili's father and neighbours take a disliking to the dog, impressively constructing a makeshift orchestra of sixth-formers building to a resounding climax while Hagen has been hidden in a cupboard and the conductor has been introduced as a teacher who does not take to fooling around. Back at home, Hagen is proving to be a problem - the government require legislature for dogs at properties, something father isn't prepared to pay for on account of despising his ex-wife. The situation comes to a hilt; Lili's ego gets the better of her, and the-actually-quite-amicable solution of leaving Hagen with a kennel for a smaller fee is binned for merely abandoning him at the side of the road.

What is curious about the film at this juncture is that it fractures into two separate strands: Hagen's misadventures as a vagrant hound and Lili's coming to terms with what has happened on top of her naturally unfolding life anyway. We follow Hagen around for a while, watching him make friends with other strays; salivate over sausages in the windows of butcher shops and dodge being caught by the pound, before things take an especially nasty turn. Mundruczó depicts all this in conjunction with Lili's life, as she struggles with the adult world and clashes with authority figures - inferring in the process a bind between the two and how, irrespective of your species, survival is hard-going.

It would be wrong to say that the harshly juxtaposed nature of either strand hurts the film, just that it is depicting, on the one hand, a rather harrowing narrative of life as a stray animal and, on the other, telling the story of an uneasy house-bound situation involving an adolescent and her father, the sort of story which might soar in its own feature. In opening the film with a rather dramatic edit from Lili playing in a park with Hagen to her father working at the slaughter-house, Mundruczó seems to attempt to highlight the fine-line between the roles animals play in our society: we love them and they are our companions, but we are cold and detached enough to kill others for the purposes of food. This is toyed with later on when a new owner of Hagen demonstrates his love for the dog when it turns out to be an especially good fighter.

It is, ultimately, a little tricky to know what to make of the film - it has its moments but it wobbles in what it's doing too often to awe us. Its balancing act, of that of a relationships drama between father and daughter and teenager and dog, is as good as it probably could have been without focussing solely on just the one strand and ignoring the other. What, for instance, happens to all the dogs once the events of the film have transpired? Additionally, I would doubt whether Lili's father would be a new-found convert to the blighters. Regardless, there is certainly something to be said about "White God".

Der Bunker
(2015)

Controlled madness and cutting black humour make The Bunker one to hunker down with
There are several messages one is able to take away from "The Bunker", an uproarious and quite clever black comedy from German director Nikias Chryssos: one is that education needs rigour, but that too much rigour can be dangerous; another is that families can eventually become suffocating and that progression is essential to development. Its lasting message seems to be that, ultimately, everybody moves at their own pace in life and that this isn't a bad thing, so long as you eventually get to where you want to go.

The film also seems to be an exploration of the twisted relationship between failure and success, a relationship which affects all facets of human life and a relationship we can all relate to: rewards for hard work and punishment, or repercussions, for not ascertaining a particular grade. Buried in there somewhere as well seems to be the notion that there is a particular pleasure derived from education, but an acute pain from scholarly failure.

The elusiveness of the film makes itself evident almost immediately - the rather harshly juxtaposed imagery of a well-clad man in the snowy wilderness, evidently a little lost but close to his goal, stumbling around some woodland to opening credits put to us in a wacky font and in bright primary colours. Known only as The Student (Pit Bukowski), he is a scientist looking for an isolated retreat advertised on the internet so that he may work in solitude on some important study to do with the Higgs Boson Particle. The titular bunker is this solitude, run by two people known only as 'Mother' (Oona von Maydell) and 'Father' (David Scheller) whose son, Franz (Daniel Fripan), lives with them.

But something is amiss, and it stays amiss. His room ends up being, quite literally, a bunker, which acts as an add-on to this quirky property. The advert said there would be a view of a lake, but the room doesn't even possess a window. The Student points out that no light can get in. 'Nor can it get out!' counters Father. Son Franz looks 35, but we are told he is only 8 - has he even left the house before? Researching the actor, Fripan's height is listed as 5"3, which might constitute as some form of dwarfism. Franz's mother and father behave strangely; when Student eats some dinner upon arrival, we note with unease as to how there is a revolver in the background attached to the wall which appears to be pointing at his temple; later on, Mother speaks to a voice which has appeared to manifest itself as a gash in her shin.

Taking its cues from directors such as Bobcat Goldthwait and Michael Haneke, specifically the sense of absurdist humour combined with a sense of complete unease, and from specific films such as "Dogtooth", Chryssos spins a plot to do with Student being torn away from his own work and roped into being Franz's tutor when it becomes evident Franz is failing miserably at the most elementary of things during home-schooling. The home itself does nothing to ease our sense of unease - it is littered with props which, at once, look as if they belong where they are and yet simultaneously appear totally unnatural to their surroundings: the model hand grenade on the mantelpiece; the way the wool bulges out of a sideboard drawer; the lamp stem which doubles up as a pole around which a topless woman appears to dance. In Franz's bedroom, plush toys hang, as if from nooses, above his bed, but they're just mobiles, right?

Chryssos evidently has an eye for both tone and aesthetic. We accept the film is unfolding in some kind of alternate universe, one whereby people do not immediately leave upon encountering a troupe of oddballs. The whole film is peppered with this nightmarish quality, emphasised in how ceilings in some rooms are too low for the characters; in how Chryssos seems to shoot certain scenes with a deliberately large amount of dead space in the corners of living and bedrooms, and in how he seems to position the camera much further away from a subject than it needs to be in order to encompass it.

In looking for parallels or commentary in the film, I did not find very many, although may have missed something entirely. As a piece of mise-en-scene, a bunker is, of course, a refuge from the outside world; a means of saving yourself and your (nuclear) family from an unwanted attack. Is there supposed to be something in German society taking aim at such a thing? Regardless, he seems to want to emphasise the bourgeois nature of Mother; Father and Franz in his peppering of the soundtrack with classical music and the educational rigour they put Franz through - Father even enjoys a politically incorrect joke or two, laughing at them in that way that suggests he's really not supposed to anymore, but I didn't see the film as an attack on the bourgeois or their system. Similarly, I'm unsure if Franz is supposed to represent a repressed demographic or class, and that everything The Student represents is their liberation.

It would be wrong to describe the film as a comedy wherein the laughs come so quickly, you're left to catch your breath, but that doesn't matter; "The Bunker" is something else, something a little more disturbing without being grotesque, although even then it may tread too far in that direction for some. For me, it found a wonderful place between certainty and ambiguity; causing offense and not; between horror and just being mischievous. It's an experience, but an experience I recommend.

Prometheus
(2012)

Back to the beginning and back to basics, sort of, with Ridley Scott delivering an Alien prequel of some worth.
For whatever reason, I cannot quite say whether or not I love "Prometheus" as a piece of awe-inspiring science fiction; merely appreciate it as a decent bit of B-movie story-telling, or ultimately feel it is lacking in too many departments to really like at all. It is a curious place to be, made more-so by the fact I have seen the film a number of times over the course of about two years, and do not seem to tire of it; yet, would in no way describe it as a personal favourite.

I hold no absolute brief for 1979's "Alien", nor its 1986 sequel, though I enjoyed both of them tremendously. I am not the sort of person who owns little models of characters and creatures from the franchise so that I might perch them on my shelf or desk; my bookcases are not lined with comics related to the series. I do not fawn over the 'lore' of these particular films, nor feel personally violated if something is added to it which is of a markedly poor stature - I come to something like "Prometheus" with a clean slate in this respect.

On the one hand, Ridley Scott's 2012 prequel to the series he initiated with the aforementioned "Alien" is a rollicking, and particularly good-looking, genre-movie whereby a crew of people explore a barren planet deep into space and find more than they bargained for. On the other, it is a piece of some considerable stature which looks at the role of religion in our world and what it means to be human at all: a contemplative piece about ideas and that all-too-rare animal, a 'event' movie with scope. In the end, I think it quenches enough of either stall without settling for being too much of one or the other - there exist far more complex-a science fiction films, yet this is a long way from mere standard fare.

"Prometheus" opens on Earth at what is, it later transpires, the moment life itself began. We begin with a montage of prehistoric vistas, a recurring image of which is the ground itself which seems to conspicuously harbour artery-like patterns. A muscular being, slightly akin to a human in appearance, consumes something which has a wretched effect on his well-being, causing him to collapse into a nearby river, terminating everything including his DNA strands. When this is all outlined to characters later on, one of them berates it for ignoring centuries of Darwinism; the joke here, I think, that Darwin estimated life began in water to some extent anyway.

Millennia later, in 2089, an archaeological dig involving our eventual protagonist Shaw (Noomi Rapace), and her partner in both life and work Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), sees them uncover ancient cave paintings, from which it is staggeringly deduced that the interplanetary beings of the opening have left a message asking humans to come and visit them. Not long after, we are back on familiar territory; this discovery acting as the cue for a team of scientists under the auspices of the Weyland Corporation to blast off to LV-223 (crucially, NOT the locality from "Alien") to find both the creators of life on our planet and the answers to tough questions: Why were we made? What is our purpose? Where do the creators themselves come from?

The film finds a healthy place between being far away enough from "Alien" without replicating it, but not too far so as to feel totally detached. There is a decent amount of both creature-feature and body-horror element, but the piece has its own story to tell - its own axe to grind. Like "Alien", a droid, in Michael Fassbender's David, is present, although unlike "Alien", it is made obvious to us much sooner. Twists and narrative reveals play a role in later events; there are some genuinely unpleasant moments, but it is not a freak show.

The film is driven by Rapace's character. We are made aware of her sticky history with religion; bereavement and faith, something which has consumed her enough to seek those who seemingly made us. What is at stake is not death by monster, although that sort of thing does rear up, but her own spiritual well-being in her unquenchable thirst for answers: the exterior threat in this instance being the spectre of an existential black-hole.

Her partner, Holloway, is fairly poorly written, but David, wonderfully portrayed, is sinister without being evidently malevolent - there is a certain efficient coldness in the way he sinks basketball shots and speaks to himself in mirrors during the voyage whilst the crew sleep. Devilishly, the mission briefing which unfolds at the end of act one does so via a hologram on a basketball court, a locality emblematic of a fast-flowing contest between two sides which, you might say, alludes to later events.

The film contains two sequences I thought a bit beneath Ridley Scott. The first sees two crew members run off at the sight of a 2000 year old carcass, but stop to pet a cobra-like creature which evidently does not want to be touched. The second is the behaviour of certain crew members in a dust storm when an item, which you feel would still be there after the weather, is dropped mere feet from the ship's entrance. The debris of the storm would almost certainly have smashed their helmets as they go out to get it. It is compensated by a later scene in a medical capsule, where a calm robotic voice juxtaposes the sheer panic of the situation and we are made to feel very uneasy.

Otherwise, I would conclude that "Prometheus" delivers. Ultimately, its religious symbolism is subtly woven in, so that blank 'white' spaces behind characters shot at high angles infer nothingness (or newfound atheism) once their crucifixes have been removed from them. These are consequently much more than just fancy-looking camera shots, and convey meaning. This, and more, is reason to see the film.

Rogue One
(2016)

Unremarkable action-laden sci-fi adventure, which does little but bridge a gap.
Well, at least we now know how THAT happened... I'm not sure what it means when all you can illicit after a film like "Star Wars: Rogue One" has come to its crashing, thrashing, resounding finale, is a shrug - a frown and a meekly appreciative nod of the head at how far special effects have come along, but it can't be good. Look, I don't necessarily dislike "Star Wars"; I just came to it too late on in life to be able to adore it. But is a film which bridges the gap between the events of the first trilogy and the second of the famous filmic brand really what the die-hards wanted? If what transpires therein "Rogue One" was any other science-fiction war drama, would we really be all that interested?

It strikes me that the mind behind Star Wars, George Lucas, did neither himself nor the name of Star Wars many favours when he decided to sell it on to the Disney corporation, a brand name more synonymous with child's films, or at the very least entertainment for children. That is not to say that all of Disney's output has necessarily been made for the youngest among us, but there is something inherently childish about "Rogue One" - it is a film for people who like noise and colour; its nucleus of heroes battling villains (toward an outcome we already know) is strikingly simplistic. By the end, I was struck by just how uncomplicated it all was.

Gareth Edwards' effort here is, as stated, the conduit connecting the first three episodes to the latter three - that seemingly dead filmic space between the coming of Darth Vader and the evil empire he seeks to use to command the galaxy, and the plans of a weapon of mass destruction being stolen from one of said empire's bases. I cannot say that said dead-space, never mind the events that transpired therein, especially captured my imagination having actually seen all six episodes, but I cannot speak for other people - one assumes they are not the same as those who were desperate to learn about what Hans Solo was like as a younger smuggler, or what the origin-story of Vader himself was.

Principally, there is a thematic in "Rogue One" somewhere about morality and good vs. evil. It is epitomised in two characters whom both work for Vader's Empire: Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a technician who has first developed the Death Star and then gone on to develop second thoughts, and Ben Mendelsohn's Orson Krennic, who works with Vader and is very much in love with the idea of a WMD. Anyone who has seen Mendelsohn's work in other films, particularly his native Australian ones, will know that he is probably one of the best actors working today, but is wasted here in being asked to snarl into the camera and pull exasperated expressions. Galen should be, and I suspect probably was in an earlier draft, the film's protagonist with Krennic the principal villain. This, I would surmise, was changed at some point to encompass Felicity Jones, who plays Mikkelsen's daughter Jyn Erso, as the lead - a move which was probably supposed to have an eye on feminism or diversity or something, but actually hurts the project.

As "Rogue One" rolls on, you can see what the initial, more interesting film, might have resembled: two men working for the same organisation seeing things from different sides; both working to thwart the other and building to a climax whereby these ideas blossom into a tense finale atop a skywalk, as all-out war unfolds around them. This is not the film we are presented with, but we get something instead with enough going on to engage us - the being taken to new worlds; the thrill of a pursuit; the quirky supporting acts which bump us along the road - commendation is in order for Edwards for refusing to pepper the opening acts with differing robots; aliens and other idiosyncratic creatures for sake of selling them on the shelves of toy stores.

Jones, as a young girl, is hiding on her parents' farm when Krennic comes calling for her father so that he may finish the Death Star. His refusal causes a tiff, a tiff from which Jones escapes into the world of underground resistance led by the eccentric Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whose mob is far from wholesome, and we appreciate how the film is trying to paint good in characters associated with the dark and bad in those synonymous with the alliance. Again, these ideas seem left over from a different, better, project and eventually come to nothing. Eventually, Jones takes it on to seek the Death Star's weak spot her father purposely created by way of the plans hidden in the depths of an enemy base. Tossed into the mix is a defecting Empirical fighter-pilot played by Riz Ahmed, which is an interesting idea, but we had seen this line of attack executed more efficiently the previous year with the John Boyega character in "Force Awakens".

For almost its entire runtime, "Rogue One" consists of hits and misses until its head-banging climax: the Death Star, when we see it, and despite knowing exactly what it's capable of, still manages to awe us when it gets going, which is good. One particular character, an ally, is a blind Chinaman whose forté is that he is good at marital arts and spouts Eastern philosophical tidbits, which is bad. Ultimately, Rogue One is an expensive diversion; a project Lucas probably wishes he himself had thought of when he had the rights to this pandemonium; an answer to that annoying question fans and whoever else like to ask pertaining to the Death Star's weak spot and how someone could be so stupid as to put it there in the first place. Well, after much thrashing about, that has now been buried. Congratulations...

Denial
(2016)

In denial, and that is final...
Two neo-Nazis confront one another in a conversation midway through the 2001 film "The Believer": one denies the Holocaust happened, the other berates him and says '...of course it did - why else would there be a reason to idolise Hitler if he wasn't responsible for the deaths of all those Jews?' Well, why indeed? We know the Nazis hated Jews and Jewry, first through the words of Mein Kampf and then through the post-1933 actions of their government when the race was socially marginalised; taxed unfairly; boycotted and then eventually had synagogues and any real-estate either vandalised or confiscated. We know concentration camps existed, but that they were different places in 1944 compared to 1934. We know that Eastern Europe was once swimming with Jews, but that now the population of Israel alone is something like a mere eight million. Where did they all go?

None of the above is, in essence, 'deniable' - we are aware it physically happened and in a very particular order, but what does any of it necessarily say about the fact there were/were not gas chambers at Auschwitz? 'At Auschwitz...' Raul Hilberg once said '...history was destroyed at the same time history was made'. Indeed, and the whole thing is still rumbling on - still creating its own kind of history - in the twenty-first century.

If the Second World War was fought on the grounds that Europe, even the world, was to be saved from Fascism, a constituent part of which is the removing of one's right to an opinion, should it not therefore be acceptable to allow one to one's opinion that certain elements of Holocaust are spurious? "Denial" is the taut drama, more a legal thriller, about the true-to-life case of British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) taking the Jewish-American academic Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) to court in 1996 on grounds of libel, a case which lasted for four years. It is something which eventually seems to spill out into a wider discussion on the holocaust's authenticity, when the matter is actually as to whether Lipstadt is right that Irving 'misinterprets evidence' and whether a gas fuelled genocide occurred at Auschwitz at all.

The film certainly presents itself early on as a piece depicting a battle of wits between the aforementioned two - deliberately introducing them doing the same thing, public speaking, with Irving cracking jokes to affluent elderly men somewhere after a dinner and Lipstadt giving a passionate talk on the issue of Holocaust Studies in her day job as a teacher. A few scenes later, the two of them clash within the confines of this very kind of venue as Lipstadt is giving a lecture; Irving interrupts and crisply rebuts her 'facts', even embarrassing her, but then resorts to shouting and is eventually escorted out looking like a bit of a crank. Determined not to let that be the end of it, Lipstadt is informed of the aforementioned libel case against her and battle appears to commence.

Despite this early pretext, what comes to transpire is Weisz's character essentially being depicted battling her male dominated legal team more than anything else, which occurs when they persistently advise her not to take the stand so as to allow the men to do the work. There is one woman in the team, however, but she's very young and it's her first time... Best to just let the men take care of it. I was struck, thus, by how strangely passive Lipstadt becomes in what seemed to be her own story as people do the work around her.

Despite being part-produced by the 'impartial' BBC (the basis for many of the film's incidental scenes often seem to lie in a 2000 interview with Irving on the BBC's "Hardtalk" programme), the film goes to some length to depict Irving as merely a bit strange: the way he feeds jelly babies to his daughter; the way he gazes out of a rain soaked window; his raft of hand-written journals that line his shelves, somewhat of a iconographical trope in the thriller genre of the mentally disturbed. But is it really so wise, despite the subject-matter, to suggest that the audience take sides?

One has to stress that there have existed instances of holocaust fabrication: memoirs written by people who actually spent the war in Switzerland; massacres in Polish towns attributed to the Nazis when, in actual fact, the USSR were responsible. Perhaps frustratingly, very little of this seems to infiltrate the film's universe. One must appreciate it is bound to depicting actual events and real people, but it struck me as an opportunity lost to be a little more daring. Irrespective, "Denial" offers much to get one's teeth into; knowing about as much as I did about the case, which was very little, going into the film no doubt enhanced the experience, a viewing experience I recommend.

Annie Hall
(1977)

Focussed and funny, Allen's "Hall" is a winner.
Thank heavens I know about enough of people like William Buckley and Marshall McLuhan in order to enjoy "Annie Hall"; thank goodness I know who Federico Fellini is in order to laugh at one of its jokes whereby his name is mentioned. "Annie Hall" is like that - it's in and out with a joke or a reference or a line of dialogue and, before you've even been granted the time to absorb it; digest it; appreciate it, it's flown on to the next one. It plays, in fact, a little bit like a stand-up comedy routine - it has a certain flowing evanescence to it, an absorbing self-confidence. It isn't flippant or chaotic - moreover, it is a film under almost the complete control of those who have made it; its poise refreshing and its influence on its genre coming to it now quite evident.

"Annie Hall" is, in essence, a somewhat conventional love story told in an unconventional, even peculiar, manner. It breaks the fourth wall; hops around two different equilibriums; plucks famous people out from behind house plants and speaks to them; interviews people in the street; uproots the action from one end of the United States to the other halfway through and, perhaps most jarringly, departs for an animated sequence involving the film's protagonist and an old Disney villain. And yet, at its heart, is a relatively simple exploration of love; relationships and what it means to really feel something for someone else.

Alvy, played by the film's director and writer Woody Allen, is a stand-up comedian living in New York with a kind of C-list celebrity status whose life is characterised by his comedic routines; games of tennis with his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and a persecution complex that all Gentiles secretly hate him (he mishears when someone asks him 'Did you...?' and 'Did Jew...?') He has already been married twice.

His story is one about a relationship with the eponymous Annie, played by Diane Keaton, who, just to complicate a film already dripping in postmodernism, happened to be Allen's partner at the time of the shoot; whose surname was originally Hall and whose real-life nickname was, indeed, 'Annie'. It cannot be a coincidence that, when they are first introduced to one another at a tennis club, they quite literally undertake this process of facing off over the net with one another, going head-to-head in what is a sport characterised by back-and-forths. Later, when they head back to hers for a drink and she serves wine, one of them must consume theirs out of a half-pint glass due to a lack of proper wine-glasses. It's a small detail but it cleverly infers Annie is not used to hosting.

The pleasure, in fact, from watching the film derives from the fact the subject matter is handled with a surprising amount of maturity, which clashes with the approach but never sees one overwhelm the other. It also derives from the fact the film, exemplified in the above, is made like a proper film: the camera is an active participant in the action and the message; the edits are rarely invisible; the approaches it takes to shooting specific scenes appear carefully chosen for specific reasons.

Take, for instance, the scene fairly early on, though deep into Alvy and Annie's tryst, whereby, in the dead of night, they lie in bed and talk over one another, unsure if they want to make love, and are shot from a perspective which is so far away, we are able to see the entire room and all its clutter. Eventually, a siren roars past outside and they call the whole thing off. The language of the scene infers degrees of chaos and mess in their relationship, a sharp contrast to an earlier scene under exactly the same circumstances when they are shot from a tighter angle, reflecting closeness, and in tones more synonymous with scenes of romance - low lighting and soft shadow.

But the film is more than a mere love story, the likes of which we may have seen a hundred times. It philosophises on relationships; concluding that while some are just doomed, irrespective of what is tried, you need them in the first place in order to move on to life's next stage. Alvy, for instance, encourages Annie to study an adult course in something, but this only pushes her closer to a lecturer. When he tells her to take her singing more seriously, this just pushes her into the eyes of a record producer, thus dooming the relationship. And yet, what would Annie really be if she'd never even met Alvy?

Dorling Kindersley's "Movie Book" of 2014 concludes that the film is, at its heart, an exploration of what makes a relationship successful, even resorting to asking people in a New York street what they think. But, the review concludes bleakly, there is no real answer: one couple remark that they're happy because they're shallow and don't have 'anything interesting to say' to one another. Compared to modern comedies about sex or relations or a combination of the two, this stands head and shoulders above most in the genre and is unsurprisingly looked upon as the springboard for Allen's fame.

Alien: Resurrection
(1997)

Some interesting ideas, but falls short in too many departments too often to work
The annoying thing about "Alien: Resurrection" is that it is primarily an action film that comes with the odd scare, rather than an actual horror film which happens to include the odd second-unit set piece. It is additionally lacking in that atmosphere most science fiction films have when they place characters far off into the future or depict events on other planets or in the vast chasm of space. Things here feel more synthetic than the other films, and it makes you appreciate even more what Cameron did in the first sequel when he managed to keep "Aliens" genuinely frightening in spite of the heavy artillery its characters had access to.

"Resurrection" unfolds on a heavily guarded space station, a few hours from Earth, in the distant realms of the 23rd century. After the moaning and wailing which greeted the aftermath of the killing off of three beloved characters at the beginning of "Alien3", "Resurrection" rather curiously opens with the bringing of another one back to life. Look away now if you haven't seen "Alien3", but following the death, nay evisceration, of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, scientists, in a film shot the year of the cloning of Dolly the sheep no less, have managed to recreate her as she was just prior to her decision to extradite herself from this mortal realm. The decision behind this is/was born out of the fact she possessed inside of her a young alien queen, likely the only one in left in existence, at the time of her plunge, which is a shifty organisation's only means of obtaining the spawn of this queen - the likes of which they require for their own ends.

The base soon welcomes a motley space-crew who are delivering people in hyper-sleep to the scientists and military personnel while Ripley undergoes the death-roes of her treatment. The gang offer somewhat fertile ground for characterisation - the captain and pilot are in a relationship; Ron Perlman plays the rugged equivalent of a twenty-third century seadog; there's a mechanic in a wheelchair (but wouldn't robotic technology enabling him to walk exist by now?) and a young angelic looking woman named Call (Winona Ryder) who holds her own in the rough, working-man dominated space. Frustratingly, few get beyond a perimeter of stock status.

What is additionally curious is that Ripley is not the protagonist per se in this edition; her mannerisms and behaviour, whilst executed flawlessly by Weaver herself who must play someone who is neither human nor animal and, on top of that, artificially created in the first place, are cold; detached and strangely invulnerable - she is not the Ripley of the franchise prior to now and this sits a little uncomfortably. The film, in fact, lacks any kind of presence of a hero around which we might revolve our interest. Much time is spent in the opening act on characters that are removed within minutes of the second, while Weaver plays someone whose arc has already been completed in the other three films when she played out some interesting dynamics with the alien creatures to do with motherhood and fostering children.

The Queen they get out of Ripley does what they want and the staff get their aliens on cue, only to see them escape, of course, and wreak havoc on the spaceship, all around the time the transporters come to blows with the marines on board when Call, the one we thought least likely of the crew to start trouble, breaks house rules. Confusingly, the vast army of soldiers already on board abandon the ship at the first sign of a problem, thus calling into question as to what their purpose was in the first place in case of an emergency, and the film beds down into a nice, comfortable groove of depicting an array of people, military personnel included, striving to get to the remaining route off the ship, which is the craft the mercenaries arrived in, which of course is miles away from where anyone begins.

I suppose there is an air of unpredictability in who will live and who will die, but this doesn't compensate for much when we realise how poor characterisation has been to this point. To everyone's horror, the mother ship's programming has automatically kicked in, meaning it is in the process of returning to Earth - an odd contingency if you know what you're dealing with on board is as dangerous as it was. There is much talk on concepts of universal brotherhood and sticking together from one character among the band of survivors, but as soon as they realise Earth is the ship's destination and that these animals will probably ravage the planet, making a dangerous detour to try and stop it seems unappealing. Where else did they expect to be able to go if not Earth?

"Resurrection" falls rather a long way short in the pacing and atmosphere stakes - it unfolds on a ship too close to Earth in the first place for it to feel like we're lost in the barren wildernesses of outer space, unlike "Alien", and where in Ridley Scott's film the characters had to make up a course of action as they went along as they faced their situation, they plod their way to a fixed destination in this entry, knowing full well a sort of reprieve awaits them when they arrive. What was additionally lost on me was the film's commentary - does it disapprove of the science behind cloning? Is toying with genetics a bad thing? That cross-breeding is a dangerous game? Long after you realise the new addition to the franchise, a giant white mutant, can understand English, it will probably be lost on you too.

Ghostbusters
(2016)

It came; it saw; it....didn't kick much ass.
The first name in the end credits of "Ghostbusters" is a certain Zach Woods, who is listed as playing a tour guide. Because people are listed by order of appearance, it felt like entire days had passed since that character was on screen. Suffice to say, the 2016 re-envisaging of an 80's family favourite which spawned one sequel and its own cartoon series, "Ghostbusters", is a complete slog - too long and ultimately not much more than a fancy demonstration of what the latest in special effects are capable of. Most of its moments, particularly in the final act, exist for TV-spots and trailers - a little stunt followed by a one-liner. Its product placement is shameless and most prevalent in the first hour, during which I suppose it is assumed the audience is still paying the most attention; its popular culture references often painful - please don't remind us of 'the mayor in Jaws', because you're just reminding us of a better film. Maybe you're on-side for a while, but boy does that bell-curve drop off fast.

The film covers four women, though lacks any real protagonist, aged between about thirty and forty-five in modern New York City. Erin (Kristen Wiig) is a lecturer at Columbia university who, on the cusp of a promotion, is horrified to discover an old friend named Abby (Melissa McCarthy) promoting something pseudo-scientific via the Internet to do with ghost-hunting that they both toyed with in their university days - something Erin fears her bosses might discover and be put off by. We get a sense of the different routes these women have gone down when Erin pays Abby a visit, whose wacky metallic helmet she has on when we first see her I think is designed to call to mind Emmett Brown's and is meant to infer a sense of the mad scientist who aims high, but often falls flat. Erin, by comparison, wears tweed and speaks more eloquently.

Rather than set things straight, Wiig's character is pulled along to an investigation Abby conducts with a younger assistant named Jillian (Kate McKinnon), whose later role in the film is to essentially invent a new contraption whenever the script needs it, at an old haunted house which we watched rattle that tour guide during the opening. It is here the film tries to replicate the memorable scene in the 1984 original, when the eponymous heroes go down into a haunted library and encounter something which takes us all by surprise, but it doesn't quite come off here - it doesn't find that place in-between scary and funny that Reitman found. Regardless, Erin changes her mind; loses both her promotion and job at the behest of a stuffy Charles Dance and moves in with Abby and Jillian to prove the world wrong via the pseudo-science of ghost hunting which, turns out, isn't so pseudo...

What the film branches out into from here is a curious mix of genre-tropes; patchy storytelling; some decent gags and a lot of family friendly action scares which, collectively, often fail to justify as to why the remake exists. The women, true to tradition, find a disused space the size of a warehouse to open their titular operation while a fourth member, Leslie Jones' Patty, who conspicuously leaves her stable job as a subway ticket inspector to join this farce, obtains an old hearse that they use as an official vehicle. They hire a receptionist to take calls, a bespectacled simpleton played by Chris Hemsworth named Kevin, who is funny at first, but whose idiocy eventually becomes so unbelievable that you'd think it was the prototype to a new Sacha Baron Cohen character. Erin likes him for his looks; in contrast to three of the women, who are skilled scientists and inventors, Kevin is a buffoon, which if the roles were reversed, and the blonde imbecile was female, would be rightly derided as sexist. And where is all the money coming from to pay for any of this?

The film's gender politics, which has so consumed the project and the response to it in the aftermath of its release that rational textual analysis has been tossed aside, seems to gravitate along the frequency of pushing more girls into science, a popular ideological trope amongst contemporary feminism. But this is all surface. McKinnon, who joyfully brings to life the character of Jillian with a series of piercing stares; cheeky smirks and robotic movements, just does not ultimately strike us as a convincing inventor when viewed critically.

What's more, it too often feels as if the ideology itself has picked the wrong subject matter for the politick to hand: if we usurped the four women and replaced them with male counterparts at script stage, but kept every scene; action and line of dialogue the same, nothing would change within the contextualised framework. The best feminist texts at the moment in a filmic sense, if that is what you're into, are probably coming out of the Middle East, where actual female-centric narratives and stories about women's issues are being produced, and often by actual women.

A character by the name of Rowan fills in for the film's idea of antagonist; well, for most of the time. He's a young, funny looking kid with a strange expression and curly hair who works at a hotel and plots something nasty with evil spirits whom he cannot yet release. A fascist, and so an easy villain to pen, he believes that society cannot be cleansed enough of its undesirables due to past grievances. Neil Casey does what he can with the role, certainly channelling Peter MacNicol from the second film in appearance, but it is a thankless task. Wracking my brain, it is difficult to entirely envisage what a Ghostbusters remake 25 years after the fact was supposed to look like and why it might be at all needed. Was it really necessary? I'm unconvinced it was.

Trishna
(2011)

Admirable double-hander about love, obsession, self-discovery and a few other things besides.
I always admired the way director Michael Winterbottom brought to life the living, breathing 'feel' of the story he was telling in "In This World", a 2002 drama about a plight from one end of Europe to the other; filling the frame with a sudden cut to a television broadcast and somehow managing to maintain a real air of the other-worldly with slow-burning electronic music and moving compositions. He brings a similar aesthetic to "Trishna", instilling it with dream-like music and seemingly needless cutaways to shots of bustling cities, vistas and the nature of the sub-continent.

Stripped bare, the film is not really depicting anything especially original - it is a love story and a tragedy; a two-hander conveying a brooding infatuation and how somebody else copes with it. A lesser film might have just depicted one side of the story, tossed in a finale probably involving a chase and a 'fatal blow', and would almost certainly have done it all in a fashion less ambitious than what Winterbottom does here.

We begin in the winter of a holiday three Britain-based lads are having in India with a fourth chap called Jay (Riz Ahmed) who, while certainly has a physical connection to the UK, is now living in India and is racially Indian. The four of them have been enjoying themselves, chiefly using the experience to try and pull a lot of women - their introduction sees them hare past the camera in a 4x4 which is blaring out rock music with a misogynist undertone as a camel, perhaps designed to epitomise a more traditional form of transportation, limps along in the background in the other direction.

Once the holiday ends and the three head back to Britain, Jay remains and carries on working at his affluent father's hotel in Jaipur, where he has goaded the young eponymous Trishna (Freida Pinto) into working there two having met her at a different hotel during the holiday. The film will come to revolve around both of these characters in equal measure, but Winterbottom keeps his cards mightily close to his chest throughout; where Jay dominates the opening act, and we are invited to see the piece as a project about someone perhaps learning to loosen attitudes and embrace monogamy, Trishna is probably provided with a meatier personality: her father is injured and the move to the big city, away from her humble rural home, will earn the big-money to pay for that. The character arc of shifting somebody away from this kind of locality and to the other one is, again, something more synonymous with protagonists and more typical with mythic story-telling.

And yet, she is remarkably passive for a protagonist - her role in the film as a waitress helpfully, perhaps even deliberately, reinforces this; Jay makes all the conversation, calls most of the shots as it is he who is most familiar with the Jaipur surroundings. The film initiates a kind of love story, toying with us and placing us into a false domain whereby Trishna appears to change her mind having initially rejected Jay's initial advances upon being rescued from a probable mugging. We are provided with scenes such as the one whereby one teaches the other how to whistle, which in a lesser film might have had us crossing our arms and exhaling in its awkward simplicity.

But the film is not as one-dimensional as that. It seems to lose faith in Jay as a lead in the second act, shifting focus over to Pinto's character, who gradually puts all the pieces together just as the audience is invited to: Jay is so very spoiled by his father, and has a history of getting everything he wants anyway; we learn that he has slept with a number of other female employees at the hotel, but is this friendship with Trishna any different, and is his desire to drop his liberal attitudes for something potentially resembling monogamy genuine? Certainly, the way Jay's own father places his hands on the face of Trishna early in their meeting may just be an eccentric, friendly way of making first-contact, or is it something seamier in the wider context of life at this place?

I only learnt through research after the fact that the film is based on a novel by Thomas Hardy entitled 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' and that another male character has been removed entirely for this filmic adaptation. As a consequence, Winterbottom is working within confines even tighter than I first realised and grumblings on how Jay seems to slide from being one person into another a little too easily might seem misplaced given Ahmed has been granted the unenviable task of essentially depicting both people. Problems with this or anything else aside, "Trishna" is a meaty two-handed tale of love; loss and tragedy.

The Devil's Double
(2011)

Dynamic and unsettling peek into a world not far gone, driven by two pulsating performances
"The Devil's Double" depicts a short, sharp and rather sad chapter which makes up part of the wider, uglier tapestry that-is the story of the nation of Iraq. It would be inaccurate to remark that the film is a triumph of genuine substance, but it would be additionally wrong to say the film, whilst coming close to resembling mere exploitation, is nothing but mere exploitation.

In its basest form, it is a depiction of pure evil; a depiction of a society whose leaders, or at least the sons of the leaders, have had moral bypasses; where no deviance is off-limits: paedophilia, nepotism, hedonism, the forcing of someone to undergo plastic surgery, the imprisoning of people against their will for the crime of daring to disagree. Try to imagine the opening act of "A Clockwork Orange" prolonged for about an hour, by which point most of the content, the likes of which might only belong in the opening thirty minutes to establish character, is still unfolding anyway.

The film is certainly high on energy. It is kinetic in a way a blockbuster might be and is very good at pulling at our emotional chords, even exploitatively so - enraging us; saddening us; disgusting us; manipulating us, but it is never dull. It possesses at its core a dynamic performance by English actor Dominic Cooper, who plays both one character and his body-double, the latter of whom, of course, must over the timespan of the film learn to 'play' the other person. Cooper is so good you forget it is the same person.

Glancing over a map of Iraq and its immediate neighbours, you can almost see where the powers-that-be once decided to draw the lines, quite literally, in the sand: the synthetic nature of the borders it shares with Kuwait and Jordan, originally conceived in the wake of World War One by Britain and France, and then of course later inherited by the United States, more broadly via the Monroe Doctrine, are quite striking. "The Devil's Double" unfolds in the Iraq of the 1980's, by which time it is in the grip of the Hussein dynasty, whose premiership, I believe, was wooed away from Soviet leanings by the West for its oil and in spite of their knowing of the sadism abound in its government. It was Dwight Eisenhower who, after all, once described the Arabian Peninsula as 'the most strategically important area in the world', due to its oil, which was the era's great 'material prize'.

From the frontline of the Iran-Iraq War, Latif Yahia (Cooper) is yanked away to the would-be tranquillity of the presidential confines of Baghdad, only to be asked to serve as the body-double of a man called Uday (Cooper again), one of Saddam's sons and heir to the dynasty. Director Lee Tamahori grants us a sense of just how different these two men are and just how much of a challenge it will be for Yahia to pull off what is asked of him when we observe the man to be slow in his movement; nervous; dirty in his fatigues - a humble electronics store worker who puts in the hours and stands in sharp contrast to the loud, exuberant Uday, whose wealth is essentially inherited and who could not be any further from Yahia in terms of attitudes towards women and material possessions.

The well-being of his family on the line, Yahia has no choice, and there is always a sense of something at stake. He schooled with Uday when he was younger and Saddam's son always thought the two looked similar - with a few changes, they could be identical. The fact Uday might even need a body-double in the first place, someone to head out to the frontline with pomp and ceremony and give speeches to troops while Uday rests easy at home, safe from potential assassination attempts and enemy shelling should Iranian intelligence extend that far, is essentially an unspoken admittance to the nature of the despotic regime.

The film seems to want to impart the idea that Iraq is, and always was, a place full of dedicated and resourceful people who, if only they could break free of Hussein's shackles, might thrive no end. Perhaps that was the case in 1991, but is it still the reality in a post-9/11 system? Similarly, it does not seem to have time for the man born into privilege, the man who did not work for anything he has.

Tamahori neglects going into the substance behind what Iraq is and where it came from; it is very good at inducing emotional cues, but less so at painting the nature of the West's relationship with Iraq beyond anything that is black and white: clips of Bush Senior during Desert Storm are designed to stir patriotic sentiment, but absent are the points on how Hussein did far worse prior to 1990 and with Washington's blessings.

Absent too are points on how Hussein even tried to negotiate Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank with his own from Ramallah's oilfields; the fact Kuwait had harmed Iraq's economy post Iran-war by violating an OPEC quota agreement; the hypocrisy as to how America had just spent most of the 1980's behaving in Central America in a fashion not dissimilar to how Hussein behaved anyway and how if, as Bush said, 'the first principles are that the Persian Gulf is crucial to the United States and that the US therefore must defend its interests with military force', then could not Hussein quite easily concoct the same sorts of arguments?

Instead, the focus is on something else; not 'entertainment' as such, but certainly something else. The film will likely move you, but not in the same way that the great pieces of cinema in the past might have done. Instead, the focus is on evil; what happens when a man's moral centre collapses out of their personality and what happens when an ordinary person is dumped into extraordinary circumstances.

Kick-Ass 2
(2013)

Daft, even needless, sequel which does not amount to much.
I'm scratching my head as to what "Kick-Ass 2" is for. Was it supposed to be a straight-up exploitation film? Perhaps a send-up of the exploitation film movement, along the lines of "Death Proof"? Some sort of social commentary on how the police have surrendered the streets in some places and allowed a kind of vigilantism to move in and fill the void? Maybe it was supposed to be something else altogether... I recall thinking its predecessor, a 2010 effort directed by Matthew Vaughn, just about deserved the passing grade, but this sequel has completely misunderstood why that film worked to the extent that it did and has even enriched its flaws to create what is, I think, a bit of a mess.

"Kick-Ass 2" covers the exploits of two returning protagonists, an ordinary young man and an ordinary young girl, as they battle the elements in modern New York City. If, like me, you couldn't exactly remember what had happened at the culmination of the first film, the original Kick-Ass, a green jumpsuit clad kid named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is, we find out, bored after having given up the superhero game and wants back in. His partner in anti-crime, Hit-Girl, otherwise known as Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz), meanwhile grieves the demise of her father, whose death at the end of the last film, I have to admit, I had completely forgotten about, and carries on with her alternate life behind the back a policeman who now acts as her guardian. One thing leads to another and Lizewski winds up, albeit out of fighting shape, finding Hit-Girl to climb back into the world.

But against whom might they have their quarrel? Enter Chris D'Amico, another character barely out of their teenaged years who is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse and who, after losing his mother in a tanning bed accident, finds himself both orphaned and enraged enough to become a super-villain. There is an odd psychoanalytical moment whereby he dons a leather outfit he finds amidst his recently dearly-deceased possessions and decides, therefore, on calling himself 'The Mother****er'. Ha Ha Ha.

"Kick-Ass 2" is certainly thrown together with a fair amount of raw energy, but it doesn't understand that, ultimately, restraint in cinema is crucial to a film's effect on an audience, irrespective of what the project is or what the approach to a subject matter it might be taking on. There are several sequences in the film, each of them action scenes, which, if I described them individually, might sound quite striking, but do not actually amount to a sum total of anything at all when strung together but for how the project is handled.

Where director Jeff Wadlow missteps is, I think, in his thinking that bigger is better which, when executed off the back of material such as this, can implode catastrophically when it doesn't come off - here, it is the peppering of the film with an array of not only good-guys, but villains as well, to create a kind of chaos which Vaughn almost always had on a leash. It is burning proof, if such a thing was even needed, that "Jaws" did not need three sharks during its finale to work, and indeed got by quite handsomely with just the one.

Character-wise, Lizewski is so much weaker here than before; driven not by a burning desire to rid the streets of crime or by an anger which pushes him to the brink of despair that he knows full well he will die if he doesn't make a jump from one rooftop to another during his self-imposed training, but by nothing at all - merely being bored of what's on the television. Having suited himself back up, he falls in with a group of people who call themselves Justice for All, who are all essentially doing the same thing, but an actual adult leads the team and does most of the fighting anyway. So what?

Later on, about half-way through, there is an absurd interlude involving Hit-Girl whereby her strand depicts her doing the opposite to Lizewski and is forced away from fighting crime to become 'normal' again: going to school, having sleepovers and talking girly to girly girls. To what avail is any of this? Because there isn't really enough in the opening two acts, and because the second unit material takes precedence, there is nothing really there in terms of heart to propel anything into a big dénouement.

Wadlow's tone is, again, scatter-shot at best; pausing for these moments of real tenderness and contemplation in-between bulldozing the frame with explosions; instants of terrific violence and the profanity which might sound grown up, but really isn't. Several of the characters in the film are, at once, grieving for the loss of fathers; grieving for the loss of mothers; experiencing breakups and fondness for new people and living born-again existences, but where does any of it actually stand up to be counted?

The film is at its sharpest, not when it is depicting its characters driving blades into the bodies of others, but when it sends the super-hero genre up: villains making up fake backstories because they think they need them, subversions of evil lairs for climactic showdowns, the daft names comic book characters have and where they come from in the first place. But, ultimately, this is the sort of film that passes between hands in the school playground. You know the kinds of films: somebody's bigger brother, who's old enough and already left school, has bought it on DVD, but it's made its way through one means or another into lesser circles. Sooner or later, word gets around and everybody wants a weekend to watch it. For the rest of us, we can only watch on, sometimes with our mouth agape, in either stunned awe or offence, at what is unfolding in front of us, hoping we'll pick a better film to watch next time.

Alien³
(1992)

Alien 'cubed'? The project never really gets out of the box...
You can practically see the board of whomsoever meeting around a table, their faces contorted as they strain to come up with an idea on why a second "Alien" sequel would happen at all; what it's premise might be; how it might be the case that one of these monsters might have found its way into proceedings given the first sequel, 1986's "Aliens", concluded as it did. In the end, the best they can settle for is a brief rewriting of history: something, inexplicably, manages to crawl its way into the escape vessel, and here we all go again.

I was always aware there were issues over the production of "Alien3", the classic case of the studio facing off against the director in a fashion more akin to the medium of television; that immortal battle, not of aliens versus predator, but of business versus art; of a studio not having any interest in auteuristic integrity but delivering bang-for-buck. I have never quite found the motivation to look up as to the precise details of the rift with which "Alien3" was fraught, but I suppose there are bits and pieces of its evidence in the film when you watch it now: its early eagerness to go down the route of a mood piece, the way it eventually bottles that for second unit material, the finale itself, which must have induced a battle of words off-camera not dissimilar to how someone representative of a large organisation tries to talk somebody out of what they're contemplating...

But all that comes later. We pick up where the last film left off: Ripley (Weaver), firmly established as the franchise's lead, drifts aimlessly through space with a young girl; an android and a hardened solider, the only four survivors of an expedition which saw a crew of marines frequent an alien infested space community years prior. She crash lands on a planet which basks in a violent storm, where greys and cold blues dominate the colour palette and ugliness the skyline. It is home to that of a prison, which seems as if it is supposed to sport the worst kind of inmates imaginably, but are here in an odd transitional phase; they have found God, rapists are undergoing vows of celibacy; serial killers are more interested in delivering sermons than blunt objects into people.

When Ripley awakes, the wardens who run the facility can only take her story with a pinch of salt, but why else would a soldier; an infant; a droid and a technician be banded together in an escape pod? She has, in fact, lost the three survivors from the last film, who did not survive the crash-landing, which is a shame, because the film had two or three fairly interesting characters with whom we had spent enough time to get to know. Not to use them here was a pity, although did demonstrate a gutsy decision on the director's behalf to want to create his own idea, his own universe.

We sample what this might have been like via Lance Henriksen's Bishop character, who is briefly brought back via the miracle of technology. She can only find solace thus in the character of Clemens, a medical officer played by Charles Dance with some conviction; someone with an unfortunate past and who walks around with a lot of weight on his shoulders - suddenly, we don't mind at all if the entire piece revolves around the two of them.

The film does well with its gamesmanship once the alien does show up and people are found a little worse for wear; we are, after all, on a planet populated by psychopathic criminals and there is a good deal of worth in the exchanges as per who is telling the truth and what exactly is going on. It is only a shame these exchanges do not go on for a little longer. Eventually, the film will switch to its horror setting, and things bed down into a more familiarised groove.

The dynamic here as per "Aliens" is that, while these criminals are about as tough as the marines, they are the inverse in that they have previously used their violent energy for amoral purposes. It felt as if there might have been some interesting ground to cover as per exploring morality and redemption, forcing the audience into getting behind an unpleasant character-or-two, but it just isn't present. Those the film considers suitable to propel it into its final act are reforming themselves anyway, so why bother?

The inmates are, additionally, not armed with the latest in military hardware, but they feel suspiciously less vulnerable than the armed marines. This is because, firstly, the film isn't made as competently and secondly because we don't really know any of them in the first place. The film is therefore not as tense as it should have been. What is also markedly different here is that there is no insider or traitor to the cause like in "Alien" and "Aliens", so there is no dramatic revelation as the film reaches its crescendo as before. Said crescendo is a messy finale, more synthetic than the previous two and down in a maze of corridors whose geography I lost track of.

Standing back and taking stock of "Alien3", you can see the skeletons of two or so different films - it is almost as if it didn't even need an alien in order to work, and that the presence of such a thing bogs it down. Reimagine it as a film merely relaying a chapter in Ripley's life, with or without Dance's character; stuck on a prison planet where all of the inmates are unpleasant; where Hicks and Newt are alive and walking around and where the 'Organisation' still wants witness to its prize. What we get instead is an experience that is probably despised more than it deserves to be, but still falls well short of its bigger sisters.

Beauty and the Beast
(2017)

Fairly Beastly.
Despite having made the remark on architecture, it is exactly as Cogsworth says in the initial 1991 Disney animated feature "Beauty and the Beast": 'If it isn't Baroque, don't fix it'. He was, of course, paraphrasing the old adage of resisting the temptation to tamper with something which is ticking along smoothly enough for risk of damaging it. But, for whatever reason, Disney have gone against the good clock's advice and thought their incarnation of the centuries old tale of Beauty and the Beast might need some reworking. The result is something actually quite wretched.

It is a tricky thing to wholly put your finger on, but if you agree with me, you'll know exactly what I mean when I say that, after the prelude to the main event, which is the short story of a magical enchantress turning the castle of a self-absorbed prince into a ruin; its inhabitants into furniture and the prince himself into a wolf-like creature, something just begins to 'feel' wrong with this film. It does not disperse either and, consequently, the film never fully recovers.

You know the drill: we're in France, prior to the Revolution; the middle-of-nowhere and a small town home to a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson) and her father (Kevin Kline), both of whom mourn the loss of a mother and a wife. A loner due to her interest in literature, she attracts the skin-deep affection of Gaston (Luke Evans) while, a few miles away, the castle of the damned brew in solitude. In her own domain, Belle doesn't quite fit in; the townsfolk consider her a bit odd, principally for her desire to read so much and she craves more than what she has, which is the same drill every other day of bakers baking their bread; nattering marketplaces; gossip and the like.

The entire situation is put across via a song, but it doesn't feel right - gone is the magnificence of the locality the animation conveyed: the rolling fields; the mountainous backdrop; the wind in the grass on the hillside; the bustle of the town, and gone too is the sense of there being room to breathe that the animation gave the sequence back in the day. Belle, now seemingly living in the town itself and not, as before, in a house on the outskirts further emphasising her detachment, intermingles amongst townsfolk who, devoid now of animation, can neither move nor omit facial expressions in the flexible manner their cartoon counterparts could and so compliment the film.

Arriving at the local library, which is seemingly kept afloat by Belle herself, and despite it looking more like a church whilst sporting a mere handful of books, she returns Romeo and Juliet, which I suppose is another romance about opposites attracting, although doesn't mention the title and so playfully challenges us to keep up with her in that respect. En route home, there is the interaction with Gaston, a vain soldier who has just arrived back from War and seeks Belle's courtship, but she is not interested. Something is amiss here, too - aside from the fact the 1991 animation made a point to render most of the other men in the town old; bedraggled and/or rather ugly, therefore emphasising Gaston's handsomeness, and that Condon's film doesn't even seem to want to adopt that approach, Gaston just doesn't strike us as nasty enough; as narcissistic enough.

Through one thing or another, Belle's father departs the town; not for a fair wherein he will enter an invention, because he is no longer a scientist but an artist, but to... a market. Getting lost en route to a science fair, like in the animation, would be explainable, those probably not occurring very often, but encountering a fork in the road and taking the wrong turn en route to ... a market just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. He winds up at the cursed castle of the prince from our prologue, who has become the eponymous Beast (Dan Stevens), whereby he is captured stealing a rose for his daughter from the gardens, something he thought he'd break off to randomly do whilst fleeing in panic from a tea-cup which began talking to him.

Belle's encountering of the same enchanted setting follows thereafter, but it just never ignites. The red rose in Beast's private quarters wilts and when it is done, the populous will be cursed for all time, but not once is there any sense of actual urgency. The castle is a dull, drab place; all of its interiors look the same, things feel confined. The choreography of the musical numbers is dull. The household items, led by mantelpiece clock Cogsworth and candelabra Lumiere, just aren't as enchanting; have been stripped of all character, to the extent that Cogsworth might not even have been in the film at all. Their interplay used to be genuinely funny, the way the animation had them hop around the castle gave them character - things are just hollow now and you can barely even see their faces. The centrepiece, the ballroom dance between the two titular characters, does not have one-tenth of the majesty that the animation had, and it certainly isn't backed up by Emma Thompson screeching her way through the accompanying number.

Alas, very little works at all, I'm afraid. Condon's film seemed tonally tentative, as if scared of being too scary; a route the animation was not afraid of going down - this is mushier, clumsier; made for families whose children are under seven and who seem to need abrupt shifts in tone to keep up. By half-way, I just wish I was watching the animation again. I'd be surprised if the same wasn't the case with you.

Spectre
(2015)

Watchable entry in the franchise which balances substance and spectacle with the odd stumble.
"Spectre" promises a tremendous deal from its opening: a long tracking shot through the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, extravagant costumes and skeletal masks everywhere, and a low boring soundtrack as the instruments in the scene do battle with the music composed specially for the sequence. The film does not quite live up to these beginnings, in fact settles down into being somewhat of a strange experience which, I think, probably thought it was delivering something more powerful than it actually is, and ends up being a film which, despite the places it goes with a much-loved character, can only really induce a nod of approval when all has been said and done.

But to delve too deeply here into precisely what I am referring to would spoil the surprise. Indeed, an odd thing happened some years ago off the back of people close to me settling down to watch "Spectre" - I remarked how interesting it was that the character of Blofeld was back. To my immense surprise, I was greeted by a 'tut' and told, despite not actually having seen it at that time, that that constituted "...a spoiler".

Blofeld is indeed back - having last been seen during the opening sequence of "Octopussy", wheelchair bound and fluffy white cat in tow, wherein he was ambushed by Roger Moore's incarnation of the famous superspy and dropped down an industrial chimney in one of London's less glamorous areas. I am sure I read on the Internet Movie Database, some years ago, that the reason for ridding the franchise of the character had something to do with the dated feel Blofeld was weighing the series down with, and that the producers wanted to remove all doubt that he might make a return as a villain. What goes around comes around - 'the dead are alive', as it were. Funny how in "Skyfall", the franchise made a point to tell us that it was done with silly things like exploding pens, but here provides Bond with an exploding watch.

The crux of "Spectre" is essentially a political essay on surveillance; probably its most interesting character is Bond's boss, M, played by Ralph Fiennes, and the conflict chiefly derives from the on-going spat he has with a younger, more cock-sure version of himself played by Andrew Scott. Scott plays a character called Max, whose office is in a big new plush building with a postmodern glass exterior, whereas M's office appears older and more traditional with a lot of wood panelling et al.

There is bad news afoot for the Military Intelligence branch both M and James Bond (Daniel Craig) are, and have been, a part of for all these years: advances in surveillance technology are rendering Bond more and more obsolete; soon, the powers that be will have access to the intelligence information belonging to nine of the world's most powerful nations, simultaneously, completely negating the need for agents in the field. Later conflict over the issue is inferred early on when Max and Bond meet face to face in profile and James is told in no uncertain terms that this will change the double-0 section immeasurably. A spate of recent terror attacks around the world, often in the nations who are holding out against the legislation, are convincing people that this surrender to intergovernmentalism is the way forward. Eventually, Bond sets out to find out why.

The usual ingredients are there: the hero gets a nice car and a female accomplice enters the fray later on. Generally, the film lacks a villain; the hit-man the bad-guys employ to do away with Bond is a big, silent Jaws-like assassin called Mr. Hinx who even gets into a well-choreographed fight with Bond and the girl on a train. Unfortunately, character motivation on the villains' behalf does not entirely add up: why attempt to kill Bond at all if your plan ultimately involves shutting down his division? And why, if there is such an integral connection between hero and villain, and they are destined to meet one another nearer the end at a desert base, make all the attempts on his life?

More interesting to Mendes, and certainly to us, is the stuff on surveillance: the morality of it versus the fight against terrorism it seems vital to combatting. But how, as M points out, do you use it and who exactly has access to it anyway? The film certainly picks its side in the end, although it is generally all a bit of a strained attempt to remain topical - the franchise is essentially at war with its own beating core of depicting heroism and escapism: if Bond always saves the day, and the world can always rest easy in the knowledge he's out there to do so, what is the need for surveillance in the first place? Grown-ups know that in the real world, things work very differently. My mind drifts back to an article Christopher Hitchens wrote the day after 9/11, dryly beginning about how said spectacle is what happens when a hero like James Bond drops the ball, or doesn't make it in time to thwart the enemies.

Amusingly, much later on, a character is arrested on what is described as 'The Special Measures Act'. Despite actually having been incorporated into something else as far back at 2005, this Act originally caused much consternation in Britain through its attitude to civil liberties, the core of what "Spectre" is about. This name-drop, more interesting than the finale around which it is mentioned, gets the broadest smile; the rest of the film is generally amusing but unspectacular.

Alois Nebel
(2011)

Gloomy, atmospheric low-level drama about uncertain futures and unpleasant pasts.
"Alois Nebel" is an intriguing Czech melodrama which unfolds amidst the backdrop of the collapse of socialism in the country in the late 1980's and a train station platform-set rape incident which happened during World War Two catching up on the then-present day. Despite these ambitious ideas, it works surprisingly well as a low-level drama about a mentally ill man who doesn't seem to be able to find pleasure in life; who lives the sort of existence where time just seems to tick by, where you might find yourself staring out of a window at nothing in particular, where people and events just seem to take their course around you. It operates on two strands, even managing to briefly overlap them, in its telling of its story, one of which is why this character is so upset, and is, on the whole, a satisfying piece of drama film-making.

"Alois Nebel" is, in this sense, a very Czech film to the extent it tackles probably the two major points of interest relevant to the nation of Czechoslovakia within the twentieth century and does so, unsurprisingly, in a very stern, stiff, serious way. Broadly speaking, the film centres on a man from whom the film derives its title, Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot), who is somebody approaching the autumn of his life in the autumn of 1989 as the decade, plus a ruling ideology, enters their respective winters. Nebel is not the most stimulating of protagonists, but his back-story and the events that happen to him over the winter of 1989-90 make for interesting viewing none-the-less. He is haunted, if you will, by a kind of PTSD which is only very slowly revealed to us through ghostly flashbacks; something which has the film, despite it taking place in the real-world and dealing with some incredibly grounded and real issues, fly off into scenes of the avant-garde and the magical as Nebel either hallucinates or suffers flashbacks. Complimenting this is the fact the film appears to have been re-rendered as a three-quarter animation, the likes of which you will have seen in something like "Sin City".

Nebel is a guard at a train station in the Czech countryside which serves the town of Bily Potok, near what must be the Polish border. He sits in his office; puts milk out for a cat which comes and visits and generally makes sure the set-up runs efficiently with his co-worker, who has a father who knew Alois' father, such is the intimacy of the surroundings. Having lived in the area his whole life, and being a certain age, he is able to remember when, during the German occupation during the war, the station was used as a stop-over to transport Czech Jews to the concentration camps. His bland orating of the various station names along the line that he operates might just as well be the names of the victims of those camps, the film appearing to deliberately track over a graveyard the first time he does this.

Meanwhile, on the other side of said border, a younger man appears to be making a break from Soviet soldiers, whom we recognise as shouting 'Stoy' because we're all able to distinguish Russian from Czech, aren't we? Ambling across, he turns up at Nebel's little platform and, for whatever reason, possesses a photograph from years prior depicting both station guards' fathers standing together on this very platform. The burning question at the core of "Alois Nebel" is as to why he has this picture and why would he risk such bad news in crossing over into Czech territory when there is not, if we all know our Communist societies, a tremendous deal to gain?

The film is, therefore, a mystery story, but it is not a mystery story its lead character attempts to solve. Indeed, Nebel could not be further away from where he should be and, if anything, it solves itself in the background with Nebel happening to be around when it happens. A lesser film might have told the film from the perspective of this border-jumper, who has to go through being caught; beaten up; imprisoned and must, ultimately, look for a certain individual for certain reasons connected to the past - a past which overlaps with this stranger's.

"Alois Nebel" is more preoccupied with the travails of its eponymous hero, who is whisked off to the big city after he attempts some treatment on his would-be depression; seeing, for himself, just how bad, I think, life can be for men in his position when things go really wrong. The film is ridden with interesting subtexts and juxtapositions - there is a heavy emphasis on trains and the railway industry more broadly, which is at once both a source of and reason for: employment; unemployment; despair; fear; life; history; panic and national character. As a new decade blooms, people whose lives are essentially over seem to celebrate, despite the fact their society is heading into a wider unknown.

Tantalisingly, the film cannot settle on what it perceives as a good ending or a bad one: what will come of the railways once capitalist reform takes place? Is bloody revenge justified within the context of the back-story which reveals itself, furthermore if the authorities can hardly be trusted? Is all you need in life, ultimately, another human to love? This will have the film sound more philosophical than it is, but as far as 80's set semi-animated Czech films go, "Alois Nebel" is worth checking out.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
(2015)

Star Wars crash-lands back into people's consciousness's, not with a bang, but with an oddly detached re-telling.
There's no time travelling in Star Wars, is there? No, didn't think so. Watching "Episode 7: The Force Awakens", however, the much anticipated 2015 continuation of the original trilogy, you would think you'd been thrown back to 1977 and were watching, in some alternate dimension, a re-run of the very first film itself. Sceptics have been writing for years on the 'place' Hollywood blockbusters have in the canon of film as an art-form, deriding them for being derivative, or for too often coming to form replications of each other, but this really does take the space-cake. The film is, in fact, so reminiscent in certain places of Episode IV that you might just as well call it An 'Old' Hope.

The film begins with a mother-ship's silhouette blotting out a sun and the launch of a series of spaceships which head down to a nearby planet. The bigger ship, belonging to The First Order, which has risen out of the ashes of Darth Vader's old Evil Empire, in doing so infers a powerful ability to blot out or ruin anything it comes into contact with. Inside one of the smaller ships, the populous is cleverly introduced via some flickered lighting, which actually alludes to a later crisis of conscience one of the inhabitants will have. Once on the surface, they ambush a village with connections to the Resistance in looking for a piece of a map which will, apparently, direct them to the legendary Luke Skywalker, who, being the last Jedi, will win the war for the Dark once and for all if they find and kill him. At the last moment, a pilot called Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the portion inside a small robot who escapes with it.

Enter the protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley); a young-ish orphan, who should probably look grubbier and uglier, living on the same planet and who trades in scrap from crashed spaceships of the first war for portions of food. Her literal harvesting of these parts from old cruisers of the first three films is, in some ways, a reflection of how the film itself is taking from past efforts. Into her world ambles said droid and the map, and then later still the character of Finn (John Boyega), who is a storm trooper for the Dark but decides to change sides. Finn's introduction to the film, like Rey's, is a slow unsheathing of a mask or helmet to reveal the face in close-up, inferring a kind of duality or connection - sure enough, they spend the majority of the film together and become close allies.

Dodging the incoming First Order, the two make off with one of the more famous pieces of Star Wars paraphernalia which they find lying around in the area, Rey demonstrating piloting skills you would have thought were beyond her without the ability to practise to any degree. After breaking down in outer space, they are caught up by two familiar faces in Chewbacca and Harrison Ford's Han Solo, who have become, in the years since the war, interstellar versions of long distance truckers. Their haul on this particular occasion are large man eating squid-like monsters. Do we think they'll escape and wreak havoc, or not? What do you think? The film then becomes somewhat of a race to rebel HQ, with the villains never too far from their tails. Later on, attention shifts to a weapon of mass destruction the First Order possess which, despite existing in the shadow of the old Empire, is ten times more powerful.

The film is not a disaster by any means, but it leaves a lot to be desired. I think it probably attempts to cram too much in for it to feel like a work of real substance: the decision by a trooper to defect; a sub-plot to do with a father/son relationship; the foiling of an evil scheme; the rekindling of two old flames in Solo and a certain Princess. Its approach is too pulpy to take seriously; I felt its introduction of Rey and her lonely world, a stretch of film that is told visually without dialogue for a about two minutes, could have gone on for another ten, while its finale is similar to, but probably not as thrilling as, 1996's "Independence Day" with its final assault unfolding in conjunction with a dogfight.

Then there is the issue of one particular cast member who had already said he didn't want to be a part of the franchise after this edition, so his character has been written out. This is sad for the fact we lose an old face, yes; but it also demeans the artistic pursuit of direction and damages the concept of auteurism. When decisions to take a project in particular direction are made by these means, and not by a creative vision, just what are we even left watching?

Essentially, "The Force Awakens" is a re-treading of Lucas' initial 1977 effort: the message being hidden in a droid; the Vader-style villain in black turning up with his troopers looking for it; the young desert-dwelling hero bumping into it; the stumbling into an intergalactic adventure; the tracking shot through the Cantina-style bar, etc. What is new is not even necessarily new either: a post-Hunger Games style heroine and a post-Wall*E style droid hardly blow us away. For all the crowing on increased diversity, read Manthia Diawara's 1988 essay 'Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification & Resistance' on black and white characters sharing the screen for problems linked to John Boyega's casting. Diawara's observations of things in "48 Hours"; "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rocky II" might just as well be applied here, particularly during the climactic lightsaber fight. What "progress" has even been made? In the end, JJ Abrams has created a decent actioner and provided us with the buzz of seeing some old faces, but nothing much else.

American Reunion
(2012)

Watchable for sake of completion, but not much else.
'If there was more dancing in the world, there'd be fewer wars'. Interesting conceit, but I think ultimately foolhardy. Besides, dancing was banned under the Taliban, wasn't it? War in Afghanistan, therefore, technically liberated a people so that they may dance should they wish to; war equating, in this instance, to the right to dance. But I digress. "American Reunion" isn't about dancing, although there is a little bit of it in there; at its core seems to be the question as to whether sexual intercourse is for procreation or recreation, epitomised in a narrative about a sexless, though certainly not loveless, marriage between two people who already have one child and cannot quite find the spark they once had.

I was never of the opinion that there was anything especially nefarious about the "American Pie" films of 1999 to 2003; they were merely a goofy product of our system and its attitudes, not a source of them. Certainly, at the centre of the first film was a lesson about what happened when you allowed certain attitudes to consume you; when you charged into the great unknown ill-prepared because you felt you had to more-so because you wanted to. The other two were, broadly speaking, mere farces and didn't have an especially good idea of what to do with themselves.

This 2012 effort, "American Reunion", the second best in the series, is somewhat different. It depicts the East Grand Rapids High School gang as actual adults: some are married; some are fathers, most of them work but all are a long way from where they want to be. Shedding their virginities all those years ago on a prom night under a self-imposed air of coming of age, or rite of passage, did not make them millionaires or land them ideal life-situations.

The franchise has taken a gear-change in this respect, though it stops well short of opening with a Cormac McCarthy-esque monologue read in the style of Tommy Lee-Jones; trying instead to distinguish between what life for 16-18 year olds is like in 2012 compared to the dying embers of last century and the first few years of the new one. It has one of the crew, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), verbally outline how things have changed: girls are looser; young people are ruder and social networking has taken relations to a whole new level. What he neglects to point out is that if social media had existed fifteen years earlier, his generation would have used it in exactly the same fashion because the underlying issue is one of morality and not modernity.

As is form, the film revolves around the character of Jim (Jason Biggs), who, after the last film, is married to Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) and has an infant son. The film depicts two major factors in Jim's life combining over the timespan of one weekend: his frustration at possessing a sexless marriage and his high-school reunion, where the class of '99 and all the old faces are set to congregate back in the old Michigan town of East Great Falls. Backing up the central narrative are various stories involving the old crew: Oz (Chris Klein), whose first lines after missing the last film are "...and we're back!"; Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas); the aforementioned Kevin and the irreplaceable Stifler (Seann William Scott).

Arriving home to stay with his Dad, portrayed of course by Eugene Levy, temptation drops head-first into Jim's life in the form of Kara (Ali Cobrin), the girl next door whom he used to babysit but has now grown up into his own personal siren. We can tell he likes her because the film shoots her running over her lawn from Jim's gaze, a common technique to establish degrees of erotic wanting in a character. Our alarm bells continue to ring when we recall that the pornography Jim was looking at before the trip was college girl themed and that Kara fits this demographic. Admittedly, it is somewhat amusing to see the film transgress Jim's behaviour after, having been desperate for female contact the first time we met him, must now dead-bat female attention when it is she who possesses the societal urge to shed HER virginity.

Flimsier is the sub-plot to do with Oz who, for reasons of requiring a beefier runtime, gets his own story to do with bumping into his old girlfriend - the film-makers making up for lost time after he skipped "The Wedding", perhaps. Oz is already married and his old flame is seeing somebody here, a doctor who is preposterously pretentious because the story needs to be fast-tracked. Later on, the plot-line will resort to Oz's wife taking ecstasy at a rowdy party to move things along. Elsewhere, some things work in the film, but most things do not. Characters need to be deaf; dumb and blind for much of the comedy to work: the louts whose beer and jet-skis Stifler ruins and Kara's parents when Jim tries to smuggle her back into her house, for instance.

We've lived with these characters for years through three other films, but there is no tremendous emotional crescendo to see them off - the tone leaping manically from heartfelt 'first love' reminiscing to frenzied comedy and back again at the reunion whose soundtrack cues eerily change at precisely the right moment to suit the conversation or exchange. Jim's epiphany, that he should 'find time' for sex in order to maintain his marriage, doesn't work for the simple reason it is a tactic he has already been trying up to this point anyway. It would be easy, for nostalgia's sake, to fall into liking "Reunion", and it has its moments, but there just isn't enough meat in this would-be pie to get suckered.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
(2005)

Your lack of faith in these prequels is, broadly speaking, not disturbing.
If the final film of the original trilogy went out with somewhat of a bang, then this final film of the three prequels fizzles out with a bit of a whimper; the masking of the Vader character proving, it would seem, to be somewhat less enthralling than the unmasking. This is not to say that "Revenge of the Sith" is totally irredeemable, but its final act, the grand finale to the first half of the life-arc of a character that has captured people's imaginations for decades, plods to its destination and falls over the line instead of bursting through the tape, arms aloft. Much of this lies, I think, in the direction, which isn't entirely sure how to execute what is, in essence, a downer-ending to a summer blockbuster belonging to a franchise which has become synonymous with thrills; spills; excitement and, I suppose, HAPPY endings.

"Revenge of the Sith" consists of two strands: one is the development and culmination of a conflict initiated in the last film over power and trade between a rebel force of solar systems, operating out of rocky desert planets and consisting of coalitions of odd looking creatures, and a Jedi council based in a shiny metropolis that is a picture of modernity.

The second is, at least is supposed to be, the depiction of a bleak; un-nerving descent of one man into the 'dark' side of his world's core philosophy - 'the force'. This character is Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen, whose great transition into this monster, we are told, essentially precipitates on three things: sulking over being hired to the Jedi council, but not made a master; sulking over not being permitted a mission he really wanted and, crucially, a mere nightmare of his soul-mate dying.

The film begins with a sequence, which is too long and too akin to what the Bond films do pre-credits, depicting Anakin and his mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), in the middle of an inter-galactic battle with those the Jedi are fighting on account of the enemy having kidnapped a highly important chancellor. This rather chaotic sequence starts in outer-space with a dog-fight; sees the heroes infiltrate the landing area of a huge cruiser and the corridors of the ship itself; sees them confront the villains and attempt an extraction.

The opening becomes jarring for the fact it begins to feel plastic, as if Lucas is ticking off a list of things he thinks fans want to see: swordplay; dogfights; R2D2 fooling about; comedy in near-death situations and Jedis on a mission. It is during this sequence we meet General Grievous, who is some kind of skeletal creature that hides behind, it must be said, fairly thin body armour and possesses a chesty cough. But he also has a small collection of light sabres, inferring, perhaps, that he has conquered Jedi in fights in the past.

Eventually, everybody congregates back at Jedi headquarters and the film, as Episode 2 did, splits off into its separate strands involving Kenobi going solo to find Grievous in order to halt the war, and Skywalker remaining behind to be with his partner Padme (Portman). Cleverly, Lucas shoots Skywalker and Padme in the shadows of a great hall, dressed in black, when we first see them, highlighting how secretive or shadowy they must live given Padme is pregnant and this must be kept secret. You might also say, given Kenobi is in brighter, whiter clothing, the difference foreshadows the light/dark dynamic which will characterise Anakin's arc.

From here, the film, though certainly threatening to fall apart, bumps along with a series of, often unintelligible, decisions taken by characters; bland second unit spectacle and scenes of genuine philosophical choice which, while interesting on paper, do not really get beyond the level of three out of five. Kenobi, just as he begins to sense doubt about Skywalker; Padme and the whole set-up, maddeningly agrees of depart the situation when he is, arguably, desperately needed at home.

Meanwhile, besotted by Padme and terrified of losing her as per his vision, Yoda offers Anakin the Jedi outlook of not worrying about loss and refuting attachments to items and people. More tempting, however, is the Chancellor's (Ian McDiarmid) approach: keep those you really love alive forever with powers one can only acquire away from Jedi teaching and with the Dark. He has this chat with Skywalker during a strange operatic light-show, which depicts rays of light thrashing around from one body to another thus highlighting Anakin's increasingly scrambled outlook.

Is the film's message here that love, ultimately, is a bad thing? Indeed, Padme even asks Skywalker whether love has "blinded" him. "Seems it has..." comes the reply. I could not believe there was no healthy medium between 'sever all feelings for someone' and 'become an incarnation of evil in order to save those whom you feel for the most'. Skywalker's descent into one thing over the other is not altogether convincing, and on occasion is flatly absurd for the aforementioned reasons: sulking over not being referred to as a 'master'? Really? Other things begin to unravel: does Christensen have the punch to really carry the material/performance? How did he think Padme, above all else, would react to his transition, or even murdering Jedi trainees?

To some extent, Episode 3 is a departure from, not only the series, but Hollywood blockbusters generally: it isn't very often you see a mainstream film culminate with sadness; death; massacre and, ultimately, the beginning of a war, and I'm afraid it just doesn't quite come off. Neither does the meat of the project, a descent into a kind of madness, a tragedy, really have the snap it needs. It may not be as goofy as its cousins, but it leaves you feeling it could've been more.

Gente de bien
(2014)

A generally edifying film-watching experience, with plenty to get stuck into.
"Gente de Bien" is a low-level, yet gentle, Spanish language drama about class distinctions that exist within Colombian society. It is essentially told from the worm-eye view of a young boy, although periodically breaks off from this perspective for scenes involving adults when it feels it isn't able to convey what it needs to via a child's eyes. The divisions it depicts are between working class proletariat people and what you might describe as the bourgeois upper-class, the likes of whom might own second-homes in the countryside and can afford luxurious holidays. It is a tantalising film which doesn't quite spark, despite threatening to on numerous occasions; by the end, it has relied on the welfare of an animal to convey drama, something executed more efficiently in "Umberto D", and has even forced us into disliking its protagonist for being a stroppy, aggressive brat.

Said brat is Eric (Brayan Santamarià), a 10 year old boy and child of divorce whom the film introduces very deliberately as gazing on contemptuously at his mother as he waits for her to take him to stay with his father. When this transition happens, outside a bus terminal, a place synonymous with travel; change and people either getting ready to go on journeys or just having been on one, his father, Gabriel (Carlos Fernando Pérez), affectionately rubs Eric's head and asks if anybody calls him 'hedgehog' any more, thus inferring a great deal of time since their last meeting. The film does not bother with much prelude: we do not know why they are divorced and we know almost nothing of Eric; indeed, the film merely drops us in the middle of these peoples' lives and depicts a chapter over a Christmas holiday period. Later on, it will close with more questions than answers hanging over it.

Gabriel lives humbly in an enclosed apartment somewhere in the city of Bogota. He appears to be a kind of carpenter by trade and low on money, although earns enough to cook food from original ingredients and enjoy beers with friends now and then. The substance of the class study begins when Gabriel is forced into taking Eric to work with him all day, which is inside a spacious property belonging to his employer Maria uptown wherein he fixes furniture for her. Eric's equivalent here is his father's boss' son Francisco, who has a better bedroom; lots of toys and a video game where Eric has nothing.

This dawns on Eric slowly, and the film is a slow-burning depiction of this process of realisation, brought to the absolute fore when he and his father head out to the second residence Maria owns for Christmas festivities and the final act. During the crux of this study, director Franco Lolli uses a game of 'catch' in the outdoor swimming pool between Eric and his three posher compatriots to cleverly exemplify where the lines in Colombian society are drawn - it turns sour, even violent, and is deliberately contrasted with a game of football in a Bogota street we saw Eric enjoy with a couple of other kids his age during the opening scenes. Everybody seemed to get along there because this is where Eric is from.

I tried to work out precisely what it is the film wanted to say about the class system and why it seemed to think the presence of children in a film about it was so important, but couldn't settle on anything concrete. On one occasion, the film uses disappointingly simplistic imagery to emphasise a point - positioning Eric at the side of the pool and far away from three other boys who're grouped up together at the other end, an image striking enough to make it onto the film's poster. What is being said here beyond the mere fact these divisions exist, and that children can pick up on them? Otherwise, we learn that Eric is prone to a sulk because there are people out there who have it better than him, and that he should behave himself, but also that the richer kids sulk because they're spoilt and even manage to fall out with their peers even more aggressively than Eric does with his.

Lolli doesn't seem to settle on an answer to the issue, depicting people as resigned to the fact they are who they are and belong where they find themselves. There is a striking moment between Gabriel and Maria whereby Gabriel approaches her and speaks frankly in telling her quite simply that he 'doesn't belong here', even concluding that Eric is better off with them for sake of his future. Lolli shoots this scene with Gabriel in profile, which is a composition only ever used by rank-amateurs and those in complete command of the frame when they want to infer conflict between people without depicting any. But what is fascinating is how Maria is positioned: more front-on, seemingly rejecting the conflict; refusing to drag things down to that level and inferring the class issue is not as pronounced as you think.

Thus, the film concludes that a Colombian citizen IS able to become something else through perseverance, epitomised in the fact Maria is a teacher, and evidently able to fund her lifestyle through her well-paid job, and that this is how it should be. Despite this, she concludes in one fleeting moment that her materialistic possessions brought about via the wealth created by this achievement, in the form of a video game, has the capacity to 'rot the brain' of the next generation and it is only Gabriel whom we ever see doing any real labour. "Gente de Bien" is a film I would recommend, though in the full knowledge it is not especially breath-taking. If Colombian class-dramas that lack any sort of proper dogmatic edge are your cup of tea, then you should enjoy it.

It
(2017)

"Nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble."
Is "It" 'very scary'; 'quite scary' or 'not very scary at all'? Well, I would settle on the film being 'pretty bloody scary indeed', if you don't mind(!) Director Andy Muschietti's adaptation of a Stephen King novel, yet to have been given a proper cinematic adaptation to now, is the sort of horror film I find myself being able to get into: rounded protagonists; interesting villains; a real sense of good and evil at play; some genuinely chilling moments and no real reliance on violence to propel the sense you've seen something substantial.

The film depicts the exploits of a group of American children in a small fictitious town in the state of Maine during one, long summer holiday in 1989, wherein they dodge bullies; disagreeable parents and a series of odd visions which play on their barest fears. The film opens with a ghostly rendition of the age-old nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" which, I think, is designed to call to mind Orwell's "1984" wherein it was used as a sort of diegetic overture to the book's depiction of oppression and censorship. Said novel was, of course, about a set of characters living under the yoke of a seemingly unconquerable terror - the likes of which seemed to know your every move and, later on, your inner-most fear...

"It" essentially covers the tale of Billy (Jaeden Lieberher), a gawky looking kid with a stammer and a thin build - think DJ Qualls when he was much younger. During the film's preface, set eight months before the rest of the picture, Billy loses his younger brother on a stormy night when a model boat they build is washed away down their street and into the sewer. There, at the grate, he meets the titular "It" - what appears to be a smooth talking clown with a lazy eye and a devilish grin... Suffice to say, Billy's younger brother doesn't make it home.

Declared missing, and making it his mission to find him having felt responsible for sending him out in the storm, the audience, and not Billy, is playfully allowed to know what awaits those who don't let sleeping dogs lie. The film unfolds in such a way that we learn about dozens, even hundreds of other kids who have gone missing over the centuries in the same town and we realise, chillingly, what we saw in the opening has, in some guise, occurred many-a time before. Consequently, we might feel as if we have seen more than perhaps has been shown.

Billy, having been told in no uncertain terms to move on by his parents, has a group of friends who are, mostly, with him all the way. What is refreshing about the approach here is that a group of people effectively act as the protagonists - all are victims to the monster's stalking and we are spared a lone, increasingly neurotic, lead wading through on their own.

The kids themselves are a pleasingly distinctive bunch: one is a little too sexually aware, but has some wonderfully funny lines; another is crippled by a series of allergies. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is a red-headed girl with an abusive father, Ben happens to possess a deep understanding of the town having just moved there and had nothing to do but frequent a library. As the film whips along, one does not become lost amidst a sea of supporting acts. Some of the boys' feelings for Beverly, perennially with a key hung around her neck inferring only she can unlock something somewhere, are smoothly mixed into the narrative.

Another easy card the film avoids playing lies in what it considers frightening, both within the confines of the film for the characters and for us, the audience. Muschietti avoids going down a route of throwing things at the screen such as snakes and spiders, or rats, in order to get across the scares. Each of the characters has their own particular fear. Afraid of germs? Then you'll have a leper chase you down the street. Just cut off your hair over the sink because you're scared of attracting unwanted sexual attention? It'll come back up the plug and wrap itself around you. Not fond of the rendition of a particular image in a painting? Chances are it'll stalk you through the corridors of your own home.

These things don't sound especially frightening by themselves, but it is remarkable, for instance, just how creepy your standard zombie-like creature becomes when it's presented within this context. As for the silly oil painting of the old lady playing a flute which we didn't think was especially frightening when we first saw it - well, we don't think the same by the end...

There is even a moment towards the end of the film whereby "It" suddenly seems to morph its legs to form a kind of arachnid creature in a desperate attempt to frighten the characters because, I think, it is assuming that everybody has some sort of rooted fear of insects or whatnot. This sense of reverting to something at a time of desperation in order to win is noticeable and seems to be the director's way of putting it to other film-makers that throwing things at the screen for sake of it just doesn't work. What does work, however, is part one of this double-header - a pretty outstanding horror feature on its own and well worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
(2006)

Improving a little on the first entry, Dead Man's Chest is not dead on arrival.
The stakes have been upped for "Dead Man's Chest", the 2006 sequel to the immensely popular, though I thought generally underwhelming, 2003 effort "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl": said Black Pearl, a haunted pirate galleon, has been replaced by the even more efficient Flying Dutchman; Geoff Rush's un-dead captain, Barbossa, and his motley crew of zombies have been replaced by a sadistic freak-show led by Bill Nighy, and the appearance of several new characters, not the mention the fleshing out of one or two old supporting ones, gives the film a broader sense of both scope and appeal.

The film is, I suppose, little more than a romp around a series of photogenic tropical islands, but is never-the-less good, clean honest fun; a sort of physical incarnation of all those games of Lego pirates & soldiers you might have played when you were younger on bases decked out to look like desert islands or within the confines of stone-carved fortresses you'd first have to build from the instructions. There were swords; muskets; treasure chests; an assortment of characters and palm trees housing monkeys you could clip on at funny angles.

"Dead Man's Chest" essentially covers the plights of two separate lead characters, a good looking clean-cut civilian with an honest trade, in Will Turner (Bloom), and a roguish, smooth-talking pirate in Jack Sparrow (Depp), whom nobody ever seems to truly get along with within the confines of the film yet nevertheless everybody loved within the public domain after his debut in the 2003 original. In the Bermudan town of Port Royal, stronghold it would appear of the British navy some two hundred years ago, and certainly in an alternate universe, Turner and his love, Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) are arrested on grounds of treason for helping a condemned man escape justice. The local governor hatches a plan to let them both go, but only on the grounds that Turner venture forth and bring back a particular compass belonging to Sparrow...

Sparrow, meanwhile, is busily making his own escape from a gruesome island prison which seems to be the sort of place that locks prisoners up and forgets about them, an early indication that the film is unafraid of going to some fairly nasty places. He is introduced as a resourceful chap prone to bursts of oddball comedy, playing dead and getting away in one of the many coffins prison employees are tossing away into the sea (something which calls to mind James Bond's escape from behind enemy lines in "Octopussy") before rather mercilessly shooting open the casket and wiping out a bird that had followed his vessel out to sea. Not too long after this, he encounters an island occupied by a tribe of cannibals who elevate him to a God-like status - a mere reflection of what the public did to him after Depp's initial performance.

As Turner seeks Sparrow's compass, Sparrow himself seeks the key to a certain treasure chest to whit only his compass will guide him. Hot on his heels for mostly unrelated reasons is Davy Jones (Nighy) himself and a crew of un-dead body-horror inclined psychopaths who look to settle a debt with him. And what a crew they are: barnacle and rot-covered fish-like creatures, wavy tentacles and pained expressions, involuntarily vomiting up seawater - disgusting to look at but a technical marvel within the confines of filmic imagery. One of these monsters, played by Stellan Skarsgård, turns out to be Will's father and it is surprising how affecting the scenes are between the two characters as they converse about their respective situations.

Broadly speaking, the film attempts to re-enact "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" on water - vast, open swathes of desert become the open seas; horses are traded for boats and six-shooters become cutlasses. The American Civil War is substituted for some kind of battle for naval supremacy between rival factions. Director Gore Verbinski has a lot of fun encouraging the audience to root for Bloom's character to succeed in his mission and save the day so that he may go home and walk off into the sunset with his soul-mate, but that means forcing the audience to go against the character they like the most, which of course is Sparrow, who will meet a grizzly end at the hands of Davy Jones should he fail.

This interplay, like with the aforementioned Leone opus, between the varying sides keeps both the energy and interest levels high. It is something which culminates, of sorts, in a standout sequence involving three different characters sword fighting with each other across the beaches and forestry of a desert island; into the ruins of an old church and then on top of the most durable waterwheel in cinematic history. This is then further ramped up when members of Jones' gang turn up looking for something one of the initial three has on their person.

"Dead Man's Chest" is not great art, but it brings a smile to your face - whether that is through two pirates, who used to be un-dead, but are now alive, conversing about mortality, or via the head-spinning yet strangely steadfast logic of Jack Sparrow as he bargains his way out of another sticky situation, is up to you. For me, the film seemed to iron out all the problems I had with the first one, in terms of pacing and why I was supposed to at all care about those on screen, and run with a similarly magnetic approach, the likes of which I can't say I didn't enjoy.

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