Thursday, 17 August 2017

K-Shop (2016)

A modern take on the Sweeney Todd story, K-Shop has some good ideas but these get buried in a script that fails to make the main character convincing.

Salah (Ziad Abaza) is a Turkish-British student, about to graduate with a politics degree. With nothing left to do but fine tune his dissertation, he comes to help his ailing father Zaki (Nayef Rashed) who runs a late-night kebab place in an English seaside town. He is horrified at the way the drunks abuse Zaki, abuse that turns tragic when Zaki dies at the hands of one of them, leaving Salah in charge of the shop. From there, he launches a one-man vigilante operation against his customers, and, being a businessman, finds a way to dispose of the evidence and cut down on his overheads.

The film certainly paints a bleak view of England, a land of binge drinking, vomiting, fancy dress stag nights, and sinister nightclub owning reality TV stars. The biggest influence, consciously or not, seems to be the Death Wish series and their subsequent rip-offs, where the filmmakers are not subtle about telling us about whom we should be cheering for and who we should be booing. The characterisation for the latter doesn't really go beyond being us being shown somebody saying something awful, such as call centre workers boasting about ripping off elderly vulnerable customers, or a drunk man helping himself to food and referring to Zaki as Saddam, and the character arc of Salah going from bookish student to cold blooded killer is not believable in the slightest.

Nevertheless the anger of Salah, coupled with a dark sense of humour and some outré gore compensate enough to make the film worth a watch for the misanthropic.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Godzilla is arguably Japan's most internationally well-known cinematic icon, and Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) is an attempt to bring him into a 21st century world of mobile phones and CGI. The film is certainly entertaining, but suffers from odd pacing and a lack of the title character for long stretches.

The plot largely follows the standard template for a Godzilla film, particularly the 1954 original, starting with mysterious scenes of death and destruction, which are eventually linked to the title character, followed by his increasingly devastating rampages and futile attempts by the military to stop him. There are some modern updates as this time, rather than American nuclear testing it is dumped nuclear waste that brings the beast to life, and, of course, when the public see Godzilla for the first time, they all reach for their phones to start filming him.

The original is a fascinating study of national identity in post-World War Two Japan. Shin Godzilla retains this more serious tone, but brings it up to date with the scenes of destruction and the bureaucratic impotence of the national government recalling the recent real-life horrors of Fukushima, although, endless scenes of inter-governmental bickering do not always make for scintillating viewing. The pacing feels inconsistent with a gripping and thrill packed opening 30 minutes followed by a stodgy, talky and hour or so, which is also largely monster free, while Godzilla recharges his nuclear batteries.

Purists may also balk at the amount of CGI used, with the traditional man in a rubber suit replaced by a man in a motion-capture suit, and some of the scenes of destruction look a little more slick and digital than the traditional miniature model sets.

Nevertheless, it's always good to see Godzilla back on the big screen, and when the mayhem and destruction happens it's easy to forget the flaws and focus on what is so good about these sorts of films.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

International Guerillas (1990)

The central premise of International Guerrillas is astonishing but the end result is insane and so hilariously botched that it is impossible to be offended. Just as importantly, even with a running time not far off three hours, there is rarely a dull moment.

Mustafa, a disillusioned Pakistani police officer and his two small-time crook brothers, put aside their differences in the face of an even greater menace than crime, namely Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. When their younger sister is killed by the police at an anti-Rushdie demonstration, the trio decide to avenge her and Islam's honour by hunting down and killing Rushdie, helped by a female police officer.

Rushdie, however, is not just a novelist, but also the head of a vast criminal empire, dedicated to two things; firstly building a global chain of casinos, nightclubs and brothels, and secondly wiping out Islam.

Perhaps the overriding lesson of this film is that terrorism is best left to competent professionals rather than enthusiastic amateurs, as it soon becomes apparent that the International Guerrillas are useless. Time after time they botch the job, and constantly have to be bailed out, either by the female police officer, or, at the climax, flying copies of the Koran. And hats off to whoever had the bright idea of them all busting into one of Rushdie's sin palaces dressed in Batman costumes, which, granted, is a step up from their usual disguise of embarrassingly obviously fake beards.

 Rushdie is portrayed as a James Bond style supervillain, with a mega fortress / disco in the Philippines, a Jewish head of security, and an assistant who can tell if people are Muslim just by looking at them. This is a man who is as vicious as he is decadent, as at one point, he threatens to torture to the heroes' mother by forcing her to listen to a talking book of The Satanic Verses.

Throw in rubbish car chases, endless gun battles, repeated crash-zooms, some excruciatingly unfunny comedy and the inevitable song and dance numbers and the whole daft thing rattles along at a good energetic pace, even with a running time of over 160 minutes.

The only place the fun stops and the film becomes genuinely unnerving is when the guerrillas mouth another piece of spittle flecked rhetoric, similar to the sort of hateful bile spouted by Islamist extremists nowadays. Talk of mutilating Rushdie's face until even Satan won't recognise him jars with the goofy tone elsewhere.

Ironically, the real life Rushdie proved to be much more tolerant of the film, as well as living up to his free speech, anti-censorship credentials.  After the BBFC threatened to block the UK release of the film, on the grounds that the film libelled the author, Rushdie personally intervened to persuade them otherwise.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Ghoul (2016)

Far from the lurid horror the name might suggest, The Ghoul is a complex, quirky, and paranoid, low budget British thriller with horror overtones, in the vein of co-star Alice Lowe's Prevenge and executive producer Ben Wheatley's Kill List.

I'm reluctant to say too much about the plot as part of the joy of the film is the unpredictable twists and turns it takes. It starts with homicide detective Chris (Tom Meeten) being brought in to investigate a bizarre murder in London where the victims have appeared to keep walking even when shot full of bullets. If that sounds in any way conventional or predictable, then rest assured, the story soon takes a leftfield swerve, and goes on to continually pull the rug from under the viewer, while all the time maintaining a paranoid internal logic that stops the film descending into irritating incoherent chaos.

The excellent cast is a massive asset. Tom Meeten is best known as comedy actor, having previously collaborated with Lowe, as well as appearing in TV shows such as Peep Show and Saxondale. Here, however he plays it totally straight and convincing, even when the audience starts to doubt what they are seeing. Geoffrey McGovern also deserves a mention as Chris's eccentric and sinister therapist, giving him a brilliant and necessary mix of charisma and menace.

Making his feature debut, writer and director Gareth Tunley does an excellent job of getting maximum results from minimum resources and making the surreal elements blend well with the urban grittiness, and druggy bedsit lifestyle of Chris's undercover alter ego. This thought provoking film stays in your mind long after the end credits, and is one that I suspect would reward repeat viewings.

Friday, 21 July 2017

It Comes At Night (2017)

Maybe there is something in the air, but there seems to be no shortage apocalyptic films and TV shows. The trailer for It Comes At Night seems to be selling it as a cross between The Shining and 28 Days Later, but in reality, it is a low key, claustrophobic and highly disturbing look at ordinary people crumbling under extraordinary circumstances.

As a deadly and highly contagious disease has lays waste to the outside world, Paul, his wife Sarah, and their teenage son Travis lock themselves away in their country home. When a stranger breaks into the house, they grudgingly let him and his wife and new born baby stay with them. But have they let also in something more than just the people?

The three leads are thoroughly convincing, both individually and as a family, with Joel Edgerton giving Paul a grim, ruthlessly practical intensity. Kelvin Harrison Jr. excels as Travis, a teenager having to grow up fast and having to see things nobody should have to see.

Director Trey Edward Shults builds an oppressive world, and slowly ramps up the paranoia and tension. Much of the action takes place in the family home, but even when they venture further afield the forest they live in becomes an overbearing oppressive place, where we rarely see the sky or much of the world beyond the woods. In fact, few clues are given to the cause or nature of the outbreak, and the only backstory we get about Paul and his family comes from brief shots of family photos on the walls of their home, a throwback to happier days. That so much is left unexplained does not hinder the film as the focus is on the here and now, rather than how they or the wider world got to where they are.

Brian McOmber's soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment, an unsettling mix of synths, strings, and relentless percussion, which blends well with the heightened sound design.

If anything, It Comes At Night might be a victim of its own success, at least when it comes to recommending it. There is no let up from the grim fight for survival, and even as the characters trying to keep and air of normality and civilisation, there is a feeling that this is only staving off the inevitable, and the thought of the teenager and the baby having to grow up in this world is tragic. This is an intense and brilliantly executed piece of work, but don't expect to come through it feeling good about the world.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Now Voyager (1942)

Now Voyager appeared as part of the first wave of Hollywood's brief love affair with psychoanalysis, along with the likes of Hitchcock's Spellbound. This Freudian undertone sets it apart from standard Hollywood romantic melodramas, and the plot of a person forced to repress their true personality by an overbearing family figure seems to have struck a chord with gay film fans, amongst whom it has a fanbase to this day.

Bette Davis plays Boston heiress Charlotte Vale, a neurotic mess, largely due to her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). After coming under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jasquith (Claude Rains), Charlotte reinvents herself, going from frumpy introvert to glamorous woman about town. While on a cruise she meets and fall in love with a married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid). How will her mother react to the newly independent Charlotte? And can she ever find happiness with Jerry?

Drama is based around conflict and there is no shortage of that in this film, with Charlotte clashing with her mother, Charlotte's sister clashing with her mother, her mother clashing with Dr Jasquith, and Charlotte clashing with her feelings for Jerry. What makes the drama seem so fresh is the liberal attitude of Jasquith. He is more interested in Charlotte being happy, rather than have her conform to the stuffy morality of her background, or, indeed, of the wider society of the day, something that makes the appeal to the film's gay fanbase obvious. In addition, the script goes against the grain of contemporary romantic films by not going for an obvious path to true love, and seeming to accept that relationships are often complicated and happiness not always conventional.

There is plenty of fun to be had watching Bette Davis playing against type as the monobrowed dowdy Charlotte we see at the beginning of the film, emerging from her chrysalis into the polar opposite, glamorous, adventurous, and fun loving, not giving a damn for the stifling world of upper middle class Boston and the sense of duty and obligation that comes with it.

Film and psychoanalysis are the around the same age, as the Lumiere brothers started screenings of moving pictures in 1895, the same year that Freud published Studies in Hysteria, his first foray into what would become psychoanalysis. If anything it is the depiction of psychoanalysis itself, or at least the Hollywood version of Freud's work that dates Now Voyager. It portrays the mystery of the human psyche as being like a whodunnit, one that can be unravelled with the aid of the right clues, an approach that now seems a little unsophisticated.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Gonks Go Beat (1965)

Knocked out cheaply and quickly to cash in the youth culture and music of the day, Gonks Go Beat is by turn astonishing, excruciating and deathly dull.

In the not too distant future, Earth is split into two opposing factions, Hip, hairy, and cool Beat Land versus neat, tidy, crooner loving Ballad Isle. Every year they have a musical competition to decide who is best, with the judge being the subtly named Mr. A&R (Frank Thornton). Meanwhile the galactic overlords who rule over everything have for some reason decided to put an end to the squabbling, so send their worst agent, the ever bungling Wilco Roger (Kenneth Connor) to sort the situation out and bring the two sides together.

Having first about this many years ago, I was hoping for an unhinged lost classic, with a rip roaring sixties soundtrack, shoddy sets, a baffling plot, and genuine talents such as Connor, Thornton and Terry Scott degrading themselves, but the reality is a curate's egg. The songs play like promo videos, and music wise, Beat Land wins hands down, with the likes of Lulu, the Graham Bond Organisation (with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), leaving Ballad Isle with some insipid, coma inducing tripe.

The story is baffling, the characters unengaging, and the comedy is painful to watch, and having seen some of the things Connor and Scott appeared in, I know they can make the corniest of gags work, but this is beyond even their talents.

I was hoping for a British version of Plan 9 From Outer Space, at least in terms of jaw dropping weirdness, but it lacks the truly deranged vision and energy of Ed Wood's work, and what should be a brain rotting piece of fun soon becomes a slog. If you're a fan of 60s Beat / Blues music, it is worth a watch, but it has little to recommend for anyone else.