Tokyo Ghoul (2017)

Tokyo Ghoul is a film based on a very popular anime and manga, and though I have since started on the anime, when I saw the film I knew very little about the series other than the brief synopsis. Bear that in mind then, when I say I enjoyed the film a great deal – no purist am I – and I acknowledge that a greater familiarity with the source material might have meant otherwise. The film is exactly what I both wanted and expected: kinda dumb, kinda melodramatic, delightfully over the top in its action and gore…in short, a lot of fun.

The film concerns regular university student Ken (Masataka Kubota), who likes reading, hanging out with his best friend Hide (Kai Ogasawara), and crushing on Rize (Yū Aoi). The world Ken inhabits is not so regular, however, as Tokyo has a ghoul problem – a humanoid species which survives on a diet of, well, people. A chance encounter leaves Ken mortally wounded, until a full organ transplant saves his life. Unfortunately for him, those organs were from a deceased ghoul, and Ken now finds himself existing as a rare creature indeed: half-ghoul, half-human, unable to live in the human world but disgusted by the ghoul world. He’s taken in by the staff of the cafe he used to frequent, Anteiku, which is in fact a safe haven for pacifistic ghouls, headed up by Yoshimura (Kunio Murai). There Ken is taken under the wing of hostile Touka (Fumika Shimizu) and he soon adjusts to his new life – only to have it all thrown into turmoil when he’s introduced to Agents Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) and Mado (Yō Ōizumi) of the CCG, the organisation tasked with wiping out ghouls once and for all.

Yes, that’s right, Tokyo Ghoul is basically a vampire story. Ghouls and vampires are not strictly similar – ghouls eat human flesh, can walk around freely in daylight, have elaborate hidden appendages known as kagune which are pretty nifty in a fight – but the story structured around these creatures and characters is fairly familiar. It’s nice, then, that the film still manages to be so entertaining, despite the sense of familiarity. That’s down, in part, to the earnestness of the performances, and the great sense of pacing – melodrama and action run along at good speed for its 2-hour run time.

The cast is all-round strong, and Masataka Kubota particularly does a great job as the perpetually conflicted Ken Kaneki, managing to never tip an emotional role into parody. Yō Ōizumi is immensely entertaining as the sadistic Mado, while the rest of the supporting cast is strong. Although the relationships in the story are portrayed with a healthy does of arch-melodrama, Tokyo Ghoul rather pulls it off, and interesting secondary – perhaps crucially human – characters such as Hide and Touka’s best friend Yoriko (Seika Furuhata) add a satisfying sense of depth and emotional investment.

Chances are if you’re going in cold you’re not necessarily watching Tokyo Ghoul for the story world – and, good thing is, the action more than holds up too. The ghouls’ kagune, tentacle-like appendages unique to each individual, make for imaginatively staged fight scenes – and if you think that sounds silly, wait ‘til you see what a quinque is. There is a certain element of camp to the film, particularly when you factor in the design of Ken’s ghoul mask, but it’s so well balanced that it never becomes overbearing. Even if it did, I dare say it would still be mighty enjoyable.

All in all, Tokyo Ghoul is unlikely to win you over if you’re not a fan of over-the-top manga adaptations in the vein of Attack on Titan or Parasyte, but if you are, then it’s just the ticket.

Tokyo Ghoul is in select UK cinemas from January 31st. Find out where it’s showing near you on the Anime Ltd website.

Harold Buttleman: Daredevil Stuntman (2003)

John Hawkes is a pretty fascinating figure in film. For many years, he was most likely to be known for his brief appearance as the liquor store guy in the first scene of From Dusk Till Dawn; or, if you’re a real Robert Rodriguez completist, for his scene-stealing supporting turn in Roadracers. However, more recent years have seen him take on considerably more serious work to major acclaim, like Winter’s Bone (which won him an Oscar nomination), Martha Macy May Marlene, and most recently a small but hugely impactful role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That latest one in particular gave me pause, as Hawkes played Frances McDormand’s ex-husband, which – and I apologise in advance for my unwitting sexism – initially struck me as a bit off, as he seems so much the younger of the two. However, Hawkes is actually only a year younger than McDormand, 58 at the time of writing.

This means that Hawkes was already well into his forties when Harold Buttleman: Daredevil Stuntman (also known as simply Buttleman) was made. Remarkable, given that he looks twenty years younger, and the character certainly seems to fit that age group. Still, as the film itself demonstrates, there’s no age limit on chasing dreams – or, alas, seeing those dreams broken.

I’ll confess to having been completely unaware of Harold Buttleman: Daredevil Stuntman – the first, and to date only film from writer-director Francis Stokes – until word reached me of its upcoming VOD release. In terms of plot and character, we might find some common ground with another recent critical darling, The Disaster Artist, but it strikes me as being closer at heart to that old comedy drama classic, Billy Liar; it’s the tale of a small-town guy who dreams of getting out and making it big, yet is sorely lacking when it comes to the skill, the knowledge, and above all the self-awareness to make it happen.

Hawkes, as you might have ascertained, plays the title role; a young-ish man who lives in his parent’s basement and works as a tuxedo fitter, but who harbours a lifelong dream of becoming a superstar stunt performer in the vein of Evel Knievel. His day to day life is pretty normal: going to work, hanging out drinking with his buddies, going out on humdrum dates with his girlfriend Wendy (Anita Barone). It’s just that, whenever he has down time, Harold and his best friend Doug (Stephen Falk) are out planning his next daredevil feat to capture on camcorder, with the ultimate goal of putting together a pilot episode for a TV show which they hope will catapult them to fame and fortune. The problem is, Harold and his friends don’t actually know the first thing about stunt work. Yet through it all, Harold remains perpetually optimistic that the big break is on the horizon. The clock’s ticking, though, as Harold’s parents (Leon Russom, and the sadly missed Karen Black) need him to move out, and Wendy is getting a little impatient with his dreaming and wants him to make the traditional honest woman out of her.

Although Stokes’ film first hit screens in 2003, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was made a decade earlier. It’s very much in the 1990s American indie mould, aesthetically reminiscent of early Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, with a quaint beauty that you don’t necessarily see today, in large part because Stokes shot it on good old fashioned 35mm; credit due to cinematographer Thomas Hargis. Given how often such grounded, character-based comedy dramas (I’m reticent to use the word ‘dramedy’) tend to take a very warts and all, kitchen sink approach and dwell on the darkness and underlying misery of the struggling dreamer, it’s very refreshing that this is, for the most part, a much more upbeat affair. As patently deluded as he is, Harold is such an affable, well-meaning character that you can’t help but root for him. Not unlike Tom Courtenay’s Billy, Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood, or even Ardal O’Hanlan’s Father Dougal before him, Hawkes plays Harold not as an idiot, but as childlike enthusiast, unwitting in his naivety, but certainly not meaning any harm to anyone.

Beyond the title character, Stokes paints a picture of small town life that’s similarly affectionate, whilst also quietly critical. The key to it all is, while Harold is clearly lacking in skill as a stunt performer, all those around him either refrain from telling him so, or fail to recognise it themselves. As Harold’s best friend and cameraman Doug, Stephen Falk (who has since worked worked more as a screenwriter, including stints on Weeds and Orange is the New Black) plays the role with a similar naivety, so swept up in his friend’s commanding nature that he too believes success is coming their way; likewise Stephanie Markham as Nettie, Doug’s little sister and Harold’s self-professed biggest fan. The two of them support and believe in Harold unconditionally, whilst Harold’s girlfriend and parents simply grin and bear it, dropping increasingly less subtle hints that he should give it all up and pursue a more normal career, as befits their very normal existence.

Though it’s evident from the start that things are not going to go the way Harold thinks, there’s still something of a unexpected, and not entirely palatable tonal shift in the final scenes. Obviously I’m not going to go into specifics, but to go back to my earlier Kevin Smith comparison, the conclusion of Harold Buttleman: Daredevil Stuntman reminds me somewhat of the original ending of Clerks: Smith’s first cut went out on a major downer which felt rather misplaced given how light-hearted things had been beforehand. The contrast is not quite so jarring here; again, a less-than happy ending has been signposted from early on, and thematically it makes sense, plus things are left just that bit open enough to suggest it might not be as bleak as it seems. Even so, the climax doesn’t paint a sunny picture of how things generally turn out for those who pursue a creative path, and is likely to hit home with those of us who have made such unlikely goals our life’s endeavour.

Even so, just because a film doesn’t offer total feel-good vibes from start to finish doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen and celebrated. This is a charming, endearing, very relatable piece of work, and it’s a shame it hasn’t had a chance to reach a wider audience before now; all being well, that will change now.

Also, fair play to Hawkes, who is credited as having performed all his own stunts in the movie. It might not be Evel Knievel level, but a lot of it must have taken some balls.

Harold Buttleman: Daredevil Stuntman is released on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play from 2nd February.

Radius (2017)

Going into a film with no foreknowledge beyond the fact that it’s from the producers of Turbo Kid, one might be forgiven for not expecting anything too serious-minded. However, this film is an altogether different breed of Canadian sci-fi horror. Written and directed by Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard, Radius is a compelling and inventive movie which makes the most of a low budget by presenting us with science fiction based not around spectacle, but ideas. Hand in hand with this, it’s often a satisfyingly taut, suspenseful affair, thanks largely to the effective lead performances of Diego Klattenhoff and Charlotte Sullivan. And, just to make things tricky for anyone writing a review, it’s a film whose enjoyment largely hinges on going in without spoilers and letting things unfurl naturally.

So, just how much should I reveal plot-wise…? I can tell you that, after an atmospheric opening shot of storm clouds bursting with lightning, we meet Klattenhoff, lying by the side of a stark country road in what would appear to be the wake of a car crash. He’s hurt, he’s bleeding, and he doesn’t remember his own name, although the ID in his pocket tells him it’s Liam. Staggering up and attempting to get help, his disorientation soon turns to outright despair, as all around him people, and animals, are dropping dead on the spot. Local news warns of some sort of as-yet unidentified pandemic in the region, but Liam soon comes to the alarming realisation that it’s something else entirely, and that he is somehow indirectly responsible for it all. But just when things don’t seem like they can get any weirder, Liam is tracked down by a woman (Sullivan) who tells him she was also in the crash – and she too has completely lost her memory. The question is, how did these two know each other before – and, rather more importantly, how are they tied in to the bizarre phenomena going on around them?

Others have already described Radius as having something of a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits vibe about it, and this is a very apt description. The central conceit, of which I’m loathe to reveal anything more, is gradually brought to light in a very effective manner, really building intrigue, and it’s all the more impressive considering that, at least for much of the opening scenes when Liam is on his own, it’s conveyed largely without dialogue. When Sullivan’s character – ultimately dubbed ‘Jane,’ as in Jane Doe – arrives on the scene, it may initially seem like this undermines matters (not unlike when all those other survivors show up in I Am Legend/The Omega Man). However, this soon proves to make the whole set-up even more intriguing. We’ve all seen plenty of amnesia movies which pair up a man and a woman, and more often than not the woman is there purely to help the guy out, Bourne Identity-style; but in Radius, we have the added curiosity of two amnesiac leads, who quickly grow to urgently need one another – despite the fact that neither one of them has the faintest idea what their relationship was beforehand.

As a pretty small scale indie production which is based primarily around character-based drama, Radius lives and dies on the strength of its cast – and, happily, they made some fine choices there. I wasn’t immediately familiar with either Diego Klattenhoff or Charlotte Sullivan (although since looking them up on IMDb, I see that Klattenhoff briefly appeared as Charlie Hunnam’s brother in Pacific Rim; others may also know him from TV’s Homeland), but they’re both very fine actors who really sell the scenario, and keep things human and relatable, even when – as inevitably occurs in genre fare – things veer towards the melodramatic. Twist follows twist as the final act draws in, but we’re not in Shyamalan territory here; each new revelation only serves to increase the drama, as opposed to rendering it all redundant.

Writer-director duo Labrèche and Léonard haven’t done a great deal to date (this is the first I’ve seen from either of them), but Radius makes clear that they’re a strong team capable of producing very creative work. I certainly hope we see more from them, and their lead actors, in the future.

Radius has been screening in cinemas across Canada in the past two months, and will be released to VOD and iTunes on 13th March. Learn more and get updates at the official Facebook page.

Judas #2

When we last left Judas Iscariot, he was burning in the pits of Hell for turning his back on Jesus. I’m sure you know the official story: Judas, one of the thirteen apostles of Jesus Christ, betrayed our Lord and Savior to the Romans and had him crucified for the sins of humankind. The comic Judas, though, seems to tell a different tale. In Judas #1, our anti-hero questions his purpose in the Jesus’s grand scheme; and if Jesus was all-knowing, then surely he must have known that Judas wasn’t exactly sold on the whole Christianity thing. So why did he allow him into his clique in the first place? What is his deal anyway? These questions and more underline the hottest theological comic on the stands since Preacher, and issue two keeps on keeping on with the why-and-what if’s of everyone’s favorite Savior! Combined with stunning art by Jakub Rebelka, this hard-hitting comic will have you at the edge of your philosophical seat.

In the second issue, we are finally introduced to Judas’s new friend in Hell, Lucifer Morningstar. On first reaction, Judas immediately blames the fallen angel for his mistrust in Jesus, but Lucifer assures him that, despite any claims, his lot in life is to not tempt men. He claims that he and Judas have suffered the same; that they were made into villains by a vain and petty God who needed adversaries to firm his hold on the world. Though still dubious, Judas can’t help but see the connection between himself and other ‘villains’ in the Bible, how they were used, tricked, and tossed aside. Lucifer continues to tell him of his time in Heaven and how he, just like Judas, simply wanted more from God and got banished for it. Is Lucifer really telling the truth as he claims, or is the surprise witness he brings to hammer his point home a simple illusion from the Prince of Lies?

This issue, like most second issues, is a lot more filler than action, so unfortunately there are no giant angel monsters or the crawling dead of Hell. That being said, writer Jeff Loveness handles the filler really well, and almost takes a note from the Hellboy playbook by doing a show-and-tell type of work. As Lucifer and Judas speak, the comic will cut back to different places in the Bible and illustrate the points Lucifer is making. It’s a breezy way to help gain sympathy for Judas and Lucifer, especially when Lucifer starts scrolling off the names of other villains, allowing Judas to realize that he’s not alone as he thought. That brings up another armchair theology point: if Judas is simply a pawn in God’s plan, what about Jezebel, Goliath, Lot’s Wife, or even the Pharaoh, who wasn’t actually that bad until God ‘hardened his heart’ to Moses? Why would God purposely ask for sacrifices from his followers and harden his enemies? This leads to the very first question that Judas had: if God is all powerful, why does he let bad things happen? Lucifer suggests that it’s all part of God’s plan, something echoed by many Christians today, but little do they know how dark God’s plan is. It’s interesting to watch Judas come to terms with his own abandonment and try to figure out if Lucifer is telling the truth at all.

Much like the first issue, perhaps the greatest strength is that despite the disapproving take on God’s choices, the comic never mocks Christianity. It still handles the religion with respect while asking questions about the biggest players in the Bible. It almost reminds me of a person struggling with their faith; not just Judas, but anyone who has ever been deeply involved in a religion. You still believe the basic ins and outs of the ideology, but when you dig deep, the details seem to fall apart. The comic forces the reader to wonder if they can still have faith when their Creators aren’t all they appear to be. How close can you look at your God and still believe in him? Maybe Lucifer really did get into Judas’s head and has been lying all this time. Much like the good book itself, it’s open to interpretation.

Once again, Loveness does a smart and quick read about a subject that’s really pretty heavy, and knows when to cut back before getting too heavy handed. As mentioned, he lets the reader come to their own conclusion and doesn’t aim to change anyone’s faith, merely to explore it. This definitely feels like it’s coming from someone with experience in the field of Christianity, allowing the work to come off very authentic. Rebelka continues to do both the art and the coloring on the comic, and maintains his beautiful color transitions between life and death. The figures are mostly stand-still but he manages to avoid boring illustrations through dynamic art spreads and solid pops of colors. Put together, these guys really helped Judas earn its $4 price tag!

Go pick up Judas #2 on stands now!

Canaries (2017)

I have a confession to make. When I first heard about Canaries, from its UK premiere selection at London’s FrightFest, I was worried. Whenever a Welsh genre film comes along I always get a twinge of panic, of an intense desire for the film to be brilliant, good patriot that I am, and the unnerving expectation that it won’t be. There’s nothing inherently bad about Welsh genre filmmaking, at all, but being such a relatively small industry, I desperately want to support all of its output, particularly independent genre productions. I was absolutely thrilled, then, to have the opportunity to see Canaries and be blown away by the wonderful result. A sci-fi-horror-comedy is honestly never going to be an easy sell for me (I don’t have much of a sense of humour, let’s be honest), but Canaries is a delight from start to finish, a fine example of what can be achieved with ambition, verve and talent.

London DJ Steve (Craig Russell) returns home to the Welsh village of Lower Cwmtwrch in a bid to win investment from Nav (Richard Mylan), brother to his friend Sunita (Sheena Bhattessa), by showcasing his talents at a New Year’s Eve party. However, his friends back home, including Huw (Steven Meo) and Ryan (Aled Pugh) aren’t really giving him the platform he was after, with a disappointing house party guest list. Elsewhere, the US secret service have received numerous reports of alien activity and Special Agents Miles Kendrick (Rob Karma Robinson) and Marcie Gilman (Tsilala Brock) find evidence to suggest the next alien event will be taking place in Wales…

The ambitious nature of Canaries is a major selling point. While it’s true that director Peter Stray and his producers have made the very most of resources available to them – such as the American filming locations, including Martha’s Vineyard – there are so many ways in which this could have been an easier (lazier) film to make, and the results would have been much less satisfying. Instead, this little Welsh film – and it is very Welsh – aims global, and that’s an absolute delight to see. It also aims high in its narrative scope. Yes, the film’s set in a tiny Welsh village, but these aliens sure do invade, and the secret service sure does kick some butt. Credit has to go to the film’s brilliant fight choreographer (seen in the film as the head alien) Kev McCurdy, as well as the cast that gets truly stuck in. A big part of the film’s appeal is just how genuine it feels, and that extends from the locations, to the fight choreography, to the practical make-up effects.

That sense of authenticity really comes into its own in the script and performances. There’s a real naturalistic rapport between believable characters, as well as a thrillingly authentic sense of diversity – though I yearn for a day when that shouldn’t be notable, the ease with which it’s achieved in Canaries is something that should be inspirational and instructive to other filmmakers. The cast are clearly having a grand ol’ time together, and those performances lead to a genuine sense of emotional investment, something I think can be sorely lacking from horror comedies. It’s testament to the script too that a central character as, well, slightly tool-ish as Steve manages to become likeable – well, I wasn’t hoping for his untimely death at the end of an alien’s claw, anyway.

The film manages to balance slasher movie kills with an alien invasion narrative while allowing the absurdity of such a thing happening to such regular people form the basis of some very entertaining comedy. It’s fair to say that Canaries surprised me in all the best possible ways, and I’m looking forward to seeing it break out of its festival run to hit the big time…and hell, with a suitable mythos established around its story, maybe I can look forward to a sequel too.

For further info/updates, follow Canaries on Facebook and Twitter.

Showdown in Manila (2016)

I don’t always jump at the chance to see the latest low-budget action movie. There have been a whole lot of cheap-looking, DV-shot beat-’em-up/shoot-’em-up flicks in recent years, most going direct to home entertainment, and most falling way short of the adrenaline-fuelled entertainment of years gone by. However, in the case of Showdown in Manila, I just had to give it a look on account of it being the directorial debut of Mark Dacascos. In case the name’s not familiar, Dacascos is a martial arts action star who emerged in the 1990s but sadly never achieved the level of fame he deserved, despite scene-stealing turns in Crying Freeman, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, and Drive (the real one, not that Ryan Gosling bullshit). Factor in that also features a number of other second-tier action stars from years gone by, and that it’s set and shot in the Philippines, home to so much great exploitation cinema, and it’s hard for anyone with an affection for old-school action not to at least have a glimmer of interest.

So, is Showdown in Manila a diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered by action devotees? Well – no. It looks like a low-rent piece of crap, sounds like a low-rent piece of crap; and guess what, it is a low-rent piece of crap. But that’s not to say it doesn’t provide 85 minutes of simple, undemanding fun.

From the title alone, you might be forgiven for noting the influence of 1991’s Showdown in Little Tokyo, a wonderfully ridiculous buddy cop movie which teamed up Dolph Lundgren with the late Brandon Lee (incidentally,  Dacascos took over Lee’s role of Eric Draven for TV series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven). Showdown in Manila shares more with Mark L Lester’s movie than a similar name, as we also have Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa on villain duties, and Tia Carrere as the damsel in distress.

This time around, Carrere is the wife of FBI agent Matthew Wells, briefly played by Dacascos himself, who is murdered by Tagawa’s crime boss, known as The Wraith, while the couple are vacationing in Manila. This leaves her with a score to settle – and she isn’t the only one. Two years earlier, The Wraith was also responsible for ending the career of our lead, Manila police task force leader Nick Peyton (Russian bodybuilder-turned actor Alexander Nevsky, also co-writer and producer). Now, Nick has gone into business as a private investigator, alongside ex-LAPD officer Charlie Benz (good ol’ Caspar Van Dien). Fearing that too much of the Manila Police may be on The Wraith’s payroll, one of Nick’s more trustworthy former colleagues brings Mrs Wells (yes, that’s literally the only name Carrere is given) directly to him with the case. Although it’s a somewhat bigger job than Nick and Charlie are accustomed to taking on, there’s no way they can pass up the chance for some sweet payback.

I really wish I could say Showdown in Manila was loaded with the same pulpy delights of the buddy cop comedies, martial arts masterworks and jungle action romps that it evokes. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the word go that it was made for absolute peanuts, and Dacascos seems content to play things as by-the-numbers as possible. It all chugs along agreeably enough, with a simple and largely inconsequential plot, building up to a final showdown which, contrary to the title, takes place outside the city in a jungle camp, replete with cameos from Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock. I’d say it’s not quite The Expendables – but then, The Expendables wasn’t quite The Expendables, if you take my meaning. (My meaning, to be clear, is that all three Expendables movies are shit, even with budgets many times the size of that of Showdown in Manila). This is the kind of movie that’s liable to leave you shaking your head that the action movies produced by Cannon Films were generally dismissed as cheap crap in their day, when by comparison with the low budget action of today they look like epics; after all, they at least had real explosions, prop guns shooting actual blanks, and sometimes reasonably convincing gore, as opposed to the lo-fi CGI that accounts for most of that here.

All that having been said, as basic low-budget action goes, Showdown in Manila is harmless, inoffensive fun. It’s light-hearted and clearly isn’t shooting for the moon, so it’s hard too look unkindly upon its many, obvious flaws; and for fans of the old action stars involved, there’s a simple pleasure to be taken from seeing how they’re holding up today. Just don’t go out of your way to see it.

Showdown in Manila is cinemas in the US on 19th January, followed by VOD/digital download on 23rd January, from ITN Distribution/Hollywood Storm.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

When a new movie arrives in a haze of awards season fever, it can be hard to know what to expect. So many films seem specifically designed to pick up the coveted film industry gongs (Gary Oldman in a fat suit playing Churchill, anyone?) However, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might have plenty of that buzz about it, but it certainly isn’t your standard awards bait. Unsurprising, given it’s the third feature film from Martin McDonagh, British playwright-turned-filmmaker behind the magnificent In Bruges and the more modestly successful Seven Psychopaths. While it’s by far the most grounded, serious, hard-hitting big screen work McDonagh has given us to date, it still has plenty of the distinct sensibility – and, more to the point, the distinct sense of humour – that has defined his body of work thus far. It also boasts one of the most impressive contemporary ensembles you could ask for, all of whom are at the top of their game.

Academy Award® winner Frances McDormand is Mildred Hayes, a middle-aged, working class single mother based, as you might have guessed, just outside the small Missouri town of Ebbing. Her humble home overlooks a quiet stretch of road on which stands a trio of old billboard signs which have been disused for decades, but not long after we meet her Mildred locates the local company who own the signs, and makes a deal with manager Red (Caleb Landry-Jones) to hire them out. The new posters spell out a succinct but blunt message to local law enforcement – specifically Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – that more needs to be done to track down those responsible for the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter Angela some seven months earlier. Naturally, this action causes quite a stir, and doesn’t go down too well with most of the local cops, in particular the dim-witted and belligerent Dixon (Sam Rockwell). New leads in the case might not seem forthcoming, but it doesn’t take long for underlying tensions within the community to come bubbling to the surface.

Anytime we see a movie centred on a murder case with cops among the central protagonists, it’s easy to assume we’re going to get a great detective story, in which skilled investigators tirelessly piece together the evidence and struggle against the odds to grant us all a clean, cathartic resolution. This is absolutely not what we get from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Nor, as we might otherwise assume, is this necessarily a revenge movie; yes, McDormand’s Mildred has been wronged and seeks retribution, and some violence may occur along the way, but this is not at all the focus of the film. Instead, McDonagh presents us with the sad reality that faces so many bereaved souls, and for that matter so many members of law enforcement: sometimes, the leads and the evidence simply aren’t there, and there’s little to no chance of justice being done. Then of course, there’s the ever more difficult question of whether seeing the guilty parties found and convicted could ever be enough to ease the pain of such a loss.

All of this makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri sound like it’s nothing but wall-to-wall misery. However, while it makes for gruelling viewing at times, for the most part it’s a surprisingly upbeat, optimistic and humorous film. To address the humour first, McDonagh’s existing films have long since demonstrated his understanding of that simple truth that the best of us accept before we reach double digits: it’s big, clever, and really really funny to swear. McDormand’s Mildred alone would put a shipload of sailors to shame with the level of profanity that comes pouring out of her mouth, and this is absolutely key to making her an endearing character; anyone who crosses her will not be spared a barrage of four letter words, be they law enforcement, local news media or clergy. But it’s not just pure, unmitigated anger fuelling Mildred. She has a tremendous sense of fun about her, and – in spite of all the bad things that have happened to her, not limited to her daughter’s death – an innate sense of hope. She doesn’t just put up the billboards to stick it to the man, but because she still has faith that the killer can be found and justice can be served.

Nor, despite initial appearances, does the film present Mildred as being entirely in the right, and the cops entirely in the wrong. Seeing Harrelson in another cop role, you’d be forgiven for expecting a repeat of his turn in True Detective, but Willoughby is way over the other end of the spectrum; an affable, well-meaning family man, who it turns out has some major problems of his own on top of that one big unsolved case. Rockwell’s Dixon, on the other hand, seems to fit far more comfortably into textbook bad cop territory: a violent, bigoted idiot who takes his badge to be a licence to do whatever he wants. However, even here some grey area can be found. What makes the film so intriguing and moving is how it suggests that people who start out hating one another might learn to make peace and let the grudges of the past die. Crucially, it does so without ever getting syrupy, or implying that such transitions will be in any way easy.

Again, the key strength of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the exceptional cast. On top of the three leads, we have great supporting turns from John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s devoted wife, and a small but significant role for Peter Dinklage. Genre fans will be pleased to see Caleb Landry-Jones moving on to ever meatier roles in the wake of Get Out, and there’s even an amusing supporting turn from Samara Weaving of Mayhem and The Babysitter.

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it does indeed score big at all those glitzy awards shows – but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deserves to be seen because it’s an intensely human work, offering no simple answers but suggesting potential paths to a less troubled future. Plus it shows a 60 year old woman kicking a couple of snarky teenagers in the crotch, and who can’t appreciate that spectacle?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is out in UK cinemas on 12th January, from 20th Century Fox.

Ben’s Ten Favourite Films From 2017

And now, the end is near for 2017. In many respects we might say good riddance; however, we might also be thankful for what most of us seem to agree was a stellar year for film, in the multiplexes and the art houses, at the festivals, and on the home streaming platforms. The face of cinema is going through changes, no doubt, but some of the quality output this year should serve to reassure that such changes are not necessarily cause for concern.

After nine-odd years of writing these end of year top ten things, perhaps I should by now dispense with the usual disclaimer, but here it comes anyway: the following list covers my ten personal favourites of the year, as opposed to the year’s ten best, for as ever there are vast swathes of highly acclaimed films making the end of year lists that I didn’t get around to seeing; two of those that Keri lists among her 2017 favourites are ones I’ve missed as of yet, whilst I’ve only seen four of Nia’s top fifteen, and between the three of us we all still managed to miss plenty.

So, I offer up the following list not as evidence of my authoritative overview of all cinema, but merely as an honest reflection of the ten films I most enjoyed this past year. Do as you will with that information. Films are listed not in order of preference, but roughly in the order I saw them, if memory serves (no guarantees; this brain’s not as sharp as it once was, and it’s debatable as to how sharp it was then).

 

The Lego Batman Movie

The first film I saw on the big screen in 2017, and I knew almost immediately it would wind up one of my favourites of the year. It certainly became my favourite Batman movie straight away. Building on the good work done by 2014’s The Lego Movie (one of the most disarmingly sophisticated and philosophical kids films of recent years), this animated romp gives the Dark Knight a much-needed nudge down from his high horse in the wake of the Christopher Nolan years. Still, it isn’t just a bald-faced lampoon of the DC icon; while it may be overflowing with snarky references to his previous live action outings, it also explores the character and his world in some very interesting ways, which should please all but the most stony-faced of Bat-fans. Shame the subsequent Lego Ninjago Movie was such a damp squib, keeping the Lego franchise from scoring a solid hat trick.

 

Get Out

Another of the year’s earliest major releases, which justly became one of the most widely praised films of the year – and, not for nothing, a significant commercial success too. Hand in hand with It, Get Out played a big part in 2017 being widely hailed as a renaissance year for horror, even if its director Jordan Peele opted to publicly refer to it as a ‘social thriller.’ Indeed, finding a convenient label for the film has proved tricky, and many were displeased when it showed in the Musical or Comedy category in the 2018 Golden Globes nominations. The main thing is, however you chose to label Get Out, it’s plainly and simply a great film that works both as straightforward entertainment, and as a meditation on complex race relations issues.

Read the discussion on the film between Keri and myself.

 

Logan

Given the sheer number of comic book superhero movies released this past year, we can be forgiven for thinking the bubble’s in danger of bursting. However, 2017’s first major comic book movie demonstrated that there’s still plenty of scope left for the genre to do new and exciting things. With a considerably more grounded, grittier tone than anything that came before in the X-Men series, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give career-best performances in what seems certain to be the final franchise entry for both actors. Not content with being gorier and swearier, Logan is by far the most genuinely mature comic book movie in years.

Read my review.

 

Kong: Skull Island

Sometimes, all a movie has to do is deliver the basic pleasures as joyously as possible, and it’s easy to forgive a multitude of sins. This is without a doubt the case on Kong: Skull Island. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film has a list of flaws longer than my arm: to name but a few there’s the generic plotting, an oversized ensemble, talented actors squandered on underwritten roles. And yet, it embraces the over the top theatrics of the jungle adventure and the giant monster action so passionately, it’s hard not to be swept up in it all. Beautifully brought to life with gorgeous production design and creature work, it’s as close to a Frank Franzetta painting in motion as we’re ever likely to see. It’s also one of the most astonishingly gruesome films to ever get away with a 12A/PG-13, packing in some smirk-inducing references to a variety of non-family friendly movies along the way.

Read my review.

 

Space Babes From Outer Space

Okay, so thus far my list has included literally nothing but major studio theatrical releases; do I include this ultra-low budget indie B-movie purely to redress the balance? Yes, and no. While it may be lightyears removed in terms of budget and content, Brian K Williams’ film in many ways ticks similar boxes to Kong: Skull Island for me; it loads in enough of the simple pleasures that I’m happy to overlook its obvious flaws. Of course, for a movie like this, the flaws are all part of the pleasure. Space Babes From Outer Space beautifully evokes the mood of those DTV sex comedy fantasies of the 80s and 90s, piling on the gratuitous flesh and innuendo-ridden dialogue. Naturally it’s all very puerile and juvenile, but that’s the fun of it – and there are some interesting observations made on gender relations and sexuality along the way.

Read my review.

 

Tag

Few films intrigued me quite so much in 2017 as this (technically a 2015 production, but released in the UK by Eureka this year, hitting a few festivals prior to its DVD/Blu-ray release). After an unforgettable opening sequence, this strange tale of a young woman’s fight to survive in an increasingly surreal landscape only gets weirder as it goes on, and while for the most part it may come off as a voyeuristic male fantasy, the final act turns the tables in an unexpected fashion. In a curious way, it seems to hit on similar thematic territory as this year’s mother! – but it’s considerably more fun to watch. Indeed, it’s the only Sion Sono film I’ve seen to date that I anticipate watching more than once.

Read Keri’s review.

 

Gerald’s Game

2017 has of course been a big year for Stephen King movies – It, The Dark Tower, 1922 – but to my mind Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Gerald’s Game was the most effective of them all, and certainly the best Netflix original film of the year that I’ve seen. Sure, it could have done without the final five minutes or so, but otherwise it’s a remarkably tense, intelligent and moving take on material which, in less capable hands, could have come off extremely sleazy. And it boasts one of the most incredibly wince-inducing scenes of this year or any other.

Read my review.

 

Moonlight

This, obviously, is a bit of an odd inclusion amongst all this comparatively low-brow genre fare. However, this year the Oscar voters definitely got it right. Barry Jenkins’ remarkably intimate and atmospheric film speaks volumes whilst leaving a great deal unsaid. While some might dismiss it offhand as a topical issue-based drama, it’s ultimately a very human tale that should resonate with anyone who’s ever felt themselves an outsider; and while it does not shy away from the darkness, there’s an uplifting sense of hope underneath it all. If, like me, you tend to be put off by awards season hype (hence I didn’t see the film until it came to Amazon Prime), don’t be: in this case, it’s very much justified.

 

Blade Runner 2049

It’s refreshing indeed that two of the boldest, most surprising and moving films of 2017 were mega-budget sci-fi sequels. The first of these, of course, was Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, and it’s perhaps only fitting that it didn’t meet a universally positive response on release given that the original didn’t either. Brilliantly developing the world established by the first film, yet also working perfectly as a standalone film in its own right, this is a remarkably thoughtful, philosophical drama playing with fascinating ideas in amongst the futuristic action. Stunning, thrilling, haunting work.

Read my review.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

That other 2017 megabudget sci-fi sequel that subverted expectation in so many respects – yet, regardless of what many bullheaded Star Wars devotees have claimed, it does not in any way betray the spirit of the franchise. Having seen Rian Johnson’s film twice at the time of writing, I am resolute in my opinion that this is the finest Star Wars film of the past 36 years; and as much as it’s a positive step forward for the series, it’s a fantastic film in its own right, which really tackles the key themes of Star Wars in a more direct, thought-provoking manner than arguably any other entry in the franchise.

Read my review.

 

Honourable mentions: Colossal, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Atomic Blonde, It, Thor: Ragnarok, The Endless, Tragedy Girls, Adult Life Skills, A Dark Song, Wheelman, The Babysitter, The Disaster Artist, and mother!

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

From the title and premise alone, you’d be forgiven for expecting nothing more here than a simple prison punch-up exploitation thriller. In a way, Brawl in Cell Block 99 offers up exactly that; the essential plot beats and the level of violence would feel entirely at home on a 1980s video store bottom shelf. However, this particular jailhouse beat-’em-up takes 135 minutes to reach its blood-drenched conclusion, and doesn’t even land its protagonist behind bars until around an hour in. Following on from his attention-grabbing debut Bone Tomahawk, writer-director S Craig Zahler’s sophomore feature leaves behind the old west setting but continues down a similar path of masculine contemplation, tackling questions of honour and integrity in the face of the harshest adversity – and, while it does not explicitly address the current political climate, there’s no avoiding a sense that it is very much a product of 2017, and a highly provocative work at that.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a physically imposing, softly spoken white man from the south, with a tattoo of a cross on the back of his shaved head. These are the first things we notice about him, not that all these attributes are discussed out loud in the movie, beyond his stature and his regionality. However, while he may look like the sort of man that a great many people would cross the street to avoid, when we meet him he’s living a simple, peaceful, relatively comfortable life in the suburbs with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). However, Bradley’s about to have a very bad day, as he finds himself unexpectedly fired from his job at a local garage – cutbacks, they say – then returns home to discover that Lauren has been unfaithful to him.

As Bradley proceeds to take out with his anger with his bare hands on Lauren’s car, we see that he’s sporting not only a considerable temper, but some truly awe-inspiring physical strength as well. Regaining his cool, Bradley resolves to save his marriage and improve their circumstances by returning to an old life he once swore to leave behind: working as a pick-up guy for drug baron Gil (Marc Blucas). For a time, this seems to have fixed everything, but when one particular deal goes wrong, Bradley finds himself locked up. He’s barely been in the slammer 24 hours when he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Udo Kier), who issues him a horrific ultimatum: Bradley must get himself sent to maximum security, track down a particular inmate and kill him. If he fails to comply, terrible things will happen to Lauren and her unborn child.

One of the first things that needs to be stressed about Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that at no point are you likely to look at the leading man and say, “oh look, it’s that affable non-threatening everyman guy from Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers and all that.” Between this, True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge, Vince Vaughn has been making significant efforts to reinvent himself as a more serious actor in recent years. The role of Bradley Thomas undoubtedly provides him with his meatiest opportunity yet to put his comedy past behind him, and he absolutely makes the most of this. Again, this is a long film that really takes its time to play out, and there are only a handful of scenes that Vaughn doesn’t appear in, meaning that writer-director Zahler is extremely focused on telling us the story of this one man from his point of view. We have a great many very long takes, with a massive amount of pregnant pauses and uncomfortable silences, made all the more prominent by the almost total absence of a musical score. In so many respects it has the feel of an art house film, and yet it winds up hitting most of the same plot points and bringing in the same stock characters you’d expect from any rough prison thriller, particularly once we reach the maximum security facility overseen by Don Johnson’s oily-haired, moustache and cigarillo-twirling warden. Taking a sombre, upmarket approach to such generic pulp material might seem reminiscent of Tarantino, yet Zahler for the most part plays things so straight and grounded that it’s an altogether different kettle of fish.

In fact, the film I find myself most unexpectedly reminded of is Moonlight. No, really, hear me out on this. Both films have a single-minded focus on one male character, with minimal backstory reveals, and a quiet, almost subliminal build of atmosphere. Should we be surprised that a movie about a closeted gay black man might touch similar ground as a movie about a very straight, very traditional white man? Maybe; maybe not. A human story is a human story, and both films deal with simple working class men forced by circumstance into lives they didn’t necessarily want, all the while trying to keep their true nature hidden from the world. It’s just that in this case, the protagonist’s hidden inner self is a bottomless well of burning rage. Another notable difference is that Brawl in Cell Block 99 would seem very unlikely to go down well with Oscar voters, given its bleak tone, very harsh scenes of violence, and – perhaps most pertinently – its right-leaning politic overtones.

This, again, is where Brawl in Cell Block 99 would seem most likely to divide audiences. Yes, Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is a working class white male from the deep south who proudly flies the American flag on his doorstep, and literally wears his religious faith out there for all to see: in other words, all that’s missing is a Make America Great Again cap. It’s inconceivable that a 2017 film could centre on such a protagonist without it being in some way intended to make a statement; but I can’t deny I’m struggling to pin down exactly what it is that the film is trying to say. However, given that Vaughn – himself an outspoken conservative* (though I know nothing of Zahler’s political leanings) – has taken on the role and clearly put so much heart into it, I’m left with the impression that this is an entirely sincere celebration of that value system. Moreso, the film goes to some effort to dismiss certain preconceptions about southern white conservatism: Bradley listens to soul music, gently chastises his employer for use of homophobic and racist slurs, and goes out of his way to approach everyone with politeness, in the first instance at least. Even so, we can’t overlook that those who cross Bradley tend to be those who don’t mirror his ethnicity: Hispanic and Asian convicts, a black guard, and of course Udo Kier. When the shit hits the fan and Bradley takes out his rage on these people (though it should be noted his fists meet a few white guys too), it’s not hard to see racist viewers feeling validated, and whooping and cheering unironically the way so many of them did at American Sniper. And I can’t say with any certainty that this is not the desired effect.

Still, if we can hold such political concerns at arm’s length – and God knows, innumerable action/exploitation films from years gone by have necessitated this – then there’s no denying Brawl in Cell Block 99 delivers some serious visceral entertainment. The slow burn approach means we’re absolutely raring for the violence to start once Bradley first throws down, and the ensuing fight scenes are truly brutal. Don’t go in expecting anything like The Raid: much as Vaughn has built up bulk and practical muscle, rather than getting all ripped the way Hollywood action stars are usually expected to, the fight scenes here are very grounded, shot with minimal editing, showcasing simple kicks and punches with brute strength rather than anything flashy. Of course, Bone Tomahawk already demonstrated Zahler’s proclivity towards extremely graphic finishing moves designed to make the audience squirm, and Brawl in Cell Block 99 packs in plenty of these; you’d swear some of these people have bodies made out of watermelon.

At two and a quarter hours in length, I definitely feel that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a little more drawn-out and pondersome than it really needs to be, considering what a simple story it tells; and, again, I was left very uncomfortable by its political overtones. Even so, I acknowledge that a film making its audience uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it may well be that Zahler’s film carries deeper messages which I’ve been unable to identify as of yet. Either way, there’s no denying that it’s a compelling, very well-made thriller with a truly commanding central performance from Vaughn, and it’s certain to leave audiences with a great deal to talk about – even if we don’t all like the conclusions we come to.

*Edit: Vaughn has publicly declared himself a Libertarian.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on 26th December, from Universal.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

I’ve gone back and forth over whether or not this is a review I should really be publishing here at Warped Perspective. Having grown out of Brutal As Hell, a site focused primarily on cult/indie horror, we’ve never been one to cover every major blockbuster that comes along; and blockbusters don’t come much bigger than the newest Star Wars movie. Even so, part of our reasoning behind relaunching as Warped Perspective almost one year ago was to broaden our focus, giving us the scope to write about any material which is of personal interest to us; and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi most definitely fits that description for me.

Beyond this, The Last Jedi should be of interest to less blockbuster-oriented readers as it is the fourth film from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper), one of the most interesting and unique voices to have emerged from the US indie scene so far this century. Seeing a filmmaker with so few credits to his name and no history in big-budget, family friendly material take on the latest instalment in such a pop culture juggernaut as this is in some respects surprising; then again, a certain George Lucas might have been similarly described when Star Wars first arrived in 1977. Very often of late, when relatively fresh-faced directors who have had the smallest whiff of success suddenly find themselves behind the camera on major studio tent poles, their hiring seems to hinge on the assumption that their inexperience and lack of clout in the industry will make them more malleable and compliant to the demands of the producers; and, given Lucasfilm’s high-profile problems with the directors on their upcoming productions (Josh Trank ditched from aborted Boba Fett movie, Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller fired more than six months into principal photography, Colin Trevorrow kicked off Star Wars Episode IX during pre-production), one would be forgiven for fearing that Johnson has also had to endure those slings and arrows, and compromise his vision for the sake of the sacred cash cow.

Not so. Where JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was met with some reasonable criticism for how closely it adhered to the structure of the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), Johnson’s The Last Jedi breaks with series convention in some very big ways. While there are without doubt echoes of The Empire Strikes Back, this is in no way, shape or form a beat-for-beat retread. This is a bold, inventive, sophisticated film that’s loaded with new ideas, and while it delivers everything you’d expect from a Star Wars movie, it also manages what many of us might have thought impossible: it leaves you genuinely surprised, with very little idea where the series might go from here.

To start out on where The Last Jedi does hit similar beats to Empire: from the opening crawl on, it’s made clear that the Rebels – sorry, Resistance – are currently losing the war with the Empire – sorry, First Order. Under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher, in what was of course her final role), the handful of Resistance troops that remain pile into a single starship in a desperate attempt to flee to safety, as the enemy closes in, lead by Leia’s estranged son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the galaxy’s champion scenery-chewer General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Whilst the impulsive Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with his superiors over their plan of action, Finn (John Boyega) befriends technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and together they hatch a bold scheme of their own to bump the odds in the Resistance’s favour. Meanwhile, all hopes are pinned on Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has successfully located the long-lost Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and faces the daunting task of persuading the now reclusive hero to rejoin the fight, as well as helping her advance in the ways of the Force; meaning that, yes, Luke is essentially the Yoda of this movie.

Okay, as you can tell there’s a lot going on here, so if you’re not already fluent in Star Wars lore this clearly isn’t the film to jump on with. Familiarity with The Force Awakens is required at least, although the film does refer back to the original trilogy, with even a few nods to those dreaded prequels. What makes The Last Jedi work is how it takes the core concepts of the series – the on-going battle between Empire/Sith/First Order and Rebels/Jedi/Resistance, and the power of the Force itself – and delves into them in a way no series entry before has done. After all the talk of last year’s Rogue One being the riskiest, most mature Star Wars film ever, The Last Jedi puts all that in the shade (not that I mean to put down Gareth Edwards’s film; all in all it was a fine piece of work). This is by far the most introspective Star Wars movie to date, which takes a lot more time not only to focus on the characters, but also to question their motives, and really delve into what it is that compels them to do the things they do.

This, however, is not to say that it’s all talk and no trousers. The Last Jedi is still as action-packed as any Star Wars movie, with plenty of the expected dogfights in space, lightsaber battles, and daring sneak attacks. We also have a fair bit of added cuteness in the form of the new aliens introduced, most notably the cute and fluffy Porgs. While it’s hard to avoid the sense of these being added primarily to offset the comparative grimness and introspection going on elsewhere, they don’t in any way feel out of place; such creations have always been a vital component of the Star Wars universe.

The key thing to note is that, while The Last Jedi may indeed go to some fairly dark places, this isn’t the wallowing, masochistic gloom of Zack Snyder’s DC movies. This is a film that gets to the heart of Star Wars’ key message: that hope can always be found, no matter how bleak things may seem. Questions of what really constitutes heroism, bravery and sacrifice are presented in a challenging, but entirely relatable way. Optimism in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds may not be easy, but it’s something that we need – and, in this respect, there’s no denying that The Last Jedi feels very much in tune with the current political climate.

Above and beyond all this, though, The Last Jedi is a highly emotional film. The plot developments have weight because of our investment in the characters, and while much of that is rooted in the audience’s enduring love for Mark Hamill’s Luke and Carrie Fisher’s Leia, it also has to be said that (with credit also due to Abrams and The Force Awakens) an excellent job has been done bringing the new protagonists to the forefront; and it’s a pleasant surprise to see Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose prove such an endearing addition to that ensemble. Of course, there’s no avoiding the fact that a lot of The Last Jedi’s emotional impact is down to the fact that this is Carrie Fisher’s final performance. It’s not spoiling anything to say that many of her scenes have an unmistakably elegiac tone, which would have been moving even if the actress had lived; but, in the knowledge that she’s no longer with us, I fully expect that many fans like myself will be taken beyond the brink. I can recall very few occasions on which I’ve openly wept in cinema, but I’m happy to admit The Last Jedi was one of those times.

All of which made it rather painful to come online after seeing the movie, still feeling all aglow, only to be met with a barrage of negativity, many declaring The Last Jedi to be somewhere between a let-down and an outright disaster. Fair enough, opinions will always vary, and I can certainly understand why the film may be prove divisive; but I’m really struggling to see how anyone with a love of this series could hold The Last Jedi in such outright contempt, particularly given that The Force Awakens was met with a similar reaction in some quarters on the grounds that it didn’t do anything new. I will concede that, at two and a half hours, some judicious trims here and there might have been beneficial, and there are a few incongruously goofy moments, but at the same time there’s very little that feels superfluous; it all serves to broaden the scope of the Star Wars universe. And I don’t mean ‘broaden’ as in ‘yay, more new worlds, more cool aliens, more stuff to blow up’ and so forth; I mean as in it broadens and enriches the thematic spectrum of the material in a manner that is at once mythic, yet also surprisingly grounded and relevant to this day and age. In the interests of staying spoiler-free, and keeping this review from turning into a dissertation, I won’t elaborate further here – but, for readers who have seen the movie and are open to spoilers, this appraisal by Eric Vespe echoes a lot of my own feelings.

I know, it seems like this is said every time a new Star Wars movie arrives, but I’m going to say it again anyway: this is the best one since The Empire Strikes Back. And, if I may go one bolder: as a film in its own right, The Last Jedi may well be the finest Star Wars movie of them all.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now.

Logan Lucky (2017)

When a director comes from independent beginnings and works their way through to the mainstream, it’s always interesting (and sometimes disheartening) to see how much or how little of the filmmaker’s personality survives the process. In this respect, Steven Soderbergh is one of the most notable figures of the past three decades. His 1989 feature debut and Cannes Best Picture winner Sex, Lies and Videotape arguably set the tone for the American indie cinema of the 1990s (blazing the trail for Linklater, Tarantino and co.), and just over a decade later Soderbergh would have a Best Director Oscar and a number of major box office hits to his name. His prolific career has also seen him take on a surprisingly diverse range of projects, encompassing crime thrillers (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s 11 movies), science fiction (his remake of Solaris), martial arts action (Haywire), and male strippers (Magic Mike), as well as the more grounded dramas on which he made his name.

Now, after one of the shortest retirements in history (2013’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candalabra was meant to be his last film), Soderbergh has returned to directing, and interestingly he has chosen to do so not with a small, introspective indie drama, but with a big name cast and a multiplex-friendly blockbuster set-up; or, at least, Soderbergh’s take on a multiplex-friendly blockbuster. Close enough in tone and content to Ocean’s 11 that it almost feels like a fourth film in that series (indeed, the Ocean movies do get a name check), Logan Lucky is a light-hearted crime comedy with a uniquely working class twist, doing its bit to promote a different perspective to your standard Hollywood fare and challenge a few stereotypes, whilst delivering the thrills, spills and laughs you expect from a Hollywood heist movie.

Channing Tatum (in his fourth collaboration with the actor-faithful Soderbergh, after Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects) is Jimmy Logan, a West Virginian trailer park resident who’s very much down on his luck. Indeed, so unlucky is his family – which includes his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a former soldier who lost an arm in the Middle East – that they’ve long suspected there may be a curse on the whole Logan clan. If that’s true, it strikes again when Jimmy finds himself abruptly fired from his construction job under the Charlotte Motor Speedway, owing to some legal red tape around an old leg injury. Making matters worse, Jimmy’s ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is living the high life with her very well-to-do new husband, and informs Jimmy of their plans to move away, making it even harder for him to see their daughter. In desperation, Jimmy hits upon a radical course of action: robbing the Speedway during the biggest NASCAR event of the season. But neither Jimmy, Clyde, nor their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) have any experience of large-scale robbery, so they hit up local explosives specialist Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) for assistance. Only problem is, on the day they plan to do the job, Joe Bang will still be in jail. However, the Logans have a plan to get Joe out and rob the speedway without anyone being any the wiser about it.

Soderbergh’s more mainstream work has always been interesting, in that he’s taken projects which could easily have been realised in a considerably glossier, blockbusterish fashion, yet managed to keep a vaguely arty edge to proceedings. It’s not that his films are necessarily art house, more that they fit an older definition of what a mainstream movie is. In the case of Logan Lucky, it’s not hard to envisage a very similar film being made in the 1970s with, say, Burt Reynolds or Steve McQueen in the lead. Just about all the typical blockbuster story beats are hit – a path to personal redemption, reconciliation with family – but with Soderbergh calling the shots and keeping things relatively grounded, we avoid the kind of sentimentality and excess theatrics that can sour material of this kind.

This is not to say Logan Lucky doesn’t get a bit theatrical. Daniel Craig, in his first movie role since Spectre (unless we count his not-so secret Star Wars cameo), is clearly savouring the opportunity to brush off the affectations of Bond by playing one of the least suave and charming men imaginable, slapping on a heavy Southern accent as well as a big splodge of peroxide and hamming it up big time. Nor is he the only actor adopting an accent from outside his home shores and playing for laughs as, in the film’s most unexpected, and honestly quite strange casting move, Seth MacFarlane plays an obnoxious British race car owner backing a hot shot young driver (Sebastian Stan), who has some beef with the Logan boys. I suppose some viewers may enjoy the Family Guy creator adopting this Pythonesque persona, but his scenes rather tested my patience. Thankfully, he’s not around too much; and indeed, this can be said of many of Logan Lucky’s big names, most notably two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank who doesn’t show up until the final half hour, and doesn’t get a great deal to do in that time.

Soderbergh has more than twenty feature films to his name at present, and while I doubt Logan Lucky will ever be held up as one of his best, it’s a fun, undemanding evening’s entertainment and an entirely respectable entry in a respectable body of work. It provides further evidence of what a solid leading man Channing Tatum is (who’d have thought it this time ten years ago?), and also suggests that Adam Driver has a strong future ahead of him beyond Star Wars. Riley Keough also gets a considerably bigger share of the spotlight than expected, even if the same can’t be said of the aforementioned Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, and in particular a largely wasted Katherine Waterston.

Oh, and given the current divided nature of America and the way the rich are screwing the poor all over the world, there’s plenty to be said in favour of Logan Lucky’s positive portrayal of characters who might ordinarily be written off as poor white trash. But the film doesn’t get on a soapbox about it, so I shouldn’t either.

Logan Lucky is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 26th December, from Studiocanal.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Follow your dreams. It’s arguably the one message Hollywood has sold us most consistently over the decades. Passion, determination and perseverance will ultimately pay off, they say, so long as you’re true to yourself and stay strong in the face of adversity. Alas, as years of singing-based TV talent shows have so sadistically emphasised, ambition and willpower don’t always go hand-in-hand with self-awareness and actual ability. Sure, you can put yourself out there for all to see, step out before an audience and/or a camera with your heart worn proudly on your sleeve, and give it all you’ve got; but this doesn’t guarantee anyone’s going to like it, or that it’ll actually be any good.

This, essentially, is the legend of actor, writer, producer and director Tommy Wiseau. It’s strange to think that his debut feature The Room isn’t even 15 years old yet, as its reputation as the most magnificently awful film ever made feels like a tale of the ages. Indeed, it’s proved legendary enough to become the basis of a major production from a number of the biggest stars currently working in Hollywood, with James Franco following Wiseau’s lead as the film’s director, producer and star (although he didn’t write the script, nor does he even take top billing, chivalrously giving that honour to his younger brother Dave).

The younger, top-billed Franco is Greg Sestero, a young San Franciscan model-turned-actor, struggling to find his feet as he suffers stage fright. However, one night at acting class he witnesses fellow student Tommy (Franco the elder) – an enigmatic loner with a flamboyant quasi-Goth dress sense and an unplaceable accent – give a wildly unrestrained take on a few words from A Streetcar Named Desire. Impressed, Greg approaches Tommy for advice on how to emote, and a slightly awkward friendship ensues; Tommy seems happy to take Greg under his wing, but is unwilling to reveal much about himself or his past. This proves challenging, as so much about Tommy begs questions: where is this anonymous oddball actually from, how old is he, and how does he have seemingly inexhaustible supplies of money?

On a whim, the duo move to Los Angeles, hellbent on pursuing their shared goal of stardom. When finding work proves harder than they’d hoped, Greg suggests they just make a movie of their own. Hit by sudden inspiration, Tommy writes a script which he calls The Room, a character-based drama tackling, as he sees it, major themes of human nature, trust and betrayal. Thanks to the vast swathes of cash at his disposal, Tommy entirely self-finances the project, casts himself and Greg in the lead roles, and the two assemble a cast and crew for a production which, for better or worse, will prove a singular experience for all involved: for, while Tommy may have the funds and the passion, it quickly becomes clear he doesn’t have the first clue how to make a movie.

The cult status surrounding The Room can prove alienating and bewildering to those on the outside of it; this I know first hand, as I only just saw The Room for the first time just last week, in preparation for this. Having seen the film, and been duly intrigued/appalled/amused, I can understand why it has become a midnight movie favourite, thanks to its laugh out loud its absurdity; how high it reaches, and how spectacularly it fails in every department. So the question is, what are Franco and co aiming to achieve by retelling the story (already documented in Sestero’s memoir, also entitled The Disaster Artist)? Is it a cautionary tale, warning the ambitious to avoid the same Icarus-esque trajectory as Wiseau; or are we meant to identify some redeeming qualities in Wiseau, and admire his single-minded determination?

The answer, I suppose, is somewhere in the middle, and it does make for a slightly odd brew. There are naturally heavy streaks of smug hipster humour surging through The Disaster Artist, a sense of an in-joke which only the cool people get; this is perhaps exacerbated by an odd, largely gratuitous prologue montage featuring a bunch of high-profile Hollywood people, plus Kevin Smith (BURN), talking about their love for The Room. I had worried going in that the amount of celebrity casting in the film might also prove distracting, but refreshingly it doesn’t: supporting turns from Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson are nicely underplayed, whilst cameos from Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.

The real heart of the story is the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Yes, in common with most of the other works of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who also co-produce), The Disaster Artist is ultimately a bromantic comedy – quite literally so in this instance, given it’s the Franco brothers – and, when one might assume things would get cynical, there’s a surprising sincerity to it all, amplified by the excess of reverb-heavy guitar in the emotional bits, and Dave Franco’s grounded, good-natured take on Sestero; a simple performance, but that’s what the material calls for.

Which brings us to the matter of James Franco, and his performance as Wiseau. It’s not hard to see why any high-profile actor would want to take on such a role: he’s a fascinating, bizarre character, and the cult status of The Room almost certainly owes more to his performance than anything else. Watching The Disaster Artist, it may leave one half surprised that Johnny Depp didn’t get in there before Franco, given the opportunity to put on a wig and some prosthetic make-up, and talk in a funny accent. The curious thing is, whilst the wig, make-up, contact lenses and of course the voice may render Franco almost unrecognisable, they don’t make him a picture-perfect facsimile of Wiseau either. In a strange way, the overall effect is reminiscent of Will Smith in Ali; rather than striving for the most accurate impersonation possible of the real person, Franco simply plays Wiseau as a character, hitting similar notes and evoking similar mannerisms, but really doing his own thing with it. Whether or not this is a problem may depend on the viewer’s familiarity with The Room, but it’s fair to assume that even those unfamiliar with the source material will still be able to watch and enjoy The Disaster Artist just fine; much as was the case with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the film’s most obvious kindred spirit.

The Disaster Artist has more than a hint of awards season buzz around it right now, and there would no doubt be a certain snake-eating-its-own-tail poetry to it cleaning up at the Oscars (and/or all the other awards shows that very few people really care about); but personally, I can’t see it happening. Franco has certainly crafted an engrossing, entertaining film that deserves to be seen and praised, but once we get beyond the colourful subject matter, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is ultimately a fairly standard triumph of the underdog story; and we might question whether its triumphant tone is entirely warranted, given The Room’s legacy.

That having been said, while the victorious ending may feel just a little off, there is perhaps a valuable message therein. Wiseau, though naturally heartbroken by the audience’s laughter at first, learns to embrace it: sure, it isn’t the response he hoped for, but it’s a strong and ultimately positive response nonetheless. I daresay a lot of artists would do well to follow this example. The creator’s vision is all well and good, but it may not necessarily fall in line with the audience’s reaction, and at the end of the day they are the ones who decide what the work is worth. This, I think, is the key thing The Disaster Artist has to say, and it’s a worthwhile lesson.

And on that note – I don’t care what you say, James Franco, I thought Your Highness was brilliant.

The Disaster Artist is in cinemas now.