Colchester 101

Justice League

(BBFC 12A 2hrs 1min)

 

Some films you want to keep forever, to cherish and pop in the dvd player whenever you need a pick-me-up or guaranteed thrill or even the comfort of something familiar. Other films are your third choice in a three-for-twenty-quid promotion because you’ve found two movies you really want, can’t find that third one and… well, it’ll do to make up the numbers.

Unfortunately, Justice League is that second kind of movie. It’s alright. You might want to watch it on a rainy afternoon or you’re just after something to stick on while you’re doing the ironing. In fact, the less attention you pay it the better it seems: ignore the gaping plot holes, the awful dialogue, the Playstation 2 era special effects, the muddy colour palette and derivative villain and you might just find something to enjoy. Though that’s a big ask, unless you’re an eight-year-old, dyed-in-the-wool DC fanboy.

The plot, such as it is, follows on from the risible Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Superman is dead (or is he?), the Earth has no protector (or does it?), those flashbacks and flashforwards start to make sense (or do they?) and everybody bonds over the fact that their moms are all called Martha (not really, but entirely possible). There are a bunch MacGuffins called Mother Boxes (a kind of DC version of Marvel’s Infinity Stones or Harry Potter’s Horcruxes) hidden on the planet and interdimensional baddie Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) and his horde of parademons are after them. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) needs to bring together a team of heroes to find the Mother Boxes and save the world, so along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) he recruits Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller).


Herein lays part of the problem with the film and, whilst I don’t want to become a part of the Marvel vs. DC angry-fan narrative it is almost impossible to talk about Justice League without comparisons to its closest neighbour across the comic book divide. Whereas Marvel’s Avengers Assemble established its heroes before bringing them together (with the exception of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye), Justice League opts for a more “wham-bang” introductions on the fly approach. Yes, this approach allows us to get to the pudding a lot quicker, but sometimes you need to deal with the Brussel sprouts before you can get to the bit everybody’s looking forward to. Despite maybe too much exposition, the three new inductees struggle to establish themselves as characters you’d like to see more of. Ezra Miller’s Flash is the quirky likeable one with the one-liners, Jason Momoa is a bit more Aqua-bro than Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the mysterious, moody one. They’re all good enough, they’re just not interesting enough or fleshed out enough that you really care about them.


Ben Affleck’s Batman is back to being Batman and not the gun-wielding angel of vengeance seen in BvS, but Affleck struggles to bring any conviction to playing him and seems uncomfortable in the part. Thankfully Gal Gadot continues to shine as Wonder Woman and brings some much-needed sanity and humanity to the film. Because his name is right up there in the opening credits I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Henry Cavill returns as Superman/Clark Kent (but is this in flashback form or does he really return? Aha!). Cavill finally seems to have gotten a handle on the character despite battling some dreadful dialogue and an obviously CGI-ed out moustache (apparently, he was recalled for reshoots, had grown the upper-lip furniture for another role and was contractually obliged not to shave it off).

When writer/director Zack Snyder left the project due to a particularly tragic family incident, Warner Bros. brought Avengers Assemble director Joss Whedon onto the film to rework much of it, add additional dialogue and complete filming. Whedon is Hollywood’s go-to guy if you are looking for someone who really understands team dynamics (he has, after all, been in charge of two Avengers movies and was show-runner for television’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly) but his lightness of touch is often at odds with Snyder’s more pop-operatic, carefully choreographed, darker action style. I can’t in all certainty say who directed which bit, but I can have a good guess and I’m betting you can too.


Justice League’s main problem is that it feels we got to it too quickly, maybe three films too early: A Flash movie, an Aquabro movie and a proper Affleck Batman movie would have helped tremendously. It doesn’t feel like this universe has paid its dues and it’s all a touch unearned. Also, much like the Marvel films, it lacks a decent villain and maybe should have gone straight in with the real big-bad rather than throw us the morsel of one of his generals (long time comics readers will know who I mean, stick around after the credits if you don’t).

Like I said, it’s not a bad movie, it’s no Suicide Squad but, then again, neither is it a Wonder Woman (which bordered on being great). It’s a bit incoherent, a bit generic and makes you wonder if the superhero genre is wearing a bit thin. Still, if you can’t get enough of CGI characters getting punched maybe you’ll love it. Stranger things have happened.

Andy Oliver

Paddington 2

(BBFC PG 1hr 43mins)

 

2014’s Paddington was an absolute treat. A genuine slice of unadulterated family fun with a heart big enough to bring joy to multiple generations. With that in mind it was with more than a touch of trepidation that I approached Paddington 2, fearing that “difficult second album”, worried that this sequel would throw too much sugar in the recipe or that lightning couldn’t be bottled twice.

Within minutes of the opening of Paddington 2 I was wrapped in a warm bear-hug of comforting familiarity, a gormless smile plastered itself on my face and for the next hour and three-quarters everything was right with the world. Even the most cynical of viewers, once embraced by its marmalade-sticky paws, would find it difficult to leave the cinema with anything but joy in their hearts and an ache in their chuckle muscles after watching it.

This time out, our ursine hero (beautifully voiced again by Ben Whishaw) finds himself in need of money to buy a present for his aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, having found the perfect gift in Mr. Gruber’s quaint little shop of curiosities: a unique pop-up book of London. Whilst Paddington takes on a bunch of odd-jobs (creating the sort of chaos that only he can), the book is stolen by cravat wearing cad and down on his heels thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) who frames the young bear for the crime. The book supposedly holds clues to a hidden fortune. A fortune which Buchanan hopes to find in order to fund his dreams of staging a one man spectacular in London’s West End. Poor Paddington finds himself thrown in gaol for a crime he didn’t commit but, with the assistance of curmudgeonly prison cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), plans an audacious escape (The Pawshank Redemption, anyone? Anyone?). Everything culminates in a thrilling and hilarious dash to the west country as Paddington and his adoptive family, the Browns, chase down Buchanan, the book and, possibly, the treasure.


It’s all very silly, edge-of-the-seat thrilling and tremendously entertaining. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where the movie is heading but it’s so much fun getting there that you really don’t care.

The casting of Ben Whishaw as the voice of the eponymous little hero seems even more inspired in this second outing, constantly curious, occasionally puzzled, always innocent yet possessing a very clear sense of right and wrong, there’s something of Paddington that harks back to Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp (and in the action set-pieces, of Buster Keaton). Meanwhile, when he’s not stealing pop-up books, Hugh Grant nicks virtually every scene he’s in as the narcissistic Phoenix Buchanan, a mediocre, has-been actor reduced to starring in dog food adverts (Buchanan not Grant). Buchanan is a wonderful invention, the kind of moustache twirling villain of the Chaplin era rather than Nicole Kidman’s evil intentioned taxidermist from the first Paddington.


The Browns are happily pootling along despite Mr. Brown’s oncoming mid-life crisis and flirtations with moisturiser and yoga. Hugh Bonneville and the always excellent Sally Hawkins provide plenty of laughs and warmth, while Julie Walters returns as wily housekeeper Mrs. Bird. There’s also excellent support from Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber, Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles, Sanjeev Bhaskar as a forgetful neighbour, Richard Ayoade as an eccentric forensics expert, Peter Capaldi as the long-suffering misery-guts neighbour Mr. Curry and a host of well-known faces who do themselves, or their reputations, no harm whatsoever by appearing in this funny and charming movie.

Paul King returns to the director’s chair once more and, along with co-writers Jon Croker and Horrible Histories’ Simon Farnaby, has managed to produce a movie that looks effortlessly original and yet heart-warmingly familiar. The laughs come thick and fast and refreshingly free of snark, the jokes are there for everybody to enjoy and all aimed at the entire audience, young and, ahem, older. Yes, it is all too easy to get sniffy about the idealised London, the spotlessly clean Notting Hill, the steam trains and the fact that people still use red telephone boxes (or, indeed, the fact that they can find any working examples of such) but… Hello!… This is a movie about a talking bear that wears a red hat, a duffle coat and subsists solely on a diet of marmalade sandwiches! Don’t pick holes, okay?

Paddington 2 is a Christmas treat come early. A full-on feast of fun that you’ll want to gorge on until your trousers get uncomfortably tight; a gloriously colourful gift that is powered along by its Grade-A laughs rather than AA batteries; and best of all, when it’s all over there’s no washing up required (though you might be tempted to go back for seconds).

Andy Oliver

The Snowman & The Ritual

THE SNOWMAN (BBFC 15 1hr 59mins)

 

 

There were 26 years between two of Hollywood’s most iconic chillers, Jaws (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Any hopes that lightning might strike for a third time are fading fast as, 26 years after Hannibal Lecter’s fava bean and chianti sides, the “great white hope”, an adaptation of bestselling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, fails to deliver a single shiver.

Based on the seventh of Nesbø’s successful Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-eh, so no jokes about Michael Fassbender’s Hole, okay?) detective novels, The Snowman struggles to find anything new to bring audiences unfamiliar to the author’s work whilst also alienating his existing fanbase. When elite crime-squad detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a young woman he begins to suspect that the elusive serial killer dubbed “The Snowman” may be on the prowl again after years of hibernation. With the help of brilliant rookie Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Hole has to connect his investigation to decades-old cold cases if he wants to catch the killer before he (or she) strikes again.

Various characters appear, disappear, deliver exposition and generally muddy the waters of both the investigation and the movie’s plot: J.K. Simmons plays a sinister magazine mogul trying to engineer a major winter-sports event; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Hole’s ex, Rakel, who constantly interrupts proceedings with some crisis or another involving their teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates); James D’Arcy as the hostile husband of the disappeared woman; Chloe Sevigny as identical twin chicken-farmers (one of whom is basically just a head stuck on top of a snowman); and a precariously coiffured Val Kilmer who appears in flashback scenes as the detective in charge of the original Snowman case. The audience is led up and down numerous snow-blind alleys and served up more than a barrel’s worth of pickled red herrings on their way to a finale that’s as bafflingly impractical as it is emotionally unrewarding.

Fassbender is fine as the clinical detective who is only ever really alive when he’s challenged by his work and a hopeless alcoholic when he’s not. Rebecca Ferguson is the standout as the feisty and eager Katrine, though she’s never quite handed enough by the script to really get her teeth into. The rest of the cast do the best they can with what little they’re given, although I’d like to know the reasoning behind the bizarrely bad voice-dubbing of Val Kilmer’s appearances.

The real detective work that hangs around The Snowman though, is how such a fine pedigree of talents (both in front of and behind the camera) managed to produce such a mutt? Director Thomas Alfredson, the man behind the near-impeccable Let the Right One In and the equally classy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, seems to have not just dropped the ball but left it on the bus on his way home from the shops, a bus that subsequently burst into flames, driven off a bridge and plunged into a lake full of ball-eating piranhas. Where Jaws and Silence of the Lambs relied on a slowly building intensity and an inexorable feeling of inevitable dread, The Snowman goes straight for lurid, grisly shocks straight out of the most basic eighties slasher canon. Martin Scorsese is on board as executive producer and top-notch editors Claire Simpson (Platoon, Wall Street, The Reader) and long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker fail to pull the pieces together. Perhaps the fault lies at the feet of the writers? Peter Straughan (Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Wolf Hall and the afore-mentioned Tinker, Tailor) and Hossein Amini (highs: Drive, The Wings of the Dove, lows: 47 Ronin, Snow White and the Huntsman) appear to have forgotten that what appears terrifying on the page may appear ridiculous on the screen, not the least of these being the snowmen which appear at every murder scene just come across as naughty or sad Olafs rather than signposts of evil.

Not the worst movie of the year by a long stretch but The Snowman is pretty abominable.

BONUS REVIEW

THE RITUAL (BBFC 15 1hr 34mins)

 


A bunch of chums (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton and Robert James-Collier) go hiking in Sweden in memory of their friend Robert who was murdered in a convenience store robbery. Luke (Spall) is especially traumatised because he failed to intervene in the senseless killing and hid behind shelving unit during the crime. When one of the chums twists his ankle, a shortcut through a forest is decided upon with predictable horror movie results.

Dead animal hanging in the trees still dripping blood? Check. Creepy cabin in the woods? Check. Mysterious runes cut into trees/cabin/everything? Check.

Can you see where this is heading?

There’s good, solid performances by all but The Ritual is more of a trudge than a brisk hike. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, in fact there’s probably less. Sometimes you need a creepy local to say, “Stay out of the woods, lads” just to add a bit of context, which is something this movie sorely needs. It’s all a bit dull and you’ve seen it all before (unless this is your first horror movie, in which case you might experience minor goose-pimpling). It’s a calorie free rice cake of a movie, which is fine I suppose, I just like my calorie free rice cakes to be dipped in chocolate and smarties and served between two cream buns.

Andy Oliver

 

Sitting in the Dark – A History of Lost Cinemas in Colchester

It’s strange how certain items or events can spark a memory that sparks another memory that sparks another and then another and then… Well, you get the idea. And those memories, in turn, spark imagination and fire curiosity.


The recent release of Danny Boyle’s T2: Trainspotting, made me reminisce about waiting in line on a Saturday night outside the old Odeon cinema, in Crouch Street, to see the culture-redefining original some twenty years earlier and that I worked in a shop opposite the old ABC cinema at the time, and that the store I was working in used to be part of the old Cameo cinema, and then I started to think about the other cinemas that used to exist in our fair town, all those palaces of light and thrills which had closed their doors and disappeared before I was even born. So, I pored over a lot of dry statistics, academic texts, architectural and business reports and enlightening local histories to discover a story that is sometimes fascinating, sometimes surprising, sometimes quirky and sometimes sad.

Whilst there is some doubt over the date at which moving pictures were first shown in Colchester (some say 1898, others 1908, though the chances are that Victorian Camera Obscura shows may well have visited up to half a century earlier before The Corn Exchange, in the High Street, took a chance on this new-fangled curiosity), there is no questioning the opening of the town’s first cinema. The Electric theatre opened in 1910 in the former Liberal club lecture hall in Headgate and, though no records remain of what films showed, one can easily imagine Edwardian Colcestrians being thrilled by the first screen appearances of Frankenstein and Ebeneezer Scrooge. The cinema was open from 2.30pm until 11pm and, rather than popcorn and hotdogs, the audience could take their refreshments in the custom-built tearoom. A far more elegant solution than rustling sweetie wrappers and vigorous hoovering of soft drinks, I think you’ll agree.

Children queue for a Saturday matinee, The Empire, 1911. Sadly few photo’s remain of this cinema

Within one year Colchester had its second, and first purpose built, cinema in the shape of The Vaudeville Electric on the St. Botolph’s Junction (that is, before it became St. Botolph’s roundabout). Audiences were in awe of its 24-foot wide proscenium, hardly Imax but… baby steps. Audiences at these cinemas would have witnessed not only the debuts of both Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford and the first ever close-up shot (in D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator) but also footage direct from the hellish trenches of the first World War. One can only imagine the feelings running through the audience, virtually every family would have had a loved one fighting overseas, as cinema brought the war home to them in sometimes graphic detail.

With the war over and life returning to something resembling normality, in 1920 Colchester’s Grand Palace of Varieties installed the equipment necessary to convert it to our third cinema, The Hippodrome, in the High Street.

One of the few remaining photographs of The Electric Theatre in St. John’s Street

Whilst it may seem alien to younger readers or cinema fans, it should be remembered that cinemas still maintained a stage area where live shows could be seen and in 1924 The Electric (now under new management and renamed The Headgate Theatre) saw the debut of Arthur Askey, later to become one of the country’s favourite comedians, radio and movie stars (there’s still a plaque on the building commemorating this event) and just a few years later the first “talkie” to be seen in the town played here.

1929 saw The Vaudeville under new ownership and renamed The Empire and The Playhouse in St. John’s Street opened, primarily as a theatre but within a year as Colchester’s fourth cinema. In the same year that The Playhouse became a cinema The Corn Exchange also became a cinema and, a year after that, in 1931 the count was up to six as The Regal, in Crouch Street, opened its doors for the first time. Take a moment to think about this: Six cinemas within a one mile radius in a town with approximately one hundred and ten thousand less residents than it has today. And it would stay this way until a year after World War II, when The Corn Exchange reverted back to becoming a theatre and concert venue (where bands like The Troggs and The Who would play in the 1960’s). The Corn Exchange closed its doors as a venue for theatre and music in 1972 and is now The Co-Operative Bank.


In 1938, The Regal, with its Mediterranean-style façade was acquired by cinema entrepreneur Oscar Deutsch and made it part of his Odeon chain (the named derived from the ancient Greek for “Enclosed theatre” and not, as Odeon publicists would have it, a mnemonic for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation), though the name change didn’t occur until 1961. It soon became the “go to” cinema in Colchester and was thought, during this golden age of cinema, to be the most visited building in Colchester. It too supplemented its silver screen income with live shows in the Fifties and Sixties, Cliff Richard and The Rolling Stones amongst the top-line acts wowing the young and excitable of the area.

It was a golden age that wasn’t to last, unfortunately. During the 1950’s television became more and more popular (I won’t say affordable, most people rented their set from outlets like Rediffusion, Granada and DER and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that people began to buy and own their own telly’s), staying in became the new going out and cinema was the entertainment industry that suffered the most. In 1959, The Empire closed its doors for the last time, the property remained as a furniture warehouse until it was demolished, in 1971, to make way for the concrete brutalism of St. Botolph’s roundabout. Two years later The Hippodrome, also victim to the march of Britain’s two (count them, TWO) television channels and decided that Bingo was the way forward. The Hippodrome remained The Top Rank bingo hall until it closed in 1985, subsequently to re-open as a nightclub after three years of remaining empty when it was acquired by Big R Leisure.

In 1962, The Playhouse became the ABC after a major refit and remained a cinema until it too succumbed to economic pressures and the lure of little clicking-clacking, bouncing balls in 1981, when it became a Coral (and then Gala) bingo hall. On a purely personal level, the ABC is where I truly fell in love with cinema: Back in the day, there were no such things as dvd’s or streaming services or, even, home video, and so, if you wanted to see an old movie you’d have to wait until it was on one of the three (count them, THREE) television channels or re-issued at the cinema. In the wake of Star Wars, cinemas struggled to find another science fiction epic which would rake in the coin, Italian rip-off movies like Starcrash and The Humanoid weren’t cutting it, so distributors starting re-releasing classic sci-fi, and that’s how I got see and have my adolescent mind blown by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie I still think about regularly.

But I digress.

When Gala Bingo moved to Osborne Street in 1993, the premises were snapped up by J.D. Wetherspoons who, for better or worse, sympathetically refurbished  the former ABC to create one of the town’s first mega-pubs and reverted back to its earlier name, The Playhouse.

On the other side of the road, The Electric, by 1967 owned by the British Film Institute, became The Cameo, Colchester’s premier arts cinema where countless mothers dragged their curious, unruly offspring hurriedly past posters for I Am Curious (Yellow) or W.R.: Mystery of the Organism or Inga or any of the other European sex movies that “Gentlemen” could go watch and pretend to be all beard-strokey about (mostly, they’re a bit dull rather than titillating, but whatever). The cinema sat in an uncomfortable place with its “Arts” fayre, it was making more money from the kind of movies that attracted, what used to be known as, The Brown Mac’ Brigade (a euphemism for dirty old men) than it could from genuinely interesting films which, mostly, got grouped by local opinion amongst the “smutty” movies. In 1972, the BFI sold The Cameo to Star Group, who knew which side of their bread received the most butter and went all out for the money showing British sex comedies, like The Confessions/Adventures of… series, The Lovebirds and Come Play With Me, or exploitation movies like Prisoner of the Cannibal God (as long as there was a bit of boob in there). Though, I do remember seeing Slade in Flame there, so not all bad. The Cameo closed in 1976, just as I was reaching puberty. Sad Times.


The Odeon, on the other hand, seemed to flourish. Yes, sadly, in 1963 the mighty Wurlitzer organ that greeted patrons and played for their entertainment before shows and during intermissions between the “b” and “feature” movies (yes, children, films used to play as a double bill, two movies for the price of one) departed the cinema for fields anew (well, fairways actually, it is now resident at The Singing Hills Golf Club in Sussex, not far from Brighton where concerts on it are still played every Sunday afternoon). But the times, they were a changing. In 1974, the cinema went under a major remodelling and it became a three-screen multiplex. In 1987, another screen was added and, in 1991, a further two. So, it seemed Odeon must have been doing something right to have survived the proliferation of television stations, satellite channels and home entertainment… or maybe it was because they were last man standing. Odeon closed doors on their Crouch Street premises in 2002 when they opened their purpose built 8-screen cinema in the former Post Office building in Head Street, it was the end of one era and the beginning of a totally new one.

Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to include a photo of the old Odeon in its current state, it’s just too dismal and depressing. So here it is not long after its closure in 2002

Cinemas are part of our cultural psyche. Yes, they’ve changed, gone are the usherettes with their sometimes illuminating, sometimes incriminating flashlights; gone is the ice cream seller with their little tray of vanilla tubs, wooden spoon-things and Kia-Ora orange drinks; gone is the Mighty Wurlitzer and art-deco exteriors. But what remains is what’s always been there. They are where we go to escape, to laugh, to cry, to hide behind our fingers, to be lifted. And yet, cinemas are so much more than this. Those figures up there on the screen live their lives, sometimes they die, sometimes they fall in love, sometimes they dance, always they are watched but they never watch back. How many stories began there in the dark, expectant faces turned to the flickering images? How many first dates? How many stolen kisses? How many begin their lives together? How many of us are inspired to be more than we are? How many find answers? How many find questions? How many find of us find ourselves? Or understand others? How many just go to sit in the dark because there is no better place to be?

Andy Oliver

Get Out


(BBFC 15, 104 mins)


When young, African-American Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees to visit the parents of white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) he has no idea of the horror awaiting him. A perfect, apparently liberal, community hides a very dark and disturbing reality and Chris has just walked into a nightmare.

Dad (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon and the epitome of middle class liberalism (who would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve) and his hypnotherapist wife (Catherine Keener) are nothing if not welcoming to Chris. Less so is uber-creepy UFC-loving brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), but it’s only when he meets the family’s blank and humourless black servants that Chris starts to believe something is seriously wrong.

With his first movie writer/director Jordan Peele (one half of comedy duo Key & Peele) has created something incredibly special: a horror movie that delivers not only edge-of-the-seat thrills and suspense and moments of laugh-out-loud comedy but a savage satire of white suburbia so sharp it cuts. Get Out specialises in pulling the rug out from under the viewer, constantly subverting our expectations, twisting its narrative knife in our stomachs and keeping us guessing right up to its final, terrifying denouement.


With a whip-smart script that doesn’t carry an ounce of fat, Get Out is intelligent, nuanced, thematically dense and makes the implausible seem terrifyingly plausible. Peele knows exactly when levity is required to give the audience much needed relief from the ever-building tension and exactly when to dish out the shocks and reveals. It is a very impressive debut feature indeed, finally a new voice in horror worth listening to.

Speaking of listening: As awful as the sound design was in last year’s most successful horror, Don’t Breathe (the noisiest movie ever made about keeping quiet), Get Out’s sound design is remarkable. It replays over and over in your mind long after the movie has finished like an echo of terror (if you struggle with the sound of cutlery on crockery or the high-pitched whine of bone saws you might want to avoid this movie). The sound design creates an extra dimension of fear, probably the best use of sound in a horror movie since The Exorcist, no kidding.

Less a movie that relies on gore or jump-scares (though there is a smidgeon of both), Get Out travels the less-worn (but equally scary) path of psychological horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives (the influence of both it wears proudly on its sleeve). That it throws into the mix themes as diverse as the loss of identity of black America, patronising liberalism and the shadow that slavery still casts upon modern America (amongst others) just makes it all the more remarkable.

And it’s really, really, fun.

Andy Oliver

Beauty and the Beast

 

(BBFC PG, 129mins)



Disney’s 1991 animated version of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s classic fairy tale, one of those movies whose narrative, songs and aesthetic has imprinted itself upon the psyche of generations of little girls, desperately needed a brand new, live action and cgi version, right? Well, frankly, no. Even if it did, this version of Beauty and the Beast is not it. It’s not a bad movie by any means, in fact it’s very good in parts, the problem is that all those good bits are lifted directly from the five-star animated version. It just feels a bit… unnecessary and uninspired.

Everything is there from the 1991 version: bookish Belle (Emma Watson), tired of her life in a provincial French village offers herself as prisoner to the Beast (Dan Stevens) in exchange for her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) who languishes as the Beast’s captive; the Beast’s retinue – Lumiere (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellan), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her son, Chip (Nathan Mack) – transformed along with him by a witch’s curse for his selfishness (harsh) free Belle from her prison; the vain and jealous Gaston (Luke Evans), who convinces his fellow villagers that the Beast must die; the songs, the costumes, the romance and fun. There’s also a few new songs that don’t quite capture the magic or singalong-ability of the originals and a bit of extended backstory which add an extra forty minutes, but little else.

Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, a thoroughly modern girl trapped in an age that doesn’t cater for her wants and needs. She manages to pull off a tricky mix of strong and yet vulnerable and it would be difficult to see anyone but her in the role. The rest of the cast are good (though the voices of the originals sometimes weirdly ring in your ears), but it’s Luke Evans as the vainglorious Gaston who steals the show, he’s a proper, hiss-able Disney villain who you’ll love to hate.


Whereas Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) made plenty of references to its animated predecessor whilst creating its own story, Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon sticks (more-or-less) rigidly to his source material. There are whole scenes lifted directly, but played with as-much gusto and verve that you (kind of) forgive it and it’s all very efficient, just not very, you know, exciting.

The fuss over Josh Gad’s Le Fou being an openly gay character is pretty much a storm in a (chipped) tea cup. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in the film’s closing number, but that’s it, hardly anything to get your “I Heart Trump” knickers in a twist about; gay people exist; gay people have always existed; get over it.

It’s difficult to say anything bad about Beauty and the Beast, but it’s also tricky to say anything gushing about it, either. What you think about it depends on your relationship with the animated version, though I don’t think you’ll hate it.

*Very young viewers may get a bit squirmy in their seats at the film’s (overlong) running time and there are a couple of scenes (especially the wolf attack) that may be upsetting for them (you are in the best position to know your child’s tolerance levels, if in doubt you might want to see the film on your own first).

Andy Oliver

Hacksaw Ridge

 

(BBFC 15)


Calling himself a “Conscientious Co-operator”, Desmond Doss went to war. A Seventh Day Adventist, Doss refused to carry a weapon or work on a Saturday (the Sabbath in said church) and yet he managed to save the lives of seventy-five severely injured men from the blood-soaked killing field beyond the Maeda escarpment (the titular “Hacksaw Ridge”), Okinawa.

The movie begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia where we follow the childhood and adolescence of Desmond (Darcy Bryce), the son of an alcoholic, damaged WWI veteran Thomas Doss (Hugo Weaving). It’s an “Aw, shucks” upbringing straight out of The Waltons, tinged with moments of sudden violence (such as hitting his brother in the head with a brick) and the constant threat of his father’s belt. It’s another belt, though, that provides the momentum to push the story forward when the slightly older Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) uses his as a tourniquet to save the life of a man trapped under a car. Not only does this incident provide Doss with a calling, it also brings him into contact with nurse Dorothy Shutte (Teresa Palmer) with whom he is instantly smitten and becomes the love of his life.

When most of his town, including his brother, enlist to serve to fight in World War II Desmond is compelled to join up to become a medic despite/because of his deeply held beliefs and the protestations of his father. Basic training at Fort Baxter becomes pivotal to the story as Doss refuses to pick up a weapon, a decision that brings him into conflict with not only the platoon’s hierarchy (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) and his comrades but with the army itself. Life is made hellish for him as he is forced into endless menial and demeaning duties, beaten viciously by his ‘buddies’ and faces a court martial and it is only through the intervention of his father, ironically, that Doss is allowed to remain in the army and go to war.


Which brings us to the literal meat of the movie, the battle for Hacksaw Ridge. Remaining behind after a savage attack and even more bloody retreat, Desmond pulls man after wounded man from the charnel killing field and delivers them to safety. Despite the threat of multiple Japanese patrols, constant danger and exhaustion he continues to venture out to save, “Just one more”.

In many ways, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a proper, old fashioned “war is hell” war movie on a scale not seen since Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, even. It’s a crowd-pleasing epic that tells of one man’s courage in the face of, not just, a relentless enemy but implacable bureaucracy and gung-ho bravado; it’s a tale of heroism that harks back to, and is akin to, classic Hollywood fare starring Gary Cooper or John Wayne or Jeff Chandler and wades through devastated landscapes of violence, action and gore to deliver a (mostly) true-story as inspirational as it is uplifting.


And yet, I found it deeply troubling. It works really well on a surface level but beneath that surface bubbles the director’s politick, a right-wing agenda that plays to Red-States America and the baser side of our nature. Gibson uses techniques perfected by the propagandist movie makers of the 1940’s, films used to drum up enlistments or demonise the enemy:  The movie opens under bucolic Virginian skies, good ol’ boys drinking beer and church choirs assert the way of life under threat; before we even see the Japanese they are referred to as unkillable animals and, when we do see them, they are a horde not unlike the CGI waves of World War Z zombies, faceless, unstoppable and relentless; enemy bullets rip, tear and explode American bodies in huge meaty gouts of blood where allied bullets kill cleanly, humanely, because, remember, atrocities are only what the other guys carry out.

Mel just can’t help being Mel. There is much of his Passion of the Christ in Hacksaw Ridge, the camera lingering over the suffering and pain, the blood and injury, the slow-motion hero posing. There are direct lifts from other movies (most obviously during the basic training section of the movie in which the woeful Vince Vaughn attempts his best Full Metal Jacket) and moments that could only have come directly from the bizarro-mind of Mel (such as a weirdly glaring moment when a soldier uses a dead comrade’s torso as a shield as he charges, gun-blazing, into the enemy).


Hacksaw Ridge
plays in entire counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a movie in which, once again, Andrew Garfield plays a man of faith venturing into the far east to find that his faith is tested. When Garfield’s Rodriguez asks of God all he receives is silence; when Garfield’s proto-Gump asks of God, God answers with explosions and the cries of the dying: “What is it you want of me? I don’t understand” BOOM! “This, you idiot”. Scorsese wants you to think about belief, to question, to find your own answers. Gibson wants you to know that his god is bigger than your god.

I didn’t like Hacksaw Ridge but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s a great story and I have nothing but respect for Desmond Doss, there is nothing about Gibson’s film that you could ever call, “boring”, in fact it’s pretty exciting (albeit in a goofy kind of way). There’s much I don’t agree with in the movie but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining (which is why I gave it a 4-star rating). It’s a 1940’s war film made for a 2017 audience and that is its strength as well as being its weakness.

Andy Oliver

 

La La Land

 

(BBFC 12A)


Shivers running up and down your spine? Vision blurred by excessive tears in your eyes? Heart beating a little faster than usual? Face set in an almost painful, rictus grin? Don’t worry. You don’t need to see your GP or visit A&E. Don’t worry, you’re not ill, my diagnosis is that you’ve just been to see the wonderful La La Land, is all (unless you haven’t, in which case seek medical advice immediately) and the only thing you can do is turn around and go see it again. Straight away. You need this movie in your life as soon as possible.

It’s the story of two Los Angeles dreamers who have stalled out on ways to achieve their ambitions: Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot, attending endless, humiliating auditions and always an arm’s length from success; Sebastien (Ryan Gosling) is a wildly talented musician whose commitment to his art in its purest form keeps him from success and his ultimate goal of opening his own jazz club. As their paths begin to cross (in classic Golden-Age Hollywood fashion) they can’t stand one another, but slowly their antagonistic, spiky conversations become more playful and less snarky and infatuation begins to take root between the two. And infatuation, as we all know, is just a small step from love if only we are brave (or foolish) enough to take it.


I’m trying to stay as far as possible from the dreaded spoiler territory here (I genuinely think this is a story you need to experience for yourself) but La La Land goes somewhere with this story where few other movies are brave enough to tread. It’s a romance that exists to inspire the protagonists, definitely, but is it a romance that’s strong enough to endure? Mia and Sebastien share the kind of chemistry that has all the hallmarks of an all-timer romance… if only they can understand what destiny is trying desperately to tell them.

I hope that doesn’t make the film sound like a bummer because it isn’t. It might not be what you expect, sure, but that’s a part of its wondrous joy. Gosling and stone (in their third film together) have such a natural, likeable chemistry that they recall the great Hollywood partnerships (Bogey and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, Fred and Ginger), they’re full of charm, wit, fun and occasional melancholy. There’s great support from the likes of John Legend and J.K. Simmons, but, really, it’s the central duo you’ve come to see and the central romance is the one you’ll find hard to forget.


Director Damien Chazelle (who made such an impact with the brilliant Whiplash) seems to be one of those movie literate young guns, like Quentin Tarantino and Jeremy Saulnier, who have the ability to throw their influences up there on the screen but make them fresh and new and relevant. I’ve seen a lot of articles saying La La Land is the direct descendent of some of the great MGM musicals like Singin’ In The Rain, Top Hat, It’s Always Fair Weather and The Band Wagon and, yes, the DNA of these movies is very much in there, but it’s much closer in tone to the Jacques Demy and Michel LeGrand classics Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and – the criminally underseen – Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Ladies of Rochefort) and there’s more than a touch of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart in there as well. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen any of these movies, La La Land is strong enough to stand by itself and is entirely its own thing, I mention them only because after seeing it you’ll be wanting to scratch that “They don’t make them like that anymore” itch and these are the movies they don’t make them like anymore. (The more adventurous of you might want to track down the incredible Corki Dancingu (The Lure), a Polish musical horror about a pair of man eating mermaids who become cabaret stars. Really).


From the very first scene you’ll know that you’re watching a classic. And the second. And the third. And… Honestly, there are so many moments which are absolute movie magic that a whole Summer of blockbuster movies will watch La La Land green with envy, wishing they’d had just one of those bits.

Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool cynic (actually, especially if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool cynic) I’d urge you to go experience La La Land, not just for the music and colour and joyous bombast but, you might just find, it has something interesting and relevant, even profound, to say about life and love and loss that will affect you and your own story. It might be going a little far if I were to claim La La Land has the power to thaw a frozen heart of fix a broken one but it probably has. It’s not just a movie for fans of Strictly Come Dancing, it’s a movie for all of us.

Here’s to the dreamers.

Andy Oliver

2016. The Cinema Year in Review

 

2016. A year, let’s face it, that will mostly be remembered for the people and things we lost rather than the quality of cinematic outpourings… especially when it came to the product served up to visitors of our own local Odeon. Yeah, there were bright spots but, in general, it has been a rather weak year (quality-wise) for cinema and the best described as, “Passable, must try harder”.

And yet, in terms of box office receipts worldwide, this has been a record breaking year so, surely, Hollywood must be doing something right, right? Well, the aggressive marketing to emerging markets (primarily China, though we wait to see what the Trump effect will have there), as well as audience familiarity with known and trusted “Brands” (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel Studios and a new Disney “Princess” IP) have helped put bums back on seats. Also, a look at worldwide box office takings reveals that there are quite a few foreign movies doing rather well in their domestic markets (most notably Mei Ren Yu – or Your Name, if you prefer – hovering just outside the top ten and making the equivalent of just over $550 million in its native Japan).

It has been a year of “good enough”. Movies that are just good enough to attract audiences and make a small, but good enough, profit seem to have proliferated. Films that deliver on minimum expectation without ever reaching to be great have scattered the year and, as business models go, it seems to have worked. Movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Finest Hours, Don’t Breathe and Ghostbusters are all perfectly serviceable, good enough pieces of entertainment but lack “rewatch-ability”, once you’ve seen them there’s very little need to go back and watch them again. To a certain extent, good enough movies are critic-proof, they seem more than happy to be 3-star rated because that’s what they were designed to be, no more, no less. What this means for the future, only time will tell but, I suspect, with the continued rise of internet streaming and films released simultaneously in cinemas and on-demand what might be good for the studios may not be so great for cinemas themselves.

Which brings us to the prospect of not one, but two new cinemas opening in Colchester within the next year or two. Curzon is definitely going ahead, albeit slowly, in Queen Street on the site formerly owned by Keddies department store (ask your parents, kids) and Cineworld will be opening their doors to a 12 screen, 3083 seat multiplex (including an IMAX screen and a 4D theatre) though its location, due to legal wranglings and local government ineptitude red-tape (probably) has yet to be finalised. This would take Colchester back to being a three-cinema town, something not seen since the old Cameo Cinema closed its doors in late 1972, but, significantly, there were only three screens between all of them. Supporters of the Curzon project would hope that it will feature a more varied diet than that offered at the local Odeon, but a quick look on the internet at the fare being offered by Curzon’s other out-of-London theatre (Canterbury) shows their programme to be disappointingly familiar. Still, we live in hope. Curzon looks set to open late 2017 and Cineworld? Well, don’t go getting yourself an Unlimited card just yet, I’m thinking 2018 if we’re extremely lucky.

Back to 2016 and, I guess, in the time-honoured tradition of film critics everywhere, I owe you a list of my favourite movies of the year. Please bear in mind that this list is HUGELY subjective (I’m not trying to objectively countdown what was the BEST movies of the year here); these are all films that were on general release AND available to see at the Colchester Odeon; do not reflect the opinions of Simon or any of the other marvellous Colchester101 contributors.

10 The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s epic who-will-do-what-and-to-whom? As much a polemic on contemporary America as it is a gloriously twisted, gory and goofy play on everything he has made before.

9 The Witch (or is that The VVitch?) – Definitely a horror movie (despite what some may say) and confirmed a life-long suspicion of goats. Wracks up the tension relentlessly with metaphysical angst and dread, left me glad to step out into the sunlight again (in a good way).

8 Hell or High Water – The Chris Pine/Ben Foster movie which wasn’t The Finest Hours and the film I wish Cormac McCarthy had made rather than The Counsellor. A contemporary Western in which all the hats are shades of grey rather than simply black or white. Also, Jeff Bridges best work in ages.

7 Room – What could have been a depressing wade through the darker recesses of human desire was, actually, one of the most hopeful and emotionally joyous movies of the year.

6 Hail, Caesar! – The Coen Brothers delivered with this tale of Golden Age Hollywood and reds-under-the-beds with typical Coen Brothers quirk, brio and laughter and I, for one, couldn’t have been happier. Still chuckling about the Ralph Fiennes/Alden Ehrenreich “Would that it were so simple” exchange.

5 Captain America: Civil War – Hands-down, not only the best superhero movie of the year but one of the best movies of the year. Solid story-telling backed with three-dimensional characters, moral complexity, stunning action sequences and respect for the intelligence of the audience.

4 Kubo and the Two Strings – It’s been a great year for family films, Zootropolis, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and The Secret Life of Pets could all have made my list, but I decided to plump for Laika Studios’ Kubo for its sheer technical brilliance and the importance of the message it carries. It’s a movie that no one seems to be talking about but deserves so much more attention. I’d urge everyone to seek it out.

3 The Nice Guys – A movie with a big heart, a dirty mind and everything you’d want from a Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black movie. And manages the seemingly impossible act of making Russell Crowe loveable. I loved every twisted, ridiculous minute of it.

1 = Arrival and Moana – I just couldn’t split these two for my favourite of the year. Arrival delivered one of the most intelligent and nuanced science-fiction movies in years and, like all the best sci-fi films, is so much more than the sum of its parts. In terms of pure entertainment Moana represented the most enjoyable 113 minutes of the year and the only movie I wanted to rush back into the cinema and see again.

Now, the bit I’ve been dreading, revisiting those movies that made me want to eat my own head: My most hated movies of 2016!

Yes, I disliked Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, hated Passengers and London Has Fallen and despised Bad Santa 2, but the bunny-currant on top of the dog-poop ice-cream has got to be the truly abysmal Dirty Grandpa. No other movie made me want to tear my own eyeballs out of their sockets and poke about at the squishy bits inside with a stick more than Dirty Grandpa. Hated hated hated it.

I won’t leave on that sour note. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few of the movies coming in 2017 and I hope that they are representative of the year as a whole: terrific, intelligent and entertaining films like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and, the sublime, La La Land.

I’ll continue to try and point you toward the best and steer you from the worst and I hope that 2017 is the one that, against the odds, turns out to be a great one for all of us.

Andy Oliver

 

 

 

Passengers

 

(BBFC 12A)

There’s one really important thing you need to know about Passengers: It’s not the movie the trailers and marketing would have you believe. If you were expecting some kind of Titanic-style love story of two (unfeasibly) attractive spirits thrown together in the face of adversity then, boy-howdy, are you ever out of luck.

What the trailers and tv spots would have you believe is that Passengers is all about two travellers into deep space woken from their hyper-sleep 30-years into their 120-year scheduled journey to a new home world; love blossoms between the two who have the run of their pristine, super-swanky spaceship; catastrophe comes-a-calling and the two must save not only their own lives but those of their five thousand fellow (sleeping) passengers. It all looked like a rather sweet (if a little thin) romantic spectacular with plenty of special effects, explosions, excitement and two of Hollywood’s most likeable (and, let’s face it, bankable) stars, didn’t it? So why do I feel so underwhelmed and angry by the movie I actually watched?

What those trailers don’t tell you is that Jim (Chris Pratt) is awoken by a malfunction of his sleeping pod a year before the emergence of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), or that she isn’t the victim of another malfunction but of Jim’s sabotage. The first act finds Jim alone, wandering the pristine, mall-like decks and facilities of the Avalon (the ship, we are informed, was designed to wake its cargo four months from its destination hence the opulence), his only friend is bartender android Arthur (Michael Sheen) who listens to Jim’s woes and doles out only pre-programmed, clichéd advice. Jim soon sinks into depression as the knowledge that he will likely die alone long before another soul wakes begins to dawn on him. He begins to obsess over Aurora, laying there like his own personal Sleeping Beauty (hence her name, I guess), watching her pre-recorded video interview and reading her journal. So, he hatches a plan to revive her and tell her that both their pods must have malfunctioned at the same time.

The second act is the romantic bit as Jim woos the object of his affection and manipulates her to fall in love with him, all the while hiding his secret like a contestant on The Apprentice hides the truth about his CV. The truth eventually outs just in time for the all-action, explodey stuff of the final act as the two must come together to save the ship and its slumbering inhabitants.

There is very little that works in Passengers: Tonally the movie is all over the place, it just has no idea what it wants to be or where it is supposed to be going; as likeable as the two leads are individually, they have little to no chemistry between them; Jennifer Lawrence’s role in particular is hugely under written that one of the most talented actresses of her generation struggles to make Aurora believable (but, then again, she’s not a character, she’s a plot device or worse, a sex fantasy); it’s full of super-massive plot-holes that you could fly the Starship Enterprise through and still have enough room for a couple of Millennium Falcons.

But it’s the central conceit that troubles me the most. Jim is a liar, a cyber-stalker, a kidnapper but we’re supposed to forgive him because he’s lonely? He condemns Aurora to die alongside him because he’s horny? By his actions he rips away everything she ever hoped for and dreamt of and then manipulates her to fall in love with and sleep with him, but that’s okay because Chris Pratt(?). Imagine how you would feel if a film like the excellent Room asked you to side with the guy who kept Brie Larsen locked up as a sex slave?

Director Morten Tyldum (who it should never be forgotten managed to crowbar a heterosexual subplot into the story of Alan Turing in his last movie, The Imitation Game) and writer Jon Spaihts bungle the “promised” love story completely. What they have delivered is one of the most toxic pieces of misogyny outside of the dark side of the internet. If Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was the shining ray of hope for the world in 2016, Passengers is the alt-right fantasy we should be railing against.

Passengers flubs the big questions it asks and worse, it doesn’t even acknowledge that it’s asking them.

Andy Oliver