Odeon

Mother!

Anywhere between

 

and

 

(BBFC 18 2Hrs 1Min)


If you were anticipating my review of Mother! I’m afraid I have to disappoint: Although I tried many times to write a spoiler-free review, I have failed miserably. All I offer here is a kind of steer, a warning to the unwary, a softly whispered piece of advice in the ear of the hopelessly intrigued. In fact, I’m not sure this movie is even reviewable, it is possible to read it on so many levels, all of them right, most of them wrong, very few of them unworthy of friendship destroying argument.

Nominally, Mother! concerns a couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) renovating the man’s childhood home (none of the characters have names, by the way, so this might get confusing), when a stranger (Ed Harris) appears on their doorstep, closely followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Bardem’s character invites the strangers in and Lawrence’s character begins to doubt her sanity (and their relationship) as more and more people come to the house and Bardem welcomes them all in and offers them free lodging. Where it goes from here is all spoiler territory into which I shall not tread, suffice it to say that the plot spirals into ever more horrific psychological and, eventually, physically violent acts which are not sexual but definitely gender-specific.

Be aware that if you’re handing over your hard-earned money for a ticket it may well be for something you will absolutely hate, I suspect more people will loathe Mother! than love it. It is one of the most divisive movies I’ve ever seen. I’m talking Anti-Christ/Eternal Sunshine/Only God Forgives/Spring Breakers/ Neon Demon level divisiveness. If you think you’re going to see a horror movie, you’re wrong. If you think you’re going to see a marital drama, you’re wrong. If you think everything will be wrapped up with a neat bow or Shyamalan-esque twist, guess what? You’re wrong.

Is it a thesis on toxic masculinity and misogyny? A religious parable? A satire in the mould of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (albeit one with a 180⁰ shift)? A damning critique of celebrity relationships? An environmental warning? A puzzle akin to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad? An anthropological study of solitude versus tribal responsibilities? It’s all these things and more… or some of these things and less… or all of these things and none of them. Listen, how you respond to Mother! will depend exclusively upon you and what you take from it and how much you’re willing to put into it.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Noah, Black Swan), everything about Mother! is next level: beautifully shot, designed and lit; incredible performances from everyone in the cast, Lawrence remarkably manages to up her already “A” game and Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are nothing if not magnetic, to mention but four of this astonishing ensemble.

I’ve tried to help here but, honestly, nothing can prepare you for Mother! You will love it or you will hate it with venom. Caveat Emptor, my friends, Caveat Emptor. Maybe ask yourself would you watch this if it wasn’t a Jennifer Lawrence movie?

Me? Predictably, I loved it.

Andy Oliver

It

 

IT (BBFC 15, 2hrs 15mins)


It may not be the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel to make it to the screen but it is certainly the most Stephen King adaptation to make it to the screen. It really feels like a Stephen King novel, it understands what it is that makes his novels so readable and, whilst it is not a direct lift of page to screen, it manages to deliver everything that any fan could want (unless you actually want a direct lift of page to screen, that is). King knows that time spent with characters is as important (if not more) as the moments of horror they have to endure or succumb to, we have to know them and empathise with them for the scares to hit home, and It understands this as well: there are as many scenes that will have you laughing and/or crying as there are sequences that will have watching between your fingers. It’s proper scary as well as being lump-in-your-throat inducingly moving.

Something evil stalks the streets of Derry, Maine. Something that eats children and bathes in their fear. Something that haunts the town every twenty-seven years. When little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) seemingly vanishes into thin air, his brother Bill (Jaeden Liebeher) and six pals (collectively known as The Losers Club) decide that only they can solve the mystery of a town with a disturbingly high rate of child disappearances. What begins as a Hardy Boys Mystery adventure for the kids soon becomes a battle for their very lives as they uncover the terrifying truth: Derry is the home of an ancient evil, an evil that can shapeshift and become the manifestation of a child’s deepest fear, but most often it appears as uber-creepy clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).


Director Andy Muschietti plays the horror of Derry on two fronts, there’s Pennywise, of course, but there’s also something about the town that breeds bullying, abuse racism and violence, there’s not only supernatural horror but everyday horror that dwells here. The first half of King’s novel placed The Losers Club’s investigation in the late 1950’s, here Muschietti (along with screenwriters Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga) has transposed the action to the late 1980’s and replaced the kids’ fears of The Wolfman and The Mummy with things drawn directly from their psyche to give the film a more contemporary, not to mention relatable, feel. How these fears manifest themselves via Pennywise and his shape changing ability are at once strange and horrifying and pant-wettingly scary, one example *SPOILER*: the sole female member of the gang, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), has a fear of puberty and menstruation, there will be blood. And lots of it.


The young cast are very good indeed, along with the afore mentioned Scott, Liebeher and Lillis there are some great performances from Jeremy Ray Taylor as the chubby nerd Ben, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, Jack Dylan Fraser as germ phobic Eddie, Wyatt Olef as Stanley and, best of all Finn Wolfhard as bespectacled smart aleck Richie. But it’s Pennywise you’ve really come to see and Bill Skarsgård and the make-up and effects department don’t let you down. Although his appearances are kept to a minimum he’s the movie monster that will have grown men sleeping with the lights on. He’s all weird angles, distressing stillness and a fast-forward effect so chilling it gives you goose-bumps in even your warmest of places. Even if you’ve never suffered Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) there is a distinct possibility you’ll have it in spades after watching It.


However, there are a few structural problems with the film, for example each of the kids’ encounters with their fears/Pennywise feel somewhat disjointed and episodic (an effect that is heightened by the interstices between each that tonally and dramatically give this portion of the film a kind of stop/start momentum). The dialogue tends to get rather heavy-handed and clunky whenever there’s a whiff of exposition and it tends to lean into its 1980’s references a little too heavily. There’s also a lot of connective tissue between It and the Netflix serial Stranger Things, not least being the appearance of Finn Wolfhard in both, and it’s a shame because this might be detrimental to some viewers, but if you can put these qualms to one side you’re in for a fun and scary ride (if a film about child murdering can be fun).

Now, people who’ve read the novel or seen the 1990 mini-series adaptation (you know, the one with John Boy Walton and Tim Curry) might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the second half of the story, the half where The Losers Club come together again as adults to continue the fight. Well, there’s a good reason for that, you see this is only Chapter One, the second (and final) chapter hasn’t even started filming yet so don’t expect it for at least another 18-24 months. Having said that, It stands alone pretty well and there’s a satisfying conclusion to this part that is definitely no lead balloon. So, until Chapter Two comes out you’ll just have to float along on the waves of expectation and anticipation… We all float down here.

Andy Oliver

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

 

(BBFC 12A 2Hrs 17Mins)


Imagine a big empty cardboard box. Now imagine that box wrapped in the most astonishing paper, ribbons, bows and gift tags. Got it? Okay, now imagine that the box and wrapping cost the best part of £200 million and you’ll come close to understanding the experience of watching director Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter just referred to as Valerian in this review for the sake of time and word count). It’s a sprawling epic that blasts beyond the screen with eye-popping visuals and aesthetics but, beyond that, it’s a bit like a bubble-headed Love Island contestant, “… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, as Lady MacBeth once decried.

Alpha, the “City” of the extended title, is an ever-expanding space station, a repository of the collected knowledge and information of a plethora of CGI and practical effects alien races. Into this neon-infused, candy-crush coloured diaspora arrive Special Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a couple in all but name, squabbling and babbling inanely, spreading their own unique brand of “banter” as they try to solve I’m not sure what because I’m not sure why. I didn’t really understand what was going on and I suspect nobody involved in the movie did either, the plot has something to do with a Pokemon dinosaur that poops marbles and the destruction of some kind of “Ibiza” inspired planet full of lithe, pale supermodels and an infection/dead zone spreading through the city/space station. None of it makes any sense and there’s over two hours of it.


But what Valerian lacks in plot, characters or plausibility it more than makes up for in its visuals, every frame is crammed full of invention and mind-bending colour. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Aldous Huxley, John Lennon or Doctor Timothy Leary experienced without the hassle and expense of consciousness expanding drugs? Look no further: Memory consuming jellyfish; a bazaar that exists simultaneously on multiple dimensional levels; Cara Delevingne wearing the Universe’s biggest hat; fat-bottomed frogs; fish in spacesuits… you’ll want to check that bucket of popcorn you’re inhaling to make sure it hadn’t been inadvertently switched out with a huge tub of mescaline.


I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve never truly been aboard the Luc Besson train, his movies leave me cold, he’s a director whose ideas are vacuous and, whilst almost always visually impressive, as a storyteller he has all the panache and craft of Monty Python’s Mister Creosote forcing a last “wafer thin mint” between his bloated, gluttonous lips: yes, there’s a huge explosion of colour on the screen but ultimately his bacchanalian greed leads to disappointment and emptiness. People may leap to his defence citing The Fifth Element (loopy fairy-tale powered by cliché) or Leon The Professional (amoral and smarmy in its Hollywood excess) or The Big Blue (free divers squabble when not holding their breath, tedious), but even they would have a tough time denying the indulgence and sheer lack of soul in Valerian. For a director steeped in self-indulgence, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets surely represents the pinnacle of his achievements.

There are moments of dizzying invention, for instance a chase scene that crashes through multiple dimensions, but it is dazzling empty spectacle and, unfortunately, nothing more.


Both DeHaan and Delevingne struggle to bring anything based in reality to their characters, neither has the charisma or joie de vivre necessary to carry the film or imbue it with any sense of fun. Dane DeHaan is best known for his moody “outsider” roles such as Chronicle (moody teen become moody teen with super-powers), The Amazing Spider-Man (moody, rich teen becomes moody, rich teen with super-powers) and The Cure For Wellness (moody banker becomes moodier banker but with added incest and eels), Valerian should be a crazy, thrill-ride of a character; as quick with his thoughts, actions and quips as he is with his trigger finger; DeHaan, with his permanently furrowed-brow and slow delivery only manages to convey a sense of fatigue. Cara Delevingne, all pouts and eyebrows, is best known for being a coat hanger and for being easily the most appalling thing in the appalling Suicide Squad; like a personality vacuum, she manages to suck all the life from practically every scene she’s in. Valerian and Laureline sound like ingredients in the latest, miracle shampoo but that’s where any analogy to chemistry ends; they bicker like a couple who’ve been together too long, a pair you’d spend two weeks trying to avoid on your holidays, which makes it all the more bewildering when a “Will they, won’t they…” story thread is introduced. Like I said, “NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE”.

Oh, and Rihanna, Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen turn up as well. Mostly briefly, mostly looking bewildered.

If, like a toddler who delights in the wrapping paper more than the present, there’s probably plenty to enjoy here. Valerian, for the rest of us is just that big old empty box.

“Out, out brief candle”, indeed.

Andy Oliver

War for the Planet of the Apes

(BBFC 12A, 2hrs 22mins)


War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’ (?).

Or, at least that was the stance taken by Andy Serkis’ remarkable creation, Caesar the chimpanzee, at the end of the last instalment of the Planet of the Apes saga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar had killed the warmongering simian Koba and looked to live in (an uneasy) peace with mankind, both sides wanting to build or rebuild their societies and start afresh.

War for The Planet of the Apes opens with an establishing battle that destroys that accord, a massacre perpetrated by the now-militarised humans that hints that something has shifted within the status quo. That balance is subsequently blown out of the water when a sneak attack by the humans led by a figure known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads to the deaths of Caesar’s wife and eldest child. Consumed by anger, Caesar vows revenge on the Colonel and sets off to exact his vengeance along with his closest allies, Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval), Rocket the Chimp (Terry Notary) and Luca the Gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite). His quest leads him directly into the heart of darkness and a final battle that will change the fate of the world forever.


There is plenty in War for The Planet of the Apes that connects it to “Heart of Darkness”, or, more accurately, the most successful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s best-known work, Apocalypse Now: from Woody Harrelson’s bullet-headed, unhinged Colonel, held in reverence by his troops/followers to an explosive attack by a formation of helicopters; the forest settings a constant reminder of how far from civilisation we’ve come; crucifixions, compound building, the soldiers referring to their ape enemies as “the Kong” (as in “Viet-Cong”, geddit?) and, most obviously, graffiti scrawled on a wall that reads, “Ape-pocalypse Now”.  It’s a lofty bar to aspire to and whilst War is hugely entertaining and affecting, it never quite hits those heights.

For the most part War moves successfully between revenge Western and escape movie, it’s a humane story written across an epic landscape and when it focusses on these aspects it is at its most effective often recalling the films of John Ford or David Lean, it’s director Matt Reeves’ pretensions to Coppola that prove less than satisfying. But that’s a film-nerd niggle, when judged against other Summer blockbusters, War is a hugely thoughtful and satisfying movie, a thinking person’s epic that proves good, old-fashioned storytelling is just as exciting as bloomin’ great big explosions.


The performances and performance captures are, across the board, of the highest quality. Andy Serkis lays down his heaviest gauntlet yet to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be recognised for its highest awards, an Oscar nomination being the very least he deserves. It’s mostly a two-hander with the Caesar/Colonel relationship at its centre, Serkis’ motion capture performance is remarkable in its subtlety and nuance, conveying emotion through his body language, expression and small gestures, you are never unsure as to his essential ‘goodness’ even as his soul is consumed by his roiling need for justice and Harrelson has never been better as his driven and unceasingly chilling nemesis. There’s light relief and heart-breaking tragedy offered by the monkeyshines of Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape and if you thought it unfeasible to love Maurice the Orangutan more, his relationship with a young mute girl (played by Amiah Miller) manages to prove that nothing’s impossible.

I cannot even imagine how much work has gone into rendering the CGI of the apes, there’s a scene early on where Caesar walks amongst his tribe of primates, seemingly hundreds of them, and every single one has its own personality, a light behind the eyes that suggests each and one of them has a story to tell that’s worth listening to. The effects are absolutely flawless and, after an initial few minutes of stunned wonder, you no longer question that what you’re watching is the result of clever programming and immaculate artistry, there are no jarring moments that shatter the imitation of life, there’s never a second that you don’t believe they are living, breathing creatures deserving of your full attention and every ounce of your empathy.


It’s a formidable, thematically dense, soul-stirring and thought-provoking conclusion to the one of the more well-considered trilogies and, whilst there is no cosmic-bending “Statue of Liberty” or (Heaven forbid) “Lincoln Memorial” twist, Keyser Soze-like War for The Planet of the Apes pulls its greatest trick after you have left the building and you’ll find yourself wondering, “Wait, was I just rooting for the end of mankind?”

War is the apocalypse mankind knows full well it is rushing into but even with both eyes fully open seems unable to prevent. Yet, as dark as it gets, like the ending of a classic Western there is always a bright horizon and a better tomorrow.

That’s always worth seeing, isn’t it?

Andy Oliver

Baby Driver

 

(BBFC 15 1hr 53mins)


Director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is the car chase movie you’ve been waiting to see since the 1970’s; it’s a high-octane, effervescently cool, toe-tapping, white knuckle wild ride set to the beats of one of the hippest, most diverse and, occasionally, goofy soundtracks ever insanely committed to film.

Oh, and it doesn’t defy the laws of physics.

Ever.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, a reluctant participant in bank and security van heists paying off his debt to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby constantly listens to music to drown out the ringing in his ears caused by a car crash that killed both his parents. When Baby meets and falls in love with waitress Debora (Lily James) and, nearing the end of his obligation to Doc, he begins to make plans to leave his life of crime and run away to a fresh beginning. But Doc has different ideas and ropes him into another job alongside the psychotic trio of Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). And when things go bad they go really bad, Baby finds himself running not only from the cops but from three psychopaths hell bent on revenge.

Elgort (charming as was in his breakout role in The Fault in Our Stars) really shines as Baby, all cool confidence in his ability as a driver mixed with intense desperation as his situation spirals beyond his control. It’s a star making role and Elgort grabs his opportunity with both hands.

Edgar Wright once again shows how to cast a movie with Elgort’s surrounding members all on top form. There is never any doubt that Baby’s partners-in-crime are dangerous career criminals not by their words or deeds but by their sheer screen presence. Whilst Foxx clearly relishes being let off the leash as the most overtly psychotic character it is the pure menace that exudes from every single pore of Jon Hamm’s Buddy that will send shivers down your spine when you think of this movie. It is important that we understand the psychopathy of the bad guys, never more than a heartbeat away from pulling the trigger, in contrast with Baby’s innocence, he knows what he’s doing is wrong but doesn’t want to see anyone hurt or even offended by his actions and in this Edgar Wright has delivered a masterclass in casting. Even his selections for minor characters is beyond redoubtable, from Jon Bernthal, Lanny Joon and Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) as supporting criminals to CJ Jones who plays his deaf, elderly foster-father. And, on a personal note, I can’t begin to tell you my delight at the appearance of Paul Williams as a particularly memorable gun runner.


My only minor problem with Baby Driver is with Lily James’ character Debora, she seems, at best, to be representing a goal rather than a fully-formed person. Don’t get me wrong, James does her best but the role is slightly underwritten, the problem is that when the rest of the film is so near-perfect details like this tend to glare. Although we want to see Baby and Debora ride off into the sunset and pray for their success, the film just slightly misses the emotional arcs of, say, Hot Fuzz or even Shaun of the Dead. Like I say, it’s only a minor niggle but it’d be remiss of me not to mention it.

[Excuse the pun, but…] What really drives Baby Driver is the music. The music is not chucked in there because it fits the action, it’s there to serve a symbiotic relationship with the story to create a more dynamic “whole”. It’s an exploration of what music means to us, how it moves us, provides a comfort blanket, brings us together, pushes us apart, provides a soundtrack to our lives. It is doing what all great musicals do, baring the soul and tapping our emotional cores, giving voice to our innermost thoughts and feelings and providing a beat to which we live. There’s a couple of times it’s a little too “on the nose” (such as Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas or Golden Earring’s Radar Love) but any movie that opens with The John Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms, features Bongolia by The Incredible Bongo Band and makes something as goofy as the yodelling bits of Focus’ Hocus Pocus toe-tappingly cool can’t be all bad, right?


Kudos go to Wright who, in an age of an all-out CGI arms race, has chosen to keep all the action practical and the stunts hair-raisingly real. It’s loud and it’s brash and undeniably cool. You’ll maybe spot nods toward classic chase movies like Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, Walter Hill’s The Driver, Bullitt, Freebie and the Bean and Gone in 60 Seconds, amongst others, but Baby Driver isn’t a re-tread of what’s gone before, it’s a remix and, like all great remixes, it shows us that something new and surprisingly original can be created from those things we thought we knew inside out.

Like a great song heard for the first time Baby Driver makes you want to hear it again straight away, to hit replay, rewind the tape, pick up the needle and place it back at the start of the track. It’s an instant classic and you’ll kick yourself if you don’t catch it.

Andy Oliver

Transformers: The Last Knight

 

(BBFC 12A, 2hrs 29mins)

Transformers: The Last Knight is by far the best sequel of director Michael Bay’s giant robot, destructo-porn saga. This is because Transformers: The Last Knight is by far the shortest sequel of director Michael Bay’s giant robot, destructo-porn saga (though, at a staggering, bum-numbing, headache inducing, head-scratching 149 minutes it is still way too long to tell a story that, quite frankly, does not exist. And, believe me, you will feel every one of those minutes as if each of them lasted a week).

Nothing about this movie makes any kind of narrative sense and, taken as a part of an ongoing franchise, it makes even less sense. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a magic staff bequeathed to Merlin (Stanley Tucci) back in “Ye Olde” times by a previous visit from the Transformers. The staff is the only thing that can stop the Transformer homeworld, Cybertron, colliding with Earth and must be wielded by a direct descendent of Merlin. Enter Oxford professor (or, at least, a porno director’s idea of what an Oxford professor looks like) Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). Wembley teams up with Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), the leering dad/hero from the last movie, under the guidance of Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) and his robot butler Cogman (Jim Carter).

*Deep breath*

Meanwhile, America is at war with the Transformers (should’ve built a wall) and a bunch of other characters we don’t care about are introduced or reintroduced, including Josh Duhamel as the soldier fella from some of the previous instalments and Izabella (Isabella Moner) and her distinctly BB-8ish companion.

*Deep breath*

Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (the big truck one) has returned to Cybertron to confront his creator, the sorceress Quintessa, who has set the robot planet on its collision course with Earth. Quintessa overpowers Prime and turns him to the dark side and he returns to Earth as Nemesis Prime. Cue confusing robot battles with goodie robots, baddie robots and baddie robots who used to be goodies.

I think.

(One of) The problem(s) with the Transformers series is that it’s structured like a very different toy: Lego. Instead of having a clear idea what this Universe is and sticking rigidly to that arc, Transformers constantly adds bits, loses bits, conveniently forgets bits and continually steps painfully on bits it left in the dark. The film is full of huge, lumpen drops of exposition that are at odds with everything we were told in previous episodes and crowbars in unnecessary detail that make for unwieldy and, frankly, embarrassing viewing.

Michael Bay is like a child who has been bringing home the same painting to stick on the fridge for ten years. Yes, it was mildly amusing the first time you saw it, in an, “Awww, who’s that? Is that Daddy?” kind of way, but now? I think we need to talk about Michael. Bay is one of the great composition directors working in Hollywood today. Seriously. The guy really knows how to frame a shot and there are individual moments in just about every one of his movies that would easily sit on a shelf with Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick. It’s when those images start moving or trying to tell a coherent story that it all falls apart. Yes, they might work wonderfully as GIF’s but they’re just blips in time and not segments of a whole.

Having had to sit through far too many Michael Bay movie it was sadly unsurprising at the way his camera lustfully lingers over his lead female’s body; how confusing and flat the action scenes are, failing to hit a single beat; how really, really big the explosions are; how emotionless and crass the whole thing is; how much money this is going to make.

But before I get too depressed thinking about all that, I will take a moment to laud the performance of Anthony Hopkins, a performance that saved this reviewer handing out half a star. In general, the acting in Transformers: The Last Knight is pretty much what you’d expect with everybody doing just enough to stop them getting thrown off set but, oh boy, Anthony Hopkins just grabs hold of the film’s stupidity and runs with it, he just embraces it and looks like he’s doing whatever the hell he damn well pleases and Bay is too in awe to stop him. Some of the finest scenery chewing ever captured on film, bravo sir, bravo.

Listen, end of the day, Transformers: The Last Knight is going to make an absolute ton of cash and I’ll have to come back and review the inevitable next one (there’s a mid-credits extra scene that promises as much), but I always hold out the hope that it’ll be good. Die-hard fans and eight-year old boys will love it, the rest of us will leave with the look of haunted agony and terror I imagine usually reserved for Melania when she sees Donald naked on date-night.

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

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

 

BBFC 12A, 118 mins


Let me chuck this out there right at the start: Kong: Skull Island is audacious, goofy, insane even, and I loved practically every minute of it. It’s a movie that embraces its own ridiculousness, gleefully revelling in action and fun; it’s a Saturday morning cartoon; a theme park ride; it’s the joy of a narrative created by a kid playing with action figures with no regard to which toy-line they belong; it’s Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness channelled through a Guardians of the Galaxy entertainment filter.

It’s 1973 and the United States is facing the humiliation of losing The Vietnam War, the early days of the Watergate scandal and America needs a quick win, something that reasserts their standing on the world stage. A shady government task-force known as Monarch (yes, the same Monarch from the 2014 Godzilla movie, hinting toward a royal rumble?), led by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), suggests that not only do monsters exist but proving their existence and bringing them under control will show the world just how powerful America is. Nobody’s going to make a monkey of the USA (sorry).

Monarch gathers together an uber-tough crack military team, a war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and an ex-SAS captain turned tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and takes them into an uncharted region of the Pacific in search of giants. Not unexpectedly, they find them and then some. Cue chaos and a fight for survival, you know the drill.


I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, suffice to say that Kong is not the greatest threat native to the island, but let’s not spoil the fun or thrill of discovery.

Unlike Peter Jackson’s 2005 or John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong, which were straight remakes of the 1933 original, Kong: Skull Island instead builds upon the mythos of Kong, minus the gurning sentimentalism. This is Kong as King with a capital ‘K’, unassailable, regal, as benevolent as he is ferocious; he’s primal terror, compassionate protector, the soul of a poet trapped in the body of a beast. Plus, you don’t have to wait an interminable portion of the film’s running time before you get to see him (and you’ll want to see him the biggest screen available to you, trust me).

With only one small, independent movie (the rather glorious Kings of Summer) under his belt, director Jordan Vogt Roberts seemed an unusual choice for such an obvious tentpole blockbuster, but where (with a similar CV) Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow failed with Jurassic World, Vogt Roberts succeeds in spades with Kong: Skull Island. Vogt Roberts picks up the “goofiness ball” of the script and runs with it, he never stops to linger over the nonsense it spews, rather he embraces it with controlled abandon and brio. Admittedly, few of the action scenes match the initial heady excitement of the adrenaline-fuelled Kong versus helicopters set-piece, but neither are they dull or incomprehensible and always full of fresh ideas. Everything moves along at one heckuva lick and never loses sight of how much fun you’re supposed to have watching it.


Although slightly under-written for the central characters the script does a good job of fleshing out the support, giving surprising back-story and depth to characters usually consigned to “fodder”, most notably with Shea Whigham’s Cole, a career soldier who takes a laid-back, philosophical approach to life and the extraordinary events he finds himself in. Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery with glee, turning up his Samuel L. Jackson-ness to eleven but it’s John C. Reilly’s World War 2 fighter pilot, Hank Marlow who steals the show. When Marlow, who crash-landed on the island during the war, breaks away from his expository role as guide to the island’s weird evolution and fauna he is a joy: with no experience of the outside world he is constantly asking questions and surprised by the answers, imagine leaving the world listening to Glenn Miller and re-entering to Jimi Hendrix.


The special effects are on point, the soundtrack (full of classic rock songs) soars and you may find yourself temporarily deafened by the roaring of monsters, machine guns and explosions (but that’s what you pay your money for, right? So please don’t complain that it’s too noisy). Some scenes may be too distressing for younger viewers and those with a fear of spiders may want to look away at a certain point but Kong: Skull Island delivers all the thrills and boisterous entertainment you could wish for in exchange for two hours of your life.

Oh, and you might never look at a peanut butter sandwich in the same way ever again.

Andy Oliver