Category Archives: Features


Why I Love: One Hour Photo

Today the internet and column inches are awash with retrospectives and touching tributes to one of the film industry’s most loved actors and comedian.

The untimely and tragic passing of Robin Williams has caused an outpour of commendation for his numerous movie roles and philanthropic endeavours. Best known for his maniacal comedy, fast-talking word play, impressions and slap-stick physicality, we thought we’d take a look at one of his titles that showcased his true diversity as an actor.

In 2002, Williams broke out of his niche genre and starred in the truly-creepy One Hour Photo. Interestingly, this seemed to be the year for the star eschewing his comedic manner as he also starred in thriller Insomnia [2002]. However, for me, One Hour Photo hit the mark, despite going under the radar in comparison to his other Oscar-nominated roles.

At just an hour and a half long this low-key thriller from Mark Romanek creates a fantastic crescendo of fear and obsession, built out of an entirely mundane setting.

Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Williams) runs the photo processing department at a large discount store; Sy is dedicated to his job, and takes great pride in his work – he’s a loner and seems to live vicariously through the photos which he develops.

His favourite customers are Nina and Will Yorkin (Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan), an attractive and cheerful young couple with a nine-year-old boy, Jake (Dylan Smith). Sy dotes on the Yorkins and their son whenever they drop off film to be processed – something they’ve been doing quite often ever since Jake was born.

Nina and Will are indulgent of Sy’s attentions, disregarding him as a harmless eccentric.

What the Yorkins don’t know is Sy is a desperately lonely man with no real life of his own, and he’s been obsessively making copies of their photos, for years, imagining himself to be “Uncle Sy,” a member of the family. Sy’s tenuous hold on reality begins to collapse when he develops a roll of film brought in by a new customer that suggests Will has been unfaithful to Nina; the notion that his ideal family may be falling apart is troubling and what unfolds is a terrifying unravelling of Sy’s hidden demeanour.

Williams’ performance is stunning. Eerie and creepy, his portrayal of the character adds intensity to what could have otherwise been a bland plot to an average straight-to-video thriller. Williams recognises that the character of Sy is that of the ordinary – someone that we pass by in our daily lives never giving a second thought – unknowingly exacerbating this real-life monster. He is at times repugnant, and frightening – yet we still have sympathy for him. The actor captures this with a surprisingly restrained and calculated performance.

His stellar performance is supported by how immaculately shot each scene is. The carefully calibrated direction, mixed with Robin Williams’ representation of the over-looked man delivers a story of urban alienation which is utterly believable and chilling.



Why I Love: Passenger 57

Seeing Wesley Snipes back on the big screen in The Expendables 3 seemed as good an excuse as any to revisit this slice of premium hokum, which, I readily admit, sits right up there among my favourite stupidly enjoyable flicks.

With Die Hard and Under Siege having cornered the market in the one man versus a virtual army in their respective settings (skyscraper and ship), Kevin Hooks’ film takes to the skies.

Brit psycho Charles Rane (hence ‘Rane of Terror’ – get it?), a convicted plane hijacker and all-round nutcase, is to be transferred across the States to stand trial.

Naturally, despite the fact that this is a dangerous hijacker we are talking about here, the authorities decide to pack him off on a plane – not a chartered one of course but a passenger plane chock full of collateral damage.

Surprise, surprise, not long after take-off a clutch of the plane’s crew reveal themselves as Rane’s lackeys and we have a full-scale breakout on our hands.

Could anyone stand in their way and save the day?

Well, this is where Snipes comes in, as security specialist John Cutter, who (just happening to be on the plane) sets about shooting, punching and kicking his way through the goons to bring them to justice.

So far, so straight to DVD right?

But this was back in 1992 when our Wesley was still a big draw, so I was able to take in this 80-minute romp at the cinema and boy did I enjoy it.

I think the main reason for Passenger 57 being such bloody good fun is the sheer comedy in the script.

And this is not one of those ‘so bad its good’ types, but something that clearly set out to give everyone a laugh.

From Rane asking for his steak ‘bloody’, to Snipes bellowing that the villain ‘should always bet on black’, this opus runs Commando very close in the ‘every line being a one-liner’ stakes.

Throw in a wildly manic performance from Bruce Payne as Rane, support from a villainous Liz Hurley as a psychotic air stewardess (yep, you read that right) and some nice set-pieces in the plane’s cargo and beyond and you have a recipe for entertainment.

You also get a cameo of sorts from a pre drug-addled Tom Sizemore, harking back to the days when he was actually able to get work.

I have no real idea why now looking back on it, but for some reason I also went out and bought the soundtrack to this after seeing the flick – I am not proud of that I can tell you.

But retail blunder aside, Passenger 57 is a definite two thumbs-up from me and a guaranteed thrill-ride for anyone who gives it a chance.



Why I Love: Ms.45

The cinema of Abel Ferrara is caustic, caught in between the pervasive grime of the street and a religious fever that is all at once pure and faux, a nightmare that washes over you. While Bad Lieutenant is perhaps his most respected work and The Driller Killer his most infamous, I believe that his 1981 rape revenge thriller, Ms.45, stands as his most impactful and rewarding piece; one that finds the balance between sex, religion, horror, city, politic, body to craft an exploitation film about exploitation and depict the repressed feminine bursting out of male subjugation into something savage, both horrific and liberating.

Ms.45 sees Thana, a shy and mute New York seamstress, suffer a horrific scenario: she is raped in a back alley, and when she returns home, she is raped once again by a home intruder. This experience changes Thana, bursting out of her shell like a butterfly from a chrysalis, she becomes a force of vengeance. Every night she patrols the dark and hungry streets of New York and indiscriminately annihilates any man who she encounters with a .45 handgun. This is a slice of sleazy exploitation unquestionably, but it is also a lurid work of art, stylistically and psychologically, that is haunting in its queasy sense of damage, perversion and uncontrollable frenzy.

Even from the film’s introduction, Ferrara foregrounds the objectification of the female. Opening at the fashion warehouse Thana is employed, we see a designer promoting his outfits to a prospective client; he has a range of models trot back and forth in different designs, with no agency of their own. All they do is provide the female body to sell the item, they are there to be observed and, perversely, discarded when there purpose is served. Immediately after this sequence, Ferrara reinforces the idea of pervasive sex object culture by tracking Thana and two of her female co-workers walking along a bustling city street, where the women are ‘cat-called’, from kisses being blown toward them to explicit sexual references. Ferrara shoots this sequence between two dominant shots: a POV shot from one of the women’s perspective (or perhaps an overriding female position, representative of all women), which serves to place the viewer directly in the position of the harassed women, caught in the obscene male gaze in all its perverse dread; and a slowly zooming tracking shot, moving close onto Thana. The use of this shot combination illustrates both the overwhelming cultural pervasiveness of this male harassment and objectification, and also suggests Thana’s oncoming assault, the camera rushing toward her like the threat of sexual violence that lurks in the offensive comments that, psychologically, assault her.

Ferrara explores this objectification further by eluding the idea of the female body as a commodity during the second brutal rape. The intruder’s initial concern is money; he turns over her apartment in search of cash and valuables, and when he is interrupted by her, he demands she hand over her money, which she is unable to do. In response to this, seemingly out of a combination of frustration and disappointment, he decides to rape her instead. If he can’t take the valuable commodity he intended, then he will at least take the commodity of her pleasure; He gains his pleasure from the absolute domination of hers. Furthermore, Thana’s position as mute is another layer of commentary. She is a meek figure at the start of the film, unable to express herself, which is cruelly turned on itself when confronted with both of her rapes. In the first encounter, the assailant tells her not to scream (which of course she is not able to do anyway) before telling her in the aftermath that she was good for being so quiet. This is a mockery of her silence, the male choosing to believe silence equates her submission to him, her obedience. Here, the female voice is represented as supressed and dominated by male aggression. This reinforced in the second rape, where her attacker perversely plays on her lack of a voice; he asks her if it ‘feels good,’ knowing that she is unable to respond with the horror she feels, and, humiliatingly, whispers ‘this might make you talk.’ However as the film progresses and Thana transforms deeper into a vengeful force with each murder, her silence becomes not a symbol of oppression – but of the enigma of the feminine, something unobtainable and unknown. She finds her ‘voice’ through the violence of the .45 calibre handgun, taking control of her sexuality and rendering the men of the film, impotent and defeated. The complete nature of her transformation is explicitly illustrated in the film’s conclusion where her boss, the fashion designer, falls to his knees and kisses her boots, before moving up her legs. When he reaches her pubic area, Thana parts the skirt of her dress, to reveal her suspenders and, up on her inner thigh, the iconic handgun placed, waiting for ‘action.’ Here, Thana has absolutely forced the man (her ‘boss’ no less) into utter submission, and revealed her true self. Not simply as the .45 killer, but her ownership of her own sexuality, the gun as the symbol of her sexual mastery.

Ms.45 is a nightmarish vision, both reality and fantasy, like a funhouse mirror; this is a distorted image, but one that in its excessive stylisation and exploitation tone, is able to address crucial social concerns about the female body as commodity and the threat of female sexual agency. Perhaps the best place to conclude is at the very title itself, surely one of the most affective and expressive in cinematic history: Ms.45. An alternate title for the film was ‘Angel of Vengeance,’ which reinforces the religious tones of Ferarra’s cinema, casting Thana as the embodiment of female innocence mutated into a destroyer of those who would do her, and her kind wrong. However, the evocative nature of ‘Ms.45’ as a title is even more revealing, and perhaps, expressive of the film Ferrara has crafted. This is the female ownership of the phallic object, the gun. This is defiant, exploiting masculine frailty in the face of female power (as she takes control of the destructive power of the gun, she also takes control of her repressed sexuality, turning it back on the men of the city) and defining the film as superior exploitation, one that turns the pleasures of exploitation into a socially conscious comment on female exploitation, that is as ferocious as it is exquisite.


The Expendables 3: Arnie’s three of the best

With the release of action extravaganza The Expendables 3 on the horizon, what better time to take a trip down memory lane when it comes to the film’s beefcake stars?

They may be getting on a bit, but it is fair to say that most of the musclebound mass on display have a pretty impressive resume – when it comes to bonecrunching movies anyway.

Over the coming weeks we will profile each of the main protagonists, offering our view on their three finest moments of action cinema, as well as a few honourable mentions and of course plenty of absolute duds.

This is not an exact science of course, and feel free to have your say regarding our choices in the comments section at the foot of each piece.

Kicking things off we have the Governator himself – Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Here’s what we consider to be the Austrian Oak’s three greatest hits (in no particular order):

1. Commando

Although I said no particular order, if truth be told I may well hold this up there as my favourite Arnie flick of all time.

Note how I’m not saying the best – just my favourite.

Pretty much a succession of one-liners with the briefest of exposition linking them, Schwarzenegger stars as the fantastically named John Matrix, a retired special forces guy enjoying his retirement.

But all that is ruined when a former colleague (the magnificently camp Vernon Wells) starts wiping out his former comrades under the auspices of helping a dictator storm to power on some far-flung island.

Throw in a kidnapped daughter and Matrix has to strap on the hardware once more to save the day.

I honestly could not tell you how many times I have seen this, but suffice to say my younger brother and I can recite the entire script to each other with minimum fuss.

There are more quips and put downs in this than the majority of Arnold’s work combined, along with some violent, over-the-top action and memorable death scenes (scalped by a lawnmower blade anyone?)

I even like the steel pan soundtrack that provides a bizarre musical backdrop to proceedings.

Cheesy, laugh-out-loud funny and with a staggeringly high body count on Arnie’s part, this is 80s action excess at its very best.


2. Predator

With the various Alien vs Predator misfires having sullied its name somewhat, it is hard to remember a time when the concept of the Predator was one of the coolest things in cinema.

But it really was – well, to me anyway, if the amount of times I went round school whispering ‘turn around, turn around’ or ‘over here, over here’ was anything to go by.

A rock-em, sock-em mix of action flick and sci-fi, Predator barely puts a foot wrong – we get the macho pre-amble as the various characters flesh out their backstories, a lead-in that appears to be setting up just another action flick in the jungle, before everything takes an abrupt turn with the first burst of ‘predator vision’.

The film is tremendously helped by Arnie being joined by Commando star Bill Duke, as well as Jesse Ventura (who would then square off with Arnold in The Running Man), Apollo Creed himself Carl Weathers and a host of others.

Indeed it is Ventura who probably gets the best lines (‘I ain’t got time to bleed’), although Arnie’s Dutch still has time to tell an impaled victim to ‘stick around’.

It all builds very nicely to a one-on-one showdown between Arnie and the Predator, and although we are pretty sure who will come out on top, that makes it no less enjoyable.


3. The Terminator

I know, I know – the lazy option here would have been to simply roll out the mega-budget, ground-breaking Terminator 2.

But to be perfectly honest, as a film I much prefer the original – in a similar way to favouring Alien over James Cameron’s Aliens.

I’ll be straight with you – the first time I saw this on video I was absolutely blown away by it – so much so that I watched it for 12 nights straight when my parents were away on a foreign holiday.

Yep, you read that right – 12 nights in a row.

And I never once got bored, thanks to The Terminator’s lethal cocktail of storytelling, cracking pacing and some magnificently staged set-pieces.

And, lest we forget, all the talk of cyborgs from the future and the like was very much a new concept at that time.

Arnie obviously became the loveable hero in the later films, but here is in full-blown villain mode – and the film is a lot better for it.

There is excellent support from Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, some great effects for the time, and a fantastic pay-off line that always puts a smile on my face.

Cameron’s films are often a bit too overblown for my liking, but here things are lean and stripped back to the essentials – much like the Terminator itself.

And, history buffs take note, here we obviously got the first airing of what was to prove the Arnie catchphrase – ‘I’ll be back’.


Honourable Mentions: Terminator 2, The Running Man, Total Recall

Duds: Conan The Destroyer, Last Action Hero, 6th Day


Why I Love: The Invasion

‘The Invasion’ is the fourth and most recent screen adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel ‘The Body Snatchers’ (retitled ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ for its 1956 cinema release, ostensibly to distance itself from the Karloff / Lugosi vehicle ‘The Body Snatcher’ (1945)). It is the loosest interpretation of Finney’s story and the flimsiest. After a troubled production history during which producer Joel Silver took the movie out of director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s hands – complaining the ‘Downfall’ director had made “a little art film” – and threw a lot of money at the (uncredited) Wachowski Brothers and James McTeigue to recut, reshoot and shoe-horn in a bunch of spectacularly misjudged action sequences, it languished for a long time on the studio shelves before being quietly and apologetically ushered out the side door in a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it theatrical release. The critics weren’t kind. The audiences stayed home. The movie, which ultimately cost $65m to make, grossed a meagre $40m worldwide.

Nicole Kidman stars as psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell who begins to suspect something sinister is happening to the people of Washington DC. With the help of her floppy-fringed best-friend-who’d-like-to-be-something-more Daniel Craig, she races against time to prevent a very nasty alien virus from taking over the world and turning people into emotionless facsimiles of themselves when they go to sleep. If this wasn’t jeopardy enough, she also has to rescue her insipidly cute little son from the clutches of ex-husband Jeremy Northam, who we find out very early on is one of the bad guys.

It is clear to see where Hirschbiegel’s film ends (pretty much at the halfway mark) and Joel Silver’s tacked-on lunacy begins. Hirschbiegel, working from a script by first-time screenwriter David Kajganich, was obviously aiming for the same slow-burn paranoia that made the preceding three films (and Jack Finney’s original novel) so effective and it’s a shame his producers lost their nerve because the first fifty minutes of ‘The Invasion’ establishes the tension quite neatly, even though the way the alien spawn makes it to Earth is pretty ludicrous.

In fact, the form the alien menace takes is the first of this reimagining’s many missteps – inexplicably breaking away from the tried-and-tested conventions of all the earlier versions (the notion that our alien doppelgangers are hatched from within human-sized pods as we sleep) – the film turns the alien invasion into a kind of avian flu metaphor: at first the virus is spread by contact with outer-space wreckage and then, much more graphically, by the alien carriers vomiting into the faces of their victims as if they’re spewing up extraterrestrial furballs. It’s a queasy notion, and the scene where Northam pins a struggling Kidman to the ground and spews into her mouth also introduces a nasty oral rape motif, but an ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ story should have pods in it and this film suffers from their absence.

‘The Invasion’ is also the only film of the quartet to attempt an inappropriately feel-good ending which is almost a Walt Disney-take on how HG Wells wiped out the Martians in ‘The War of the Worlds’. But keep watching because that isn’t the worst of it. And if you think that’s bad, be grateful we have been saved from what audiences allegedly had to sit through during the film’s initial disastrous test screenings when John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was tagged on to create an even more sugary-sweet coda.

So now that I’ve torn ‘The Invasion’ apart, here is why I love it:

Nicole Kidman is perfect. Although her performance isn’t quite good enough to break her duck of ‘appearing in films that should have never happened in the first place’ (ie. ‘Bewitched’ and ‘The Stepford Wives’) she portrays a cool, sexy and understated heroine and earns extra points for making some very bad dialogue sound, well, not entirely terrible. She also spends the second half of the film running along flickery strip-lit corridors and through subway tunnels, shooting aliens, gulping down handfuls of amphetamines to stop herself from going to sleep, and admirably resisting the urge to strangle the annoying moppet playing her son.

There are a couple of notably unsettling sequences at the front of the film: the aforementioned ‘Kidman spewed on by Jeremy Northam’ moment and, before that, a brief scene involving a late-night census taker who really won’t take no for an answer.

The transitional make-up effects, as the human victims’ desiccate before turning into their alien replicas, are gooily effective too.

Also on the plus side there’s a neat homage to the stand-out ‘They’re coming! They’re here!’ sequence featured in the original movie (which itself was revisited in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake) and the small scene when Kidman and brat trot along a Georgetown sidewalk while small children wearing Halloween costumes scurry past is an unashamed rip-off of a stroll Ellen Burstyn took along the same streets in a little-known 1973 film the title of which escapes me.

As ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ goes, Kaufman’s 1978 version is, by far, the best take on the story. It’s a masterpiece. And Don Siegel’s 1956 original and Abel Ferrara’s 1993 (re)remake are also both much better films than ‘The Invasion’, but I enjoy ‘The Invasion’ much more than the ‘56 and ‘93 entries because of its absolute refusal to accept how ridiculous it is. Nicole Kidman is great, Daniel Craig – fresh from ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) – quite obviously doesn’t know what he signed up for, and there was without doubt a decent film in here if Joel Silver and his accomplices hadn’t stomped all over it with the finesse of a ballet-dancing hippo in a concrete tutu. ‘The Invasion’ is not only a bewildering missed opportunity, it is an astounding miscalculation.

To sum up, there’s a moment in the film when Kidman, pretending to be an emotionless alien, loses herself amongst a crowd and finds herself forced to watch an uninfected man and woman join hands on a rooftop before leaping to their deaths. If she flinches the aliens will know she’s just faking being one of them so Kidman, despite the horror, can’t turn away.

Watch ‘The Invasion’ and you’ll know exactly what that feels like.


Why I Love: The Astronaut’s Wife

OK – here’s the deal.

Now I am pretty sure all of you out there reading this will have a film that, despite critical condemnation from all corners, you just love.

You know what I mean – you saw it, raved about it and then couldn’t believe when everybody treated you like some sort of outcast for admitting you enjoyed it.

For me one such film is The Astronaut’s Wife, the 1999 sci-fi chiller starring Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron.

I saw this at the cinema on its release – the Showcase  in Bristol to be exact (I was the only person there) and it also turned out to be the first DVD I ever bought.

But alarm bells really do ring for your film sanity when the only positive quote they can muster for the DVD sleeve is from Kerrang magazine.

Now I am not casting any aspersions on the metal market at all, but I bet that is not the quote of choice that most filmmakers would go for.

So to the film then.

Depp plays Spencer Armocast, a NASA ace and married to Theron.

While on a spacewalk with his fellow crew member on one of his missions, there is a mysterious malfunction, leading to an explosion and two minutes of communication blackout.

No one is sure exactly what happened, but the astronauts are hurriedly returned to earth to go through rehab.

Trouble is though, both Armocast and fellow pilot, Captain Streck, seem ‘changed’ in some way – more distant, emotionless.

Depp quits as an astronaut to move to New York and work for an aeronautical company, designing the next generation of fighter planes.

Theron though quickly picks up these subtle changes in personality and realises that her husband may no longer be who he says he is, a point that is rammed home by a former NASA employee (played by the reliable Joe Morton), who is desperately trying to prove the existence of something most definitely not of this earth.

All this becomes even more complicated when (wouldn’t you know) Theron becomes pregnant – with twins no less.

But what exactly is growing inside her, and what exactly did happen to the two astronauts in those two minutes?

That is the burning question throughout this flick and to be perfectly honest, anybody wanting some effects-heavy pay-off will most likely be disappointed.

This is very much a slow-burner – a deliberately paced film that has its emphasis very much on the characters and the tweaked personalities.

After all, the premise relies on everyone thinking both Morton and Theron to be losing their minds, so for Depp to go all bug-eyed and over the top just wouldn’t work.

So, why exactly do I like it so much?

Well, I have to admit that I am a sucker for any movie that has some sort of ‘replicant’ angle – if you strapped me into a chair and played this, The Thing and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on a loop I would be a very happy bunny.

And it is also great to see Depp playing the ‘bad guy’ – his performance is by no means spectacular, but it is a very welcome change of pace.

The mood is very creepy throughout, and the direction from Rand Ravich includes a handful of well-worked jolts.

There is also an atmospheric musical score (which I ended up buying on CD, along with the one-sheet poster – don’t hate me).

The film pretty much sank without trace on its original release and has fared little better since.

But I will continue to big it up until I eventually find someone who agrees with me.



Three Of The Best Comedy Westerns

One of the most popular genres in cinema history has to be the western, but more rare are the comedy westerns. With A Million Ways To Die In The West hitting the spot at the box office, we’ve rounded up a few of the best comedy westerns that have made it to the big screen.



City Slickers


Released in 1991, this is a modern-day version of a western that’s full of slapstick humour. A radio ad salesman from the big city called Mitch (Billy Crystal) has reached his mid-life crisis, as have his two friends Ed (Bruno Kirby) and Phil (Daniel Stern). They decide to find themselves by going on a two week holiday where they’ll drive cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. Cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) teaches the trio not only how to be real cowboys, but also teaches them a thing or two about life along the way.




Released in 1994, this is a comedy western which is a first-person account of the adventures of Maverick (Mel Gibson), a con artist and card player who is gathering cash to be able to join a high-stakes poker game. He is assisted by Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster) and law man Marshall Zane Cooper (James Garner). Other famous faces in the cast include James Coburn, Graham Greene and Alfred Molina.



One of the best-known scenes is when Maverick is playing a game of poker on a steamboat called the Lauren Belle. His fellow con-artist Annabelle Bransford is also at the final table, along with the Commodore (James Coburn) who owns the boat and has organised the tournament, and Angel (Alfred Molina), a bad-tempered gambler who Maverick had conned earlier in the film. Bransford is the first to be eliminated, and then the other three players are dealt a ‘fixed’ hand. The Commodore is dealt four 8s and Angel is given a low straight flush. Maverick, meanwhile, has the 10, Jack, Queen and King of Spades. When Maverick sees the dealer bottom-dealing to the other players, who have gone ‘all-in’, he protests and agrees he will accept a card dealt by Angel, but won’t look to see what the card is. As it turns out, it’s the Ace of Spades, which gives him the championship with an unbeatable Royal Flush.

That’s not where the tale ends, though. There are three further plot twists and the film ends with Maverick talking to the audience directly, explaining exactly what has been going on. For people who enjoy playing games of online poker at sites like Pokerstars and enjoy western movies, Maverick has it all.


Blazing Saddles



Mel Brooks’ 1974 film has been called the ultimate western spoof. Co-written by Richard Pryor, it’s about a town called Rock Ridge that is scheduled for demolition to make way for a railroad. The townsfolk don’t want to move, so a corrupt politician called Hedley Lemarr (Harvey Forman) makes their lives difficult by sending his henchmen into town to disrupt the community. When the town’s sheriff is killed, Hedley convinces the Governor to appoint a black sheriff, something that throws the town into confusion. Cleavon Little plays the role of Bart the sheriff and the plot centres on his difficulties in winning over the townsfolk and his efforts to save Rock Ridge from demolition. As well as directing, Mel Brooks takes on a multiple of roles in the film including playing the Governor and an Indian chief. Gene Wilder plays Jim and a lot of the interaction between the characters of Bart and Jim show what great chemistry the two actors shared.



Why I Love: Session 9

If you are a movie geek like me, chances are at some stage you have decided to sit through a film on television, even though you have it proudly in your DVD collection.

I have no real idea why, but that’s just the way it goes.

A classic example recently was Session 9, a genuinely creepy flick that I have been championing for some time, which popped up on some obscure movie channel late one night.

I remember buying this on import DVD when it was released back in 2001 after reading its interesting premise in a horror magazine, and boy was I not disappointed.

As a matter of fact, I even have my DVD sleeve signed by Josh Lucas (one of the stars) after interviewing him at a junket for Poseidon.

Anyway, onto the film itself, an early effort from director Brad Anderson, who has gone on to make The Machinist and a host of quality TV fare such as Boardwalk Empire.

A blatantly low-budget offering (roughly $1.5 million), the film charts the progress of a bunch of renovators who are called in to remove asbestos and the like from a closed insane asylum.

Having undercut the competition in order to secure the job, the team are forced to complete a two-week job in a week, leading to an exhausting workload.

Add that to creepy corridors and the finding of a host of old investigative material in the asylum’s records rooms and you have a recipe for some unnerving goings-on.

And that is exactly what you get, although, thankfully, unlike most asylum-based horrors (of which there are a lot let’s face it), this is all about suggestion and matters of psychology rather than spirits in white sheets and in-your-face gore.

Despite the budget, Session 9 has a quality cast, with Peter Mullan excellent as the crew leader, who slowly unravels over the course of the film.

Mullan is joined by the likes of Lucas and David Caruso in a well-formed ensemble.

Anderson’s direction is spot-on, with lots of hints and suggestion, leaving the audience guessing for much of its running time.

There are definite echoes of something like The Shining here, and this is another slow-burner which may antagonise those who like plenty of bang for their buck.

The film also gets a major boost by filming at the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which has since been partly demolished), with the asylum being as much a character as the actors themselves.

Special mention must also go to the audio recordings of sessions with patients (hence the title) which, when played by one of the crew form a central strand of the movie.

Much like the phone calls in the original Black Christmas, these recordings are pretty creepy and add an impressively dark edge to proceedings.

Due to its budget etc Session 9 was never going to be a game-changing flick, or even one that most people are aware of to be honest.

But as a film that really makes the most of its talent, locations and storyline, this is right up there with the best of them.

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Films That Hit The Jackpot

You’re not human if you have never fantasised about winning the lottery. Suddenly your life gets flipped upside down, you can quit your job, buy yourself a Lamborghini and a holiday home in the Maldives (or, in my case, some beachfront property in San Diego).

So it is unsurprising that Hollywood has tried to saturate this fantasy, with lottery winning movies nearly being a genre in itself. Below are our top five lottery based films.


5. Lotto Land (1995)

Not to be confused with Lottoland, Lotto Land is an independent film set against the backdrop of Brooklyn. The story revolves around an upcoming $27million jackpot lottery which everyone in the neighbourhood is hoping to win. This impoverished area goes wild with lottery fever, many buy a considerable amount of tickets while some even end up in jail. The interwoven film ends with the lottery draw, the winning ticket to which is stated by the authorities to have been bought in the neighbourhood.


4. Lucky Numbers (2000)

Based on the 1980 Pennsylvania lottery scandal, this star-studded comedy seemingly went under the radar. Russ Richards (John Travolta) heavily invests in a snowmobile company that is struggling considerably due to freakish warm weather. To solve his financial woe he is convinced to rig the lottery – murder and double-crossing soon ensue. Directed by Sleepless in Seattle’s Nora Ephron, Lucky Numbers is a lot more enjoyable than the critics make out.




4. Lottery Ticket (2010)

This high-octane caper features an array of hip-hop artists, most notably Bow Wow as the lead character Kevin Carson, and support coming in the form of Ice Cube. Carson, who lives in the projects, has to survive the 4th of July weekend after his not-too-good neighbours discover that he is in possession of a lottery ticket worth $370million.


2. Waking Ned (1998)

This Irish film follows Jackie and Michael, who upon hearing someone has won the lottery in their sparsely populated village go to great lengths to befriend this newfound millionaire. They eventually track it down to the reclusive Ned, who has died from shock upon discovering he has won the lotto. From here the plot thickens as the duo try to work out how they can claim the tickets for themselves. The film was received very well by film critics.




1. It Could Happen to You (1994)

A romantic comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda. The basic premise is that cop Charlie Lang (Cage) meets a downtrodden waitress Yvonne (Fonda) whose husband has emptied their bank accounts. Lang does not have any money to tip Yvonne for his coffee so instead offers her half of his winnings from the upcoming lottery draw, which she agrees to. Lang wins $4million. The story then goes into the realm of romance with Lang eventually leaving his social climber wife, who takes him to court for all of the his lottery winnings, and eventually marries Yvonne.


Why I Love: Alien 3

“You’re all going to die – the only question is how you check out.”

That line, uttered by Dillon (Charles S Dutton) to the rabble of prisoners on Fiorina 161, pretty much sums up the ethos of Alien 3.

Grim, dour, depressing and with a sizeable void where the thought of optimism should be, the film is comfortably the darkest in the xenomorph franchise.

Which is probably why I love it.

In fact, love is probably downplaying it a bit, considering the fact I watched the whole thing through again on TV last night until the wee small hours, despite owning multiple versions on both video and DVD.

Now I am not about to tell you that David Fincher’s movie is the best in the series, because it isn’t.

But for me Alien 3 is easily the second best – after the original of course.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Aliens as much as the next fanboy, but for me this third outing has an edge which the wise-cracking Colonial Marines can never attain.

Even more bizarre I suppose when you consider the various hatchet jobs that went on in the production of this offering, from butchered scripts, to dismantled sets and high-profile fall-outs over the editing process.

My love for Alien 3 goes right back to the cinema release in summer 1992 – having lapped up the first two entries at some house parties with fellow schoolkids, I had a real sense of excitement on my trek to Cardiff’s Queen Street.

A gang came along with me, and my first taste of just what a divisive movie this is came when we emerged blinking into the sunlight at the conclusion.

Whereas I was raving about how good it was, the others were practically foaming at the mouth with rage.

And that process has pretty much continued to this day I feel, with every Alien 3 lover drowned out by a catcall of people who really, and I mean really, had a problem with it.

Back in the day, the most coherent argument that I could get out of my fellow attendees was that their vitriol was down to the fact that ‘it wasn’t like Aliens’ – in other words they simply expected another shoot-em-up.

But surely that is a good thing?

Setting the action on a dismal prison planet, with a host of pretty unlikeable characters was a bold choice no doubt, but it takes the legacy in a different direction, rather than being a mere retread.

The other issue most people have with it, obviously, is the offscreen demise of both Newt and Corporal Hicks from the earlier film, meeting a sticky end of sorts in their hypersleep chambers.

Again, I have no issue with this, as ditching those characters allows Alien 3 to streamline things down to what it should be – Ripley versus the creature.

Now if they had failed to mention either Newt or Hicks at all that would be a very different matter, but killing them off like that is certainly not the ‘slap in the face’ that James Cameron insisted it was.

We also get Bishop thrown into the mix in a number of capacities, as well as the villainous Weyland-Yutani corporation up to their usual tricks – all good stuff.

And at the centre of it all is a stunning performance from Sigourney Weaver as Ripley herself.

Drained, gaunt and very much xenomorph-weary, Weaver is on top form here and really drives the whole thing along.

Add some well-known British faces to a script that has a lot more realism than the macho posturings of its predecessor and you have a winner of a cast.

As if all that wasn’t enough, you also get a tremendously ominous score from Jerry Goldsmith, and the closing scenes are extremely powerful.

Even better is the assembly cut housed on the DVD box set, offering up another 30 minutes of religious overtones and character development.

Yes, there are gripes – the final 20-minutes or so does resemble a slasher movie in space, and there are some truly awful effects throughout, but these are very minor quibbles.

To survey the film criticism landscape, it does appear that with each passing year, more and more people are begrudgingly admitting that Alien 3 is not the disaster they first thought – a feeling which looms heavily into view when you consider Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus.

I don’t think the day will ever come when that is the common thought, but if it ever does, it will be about bloody time.

2007 World Series Of Poker Ante Up For Africa

Ben Affleck – card shark?

While awaiting the filming for the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman” movie, Ben Affleck decided to drop by the casinos in Vegas for some rest and relaxation. He was recently reported to have been banned from playing blackjack, as he has apparently become too good at the game. Accused of counting cards, Affleck is still welcome at the casino but is no longer allowed to play blackjack at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.


It is interesting to see Affleck actually turn out to be a decent card player.  After all, his part in the movie Runner Runner was rather bland and the movie left a lot to be desired. It does seem that during his time spent filming though he did at least pick up a trick or two, or he at least found the desire to play cards as a hobby. Of course, it is not the first time Affleck has been seen at the tables, as he has participated in various World Series of Poker events over the past several years and has been known to be a big player in Vegas.


This is especially true when we introduce Matt Damon, another big card player. Obviously a good friend of Affleck, he has been seen in Vegas with him playing cards. However, his movie career has arguably been a little brighter, and he was fortunate enough to lead the classic Rounders, a much better take on the world of poker than Runner Runner. Of course, Rounders had live play instead of online play, and actually included some history. The film itself is based in history. As writer Dany Willis explains the term was popularized by the Texas Rounders, a group of players who traveled together, gambling on “anything that they could find to gamble on.”



While Damon has had a fair bit more success with gambling than Affleck, the two remain friends. In fact, Damon has acknowledged his pal’s skill in card playing. Hopefully, Affleck can transfer his skill at the poker table into skills in his upcoming movies as, despite the likes of Argo and The Town in recent years, many people still have mixed feelings on him – as the wailing after his casting as Batman proves.


Both actors enjoy large paychecks and are slated to star in upcoming big-budget movies. Affleck’s star will probably soar even higher when he appears as Batman in DC’s next certainly-to-be-a-hit movie, the sequel to Man of Steel “Batman vs. Superman”. At the moment, the movie will be released in May 2016. Well, as long as they don’t change the date—the same date applies to Marvel’s next movie, Captain America 3, which certainly had us here scratching our heads.


Damon has his share of the spotlight on the horizon, too. As much of a hit as Rounders was, Harvey Weinstein has promised the filming of a sequel, titled Rounders 2, even admitting to eyeing up Robert De Niro as the villain in a recent interview. Following his successful partnership with Miramax, Weinstein is campaigning to make sequels to a lot of old hits, and Damon seems up for the idea. While poker movies have not typically been huge blockbusters, Rounders became a cult classic in its own right and the sequel is sure to be popular as well. With the same starring cast (Damon and Ed Norton) and director (John Dahl), this is a movie to look forward to.


Whether or not Damon ends up gambling his way out the door of Las Vegas casinos like his buddy Ben Affleck remains to be seen. They’re both definitely a big fan of card games, as their repeated sightings both in Nevada and Hollywood’s versions of Vegas prove. Incidents like these show that even celebrities are just people—when it comes to the rules, at least. Having a big name and a lot money doesn’t make you all that special in Vegas, and you will get kicked out of a casino just as quickly as anyone else. Still, I’m sure we will see more of Affleck’s exploits in Vegas soon enough.



Space Age - Sky Arts

Feature: Sci-fi’s best spaceships

A dastardly villain, a thumping theme-tune, and explanations for complicated time-travel paradoxes delivered in barely comprehensible jargon at speeds so quick viewers are forced to simply shrug and smile along – these are all key pillars of good Sci-Fi. Yet nothing is more critical to its success than an iconic spaceship.

Not simply a mode of transport, but a home, weapon, and sense of identity, the spaceship can make or break a movie and the characters within it. The Doctor’s T.A.R.D.I.S, a humble Police Phone Box with a surprisingly spacious interior, is arguably more famous than the man (alright, alien…) himself, and has become a complex character in its own right, often coming to the rescue of the titular hero.

Take the Death Star from Darth Vader and he is just a masked man with severe anger issues, but give him his steel stallion – stylistically little more than a giant chipped golf ball but 140km in diameter and valued by researchers at the Earthbound Lehigh University at $8.1 Quadrillion – and he instantly rockets to the top of Galaxy Magazine’s Most Powerful list. Biggest is usually best.

Looking forward, there are a number of contenders to the Death Star’s crown. The Guardians of the Galaxy arrives this summer, and while Star-Lord’s Milano Spaceship will have to go some way to match the titans of the field, early images look promising however, and we can be hopeful that it will provide the perfect vessel for their madcap antics.

Meanwhile, Poland’s state of the art Alvernia Studios – futuristic movie studio and a strong contender for the world’s coolest office – wowed producers of the forthcoming TV drama Space Age (pictured above) to such an extent, that it was given the role of the show’s spaceship.

Simon Callow and Richard Wilson will walk its Alien-inspired metallic corridors and bold domes, as a pair of aging astronauts to the stratosphere to prepare new planets for human settlement.

We’ve scoured the Solar System and beyond for Sci-Fi’s Best Spaceships. See our Top 10 below… And with the decision-makers of today’s NASA being of the generation that grew up on Luke Skywalker and company’s intergalactic adventures, maybe we might someday see these taking off from planet Earth…



Making wide-eyed assistants exclaim ‘It’s larger on the inside’ for over fifty years now, the Doctor’s constant companion, defender, and one-time love interest, is a British television institution.

The iconic blue box might lack the wow-factor of some of the others on this list, but the advantages of time travel make it a worthy addition to the list.




Alvernia Studios

Notable for being the only one of these Spaceships currently found on planet Earth, the Polish film studio’s iconic futuristic domes and corridors take on the role of the vessel that transports a pair of veteran and world-weary astronauts to an alien land in the forthcoming Space Age.

All those childhood wannabe X-Wing pilots might consider doing the next best thing and applying for a job at the Studio.




Thunderbird 2

Undeniably the best of the Thunderbirds. Thunderbird 2, piloted by Virgil Tracey (surely to the envy of his brothers), was a big green machine capable of extraordinary feats of International Rescue.

Hitting speeds of 5000mph and powered by Atomic Fusion Reactor, the ship appeared in all but one episode of the cult show. Truly F.A.B.




Millenium Falcon

Such is Star War’s dominance of the genre, it would have been easy to write a list entirely made up of ships from the show. But with due respect to Boba Fett’s Slave 1, the X Wing, and TIE Fighters; it’s the Millenium Falcon that really captured the imagination of a generation.

Han Solo’s pride and joy spirited our intergalactic heroes away from trouble countless times, and played a key role in the downfall of Darth.




Eagle 5

Lonestar and Barf’s quest through the stars to rescue a princess might seem a pretty standard recreation of Sci-Fi lore, but the Spaceball’s duo’s choice of ship stands out.

The fearless pair travelled in a 1986 Winnebago Chieftain 33, not unlike Breaking Bad’s Walt and Jesse, handily accessorized with wings and space engine.



Borg Cube

The primary vessel of The Borg – frequent Star Trek adversaries and alien collective – The Borg Cube that appeared in Star Trek: First Contact, blew Sci-Fi minds in an instant.

With each side measuring 3 kilometres and possessing the strength to wipe out an entire planet at will, they pack some serious firepower, and delivered Starfleet more than a few spots of bother. Worryingly, there are probably thousands more out there in Delta Quadrant…




U.S.S Enterprise

The ship of Captains Kirk, Picard, and many others, The U.S.S Enterprise is one of the most notorious of on-screen Sci-Fi inventions, having appeared across a number of Star Trek timelines.

The ship has boldly gone where no man has gone before, and achieved such cultural renown that NASA actually named a test shuttle after it following a heardfought campaign by Trekies. A classic.

Star Trek (2008) Directed by: J.J. Abrams




The Weyland-Yutami Corporation’s mining vessel of choice, the Nostromo is the setting of cinema’s most terrifying extra-terrestrial encounter. Alien’s spaceship was notable for its gritty realism, and its corridors provided the perfect location for a life of death game of hide and seek.

Despite Ripley’s best efforts, the ship fell victim to its in-built self-destruct system.



Heart of Gold

The first ship to make use of the Infinite Improbability Drive – meaning that it essentially could do or appear as anything. Illegally commandeered by President Zaphod Beeblebrox at its own launching ceremony, the ship chooses to pick up the floating Arthur Dent, and kick start his great adventure into a madcap universe.

The ship comes equipped with friendly doors, and a paranoid android named Marvin.




Discovery One

Named after Captain Scott’s Antarctic-bothering boat, the spaceship seen in classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only one of the most beautiful on this list, but one of the more realistic too.

It was designed based on conceivable science, and so could perhaps one day been seen in the sky over the Heathrow flight path – though hopefully without the murderous HAL 9000 onboard.








Why I Love: Equilibrium

I can pinpoint the exact moment that the cult classic Equilibrium burst into my consciousness, a moment that although it may be somewhat heavy-handed to describe as life-changing, certainly shook up my ‘favourite movies of all time list’ in the blink of a single bullet.

It was February 2003 and I had settled into my seat at the Swansea Odeon cinema to run the rule over some forgettable piece of trash, and along came the Equilibrium trailer.

To my acute embarrassment I had no idea what the film was (possibly due to it sinking without trace in the States) but as soon as Christian Bale started dancing around throwing his shapes my jaw hit the floor.

So much so that when the trailer ended with the line ‘How did it feel, Preston’ I was pretty close to jumping to my feet and roaring ‘Pretty f*****g amazing thanks’!

Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but from the second the trailer hit the screen my brain was agog with clerics, gun-kata and a whole load of other cool mythology that director Kurt Wimmer came up with for this project.

When the film did come along less than a month later I made damn sure I was there on opening night, and boy did/does the film deliver.

A quick synopsis for those that have yet to see this (and that is probably the majority of you): the flick is set a few decades into the future, when a host of large-scale wars have torn society apart.

In a very 1984-style move, the powers-that-be decide the best way to remedy the situation is to forcibly remove emotion from everyday life, as they argue that no emotion equals no anger and therefore no violence or bloodshed.

To enable this radical change in society, the population are forced to inject themselves on a daily basis with a cocktail of drugs keeping their feelings in check.

Of course, not everybody is happy to go along with this, and an underground group of resistance ‘sense offenders’ are busy plotting to overthrow society and take things back to the good old days (or bad old days depending how you see it).

To maintain the order, the ruling party have at their disposal the ultra-trained, ultra-skilled Grammaton Clerics, a cadre of assassins/police officers, who either arrest and incinerate or simply kill anyone suspected of ‘feeling’.

Bale stars as John Preston, the most decorated of these clerics, who during the course of the film undergoes a radical character transformation as he switches from unswerving servant of the state to potential leader of the resistance.

So, what is there to love about this film?

Well, first and foremost – the action.

As a lover of cinematic gun-play who has lapped up the antics of the likes of John Woo and Robert Rodriguez over the years, I thought I had pretty much seen it all as far as how shooters could be used on screen.

But just one scene from Equilibrium showed me I was very, very wrong.

Introducing the idea of ‘gun-kata’, the clerics are true gun experts, having analysed reams of data to come up with the best body angles, the best kill points and, in my opinion, the coolest look.

With their long black coats and an icy stare, watching Bale and his cohorts in action is cinematic poetry in motion and a major selling-point of the movie.

There is plenty more to recommend – with Bale, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs and Emily Watson in prime roles the acting prowess on display is quite high and the set design and look of the film really sets the mood.

There is something about a dour, futuristic setting that always seems to get me and when you throw in top-notch action that is a pretty tasty dish on which to feast on.

Sadly the film failed on these shores also (although it did take more at the box office than during its dismal US run) and with the images thrown to the press on its release the movie was hastily dismissed as a mere Matrix rip-off and nothing more.

But that does Equilibrium scant justice, and anyone who has not yet set their eyes on this it comes with Movie Rambling’s hearty recommendation.

Director Wimmer followed this up with the truly woeful Ultraviolet (starring Milla Jovovich) which, if anything, merely highlighted the brilliance he created with Equilibrium.

I really cannot praise this film enough, and if an action film ever comes along that tops it in my book, then that will be a truly great movie.




Why I Love: Duel

By Andreas Charalambous

Here we have a film that has gradually grown into an important text – this was originally a ‘made-for-TV’ film – by the up-and-coming film director, Steven Spielberg (You may have since heard of him……).

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson (also known for writing the classic ‘I Am Legend’ amongst other well-known novels), this narrative consists of the effective yet simple concept of ‘cat and mouse’. The ‘mouse’ being a lone driver (Dennis Weaver) on a business trip driving across a desert highway in the United States, while the ‘cat’ is a faceless, smoke-chugging, dirty old truck.

Here, we have a tense narrative unfolding as the result of the most minor case of road rage imaginable. Spielberg takes this everyday situation and cleverly manipulates it to spiral into madness as we are treated to a collection of close-up shots of wheels spinning, dashboard gauges, headlights and views within mirrors. The effect makes the audience feel a sense of dread as if they are being stalked out in the desert highway, as we ‘sit’ in the car with Weaver, checking our speed on the speedometer, looking at the open road ahead, checking out the view in the wing mirror/rear-view and praying no warning lights begin to flash in the dashboard. We are there as a passenger in the car with our protagonist, so his fate is ultimately ours also (We curse the moment we discover that ‘our driver’ really should have spent a few dollars changing the radiator hose when he had the chance. His decision just may have sealed our fate along with his).


By doing this, Spielberg makes it virtually impossible for the viewer not to identify with Weaver’s character. We are getting sensory information about the chase at the same time as the protagonist does; there is no advanced disclosure, nor holding back of information for the viewer – you are sitting in that car with him. Until the recent development of technology where we can now participate in ‘interactive films’ in the latest video game blockbusters, ‘Duel’ was the closest you could get to an interactive film. It is brilliantly directed and cleverly fosters audience identification. Each shot is carefully constructed to convey important information about the pursuit.
Spielberg’s technique is effective in other ways also. As would be the case in his later film ‘Jaws’ (1975), Spielberg hides the antagonist for as long as possible. In ‘Jaws’, the shark was rarely seen – due to mechanical difficulties – but in ‘Duel’, Spielberg hides the driver of the truck to preserve his mystery.


This makes the audience ask questions; Who or what is this maniac driving the truck? Why is he so sadistic? Why is he so relentless? These are questions that we the viewer are asking simultaneously with the poor bastard being stalked in that clapped-out little car. Spielberg never answers these questions, making it feel as if we are spiralling into a nightmare of utter irrationality. What kind of a world do we live in when passing someone on a road is a crime punishable by death? Is this a case of extreme road rage, or something more? ‘Duel’ is more frightening because we just aren’t being given these answers.
Matheson’s screenplay is ideal for Spielberg, and is skilful in developing Weaver’s driver. The audience is privy to his thoughts, and they feel pretty real! He escalates into full-scale panic, considers apologies, and tries to act out every possible outcome in his mind. This approach makes the viewer realise how our minds keep replaying and reinterpreting traumatic events, trying to make them right in our heads so we can move on. Yet he is denied any peace because there is no rational explanation for the assault on him. The audience identifies with him because his inner monologues keep trying to reason through the situation – and keep failing – as they try also. It is more frightening to be presented with the inexplicable, and Weaver presents the realistic portrayal of an everyman confronted by the unusual, the terrifying and the unreal.
Along with ‘The Road Warrior’ (1982) and ‘The Hitcher’ (1985), ‘Duel’ is one of the best ‘road chase’ films ever made. This is a suspenseful, exciting “100 mile an hour” (sometimes literally) chase. ‘Duel’ just goes to show that one moment of madness at the wrong time and the wrong place can descend quickly and irrevocably into terror. ‘Duel’ was Steven Spielberg’s calling card to Hollywood, and it is a magnificent text to do so.


Looking back: The Amazing Spider-man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-manI guess the new motto in Hollywood is “if it’s not broke, just reboot it”.

The fact that Sony and the producers of the Spider-man films felt the need to restart the series was an odd one.

It had been a mere decade since the first Spider-man film and with the last instalment, the much maligned Spider-man 3 being released back in 2007, it begged the question whether a reboot was really necessary.

Fair enough, Spider-man 3 was a mess and the series star Tobey Maguire and the director Sam Raimi didn’t want to return.  But that didn’t stop the James Bond series for about 30 years.

So, why the urge to reboot?

Well, I guess after the box office success stories from the likes of Star Trek, Casino Royale and Nolan’s Batman films, reboots were seen to be popular and bankable.

And to be fair, The Amazing Spider-man does it’s best to try and ground Peter Parker in a more tangible universe. It also makes a good effort of trying to separate itself from Raimi’s work – instead of going over the same old circumstances in the original film, Marc Webb’s effort focuses more on the fact that Parker has no parents.

In fact, it comes across as something that is essential to Parker’s story.

Andrew Garfield, while a bit too good looking to be considered a complete high school nerd, does present Peter Parker as something of an outsider. We see him getting frustrated at his parents for abandoning him and the scenes between him and Martin Sheen’s Ben Parker present the whole surrogate father/son relationship with much more substance than ever witnessed in the Raimi trilogy.

His take on Spider-man is also a lot more amusing than Maguire’s.

Using his web slingers (which are constructed by himself) for comical effect and mocking the various street villains he encounters during his earlier antics, it is possibly the most striking difference between this and the 2002 effort.

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey
Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey

Emma Stone is delightful as Gwen Stacey – Parker’s high school love interest.  With her golden blonde locks and sporting a lab coat, mini-skirt and boots, she looks like she has been taken straight out of the page of the comic books.

The awkwardness between Peter and Gwen is brilliantly played out and is familiar territory for people who may have seen Marc Webb’s previous film, 500 Days of Summer.

Denis Leary is also very good as George Stacey, Gwen’s father and the chief of the New York police.  His presence brings a sense of authority to the proceedings that was sorely missed in Raimi’s films.  Despite the fact he is somewhat sidelined, his character is well rounded and his dislike of Spider-man’s vigilante handy work and his initial distrust of Peter Parker is well balanced and argued.

Rhys Ifans is an inspired choice for Dr Curt Connors, the disabled scientist who is missing an arm and later goes on to become The Lizard.  While it’s a shame that we never got to see Dylan Baker fully transform into The Lizard in Raimi’s trilogy, Rhys Ifans take on the character is engaging enough and his performance manages to invoke enough sympathy for the tragic Dr Connors.

Where The Amazing Spider-man trips is in its attempt to explain the back-story of Parker’s parents. Every time this plot strand was brought up, I was longing for a disaster to happen so we got to see more of Spider-man doing his thing and stopping the bad guys.

Having said that, this plot is clearly a device designed to set the film apart from the Raimi’s work and was  no doubt the groundwork for future instalments.

Rhys Ifans as Dr Curt Connors
Rhys Ifans as Dr Curt Connors

The filmmakers have also put in a lot of effort to visually distance this from Raimi’s films.

Since most of the action takes place during the evening, the scenes in which Spider-man is swinging in New York are notably darker and look more akin to something we would expect from Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Even James Howard’s score abandons the trademark themes of Danny Elfman’s work – a decision that certainly helps with giving the film it’s own identity.

I know people reading this will probably complain that I’m probably too busy comparing this newer take with Raimi’s version. But the fact of the matter is that for me at least, it still felt too soon for a complete reboot.

Maybe it’s a sign of my age, but I’m not comfortable living in a world where Tobey Maguire, James Franco and Kirsten Dunst are considered old hat. And it’s an odd experience watching this Spider-man without any of the key signatures that I grew accustomed to over the course of Raimi’s films.

Having said that, The Amazing Spider-man is a solid enough film, with Andrew Garfield making the role of Peter Parker his own and setting up the future instalments nicely.



Feature: A look at the BFI’s James Dean retrospective

By Amanda Hodges

‘He takes to movies like it was his medium. Like he owned it.’ This was the prescient verdict of film director Elia Kazan on young actor James Dean who Kazan was then considering for the role of Cal Trask in his version of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Ironically this would be the only one of his three films that Dean would live to see in his lifetime as he was killed in a car crash on 30 September 1955 just days before Rebel Without A Cause -which introduced the immortal image of Dean’s Jimmy Stark-as the archetypal American teenager- was due to open and shortly after Giant had finished filming.

Now the subject of a short retrospective season at the BFI Southbank where each of of Dean’s major films are being screened in digitally restored versions, audiences again have the opportunity to enjoy James Dean at his best. In the fifty-odd years since his early demise Dean has become the epitome of screen cool, his fame eclipsing even the simple medium of film and becoming emblematic of alienated youth everywhere but, as each of his films emphasise so clearly in today’s digital versions, it’s the combination of characteristics that he brings to each of his defining roles that makes them so eminently watchable.

As Kazan noted – with probably a fair degree of perspicacity- to author John Steinbeck at the time of East of Eden’s casting, ‘He is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a ‘real problem’ somewhere in his guts.’ It’s a fair description but much of Dean’s appeal comes from his complex personality and it’s this which makes him such a magnetic screen presence.

Picture Dean in East of Eden , the film which introduced him to the world as the poignant Cal, eager and bewildered, adorable and alienated. Then there’s Jim Stark of Nicholas Ray’s mould-breaking Rebel, a kid trying to do the right thing but emmeshed in a world where his own family are so disappointing he’s keen to make up his own substitute version. Rebel embodied on screen the cultural changes taking place in the Fifties and cemented Dean’s reputation forever as the icon of rebellious youth. And then finally there’s George Stevens’ epic (or overblown as some may find it, I’ll go with the former epithet) Giant in which Dean was beginning to move away from his ‘delinquent’ teenage roles in favour of more meaty roles, namely here the part of surly farmhand Jett Rink who, lonely and misunderstood, uses revenge as his weapon of choice.

Next year sees the exciting release of Anton Corbijn’s Dean biopic starring Dane DeHaan, which will examine Dean’s fruitful friendship with Dennis Stock, the photographer responsible for creating many of the iconic images of the actor. In the meantime look no further than the pure cinematic pleasure to be derived from seeing these three restored films which pay tribute to the phenomenal talent of an outstanding actor. ‘Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today’, Dean famously said and it’s this very intensity which makes him such an enduring screen legend.


The James Dean season runs at the BFI Southbank until May 1


Looking Back: Spider-man 3 (2007)

There must be some sort of curse out there that means third instalments of superhero movies are destined to disappoint.

Or at the very best, be inferior to their predecessors. If anyone can name one, I’ll quite happily sit down and stop whinging about it. But let’s look at the evidence first.

Superman 3 – rubbish.

Batman Forever – compared to the first two, it’s stupid.

X-Men 3 – a disengaging and emotionless mess.

And finally, Spider-man 3 – while it may have it’s defenders, it’s a convoluted dog’s dinner of a film.

Simply put, there is too much going on and it’s a crying shame that after two enjoyable flicks the Raimi series had to go out on a whimper like this.

I’m sure that somewhere under the muddled proceedings there’s a good film in there. Visually the film is a treat and some questionable scenes aside, the performances are generally solid too. The problem is that script tries to cram in too much and as a result you just don’t give a monkeys.

I’ll try my best to sum up the plot here, but the chances are I’ll miss something.

The film picks up a few months after the events of Spider-man 2. Peter Parker is still with Mary Jane, Harry Osborne still has the hump and follows in his father’s footsteps by becoming New Goblin, there’s a meteorite that contains some black sticky goo (Venom, although never actually referred to in name) and a convict, Flint Marko, on the run who stumbles into a scientific experiment and transforms into sand.

There’s also something about a photographer called Eddie Brock that is after Peter Parker’s job at The Daily Bugle and comic book favourite Gwen Stacey is introduced as Parker’s science class assistant and a possible love interest, that is soon forgotten about once we are into the third act.

With all this going on, it’s no surprise that the filmmakers at one point considered splitting all this into two films and in retrospect, that would have been the wiser idea.

Thomas Hayden Church gives an interesting performance as Flint Marko, the on-the-run convict who becomes Sandman. Given a bit of backstory, it’s revealed he is just a small time thief who is only trying to raise money for his sick daughter. With the script not really giving much attention to him, Thomas Hayden Church actually does a fairly good job in conveying the desperation of the character and manages to invoke a bit of empathy for the character.  However, the efforts in tying his story into Parker’s history is a distracting stretch at best.

Easily one of the worst handled elements of Spider-man 3 is the alien symbiote, Venom. Described by Doctor Curt Connors as a parasitic organism that enhances the characteristics of it’s host, when it attaches itself to Peter Parker it turns him into a complete dick.

You’d think that exploring the dark side of Spider-man would open up some exciting possibilities, but with all the Saturday Night Fever dancing in the street and his new found ability to play jazz piano, we actually learn that Peter Parker was cooler when he was just a nerd. So with Peter Parker looking like the lost member of My Chemical Romance, it is easily the dumbest “Superhero Gone Bad” moment since Superman got drunk in a small town bar and flicked peanuts in Superman 3.

Luckily, once Parker is rid of symbiote and it attaches to Eddie Brock (thus becoming Venom), we are spared of the idiocy and treated to a visually disturbing villian. Sadly however, due to the rushed nature of the film, Venom doesn’t really get the treatment he deserves and his appearance in Spider-man 3 feels a bit like an attempt to appease the fanboys.

Watching Spider-man 3 again, I was impressed with Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Mary Jane. With Peter Parker acting like a selfish and unlikeable prick – even before he is compromised by the symbiote, the confusion and desperation in her character comes across really well and it’s a testament to Dunst’s acting abilities that she manages to do so much with what’s given to her. Her performance actually sticks out like a sore thumb, mainly because every other aspect of the film is so silly and rushed.

Another disappointment is the story arc of Harry Osborne. What was built up so well in the previous two films, turns into another dire soap opera plot. With Harry Osborne literally banging his head and suffering from amnesia, it’s like something straight out of the script of an episode of Dynasty.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, as there are some qualities to enjoy in Spider-man 3.

Bruce Campbell’s obligatory cameo as the French Maître d is his best in the trilogy and a very comical moment that has whiffs of John Cleese in a Monty Python sketch. And the scene in which Spider-man rescues Gwen Stacey from a crane disaster is as breath-taking as you’re gonna get in any superhero film. Christ, even the scene in which Peter Parker tears the symbiote off is cool and suitably dark.

But none of this can escape the fact that on the whole, it somehow just doesn’t all stick together. Sadly, the fact of the matter is that Spider-man 3 is not a patch on it’s predecessors.

It’s a strange experience watching it again, as even though the film is a mess, it does at least have the decency to tie up the loose strands. There is no need for a follow-up at the end of Spider-man 3 and it gives the characters we know and love a worthy send off

It’s just a shame that it’s tacked onto the end of a below average film.


Looking Back: Spider-man 2 (2004)

If the first Spider-man film was all about how with great power comes great responsibility, then it’s follow up was about how you balance that great power and responsibility with all the other baggage that comes with it.

Picking up approximately 2 years after the events of the first film, things are not going well for Peter Parker.

Struggling to balance his ordinary life with his superhero life, we learn that while Spider-man may be a great crime fighter, when it comes to commitments to family and friends he is pretty useless and unreliable.

Naturally, his friends and family don’t know about his double identity, meaning that they just think he is being a jerk.

Mary Jane is growing frustrated with the confusing signals she’s getting from Parker, while Osborne is increasingly getting the hump with him because in his eyes Spider-man killed his father and Parker is protecting him because Spider-man is his bread and butter (being his unofficial photographer).

It’s all pretty much fluffy soap opera stuff and had Spider-man 2 not featured the brilliant Alfred Molina as fantastically designed Otto Octavius, the film could’ve been a very frustrating experience.

Like most villains in the Spider-man series, Dr Otto Octavius is simply misunderstood.  A brilliant scientist with a brilliant vision of affordable energy, he shown to be a man of ambition and at times, a soppy romantic who likes to read poetry to the woman he loves.

He is also seen to admire Peter Parker and for a moment you get the impression that Otto would like to take Parker under his wing.

Revealing these little nuggets of information, makes Otto’s transformation to Doctor Octopus all the more tragic.

As the robotic arms are fused into his spine and nervous system, his sanity is compromised and he becomes a victim and slave to his own creation.

The scene where he is unconscious and the surgeons are working out a way to remove these robotic limbs is textbook Raimi stuff.  What starts off as a quiet operating scene, soon descends into complete chaos and visually is akin to something from one of the Evil Dead films.  In fact, for a PG it is pretty strong stuff and for me is one of the most memorable moments in any Spider-man film.

James Franco’s Harry Osborne also grows into his own, with his obsession of avenging his father’s death complicating his friendship with Peter Parker.

Despite the aforementioned soap opera feeling, the scenes between him and Tobey Maguire are actually played out quite well and convincingly invoke the impression of a friendship deteriorating.

James Franco as Harry Osborne
James Franco as Harry Osborne

This plot line also sets up the third film rather nicely, with Harry’s final scene in the movie being one of the best cliff hangers since The Empire Strikes Back.

The rest of the plot plods along at a fairly good pace.

If there is one misfire in the story though, it’s the clunky storyline regarding Spider-man losing his arachnid abilities.

It doesn’t actually go anywhere and is never properly tied up.  Insinuating that Spider-man lost his mojo because his alter-ego had the grumps is pretty lazy writing and opens up the question why this never happens again in the series, since in this trilogy Peter is pretty miserable most of the time.

It’s well known that this idea was partly inspired by Superman 2 which features the story’s hero abandoning his duties in search of a normal and happy life, but with Spider-man 2 the execution is slightly off. In fact it feels a bit like an attempt to shoehorn in certain elements of the classic comic “Spider-man no more!” just for the sake of it.

However, it’s a minor complaint when consider the set pieces that are on offer here, as Spider-man 2 features some of the finest moments in the series.

The fight between Spider-man and Doctor Octopus on top of a moving train is simply amazing and the special effects wizards should be commended for their efforts.  And not only does the scene feature some breathtaking moments, it’s followed up with a touching scene in which Spider-man loses his mask and the citizens on the train see his true identity.

This scene gives Peter Parker and not Spider-man, the recognition he deserves and it’s a nice moment for the character to see the appreciation for his efforts in protecting the city of New York.

Overall, Spider-man 2 is very much more of the same.  It’s more polished than Spider-man, but naturally being a second part it lacks it’s predecessor’s freshness.  That’s not to say it’s bad.  Alfred Molina give a compelling performance as Otto Octavius and with everyone picking up where they left off, continuing down the long and winding road, Spider-man 2 is a worthy companion to the first film.


Looking Back: Spider-man (2002)

Spiderman (2002)Things have changed with the recent release of The Amazing Spider-man and this week’s sequel.

We’re now living in a world where Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are considered retro.  Now if that doesn’t make your average 30 year old feel ancient I don’t know what will.

When Sam Raimi’s first Spider-man film hit our screens back in 2002, it turned out to be quite a big deal. The Star Wars prequels were failing deliver on high expectations and with the Lord of the Rings films set for Christmas release, there was a big empty spot on the blockbuster calender in the middle of Summer.

Aside from Bryan Singer’s efforts on the first two X-Men films, superheroes were still on shaky ground when it came to box office takings.

Warner Bros had both Batman and Superman films stuck in development limbo and Marvels Avengers series was nothing but a sparkle of a potential idea in someone’s mind.

There was also a lot of gossip hitting the tabloids about how certain scenes had to be removed due to the tragic terrorist attacks that happened on 11th September 2001. In fact, shortly before the 11th September, a teaser trailer was released that prominently featured the world trade center and was promptly pulled after tragedy hit New York.

And after spending 20 odd years in development hell, things did not look promising for Spider-man… And then this trailer came out.

For the role of Peter Parker, many actor were rumoured to be in the running. With names as random as Leonardo DiCaprio, Freddie Prinze Jr and Heath Ledger cropping up, it was with some surprise that Tobey Maguire landed the role.

The love interest Mary Jane was eventually played by Kirsten Dunst and James Franco made a name for himself playing Harry Osborne, the son of the primary antagonist Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne.

Amazingly, Dafoe was only offered the role after the likes of Jim Carrey, John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage turned down the role! And in my opinion, Dafoe almost walks away with the film. Sure the Green Goblin’s outfit may have had whiffs of The Power Rangers about it, but when the mask was off Dafoe was completely mesmerising to watch and in my opinion, one of the best comic book villains we had seen on screen since Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker.

Sleazy, conflicted and then confident, the scene where he talks to his alter ego in the mirror is a revelation and typical of Sam Raimi (see Evil Dead 2′s Good Ash and Bad Ash scene for more).

Looking back, the casting of Tobey Maguire is probably the most criticised element of Raimi’s films, with some claiming him not to represent the funny and witty side of Peter Parker. Personally, I felt the casting was spot on and out of the names listed, I felt he was certainly the most promising actor for the role.

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane
Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane

Kirsten Dunst I had a slight apprehension about. Whilst I felt she was a terrific actress and had an engaging screen presence, I just didn’t see her as Mary Jane. But as soon as she appeared on screen and uttered the word “tiger” to Peter Parker, I was sold (and in love).

Her performance of Mary Jane is particularly touching as Dunst manages to portray her as a confident and popular school girl, and yet during a number of scenes with Peter Parker she reveals that underneath all that she is quite a delicate soul and unsure of herself and her position in life.

On scoring duties there was Danny Elfman, who did a nice job in creating memorable themes for each of the characters even if they did sound a bit “Batman”.

As far as the plot goes, Spider-man was a capable origins story with a good standard of pacing. Wasting no time in getting the proceedings going, Peter Parker is bitten and climbing up walls, all within the first 30 minutes.

At the time there was a bit on controversy with regards to the decision to have Peter Parker’s web slingers not being constructed by Parker, with many online forums spitting verbal venom towards Sam Raimi for this decision. Interestingly enough, when James Cameron was on board to direct, it was his idea that web slingers should be organic and not mechanical and it was a decision that carried over to when Raimi took over.

Spider-man also had it’s fair share of memorable scenes – the wrestling match with Bone Saw (not to mention Bruce Campbell’s cameo), the Green Goblin’s attack on the New York Fair and arguably the best kiss ever filmed in a superhero movie.

Essentially, Spider-man was a coming of age story that had many underlying themes – fatherhood, betrayal and sacrifice. It’s all textbook comic book stuff and under Raimi’s direction and David Koepp’s script it’s balanced pretty much perfectly.


Feature: Horror’s link to homosexuality

After the London BFI’s LGBT season drew to a close last weekend I couldn’t help but double take at the amount of horror films on the line up. Whilst the LGBT scene and the horror genre may not seem intrinsically interlinked queer horror cinema is a fascinating sub-genre rich with history. From those films that deal with characters who are openly gay to coded references to homosexual lifestyles or even the recurrent themes of forbidden desire and dangerous liaisons in many horror films throughout history I decided to take a look at how this sub-genre has simultaneously liberated and repressed the LGBT community.

Modern horror fiction has roots in Gothic literature. The gothic genre has given modern-day film the classic tropes which we associate with the horror genre. Trap doors, dark castles and the occasional ghost of a tormented soul are all classic symbols of horror in its original form. However, gothic novels were, and still are, heavily steeped in sexual allegories. Heterosexuality was a source of fear for many years dating as far back as the 16th century – sex before marriage, pregnancy and even displays of affection were frowned upon. Sexuality was forbidden and often used as way of control. With this in mind it is no doubt that deviation from the so-called sexual norm came to be viewed as not only a taboo, but something monstrous too.

Sheridan le Fanu’s novella, ‘Carmilla’ [1872] – which pre dates Bram Stoker’s Dracula – tells the story of a young woman who strikes up an awkward and unusual friendship with a seemingly lesbian vampire.

Vampiric stories have always been discussed as a metaphor for sex. The traditional tale of a stranger entering a young woman’s room at night and ‘penetrating’ her with fangs and lusting after her flesh – its pretty clear an aspect of sexuality is present in the horror genre and perhaps serves as a cautionary tale for those who wish to follow the desires and fantasies. Gay authors, and subsequently directors have taken on this sexual aspect of the genre and moulded it to suit the sexual spectrum of their audiences, whilst others have used it to highlight the apparent shame and repulsion at the thought of homosexuality.

1936_DraculasDaughter_img14‘Dracula’s Daughter’ in 1936, directed by Lambert Hillyer, has a strong lesbian overtone, although at the time the production company were apparently keen to dispel the link between the vampire attacks and perverse sexual desire. However, the posters for the film gave a nod to Dracula’s daughter as gay by stating, ‘Save the women of London from Dracula’s daughter!’ and ‘She gives you that weird feeling…’ Many critics have since argued that the film displays the ‘essence of homosexuality as a predatory weakness’. Another significant link to lesbianism is the countess’ desire to ‘cure’ her vampirism – this can be seen as a nod to the idea that homosexuality was previously viewed as a curable psychological disease. The metaphor of trying to hide your true self in order to fit in with society’s standards may chime with gay audiences. Films of this ilk were classically coded queer horrors and often served as a warning against the gay lifestyle.

Hammer studios followed similar suit to ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ in 1970 with ‘The Vampire Lovers’. Taking strong inspiration from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, it cast Ingrid Pitt as the lusty vamp feasting upon bosomy prey. The Vampire Lovers is a faithful adaptation, with strong performances and some genuinely startling scenes. It was the first of three Hammer films featuring lesbian vampires, known as the Karnstein Trilogy – Lust for a Vampire (1970) is so-so, but Twins of Evil (1971) is among the studio’s best. The seventies saw the shift from coded to implied lesbianism and played on the titillation of lesbians for straight-male viewers.

The-Vampire-LoversIn the late 1990s and early 2000s, cult film director David DeCoteau began making “horror for women.” Films like Voodoo Academy (1999) and The Brotherhood (2001) often featured attractive men in their underwear in homoerotic situations but never fully gay-themed storylines. These films quickly caught on with gay male audiences, to whom they were more often marketed, but with the safety of “Horror for Women” label so as not to out themselves at the local video store.

In 2004 production simultaneously began on two films marketed specifically for gay audiences as “Gay Horror.” October Moon was directed by Jason Paul Collum and featured a deadly gay love triangle in the vein of Fatal Attraction (1987 film). Hellbent was directed by Paul Etheredge and styled itself as a modern slasher film with a story of gay men stalked by a masked killer during a Halloween parade in West Hollywood, California. Both films were released theatrically in September 2005.

Since then, gay gothic films have flourished, and continue to break barriers. ParaNorman [2012], the first children’s film with an openly gay character, is steeped in gothic horror conventions, albeit with a PG certificate. The marriage of queerness and gothic has also spilled over into mainstream television – think Willow, the nervy lesbian witch in Buffy the Vampire Slayer[1997-2003], or several of the male vampires in True Blood [2008 to present].

Whilst there are many openly or coded queer horror films there are also those horror films which border between creepy and camp and it is sometimes unclear if the queer aspect is intentional or accidental. Think about the man-on-man subtexts in horror films Lost Boys [1987] and The Covenant [2006].

One horror blockbuster which is frequently debated is ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge’, released in 1985.

936full-a-nightmare-on-elm-street-part-2-freddys-revenge-screenshotThe sequel features an all male cast of victims for Freddy to attack – something that is not often seen in slasher horror films. From its camp tagline (“The Man of Your Dreams is Back”) – to, well, everything it seems that this horror film is warning against homosexuality – although whether or not it was intentional is yet to be confirmed.

Jesse, played by out actor Mark Patton seems to be experiencing inner turmoil at the hands of Freddy and his razor sharp hands.

The film sees the gym teacher killed naked in a shower after being brutally supernaturally spanked with a towel (seriously), while poor Grady is sliced up in his boxers after Jesse has failed to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend, for reasons which remain unspecified. The night sweats, the gay references and the fear of the unknown is often cited as allegories for the gay male’s battle against AIDS and perhaps serves as a distasteful warning against homosexuality – does Freddy represent the murderous consequences of homoeroticism?

The fact that Freddy does not remain in dreams in the sequel and seems to be physically breaking out of Jesse – Freddy is taking over Jesse’s body and committing murder in reality – could suggest that Freddy is representative of Jesse’s gay self.

Many horror films can be viewed as a parable for being gay. The subtle coded references or the homophobic cautionary tales reflect the stigma attached to the LGBT community. If the message isn’t being subverted so that only those who are gay can enjoy the themes without straight audiences feeling uncomfortable then it is sadly that the message of ‘different’ sexuality acts as a source of horror and fear. Whether it is the lesbian as soulless predator, the gay man as the aids addled fiend battling against his own dreams or the Frankenstein monster who is perhaps a horrendous representation of those who are transgender it is fair to say the queer in horror is very real and perhaps the most scary sub genre as there is some truth about our society which exists in these subtexts.