Imagine setting Simon West’s classic 1997 prison-break thriller, Con Air, complete with the grisly cast of gruesome killers, on a cargo ship somewhere in the ocean between the Philippines and South Korea... then add a deadly creature hell-bent on indiscriminate slaughter marauding around below decks, not unlike Ridley Scott’s 1979 SciFi horror classic, Alien ... and just for good measure throw in about a thousand gallons of spurting blood and you’ll have some idea of what to expect from Hong-Sun Kim’s bloody gorefest, PROJECT WOLF HUNTING.
A rogues gallery of Korean criminals arrested in the Philippines are being transferred from Manilla to Busan but their Plan A is scuttled by a terrorist bombing and Plan B is to transport them aboard the cargo vessel, Frontier Wolf. Jong-du (a compelling performance from Seo In-Guk) is the most heinous and high-risk of this you can tell he’s the worst by the crazy gleam in his eye and the almost complete body covering of wild tattoos. It’s a wonder he’s not strapped up like Hannibal Lecter.
A squad of twenty highly experienced detectives have been assigned to guard him and the others along with protecting the ship’s crew. But they’re not the only passengers. When a doctor and nurse join the voyage, it seems that it is not only the human cargo’s well-being they’re focused on. There’s one more passenger, not exactly human, but apparently human-made lying in a trance state in the cargo hold. It’s the doctor’s responsibility to keep this hideous creature with its eyes stapled shut (Choi Guy-hwa) subdued for the duration of the journey (shades of Australian director, Justin Dix’s quite good 2019 WWII horror flick Blood Vessel here).
Of course, the doctor fails in his mission to keep the creature at bay and the detectives fail in the mission to keep the prisoners under lock and key and even the coast guard fails to keep watch on the ship after they’re infiltrated by a nefarious group whose purpose only vaguely becomes clear through flashbacks later on. After that? Mayhem.
It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And depending on what you’re looking for up on that screen, it will either be just that, or it might be a tad disappointing.
So, what is it that would make you think it was a pretty good movie? Well, you’d be looking for a film with LOTS of characters – enough to offer a VERY high body count AND not too much time wasted on characterisation - just enough to help you distinguish between the goodies and the baddies (or in the case of this film, the goodies, the baddies and the not-so-baddies).
You’d be looking for a high rate of hyper-realistic killings and enough anatomical suspension of disbelief so that wherever on the body a wound is inflicted, there’s a convenient artery just below that surface and a high enough level of blood pressure to send the blood fountaining out like a geyser (this is not a voyage where you want to be wearing your good shoes).
You’d be hoping for some excellent prosthetic work to provide a range of butchery and dismemberments (and you wouldn’t be disappointed in this).
You’d be looking for a film that focuses less on the depth of storytelling and more on ‘just getting on with it’ as regards the motivations for killing, maiming and eviscerating as many characters as possible... and speaking of characters, you’d be happy for just about every character you make any level of investment in with regard to your care-factor, to have the life expectancy of a gnat (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given the rate at which these characters are dispatched).
And finally, you’d be unperturbed by the tangled plot that often leaves you uttering Butch Cassidy’s famous line, ‘who are those guys?’
Clearly, these are the parameters according to which Hong-Sun Kim set about making this movie and, as rule number one of movie reviewing states – review the film on its own terms not yours, the film the filmmaker wanted to make, not the film you’d have made – then it succeeds at almost every level. So, as I say, if you and Hong-Sun Kim are on the same page about these things, then you’re going to love it.
As it happens, I was quite in the mood for a film like this, so I went with it, for the most part.
Upon reflection, however, I do think there are elements that might easily leave a chunk of the audience disappointed. What elements are they? Essentially, the opposite of everything I’ve already highlighted.
But the element that probably lets the film down the most is its excess... too much of a good (or in this case, gruesomely horribly bloodsoakingly bad) thing. The film gets off to a cracking start. It’s high paced and high tension and the snarls and dagger-eyes from crims and cops alike set the tone very efficiently. But then, the killings start and go on and on and on for such a long time in in such a samey manner that I, for one, started to glaze over and once that happens you disengage from what little story there is to hold your attention.
And after the third or fourth instance of characters you hold out some hope for being slaughtered in all sorts of inventive ways and ending up in ankle-deep pools of blood, you stop caring about them and simply let the festival of viscera wash over you. There’s an attempt to explain the creature and some of the other impenetrable plot points late in the piece but by then, they barely matter. In the end, the film relies more on blood as a lubricant to its story than actual storytelling and as a way of engaging its audience, that can only go so far. Hence my fence sitting at the outset. There may be a lot to like in this movie, but I suspect there’s not enough to please everyone.
Near the beginning of THE RETALIATORS (after a suitably grizzly prologue where two young women on a road trip make the classic mistake of turning down an isolated back road) , our hero - mild mannered, charming, devilishly handsome Pastor Bishop (a clear case of nominative determinism if ever there was one) relates to his congregation a parable about a woman seeking revenge against a man ‘who victimised her and escaped unpunished’. Bishop (Michael Lombardi) goes on to sermonise on how a sinner may escape man’s law but rest assured, they cannot escape God’s law. And don’t we just know that he’s going to have to eat those words by the end of the film.
Co-Directed by Samuel Gonzalez Jnr (Battle Scars, 2020) and Bridget Smith (Sno Babies, 2020) from a screenplay by first-time feature writers Darren Geare and brother Jeff Allen, The Retaliators is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill revenge thriller, and not just because of the horror elements it contains. It’s not just cardboard cutouts of characters and tired old tropes strung together to enable a raft of gory killings. Granted, there’s a bit of that in some parts, but mostly the Geare brothers have found some depth and dilemma in the circumstances they’ve handed their main character.
When we meet him buying a Christmas tree with his daughters Sarah (Katie Kelly) and Rebecca (Abbey Hafer) he confronts a man who appropriates the tree they’ve chosen and makes off with it as his own. When challenged, the man threatens violence and, true to his calling, Bishop practices forgiveness and demonstrates the kind of meekness that should inherit the Earth. But we soon learn that there’s more to this character than just the ‘cloth’. He’s a fan of violent, vengeful eighties action movies (the Bruce, Sly and Arnie kind) and dreams of owning a motorcycle, but never acts on his desire. His eldest daughter, Sarah rouses on him for these supposed inconsistencies, but Bishop just turns the other cheek.
All that changes, though, when Sarah finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and falls victim to the cold, sociopathic killer Ram Kady (Joseph Gatt). Now, the dilemma for Bishop is whether to practice what he literally preaches or invoke the code of his eighties action heroes and take matters into his own hands. Enter the inevitable cop, Detective Jed Sawyer (Marc Menchaca) who sees something of Bishop’s darker side and warns him off. Jed has his own backstory with serial killer Quinn Brady (Jacoby Shaddix) who he put away years ago, but whose sentence was cut unreasonably short. From here on, the film becomes difficult to talk about without giving away some pretty interesting twists, suffice to say there’s a well-worn path this story could follow but instead, like the young women at the start of the film, it takes a disturbing detour.
THE RETALIATORS is a movie of two quite distinctly different parts. For the first half or more, it’s very much a slow-burn character piece with malevolent undertones. But like any slow-burn fuse, it inevitably leads to an explosion and, in this case, it’s a stylistic shift to an extended, graphically violent and, at times, tongue-in-cheek finale. I suspect that some audiences will find this gear shift too much and wish for the more thoughtful aspects of the film to be played out to the end. Others may well have been impatient with the first half and very satisfied by that gear change. But this is a film that deserves an audience who can go on the whole journey. There’s a heightened edge throughout the first half that doesn’t quite make sense until the hyper-violence begins and then, if you’re willing to go with it, there’s much in the way of a payoff.
But a good screenplay and strong direction is only part of what makes this movie work. The casting is terrific. Lombardi has the hardest task, shifting from mild-mannered pastor to vengeful father in denial of all he believes in and he navigates the character's journey and the film’s stylistic shift with ease. He’s also backed up by some great performances from actors who’ve previously excelled on the small screen – Menchaca in Ozark and The Outsider and Gatt in Z-Nation and Lucky Man. There’s also a much-too-short cameo from Robert Knepper (the very memorable T-Bag in Prison Break) as Otto Kady, the head of a drug dealing biker gang family. But the special appearances don’t end there. If you’re a heavy metal fan, then the cameos just keep on rolling. In addition to Shaddix (Papa Roach) as Brady, watch out for Tommy Lee (Motley Crue) as a strip club DJ, Eva Marie (Eva Under Fire) as one of the two women in the prologue and Ivan Moody, Zoltan Bathory and Chris Kael (Five Finger Death Punch) as members of the biker gang (plus they perform in one scene) and listen out for more Motely Crue with the theme song 21 Bullets at the end of the film.
Whilst there are many good things to say about this film, it’s not without its weaknesses. There’s a bit of plot confusion around the biker gang story, a couple of convenient coincidences and one or two inconsequential B stories that clutter up the narrative. It also fails to capitalise on the great idea of Pastor Bishop’s love of eighties action movies. The touchstones are there in a limited way, but it feels like it could have gone all out with references to that era of action movies in its finale sequence. But on balance, THE RETALIATORS rises above these shortcomings to deliver a unique take on a tired old genre that is there to be enjoyed for its killer soundtrack and its ‘Easter eggs’ as much as for its well-crafted and well-performed storytelling. In a voice-over at the top of the film, Pastor Bishop asks us to consider how many sins committed by a good man will make him a bad man. In the end, we’re left wondering just how many bad men there are in the world that might be in need of a bit of revenge.
Laura (Christina Ricci) is a woman on the edge. As the story begins, she and her seven-year-old son Cody (Santino Barnard) arrive at a remote house in her immaculate teal station wagon. Her new landlords, Mr and Mrs Langtree (Don Baldaramos and Colleen Camp) are there to greet her. He takes a bit of a shine to Laura, but the missus has a bad feeling about her. Perhaps, we do too; if not exactly for her per se, but rather for her situation.
As we piece together her backstory, we get the sense that she’s fleeing an abusive relationship. She’s fearful each time the phone rings and when she does give in and answer it’s either her demanding mother (Nancy O’Fallon) or her remorseful and apologetic husband, begging her to tell him where she and the boy are and to give him another chance. What makes her situation even more precarious is that it’s the 1950s, and the incidence of women taking the kid and leaving their abusive husbands is not too common and not yet socially acceptable. Oh, and one more thing: their new house is right by a spooky looking pond that holds a dangerous fascination for Cody - along with a monster (Amy Beer in a sodden monster suit) that keeps turning up in the kid’s bedroom at night with the intention of luring him down the path and into the water. Or so it seems.
So far, so run-of-the-mill; except that it’s hard to shake the feeling that this very familiar, tropey set up is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not just Laura’s level of anxiety that’s heightened; the whole tone and atmosphere of this movie is a bit off kilter and way exaggerated, thanks to the real creative heroes of Monstrous, the design team including Production Designer Mars Feehery with Art Direction from Deprez and Ryan Martin, sets by Taylor Jean and Laura’s fabulous costumes by Morgan DeGroff. The iridescent colour palette and period objects, furniture and technology are perfect. But are they too perfect?
These things, together with a pretty good soundtrack of fifties songs and some good cinematography by Senda Bonnet create a nicely weird tone that underscores this movie. Add to that, some disturbing and difficult to decipher flashbacks and a vision or two of this perfect home in disarray along with the pond’s increasingly powerful pull on Cody and we’re pretty sure there’s something bad going on – but are these things premonitions or memories or something else entirely?
But don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a case of style over substance. There’s plenty to chew on in this film and I don’t mean the scenery. At its centre is a knockout performance by Ricci. She’s really the engine of the film navigating a fine line between parody and melodrama (the good kind!). Her anxiety is palpable and the smiling mask she creates to hide it is terrific. If, at times (like us), she seems as confused by some of what’s happening here, that only goes to increase the tension between what we see on the screen and what we don’t quite see on the screen. Her performance is well supported by Barnard as her son and well antagonised by Camp as the distrusting landlady. It’s a well-balanced dynamic that helps us trust that the cracks in the reality of the story will open up to us more fully by the time the credits roll.
Director, Chris Sivertson and screenwriter Carol Chrest seem to know what they’re doing with this film, and they build towards a twist that might not be shocking but, for me at least, was pretty satisfying. Looking at the tepid response by some other reviewers, I might be out here on my own, but I really went with this movie and was unperturbed by the way it tends to ignore the temptation to go full monster-horror in favour of something that is more intriguing and unsettling.
Sivertson is supposedly a fan of directors David Lynch, Brian de Palma and Alfred Hitchcock. You can see that in small measure in the film’s touches of Lynchian design and surrealism and attempts at de Palmesque suspense (that almost gets there but not quite) - but where he really shows his Hitchcockian colours is in the psychology of Laura, her mix of paranoia and panic and, of course, in the way he creates a highly effective McGuffin – the creature that emerges from the pond in pursuit of Cody fulfills the requirements of that device admirably. For those wanting the monster to be more monstrous, this film may be a disappointment. But for those open to a film that deals with how monstrous our emotions and anxieties can be, then this movie may be just the ticket.
Monstrous is available on DVD thanks to Eagle Entertainment on Oct 12, 2022.
Once you get your head around the idea that this first feature from screenwriter, producer, director Danny Villaneuva Jr is not a scarefest or gorefest or even a horrorfest, it’s easy to settle into this thoughtful, sombre and often melancholy take on grief, loss and the difficulty of letting go of those who are taken from us too soon.
I DREAM OF A PSYCHOPOMP is an anthology film comprising three individual episodes that are told through the device of an overarching or wraparound story about Kerry Reynosa (Elohim Peña) a young man who crashes his car into a lamppost on the way home from a celebration of the first anniversary of his wedding, killing his wife Evelyn (Kulani Kai). From the moment of her funeral, he begins to have vivid dreams of Evelyn in torment and starts hearing her voice from beyond the grave – or, as it happens, from beneath the freshly dug soil of her grave itself. Why? Because she is struggling with the process of leaving her life behind and entering the great beyond. Clearly, she’s in need of a psychopomp.
Psychopomp may sound like a word invented in the sixties but in fact it comes from the mythology of ancient Greece; a kind of spiritual guide to the afterlife, a handler who helps to orient the newly deceased into understanding what comes next. But in Kerry’s dream we see Evelyn, bathed in purple mist, repel the efforts of the psychopomp to assist – in fact, in this film, purple seems to be the Production Designer’s colour of choice for the spirit world of this psychopomp who also goes by the name of Charles (Steven Alonte). Charles believes that the manner in which Kerry is seeing and hearing his dead wife indicates that the widower has psychopomp potential and since his own attempts to help Evelyn have failed, he determines to enlist Kerry who, as he says, may be the only one who can help her. But Kerry is a novice to this game (and still, of course, well ensconced on the mortal coil). So, Charles offers three stories that might help him understand. And so, we have our anthology.
In episode one, Spellbound High Monster Hop, Caroline (Fiona Rose) is being teased by her friends over her hesitation in asking heartthrob crush Lonny (Easton Michaels) if he has a date for the dance. But something more than teen romance is going on here and the nicely shot fantasy dance sequence leads this story to a tragic conclusion that is subtle and foreboding rather than the kind of in-your-face approach it could have been.
In episode two, Answers, the comically named Carl Crimwood (Peter Knox) is in the custody of Detectives Scott Redmayne (Dan Davies) and Ashur Nassar (H. Adoni Esho) but what he’s being questioned about is not comical at all. Crimwood is a child abductor, and the cops are making no headway with getting him to say where the body of a missing boy can be found. Enter Deena Swann (N. Meridian) a kind of empath who the cops use to break suspects who wont talk. This is the strongest and most compelling of the three stories, building good tension between Swann and Crimwood as she draws out of him more than he wants to give. It also has the strongest ending that comes about after a twist that I doubt you’ll see coming.
Finally, in episode three, Until Forever, Adriano (Ben Shaul) is an immortal who suffers from ennui and is resentful of the gift of eternal life. He’s visited by a young girl, Elayna (Jillian Lebling) who has the opposite problem and is hoping that Adriano might be able to provide her with more life than circumstances have allowed her. It’s a clever story that, like the rest of the film, is more about the dilemma at its heart than it is about supernatural or horror tropes.
And that’s the strength of the storytelling in this film; it’s about drawing on the emotional content that surrounds death rather than cheap frights and monster suits. It’s more Twilight Zone than Tales From The Crypt. Its weakness, though, as is often the case with anthology films, is in the connecting tissue. The prompts for the stories are inconsistent, sometimes coming from Charles, the psychopomp himself, but other times coming from the encounters Kerry has with the people he meets in the cemetery where his wife is buried. (he seems to there a lot!) This means the film doesn’t always have a clear connection between the psychopomp and the three stories. And this extends in the reverse. As compelling as the stories are, it’s not always clear where the role of the psychopomp fits into them. In the end, it feels like the opportunity for the three stories to enhance the power of the wraparound story is missed.
Nevertheless, it’s a film well worth your time. It’s well cast and well acted and the production values and camerawork from a creative team who work across the four episodes is highly effective. Like all anthologies, some stories work better than others, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something to your taste here (unless, of course, you’re looking for mindless violence and a gory splatter movie). You’d also be hard pressed not to find something to think about in these stories.
I DREAM OF A PSYCHOPOMP is produced by How Bizarre Pictures which, itself, is the grown-up version of web channel How Bizarre which was developed by Villanueva as a way of distributing horror shorts, docos and cartoons. Obviously, this film is a step up for both his filmmaking career and his production company. Both seem well worth watching for where they go next.
I Dreamed of a Psychopomp is now available on the Terror Films YouTube channel.
Technically, this movie should have added an S to its Australian release title (in the States it was known as The Assignment) because there are really three revenge stories going on here. Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez with a fake beard and a pretty impressive prosthetic male body suit for the obligatory full frontal scene) is a low-life hitman who carries out a hit on spendthrift art collector and pinball aficionado, Sebastian Jane (Adrian Hough) who owed money to the mob. Unfortunately, Sebastian had a loving sister, Dr Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) who is a disgraced and de-registered plastic surgeon now running an illegal surgery providing medical procedures for homeless people who can’t afford them. But her services are not entirely altruistic, given she dabbles in a bit of ‘mad-scientist’ experimentation on the side.
The homeless people are supplied to her by Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) a small-time hood who, himself, has an axe to grind with Frank Kitchen due to another hit that happened to be on his cousin. So Honest John who is seeking revenge on Frank, delivers him to Dr Jane, who is also seeking revenge on Frank. Her revenge takes the form of an enforced gender reassignment for the spurious and generally ridiculous reason that he’ll become less violent if he’s no longer a man. So now Frank is a woman (say goodbye to the prosthetic and the fake beard) who, of course, is seeking revenge on whoever did this to her... or him.
Before going any further, I feel I should make the comment that in a time when sensitivities around the trans community are very present in the public mind and transphobia is a real issue, a story like this seems pretty tone deaf in the flippant way the subject of gender reassignment is treated. This isn’t the same as Humphrey Bogart unveiling a surgically altered face in Dark Passage (1947) or Nicholas Cage and John Travolta actually swapping faces in Face/Off (1997) and despite the inclusion of a token scene where post-surgery Frank consults a real doctor about reversing the procedure, seemingly in order for us to be told the strict protocols that exist around legitimate forms of gender reassignment, the screenwriters seem happy to assume that lip service (excuse the pun) to the issue is sufficient to allow them to use this idea more as a narrative gimmick than a crucial plot point.
Those screenwriters are Denis Hamil (Turk 182, 1985) and veteran writer, producer, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 1979 - 48Hrs, 1982 – Alien 3, 1992). Hill, who’s also the director, is well known for his sharp, gritty and often violent take on the crime genre, going all the way back to his seminal work as a screenwriter for Sam Peckinpah on the 1972 Steve McQueen classic The Getaway. Sadly, that grit is nowhere to be seen in this blunt return to the genre. Even the violence is gratuitous and oddly without much gore. It’s such a waste of talent, not just Hill’s but also his excellent cast. Not even a score by composer Giorgio Moroder (remember him from Cat People, Flashdance and Scarface in the 80s?) can lift the film.
But REVENGER has more problems than just its dubious use of the trans subject. The story is a bit of a mishmash of convoluted storylines and flashbacks, told from both the perspective of Frank (whose narration starts the film) as well as from the perspective of Dr Jane who delivers the bulk of the backstory. We meet her in a psychiatric facility, bound in a straight jacket and sitting across the table from Dr Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) whose job, it seems, is to share the clumsy delivery of exposition with her. There’s not a lot of logic at play here. Dr Jane, it seems, is a remarkably skilled plastic surgeon whose work is faultless and leaves no scarring (so she says). It also seems to require next to no recovery as the narrative timeline suggests that only a couple of weeks have passed since the surgery on Frank and yet here he/she is with no visible marks on the body, running around town shooting people and entering into a relationship of sorts with Johnnie (Caitlin Gerrard) who pre-surgery-Frank met as a hooker but who now seems to be a nurse who’s quite willing to provide shelter and more, whilst Frank puts her revenge plan together.
Despite the poor screenplay, some of Hill’s skill as a director still manages to shine through with stylish camerawork by James Liston and the use of screen wipes to shift timeframes in the storytelling. There’s also some nice use of ‘comic book’ style graphics to break up the scenes (a nod to the graphic novel version of this story that Hill produced with adapter Matz and illustrator Jeff). But none of that helps the story, nor does the restrictive way Shalhoub and Weaver are directed, spending almost the entire movie sitting at tables, which is far from conducive to good acting. In the end, it’s left to Rodriguez to do the heavy lifting and, for the most part, she’s enjoyable on-screen even if the film isn’t. But she’s got such a distinctive look that the gender shift doesn’t really work. For me, at least, it’s hard to buy her as a male character in the first part of the film. She just looks like she’s wearing a bad disguise. The impact of the change would have been much more effective if we’d really been able to believe the character of Frank as a man in the first act.
Overall, this film just doesn’t work on a number of different levels. It’s such a shame to see a great old-school writer/director of the calibre of Walter Hill turning out something that feels more like a movie-of-the-week. And not a very good one at that. Here’s hoping that he still has the creative juices somewhere in there to give us one more great, intelligently violent crime thriller to cap off his career... ‘cause this one certainly ain’t it.
‘Stranger Danger’ is the generation-spanning phrase children are all too familiar with, ingrained into their minds by worrisome adults. Never go anywhere with a stranger, never take a ride from a stranger, never accept gifts from a stranger - and so on.
Director Scott Derrickson, whose work ranges from terrifying scarefest Sinister to superhero outing Doctor Strange, essentially takes this sentiment and turns it up to an eleven with THE BLACK PHONE. The result is an unabashed old-school horror that also feels refreshing because of its simplicity.
It’s 1978 in New Denver and children are mysteriously disappearing, supposedly taken by a person only known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He poses as a magician, complete with white face paint, but instead of bunny rabbits and hats, black balloons fill the back of his van. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is constantly bullied at school and never has the courage to stand up for himself, unlike his fiery little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who always has his back. Their father is an abusive alcoholic, who whips his daughter at any mention of her potential psychic abilities. It’s only a matter of time before Finney is abducted by the sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement. On the wall is a black phone with a disconnected line, which strangely starts ringing. When Finney answers, he hears the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, who are also Finney’s best chance at getting out alive.
THE BLACK PHONE is the latest to join shows and films like Stranger Things in paying homage to the period in which it is set and the popular culture of that time (it’s interesting to note the film is based on a short story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, and the It parallels are certainly evident). Not particularly elevated or metaphorical, the movie draws upon the time-honoured elements of traditional horror from the 70s and 80s - a small town, kids, ghosts, a psychotic killer and good old-fashioned scares.
Derrickson absolutely nails his nostalgic 70s setting, thanks to authentic production design, costuming (one word: flares), story elements (kidnappers, child psychics) and a solid amount of needle drops. While the film falls more into the thriller category, and may not disturb in the same way Sinister did, the director knows how to fashion a solid fright. A lot of this is thanks to Ethan Hawke’s unhinged performance as The Grabber - a mysterious figure who is unnerving in both appearance and presence, whether it’s his Joker-smile-inspired mask or unpredictable nature. Derrickson has fun with the supernatural elements and manages to throw in some effective jump scares that don’t feel cheap.
While Hawke is the big bad looming over the film, it’s the child performers that steal the show. Mason Thames plays young Finney with maturity and sensitivity, creating earnest vulnerability and garnering the audience’s emotional investment in his survival. Madeleine McGraw as Gwen is a firecracker of a presence on screen. She is the heart of the film, along with her relationship with Finney.
While the film gives audiences plenty to chew on, one can’t help but feel left wanting more, especially when it comes to Hawke’s Grabber. Sure, he’s a scary guy with a few screws loose, but the story never quite delves into why he does what he does. Some form of backstory or motive would have been a nice touch here. When the Grabber’s brother Max (James Ransone) is introduced, it seems like the perfect opportunity to flesh out and give context to the antagonist, but instead, Max feels out of place and doesn’t add any new ground to the story.
Nevertheless, THE BLACK PHONE is a thrilling ride that manages to inject new life into an arguably tired genre. This is thanks to Scott’s suspenseful direction, confident child performances, Hawke’s presence and an emotionally compelling story.
You can read Glenn's review of The Black Phone here.
Mixing science fiction into traditionally non-science fiction genres can be a tricky thing to make work as Jon Favreau discovered with Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and even Steven Spielberg discovered with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). So, kudos to the writing and directing partnership of Lexie Findarle Trivundza and Nick Trivundza (The West and the Ruthless, 2017) for giving it a red hot go by mashing together the 80’s action-adventure genre with a good dose of sci-fi-time-travel tropes in their second film, the comically titled Danger! Danger!. It may not be an entirely successful effort, but it’s a lot of fun watching them try to pull it off.
The film begins with a killer opening shot. We’re looking at a wide-angle of a rugged landscape on an island that a title card tells us is twenty miles off the coast of Africa in the year 1985. Suddenly, BAM! our hero, Jonathan (Benedict Mazurak) sits up into the tight foreground of the frame with a look of astonishment on his face. He seems as confused as we are as to what he’s doing here and why. He’s even more confused (as are we) about how and why he’s been skewered by a tree branch. The camera pulls back to reveal his rumpled parachute and the branch at least, if nothing else, now makes sense.
So, why has he parachuted onto this seemingly deserted island? Well, for a start, it’s not all that deserted. It’s occupied by Russian forces led, inexplicably, by Ella Fritz (Alexandra Keller) a throwback German Nazi who never got over the Third Reich losing the war (even though the war ended forty years ago and she’s clearly not that old). Jonathan stumbles into their camp where he spots a crate stencilled with the words Danger! Danger!. We never find out what’s in the crate, but this gives Jonathan the prompt, when interrogated by Ella, to invent his cover name – now he’s Jonathan Danger!
And then, in a flash (as they used to say in the classics) he escapes the clutches of the Soviet-cum-Nazi villains, only to run into Jade Calloway (Angela Smeraldi) and her kooky brother Jungle Jim (Paul Haapaniemi) who is convinced that our hero is a Russian spy. Seems as though everyone here is looking for the same thing – an ancient temple that, in reality (if you can use that word for a story like this) might just be a hidden time machine from the future. By now, you’re probably getting the idea that this movie has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and that being set in 1985 is no accident – the 80’s is the era of movies it wants to pay homage to; Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies and all the rest of those action adventures that both thrilled us and tickled our funny bones at the same time.
The problem is that after such a terrific set up, the action stalls and the characters tend to talk about these movies rather than referencing them in more physical and visual ways. There are too many scenes of characters sitting or standing around talking to each other in exposition and backstory rather than getting on with it by doing stuff. You know what they say, show don’t tell. Well, after such a showy start, the film settles into too much telling.
It’s ironic, then, that there are some key bits of information we’re not told. We know that Jonathan is here to find the time machine and travel three years into the past to avert a tragic event that happened to him. But we never find out who he really is, nor do we find out how he knows about the time machine or how he managed to get here in the first place. The same goes for Jade and Jungle Jim. There’s a flimsy explanation about having five years' worth of Lotto numbers and going into the past to make their fortune, but how do they know about the time machine and the local tribes who created the temple that hides it and the religion it inspired? It’s not even clear how the bad guys know about it, other than a suggestion that the time machine was (or will be) a joint Soviet- American project... but that’s all in the future so it still doesn’t quite gel. Ella does try and explain that she’s hoping to go back and prevent the Soviets from dividing her city with the Berlin Wall. (If she’d just wait another four years the thing would come down anyway).
Of course, in funny, silly movies like this, you can get away with the occasional plot hole big enough to drive a Panza tank through, but the basics of the story, the motivations of the characters and the film’s internal logic about the existence of time travel are fundamentals that we should be freed from wondering about so that we can enjoy the ride.
Nevertheless, there are some strong performances here. Mazurek is perfectly cast as our adventure hero who is just doofussy enough to make us laugh (and sometimes cheer) and Smeraldi works well as both his possible rival and potential love interest. Keller, on the other hand, is not quite evil enough in her villainy and Haapeniemi is a little too over the top in his role as the jokey, third wheel brother (think John Hannah in the 1999 version of The Mummy, but dialled up to eleven).
There are other great elements like the cinematography by Santiago Bahti which makes the most the visual potential of the film’s location in the beautiful Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles in California (a bit more than twenty miles off the coast of Africa) and the film’s music has as much drama, if not more than the narrative itself – not so much a score written for the film, as music sourced from pre-existing works the majority of which are composed by Graham Plowman with fantastically evocative titles like Escape Through the Asteroid Field, Rebel Assault, Shadow of the Death Star and Space Wars. Despite its clear association, Plowman’s music is more redolent of the movie serials of the thirties and forties than with space operas like the Star Wars franchise, and that’s just perfect for this movie (another nod to Indiana Jones?).
Danger! Danger! Is a romp, and deliberately so. Despite its shortcomings, there’s a lot to enjoy about it, but it’s a frustration that those shortcomings weren’t addressed at the script level in order to elevate the whole venture into something that could prove you can mix sci-fi in with action-adventure and make it work.
P.S. Stick around after the credits for a behind-the-scenes look at some of what goes on during the making of a low-budget movie like this, hosted in selfie-mode by the star, Benedict Mazurek.
Danger, Danger! is available on DVD via Eagle Entertainment.
Supposedly based on a true story about the first American born drug lord to operate out of Mexico, American Sicario opens with Erik Vasquez (Philippe A Haddad) - drug lord to be - working for the Feliz Family - Roberto (Maurice Compte) and his brother Juan (Johnny Rey Diaz) - ensuring the safe passage of their drugs across the border into the USA. But Erik has bigger plans than being stuck as a henchman his whole life and, against the objections of Juan, convinces Roberto that he can double the quantity of their drugs being trafficked through a part of the border where the Drug Enforcement Agency is nowhere to be seen. Wrong! The DEA, in the guise of Agent Monica Wells (Maya Stojan) is on to Erik and are determined to make him play piggy in the middle.
But Erik figures he’s smart enough and determined enough to play both sides at the same time and moves ahead with his plans to take over the Feliz Family operations. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or should I say hacienda?) Erik’s girlfriend, Gloria (Cali Morales) is pregnant, and her father Pedro (Danny Trejo) has decided to come and stay for the birth of his grandchild. The only trouble is, Erik and Pedro don’t exactly see eye to eye. Throw in some of the local Mexican constabulary who are showing an interest in Erik, the suggestion of disloyalty within Erik’s own crew and a whole lot of guns in the hands of everyone including Gloria, and you begin to see just how many ingredients make up this volatile recipe that is threatening to boil over at every turn.
Sicario is the Spanish word for assassin or hitman which doesn’t really apply to Erik, although, throughout the film, he does manage to amass a pretty impressive body count. But he’s not really a hit man so the title seems a bit out of place. For most movie goers, the word is associated with Denis Villeneuve’s very good 2015 movie that uses that title, or with Stefano Sollima’s lesser 2018 sequel (but probably not with the Venezuelan Sicario made in 1994 by Joseph Noboa). For me, the title American Sicario brought Villeneuve’s film to mind and as odious as comparisons are, this film is not in the same league as it; the writing, the direction and the performances – all solid in their own way – simply don’t have the complexity that the title evokes and certainly doesn’t have the same scale of budget. But to be fair, one should take a film on its own terms and in that sense, there’s still a lot to like about it.
First time feature film director R.J Collins and horror/thriller/action screenwriter Rich Ronat (While We Sleep) deliver some compelling character dilemmas and some engaging action sequences although the narrative generally offers nothing we haven’t seen before. Haddad (whose previous experience is mostly television and short films) is a real presence on the screen; he’s a big guy with a gregarious personality so the violence that erupts within him often takes up by surprise. His performance is nicely counterpointed by Compte as his ‘frenemy’ Roberto whose outbursts of violence come as no surprise at all.
Morales as Erik’s girlfriend Gloria is also very watchable, moving easily from affectionate lover to hard-arsed, no-nonsense killer, finding a really entertaining, compelling ambiguity that lets her stand on her own two feet in a film where the women (especially DEA Agent Wells) are scarce and mostly undeveloped. But none of them have the depth of character development to elevate them from the same sorts of cyphers that we always find in this kind of movie.
The real disappointment, though, is Danny Trejo who is mostly wasted on the sidelines of the story. For a good two thirds of the movie, we’re itching for him to get up from the table and cut loose with a bit of good old Machete action but, sadly, even when he answers the call to action his character Pedro is unremarkable in the way he lends his trigger finger to Erik and the other good-bad-guys’ in their fight with the bad-good-guys and the bad-bad-guys. It’s hard not to see this kind of casting as serving the marketing campaign more than the character and the narrative of the film.
Where the story runs aground is in the tail end of the third act. No spoilers here, but there’s a marked shift in the tone and pace of the film that, far from delivering the kind of final scenes we might be hoping for, ends not with a bang but a whimper. At this point it might have the potential to pull a tragedy out of its sleeve but, unfortunately, there’s no such luck. If, indeed, this is based on a true story, maybe the end remains faithful to that truth at the expense of the drama. Nevertheless, despite its third act problems, the film has a stylish look and Collins finds a real energy in many of the action sequences which are mostly well staged.
It’s nicely shot by cinematographer Pascal Combes-Knoke and Scott Adderton’s editing gives the film a good pace and some nice narrative counterpoints. It’s not a film that will change the genre and, allowing for its struggle to get out from under the idea that it’s a ‘Sicario’ movie, or its strong themes of family and loyalty that too often end up feeling like pale echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), it’s an entertaining and sometimes fun hundred and one minutes that hopefully won’t have you reaching for the remote.
2022 | DIR: VIKTOR GLUKHUSHIN & MAKSIM VOLKKOV | STARRING: PAULY SHORE, HAYLIE DUFF, JON HEDER | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
MY SWEET MONSTER is an all-new animated feature film from Russia, which comes to us with an English-speaking cast including comedy favourite Pauly Shore (Encino Man), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Haylie Duff (also Napoleon Dynamite).
If ever there were an appropriate application to the word 'fantasy' this is it. Nothing on the screen makes practical sense, and yet the creators have crammed together an assortment of ideas into a jar, proverbially shaken it up, and spilled the strangely absorbing contents into our laps. Most of the characters dress from the Victorian era, while some get around on 1950's motorcycles, and others use futuristic drone technology. Robots serve on royals like a bizarre steam-punk-inspired fable, and mythical creatures roam the forests. All in the service of a fun family movie.
Princess Barbara (Duff) is tricked into an arranged marriage to an arrogant and evil postal worker named Bundy (Shore), who has cast the king under his spell (yeah, just go with it), and when the wedding is thrust upon her without warning, she leaps onto her horse and rides away into the woods. There she meets up with an odd beast named Boogey (Heder), whose appearance is that of various combined creatures (in other words, he looks like a pre-schooler's drawing of a monster). Think Shrek meets Wreck it Ralph, with a touch of Disney's Beast. He is the King of the Forest and protects all of the creatures within it, and with his help – and a cute bunny named Rabbit – Princess Barabara sets about freeing her father from Bundy's control and reclaiming the kingdom.
It's all very convoluted and difficult to explain, but for all of its oddities, MY SWEET MONSTER works rather well. It certainly takes many cues from American films, like Shrek and Hoodwinked, but it also has a charm of its own. The characters are unusual, and the crockpot of aesthetics makes for a surreal experience, while the English-speaking cast of voices do a surprisingly good job of it. Pauly Shore invests a lot of energy into bringing the villainous Bundy to life, and he contorts his voice in some weird and wonderful ways.
Perhaps the most charming quality of the movie is the music, of which there is plenty. The songs are catchy, and in stark contrast to the bigger Hollywood animated films, the actors sing with all of their patchy, almost tone-deaf sincerity. Pauly Shore is particularly delightful, applying his trademark 'Weasel' voice to several songs, including a fantastic hip-hop-inspired number called Live Life to the Fullest.
MY SWEET MONSTER may not be a big-budget razzle and dazzle like its Hollywood contemporaries, but it is a sweet and inspired extravaganza of its own, which makes for fun family entertainment during the school holidays.
Now playing in selected cinemas.
Have you ever been to a horror house and wondered if the dripping blood was real? Or maybe that skull was the first employee to have slacked off. Writer/director Jon Binkowski ponders those questions and makes them a reality in SCARE ZONE.
Just as new employee Daryl (Burns), starts working at Oliver’s (Needham) horror house, Scare Zone, the employees of the venue go missing one by one, with a sinister figure lurking behind every corner. Is it a part of the show or something more disturbing?
SCARE ZONE is a nostalgic romp, harking back to teen movies of the noughties, such as American Pie and Van Wilder, where teenagers partied hard and awkwardly navigated their way into adulthood. The movie provides this and more, with a murder mystery plot that is fast-paced, creative and engaging to the end.
The aforementioned mystery component of the film is a fun motif despite its predictability, and the various red herrings are also amusing nevertheless. The noughties tropes are also a welcome ingredient, with frat-boys, ditzy girls, goth chicks and geeks offering a throwback for a specific generation who wreaked havoc during the early 2000s.
The music offers more appeal with its distinct alternative stylings, providing an effective soundscape to underpin the horror. Furthermore, Binkowski has created a film with solid production value, filmed on the Universal Horror House lot, with impressive practical special effects.
One issue with the film, however, involves character subtext that comes across as intentionally provocative, and perhaps insensitive to some vulnerable viewers. And without revealing any spoilers, the story leans on depression and mental illness as a motive for various criminal acts.
While it could be argued that the finale is rushed, the film does offer a rewarding payoff with a cheeky final twist that will have some viewers kicking themselves for succumbing to many of the red herrings.
Suffice to say that SCARE ZONE is a well-paced horror that should keep viewers on their toes. It's chock-full of laughs, jump-scared and plenty of kills. The story is creative and clever and is well worth a look. Available on the Tubi streaming service.
Note: Scare Zone's worldwide release is 2022, however its production dates back to 2009.
The ever-glittering creative colossal that is Baz Luhrmann, emanates his newest instalment, simply titled ELVIS, and is there really any need for more? Elvis, the legend, can hold a movie on his name alone, so how do you match his grandeur and status? Ask Baz Luhrmann.
Like being slapped and having glitter thrown in your face, ELVIS begins laying down its rules fast. The cinematography is like being whisked through the tornado with Dorothy, and while it does thematically make sense, in the beginning, it is so fast-paced and jarring that it's hard to know where Elvis’s story began. Similar to the styling of Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet (1996), its fast-paced and edgy visual storytelling adds to the drama and the heightened reality of Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Luhrmann is an auteur; he has a specific aesthetic and theatrical style of filmmaking, which wouldn’t ordinarily lend itself to some stories. However, for ELVIS he chose a comic book theme that portrays Colonel Tom Parker as the evil villain, and Elvis as the tragic hero. While it may not be accurate to how he was in real life, Tom Hanks played the villain archetype very well.
Austin Butler is incredible, and he carries this movie. He is so captivating, but also so… Elvis. Not in the way that he accurately depicted Elvis, but in the way that Elvis’s legacy is portrayed visually. While watching this, you will be transfixed and engaged until the very last scene, and Butler’s performance shone through Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s theatrical and colourful production design. I felt myself looking at Elvis like those girls were in the movie (without the involuntary squealing).
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music and soundtrack of the film. I was expecting it to be solely Elvis songs, but Elliot Wheeler modernises a majority of the soundtrack, particularly the blues music which influenced Elvis and informed his own sound. Luhrmann’s appreciation for blues music is also commendable and he utilises it effectively, marrying the classic and contemporary sounds perfectly, making ELVIS one of his best to date.
The story is heartfelt, exciting, and sexy. It does what should be done for such an icon in music. The flamboyant and unapologetic depiction of both Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker make ELVIS a cinematic experience. This is what cinema means to me. Luhrmann tells the story of Elvis the legend, whose star was brighter than life itself.
Two years ago, the world was shaken by the racially-charged murder of George Floyd. There was a revolutionary and visceral reaction to the injustice, but it was not the first time something like this had occurred. Institutionalised racism has obviously suffocated the United States of America throughout its history, and even though society pretends it’s something of the past, it clearly isn’t. There’s nothing more terrifying than how prominent unprovoked racist attacks are in the twenty-first century. Another horrific tragedy, similar to that of Floyd, occurred in 2011. THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN is the dramatic retelling of this story.
From executive producer Morgan Freeman, the film, told in real-time and based on audio recordings, chronicles the events leading up to the death of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr (Frankie Faison), an African-American man. Chamberlain is seventy years old, a former marine, and suffers from bipolar disorder as well as a heart condition. At 5.20am, Kenneth accidentally triggers his medical alarm while half-asleep, and three police officers are dispatched to check on him. Chamberlain is confused by their presence, as he didn’t mean to set off the alarm, and is afraid because of previous negative experiences with police. He insists there is no emergency, but the police won’t back down. By 7.00am, Chamberlain is dead.
The film is a brutal and difficult watch, but that is, by all means, the intention. It wants to anger and disturb its audience, which it succeeds in doing. What is so evident here is the helplessness of Chamberlain and the pure hatred and ego of the police. The three officers, Parks (Steve O’Connell), Jackson (Ben Marten) and Rossi (Enrico Natale), all have a part to play. Although Jackson is more overt with his bigotry, good-cop Rossi is overwhelmed by the power of his superiors, despite any good intentions.
From the get-go, it is evident that Chamberlain poses no threat. He is a confused and sick old man who just wants to be left in peace. The police clearly have their own preconceptions about people like Kenneth, made known when they comment on his run-down apartment building and the illegal activities he may be involved in. Their attitudes and power-trip push them to use excessive force against the harmless Chamberlain, to a point where it never should have gotten. What is also frightening is that Chamberlain isn’t alone. For a majority of the runtime, he is on the phone with the dispatcher from the medical company, as well as taking calls from concerned family. Outside in the stairwell, there are witnesses trying to negotiate with the police, including Chamberlain’s niece. Even united, they have no power over the police - or the system.
Faison is a veteran character actor and has been in the game for years and this is a career-defining moment for him. He is masterful as he expertly portrays Chamberlain’s spiral into confusion and disorientation, anger through his bulging bloodshot eyes, and fear with his quivering voice. He uses his physicality to effortlessly switch between a vulnerable old man and ex-marine father, composing himself as he assures his children that he’s okay.
Director David Midell may not have had a blockbuster budget, but it works in his favour. The single location instils tense claustrophobia, the handheld camera reiterates the chaos of the situation, and the tight runtime allows for events to unfold in real-time, which results in authentic storytelling. However, particularly during the film’s more climactic moments, the score becomes loud and overbearing to a point where it’s distracting. It’s not needed, as the other technical elements and performances are already doing a fine job of making our hearts pound.
THE KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN is an uncomfortable watch, and audiences will be grateful for the film’s taut runtime. The film showcases a powerful lead performance and serves as an irrefutable condemnation of police brutality.
Lunana is a remote village in Bhutan, a small country in the Eastern Himalayas. It is also the most remote village in the world, sitting at an altitude of 4,800 metres and a tiny population of 56. With solar panels as the only source of power, no connection to the outside world, and a heavy reliance on mother nature itself to survive, there is certainly nothing glamorous about the place. It is also the setting of Bhutan’s first Academy Award-nominated feature film, LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM.
Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) lives in the capital city of Bhutan with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom), and has a contract as a teacher working for the government. However, he is unmotivated in his profession and dreams of obtaining a visa to go to Australia and become a singer. Before he is able to do that, his government employers send him to Lunana to complete his teaching contract. This is no easy adjustment for Ugyen, who lives a Westernised and modern life in the city. Only accessible by horse and foot, the trek up to the village takes eight days and is physically gruelling. Ugyen is completely out of his element, with no wi-fi or electricity, limited supplies and a tiny classroom that doesn’t even have a blackboard.
Ugyen finds himself wanting to quit and go home, but the kind-hearted villagers welcome him with open arms, and the children are more than eager to learn - even knocking on his door when he doesn’t show up to class on time. Ugyen’s cynical and narrow-minded attitudes are challenged when he connects with his students and learns about their hardships. He begins to embrace and admire the spirituality of the villagers, and understand the importance of what he’s doing.
The film moves at a slow and steady pace in a way that is almost peaceful. Much like Ugyen, the audience is able to escape the rush and chaos of mainstream life, taking a moment to be still. Director Pawo Choyning Dorji has crafted a meditative experience, particularly through the film’s breathtaking cinematography. Actually shot in Lunana, the sweeping mountains, rich greenery and wispy clouds almost touching the ground are a sight to behold. Music also plays a key part in the film and adds to this sentiment, as Ugyen learns a traditional song from the village and connects with his students through the medium.
Through the protagonist’s struggles, Dorji is able to highlight the difference between city and rural life. As a result, there are some timely and touching messages about the beauty of slowing down and connecting to nature and spirituality. The villagers, particularly the children, are humbling to watch due to their resourcefulness and gratitude. It’s always satisfying to see a story that demonstrates the power of education and learning, and how so many young people take it for granted. What’s also astounding is the villagers in the film are real life highlanders. They had never acted, seen a movie or camera, or even used toothpaste - which they are taught to do in one particular scene.
As mentioned, the film was shot in the real-life remote village, which is another impressive feat within itself. Getting equipment and a whole crew up to that altitude certainly wouldn’t have been a walk in the park, as well as making a feature film with limited resources and no electricity.
LUNANA is an extraordinarily simple film, which also may be its downfall. While there’s a lot to admire and the relaxed pace suits the themes present, it’s not always enough to hold the audience’s attention. The film does what it intends to do, but never feels like it goes above and beyond, which is what it needs to leave a lasting emotional impact. Some more definitive conflict and turning points, especially with our main character, could have made this something really special and more memorable.
LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM is a sweet film with good intentions. However, rather than its plot, viewers will be touched by the window into a little-known culture and the fantastical wonder of Bhutan’s natural beauty.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now playing in selected cinemas.
For fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the notorious Piranha Brothers (Doug and Dinsdale) and their penchant for being cruel but fair in their practice of nailing their rivals’ heads to the coffee table were an instant and memorable hit when they were introduced to the world in episode one of the comedy show’s second season (1970). Of course, the characters were thinly veiled parodies of the real-life 50’s and 60’s East End criminals; identical twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who were nowhere near as funny as the Python sketch. The mythology of their sociopathic, violent exploits that characterised their careers is well known but not necessarily understood, at least if you believe what Richard John Taylor’s documentary, The Krays: Gangsters Behind Bars has to say.
Centred around one long interview with occasional actor, YouTuber, podcaster and number one fan of Newcastle United, Steve Wraith, the doco offers a kind of side-view of the Krays that tempers the more commonly told and brutal story with an insider’s eye to the more human side of their lives. Revealing that they loved their mum, that they wouldn’t stand for or commit profanity in the presence of women and that they were more than willing to lend their notoriety to charity events for underprivileged children might sound like I’m still talking about the Pythons’ take on the twins, but that’s the story Steve Wraith has to tell, and it’s backed up by several other figures from their life and times.
As a high school kid struggling in English, Steve Wraith’s teacher allowed him to choose a book that appealed to him, rather than one from the curriculum. He chose a book on the Kray Brothers and that set him on a path that eventually resulted in a friendship with both Reggie and Ronnie, already incarcerated in separate prisons – first meeting Reggie in Maidstone Prison and then Ronnie in Broadmoor Prison Hospital where he was classified as insane. Later Steve also befriended the third brother, Charlie who was a mover and shaker on the outside (but also ended up in prison sometime later). As Steve unfolds his tale of many years of friendship with the Krays – not always amicable - we meet other figures who corroborate and extend the story he tells. These are geezers who often feel like they could be from the cast of an early Guy Ritchie film (although, it’s more likely that they’re the ones who gave Ritchie the idea). There’s also Maureen Flanagan, former page-three girl, once touted as the most photographed model in Britain (and, curiously, who made many BBC TV comedy appearances including Monty Python!). Now eighty, Flanagan’s entre to the Kray’s world was as the twin’s mother Violet’s hairdresser. She soon became close to all three boys and it’s her recollections that portray them as gentlemen with a kinder side to the cruelty and violence they are mostly defined by.
The most entertaining talking head, though, is former Kray’s enforcer and close confident, Dave Courtney who with his bling and big cigar looks like a Soprano’s henchman. He’s the one who, when Ronnie died in 1995, stood vigil in the funeral home to make sure that rivals with long held grudges didn’t desecrate the body. Courtney doesn’t mince words and it’s his perspective that puts forward the idea that the Krays were of their time – a time before the internet and mobile phones and ubiquitous surveillance. He’s pretty clear that crims like them wouldn’t survive for five minutes in the contemporary world. As he says, with the utmost affection, they were just a couple of dickheads.
The strong message that comes through from all these testimonials is, essentially, that crime doesn’t pay; that your infamous reputation and celebrity might live on, but it’s at the cost of living your life. These are voices of the Kray’s friends and acquaintances, hard men who’ve been inside or are still, inside. Perhaps the most poignant of these is the voice that begins and ends the documentary – Charles Bronson, supposedly Britain’s most violent and most notorious criminal (who was memorably played by Tom Hardy in Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2009 film of Bronson’s life). His appearance (plastered all over the promotional material as a key selling point) is audio only, but his soft-spoken memories of the Krays portray, if true, sincere friendship between men who are rarely thought of as being friendly.
Visually, this doco is unremarkable. It’s mostly static talking heads with many ‘filler’ images used more than once with gives the film a repetitive feel. There’s some good imagery of all three of the Kray boys but the film would benefit from a wider variety of archival footage. There is also a sense that some of the talking heads could be more tightly edited to build a stronger overall dynamic. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend this film which, in the end, succeeds off the back of those colourful and compelling characters who were part of the Kray’s world and lived to tell the tales.
Well, I didn’t expect that!
I must confess that Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) never really did it for me. Unlike most of the rest of the world, I didn’t get off on the high-octane, testosterone-fuelled showcase for military hardware and beefcake. I struggled to find a coherent narrative that made sense, beyond the macho competitiveness between thinly drawn characters and the over-emphasis on the ’need for speed’ (although I will concede that the aerial photography and stunt flying was pretty impressive). And that song? Don’t get me started!
That’s why, when the trailer first came out for Top Gun: Maverick (was that really in 2019?) it was not high on my list of ‘must-see-must-review’ films for that year. Consequently, the five pandemic-postponements over the next three years were less of a disappointment to me and more of delaying of the inevitable: I mean, you have to see it, don’t you. So, with my mind prised open and my subjective, judgemental bias checked at the ticket box, me and my objectivity, along with some popcorn and a choc top, entered the cinema and took our seat. Wow!
I was so engrossed in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, that it took me that long to realise how much I was already enjoying the ride. It begins with a good old-fashioned action-thriller sequence of Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), better known as ‘Maverick’, putting his courage, tenacity and self-belief (not to mention his physical safety) on the line to prove a point to the hard-nosed, stick-in-the-mud military whose not-so-hidden agendas are getting in the way of what Maverick and his team have set out to prove... that they can fly a new experimental plane really, really fast. It’s a classic set up and reminds us that, like Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Ramu test in Star Trek (old, re-booted and recent editions), there’s always a human element that can’t be factored into the establishment’s formulaic parameters.
After getting chewed out for this stunt by Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris) Maverick seems destined to be grounded for good until Hammer is overruled by his superior – Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer) who has a sensitive top security mission that needs a hot shot pilot. But, no, Maverick isn’t that pilot. He’s heading back to NAS North Island in San Diego (better known to fans as Top Gun School) where his mission isn’t to fly the mission; it’s to train a handful of the top Top Gun graduates (the best of the best) so that they can fly the mission. And guess who’s in that elite group? None other than Lieutenant Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) whose death in Top Gun (sorry for the spoiler) provides one of the few genuinely emotional scenes in the original film and sets up the underlying emotional gravitas that fuels much of this one. Top Gun: Maverick is one of those movie conundrums where, for me at least, the sequel is a far better film than the original but only because of the way it makes use of character and narrative elements from its predecessor. And that points to the screenplay. It’s a cracker.
Obviously, our hero and a couple of other characters along with key backstory elements belong to the originators, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. But there’s a new writing team which includes Ehern Kruger (writer of some not-great movies like Ghost in the Shell, Dumbo and three of the Transformers franchise), Eric Warren Singer (writer of some pretty good movies like The International and American Hustle) and maybe most importantly, Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, as well as several films with Cruise including a few Mission Impossibles, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow and –, dare I say it – The Mummy) all working from a story by Peter Craig (writer of some very good films like The Town and The Batman) and Justin Marks (creator of the very good TV series Counterpart).
Sometimes a litany of screenwriters is a red flag for trouble ahead, but in this case the mix seems to work. Our new team of ‘top guns’ is more diverse, more developed and more interesting than the original gang, and the dynamic they create on the ground, in the air and off-duty is compelling and highly engaging. In addition to Rooster, the new crew includes feisty, gutsy ‘Phoenix’ (Monica Barbaro) egotistic, loudmouth ‘Hangman’ (an excellent performance by Glen Powell) and endearing, hapless, funny ‘Bob’ (Lewis Pullman – Bill’s little boy). These new characters work well both individually and as a group; they are competing with each other but simultaneously have each other’s backs. Plus there’s a bit of depth to them which always helps.
There’s also the neat trick of a new ‘former’ love interest, bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray) who are written in a way that makes you believe the relationship between Maverick and Penny must have existed in the previous film, even though it doesn’t. As with most of the narrative undertone of this film, this is more than a two-dimensional pit stop between stunts and volleyball games; there’s something deeper going on with these two characters that carves out some space for Penny to be a more believable character than Kelly McGillis’s Charlie Blackwood in the first film, and elevates both the new film, and Maverick’s story. And speaking of volleyball games, there’s a nice nod to that famous scene with a game of touch football on the beach but again, it's there for the narrative and for the character, not just for the eye-candy.
Even the unexpected narrative detour at the end of the third act where the film suddenly feels like its veered off into Alastair MacLean territory, still works despite it implausibility.
But, for me, the most affecting scene in the film is between Maverick, the hot shot who just couldn’t conform and bucked the system in a way that denied him the career advancement he might have been due, and Iceman, the hot shot rival who found a friend in his competitor but who also found a way to channel his ambition into a path that led him to a top-ranking Admiral’s job. But like Kilmer himself, Admiral ‘Iceman’ is sick and can only speak with Maverick via a computer screen. (if you don’t know the story of Val Kilmer’s career-ending illness, then watch the excellent doco Val, directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott streaming on Prime). Seeing Kilmer on screen again, sick as he might be, is a highlight of the film and cements the bond that lies between the original and sequel whilst demonstrating the brilliance of the way a far superior story has been crafted from the bones of lesser work.
And then, of course, there’s Tom himself. Love him or hate him, there is no disputing that Tom Cruise is one of a small handful of old-school Hollywood movie stars and in this film, he’s in the sweet spot of that role. It’s thirty-six years since the original Top Gun and Cruise is still front and centre of the frame when it counts on making the action seem real. He’s always been one for doing his own stunts, especially when it comes to vehicles, and with Top Gun: Maverick, he shows little or no sign of slowing down. Granted, he wasn’t actually allowed to fly the F/A18 Super Hornets (they cost about $67.4 million bucks each) but he comes as close to that as he can. Those planes are two-seaters, one behind the other, so Tom’s not actually up front (that’s where the real pilot is), he’s in the second seat, shot over the real pilot’s shoulder to make it look like the real thing. But his pretend-flying is still taking place at those unbelievable speeds and g-forces. The result is it looks like the real thing because it’s as close to the real thing as movie-making can get and in the era of CGI that’s something to be admired... plus it pays off.
But as a counterpoint to these show-off moments of old-guy-physical-prowess, Cruise seems not to feel the need to dominate the screen the whole time. Yes, it’s hard not to be drawn to him when he’s in the scene (and he's in almost every scene in this movie) but in this older version of Maverick, he’s a bit more sanguine than he was as a young man and, in a similar way, Cruise seems willing to make space in the narrative and on the screen to allow others to be seen in their own right. It’s something that makes an obvious ‘star vehicle’ often feel like an ensemble piece.
Of course, there are still weaknesses in the film. Jon Hamm is mostly wasted as Maverick’s superior officer Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson. He’s the most two-dimensional character in the film, barking orders and standing scowling in the background for no apparent reason. And Miles Teller, who is so good as Al Ruddy in the current Paramount+ series The Offer, just doesn’t seem quite right here. Yes, there are spooky moments where Rooster looks the dead spit of his dad, Goose, but Teller’s overall performance seems to be missing something in the way his anger at Maverick for the death of his father and for the way he interfered in his career is played. Instead, there’s an aloofness in the way his emotion is expressed that doesn’t quite connect with the power of the rest of the storytelling.
These things aside, Top Gun: Maverick is a great movie (I can’t believe I said that) and deserving of the squillions of box office dollars it’s been generating around the world. Hats off to director Joseph Kosinsky for pulling this massive, trepidatious project together. He’d already proved himself adept at working with Cruise in 2013’s Oblivion and that pre-existing relationship seems to work a treat here. Maybe Top Gun: Maverick is even good enough to forgive Kosinsky’s other current film project - the execrable Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller effort, Spiderhead on Netflix. Maybe Kosinsky is just better on the big screen. Most certainly, that’s where a film like Top Gun: Maverick belongs... and most certainly that’s where you should see it.