Any film featuring a cameo from BBC children’s programme stars The Wombles, plus Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry as a serial killer deserves full marks for originality; Neil Jordan’s serio-comic tale about the journey of transgender waif Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden is an idiosyncratic one-off. Played by a well-cast Cillian Murphy, Braden is searching for his mother, with Liam Neeson’s priest amongst those he meets on his travels. Murphy has looked good and done little in a series of big budget films (Inception, Transcendence),but Breakfast on Pluto gives some idea of what he’s capable of. Jordan has fun with the musical and fashion styles of the 1970’s, but at the heart of the film is a plea for understanding of transgender issues that’s well-delivered without recourse to piety or pathos.
The late Bob Hoskins finds an ideal foil in Judi Dench for this slight but amusing BBC drama, which takes the war-time action of the Windmill strip-club in London’s Soho as its subject. Stephen Fears has made entrepreneurial duos something of a speciality in films like My Beautiful Launderette, and Mrs Henderson lovingly recreates the milieu in which Vivian Van Damm and Laura Henderson kept their club open despite the bombs falling outside. Popular singer Will Young croons a couple of vintage songs including The Girl In The Little Green Hat, and Christopher Guest has a neat turn as Lord Cromer. Frears handles the nudity with taste; the aim is nostalgia rather than exploitation, and Mrs Henderson is about as genteel a film about stripping as might be imaginable.
Serial killer films are not a new invention; the story of John Christie is one of Britain’s most notorious examples. Adapting Ludovic Kennedy’s book on the subject, Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer adapts a deliberately drab, procedural style that finds an ideal centre in Richard Attenborough’s performance as Christie. Killing again and again for sexual kicks, it’s a turn highly untypical of Attenborough’s usual work, but he rises to the challenge, making Christie a fascinating but repellent character. John Hurt and Judy Geeson do good work as the husband and wife who unwittingly stay at Christie’s property, and a hanging scene, supervised by real-life executioner Albert Pierrepoint, adds to the gloomy sense of authenticity.
A refreshing alternative to the usual summer popcorn movies, Super 8 harks back to the 80’s style of Gremlins or The Goonies, as a group of children with a penchant for making home-movies discover an alien presence which has escaped from a government train which derails near their town. Writer/director JJ Abrams does a nice job in conjuring up the feel of 1979, and the scenes in which the kids create their own movie are lovingly done, with the final result playing engagingly over the final credits. Kyle Chandler also does nice work as an investigating cop, and while the final confrontation with the alien goes on too long, Abrams manages to pull out a few emotive plot-points that stop it from becoming a CGI-fest. Super 8 is a charming and light-hearted blockbuster for a age when bombast has become the norm.
There’s not much in director Michael Schroeder’s CV to suggest he was capable of pulling off an off-beat valentine to the movies like The Man in The Chair; the director of Cyborg 2 pulled off a career high when he pulled together an accomplished cast including Christopher Plummer, Robert Wagner and M Emmet Walsh as a group of Hollywood veterans who get together to help young aspiring LA film-maker Cameron (Michael Angarano) realise his dream. Schroeder over-eggs the flashy style of the direction, but coaxes strong performances from his cast, particularly Walsh who has a nice scene in which he discovers the value of the internet in a public library. Wagner also has a strong turn as a mogul who funds the enterprise, but Plummer takes centre-stage; his performance here as Flash is arguably better than his Oscar-winning turn in Beginners.
After his superb debut with Monsters, it’s easy to see why Gareth Edwards would be handed the chance to make a big budget version of Godzilla. Unfortunately, the tricks that worked so well for him in Monsters don’t play out so well here; the shots of debris-strewn vistas, intercutting news broadcasts and quarantine zones are all replicated, but to much less potent effect. The main problem is that the various trailers raise expectations of a rather different movie than Edwards delivers; the emphasis on Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody character proves misplaced, since the lead turns out to be a bland Aaron Taylor-Johnson who has little personality other than his wish to rescue children, and Elizabeth Olsen and Juliette Binoche barely feature. Johnson plays Ford Brody, a bomb-disposal expert who proves his worth when a conflict between radio-active monsters prompts a nuclear response from authorities. The result feels like a bait-and-switch on a monstrous scale; the trappings aside, the 2014 Godzilla features most of the qualities that make the original films barely watchable, from the instant recognition by all parties that Godzilla is a well-meaning guardian of nature to the monster-tag-team wrestling match that proves that millions of dollars of CGI can look no better than men in rubber suits. With much of the techo-babble unwisely handed to Ken Wantanabe and Sally Hawkins, Edwards’ version of Godzilla is low on fresh ideas or personality; a pity because the opening scenes, including a neat credits sequence, promised so much more than just another hokey monster movie.
Horror in British cinema has a classy past; this influential portmanteau film from Ealing studios glides by like a Rolls Royce. Part of the charm is the directness; Dead of Night doesn’t use pop culture references or homage to other directors; the stories are raw, simple and effective. While the ghostly golfing tale is really just light relief, the opener, about a racing driver who has a premonition of his own death, is striking and shocking in all the right ways. Based on a 1906 short story by EF Benson, it sets the mood nicely for Alberto Cavalcanti’s chilling Christmas party and Robert Hamer’s haunted mirror, both of which have a strange poetry of their own. And if Cavalcanti’s final sequence is the most iconic, with Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist who loses a battle of wits with his dummy, the wraparound story ties the whole package together perfectly, adding a strand of philosophical horror that pulls the meta-narrative together in a highly original way.