Ready or Not 2019 ****

Ready or not

The future of the Fox Searchlight brand is under question after the Fox studio was bought over by Disney; certainly, it’s hard to see how such a red-in-tooth-and-claw comedy-thriller with Satanic overtones like Ready or Not might fit into the wholesome Disney brand. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, Ready or Not is a horror film in the idiom of Get Out, and features a young couple whose mutual distrust grows during her introduction to his rich and powerful family. But the two films are very different in tone, with Ready or Not featuring a brisk and busy evocation of country house mayhem that’s in tune with the recent Knives Out. There’s an agreeable Gothic flavour that hints at the supernatural elements which are accentuated as the plot develops.

Things starts innocuously enough; Samara Weaving is Grace, who arrives at the house of the Le Domas family with her prospective husband Alex, played by Gilmour Girls star Adam Brody. The Le Domas family have made their fortune from board games, and Grace is happy with the idea of taking her place at the family table, until it emerges there’s a ritual to complete. A game must be played, and Grace must pick a card at random; the one she chooses dismays the family, as it says “Hide and Seek’. This means that Grace must hide, and the rest of the family must seek her out, but the stakes are higher than is immediately apparent, and one shocking act of violence leads to another.

The end of this decade has seen an increase of films that view the rich as something other than a club that inspires us to join; we don’t admire the Kardashians, we hate them because we sense that their good –fortune is built on the back of our own pain. The rich and affluent are uncovered as preying on the other echelons of society, and Ready or Not is suffused with tart social criticism. The violence is spiky, the narrative manages some clever slight of hand, and clichés of the Most Dangerous Game variety are generally turned on their heads. Early on, Grace views herself in the mirror, her wedding dress torn and blood-splattered, an ammunition belt around her waist; niceties have been damned, and she sees herself clearly for the first time as a warrior in a battle for her class.

Ready or Not was a sizeable hit, but didn’t reach the huge audience it deserved; the box-office numbers of a Get Out or a Halloween should have been the reward for such an original and satisfying film. An illustrious history on streaming awaits; Ready or Not is a super-smart B movie that offers a dark, splattery note on the margins of society’s growing divisions circa 2019.

A Million Eyes 2019 ****

a-million-eyesAfter some persuasion, this blog is starting to review the occasional, exceptional short film, and British film-maker Richard Raymond’s A Million Eyes seems like a good place to start. This blog has been dedicated to giving old, rare, independent and original work a place alongside multiplex blockbusters, and there’s every reason for including shorts under the broad church of cinema.

At 24 minutes long, A Million Eyes doesn’t feel like a short, in that it has a confident, gentle pace and a patient eye for character and setting; it doesn’t feel like a foot-in-the door show-reel, but a story hard won from experience of life. Written by Curt Zacharias Jr, it’s the story of Leroy (Elijah M Cooper), a young man who is struggling to balance his interest in photography with domestic responsibilities, specifically to his alcoholic mother Amber (Katie Lowes).

It’ll play well to a film-making audience that Leroy finds it easier to understand the world through a lens, and when an elderly neighbour (Joe Morton) provides advice on light and stock, there’s a nostalgia for older filming techniques that will strike a chord with many. Raymond has a light touch with scenes that might have seemed didactic in other hands; all the characters are easy to sympathise with and relate to, an uncommon gift in cinema circa 2019.

A Million Eyes is the kind of simple, effective short that’s easy to recommend; played by established actors who get the material, it makes a passionate plea for the next generation to be given a chance, and sets up the idea of older people as role models who have an important job to impart knowledge. For Raymond, early in his career, it’s a work of rare sensitivity that should attract awards, and more importantly, an audience.

Jumanji: The Next Level 2019 ***

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The fourth entry in the Jumanji franchise is pretty much a re-tread of the third; an overlong adventure with a vague video-game theme, with a few added guest-stars without which this would be fairly indistinguishable from the previous film. Aimed specifically as small kids, Jake Kasdan’s sequel manages to remove some of the crude sexism of the previous entry, but there’s little improvement in the overall package.

Like the first film, there’s a lugubrious intro to various young characters, hardly memorable for the first film; Spencer (Alex Wolff from Hereditary) is the only one who makes an impression. He’s chilling with his grand-father (Danny De Vito) when his dad’s old friend Milo (Danny Glover) comes to visit. All of them get sucked into the Jumanji video game, which leads to a confusing version of the laboured body-swap humour previously featured. If you can’t remember who Bethany, Martha and Fridge are, then it’s pretty hard to work out what’s happening when they get trapped in the bodies of their avatars. It’s all really just an excuse for googly-eyed schtick from Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, who grab for their pay-check with both hands.

Gillan is introduced, legs akimbo, in tiny shorts, and with the camera zooming right into her crotch; one of the regrettable elements of the franchise is the leering emphasis on objectifying women in children’s entertainment. Fortunately, The Next Level doesn’t force her into quite such demeaning situations as the first, although locking lips for a snog with Johnson, who is old enough to be her dad, is particularly stomach churning. Awkwafina also turns up to self-sabotage her own Oscar campaign for The Farewell, looking somewhat embarrassed to ride a flying horse in the interest of exposure.

There’s a nice idea buried here; only Rhys Darby as the exposition-heavy host captures the right satirical tone for making fun of video-game clichés. Otherwise, there’s some elaborate set-pieces involving ostriches, monkeys, rope bridges and a climactic punch-up set to Baby I Love Your Way. Jumanji: The Next Level passes the time, but there’s nothing new or exciting about it. The first film was lucky to come up against an almost universally disliked Christmas blockbuster (The Last Jedi) which was overlong and not particularly suited to families. The Rise of Skywalker is still an unknown quantity at the time of writing, but it seems unlikely that Jumanji: the Next Level will be so lucky with throwing the double-sixes again.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019 ****

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The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrives box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.

Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?

A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes  since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on wide release in the UK and US in 2020.

Hawk The Slayer 1980 ***

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There must be something about the worthy quality of film-watching during awards season that makes it so appealing to file copy on so-bad-it’s-good entries. And so we return to the sacred text of Hawk the Slayer, a bizarre fantasy film by Terry Marcel which featured briefly in Netflix’s recent Maniac tv show. Why would a hot director like Cary Joji Fukunaga be a fan? Well, because Hawk the Slayer is one of the cheesiest films ever made, and that’s the appeal; if you’re looking for production values, imaginative plotting and social relevance, stay away. If venerable British character actors, Morricone-goes-disco music cues and shonky dialogue are palatable to you then Hawk slays over and over again, much like an automatic crossbow.

Yes, automatic cross-bows are a big thing in this film, but then, so is dialogue like ‘The hunchback will have something to say about this!’ Hawk the Slayer is set, according to the poster, in a word of sword and sorcery, one where Voltar (Jack Palance) reigns supreme. His brother is Hawk (John Terry), and a flashback reveals that Voltar tied Hawk to a tree and tried to make things happen romantically with Hawk’s wife (Catriona MacColl), a plan which ended badly. The two bothers are sworn enemies, and things get worse when a survivor of one of Voltan’s massacres seeks sanctuary in a monastery, encouraging Voltan to kidnap the Abbess (Annette Crosbie). Hawk sets out to rescue her, with the help of a merry band including a dwarf, a sorceress (Patricia Quinn), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw) and a quick-firing elf.

There’s some familiar names in there, and even more further down the cast list; Roy Kinnear, Harry Andrews, Patrick Macgee, Ferdy Marne, Warren Clarke, Graham Stark and more all appear as Hawk gets bogged down in all kind of inessential sub-plots. But things are pulled along by a weird production design that features lots of fog and lots of Star Wars-lazer effects, plus a rousing score by Harry Robinson hiding under the name Robertson; imagine Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and you’ll have a handle on the epic disco sound featured here.

Hawk the Slayer wears various Star Wars influences with pride; Voltan’s helmet is much like Darth Vader’s, and the explanation for why he wears it is familiar. It’s worth remembering that one of the appealing elements for children seeing Star Wars back in 1977/8 was that it was never revealed what was under Darth Vader’s mask, and a sequel seemed inevitable for that purpose. That sense of mystery arguably created today’s franchise cinema.

Hawk The Slayer might be a rip-off, but it’s a fun, idiosyncratic film that’s gaining momentum as a cult item; if Fukunaga has James Bond watching this is No Time To Die, it would make some kind of sense, although you’d have to use the same goofy logic as an automatic crossbow requires.

Click the link below to see if the film can be viewed in your territory…

The Mission 1986 *****

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The last time I saw the late Jake Eberts, he was struggling to get distributors to look at a fresh cut of an expensive film. ‘They think they’ve seen it already,’ he whispered to me with his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone, then shrugged; he seemed to sense that he was on a hiding to nothing. And yet Eberts was a truly great producer whose films gained 66 Oscar nominations, including nine for best picture. The Mission was another notable setback for Eberts and Goldcrest films, a big-budget prestige picture that failed to connect to a substantial audience, and which, along with Revolution and Absolute Beginners, almost bankrupted Goldcrest Films. Viewed in 70mm in 1986, it seemed like a secret success, a beautifully mounted and thoughtful film out of step with commercial dictates; re-watched in 2019, The Mission is a film that swells to fill the gap left by its lack of reputation; it’s a really great movie that deserves to be praised, recommended and shared.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a missionary who travels to a remote South American community, who he charms with music; Ennio Morricone’s score, ingeniously integrated into the diegetic music featured, is one of the best of his storied career. Back in the 1740’s, the slave-trade was rife, and scoundrels like Roderigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) took full advantage; Mendoza operates in a moral vacuum until he kills his own brother in an act of rage, and joins Gabriel’s group as part of his penance. When the Portuguese and Spanish decide to take the land from the indigenous tribes, Gabriel refuses to take up arms, but Mendoza uses his knowledge of combat to lead a spirited defence, although neither tactic slows the invading forces down for long.

The Mission is a powerful film about religion, and comes recommended by the Vatican and the Church Times; the central themes about the on-going conflict between might and love are admirably caught in Robert Bolt’s script, and yet unlike A Man for All Seasons, piety is mixed with explosive action scenes, brilliantly lensed by Chris Menges. The result won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and the mix of thoughtful rumination on the place of religion and defiant action is still stirring to watch.

Perhaps you feel that you’ve seen The Mission already. But the content was way ahead of it’s time, a contemplation of man’s inhumanity to man, the exploitation of indigenous people and the way that democratic and religious institutions have, deliberately or not, supported that process. Roland Joffe’s film always looked and sounded great, but it’s never been so topical as it is now; the final post-credits stinger, as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray Mcinally) looks questioning to the camera, still invites us to think and act on the on-going tragedy of  man’s inhumanity to man. ‘Thus have we made the world…’ says Altamirano, and that deep sense of responsibility pervades this laudable film.

 

Cry Onion 1975 ****

onionWith a title that’s right up there alongside Surprise Sock in the ‘surely not?’ mistranslation stakes, Cry Onion lives up to a silly name by being the mother lode for onion fans. A nice find on Amazon Prime, Enzo G Castellari’s 1975 Western should ensnare a few viewers on sheer curiosity value. The setting is a Western town called Paradise City, but the grass is not green and the girls are not pretty. If someone does take you down to Paradise City, then you’ll likely be smelling of onions for days.

Cry Onion opens with a frank description of onion juggling, before unfolding a wider picture of the root vegetable and what possible uses they might have. Onions are eaten, used as weapons, drunk; even the main character’s name is Onion. Played by the great Franco Nero, Onion is an onion farmer who loves onions, and is prepared to fight for his life to protect his onion crop. Onions are to him what melons are to Mr Majestyk or bananas to Mike Connors in Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die; they’re our hero’s way of life.

It’s always hard to assemble a great cast for a low-budget film, but when the subject is onions, the big names assemble. Nero is sending up his Django role, with the assistance of Sterling Hayden, fresh from working with Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick, while Martin Balsam uses his experience of working for Hitchcock to play a land-owner who reveals an Inspector Gadget metal hand on a ten foot retractable arm during the final fight sequence. Onion also has help in the form of Archie, a farting white horse in a straw hat, and two comedy child gangsters.

Cry Onion is a burlesque film in the vein of Loaded Guns; it’s a parody that eventually loses momentum due to reliance on speeded-up fight scenes and circus choreography. It’s also a lot of fun, with the impeccable Nero wide-eyed and mugging like crazy, but in the context of the madness around him, catching the mood of this crazy, crazy film admirably.

To see if Cry Onion can be viewed in your region, click the link below…