Illuminata 1998 ***

illuminata-movie-poster-1998-1020204021Another entry in there “Where do Amazon find these films?’ file, Illuminata was barely released anywhere back in 1998, and is likely to find its biggest audience now that its inexplicably popped up in Prime. John Turturro directs from a play by Brandon Cole, and given that the play is about a play being staged, it’s an intensely theatrical experience. Turturro plays Tuchio, a theatre director who is struggling to finish and perform his play, with performers (Susan Sarandon, Rufus Sewell) and critics (Christopher Walken) ranged against his artistic vision. The seam of talent runs deep with Beverley D’Angelo, Ben Gazarra and Donal McCann also contributing to the gallery of exquisite caricatures. The best of the has to be Walken’s dissolute, sexually-motivated critic, on whose foibles the venture lies. Leaching after the male lead with grim enthusiasm, Bevelaqua is a grotesque subversion of any kind of morality, and a perfect pivot for a story of the madness of creativity. Admirers of Vanya on 42nd Street or Cradle That Rocked will enjoy this, a painstaking evocation of the theatre in days gone by; Tuturro’s career as a director has been occasional, but Illuminata is far better than it’s lack of recognition suggests.

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Brainstorm 1983 ***

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An ideal double bill with 2014’s Transcendence, Brainstorm is a strange and somewhat prescient sci-fi film from Douglas Trumbull, taking his only post-Silent Running shot as director after managing the ground-breaking effects for 2001 and Close Encounters. Hampered by the death of star Natalie Wood during production, Brainstorm has an original conceit; a device which allows participants to experience events happening to someone else; experiencing death second-hand is the ultimate goal. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) has been developing the machine, but fears the intervention of the military industrial complex, and after the death of his wife Lillian (Wood), goes on the run with the machine. The focus on mortality sits uneasily with the real-life tragedy of Wood’s death, but Brainstorm has a good deal of ideas to play with, with Trumbull creating visceral scenes of visual flair to suggest how the machine would work, interspersed with a sinister conspiracy drama. Brainstorm is an interesting failure; as with many sci-fi films that attempt to consider serious themes, the plotting gets in the way of the more profound meanings aspired to, but the intent is admirable.

True Romance 1993 *****

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Quentin Tarantino’s spec script was an ideal vessel for the late Tony Scott to bring his cinematic style to; it’s something of a mystery why True Romance flopped. It’s a love-story against a drug-war setting in Hollywood; Clarence(Christian Slater) meets Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in Detroit, and the two of them take off with a suitcase of stolen money belonging to Drexl (Gary Oldman). On their way to a hotel-room shoot-out, they encounter a gallery of colourful characters, from Dennis Hopper , unexpectedly wholesome as Clarence’s dad, to Brad Bitt and an addled stoner, with Clarence receiving constant advice from the ghost of Elvis (Val Kilmer). Tarantino’s dialogue crackles, the showdown between Hopper and Christopher Walken is one of the tensest in cinema history, and there’s a poetry and bonhomie that somehow sits nicely with the spiky violence. Tony Scott was sometimes accused of style over substance; True Romance plays its defiantly romantic hand out beautifully.

Mousehunt 1997 ***

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Gore Verbinkski’s first features shows all the visual energy and gift of visual comedy that featured in the Pirates of The Caribbean movies, but without the lame-love interest. Instead there’s a stream of high quality slapstick for kids of all ages; Nathan Lane and Lee Evans play Ernie and Lars Smuntz, who are hoping to restore an ancient mansion but haven’t reckoned with the sitting tenant; a mouse who is unwilling to move out. Mousetraps, cats and eventually a tough professional exterminator (a brilliant cameo from Christopher Walken) are all enlisted, and Mousehunt has enormous fun with the comic possibilities in this breezy Dreamworks production; any film with such an extended mouse-down-the-trousers gag deserves points for trying.