King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen 2017 ****

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The late Larry Cohen’s name may not mean much to your average multiplexer, but his name is synonymous with the kind of imaginative, off-the-wall and defiantly original fare that’s worth putting money down to see. Cohen was an artist and a commercial film-maker, who write every day, played the system, and won; repeatedly, over decades. Writer/director Steve Mitchell knows that the films are all elsewhere; a few tantalising clips are all that are needed, but King Cohen is a talking heads documentary and all the better for it. And what heads! JJ Abrams throws the first ball, with a story involving Cohen, a broken down car and a mutant baby doll, and it’s clear that Abrams was severely star-struck. Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Landis and others play tribute, but it’s Fred Williamson that steals the show with his smoothly-delivered recollections, which don’t match up exactly with Cohen’s version of events. Even hard-core cineastes and horror fans are likely to learn something new here, about Cohen’s prolific tv work, his debut feature Bone, or his habit of shooting on the fly that led him, quite literally, to J Edgar Hoover’s door. Despite mainstream success, he remained a maverick and an underground film-maker; after years of searching I finally bought my copy of God Told Me To from a pop-up street-vendor of obscure movies in NYC’s Union Square, within sight of the Chrysler building where he used the construction scaffolding to shoot action scenes for Q-The Winged Serpent. This rapid-fire doc should encourage fans and casual viewers alike to check out the canon of this unique, idiosyncratic talent.

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10 Cloverfield Lane 2016 ***

10-cloverfield-lane-movie-aliensA sequel of sorts to 2008’s Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane works just as well, if not better, as a stand-alone thriller. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a perfect Sigourney Weaver-style scream queen, gutsy and vulnerable in equal measures, and the set up is minimal and terse. Fleeing her boyfriend (an un-credited Bradley Cooper in a voice cameo), Michelle gets into her car and drives; a road accident leads her to waking up in the underground bunker of Howard (John Goodman). Howard and his helper Emmett (John Gallacher Jr) are hiding out as new of some kind of surface contamination breaks, so Michelle throws in her lot with Howard reluctantly. Dan Trachtenberg’s taut thriller ratchets up tension, notably during some parlour games, and even when the plot is finally revealed, the director keeps the scale small and the intensity on point. There’s valuable lessons on how to build a homemade hazmat suit, and even though the final tip into sci-fi is predictable, there’s so much to enjoy before that point that it’s hard to begrudge the splattery pay-off. If nothing else, this JJ Abrams production might just be the most intense PG-13 movie ever; any children watching are likely to need the services of a therapist for years to come.

Westworld 2016 *****

westworld.jpegWestworld is a model of what a reboot should be; everything is bigger, better, more thoughtful and more expansive that the original sci-fi cult classic about a futuristic theme park with a Western theme. With Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams at the helm, that’s no surprise, but what is very much surprising is the way they’ve moved the narrative on. The early scenes make it seem that James Marsden’s cowboy will play a similar role to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s vacationing thrill-seekers in the original; it turns out that Marsden’s character is actually a robot. Similarly, Ed Harris’s Man in Black seems to cut a iconic figure in the same way as Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger, but again, roles are reversed; Harris’s character is actually a tourist on a permanent vacation of sorts. And the biggest reversal of all is that the robots are the heroes, as their AI gives them a self-awareness that slowly reveals that they’re nothing but playthings for a corrupt elite; their gradual understanding of the need for revolution makes for gripping viewing. Evan Rachel Wood is the key identification character in Delores, but there’s an all-round stunning cast, from Thandie Newton to Jimmi Simpson, and best of all Anthony Hopkins as the park’s co-creator, Ford. Sir Richard Attenborough’s last iconic role was as a Jurassic Park owner in another Michael Crichton story, and Hopkins was probably the actor he used most: seeing Hopkins play God as his creations run amok is just one of a myriad of viewing pleasures on offer. And the action, violent and spiky, is cleverly scored to popular classics; if there was a moment in cinema in 2016 to compare to the astonishing Paint It Black scene in the opening episode, we’re yet to see it.

Super 8 2011 ***

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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.