Thunder Road (2018)

I was a big fan of the original short this is based on so I’m very happy to report that Jim Cummings lives up to the promise of those initial twelve minutes and then some. A perfectly pitched cringe comedy featuring some excellent visual staging and delightfully odd character observations. Essentially an ever-escalating collection of unfortunate episodes happening to, or because of the lead character, it modulates from broad comedy to heartfelt fuck-uppery with a lovely simplicity and confidence. I really like Cummings as an actor too – the bold choices he makes and also when he reigns it in. Really strong work. Considering he wrote, directed and starred in this thing, on top of stubbornly willing it into existence as the key originator, he’s one hell of a creative threat. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Watched on iTunes.

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Candyman (1992)

This is a far more grotesque and elegantly told work than I initially gave it credit for. For as much as we recognise Candyman as part of the Clive Barker canon, it’s actually writer/director Bernard Rose who’s responsible for the film’s most striking innovations. The race angle, Candyman’s back story and American setting are all inventions of Rose’s adaptation. Just the whole way this is shot and controlled is really classy – ranging from beautifully lit close-ups and disorientating overhead camerawork (shout out to DOP Anthony B. Richmond, who also lensed movies for Nic Roeg). The Philip Glass score is the cherry on top but in itself no small feat. How many filmmakers could convince a composer of Philip Glass’ stature to score a movie called fucking Candyman?

I think Virginia Madsen gives a terrific, visceral performance and she navigates the film’s twisty, un-predictable plotting with perfectly calibrated emoting. Some of the film’s most upsetting imagery stems from scenes most horror filmmakers wouldn’t dwell on, such as Helen being forced to undress out of her blood-soaked clothes at the police station, trembling from shock and confusion. The domestic subplot between her and Xander Berkeley – usually the least interesting and most unwanted elements in a movie like this – also has unexpected resonance and a satisfyingly silly pay-off. Again, Madsen sells it all.

Enjoyed this so much more upon rewatch. A horror film with real, fascinating issues on its mind that also contains a gamut of genuinely distressing imagery and visual ideas, as well as a desire to push genre into unexpected territory. Definitely going to voyage into the sequels now.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray.

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Night Moves (1975)

“I think people are shitty and you’re okay”

A wonderfully grizzled PI dirge from the heart of the 70s, Night Moves is my favourite Arthur Penn I’ve seen so far. It’s a movie in which Gene Hackman seems to embody every damn inch of the decade and genre he’s slap-bang in the middle of. A film full of character, characters and laid back intimacy with an undercurrent of sleaze and existential anxiety bubbling beneath. One hell of a find.

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The Canyons (2013)

Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ Lifestyles of the Rich and Dangerous.

An underrated and frequently misunderstood exercise in surfaces and cosmetics. The Canyons feels like an episode of an LA reality TV show as seen through a shattered black mirror. Everything looks glacial: overlit and severe digital photography, locations frost-bitten with reflective surfaces – glass and mirrors at every turn – and actors cherry-picked from industries or controversies where looks and celebrity are the primary currency. It all feels so hollow, from the way the voices echo in Christian’s vacuous LA house to the empty silences in conversations on dinner dates or Hollywood boulevard. Notice how Schrader lets the sounds of the busy street or surrounding hustle bustle fill those silences to further enhance the void.

The performances too are pitched at a distance, at an odd disconnect. They’re intentionally performative, like performances found in porn movies or reality TV: actors trying to forge a believable human connection before something more visceral can take place – violence, sex, confrontation. From the casting choices, it’s clear that all of this is especially calculated. Schrader embraces the baggage that comes with Lindsay Lohan – an actress perceived to be broken and twisted by celebrity – and gives her a role in which to prove herself. Watching her performance is like watching a plastic doll find a pulse and break free of being a possession. She’s excellent. James Deen, while certainly a lesser actor, is used to effectively too, as the typically Bret Easton Ellis-esque trust-fund fuck-boy turned preening psychopath.

At one point Lohan’s Tara asks a movie producer, “Do you really like movies?” When the producer fails to recollect the last movie they went to see at the cinema, Schrader’s pointed montage of desolate and abandoned movie theatres at the film’s start suddenly comes into focus. Mirrors and surfaces have finally replaced the movie screen.

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Batman Returns (1992)

A masked ball-cum-circus/superhero freak show contained within a Halloween snow globe and wrapped in a black Christmas ribbon. One of the great examples of 90s studio/auteur hubris, which seemed to be a totally misjudged disaster upon release but now looks like one the of the ballsiest and brazenly artistic feats of IP vandalism.

Some of my earliest memories of watching movies includes seeing Batman Returns on VHS when I was way too young and feeling both excited and uncomfortable with its bombastic and severely violent gothic imagery. Burton’s aesthetic, Elfman’s score, the strange transgressive undercurrent flowing throughout – everything here was incredibly formative for me. I have no doubt this film played a big part in my falling in love with movies in the first place and why, to this day, the films I respond to most often feel like the beautiful nightmares of their creators. Perverted, grand, icky and majestic, this movie fucking rocks.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

The most in tune Tim Burton has been with a piece of material in years. There are dashings of imagination here, from full set-pieces to instances of scenic finesse, that see the famously design-orientated director fully engaged and present with the images he’s creating. There’s a gothic deep dive into a sunken ship, a monster that eats children’s eyeballs and the quirky ensemble of characters, even on a purely silhouette level, all look strikingly individual. Focusing on a gang of oddball kids, each with their own unique abilities and aesthetic identity, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is essentially Burton’s take on X-Men but it also makes you realise he would have made a terrific Harry Potter flick.

The film’s figurehead is Eva Green as the titular Miss, here perfectly at home in Burton’s world for the second time (following Dark Shadows). She’s the latest in the long line of Burton muses preceded by Winona Ryder, Lisa Marie and Helena Bonham Carter. He has anointed all of these actresses, at one point or another, into gothic royalty, each apparently chosen for their otherworldly aura, flowing raven hair and cheekbones that remind you there is a well-defined skull beneath all that porcelain skin. They are always the most interesting characters in Burton’s films and Green’s skewed, arch and wily Miss Peregrine is no different, though her young co stars certainly aren’t forgettable.

As per Burton’s MO, everyone and everything looks unreal. The big eyes from Big Eyes make a return in the form of Ella Purnell and the entire film is cloaked with a netherworld hue that transforms even Blackpool pier into a funhouse of ghoulish action. What makes this different from other recent Burton movies is that it has a pulse and heartbeat. This isn’t bogged down by corpse-like artificiality or a vomit of computer imagery which plagued Alice in Wonderland. Look at any number of director-for-hire Tim Burton movies and you can usually distil them down to one image that captured his imagination; the topps trading cards of Mars Attacks!, the paintings of Big Eyes and here it is Ransom Riggs’ novel, which took strange vernacular photos of eerie children and spun an entire young adult universe out of them. It proved to be a potent spark of the imagination for Burton, who transforms it into something distinctly his own, managing to inject visual nods to everything from Ray Harryhausen to Ed Wood.

Burton’s entire filmography has been a celebration of freaks, oddities and outcasts and this film feels like a catch-all culmination of his obsessions, held together by a warm and passionate hand. There’s care in this movie. You can imagine Edward Scissorhands or any number of sketches from his notebooks joining Miss Peregrine’s home and being welcomed with open arms. It’s the best Tim Burton film in a long time, and one of the few which feels more alive, not tiresome, for being totally Burton-esque.

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Set It Up (2018)

A delightfully old-school rom-com amplified by its quartet of charming and attractive leads and knowing screenplay. The fact it feels so bright and sitcommy keeps reminding you this was made for Netflix and not a proper big screen, but the film’s timeless outlook and thoroughly likeable tone means it is probably best soaked in while curled up on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon.

It takes more than a page out of the screwball playbook, with the characters in the film becoming quasi-filmmakers themselves as they attempt to orchestrate a romance between their respective bosses. Their entire understanding of love and happiness is apparently dictated by movies, at one point declaring “We need a meet cute!” It gives the film a self-aware tinge, but it also works as a double wink to the audience as the same characters are seemingly unaware that they too are in the throws of a perfect screwball romance set-up. Let’s not forget, this is a film called Set It Up.

Among the many funny bits of business, a highlight is a gag where the two drunk leads attempt the simple task of getting a pizza into an apartment which then turns into an extended farce tinged with the budding romance sparking between them. It’s a lovely little scene that lets both actors sell some physical comedy whilst also playing up the chemistry they share. This isn’t so much a “will they/won’t they” as a “when will they”. It isn’t going to change the world, but it will certainly warm a heart or two for the better part of two hours.

Watched on Netflix.

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