Shaft 2019 ***



Reports of franchise fatigue affecting the US box office miss one off-putting element; anyone who bought a ticket for Shaft, Isn’t It Romantic? Annihilation or many other titles must have felt sorely ripped-off when they found the film they just shelled out $20 bucks to see if freely available at home on HD. For major studios to cut their losses by selling the foreign rights to their films on Netlix can only create buyers remorse and disaffection with the cinema-going process in general. Of course, Tim Story’s rehash of elements from the past four Shaft films was always going to generate some unhappy customers; the late John Singleton’s 2000 version with Samuel l Jackson was awful, and unfortunately that’s the poisoned well that this 2019 incarnation draws most of it’s mojo from. Jessie T Usher is JJ Shaft, an FBI cyber-crime fighter who joins forces with his dad, and then eventually his grandfather (a spruce Richard Roundtree) to resolve the death of his friend. The gags are laboured, the action undistinguished, the music isn’t the original Shaft theme, and the locations are faked NYC. Roundtree is great, and the final shoot-out is worth the wait, but this version of Shaft feels like something of a con-job all round.

So Fine 1981 ***

M8DSOFI EC001Ryan O’Neal’s star was fading by the early 80’s, but he was still picking up $2 million checks for out-of-step vehicles that didn’t set the box office alight. Comedy fashion in 1981 meant boobs and car-crashes, and So Fine’s Runyon-esque picture of rivalry in the NYC garment trade wasn’t the right platform for O’Neal’s brand of put-upon clowning. Writer/director Andrew Bergman’s comedy is the fictional story of the invention of arse-less jeans; academic Bobby Fine is sleeping with a gangster’s moll, and gets caught in the act; ejected into the street in a pair of jeans too small for him, they rip, and ergo, the bottomless pants are born. If this sounds like a weak premise for a comedy, then there’s more than a few other outré items to be accounted for; Jack Warden and Fred Gwynne have just the right salty tone for the venture, but Richard Kiel is given a lot to do as a gangster. Kiel was a genial presence in films post his 007 fame, but the role of Mr Eddie doesn’t fit right at all, and throws the whole enterprise into a cartoon realm. So Fine is the definition of a curiosity, with star, support and everyone concerned pulling in different directions; Bergman went on to a successful career with Fletch, The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas, and there’s evidence of the cleverness of his writing here amidst the chaos.

The Curse of La Llorona 2019 ****

p15766692_p_v12_abThe Conjuring Universe is surely getting a little over-populated of late; The Nun is followed months later by Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona, with Annabelle Comes Home weeks later. But these James Wan produced films will make a packet before the franchise ends; there’s a simple, effective formula at work as social worker Anna (Linda Cardellini) tries to protect her two kids against the mysterious and vengeful spirit of the weeping woman in 1970’s California. The weeping woman is seen in action at the start, when she kills the children of Patricia (Patricia Velasquez) and that dark event sets a serious tone for the multiple set-pieces to come. A nice production, strong sound design and good acting make La Llorona every bit as good as the other Conjuring films; with a bit more cash to play with than most horrors, Wan’s franchise is reliable, effective and still delivers on the scares.


Partners 1982 ***

partnersThe buddy-cop movie is something that always seems to have been a cliché; what happens when you pair a policeman with a child, a woman or even a dinosaur? In James Burrow’s 1982 comedy, Ryan O’Neal is the LA tough-guy who has to deal with a seismic change in his life when he’s forced to work alongside a gay man. Not just any gay man, but a 1982 comedy gay man in the form of the late John Hurt, who wears a pink furry track suit that makes him look like the Easter Bunny. Hurt’s career as a terrific character actor had been established long before Alien made him an unexpected household name, but his performance is uncertain here; at times, being homosexual seems to require behaving as if recently lobotomised, at other times, like an alien. O’Neal, as in the similarly neglected star vehicle So Fine, seems to enjoy being thrust into unusual outfits, notably bondage gear, but the story about going undercover is strictly rote. The screenplay is by Francois Veber, who was responsible for many French films made into US remakes (The Birdcage, Dinner for Schmucks), and it feels like his ability to lean into stereotypes for comic effect has been misunderstood here. Partners isn’t a good film, but as a time-capsule of how negative Hollywood has been about homosexuality, it’s one of a kind. There’s more than a few reasons this film has been buried, but it can be exhumed, freshly or not, via streaming services or even You Tube.

The House in Nightmare Park 1973 ***


Frankie Howard is a UK comedy institution, as much part of British life as arguing about Brexit and football hooliganism. Howard’s face might be familiar from plum roles like Road Workman in Hole from 1962’s The Fast Lady, or his startlingly awful appearance in the 1978 film of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But his success at a tv comedian didn’t translate well to film; Howard had a gift of speaking in a conversational tone to an audience, and his titter-ye-not pauses are ingrained in the British psyche. Peter Sykes’s 1973 horror comedy casts Howard as Foster Twelvetrees, an actor treading the boards with little success until a mysterious booking leads him to a remote house where Ray Milland commands him to perform. The usual tropes about reading wills and hidden assassins are trotted out, with Kenneth Griffith amongst the support. Known as Crazy House in the US, but not by many, the relatively straight-man comedy of The House in Nightmare Park was abandoned in favour of the somewhat cruder humour of the Up Pompeii tv and cinema series; Sykes’s film shows Howard in an uncommonly restrained role.

The Super Cops 1974 ****


Edgar Wright saw this on BBC 1 in the Saturday Night slot generally used for the Starsky and Hutch import back in the early 80’s and it became one of the jumping off points for Hot Fuzz; it was a heavily cut version of Gordon Parks film that he saw, and the uncensored version is a much more salty prospect. Ron Liebman and David Selby are the two NYC cops who annoy their superiors with their high rate of busts; hated by their colleagues, the public love them and the title of Batman and Robin is given to them; the screenplay is by the scribe of the original Batman tv show Lozenzo Semple Jr. There’s certainly some comic-book zest about the brisk action, notably a climax in a mid-demolition building where a wrecking-ball nearly knows the super-cops for six. Post-Shaft, Parks knows how to get the best in local colour out of the Brooklyn setting, and even if there’s a lingering feeling that the truth behind this story isn’t on show, The Super Cops is an arresting experience for crime-movie aficionados.

The Untouchables 1987 *****


Sequel and prequels (Capone Rising) have come to nothing; Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster opus remains one of the best examples of reworking a hit tv show on an epic scale. There’s an operatic sweep to the story of Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), the FBI-enforcer who sets out to bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) with the help of an old Chicago cop (Sean Connery). Also a couple of the effects now show their age, and the film’s budgetary concerns are visible, The Untouchables has one great scene after another; the store bombing, the first border raid and it’s bloody aftermath, the baseball scene, the railway-station shoot out, the show-down with Frank Nitti (the late, great Billy Drago). Costner fits his white-collar character like a glove, and Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia make ideal support. David Mamet’s script also crackles with great dialogue, and De Palma’s sweeping camera and desire to entertain made The Untouchables an instant classic.

Jane Austen’s Mafia! 1998 ***


Writer/director Jim Abrahams was part of the team behind Airplane, Naked Gun and Hot Shots; the tide had turned against spoofs by 1998, and Mafia! was one of the last gasps of the genre. It’s an un-called for Godfather spoof, twenty years too late perhaps, but still with a few lively moments to commend it. Jay Mohr is actually pretty good in the Al Pacino role, the prodigal son returning to the deadly games of his family, with Lloyd Bridges at the Brando-style patriarch. The film is dedicated to the star, who appears frail here, yet still typically game for the indignities low-brow comedy. There are plenty of lame gags, but Mafia! is at its best when tacking the seriousness of gangster films; a rapid-fire list of ridiculous underworld names at a wedding, or an accidental shooting of a man disguised as a tree. The best of the gags are well worked; if you’ve watched all the classic ZAZ brothers comedies once too many, there’s plenty of good reasons to search this later entry out.

The Childhood of a Leader 2016 ***


Before the pop excesses of Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s debut feature explored the private life of a different kind of public figure. The Childhood of a Leader has a tricky concept to explain; it’s about the childhood of a man who will one day be a dictator, and is only named at the end of the film. Until then, the audience is given various clues and left to stew; we see The Boy (Tom Sweet) and his family round about the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Could it be Hitler, or Mussolini? Before anyone scampers off to google it, The Boy is eventually named as Prescott, but who is Prescott meant to represent? Corbet’s film is slow and stately, with Liam Cunningham and Bernice Bejo as the boy’s parents and Robert Pattinson contributing a small but significant cameo. Corbet’s film is frustrating, but also immersive and rewarding; whatever it means, and the jury is out for now, it’s engrossing and serious work.

Eighth Grade 2018 ****


Bo Burnham’s background on social media was one of the main selling points of his coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade, but the writer/director’s first film is a careful, tender and decidedly now film about a girl growing up in the digital age. Burnham smartly doesn’t over-emphasise this; Kayla has a blog, largely unseen, and expresses herself through her tech, but it doesn’t really change anything about her life rather than indexing her many anxieties. Kayla (Elise Fisher) has difficulties with boys are to be expected, but the sweet nature of her relationship with her father (John Hamilton) is far more affecting than might be guessed. All the conversations featured here feel real, like the mall-chat where Kayla’s age is discussed in terms of how mature she was when Snapchat became a thing. A throw-away scene in which the school-children sleepwalk through a drill for a school-shooter reveals Eighth Grade’s charm; the times may have changed, but the essence of childhood, having fun while yearning to be mature, remains much the same.