An odd but rewarding slice of revisionism from Disney, Robert Stromberg’s dark fantasy looks at the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainess Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). With her horned headdress and high cheekbones, Maleficent is a fearsome creation, played to the hilt by Jolie, but kittled out with a backstory that explains her outsider disposition. Stromberg’s film turns the fairy tale on its head, delivering a non-family friendly message that’s some way from the original narrative. Some of the details, notably the fairies who protect Aurora (Elle Fanning) are smugly done, and Sharito Copley’s nemesis is a trial to watch, but Maleficent offers the kind of modern take on a classic story that was sorely missing from Kenneth Branagh’s dull Cinderella.
Jim Mickle’s follow-up to his apocalyptic vampire/road movie Stakeland is an authentically grubby thriller in two halves. The first is a home-invasion scenario, with Michael C Hall as Richard Dane, a family man whose life is turned upside down when he kills an ex-con who breaks into his house. This act sets him into conflict with the local police, and a second half in which he’s joined by Don Johnson and Sam Shepard for a men-on-a-mission drama about tracking down a seedy crime-ring. The two halves don’t quite gel, but both offer considerable entertainment, from the tight paranoia of the opening scenes to the buddy-buddy, all guns blazing finale.
A well-imagined expansion of the annually lawless society featured in The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy expands horizons beyond the home invasion featured in the Ethan Hawke low-budget thriller and takes Frank Grillo and Carmen Ejogo, two terrific performers too often relegated to bit part roles. Here they fight their way across a city reeking of murderous intent; if the final twists tip events into Hostel territory, the terseness, occasional brutality, and general air of angry desperation make for a strong thriller that requires no knowledge of the previous film whatsoever. If anything, Anarchy works better on its own terms.
1984’s biggest comedy hit was originally planned as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone; director Martin Brest abandoned most of the original script and fashioned something far more relevant, with Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) moving to LA from Detroit and running foul of murderous art-dealer Vincent Maitland (Steven Berkoff). The degree of improvisation pays dividends, as Murphy’s schtick seems fresh and funny, and support from Judge Reinhold and Ronny Cox adds to a warm mix of genre tropes. While the action never reaches the heights of the breakneck opener, with Murphy hanging onto the netting of a careering runaway truck, the character development and breezy playing make this fish-out-of-water flick gel.
Dan Stevens should be firing his CV straight to the producers of the James Bond franchise on the back of this tight-little B Movie in which he manages to maintain a dangerous presence till the final scene. Stevens plays David, a soldier freshly returned from the war and inveigling his way into the suburban household of teen Anna (well-played by Maika Monroe). Although the climax could have come from any number of genetically-modified soldier thrillers, the lead up is consistently subversive and rich in portent, as David’s violent abilities are revealed in several disconcerting scenes in which he defends Anna from corrupting local influences. A far more controlled film that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barret’s You’re Next, The Guest doesn’t need the John Carpenter nods to announce itself as a promisingly taut thriller.
John R Leonetti’s prequel to James Wan’s The Conjuring has a tricky remit to fulfil; it’s the backstory for Annabelle, the possessed doll. With a late sixties setting, Annabelle the movie initially picks up on a Charles Manson serial killer whose spirit escapes from his body at the moment of death and survives in the doll. It’s hard to believe that Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) would feel like hanging on to the creepy-looking toy, but their slow realisation of it’s power makes up the body of the film. The shocks are fairly rote, but Annabelle builds to one excellent extended set piece involving a lift and a darkened basement that captures the tone of a real nightmare. If the rest of the film was so carefully constructed, Annabelle would be a horror classic; it’s worth seeing for that ten minute sequence alone.
A cheerfully deranged tale of modern vampires and their rather tatty domestic arrangements, What We Do In The Shadows is sold on the reputation of Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), and features a cameo from Rhys Darby, the band manager from the TV show, now recast as a werewolf. Co-written and directed by Taiki Waititi, who also plays the avuncular main character Viago, Shadows plays amusingly with various forms of supernatural mythology, with Clement as a saturnine lady-killer and Ben Francham as the Nosferatu-like Petyr. Waititi and Clement do well to fill the 90 minutes with some original gags, which keeping the focus on the reality television theme. The effects, while low-key, are all the more impressive for being realised on a meagre budget; What We Do In The Shadows demonstrates that horror comedy can be smart too.
Any film featuring a cameo from BBC children’s programme stars The Wombles, plus Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry as a serial killer deserves full marks for originality; Neil Jordan’s serio-comic tale about the journey of transgender waif Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden is an idiosyncratic one-off. Played by a well-cast Cillian Murphy, Braden is searching for his mother, with Liam Neeson’s priest amongst those he meets on his travels. Murphy has looked good and done little in a series of big budget films (Inception, Transcendence),but Breakfast on Pluto gives some idea of what he’s capable of. Jordan has fun with the musical and fashion styles of the 1970’s, but at the heart of the film is a plea for understanding of transgender issues that’s well-delivered without recourse to piety or pathos.
Serial killer films are not a new invention; the story of John Christie is one of Britain’s most notorious examples. Adapting Ludovic Kennedy’s book on the subject, Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer adapts a deliberately drab, procedural style that finds an ideal centre in Richard Attenborough’s performance as Christie. Killing again and again for sexual kicks, it’s a turn highly untypical of Attenborough’s usual work, but he rises to the challenge, making Christie a fascinating but repellent character. John Hurt and Judy Geeson do good work as the husband and wife who unwittingly stay at Christie’s property, and a hanging scene, supervised by real-life executioner Albert Pierrepoint, adds to the gloomy sense of authenticity.
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.