Evil Dead

Evil Dead (1981) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Sam Raimi. Bruce CampbellEllen SandweissRichard DeManincor 

Apparenlty I’m in classic horror mood this week. I haven’t seen this film in at least 20 years, but I remember when I was a teenager it was in a constant loop both at home (for some reason I used to show it to my then 5 years old sister… hahaha… she can testify that!) and with my friends from school (we discovered it in on VHS in our favourite video-store where we used to spend pretty much half of our lives).

At the time there was really nothing nothing like it. We had never seen so much gore and graphic violence (nowadays intricate parts of modern horror) and it felt a complete revolution! To a teenager like me, lover of splatter and grown up with a passion for scary movies, this was pretty much heaven!

Aside from the stupidity and simplicity of the plot itself and the paper-thin characters (though that’s possibly also part of its charm), this is one a hell of a directorial debut for Sam Raimi. At the time I was probably too young to realise and appreciate the sheer inventiveness of the film-making behind it. The way it builds tension, how it makes us shiver and squirm (pen stabbing ankles, chopped body parts, zombie-like mosters), the way the action is staged and how the camera masterfully frames it all: dutch angles, 360 degrees pans, upside-down moves, super-tight close ups, those famous sweeps across the forest, handheld point of view shots down in the cellar… I mean, I could go on for ever. And that’s without even mentioning the sharp editing, the fantastic use of creepy sound effects (voices, rumbles, screams, whooshes, creaks, winds and so on) and the overall soundtrack with its eerie violins. Watching it tonight I was surprised by how tense and scary it still is, especially in its first part. It does become a bit repetitive half way through, before exploding (literally) into a “wonderful” gore-fest in its final act.

Today the film has a reputation of mixing horror with black humour, but I think it’s the sequel which actually embraced its madness and added a comedic twist to it. If you asked me I am not sure this was never really intend to make people laugh… and in fact the laughters are possibly unintentionally directed at the film for its terrible dialogue and not-so-great acting. However small the budget was, most of the special effects are still incredibly effective making Evil Dead one one of the goriest horror films of all times.

Clearly this is not everybody’s cup of tea (or blood), but within its genre (one which was probably invented by this film), Evil Dead is as close to a masterpiece as it gets.

An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: John Landis. Cast: Joe BelcherDavid NaughtonGriffin Dunne, David Schofield, Brian Glover

A good (actual a great) friend of mine posted about this film not long ago and ever since I’ve had a sudden urge to re-watch it again after years and years of abstinence.

I would have loved to have been able to see people’s reactions at the time, watching this unusual mix of horror, gore and comedy. It was certainly a first! And you know what? The comedy is still funny (“a naked man has stolen my balloon”) and the horror is still damn scary (the atmosphere in the woods at the start, the scene in the “tube” station… ). I’d love to test it with somebody who has never seen it. This film still contains one of the biggest jump scare I can ever remember in any film (the nightmare within a nightmare).But the real novelty here was actually to see both genres working at the same time within the same scenes as you keep finding yourself laughing and covering your eyes at the same time (the final mayhem in Piccadilly Circus is still incredible: masterfully choreographed and edited).

The choices of music was also very inspired, from the old classics blue moon (and its wacky rendition over the end credits, to brilliant Moondance by Van Morison And then of course the special effects, which were revolutionary and still very effective 40 years later (yes, you heard me right: this is its 40th anniversary!). It may have lost some of its edge and yes it does have some flaws (the abrupt ending always bugged me a little bit) but I’ve been claiming for years that this was one of my favourite horror movies of all time and tonight I’m going to stick with the statement.

I’m happy to report that I still love it and found things in it which are not just unique, but have hardly been done better since.

Fatima

Fatima ⭐️⭐️

Director: Marco Pontecorvo. Cast: Joaquim de AlmeidaGoran VisnjicStephanie Gil, Alejandra Howard, Harvey Keitel.

The film is told through a series of flashbacks during an interview with a skeptic journalist (not quite sure what’s Harvey Keitel doing here) and Sister Lucia, a 95 years old nun who remembers her experiences in the small town of Fatima in Portugal, where she as a young girl and 2 of her friends had visions of the Virgin Mary.

It’s an intriguing story which powerful repercussions and important questions to ask, about faith, miracles, trust in God and so on, but never once I thought director Marco Pontecorvo (son of Gillo, from the Battle of Algeri) is quite able to convey the importance and resonance of the event in the eyes of the thousands of people who eventually said to have witnessed the miracle too.

This is a film that preaches to already “converted” and its by-the-numbers and rather superficial approach is unlikely to have any sort of impact on non-believers, in fact it will ultimately alienate them.And that’s a real shame because there’s a lot of technical skills behind the “Fatima” (mainly the impressive historical reconstructions and the huge number of extras). Instead the film depicts card-board characters, give us terribly cheesy lines of dialogue, unconvincing accents (everybody, including the Virgin Mary speak English with a Portuguese accent, which I found very distracting and constantly took me away from film) and wastes plenty of opportunities to both question the event but also to make us really understand the importance of it in the eyes of the believers. A whole crowd of them is treated as a mob, instead of a group of single individuals, they’re all reacting rather mechanically and dare-I-say stupidly to what’s going on with plenty of cliché and over the top reactions. The use of overly sentimental music tries to fill the gaps and stir those emotions in us which the film is otherwise unable give us.

The film plays it straight and simple for most of it, but when it doesn’t, that’s when it all falls to pieces.I would have probably been more impactful and real not to see any vision at all (or maybe keep it for the very end), which would have kept at least some sort of mystery about it. I also found the quick CGI visions of Hell completely out of keeping with the rest of the film.

In the end, whilst I admired the film’s pure intentions (I am sure this will certainly be a hit among religious communities) I found it all much too bland, rather superficial and crucially a bit unintentionally laughable too.

The Aristocats

The Aristocats ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman. Cast: Phil HarrisEva GaborSterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers

The 70s and most of the 80s are well known as the “The Bronze Age” for Disney animation, which is probably a nice way to say “a weaker age” and to signal a downfall for the company (It’s not by chance that the next phase will be called “Disney Renaissance”) and it all starts from here. The Aristocats was the first feature length to be done without the supervision of Walt himself and you can clearly see how the nobody seemed to dare taking any risks. The story was pretty straight forward, rather unimaginative and fairly episodic, the pace pretty slow and crucially with most of the characters (usually the strong points of previous Disney films) are all pretty much recycled from previous outings, most of glaringly from “Lady and the Trump” and “101 Dalmatians” (Though, it’ll get even worse once they start recycling even old animations from previous films)

Despite some lovely animated backgrounds, few (in fact very few) funny moments and the Jazzy “everybody wants to be a cat” song, this is cleary not one of the best in the Disney canon. Whether it’s to do with this recycled feeling, that we’ve seen a lot of this before or that the clumsy baddie of piece, which usually would be the highlights of these films (think of the various stepmothers and witches)in this case is actually not that scary at all (even the music cues that accompany him seem to be from a Clouseau film), or maybe it’s my modern sensibility which makes me struggle to really sympathised for a bunch of rich cats… 😂

I’m obviously exaggerating, it’s still a sweet and gentle film, one that you can easily watch with your kids (though a new caption at the front of the film nowadays warns the audience about old stereotypes and things which could offend modern sensitivities), but I think “nostalgia for the old days” or for the things most of us grew up watching as children plays a lot of our perception that this is a better film that it actually is. I mean, it’s OK (it just about reaches my 3 stars mark.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park (1993) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Sam NeillLaura DernJeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson

If one had to rate this movie in terms of its cultural relevance, place in film history and groundbreaking (and game-changing) special effects, it would certainly get top marks on all counts. It is also one of those rare special-effects-heavy films that holds up surprisingly well even 28 years later. A lot of that has to do with Spielberg himself who, when at the top of his game, certainly knows how to handle and choreograph action sequences mixed with technology: the T-Rex attack at night to me is still one of most tense, masterfully crafted scenes I have ever seen in movies: the combination of CGI and animatronics is seamless, the sound design is terrifying, the camera is always in the right place at the right time while the editing itself is impeccably sharp and precise to the frame!And that’s of course not the only scene worth remembering: the crossing of fence happening while the electric power is being turned on belongs to books of perfect pacing and film editing and of course the scene when the velociraptors step into the kitchen is edge of your seat stuff, as well as beautifully orchestrated.

And talking about “orchestration”, something must be said, once again, about John Williams’s iconic score, which manages to evoke both the spectacle and enthusiasm of seeing dinosaurs for the first time as well as epicness (is there such a word?) of the landscape like no other composer.What really works in this film, more than in any of the other substandard sequels (in fact the second, surprisingly by Spielberg himself, is probably the worst), is how it manages to convey both the love for dinosaurs (that first arrival is breathtaking) and the fear of them (T-Rex at night again!)

Hard to believe that the same people were who all working on this were also making “Schindler’s List” at the same time. What a year that was! I still remember the Dino-mania in that summer of 1993. You could not escape it. It was everywhere: T- Shits, toys, puppets, books, food and so on and so on. And isn’t it fun (and very meta… even before the term was invented) to see that same idea of merchandising reflected in the film itself as we pan across the Jurassic Park shop, towards the end? We must not underestimate the impact this film had on all of us watching dinosaurs roaming the earth for the first time. It was astonishing!! In fact it still is in some ways.

As for the film itself, after a slightly slower beginning where there is an attempt to make a point or two about “play God with nature” and “the fact that you could doesn’t mean that you should”, the film basically says “oh screw all that, you know what? Let’s just have fun with it: it’s all about dinosaurs running wild and chasing people” and so it all turns into rollercoaster ride and basically pure pop-corn mindless entertainment. Well, it might be a slight half wast of a good idea, but then again when the ride itself is so much fun and well executed, who cares? And yes, even if the ending with the big T-rex saving the day is a bit dumb (I mean, first you hear it coming from miles away, as puddles and cups of water tremble with his arrival and then all of a sudden he apparels at the end out of nowhere!??!), I am willing to forgive it all because I have a hell of time every time I watch it.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Lasse Hallström. Cast: Johnny DeppLeonardo DiCaprioJuliette Lewis

Today is my a birthday and so I decided to indulge myself and watch one of my favourite films of all time: as a bit of a “Lockdown treat” really.

I remember seeing this back in 1993 when it was first released and instantly falling in love with it. How could you not?Everything about it was just (and still is) perfect for my taste: not just the way it’s filmed, with its warm sun shining, but the beautifully calibrated mix of comedy and drama, romance and everyday life with just the right amount of quickly weirdness (though never distracting or annoyingly whimsical). It slowly got under my skin and eventually touched me like few things had and possibly ever will.

It had such a profound effect on me that that I ended up pretty much “stealing” from most it, for my graduation project when I was in film school.

ohnny Depp in one of his more understated, tender (and best) roles, shines as the Gilbert of the title, but it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, still just a teenager, who really steals your heart and soul. His performance is possibly the best in a career of many amazing performances: impeccably nuanced, utterly convincing and heartbreakingly real (Playing a retarded boy could have gone so much wrong, but it is perfect!!)

Director Lasse Hallström (of “My Life as a Dog” another favourite of mine) slowly draws you into these dysfunctional people’s lives creating a tender, charming atmosphere that infuses warmth at every steps despite an underlying poignancy. His ability to inject just the right amount of comedy into tragic scenes without making a mockery out of them or trivialising them is second to none. It is also a device that helps making the sadder moments more palatable so that when the real tragedy strikes and it’s played straight, the lack of safety-blanket-comedy makes it even more impactful.

Too many scenes have been imprinted in my memory since my first watch this: ultra-fat momma, the floorboards breaking, her wall to the police station, Leo being washed by his brother, the sudden moment when Johnny Depp lashes out at him, that final heartbreaking death and the splendid scenes of people reacting to it, the fire at the end…

I’m pleased to see that today this film is just as powerful, as charming and tender as it’s always been. A timeless classic for me to which I’l be forever grateful.

On Amazon Primeand if you haven’t seen it, DO IT NOW.

The American President

The American President (1995) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Rob Reiner Cast: Michael DouglasAnnette BeningMartin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dreyfuss, Samantha Mathis

I had not seen this film in years, but what better excuse to revisit it and fantasise about what the American presidency should be like than Biden’s Inauguration Day, which only happened a few hours ago?I remember having a very soft spot for this film and watching it tonight I was surprised by how much it still holds up, both in terms of pacing (great editing, snappy dialogue) and relevance (all the talks about gun control and the environment for example). And you know what? I loved it once again!! So much so that I had to restrain myself from giving it 5 stars. It is not just a thoroughly enjoyable film, beautifully and warmly filmed, but it’s also the inspiration for “the West Wing”, which to this day is still one of my favourite TV series ever made. The film, just like the series, is written by Aaron Sorkin and you can tell straight away: all the elements that made the series so compelling are here (with an extra layer of lush Hollywood coating): the walk-and-talk scenes along the corridors of the White House, the snappy banters, that behind-the-scenes feel, peering though those meetings in the Oval Office, all the political jargon which you just about get the gist of it, the same sort of deadpan jokes among the staff and even the same sort of characters (mostly played by people who will eventually appear in the “West Wing” itself, including of course Martin Sheen, who in this film plays the role of the chief of stuff, slightly disconcerting if you’ve know the tv series as well as I do): the press secretary (here too a woman), the speech writers (MichealJ Fox clearly a precursor of Rob Lowe’s character in the series, Sam Seaborn) and so on… And all that is without even mentioning the music score which feels like it could explode in the theme from the TV series any moment. And then of course, because this is a Hollywood film from the 90s, you’ve got the love story, which however cheesy and bit corny, it is also beautifully and very sweetly played by a magnificent Annette Bening and a super-charming Michael Douglas (in fact he’s the most likeable he’s ever been). In fact politics and the West-Wing aside, this is first and foremost a romantic comedy.All the characters (a stellar cast) have great chemistry with one another and it’s not surprising when you see who’s the director orchestrating it all: Rob Reiner, the same man behind two of my favourite movies “Stand by Me” and “When Harry Met Sally” (but also “A Few Good Men”, “Mysery” and of course “This is Spinal Tap”).So to conclude, yes, it’s a bit sentimental and of course it’s a fairy tale, but it’s also the equivalent of a nice cosy, warm bath, the kind of movies, Billy Wilder or Frank Capra used to make and that they don’t make anymore. We’ll believe me, they should start again!

County Lines

County Lines ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Director: Henry Blake. Cast: Conrad Khan, Harris DickinsonAshley MadekweMarcus Rutherford.

Inspired by true events and director Henry Blake’s first-hand experience as a social worker dealing with young children (this is his first feature length film), County Lines is another one of those “not-easy-to-watch” story the likes of which I seem to stumble across quite often recently (it must be award season!). 

The story of a young kid of 14 who gets groomed into a drug dealing network which exploits vulnerable children and has them  trafficking from cities to coastal and countryside towns all over the country. A sad caption at the end of the film reminds us all that this is not an isolated and made up story: up to 10000 children as young as 11 are involved in “Country lines” across the UK. Shameful and heartbreaking stats

The film opens with a question from a social worker to the kids. Do you know what “acceptable loss” is in your business? It’s you.”

“County Lines” is filmed with unflinching realism though a rather bleak cinematography which enhances the stark poverty these people live in. 

The script is not the most original and some of the lines are a bit “in your face”, but the real heart of the film is the splendid performance by Conrad Khan who manages to evoke that sweetness and vulnerability that children have and at the same time a violent side of him which is totally unexpected but just as believable. 

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