Sunday, 20 January 2019

King Of Thieves

Cast: Michael Caine, Charlie Cox, and Ray Winstone

Director: James Marsh  

103 minutes (15) 2018
Studio Canal Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st January]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton   

Based upon a true story of the Hatton Garden burglary that made headlines in 2015, King Of Thieves is a hugely entertaining heist movie that specifically recalls the glory days of Ealing classic comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), but it’s not really much like that, at all. Despite its obvious appeal as an old boys caper, full of wrinkly blokes doddering about in search of purpose and meaning in life, its crime drama explores how elderly survivors can still exist in a treacherous London underworld through twilight years with paranoia and a history of violence. These are diamond geezers, but they're a bit wobbly on replacement hips and frequent medications, while plodding through their sixties and seventies, thanks to the ensemble cast of a lifetime.

Kenny (Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner), Terry (Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas), Danny (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast), Billy 'the fish' (Michael Gambon, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), and Carl (Paul Whitehouse), team up with OAP widower Brian (Michael Caine, Harry Brown, Get Carter) for one last job. Lounging around in pubs, ogling waitresses, cackling and guffawing like retired soldiers when they're not swearing like jolly drunken sailors, the habitual offenders of James Marsh’s movie smartly mine a rich seam of elderly veteran and age-rage humour. They might appear harmless enough but, watch out, Brian’s got a bus pass, their gang has a deaf diabetic as look-out, and every one of them is increasingly desperate for a piss.

“In this game, there’s what you know and what you don’t know, and if you don’t even fucking know what you don’t know, you know fuck all!” Amusingly, the old men’s ace is the mysterious Basil (Charlie Cox, TV’s Daredevil), a young techie with access to keys and a basic knowledge of 21st century security. To counter the otherwise leisurely pace of this Easter weekend crime, crucial action makes use of a wholly energetic fast-cutting, from the job’s prep montage to smash ‘n’ grab drama in the safe-deposit vault, so that key events play like scenes from a typical Guy Ritchie thriller.

Apart from the relaxed presence of Caine on good form, Broadbent is doing his best psycho impression as the frighteningly volatile Terry. Far more than just a starry revision of Ronnie Thompson’s The Hatton Garden Job (aka: One Last Heist, 2017), here’s a freshly iconic take on genre themes of ‘victimless crime’, with the daring actions of widely experienced villains, winningly portrayed by a gallery of great British actors, as this highly commercial assembly of instantly recognisable faces, with careers of dazzling screen credits, clearly enjoy themselves while playing infamous rogues.

Notable use of The Killers’ song The Man, and a jazzy score link this often darkly witty modern picture to British cinema’s treasure of retro images and sounds, as some vintage clips from the likes of Billy Liar (1963), The Italian Job (1969), and Scum (1979), appear in evocative career-flashbacks as a celebratory tribute to the longevity of these stars, that linger not fade into social memory, and KOT presents its true face in the well-worn, yet not always world-weary, expressions of this amazingly impressive cast of seniors.

Disc extras:
A making-of featurette
Michael Caine interview (seven minutes)
A featurette on casting the crooks
Deleted scenes

Friday, 18 January 2019


Cast: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, and Urbano Barberini

Director: Dario Argento

108 minutes (18) 1987
Cult Films Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st January]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Even for horror fans, Dario Argento’s cinema can be an acquired taste... What one viewer regards as peculiarly fascinating surrealism, another might judge to be simply a narrative incoherence. Although it often seems that the central values of Argento’s oeuvre flip-flop, from his imitation of Hitchcockian intrigues, to pure aesthetic and technological cinematic merits, there can be no doubt his commitment to a dazzling inventiveness for murder has given us more than a handful of genuine horror classics.

Opera (aka: Terror At The Opera) rips off Phantom Of The Opera, but gets away with it because it adds raw fears and unforgettable visual stylisation to its electrifying fusion of macabre shocks, gruesome violence, black comic characterisation, and borderline campy dialogue. Oddly enough, this is a rather superior genre film to Argento’s own version of Phantom Of The Opera, made in 1998.

In Opera, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) wins a coveted stage role, when the diva’s accident during rehearsals for a new version of Verdi’s Macbeth gives the young singer her first chance in the spotlight. However, the rising star soon becomes a tortured witness to the activities of a vicious killer who forces her to watch as helpless new victims die in agony. Some of this movie’s violence occurs off-screen, but our heroine’s terrified expression as an unwilling observer sells a frightful impact, so we (probably) all prefer not having to look at every single gruesome thing that she sees, anyway. Despite creative misunderstandings of identity and cunning whodunit misdirects, Opera really stands or falls based upon its ingenious and enthralling murder set-pieces, and here Argento surpasses many fans’ expectations with several spectacular and memorable kill-shots that are always worth repeated viewings.

Cast as Lady Macbeth, Betty survives bad luck and the cruelty of her bondage ordeals while she pits her wits against a mysterious psycho-killer. Argento’s renowned signatures of visual dazzle and creative ultra-violence have rarely been this precisely and skilfully composed, or so efficiently choreographed, whether for generating unease or habitually and crazily inventive death scenes, where the intensely theatrical unreality of a staged opera is expertly woven together with nightmarish flashbacks.

Some filmmakers would have us believe that the a vital element in the creative process is writing the script. They tell us that a good script is essential, but I tend to disagree. A screenplay is certainly not a movie, anymore than a shopping list is a dinner party, or a business plan (just ask any self-employed worker how useful a page of numbers really is!) is a factory or any other going concern. 

Auteur theory maintains that the director, carrying overall responsibility for the filmmaking project, is the true author of a movie, not the screenwriter, and this idea applies to Argento more than most directors because his best work succeeds while lacking some of the things often deemed to be essential in a proverbial ‘good’ movie. Plot structure, convincingly portrayed characters with credible motives, believable storytelling techniques and comfortable moralising are rarely found in Argento’s brand of slasher cinema.

And yet his work is just as interesting, compelling, and entertaining as other kinds of tragedy depicted on screen, and many Argento pictures boast the kind of demented narrative drive and striking mise en scene which leaves the supposedly shocking horrors of many Hollywood filmic terror masters looking sadly tame and bloodless. Whereas the average US filmmaker uses the apparatus of filmmaking like a sculptor wields a hammer and chisel, chipping and carving away excess to reveal a statuesque artwork beneath, Argento’s approach is more like that of the potter. 

When he wants a particularly grand effect, instead of removing existing material he simply adds more clay! Argento’s acrobatic camera would doubtless score highly with a panel of Olympic gymnastics judges and, arguably, the Italian maestro has made better artistic use of tools like Steadicam (intriguing POV shots) and the Louma crane (swooping abound theatrical settings) than American directors, including the widely acclaimed Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.   

Superbly restored and re-graded with a 2K scan, in consultation with Argento, this HD release for the Blu-ray edition includes improved English subtitles for the Italian track.

Disc extras:
Aria Of Fear - a brand new candid interview with director Dario Argento
Opera Backstage - a documentary showing Argento making Opera (40 minutes)
Featurette about the restoration process

Monday, 14 January 2019


Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Matthew Modine, and Ryan Guzman  

Director: Brian A. Miller  

92 minutes (15) 2018
Signature DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Jeff Young

Seven years after a robbery gone awry, the lone survivor of a shoot-out is snuck out of a secure hospital. The patient, Macdonald (Matthew Modine), decides on the spot to take a red pill as the first stage of testing an experimental drug to fix his memory problems. A former nurse, Erin (Meadow Williams), administers this clearly illicit treatment, reviving a lost history with tortuous scenes of mental quakes and camera shakes. Stallone plays the top detective, Sykes, unexcitedly musing about professionalism and sharpness of conduct in the field. 

Proficient director Brian Miller - the maker of Officer Down (2013), headlined by Stephen Dorff; sci-fi adventure Vice (2015), featuring Thomas Jane; and Reprisal (2018), starring Bruce Willis - churns out routine or undistinguished movies, centred on cops or crooks, usually following redemptive story-arcs. Moral quandaries are explored to highlight each busy crossfire of blatant corruption and extra-legal themes. Miller often champions world-views with narrative flashbacks that convolute procedural tales usually lacking sufficient heroes or wholly competent villains.

A somewhat grungy authenticity elevates this otherwise lacklustre picture from apparent production-line origins (perhaps it was shot while Miller’s favourite lead Willis was away for his annual weekender holiday?). As a violent crime drama, Backtrace is made more worthwhile by its vaguely sci-fi mystery elements of the amnesia thriller formula, where recall forms the basis for identity and persona, in addition to uncovering a lost but never forgotten, and highly desirable prize.

In this particular case, it’s the secret location of the robbery’s reportedly buried loot. Backtrace concerns a $20-million treasure map stashed in the back of Macdonald’s head. The puzzle is painstakingly unravelled with much of the agony suffered by Macdonald, as Modine registers the character’s traumatic experiences and his intense struggle to fully remember what’s happened to him. A guns-blazing finale is no guarantee of thrilling quality, but Backtrace does not fail in that respect.