The Book of Life (Jorge Gutierrez, 2014)

What's it about? A fairy tale about the rivalry between two friends, Manolo and Joaquin, for the affections of the lovely Maria. Things are somewhat complicated when the quarreling immortal spirits La Muerte and Xibalba have a wager on which suitor will emerge victorious.

Is it any good? Some wonderfully imaginative animation and visuals on display here, inspired by dolls and artistry from the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities. It's colourful, entertaining fare with good musical sequences, which makes up for a fairly conventional love triangle plot, albeit one that takes us through the worlds of the living and dead, accompanied by various mythical rulers of the underworld. So maybe not that conventional, come to think of it. Also, for a film dealing with divisions between life and the afterlife, I would have liked to see a little more poignancy in the sections dealing with death and family loss, which might have given the film more heft. Still, it all looks absolutely fabulous and it's hard not to like a film featuring stampeding pigs, a skeleton fire-bull and a Latin-American rendition of Radiohead's Creep.

What does the Fonz think? Juan thumb up!

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GHI Triple Bill

Forging ahead with a efficiency that will surprise many, not least myself, the 2015 Alphabet Film Project continues unabated, albeit in entirely predictable fashion, today brought to you by the number 3 and the letters G-H-I

Previously on the Alphabet Film Project....

Atlantic City
Blood of Fu Manchu
Curse of Frankenstein

Esio Trot

The first and much-loved Gremlins film must have got wet and been fed after midnight to spawn Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990), which is a much more anarchic, mischievous and rowdy being. Much derided on its release 25 years ago (25 YEARS!!!), it's a pity it isn't a better film, because there's a lot of terrific invention in it, not least in daring to be a 'meta-sequel' which gleefully takes the piss out of its predecessor by poking fun at the Gremlin 'rules' and key sequences from the film. Not only that, it also takes satirical side-swipes at sequels in general, film tie-in merchandising, film critics and Donald Trump, as well as throwing in several film references along the way. Unfortunately, it lacks a proper plot, meaning it becomes little more than a series of Gremlin gags, not all of which hit the mark. It was probably ahead of its time in what it was trying to do, as several other meta-films followed to better reception towards the end of the 90s, but then again none of them had Hulk Hogan breaking the fourth wall and challenging the Gremlins to a fight when they break the film half-way through. Gizmo dressed as Rambo was just stupid though.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) is an elliptical love story between a French actress and Japanese architect  set against the backdrop of WWII. A major influence n the French New Wave movement, it's an arresting hybrid of documentary and drama, with the main interest being the innovative editing and use of image and dialogue to connect time, space and people, particularly the use of brief flashbacks to suggest memories. As such, it's a key film in cinema history and works well in an experimental sense, although it doesn't really sustain an emotional resonance throughout. Still a worthwhile watch, though, and a heartfelt tribute to the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings

Ils (Xavier Palud & David Moreau, 2006) is a fairly assured French-Romanian home invasion horror. Unlike the perpetrators, it doesn't outstay its welcome at only 74mins long, and also understands the value of keeping threats mostly unseen to ratchet up tension. I couldn't help thinking the terrorised couple brought it on themselves a bit by living in a stupidly large, shabby-chic, perfect-for-staliking-people house in the middle of nowhere, though. It would all be more horrific if it all really happened, but a quick bit of research reveals that in this case the 'based on a true story' promise seems to be code for 'completely made up'. It worked for the Coen brothers, I suppose, but these two directors haven't really gone on to better things, with the limp US remake of The Eye their only notable output since. And it was rubbish.

Next time folks, it'*consults alphabet*......J-K-L!!!

On the Run in Belfast Double Bill

In Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947), IRA man Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is shot during a robbery and stumbles off bleeding through the dark streets of Belfast (although the city's name is never explicitly mentioned). Starting out as a conventional noir thriller, it soon develops into a nightmarish, almost metaphysical affair, as the dying anti-hero encounters several disparate characters in his increasingly delirious state. Tremendous, deep photography lends it real atmosphere, with good performances all round (despite some variable Irish accents). For all that, some parts are a little too surreal and/or philosophical, as it focuses on the 'conflict in the hearts of the people', rather than the political conflict, which undermines the pacing and tension somewhat. Incidentally, this film helped make the Crown Bar in Belfast a famous tourist hotspot, but a word of warning; the snugs in the bar might be a good place to lie low for a while if you've been shot, but they're a disaster if there's 9 of you wedged in there and you have to get out for a piss.

'71 (Yann Demange, 2014) is a much more visceral affair, although it too is less concerned with the political background than the impact upon individuals caught up in it. Set in 1971, it sees British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) deployed to Belfast with his squad, only to end up separated from them during a riot and left alone to negotiate his way back to safety of his barracks. Along the way, he encounters characters from both side of the divide who alternately want to help or hurt this stranger in a strange land. First-time director Demange, a Frenchman with little previous knowledge of the conflict, not only does an excellent job of recreating the chaotic claustrophobia of the times, he also brings an even-handed outsider's view to proceedings, taking pains to acknowledge the viewpoints of protagonists on both sides, even if the overall political context is simplified.  In the central conceit of an injured man surviving the means streets of Belfast it has inevitable comparisons with Odd Man Out, but John Carpenter's early movies are perhaps a better touchstone, with the minimalistic David Holmes score recalling that of Assault of Precinct 13, whilst the plot plays out through the dark, forbidding city streets like a grimmer version of Escape from New York. Not many wisecracks here and for any Northern Irish viewer, there's always a slight uneasiness in seeing the darkest days of The Troubles recreated onscreen. Ultimately, '71 is a tense, grimy and rather sad thriller, which is entirely fitting for a film set during such a tragic, dirty war.

John Wick (Stahelski & Leitch, 2014)

What's it about? Soon after the death of his wife, the grieving John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is attacked in his home by a gang of intruders. But, wouldn't you know it, turns out Wick is a legendary assassin and he's coming out of retirement to exact his revenge. Uh-oh. People die.

Is it any good? Not sure how this ended up in cinemas as it's obviously a video game, with some bogus expository cut-scenes to break up the bodacious action as Neo...sorry...Wick fights through various levels before getting to the Boss fight. Someone will probably adapt it into a film.

Anything else I should know? The first-time directors are both renowned Hollywood stuntmen and their obvious insider know-how means the extended action sequences are splendidly choreographed as Neo...sorry...Wick kills a shed-load of bad-guys in ruthlessly efficient style. Here's a handy chart which records all Neo's...sorry...Wick's killcount. Now 50, Reeves, sporting a snappy suit and a trim beard, still cuts a pretty cool figure, except when he has to act, of course. Mercifully, the directors don't seem to concerned about that, or about plot or dialogue, so he's safe enough. Expect a franchise.

What does the Fonz think? Save point break.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)

What's it about? The story of Alan Turing, the genius who helped crack the Nazi Enigma code during WWII, only to be persecuted in later years for his homosexuality.

Is it any good? The story is so good, you'd have to try hard to mess it up completely (although that didn't stop the makers of Engima back in 2001). Anyhow, this is a solidly assembled piece, relying heavily on an affecting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing to overcome a slightly clunky framing device and narration. It has drew criticism for playing around with hard facts, but screenwriter Graham Moore, who won a slightly surprising Best Adapted Screenplay for his work here, has argued that the film remains true to the overall story and character. I'm inclined to agree with that, but it's a pity the makers don't trust the audiences with a little more intelligence here - rather than find a way to make the work and breakthroughs of Turing (and his team) accessible, they simply present him as some sort of autistic Rainman type, unable to articulate his views to others. It does him and his methods a bit of a disservice and will no doubt leave some viewers a little frustrated at the dumbing-down of the science and work involved. In the end, it's unlikely to stick long in the memory as a film, but if it inspires folk to read a little more about the work and legacy of Turing, it's done some good.

Anything else I should know? Well, on that note, you can read all about the fact vs fiction of Turing's life and work here. You really should, you know.

I don't trust you. What do others think? It seems not everyone is happy that Turing - a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence - ever turned his hand to science. If you're using a computer to read this, best be careful.

Maybe, but that sign doesn't look hand-written

What does the Fonz think? I give it 0111 out of 1010

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