In Retrospect – The Goonies (1985)

As the cult around one of the ’80s most beloved of flicks has grown, so too have the calls for a belated sequel.

Anybody who watches The Goonies will have their favourite character, but the thought of settling down to catch another adventure with the likes of Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman more than 30 years after their search for “One-Eyed” Willy’s treasure is not an appealing one.

the-goonies-posterThe Goonies was, in writer Chris Columbus’ words “Indiana Jones for kids”, a movie that not only stars youngsters, but is also fundamentally about them – about the scrapes that young friends get into before the complications of adult life get in the way.

The modern wave of teen flicks began in the ’80s as Hollywood reacted to the explosive success of Star Wars by tapping in to the inpatient youth market. Alongside the Brat Pack movement led by the guiding hand of John Hughes, Steven Spielberg was overseeing a revolution in family movie entertainment.

the-gooniesThe term ‘Spielbergian’ was coined to describe a certain type of popcorn-friendly feature and Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985) perfectly fits the mould. Executive produced (and co-directed according to some) by the bearded one, the film is fantastical, fun and acutely sentimental in equal measure.

The self-labelled Goonies are a gang of social misfits facing the prospect of their last day together as the neighbourhood they live in prepares to make way for a new golf course. Hanging out in Mikey’s (Astin) attic, they stumble across a map pointing them to the fabled “One-Eyed”Willy’s loot. Against the better judgement of Mikey’s older brother Brand (Brolin), the gang go in search of the gold and, along the way, must contend with the pirate’s booby traps as well as an escaped family of criminals, led by the cragged Mama (Anne Ramsey), who learn of the treasure.

The film smartly spends time establishing the close bond of the kids before they embark on their adventure. It’s these early scenes that are strongest as we get a sense that the characters are desperately trying not to think about the seemingly inevitable events on the horizon – most effectively captured in a brief, sad hug between Mikey and Brand.

The GooniesDonner encouraged improvisation on set, which perhaps inevitably led to the excited young actors (some of whom like Astin and Brolin were starring in their first feature) speaking over each other in an effort to get the last line in. Although subsequently defended by a number of the cast, it often leads to scenes becoming cacophonous as dialogue gets drowned out by screams and shouts.

The dialogue itself is very much of its time (the word “shit” would never get uttered as much in a kids film today), while the big speeches don’t land with as much weight as you imagine Donner and Columbus had originally intended.

The subterranean caverns the Goonies must contend with owe more than a passing nod to Indiana Jones, but are beautifully designed and evoke a real sense of danger. Furthermore, “One Eyed”Willy’s pirate ship (built lovingly to scale) remains a sight to behold and the look of gleeful amazement on the actor’s faces as they first set eyes on it is wonderful.

The GooniesLess successful are the interactions between the Goonies and the dastardly Fratelli clan. Their initial encounter in a run down old restaurant (the starting point for the treasure quest) is clumsily handled and the film can’t seem to decide just how threatening to make its family of criminals.

The film’s opening scene has Jake (Robert Davi) escaping prison after convincing a guard he’s hanged himself (something else we probably wouldn’t see in a film of this ilk these days). Another scene later on finds Goonie Chunk (Jeff Cohen) having been captured by the Fratellis and threatened with having his hand mangled by a blender unless he tells them everything. It’s unnerving stuff, lightened by Chunk taking their threat literally by tearfully owning up to every minor infraction he’s ever committed.

James in particular veers between pantomime villain and wicked witch, while Davi and fellow Fratelli Joe Pantoliano enact the sort of bumbling villainy made famous a number of years later in Columbus’ Home Alone.

The GooniesThrown into the mix is the character of Sloth (John Matuszak), the horribly disfigured brother of Davi and Pantoliano’s Fratellis, who is chained away and later befriends Chunk. Largely ignoring the darkly disturbing aspects surrounding such a tragic character who only wants to be loved, the film instead plays Sloth for light-hearted fun, even going so far as to throw in a Superman gag (a nod to Donner’s 1978 big screen take on the Man of Steel).

While a bit ragged around the edges, The Goonies remains a warm-hearted celebration of the power of friendship and the importance of living every last second of childhood.

Review – T2 Trainspotting

So, how do you follow an era-defining testament of 90s youth?

Well, you can’t, and Danny Boyle is smart enough to know that, much like his leading men, trying to match your previous escapades is likely to end in disaster.

T2: Trainspotting PosterWhat we get instead from this sequel to 1996’s kinetic Trainspotting is a contemplative look through the rear view mirror of lives beset by regret, anger, inertia and a deep frustration at what could have been.

While the world has changed irrevocably, Rent Boy/Mark (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy/Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud/Daniel (Ewen Bremner) and Begbie/Franco (Robert Carlyle) have largely stagnated since that fateful drug deal in London more than two decades ago in which, to quote Spud, “first there was an opportunity… then there was a betrayal”.

That opportunity and betrayal proves the focal point for T2‘s narrative, based loosely on Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up Porno, which picks up with Mark returning from Amsterdam to an Edinburgh that is both barely recognisable and utterly familiar.

T2: TrainspottingIn one of the film’s numerous sly nods to Trainspotting, it picks up just as the original did with Mark running, except this time it’s not from security guards, but rather on a treadmill. Boyle flashes between this and the end of the first film with Mark’s defiant walk across Waterloo bridge, not only to act as a literal bridge between the two films but also to underscore the passing of time.

Mark fled to Amsterdam in part to get away from his “so-called friends” and fully realises there’s a price to be paid by returning home. While Spud is still a heroin addict and all the more tragic for it, Sick Boy has been reduced to blackmailing businessmen in order to make ends meet, while Begbie remains in prison. Both Sick Boy and Begbie continue to be consumed with vengeance, believing Mark not only stole their share of the drug deal but also their hopes and dreams for a life less ordinary.

T2: TrainspottingIt’s to John Hodge’s credit as writer and Miller’s performance that we are kept guessing as to Sick Boy’s true intentions towards his old friend. Whilst there is undoubted anger and jealousy, the brotherhood and joy the character also exhibits following Mark’s return feels just as genuine.

McGregor slips back into his most iconic role and injects a fearful guilt into his portrayal. In a beautifully touching moment, Mark sits next to his father at the dinner table, with the light casting a human shadow onto the empty chair his late mother would have sat on – another pointed reminder of the cruel march of time.

Carlyle is properly unhinged as Begbie, a powder keg of self-loathing and hatred who  can’t escape the narrow path his upbringing at the hands of a wastrel father set him on.

T2: TrainspottingA terrific cast, which sees the return of several familiar faces from the original, is topped by a moving turn by Bremner as Spud. Blessed with a face that exudes so much with a single look, Bremner injects a growing defiance into the most fragile of the central leads. Mark’s return acts as a reawakening for Spud, who’s told by his friend to channel his addictive energy away drugs into something more creative and fulfilling – the results of which become the film’s beating heart and key source of nostalgia.

Rather than be used as a direct homage to Scorsese as was the case in the original, the heavy use of freeze frame has been attributed by Boyle to his characters capturing a moment in time, much like a Polaroid. It’s a nice touch, although used too liberally by the director so that it ends up becoming something of an affectation.

T2: TrainspottingThat said, the film (and Edinburgh especially) looks stunning and while the needle-drop soundtrack (a big part of the original film’s cultural impact) may not be quite as memorable this time around, it’s in keeping with the tone (Underworld’s Slow Slippy in particular).

In Trainspotting, Mark asks: “So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore. Is that it?” The march of time notwithstanding, T2: Trainspotting can hack it with the best of them.

Review – Moonlight

Anyone doubting the power of cinema to break free from the shackles of its self-imposed stereotypes should bask in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and think again.

moonlight-posterFilms about the grim reality of existing within some of America’s most damaged neighbourhoods are hardly uncommon and more often than not check off a list that includes drugs and violence.

While Moonlight isn’t devoid of these, they are merely window dressing for what is a deeply personal work about the confusion, pain and pleasure that childhood and adolescence bestows and the importance of accepting who you are.

moonlightIt chronicles three key stages in the painful path to adulthood for the introverted Chiron, a poor kid living in a run-down district of Miami who must contend with a drug-addled mother (played by Naomi Harris), bullying at school and the feelings he develops for best friend Kevin.

Alongside this is the complicated relationship he forms with Blue/Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes something of a father figure to young Chiron, but whose choice of career ends up having an adverse affect on his and his mother’s lives.

These early scenes between Ali and Alex Hibert as “Little” Chiron set the tone for what is to come. We are at first wary of Blue’s interest in the child, but his intentions to bring Chiron out of his shell and to show him the fatherly affection Chiron has presumably been missing for much of his life win through.

MoonlightA beautifully played scene in which Blue teaches Chiron to swim is poetic in its grace and suggests a baptism of some sort is taking place for both characters. It is here where the reason for Blue’s fascination with Chiron becomes clear – for it is in this moment when he can be the man you suspect he wants so desperately to be.

As Blue says to Chiron in an exchange that strikes right at the heart of the film : “At some point you got to decide who you want to be; don’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

These words echo throughout Moonlight, not least of which during a devastating dinner table conversation in which a confused and heartbreakingly innocent Chiron, believing he is somehow ‘different’ from the rest, asks Blue “what’s a faggot?” before cutting to the core of Blue by putting two and two together to suggest that, as a drug dealer, he might be complicit in his mother’s addiction.

MoonlightWhile the physical similarity of the three actors who play Chiron as a boy (Hibbert), a scrawny teenager (Ashton Sanders) and a bulked up adult (Trevante Rhodes) is not immediately apparent, the character’s awkwardness in his own skin, expressed through hunched shoulders and a downcast, forlorn expression is a baton seamlessly passed on from one to the next.

The repressed anger that shuts Chiron down as a boy bubbles away in Sanders’ eyes, while the feelings he has for Kevin gain in strength. The tragic consequence of the bullying he experiences pushes Chiron away from Kevin, his mother and Miami.

Years later, the weedy teen has developed into a muscle-bound man (wonderfully played by Rhodes in a star-making turn), made in the image of his surrogate father – even down to the vehicle he drives and the crown dashboard decoration. However, he has yet to heed Blue’s earlier advice and presents a version of himself that’s at odds with his true self (he even wears a set of gold teeth, called ‘fronts’).

MoonlightJenkins has spoken of how much Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s source novel In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue spoke to him (they grew up in the same Miami neighbourhood, although were never acquainted) and this manifests itself in his screenplay which imbues each character with a depth and history that actors of the calibre of Ali and Harris plunder to rousing effect.

The strength of the performances and the richness of the characters is matched only by James Laxton’s masterful cinematography, which glides the camera in and out in a style that’s reminiscent of Terrence Mallick. A playground football game involving Chiron and a number of other children is turned into a balletic symphony, while a key encounter between Chiron and Kevin on the beach is magnetic to watch.

MoonlightLaxton’s camerawork is lent greater poetry by Nicholas Brittell’s glorious score, which is centred on a recurring six-note refrain and applies the ‘chopped and screwed’ technique to hip hop and orchestral music to create a slowed down and wholly original sound that submerges the viewer and exacerbates the holding pattern Chiron finds himself in.

Moonlight‘s message of tolerance, acceptance and compassion in the face of hate, repression and cruelty is both urgent and powerful. We need films like this, now more than ever.

Review – Split

For a director so renowned for twists and paradigm shifts, M. Night Shyamalan has seemingly saved the best one for his own career.

Split PosterBack in 2013, I wrote a piece on directors I felt should call it a day and Shyamalan was near the top of the list. It was hardly difficult to argue at the time – Lady In The Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010) were all travesties, while the truly awful After Earth (2013) proved a new low.

This nadir proved something of a turning point as Shyamalan stripped everything back and returned to his low-budget roots by teaming up with micro-budget exploitation producer extraordinaire Jason Blum for 2015’s found footage flick The Visit.

SplitThe renewed promise of that movie is largely realised in this, their latest colaboration, which gifts James McAvoy the role of his career as Kevin, a man who exhibits 23 different personalities due to his being diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID).

While the actual Kevin is largely an invisible bystander, three dominant personalities come to the fore – the threatening, uptight Dennis, the prim, manipulative Patricia and nine-year-old Hedwig.

SplitThis self-entitled ‘horde’ are compelled to abduct teens Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) for a purpose that becomes disturbingly clear as ‘Kevin”s visits to specialist psychologist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) reveal a 24th personality known only as ‘the Beast’ is waiting in the wings to show himself.

Shyamalan has spoken in interviews of the opportunities a low-budget (approximately $10m) provides when it comes to taking risks. While the concept of split personalities is hardly original cinema (Hitchcock’s Psycho remains the high watermark), the film’s frightening opening scene of a kidnapping in broad daylight serves as a shot across the bows that all bets are off.

SplitTight close-ups are used throughout, focusing on McAvoy’s saucer-like eyes and trapping us in Kevin’s fractured psyche along with his trio of victims.

Aside from a completely unnecessary narrative device that leads to each of the girls being in a state of undress, Shyamalan places a brain in each of their heads and has them taking action to find a way out of their perilous dilemma.

As the outsider of the group, misfit Casey is naturally the smartest and tries to play one personality off against the other. A pretty pointless back story, told in flashback, endeavours to give Casey the agency she needs to survive, but Taylor-Joy (fresh from an equally affecting performance in The Witch) does more than enough with the material given to her to make these scenes nothing more than a distraction – towards the end especially.

SplitWhile Taylor-Joy’s blood raw performance is excellent, it’s overshadowed by McAvoy giving it his all and then some in a dizzying turn. It’s the role of a lifetime for anyone brave enough to seize it with both hands and McAvoy unpacks what he brought to the table as a corrupt, mentally evaporating cop in 2013’s Filth and lets rip with a mesmeric barrage of verbal dexterity, contorted body language and unnerving unpredictability that somehow avoids falling into the pit of comical caricature.

The on-screen insanity masks some clunky dialogue, while it’s at least 20 minutes too long and, as a result, drags in places (there’s at least one too many visits to Dr Fletcher’s practice). Meanwhile, the very ending of the film will either make you smile at the director’s chutzpah or leave you wondering whether Shyamalan can ever truly leave the paradigm shifts on the shelf.

Nevertheless, Split is a B-movie treat for most of its running time – words you never thought you’d hear yourself say when describing another Shyamalan film.

Four Frames – The Grey (2012)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout December, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘winter’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Joe Carnahan’s under-appreciated survival thriller The Grey.

By the time Joe Carnahan’s The Grey was released theatrically in 2012, its star Liam Neeson had seemingly devolved from being an award-winning dramatic actor to a geri-action star in search of the next dunderheaded blockbuster.

Indeed, Neeson had starred in Carnahan’s previous movie, an ill-advised big screen take on 80s TV show The A-Team (2010) wherein the Irishman stepped into George Peppard’s shoes to play the cigar-chewing Hannibal Smith.

The Grey

Nothing, therefore, suggested their follow-up to The A-Team was going to be anything but more of the same. However, The Grey was as surprising as it was riveting when it arrived and gave Neeson a role he could finally dig his teeth into whilst still playing the sombre man of action he had become synonymous with.

Set in the harsh wintry environs of Alaska, John Ottway (Neeson) is employed to shoot wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. A flight home goes horribly awry when bad weather brings the plane down and Ottway and a handful of others must do what they can to survive not only the intense cold, but also the equally unforgiving wolves that see the group as their next meal (“they’re man eaters; they don’t give a shit about berries and shrubs”).

The Grey

When we first meet Ottway, he is a broken, suicidal figure who has taken a job “at the end of the world” as he sees himself as “unfit for mankind”. The film cuts between flashbacks of Ottway and his wife in happier times and the Irishman penning a suicide note to her before intending to kill himself with his own rifle. That he stops himself from going through with it after hearing the howl of a wolf is an intriguing precursor of what’s to come.

In spite of his suicidal ideation, it’s notable that Ottway’s first instinct is survival when the plane starts going down in what is a truly terrifying sequence.

The very real threat posed by the wolves is laid bare in chilling fashion throughout, not least of which during one particularly unnerving night scene when the survivors first encounter their nemesis. At first one wolf can be seen in the firelight, but soon multiple sets of glowing eyes are visible; accompanied by increasingly hostile snarling.

The Grey

The fellow survivors are a disparate bunch, as you might expect from a film such as this, but the talented cast of ‘those guys’ such as Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney make the most of Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ (on whose book this is based) egalitarian script and form a bond that is both believable and affecting as one by one they perish.

There’s a nice parallel between the survivors and the wolves as Ottway stamps his authority by putting down a challenge by Frank Grillo’s hot-blooded oil worker shortly after explaining how the ‘alpha’ wolf ruthlessly deals with pretenders to his rule.

While there is no shortage of action, in particular a buttock-clenching scene in which one of the remaining survivors must first fling himself from a cliff edge onto a nearby tree to enable the others to traverse the canyon by a very precarious rope, The Grey is also notable for its contemplative and philosophical approach.

The Grey

A poem written by Ottway’s father is uttered throughout and as he faces what looks to be his final encounter, shards of glass and a dagger taped to his hands, its words gather new meaning: “Once more into the fray… into the last good fight I’ll ever know; live and die on this day… live and die on this day…”.

Ottway’s visions of his wife also reveal themselves as something more, while a scene late on – brilliantly played by Neeson (the director had apparently urged the actor to channel his grief over the death of his wife Natasha Richardson) – finds the character desperately calling for divine intervention and, after none is forthcoming, he says resignedly: “F*** it, I’ll do it myself.”

Dissenting critics have mystifyingly scalded the film for its metaphysical leanings, claiming them to be unnecessary – which is to miss the point entirely. These are presumably the same reviewers who bemoan the lack of depth in today’s bigger budget fare. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was deeply affected by what he saw, so much so that he had to walk out of another screening (something he had never done before).

Right until its shattering cut to black, The Grey digs its fangs into you while also packing an emotional wallop that’s as sublime as the wild Alaskan landscape.