Ice Spiders (2007)

Ice Spiders

Tibor Takacs has been making ISCFC-worthy movies his entire career. From 1987’s “The Gate” to 1997’s “Armageddon” (the Rutger Hauer / Mark Dacascos one) to 2013’s “Spiders”, he’s the guy you call if you have a movie with a weird premise and a low budget. Although we’ve only reviewed one, the fantastic “Mansquito”, he’ll be showing up again, and he’s behind one of my favourite SyFy Channel movies, “Ice Spiders”.

I want SyFy to be more like Roger Corman who, during his 60s heyday, would do stuff like write a script in a day if he suddenly got access to a cool set. I’d like to think something similar happened here, where SyFy were offered a ski resort and something that looked a bit like a military base for a weekend and knocked up a film with the first monster that came into their heads. The gist of this particular one…can you guess from the title?…is we have a group of teen skiing superstars going off to a resort for training; plus the owner of the resort (famed TV writer Stephen J Cannell, doing a spot of acting); his head trainer, former Olympic hopeful Dan “Dash” Dashiell (Patrick Muldoon) and the hot scientist from the local research place, Dr April Sommers (Vanessa Williams, 44 at the time and not looking a day over 25). It’s this lot up against the head scientist from the local research place, who’s been doing illicit experiments on some prehistoric spider DNA, and a bunch of gigantic spiders, who are fine in the snow and have got a taste for humans.

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“Ice Spiders” manages to separate itself from its SyFy brethren in a number of ways. First up, the entire main cast can act so there’s no wasted time getting embarrassed on their behalf. The characters, by and large, behave in a sensible manner. And there’s a good sense of fun on display – the first reaction of the two hunters who die at the beginning of the movie isn’t to run, or get help, when they see a giant spider, but to try and kill it; Dash’s pathetic attempt to hit on April; and a truly magnificent mid-air death.

Although there’s a lull (only a small one) Takacs understands that you need to change things up a bit in the middle of a cheesy giant spider movie, so we get all sorts of different attacks, methods of defence, camera styles and perspectives. There’s a great scene where the teens are watching some of their friends try and make it to the school bus, at extreme distance, so their commentary runs over the footage of tiny figures trying to dodge spiders – not a world-beating scene, I admit, but visually unique in terms of the rest of the film. This is rare, is what I’m getting at.

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There’s a fun final battle, some magnificent black-and-white morality at the end, and a decent satisfying coda. What more could you ask for (from a SyFy Channel original, about ice spiders)? It’s also got one of those odd credits that almost guarantees an interesting story – listed as “executive consultant” is Brian Trenchard-Smith, who we’ve covered with “Drive Hard”, but has a long and famous career in Ozploitation and in being one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites. What did he consult on, I wonder?

Anyway, while it’s not perfect, it’s loads of fun, Muldoon is a great B-movie leading man (although he does come out with one too many lame sexist “jokes”), and you’ll have a great time if it’s on.

Rating: thumbs up

44 years old. I think she's a vampire.

44 years old. I think she’s a vampire.

Scary Movie (1991)

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I felt right from the beginning I was going to enjoy this one – the production company has the brilliant name “Generic Movies, Ltd” and the title popped onto the screen with a barcode underneath it, a joke (so my wife tells me) on the proliferation of generic products and barcodes at the time – famously, a year after this movie, President George HW Bush had no idea what a barcode was, another nail in his electoral coffin.

“Scary Movie” really loaded the deck in its favour with the first few minutes too. There’s future Oscar nominee John Hawkes, in what must be his first starring role; plus the soundtrack features Butthole Surfers, whose early stuff is some of my favourite music. Hawkes is Warren, an extremely nervous and paranoid young man, who’s about to go into a haunted house with his “friends” (who just seem like people who insult him slightly less than everyone else). Haunted houses seem a fairly uniquely American thing- someone will convert their home (or a barn, in the case of this movie) into a series of rooms with various spooky goings-on, grotesque tableaux, and the like; then charge people entry. It’s a whole industry, and seems quite good fun to be honest, but it’s never made it to this side of the pond.

On the same night, a prison transport truck carrying mental patient / killer John Louis Barker overturns and Barker is nowhere to be found. After overhearing the local sheriff, Warren becomes convinced that Barker has taken up residence inside the haunted house and is trying to kill Halloween merry-makers, and his mental state deteriorates as he becomes “trapped” inside the house. Will he survive? Why are his friends such idiots? Why does the hot woman think he’s cute?

There’s a lot to like about this, which makes the fact the director was 19 years old when he made this even more remarkable (plus, even though I can’t find out, I guess he’s a relative of the great Roky Erickson, Texas psychedelic musician, which makes me like him even more). The sense of Warren’s increasing disorientation inside is well-captured, he does well with his actors and considering the no doubt miniscule budget, everything looks fine. The leader of a gang of leather-jacketed thugs gives us the movie’s best line, “If I wanted to hear from an asshole, I’d fart”. There is, of course, a but.

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The film isn’t so much slow as devoid of incident for long stretches. The queueing to get into the Haunted House takes up more than half an hour when it could reasonably have been dealt with in about five minutes; plus, the repetition of Hawkes’ bugged-out eyes and the teasing stops having any extra significance after a while. Same goes for the running round the house – he runs through the same room multiple times and I began to get a bit bored of it all, like I wanted to shout at him to just run through a wall or something, anything, other than look extremely unhappy all the time.

It’s got a very curious denouement, one which I think would feel more appropriate in an episode of the Twilight Zone. In fact, this would work a huge amount better as an episode of that show – there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, but it would make a really solid 45 minutes. All this is really disappointing, thanks to how much I enjoyed the opening of the movie – it felt like we were in safe hands, there was a light comic touch and it looked like a winner. Then it just slowly ground to a halt.

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I got this film thanks to the internet – as far as I know, it’s never been released on DVD, and even a VHS release looks a bit sketchy. This is a shame, as despite my criticism of it, it’s a fascinating curio, filmed in the small Texas town where it was set, soundtrack full of amazing bands, and a very odd plot. Director Daniel Erickson went on to make a lot of music videos after this movie, but came back after a near 20 year absence with the movie “Eve’s Necklace” in 2010, a micro-budgeter (including the voice talents of John Hawkes, who presumably did it as a favour) with an all-mannequin cast. I almost literally cannot wait to find and watch this movie, it sounds amazing.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Scary Movie (1993)

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Peggy Ahwesh is a fascinating character. If you don’t want to go and read her Wikipedia page, she started off making short films about local punk bands around her industrial Pennsylvania home town, after graduating college, then thanks to a film night she put on at a Pittsburgh art warehouse, she met George Romero and his crew. Luckily, Romero was a good guy, with strong political and gender awareness (plus, he was still making good movies back then) and Ahwesh started working on his crew, and the friends she met there plus the exposure she was getting allowed her to make her first “big” film, known as “The Pittsburgh Trilogy”. Since then, she’s made a huge variety of films in a huge variety of styles, plus has taught future generations of filmmakers.

This is, perhaps, not the best film of hers to start with, but as so many of our reviews are “stick a pin in a list, start there” style affairs, it’s as good as any. It’s an eight minute film where two pre-teen girls recreate the tropes of horror cinema – wearing vampire capes, werewolf claws, one of them is tied to a table while the other “stabs” her with a knife made of tinfoil, etc. The basic gist of this is, if you read the standard description, that their cross-dressing and seizing of “male” roles could have dire consequences, if the background music horror sound effects are to be believed. Simple and effective, and the point made is a good one.

There is a primary issue with this, though, and while it doesn’t uniquely apply to “The Scary Movie” in particular, this is what I’m reviewing so you’ll have to make do with it here. If you’re reading this, you have a passing interest in avant-garde cinema (or were fooled by the title), and the way I was exposed to it was by late night Channel 4, in the UK. I’ve lost count of the number of experimental video pieces I’ve seen which are black and white, shifting in an out of focus, no audible dialogue, non-actors pulling faces at the camera, filmed in someone’s apartment with no narrative or even an attempt at one. So, while this is no doubt an interesting film, it just feels like one of a thousand similar pieces, recorded around the same time by the same generation of people.

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But then, would I say “well, I’ve seen enough boat paintings” when looking at a Turner exhibit? Or would I complain about the endless simple chords at a Ramones gig? Probably not, in either instance, but I’m not convinced Ahwesh is up there with a Turner or a Ramone in her particular field either. It’s probably helpful, though, to approach this like an individual song or one painting in a gallery – to be admired for a few minutes, then moved on from. You wouldn’t go to the cinema to watch an 8 minute film on its own, so it’s not helpful to look at it that way.

Thankfully, for people like me, Ahwesh has put up what seems like the majority of her stuff on Vimeo, so you don’t need to view this in isolation. I’d heartily recommend a few hours spent with her work, more than I would with the huge majority of filmmakers we cover on here. You may not be old and jaded like me, and this may come as a new delight, in which case, you’ve got a lot of fun ahead of you.

Scary Movie (2000)

If only that line at the bottom were true

If only that line at the bottom were true

This isn’t so much going to be much of a review of the film itself, because I’m sure none of us really care. You’re unlikely to stumble on it, and thanks to the time-specific nature of the “comedy” the makers don’t exactly encourage you to watch the old ones. The immediacy that allows these films to exist (yes, stuff that just happened is hilarious!) also acts against re-viewing – although the horrific thought exists that this may be viewed as a “classic” in comparison to the demon spawn it birthed.

I thought Keenen Ivory Wayans was a genius. I adored “In Living Colour” and his two earlier films “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central…” and “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka!” were both favourites of mine; but by the time this came out he’d not done much for a while. I don’t consider “Scream” a parody of slasher movies as much as I see it as a meta-commentary on the rules of the game (because, as we know, it follows all the rules slavishly, and absolutely works in its own right as a slasher movie), so I never took this as a parody of a parody, or whatever. I wanted to like it.

And it’s sort-of okay! Anna Faris is an excellent straight woman to the insanity all round her, the main cast is all fine and it looks like a decent amount of money was spent on it. Okay, it’s not perfect (I got bored with the constant gay jokes, for one) but it’s interesting to see a film like this that allows for some plot to creep in around the barrage of jokes. The two main films parodied are “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, but there’s references to a lot of things that’d have been in the public consciousness at the time. Heck, I’d say give the first two a try, if you’re in the mood. There are worse comedies out there.

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But, this is perhaps the best example (I can think of) of success spoiling people. Lots of people. After this film’s monstrous box office, Keenen Ivory Wayans was clearly given a blank cheque to make two movies, and the two he came up with are “White Chicks” and “Littleman”, two of the worst films it’s ever been my misfortune to see. His career sank like a stone after that, although there was a brief blip in 2009 when his cousin Damien Dante Wayans directed “Dance Flick”, an attempt by them to ape their former writers Friedberg and Setzer that disappeared almost completely without trace (have you ever heard of it?)

Talking of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Setzer, their story has been told by many sites like this. “A pimple on the ass of Hollywood” is about the nicest thing I’ve seen written about them- after being two of the six credited writers on “Scary Movie”, they branched out on their own, although it took them a while to get going. “Date Movie”, “Epic Movie”, “Meet The Spartans”, “Disaster Movie”, “Vampires Suck” and “The Starving Games”, six of the worst and blamed by many for the decline of Western civilisation (although I watched “Vampires Suck” when I had a fever once, and I didn’t hate it). Taking that Twilight-themed masterpiece at random, it made $80 million, which doesn’t include home video and Netflix sales, from a $20 million budget. From their spots at the bottom of the writer’s list for an above-average-ish parody movie, they’ve made a decade-plus career happen, and it’s not stopped yet.

In the last couple of years, we’ve had “Best Night Ever”, which looks like a cross between “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids” and rather bizarrely had some positive reviews, as it appears to be something a bit like a proper movie. Coming up are “Superfast”, taking on the Fast & Furious franchise, and “Who The F*** Took My Daughter?”, which is just listed as “announced” thus far, and I’m going to take a wild stab on being somewhat similar to “Taken”. I miss their old naming format, as we’d have had “Bachelorette Movie”, “Car-Based Theft Movie” and “Child Abduction Movie”.

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Ultimately, you can compare them to the great parodists of the previous generation, Mel Brooks and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team. It’s safe to say that those guys loved and understood the things they were parodying, because there’s so much detail and background stuff (“Airplane”, famously, lifts entire scenes wholesale from “Zero Hour”, and the change of emphasis makes them hilarious). They are, of course, vastly superior to Friedberg and Setezer, but when audiences are allowing the two of them to make a comfortable profit on all their movies, someone is going to keep funding this comedy of recognition, where the actual joke is far secondary to just saying “hey, look at this thing you remember!”

There’s a strange thread running through criticism of them, though, which indicates they’re making the world worse. Korey Coleman of Spill.com, writing in 2010, said “I think it shows a slight de-evolution in what people will accept as entertainment”, and this is ludicrous. The idea that, were it not for Friedberg and Seltzer, the $80,000,000 that “Vampires Suck” made would be flowing straight into the coffers of the nearest arthouse cinema, is an absolute nonsense. Besides, as someone who’s sat through some truly dreadful semi-improv mumblecore movies, making rotten, lazy “entertainment” is not something that’s limited to the so-called bottom end of the intellectual spectrum.

They are an effect, not a cause. We cannot strip funding from our schools, actively try and stop people from thinking critically, and to reduce political discourse to two old white men shouting at each other, then to expect the kids that come up through that system to enjoy the same sort of things we did. If having an attention span is seen as an irrelevance, why should we expect people to display evidence of one? Blaming the people who make movies like this for the state of society is like blaming the fire when a lunatic burns down your house. You want to stop more Friedbergs and Seltzers? Then campaign for better schools, to stop the rich stealing from the rest of us, for separation of church and state and for less bigotry. Giving their films 0% on Rotten Tomatoes has done precisely nothing to affect their popularity, and has probably even helped in some instances.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Foxcatcher (2014)

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Directed by: Bennett Miller

Earlier this year it was recommended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that wrestling should be dropped from the Olympic schedule by 2020. When I heard this news I thought about how much American collegiate wrestling would be affected. The pinnacle for a collegiate wrestler lies beyond divisional and world championships, and arguably what matters most is success at the Olympic Games. It is the brass ring that all young wrestlers strive for, the key thing in most coach’s motivational speeches, the reason for 6am morning runs, and breaking through the pain of evening training sessions. The IOC decision could mean that wrestling ends as nothing more than a high school rite of passage, and that to the detriment of the sport young American wrestlers will gravitate to other sports.

At the beginning of ‘Foxcatcher’ Mark Schultz is struggling to make ends meet. He’s a champion wrestler, but struggles by on a diet of ramen noodles. Mark picks up extra money by giving speeches at elementary schools for twenty dollars, showing off his prized Olympic gold medal. Back then there was no UFC or WWE, lucrative money making opportunities were few and far between for champion wrestlers. Fast forward to the end of the film and he’s still struggling, he decides to fight in a MMA contest, this was during the early days of the UFC, before PPVs, the Reebok sponsorship deals and FOX TV coverage. Before the chance to make any decent money.

Perhaps there’s never been much money in wrestling. But it is a unique sport where hard work and sacrifice paves the way for something that goes beyond the sport itself. For many years it is almost a proving ground. A test of what it is to be a man. This is epitomized by the personal philosophy of the founder of the wrestling team at Foxcatcher farm.

Based on a true story ‘Foxcatcher’ stars Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, Mark Ruffalo as his older brother Dave and Steve Carell in a career defining role as the enigmatic multi-millionaire John Eleuthere du Pont. Down and desperate Mark Schultz is contacted by du Pont and offered the opportunity to lead a wrestling team to glory in the World Championships and Olympic Games.  Du pont also wants Mark’s brother Dave on board, but initially Dave turns down du Pont, preferring to stay where he lives because his family are settled.

John du Pont is a privileged member of a family dynasty, and given that he has had everything handed to him, he vicariously tries to buy friendship and sporting success. The film captures the bizarreness of the relationship between du Pont and his young male wrestling team. There is a faint hint of something sexual, but mostly du Pont is presented as a damaged man in pursuit of greatness, someone that hopes to contribute to the illustrious du Pont family history.

Carrell’s performance is reminiscent to the late Robin Williams’ darkly dramatic turn in ‘One Hour Photo’. Carell distances himself from his previous comedic output, and though he’s shown some welcome depth in films like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, as du Pont he really does surprise you. There’s more than the prosthetic nose, Carell is distant and cold as du Pont. Perfectly playing a man who was likely fighting battles with the demons in his head; there’s also something wonderful about Carell’s awkwardness, showing how du Pont is profoundly uncomfortable around people. The sign of a lonely isolated figure. As du Pont reveals during the film, throughout his life he hardly had any friends.

Channing Tatum also excels. When looking over his career it is evident that Tatum knows his limitations, he can’t go method, or beyond his acting capabilities, so he stays in his comfort zone, and this isn’t a criticism, more a complement, in that he plays to his strengths when playing the simple kind of American man. I think there’s some parallels in ‘Foxcatcher’ to his performance in as the battle scarred soldier in ‘Dear John’.

The most notable thing about ‘Foxcatcher’ is the absence of women. ‘Foxcatcher’ is a man’s movie, Vanessa Redgrave exists on the periphery as du Pont’s frail and sickly Mother and Sienna Miller floats about in the distance as Dave Schultz’s wife. But neither really gets any screen time. This perhaps reflects the culture behind wrestling, a sport which though some females compete in, is mostly a male pursuit.

Director Bennett Miller continues his spellbinding run of retelling real life events, following on from ‘Capote’ and ‘Moneyball’, with another film full of toil and rigour. ‘Foxcatcher’ is a story of troubled but deeply focussed men who are hell bent on climbing the mountain and achieving glory. The cost of this is everything.

– RJW

8/10

Bridge of Dragons (1999)

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Nu Image make the sort of films I love, pretty much. Starting with low budget sci fi and action (Cyborg Cop, Project Shadowchaser) in the early 90s then, in recent years, lucrative deals with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Butler (the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen), they’ve got a good thing going and clearly learned well from their old bosses at Cannon. They’re one of the main companies operating out of Sofia, Bulgaria, where aging stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and this film’s own Dolph Lundgren make action movies just like they used to at their height.

Then there’s director Isaac Florentine, one of the kings of this new straight-to-video world. He’s made a few films with Scott Adkins, like the amazing “Ninja”, and, weirdly, quite a lot of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes. This is from relatively early in his directing career, and is also the first film that Nu Image made in Sofia before buying a studio there a few years later. So what’s it all about?

After a good old traditional “soldiers storm the rebel base” scene to kick us off, we’re introduced into the film’s world, and it does something simple and clever that more low-budget films ought to do – sets the action in a fictional country, so you don’t have to worry about landmarks and trying to make a normal town square look like *famous city*. It’s a place with princesses and evil generals, where high-tech military equipment rubs shoulders with horse-driven carts; and Dolph is “Warbird”, one of General Ruechang’s top mercenaries. Ruechang has seized de facto power after the death of the old king, and is about to marry Princess Halo to make the power “legal”. Only problem is, she doesn’t want to, so escapes, and Dolph’s a good guy so after a bit of tracking her down, goes over to her side, and that of the rebels.

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Because of the location, there’s lots of really great scenery and set-pieces. They film in what I assume is the grounds of the old Communist government’s headquarters, and there’s palaces and so on that would be way out of their price range if they filmed in Britain or the US. It’s an interesting visual style and even when the action’s not very active, there’s usually something to look at. It is a bit weird how all the evil empire’s vehicles have a large “666” written on them though.

The problem is, surprisingly, the action. Florentine makes some weirdly goofy choices when it comes to how to film – Lundgren looks awful running in slow-motion, for one; and some people are very obviously yanked out of shot in a weird, awkward way when an explosion happens. I’m guessing budgetary constraints stopped the use of squibs, so people just seem to fall over when guns are fired in their general direction too. Perhaps it’s a problem with HD as opposed to the viewing method of choice for low-budget action, a crappy VHS tape, as sometimes all you notice are the extras holding guns in the background who’ve clearly got no idea what to do.

The actual one-on-one fights are decent, though, with Lundgren (who’d apparently just qualified for his third-degree black belt in karate before filming started) acquitting himself well. The General, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who you’ll have seen in hundreds of similar movies, is great too, and there’s a surprisingly good bit of fighting from Dolph’s sidekick, Gary Hudson (a fine “That Guy” actor).

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It’s a curious one. For all the interesting choices it makes, it’s hampered by a hundred little things, niggles that you’ll notice in pretty much every scene. Florentine certainly improved, but Dolph seems like he had stopped caring a few years previously, and realised that just scowling and kicking ass were all he needed to do. Shame. I think this also qualifies for our misleading title award – no bridges, no dragons, nothing you could metaphorically call a “bridge” either.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Cult Film Interviews: Episode 1 ‘Chainsaw Sally’

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In the first of an on-going series of interviews I am joined by Jimmyo and April Burril, the husband and wife team behind the decade strong cult horror franchise ‘Chainsaw Sally’. The couple talk about the origins and inspiration behind the character and so much more…

Click here >>> Listen to our interview with Jimmyo and April Burril

The Drop (2014)

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Directed by: Michaël R. Roskam

In years gone by this kind of movie would’ve been populated by the cream of America’s acting crop. When looking at the main cast of ‘The Drop’ I wonder as a general point – Have American actors given up on movies? Preferring instead to start in epic long running TV shows, or is there a dearth of home grown American talent out there? Aside from the late James Gandolfini (in this, his last onscreen role) the main cast is made up of an Englishman doing a convincing Brooklyn accent, a Swede and a Belgian.

Adapted from a short story by Dennis Lehane, ‘The Drop’ is situated around a blue-collar bar called Cousin Marv’s, named after Marv (Gandolfini), who works with his loyal, innocuous bartender named Bob (Tom Hardy). During the night criminals frequently launder money through the bar. The bar is run by Chechen gangsters who get awfully pissed off when two masked men rob the place.

Before this happens Bob walks home one night when he suddenly hears a whimpering noise coming from a trash can. He opens the lid of the trashcan and finds an injured pitbull puppy. The commotion wakes up a woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and she helps Bob tends to the dog’s wounds. A strange man lurks in the shadows.

What follows is a slow moving drama, the owner of the dog, a twitchy tough guy named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up and tries to extort money from Bob. Bob bonds with the dog, names it Rocco and grows closer to Nadia. Eric has connections to Nadia and inevitably the film concludes with a violent confrontation between Bob and Eric.

Marv becomes shadier, and his relationship with Bob begins to become untethered. Gandolfini is gruff, paranoid and seems like a man who is conscious his time is coming to an end. It is eerie that this is Gandolfini’s last role, because at times Marv comes across as a dead man walking. Gandolfini plays Marv as a tough guy who is particularly vulnerable. It’s a fine performance, and a solid note to end a career on.

In a few years’ time film studies students will write about the minimalist performances of Tom Hardy. They’ll look at Hardy’s performance in this movie, and also his role in ‘Locke’ and consider how much he can do in a claustrophobic film setting. Hardy is on form here, he shows that less is more. Not many actors can really convey the quiet guy all that well but Hardy once again shines.

An honorable mention has got to go to the pit-bull puppy. Who’d have thought pit-bull’s could be so damn adorable. Half of the time I was cooing over the cuteness of the puppy. It seems a daft note to end on but I’m no Wesley Morris.

– RJW

7/10