Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Prime Time: Just Friends (2005)

Just Friends is a fun, if forgettable, rom-com that features a great cast (mainly Ryan Reynolds, Anna Faris, Amy Smart, and Chris Klein), an average script, and a number of predictable moments on the way to a finale you can see coming a mile away, even if you've only seen a handful of other romantic comedies. It's also, to my surprise, a little darker than I recall it being, especially when you consider that the main character has become so determined and bitter in his adult life all because he resents his teenage years that saw him left in "the friend zone"*.

Reynolds is Chris Brander, a young man we first see being fairly humiliated by his fellow teens as he confesses his true feelings, in a heartfelt message, to the beautiful Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). Jamie doesn't feel the same way about Chris.
Years later, Chris has changed. He no longer needs to wear a retainer. He's lost a bit of weight. And he ensures that no woman he is interested in ever puts him in "the friend zone". He's got everything exactly how he wants it, apparently. But that looks as if it could change when he ends up back in his hometown, looking after a crazy pop star (Samantha James, played by Anna Faris), and figuring that it could be a perfect time to reconnect with Jamie.

Directed by Roger Kumble (who started out strong with Cruel Intentions and then followed that up with the one two punch of, ummmmm, Cruel Intentions 2 and The Sweetest Thing) and written by Adam Davis, Just Friends is, in some ways, more in line with some of the anti-rom-coms that we've had over the years. Despite the lead character being appealing because he has the appearance and charisma of Ryan Reynolds, his motivation is, for the most part, decidedly dark and unpleasant. To put it in simplistic and very coarse terms, he has spent years trying to bang away the bad memories of his youth and now figures he can settles the score with what would really amount to a standard "grudge fuck", albeit one wrapped up in a confusing mess of good memories and past good intentions. If you weren't sure about this, the film spells it out on a couple of occasions, firstly by pinning so much of the plot on the fact that the fragile male ego cannot accept being "friend-zoned" and, secondly, by giving us another character who is essentially working in the same way as the main character, but without any self-delusion about his intentions.

Reynolds is as fun as he usually is in the lead, charming and witty enough to distract you from the, at best, misguided heart of his character until he is forced to face up to some home truths. Smart, an actress who has given wildly uneven performances throughout her career, is an appealing romantic interest, sweet and pretty and believably unaware of the feelings that others may have for her. Faris is hilarious, as she so often is, and Chris Klein has a lot of fun in his role, playing another admirer of Jamie who seems to be almost saintly in the way he lives his life. Christopher Marquette is a lot of fun, in annoying younger brother mode, and it's always nice to see Julie Hagerty, here as the mother of our lead.

If you're after a Reynolds vehicle to watch then he's done much better stuff since this, but he's also done a few things that are worse. This is good, not great, but certainly develops into something much more interesting and thought-provoking than first impressions would suggest.

*I have used quotation marks around every use of the term "friend zone" because I think we're all aware nowadays that it isn't actually a thing and if someone does give you a great friendship then they aren't obliged to offer you any more than that, no matter how it makes you feel.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.






Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Action Point (2018)

Obviously based on the infamously dangerous amusement and water park located in New Jersey, Action Park, this comedy is an excuse to once again watch Johnny Knoxville get knocked flat on his ass in a variety of ways, resulting in him having to be taken to the emergency room multiple times during the shoot.

Framed by moments of an old man telling a story of his younger days to his granddaughter, the core of the plot takes place in the late 1970s and sees D.C. (Knoxville) struggling to find a way he can reinvigorate the fortunes of his dangerously dilapidated park. He also has his daughter (Boogie, played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox) staying with him for a few weeks, although the timing isn't great, considering how much time he has to spend scheming to keep the park open. But he does come up with at least one fantastic idea; remove anything that is in place to make the rides safer. Nothing seems to make kids happier than a sense of real danger. And that's all there is to the movie, aside from some father and daughter bonding, of course.

Director Tim Kirby has an extensive background in TV and comedy, having worked often with the the peerless Stewart Lee, and on shows ranging from Look Around You to Veep and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So I assume that is why he was thought of as a good fit for this film, which is essentially using the slight narrative to string together the kind of slapstick violence Knoxville and co. entertained us all with during their Jackass years. Unfortunately, he's unable to bring anything to the film, which is  nothing more than an uninspired selection of pratfalls.

The screenplay by John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky is of no help either. If there had at least been some great one-liners and amusing exchanges peppered in between the physical comedy then this could have been moderately entertaining. There isn't, so it isn't.

Knoxville wanders through each scene, very much looking like the broken man he so clearly is (age makes every knock that little bit more painful and every injury that little bit harder to fully recover from), and he doesn't even get moments to revel in the injury-causing anarchy. He enjoys seeing some of the madness around him but there's nothing here to match the infectious glee that was always there in his Jackass persona. Worthington-Cox does better, being the standard teen who wants some quality time with her father, and she's really the only one who seems to be making an effort. Chris Pontius is given a role that could have been given to anyone (let's face it, his strengths do not lie in his acting ability), Dan Bakkedahl is the main villain of the story, but he isn't allowed to get too crazy or nasty, and nobody else stands out. Nobody.

I am easily pleased. Most people already know this about me. And I like Johnny Knoxville (I was a latecomer to the Jackass exploits but that first film remains the cinematic experience that had me laughing harder than any other). Sadly, this lacks laughs. It lacks action. And, worst of all, it kind of lacks a point.

3/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.


Monday, 18 February 2019

Mubi Monday: A Private War (2018)

I am going to start this review with a slight, unexpected, spoiler. So don't read ahead if you want to go into the film knowing absolutely nothing about it. There's a scene towards the end of this movie, a look at the incredible journalism of the late Marie Colvin, in which the real Marie Colvin talks about her life. It's a testament to the performance from Rosamund Pike, who has the lead role here, that I thought it was still her voice, as opposed to that of the woman she had just spent almost two hours portraying. And I think that one moment underlines just how good her performance is.

Pike plays Colvin with no polished edges, no vanity. She is a tough, determined, woman who will often go further, and therefore get more, than many other journalists who take their chances out in the battlefields. But it takes a toll, and that's quite obvious from the earliest scenes. Not only physically, Colvin lost an eye while reporting on one conflict, but also emotionally. Her boss (Tom Hollander) isn't ever really sure how she manages to do what she does, but he knows that she needs to do it, both for herself and for those around the world who will be unable to deny the truth once it is shown to them.

It's no surprise to find that director Matthew Heineman has a background in documentaries, particularly from the way he presents everything to viewers here while expecting them to be able to piece everything together as we move along with Colvin from one corpse-strewn environment to another (not often shown, but a couple of devastating images are more effective for being used sparingly). Working from a script by Arash Amel, that was based on an article by Marie Brenner, Heineman asks viewers to trust him, a trust rewarded by everyone involved in the way that it feels as if we are getting to really know, and appreciate, the amazingly strong woman at the centre of things.

I started with praise for Pike because, well, she deserves it. It's a performance so strong that I'm surprised it hasn't been talked up more. In fact, I'm surprised that the release wasn't planned to get Pike in the running for some awards (she was nominated for a couple). Hollander is good at portraying her boss, a man who knows he has a star worker but also knows that it's affecting her mental health. Jamie Dornan is excellent, playing a photographer with a military background who likes Colvin, admires her, and tries to save her from her own worst journalistic instincts. Greg Wise ands Stanley Tucci do well with their limited screen time, and Nikki Amuka-Bird has at least one great moment as the one person who comes closest to calling Colvin out for the habits that she develops away from her workday, to cope with the images that haunt her.

A celebration of a life without pretending there weren't any major flaws, A Private War is a timely look at the risks some people take to get the truth out there to a much wider audience. It's also, of course, a worthy introduction to Colvin. Much like the documentaries he has helmed in the past, Heineman does justice to the central subject while also making you keen to do some more research once the film is over.

8/10

You can read about Colvin in this here book.
Americans can already buy the movie here.


Sunday, 17 February 2019

Netflix And Chill: Cam (2018)

The feature directorial debut of Daniel Goldhaber (other than this he has two shorts under his belt from about five years ago), Cam is both what you expect it to be and, in a number of impressive ways, so much more. The script by Isa Mazzei (also making a debut, developing a story based on her own experiences as a former cam girl) is smart and incisive, building up the tension and atmosphere on the way to a finale that is as satisfying as it is thought-provoking.

The basic story revolves around a young woman named Alice (Madeline Brewer), who makes a living by being a cam girl named Lola. She is desperate to move up the rankings, initially into the top 50 but ultimately to the number one spot, but there are certain rules she has in place that some think will work against her. She deals with keeping her online life separate from her real life, keeping some generous clients happy while also trying to maintain a safe distance, and serious rivalry from at least one other cam girl (who, at one point, offers to strip as long as viewers help to send Lola back down the rankings). But that's nothing compared to what happens next. Someone takes over Alice's account and becomes Lola. She has the same look as Alice, seems to live in the same building, and starts to cause problems. Alice can't find a way to get her account back, reduced to having to look on with mixed feelings as the new Lola goes further than she ever would . . . and starts to move up the rankings.

There's a chance that a number of the elements worked throughout Cam are inevitable strands inseparable from the main narrative thread but I really don't think that's the case, and to say that is doing a great disservice to Mazzei. She's crafted a tale here that attempts to show cam girl life without judging the main characters, at least not for their chosen way of earning money, and also shows just how close the positive and negative qualities are. Making a completely new identity is fun, it's liberating, but it also requires you becoming much more protective of your real identity. You sell your company, your looks, your confident and sexy image, and viewers/customers who completely buy into it all can just as easily turn ugly, either looking down on people who work in the adult entertainment industry, assuming they can make a real connection and take things further, or worse. Even those who don't dismiss cam girls probably assume that their life is just one candy-coloured session after another of evenings spent lying on a bed and telling generous viewers that you're feeling really horny. Technology is allowing a lot of people to make their living in an isolated, and seemingly safer, way but it's also hackable, and everything online has the potential to eventually go viral.

All of these things are mixed in here, with Mazzei's script given solid treatment from Goldhaber, who knows how much to show to ensure that this doesn't feel completely sanitised, yet never dives headfirst into gratuitousness or sheer exploitation (which could have very easily happened). It's a good balance. This is a film about a cam girl, it's not an actual cam show.

Brewer is very good in her main role, very good indeed. In fact, the fact that she is also playing her doppelgänger is something that is easy to forget, despite both characters being identical. She manages to portray the second Lola as someone just lacking . . . something. A soul? Boundaries? It's hard to pin down, sorry, but the performance from Brewer sells it superbly. Melora Walters does well as the oblivious mother of Brewer's character, and David Druid is also good as the brother who knows how his sister is earning her money nowadays. Patch Darragh and Michael Dempsey are two fans, the former a more naive and nervous type while the latter knows how things are played (but assumes he can always still "win"). Those men are different, yet they're ultimately the same, both projecting on to Alice something that isn't actually there. Imani Hakim, Flora Diaz, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Quei Tann, and Samantha Robinson play other cam girls, with Robinson particularly enjoyable as the mean Princess_X.

Cam only has a few moments of outright horror, in the more obvious use of the term, but it's a film that is infused from start to finish with a different kind of horror, be that associated with self-identity, self-harm, or trying to earn a living in a saturated industry that has more workers trying to push things further and further while viewers constantly want more for less (or free, nobody seems to love a freebie more than men who have been titillated). You could even say that the horror is underlined beyond the end credits. When the film finished, much like a cam show, it's your reflection you see. And it's been there all the time, hidden by the more thrilling imagery laid over the top of it.

8/10

And here is a webcam you could buy (if you wanted to).
Americans can get this one (or any other you might wish to buy).


Saturday, 16 February 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Blood On Satan's Claw (1971)

A film that is probably still underseen today, or considered that way by those who love it, The Blood On Satan's Claw is a creepy and intriguing slice of folk horror that easily sits up there alongside some other classics of the subgenre (such as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General).

Things all start to get strange when a young man finds some strange remains in a field that he is ploughing. Sensing that there is something wrong with his find, he tells others, but it's initially shrugged off. Meanwhile, something is affecting a number of local residents, not least a group of the younger folk who start to band together into a dangerous coven.

Directed by Piers Haggard (who directed a lot of forgettable stuff, but also did this and the 1981 film that put Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed in close proximity to a deadly snake, Venom), this brooding horror film is a wonderful mix of the subtle and the bonkers. You get people acting creepy, you get mistrust and division creeping through the community, but you also get glimpses of a diabolical beast (or, at the very least, a furry hand with sharp claws), and a number of people developing patches of excess hair on their body (the Devil's Skin).

The script, mainly written by Robert Wynne-Simmons, with input from Haggard, manages to build one small moment on top of another in a way that allows things to get truly diabolical by the grand finale without having felt too silly or unbelievable. That's an impressive feat, and even more impressive when you consider the individual elements once the film has finished.

The cast all do a good job in their roles, even the lovely Linda Hayden as Angel (who ends up having to act under some extra-thick eyebrow growth, signifying her evil as she leads the corrupted youths who come under her thrall). Patrick Wymark is The Judge, the main authority figure who the locals assume will be able to get to the bottom of things, Barry Andrews is the young man who makes the fateful discovery, Anthony Ainley is the reverend who senses that something is seriously wrong, and Michele Dotrice and Wendy Padbury stand out as two girls grasped by the coven in very different ways.

If you're interested in British horror movies then this is a title that you really need to check out. If you're interested in the more niche selection of folk horror movies then this is essential viewing (alongside the two titles mentioned in the first paragraph - throw in Robin Redbreast and you have a fine primer). And if you end up enjoying it, as you should, then make sure you turn others on to it.

8/10

You can buy the movie here.
Or here.


Friday, 15 February 2019

Tag (2018)

Based on a true story, to a degree, Tag is a comedy all about a group of friends who have tried to stay young at heart by competing in an ongoing game of, as you may have guessed, Tag. It happens every year, throughout the month of May. That last one who is tagged as "it" is the person who has to spend a whole year knowing that they were the loser. One member of the team (Jerry, played by Jeremy Renner) has never been tagged, but this is the year when that changes. It's also the year of his wedding.

Marking the feature directorial debut of Jeff Tomsic,  Tag is about as middling as mainstream comedies get. I'm not going to deny that I laughed a few times, which is a few times more than I expected to, but a lot of the humour here comes from the cast, who elevate the fairly weak script by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen.

Renner is a lot of fun here, his ultra-serious approach to covering all of the bases to avoid being tagged a highlight of the film, and the rest of the team do well. Ed Helms is the one who seems to have things planned out best, Jon Hamm looks to be a viable threat at times, Jake Johnson is in unfocused stoner mode, and Hannibal Buress amuses with a number of timely, but unhelpful, observations. Isla Fisher is very good, playing the wife of the character played by Helms, her intensity turned all the way up to 11 for many of her scenes, Leslie Bibb isn't bad as the bride-to-be, and Annabelle Wallis follows the group to get an unexpected story for her newspaper, the Wall Street Journal. Rashida Jones is always a welcome presence, but she's shoehorned in here as a distraction for two of the main male characters, and subsequently given nothing decent to work with.

I'm surprised that we don't get a selection of upbeat pop hits but, otherwise, this ticks all of the expected boxes. You get flashbacks to the characters playing the game as kids, you get a number of tag-related set-pieces, there are some underhand tactics, and you also get a secret revealed towards the back end that is supposed to underline everything with some additional emotion and poignancy (although it doesn't). Fisher aside, the women onscreen are mostly sidelined by the men running after one another and being big kids, and it's all presented as a wonderful way in which friends stay bonded over the years and hang on to their youth.

It's a shame that this is so mediocre throughout, but then it's also hard to see how it could have been anything more than that. How, after all, do you flesh out a film that is based around such a silly, and lightweight, concept? Maybe you decide that it's not really film-worthy and move on to something better instead.

Some may, of course, like this more than I did. Many may liked it even less. Aside from the lack of major laughs, I just found myself often watching the carnage onscreen and wondering just why these people were being celebrated for being selfish men-babies who didn't care about the damage they were causing to bystanders and property as they raced to tag one another. That may just be a sign that I am now officially middle-aged. Or it MAY be that these characters aren't really worthy of a whole movie.

5/10

You can pick up the movie here.
Americans can catch the movie here.
Or just click on those links and go shopping crazy. Because that gets me rewarded and gets you a nice selection of gifts to yourself.



Thursday, 14 February 2019

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

I have just finished watching Bad Times At The El Royale for a second time and I think that may already tell you how this review is going to go (considering I just bought it this week, and I rarely have time for rewatches lately). A first viewing left me in the rare mindset of having enjoyed what I watched but immediately wondering how it would hold up on a second viewing. Because I had issues with the film, with the pacing across the excessive runtime being the main one, and wondered if these would become more or less problematic upon a rewatch. The answer is less, with me knowing what was still to come I wasn't surprised by how far (or, indeed, not far) through the movie I was. Knowing that the plot wasn't setting up to pull the rug from under my feet, I was also able to relax more into the viewing experience and absorb all of the wonderful separate characters who are thrown together into an enjoyably pulpy crime thriller.

A number of people converge at the titular hotel. There's Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a salesman named Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a black singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). None of these people care much for the spiel given by the one hotel staff member, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who reminds them all of the unique placement of the building, one half in California and one half in Nevada, but that's mainly because they all have their own agendas to be getting on with. Secretive stuff, few people are as they initially appear to be. And, considering his placement on the poster, it's only a matter of time until Chris Hemsworth appears, playing a cult leader named Billy Lee.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard, Bad Times At The El Royale is a fantastic collage of cool moments that have been pieced together by someone obviously in love with the tropes and archetypes found in crime thrillers. You get the crook in disguise, the lawman (also in disguise), the femme fatale, two-way mirrors, a stash of stolen loot, and some inflammatory film footage. All the ingredients you need for a fine bit of intrigue and danger. Goddard is a major strength here, thanks to his writing and directorial style (he's not afraid to just sit back and show some moments that are cinematically cool), but it's also his name being attached to it that made me less appreciative of the movie the first time around, as I was expecting this to keep me on my toes and twist everything around a la The Cabin In The Woods. It's good that he doesn't just repeat the same trick, of course, but it's also so unexpected that you spend a lot of time waiting for a big twist that doesn't come (on the first viewing anyway). There are lots of little twists and turns, all nicely done and never feeling like cheats, but nothing that has Goddard turning everything inside out.

The solid script is helped by a cast who are all on great form. Bridges gives one of his more atypical performances in recent years, and is bloody wonderful in his role, Hamm is comfortable in another role that relies on his ability to be both arrogant and charming, Johnson is very good, and Pullman feels like a completely insignificant character caught up in the middle of things until he is given a chance to shine. But the standouts are Erivo, absolutely charming as the singer trying to work as hard as she can for her big break, and Hemsworth, who is only seen in flashback form until it's time for him to swagger into the hotel, bringing an energy and charisma that helps to revive the film en route to the (slightly overdue) third act. Cailee Spaeny is decent enough in her role, and there are nice cameos from Nick Offerman and Shea Whigham.

The positives far outweigh the negative here. The script, the cast, the design, the directorial and editing choices, etc. The only thing I will hold against it as a major minus is that bloated runtime, which should have been trimmed down by about 20 minutes, at least, to tighten it all up (the backstory to the Hemsworth character could have easily been truncated, as could some of the details we get as we see what eventually brought Bridges to the hotel).

Although it may seem unlikely as a film that you may end up returning to for comfort viewing, I can see this one becoming a constant favourite for those who warm to it as much as I have. I can't think of any main sequence that wasn't full of little moments I loved, and the finale was a lot more satisfying than I expected it to be. And that's before I start thinking of the potential allegory underpinning the storyline. Yeah, I'll end up rewatching this one before many other, brisker, films.

8/10

You can check in and check it out here.
Americans can check it out here.


Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Prime Time: Deadtime Stories (1986)

I often say that there is nothing like a good horror anthology film and, you might guess where I am going here, Deadtime Stories is nothing like a good horror anthology film. Still, it has a goofy charm that makes it hard to hate, and does just enough to keep boredom at bay.

Michael Mesmer is Uncle Mike, looking after his nephew, Brian (Brian DePersia), for the evening. He just wants a peaceful night, but it soon becomes clear that he will only get that once he has told Brian a number of bedtime stories. They're all very familiar tales, but with a slight revision from Mike. First, a young slave named Peter (Scott Valentine) is forced into helping two witches revive their dead sister. Second, we get a version of Little Red Riding Hood. Third, and finally, we get Goldi Lox (Catherine De Prume) and the three Bears (a mother who has helped her husband and son escape from a fairly insecure mental health facility). And there's a small wraparound tale, of course, with young Brian becoming more tense after each tale.

Directed by Jeffrey Delman, who also wrote some songs featured in the movie and co-wrote the script with J. Edward Kiernan and Charles F. Shelton, this is a cheap and cheerful anthology that should amuse horror fans while being completely forgotten by everyone else. It's a shame that Delman obviously wanted plenty of comedy in the mix because the tale that plays things most seriously (Little Red Riding Hood) is the best of the three, and the one that is supposed to be funniest, the last of the three, is the weakest segment.

Mesmer is fun as Uncle Mike, trying to put in the minimum amount of effort to babysit his nephew, and DePersia is perfectly tolerable, but the rest of the cast vary wildly, depending on what they're given to work with. Valentine is a bland "lead" for the first tale, overshadowed by the evil witches and their plan. Nicole Picard is much better as Rachel, the Little Red Riding Hood of the second tale, and Matt Mitler is also excellent as the menacing man who ends up encountering her grandmother. As for that last tale . . . oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Melissa Leo may have a small role in this one, but the cartoon tone doesn't allow anyone to do their best work, and when De Prume shows that her Goldi Lox has a particularly dangerous "talent", by crossing her eyes and waiting for others to feel the effects of her powers, the end result is laughably embarrassing.

Not a film that will ever appear on the top end of any "best anthology movies ever" list, this is a relatively painless experience that certainly remains a step or two ahead of many modern movies trying to recapture the same vibe.

5/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

A comedy-drama based on the real events that saw a Congressman named Charlie Wilson building support, in terms of funds and supplies, for the Afghan people being decimated during the Soviet-Afghan War that lasted throughout most of the 1980s, Charlie Wilson's War is an interesting look at the fluidity of loyalty, certainly in comparison to how things stand today. It also underlines the importance of staying to finish a job if you're going to help out a country being ravaged by war, something that America didn't do for the Afghan people, arguably leading to the whole mess that we now find ourselves in.

Tom Hanks stars as Wilson, a role that makes use of his easy likability while refusing to hide the failings of the man (mainly drink and women, not necessarily in that order). Starting from a point of relative ignorance, his journey to Afghanistan, and what he sees there, begins a relatively speedy learning curve that connects him to a wealthy potential donor, Joanne Herring (played by Julia Roberts), and a talented CIA operative (Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The three work hard to raise interest and money for something they view as a worthwhile war effort, and there are some startling results as Wilson digs his heels in to negotiate budget packages and effective plans.

The final film directed by Mike Nichols, this belongs much more to the writer, Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is pretty much THE person to go to when you want to deliver lots of information in a comprehensive, and comprehendible, manner while also fleshing out a variety of main players. Adapting the book by George Crile, Sorkin appears to be in his element as he wrestles the complexities of the diplomatic and political proceedings into a narrative that manages to be both informative and entertaining. But he also makes time and space to give the leads some great moments (the lead role is a doozy for Hanks and the main scene introducing Hoffman's character is one of the funniest things that he's ever done).

Noticing the style of the writing more than the style of direction isn't to say that Nichols does anything wrong here. It's just that he is content to keep everything relatively simple when it comes to letting his impressive ensemble have fun with the script.

Having already praised Hanks and Hoffman, both giving standout performances in a career that isn't short of great turns from them, it's also worth paying compliments to Roberts (who has less screen time but still gets a couple of moments in which to shine) and Amy Adams (playing a dutiful assistant to Charlie Wilson). There are also very enjoyable appearances from Emily Blunt, Om Puri, Ned Beatty, Ken Stott, and others, all serving the script as best they can.

Given the quality of the various aspects, it's a shame that this doesn't quite become the sum of its parts. There's just something holding it back. A reticence to pick at the scab long enough, to take more moments to show the waters getting murkier and murkier, and a third act that doesn't underline the serious consequences of what is played out as a bit of a light romp for some of the main players.

This is a very good film, a smart one aimed at adults, but it could have been tweaked to be even better.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Monday, 11 February 2019

Mubi Monday: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

It's a difficult job to follow up a film as impressive and moving as Moonlight but that is the job that writer-director Barry Jenkins has given himself. The fact that this isn't quite as good as that film doesn't mean it's a bad film. Not at all. It just means that it could have been better.

Kiki Layne is Tish Rivers, a loyal girlfriend to her partner, Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt (played by Stephan James). That loyalty, and her strength, comes to the fore when Fonny is put in jail for a heinous crime that he didn't commit. With the help of her family, Tish does all she can to maintain a good lawyer and work on achieving the break that they need to get Fonny released, hopefully in time for the arrival of their baby.

Perhaps it was inevitable that this would prove slightly underwhelming, because only something close to perfect would rival the previous film from Jenkins, and there's a familiarity to the storyline here that stops it from feeling as unique and vital as Moonlight, but that familiarity is also part of the reason why Jenkins must have wanted to make it. Adapting the book by James Baldwin, Jenkins has another tale full of love and race, but it also has a sense of resignation to it, a sad inevitability as we follow the plight of yet another young black man wrongly imprisoned.

Set mainly in New York of the 1970s, Jenkins does an impressive job of evoking the atmosphere of that time without trotting out the expected selection of tunes and pop culture references, instead painting a much more detailed picture with the attitudes of the main characters and the muted colour palette used throughout.

Layne and James are both very easy to root for in the lead roles, with the former a constant source of quiet strength and dignity throughout and the latter trying to act likewise, despite viewing the world around them with more of a cynical and self-defensive attitude (the difference between the two highlighted as Fonny tells another character about a prospective landlord who was a lot more accommodating before he realised that Tish had a partner). Regina King is the standout, however, as Sharon Rivers, the mother of Tish and a woman determined to do whatever is necessary to keep her family happy, healthy, and safe. The film arguably revolves around one moving scene, featuring King and Emily Rios, and it's a moment that illustrates both great pain and great futility for both women. Ed Skrein is a loathsome police officer, and there are uniformly excellent turns from Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Finn Whitrock, and everyone else involved.

Despite the romantic notions of the main characters, love cannot solve all problems and overcome all obstacles. But it can make a bad situation more bearable, just knowing that someone who cares for you is always on your side, always has faith in you. Sometimes the doubt and judgement of everyone else in the entire world doesn't matter one bit as long as the contents of your heart and soul are an open book to the one you love, and the fact that Jenkins makes this a clear, positive, message in a story that also focuses on the bias of the American justice system and the way in which so many African Americans can be punished for crimes that police want to pin on any black individual . . . well, that's why it's not a bad film. In fact, it comes very close to being a great one. And I look forward to his next one.

8/10

You can buy the excellent Moonlight here.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 10 February 2019

Netflix And Chill: An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn (2018)

The director of An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn is Jim Hosking. He is the man who was also responsible for The Greasy Strangler, which is important information for anyone going into this. Because this movie is, if anything, even more bonkers than that movie. It's also even funnier, and has already become my favourite film from the many I have seen so far this year. It's insane, it's very stupid at times, and it's bordering on the absolute genius. Hosking, with the help of a very game cast, made me laugh more than I can remember laughing during any film I can think of from the past few years. And I know that my enjoyment of the movie could just as easily get me funny looks from someone sitting beside me and hating every moment.

The very basic core of the plot revolves around Lulu Danger (Aubrey Plaza), who takes a chance to escape her loveless marriage to Shane (Emile Hirsch) when a petty crime he executes ends up getting him threatened by Colin Keith Treadener (Jemaine Clement). Lulu and Colin head off to hole up in a hotel, the same venue that is about to hold the titular evening of magic with Beverly Linn Luff (Craig Robinson). Lulu and Beverly have a past, or so she believes, although this is news to the person who currently cares for, and loves, him.

Where to begin with this? I really have no idea of how best to convey my enjoyment of this film. If I simply quoted lines from the script, co-written by Hosking and David Wilke, then nothing would seem that funny, out of context. The words ARE great, but it's the strange delivery and mood of the whole film that helps to build every moment into comedy gold. And everything is helped along by the simplistic, and brilliant, soundtrack from Andrew Hung.

Plaza shines in the lead role, the perfect mix of weird and cute and dangerous that she does so well. I know she has bills to pay but I really wish she would take ten roles in films like this (and the enjoyable Ingrid Goes West) over the more mainstream movies that waste her talent. The majority of her scenes are alongside Clement, who threatens to steal every scene he is in with his mix of inanity and earnestness. Robinson is good, although doesn't use too many words, and Matt Berry is very amusing as the man looking after him, and you get wonderful turns from Sam Dissanayake, Zach Cherry, Sky Elobar, and Jacob Wysoki. You actually get wonderful turns from everyone involved, but they are the people I am going to name here. Oh, and Emile Hirsch deserves more words of praise than I can come up with here. Delivering every line he has in a very particular style, his performance was the most surprising. I like Hirsch onscreen but never thought of anyone who would be able to make me laugh as much as he did here. His performance feels like he's channeling Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage, and John Cleese, with all three personalities battling for dominance of every sentence he speaks.

Some reviews (many, in fact) feel redundant. I cannot put my finger on what Hosking gets so right here because it feels like a whole bundle of negatives that somehow all add up to a positive, and I don't see this working for at least half the general population (the sane half). But for the people it DOES work for . . . it's going to become as much a treasure to you as it is to me.

9/10

You can buy the disc here (even if you hate it and then send it to me).
Americans can treat themselves here.


Saturday, 9 February 2019

Shudder Saturday: Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror (2019)

Based on the book by Robin R. Means Coleman, Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror is exactly what it says it is. The lean runtime means that it's by no means exhaustive, and a lot of that runtime is given over to celebrate Get Out, but this is still a pretty impressive primer on the subject, providing viewers with a varied list of titles to check out, and plenty of context to consider while thinking back over the history of the horror genre.

The format is simple. Various people are encouraged to discuss aspects of African Americans in horror movies, often in a theatre setting while clips from horror movies play on the silver screen in front of them. The discussion points range from the downright awful use of an actor in blackface to portray a dangerous black man in The Birth Of A Nation through to the recent success of Get Out, with plenty to mull over in between, from the virtual non-existence of black people in the sci-fi horror movies of the '50s and '60s (because they weren't considered eligible/educated enough to be part of the scientific community) to the well-known trope of the black character being killed off fairly early to show how dangerous things are for the white leads.

Although fairly simple in the way it works chronologically through the horror genre, Horror Noire works very well because of the singular viewpoint. It is that focus, as obvious as it seems to say it, that turns the familiar into something new and interesting. Some of the discussion points may feel more obvious than others but all of them deserve your time and attention. I'll admit that I was scoffing at some moments, thinking that people were stretching too far in order to dissect something that possibly wasn't intended to exclude black people, or portray them in a harmful way, and then I was won over, realising that I'd just never considered the weight of those cinematic decisions before because I sit in the main demographic (as a straight, white male I have been represented comfortably throughout the entire past of cinema).

It's an impressive roster of names that's been assembled here, and I'll namecheck a number of them: Jordan Peele, Ken Foree, Keith David, Tony Todd, Ernest Dickerson, William Crain, Rachel True, Loretta Devine, Miguel A. Nunez Jr, Ken Sagoes, Richard Lawson, Tina Mabry, and more. And the titles discussed are just as impressive, especially if you're a fan of films like Night Of The Living DeadBlacula, Tales From The HoodCandyman, and Sugar Hill (and why wouldn't you be?).

It would seem that we're currently in a much better time for African Americans in the movie industry, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, which makes this a timely documentary, a journey that ends in a place of celebration rather than pessimism. But it's also important to keep that momentum going, that progress, that representation, and not have this current boon period being a blip in a more depressing overview that tries to surmise what went wrong a couple of decades down the line.

8/10

You can buy Candyman here.
Blacula is here.
A R1 disc of Eve's Bayou is here.


Friday, 8 February 2019

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (2018)

When Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is caught in a sexual encounter with another girl, she is sent away to a gay conversion therapy centre. Here she meets Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr) and his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), who run the centre, and other teenagers who are supposed to be being "cured" of their sickness. The teens include Cameron's roommate, Erin (Emily Skeggs), and the likes of Jane (Sasha Lane), Adam (Forrest Goodluck), and Mark (Owen Campbell). Very few of them seem to believe what the adults are trying to sell to them, but that doesn't make the whole process any less harmful.

The fact that The Miseducation Of Cameron Post can both make you very angry while also proving to be enjoyable entertainment is testament to the quality work put in by everyone involved, from page (it's base on a novel by Emily M. Danforth) to screen.

Indeed, there are many scenes here that you've seen many times before. Standard coming-of-age stuff, or moments of individuals who feel like outcasts meeting kindred spirits and finding strength in that revelation that they're not as alone as they first thought. But everything is freshened up by the setting, the background to why all of these characters are here, and not just the teenagers but the adults too (it's revealed early on that Reverend Rick was "cured" some time ago).

All of the younger cast members do great work, although it's strange that Moretz, who is often so good, feels like she spends many scenes taking a step back while she remains the lead character. This isn't a major criticism, it's a compliment if anything, but Cameron is more our lens through which we get to view this warped world rather than someone going on their own journey. She may be moved around physically but Cameron very rarely feels anything but disdain for the process that she has been pushed into. The same goes for the characters played by Lane and Goodluck, both are confident in just knowing who they are while trying to do what needs done to placate the adults and get themselves out of there as quickly as possible. More interesting conflict comes from the moments involving Skeggs, who tries to act positively saintly at times, and Campbell, who obviously feels the most pain from how his sexuality has damaged his relationship with an uncaring father. Ehle is very good, and most worryingly self-satisfied at the fact that they are doing the right thing for the teenagers they view as sick, but Gallagher Jr. is given at least one great moment in which he expresses a major moment of self-doubt and shows that the harm being caused, the lives being potentially shattered, all stem from someone who means well but is also being ignorant and selfish. We all know what road is paved with good intentions.

Director Desiree Akhavan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Cecilia Frugiuele, does an excellent job of showing who is in the right and who is in the wrong without turning anyone into outright heroes or villains. You can easily boo and hiss the adults here, and with good reason, but the script and direction doesn't demonise them. What induces rage and frustration also induces no small amount of sadness, and the inevitable thought that these people work with teenagers because adults would be in more of as position to shut their bullshit down within seconds and push them aside as they headed out the door.

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is, undoubtedly, a film about abuse, and the way in which it sugarcoats the bitter pill is very impressive indeed, making it more accessible to some who might otherwise have avoided it. Check it out when you can, and I hope you're also moved and angered by it.

8/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Quick Change (1990)

Based on a book of the same name by Jay Cronley, that had previously been made into a French movie named Hold-Up, Quick Change is one of the few movies that I would refer to as underrated, if I ever used that word. But I try not to. Underrated, overrated, these things simply mean that you liked or disliked a film in a way you feel is different from the majority opinion. So let me just say that I have always liked Quick Change a lot more than the majority of film fans.

To date, this is the only film directed by Bill Murray (well . . . he co-directed with Howard Franklin, who also wrote the screenplay) and I wish that he'd decided to give it another go at some point, because this is a very enjoyable comedy that puts together a fantastic cast and makes great use of most of them.

The plot is simple. Murray dresses up as a clown and robs a bank. His plan is to delay the police for as long as possible while he and his accomplices get out of the city. They could be halfway to a tropical island before the police even risk storming into the bank to free the hostages. That doesn't happen though. Chief Rotzinger (Jason Robards) figures out what could be happening, which means the pursuit is on. The bank robbery itself was easy, the hard part is getting out of the city.

Alongside Murray and Robards, this cast includes Geena Davis (who I will watch in anything), Randy Quaid (who I am happy to watch in anything that isn't home-made), Phil Hartman, Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, and Kurtwood Smith. The latter two may be underused but they're still welcome additions to the cast list.

As well as a fun heist movie and a comedy of errors, Quick Change works as a very strange love letter to New York. The frustration of living in the city is what leads to the plan, and all of the obstacles in the way of the escaping robbers stem directly from the attitudes of the other New Yorkers that they meet, be they opportunistic car thieves, unhelpful construction workers, cab drivers who haven't mastered the language yet (a crude stereotype but one improved by the performance of Shalhoub), jobsworth bus drivers (a scene-stealinng turn from Philip Bosco), or members of the local mafia.

As I said, I have always liked this film more than the majority of film fans. I don't think that will ever change, but I'll be happy if I can convince one or two others to at least give it a chance.

8/10

A region 1 disc can be bought here.




Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Prime Time: Frankenstein (2015)

Another day, another film involving a talent that I have forgotten to check out more from. This time it's director Bernard Rose. He may still be best remembered for Candyman (a classic of the horror genre) but has, after a couple of standard period dramas (Immortal Beloved and Anna Karenina), gone on to carve out quite an impressive filmography, often reworking classic literary works (mainly by Leo Tolstoy) and making use of the great Danny Huston.

Bearing that in mind, Frankenstein is exactly what you think it might be. An updated version of the classic tale, starring Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss. Huston is Victor, Moss is Elizabeth, and the two of them are first seen trying to help their creation, Adam (Xavier Samuel), through his confusing and painful "birth". Adam has, essentially, been created by 3-D printing technology. Things don't go too well, leading to the monster being unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

Despite the fact that it is set in the here and now, and the fact that it has occasional moments of squishy violence and bloodshed, Frankenstein is a surprisingly faithful interpretation of the source material. It takes a few liberties here and there, but a lot of the main story beats are in place. You get the monster being cast out, you get an encounter with a little girl who is playing by some water, you get a blind man (Tony Todd) who becomes a friend, you even get an angry mob of locals trying to beat down the creature.

Huston and Moss are both good in their roles, but it's Samuel carrying the film with his portrayal of the scarred outcast who is simply trying to find out where he fits in the world. Samuel may not be perfect, his physique belies the strength that he is supposed to possess, but he does well with a performance that retains the essence of the character without simply mimicking more iconic interpretations. Todd is enjoyable in a rare role that doesn't make him seem menacing or ominous, and Maya Erskine is absolutely wonderful in a small, but memorable, turn as a prostitute named Wanda who is persuaded by Todd to give the monster an experience he will never forget.

It's a shame that I can see this falling between two stools for many people. The revisionism may detract from the impressive way it follows a good number of the main plot points, and the relatively low-budget and unfussy style doesn't get in the way of the better gore gags, but it's up to patient viewers to, ironically, give it some time to find its feet.

7/10

The movie can be bought here.
Americans can buy it here.


Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Venom (2018)

The more I think about Venom, the more I find to like about it. The fact that it is such a strange . . . mess (not unlike the titular character) just adds to its appeal, and Tom Hardy gives a fun central performance, both physically and vocally.

The basic story goes like this. Hardy is Eddie Brock, a journalist who has a habit of pushing things too far in order to get to the heart of any story. His latest story concerns shady happenings at a science facility, overseen by Carlton drake (Riz Ahmed). He ruffles feathers, he gets sacked, and he ends up with a symbiote attached to his body. This is a creature that can stay hidden within Eddie for some time, but breaks out when the host body is put in danger, or when it gets hungry. It can appear at other times but those are the two main motivators. But will it destroy Eddie, or will the inevitable pile of corpses end up with his own being the last one upon it?

I just described the performance by Hardy as fun but that's really the word that I should use to describe this entire film. It's fun, it's a romp, and there are times when it's madder than a bag of badgers. Full marks must go to the cast and director Ruben Fleischer, because everyone somehow knows the best way to work with material that has the potential to vary wildly in tone, yet manages to remain consistently darkly comedic.

The script, written by Kelly Marcel, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, manages to stay just the right side of dumb. The characters aren't very complex, the main baddie is obvious from the very first scenes, and it seems that everyone understands that viewers want to see Tom Hardy developing new powers and transforming into something that will happily bite the heads off people.

This is Hardy's show, from his conversations with himself to his manic nervousness as he tries and tries to get his body back under his own control, and he's a star completely unafraid to throw himself completely into things. It's easy to praise actors as fearless when they're cast in roles that require them to bare themselves completely, both emotionally and physically, but Hardy is equally fearless in a different way. In fact, it's at least partially down to his sheer presence and force of will that this ends up being as entertaining as it is. Ahmed is fine, although there are a number of scenes when his more understated performance feels a bit out of place, and Michelle Williams plays her part, which leaves her sidelined for a lot of the movie, with a twinkle in her eye that suggests she got paid a decent amount for a role that let her have more fun than many of her more prestigious turns.

Is there anything here to dislike? Of course there is. The CGI is varied in quality (sometimes excellent, sometimes eye-searingly awful, especially in one or two scenes that have far too much going on), the grand finale is a bit of an anti-climax, and, perhaps worst of all for fans of the character, Venom has been turned into a softened version of the beast that comic readers have enjoyed for many years. That will upset some viewers. But it doesn't harm the film in any way, and I already have high hopes for the inevitable sequel.

8/10

Venom is available to buy here.
Americans can pick it up here.



Monday, 4 February 2019

Mubi Monday: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Based on a true story as amusing as it is quite tragic, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the film that may finally convince those who go out of their way to avoid Melissa McCarthy movies to finally give her some of their time. Because, and I'm saying this as someone who has been a fan of her comedy work for a long time now, this is easily her best movie performance so far. I hope that it allows her to mix it up with the roles that she picks, but only time will tell.

McCarthy is Lee Israel, an author who isn't doing too well. Her cat is ill, she is behind on her rent payments, and her apartment has a fly problem (and smells pretty bad too). When she finds a letter by Fanny Brice, the subject of a biography that she is attempting to write, she makes a little bit of money by selling it on, but learns during the exchange that the price would have been considerably more if the content had been more exciting. That gives her the idea of creating exciting letters, claiming that they were recently discovered, and getting herself a great payday for each one. What could possibly go wrong?

This is only the second feature film from director Marielle Heller, working here from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, but this puts her at two for two (I recommend checking out The Diary Of A Teenage Girl). The two central characters are great (the other lead performance coming from Richard E. Grant) and it clearly shows how Israel quickly put the pieces together when she realised that she had an opportunity to improve her life with what she probably viewed as a bit of a victimless crime. Indeed, it's something that Israel finds she has an actual talent for, a way with words while she is emulating others that supersedes her own writing style, and that is a silver lining that accompanies the crime-clouded majority of the movie.

I have already praised McCarthy at the very start of this review so won't repeat myself. She works very well alongside Grant, who gives the kind of brilliant performance that reminds you of just how good he can be, given the chance. There's a small, but absolutely hilarious, role for Jane Curtin (playing an agent who suffers whenever Israel wants to lash out in anger over her current situation) and Dolly Wells is very sweet in her role as the book dealer who inadvertently starts Israel off on her criminal endeavour. The fact that her character also clearly likes Israel for who she is ends up being another big plus for the movie.

Although this is a film about a peculiar, and particular, "crime spree", it's also simply a look at two people who have a chance to make themselves feel like human beings again, rather than nobodies either ignored by people or looked down upon. It manages to do that without ever becoming too downbeat and dreary, although a couple of moments come close, and without feeling as if it is glorifying the activities of Israel. Because, no matter how satisfying or well-crafted her forgeries were, she knew that her best moments as a writer were all thanks to celebrated writers of the past.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it replaces originality and individuality (obviously). So the title Can You Ever Forgive Me? may apply to those Israel ended up affecting with her crimes, but may equally apply to herself, a woman played by McCarthy as someone who lost her own voice and went too far when she found that she had a knack for emulating others.

8/10

You can buy the book here.
Americans can order the film here.


Sunday, 3 February 2019

Netflix And Chill: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

If there is anyone coming to this film expecting something akin to the magnificent Nightcrawler then they're in for quite the surprise. Although there's darkness here, Velvet Buzzsaw is much more of a comedy. Yes, there are horror movie moments, good ones too, but it's the wonderful over the top nature of the thing, and some hilarious lines of dialogue, that ensure you will be smiling throughout.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, a successful and influential art critic. His opinions can make or break artists, something that he sometimes relishes and sometimes feels pained by. Rene Russo is a gallery owner named Rhodoro Haze, a successful woman who perhaps owes some of that success to her friendship with Morf. When an agent named Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who is a friend of Morf and employed by Rhodoro, finds a collection of paintings in the apartment of her dead neighbour everyone views it as an exciting discovery that could help them all. Unfortunately, the artist had expressly stated that he wanted his art destroyed, and with good reason.

Although never as sharp or biting as it could be, this is a fun commentary on the clash between art and commerce. It shows a market driven by one or two opinions, prices created by deceptions and hype, and the fluid relationships that ebb and flow between people who can help one another up a ladder with no final rung.

Dan Gilroy does another solid job with the writing and direction, despite the fact that he's gone for a tone that may leave some unsatisfied, and even bemused. Gyllenhaal blurting out the line "the admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated" made me laugh hard, and it's when the film is most comfortable with that level of ridiculousness that it's most fun. Thankfully, it is often comfortable with that level of ridiculousness, although the more obvious laughs are couched in between moments that focus on the greed and selfishness of the main characters.

Gyllenhaal has a lot of fun in his role, a rare turn that doesn't need him to be constantly worried or angry or looking as if he might harm himself, and Russo is fantastic in her role. The fact that she seems to only get given good parts to play from her husband is pretty damning when she shows every time that she's still got a lot more to give audiences than just "cameo as Thor's mum". You also get typically wonderful performances from Toni Collette and John Malkovich, and solid little turns from Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, and Natalia Dyer. Ashton, sadly, is a weak link, but that ends up being compensated for in the third act, with the final scenes for her character created to be impressively memorable.

Don't go into this expecting another Nightcrawler. Don't go into it expecting a horror movie, or even a thriller. This is a dark comedy, and if you know that going in then you can appreciate the end result much more. Say what you like about all three films so far directed by Gilroy, they're at least all interesting and thought-provoking, whether they end up working for you or not.

8/10


Saturday, 2 February 2019

Shudder Saturday: Don't Leave Home (2018)

If you mix a little bit of Picnic At Hanging Rock with a little bit of The Devil's Doorway (with which this shares a couple of stars) then you may end up with Don't Leave Home, a horror film that only really falls down by taking a turn in the third act that won't satisfy those hoping for actual horror. It's a more contemplative, mysterious, experience, although still ultimately a good one.

Anna Margaret Hollyman plays an artist, Melanie Thomas, who is struggling to come up with the final touches on her latest exhibition. It's based on a number of children who have disappeared in Ireland, disappearances that have never been explained, and her centrepiece is a sculpture of an area that related to one such disappearance, an area in which a priest painted a little girl, the girl subsequently disappeared, and her likeness was also gone from the painting. Asked to visit Ireland by that very priest, although he no longer holds that position, Melanie takes the opportunity to get away from the stress for a while. She meets Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy) and his housekeeper-come-assistant Shelly (Helena Bereen), and the quaint charm of the surroundings and solitude soon start to turn ominous and strange.

Written and directed by Michael Tully, Don't Leave Home is an impressively layered horror movie that would actually make a fine companion piece to the previously-mentioned The Devil's Doorway. But watch this one first, and leave the better film until last. Both films have a core idea revolving around children who have been "spirited away" by members of the Catholic church, and both films look at how people deal differently with deeds done that would leave many of us struggling to cope with the guilt.

Everything is helped by the consistently solid lead performances. Hollyman is a good lead to root for, an artist who has been inspired by strange events and then faces someone directly impacted by it. She seems contrite when meeting Burke, apologetic for any pain caused or any inference of blame being apportioned, which gives us enough reason to like her, even as we consider why she didn't give any thought to it sooner. Roddy gives the second great performance that I have seen from him in the past year, and I will happily watch any film that gives him a sizeable role. And then we have Bereen, who is given the more traditional "horror movie" moments, sweet and welcoming to the American guest while obviously hiding some kind of agenda.

The direction, at least for the first two thirds of the movie, is solid. This is a gentle film, a surprisingly moving one, but it also places some effective scares and moments of oddness throughout. Sadly, it all remains a bit too gentle when many viewers may expect it to find another gear.

I recommend this one, it will make you think and it has some lovely moments of atmosphere (as well as those great performances), but it's a shame that Tully didn't find a way to tell the tale in the way he wanted while also ratcheting up tension and dread in the third act.

6/10


Friday, 1 February 2019

Destroyer (2018)

Karyn Kasuma may actually be one of my favourite female directors. She's managed it quite stealthily, and not without a mis-step here and there, but when I look over her filmography and realise how much I like the films that I have seen from her then I realise that I should be bringing her name up a bit more often. I may not have liked The Invitation quite as much as many other people but I DID like it, and the fact that I still rate Jennifer's Body highly helps to make up for that.

I could say something similar about Nicole Kidman, who has spent the past couple of decades building up a very interesting body of work. The fact that she wasn't right for a few of the roles that she took on meant that I perhaps dismissed her filmography as nothing more than a series of bad calls and bad movies. That's not the case at all, and Destroyer, a film that may once have been considered yet another mis-step for her (by me anyway), reinforces the fact that Kidman is, and has almost always been, an actress willing to take risks as she works with challenging material.

Kidman is Erin Bell, a detective who has been burnt out for a number of years after an undercover job went horribly wrong, although we're not exactly sure how until the movie is ready to reveal everything. She believes that a major baddie (played by Toby Kebbell) is back in town, needing stopped, and she'll do anything to make that happen. Meanwhile, her daughter (played by Jade Pettyjohn) seems to hate her guts, her partner (Shamier Anderson) is constantly kept in the dark, and her world is contracting around her as she focuses obsessively on exorcising past demons and getting the result that she wants.

If you read that and just found it to seem like a whole lot of familiar clichés then I couldn't say you were wrong. There's a lot here that we've seen many times before, usually with a male character at the heart of everything. The burnt-out cop who doesn't play by the rules, the tragic past that created their attitude in the present, the personal stakes when it comes to dealing with the villain, writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are unafraid to use these elements liberally, relying on some other twists and turns to keep things feeling fresh, as well as the strength of the cast.

And what strength the cast show. Kidman is almost unrecognisable during her first few scenes, and it's not just the impressive make-up changing her. The physical side of her performance, her mindset affecting everything from her walk to her dead-eyed observance of the hazy world around her, ensures that there are very few moments that have you watching and thinking of her as anything other than Erin Bell. The version of Kidman we all know really disappears, and this may be her best performance yet (although I am now keen to catch up on the rest of her filmography). Sebastian Stan is also excellent, playing the other officer involved in the undercover operation, and there are solid turns from Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, Beau Knapp, Bradley Whitford, Zach Villa, and others. It's a shame that the one performance that doesn't feel right is Kebbell, playing someone who swaggers around like the lead singer of a big-haired '80s metal band, and shown to be charismatic and persuasive without anything to actually show why people view him that way. The fault there doesn't lie with Kebbell, it's an issue with the script and direction, but any scenes that have him as the focal point suffer when they should have been clear highlights.

One or two minor issues aside, like the one just mentioned, Kusama directs with confidence and a precision that isn't always obvious, considering the many flashbacks used to detail the story and the many secondary characters who are only integral to the story due to them being integral to the lead character getting closer and closer to her desired end result, but it is always there. Viewers know that there's not necessarily going to be a happy ending here, yet the finale remains both impactful and satisfying. Great work from Kusama, a consistent talent and a name that everyone should be, or become, familiar with.

8/10

The DVD link is here.
Americans can use this link for a shiny blu.


Thursday, 31 January 2019

Constantine: City Of Demons (2018)

Constantine. He's a character who hasn't really been given the best treatment, if you ask fans. I am one of the people who actually enjoy the Keanu Reeves movie but I can see why the changes made ended up upsetting those who had waited patiently for the character to get the big-screen treatment. And then there was the short-lived series with Matt Ryan in the main role, an actor who seemed to be right for the part but couldn't do enough to boost the ratings for the show, which was cancelled after one season. Ryan reprises the role here, in voice form (as he did in Justice League Dark), and his attitude and fit for the character remain a big plus, which should please most people.

Here's the plot anyway. John Constantine (Ryan) is asked by a good friend, Chas (Damian O'Hara), to help out when his daughter falls into a coma. This leads to the two men travelling from London to Los Angeles, finding out that a powerful demon there may want to negotiate a deal for the soul of the comatose little girl, and also recollecting a traumatic incident that happened some time ago in Newcastle. Will Constantine's past come back to bite him on the rear, or does he have enough tricks up his sleeves to ensure another victory against evil forces?

Based on an animated series that first appeared online, five short episodes, this is another enjoyable bit of entertainment from the animation branch of the DC movie universe.

Director Doug Murphy does a fine job, working from a script by J. M. DeMatteis that pitches things perfectly between sheer fun and little gags and grace notes that remind you that this isn't a cartoon aimed at children. It's not exactly a Legend Of The Overfiend kind of film but you get a decent layer of darkness and a couple of moments of sexual chemistry. The animation isn't quite as good as the work I have seen in other DC titles, but that is easier to forgive as the story zips along from one enjoyable beat to the next.

Ryan and O'Hara are very good in their main roles, with Ryan equally at ease conveying the pain of his character or delivering fun lines about how he cannot just magic enemies away because he isn't Benedict Cumberbatch, and the rest of the cast all slip well into their (often multiple) roles.

Having never read any of the source material, I only know the character of John Constantine from his appearances onscreen. I still like Keanu's performance, despite the main differences from page to screen, but fans should find more to please them in the animated adventures. I hope we get some more, and I also hope to have seen the live-action TV show by then.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Prime Time: Honor And Glory (1993)

It had been a while since I enjoyed some simple Cynthia Rothrock entertainment, which is why I skimmed through the titles available on Amazon Prime and eventually settled on this, a film I had previously not seen (I've not actually seen many of her movies, despite being a fan of her martial arts skills).

Let's not beat about the bush here, this is a bad movie. It's actually quite terrible during many moments. It's also hugely entertaining, as are most of the movies that have Rothrock kicking ass in a leading role.

The plot is simple stuff. Rothrock plays Tracy Pride, an FBI agent after the dastardly Jason Slade (John Miller). Her sister, a news reporter named Joyce (Donna Jason), also has the same aim. This puts both woman, and the people close to them, in danger. But that won't be enough to stop them from trying to get their man.

Written by Herb Borkland, this is a cheesy, breezy, slice of '80s madness that just happens to have been released in 1993. If I didn't check details for these reviews then I would have sworn that this was 1988, at the very latest, but it's just one of those '90s movies that feels like a holdover from the previous decade. A lot of the dialogue is amusingly inane, especially when it's supposed to show chemistry between our female leads and men who admire them, but the best stuff is saved for the baddie, who even gets a moment in which to rant about how he can beat any man in a fight and make any woman he beds want to stay with him forever.

Director Godfrey Ho does what he usually does. Things are okay, and it all steps up a gear when you get the martial artists performing their martial arts. That doesn't always mean an actual fight though. The sisters playfully fight one another while arguing over who is going to drive a car. Joyce ends up sparring with someone, with chopsticks, as they enjoy a meal together. And then you get the proper fights. It's a shame that they're not as good as many other fight scenes I have seen in these types of movies, but there are just about enough of them, and both Rothrock and Chuck Jeffreys (as Jake Armstrong, a man who once protected the villain) help to liven things up when they can.

Is there any need to comment on the level of acting on display? Not really. If you've seen any other Rothrock film then you'll already know what to expect. She isn't the best, but she's also far from the worst, when it comes to onscreen fighters anyway. Nobody unbalances things by being much better. Jason is okay, if a bit bland, Jeffreys is quite charismatic, and Miller veers between wooden and completely bonkers, depending on what message his character is delivering in between his moments of oiled-up muscle displays.

There were so many other, better, movies that I could have given some of my time to this week, yet I am not unhappy with my choice. This was just under 90 minutes, it was very simple entertainment, and Rothrock kicked people in the head. Sometimes that's all I am looking for in my film choices. If you're ever in that frame of mind, check this one out.

6/10

You can get a DVD here.
Americans can get a Region 2 disc here.


Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The House With A Clock In Its Walls (2018)

IF you don't mind his presence in films, Jack Black has spend the past 10-15 years steadily building up a great selection of family-friendly adventure films. Okay, I'm the only one who enjoyed Gulliver's Travels but most people seemed to enjoy the Kung Fu Panda movies, School Of Rock, Goosebumps, and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. And here's another to add to the list, a film full of magical delights that is an unexpected directorial effort from Eli Roth (a man more well-known for his gory horror movies and twisted thrillers).

Owen Vaccaro plays Lewis Barnavelt, a young boy who ends up going to stay with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents die in a car crash. Uncle Jonathan lives in a very strange house, is himself a very strange individual, and has a good friend in the shape of the very strange Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). There's a lot of magic being bandied around, and Lewis wants to learn how to use it as soon as he sees it happening, and that clock in the walls, a device placed there by a warlock for reasons unknown. But it's counting down to something, and that something can't be good.

Based on a John Bellairs book that was first published in the early 1970s, The House With A Clock In Its Walls manages to feel surprisingly fresh and fun, despite not being entirely dissimilar to so many other movies we have seen aimed at children in the post-Potter entertainment years. A large part of that is to do with the cast but it's equally down to the surprisingly spot-on handling of the material by Roth, working from a script by Eric Kripke. This is not a film concerned with mystery and personal discovery, it's a film about magic. Young Lewis finds out about it quite quickly, making it a very normal part of his life for most of the movie, and the fun and thrills come from that magic being used, and from a third act that culminates with the final ticking and tocking of the clock.

Black is as energetic and amusing as he usually is (IF you like him, those who don't will want to find some other viewing choice), and Vaccaro is perfectly likeable in his main role, but it's always a lot of fun to see Blanchett in a lighter role, and she's her usual wonderful presence here. You also get Lorenza Izzo in a small, but important, role, and Renee Elise Goldsberry and Kyle MacLachlan as the two main characters who want to be there when the clock finishes the countdown. Colleen Camp is a neighbour who witnesses some odd stuff going on, Sunny Suljic play a boy who befriends Lewis, but may just be using him, and there's an array of enjoyable CGI creations that have fun personalities of their own (the best being a pet armchair that acts like an excitable puppy).

You can probably already guess the main problem that the film has. It's just too similar to so many others that we've seen over the past decade or so. The fantastical elements don't quite go as far as they could, it lacks some tension, and the grand finale feels more like an afterthought. There are also some toilet humour gags that don't feel in line with the rest of the film, just a couple of them but they're in there. These things aren't enough to spoil the whole movie, they just drag it down slightly.

Roth will always have his detractors, no matter what genre he tries his hand at, as will Black, so that also provides a lot of people with more reasons to give this a miss. I think it's worth your time though, especially if you have children at just the right age for it (probably between 6-14 being the optimum demographic . . . or anyone with the same mental age as me).

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.