Sunday, 9 August 2020

Mubi Monday: Good Manners (2017)

Isabél Zuaa plays Clara, a woman who ends up getting a job as a nurse/helper/nanny in the household of pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano). Clara ends up being more than just an employee to Ana, helping her get through a very difficult time in her life by becoming a companion, and a sexual partner. But the baby coming along could change everything, especially when Clara is told of how he was conceived, and what that might mean for the future.

Co-written and co-directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas, Good Manners is a film that feels very much in line with some other titles from the past few years that have successfully mixed some very real human drama with elements of creature features. It's a sweet tale that also uses some decent special effects in the second half to realise the less realistic aspect of the storyline, leading viewers carefully through ground that covers love, loss, fear, and the general nature of being a parent and wanting to keep your child safe from the dangers of the outside world.

Zuaa is the player who gets the most screentime here, and she does a very good job. More awkward and stiff in the early scenes, that's absolutely in line with how her character is as she is struggling to get a job that she may not be entirely qualified for, but she definitely needs. Estiano has a slightly easier time of things, in terms of what she's asked to convey, but does equally well. Then you have Miguel Lobo as young Joel. Lobo gives a frankly fantastic performance, as sweet and endearing as it is worrying and frustrating at times. There are a number of supporting roles, all cast perfectly, but the heart of the film is the relationship between parent and child, and I'm not going to single anyone else out from a uniformly excellent cast.

Apparently inspired by an urban legend, Dutra and Rojas have made something that feels very much steeped in the spirit of Brazil, yet also brings to the fore some themes and moments universally recognisable to all. There are times when this could all too easily be seen as something silly, or at least something tonally inconsistent, but Dutra and Rojas are savvy in keeping the focus on the leads, and how their relationship is affected by one huge problem that they're trying to cope with, which allows for the rest of the film to play out sensitively, and in a pretty grounded way.

The main thing that Good Manners gets wrong is simply not being as good as some of the other movies I have alluded to in a way that is vague enough to try and avoid spoilers. It's not as moving as some, not as visually stylish as others, and just falls a bit short of the mark for anyone who has found themselves lost in other cinematic worlds exploring similar dynamics. That's not a massive failing, and everyone working on this seems to be doing their best with what resources are available to them, but it does stop it from being at the very top tier of a recent crop of movies within a specific sub-genre.

Watch this, enjoy it, and look forward to the next films we get from Dutra and Rojas, whether they're working together again or helming projects on their own.


Netflix And Chill: Freaks (2018)

Although I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, overall, I think there's something worth mentioning about Freaks that COULD seem very spoilery to those wanting to go into the movie completely blind. So stop reading now if that is you.

Right, everyone else gone?

Just me and anyone who has seen the film here? Or people who don't care about comparisons that may reveal the essence of the movie? Okay then, we can continue.

Freaks is the story of a young girl (Chloe, played by Lexy Kolker) who is being kept at home by her father (Emile Hirsch). The reasoning behind this isn't clear, but it seems that the father is just trying to protect his daughter. Or maybe he's protecting the world outside from his daughter. All is revealed as the plot unfolds, and that includes the revelation that some people in this cinematic world have dangerous powers, and there's an ice cream vendor (Bruce Dern) taking an interest in the life of Chloe, which means he may want to harm her, although he may equally want to help her.

Okay, that was a whole extra paragraph, at least, in between my warning and what may come as quite a big spoiler to anyone wanting to go into this film blind. So I am saying it now. Freaks is a better onscreen representation of the character of Phoenix than we've seen in any X-Men movie so far. It's all about a young girl growing to a stage in which her powers will start to show, which will endanger her and everyone around her. And she can become stronger when she lets her emotions build up and drive her actions.

If you like the sound of that then Freaks is for you. It's really well put together, from the co-directing and co-writing team of Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, depicting a big vision onscreen while keep everything focused on one or two small locations. Lipovsky and Stein are smart in the way they illustrate many big brushstrokes just offscreen while they keep the camera pointed at areas they have layered with some lovely and detailed painting.

The cast all do very well in their roles, with Hirsch and Dern both playing to their strengths as two adults butting heads while they consider the best ways to help the young girl at the centre of everything. Hirsch alternates between being caring and being too heavy-handed in his protective approach, Dern is as cantankerous as usual, and both actors play the material ambiguously enough until the truth starts to be revealed. Kolker is pretty fantastic in the vital role of Chloe, starting off with a sense of innocence that keeps being worn away as she becomes more informed and angrier. Grace Park is an agent who serves as an obvious physical threat, and Amanda Crew is odd to watch, considering she's now old enough to be asked to play the "mother" role in these kinds of films (it still just seems like yesterday when she was the headstrong younger sister of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Final Destination 3).

Freaks is very familiar stuff, but it's done so well. It is, essentially, a superhero-type tale without all of the usual trappings. You don't get the name recognition, you don't get the huge budget or set-pieces, and you don't even get the bombastic musical score (with no offence intended to Tim Wynn, I can't even recall much of the score already). What you get is a gripping story with some well-sketched characters and a satisfying third act that just keeps shifting the plot points nicely into place while adding more and more danger.


Saturday, 8 August 2020

Shudder Saturday: They Look Like People (2015)

The first feature film from writer-director Perry Blackshear, and the second feature I have seen from him (having heard about it for a while, but I got to The Siren first), They Look Like People is an impressive, and ambiguous, psychological horror that does great work within some very limiting boundaries.

MacLeod Andrews (who keeps impressing me, but also keeps reminding me of Hugh Jackman, if Jackman had spent many years not eating well enough to get all of his vitamins) plays Wyatt, a man who ends up spending some time with a good friend, Christian (Evan Dumouchel). The two men have something in common, things have recently taken a bit of a downhill turn in contrast to where they wanted their lives to go, but there's one big difference. Wyatt is receiving messages that are warning him against people around him being infected and turned into evil creatures. He has weapons, he has a plan, and he needs to get some corrosive acid to deal with the upcoming "war".

As he has proven with pretty much every movie I have seen him in, MacLeod Andrews is one of the best actors working today. I don't do hyperbole. I really believe that. Whether that's due to him picking roles/projects that he knows he's a great fit for or whether it is his innate talent is another matter. He's a big positive here, portraying a troubled man who is growing increasingly terrified by a world due to change around him, yet also worrying that he cannot trust his own mind. He's complemented by Dumouchel, who has the lesser role, but becomes essential as a friend at a low point willing to put his complete faith in someone who doesn't have complete faith in himself. You also get a wonderful turn from Margaret Ying Drake, playing Mara, someone who works with Dumouchel and may be interested in him on a more personal level.

The other thing about the lead performance from Andrews is that you always feel the threat bubbling away just under the surface. He's a lovely man, but believing what he believes makes it feel like just a matter of time before he seriously hurts someone, working under the impression (real or false) that they are no longer an actual person. Not only does this make for an effective and tense bit of horror, albeit not one for those needing bloodshed and death every ten minutes, but it's also a very honest depiction of someone doing their best to hold things together while their brain tries to convince them to do something that they know will lead them into some big trouble. Many of us have been in that situation, even if it's to a much lesser extent (either through mental health issues or mental health being temporarily altered by various drugs, including alcohol).

Although Blackshear allows himself the luxury of ambiguity and atmospheric creepiness for most of the runtime, The Look Like People isn't a film designed to build and build to an anti-climactic ending, as so many independent horror movies seem to be. You can still interpret things in a different way if you wish, I guess, but the ending works beautifully, and feels almost cathartic after spending time getting to know, and like, the main characters.

I'm glad that some other people kept mentioning this one in conversations about favourite movies from the past decade (special thanks to Mitch Bain of the Strong Language & Violent Scenes podcast), and I'll now be recommending it to others, as well as looking forward to what is next on the cards for Blackshear.


Friday, 7 August 2020

Fantasy Island (2020)

Do you think it would be fun if someone decided to make a movie version of The Love Boat, but then decided to take the basic premise and twist it into a slasher movie? I am guessing probably not, at least not if you are familiar with the show, and have a fondness for it. The same goes for Hotel, although that was much more of a soap opera. But the same might go for Fantasy Island, a film based on a brand name that will satisfy neither fans of the TV show nor younger viewers who won't know what they're letting themselves in for.

The plot starts off simply enough, after a prologue scene showing someone being terrorised. A bunch of people arrive at Fantasy Island, where they hope that their fantasies will come true. There's Gwen (Maggie Q), a woman who thinks that her fantasy will allow her to make up for a past mistake, Melanie (Lucy Hale), a woman who wants revenge on a school bully (Sloane, played by Porita Doubleday), Patrick (Austin Stowell), who wants to play soldier, and brothers Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and J. D. (Ryan Hansen), who just want to party hard. Michael Peña is Mr. Roarke, the head of the island, and the one ensuring that people stay the course as their fantasies play out, even if they turn into something unexpected.

Re-uniting some of the people who gave us the much more enjoyable Truth Or Dare (director Jeff Wadlow, who also helped to write the screenplay with Jillian Jacobs and Christopher Roach again, and Hale in a central role), Fantasy Island is just about the most ridiculous and pointless mainstream thriller/horror I can think of in recent years. I guess there's a vein of black comedy running through it, which may help viewers who respond to it more, but it certainly wasn't enough to help me find everything more bearable.

The cast are an admirably diverse selection, I guess, but the one thing they have in common is a level of blandness that doesn't help lift the weak material. Maggie Q ends up becoming the foremost character, working things out ahead of others and trying to change the situation for the better, but that doesn't make her any more interesting. Hale is good though, and she's someone I tend to enjoy in the main roles I have seen her in, and Yang and Hansen work well together, bringing more of the fun moments in the first half of the film. Stowell is saddled with an annoying strand that shows him desperate to have a moment of heroism, and Peña speaks in platitudes while smiling enigmatically. Thankfully, Doubleday is another person I just tend to automatically enjoy onscreen, and there are supporting roles for the always-welcome Michael Rooker and Kim Coates.

It just goes to show you that you can pretty much do anything you like with a well-known brand name and nobody will question you if they think enough teens will go to see it. This makes all the wrong choices, from the lack of characters you want to root for to the downright stupid final act, but thinks all will be forgiven when it moves along slickly enough while occasionally winking at those who remember the TV show. All is not forgiven. And my fantasy has now changed from me being locked in a room with Scarlett Johansson and twelve jars of strawberry jam to simply never having to endure a sequel to this.


Thursday, 6 August 2020

Scoob! (2020)

An attempt to give the Scooby-Doo brand a shot in the arm, Scoob! may fall a bit short for fans due to two main points. And one of those is the fact that the brand never feels like it needs a shot in the arm (and this is from someone who quite enjoyed the live-action movies).

The story starts with Shaggy (voiced by Will Forte) meeting a little Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker, so that is a plus). The two then meet the rest of "Mystery, Inc" before that was formed - Fred (Zac Efron), Velma (Gina Rodriguez), and Daphne (Amanda Seyfried). Years pass by, a montage shows the gang doing what they do (in a wonderfully-recreated copy of the opening titles of the cartoon I grew up with), and life is good. Which makes it a perfect time for the group to be split up, with Shaggy and Scooby meeting the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg), and possibly helping to foil some nefarious plan by Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs).

You might have already surmised the other main problem people may have with Scoob! Yes, as seems to be the norm now for companies wanting to get lots and lots of money coming in . . . this film is also an attempt to create some kind of bizarre Hanna-Barbera movie universe. You get Blue Falcon and company, you get Dick Dastardly and Muttley, and you get a small role for Captain Caveman (and whoever thought Tracy Morgan was the best choice to voice one of my favourite cartoon characters was so far wrong that I hope they spend many sleepless nights thinking about what they have done).

The script, written by a few different scribes, works in the first third, generally, before trying to fit the gang into a wider movie universe. Then it all goes to pot, one or two witty, meta lines aside.

The same may be said of the direction from Tony Cervone, although his hands are tied by the script. But everything becomes a long, slow slide downhill once the main mystery comes into play.

The voice voice cast generally do well. It's a shame that nobody offered Lillard the chance to return to the role he made his own, but Forte doesn't do too bad as an alternative. Efron, Rodriguez, and Seyfried are a good match for their characters, Welker does his usual excellent work (which really goes without saying), and Isaacs has a lot of fun as Dick Dastardly. Unfortunately, the rest don't really fit in, be it Whalberg and his companions (voiced by Ken Jeong and Kiersey Clemons), or that unforgivable mis-casting for the Captain Caveman role. And let's not mention the clanging Simon Cowell cameo.

Scooby-Doo isn't a property that you should be able to mess up so easily, certainly not in animated form. But the creative forces behind this film manage it.

Consider my rating generous, with at least one point just for the sweet glow of nostalgia.


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Prime Time: The Wraith (1986)

I'm not sure how everyone else encountered it, but The Wraith is a film I will always remember as a fond VHS favourite. The cooler poster design, the one that had the titular character standing beside his awesome car, the taglines, and the fairly impressive cast all made a strong impression on me, and the younger me had no idea that it was basically a reworking of one or two atmospheric Clint Eastwood movies.

There's a gang of assholes, led by Packard Walsh (Nick Cassavetes). Walsh wants to be with the beautiful Keri Johnson (Sherilyn Fenn), but she keeps resisting his advances, which is hard to believe when you see what a charmer Walsh is. The gang of assholes like to spend their time bullying people, racing cars, and generally being assholes, much to the chagrin of Sheriff Loomis (Randy Quaid). A new guy in town (Jake, played by Charlie Sheen) gets some attention, but not as much as "The Wraith", a black-clothed mysterious driver who turns up in a very impressive car, some kind of one-of-a-kind Dodge Interceptor. Without saying anything, this driver is challenged to race, which allows him to start picking off the gang, one at a time.

Written and directed by Mike Marvin knows exactly how to throw plenty at the wall for enough to stick. You get the attractive cast, the supernatural aspect of it all, the set-pieces (they might be limited by the budget and resources, but they're there), and the shiny, speedy car. Certain moments are very cheesy, not least of them being the moments of closure at the very end of the film, but if you accept it for all it is aiming for then you should still manage to have a good time. Perhaps Marvin could have learned further into the horror, and added some more gratuitous creepy moments in between the races and confrontations, but he generally does well at balancing the tone in a way that keeps focus on the teen appeal around the heart of the story. Having said that, I wouldn't be averse to a ramped-up remake.

Sheen is good enough as the handsome new guy in town, Fenn is as lovely as ever, and Cassavetes is a great alpha douchebag. The gang all under the leadership of Cassavetes is full of fun little turns, with special mention going to Clint Howard. Well, I suppose I mean to give special mention to Clint Howard's hair. Quaid is enjoyably chewing the scenery as the exasperated sheriff, and Matthew Barry is okay as a young man who doesn't realise that he has already known "The Wraith" in another guise.

The racing scenes are decently shot, the soundtrack has a couple of surprising hits in the mix, and the cast all at least have fun with their roles, even if they are not delivering the best possible performances. If you have fond memories of this from the VHS experience, as I did, then revisiting it won't leave you disappointed. It holds up surprisingly well, perhaps because it never tried to sell itself as anything more than an entertaining teen tale of ghostly vengeance. Which is all you get.


Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Sphere (1998)

Although not released at the same time as the big underwater thrillers that battled it out in the late 1980s (those main three titles being Leviathan, DeepStar Six, and The Abyss, of course), but Sphere is nicely in line with those films, and any other underwater thriller that tends to mix horror or sci-fi with our fascination/fear of the deep waters that cover so much of the surface of our planet.

There's an alien spacecraft found at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, which understandably requires some investigation. That leads to the standard assembling of a group of smart people who might be able to get to the bottom of things. There's a marine biologist (Beth Halperin, played by Sharon Stone), a psychologist (Norman Goodman, played by Dustin Hoffman), a mathematician (Samuel L. Jackson), an astrophysicist (Ted Fielding, played by Liev Schreiber), and a U.S. Navy Captain (Harold Barnes, played by Peter Coyote). Once at the main site, our assembled team discover a number of strange details, and then a large and impenetrable, perfect sphere. And things are about to get much stranger, putting the group in danger as sanity is worn down and people start to turn on one another.

Michael Crichton has written numerous best-sellers, and his name has been involved with a number of enjoyable blockbuster movies, but he hasn't always been adapted well to the big screen. Sphere is one of the better Crichton adaptations of the past few decades, although it suffers from the fact that the finale probably isn't as satisfying as viewers want it to be. Adapted by Kurt Wimmer, the final screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio is a decent attempt to mix in some spectacle, thrills and tension, and some solid psychological horror (albeit mild horror). As with so many Crichton tales, there are a number of great ideas, and the script at least executes many of them very well.

Director Barry Levinson also does good work here, making the most of his all-star cast and the chance to provide a number of set-pieces that build and build on the way to the grand finale. The weakness seems to be in the source material, but only in the way that it doesn't feel designed to provide the most obvious type of third act resolution that so many of us are used to from these kinds of movies.

There's nobody here who feels out of place when it comes to the cast. The leads are just superb, all bringing certain qualities to their characters, which is obviously why they were picked. Stone is another strong female here, although one with a vulnerability that ends up being exploited. Hoffman is a bit arrogant with his intelligence, Jackson is more relaxed and open to seeing how things play out, and Schreiber is, well, just fun to have onscreen alongside the others. Coyote is as dependable as ever, and there's even a good little turn from Queen Latifah, playing one of the few other characters to have actual dialogue.

It may not quite do enough to warrant me making a pun like "the only thing you need to fear is Sphere itself", but this is a sorely-neglected blockbuster from the late '90s that tries to weave between entertainingly dumb and entertainingly smart.


Monday, 3 August 2020

Mubi Monday: The Truth (2019)

After the absolute brilliance of Shoplifters, I was willing to see anything that director Hirokazu Koreeda would do next. I'm sure many others felt the same way. Not that Koreeda hasn't been delivering great movies now for decades, but Shoplifters was so good that it just put him right back in my mind as a bit of a master of cinema. And I'm sure others feel the same way.

Anyway, The Truth is Koreeda's English-language debut. And it's mostly in French. Catherine Deneuve plays a famous actress, Fabienne Dangeville, who is being visited by her daughter (Lumir, played by Juliette Binoche), her son-in-law (Hank, played by Ethan Hawke), and their child (Charlotte, played by Clémentine Grenier). The timing coincides with the release of Fabienne's autobiography and her latest role that has her playing . . . a mother. And the truth is ripe for exploration at this time, especially as Lumir calls into question so many things in the alleged autobiography that didn't actually happen the way they are described.

I think it's fair to say that The Truth may well disappoint a lot of people after Shoplifters. It's nowhere near as good as that film, and it doesn't seem to make any of the main points as effectively and beautifully as we're used to seeing these things done by Koreeda, who once again takes on both the directing and writing duties (although Ken Liu is credited for a short story used as the basis for the film that Fabiene is working on).

The weakness of the material, however, is at least partly compensated for by the quality of the leads. Deneuve is a grand dame of cinema, of course, and I can't think of any role she's had that I've disliked. This gives her some great moments, showing a woman so invested in her acting career that she will move from a moment of honest emotion to figuring out how best to use those feelings in a specific scene in her movie. Binoche is a perfect "opponent", staying strong enough to wrestle things back to the truth that the title of the movie promises. Hawke is very good in his role, although his character feels quite unnecessary for most of the runtime, and Grenier is just fine as the beloved child of the group. Manon Clavel does well in a supporting role, and Roger Van Hool helps to mix things up a bit when he appears onscreen.

What you end up with, ultimately, is a character study that steadily turns into a mood piece. But the mood never really feels like one worth giving so much time to. The core of the film is a standard family confrontation, and the dressing around it all never seems vital. It all infuses the core, undeniably, but a few tweaks could have left a lot of things the same without the extra layering that doesn't add enough to make it all worthwhile.

It's a very enjoyable film, full of moments that will impress fans of the main cast. It's just not a great film. And, perhaps a bigger contributing factor to my opinion on it, it's just not close enough to being as good as Shoplifters.


Sunday, 2 August 2020

Netflix And Chill: Trick (2019)

Okay, let me start off this review with some positivity. The whole thing isn't going to be negative, but I think there may be moments when I ramble on a bit and give the impression that I had a terrible time. I did not. Trick is a lot of fun. It's just that it doesn't remain quite fun enough to help you overlook some of the more ridiculous moments, including some pretty big plot points.

The basic story revolves around Detective Mike Denver (Omar Epps), a man determined to catch a killer, believed to be Patrick "Trick" Weaver (Thom Niemann) who embarks on a fatal killing spree every Halloween. He attends a party, spins a knife around, and then starts getting stabby. Detective Denver, and Sheriff Lisa Jayne (Ellen Adair), keeps trying to stay hot on the trail of what may well be a supernatural killer, even if others don't buy into that theory.

Director Patrick Lussier, who once again worked with Todd Farmer on the script, has been delivering horror movies with an emphasis on fun for the past two decades. And they've managed to get a bit better and better after he was done with a number of Dracula films between 2000-2005. Trick may not be as wild as My Bloody Valentine and Drive Angry (especially that one), but it's clear that it's a film based around a fun premise, rather than one intricately plotted to weave between tense set-pieces on the way to a smart and thought-provoking final act. Nope, Lussier and Farmer want a lot of death, an element of mystery to keep the authorities on their toes, and a good mix of gore and silliness. They also throw in one or two death traps that would even make Jigsaw roll his eyes and say things were getting a bit too unbelievable (particularly when one character helps to keep another safe before ensuring they then return to the main target spot that will ensure their splattery demise).

The cast all go along with everything perfectly. Epps is actually deserving of some praise for playing his character as determined and obsessed without going into, for example, the kind of immediate manic and twitchy performance we got from Danny Glover in Saw (he is the first example to spring to mind, due to a few death scenes here, but there are many others). Adair is just as good as the woman working alongside him, casting doubt on some of his theory while continuing to put the work in and follow things wherever they lead. Kristina Reyes is a decent, strong female in her role, Cheryl Winston, a survivor of one killing spree hoping to help stop any others, and Max Miller is fun in the role of Troy, a jock who paints himself as a hero when things didn't quite pan out that way. Others do well, if they don't stand out, but genre fans may enjoy seeing Jamie Kennedy in a small role, and should definitely enjoy a wonderfully grouchy turn from the incomparable genre legend that is Tom Atkins.

I enjoyed a lot of Trick. Unfortunately, the scenes I enjoyed most where the scenes that were supposed to be highlights. They were set-pieces that quickly became ridiculous, taking me out from the viewing experience as I was unable to suspend my disbelief. But then it would get back to some smaller-scale insanity, and I was back on board.

Easier to hate than to love, I hope people give this a watch and simple enjoy it. The end runs a little too long, and has a ridiculous resolution to everything, but it's still worth 100 minutes of your time. Even if it's not a complete treat.


Saturday, 1 August 2020

Shudder Saturday: Host (2020)

People will look back at 2020 and view it with the right amount of bewilderment that it deserves. A global pandemic changed pretty much everything, from our views on the whole financial system to our movie-viewing schedules. So many companies suddenly realised that they could allow staff to work from home, so many idiots suddenly viewed important health advice as an attempt to trample over their human rights, and we have all started to work together to stay apart. It's not all been bad though. The volunteers have stepped up, random acts of kindness or entertainment have reminded me of the good in humanity, and creative people have found ways to create within a much smaller world, and with much more limited resources.

Host is a short horror movie (runs at just over 50 minutes) created during lockdown. It's all about a group of people, mostly women, who get together on a Zoom chat to try and experience an online seance. Things inevitably start to get a bit creepy, and viewers end up watching the participants being terrorised in their homes.

The cast all do very good work here, believable for every moment of this Zoom "meeting". I'll namecheck most of them - Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, and Caroline Ward. They all play characters with then same first names, which makes everything easier, and probably helped to keep the tech side of things a lot simpler. Nobody really stands out, because the strength of the film lies in the concept and execution, but it's a pleasant surprise that nobody stands out as being too awful. That includes Alan Amrys, Edward Linard, and Seylan Baxter, who leads the way in the ceremonial proceedings, and offers guidance. The cast may not be star-studded, but most of the faces onscreen will be vaguely familiar to those who watch plenty of movies.

I'm not familiar with any other works from director Rob Savage, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, but I'll certainly check out what else he has in his filmography, and would watch whatever he does next. Host has ingenuity and an enjoyable selection of scares, and it provides one hell of a calling card for all involved, no matter where they are already at in their careers.

There are one or two too many jump scares, as so often happens with films done in what is essentially "found footage" style, but they're easier to accept and enjoy when done as well as they are here. I'm not too proud to admit that Host got me on a few different occasions. I was very nervous by the time the final scenes were playing out, and while I waited for what was surely going to be one big final "boo" moment.

Lockdown may now be over, sort of (let's be honest, the conflicting advice and details from the government here in the UK don't exactly fill many people with confidence), but you may still be trying to find ways to fill some time, for a variety of reasons. If you have a spare hour, check this out. It's well worth your time.


Friday, 31 July 2020

Artemis Fowl (2020)

Of course I'd heard all of the bad reviews. Of course I was aware that not one person who watched Artemis Fowl ended up having a good thing to say about it. Of course I thought I might find at least some small bits to enjoy.

Of course I was wrong.

Artmeris Fowl has the might of Disney behind it, but it's hard to think of a more misjudged and messy piece of family entertainment. Nothing works as it should. Nothing.

Let's start with the plot. Ferdia Shaw is Artemis Fowl, a young boy who ends up alone, having to defend his home, when his father (Colin Farrell) is whisked away by some shady villain. Artemis finds out that there's a whole world around him that he doesn't know about, and there's an item, the Aculos, that many seem to want to get their hands on. This leads to Fowl Manor being besieged, where Artemis works to defend it with the magical Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), "Dom" Butler (Nonso Anozie), and Dom's niece, Juliet Butler (Tamara Smart). You also get Judi Dench appearing as Commander Julius Root, determined to get in to Fowl Manor and retrieve the Aculos.

Based on the popular novel by Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl is written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, which may be where the the problems begin. McColl has a background that would make him seem suited to this kind of material, perhaps, but McPherson doesn't, and the mix of the two leads to a film that feels inevitably ill-fitting, in terms of the various plot elements. Director Kenneth Branagh also doesn't really feel like the right person to be sitting in the big chair, but it would be unfair to rule him out immediately (considering some of his surprising successes). Sadly, it turns out that he ISN'T the right person to be sitting in the big chair. In fact, he doesn't seem to have spent much time in the chair at all. This feels like something not directed by anyone with any vision, or even a sense of effective film-making techniques.

Then we get to the cast. Shaw is horrible in the lead role. It's not really his fault. His character is annoying, almost from the very first frame, and he acts accordingly. Gad is pretty annoying, although he at least gets to show some of his personality, unlike the majority of the cast. McDonnell is the highlight, a plucky and tough fighter with good intentions, but Anozie is also very good as the talented protector/butler. Judie Dench looks suitably embarrassed every now and then, and Farrell has the good sense to take on a role with such little screentime that I'm sure he was handsomely rewarded for what amounted to a day of work, at most.

Artemis Fowl isn't as bad as you've heard. It's worse. Characters are generally awful and unappealing, the plot is slight and impossible to care about, and the action sequences wouldn't have impressed most viewers a decade ago. It's mind-boggling to think of how many decisions were made by people who all tried to go for the worst possible options. It's only the fact that it had enough money thrown at it that saves it from being among the very worst I have seen. It's definitely one of the very worst blockbusters of the 21st century though.


Thursday, 30 July 2020

Bats: Human Harvest (2007)

I've seen movies that are much worse than Bats: Human Harvest. There are so many to choose from. At least half of them have the word "Amityville" in the title. So going by that low bar, Bats: Human Harvest isn't really that bad at all.

It's bad though. Very bad. Worst of all, it doesn't have anywhere near enough batty action to warrant being a sequel to Bats. And as for the "human harvest" part, that's REALLY overstating any kind of carnage you might expect the movie to deliver.

A bunch of army types run around in some woods and look to shoot some people. There are bats in the immediate vicinity. These bats cause some issues, but only in enough scenes to try and warrant the movie having the word "bats" in the title. There's also a bad scientist (Dr. Benton Walsh, played by Tomas Arana), and a woman who may or may not be helping the perceived good guys (Katya, played by Pollyanna McIntosh).

I'm not familiar with director Jamie Dixon, who has a filmography that shows his main role to be in the world of visual effects, and there's nothing here that will make me ever want to see either his first film or anything else he may end up helming. It's hard to give him all of the blame though, particularly when the script by Chris Denk and Brett Merryman is so weak. Even for this kind of venture, it's bad. No part of this script works to engage viewers, from the slipshod plotting to the weak characterisations, which is my way of forewarning you that I'll not be going into detail about ANY of the thin characters thrown around in this mess.

Arana isn't bad as the scientist who has created some dangerous bats, and the rest of the cast includes David Chokachi, Michael Jace, Martin Papazian, and Melissa De Sousa, but the only one standing out, for both the right and wrong reasons, is McIntosh. She's her usual striking self, she's allowed to utter her dialogue in an amusingly clumsy accent, and she at least makes most of her scenes seem fun, which is more than anyone else manages. Sadly, she won't be a big enough draw for many people, but I have been a fan of her work for many years, so that gets the film a bonus point.

This is a schedule-filler, nothing more and nothing less, but even a schedule-filler doesn't have to be this bad. If you're not going to include many scenes with actual bats then let the cast onscreen have some decent action, and if you're not going to let the cast onscreen have some decent action then throw in more scenes with actual bats. This does neither, making it hard to consider as an option for even the most easily entertained of viewers (like myself).


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Prime Time: Bad Match (2017)

A riff on Fatal Attraction for the swiping generation, Bad Match is the kind of premise that I am sure has been done before, but it's hard to think of it being done as well. The blend of fun and proper nastiness here, in terms of the mean-spirited way that the plot tortures the "date 'em and ditch 'em" lead, is almost perfect for those after an entertaining thriller that doesn't want to become too complex, and doesn't need to stay chained to anything other than the onscreen logic.

Jack Cutmore-Scott is Harris, a man addicted to the thrill of swiping for attractive women. He has his patter nailed down, he likes to have a date, have some energetic sex, and then sneak away in the middle of the night as he gives some sweet parting words about doing it again soon and definitely intending to call. And then Harris meets Riley (Lili Simmons), a beautiful woman who doesn't really want to just be a one night stand/notch on a bedpost.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, which I know I AM nowadays, nobody dates any more. Nobody needs to worry about making good conversation. If you want a relationship then you still need to make some effort, but it's never been easier to meet people purely for sex. I say that without meaning it as a bad thing. As sex has got easier for people to get, attitudes towards sex have become generally healthier. There will always be exceptions - the guys who want to slut-shame women for behaving the way they like their mates to behave, the people who mistake 50 Shades Of Grey for any standard d/s dynamic - but being more open about sex, and just being open about what we want, makes people a bit happier. Life's too short to be putting up with unsatisfying sex. Where it gets a lot less healthy is in the way some people become addicted to the swiping method. It's a numbers game to them, and they need to keep adding to their tally. Those people have always been out there, working in pubs and clubs as they aim towards another night in a different bed, but now they can reach so many more people with so relatively little effort.

In the role of Harris, Cutmore-Scott is pretty perfect. He has enough charm to be believable, and that even helps you to root for him as things start going very wrong, despite also considering the fact that he deserves at least some of what is happening to him. Simmons is also well-suited to her role, her looks and feigned innocence making it less immediately obvious to our lead just how far she is willing to go to upset his lifestyle. There are other people onscreen, and they all do good work, but the focus, quite rightly, remains on the two leads.

Writer-director David Chirchirillo goes for a lot of the obvious little moments en route to an enjoyably twisted final reel. It all starts with an alarm being switched off and an unplanned visit here and there, but quickly develops into job security being threatened, crimes being committed, and fraying threads of sanity. Chirchirillo also does well to have Harris be apologetic, but in ways that underline how little he really understands about the impact his predatory behaviour may have had on so many women.

This could easily have been a lightweight "teen thriller", it could have been absurd and still enjoyable, but Chirchirillo allows the main characters to keep digging and digging in a way that brings to mind that old proverb: "The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves."
Or maybe it's a whole new proverb. Two wrongs don't make a right, but too many swipes right can lead to wrongs!


Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Bats (1999)

A film called Bats is not going to surprise anyone when it turns out to be about genetically-mutated killer bats, and this film is not out to deliver surprises. It's simply out to deliver some creature feature goodies for those seeking them out.

Dina Meyer is Dr. Sheila Casper, a bat expert who ends up called in when a situation gets out of control. Some people have been attacked by bats, and that could just be the tip of the iceberg as the creatures get ready to swarm and attack a small town. Teaming up with Sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Dr. Alexander McCabe, a man who can be suspected of having some kind of hidden agenda, simply due to the fact that he's played by Bob Gunton, it's a race against the clock to stop the killer bats from further spreading their leathery wings of death.

Writer John Logan has quite the varied filmography, and this was one of his earlier works, but he certainly shows here that he knows the beats needing hit as things move along briskly enough from start to finish. You get an opening attack, heroes filled in on the situation, a major set-piece in the first half of the film that stands out as the highlight of the whole thing, a misguided "villain, and an attempt to resolve things before the proper resolution in the big finale. It marks everything off the checklist you would expect.

Director Louis Morneau has plenty of experience with the kind of thriller/horror fun that would not necessarily aim for a theatrical release (although this somehow did manage that) and he does well with the resources at his disposal. The bats aren't necessarily realistic, in terms of their movement and behaviour, but the puppets are well made, most of the shots work well when showing the bats looking cunning and dangerous, and it's surprising just how easy viewers may find it to stop picking apart the lack of logic and simply enjoy it for the fun it is. The pacing also helps, as does the cast.

Meyer adds another plucky female lead to her filmography, and she's good in the role, while Phillips doesn't play his small town Sheriff with a small town attitude. Another pleasant surprise here, in fact, is the way in which everyone immediately proceeds in the knowledge that there's no big mystery, no misdirecting coincidences as people die. It's the bats, they're killing people and need to be stopped. Gunton gives good Gunton, and Leon (yeah, no idea who he is either, but he's famous enough to perform under just the one name a la Madonna) tries to be a bit of fun as Jimmy Sands, general assistant to Dr. Casper, but the script doesn't treat him well at all, with one of his first witty comments being so misjudged that it immediately puts you off him.

It may not be any kind of classic, not even within the creature feature subgenre, but Bats deserves credit for some fine practical FX work, lead performers getting the tone just right, and one or two big sequences that show where a lot of the budget went.


Monday, 27 July 2020

Mubi Monday: Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014)

I haven't actually seen that many films from writer-director Olivier Assayas, but what I HAVE seen from him has impressed me. He's a very talented director, eliciting superb performances from his cast and crafting scenes of sedate thoughtfulness that never feel just dull. Clouds Of Sils Maria is exactly in line with the other Assayas films I have knowledge of.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an elderly actress with a rather unique problem/opportunity. She has been offered the chance to play the older character in a play that helped to set her on her way to stardom when, decades earlier, she has portrayed the younger character. Discussing the work with her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria has to also adjust to acting opposite a new up-and-coming actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), and ends up using her time in preparation for the role as time spent also considering her own approach to her career, her life, and her relationships with some other key people, including Valentine.

At a shade over two hours in length, Assayas is in no hurry here, which is as it should be. The central character is herself delaying things, plagued with doubt and insecurity as she considers a big step that will draw a lot of attention to where she is in her career. There's also more weight to the decision because of the death of the director, Wilhelm, who helped her get that big break. In fact, Maria was on her way to accept an award on his behalf when she learns of his death. There's musings on mortality, a thought or two about certain immortality (certainly in terms of powerful performances that create a reputation to ripple through the decades), and the constant struggle of battling against the ravages of time, particularly in a business that often values youth and beauty above so many other qualities.

Binoche is at her best in the main role, as fierce and strong as ever, with moments of vulnerability that take place either fleetingly, or very much hidden away from those she fears seeing her in a state of weakness. Stewart works great alongside her (and Assayas would have faith in her again, giving her a fantastic role in the quietly effective Personal Shopper), the relationship between the two an interesting and complex one, muddied by the scenes in which they work through the play together. Moretz is . . . well, she's okay, but the weakest of the three central females. I like Moretz a lot, but she seems to have struggled in the transition from talented child star in the right roles to an actress with a fully-rounded skillset.

Easy to dismiss as languid and pretentious, Clouds Of Sils Maria is certainly one that will be appreciated best by those who are closer in age to Binoche than Moretz. It's a character study, superficially, but it's also a meditation on some things we all experience as we wander through life, and that could include grief (not just for the loss of loved ones, but for the loss of past glories, the loss of time, the loss of moments that we didn't know enough about to fully appreciate at the time, and more) as well as the unhalting march of the minutes, hours, days, and years.


Sunday, 26 July 2020

Netflix And Chill: Wounds (2019)

It seems as if I have been hearing about Wounds for a long time, and very little of it was good. Written and directed by Babak Anvari, who previously delivered the great Under The Shadow, his feature debut, it's a horror film that seems to have left many viewers underwhelmed and unsatisfied. I really don't know why, and I personally put it on par with Anvari's first film.

Armie Hammer is Will, a bartender with a bit of a messy life situation. He lives with his partner, Carrie (Dakota Johnson), may have a thing for regular patron, Alicia (Zazie Beetz), and has to put up with crap during his shifts like fights started by Eric (Brad William Henke). And then he finds a mobile phone that contains some disturbing photos and video clips, and makes him a target for who, or what, is at the other end of the line.

Based on a novella - 'The Visible Filth' - by Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds is a slight film that chooses to focus on a fracturing psyche and small moments that hint at a disturbing bigger picture. Moving from the subtle spookiness of his debut feature, Anvari continues to show how good he is at building atmosphere, but this time it's an atmosphere of immediate dread and confusion, once people see certain images that are impossible to perceive as being based in our established reality.

As strange a comparison point as this may seem, and maybe not a positive one for many people, Wounds feels very much like a film running in tandem with Unfriended: Dark Web. It's someone discovering a hitherto-unknown world, one in which those running things seem scarily knowledgeable and powerful, and where the most twisted acts are committed just, well, just because someone thought something up. There may not be any obvious price list, but there's never any doubt that people are paying something, even if it's not with cash.

The only downside of the film comes from the casting. I quite like Hammer in the right role. This isn't the right role. He seems too cocky for a bartender who also seems too old to be at that place in his life (trust me, I picked up some bar work in my early thirties, and felt far too old for it then). Johnson is an actress I have liked in a few other movies, and she can deliver when asked to stretch herself, but she's completely wasted here. Beetz is allowed to shine, albeit momentarily, but she's alone. Henke isn't a good character, he's a plot point, used effectively on the way to an interesting final scene. And you have Karl Glusman as Jeffrey, the young man in a relationship with Beetz's character. He's also not used well, and is actually given one of the worst scenes in the whole film.

I'll forgive the problems in the casting/acting department though. Wounds is a film of ideas, it's one that puts together a number of unsettling moments as things spiral further and further towards the kind of cosmic horror and insanity that Lovecraft fans should enjoy. And it solidifies Anvari's reputation as a very talented director. I hope he gives us some more horror genre work in the future.


Saturday, 25 July 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Pool (2018)

A creature feature that puts one man in an empty swimming pool that also happens to become a lair for a big mean crocodile, The Pool is a film that could have been a streamlined and slick thriller/horror movie. Could have been.

Although the first sentence has effectively summarised the movie, there's a bit more to it. You also get the hero's partner in trouble. You get a dog being a help or hindrance. And you get some backstory shown that fleshed out the two main characters and exactly where they are in their relationship.

There are things in The Pool that are easy to forgive, and things that aren't. Writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng has a number of credits to his name already, although I am not sure if any of his other movies are within the horror realm (a cursory glance doesn't show anything that stands out, concept-wise), and he handles the basics of the film-making techniques with a certain proficiency. There may be many moments in which the crocodile looks as if it has escaped from one of the very early Tomb Raider games, but it's kept as a very visible threat without always having to be shown in the kind of detailed way that highlights the wonky CGI.

Theeradej Wongpuapan is very good as Day, the man who somehow finds himself in this very dangerous situation, and Ratnamon Ratchiratham is equally good as Koi, although she doesn't have to do as much. The two of them being so good helps massively, however, especially in the scenes that decide to dwell on a sub-plot about a potential pregnancy and plans for the future (including whether or not to keep the baby).

Where things go wrong is in the plotting. Lumpraploeng seems determined to keep stacking all of the odds against our hero, which is fine, to a degree. Everything goes from bad to worse at such a fast and steady trajectory that it almost becomes comedic. It also allows for some moments to make viewers wince, one you can see coming as soon as you see some barbed wire hanging down from the edge of the pool. But it also allows for some moments that feel as if they go a bit too far, including one moment in the final act that had me almost throwing something at the screen and actually shouting aloud "fuck you, just fuck you". It's not just a mean-spirited way of adding more pain on to the main character, it's a genuinely cheap way to add an extra bit of nastiness to things and create a plot development that should have been less lazily planned out.

The simplicity of the premise still works in its favour, and The Pool excels when it is showing the leads making use of their very limited resources to avoid toothy death, but it's a shame that Lumpraploeng decided to pad the whole thing out with a number of unnecessary elements (the relationship stuff could have been jettisoned, along with a number of minor hurdles that crop up in between the bigger moments). It's an okay watch, for a 91-minute movie. It could have been a great film to recommend if it had pared down to about 80 minutes.


Friday, 24 July 2020

The Kitchen (2019)

Based on a comic book series, by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, The Kitchen feels more like something so strange and unbelievable that it must be based on a true story. I'm slightly disappointed that it isn't true, considering how badass the main characters are.

Melissa McCarthy is Kathy Brennan, Tiffany Haddish is Ruby O'Carroll, and Elisabeth Moss is Claire Walsh. These three women are friends and they are married to men who are part of a rather illegal lifestyle. Basically, they're gangster's wives, but with none of the rewards that you normally see heaped on women in this kind of situation. And things get worse when their husbands are arrested and jailed, leaving the women to fend for themselves. After being given an insulting amount to live on, they decide to help the local criminals collect their protection money. Then they end up deciding to run some of the territory themselves.

Although it's very familiar territory, The Kitchen differentiates itself from other films like this by showing the women moving into power, and also by showing how they don't necessarily have to copy everything that the men do. They work smart, they use the right connections, and they often decide to show a little compassion when others may have been ruthless. The men they married seemed to enjoy their lifestyle, whereas the women are forced into their position, growing into their roles as certain characteristics become necessary.

Writer-director Andrea Berloff makes her debut in the big chair, and does a great job of things. She's written a number of screenplays before this one, but this feels like a project with material that she finds more to connect with, in terms of the interesting mechanics of how someone develops a reputation in the criminal world, and in terms of the female angle.

All three leads are excellent, and all have a very different view on their predicament. Moss takes time to ease into her role, having arguably suffered the most from her husband, but grows with confidence as she befriends the dangerous Gabriel O'Malley (Domnhall Gleeson, doing a decent job). McCarthy is the one who seems the most well-balanced, doing what needs to be done and trying to manage the growth in ways that don't exceed their aims, and Haddish has fun as the woman who becomes the most at ease with her new lifestyle. Margo Martindale is an entertainingly horrible mother-in-law, and everyone else onscreen does just fine.

With everyone, and everything, in place, it's worth mentioning how well Berloff also does at pitching the tone perfectly. This is an entertaining film, but it neither makes too much light of the choices being made, and nor does it wallow in one bleak scene after another. It creates a movie world that allows for serious moments, some lightness, and a building of tension as viewers wonder just how dangerous things might get for the women doing a much better job in "a man's world" than the men who wanted to keep them in their place.

And with a pretty great dramatic turn from McCarthy, it also allows me to say that even if you can't stand The Heat, try getting into The Kitchen.


Thursday, 23 July 2020

Predator 2 (1990)

Sadly, Predator 2 seems to get more and more forgotten in the growing franchise. I think that is because the first film is so iconic, introducing the memorable creature and pitting it against big Arnie, while the rest have varied wildly in quality for many viewers. Personally, I haven't seen any Predator film that I have disliked, but I know many disagree. This, however, remains close to the first film when thinking of the highest-rated.

I also LOVE the tagline: "He's in town with a few days to kill".

Set in the "near future" of 1997, Predator 2 takes the action from the wildlife of a Central American jungles to the wildlife of a simmering Los Angeles. There's a heatwave, various drug cartels are at war, and Danny Glover is Lieutenant Mike Harrigan, a brave man who may be feeling a bit too old for this shit. Harrigan leads a team that includes Detective Archuleta (Ruben Blades), Detective Cantrell (María Conchita Alonso) and Detective Lambert (Bill Paxton). Everyone is doing what they can to get some kind of handle on the situation, a situation made worse by some very strange and bloodier-than-usual kills, but they are then told off when they end up crossing over into an ongoing investigation by a special team (led by Special Agent Keyes, played by Gary Busey). While so many people are confused, and so many deaths are occurring in Los Angeles, the Predator is enjoying his field trip.

Once again written by brothers Jim and John Thomas, Predator 2 switches things around in a brilliantly simple way (real jungle becomes urban jungle) and expands upon the character of the featured creature, showing the "code of conduct" that dictates the hunt. Everything else is pulled from the handbook of "tough city cop movies of the '80s and '90s", but that's not a problem, because the cast all do decent work in between some enjoyable set-pieces.

Director Stephen Hopkins handles everything well, and it's impressive that this doesn't need more than the 108-minute runtime, considering how many different blocks are being moved around at times. That's thanks to everyone doing their best by the material, and Hopkins works well with the budget, as well as working around the fact that this is a sequel to a celebrated Arnie movie without any Arnie presence to give it a boost.

Glover is very comfortable in the kind of role he'd already done at least a couple of times before this, and he's a surprisingly effective opponent for the Predator, using his wits and knowledge of the environment to try and stay alive. Paxton is a standout from the core supporting group, but both Blades and Alonso are as dependable as ever. Then you have the characters standing in the grey area, the ones who may or may not know more than they're letting on, brilliantly portrayed by Busey, who is flanked by Adam Baldwin, and a few others. Robert Davi has a little screentime, Kent McCord is the Captain who has to appear exasperated by one of his best cops, Lilyan Chauvin is the doctor who helps Glover to figure out the mystery, and Calvin Lockhart has fun in the role of King Willie, a boss of the Jamaica Voodoo Posse. And it would be remiss not to mention Kevin Peter Hall in the suit.

If you have yet to see this one, treat yourself soon. If you saw it years ago, and remember it being a poor film in comparison to the first, check it out today and see if you feel the same way. Not only is this a solid sci-fi/action/horror mish-mash, it deserves to be mentioned more when discussing the very best sequels.


Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Prime Time: Nekrotronic (2018)

Having made a great impression on horror fans with the hugely enjoyable Wyrmwood, the Roache-Turner brothers then went a bit quiet, although they have delivered some enjoyable shorts over the past few years. Thankfully, they returned to feature projects with this horror comedy, a film that feels like a demon-infested mix of Ghostbusters and The Frighteners, with a hint of Big Trouble In Little China also in there. The end result is one of my favourite first watches in a long time.

Ben O'Toole plays Howard North, an average guy who one day finds out that he's really not that average. He's actually a powerful demon slayer. He just needs to be shown how to use his power. And the people hoping to show him are Luther (David Wenham), and his daughters, Molly (Caroline Ford) and Torquel (Tess Haubrich). He'll also get some assistance from his friend, Rangi (Epine Bob Savea), although Rangi kickstarts the whole chain of events by accidentally unleashing some demons through a mobile phone app. There are plans afoot to make the world a very bad place indeed, and those plans are being overseen by Finnegan (Monical Bellucci). This makes things a bit more complicated when Howard finds out that Finnegan is also his mother.

It's hard to write this review because, on the one hand, I want to convey to everyone just how much I enjoyed this movie, but, on the other hand, I don't want this to give everyone high expectations that the film then doesn't live up to. Director Kiah Roache-Turner, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Tristan, has gone all out to give horror fans something bloody and fun. There's a bit of exposition at the very beginning to set everything up, and then it's non-stop fun with demons, apparitions, and the kind of splattery kills that deliver some bloodshed while still somehow keeping a sense of fun (hey, multiple deaths don't always have to be a downer, don't you know).

Everything is helped along by the cast, all giving performances that shrug off the silliness of it all, even as the third act careers from one wild idea to the next. O'Toole is the kind of hero who is largely useless until that moment of self-belief that has to happen, while Ford and Haubrich are entertainingly badass, and Savea is the most overtly comedic of the performers, his character helping to keep things light as he also asks questions that can lead to some more helpful exposition. Bellucci makes a great impression in her first scenes, thanks to the imagery of her beauty and grace juxtaposed with some crazy "sorcery", but she's not served as well by the script when the time comes for her to deliver typical dialogue expected from a main villain. Wenham is very good, but fans of the actor will want to be warned that he has less screentime than the others mentioned here.

I finished watching Nekrotronic and immediately shared my love for it, convinced that everyone I know would feel the same way. That wasn't the case, and it would seem to be more divisive than I would have thought. But that won't stop me from heartily recommending it, and I can only hope that those with the same good taste* as myself will enjoy it as much as I did.

*not guaranteed to actually BE good.


Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Pledge (2018)

As we all know, how you react to movies can depend on many different factors. Your own personal life experiences, what other movies you have seen (that may have influenced, or been influenced by, whatever you're watching), and even just what mood you are in on that particular day. Pledge is a horror film based around the fact that some young men are so desperate to get into an exclusive fraternity that they will let the experienced frat members put them through hell.

I hated this movie, and I can pinpoint why I hated it. I am, for better or for worse, one of those people who agrees with the motto that "I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member". Fraternities, and the act of pledging to them, embody that notion arguably more than anything else I can think of. It's such a major thing for so many American students, and I am not saying that if I was a young American that I would be able to avoid the peer pressure, but I've always been majorly averse to the idea. That doesn't mean I cannot enjoy that rite of passage being used in movies, from the MANY enjoyable comedies that make use of it, to the silliness of something like The Skulls (remember that movie about the secret society that had a building with their insignia high up on their building for all to see?). But a horror movie showing people trying to stay happy while they're abused and tortured, all because they want accepted into such a shitty little "club"? No thanks.

I don't need to summarise the plot, I've basically done that already. So let's just cut to the chase, which is the part where I complain about nothing else in the movie doing anything to lift the material.

Writer Zack Weiner, who also gives himself a lead role, seems to have done no more than come up with what he thought was a great idea, and then made sure he had a place for himself in it. The characterisations are thin, nobody is believable, the plotting is so silly that it makes it impossible to suspend your disbelief for more than a few minutes at a time (I almost lasted a whole five minutes without questioning everything happening onscreen, but it turned out I was almost dozing off, so I had to rewind the film and watch parts of it again).

This is the third feature from Daniel Robbins, and nothing here makes me want to see anything else from him. That may be a mistake, however, as the summary for his previous film, Uncaged, doesn't sound too bad (I am sure some of my friends can give me a yay or nay on that one). Perhaps he found his hands bound too tightly by the script, or perhaps he just thought, like Weiner, that the central concept was strong enough to make up for the many failings. Both of them were very wrong.

I'll mention Zachery Byrd, playing Justin, as a bit of a highlight, but I don't even want to bother namechecking the others. Those trying to pledge are shown as whiny weaklings, while the posh "kids" have all the power and enjoy abusing it throughout most of the runtime. Nobody is necessarily terrible, but nobody is given any shading to their character, despite moments that look to be heading that way.

Unless I am misremembering something, this is probably the worst mainstream horror movie I have seen in the last few years. And that includes The Nun.


Monday, 20 July 2020

Mubi Monday: Transit (2018)

Well, this had been recommended to me some time ago (by a friend who I resent sometimes for how much bloody impeccable taste she seems to have) and I am glad to finally mark it off my watchlist. I'm also glad that, as expected, this was as good as expected. Writer-director Christian Petzold is now 4 for 4, from his films that I have seen, and it's hard to pick an outright favourite from his more recent releases, each one just oozing quality in pretty much every department.

The core of the story here is quite simple. Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a German political refugee who is travelling from Paris to Marseille, from where he hopes to gain safe passage to Mexico. This is complicated by two main events. First, Georg has the ID and last manuscript of a writer named Franz Weidel. Second, his injured friend dies en route. Because he is using the details of Weidel, this puts Georg on a collision course with the writer's wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who doesn't realise that her husband has passed away. Can everyone work together to get to safety, or will the fragile balance be upset by revelations and complicated relations?

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, previously adapted into a movie back in 1991, Transit is another Petzold film that nails some very specific ideas and feelings, while also presenting characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances in ways that anyone can identify with. Petzold is a master at ensuring viewers know what world his main characters are living in, sketching things out in the opening scenes to start building drama and tension right away, and he also works with a damn fine selection of actors that rise to meet the demands of the material.

Rogowski and Beer are the beating heart of the film, even if they don't actually spend any meaningful time together onscreen until the third act. It's their intersecting lives that drive the narrative, as one thinks she is always just missing her husband and the other starts to be drawn to this woman he both wants to seek out and also keep at bay. Godehard Giese is also very good, a doctor who is inadvertently caught up in the whole mess, and Lilien Batman and Maryam Zaree are excellent as a child and mother befriended by Georg, other human connections that may make things complicated as he continues to plan his journey to Mexico.

Tweak this in a number of different ways and you could have a number of different types of movies here. The easiest option would me to make this a straightforward "spy thriller", but you could make an action movie from it, there's potential for it to be turned into a black comedy, something Kafka-esque that wrings humour from spiralling nightmare scenarios, and there are some other directions it could take, but Petzold knows exactly what he's doing as he handles the whole thing with care, ensuring it goes the way he wants it to go, while allowing viewers the chance to consider moments that hint at other possibilities. Not better possibilities, just other ones.

It's also worth noting that the final scene is enough to bump it up a whole point.


Sunday, 19 July 2020

Netflix And Chill: Boyka: Undisputed (2016)

Despite the departure of Isaac Florentine from the director's chair, Boyka: Undisputed, the fourth film in the impressive Undisputed series, surpasses all expectations to be the very best in the series. If this is where it all ends, it is definitely going out on a high.

Set some months after the events of the previous film, Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) is a free man, making a good deal of money from underground fighting competitions. Things take a turn for the worse when he accidentally kills someone he is fighting, which leads him to seek out the family of the deceased, attempting to make amends. Alma (Teodora Duhovnikova), the widow of the man killed by Boyka, is indebted to a crime boss, Zourab (Aloni Moni Aboutboul). Refusing any help from Boyka, the fighter takes it upon himself to offer his talents to Zourab in order to gain Alma's freedom. He has to survive a number of fights, but Zourab can always try to change the rules to ensure that he doesn't lose out.

Considering how well he handles the action on display here, I am now very keen to see the other films directed by Todor Chapkanov. Because this feels on a par with some of the work from Florentine, and I was surprised to be reminded that he didn't direct this instalment. Writer David N. White seems to have less on his plate this time around, with the plot even slimmer than any of the previous movies, leaving time and space for even more fights. They're nicely spaced out, leading up to a third act that delivers some absolutely top-tier bloodshed and pain. If you want something to satiate an urge for some hand-to-hand combat in a style akin to the "halcyon days" of the Van Damme years (which also gave us treats from Mark Dacascos, Don "The Dragon" Wilson, and many others) then this is just about the best movie I could think of.

Despite it being shown briefly in a flashback montage, the continuity of the damage that Boyka has endured seems a bit off by now, which is a minor complaint. He's gone on a journey from villain to hero in need of rehabilitation, and now is the absolutely bulletproof fighter needed to allow the fights to get as wild and entertaining as possible. And Adkins is still brilliant in the role, dubious accent and all. I've seen a few of his movies now, and I am struggling to think of one in which he is in more astoundingly perfect physical condition than he is here. His muscles have muscles, and the moves he pulls off show every way in which he can punch, kick, and spin around opponents. Duhovnikova has to look in need of rescuing, in a vulnerable and pretty way that will draw our hero more quickly into his journey, and she does. Then you have Aboutboul, being fine, if not that intimidating, as the crime boss used to getting his own way.

The plotting is ridiculous, there's no attempt to ground things in reality, the mix of accents is wild, and you know how this is going to end from the very beginning. And none of that matters when the action is happening onscreen, which elevates this to absolutely perfect popcorn entertainment for those after a macho movie night.


Saturday, 18 July 2020

Shudder Saturday: Lake Of Death (2019)

It's strange that I ended up watching Lake Of Death just after discussing The Midnight Swim with someone because, certainly at the very start, I thought the two movies were going to be very similar. It turns out that they're actually quite different, with this movie being the better of the two, but that doesn't mean I highly recommend this.

Lillian (Iben Akerlie) is first shown in a boat, alongside her twin brother. We then see her a year later, travelling with friends to a small cabin by that same lake where she last spent time with her brother. It's not long until strange things begin happening, which some decide to blame on Lillian and her sleepwalking habit, and others put down to the local legends around the lake.

Written and directed by Nini Bull Robsahm, Lake Of Death is apparently inspired by the 1958 movie, Lake Of The Dead (which I haven't seen). Let's start with the obvious positive, this is much better than Robsahm's previous film, Amnesia (2014). Where that seemed to play out its standard thriller plot with a small sense of self-loathing, Lake Of Death at least embraces the many genre moments throughout, with characters occasionally referencing horror movies as they initially enjoy the thrill of their atmospheric surroundings.

There are individual moments here to enjoy, and some nice imagery that moves between haunting and less subtle scares, but Robsahm cannot just leave it at that. Sadly, she has to build everything to an ending that doesn't have the impact she obviously thinks it does, an ending so absolutely tepid that it makes you almost regret sitting through everything that came beforehand. Almost, but not quite, thanks to the better scenes that deliver some quality chills.

The cast all do well enough, with Akerlie very good in the central role. Patrick Walsh McBride may not have too much screentime as Bjørn, the lost twin brother, but his character casts a large shadow over everything, and he makes a good impression when he IS shown. Everyone else is either just orbiting Akerlie or, as is the case with Jakob Schøyen Andersen, on hand to provide some exposition and foreboding. This is done by making Andersen a podcaster who likes to explore tales of mystery and horror.

It's frustrating to watch Lake Of Death and consider the directions it could have taken. Robsahm seems to know the mechanics of the genre, but is either then pre-occupied with the idea of layering things and twisting them away from what would seem to be a more natural narrative flow, or she maybe just doesn't have her heart in it. But the more effective moments here seem to disprove the latter way of viewing her approach.

Despite my complaints, this is worth a watch. It's a good film. It just could have been even better if the final 10-15 minutes had been handled in a different way.


Friday, 17 July 2020

Undisputed 3: Redemption (2010)

A number of main players return for this action movie sequel that, as the title indicates, allows for a bit of redemption. Moving even further away from the more grounded style of the first film, this establishes a world of more cinematic potential in which prisons all have major fighting tournaments, and the biggest one allows you to earn your freedom, but can also result in death for the losers.

Scott Adkins is back in the role of Boyka, who we last saw getting, pardon my wording here, pretty fucked up. He has been biding his time, rebuilding his strength, and trying to rebuild his body. And he eventually takes a chance in front of Warden Kuss (Hristo Shopov) and the powerful Gaga (Mark Ivanir). He knows it may be his only way to gain his freedom, but the opponents are a tough bunch, of course. And everyone also has to survive the brutality of the general prison life.

Writer David N. White returns, but is working solo this time around, and he's allowed to just throw away anything that doesn't relate to the prison brutality, the set up of the fights, and the new focus on Boyka moving from villain to (sort of) hero. It's all one cliché after another, which is absolutely not a problem when director Isaac Florentine continues to deliver the goods in terms of the action.

Adkins is once again solid in the role of Boyka, a role that actually works really well for him. As wobbly as his accent can be, it allows for him to speak in a way that  covers up the usual soft-spoken manner he has (something that can undermines his physical work). And his performance works well alongside the script, allowing his journey to seem believable, in this context, and worth rooting for. The other main fighter of note, at times an adversary and at times an ally, is Turbo, played by Mykel Shannon Jenkins. Jenkins does well as the typical talented fighter with the attitude of someone who thinks they are unbeatable while others start to realise the very real danger to their lives. And Marko Zaror is Raul 'Dolor' Quinones, the favoured fighter who may well take care of everyone else stepping into the ring. Valentin Ganev returns as Warden Markov, for a few scenes, and Ivanir has a bit more of a presence this time around, but the other big baddie is Warden Kuss, played by Hristo Shopov. It's another by-the-numbers character for this type of thing, but another case of it all working because of everything being kept so simple and familiar.

Depending on what you want from your movie entertainment, three movies in shows the Undisputed series as one that goes from strength to strength. The fun factor keeps being ramped up, with realism being pared away as viewers are taken further and further into a world that sets things up for plenty of gritty violence between plenty of characters who look like they can take way more punishment than I ever could (let's just say if I was in this world then I'd be in the montage of people concussed/killed with one powerful blow).

My high rating was something I debated in my mind for some time, but it is, as ever, based on comparison to other movies of this kind, and this is a perfect example of this kind of film, which makes the relatively high rating much deserved.


Thursday, 16 July 2020

Undisputed 2 (2006)

Walter Hill may have gone, and there's no Wesley Snipes or Ving Rhames returning, but Undisputed 2 (AKA Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing) replaces them with Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White in front of the camera, and the very talented Isaac Florentine in the director's chair. And it's the start of an upturn in a series that delivers some fantastic and brutal fight scenes.

White is George Chambers, the character played by Rhames in the previous movie. He's once again being sent to prison, but this time we know from the very beginning that he's an innocent man. Drugs have been planted in his home to get him sent to a Russian jail. That's where he can be forced to face the mighty Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) in the ring.

Taking things up a notch from the first movie, while also streamlining the ideas (there's no moral ambiguity here, you have a goodie and a baddie), Undisputed 2 is perfect entertainment for those who want to see some muscular men knock the crap out of one another. The only problem it really has is in still trying to keep things fairly grounded, which allows for a bit less action than some might want.

The script, by James Townsend and David N. White, is about as predictable as you could get, and they revel in the familiarity of the character beats as our hero gets jailed, encounters the main villain, is pressured into fighting, etc, etc, all the way to the expected final fight. It could be better, easily, but sometimes the simplest approach works well enough, as is the case here.

Florentine knows what he's doing with the action, and it's obvious why he has made a name for himself with the kind of movies that used to go straight to video. He has faith in his leads to show off their moves, he keeps the camera working well, without relying on too much headache-inducing editing, and he knows how to move things along well enough in between the punchy-kicky highlights.

There may not be many people worth mentioning in the supporting cast (aside from Mark Ivanir, who would also appear in the next movie), but that's fine. This is a film for White and Adkins. The former has long been a charismatic presence in every movie he's been a part of, and should have been getting even juicier roles for the last decade or so, and he's convincing as the boxer who ends up having to change up his fighting style. Adkins sports a different look, and a wobbly accent, but is as physically impressive as usual in the fights, and Boyka is a fun character to boo and hiss at on the way to fight night.

The fights are better than the fights in the first film, the rest of the cast brings things down slightly, which makes this deserving of an equal rating. Even if it's also just a bit more fun.