Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Prime Time: The Taking Of Deborah Logan (2014)

Please note, for some reason, this is often now listed under the title "The Taking".

I have joked for many years that when I forget something, or lose something, I am having “a senior moment”. I am sure I am not alone in using this phrase in a light-hearted way. But the reality is that, as is the case for so many others, the thought of any illness that would affect me in that way is terrifying. You lose yourself, you cannot be sure of what is real in your life, and you rely on everyone else to keep you attached to whoever you once were.

The Taking Of Deborah Logan is a found footage film that uses the idea of dementia and illness being equatable to possession, and it’s not much of a stretch. I am sure that many people who have watched loved ones suffer from such brain-warping illnesses could tell you how strange it is to see someone turn into someone completely different.

Jill Larson plays Deborah Logan, and Anne Ramsay is her daughter, Sarah. Deborah is getting worse and worse, in terms of her health, and an arrangement has been struck with a crew wanting to document some of her journey. It doesn’t take long to see that there may be more to Deborah’s illness than the usual medical issues.

Director Adam Robitel, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gavin Heffernan, is capable enough when it comes to dealing with thrills and chills. He may not be any kind of master of horror, but he knows how to create some enjoyable creepiness and impressive jump scares. The first half of the film is a bit stronger, when considering the boundaries blurred between what can be diagnosed and what seems to be supernatural, but the second half brings together the main plot strands and delivers a few great shocks (including one haunting image that you may have seen in gif form on the internet, whether you have seen the film or not).

The cast all convince in their roles, but most scenes are carried by Ramsay and Larson, with Ramsay easily conveying the pain and confusion of a loving grown-up child unable to find ways to help a parent, and the latter perfectly pitching her performance as she weaves between extremely vulnerable and extremely menacing.

Navigating the tone well, The Taking Of Deborah Logan only really stumbles when it feels the need to make one story strand completely overt. Some ambiguity and uncertainty would have made this a modern classic, but it holds up as a strong modern horror, and certainly one of the better found footage movies from the past decade.

7/10

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Tuesday, 13 April 2021

The Stud (1978)

Based on a novel by Jackie Collins, and starring her famous sister, Joan, The Stud is almost exactly how you think it will be. Trashy. It's all about sex and power, with a main character who thinks he has a clear path planned out ahead of him, not knowing what his lifestyle could really cost him.

Oliver Tobias is Tony, the titular stud. He manages a nightclub, and has dreams of opening his own place one day. He thinks he can transfer a lot of the clientele, but other people believe he's spent far too much time being the plaything of Fontaine (Joan Collins), the wife of Tony's boss. Things are complicated when Alex (Emma Jacobs), Fontaine's stepdaughter, finds out about the talents of Tony, and decides to use him out of spite.

Directed by Quentin Masters (he only has four features to his name, this probably remains his most well-known), with credit for additional script work going to Dave Humphries and Christopher Stagg, the only people really making their mark here are the Collins sisters. Jackie writes the popular mix of sex and partying and rich people, and Joan has the perfect way of delivering the kind of dialogue that needs to be spoken with a conviction it never deserves. She's also happy to disrobe for a number of the sex scenes.

Although Collins is the star at the centre of the whole thing, Tobias does a good job as Tony. He's handsome enough, confident enough, and very cocky (no pun intended . . . okay, maybe it's a bit intended). And he shows his confusion and anger when it starts to become obvious that the life he has planned may be slipping out of his grasp. Jacobs isn't onscreen for long, but her character makes a strong impression, thanks to her urge to test out Tony. Sue Lloyd also livens things up, playing Vanessa, Fontaine's close friend, and the supporting cast is rounded out by the likes of Walter Gotell, Tony Allyn, Mark Burns, and one or two more faces who may be familiar to those of a certain age.

Another character worth mentioning is the music, with a number of popular disco hits interspersed throughout the soundtrack. It's a good mix, with tunes including Car Wash, Love Is The Drug, and Every One's A Winner, and more, perfectly summing up both the period of the film and the world through which the leads sway and strut.

Easy to remember for the elements that make it risible, The Stud is also better than you might think. If made for modern audiences, the second half would have more nightmare imagery and a feeling of things twisting from sexy fantasies to hedonistic hellscapes. It plays things a bit safe, not wanting to fully push away the viewers who enjoy the perks of the lifestyles on display, but it certainly tries to introduce a darkness that builds and builds to an unsatisfying, yet also very fitting, end.

6/10

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Monday, 12 April 2021

Mubi Monday: Punishment Park (1971)

“Under the provision of Title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the President of the United States of America is still authorized, without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an "internal security emergency". The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing, without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and shall then be confined to places of detention.”

That is the very opening dialogue of Punishment Park, a fake documentary written and directed by Peter Watkins. It is a disturbingly prescient piece of work, something even more relevant now than it was back when first released.

The premise stems from that opening. We get to see some young people who have protested, their biased and unfair “trial”, and the consequences of their decision to take Punishment Park over some lengthy jail sentence. Punishment Park ends up being quite the endurance test, almost certainly designed more for the satisfaction of those in authority than to rehabilitate offenders.

People used to say that if you weren’t angry then you weren’t paying attention. Nowadays, if you are not angry then you are being wilfully ignorant. While neither the UK nor the USA are on a par with the worst countries in the world, in terms of human rights and freedoms, things are happening lately that feel worryingly similar to the events depicted here, whether it is state-sanctioned violence and death, people being pre-judged for actions deemed to be against the good of the country, or slavish devotion to any flag.

Absolutely on the nose when it comes to presenting scenes of people overreacting and being shocked by those who do not want to go along with every single act that the government claims is a necessity for the good of the country, Punishment Park is probably one of the most depressing films I have viewed in the past year or two. Because it is so uncomfortably close to where we are now, and where we have been for the past few years. Some may view this and think of it as pure fiction. Others will see it for what it is, a stark warning, a rallying cry to stop willingly handing over so much power to those who may end up abusing it, sometimes believing themselves to be doing good and sometimes simply furthering their own agendas.

I implore everyone to watch it, if only to try and ensure that we don’t fully live it.

9/10

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Sunday, 11 April 2021

Netflix And Chill: Run (2021)

The team behind the popular thriller, Searching (Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian), are back with another well-tuned thriller to show that their previous film wasn't just a fluke. They know how to take a solid premise and turn the screw with every scene to ratchet up the tension as they drag viewers to a knuckle-whitening finale.

Essentially a two-hander for a lot of the runtime, Run is all about Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) and her daughter, Chloe (Kiera Allen). Having looked after Chloe for her entire life, Diane may need to adjust to life alone if Chloe gains admission to the college of her choice. But there hasn't been any post confirming this, and Chloe starts to wonder if her mother is trying to hide something from her. And does it involve more than just a letter from a college? Having been wheelchair-bound for most of her life, as well as having asthma and a number of other illnesses, Chloe needs to use every ounce of her strength and intelligence to try and figure out just what is going on.

It's hard to discuss Run without inadvertently giving anything away, so I won't. Well, okay, I kind of have to, but I'm going to be deliberately more vague than usual.

First off, and the easiest thing to say, Paulson and Allen are both superb in their lead roles. As familiar with Paulson as I am, this is easily one of her best performances, even when she gets to act a bit more over the top in the second half of the film. It's a nice escalation, and Paulson gives her character a complete self-belief in her actions and motivations. Allen plays almost every one of her scenes with a strength and grit that makes her journey mesmerising. Elsewhere, Pat Healy pops up to play "Mailman Tom", Sharon Bajer is a woman working in a local pharmacy (who may or may not know why Chloe has started to be prescribed some new pills), and Sara Sohn is a nurse who might end up noticing something that helps save a life.

The script, co-written by director Chaganty and Ohanian, is largely put together with enough realism and logic to allow you not to question things too much as things start to get more and more out of control. There are some major flaws, including one inexplicable moment that is only there to add a reveal and some further exposition, but the big main sequences of thrills and tension make it very easy to leave any questions you may have set aside until the end credits have rolled.

Without the restrictions of the main gimmick they were using in Searching, Chaganty and Ohanian do even better work here, digging down further into levels of darkness and twisted behaviour that help a number of key scenes in the film really pack a punch. It's slick, may make you wince in pain a couple of times, and boosted by two fantastic lead performances. A near-perfect thriller.

8/10

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Saturday, 10 April 2021

Shudder Saturday: The Power (2021)

Written and directed by Corinna Faith, The Power is a horror movie that perfectly mixes some strong scares and real emotional depth. It's not the first feature from Faith, who has a filmography stretching back about fifteen years or so, but it's certainly a film that should help mark her out for great things ahead, and one that has pushed me towards eventually checking out her past works.

Rose Williams plays Val, a young nurse who is thankful to be hired at a hospital in the area she grew up in (although she has no family in the area). The Matron (Diveen Henry) is a tough woman, so Val finds herself unable to refuse when asked to continue her shift through the night. That would be fine in a modern, bright, hospital. This is the 1970s, and a time when the miners strikes meant that power was switched off throughout Britain through the night. There's something in the darkness of the hospital, or maybe Val just has an over-active imagination. Maybe the biggest threat comes from the colleague who used to bully her in her childhood years. Or maybe there's a lot more hidden away inside the walls of this labyrinthine building.

I really liked The Power from the very beginning, with Williams giving a very sweet and awkward central performance. But I knew generally where it was heading. This isn't a film that will blindside many genre movie fans with the ending. The real pleasure, however, comes from the journey. There are some moments here that are astonishingly impressive, utilising superb work from Faith, fantastically creep sound design, and a physical performance from Williams that should also see her earmarked for more great work in the near future.

There's also the fact that, from the very beginning, we know that The Power refers to a number of different interpretations. A presence that may be in the hospital, the power between employer and employees, the power between people when one of them knows something about the other person that they want to keep in their past, and the urge to feel power that fuels abusers. The first half of this film may have the expected creaking doors and eerie moments, but it gets more tense and dread-filled in scenes showing Val having to work with Babs (Emma Rigby), a young woman who knows that she didn't treat Val that well when they were children. Bringing Neville (Theo Barklem-Biggs) into the mix, the man who has all the keys and does maintenance throughout the building, adds even more tension.

As well as everyone already mentioned, Nuala McGowan and Gbemisola Ikumelo both do great work as two other nurses working on the nightshift, Charlie Carrick is Doctor Franklyn, a friendly face who inadvertently gets Val into some trouble, and Shakira Rahman is a young patient named Saba, scared of something that she doesn't communicate directly to others, but finding some comfort in the company of Val.

There are some problems with the pacing, and the more obvious and predictable moments that feel as if they've been ripped straight from almost any glossy, supernatural-tinged, thriller from the start of the 2000s, but the journey you get to go on with the lead character makes everything more than worthwhile, and the very last scene shows how the nightmarish darkness can also be a dreamy escape. Many will roll their eyes at some of the plotting, but I highly recommend it nonetheless.

8/10

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Friday, 9 April 2021

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

A meteor falling to Earth brings with it some alien beast. It's a common enough sci-fi horror trope, and The Deadly Spawn isn't exactly trying to show itself off as some kind of beacon of sparkling originality. It's a daft, and very enjoyable, film that boasts some practical effects work that remains both amusing and impressive.

The plot is pretty much what I've just typed out in the first sentence. The alien beast this time is a life form that looks like a cross between some mashed together eels and, well, Audrey II. Settling into a nearby house, the creature starts to munch on people that encounter it. One person, a young horror movie fan named Charles (played by Charles George Hildebrandt), discovers that the creature(s) reacts to sound. This saves him, but can that information be passed along to everyone else who may come into contact with the thing? And can Charles come up with a way to escape, and possibly save the planet?

Written and directed by Douglas McKeown, his only film credit, The Deadly Spawn is the kind of derivative nonsense, put together with cardboard, glue, and a whole lot of optimism, that many genre fans should be able to appreciate with a big grin on their faces. Feeling like it rips off everything from The Day Of The Triffids to Alien, it gleefully pilfers so many different elements from so many sources that it transcends the collage of homages to somehow become a new, unique, piece of work. Considering the budget, which I assume was very low indeed (I've seen it listed on IMDb as $25,000), this is a perfect example of invention and enthusiasm making up for a number of potential weaknesses. McKeown does himself a big favour by pacing things perfectly, throwing in enough extra characters to bump up the death toll and showing off the central creation with a huge amount of well-placed faith in the ability of his special effects team.

Hildebrandt is just fine in his role, as are some of the other cast members, but this isn't a film that focuses on the human element. They are there, they do just fine, the script tries, but fails, to make them a little bit more than paper-thin characters, and they then interact with the deadly spawn. I'm not sure how Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe, et al feel about their involvement in this, it was the only feature film role for many of the cast, but I'd be pretty damn pleased with myself if I could say that I had even the smallest part to play in getting The Deadly Spawn made.

Not something to watch if you want any grit or realism, and not recommended for those who need to see films with a minimum budget to polish every main sequence, this is a perfect passion project that remains entertaining throughout thanks to the sterling efforts of everyone involved.

7/10

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Thursday, 8 April 2021

Tom & Jerry (2021)

Things didn't bode well for this film. The trailer was bad. Nobody seemed to want it. And I have horrible memories of the last time people tried to make Tom & Jerry more appealing to modern audiences. The characters were talking. Their antics were sanitised. It was a bad period in the history of arguably the most iconic cartoon duo of all time.

But I sat down to watch this anyway, spurred on by a positive review from a friend of mine. And it wasn't really that bad.

Jerry has decided to make his new home in the Royal Gate Hotel, which is set to be the venue for the grand wedding of the year. Chloë Grace Moretz is Kayla, a new employee at the hotel, and is tasked with getting rid of the mouse. That leads to her hiring Tom as a solution to the problem. Things don't go to plan, of course, and it looks like the big wedding could also be jeopardised by the cat and mouse carnage.

Directed by Tim Story, and written by Kevin Costello, Tom & Jerry is a fun mix of animation and live-action delivered by people who at least seem to understand the enduring appeal of the featured cartoons. A number of other animals are also presented in animated form, and the style and behaviour of the animals is nicely in line with our "heroes". Everything is a bit silly and over the top, but it's all set up quite well by the script, and Story directs it all well, zipping along from one highlight to the next, occasionally taking a moment just to focus on some animated one-upmanship. It's also nice to see a journey for Tom & Jerry plotted out that seems to make sense, changing their dynamic while somehow not making them feel unfamiliar to long-time fans.

Moretz may be the lead, and is the one doing the most acting alongside the animation, but she's heading up a decent cast, with everyone pitching their performances perfectly between standard family film levels of behaviour and animated exaggeration. Michael Peña is fun as Terence, a hotel employee who senses something strange is going on, Rob Delaney is the hotel manager, Patsy Ferran is a wonderfully odd Bell Girl, and Pallavi Sharda and Colin Jost play Preeta and Ben, the couple who are due to be married. Tom and Jerry name the movie, however, and they're given many moments to show that they're the stars. As it should be.

Although not on par with the classic cartoons, nor on par with many other fun family movies (live-action, animated, or using a mixture of elements), Tom & Jerry is an entertaining film that gets more right than it gets wrong. Slapstick violence, ridiculous schemes, and a friendship forged from constant battling, it's certainly good enough for any fans who can tolerate seeing them in a modern setting.

6/10

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Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Prime Time: Criminal Audition (2019)

The directorial feature debut from Samuel Gridley, who also co-wrote the script with lead actor Luke Kaile, Criminal Audition feels very much like the kind of thing that is a directorial feature debut from someone who has worked on the script with their lead actor. That's not to rudely dismiss the film, but it's something that feels designed for actors to act in, instead of a tale needing told cinematically. This could easily be a small play, and Gridley doesn't do enough to distract viewers from that fact, which is a shame.

Let's get to the plot first anyway. There's a company that offers a unique service for hefty fees. They will get someone to take the rap for your crimes. The latest crime needing someone to step forward is a murder case, and a number of individuals are in to audition for the job (hence the name of the movie). They have to prove that they can convincingly offer themselves up as criminals, whether it's having the right profile or being able to "accidentally" reveal information under interrogation that can help make a stronger case against them. This job is on behalf of a client, Miss M (Noeleen Comiskey), who appears and starts to question the capability of the prospective criminals, and the company itself. Tensions rise, applicants are pitted against one another, and someone has a hidden agenda.

The main thing to emphasise here is that Criminal Audition isn't bad. It just has some major flaws that it doesn't realise are there, meaning neither Gridley nor Kaile work harder to overcome them.

The first flaw is the script. While it's not painfully awful, this is one of those small films in which a lot of ideas are repeated, with many scenes simply feeling like rehashed filler to pad out the runtime, and a lot of the dialogue is fine if considered in a vacuum, but doesn't really fit the various characters. Some individuals stand out, but this is a film in which most of the characters say things that you could imagine being said by almost any one of the other characters. There should be many different voices onscreen, but most of the time we simply hear the words from Gridley/Kaile.

The second flaw is that inability to open things up. I get it, keeping locations limited and costs down is a big part of making your first feature film. There are still ways to go about it that can make your film feel bigger than it actually is. It sometimes needs an adaptable set and a variety of interesting audio cues, it sometimes needs the charitable nature of someone with a decent space, but there are ways to change things up. Criminal Audition doesn't just feel like a play, it could almost be turned into a radio play, that's how lacking in any cinematic touches it is.

There are other flaws, not least of which is a central idea that doesn't seem to have been all that well thought out, but I don't want people to think I am being too harsh. Kudos to everyone involved for getting something made, and not trying to cash in on some of the current movie trends.

I didn't regret my time spent watching this, and that's thanks in no small part to the roles played onscreen by Kaile, Rich Keeble (William, a co-founder of the company), Rebecca Calienda (one of the applicants), Comiskey, and one or two others, but I won't be rushing to rewatch it, and I would hesitate to recommend it to many others. I'd like to see what the film-makers do when they have some more resources though, or even when they figure out how to make more of the limited resources available to them.

4/10

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Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Godzilla Vs. Kong (2021)

Adam Wingard gets his turn to direct a film featuring famous giant monsters and you may have already heard from a lot of people who are delighted with how Godzilla vs. Kong plays out. I enjoyed it, particularly the fun little moments that seemed to reference other movies (there's a particularly enjoyable Jaws reference during the first major encounter), but there are some things stopping it from being the film that finally gets everything right in this developed Monsterverse.

Let's get the plot out of the way first. A big corporation, Apex, want to find a way down and into the Hollow Earth, a space underneath us where the titans may have originated. They hope to find a powerful energy source down there, and the best way of making it there is to follow Kong, who has been kept in a containment unit near Skull Island that looks generally pretty similar to Skull Island. This leads to some Monarch staff (mainly Ilene Andrews, played by Rebecca Hall) journeying with a scientist (Nathan Lind, played by Alexander Skarsgård) and some Apex bods to a place where they can drop off Kong, and hopefully follow him down into the Hollow Earth. But transporting Kong may alert Godzilla to his presence, which could lead to a fight between the two of them. There's also a little deaf girl (Jia, played by Kaylee Hottle) who can communicate with Kong, and the return of Madison Russell (Mille Bobby Brown), who teams up with a friend (Josh, played by Julian Dennison) and a podcaster/Apex-insider (Bernie, played by Brian Tyree Henry) to find out what is behind the recent resurgence of Godzilla, and his attack on a specific Apex site.

What I've just summarised there is pretty much everything you need to know about the plot of Godzilla vs. Kong. In fact, if you were to miss large sections of the movie and only saw the fight scenes then you could thank me for keeping you up to date. It's understandable that this is a film that plots everything out as an excuse to give viewers scenes with the two titans battling one another. That's the selling point, and Wingard definitely delivers on that front.

The action is nicely shot, enough of the surrounding environment has some weight to it as it all gets demolished, and there is a smooth and clear approach that allows you to enjoy the loud noises and spectacle without getting a headache. No small feat.

The screenplay, by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, is nonsense, but it's nonsense that is generally perfectly acceptable for this kind of thing. The science seems vaguely plausible, the characters work together, or fight one another, for believable reasons, and everything kills time in between the moments of mass destruction. It's a shame, however, that the script feels the need to include the characters of Madison, Josh, and Brian. Their inclusion feels completely unnecessary, and moments featuring them could have easily been transferred to other characters. It would have also saved us from some of the worst of the acting, which I'll get to next.

In the Kong-centric narrative strand, the cast do well with what they're given. Skarsgård is likeable and has the right motives for his actions, Hall feels very much like a perfect fit for her character, and young Hottle shines in the moments that highlight her smallness against the giant figure of Kong. Eiza González also works well, the company figure along to make sure any decisions made protect the Apex investment. Elsewhere, sadly, the acting ranges from poor to downright abysmal. Demián Bichir is Walter Simmons, heading up Apex, and is basically asked to act as if he's wearing a monocle and twirling a moustache. Then you have that aforementioned trio. Henry is good fun, but Dennison is wasted (it's the only film I have seen him in so far where I didn't warm to his character), and Brown is so bad at times that I was waiting for her to "break character" onscreen and show that she was playing someone trying to emulate tough and determined from characters she'd seen in other movies. She doesn't, which means the moments with her over-acting to show she is tough and determined are actually choices made for the performance. She's never been that bad in anything else, which leaves me to wonder whether she'll struggle to transition into other non-Stranger Things roles, or whether Wingard was just not great at directing his cast.

But the action delivers, and that's what a lot of people wanted from this film. It's what a lot of people wanted from all of the films in this Monsterverse, but different approaches elsewhere have led to wildly varying results. Personally, I prefer the first two movies in this cinematic series, but this has a number of highlights that are undeniably pleasing for fans of the featured titans (including a third "fighter" that was obvious to anyone who looked more closely at some of the trailers).

Watch it, enjoy it, have a big bowl of popcorn with it, and don't overthink any of the plot details. I'll happily buy it when it becomes available, but I still much prefer the stranger pleasures of Shin Godzilla.

6/10

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Monday, 5 April 2021

Mubi Monday: Computer Chess (2013)

A low-key comedy drama from writer-director Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess is set in the 1980s, and focuses on the various characters attending a tournament that is set to pit man against machine. It's about time for the machines to start winning, which will surely disappoint the traditional chess players.

Despite the cast here, the easiest story strand to follow belongs to a player named Papageorge (played by Myles Paige). Papageorge is a bit disorganised in his life, to say the least. He is in need of a hotel room, in need of money to pay some people he needs to pay for pills, and needs to win against a machine. But will any of his needs be met?

Using the time and place to pick apart the precious attitudes of people not necessarily wanting to welcome the ongoing march of progress with open arms, Computer Chess may well be about chess, but it features people and attitudes that will be recognisable to anyone who has encountered passionate hobbyists, gamers, and various gate-keepers in any small community. The conversations here range from the dry to the heated, and there are even some strange scenes of sexual awkwardness.

Presented mostly in black and white, and with a lot of the conversations dropped in and out of while everything simply rolls along, Bujalski runs the risk of creating something far too irritating and uninteresting for most film fans, but he somehow manages to make it constantly watchable. Keeping many scenes very busy, allowing viewers to take in some other small details and snippets of chat while the individuals meant to be the focus of the scene simply drone on about something that is usually only interesting to themselves.

Paige is very good in the role of Papageorge, and there are a number of other wonderful performances from people I wouldn't recognise in any other films (if they ever starred in any other films). Pitched just perfectly between slightly stylised and perfectly natural, every performance feels just right for the tone of the film, and the gentle prodding coming from Bujalski. This is absurdity, but it's absurdity presented in a way that never spells it all out, instead letting one scene run into another, and another, with the full effect only really obvious as you sit back and think about all that you've just watched.

Although I'm not familiar with the filmography of Bujalski, I hope that some of his other movies are in line with this one, if not better, and I look forward to checking out his work. For others who are unfamiliar with his name, I'd cautiously recommend this. You have to know that it's a film that doesn't seem to be about anything really important, yet the fun comes from everything onscreen being very important to the main characters.

8/10

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Sunday, 4 April 2021

Netflix And Chill: Disappearance At Clifton Hill (2019)

A young girl meets a young boy, he has one bleeding eye bandaged over. The boy is clearly trying to stay hidden from someone. A car drives by. The boy runs. The car reverses, and an adult grabs the boy and bundles him into the back of the car. The young girl returns to the rest of her family, told to pose for a photo as she cannot stop looking at the car now driving past them. That's how Disappearance At Clifton Hill starts. It's a good start, and it then moves into interesting territory when we meet Abby (Tuppence Middleton), the grown-up incarnation of that young girl. Abby is back in her hometown, Niagara Falls, after the death of her mother. She wants to see if she can make a go of her mother's business, the Rainbow Inn, before having to sell it to developers. She has six weeks, even if her sister, Laure (Hannah Gross), would just like it all done and over with already. Abby finds a photo from that memorable day that has haunted her for years, which starts her on an investigation into the potential kidnapping/murder of a young boy. But it's hard to get anyone to believe her after so much time has passed, especially as she has a habit of not being able to tell the truth to anyone.

Some friends of mine had recommended Disappearance At Clifton Hall over the past couple of months, which meant I was excited to finally make time for it. Unfortunately, this is one time when my friends and I disagree. Quite strongly.

A feature debut for both director Albert Shin and writer James Schultz, Disappearance At Clifton Hill is a horrible mess for most of the runtime. It also has music from Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty that ranks as some of the worst I have ever heard. Obviously aiming for an unnerving and strange atmosphere throughout, it almost constantly moves from standard strangeness to sound that replicates cassette tape being chewed around some tape heads. Why would you want that? Maybe if your film was as strange, in terms of visuals and plotting, as that soundtrack then it might work. But Shin and Schultz don't have that level of strangeness here. They have a rather traditional mystery tale, with an obvious villain and one enduring clear recollection guiding the amateur investigator, and then try to add layers of distracting oddness. It doesn't work. Perhaps aiming for something like Inherent Vice or Under The Silver Lake, or any number of noirs that have managed to work with strange quirks bolted to the main story thread, neither of the men succeed in their aim. The third act is exceptionally dull in the way it tries to tie everything up neatly, and then becomes tiresome with a final grace note that may or may not be a real underlining of the pointlessness of everything you've just watched.

Middleton is very good in the lead role, a clearly troubled young woman who becomes exasperated as she tries to prove that her other mistakes don't mean she is wrong with her attempts here to discover the fate of a young boy. Gross is equally good as the understandably tense sister, having been hurt and betrayed in the past, but willing to forgive and love and move forward, if possible, and Noah Reid is very likeable as her supportive husband. David Cronenberg is a lot of fun as a local historian and podcaster also trying to get to the truth of things, Andy McQueen is decent as a young cop who is new in town, and Eric Johnson is Charlie Lake, the local businessman who basically owns the town. There are other characters who come to the fore, including the potential kidnappers and a cheesy stage magic act, but the performances aren't that good, mainly thanks to the lack of any consistent tone, and the unsure notion of whether we are seeing people or seeing Abby's version of people. Although only in one or two scenes, Elizabeth Saunders stands out in her role, a suspect named Bev Mole, but that's the only other performance worth praising.

I was hoping for something really good here. Even as things started to falter, I held out hope that it would get back on track. That didn't happen. The opening scenes work well, but then it's a slow and steady downward slide towards real awfulness. Which is a shame, because there are elements here that work. They're just drowned by so many things that don't.

4/10

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Saturday, 3 April 2021

Shudder Saturday: The Field Guide To Evil (2018)

I have said before, and will undoubtedly say it again, that anthology horror movies are often an easy sell for me. I love short film content, and even an uneven horror anthology should have some thing to entertain you among the various segments. If you don't like one then just wait, a better one should be along soon enough for your viewing pleasure.

The Field Guide To Evil is a film that has come along to be the exception to that rule. I can't remember the last time I had such a miserable experience with a horror anthology movie, and it's quite telling that my memory of many of these shorts has faded so soon after watching the film.

With the emphasis very much on folk horror, as is clear from the title, a variety of writers and directors set out to provide cinematic interpretations of folk tales from their countries of birth. This covers a wide range of potentially interesting tales, from a goblin wanting to join in with some revelry to forbidden love, from  a djinn that is connected to childbirth, to a group of humanoids known as "melonheads".

The big problem here is that almost none of these stories are interesting enough for their limited runtime. Which would be fine if the runtime was a bit more limited. This film clocks in at just under two hours, and not even a quarter of that is as entertaining as it could be.

Although things often look visually impressive, the writing often leaves a lot to be desired, and the cast are left struggling to convey any decent message as the screen is filled with odd, although often pleasingly unsettling, imagery. Text often sets the scene for each tale, but viewers may still feel as if they're dropped in to the middle of something that is a bit too complex for the kind of quick scares and punches that anthology segments usually provide. Although I have said that the film runs too long, many of these short tales could be greatly improved by being further fleshed out and turned into a full feature.

I'm not going to name all of the writers and directors here, sorry, but I will say that names I was looking forward to seeing work from include Peter Strickland, Can Evernol, and Agnieszka Smoczynska. If you also enjoy their work, I recommend you go back to rewatch some of their features. 

In fairness, there's very little here that absolutely stinks, to use a proper cinematic term. It's just that nothing makes enough of an impact, which makes the runtime feel like more of an endurance test than it should be. The tales should feel varied, but they don't. They should feel like a worthwhile point is made, in my opinion anyway, but they don't. This could have been, stripping away some of the narrative story aspects, an interesting collection of visual essays. It isn't. I just didn't like it. And I continued to dislike it for most of the two hours it was on. Which made me feel rather grumpy as the end credits finally came around.

3/10

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Friday, 2 April 2021

Babe (1995)

Amazingly, as I rewatched it recently, I realised that I hadn't seen Babe in about twenty five years. I'd rented it when it was a major home release, and remember it being an enjoyable, if very cutesy, time. Based on a novel (The Sheep-Pig) by Dick King-Smith, it actually holds up as one of the best live-action family movies of the past few decades.

Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is a pig won at a market fair by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell). Destined to be a centrepiece of the Christmas dinner table, Babe instead finds itself helping out around the farm, helping to look after the sheep alongside, and sometimes in place of, the sheepdogs. Developing quite the talent, thanks to some special knowledge delivered by a caring sheep, Babe is seen by Farmer Hoggett as a chance to excel at the upcoming Sheepdog Trials.

There's no place here for grouchy cynics, Babe is a film of absolute sweetness and joy throughout, and it feels all the more refreshing for it. We're more used to modern family movies having sly gags for adults, moments of darkness to make the lighter scenes shine brighter, and a scattering of little details that have become part of the fabric of modern cinema. Babe is very old-fashioned in many ways, absolutely earnest and optimistic throughout, and that heart complemented by the excellent film-making techniques on display (the animatronics, the trained animals, the voice cast) make it a rewarding viewing experience.

Cromwell is a kindly adult figure, almost the lone main character, despite others having some screentime with him, but he's secondary to the animal stars, all of them feeling like very real characters. Babe itself is a curious and polite child, even in the middle of some sequences that are set up to make the poor piglet look like a trouble-maker, and Cavanaugh has a great voice for the role (as does E. G. Daily, who voiced the character in the strange, darker, sequel). Hugo Weaving voices a god, Russi Taylor is a scheming cat, Danny Mann has fun as a mischievous duck named Ferdinand, and you have solid turns from Miriam Margolyes, Miriam Flynn, narration by Roscoe Lee Browne, and some people providing the voices of three little mice who pop up to introduce each main segment of the story.

Director Chris Noonan, who also co-wrote the script with George Miller, hasn't done many other movies that I have felt the urge to seek out, but he can happily hold on to this as the shining star in his filmography. It's hard to think of anyone really hating it, and I can only assume that it's the hardest and coldest hearts that stay that way by the time the end credits roll.

Truly delightful, and an easy one to stick on whenever you want to feel a bit better about the world, Babe is a film that deserves your time. Watch it with kids, watch it with elderly family members, watch it with anyone you can make sit down and watch it with you, watch it on your own. Just watch it, and let it put a big grin on your face.

9/10

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Thursday, 1 April 2021

Gone In 60 Seconds (2000)

A slick Bruckheimer-produced action movie from the year 2000, Gone In 60 Seconds is an easy film to dismiss when you think of some of the other bombastic vehicles he has put his name to (two of those, Con Air and The Rock, also starring Nicolas Cage). But it holds up really well for what it is, which is a fun 2-hour film with lots of nice cars being stolen.

Giovanni Ribisi is Kip Raines, a young man trying to steal a load of cars for a major criminal, Raymond Calitri AKA The Carpenter (Christopher Eccleston). He fails, which enrages The Carpenter. With a ticking clock, he arranges to get Kip's older brother, Memphis Raines (Cage), on the case. Memphis left that life behind a long time ago, but, as the life of his younger brother is on the line, he reluctantly puts a team together. That team includes 'Sway' (Angelina Jolie), Otto (Robert Duvall), and The Sphinx (Vinnie Jones, in a largely non-speaking role). The plan is to scope out the cars and grab all fifty in one night. That's a tough order, made even tougher by the two cops (Delroy Lindo and Timothy Olyphant) who sense something big about to go down.

Based on the 1974 movie by H. B. Halicki (I've not seen it, no idea how closely the two match up), Gone In 60 Seconds has a decent script by Scott Rosenberg and solid direction from Dominic Sena. They know the right level of passable implausibility to go for, and keep things moving in between nice car moments with some great exchanges of dialogue between characters (particularly any scene involving Lindo and Olyphant). And then, despite taking such a long time to get there, the cars get to shine when they're onscreen. Especially in the finale, involving a Shelby Mustang GT500 given the name "Eleanor". 

There are some good montage moments, a soundtrack that has some fantastic choices to accompany the visuals (The Chemical Brothers are on there, as are Apollo Four Forty, Moby, and War), and enough great stunt sequences to please most action movie fans, although they are sparingly spaced out throughout the third act.

Now let’s get to that cast. Cage has fallen out of favour in recent years. I am still a big fan, no matter where on the Cage spectrum of craziness his performance falls, and he became a surprisingly good action movie star once given a shot. The same, more or less, could be said of Jolie, who works very well here as the cool female really into her cars. Duvall, Jones, Scott Caan, Chi Mcbride, Scott Caan and all of the other crew members fit their roles perfectly, Ribisi gets to be slightly bratty, and Will Patton once again delivers some fine Will Patton-ness. Eccleston is the weak link, not as charismatic and intimidating a villain as he could be, but he’s okay. The bigger threat comes from the “heroes” being caught by the cops, headed up by Lindo and Olyphant, who complement one another brilliantly, making a very entertaining double act. 

Maybe not as rewatchable as some other movies in this vein, Gone In 60 Seconds is still a very fun ride, using a great ensemble cast to keep everything ticking over nicely before it finally puts the pedal to the metal.

7/10

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Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Prime Time: Ticks (1993)

A creature feature about a cast of young people being terrorised by killer beasties, Ticks is a film that doesn't want to do anything more than make viewers tense, and probably a bit itchy. And it succeeds admirably.

A group of troubled teens (well, supposed teens) are taken to a woodland cabin to help them learn how to work together, to take some time to work through their issues, and to generally work on being better young people. There are a couple of social workers in charge, but there are also some drug-growers in the local area, and they have inadvertently increased the size of the local tick population. Ticks aren't nice at the best of times, but they're so much worse when enlarged to the size of tarantulas. Seth Green is the young lead who needs to work hardest to overcome his fears, Alfonso Ribeiro is a muscular young man who goes by the name of 'Panic', and the rest of the cast are a bit less memorable, although that's not to say that there is any issue with their acting.

Directed by Tony Randel, Ticks is a film that makes the most of every aspect, from the decent assembled cast to the impressive practical effects (including makeup effects by the well-known K.N.B. EFX Group). It doesn't need to hide the schlocky entertainment beneath any layers of deep soul-searching or ruminations on the current state of the world, which allows for more scenes that homage Aliens without ever feeling too indebted to it.

The script by Brent V. Friedman is good fun, zipping from one bug-centric moment to the next. Friedman knows the nasty potential of the central idea, and he taps into everything you may want to be presented with in a film about overgrown, deadly ticks. 

As for the cast, nobody embarrasses themselves here. It may be weird to see Ribeiro in a very non-Carlton role (considering he'll now forever be associated with that character from The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air), but he's entertaining, Green is as good as ever, just in a slightly smaller form this time around, and Ami Dolenz and Virginya Keehne have some good moments. Ray Oriel and Dina Dayrit are the two other main teens, they do fine, Rosalind Allen and Peter Scolari are the responsible adults, Barry Lynch and Michael Medeiros are less responsible adults (because they just want their drugs to grow well), and Clint Howard is a poor unfortunate who gets severely ticked off (pun very much intended) throughout the movie.

I'm not sure if we'll ever get the special edition shiny disc release of this film that I've been wanting for years, but I'm glad to see it available online for those who love it, and for those who have yet to give it a watch. The simple title and artwork lets you know what you're going to get, but it's arguably much better than it has any right to be. Especially if your recent experiences with creature features have involved films made by The Asylum (they can be fun, but none of them are as fun as Ticks).

8/10

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Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Wrong Turn (2021)

At the last count, I think there were approximately twenty films in the Wrong Turn movie series. I could be misremembering, but I'm fairly sure that I'm correct. Every movie was pretty much the same; some inbred cannibals pick off numerous victims, often using some traps dotted around the vast woodlands they call home.

This Wrong Turn is a reboot written by the same writer of the original film, Alan B. McElroy, and there's enough here to keep horror fans happy. But there are also a couple of key points that may work against it. I'll come to those later.

Matthew Modine plays Scott Shaw, a father who arrives in a small town near the Appalachian Trail on a search for his daughter, who he hasn't heard from in about six weeks. Jumping back to six weeks previously, viewers are shown what happened to his daughter, Milla (Charlotte Vega), and the friends that she was travelling with. And what happened to them involved some woodland traps, an accident or two, and a self-sufficient community known as 'The Foundation', headed up by Venable (Bill Sage).

Directed by Mike P. Nelson, Wrong Turn is a well-balanced mix of nasty gore gags and attempts to be more seriously disturbing. Helped by McElroy's script, fans of the series will like the fact that they get something very much the same, but different. Traps are used, unwitting travellers are caught unawares, and the main villains are a very tight-knit "family". 

Vega is a decent lead, she's allowed to show some real strength in the moments that have her character doing whatever needs to be done as she keeps survival in her sights, but no other members of her troupe really stand out, unfortunately. Sage is an impressive head villain, always a threat and always seeming one step ahead of the protagonists. Modine does well with his supporting role, and gets more involved with the main events during the third act. The other main person to mention is Tim DeZarn, playing a local who may or may not be wishing misfortune upon the young travellers. 

And yet the small differences are enough to stop this from feeling in line with the pure horror entertainment vibe of the original movie. It may seem churlish, but the plotting here, the use of 'The Foundation' instead of those crazy cannibals, stops it from feeling like a Wrong Turn film. Although McElroy may have wanted to revisit his earlier work and rework it, perhaps it could have been better to just have it as a new, original(-ish) horror property. Although that would leave them unable to sell this as a recognisable brand name.

Overall, it's a decent film, especially if you don't pick apart all the holes in the logic of it. It's worth a watch. It just doesn't seem to fit alongside all of the other movies with Wrong Turn in the title.

6/10

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Monday, 29 March 2021

Mubi Monday: Catch Me Daddy (2014)

Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) is a young Pakistani girl on the run with her white boyfriend, Aaron (Conor McCarron). There are a number of people hunting them down, including a pair of men, played by Gary Lewis and Barry Nunney, who seem more determined to cause some damage than the group made up of Laila's brother and his friends. Things don't look like they're going to have a happy ending, and it's all because the two young lovers are from such different backgrounds. 

Directed by Daniel Wolfe, making his feature debut after time spent on numerous video shorts, Catch Me Daddy is a very interesting look at a specific problem that continues to affect many people in Britain, especially younger people who don't want to follow the traditions of their family. It's all about expectations, family duty, and the oppressive nature of those things. Although it seems specific to the experience of a Pakistani family in the UK, many viewers should be able to sympathise with someone not wanting to live their life exactly as their parents want them to.

The script, co-written by Daniel and Matthew Wolfe, is vague on the specifics, but they're not needed as you are drawn into the mood of the whole thing. You know that the young leads feel endangered, you know that it seems to be a decision made by Laila's family, and you know that the people who are presently friendly with them are able to take them as they are, without considering their differences in family units and cultures.

The acting from everyone involved is superb. Ahmed and McCarron are two great leads, getting along together in a way that is believable. These aren't lovers who never have a disagreement. They're young people who are frustrated by the way in which they're being hunted, and potentially trapped. Although you get great, natural, performances from Wasim Zakir, Adrian Hussain, Anwar Hussain, and many others I am unfamiliar with, Lewis and Nunney hold your attention more, their performances made more electric by the undercurrent of violence accompanying their every moments. 

One of the films I have found hardest to review in a long time, Catch Me Daddy is an assured and vital debut. It's a film that says so much without making it all completely obvious and narrowly defined. Viewers can interpret certain scenes in a number of ways, and there's an end sequence that leaves things unresolved, but the whole thing adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. Take a step back, you'll find at least one minor character you can identify with, or at least understand, and each perspective is as important as the other in creating an image that is placed alongside all of the others to make the full picture.

9/10

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Sunday, 28 March 2021

Netflix And Chill: Temple (2017)

I cannot think about a horror film that I have cared less for recently than Temple. Sometimes you write a review with a mix of positives and negatives, even if you have to work harder to find some of those things, and sometimes you write a review in which you offer constructive criticism. And sometimes you just want to scream profanities at anyone who even thinks about watching a movie you have just endured. Temple is very much in the latter category.

It's a film that wants to be so many things, but ultimately ends up being none of them. It wants to be a found footage movie. But that would require better writing and planning. It wants to be an Asian-styled creepy horror. But that would require understanding the material without feeling like it's being interpreted by someone who cannot really ever get a handle on it. It wants to be a film with some twists and shocks, but none of the twists or shocks are as effective as the writer or director think they are.

Kate (Natalia Warner) and James (Brandon Sklenar) and the couple who are travelling through Japan, hoping to see some sights that are off the beaten track. They're accompanied by Chris (Logan Huffman). Because two guys and a beautiful woman has always been the best way to guarantee a stress-free and harmonious holiday experience. I hope the sarcasm was obvious there. The three find out about a temple that is located deep in a jungle area. Warned away from it by many people, they obviously want to go there and spend the night. And they then meet an entirely expected set of problems. I'm not saying they get what they deserve, but . . . I wasn't exactly rooting for them to somehow save themselves.

Director Michael Barrett doesn’t do a good job here, failing to cover up the many weaknesses and gaps in the script from Simon Barrett (no relation, as far as I can tell). Having picked this for his directorial debut, after years of working as a cinematographer on a number of excellent projects, Michael Barrett perhaps put too much faith in his writer. That's understandable, considering the many enjoyable genre outings that Simon Barrett has penned. This film isn't one I suspect either Barrett will place highly on their CV, if at all.

The cast can't work any magic either. Warner is a stunningly attractive leading lady, and both Sklenar and Huffman are handsome enough to be vying for her affections, I guess, but everyone has to act dumb enough for the script to move them from A to B, and elsewhere. They rarely make any good decisions, and many of the supporting cast members are pulled in to act as if they're in very different movies, whether they're being much more restrained and grounded in reality or acting like the typical harbingers we find in every horror movie that has a place no sane person should visit.

I've already written more here than I had planned. My initial review was simply going to say "Temple is utter shit". I'm glad I didn't just settle on that one sentence, but I'm sad that this small attempt to warn people away from the thing seems to have been crafted with a bit more care than the film itself. 

2/10

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Saturday, 27 March 2021

Shudder Saturday: White Zombie (1932)

As a big fan of zombie movies, White Zombie was one I had been aiming to see for many years. The only other one now left on my list is I Walked With A Zombie, which will make me happy. I'm not saying there aren't many other zombie movies I need to see, but these are the sub-genre milestones that I feel I should have marked off my list way before now.

Being from 1932, White Zombie obviously isn't a gore-filled zombie flick as we mostly know them today. It's a rather sedate little film, but full of great atmosphere, as well as some great eyeball work from Bela Lugosi.

Madge Bellamy plays Madeline Short, a woman due to marry her fiancé, Neil Parker (John Harron), in Haiti. Staying at the home of a plantation owner named Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), viewers soon learn that Charles is in love with Madeline, so much so that he enlists the assistance of a man named 'Murder' (Lugosi). 'Murder' is a bit of an expert when it comes to zombiefying people, so his plan naturally involves a poison which will make Madeline seem dead, allowing her to then be resurrected and controlled. This plan causes some upset for Neil, to put it mildly, who eventually teams up with Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) when he suspects that the love of his life isn't really as dead as she appeared to be.

Although quite creaky, and without any great acting throughout, White Zombie has to be viewed as an impressive horror piece from a time when we weren't being overrun by hordes of the undead. In fact, it would seem to be the very first proper zombie film, which means it deserves a little respect for that alone, if nothing else.

Director Victor Halperin moves everything along swiftly enough, making fine use of the sets to keep the spooky and oppressive atmosphere throughout, and the runtime clocks in at about the 70-minute mark, ensuring you shouldn't be fed up of it by the time it ends, even if one or two scenes feature characters clarifying some rules and behaviours that are now common knowledge to most horror fans. The script, by Garnett Weston, does a good job of putting everything and everyone in the right place, and building towards a third act that remains entertaining enough, even if it's easy to see coming a mile away.

Lugosi is the star here, for his gaze and the hand movement he keeps making while controlling any zombies. If you're a fan of the horror icon then that's another reason to watch this. Bellamy is pleasant enough, but spends a large portion of her screentime in her "dazed" state, and both Frazer and Harron do decent work. It's a shame that Cawthorn, playing the knowledgeable doctor, isn't better in his role, as he gets to play the elderly figure so often turned into the real hero in movies from this time, but he's just alright.

Not a film to convert anyone who dislikes older movies, White Zombie is definitely one to watch if you are a horror fan interested in the cinematic history of the genre. It's a vital touchstone, and gives Lugosi some more iconic moments.

6/10

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Friday, 26 March 2021

Real Genius (1985)

Val Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a genius student who is working on a project that he doesn't realise wants to make a laser usable in a sophisticated and dangerous weapon. Chris is tasked with taking young Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) under his wing. He wants to help academically, but also wants to remind everyone to not take everything so seriously. Chris has seen how stress and obsession can affect people, and he wants to help people maintain a good balance. That doesn't always work for Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) though. It also doesn't work for the prime douchebag, Kent (Robert Prescott).

Directed by Martha Coolidge, who has a filmography full of interesting movies that I have always been meaning to check out, Real Genius is an enjoyable '80s teen comedy that has the expected mix of fun characters, archetypes, and dialogue without the usual obsession over girls and nudity. You get some early moments with Val Kilmer wearing deely-boppers to highlight just how much he doesn't want to take life seriously, you get some pranks, and you get a final act that allows plot strands to be tied up, set-ups to be paid off, and the slightly serious stuff to be dealt with in a way that intertwines the humour with some serious stakes for those involved. 

Writers Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and Peter Torokvei know what is expected, and they provide some standard moments and gags wrapped in the clothing of these onscreen geniuses. Whether it's the battle of wits between the new kid and the bully, the potential blossoming romance between a couple of main characters, or the strange loner who sees things that nobody else does . . . Real Genius entertains on a trope-filled, teen comedy level, yet adds a layer of smarts that allows it to stand out from the crowd.

Kilmer is a force to be reckoned with, superbly charming and charismatic. Although Jarret is playing the main character, and the way for viewers to meet this cast, it's Kilmer who is the lead. Jarret does well though, he's likeable enough and happy to let others around him shine. Atherton gives another one of his great turns, smiling at his students until things look to be no longer going his way, and Jon Gries is very amusing as the strange loner named Lazlo. Kent may be the character you're supposed to boo and hiss at, but Robert Prescott does well in that role. And then you have Michelle Meyrink, playing Jordan, a young woman with plenty of brains who lacks confidence in herself, and also lacks confidence in her social skills.

It's quirky and clever, but not too quirky and clever for its own good. Having seen this listed by many people over the years as a favourite comedy from this decade, I'm glad I finally checked it off the list. And even more glad that it was as good as many told me it was.

9/10



Thursday, 25 March 2021

The Mirror (2014)

I quite like writer-director Edward Boase. He was kind enough to let me conduct a phone interview with him many years ago. I mistrust mirrors. They show you what is all around us, but different. So Edward Boase making a horror movie about a bad mirror (to put it mildly) seemed like a good combination. 

Three flatmates, two of them in a relationship, buy a mirror that has supposed links to a dark past. Setting up a camera in front of the mirror, and aiming to document their own experiences with it, it’s not longer before strange things start to happen. And strange soon starts to become dangerous. Very dangerous.

Taking the “found footage” approach to this idea would seem to make complete sense, and Boase (fleshing out a story created by himself and Keidrych Wasley) seems to know the potential of the material here. He paces things almost as you would expect, although the third act kicks in a little bit sooner than I thought it would, and conversations are often a mix of banter and drip-feeding background details that become more important to the plot as things get worse for the main characters.

Unfortunately, although some may view it differently, Boase keeps things a bit too restrained for the first half of the movie. Even when things get a bit more obvious, and graphic, certain aspects of the film remain frustratingly hidden offscreen. I admire the approach, but it does make you wonder why the setting up of the camera was so important when that footage is used so infrequently.

Joshua Dickinson, Nate Fallows, and Jemma Dallender are fine in their roles. They may be a bit mishandled by the script, which moved between calm to incredible intensity before going inexplicably calm again, but they’re naturalistic enough, and their interactions with one another feel generally believable.

It may not be a bad film, from the central idea to the technical side of things, but it’s far from an essential viewing for horror fans. It’s not serious enough to be thought-provoking and disturbing, nor is it simplistically entertaining enough to make for a bit of fun you could easily recommend to others. It sits very much in the middle, which is where it also ends up with my final rating.

5/10

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Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Prime Time: MVP: Most Valuable Primate (2000)

Jack is a talented chimpanzee. He can use sign-language. He can also skate. Both of these things come in handy when circumstances conspire to leave him in a small town that has a) a struggling ice hockey team, and b) a young, deaf, girl who could do with some support at her school. It's not long until Jack is becoming a favourite on and off the ice.

Director Robert Vince has a LOT of these kinds of animal movies in his filmography. Having also written the script with Anne Vince (wife? sister? cousin? I'm going to go ahead and assume it's one of those connections), he seems to have a very firm idea of what he wants to give viewers.

And what he wants to give viewers is a small-scale drama that features some ridiculous plot development as everyone onscreen just accepts their new simian star. It also features Kevin Zegers as Steven Westover, Jamie Renée Smith as his sister, Tara (the aforementioned deaf girl), and Rick Ducommun as the coach of the ice hockey team.

If that's something that you fancy then good for you. The opening scenes here don't bode well, with a couple of actors mugging in ways you normally only see in TV shows aimed at toddlers, but things do pick up once Jack starts to find his way around a new town. A sighting here and there, a stolen banana, and then it's time for his big reveal. And his ability to communicate with Tara via sign-language is a genuinely nice, and sweet, touch.

Three different chimps are credited for the role of Jack, they're all talented and better onscreen than some actors I have seen over the years. Thankfully, both Zegers and Smith are also very good, interacting with the chimp in a way that is much more tolerable than the way the adults were portrayed in the earliest scenes. And Ducommun does a good job as the coach. It's a shame that he's held back from giving a fully comedic turn, but he's certainly not exactly in line with all of the other adult performances, in a good way. There's also a main villain, of course, a doctor played by Oliver Muirhead, and he's exactly as you expect him to be, pacing around with purpose and barking statements about getting his hands on that monkey.

It's an oddity, a novelty piece, a children's film aimed firmly at younger viewers. Although released in 2000, MVP: Most Valuable Primate already feels like a relic from a bygone era. Putting chimpanzees in outfits and having them do things that humans normally do used to be a more commonplace thing (here in the UK we had chimps selling us PG Tips teabags for many years), but it's not any more. Yet it's still endearing and amusing enough to entertain children who want a film featuring a cute little chimp. Others should probably give it a miss.

3/10

https://ko-fi.com/kevinmatthews

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

A Little More Flesh (2020)

Writer-director Sam Ashurst seems to want to build a filmography full of impressive curio pieces that allow him to tell a story in a cost-effective way, birthing a lot of inventiveness from the various necessities. I have yet to watch Frankenstein's Creature (although I bought the DVD when it was available in a limited quantity), but I am aware that it's essentially a filmed monologue. And, in many ways, A Little More Flesh is very similar.

Stanley Durall is a (in)famous British director and he's revisiting his notorious debut, God's Lonely Woman, to provide a commentary for a disc that will house the film and some previously-unseen footage from behind the scenes. As Stanley discusses the movie, it soon becomes clear that things did not end well for either of his lead actresses (Isabella, played by Elf Lyons, and Candice, played by Hazel Townsend). What is initially just alluded to is soon clarified, with Stanley at pains to reassure listeners that nothing he did could have possibly harmed his leads. But is that at all true? Is Stanley really trying to reassure himself?

There's a very good idea at the heart of A Little More Flesh, and it's mixed in with one or two other good ideas. The commentary track allows Ashurst to develop a character, and a growing sense of foreboding, while he presents visuals that look convincingly in line with the era that the main film is supposed to be from. 

Ashurst himself provides the voice of Durall, working from a carefully-constructed script that keeps the screws tightening as everything builds to an unforgettable final sequence. He does a good job with the tone and the choice of wording throughout, but it's a shame that he couldn't utilise an older actor who would convince more as someone who should be between 60-70 years old. 

Lyons and Townsend are good fits for their roles, and there are decent turns from Dane Baptiste, playing an actor named Patrick, and Gabriel Thomson, as Leon. Although they're helped by the fact that their scenes are being spoken over by Durall, they feel authentic for the kind of acting being performed.

The central conceit here is basically sound, and it's a film built very much around a number of unnerving details, but Ashurst overdoes things slightly with intercut "interruptions" and that ending. As jaw-dropping and powerful as it is, it also feels like a step too far. It's a great moment, capping an intriguing film, but the two don't really feel as if they belong together.

Worth your time, and Ashurst is worth your support, A Little More Flesh ultimately proves more rewarding for the "non-horror" threads running through it. The exploration of art created by a bad man, the sharp contrast in attitudes between the 1970s and the present, as well as the reticence of some people to change with the times, and the ever-important issue of consent.

6/10

https://ko-fi.com/kevinmatthews

Monday, 22 March 2021

Mubi Monday: Tigerland (2000)

A Vietnam war movie with a difference, this focuses on a group of soldiers who are being trained at an infamous area named Tigerland. Standing out from the group, Pvt. Bozz (Colin Farrell) is clearly not wanting to be there. He won't get himself out of the forces, however, but does annoy the higher-ups by helping to get some other solders their freedom. This makes him about as popular as a sneeze in a supermarket in 2020, as you can imagine, but he's tough enough to take all of the negativity aimed his way. He's not bulletproof though, which makes it a lot more difficult when one soldier (Wilson, played by Shea Wigham) has a building level of rage that would make it best for him to be kept away from all guns and ammo.

Directed by Joel Schumacher, this is the film that first sold Colin Farrell as a star leading man, basically. He would spend the next decade or so being misused in all kinds of roles that just weren't right for him (Farrell is actually an excellent character actor with the looks and charisma of a blockbuster star), but revisiting Tigerland allows you to see just what Schumacher saw in him. He's confident, charming, smart, witty, and elevates what is already an excellent premise.

A million miles away from his usual slick, over the top, approach, Schumacher relies on a cast of quality actors and a great script by Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther, both newcomers to screenwriting (in terms of credited jobs anyway). Klavan and McGruther know all of the standard war movie moments that we've seen so many times before, and they use the character of Bozz to navigate and subvert most of them, whether it's the angry instructor picking on someone who can't keep up the pace or a butting of heads between soldiers and a leader who seems to often make the wrong decisions while parroting the lines about duty and military ways.

I've already said enough about Farrell, and it's slightly unfair to let his performance completely overshadow everyone else, but the other cast members generally do just as well. Matthew Davis is Paxton, the one who observes Bozz for the majority of the runtime, and the one narrating the full story. Davis is a bit bland, but that's fine for how his character is used. He's the observer. Clifton Collins Jr. has a great character arc, playing Miter, someone who resents Bozz while he's trying to keep the rest of the squad in check, and Whigham is brilliantly loathsome for most of his scenes, moving from a standard nasty asshole to full-on "Private Pile" by the third act.

There are a number of unbelievable moments here and there, including a heart to heart between Bozz and a tough leader who gives him some time to explain his perspective (when you just know that time would have been spent with the latter chewing out the former), but the grounding of the drama, and the setting of the training area itself, makes it all feel a bit less cheesy and cliché-ridden.

8/10


Sunday, 21 March 2021

Netflix And Chill: War (2007)

Sometimes you are hunting around for the right thing to watch on a Saturday evening and you remember a Jason Statham movie you have yet to see. Not only that, but this particular Statham movie also features Jet Li in a main role.  

Statham plays an FBI agent named Crawford who is after a deadly assassin named Rogue (Li). Rogue apparently killed Crawford’s partner, Tom, as well as Tom’s wife and child. He now seems to be killing off both Triads and Yakuza, which makes his motivation very puzzling. 

If you haven’t heard of director Philip G. Atwell then the opening scenes of this movie will make clear why. I haven’t seen a director make action quite so headache-inducing since I endured the second Resident Evil movie. I was completely unsurprised to find that Atwell has a background based largely in the music video world, an approach to the film format he isn’t able to shake off here. 

I was equally unsurprised to see that this was the first full script from Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley, two men who decided to blend a bunch of action movie clichés with one or two frankly preposterous plot twists. Yet the silliness of everything helps to make it more enjoyable as it all moves towards an action-packed finale. 

Despite the efforts of Atwell, this is a hard film to truly hate. There are some decent set-pieces, the pacing is surprisingly good for a film that runs to approximately 110 minutes, and you at least have your star power. 

They may not interact as often as viewers would like, but Statham and Li are given enough moments to do what fans will want to see them do. The former is left to do the less exciting stuff, he is piecing together a puzzle that can only be fully revealed in the very last scenes, but he still does his usual thing with conviction. Li is his expected mix of quiet and power, and gets some decent fight sequences in the second half of the film. There are also solid supporting turns from John Lone, Devon Aoki, Ryo Ishibashi, Mathew St. Patrick, Sung Kang, Luis Guzmán, and Saul Rubinek. 

Violent, silly, and entertaining. It’s the least you expect from a Statham action thriller. One of his lesser films, but still an okay watch. 

5/10


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Shudder Saturday: Slaxx (2020)

A film about a killer pair of denim jeans may not sound like something you want to watch, but Slaxx turns out to be a great mix of gore and humour, taking direct aim at the world of fast-paced, trendy, fashion. Maybe I was more receptive to it due to the traumatic memory of the time I accidentally picked up some jeans to try on in T K Maxx and discovered they were ALL slim fit (handing them back to the shop worker with the words "I didn't wear them when I was 20, it's really not going to work now I am in my 40s). Or maybe it's just a really accomplished horror comedy.

Romane Denis plays Libby McClean, a new staff member at a horribly trendy clothing store. The staff may keep uttering the company slogan about making a better tomorrow today, but they're mainly just interested in looking cool, impressing the boss, and/or being slim enough for the best fashion choices. Enter the pair of killer jeans, set to kill off people in a number of ways as the staff stay locked in the store to prepare for a manic Monday in which they are set to unveil the latest must-buy.

Directed by Elza Kephart, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Patricia Gomez, I cannot praise this highly enough, considering how it takes such a silly central premise and uses it to have some great set-pieces and make one or two great, albeit obvious, points. Anyone who has worked for a company that pretends to work by a set of ethics that goes out the window whenever not facing a member of the public should find scenes here that ring true, despite the stylised artificiality of the extra-sterile store environment. And those who have worked in retail will definitely recognise the fake smiles plastered on workers as they snipe at one another and prepare to deal with a voracious crowd of consumers.

Denis does a good job as the innocent young woman entering her new job role with an idealism and innocence that you suspect won't take long to be worn down. Brett Donahue and Kenny Wong have fun in their roles, both being mid-to-upper-level management at the store level, and Sehar Bhojani is Shruti, a female staff member who accidentally unlocks a way to discover more about the deadly denims.

Obviously not for everyone, if you give Slaxx a try then you may be surprised by how effective it ends up being. The message it delivers is delivered well, and you get an excellent mix of horror and humour. A couple of deaths are impressive and bloody, while the absurd essence of the thing ensures that you'll keep smiling throughout, even as it tries to push onward to an ending that may end up much darker than expected.

I hope this is the start of a franchise. Slaxx 2: House Of Levis. Slaxx 3: Mind The Gap. Slaxx 4: The Wrangler Strangler. And, of course, Slaxx 501. Kephart and Gomez, you know where you can get a hold of me.

8/10

https://ko-fi.com/kevinmatthews