Friday, 16 November 2018

Filmstruck Friday: The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

There's no point in beating around the bush here, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is another classic film starring Humphrey Bogart (who certainly either had a great nose for the best projects or a great agent landing him these roles). Directed by John Huston, it's a tale of the dark side of human nature, the ugliness that bubbles up to the surface when greed becomes the main motivator.

Bogart plays Dobbs, an American down on his luck in a Mexican town. He's reduced to asking people for change to get himself food, and he's not the only one in this predicament. Tim Holt plays Bob Curtin, a man very much in the same boat. After one particularly unfortunate episode, the two find themselves listening to an old man (Howard, played by Walter Huston) as he tells tales of prospecting for gold. If they can get together the initial outlay then they have a plan in mind. Which is what happens, leading to the three men heading to the Sierra Madre mountains. There's gold in them there hills. But there are also bandits, there are other people who may notify big businesses (who would muscle in and take over), and there are shadows that grow; shadows of paranoid and murderous thoughts.

The three leads here are all wonderful, with Huston (father of the director) being a particularly enjoyable presence, and that's essential for the film to work. It is, for the most part, a three-hander, the majority of the film focused on their fluid relationship and power dynamic. The script, adapted from a novel by B. Traven, takes just the right amount of time to set things up, helping you to be invested in the characters until things start to change for them. Then, and only then, it feels a bit rushed, with Bogart having to show a mean streak quite suddenly, but that doesn't make the unfolding events much less enjoyable.

Full of great moments, including one iconic exchange that will be familiar even to those who haven't seen this before, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is a great blend of highs and lows. The first act gives you a taste of what to come, but only a taste, and then it develops into a cracking adventure that shows some of the best and worst of humanity.

Like a few other Bogart films I could mention, at least a couple of them also directed by Huston, you really do owe it to yourself to see this one. It's iconic, it's smart, it's a shining example of classic cinema and, in case none of that sold you on it, it's also hugely entertaining.


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

Thursday, 15 November 2018

The Watcher In The Woods (1980)

Here we are, once again, with another film I had always been aware of, from a very young age, but somehow never got around to watching. This was, to me, that Disney horror movie, and I'm annoyed that it took me so long to see it.

David McCallum and Carroll Baker play Paul and Helen Curtis, parents to two girls named Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richards). This family all move into a new home, owned by Mrs Aylwood (Bette Davis), an elderly woman who lives just next door to the main residence. It just so happens that Mrs Aylwood approved the family as tenants because Jan reminded her of her own daughter, Karen (Katherine Levy), who disappeared many years ago. A number of mysterious events occur, convincing Jan that Karen is trying to communicate with them. But what is the message, and will anyone in the area appreciate the past being raked over?

Enjoyably atmospheric at times, and striking the right balance between spookiness and adventure, The Watcher In The Woods is sometimes a great mix. The tone is pitched nicely for family viewing, and some of the small scares are effective. Developed from the book by Florence Engel Randall, the script (initially by Brian Clemens, subsequently revised by Rosemary Ann Sisson and others) is good when it comes to the main premise and how events interconnect on the way to the third act. It's just a shame that everything else falters.

The brief runtime doesn't stop the film from feeling a bit dragged out, thanks to pacing issues that arise after the halfway point, the direction from John Hough (with reshoots from an uncredited Vincent McEveety) is a bit lifeless and feels like they were aiming for a TV movie feel rather than a theatrical release, and even the resolution ends up lacking the thrills it should have.

The acting covers a wide spectrum. Davis is wonderful in her role, playing Mrs Aylwood with the right mixture of concern and shadiness that arguably comes with pretty much any character she plays, and McCallum and Baker do well enough as the parents, kept to the background throughout much of the story. Other main adult actors onscreen (Richard Pasco, Ian Bannen, and Frances Cuka) do alright, as does young Benedict Taylor, but the female leads let the side down. Levy is okay most of the time, it's not so much her acting style as her being at the mercy of the script, but Johnson overacts in almost every scene. It's less noticable in the earlier scenes, but becomes more and more obvious as the plot unfolds, making it a cringeworthy experience almost every time she starts to shout and show any nervousness or tension.

Once again, I may have liked this more when it was originally released, when I was closer to the right age for it and less exposed to the multitude of movies I have subsequently experienced. As it is, it's okay. That's all. I think children will still find enough to enjoy, but you will need to let them check it out before they are bombarded with the typical array of CGI wizardry and inventiveness that inhabits most modern slices of entertainment aimed at younger viewers.


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

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Prime Time: Leap Year (2010)

When I first saw Leap Year, a fair few years ago, I hated it. It was the worst mainstream rom-com I had seen in a long time, hampered by two leads without any chemistry, or even much likability. Revisiting it today, I hoped to enjoy it more. Enough time had passed, I started off my day in a fairly good mood, and I now at least knew who I was watching (because I wasn't that familiar with Amy Adams the first time around).

Anna (played by Adams) is a woman who has her life exactly as she wants it. Her job is setting up homes ready for being shown by realtors, her boyfriend (Jeremy, played by Adam Scott) is a medical professional who seems to share her life goals, and she has just applied to live in an exclusive apartment complex, if she and Jeremy are deemed suitable. But Jeremy seems to be dragging his feet when it comes to proposing marriage. It's been a number of years. So, while he is in Dublin for work, Anna decides to head over there, hopefully in time for February 29th, when tradition states that women can propose to men. The journey doesn't go according to plan, not at all, and she ends up struggling to get to her final destination with the help of cynical Declan (Matthew Goode).

There's still a lot here that annoys me just as much as it did when I first saw it. The script, by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, isn't as funny or sweet as it could be, although there are a few nice touches throughout, and it often feels like it's marking off a checklist of rom-com cliches. Adams and Goode play characters who, of course, dislike each other from the very start, only to start warming up to one another as obstacles create more and more delays on their journey. She likes everything planned, he's more easygoing about things. She's romantic, he's cynical. She likes the finer things in life, he's happy with his familiar comforts. You get the idea. It's a shame that nothing feels even slightly fresh, especially when you check the filmography of Kaplan and Elfont and realise that they have written a couple of fun comedies together (to hell with anyone who dislikes Josie And The Pussycats).

Anand Tucker has more variety in his filmography, and it's fair to say that romantic comedies aren't exactly where he shines. He puts everything in place (cast, cameras, score, etc) but doesn't manage to give it any life. This is a bowl full of wax fruit. It will fool most people who walk by it, but heaven help anyone who grabs an apple to take a bite.

Now that I am more familiar with the kind of roles that Adams has played in her career, despite her growing range over the past few years, it's easier to enjoy her in this. Organised, romantic, and optimistic, this is a perfect role for her to play, and it's a shame that they don't add more com in with the clumsy rom. Goode is alright, I suppose, but I prefer him in roles that let him be a bit more intense and/or strange. Despite his good looks, he's not suited to being a romantic lead (although I am sure many women may disagree with me there). Scott is as perfect as he usually is when called upon to play the guy who is nice enough, but also just a bit . . . douchey in one or two main ways. There are others, including Kailtin Olson and John Lithgow in small roles, but the focus is almost always on Adams and Goode, with Scott being shown or heard just often enough to remind us that he's the reason for the misadventures.

Leap Year isn't awful. It's just inferior to hundreds of other rom-coms you could watch instead. And it doesn't even manage to distract you from those better films while it's playing, which is never a good thing.


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

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Hell Asylum (2002)

You would think that one day I would learn, but NO. No, I will never learn. I will always try to retain a shred of optimism whenever I start to watch a Full Moon movie. And I had it when pressing play on Hell Asylum. It stayed there for a few minutes, and then it shrivelled up and started to die, only flickering again for a moment or two during the, thankfully, brief runtime of the film.

The film is all about a new reality TV show, "Chill Challenge". The point of the show is to put some attractive women in a scary location, have them individually face their greatest fears, and see if they want to stay for the duration, which earns them the prize money.

Directed by Danny Draven, Hell Asylum is your typical fast 'n' cheap production from Full Moon Pictures. Draven shows no urge to lift the drab material, relying on the fact that he has pretty women in the main roles, an idea with potential (wasted, of course), and a distinct lack of logic or plausibility getting in the way of things.

It would help if any of the cast members had a bit more personality shining through, but there's not a lot to differentiate between them, aside from the obvious traits that some are given to define their entire character. Debra Mayer, Tanya Dempsey, Sunny Lombardo, Stacey Scowley, and Olimpia Fernandez are, as expected, not exactly at the top of the acting game but it's unfair to judge them when working with such a weak script.

And that is perhaps the biggest disappointment here, especially when you consider that the script was written by Trent Haaga, who also pops up for a very brief cameo. Haaga has been paying his dues for many years, leading to some great projects in the last decade, but this is one of his first, and worst, scripts. It does what is needed, no more and no less, without including anything that would liven up the proceedings, like an excess of gore or some better dialogue between the characters. It has none of that, and doesn't even have an enjoyably demented motivation for the killer.

On the plus side, it's mercifully short (about 72 minutes, just under that runtime before the end credits roll), there are at least a couple of moments of decent(-ish) gore, and . . . well, I've sat through a lot worse.


Sadists can buy the movie here.
Americans can get this special edition here.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Mubi Monday: Widows (2018)

Based on the TV series by Lynda La Plante, Widows has been successfully transferred to America and updated to be quite a bit more than it originally was, a group of women who took on "jobs for the boys". Not that the original was bad, and I am not going to praise this movie while criticising the TV series (which I never actually watched, I just have vague memories of it being advertised when first screened), but director Steve McQueen, who worked with Gillian Flynn to adapt the material into this screenplay, uses the premise to explore issues of race, abuse, and the way wheels turn and keep society the way that many want it kept.

Viola Davis plays Veronica, a woman left in a very sticky position after her professional thief husband (Liam Neeson) and his crew die in a botched robbery that seems very unlike his usual modus operandi. When Veronica is threatened by the man that her husband stole from (Brian Tyree Henry), she sees no way to fix the situation. Until she finds a notebook left by her husband, a book with plans and details for one last job. Enlisting the help of some of the other widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki), and eventually a fourth woman who can help them and help herself (Cynthia Erivo), Veronica masterminds a robbery that she hopes will allow her to settle the debt, and allow the women to start new lives.

When I first saw the trailer for Widows I wondered why McQueen, best known for his serious films looking at difficult subject matters, was drawn to the material. My curiosity dissipated within the first few scenes, intimacy between Davis and Neeson that underlines a major aspect of the screenplay. Despite not being, at least on the surface, a film as worthy as some of his other movies, Widows comes close to being McQueens best movie yet, thanks to the way it marries some important themes with visceral thrills. 12 Years A Slave may remain his most important directorial work, but this has a  sugar-coating makes the bitter pill easier to swallow.

Davis is a superb lead, given great support from Rodriguez, Debicki, and Erivo. All of them are doing excellent work, and all of them grow believably into their roles within the team. There's also a small, but characteristically brilliant, turn from Jacki Weaver, as a mother who wants her daughter to have a better life, no matter what it costs her in terms of her identity and integrity. There may not be many good men onscreen (excepting one played by Garret Dillahunt) but they're also all portrayed brilliantly. Neeson casts a large shadow over the proceedings, Henry is a quiet threat, as are the father and son political figures played by Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, and Daniel Kaluuya almost walks away with the entire film, so brilliant is he as a merciless and violent individual being barely held in check by Henry.

In a way, the heist that everything is leading up to is the least important part of the film, which may explain why McQueen isn't at his best during that sequence. It's almost as if, with the resolution so close, he loses interest, knowing that he has already covered the plot points that he was most fired up about. The third act does have a peak, and a driving sequence to equal that of the opening scenes, but it starts to go downhill fast after that, leaving the viewer with a lot of unanswered questions and a feeling that something important is missing. Some extra details, some annoying loose ends. It's not enough to spoil the film, and most of it is deliberate on the part of McQueen and Flynn, who did so well with majority of the screenplay, but it's a shame that it ends with a whimper after the bang.

Despite my problems with the ending, and a few minor issues scattered throughout the main plot, Widows holds up as a cracking action thriller that mixes intelligence, tension, and a small amount of humour to great effect. And there's also one of the cutest dogs I've seen in a movie in years.


You can buy the original show here.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Netflix And Chill: XX (2017)

A horror anthology movie written and directed by women, hence the title (the two sex chromosomes that females typically have), XX is a film that I had heard a lot of negative talk about, so viewed with a small amount of trepidation. Thankfully, I enjoyed it a lot more than some other people. None of the segments are new favourites, but none are complete stinkers either.

There's an odd, and oddly enjoyable, wraparound that involves somelovely and dark animation, and the main stories are as follows: The Box (w/d: Jovanka Vuckovic, based on a story by Jack Ketchum) is all about a stranger who carries a box that a young boy looks inside, The Birthday Cake (d: Annie Clark, co-written with Roxanne Benjamin) is about a stressed mother trying to keep everything perfect for her young daughter's birthday party, Don't Fall (w/d: Roxanne Benjamin) is about a camper trip that goes awry, and Her Only Living Son (w/d: Karyn Kusama) is about a mother struggling to watch her son change as he approaches his eighteenth birthday.

Without meaning to offend the talented women working here, it's impressive that XX was put together with so many names that didn't have much of a proven track record, in terms of directed projects. Kusama has the most experience, which is perhaps why she has the tale that takes up the most breathing space, and Benjamin had a hand in the most excellent Southbound, but Vuckovic has only a handful of (admittedly well-received) shorts to her name, and this was the first directorial outing for Clark. There's enough consistency here, however, that you wouldn't really know who was newer to their role and who had been doing directorial work for years. It's an impressive selection of tales, handled well, and good to showcase the skills of everyone involved.

Considering the fact that three of the tales revolve around caring for children, and the third has some sibling dynamics between a brother and sister that will feel familiar to many, you can see that this is a film with, perhaps, a different look at things than the standard male gaze. It's a horror anthology, first and foremost, however, and the choices and style serve that, with plenty to chew on after the film is over for those wanting to consider how different this could have been if it wasn't also a chance to put women together and let them take an opportunity more often afforded to men.

Every tale is well-served by a talented cast. The biggest name is Melanie Lynskey, who elevates "The Birthday Cake" far above what it otherwise would have been, but everyone does a great job, with other highlights including the performances from Natalie Brown in "The Box" and that of Christina Kirk in "Her Only Living Son". Nobody really stands out in "Don't Fall", but that's simply down to the material being much more visceral and less focused on strong family bonds.

Viewed as a project that temporarily pushes women to the fore in the horror genre, this is a great success. But, and more importantly for any viewer who just stumbles across the film and decides to give it a go, it is a decent anthology movie for those who enjoy the form.


XX can be bought here.
Americans can buy it here.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Shudder Saturday: Hellbenders (2012)

Hellbenders is yet another horror comedy that is neither scary nor funny enough to satisfy fans of either genre. That doesn't mean it's a complete waste of your time, especially if you want to watch Clacny Brown storming around and calling various people "cocksucker", but it's nowhere near as good as it could have been.

The film stars Brown, Clifton Collins. Jr, Robyn Rikoon, Andre Royo, Macon Blair, and Dan Fogler as members of The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints. These are people who have to live in a near-constant state of sin, ensuring that they always have major strikes against them for the day when they battle demons and may have to, as a last resort, commit suicide and personally drag them down to hell. Part Constantine, part The Day Of The Beast, it's the other part, the juvenile comedy element, that disappoints.

Written and directed by J. T. Petty, adapting his own graphic novel, Hellbenders could have been improved in a number of ways. The pacing and actual framing of the main story don't work as well as they should, and when it splices in talking heads moments that show how this could have easily been turned into a mockumentary then you realise how much better that approach to the material would have been. While the main characters are okay, they would come across a lot better if spending more time battling dangerous enemies, showing how they are actually heroes who have to live their lives steeped in sin, rather than just assholes who occasionally step up to the plate (although, admittedly, they can be viewed as both, which is the point, but it's harder to enjoy a film that seems to focus on the latter without reminding you of the former).

Everyone does alright with what they're given, with the standouts being Brown and Royo (mainly because I kept wondering where the hell I recognised him from and then eventually realised it was "Bubbles" from The Wire). Blair and Fogler are given a number of gags that aren't that amusing, but they're pushed to the back slightly as the plot starts to focus in on the character played by Rikoon. Stephene Gevedon is an authority figure who pops along to see what is going on, and is subsequently appalled by what he finds, and Larry Fessenden turns up for a decent cameo role.

Priests being badass and sinful is a good idea for a film that involves a war against dark forces. I hope it's reworked one day into something better. Hellbenders is average when it should at least have been good, if not great. And that may be the biggest sin it commits.


You can buy Hellbenders here.
Americans can get it here.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

I haven't seen many other movies directed by James Foley. I can't even say that I remember his name when I am not ensuring that I get the details right for this movie review. But he's the man at the helm of one of my favourite films. Yet, and I know this may seem unfair, he's probably the person I would credit least with helping to make this film great. I save most of the praise for the writer, David Mamet adapting his own play for the screen, and the cast, which I will get to in due course.

The plot revolves around a bunch of real estate salesmen who get quite a shock when the company sends along a no-nonsense "axeman" to lay down the law - the top salesman will get a prize, the second will get a lesser prize, third place gets you fired. Knowing that there are a whole stack of new, promising, sales leads in the office, the group start to be tempted, being used to doing whatever it takes to get sales and earning their own commission.

It's hard not to write this review and just fill up space with choice quotes from this movie. Fans of Mamet will already know him as quite the wordsmith, pick any film he's been a part of and you can find some magnificent dialogue, but this may well be his best work, which is quite the compliment when you think of his other stuff (off the top of my head, I highly recommend both House Of Games and The Spanish Prisoner). It's not just the individual soundbites here, Glengarry Glen Ross is an ensemble piece that makes sure everyone involved has at least one chance to relish their role.

Where to begin with the cast? Al Pacino is there, giving a very entertaining performance even as he teeters on the edge of the full self-parody he would ease into by the mid-1990s, Ed Harris is at his angry best, and Alan Arkin is a man who feels less assured and more out of place among the more savage salesmen he works with. Jonathan Pryce is also wonderful for every moment he's onscreen, playing a potential customer being "wooed" by Pacino. You also get Kevin Spacey as the man in charge of the office, and in charge of those precious sales leads, and Alec Baldwin in such a brilliant bit of scene-stealing that I believe, but could be wrong, it set him on the right path of decades of scene-stealing ahead of him, something he does so much better than any lead roles (sorry Alec . . . like he'd ever read this). Despite all of that talent on display, and not one of the cast members lets the side down, the best performance in the movie comes from the one and only Jack Lemmon. It's hard to properly convey just how absolutely brilliant he is here, giving a masterclass in acting as his character is, by turns, bitter, manipulative, charming, depressed, elated, foolish, wise, and more. He seems to be the hungriest of the group, a hunger born of his current situation and his recollection of his past glory days.

Okay, I guess I should give more credit to Foley. Not only does he make sure that the camera is pointing the right way (although this is a very unfussy adaptation of the play that could just as easily have been, with a few tweaks, a straight recording of the show) but he makes the most of the cast and does a great job of not trying to fix anything that isn't broken. Unlike the onscreen events, this is very much a team effort.

The only things stopping Glengarry Glen Ross from being a perfect movie for me are the fact that a) it feels a bit stagey during the few times when I am not distracted by the script, b) I would have preferred some better resolutions for a couple of characters who just end up exiting before the final scenes, and c) there is no c. I just wouldn't have felt right if I ended the review without a reminder to Always Be Closing.


You can buy this fantastic movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

It's very hard for me to now look at Muppet Treasure Island and wonder why I didn't enjoy it so much when I first saw it. The presence of Kevin Bishop aside, who is at least much more bearable as a child actor as he is in adult form, this is a typically enjoyable Muppety adventure, based on the famous tale by Robert Louis Stevenson. The worst thing I can say about it is that it isn't The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Kevin Bishop plays young Jim Hawkins, a boy who ends up in receipt of a treasure map that he then takes on board a ship, The Hispaniola. The crew seem like a decent lot, especially that charming fellow named Long John Silver (played by Tim Curry), but there's mutiny and plundering in the air. And a small dose of cabin fever.

Brian Henson is credited as director, although there seems to have been a lot of work done by David Lane, and three writers put the script together, giving audiences the standard mix of fun characters, gags, and musical moments. The songs here may not be as memorable as some, there's only one that I can remember right now (to do with the aforementioned cabin fever), but they're serviceable enough and interspersed sparingly throughout the proceedings.

Bishop isn't as annoying as some child actors, which is a plus, and Curry adds another excellent performance to his CV with his portrayal of Silver. There are also small roles for Billy Connolly and Jennifer Saunders, both fun to watch even if they're only onscreen during the first quarter of the film. As for the Muppets, you get most of the usual suspects: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rizzo The Rat, Sam The Eagle, Dr Bunsen and Beaker, and the grumpy old fellas who comment on what's going on (Statler and Waldorf). Another point against the film, however, is the fact that they're not given as much screentime as they get in other films. Miss Piggy, for example, appears onscreen about 20-25 minutes before the very end, while both Kermit and Fozzie are given lead roles that still somehow leave them feeling like minor players in this tale (because the focus is always on the main human characters).

Okay, having started with such optimism, I can now remember why I didn't love this the first time around. It's all down to the fact that there's more time spent with humans than Muppets, or so it seems, and there's a distinct lack of really memorable moments. Which still doesn't make this a terrible movie. It just stops it from being one of the better Muppet movies.


The movie is available in this set here.
Americans can get the movie here.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Prime Time: Ali G Indahouse (2002)

Maybe it's the passing of time mellowing my attitude to what I once viewed as crimes against cinema. Maybe it's because I have actually now seen more movies that ARE crimes against cinema (including at least two feature films for British comedy creations that were nowhere near as much fun as Ali G). Whatever the reason, I decided to rewatch Ali G Indahouse this week for the first time in over a decade, expecting to put myself through some pain, and I did not hate it.

The plot sees a number of ridiculous coincidences leading to Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) becoming an elected MP. For everything he says and does that could be disastrous, or at least a major social faux pas, he somehow goes up in the estimation of Joe Public. But Ali doesn't realise that he is being used as a pawn by a scheming politician (Charles Dance) who wants to oust and replace the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon).

The history of small-screen British comedy being adapted into feature films is a troubled one. For every success you can name at least half a dozen failures (I'm not going to name them here, some people may become curious and seek them out, which will make me feel guilty for their temporary madness). Ali G Indahouse at least manages, thanks to the script by Cohen and Dan Mazer, to give fans of the character a lot of what they will enjoy. His constant attempts to be cool hide a very obvious lack of cool, but his own lack of self-awareness almost manages to make him still seem . . . cool, when he's not being a complete moron.

Director Mark Mylod may have a filmography overflowing with TV work but he does a decent enough job here, especially as he obviously has to work within the constraints of the silly plot. The fake start is a bit annoying, perhaps more so because we've now seen the big cinematic opening segue into something smaller and more intimate in many other TV-to-feature openings, but it's decently paced, energised by a very enjoyable soundtrack (equal parts genuinely good music and dollops of cheese), and helped by the fact that luminaries such as Dance and Gambon are very willing to go along with even the more juvenile gags.

And that's the biggest problem here. I laughed quite a few times, to my own surprise, but none of the scenes worked that were supposed to provide the biggest guffaws (Ali G handcuffed to some railings that are being cleaned by a blind man, the moment our main character meets the Queen, naughtiness in the residence of the PM that is heard by the guests while the PM is in a meeting with a guest, and more). Yet there were enough smaller chuckles, often just single lines of dialogue, that kept me amused enough throughout.

Cohen doesn't act, he creates characters that he completely embodies with ease. So, despite the varying quality of the gags here, he's consistently excellent in the role. People who forget that Martin Freeman is in this should give it a rewatch to remind themselves that . . . Martin Freeman is in this. He's a friend to Ali G, as is Tony Way, and is arguably even more ridiculous and desperate than our lead. Dance and Gambon suffer their indignities with aplomb, Kellie Bright is good as the famous Julie, referred to at almost every opportunity by Ali G as "me Julie", and Rhona Mitra has a small role as an attractive temptress helping Dance to reach his end goal.

If you don't like the character of Ali G then you're not going to like this film. If you do like the character of Ali G then you still may not like this film. It's not ever going to be essential viewing, or anyone's favourite comedy, but it's not the travesty that some might lead you to believe, especially compared to some British comedies that we've been subjected to in the past few years.


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

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Possum (2018)

A dark psychological thriller starring Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong, and a creepy dummy/puppet that makes occasional appearances, Possum is a slow chiller that starts to turn the screws from the very first scenes and doesn't let up until the very end.

Harris plays Philip, a man who heads back to his childhood home after some incident that has temporarily (?) halted his puppeteer career. Perhaps reflecting his mindset, the house is gloomy and in some disrepair, shaded in greys and nicotine-yellows, and the presence of his stepfather (Armstrong) doesn't seem like a plus. There's another presence too, always another presence, but that doesn't seem to be too good for Philip either.

Written and directed by Matthew Holness, still best known to genre fans for Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Possum is a stylish and constantly creepy piece of work. Adapted from his own short story, Holness sprinkles in just enough elements to take it to feature length without adding anything that ruins the sense of dread and mystery. There are moments here that will ensure Possum stays in your memory, but no individual scenes steal power away from the overall experience. Holness shows his love and knowledge of genre, as he has done for many years (even when working with the tropes comedically), but it's impressive that he creates such a subtle and shifting nightmarescape, rather than a more obvious bag of horror tricks. Having said that he took influence from public information films that he saw in his youth, as well as some classic movies, Possum is a film just slightly out of phase with our reality. If it had to be pinned down to one location then that would surely be Scarfolk.

The viewing experience here will be more uncomfortable for those who dislike, or are creeped out by, dummies. Although used sparingly, praise must go to whoever came up with that design, and the visual unease is heightened by a cracking, equally unnerving, score.

Harris does a brilliant job in the lead role, but anyone who has seen him in any other role will know what to expect from him. He can always deliver intensity, but here it is mixed in with confusion and vulnerability. Armstrong, although not onscreen for too much of the runtime, does equally good work in his very different role. Both men are written to be alternately potential victims or aggressors, depending on what viewers imagine having happened in their backstories until the truth is finally revealed.

Not a film for the unsuspecting viewer after a bit of mindless entertainment, this is Holness effectively poking at a fractured psyche with a sharp stick, seeing what numbs certain areas and what leads to sudden jolts. The end result is an original and unique bit of British horror, something for genre fans to savour, and I look forward to whatever he does next.


Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is available here.
The short story of Possum is available here.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Mubi Monday: Peterloo (2018)

Yes, I got to enjoy another movie at the cinema thanks to Mubi Go, and here is the review of it.

Peterloo starts in a battlefield, pretty much ends in a battlefield, and never really leaves a battlefield for most of the runtime. It's just often a battlefield that people walked through every day, throughout a war that continues right now. A class war, a war that endeavours to make the poor even poorer while the rich get richer, and to keep the working masses in their place.

Based on the true story of a peaceful rally in 1819 Manchester  that became the scene of a massacre, writer-director Mike Leigh uses that horrific event to show the clashing mindsets of those involved, emphasising the chasm between the viewpoints. Those who work hard and can barely make enough to live wanting something to change in the system that gives them no voice and those who look down from above and view any such intentions as ingratitude and insurrection.

Although there are some key figures here (speaker Henry Hunt, played by Rory Kinnear, being the powerful orator who charges up every crowd he speaks to), Leigh takes his time to show how various individuals are motivated and drawn further to the extremes of their respective causes. This care, and the many telling character moments, add to the lengthy runtime, just over two and a half hours, but I doubt many viewers would begrudge the runtime devoted to such a dark chapter in British history.

Kinnear does an amazing job, in what is arguably the best role of his career so far, Maxine Peake is typically great as a concerned family matriarch, and there are too many great moments for the assorted players to highlight here, but I will namecheck Karl Johnson (a close second to Kinnear with the greatness of his performance), Philip Jackson, Tom Gill, Neil Bell, Ian Mercer, and Victor McGuire, not to mention the many actors being loathsome and downright Dickensian for all of their time onscreen.

There are small flaws. Some characters come and go too abruptly, some scenes feel a little bit clunky in the way they are shoehorned in between more extended sequences, and (the smallest niggle) the passage of time isn't always as clearly signified as it could be in the lead up to the dreadful day.

If you saw the documentary The 13th and were appalled while being reminded that the abolishment of the slavery of African Americans in the USA led to many more ways in which society decided to punish and enslave those it viewed as lower-case citizens, within a new selection of rules and regulations, then Peterloo will leave you with similar feelings. Because, no doubt about it, there may not have been another massacre like this in modern British history but the working class and the poor are still being killed off whole the rich get richer. The pen is mightier than the sword, which is why the weaponry used nowadays tends to take the shape of paperwork and legislation, such as zero hour employment contracts and Universal Credit.


There's a book all about the horrific incident available here.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Netflix And Chill: Acts Of Violence (2018)

Cole Hauser plays Deklan, an ex-military man struggling to deal with PTSD (as shown in a scene with him talking to arguably the worst psychotherapist I've ever seen in a movie). Deklan has two brothers, Brandon (Shawn Ashmore) and the soon-to-be-married Roman (Ashton Holmes). All should be happy in their household, but it takes a dark turn very quickly when Roman's fiance, Mia (Melissa Bolona), is kidnapped by men who specialise in trafficking young women they keep drugged and enslaved. The police (even a determined detective played by Bruce Willis) have their hands tied, so it is up to Deklan to lead the trio on a mission that will return Mia alongside her loving partner and eliminate the ruthless head bad guy (Mike Epps).

There are a lot of scenes in Acts Of Violence that feel weak, including that introduction to the character played by Hauser. The script, by Nicolas Aaron Mazzanatto, is a grab bag of cliches and improbabilities. It's hard to believe that any villains would want to keep Mia alive when she keeps doing her damnedest to cause them so much trouble (she's shown as a beautiful woman who is also admired for her fighting spirit). But accepting improbabilities is often par for the course when it comes to action movies on the lower end of the budget scale. Considering the decent cast, I can only imagine that the money not spent buying another lazy turn from Willis had to be spent wisely.

Director Brett Donowho is comfortable enough at this level of moviemaking. I've seen at least one other movie from him, A Haunting At Silver Falls enough to know that he can take average materal and turn it into an average feature. There are good moments here, and the action isn't done too badly, for the most part, but he can't ever do enough to raise the material up.

The good news is that some of the cast try harder than Donowho. Hauser is great in his role, and his journey is sketched out in a surprisingly believable way, for the movie he's in. Ashmore is also very good, and Holmes isn't bad, although he's the weakest of the three. Bolona struggles to make a decent impression because she has to work in some of the more ridiculous scenes, but everyone else onscreen shows that they have a stronger pulse than Willis, who is onscreen just enough to remind viewers that he's constantly teetering on the brink of going full Seagal with every role that he is given nowadays. Epps is a decent baddie, and has a number of suitably loathsome henchmen helping him, so that helps.

If you're looking for an action thriller with a plot based around a good dollop of righteous vengeance then this will do the job. There are many better films you could choose, but also many worse ones, so this should be almost slap bang in the middle of any list of potential viewings you might prepare for yourself.


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

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Shudder Saturday: Summer Of 84

From the group that brought you Turbo Kid, and a few other treats, Summer Of 84 is an enjoyable thriller that manages to recreate the feel of some of your favourite films from the 1980s. Much like their previous film, this may not please fans who are after something a bit grittier and more violent. But it's a much more successful attempt to give viewers a film that feels like a love letter to a very specific form of entertainment. For me anyway, although I know I am in the minority because I didn't outright love Turbo Kid.

Graham Verchere is Davey Armstrong, your typical American movie teen. He has a paper round, he enjoys spending time with friends, who are often at the mercy of their hormones, and he has a vivid imagination. This is why his friends aren't totally convinced when he gets the idea that his neighbour, Mr Mackey (Rich Sommer), is a serial killer. The fact that Mr Mackey is also a policeman makes it harder to consider him as a serious suspect, but Davey and his friends begin their own investigation anyway.

Considering the many obvious influences here, this is a film that deserves praise for managing to have a sense of its own identity. The script, by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith (their first, making it all the more impressive), isn't overly cute and complex. It's simply very well done throughout, with the main characters given just enough depth, the plot developments feel believable enough, and everything builds to a finale that rewards your patience with some bloodshed and real darkness.

It helps that you care about the cast of young characters, played by Verchere, Caleb Emery, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Judah Lewis, and Tiera Skovbye (the main female who the boys all lust after). They're all spot on in their roles, and Sommer is equally good, playing a man who may be a killer and may just be a nice guy who finds himself harassed by a bunch of teenagers. There are other adults acting onscreen, and they're good, but the heart of the movie beats strongest during the scenes that feature Verchere and Sommer.

The direction, by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-karl Whissell, is solid. The trio work better this time around with some filtering stopping them from throwing everything in the mix that takes their fancy. Whether that is thanks to the script, or just the fact that they know they will have more than one movie with which to show their love of certain movies, I view it as a good sign for things to come.

Okay, Summer Of 84 may lack the quirkiness of The 'burbs, and it may lack the balance of fun and thrills that were contained in Disturbia (I still love that film, and I don't care who knows it), but those films are close touchstones for this one, perhaps because both of them are also built on a premise that is a teen-friendly riff on Blue Velvet. All of these films explore the secrets just hidden away behind the white picket-fences of everyday American suburbs. That material gives them their comfort factor, and allows it to be twisted into something that plays on our suspicions and fears. What exactly is going on next door? What thoughts go through the mind of the neighbour that you pass by every morning on your way to work? Because everyone seems oblivious when they're being interviewed by reporters and delivering the usual "they just kept themselves to themselves" line.


Feel free to go shopping here.
Americans can get it here.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Filmstruck Friday: The Searchers (1956)

Well, not many of these left (sadly) but I'll keep going as long as Filmstruck is around.

Here's the cinematic journey I made when it came to Western movies, and I am going to boldly assume that a similar experience was had by many people of my age. I first saw Westerns as dull films, schedule-fillers put on at the weekend, after the fun of the programming aimed at kids and before any big sport shows. I'd sometimes be taken along to visit my grandparents, knowing that my grandfather was going to be more interested in how his horses got on for most of the afternoon, and there was often a Western movie on in the background as I tried to keep boredom at bay. The adults were all catching up, it was never a guarantee that any other kids would be there at the same time as I was, and all I seemed to see were the same barren, rocky landscapes, the same bland heroes shooting at some savage villains, and some good stunts on horseback. It's this experience that kept me away from Westerns for many years, even as I started to properly delve into all that cinema had to offer. The Western was the genre I enjoyed the least. Then I discovered Spaghetti Westerns, and the filmography of Clint Eastwood, and even the wonderful mix of romanticism and realism offered up by Kevin Costner (say what you like about his work, the man can craft a Western like a tanner crafts the finest leather goods). And, finally, I decided to check out those films that I had previously thought too dull, too stuck in the simple and old-fashioned roots of the genre. Yes, some of them still feel that way. But the ones that are still praised by fans so many decades later tend to, like enduring classics of any genre, hold up really well. The Searchers is one of them.

John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a man who ends up spending a number of years on the trail of his niece, who was kidnapped by Comanches during a violent raid. He is accompanied on this journey by Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), the adopted brother of Ethan's niece who is also one eighth Cherokee, to the displeasure of Ethan. As they move through the country, viewers get served the expected helpings of action, but it all comes with an interesting look at race relations and the very thin line between violent heroism and outright savagery.

Based on a novel by Alan LeMay, The Searchers benefits from a cracking script by Frank S. Nugent that is given due respect by director John Ford. This could have been an easy movie to make a success without adding any complexity to the central plot strand, and I didn't expect all that I had to chew on as the movie ended, but Nugent and Ford balance things perfectly, right up to an ending so perfect that it quite rightly sits up there, I believe, alongside the greatest endings in cinema. You can spend years dissecting and discussing the portrayal, and misrepresentation, of Native Americans onscreen throughout the history of cinema, and this film doesn't avoid many of the common complaints you can level at 95% of Westerns, but Nugent and Ford spend a lot of time here showing Edwards up as being just as, if not more so, monstrous and bloodthirsty as the enemy he is pursuing. And it's not just Edwards. There are quite a few others who come along to show that savagery and immorality are not traits to be given to one section of society. In fact, there's an argument to be made that, for the most part, the Native Americans align themselves to a moral code more rigidly than a number of the standard white cowboys.

The more I see of John Wayne, after so many years avoiding him under the misapprehension that I would hate all of the movies he starred in, the more I like him. I am well aware of his personal views, which makes it all the more interesting to see him give such a well-rounded, and well-shaded, performance. He's the staunch hero here, apart from the times when he isn't. He's the guy who, in modern cinematic terms, knows that he has to get his hands dirty to get the job done. But he also would rather, at one point, consider shooting a young woman than see her live as a Comanche. Hunter does well to hold his own alongside "The Duke", he's a centre to the moral compass (or perhaps calling it a moral centrefuge would be better, considering the whirling nature of the main characters). German-born actor Henry Brandon does well as Scar, the Comanche Chief (I did say that it didn't avoid many of the common complaints), Vera Miles is lovely as a young woman waiting for the return of Martin, although a young man named Charlie McCorry (Henry Curtis) wants to win her over, Ward Bond is the authority figure who helps when he can, in a role that would nowadays be the angry Police Captain dealing with the rogue cop who gets results, and Natlie Wood makes a strong impression, despite being in the film for maybe a total of 5 minutes, tops.

I wasn't sure if I could overlook the negatives to rate this as a perect movie. The passage of time doesn't always feel that well done, it's tough at times to figure out why Wayne's character is so determined to set out on whatever course he chooses in reaction to certain events, and you have those problematic elements inherent in many films from this time. But those negatives are far too minor to dissuade me. The passage of time could have been better, sure, but that's about it, really. I liked not always understanding Wayne's character, sometimes admiring his steadfast way and sometimes loathing him. And as for the use of Brandon, and the portrayal of the Native Americans here, you always have to view cinema in context. In the context of the time, this still does a hell of a lot that you wouldn't expect.

It's no small irony that anyone asking me a decade ago if I would ever give a 10/10 rating to a John Wayne film would have heard the phrase so oft-repeated in this very film - "that'll be the day."
Yet here we are.


You can search out The Searchers here.
Americans can get it here.
Or just click on those links and buy everything you want.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

The Sex Addict (2017)

I have to hand it to Amir Mo, the man who directed, wrote, and starred in this movie. Despite the many movies I watch every week, month, and year, there are very few that get the lowest possible rating. Most movies have something to save them from the very bottom of the barrel, be it a performance, one or two good scenes, or even just a good idea that isn't explored as well as it could have been. Not in this case though, oh no. The Sex Addict is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It's often painfully unfunny (not being hyperbolic here, one or two of these "jokes" made me roll my eyes so much that I started to get a dull ache behind them), it's impossible to care about any of the characters, and all of the blame can be shouldered by Mo.

What's it about? A young woman named Suzanna (Valerie Tosi) decides to record interviews and events with a sex addict (Rex, played by Mo) for her PhD dissertation. This also leads to her meeting Trudy (Danielle Gross), a prostitute who is a friend to Rex and won't sleep with him, and young Theodore (Caleb Thomas), a high school student ropes into being an intern. And hilarity ensues. Well, hilarity would ensue if you stopped watching the movie and found something funnier. I could suggest 1000 alternatives but right now I just have to make it through to the end of this review.

There are two things obvious from the start of this movie. First, Mo has a few friends that he was able to rope into making cameo appearances (they may not be a-list names but I recognised a couple of them). Second, Mo thinks that the main idea, and his script, is hilarious. He would have to fling himself into the deepest pocket of some alternate universe to be more wrong about that second point.

Even for what should be viewed as a light comedy, this struggles to get the basics right. It's set up as a document being recorded by the cameraman who is accompanying Suzanna. Until it switches to a film being shot by someone else. And there are also a few shots from the POV of, well, a standard camera position. Rex is the main character, and it's his journey we are watching. Until it's not. In fact, he becomes the least important figure in the second half of the movie. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it just adds to the feel of this all being a bit lacking in focus and ultimately pointless. The whole thing is one joke that Mo clearly finds funny, capped with a punchline that doesn't feel amusing for viewers, it just feels like a lazy middle finger from someone who couldn't be bothered to come up with a proper ending.

Some of the performances are bearable. Gross and Thomas do better than Mo and Tosi, and the interview segments with Mary Carey are okay. That's all I can think of to say, in an attempt to end this review on a note that doesn't feel too sour. But this is an awful, awful film and if you watch it then don't say that I didn't warn you. Because I have just warned you.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Prime Time: Truth Or Dare (2013)

Directed by, co-written by, and starring Jessica Cameron, Truth Or Dare is a film so desperate to shock that it becomes dull well before the halfway point. Highly derivative, there were already other Truth Or Dare movies (directed by Tim Ritter, and Cameron had even starred in one of his movies before stepping up to make this) and fans of extreme Japanese cinema will be familiar with the Red Room movies, films that this also owes quite a debt to, it's a great shame that those involved didn't put their energies into something less obvious and cynical.

The plot revolves around a group of online celebs who call themselves the Truth Or Daredevilers. They get fans and online hits from extreme stunts, upsetting one individual when their most recent antics involve a death (minor spoiler ahead)... that turns out to be fake.

Will some horror fans find enough here to enjoy? Yes. Some will revel in the fake gore, able to overlook the weak script and ridiculousness of it all (one character seems barely pained by the finale, one lives way beyond their expected time of death), and Cameron and co-writer Jonathan Scott Higgins were obviously too busy squeezing in hot button skeletons in the closet to bother about anything else. You get infidelity, pedophilia, incest, transgenderism, and some nastiness with a bottle that comes closest to those Red Room exploits (anyone who has seen those will remember the lightbulb scene).  Obviously desperate to be edgy and offensive, and I am sure some viewers will be offended, the script just comes across as puerile and tiresome.

The acting is, sadly, not good enough to help the script. Cameron, Heather Dorff, and Devanny Pinn all cry and swear a lot, as do Brandon van Vliet and Shelby Stehlin (the main ones I remember). They may look upset but it's never anywhere near the hysteria and terror that you could imagine people experiencing in this situation. Ryan Kiser isn't even that good as the crazed "game master" but he gets one moment at the very end of the film that shows he could have done a bit better with more interesting material.

So how does Cameron, who has a fanbase among horror fans, do with the direction? Not good. All of the flaws feel like they lie at her feet, as a result of not being able to make the best use of the low budget, not giving up her "star" role to anyone else, and generally putting together something that feels cheap, lazy, and rushed.

I guess fans are happy to support Cameron, regardless of the quality of her work. I am not a fan, from what I have seen so far. And am therefore happy to advise people to avoid this one.


I dare you to buy it here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Hocus Pocus (1993)

It’s certainly worth remembering how much nostalgia can colour your view of things when you revisit a film like Hocus Pocus, a film that I was probably a bit too old to enjoy when it was initially released and most certainly too old to enjoy it nowadays, at the ripe old age of “I spent a lot of my teenage years wondering which of my mates could help me win a quest on Knightmare” years old.

This is a tale of three witches, the Sanderson sisters (played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker). They are your standard, evil witches. In an attempt to stay young forever, they need to drain life force from children. And that gets them in trouble. It gets them a death by hanging. Except death isn’t always the full stop for witches that it is for us mere mortals. Many years later, a young lad who is new in town (Max, played by Omri Katz) decides that it would be good to see what happens when a virgin lights the black flame candle. And what happens is exactly what is said to happen – the witches come back. And they have one night to gain immortality or be turned to dust by sunrise. It’s up to Max and Allison (played by Vinessa Shaw) to stop them, helped along the way by Dani (Thora Birch, playing the little sister to Max) and a talking cat (voiced by Jason Marsden).

There's fun to be had here, especially in any scene that has Midler front and centre, relishing every line that she delivers in her amusingly over the top portrayal, and Hocus Pocus is still one of those movies that I believe serves as a nice introductory "horror" for kids who like some spookiness in their viewing selections. If you can overlook the dated CGI, there's the talking cat to enjoy, an inept zombie, a lively spellbook, lots of fun confusion as the witches encounter the modern world, and a fun rendition of "I Put A Spell On You".

As well as all that, however, you also get the levels of annoying overacting that serve to remind you that this is a typical Disney movie. Not all live action Disney movies suffer from this, but most do. Katz, Shaw, and Birch are all okay in their roles, with Birch easier to excuse as the youngest of the three, but all have their moments. Midler and co. are easier to tolerate because of the characters they're playing. The worst of the offenders are Sean Murray, who plays a young man named Thackery, and Marsden as the voice to the cat (Thackery was transformed as part of a curse, both actors portray the same character), but Tobias Jelinek and Larry Bagby give pretty poor performances as a pair of local bullies, and Doug Jones is stuck with having to overplay things as he pursues the kids in zombie form.

The direction by Kenny Ortega is acceptable, I guess, but there are one or two great moments that show how much better this could have been, with just a little more thought and care for the style of the whole thing, and the script, by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert, ranks about the same. There are some very good lines, but also so many scenes that you know could have been filled with a lot more of them. This was a premise full of potential, and only some of it is realised.

There will be people who read this review and hate me, despite the fact that I don't hate the film. A lot of people still absolutely love it. I cannot bring myself to dislike it, despite it not holding up for me so much nowadays, but it's one I would only recommend to anyone wanting to introduce younger viewers to it. You'll still be able to enjoy it for yourself, but watching them enjoy it is an added bonus.


You can buy the movie on this shiny disc here.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Mubi Monday: Village Of The Damned (1995)

The second reworking of classic sci-fi horror material by director John Carpenter, this is much less successful than his previous attempt. Perhaps it's because the original was already a pretty perfect adaptation of the John Wyndham novel, "The Midwich Cuckoos", or perhaps it was just too lacklustre in all departments, from cast to cinematography, through to score and direction.

You will probably already know the plot. A small village is temporarily knocked out. Completely. Everyone just passes out, and anyone trying to enter just passes out as soon as they step within a certain radius of the location. Then everyone wakes up, and nothing seems different. It becomes clear, however, that all of the females who can bear children have become pregnant. And when those children are born they are all very similar in their physical characteristics. And they share the ability to read the minds of the people around them. Not only that, they can influence people to do things, even if that leads to self-harm or death for the person being controlled. Someone has to stop them, but it may already be too late.

Village Of The Damned is not a BAD film, not exactly. It's certainly not the worst from Carpenter, but the titles in his filmography that rank below this at least had some interesting ideas and imagination, even if the execution of the material was flawed. This is just a film that feels exactly like what it was, a contractual obligation. It's hard to think of a better way to update this material but I am sure there is one. There has to be a better approach than just taking the main plot points and including some moments of unimpressive violence and death.

I always enjoy seeing Christopher Reeve onscreen (this was the last film he completed before the horse riding accident that left him paralysed) and this is another role that makes use of his stoic nature and dependability. He's really the only lead character who remains interesting throughout, with anyone else - Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Mark Hamill, etc - either hampered by the script or their unsuitability to the roles assigned to them. Thankfully, there's a great little turn from the legend that is George 'Buck' Flower and the kids are all easy enough to dislike, even if they often emanate an air of irritability rather than pure evil.

This is TV movie stuff when it should have been much better. It's not as if Carpenter wouldn't be a fan of this kind of material, making it all the more surprising that he didn't try to put more of a stamp on the script, credited to David Himmelstein, and either update the material in a much smarter way or use the central idea as a springboard for something that diverted further from the source novel.

It's not a painful viewing experience, but that's really the best thing I can say about it. It's arguably the worst film in Carpenter's filmography, because at least the other films that could be nominated for that title had some imagination and atmosphere to them. They felt like John Carpenter films, even as they started to fall apart. This doesn't.


This mediocre movie can be bought here.
Americans can buy it here.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Netflix And Chill: Ouija: Origin Of Evil (2016)

I had heard that this prequel to Ouija was actually quite a good horror movie but I just couldn't bring myself to give it a watch before now. Yes, it was directed by Mike Flanagan, who also co-wrote the script with Jeff Howard, but it was a prequel to Ouija, which was just crap. I should have had faith, in both the people who advised me that I would enjoy this film and the talent of Flanagan (who hasn't done anything yet that I have really disliked).

Set in the 1960s, this is the tale of a widow (Lina Zander, played by Annalise Basso) and her two daughters (Alice, played by Elizabeth Reaser, and Doris, played by Lulu Wilson). Lina offers readings to people in order to make money, helped by her daughters (who hide away and help to create the effects that show contact has been made with the spirit world), and it looks like they can add to the whole performance when they find an old Ouija board. Unfortunately, they break a number of the golden rules, which lets an evil force into their lives, communicating to everyone through young Doris.

There are a number of jump scares here, and a number of absolutely predictable moments (one or two repeated from the first film), but Flanagan also knows how to just creep viewers out. Once the opening act of the movie is done, with characters established and the Ouija board made use of, things start to get freaky very quickly. And the scares are all the better because of being grounded in a film that feels close enough to something from at least a few decades ago. This may not be a 100% accurate period film but there are enough touches, from the opening credits to the appearance of the film (even including added "cigarette burns" for extra authenticity), to make it feel like something you would have caught in the early days of VHS.

The performances are all excellent, with Basso, Reaser, and Wilson wonderful in their individual turns and also as a strained family unit, and there's a fine supporting turn from Henry Thomas, playing a priest/teacher who helps the family figure out just how bad things are for them. Parker Mack may be the least of the central cast members, playing the young man, Mikey, who is forging a relationship with Alice, but he is also good in his role.

A couple of visual tricks may be overdone, although the white-eyed and gaping-mouthed look never stops being scary to me, and there's obviously the fact that those who watched the first film will know how things should play out, but none of that stops Ouija: Origin Of Evil being a surprisingly brilliant mainstream horror that manages to hit the beats that it has to while also providing a few hair-raising surprises along the way.

Although you can watch this, and enjoy it, by itself, I still grudgingly encourage others to watch the first film first, if only to give you more appreciation when you then see how Flanagan and Howard tied things together here.


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

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Shudder Saturday: Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

How do you make a film that follows on from the enormous success of The Blair Witch Project? You can either do it all over again, but show everything instead of showing nothing and throw in lots of jump scares (as Adam Wingard did) or you can take a radically different approach, instead choosing to comment on the reaction to the first film and the way in which everyone so easily believed that it was based on a truth, a blind acceptance of media in an age that had shown media manipulation to now be as easy as making yourself a packed lunch for work.

The focus of the plot here seems to be a bunch of people who head out to take a tour of the woods near Burkitsville (location of the first movie). They're being shown around by Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan), who has previously spent some time in a mental health facility. The main characters are Tristen (played by Tristen Skyler, known nowadays as Tristine Skyler), her partner Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner), a goth girl named Kim (Kim Director), and a white witchy woman named Erica (Erica Leerhsen).

That's the plot, but it's not what the film is about. As things start to develop, things become more and more meta, spiralling in on itself like a snake trying to devour it's tail. For anyone wondering why Joe Berlinger (better known for his documentaries at this point) would even want to direct this, from a script he co-wrote with Dick Beebe, it soon becomes obvious when the story being depicted onscreen starts to fragment and weave in and out of any narrative strand that makes sense.

There may have been some (a lot?) of studio interference here, seeming to be most obvious in a few of the more standard scare moments, but the bad doesn't outweigh the good, despite the reputation that this film gained, a reputation I personally put down to that Halloween III: Season Of The Witch effect. Fans decided that they would rather have more of the same than something that took them on a very different stroll through the woods. Berlinger knows that, and perhaps makes it easier for critics to savage the film by slyly setting up to look as if they will play out that way before pulling the rug out from everyone. It is, to me, why I also enjoy the lack of subtlety in the opening act: clips with Burkitsville locals that echo the early footage from the first movie, the immediate reveal of the character who has had mental health problems, the assembly of the core group of stereotypes, the opening credits having "Disposable Teens" over the top of them. It also wouldn't have helped that the film is, essentially, a slap in the face to everyone who absolutely bought into the hype for The Blair Witch Project. It's a movie version of someone waving their hands around and shouting "you believed this? You actually thought this was real???"

It used to be said that the camera never lies, but it's also said that the camera adds ten pounds to your weight. Nowadays, neither of those statements seem correct. The camera almost always lies, either depending on how the image is manipulated or how the context is twisted or hidden. That has grown exponentially in the internet age and, for me, that is what the book of shadows refers to. The internet. A place where every "page" has the potential to captivate someone and change their mind about something. A place where you can challenge yourself or find plenty to support your own beliefs, whatever they may be. It's out there, a worldwide spell cast by all of us, without any limits in place, and it's important to remember that with every single click we make, both as a user and a creator.

The script may not be as sharp or smart as it could be, and the direction is a bit messy at times, but the biggest weakness here is the cast. Aside from Donovan and Director, and Lanny Flaherty (playing a local Sheriff), the performances range from embarrassingly bad to just about tolerable. Leerhsen is the worst offender, but there are a number of times when Turner and Skyler do their best to match her.

Despite these imperfections, Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 holds up for me as a smart and sophisticated horror movie. I encourage people to revisit it, or finally give it a watch for the first time. You're unlikely to enjoy it as much as I do, but I hope that it might one day rise above the unwarranted bad reputation that has been attached to it since it was initially released.


Anyone else who likes the movie can buy it here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Filmstruck Friday: The Lure (2015)

If I told you that The Lure was a film about killer mermaids then you'd not be bothered by me reviewing it as a horror movie, I assume. You might even be unphased if I told you that it uses the mermaids as proxies for many people in the world around us who are exploited, shaped into something else, and then left in a state that doesn't allow them to just slip back into their former life. But if I told you that it was also a musical, didn't really have many moments of tension or scares, and is basically a strange and cool updating of The Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Andersen tale, not the Disney animated film), then I can understand that you might balk at the idea of me including it as a horror viewing. Well, I'm counting it.

Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska play the two mermaids, Silver and Golden. They encounter a band singing on a beach one evening and end up going along with them to a nightclub, where they are eventually turned into part of the act. They become singers, stripping as well, and seem to go down well with the clientele. Unfortunately, Silver can't control the urge to go out at night and find someone to eat while Golden finds herself falling in love with the bass player of the band (Jakub Gierszal). Things start to turn sour.

Written by Robert Bolesto, The Lure is quite the entertaining genre mash up. After a very brief prologue that sets up the meeting of the characters, things become very cool and pop-tastic, staying that way for a little while before showing the struggle that the two leads will face (one due to love, one due to staying true to her own nature). It's a smooth transition, allowing viewers to accept the central idea well enough before playing around with it and introducing all of the other main plot points. The dialogue may not be the best you will hear but this is a film more interested in using the fantastical to explore issues that affect people every day.

Director Agnieszka Smoczynska does a fantastic job, moving on from a selection of shorts and TV work to her debut feature with a good eye and plenty of confidence required to handle the imagery, tone, and performances. Even during the busiest, and strangest, moments, she never loses her eye on the focus of the tale. And she's also very good at handling the musical moments (there are some enjoyable, lively, tunes here).

Mazurek and Olszanska both do well in their roles, expressing plenty with just a look as they sometimes communicate telepathically, and comfortable in the fact that they have to be fairly nude for most of the runtime. Geirszal is also good, Marcin Kowalczyk makes a good impression as another land-living creature from the sea (he is, in fact, playing an incarnation of Triton), and Kinga Preis and Magdalena Cielecka are both very good as performers affected by the introduction of the mermaids into their lives/performing group.

If you go into The Lure expecting a standard horror movie then you're going to be VERY disappointed, despite the fact that it is tagged in that way. That is just one part of it (and you get a few moments of bloodshed and quick violence to warrant that). But the horror here stems from mistreatment and abuse that may feel over the top here, because of the main environments and the central characters, but is actually not too many steps away from a version of reality that many victims suffer through. That's what makes The Lure so effective and powerful, once you realise that the sheen of fantasy is just sugar-coating a very bitter pill.

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

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Jackals (2017)

Imagine, if you can, that you were trying to watch the very enjoyable You're Next. But nobody will give you any peace. You have to try to engage in conversations, someone has decided to visit and show you their new (crying) baby, and your bladder has decided to play up for the day, deciding that the last coffee you had was enough to take you over the edge, meaning that you have to nip to the loo every 10 minutes. The pause button on your player is broken so you end up just dipping in and out of the film, getting random bits of information without making sense of the whole plot.

Then you decide to make your own horror movie, one that you feel will be an excellent little horror film in the same vein as You're Next. That movie would be Jackals, a disappointingly pointless mess that never truly engages the viewer and draws them in. But at least you included home invasion horror, people wearing animal masks, and a plot point about someone who used to be in a cult.

The plot is all about a family unit trying to deprogram one of their own, having stolen him away from the cult he now considers his true family. While he resists their attempts to return him to his precious state, the cult members gather outside and start terrorising the family.

It makes sense that this is the first feature script from Jared Rivet, who doesn't create good enough characters, doesn't effectively build tension, and ruins any potential the premise could have with every main story beat, all the way to the tediously predictable final scenes.

What doesn't make sense is the fact that this is far from director Kevin Greutert's first rodeo. He previously directed Jessabelle AND the sixth and seventh instalments in the Saw franchise (two instalments I really enjoyed). So it makes me think that he initially saw something in the script that was then lost during the transition from page to screen.

The cast don't help either. They're not awful, and you get lead roles for people like Johnathon Schaech and Deborah Kara Unger, but a couple of them (Ben Sullivan and Nick Roux, playing the brothers, the former being the brainwashed cult member) aren't as good as they should be. Stephen Dorff is wasted in his small role, and Chelsea Ricketts tries her best but is given the worst parts of the script to deal with, in terms of her reactions to events and characterisation.

If you're desperate for something to watch, and it's streaming somewhere for free, then you may enjoy Jackals. I mean . . . I'm sure someone could enjoy it. But I would implore you to search for something, anything, different. Because the only thing this has going for it is a degree of competence on the tech side of things. No fun, no thrills, no tension, just technical competence.


You can, if you wish, buy Jackals here.
Americans can buy it here.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Prime Time: Nightmare Beach (1989)

Nightmare Beach starts with an execution, the execution of a biker named Diablo. He claims to have been set up, and also vows revenge. Skipping forward a year, it's Spring Break time in Miami. Two friends (Nicolas de Toth and Rawley Valverde) join in with the drinking and partying, but soon find their fun being spoiled by a number of inconvenient deaths. Yes, a mysterious biker is picking off a number of revellers, often killing them with a fatal dose of electicity. It's eventually up to Skip (De Toth) and a young woman named Gail (Sarah Buxton) to uncover the identity of the biker, and try to put an end to his killing spree.

Released in 1989, nightmare Beach feels every bit like a film made much earlier in that decade. It has a bit more of a sheen to it, perhaps, but the pacing and characterisations already feel quite archaic (especially most of the moments involving Valverde, the kind of guy who enjoys telling a woman that smiling more would make her much prettier). Perhaps that didn't seem so obvious back when it was released, and there are a number of films from the end of the decade, and even the start of the '90s, that feel almost designed as quintessential slices of '80s cheese. It makes the film impossible to take seriously now, however, but also helps to make it a hugely entertaining experience.

Directed by Umberto Lenzi, who wasn't really happy with the film he ended up making and so credited himself under the name of writer Harry Kirkpatrick, this is a real bag of mixed treats. People looking for a quality classic horror can skip it just now and look for something else, but those of us in the mood for entertaining trash? This is a perfect pick.

De Toth, Valverde, and Buxton are a mixed trio of central performers. None are really memorable, but they're fine. Genre fans will have more fun with the "old guard" onscreen here. You have a small role for Michael Parks, and fun turns from Lance LeGault, as a reverend, and John Saxon, playing a tough cop who may or may not have something to hide. Luis Valderrama is a biker spoiling for a fight, and Yamilet Hidalgo makes quite an impression as his fiery girlfriend.

Despite the attempted mystery element, it's hard to care about the identity of the biker. What matters here are the death scenes, all of them surprisingly impressive and somehow managing to feel different from one another while often managing to use the same method of murder. The pacing is perfect, with deaths interspersed by moments of humour and gratuitous sequences like a wet t-shirt competition (hey, it's Spring Break), and there are enough enjoyable random diversions (e.g. the plot strand with the thief that plays out and then just... ends) that will soon lead you to realise that this is not a film concerned with a cohesive narrative that makes complete sense.

It's a fun time by the beach, that's all. Watch it when you're in the mood for sand, sex, and senseless murders committed by a vengeful biker.


Pick up the bluray here.
Americans can get a disc here.