Saturday, 31 March 2018

Atlantic Rim (2013)

The recent cinema release of Pacific Rim 2 made me want to rush along and see it. Unfortunately, I couldn't. So I decided on the next best thing. I would finally watch the mockbuster version of the first movie, courtesy of The Asylum. How bad could it be?

There's no need to keep you in suspense here, the answer is very bad, very bad indeed.

The slight plot sees a big monster coming out of the sea to cause some major damage and death, which leads to three people (David Chokachi, Anthony 'Treach' Criss, and Jackie Moore) being placed in giant robot suits and ordered to explore the area, eventually fighting the big beastie. But that only leads to a brief reprieve. There's a bigger and tougher monster coming, and the suits need to be improved for fighting purposes.

Although running for just about 85 minutes, Atlantic Rim still overstays its welcome because the script - written by Richard Lima, Thunder Levin, and Hank Woon Jr - is so slight and undercooked. The three main characters are, essentially, defined by the colours of their robots. Chokachi is red, 'Treach' is green, and Moore is blue. Chokachi is also the wildcard who gets results, obviously, but that doesn't matter when the action scenes take place, sequences that alternate between showing the cast badly pretending to be involved while enclosed in very cheap sets and showing us some bad CGI.

Director Jared Cohn adds nothing to the material either. He relies on the cast and the pacing, neither of which work well enough for even the most undemanding sci-fi/action movie fan. You get the usual selection of recycled sets and footage, you get a lacklustre score that is supposed to be rousing at times, and you get nothing to care about at any point in the film. Despite the stakes that are spelled out for you, nothing matters. Because everything is so badly faked that it's impossible to suspend your disbelief while watching.

Graham Greene is the main familiar face onscreen, playing the general trying to do his job under difficult circumstances, and he is the only reason I don't rate this any lower, even if he's given just as many awful lines of dialogue as everyone else. At least he retains a small iota of charisma, unlike the three bland leads.

This is one to avoid, like a lot of the mockbusters from The Asylum. But I'll end up seeing the second one too, goddammit I just KNOW I will. So expect a review of that at some point.

2/10

Brave souls can pick the film up here.
The same R2 disc can be bought here.


Friday, 30 March 2018

Osmosis Jones (2001)

Osmosis Jones is a standard tale of a reckless cop (Chris Rock) paired up with someone who is a stickler for the rules (David Hyde Pierce). There's an evil villain (Laurence Fishburne) with a plan to go down in history. And lives are at stake, although it is mainly just the one life (belonging to an unhealthy Bill Murray). The big difference here is that the cop is Osmosis Jones, paired up with a medicine named Drix, and the villain is a deadly virus with symptoms that may not be fully recognised until it is too late. And all of this is taking place inside the body of Murray, in animated form.

Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Osmosis Jones is a fun blend of animation and live action (most of the grosser moments involve Murray either helping the virus along or showing some nasty side-effects from the battles raging within him) that is helped by a great voice cast and a lot of wonderful little sight gags, even if they are all fairly obvious puns. It's also quite tame for a film that comes with their names attached, which seems more likely to be down to the script by Marc Hyman. It focuses more on transposing the tropes of a buddy cop action comedy into the setting of a human body than it does on the many potential opportunities for toilet humour.

The animation may be a bit rough around the edges but it does everything it has to do, and that includes some fun scenes that have our main characters depicted in their animated form while the background is the very live Murray (who is also joined onscreen by Molly Shannon, Chris Elliott, and Elena Franklin, who portrays his frustrated daughter).

Rock does very well in the kinda-lead role, his sharp, fast delivery working brilliantly alongside the smooth and deliberate tone of Pierce. Fishburne, voice matched by the character design, oozes threat and menace with his every line, and there are fun supporting turns from William Shatner, Brandy Norwood, and Ron Howard.

The idea of our bodies being regulated and looked after by small humanoid entites isn't a new one (and it's one that can keep delivering great entertainment when done the right way, as it was with Inside Out) and nothing here feels too original, which is probably the biggest problem that the film has. Overlook the sense of the familiar, however, and you will find an absolute little cracker of a film, one that was unjustly neglected when first released, and remains sorely overlooked nowadays. Seek it out, give it your time, and you may well find that you enjoy it almost as much as I do.

8/10

Osmosis Jones can be absorbed in exchange for cash here.
Americans can get it streaming into their homes here (but on disc, not just . . . streaming).

Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Children's Film Foundation

Note, this was originally going to be one overview of the CFF, selected highlights from their filmography and a little bit about how they worked. Well, best laid plans and all that, this has now turned into the first part of something that will be finished when I have managed to dig up enough resources, and watch as many of the CFF movies as I can get my hands on. So grab a 10p mixture, sit yourself down, and let's enjoy a selection of kid-friendly British movies.

Set up in 1951, the Children's Film Foundation AKA the CFF (later to become the Children's Film & Television Foundation, the CFTF) was set up with one very specific aim in mind - to make films specifically for children to be screened at Saturday morning matinees and used in schools. The foundation was supported by the British Film Industry and an annual grant from the Eady Levy  [a small tax on all cinema tickets]. In 1950 the Foundation received 5% of the total fund, and continued to be well funded. This enabled the Foundation to make five or six low budget films a year, all of which were made by producers who had been invited to apply for funding. Costs were kept as low as possible, and any profits fed back into the system to maintain a solid, impressive business model that produced child-friendly films for over three decades. The CFF weathered some storms, mainly in the form of increased competition from TV programming and the developing home entertainment market, but it managed to keep moving along until the Eady Levy was removed in the mid-1980s, effectively ending the funding of the foundation. Not that it would disappear entirely. Instead, it focused on televison, helping to commission The Borrowers and The Queen's Nose, amongst others. It also seeked to utilise monies available from The National Lottery, setting up, in partnership with The UK Film Council and the BBC, a "script development fund" for family entertainment. [1,2]

But that was then and this is now. Seemingly no longer active in the industry, a state that I hope means it is dormant rather than completely deceased, all we have left are some of the films, although they can be hard to get a hold of, and a selection of memories. Born in 1975 myself, I didn't really get to head along to the cinema on Saturday mornings. What I did get to do was head along to the local video shop before anyone had really managed to get a handle on the videotape explosion. Kids could head in, unaccompanied, and use a membership card to pick any number of eye-catching, lurid titles. Of course, officially, this didn't happen. But we all know that it did. Funnily enough, I wasn't quite the horror obsessive as a child that I am today. Which is why I would often head home with a CFF title. I can't even remember them all, but I know that I at least rented the following: The Glitterball, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, Sky Pirates, and Friend Or Foe. Did they go down well with every family member? I doubt it, but it at least gave some people a reprise from Freaky Friday (which I'd grown obsessed with thanks to the appeal and humour of both Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris) and The Ghost Busters (a tape consisting of two episodes from the old TV show, and I seemed to forget this every time I went to the shop and thought I would finally be seeing Ghostbusters). And they always stuck in my mind, which is the main thing anyway. Perhaps even back then I knew that these films weren't on a par with the glossy, modern Hollywood outings. But that didn't stop them helping me along the road to my complete love of cinema, despite me only being exposed to four titles from the entire library that I was at that time unaware of. Think of them as stabilisers on a bike that I would eventually use to ride around the whole world. And because I spend a lot of my time refusing to put away childish things, I decided to track down as many as I could, and to cover them here in a way that may throw up some surprises, stir up a bit of nostalgia, and allow for some more time spent simply celebrating all that the CFF did for a generation of young moviegoers.


One Wish Too Many (1956) - A young boy finds a magic marble, and finds out that rubbing it while making a wish leads to his wish becoming reality. This leads to lots of fun rearranging the environments around him, dealing with bullies, and even stopping time to avoid getting into any trouble for being late back to class.

The Adventures Of Hal 5 (1958) - A little car is sold by its owner, reluctantly, and ends up being used by a sneaky garage boss to wring extra profits from future customers. The car is not happy about the circumstances, as you can tell by the expressions drawn on the front of it. It's not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it's enough to please undemanding youngsters.

Go Kart Go (1964) - A very young Dennis Waterman plays Jimpy (because, apparently, that was actually a name, at one point). Jimpy and his pals want to put a go kart together and take on the seemingly-unbeatable Harry Haggetty (Frazer Hines, a LONG time before his Emmerdale years). Unfortunately, Harry likes to win by any means necessary. Will Jimpy and the gang be able to win out againts any planned sabotage? Steptoe And Son fans may also enjoy seeing Wilfrid Brambell in a small role that is not entirely dissimilar to his most famous TV persona.

Cup Fever (1965) - What do young boys enjoy more than movies? Yes, football, that's what. And this enjoyable tale focuses on a footie team who are all trying their hardest to overcome hardship, and sabotage, to win the cup. Filmed in Manchester, the big attraction here is the appearance of the Manchester United team, including manager Matt Busby. And it's not just a few seconds either. Oh no, there's a decent sequence showing the kids being allowed to visit Old Trafford and train with the players. Other "players" worth looking out for include Bernard Cribbins as a policeman, David Lodge as the adult wanting to spoil all the fun, and Susan George and Olivia Hussey as two of the young girls who help and support the team.

The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) - An oft-forgotten production from Powell & Pressburger, it is actually the final feature film for both of them, this stars Mark Dightam as John, the titular boy, and Robert Eddison as Nick ("comes from electronic"). When John is with Nick, he is able to travel through TV screens at the speed of electricity, which means he can hopefully sneak into the Tower Of London and find his pet mouse, lost there on a school trip at the start of the film. And I should mention John's smart friend, Munro. While the character himself isn't special, the young actor playing him would change his name from Lem Kitaj to Lem Dobbs and go on to help write a number of entertaining feature films (including The Hard Way, Dark City, The Limey, and Haywire).


The Battle Of Billy's Pond (1976) - Billy (Ben Buckton) and Gobby (Andrew Ashby) discover something amiss at the local pond Billy usually likes to fish at. The fish are all dying, which leads the boys to figure out that the water is somehow being polluted. They then have to figure out how to prove it, and how to capture the polluters. There are cameo appearances here for Geoffrey Palmer, Miriam Margolyes, and a fleeting appearance (at the corner of the screen during a family meal scene) for a young Linda Robson, who would also appear for seconds in the next film, which also stars Buckton.

The Glitterball (1977) - Max (Ben Buckton) and Pete (Keith Jayne) end up the carers of a small silver alien entity. Ron Pember is an adult thief who eventually suspects that he can make this situation profitable for himself, and the premise is a fun idea that retains a good dollop of charm, thanks to the lo-fi special effects and the central characters.

A Hitch In Time (1978) - Patrick Troughton is an inventor with a time-travelling device in his possession. And it has an acronym (OSKA = Oscillating Shortwave Kinetic Amplifier). No, Troughton is not reprising his Doctor Who role, but viewers probably couldn't help thinking of it, and smiling, during throughout this amusing time-travel adventure. Michael McVey and Pheona McLellan are the two children who end up making use of Troughton's machine, and Jeff Rawle is "Sniffy" Kemp, a harsh teacher who has a long line of unlikable ancestors. Sorcha Cusack also has a small role.

Sammy's Super T-Shirt (1978) - Young Sammy Smith (Reggie Winch) is training for a big race, with the help of his friend, Marvin (Lawrie Mark). But things get easier for him when his favourite t-shirt accidentally ends up in a lab, where it gains the ability to make the wearer physically superior in terms of strength and speed. Richard Vernon and Julian Holloway are the two adults trying to get their hands on the t-shirt, Patsy Rowlands pops up as Sammy's mother, and Hammer fans should derive some small pleasure from seeing Michael Ripper in one scene.

Black Island (1979) - The message here is quite simple. Always listen to your teacher. Two schoolboys who don't do this (played by Martin Murphy and Mike Salmon) end up in trouble. Having left the main group during a school outing, they take themselves on a small boat trip, losing control and ending up on a small island. But they're not alone, with the other main message here perhaps being never to trust gruff adults played by Michael Elphick or Allan Surtees.

Out Of The Darkness (1985) - Three children start to investigate further when one of them claims to have seen and heard a ghost. It turns out that the ghost is a young boy who lived during the time of an awful plague epidemic. And the local village has a bad history that it may want to keep hidden. An average supernatural tale is boosted slightly by the choice of location. Michael Carter had this to say about the village; "Shooting a children's ghost story about the plague, on locations round Eyam Derbyshire, was doubly eerie because relics of that terrible time were all around us. There is a register of deaths in Eyam church. The word 'plague' litters the pages, and outside, the headstones of plague victims dominate the churchyard."[3]

Terry On The Fence (1985) - A young boy runs away from home and ends up in the company of some troubled youths who bully him into helping them rob from his school. This children's film is very much a lesson to any child at risk of falling in with a bad lot, but it also does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out the background of the main "baddie".

To be continued . . .

1. Main statistics and information lifted from the Children's Film and Television Foundation website, a valuable resource for anyone looking to investigate their filmography further.

2. Essay excerpt from 'Providing healthy recreation for children': celebrating the Children's Film Foundation, by Robert Shail.

3. Essay excerpt from John Krish and Out of the Darkness, by Michael Carter

Race to pick up this set.
Enjoy some weird adventures with this set.
Experience some mild scares with this set.
And here are some tales set in the fine city of London.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Witchcraft 8: Salem's Ghost (1996)

Well, you have to hand it to this movie. The eighth instalment in the Witchcraft series at least takes things in a slightly different direction. We don't get an adventure created around Will Spanner, the lead character of most of the previous films, and there's even an attempt to add some comedy. It's a poor attempt, the comedy is awful, but it's an attempt nonetheless.

Writer-director Joseph John Barmettler delivers what is expected from the series - supernatural elements and sex scenes - while admirably trying to make this film stand out from the other films that preceded it. It's just a shame that he doesn't make a better job of things, with a lot of the events feeling as if they were found in a bin of discarded ideas from the House movie series.

The slim story concerns a a warlock (Jack van Landingham) being all trussed up and killed by angry locals. Fast forward many years later and a couple move into a nice home. Unfortunately, that nice home contains the final resting place of the warlock, and his spirit is freed when a magical thingummybob is moved. And stuff happens.

I think that's quite an in-depth plot summary there. I have certainly written it with almost as much care and attention to detail as Barmettler, who is clearly more interested in stringing together some individual fun moments than making a feature that holds up from start to finish.

Lee Grober and Kim Kopf are the couple at the centre of events, and David Weills and Anthoni Stewart play a pair of neighbours who immeditely ingratiate themselves and wander around the home, being generally a bit too nosey and unwittingly setting off the supernatural goings-on. Tom Overmyer, Mai-Lis Holmes, and William Knight also lend weak support.

While looking into the production of the movie, I discovered that this was originally intended to be the potential starting point for a whole new series of films, based around the Salem's Ghost concept. That idea was binned after the negative reaction to this, whether from executives or viewers, or both, which meant that the next instalment of the Witchcraft series would bring back one Will Spanner (sigh).

If you're somehow trying to make your way through this entire series, as I am, then this is like a cool flannel on your forehead during a particularly bad fever-dream. But that still doesn't make it a good film. It's just relatively less painful.

3/10

Available on Amazon Prime, perhaps you may want this complete set of Charmed instead.
Americans can get some Charmed here.

A gratuitous pic of the ladies from Charmed

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

High-Rise (2015)

Based on yet another "unfilmable" novel by J. G. Ballard, High-Rise has been a film that many people have been trying to bring to the screen for decades. The man who finally succeeded where others failed is director Ben Wheatley, helped along by a screenplay by Amy Jump.

The plot sees a man named Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moving into a modern apartment block (aka a fancy block of flats) in 1970s England. The block is full of amenities and luxuries, but only those higher up in the building get to access more of the good stuff, turning the whole building into an obvious microcosm of society. And when people start to upset the order of how things should be, it's not long until the whole environment devolves into an anarchic mix of violence, debauchery, and death.

The thing that threw me about this film is how quickly viewers are thrown into some outright strangeness. Even the earlier scenes, which are supposed to be showing normal life in the apartment block, are just plain odd. And then things go from 0-100 very quickly, with oddness turning into the bizarre and then the absolutely insane. I kept wondering what I had missed, or what scenes had been excised in the editing process and never put back where they should have been. Then I stopped wondering about it. I just started to enjoy the atmosphere of the film, immersing myself in the environment, which is when I started to appreciate everything that this had going for it.

First of all, even by his own standards, this is impressively ambitious directing from Wheatley, managing to make the central building seem both like an entire city and also like a horribly claustrophobic cocoon, depending on just how well things are going. He also keeps all the character shots and cinematography in the strange retro-futuristic style of the apartment block.

The script by Jump may be a muddled mess at times, and that's hard to deny, but it's also full of cutting lines, great individual moments, and a smoke-filled, languid, atmosphere that becomes hazier and hazier as the minds of the central characters start to fray and break.

Then you have the cast. Hiddleston is great in his role, barely holding on to his precarious position in the building from the very beginning, and there are also fantastic performances from Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, Peter Ferdinando, and Jeremy Irons, the latter as the architect of the building and the top resident (of course). Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, and Reece Shearsmith also lend solid support, each one playing a memorable resident who may be for or against Hiddleston's place in the heirarchy of the structure.

This isn't a film to watch if you want an easy ride, and it's not even one to watch if you need something that makes sense throughout. It's a dazzling, dizzying, strange experience. Almost like leaning over the top balcony of a tower block and looking down through a kaleidoscope. While other people throw protesting victims over to meet their gravity-hastened demise. And of course I mean that as a compliment.

8/10

Get the disc here.
American friends can pick it up here.



Monday, 26 March 2018

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

AKA The Public Instagram Account Of Wanda Mitty.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Ingrid Thorburn, a young woman who can't quite adjust to life in the modern age, to put it mildly. She likes to connect through Instagram, and she also likes to turn any small connection into something much bigger in her own mind. Like or comment on one of her photos and Ingrid will think of you as a potential close friend. And that is how she ends up insinuating herself into the lives of Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ezra (Wyatt Russell). Taylor is a bit of an Instagram celeb, influencing people with photos of her lifestyle and shopping choices, while Ezra is her partner, an artist reluctantly using social media because he knows he must.

Ingrid Goes West is a decent warning to people about the perils of being consumed by the need to portray a perfect image all over social media. It comments on the divide between what is put on display and what is hidden outwith the edges of the phone or computer screen. And it certainly illustrates the extra care needed to help people with mental health issues in an environment where they can be so easily confused and manipulated. Beyond that, it's also a really good drama about damaged people being further damaged by the modern world.

Written by Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith, with Spicer also directing, this is a film that never feels false, despite the obvious exaggeration used here and there (and even that element of exaggeration is debatable when you think of people who strive to make themselves "internet famous"). The main characters are quite easy to dislike but that doesn't make things any easier to watch as nerves start to fray and tensions develop.

Plaza gives one of her best performances yet in the lead role, showing us a troubled young woman who has mastered the art of putting on her best smile for the selfies that she shares with the world. Olsen and Wyatt are both great, the former all fake niceness and ego while the latter is avoiding reality in a slightly different way. O' Shea Jackson Jr is also very good as Dan, a man who gets involved with Ingrid without realising how many lies she is telling to keep her pretend life as perfect as it can be, and Billy Magnussen is enjoyably nasty as Nicky, the one person who seems to immediately see Ingrid for who she really is.

You can watch Ingrid Goes West and enjoy it without having to think too much about the points it is raising about the potential damage of lives lived for online approval and followers. But it also raises some decent points that I hope might result in some good conversations between parents/friends/partners and anyone trying to measure themselves against snapshots of lifestyles that are just that. Snapshots. Not yardsticks, because nothing you see online should ever be used as a yardstick.

7/10

UK folks can get it on shiny disc here.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 25 March 2018

Game Over, Man! (2018)

Oh boy. There's a fun idea at the heart of Game Over, Man! but it's one that is constantly being buried under a mountain of atrociousness.

Adam Devine, Anders Holm, and Blake Anderson star as Alexxx, Darren, and Joel, three male workers in the housekeeping department of some big hotel building. They're terrible at their job, and not in an amusing way. They're just so bad that you have to wonder how they have stayed in employment for more than half a day. Always looking for the chance to sell one of their big (and terrible) ideas to someone, the boys get themselves very excited when they know that their building is about to host a party for an ultra-rich celeb named Bey (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Unfortunately, there's one man (Jamie Demetriou) trying to keep unwanted members of the public away from Bae. And there are a bunch of criminals (led by Neal McDonough) about to crash the party and extort money from Bae, which gives our hapless lead characters the chance to become heroes.

If you like jokes about sperm, more gratuitous penis shots than any other comedy, even more gratuitous cameos, and a very open-minded approach to a wide variety of sexual preferences that would feel admirably progressive if every main instance of it mattering wasn't being used as a plot device, or for an easy joke, then this is the film for you.

I like Devine, and I like his usual douchebag persona, so I enjoyed some of his work here. I can't say the same about Holm (who also wrote the terrible script) and Anderson. There are hardly any other performers that I DID enjoy, sadly, with the exceptions of Demetriou, McDonough, and Rhona Mitra, and I just enjoyed Mitra because I hadn't seen her in anything for a while. Chloe Bridges tries hard, but isn't given enough to do, and Daniel Stern is stuck with the kind of role that a decade or so ago would have gone to someone like Chris Elliott.

Director Kyle Newacheck does an acceptable job, I'll grudgingly admit, with a decent way of shooting the action moments and the gags. It's that script, always that script, that undermines everything, feeling very much like something written by a bunch of drunk friends on a big night out who decided that they would very much like to star in an action comedy, but with as many unfunny jokes crammed in there as possible. I am sure that some will find the content here tasteless, while just as many others will find it hilarious. I just think it was all a bit too juvenile and didn't work with the action movie template.

This is advertised as being from the people who brought you Workaholics. Well, all I can say is that I won't be rushing to check out Workaholics. I also can't believe we get something like this while we are still deprived of a film version of One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night. Netflix (because, yes, this is another one from them), start adapting Christopher Brookmyre works and you may regain some goodwill after recent mis-steps.

3/10

Not available on disc just now, feel free to shop here and get me rewarded for you clicking on a link.
American readers can click here.
I apologise that I don't have the time or links to cover every territory.


Saturday, 24 March 2018

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

IF I'd seen The NeverEnding Story when it first came out then I would have been the perfect age. I was 8 years old for most of 1984, and the special effects and simplistic plotting here would have made the film an instant favourite. But I didn't see it back in 1984. Nor did I catch up with it in 1985, or any other year in the '80s. I forgot about it throughout most of the '90s. The longer I left it, the further away I was from that child who would have been the ideal audience member. I knew that this was a beloved fantasy film and I started to worry about how my adult mind might deal with viewing it at entirely the wrong age. And would I be able to stop thinking about bloody Limahl.

I wasn't that far into the film when I realised that I didn't have to worry. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Herman Wiegel (and a helping hand from Robert Easton), gets everything moving along at a cracking pace once viewers have been introduced to the main characters. And things maintain great momentum right up until the end credits.

Barret Oliver plays a young boy named Bastian. His day starts off with a meaningful chat with his father before he heads outside and finds himself being chased by the usual bullies. Evading them, he hides in a bookshop, and that's where he gets his hands on a very special book. Once safely home again, Bastian starts to read the book, and in those pages he learns about a place called Fantasia, an Empress (Tami Stronach), and a brave young boy named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway). Fantasia is being devoured and destroyed by a force called the Nothing. It's up to Atreyu to save it. But it may also be up to Bastian, even if he has no idea about that when he starts reading the story.

Based on a book by Michael Ende (although it should be noted that Ende felt that the film was so different from his work that he unsuccessfully sued the production), The NeverEnding Story has everything you could possibly want from this type of thing. The young leads are likable enough, the creature design is wonderful (a large rock being named Rock Biter, a cute luck dragon named Falkor, and one or two others), and the lessons are wholesome and satisfying.

Having said that, Petersen isn't afraid to make things a little more interesting than a number of other films you could pick from this style and time. The appearance of the Nothing is the first sign of this, but there's also a dark sequence showing a beautiful horse in peril, and the entire second half starts to twist things and put everything in place to justify the title. A lot of movies aimed at children will promote strength, bravery, good morals, and a whole number of other assets. This film also does that, sort of, but it also tells every child that their imagination is a superpower; it's a way to right wrongs (even if only temporarily), it's an escape, it's the foundation of every major idea that ever helped to build and shape worlds.

That point elevates the whole film, as well as the strange mix of absolute fantasy and the unpatronising way in which it depicts loss and pain. The more I think about it right now, the more I am tempted to revisit it soon. It's a fascinating piece of work, highly recommended to both younger viewers and those who don't think they are already too old to check it out for the first time. You're never too old for that, as I was delighted to discover for myself.

8/10

Get it on Bluray here.
And Americans can get it here.


Friday, 23 March 2018

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

It's been a while since I saw the first cinematic incarnation of this character, played by Dolph Lundgren, but I have more recently enjoyed both the film starring Thomas Jane and the series, with Jon Bernthal in the main role. The latter is the better portrayal of the character, but I still enjoy the film too, as maligned as it often is.

And now I have finally watched Punisher: War Zone, and I have a new favourite. Time will tell whether or not that remains the case but that's how things are for now.

Ray Stevenson plays Frank Castle, and the plot is fairly simple. He's taking out villains and one of them ends up in a nasty accident that leads to him renaming himself Jigsaw (Dominic West). Making a move for more power and money, Jigsaw and his cohorts end up setting themselves up for a confrontation with The Punisher, but our hero may be held back by the police officers who want him cuffed and off the streets.

Directed by Lexi Alexander, I really cannot see why more people don't love this one. Having spoken to fans of the comic, I am led to understand that a number of the onscreen characters are twisted a bit too far from their comic counterparts, and I can understand that being an issue, but the rest of the film is so gloriously entertaining and insanely violent that it would seem to be absolutely perfect for fans of The Punisher.

Written by Matt Holloway, Art Marcum, and Nick Santora, there's a fine blending of the grim and the darkly comedic throughout. It works really well, and is helped by pacing which means you're never too far away from either an action set-piece (some more over the top than others), a fun character moment, or a bit of ultraviolence. This thing barrels along. Stevenson may not get too much dialogue, The Punisher is a man of few words, but that doesn't stop the script from crackling elsewhere with amusing dialogue and entertaining statements of menacing intent.

Perhaps thanks to his relative lack of dialogue, but that may be unfair to say, Stevenson is fantastic in the main role. Seriously, he IS the best version of The Punisher I have seen onscreen. Lundgren was always fun, but also always Lundgren, Jane was okay (points for trying), and Bernthal is fantastic. Stevenson, however, just edges ahead. The size, the moves, the attitude, he's on point. West has a blast as Jigsaw, helped in a number of scenes by his crazy brother, played by Doug Hutchison. Wayne Knight is just fine as Micro, Mark Camacho and Keram Malicki-Sanchez are a decent couple of henchmen, Colin Salmon is fine and upstanding as the cop wanting to arrest Frank Castle, and Dash Mihok is enjoyable as the cop actually helping Frank when he can. Julie Benz is one of the few main actresses, and she does well as the widow of someone caught up in the crossfire between Frank and the gangsters.

I highly recommend this to fans of the character, to action movie fans, and to those who want some comic book fun that is far from family-friendly.

8/10

Buy it here.
Americans, buy it here.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Witchcraft 7: Judgement Hour (1995)

I know what you're thinking. Why would I continue to subject myself to the awfulness of this series? And why would I force you all to read reviews of these films? Well, because I said I would see this through to the bitter end, and if I am going to suffer then you can all suffer too.

Will Spanner (this time played by David Byrnes) is once again helping the police to find an evil killer. The police are Garner (John Cragen) and Lutz (Alisa Christensen), the villains are Mr Hassa (Loren Schmalle) and his right hand men, Vontana (Jason Edwards) and Costanza (Eryk Sobesto). And there are lots of women onscreen to bare their breasts in almost every other scene.

This is directed by Michael Paul Girard, who wrote the fourth film in the series, and written by Peter E. Fleming (who also wrote the previous film), based on a story by Jerry Feifer. I would say it's a terrible film, but that pretty much goes unsaid by now. The series is what it is, tenuously connected softcore romps that use an implausible supernatural framework to host some tame sex scenes.

But if you thought any of the previous instalments were bad, you're going to have a horrible time with this one. The acting is atrocious from everyone involved. EVERYONE. The leads are awful, the supporting players are worse, it's almost as if the director told his cast that the person who gave the worst performance would get some huge bonus on payday. As well as those already mentioned, that includes April Breneman (as Keli, the partner of Spanner), Michael Altan, Ashlie Rhey, and Mai-Lis Holmes (who is at least more fun onscreen than anyone else).

The script is as muddled and messy as other Witchcraft movies, but with added vampirism (which allows people the chance to wear amusing false fangs), and even less of an attempt to make the characters more than the most paper-thin walking cliches. The dialogue between the two cops and their superior officer sounds like something that could have been written for an episode of Angie Tribeca.

At least I was able to laugh while the film was on, whether it was at the script, the acting, or the not-so-special effects. Say what you like about this series, each instalment is silly enough to save you from wanting to self-lobotomise before the end credits roll. And that is about the only thing I can say to recommend this, and many of the other instalments.

2/10

As Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour is currently unavailable, use this general link instead to do some shopping.


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Released in a glorious year that also saw my shining soul gifted to the world, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the film that you already know all about. Initially a stage show, the success of the film started to grow and grow when it became an adored audience participation event.

I have walked by theatres that were putting on a production of the show, admiring all of the audience members in their variety of costumes (wearing everyday clothes to one of the shows would surely leave you sticking out like a sore thumb), and I am aware of the various cues that get the audience involved with the unfolding events on stage/screen. It looks as if every fan has a bloody good time, letting their hair down and just enjoying the company of kindred spirits who are all there for the full experience.

This is why I have watched the movie about three times now, with this being my third viewing. And, I'm sorry for those who are about to be upset with me, I still don't enjoy it.

Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) are a pair of young lovebirds who end up stranded on a dark and stormy night, leading to them asking for help at the home of Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). It's a very special night for the doctor and his friends, and Brad and Janet may wish they had never crossed over his doorstep.

Okay, I wasn't entirely honest when I said that I don't enjoy this movie. There are parts of it that I enjoy. The first 4-5 songs are great. In fact, the film maintains a decent amount of momentum right up until Tim Curry sings the last notes of "Sweet Transvestite". It then dips, before lifting back up again with both "I Can Make You A Man" and "Hot Patootie - Bless My Soul". And then it dips again. And just keeps dipping, slumping further and further down towards a whimper of a finale.

The cast all do well enough, with the three leads all fantastic and nice turns from Richard O' Brien (who wrote the show, and adapted it to the screen with director Jim Sharman), Patricia Quinn, Charles Gray, Nell Campbell, and Meatloaf. Everyone stands in the mighty shadow of Curry, who gives one of his most iconic performances, performing every line with great gusto and a sense that he is savouring the taste of every single syllable.

The big problem here is the material. While it's often said that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical parody tribute to the b-movies that all came before it, I have never found enough here to put it in line with those films. Yes, the silly plot and individual elements here and there will ring a bell to anyone who has watched sci-fi and horror films, particularly from the '50s and '60s, but it's all TOO silly and slapdash to feel like a well-crafted homage. The opening title song and details of the closing sequence aside, there's very little in the main body of the film that feels affectionate or indebted enough to the wealth of source material that O'Brien had to draw on.

Everyone will rush to tell me that I am missing out by not watching this with the intended audience, and it's something I will happily try out one day, but a film should also work as, well, a film. This doesn't. It's not absolutely awful, thanks to a few good songs and that amazing turn from Curry, but I have never thought it as anything great. Which didn't stop me buying it, AND Shock Treatment (an odd sorta-sequel that I will be checking out in the next few weeks, hopefully).

Fans can buy the film here.
American fans can buy it here.


Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

There's nothing inherently wrong with this all-star version of Murder On The Orient Express, the classic whodunnit from Agatha Christie that has an ending already known to most people even if they haven't read the book yet (a large group that includes myself). It's rather fun, polished, and certainly throws enough stars into the mix to help things along.

Kenneth Branagh directs, and he also lets himself take on the lead role of Poirot, the greatest detective in the world (who isn't named Sherlock Holmes, I guess). Poirot ends up on the titular train, there's a murder, and he tries to figure out who did it. Everyone has a motive, it seems, and Poirot wants to discover the culprit before the train moves on to the next station. Because the train has also been derailed by a small avalanche, ensuring that the characters are unable to flee while the detective gets his little grey cells working on the case.

Working from a script by Michael Green, Murder On The Orient Express is a film both helped and hampered by how familiar and comfortable it all feels. It's easy to enjoy but not so easy to get properly drawn into. The snowy setting, the familiar faces, the family-friendly nature of most of the main scenes, this is something that feels more like a lavish BBC production scheduled for the Christmas holidays than a cinematic experience.

My other main complaint about the film is how the resolution comes about. It all makes sense, from what I can tell, but it would have been better to see a few more links being placed in the chain by Poirot as he started to formulate his main theory. This may be a case of elements from the book that were harder to put on film, or it may be a case of Poirot simply being a character who holds all of his cards close to his chest until he is ready to set them down. My limited knowledge of the character is gathering dust in a small recess of my memory banks, sadly. Either way, and I know it would have been difficult to balance the reveals with the attempt to keep the mystery intact until the end, one or two more pieces of information would have been appreciated as viewers watched Poirot put everything together.

I'm not going to pick apart every performance by the cast. I'll just say that all of them have fun at various points. Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi, and Tom Bateman are the main players, but they all have to work under the long shadow of Branagh, clearly having a ball as Poirot.

If you're unfamiliar with the resolution to the story then be sure to see this before you have it spoiled for you. Also give it a watch if you like most of the main players (and why wouldn't you?). But it's surprisingly disposable and forgettable, especially considering the talent involved. I'll still end up watching the next adventure, however, teased at the end, and I'd even be tempted to watch some less famous mysteries featuring Branagh's take on the main character.

6/10

The film is now available to buy here.
Americans may pick it up here.
Get some Agatha Christie ebooks here, for free.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Daddy's Home 2 (2017)

Let me start this review by saying that I enjoyed Daddy's Home. Yes, I know the comedy banter between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg isn't something that many people admit to enjoying (aside from their best work in The Other Guys) but they made me laugh many times in the tale of a sensitive stepfather (Brad, played by Ferrell) being infuriated by the alpha male biological father (Dusty, played by Wahlberg) swanning back into the lives of his children and disrupting their lives.

This sequel finds the extended family living a fairly harmonious life, even if there are still some resentments that hide below the surface. Brad and Dusty take turns with activities, Linda Cardellini (playing Sara, mother to the children, and Brad's partner) seems happy with the situation, and everyone seems settled. Except for the fact that they're not, something that becomes evident when young Megan (Scarlett Estevez) decides to tell people that she hates moving back and forth for Christmas festivities. This leads to one big Christmas being planned, a day with everyone in the same place and the kids not having to move from one family to another. And it's going to be even more special, because Dusty's father (Kurt, played by Mel Gibson) is going to join them. As is Brad's father (Don, played by John Lithgow).

Most of the main players return here, with director Sean Anders also co-writing the script once again (also with John Morris, but no Brian Burns this time around), and it's clear from the early scenes that this is an easy, comfortable, comedy sequel for all involved. You won't find any real depth here, and you won't find anything plausible, but you will get a cast having fun, and a number of amusing moments.

Gibson is there to be an even more toxic male than Wahlberg was in the first film, while Lithgow seems to be, for the most part, even more sensitive than Ferrell's character. This adds plenty of friction, which creates more comedic situations, and then leads to a third act that features both John Cena and plenty of horrible, unearned, attempts at emotional manipulation. All of the male leads get to have lots of fun. Cardellini, on the other hand, is simply left to witness an unfolding sequence of catastrophic events while doing nothing but feel insecure when positioned close to Alessandra Ambrosio (playing Karen, the woman now with Wahlberg's character).

Daddy's Home 2 is a rather weak film, in terms of the art of cinema. It's clumsy, painfully obvious, and suffers even more during the times when it tries to turn Brad into Clark Griswold. It kind of works as a sequel, it fails as a Christmas film (mainly because a lot of the better moments feel as if they have been cribbed from better movies), and it's the worst one yet to pair up Ferrell and Wahlberg.

Oh, I still laughed though. There were quite a few times when I laughed aloud. Hard. For all of its failings, and there are oh so many, it still manages to get the comedy right on many occasions. And that's a good thing for a comedy film. Which is why I still rate this as above average. Fans of Ferrell will find enough to enjoy here. Everyone else should avoid this like a spiked bowl of eggnog.

6/10

Daddy's Home 2 can be bought here.
Americanos can buy it here.




Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden is one of those films that you want to discuss with people as soon as it ends. Which is unfortunate, because the beauty of it, apart from the absolutely gorgeous visuals throughout, comes from watching events unfold, and enjoying every twist and turn. So I'll try not to give too much away here, which may mean a plot summary is briefer than usual.

Basically, a conman (Ha Jung-woo, portraying a character who goes by the name of Count Fujiwara) wants to woo a young woman (Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko is set to eventually marry her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), which will allow him to get his hands on her fortune, because it's known to a few people that he aims to have her declared insane soon after their marriage. And that's where the handmaiden of the title comes in. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a skilled deceiver and thief, hired by the conman to work for, and befriend, Lady Hideko, helping to sway her opinion and convince her that she is falling in love with the Count.

Directed by Park Chan-wook, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-Kyung (based on the novel "Fingersmith", by Sarah Waters), The Handmaiden is every bit as good as you have already heard it is. It's engrossing, the plotting is superb, and it explores various sexual and power dynamics in a way that can become quite graphic without ever feeling tasteless or exploitative.

Separated into three distinct segments, this is a perfect example of how runtime doesn't really matter when the story is strong enough. Running at approximately 144 minutes, in the standard cut (there's also an extended version to check out, and I will), this really flies by as viewers are thrown into the initial situation before getting to know the characters, and then being shown a different perspective on things. I wouldn't say that all of the twists and turns are completely unpredictable, rather they pile up in a way that makes things much more satisfying for viewers. The rug being pulled out from under your feet can be enjoyable cinematically, but it's somehow even more enjoyable to have that rug pulled out and a different one placed under you by a dextrous expert.

As well as the great script, direction, cinematography, and musical score, the performances are no small help in drawing you in and making this a wonderful viewing experience. Tae-ri and Min-hee are the leads, essentially, and play their parts beautifully. Both are 100% believable, even as they run through a variety of motivations and emotions. Jung-woo and Jin-woong also do fantastic work, working well with their relatively single-minded characters. Kim Hae-sook and Moon So-ri have much smaller roles, the former being quite nasty and the latter quite lovely, but both also make an impact with their turns.

I am not sure what is holding me back from giving this a perfect score. I suspect that I have to rewatch it some time and see how well it all holds up, but there's every chance that future viewings will elevate this to absolute modern classic status. Which allows Park Chan-wook to remain one of my absolute favourite directors working today. I have seen about 6 or 7 of his movies, and none of them have been anything less than very good indeed. I'll always be keen to see what he next gives us. In the meantime, maybe I should get ready to watch the extended version of this film.

9/10

Buy this lovely edition here.
Americans can buy a disc here.


Saturday, 17 March 2018

Cold Hell (2017)

Özge Dogruol (played by Violetta Schurawlow) is a female taxi driver who spends her time putting up with lousy passengers, being an alibi for a lousy friend (Verena Altenberger) who cannot stop cheating on her partner (Robert Palfrader), and letting off steam when she gets a chance to indulge in a bit of Thai boxing. Her life is thrown into turmoil when she witnesses a serial killer standing beside his latest victim. The police don't have enough information to give her any substantial help, although one detective (played by Tobias Moretti) is eventually swayed to help her, just in time for things to go from bad to worse as the killer aims to get rid of Özge.

A fairly simple idea is turned into a bloody fine thriller thanks to the inclusion of imperfect characters that you can care about, some very nasty moments of violence, and a solid foundation of tension that remains even during the comparatively calmer middle section.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky is great with this kind of material, having previously impressed and entertained me with the enjoyable Anatomy. He seems able to make something feel fresh and lively while avoiding the tricks and flourishes that many other directors might throw in there. And that somehow makes more traditional fare feel a bit more unique when compared to the many other films that pick their favourite toys from the same box, as it were. Writer Martin Ambrosch also deserves praise, having given us one of the best female leads in a thriller that I have seen in some time. Özge is many things, but she constantly does what she can to maintain control of her spiralling situation.

Schurawlow is great in the starring role. She seems to get tougher and more resilient as her character is given progressively worse treatment, and her physical work makes everything easy to believe. Moretti is also very good as the detective who grows to really like her. Sammy Sheik plays the killer, and he's effectively menacing while also capably hiding his true nature whenever he needs to blend into a crowd of normal, non-killing, members of the public. And I should mention the lovely turn from Friedrich von Thun, playing the elderly father of Moretti's character.

There are only two main negatives to mention here. One is the fact that this is a film with great depths to the characters but no real depth to the story. Even for a "serial killer" film, although it's more than just that, it doesn't really add any layers to the cat and mouse plot. Not that it really needs to, but some more stuff to chew on would have been appreciated. Secondly, there are one or two plot contrivances that feel a bit too predictable, and one of the final decisions made by Özge is so dumb that it feels out of character, despite being made in a moment of rage.

Those minor quibbles aside, Cold Hell is an excellent thriller that seems to be getting plenty of positive word of mouth already (which is how it came to my attention). I hope that continues as more people discover it.

8/10

Available on Shudder, Cold Hell doesn't seem to have any disc release just now.
But browse Amazon.co.uk here and shop to make me rich.
Or visit Amazon.com here for the same result. Cheers.


Friday, 16 March 2018

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Phoenix Forgotten is awful. I couldn't contain myself. I couldn't even pretend for one paragraph, or sentence, to like this film. It is like an immediate Full House in a game of awful foound footage movie bingo.

You get the character who just has to keep recording everything, without good enough justification for his habit. You get horrible visuals because it's supposed to have been recorded by an amateur. You get a selection of lead characters that don't have any actual depth. And you get nothing happening until the final 15-20 minutes, which inevitable feature a night-vision sequence and a build up to what is supposed to be something resembling a bit of a finale.

Directed by Justin Barber (this is his feature directorial debut, unsurprisingly), who also co-wrote the script with T. S. Nowlin (who at least also has The Maze Runner movies in his filmography), the format of Phoenix Forgotten is a documentary being made that investigates the disappearance of three young adults. The trio had decided to see what they could find out about an incident involving some mysterious lights in the night sky. They then disappeared, with no bodies ever found.

I could spend longer detailing the failures of this film than the creators seemed to spend on crafting it and making it entertaining from viewers. This is seriously embarrassing at times, often smacking of that lazy attitude that you can sense in the worst found footage films. You know what I mean. The whole "oh, we can knock this out cheap and make a good bundle" attitude.

The best movies in this style can make you uneasy throughout. They can dripfeed interesting details to help viewers create an entire storyline in their head that may or may not play out onscreen. This doesn't do either of those things. It simply has three people getting lost and then shows their situation worsen. Swap the desert area for some thick woods and you have The Blair Witch Project, but only if that was made by lazy incompetents who didn't know how to create superior scares. In fact, one moment here is such a blatant nod to the finale of The Blair Witch Project that I thought I was seeing things. Because why would you reference something that would remind viewers of the inferior nature of your material?

That's the word that may stay in your mind as you watch this film. Why? Why, why, why? So many decisions, from the plotting to the editing and shooting, just don't make sense. I almost made this review nothing more than a list of twenty questions, which would have been an equally valid response to my time being wasted.

Cast-wise, Florence Hartigan is the main documentary "presenter", and the three main subjects are played by Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez, and Justin Matthews. None of them are very good. And I don't mean that they're that bad either. They're just there, unable to overcome the dull and dire script, and also just sometimes being . . . okay, they're sometimes quite bad.

My generous rating below reflects some of the technical aspects, although I still begrudge anything that raises this up from the very bottom of the barrel it belongs. Especially as this production had some weight behind it.

Avoid. There are at least half a dozen better films along the same lines that I can recommend, if you're ever curious. Just ask.

3/10

Phoenix Forgotten can be bought here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Paddington 2 (2017)

I try my best not to mix my own politics with film reviews, unless the films are making a strong political statement or something happens that I find so downright loathsome that I just have to say something. And yet here I am with this review of Paddington 2 and it feels as if I should start off with a bit of a statement.

Don't worry, I believe what I am about to say is actually quite bipartisan, but I suppose that really depends on how you're viewing the world around you. Because that world has been getting a bit crappier and crappier for most of the past few weeks, months, and years. Natural disasters, idiots and criminals in positions of authority, tensions between countries with nuclear weapons, business closures and job losses, murders and cowardly terrorist attacks, and the general downsizing of some of my favourite chocolate bars.

Why am I doing my best to make us all a bit depressed? Well, Paddington 2 is an undeniably fun and lovely film, but it's also the perfect kind of film to make you forget about global problems for a while, and I think the timing may be as much a key to its success as the quality of the film itself.

Returning to helm once more, after doing such a great job with the first movie, director Paul King (also co-writing again, this time with Simon Farnaby, who also has a hilarious cameo) crafts another perfect mix of comedy, sweetness, and sheer entertainment.

The plot revolves around a pop-up book. Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wants to save up his money and buy it as a great birthday gift for his Aunt Lucy. Which makes it very unfortunate when the book is stolen. And it's even more unfortunate when Paddington is mistaken for the thief, leaving him to spend some time at her majesty's leisure while the cunning thief (Hugh Grant, clearly having a blast) uses the book to decipher a code that he hopes will lead to a heap of treasure. Prison life leads Paddington to meet Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), and an unlikely friendship develops. But is that enough to keep our little bear in good spirits while people outside the prison walls try to prove his innocence? Or will a prison break be necessary?

Watching Paddington 2, and enjoying it SO much, got me thinking about both of the Paddington films. They both have the same strengths. First of all, the cast. Most people return here to the roles that they had in the first film, and the cast includes Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Tom Conti, and many, many more. Some scenes are a veritable who's who of British talent. Second, this is how you update a cute character who came to prominence in what might be labelled more innocent times. Paddington Bear isn't the type of youngster who has grown up with Twitter and Facebook, he doesn't have a smartphone in his pocket, and a lot of his values are as naive as they are admirable. But keeping him that way, almost a wide-eyed innocent often wrong-footed by the world around him, makes him a great character at the heart of these stories. And the fact that he never doubts himself, the fact that he always treats everyone the same way, makes it easier to accept those reciprocating his kindness and selflessness in a way that somehow doesn't feel too schmaltzy and annoying.

There are other reasons for the films being so successful, of course. The production design, the visuals, the CGI, the music, the pacing, every aspect of the film feels like it has been given due care and consideration. The script balances out the jokes with the emotional content, nicely weighting things on one end or the other through alternating scenes, and both major elements work. And I think I already mentioned Hugh Grant. He may be portraying a very different kind of villain from the character played by Nicole Kidman in the first film, but that doesn't make him less of a threat. He's the type that you want to boo and hiss at, even while laughing at his vanity and showiness (he plays a hammy actor who hasn't starred in a hit for quite some time - at least those costumes he has will help him in a variety of different disguises).

I haven't taken the time to rattle through the entire cast and sing their praises because this is an ensemble piece that brings the best out of everyone, whether they're onscreen for ten seconds or one hundred minutes. You don't view Hawkins, Bonneville, and co. as the supporting cast. You view them as the Browns. You don't spend the film contemplating how good Whishaw is in his voice role, you just accept that he's Paddington. And so on.

There's not much more I can say about it. I don't agree with some who think this sequel is superior to the first movie, but I couldn't say that it's inferior either. I rate both the same, and recommend picking up a nice double-bill immediately if you've somehow avoided either film until now. Buy the films, clear your schedules, make yourself a nice plate of marmalade sandwiches, and then sit down and press play. You'll thank me for it.

9/10

You can buy Paddington 2 here.
Americans can get it here.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland does great work in the sci-fi genre, and some feel that he is particularly good when it comes to the movies that he has so far directed (mainly, well, Ex Machina and this). His films are smart, visually arresting, and packed with intriguing ideas. It's just a shame that this film seems a bit overstuffed and unsure of exactly what is being said.

Natalie Portman plays a biologist, Lena, who ends up on a dangerous exploratory mission when she is trying to discover what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), on his last military mission. She accompanies four other women through an area surrounded by "the shimmer", an unknown phenomenon that seems to mark the growing boundary of an environment fatal to almost all who enter. Everyone knows the risk, but they are all hoping to at least discover some answers before their time is up.

Based on the first book in a series by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation is definitely something you can see easily appealing to Garland. It's a sci-fi tale, much like Ex Machina, in which the characters are constantly trying to wind their way through areas of murky morality. What constitutes life, and what gives others the right to assert themselves as the unassailable final step in evolution? Because the shimmer causes pain and damage, yet also creates new life, often in a surprisingly rapid manner.

The material is boosted by the cast, with Portman joined by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Isaac appearing largely in flashback scenes. All of the characters are carrying their own baggage (otherwise why go on such a mission?) and the performances match the flawed personalities.

The problems with the film don't lie with the cast, they lie with the script. Sadly. Garland seems to have been won over by the potential of the ideas here, so much so that he tries to overstuff the film, losing focus during times when he should be building a much clearer picture. The structure highlights this, with scenes that are flashbacks stuck on to other flashback scenes, and a lot of moments that don't feel like anything more than unnecessary filler.

To sum up then, Annihilation is a solid sci-fi film with a very capable cast, and one or two memorable moments, that doesn't ever become a completely satisfying work. Which was perhaps the aim of Garland, considering the core premise.

6/10

You cannot buy Annihilation at the moment, but feel free to pick up any of the other, superior, films from Alex Garland.



Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman returns to play T'Challa (aka Black Panther), after making a great impression in Captain America: Civil War, and even the most casual film fan cannot help but notice that this film has made quite an impact, even when considered alongside the rest of the Marvel filmography. It's been the kind of success story that leads to one hyperbolic review after another, and then the inevitable contrary opinions. It's been called the best Marvel movie ever. It's been singled out as something having huge social and cultural importance. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between the extremes.

I'm not going to go into every plot beat here. Suffice to say, T'Challa is about to become King of his land, Wakanda, and he also has to consider how he wants to lead. Should Wakanda remain hidden away from the rest of the world, or should all be revealed in an attempt to start helping those less fortunate? There's also a fun villain to be dealt with (Andy Serkis), some extremely badass women (Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright), and someone who may just want to force Wakanda to change, whether the people want to or not (this last figure is played by Michael B. Jordan). All of these players do fantastic work, with Gurira and Jordan being standouts. Boseman is a solid lead, but not half as charismatic as many of those around him, nothing to be ashamed of when the cast also includes the wonderful Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, and David Oyelowo, among others.

First of all, Black Panther is a solid Marvel movie. It's not great though, and it's certainly not the best of the lot, at least not in terms of simple entertainment value and superhero antics. The action beats are, for the most part, a bit understated, and this is a more thoughtful look at how best to use superpowers (be they physical or societal).

Director Ryan Coogler continues his hot streak, also teaming up with Joe Robert Cole to work on the script here, and his decisions transform what could easily have been a generic superhero film, with a different cultural flavour, into something that somehow remains focused throughout on both the superficial fun and also the issues that will encourage dialogue long after the end credits have rolled.

While I have already mentioned the notion of how power can be used, there's more to Black Panther than just that. Perhaps it's almost inevitable, given the natural resources that Wakanda has (it contains a huge amount of vibranium, apparently), that viewers are given comments on colonialism, both subtle and not-so-subtle. There's also the obvious element of representation and equality running throughout the whole thing, themes explored within the film that bleed beyond the edges of every frame and emanate out towards every viewer, for better or worse (in the case of idiots who view it as an antagonistic assault on their fragile egos).

While not the perfect modern classic that some might want it to be, the fact that Black Panther so expertly blends blockbuster beats with a relevance and social conscience for an audience demographic who rarely see representation on this level is well worth celebrating. I think that it IS an important film in the here and now, and I think it has been long overdue. But, most of all, I think that it's a good film. And that, as silly and shallow as it may sound, comes before everything else, and then allows everything else to work as well as it clearly has.

7/10

Black Panther is available to order here.
And there's a different, kind of American-flavoured, link here.


Monday, 12 March 2018

Witchcraft 666: The Devil's Mistress (1994)

Remember that bit in The Wedding Singer when Adam Sandler performs a song that was written partially before and partially after he'd had his heart broken? He cries out "somebody kill me, please", or something like that. Many of the lines are just a primal scream for love and a way to end his situation. I mention it here because it also sums up how I am currently feeling about my foolish attempt to work through the Witchcraft movie series.

This is the sixth film. I have, if I remember correctly, about another ten to go. Ten. And it's clear that they've already delivered any decent ideas and storylines within the first few films. Summarising the plot of this one is about as pointless as walking around town in my underpants, picking up leaves and throwing them into my one item of clothing, scalding myself with hot water, and offering a fresh cuppa to everyone who walks by me.

It's now the turn of Jerry Spicer to play Will Spanner, the legal eagle with a background that has already involved more corpses and magical shenanigans than both Murder, She Wrote and The Dresden Files. Spanner is approached by a couple of cops to help them find a serial killer who seems to be choosing his targets based on some specific requirements. And you get a number of softcore sexy sequences in which men slobber over boobs. That's about all I can tell you.

Director Julie Davis also co-wrote the film with Peter E. Fleming, which I imagine involved the two of them discussing how much the plot really had to make sense in between the shots of naked breasts (spoiler . . . the answer is not much). As for the technical side of things, Davis surely just asked the sound guys to try keeping the microphones out of shot, asked the lighting guys to always be ready to focus on the naked breasts, and somehow managed to convince her cast not to burst out laughing as they uttered some ridiculous dialogue (although the script is on a par with other instalments in the series).

Spicer has no charisma in the lead role, Kurt Alan and John E. Holiday do a bit better as the cops who ask for his help, Craig Stepp and Bryan Nutter are quite dire in very different ways, and Debra Beatty, Shannon McLeod, Stephania Swinney, and Jenny Bransford are all game enough to take on their thankless roles as a step towards something, anything, better down the line.

You will be able to get through this if you like seeing boobs, but that really is the only plus point to this film. And, no matter how shallow you may think yourself, gratuitous nudity alone isn't really a good enough subsitute for decent acting, decent plotting, and a decent movie experience.

2/10

The DVD costs a fortune, so buy Haxan instead.
Americans can get it on Criterion here.

Nothing to do with this film, but still the sexiest witch ever . . . Samantha!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Errementari: The Blacksmith And The Devil (2017)

There are many times when I am happy that I don't ever sit in the dark of a cinema with a pen and torch, taking notes and distracting everyone else around me with my small beacon of bad manners. I like to just sit back and take in every aspect of a movie, and I generally make a mental note of elements that I can then flesh out later, during my writing of reviews. But there are rare occasions when I am not so happy about my lack of notes, and this is one of them.

I THINK I have enough of the characters and cast names nailed down, but I welcome any corrections from others who have seen the film.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me get to the main review. Errementari: The Blacksmith And The Devil is based on an old folk tale, and if you're as unaware of it as I was then just know that it's something that runs along the lines of a Faustian pact. A blacksmith, Patxi (Kandido Uranga), spends his life shut up in his intimidating home, avoiding interactions with the local villagers. This situation looks set to change when an official type of gent comes to the village and claims that he is seeking a large amount of gold that is hidden somewhere in the area. It must be hidden at Patxi's home, which leads to a party heading out there to force their way inside. Meanwhile, a little girl named Usue (Uma Bracaglia) has already infiltrated the home of the blacksmith and discovered that he is keeping a small boy imprisoned in a cage. Moments later, the blacksmith is dealing with Usue, a demon named Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy), and that crowd trying to get inside his home. He's also due to be taken to Hell at some point, an idea that appeals to Usue, as she knows her mother is supposed to be residing there after committing suicide.

I'm just about as happy with that summary as I can be, despite how clumsy it might seem. I don't want to spoil any potential surprises for viewers, and there are definitely some fun twists and turns in the second half of the film that utilise interesting ideas about dealing with demons, as well as what happens to those who go to Hell.

Director Paul Urkijo Alijo, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Asier Guerricaechevarria, may not get things perfect, the film has some notable pacing issues when it comes to the third act, but he's definitely someone to keep an eye on, having already cut his teeth on some genre-soaked short films. There are a number of very impressive practical effects on display here, with Sartael and some other demonic forms presented in a way that I haven't seen so impressively rendered since the iconic performance by Tim Curry in Legend, and the production value throughout is of the highest quality.

Deftly balancing the fantastical elements with some comedy and a huge helping of heart, this is a great example of how to present a classic tale to modern audiences without having to patronise viewers or compromise the material. The cast all do their best to sell the characters and events - Uranga is more a man of action than words, Bracaglia is innocent and adaptable to the strange situation, and Sagardoy is a delightful mix of evil and pathetic - and every one of the supporting players manages to do equally good work.

You also get a lovely score, plenty of fiery scenes shot in a way that make you feel the heat emanating off the screen, a punchline to pretty much every set up, and some imagery in the last few scenes that blend technical wizardry with a nice economical approach to capably raise the material to the level of the outright mythological.

8/10

Not sure when this will get a wider release, in the meantime you can buy Faust, if you like.


Saturday, 10 March 2018

Primal Rage (2018)

Primal Rage is a near-textbook example of how to take a decent idea, and a smattering of fun moments, and fumble it in numerous ways that leaves you with a disappointing end result. It's not awful. It just ends up throwing in too many elements that drags it down.

Things start off well. The two lead characters are quickly established as Ashley (Casey Gagliardi) picks up her partner (Max, played by Andrew Joseph Montgomery) after an unfortunate stint in prison. While driving through some quieter areas of the countryside, they hit a wounded man. That's not good, especially as Max was drinking a beer while in the passenger seat. Things go from bad to worse, leading to both of them stuck in the woods. And they're not alone. There's a group of gun-toting locals hunting there. And something else.

I was happy with the opening section of Primal Rage. I liked the leads, I liked the small character details in the script, and I thought I was in for a tight, economical horror that was going to make good use of a sasquatch. Then things started to go downhill.

There's a story strand involving a local Sheriff (Eloy Casados) and his deputy (Justin Rain) that starts off interesting but then takes far too long to get to the main point, in time for the grand finale. There's a strange mix of comedy and menace with those gun-toting locals, undermining what could have been some straightforward moments of tension. And there are the initial appearances of the sasquatch, (unintentionally?) comedic as it pops up in various places like a crappy wood-dwelling stalker.

Director Pactrick Magee, who also co-wrote the film with Jay Lee, makes very good use of his budget. There are fine practical effects on display here, from the kills to the main creature to an ancient-looking witch, the cast all do well, and the shooting style usually manages to keep up with the action without ever being too frenetic or choppy.

The biggest problem, and I feel bad for having to point it out, is that the script has one or two ideas too many. There are two very different potential movies here, they just happen to be meshed together into the one feature. Primal Rage is a film that would work best as a fairly short, brisk, fun creature feature that takes time to build characters up before killing them off in some impressively splattery moments. It's a shame that Magee didn't see that when he turned his 80-90 minute movie into something that feels far too overlong at 106 minutes.

5/10

Here is a better, similar, film for you to buy
Americans can buy it here.