Friday, 30 November 2018

How To Talk To Girls At Parties (2017)

It's the 1970s and three young lads (Enn, played by Alex Sharp, Vic, played by Abraham Lewis, and John, played by Ethan Lawrence) want nothing more than to revel in anything that retains the essence of pure punk and be allowed to revel in the company of girls that they fancy. Lost on their way to an after party, they end up in a building that houses a number of aliens. But they don't realise that the inhabitants are aliens. Enn meets the lovely Zan (Elle Fanning), who then runs away with him to see more of the outside world, and to experience some punk.

Based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, this is a blend of genres that will be familiar to anyone who has had the pleasure of reading his work. Gaiman loves to throw together different ingredients to create his own new recipes, and I am sure that the source material of this is very enjoyable. It's unfortunate that the film doesn't get things right when translating the material to the screen.

Director John Cameron Mitchell, who also worked on the script with Philippa Goslett, doesn't seem to know what to do with the story. Unable to decide on whether to focus on some comedy, the sci-fi elements, or the romance, or even the desperate need of the youngsters who found a voice in the sound of punk, he fails to find the right approach to anything, and is unable to compensate for it with required style and energy. To make a film that is so based around punk rock without a sense of energy is just, well, it would seem to be a difficult thing to do. Yet Mitchell manages it.

The script works when providing shorthand notes on the alien life cycles, but falters in so many other scenes, either by not making the dialogue sharp enough or just giving characters lines to say that feel tonally jarring compared to other moments in the film. Not that it's entirely unsuccessful. There ARE some genuinely good moments (most of the scenes featuring Nicole Kidman are great, and the very end of the film is surprisingly effective) but they make the lesser scenes all the more disappointing.

The youngsters all do decent work, even if Fanning feels less convincing when she's called upon to try her hand at singing like an actual punk, but it's the older cast members who help to save this from being unwatchable. Kidman, sporting a decent British accent too, is absolutely wonderful as an older punk who has sacrificed a hell of a lot in the hope of being present during great moments in punk history, Joanna Scanlan is good as the mother of Enn, and Ruth Wilson is great fun as a dangerous alien who seems to enjoy all of the life cycle her species goes through.

Some people may get more out of this than I did, of course, but it was hugely disappointing for me. Not being sure of the tone and focus is one thing, not making the best use of Fanning is another, but to not even have a good enough soundtrack to detract from those failings . . . well, that should have been avoided at all costs, considering the wild, strong spirit at the heart of the whole thing.

4/10

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


Thursday, 29 November 2018

Shoplifters (2018)

Blood is thicker than water. You can choose your friends but can't choose your family. Whatever happens, your mother is always your mother. These are some common phrases that many people tend to use as 100% true statements. I don't think they're true. At all. And, considering the content of Shoplifters, I don't think writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda does either.

Shoplifter revolves around a family unit that has, at its core, a father (Osamu, played by Lily Franky), a mother (Nobuyo, played by Sakura Ando), and one son (Shota, played by Kairi Jō). There's also a grandmother and one other, younger, woman in the house. They have their moments, but they're not the beating heart of the tale. Osamu and Shota are the shoplifters, perfecting their craft daily and making a decent score from each trip to the shops. When they find a very young girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) they eventually decide to let her stay with them. It seems that Yuri has been stuck in an unhappy situation for most of her brief childhood, so her new life is an improvement, even if she ends up being introduced to the shoplifting life.

That's one main aspect of Shoplifters, the fact that a family made up of bad people can still be a good thing for the ones they love and care for. The main adults that we are watching have some major flaws, but those flaws don't seem to matter so much when they're also shown to be offering something that was missing from the lives of the young ones in their lives. The other main aspect of the movie is that family doesn't have to be made up of the people assigned to you at birth. You CAN pick who becomes your family. There are two quotes that stand out here, although I will have to paraphrase. One is about how the bonds you choose are stronger than the bonds simply forced upon you. The other is when a character states that giving birth to a child doesn't automatically make you a mother. It's often the case that we hear about men not being fathers just because they helped to conceive the child, but the same is equally true of mothers (although they go through much more on the journey from conception to birth, of course).

The acting from all involved here is superb, so I will just single out both Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki, who give two of the best child performances I have seen in recent years. The former is at an age where he is starting to ask a few more questions and consider acts of rebellion, the latter is young and innocent without being overly delicate or precocious. As an ensemble piece, this is pretty much flawless when it comes to the acting.

It helps that Koreeda has crafted such a wonderful tale, one that unfolds with a few twists and turns that allow you to question your own views without ever feeling as if the rug was pulled out from under your feet. The film is full of a precariously balanced state of peace and contentment that you suspect may not last, and indeed feel cannot last for these characters, yet you want it to. You want it to last forever.

There's a scene in the final act of Shoplifters that has the main characters all enjoying a day at the beach. It's a sweet, uplifting scene. If Koreeda has worked his magic on you, as he did on me, then you want the film to just end there. That's a family having a pretty perfect family day out. But that's not where the story ends. What family story does?

9/10

Shoplifters can be picked up here, eventually.



Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Prime Time: Slapped! The Movie (2018)

It normally doesn't take much to put a movie on my radar. Someone can mention that they loved or hated it. A mainstream release will be obvious, you cannot avoid those blockbuster adverts online, on the sides of buses, and everywhere else. And I sometimes even get communications from film-makers directly. That's what happened on this occasion. I politely replied that I didn't really have the time or space in my schedule to check this film out, but then it turned out that I did. Would it be worth a watch? Well, it gives me a blog post, if nothing else. But for people involved in the film, unless reviewers really love their final product, or at least offer constructive critiicism, it's hard to tell what they might gain from a review that could end up being lukewarm, or even negative.

As ever, I approached this with an open mind. The trailer hadn't won me over, although I've yet to see a great trailer cut for an independent comedy film, but I had time on my hands and my ever-present sense of optimism.

Slapped! The Movie is a bodyswap film based on the web series, co-created by stars Alex Magana (who also directs here) and Matt Lowe. Alex and Matt play . . . Alex and Matt, two best friends who are quite clearly opposites of one another. Alex looks after his body, has quite a good life, but has no luck with women. Matt is a bit of a lazy slob, has a great girlfriend (Alysse Fozmark), and is woken up most mornings by his lovely mother (Aimee Binford) and her equally lovely same-sex partner (Erin Hagen). Long story short, the two are slapped by a hobo after a drunken night out and end up in each other's bodies. Various challenges lie ahead. There's a triathlon that Alex is due to compete in, a comedy night that Matt has signed up for, Alex has a chance to win over a woman he likes (Jenna, played by Shelby Meader) while he has the mind of Matt, and Matt has to just avoid having sex with his girlfriend while he has the mind of Alex.

There are lots of silly jokes here that revolve around body fluids. If you don't like to see fake semen onscreen then this isn't the film for you. It gets more screentime than most of the supporting cast members. There's also some urine and vomit, which may be a triple-bill that Magana and Lowe viewed as their equivalent of blood, sweat, and tears. Some of these juvenile gags made me laugh, but I'm not a big fan of toilet humour so I would have hated this film if that was all it had going for it. Surprisingly, there's a bit more here that proves amusing enough for undemanding viewers. Alex lusting after Matt's mother while in the body of Matt is pretty twisted and funny stuff, a scene in which one character runs towards the other to fight him is good (avoid the trailer to avoid that being spoiled for you), and there's a very funny interlude in which Alex decides to head along to a game of bubble ball that is clearly inteended for kids only.

Despite their failings as leading men (sorry, Alex and Matt aren't the most natural actors), the central pair don't do a terrible job. It's a pleasant surprise, in fact, when you realise that you've watched over half the movie and stopped thinking of one, or both, as being very bloody annoying. Binford and Hagen are bloody good sports, and provide a lot of the biggest laughs as they mollycoddle Matt, and Fozmark and Meader both do alright in their roles. Okay, Meader is quite bad but she looks like a believable romantic interest for Alex.

The problem is that this runs for just under two hours, and both Magana and Lowe seem to have an approach that involves throwing everything at the screen and hoping some of it sticks. Some of it does, some really doesn't (I didn't find myself entertained by any of the hallucinations shown onscreen), and some gags feel amusing but better-suited to a different movie (Alex checking his devices while an art teacher discusses how the lesson is a break from the trappings of the modern world). I think both men either need an editor or need to limit themselves to shorter skits. The bodyswap concept is given a fun twist here, and it's fun to see how dark and twisted things get as the plot unfolds, but there's too much that is completely unnecessary.

The end result falls a bit below average, which is a shame, especially when some judicious editing and a bit more time spent on the pacing and honing the gags that worked best would have resulted in something that, while still no masterpiece, would have been a very pleasant surprise for those who stumbled across it while looking for something to tickle their funny bone.

3/10

You can watch Slapped! The Movie here.
Americans can watch it here.


Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (2018)

LOOK AT HOW MUCH MONEY WE SPENT!

That's the main thing I took away from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald, a film that proves, in no small measure, that the Wizarding World movie universe, once a consistent stream of brilliant blockbuster entertainment, has now turned into a turgid trickle of diminishing returns. Remember the uproar about the casting of Johnny Depp in this movie? He's the least of its problems.

LOOK AT EVERYTHING WE THREW INTO THIS SCENE!

Starting as it means to go on, there's an action sequence that shows Grindelwald escaping from his imprisonment. I think, given the title of the movie and the advertising, it's not a spoiler to reveal that. This could have been a good action sequence. It's lively, imaginative, and sets up the villain perfectly. It's also far too busy, messily edited, dark, and hard to find engaging. I must warn you now that every main action sequence in the rest of the film follows this pattern (well, okay, most of them are lighter so at least you can see more of what you can't really see, if you know what I mean). The plot sees Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) trying to get hold of a young man (Ezra Miller) who may hold the key to his plans regarding the uprising of the magical folk. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, ill-advisedly attempting some accent that I guess is meant to remind you that Richard Harris played the first elder incarnation) wants Newt Sacamander (Eddie Redmayne) to get to the young man first. Dumbledore cannot battle Grindelwald himself, for reasons that become apparent as the plot unfolds. Newt doesn't want to pick sides in whatever trouble is brewing, but it eventually becomes apparent that he won't have a choice.

LOOK AT THE BUDGET ALL OVER THIS SEQUENCE!

Sometimes I make myself sandwiches to eat for lunch at work. And sometimes I make them the night before, to save me being cold and bleary-eyed and miserable in the morning while I butter bread and throw stuff together. A tuna mayonnaise sandwich is a tasty treat. But if you make it the night before, and if you like as much mayo in there as I do, then it's a cold, soggy, squishy mess by the time you try to eat it for your lunch. Sadly, that sandwich still holds more warmth and appeal than most performances from Eddie Redmayne. It's not that he's a bad actor, and he seems like a lovely person when I have seen him interviewed, but he seems unable to exude any real charm or sweetness in his roles, including this one, where those traits are pretty vital. The problem may not lie with the cast, however, as very few people make a good impression here. Depp is excellent in his role, Law does a decent job, and Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol are once again very enjoyable in the roles of Jacob and Queenie, but Miller isn't allowed to feel like anything other than a plot device, Katherine Waterston maintains her record of putting in a performance that barely registers, Zoe Kravitz is stifled, Callum Turner is bad enough to make a suitable brother to Redmayne's character, and the less said about the casting of one or two other characters we have seen in the Harry Potter movies the better. Claudia Kim and Poppy Corby-Tuech both do better than most of the bigger names, a pleasant surprise considering their characters are really just cohorts of the main characters being pursued by our gang of "heroes". 

LOOK AT WHAT WE DID JUST BECAUSE WE COULD DO IT!

J. K. Rowling wrote the script for this and, while I wouldn't deign to pretend I know my way around a page of words better than one of the best-selling authors in the world, she seems to have lost her way. I'm not sure if it's down to this tale being stretced out beyond breaking point or if she just enjoyed losing herself in her own world so much that she forgot to edit, or think of how certain changes to her world for the sake of this series would change what fans already know (and if you ever think you have a good head for trivia then just try to outwit a Harry Potter fan and see how long you last). There are so many diversions here that are completely unnecessary, fan service that will only irritate who know what should and shouldn't be possible, and adding to a 2+ hour runtime in a film that should really be looking to pare down anything that doesn't keep the kids enthralled enough to forget about how they need the loo every 30 minutes.

LOOK AT ALL OF THE STUFF! WE DID THAT! WE PAID FOR THAT! LOVE US!

If Rowling is being rather self-indulgent and careless, director David Yates is enabling her every step of the way. There's not one scene here that doesn't feel ridiculously overstuffed with . . . things, be they CGI creatures, effects-filled environments, too many small characters who didn't need to be in shot, and sauce and garnish on things that would be arguably more effective served up without them. This is a hat that has a band placed around the brim. And that brim is given a pinned flower in the front. Then the rest of the hat has a full bouquet placed on the top. That bouquet has fake bees attached by wires, to look like they're buzzing around. And birds are placed higher up. There's still a hat in there somewhere, but nobody can tell whether or not it's a well-made model underneath all of the artistic additions.

IT'S ALL POINTLESS BUT LOOKS GREAT, RIGHT?

Ultimately, there's a basic level of competency here, and spectacle, that still merits giving the film some plus points. But it's very difficult to imagine anyone coming out of this with a sense of complete satisfaction. Younger viewers will get a bit bored, I suspect. Older viewers may also get a bit bored, and find some bits just too childish. Dedicated fans will find details that annoy them. Casual fans will wonder why the film is full of so many diversions that they may not appreciate. And film fans will be generally displeased that they sat through a magical fantasy film that a) didn't feel as magical as it should have, and b) ultimately ended up being fairly pointless filler, considering how things end compared to how they started.

You'll go and see it anyway, and it will make loads of money, but I don't recommend it. I still want a niffler though.

4/10

You will also be able to buy the movie here.
Americans will be able to get it here.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Mubi Monday: We Are What We Are (2013)

A remake of a 2010 Mexican movie (which I have yet to see), We Are What We Are is a film I'd been hearing good things about for the past few years. I really wanted to see the original film first, but the timing didn't work out. That leaves me with this insular experience, nothing to compare and contrast it to, so anyone who has seen the 2010 movie should bear that in mind.

The Parker family are a strange lot. The father (Frank, played by Bill Sage) seems to spend a lot of his time reminding his daughters (Rose, played by Julia Garner, and Iris, played by Ambyr Childers) of the importance of their family traditions. There's also a younger son (Rory, played by Jack Gore) to be looked after. And the family are cannibals, which starts to come to the attention of a local doctor (Michael Parks) after he performs an autopsy on the dead mother. As the doctor is also looking for his missing daughter, he has a vested interest in finding out the truth, no matter how unpalatable it may be (no pun intended).

A family drama with occasional dollops of gore, this is a fairly tame and aesthetically-muted film from director Jim Mickle (who reworks the original into screenplay form with his favoured muse, Nick Damici, once again). Fans of his style will recognise his fingerprints throughout but it's impressive to see him create something that manages to feel like his work while also feeling removed from any of his previous outings.

The cast are uniformly excellent, even Gore as the youngest family member. Garner gets the most to do, and handles it all very capably, but Sage and Childers do great work, and Parks gives another of those performances that made him such an additional joy to watch in the latter portion of his career. There are also good supporting turns from Kelly Mcgillis and Wyatt Russell (both also effectively used by Mickle in previous films).

A cannibal movie more about the baggage that can be passed along from one generation to the next, We Are What We Are may prove slightly disappointing to anyone wanting blood-drenched gut-munching. But it should be a worthwhile viewing for those who go in expecting a quality drama with some thrills and a side dish of viscera.

7/10

You can chew on the movie here.
Americans can eat this.


Sunday, 25 November 2018

Netflix And Chill: The Party (2017)

Black and white, very stagey, without any major special effects, lacking any major brand recognition, The Party is about as far removed from most of your blockbuster movies as it is possible to be, and yet it proves to be just as enjoyable and gripping as any of them, for two simple reasons. A very good script and consistently great acting.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet, a woman who has just been promoted to a major position in her political party. Things aren't that good between her and her husband (Bill, played by Timothy Spall) but they will keep a polite smile pasted on and enjoy the party they are set to host. Well, that is the plan. It starts to unravel quickly, however, when the guests arrive and interact with one another, trading sweet barbs and not-so-subtle digs as secrets come to light and tension starts to build and build, to almost unbearable levels.

Written and directed by Sally Potter, with Walter Donohue credited as a story editor, The Party uses some standard melodramatic staples to show what happens when individuals start to forget how their beliefs, be they philosophical or political or religious, impact upon the lives of others. There's a lot going on here, either intentionally or unintentionally (I suspect the former), that underlines both the danger of trying to maintain the status quo while major upheaval is causing the ground to undulate and crumble beneath your feet and the pain that can come from making sudden decisions that will reverberate throughout the whole circle of people around you.

I'm not going to bore you by repeatedly saying how great everyone is. I'll just list the cast and who they play. Aside from the leads, both seeming to relish such great roles, you have Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz as a married couple hoping that this is their last friendly engagement before they divorce, Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer are a lesbian couple, with Mortimer pregnant with triplets, and Cillian Murphy is a banker who turns up without his wife, as she has been delayed, and seems intent on causing some trouble, considering the fact that he has a gun secreted on his person and is stuffiing cocaine up his nose within minutes of his arrival. Everyone does fantastic work, and all feel perfectly suited to their roles, but my personal favourite was Clarkson, who I wish could be present at every polite party I have to attend for the rest of my life.

Very cleverly done in the way that a number of points are made while also leaving plenty of blank spaces to be filled in by whatever viewers want to project there, The Party is a thought-provoking comedy that also holds up as something brilliantly entertaining. If you appreciate films that focus on quality dialogue and acting then this is a high priority. There are times when the experience of watching it is almost sublime.

9/10

You can invite yourself to The Party here.
Americans get a digital option here.
Yesterday was a great day in terms of traffic/pennies and I thank everyone who did a bit of shopping through some links here.


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Shudder Saturday: Still/Born (2017)

Movies are like jokes, in my opinion. They can be made about absolutely anything. what matters is the context and the motivation. But it's fair to say that some people may not be able to watch Still/Born, with the horror being derived from the aftermath of something that is a hugely traumatic experience for any mother to go through.

Christie Burke plays Mary, a young mother who now has a son named Adam. That's all well and good, but Adam was born with a twin brother named Jonathan, who was stillborn. Mary is obviously seriously affected by this, to the point where she starts thinking that a demonic entity is after her son. Unfortunately, everyone else simply sees Mary in a state of deteriorating mental health, and the only one who could cause harm to her son, as far as they are concerned, is Mary herself. Her husband (Jesse Moss) is sympathetic, to a point, and she also has some support from a good neighbour (Rebecca Olson) and her own mother (Sheila McCarthy). She's also seeing a doctor (Michael Ironside), but her refusal to be completely honest with him doesn't help. As things start to escalate, Mary becomes convinced that the only way to save her son is to make a sacrifice.

It's hard to be overly critical of director Brandon Christensen, who also co-wrote the script with Colin Minihan (still probably best known to genre fans just now as one half of The Vicious Brothers). Making his feature debut, Christensen has certainly picked a subject that contains layered levels of horror. It's something that needs to be handled just right, and both the script and direction allow time for a dark fog of sadness to permeate scenes in between the standard scares. Unfortunately, those standard scares are real mixed bag. The first hour is a slog, with a number of lazy, but admittedly effective, jump scares and some fleeting glimpses of graphic nastiness that some viewers definitely won't appreciate. It also makes for a tough viewing as you wonder whether this is a standard horror movie or a look at the world through the eyes of someone in a state of painful suffering after experiencing the worst loss of their life. That uneasy blend lasts right up until the final scenes, with a coda that feels equally dispiriting because of what it reveals to another main character. Some may argue that a scene between Mary and a mother who previously seemed to share her experience (played by Jenn Griffin) keeps the film rooted in more standard scares. I would have to disagree. It feels like a shared hallucination, mainly because of the way in which nobody else is ever brought in to the proceedings at the right time to offer help.

This is a film that floods the screen with a sense of helplessness, almost as if it dresses up the main character in heavy clothing and forces her to wade into deeper and deeper water. That's a hard thing to watch, at times, but would fit more in a film that wasn't also trying to deliver the required genre goods.

Burke is good in the lead role, managing to show her terror and paranoia without her performance devolving into a mass of wide-eyed hair-pulling and shrieking (as can sometimes happen). Moss does fine in his role, although he's at the mercy of a script that has him having to be kept out of the way while things get worse for his onscreen wife. Ironside is always good to see, and his small role here is uncharacteristically non-threatening, and Olson and McCarthy both do solid work.

Still/Born is good. It walks a fine line between being considerate to the central issue that spurs on the horror and being in completely bad taste, and I think I would recommend avoiding it if you are one of the many women who have experienced the loss that Mary goes through (or at least give yourself ample time to prepare for your viewing), but it just does enough to keep itself in the right. Only just.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.
I also value anyone who reads this blog from other countries, I just don't have the time or space to list links for every different territory. Apologies.


Friday, 23 November 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Klute (1971)

Donald Sutherland plays John Klute, a detective who is hired to try and trace the whereabouts of a missing man. The only clue he has are some rude letters to a New York prostitute (Bree Daniels, played by Jane Fonda). As Klute tries to make progress with the case, he becomes more closely connected to Bree, wandering further into her world and finding out more about a woman who has spent most of her time maintaining a barrier between herself and anyone around her.

Written by Andy and Dave Lewis, this is a film that is part detective story and part character study. Despite the main character, and some enjoyably frank conversations about sex and why people shouldn't feel asahmed about doing something they enjoy so much, it's not made to be any kind of erotic thriller. It's simply a detective story that looks at some very different attiitudes to sex while bringing together two main characters who seem to be polar opposites of one another. That's not to say that the content lacks any kind of sexual frisson, not at all. Every time Fonda is onscreen there's an aura emanating from her frankness and confidence that perfectly shows why her character would be so greatly desired by her clientele.

Director Alan J. Pakula, a man with one hell of an impressive directorial filmography to check out, allows viewers to get lost in the midst of this potential blossoming relationship. We spend an awful lot of time watching Fonda go about her day, either speaking to her therapist or shopping or being with clients, and then see the immediate comparison to Sutherland's much quieter character. Despite his name being used as the title of the movie, Klute is always secondary to Bree, and the main detective strand is always secondary to the exploration of the different attitudes of the leads.

In case you couldn't tell already, both Sutherland and Fonda are fantastic. The latter is the definite highlight but it's unfair to completely overlook how well Sutherland does in an atypically understated performance. Elsewhere, Charles Cioffi does okay in a small role and Roy Scheider adds another great role to his roster (I am slightly embarrassed that I only ever knew him from the masterpiece that is Jaws for a number of decades).

Falling slightly between the likes of Chinatown and Blow Up, with a dash of onscreen self-awareness and self-analysis that would suit a character in a Woody Allen movie, Klute is not a film you should be overly concerned with categorising. You should just seek it out and find out why so many others have already heaped lots of praise upon it. Disappointing finale aside, this is well worth your time.

8/10

Klute can be bought here.
And I am sure other places have it, but I don't see many opportunities. Click the link and buy whatever you like, it all works for me.


Thursday, 22 November 2018

Skyscraper (2018)

Part disaster movie, part action movie, Skyscraper is probably best described as simply a Dwayne Johnson movie. It's dumb fun. Yet it's another mis-step for Johnson, with a bit too much of the dumb and not enough of the fun parts, hopefully serving as a reminder to the hulking star that he shouldn't rely on these vehicles to keep him ranked as high as he currently is (in terms of box office and all-round likability).

Johnson plays a security expert named Will Sawyer. He has a family that he loves, a new job that places him in the biggest skyscraper in the world, and an injury that has left him with one leg (the other being a prosthetic). He's also about to have a major headache when the skyscraper is taken over by some rent-a-villains, the top section is set ablaze, and he can only look on from afar as he realises learns that his family are trapped inside and he has no easy way to get back to them. But this is Dwayne Johnson, dammit, so you know he's going to find a way.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who has a background steeped in comedy and used Johnson so well in Central Intelligence, Skyscraper is riffing on a few very famous action thrillers that take place in very tall buildings. I'm not going to namecheck them, simply because I feel petty enough to refuse to place their names in any context alongside this film. It's the epitome of a hollow blockbuster, with very few things to care about in between the explosions and fights.

Neve Campbell plays Sarah Sawyer, and she gets a couple of decent moments, but she's the only other adult character worth a damn. Oh sure, nobody wants to see the kids in too much peril, but you could say that about most kids. The two here are perfectly fine in roles that could have been played by any one of thousands of eligibile contenders. At least I remember them more than ANY of the other people who are going about onscreen not being Johnson. Chin Han, Roland Moller, Noah Taylor (okay, I always like seeing him in movies), Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan (so close to being good if she was given some better material), Adrian Holmes, and Elfina Luk are the main people that you're unlikely to remember when you see them in other movie roles.

It's not really the fault of the cast. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Thurber. His script is weak, even for something that aims to be simple and bombastic. You hear some of the dialogue in the first few scenes and know who is going to turn out to be a villain, you are shown some tech in the building and know it's just going to come into play later on in the movie, you get something cold and stale at every step of the way, which is majorly disappointing. There are better ways to play with this kind of material, dumb fun doesn't have to be so lazy and obvious, but Thurber somehow thinks that he's done a good enough job for the intended audience. He hasn't.

And here's my almost inevitable grace note on which I end things. There's still just enough to make this an average time-waster, as opposed to a painfully bad experience. The charisma of Johnson alone adds a point or two, and there are a few excellent moments that have him trying to stay alive without succumbing to the constant pull of gravity. But who would have thought that this would be the weakest action film starring Johnson in a year that also saw him headline Rampage? Anybody? Yeah, me neither.

5/10

You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.


Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Prime Time: Early Man (2018)

It was only a matter of time until Aardman delivered a movie that left me even slightly disappointed. The fact that it took this long, and that Early Man is still an enjoyable enough bit of fun, if not one I will rush to rewatch, is testament to the quality of their work. From Chicken Run to the Wallace & Gromit movie, and then the wonderful The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! I even really like Flushed Away, and enjoyed the slightly lower-tier movie outing for Shaun The Sheep. And I couldn't even begin to narrow the gags down to a Top 10 if we were to discuss the many wonderful short films they have made (although Gromit laying down enough track ahead of himself as he speeds along on a model train will always be my favourite of the lot).

Early Man is the story of a group of cave-dwelling people who end up being displaced from their valley by some giant machines, all controlled by men who are living it up in the Bronze Age. When one man (Dug, voiced by Eddie Redmayne) goes to find out more, he ends up challenging the more advanced people to a game of football. Winning will get them their valley back, but losing will see them used as miners.

Director Nick Park, who also developed the story idea with Mark Burton (and Burton wrote the screenplay with James Higginson), doesn't seem to be too sure of what he wants here. There are the usual wonderful visual gags, although not as many of them as we've had in his previous films, but the combination of the prehistoric setting and football match challenge makes for a strange combination that doesn't quite work. Some people will be wanting more dino-centric gags, others may want some more time with the football, and neither group will be wholly satisfied with the end result.

There's another problem though, and that is the voice cast. It's just not very . . . good. Eddie Redmayne is perfectly acceptable in the main role, but that's all he is. Never the most charismatic or warm performers, his voice work is at least better than most of the roles that utilise his entire physical presence. Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams both do okay, the former as an enemy and the latter as an ally, but they're hidden behind some pointless and silly accents (unless my old ears have started to deceive me). Timothy Spall is a welcome presence, Rob Brydon does well, Miriam Margolyes is an amusingly stern Queen, and there are a number of familiar British celebrities making up the rest of the main troupe.

Despite those story and cast issues, Early Man still does enough to make for a fun 90 minutes (well, closer to 80 minutes before the end credits roll), and I am sure that younger viewers will appreciate it more than I did. It does, after all, have dinosaurs, cute rabbits, a helpful boar named Hognob, and a cast of obvious heroes to root for and villains to boo and hiss at.

6/10

Early Man can be bought here.
Americans can buy it here.


Monday, 19 November 2018

Mubi Monday: Suspiria (2018)

There's no such thing as an untouchable classic, when it comes to movies, but that still doesn't stop you from receiving certain news with trepidation. And when I heard that this remake of Suspiria was finally coming to fruition, I had the same reaction as many others. Why bother? What could be done to improve on the original? How bad would it end up being? Then I started to hear some advance word and some views from people I trusted, a lot of them saying that the film was, amazingly, good. Not just good, but also great. And not just great as a film, but even great in comparison to the original. Well, curiosity got the better of me, as I knew it would, and I headed along as soon as I could to see what all the fuss was about.

Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, a young woman who makes quite an impression from her very first appearance in a ballet school she has long dreamed of attending. The main teacher is Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), and she takes a major interest in Susie, viewing her as the potential conduit for a performance/ceremony that is necessary for the continuing good of the witches. Oh yes, the ballet school has a high number of witches on the staff, all working in service of the powerful Mother Of Sighs, and Susie is a valuable asset to all of them.

Director Luca Guadagnino has certainly created an impressive work of art here. The visuals are often absolutely gorgeous, from the many mirrored surfaces to the shots of bare feet working on smooth wooden floors, from the nightmare sequences depicted to a brutal blend of dance and physical assault that will leave most viewers stunned (it's the first, and arguably only, big horror moment). Accompanied by a fine score from Thom Yorke, it's difficult to fault the style and aesthetic of the movie, for the most part. There were times while watching this movie where I was trying to take in every single detail, even if the framing left a lot of the screen full of relatively empty space. Mirrors play a big part in things, and not just the obvious reflections that contain the dancers in their main space, but there's a constant, pleasing, mix of limbs, muscles, and undulating lines.

The cast who cause a lot of those lines all deserve heaps of praise, especially the younger contingent. This is the best that I've ever seen Johnson, delivering a performance so impressive that I'll now seek out the rest of her filmography (even those damn Grey films), and she's given great support by Mia Goth, playing a dancer named Sara who starts to get a bit too curious after the absence of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, doing well with a smaller role). Tilda Swinton is good, no denying that, but her performance is either far too similar to so many other performances we have seen from her or just completely unnecessary and self-indulgent.

And, speaking of completely unnecessary and self-indulgent, the script by David Kajganic is a real mess. There's no need for this film to be as long as it is, one main sub-plot feels completely unnecessary (and I know that some people may use that criticism to accuse me of missing the whole point of it - I got it, the film really didn't need it), and the whole thing is unbalanced by the fact that Susie always comes across as knowing that something is strange, yet never being put off by the strangeness. She is, in fact, drawn to it, unafraid and eager to find her place somewhere in the world that she immediately feels comfortable in. If the film was striding along a very different path from the original, which it does at times, then it wouldn't seem so bad. Sadly, it brings to mind too many comparisons, suffering when you think of the atmosphere created in the original, and the finale that Argento made as wild and vivid as this one is just overblown and silly.

You can't spend one minute trying to invert Suspiria and then the next running parallel to it, even going so far as to placing an obvious cameo appearance in there that will a) please some people, b) make others (like me) roll their eyes at the cynical attempt to get some easy goodwill, or c) not be recognised by younger viewers who may perhaps check this out before the original.

Yet I'll still rewatch this film, for the performance of Johnson and the dance sequences alone. I'll buy it and sit it on a shelf alongside the original. And I'll encourage people to make their own minds up about it. But I'll be ready to share this review and argue vehemently if they try to sell it as a remake equal to, or even superior than, the original.

6/10

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



Mubi Monday: Senna (2010)

Here is my complete knowledge of Formula 1 motor racing. It involves some streamlined cars racing round and round a variety of tracks, throughout the season. There have been drivers named Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Alain Prost, and Ayrton Senna. Ayrton Senna died on the track, a death that sent a shockwave through the racing world and devastated his many fans.

Now, having spent some afternoons clicking past Formula 1 because I found it boring, I didn't expect this documentary to work that well for me. I have come to learn a bit about the physical toll the sport takes on the drivers, and to admire the skill, but I will never be a huge fan. But that doesn't really matter here, because director Asif Kapadia keeps everything tightly focused, and the rules of the sport aren't that complicated to follow.

The first half of the film shows Senna rising through the ranks and becoming the teammate/main rival of Alain Prost, a rivalry that would define a few main seasons for both men, resulting in an astonishing end to things two years in a row (watch this to find out, or be reminded of, just how unbelievable things got). The second half feels heavily portentous, showing Senna growing more uneasy as he continues to push himself and any car he is driving to the very limits, and beyond, and speaks up on at least one occasion to address some safety concerns that he, and other drivers, felt could be improved.

The journey is a fascinating one, with Senna developing before our eyes from wide-eyed new kid on the block to more savvy old hand, burnt by experiences with the politics of the sport but still determined to never give less than 100% when behind the wheel.

Kapadia uses a great selection of archival footage, with some thrilling footage from the in-car cameras, and narration to tell a tale as gripping and intense as any fictional drama. It's a boy making good, overcoming some adversity in the shape of disapproving elders, and constantly looking to improve his potential, leading him almost inevitably to a tragic end.

In case it hasn't been made clear so far, this is an astoundingly good documentary. Fans of motor racing may enjoy it even more, but I cannot imagine anyone watching it and being unmoved by the depiction of the main events in the life of Senna. It has it all: humour, heart, thrills, some memorable "villains", and a very real, flesh and blood, hero (especially for anyone from Brazil).

9/10

You can buy Senna here.
Americans can buy it here.
And anyone can click on links and use those links to buy stuff, which helps me afford my movie-buying habit. So help an addict out.


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Netflix And Chill: Self/less (2015)

Warning: some plot spoilers lie ahead, and you may prefer to view this film with no advanced knowledge of the plot.

If I was a megarich businessman who was dying and I had the chance to have my consciousness transplanted into the body of Ryan Reynolds then I would do it, just as Ben Kingsley does here. But I would hope for a much smoother transition. Kingsley believes that he is buying a new body, you see, when it turns out that he's buying something that's already had one careful owner. And that gives him conflicting feelings, especially when the situation endangers a woman (Natalie Martinez) and young girl (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) he once loved, when he was still actually Reynolds and not Kingsley-Reynolds. This means that his procedure wasn't necessarily viewed as a success by the doctor (Matthew Goode) who performed it, and the doc has a lot of people ready to hunt Reynolds down and ensure that nobody finds out about the process, known as "shedding".

Written by Alex and David Pastor, who work together very often, Self/less is an enjoyable sci-fi action film that mixes Seconds with a little bit of The Bourne Identity (in enjoyable moments that see Reynolds remembering his army training as he fends off enemies). It's just a shame that there's not much more to it. It's not really thought-provoking or surprising enough throughout, there is certainly nothing here that won't be predicted by anyone with even the slightest knowledge of sci-fi, and the direction by Tarsem Singh is disappointingly lacking in any visual flair. The most unexpectedly entertaining section is a montage showing Reynolds having a great time in New Orleans, just before the trouble really starts for him, and it's then one obvious twist after another on the way to a finale that most will see coming almost right away.

Despite his billing, Kingsley is in the movie for a very brief amount of screentime. He does well in his role, but can largely be forgotten once Reynolds, who I tend to like in most movies, takes over. Martinez and Kinchen are both good, with the former having to be upset and shocked when she sees Reynolds back in her life, Victor Garber gives a great little turn as the best friend to Kingsley who eventually has to be told about, and convinced of, the situation, Goode is calm and cold throughout, and Derek Luke makes a great impression as the first friend that Reynolds makes in his new life.

Self/less is a decent enough watch, the 2-hour runtime passed by quickly enough and I enjoyed it while it was on. It just didn't bring anything new to the table, despite having the potential, and it's not one I will ever rush to rewatch. It's not even close to being the best "body-swap" movie starring Reynolds, considering how many he has starred in.

6/10

Self/less can be bought here.
Americans can get it here.


Saturday, 17 November 2018

Shudder Saturday: Mayhem (2017)

The second film in a short space of time to focus on a bout of extreme violence in an office environment (the other being The Belko Experiment), Mayhem may have suffered thanks to the timing of its release. Maybe. It also may have suffered due to the fact that not many people found it all that enjoyable. Once again, I find myself in the minority.

Steven Yeun is Derek Cho an ambitious white collar worker in your standard dog-eat-dog corporate environment. His day starts off badly (he can't find his favourite coffee cup), becomes slightly worse with a meeting that he takes in his stride as someone (Melanie, played by Samara Weaving) desperately tries to save their home from foreclosure, and then he is thrown under a bus by a colleague, which leads to him being sacked and removed from the building. Well, due to be removed from the building. That has to be delayed when the entire building is placed under quarantine, due to the presence of a virus that causes people to act unashamedly on their baser urges. This gives Derek the time, and necessary attitude, to try and make his way up to the boardroom and win back his job.

Written by Matias Caruso and directed by Joe Lynch, Mayhem is a hugely entertaining mix of workplace tensions and cathartic violence. The effect of the virus may not be quite what you expect, especially when compared to the over the top opening sequence that explains how it changes people, but all of the decisions made work in favour of a better story, and lead characters that are easier to root for than mindless psychopaths. Despite the film being set in a densely-populated office building, the plot only makes use of a core group of characters, and most of the people who end up the most bruised and bloodied (and murder death killed) are the ones that we strongly dislike from their earliest appearances onscreen. There's a lot of madness shown going on in the background, however, and plentiful doses of pain and bloodshed.

Yeun is great in the lead role, helped by the script that allows him to also narrate exposition and notes of his own failings, and Weaving gives another very likable turn, initially opposed to Yeun and quickly realising that it is best for them to work together. Caroline Chikezie is the one who ruins Yeun's life, Steven Brand is the big boss man, Dallas Roberts is the man sent in to meet people when it is time for their tenure with the company to end,  and Kerry Fox is a senior board member. All of them are amusingly easy to loathe, each one for a slightly different reason, although it all amounts to self-preservation in a corporate environment.

I really enjoyed this. It was a lot funnier than I expected it to be, Yeun and Weaving are a big plus in their main roles, and it strikes just the right balance between satire and visceral thrills. Some may dislike it because it doesn't have enough of the titular noun, some may dislike it in (unfair) comparison to The Belko Experiment, and some may just dislike it because, well, individual taste is subjective, of course. I hope a few others check it out, and maybe one or two of them will agree with my minority opinion.

8/10

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


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.

9/10

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.

6/10

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.

4/10

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.

3/10

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.

8/10

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.

7/10

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.

5/10

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.

9/10

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.

6/10

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.

5/10

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