Friday, 18 January 2019

Bodied (2017)

Rap battles, eh. They're a lot of fun. But they're also often full of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and general advice along the lines of violence being the possible answer to everything. You can say the same of rap itself, of course, but rap battles have an extra edge. They ARE battles, with the words and rhyming lines being built into an impressive combo until the knockout blow is delivered.

Bodied, directed by Joseph Kahn (who also co-wrote the movie with Alex Larsen),  starts with our main character, Adam, observing an evening of rap battles for his university thesis. He's interested in the use of language, particularly "the n word", and the idea of what is and isn't offensive when it's in the form of lines delivered by people who have created necessary personas for themselves while performing. After being asked to rap battle an interloper who tries to ruin the evening, Adam finds himself getting further and further into the world of rap battles, gaining more insight than he could have ever dreamed of, and even becoming friends with a very talented rapper named Behn Grymm.

Sometimes tense, sometimes hilarious, often offensive in ways that force viewers to think harder about what offends them, and why, Bodied is a two hour movie that flies by, thanks to the script and performances helping it to be consistently entertaining and interesting. It also helps that the central idea, although based in the field of rap, equates to an idea I very much ascribe to: you can joke about anything as long as that joke is actually funny or clever enough to warrant it.

Calum Worthy is excellent in the lead role, easily believable as a young men who feels out of place in the world he is observing before he finds that he has a talent for rapping, a talent that may get him just as many enemies as friends. Jackie Long is also very good in the role of Grymm, a man who best illustrates the clear divide that can exist between an individual and their stage persona. Rory Uphold is Adam's girlfriend, Maya, looking on in horror as she witnesses a barrage of what she views as incredibly offensive, Jonathan Park, Walter Perez, and Shoniqua Shandai all do well, and Dizaster is an intimidating "big boss", named Megaton, that you just know is going to feature in the finale. Elsewhere, you get solid supporting turns from Anthony Michael Hall, Simon Rex, and Debra Wilson.

What works so well here is the way in which viewers can be provided with a viewpoint that isn't necessarily a right one, or maybe it is. The choice is ultimately up to each individual, whether to go along with it or not, and the case is made in a way that would be welcomed by any top debate team. It just so happens that the debate here is taking place in the form of rap.

I've liked a lot of work I've seen from Kahn (who has a filmography that includes many music videos, the ridiculous Torque, and Detention), but this is easily his best work so far. It works equally as simple entertainment and a thought-provoking conversation-starter, and I recommend it to everyone. Well, I recommend it to everyone who can watch something about offensive material without getting offended by it.

9/10

Bodied is available to watch here.
Americans can also watch it there.


Thursday, 17 January 2019

Dark River (2017)

If there's one thing that British cinema can do it's explore damaged individuals in a cloudy, tempestuous, dreary landscape that reflects the mindset of the featured character. And here we have Dark River, a film that begins with news of a death and quickly reveals that there isn't all that much life left in a couple of people who are resolutely clinging onto this mortal coil.

Ruth Wilson plays Alice, a woman who, after being informed of the death of her father (Sean Bean), heads back to the family farm for the first time in years. She wants to get it all back in order and move forward with the whole endeavour, which doesn't impress her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who has spent many years getting his hands dirty while his sister stayed away. It's not long until the two siblings butt heads, with anger and resentment bubbling up to create a mixture that could explode at any time.

There aren't really any surprises in Dark River, in terms of the main plot developments. Most viewers will know what is coming from the very first scenes. That's not a problem, however, when the film is carried by two performances as fantastic as those from Wilson and Stanley. The former is a bit ahead of the latter, but both do excellent work here. You get a selection of supporting cast members, and Sean Bean appears here and there in flashbacks/visions, but the film really belongs to the two leads, and they make the most of the opportunity.

Director Clio Barnard (adapting the novel by Rose Tremain) takes what could have been an unrelentingly grim experience and manages to make it more bearable, somehow, showing the surrounding land to have more to it than just what is visible to the uninformed viewer, the necessarily hands-on relationship that the leads have with the environment and animals, and the strong bond between brother and sister that is still there, despite all of the heated emotions that they direct at one another.

Dark River covers familiar territory (funnily enough, one movie that came to mind while I was watching this was another with river in the title, Mystic River) but does enough to separate it from other works. A large part of that is down to the central performances, but an equally large part of it is down to the fact that so many moments show this as being from someone, either in the source material or the translation of it, who actually understands how people can react to others around them while trying to process an intense trauma from their past that will never leave their thoughts.

Sometimes you get angry enough to lash out at those closest to you, sometimes you are a jangling bag of nerves, and sometimes you just wander in a field until you fall down, lying there while the rain continues to pour down upon you while your breath hitches and you hope the end may have come at last. This movie shows all of that, and more.

8/10

You can dip your toes in the water here.
Americans can get it here.


Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Prime Time: Splatter University (1984)

Splatter University is pretty awful, but it's awful in that amusing way that other slasher films from this era are, still managing to entertain me 100% more than some films that have more going for them (in terms of cast, budget, ambition, etc).

Things start off in a semi-traditional slasher manner (with the most traditional beginning being the trusted "prank gone wrong" scenario). A patient escapes from a hospital. The patient has dangerous mental health issues, which may just get worse after he kills a staff member and steals the uniform. Some time later, a teacher is killed. Some time after that . . . the university that was the site of the murder is welcoming a new teacher (Julie, played by Forbes Riley, billed as Francine Forbes). The murder still resonates with many of those attending the college, but not enough for everyone to be more careful and avoid setting themselves up as potential victims during the predictable killing spree that's about to get underway.

Directed by Richard W. Haines, who also wrote the screenplay with a few other people, although how the hell it took more than one person to knock out this nonsense is beyond me, Splatter University is lazy and unimaginative from start to finish. There are no standout kills, there's no wonderfully twisted backstory to be developed on the way to the grand finale, and almost all of the characters are completely interchangeable.

Riley does okay as the new teacher who soon finds that the university may not be as safe as it should be, Ric Randig is also okay as Mark, the bland main male character, but both of them are outshone by the enjoyable performance from Dick Biel as Father Janson, a man who seems to want everyone to shrug off the murders and get on with their daily duties.

If you want to see a killer in a cool or freaky mask then look elsewhere. If you want loads of violence and gratuitous nudity then look elsewhere. If you want something that is willing to take any risks at all then, well, this has one or two tricks up its sleeve to make it just about worth your time. Unfortunately, many viewers may have given up before those tricks appear, because the rest of the film plods along as if it was The Turin Horse.

Say what you like about it, it does enough to pass by the fairly brief runtime without getting too painful. And I somehow managed to link it to The Turin Horse. So not a total waste.

3/10 (yes, it still ends up with the same rating as The Nun, despite me finding a bit more to enjoy in it).

You can buy your prime cheese here.
Americans can get the same disc here.
Or just click on links and buy anything, I then get pennies. It's a win win.


Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The Nun (2018)

It’s very difficult for me to sit here and right a thorough review of The Nun. Not because I can’t find the right words for it. Not because my memory has failed me. Just because it’s pretty crap. Yes, The Nun is depressingly bad, not just because it’s a poor movie, but also because it’s probably still going to prove popular enough with mainstream audiences to lead to more movies just like it (this film itself coming along as a tangent from The Conjuring 2, of course).

Taissa Farmiga is Sister Irene, a young nun (trainee, so . . . trying to develop a habit?) who ends up taken along to a Romanian monastery by Father Burke (Demián Bichir). The monastery has become home to a supernatural force, one that has led to confusion, fear, and death, and it is up to Father Burke and Sister Irene to get to the bottom of things. There’s also a potentially helpful local lad, “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), as well as a fleeting appearance by the Warrens (played, as ever, by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to remind viewers of where this story came from.

If I could do a word-filled review that could essentially represent that meme of Robert Downey Jr making that exasperated face (you know the one, you know) then, trust me, I would. It's all it deserves, which is a real shame when you consider everyone involved.

First of all, Farmiga and Bichir aren't terrible in their lead roles, they just happen to be stuck in the middle of a terrible film. Bloquet may not be quite as good, but he does well enough, and Bonnie Aarons makes quite an impression once again, for it is she who portrays the evil nun.

Writer Gary Dauberman (who seems to be the go-to guy that James Wan likes to work with while establishing The Conjuring spin-offs) has a decent filmography. He gave us Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation, as well as having a hand in bringing It to the big screen. Perhaps he needs a group of people to be working with, for best results, or perhaps on this occasion he was too hampered by the path that Wan wanted this origin tale to travel along.

Corin Hardy directs, and does so without any sign of the imagination and heart he showed in his superb feature debut, The Hallow. There are some weak jump scares, a selection of dull CGI moments, and nothing to distract from the fact that most viewers, if familiar with The Conjuring 2 will at least have some idea of how things are going to end.

There's not any real reason why I should hate this as much as I do, but it's not often that I have such low expectations for any film and have none of them met. This doesn't even do the bare minimum I look for in a mainstream horror movie. Which shows how far removed I can sometimes be from the average cinema patron, with this currently being the biggest box office success of the CMU* so far.

3/10

*Conjuring Movie Universe

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



Monday, 14 January 2019

Mubi Monday: Colette (2018)

It seems that I am behind the times when it comes to Keira Knightley, having placed her in the "I tend to enjoy her but she's usually not that good REALLY" category some years ago. This may have all been because of the long shadow cast by her horrible turn in Domino, or maybe I just have such a bad memory that I forgot every time I'd actually praised her work while somehow remembering . . . that horrible turn in Domino. Look, it's basically all the fault of Domino. As long as that's clear, let's move on.

Anyway, let's get to Colette, a film in which Knightley plays the title role. She is a country girl when the film begins, until she moves to Paris with her husband-to-be (Dominic West). And this begins a series of fortunate and unfortunate events that eventually lead to Colette developing into the famous and celebrated writer that she remains to this day. Sadly, her writing is all published under her husband's name, because that was more appropriate for the time and he had a brand to sell. Colette causes quite the stir throughout France, and starts to enjoy it even more, especially as she begins to explore her sexuality. As society seems to work ever harder to restrict her and keep her "in her place", Colette finds more ways to ruffle feathers and ensure she cannot be ignored or silenced.

Many people have already commented on Colette being a film that feels incredibly timely right now (the battle for sexual equality rages on and men still seem to have the position of having value to their names that women rarely get) and it is. It's an interesting, passionate, film that condemns the treatment of the leading lady, and also the treatment of many others. But that isn't the only thing that Colette is putting under a magnifying glass. As Knightley and West play out their complicated love/hate relationship throughout the film, it's equally an interesting study of the way in which people choose to believe various fictions, be they myths about the differences in gender, the power of artistic creations, or choosing to hope that a horrible and abusive relationship is anything other than that.

Director Wash Westmoreland, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, sets everything out in a traditional way, picking out the most important moments from a life that must have had many highlights to choose from. The score may be a bit generic, for this kind of thing (in my view), but the camerawork is given one or two moments to shine, such as the sequence that allows it to glide through a crowded room alongside Colette as she takes in the various displays of excess and "sophistication".

Although the script is a good one, and there are a couple of brilliant speeches that Knightley must have read on the page with sheer delight at the prospect of getting to deliver them, it's the cast who raise everything up. In case you were in any doubt, Knightley is excellent. Really excellent. This may be the best performance she has given in her career so far, relishing a role that allows her to be strong, sharp, funny, eloquent, sexual, and generally downright inspiring. She's equalled by West, who manages to do so well in his role that it's only much later in the film that you realise just how shitty he has been to his wife for so much of their marriage. Neither speak French, or attempt an accent, despite the nationality of their characters, and nor do many of the other cast members, which is a decision made for the better. The environment is enough to remind you of where everyone is living, and the writing (the heart of the film) is shown to be in French, as it obviously would be, while characters sometimes read out the prose in English. Other important characters are played by Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julian Wadham, Al Weaver, and Ray Panthaki, and everyone fits well in the role they're given (although both Gough and Tomlinson ARE given certain specific accents, with the former faring much better than the latter).

Oozing quality from every frame, Colette is superior drama, bringing a slice of history to life and exploring some issues that resonate just as much today as they did back at the end of the 19th century. Despite the pretty, perhaps what some may even call quaint, packaging, it manages to make things more palatable to observe and mull over without ever feeling as if it has held so much back that it warps the reality that it is all based on.

8/10

The disc will be available here.
Americans may want to order here.




Sunday, 13 January 2019

Netflix And Chill: Escape Room (2017)

Here's the thing. I knew when this movie started that it wasn't the latest movie called Escape Room. But I only just realised it. An amusingly cheeky little move from Netflix, this popped up and I immediately thought that the latest movie was one of their products, somehow getting a cinema release while also dropping on their service. Then I saw who was involved. And then I started to check out the headlines of some of the reviews for it. This was definitely not the same film that is now in cinemas in America, and it's not been that reviewed all that favourably.

The latter is quite odd, because there's nothing here that really makes this stand out as awful. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, and would expect others who enjoy horror movies with an element of puzzle-solving to at least be reasonably entertained.

The plot is simple. For his birthday, Tyler (Evan Williams) is given an Escape Room experience. He and his friends are taken to the location by limo, phones and all other items are taken off them, they have hoods put over their heads, and when they can next look around they are in different rooms with puzzles that need answering to provide an exit. Tyler is in a room all on his own, one couple is in another room, and one couple is in yet another room. And Tyler's girlfriend seems to be imprisoned somewhere. The time limit is an hour. Can the friends work together to get out? And how will they react when they realise that the rooms are actually rigged with very deadly, very real, boobytraps?

Written by Noah Dorsey, who worked on the idea with director Will Wernick, the biggest problem with Escape Room is the generic cast. Even that's not a huge minus. They're not awful, and the script does eventually start to differentiate individuals from the homogenous mass that they make up, but they're just not that interesting or memorable enough to make as good an impression as they should have been able to. Williams, for example, is given a scene early on that shows his character being quite the whizz with numbers. That's all fine and dandy, and his intelligence is also shown in a number of other sequences, but the plot constantly requires him to be helped by others, without any other real nods to their individual strengths or skills until the very moment it is required (see a scene involving the riddle of the Sphinx for the prime example).

Wernick doesn't do a terrible job with the direction, although he keeps everything a bit tamer than some horror fans may want. The deaths don't come thick and fast, but they're enjoyable when they finally start to happen, even if some are the result of ridiculously slow reactions from the main characters (again . . . that damn Sphinx riddle scene). Between the direction and the script, the main thing is that the puzzles don't seem impossible. They all play out in a way that provides a nice balance between tension and fun, at least until the risks start to increase as people get closer to the exit (of course).

I've not seen the most recent film that shares this title, so I can't say how this one compares, but I can say that this is a slick horror movie that does enough to entertain for most of the runtime. The opening act is a bit wobbly, but things pick up immensely once everyone is placed in the puzzle-filled environments. And that's what I hoped would happen.

6/10

I am not sure how this disc is . . . but here's a disc.
Americans can buy it here.


Saturday, 12 January 2019

Shudder Saturday: Road Games (2016)

There's a moment in Road Games, a thriller from writer-director Abner Pastoll, in which everything that could have been tense and plausible is brought crashing down. It's a moment that has characters obstinately not blurting out information that could change everything, but the script obviously cannot allow that to happen, so it doesn't. And that's a great shame, because Road Games has a decent run up until then.

The premise is simple. Jack (Andrew Simpson) is hitch-hiking in France, trying to get to Calais, which is his route back home to England. He meets Veronique (Joséphine de La Baume), the two decide to continue on together, and eventually they are picked up by Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot) and taken to his home (where his wife, Barbara Crampton, also resides). Things become a bit tense and strange, and we shouldn't forget the fact that a killer has been roaming the countryside.

This is only the second feature from Pastoll, who has also helmed a fair number of shorts, and it's clear that he has a level of competency undermined by what seems to be either a slight lack of imagination or an unwarranted confidence in his main story beats (many of which are either far too familiar to fans of thriller movies, slightly fumbled in the execution, or often both). Seeing one or two twists coming isn't always a mark against a movie, but it is when plotting starts to feel as if things have been twisted and manipulated ONLY to create a third act that doesn't offer anything more than those twists.

The varying quality of the acting doesn't help. Most of the cast do okay (Pierrot and Crampton do well, despite being hampered by the required level of oddness given to their characters) but De La Baume and Simpson let the side down, with the latter particularly weak in some scenes that need an actor capable of conveying a good mix of fear, bewilderment, and determination. I haven't seen him in anything else, that I can think of, and I wouldn't rush to watch any other movies that have him in a lead role. Féodor Atkine is the only other main actor, and he does just fine.

As ever, I have tried to write this review without spoiling anything. It's disappointing that the same care wasn't taken by Pastoll. Road Games has enough to make it an okay watch, but that's an opinion that comes from me, a notoriously kind and forgiving film fan (most days). Others may find it all a bit too tedious, and perhaps slightly drawn out. Even at a runtime of just 95 minutes, some sharper editing could have improved things.

This is a road that we've all been down before, and this journey doesn't lead to anywhere all that exciting.

5/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.
Or you can click on either of those links and then buy whatever you like, that still works for me.


Friday, 11 January 2019

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

There are many movies that just don't hold up when you revisit them. They are tinged with a glow of nostalgia that quickly fades away in front of your older eyes. Many were just aimed precisely at the you as you were then, compared to the you of today. But many of the classics can be relied on not to disappoint. They endure for a reason. That's what I was hoping when I finally revisited Angels With Dirty Faces anyway, a film that I loved as a young boy, and a film that would always set me to tears every time I watched it (seriously, my mother would have a towel ready for me as things moved towards the finale, and I would cover my red, snotty, bawling face with it as the end credits rolled).

There's a bit more going on here than I remembered. I forgot, for example, that Humphrey Bogart played a shady lawyer who makes his name, and riches, off stolen loot that was being held for his client (Rocky Sullivan, played by James Cagney). And I forgot how the third act brings everything together, with a net closing around Rocky thanks to the persistence of a friend (Father Jerry O'Connolly, played by Pat O'Brien) who wants to clean the criminal element out of the neighbourhood.

But let me start at the beginning. Rocky and Jerry are first seen as a pair of cheeky kids. They try to steal some pens from a railway carriage, are caught in the act, and flee. Jerry slips, Rocky picks him up. They run. unfortunately, Rocky isn't quite as quick, which leads to him being caught. He won't give up his friend to help lighten the sentence, and so he begins a life mostly spent behind bars, in between further criminal activities.
Fast forward to Rocky and Jerry as adults, two men who ended up on two very different paths, but also two men who immediately rekindle their friendship when they meet up again. And both men end up offering a helping hand to a group of young larcenists (The Dead End Kids) - Jerry has known them for some time, Rocky meets the group when they try to steal his wallet. That's the main story. The kids idolise Rocky, once they realise who he is, and Jerry tries to use this in a positive way. Meanwhile, Rocky is also wanting to get his money back and make himself a more comfortable life, others will go to deadly lengths to stop that from happening, and there's a woman (Laury, played by Ann Sheridan) who catches the eye of our (anti-)hero.

Based on a scenario by Rowland Brown, Angels With Dirty Faces is a perfect combination of a wonderful script (by John Wexley and Warren Duff), great direction (from Michael Curtiz), and dazzling star power. It's also a perfect combination of gangster action, comedy, and a heart-swelling look at how strong the bonds of friendship can be when forged at the right age.

I am a fan of Cagney in pretty much anything he ever did, but this remains one of his best performances, allowing him to play the comfortable tough guy role that made him famous while injecting a lot more humour and sweetness. O'Brien is a bit stiffer in his role, but that's not a major negative, considering the very earnest and unwavering part he plays in the proceedings. Bogart is as good as ever (I may not have seen much of his work while a youngster, but became a firm fan of his in my adult movie-watching years), all about his self-enrichment and self-preservation, and Sheridan does well to make a lasting impression in a film that is otherwise all about the guys. As for the Dead End Kids, well, it's perhaps inevitable that I don't enjoy their antics quite as much today as I did when I was a youngster, but they're still an amusing and likeable bunch.

I eventually covered the beginning of the film and I guess I should end on the ending. I won't reveal any details, because I don't believe the age of a movie should let people assume that everyone already knows all about it, but I will say that it still packs a punch. It's in line with the whole direction of the story, it's played beautifully by all involved, and, yes, I may have had a quivering lip while I tried to stop my eyes leaking everywhere.

9/10

Here's a DVD copy available.
Americans can get it here.


Thursday, 10 January 2019

Death Wish (2018)

I was not looking forward to Death Wish, the remake of the 1974 Michael Winner film, for a number of reasons. Despite me enjoying a number of his films, I didn’t think director Eli Roth would be a good fit for the material, Bruce Willis in any leading role nowadays gives me concern, and there were trailers that didn’t look promising. The one small shred of hope I had was that they’d kept enough of the ideas contained in the original script, by Joe Carnahan, to make this more interesting and relevant for a new generation.

Willis plays Paul Kersey, a surgeon who we first see losing his battle to save the life of a shot police officer before heading off to try and save the life of the man who shot him. That’s what he does. He saves lives. When not saving lives, he spends time with his family (his wife, Elizabeth Shue, and daughter, Camila Morrone, and also his brother, Vincent D’Onofrio) and seems to have everything in place for a content time. That all changes when a robbery leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. Frustrated by the fact that it looks as if the police won’t make much progress, Kersey becomes a deadly vigilante, unsure of his own capability at first but quickly becoming more confident in his role.

There are a number of plus points here. Making Kersey a surgeon, rather than the architect he was in the original movie, is a good move. It further illustrates the transition from peaceful family man to gun-toting “grim reaper”, and it allows him to do more to cover his own tracks (he picks up clothing that is due to be disposed of by the hospital, he can treat some of his own wounds). There are also a couple of good points made about modern attitudes and accessibility to dangerous weaponry and information. These points may be hidden away beneath the sheen and the montage moments that throw AC/DC alongside the visuals, but they’re still there nonetheless, adding at least a modicum on intelligence and commentary that didn't have to be included.

Willis is slightly less comatose than he has been in so many other roles in the past decade, but he’s still the weakest link of the main cast. One moment that has him trying to convey the pain at what the criminals did to his loved ones is almost laughably bad, but he's better when growing more at ease with the death-dealing vengeance. D’Onofrio is as good as he always is, Shue and Morrone do well in their supporting roles, and Dean Norris puts in yet another great turn as the main investigating officer, a man who seems to be earnest in wanting to help and also starts to put two and two together as the criminal bodies start to pile up.

Roth does well in the director's chair. Everything moves along quickly, and predictably, enough and there are a few impressive moments of grue that serve as a reminder of who is at the helm. He makes some mis-steps, as he is won't to do in most of his movies, but makes a better fist of things than many other directors I could have considered for the job.

It's not as good as the original, which is expected, but this ends up being a perfectly serviceable reworking of the material for those who want to give it 100 minutes of their time (or thereabouts).

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.
Or you can feel free to use those links to shop for anything else that catches your eye.



Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Prime Time: Fractured (2018)

Fractured starts off as a fairly simple, and effective, little horror movie, albeit one that isn't delivering anything new. You get the young couple travelling through isolated areas of countryside en route to their final destination (yes, it's a house in the middle of nowhere), you get car problems, you get strange behaviour from people, you get the usual creaks and bumps as it becomes clear that the couple looking for some alone time may not necessarily be alone. And then you get something different, enjoyably so, and I won't go into any further detail, because the fun comes from being pleasantly surprised by the direction that things take.

Michael and Rebecca are the young couple at the heart of things, played by April Pearson and Karl Davies, and the reasons for their need to get away aren't made immediately obvious, leaving viewers to wonder if this is a romantic getaway for them, a chance to recover from some personal difficulty, or maybe even a make or break time for their relationship. As things become a bit clearer, they also become a bit stranger. And that's when the atmosphere starts to change, almost creeping in from the edges of the frame like a palpable fog bank.

Director Jamie Patterson has built up quite the filmography over the past decade, and I am looking forward to exploring more of his work after enjoying this one so much. The script here is from Christian Hearn, but based on a story/idea from Patterson, who obviously knows his stuff. He's familiar with the horror genre standards, gambling on the fact that viewers will stick with the movie throughout a very familiar first half to be rewarded by what comes after it. Characters are given dialogue that sounds quite enjoyably naturalistic, the plotting puts all of the required pieces in place without stretching everything too far, and the relatively brief runtime helps the pacing somewhat (although impatient viewers may still get fed up before things start to pay off).

Pearson (obviously a favourite of Patterson, having been in almost half a dozen of his movies, to date) and Davies are both excellent in the lead roles, pretty essential while they're onscreen for over 90% of the runtime. There are very few other cast members, with the other main player being Louisa Lytton, who also gives a great performance.

It's always a pleasant surprise nowadays to find a low-budget horror movie that isn't a found footage film, unimaginative slasher, or a zombie flick. There are gems out there, always appearing with little to no fanfare, but they're often lost in the sea of films that use the aforementioned subgenera, so it's always worth celebrating finding a good one. And Fractured is a good one.

7/10



Tuesday, 8 January 2019

American Animals (2018)

Based on a bizarre true story, American Animals presents viewers with arguably the most incompetent heist in modern times. The film boasts a couple of excellent lead performances, and is helped by the way in which it intercuts the fictionalised depiction of the planning and execution of the crime with comments from the real people involved.

Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan are, respectively, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard, two young men who come up with a half-assed plan to steal some very valuable books from a university library. They rope in two friends, Eric Borsuk (played by Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (played by Blake Jenner), and rush to put their plan into effect, which is when one thing after another starts to go wrong.

I know that nobody ever believes me when I say no pun intended but, honestly, there's no other way I can think of continuing this review without asserting that American Animals is a strange beast indeed. The comments from Lipka and co. often feel like an opportunity for them to somehow deflect responsibility away from themselves, although the juxtaposition is also used to comedic effect when someone wants to point out that they recollect things differently to the way they are being shown. It's a tightrope, tonally, that is skilfully handled by writer-director Bart Layton (nicely blending the narrative with footage more in line with his documentary background - be sure to check out the similarly murky waters of The Imposter).

Peters and Keoghan both do great work, one being far more confident in his abilities than he should be while the other is a bag of nerves at every step of the way, and Abrahamson and Jenner are good fits in their roles. Both Ann Dowd and Betty Jean Gooch (the person Dowd portrays) deserve a special mention, the main librarian who also became the central human victim of the crime, and her participation on the film helps to serves as another reminder that, despite how farcical it became, this was a crime that had consequences.

It's easy to understand why some might view this as something slightly distasteful, especially during the first half, but I would encourage people to watch it, and stick with it. It eventually peels away the layers of optimism and fake attempts to seem confident and cool, showing that this was nothing more than a group of young adults who took a stupid idea too far. The pain resulting from the crime may have not seemed obvious to them at the time, being far too concerned with making a success of their plan and evading capture, but it soon starts to sink in, both in terms of the one person they traumatised directly and the way they shocked and upset their families.

Part comedy, part crime film, part documentary, all astonishing, American Animals is well worth your time. It doesn't glorify the people involved, but it does allow themselves to try and paint things in a better light before the weight of the reality of the situation pushes them further and further down, forcing contemplation and re-evaluation of how they view(ed) themselves.

8/10

American Animals is available to buy here.
Americans can buy it here.


Monday, 7 January 2019

Mubi Monday: The Favourite (2018)

We're very lucky to have Yorgos Lanthimos. He's been making consistently great cinema for the past couple of decades now, and I recommend everything that he's done (although there are still one or two I have yet to see from his filmography, with the big omission being Alps).

The Favourite, from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is another jet-black comedy, not as deliberately strange as The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (in terms of both content and acting style) but still far enough removed from the norm to be a heady brew of laughs, nastiness, and occasional bemusement.

Olivia Colman is a frail and petulant Queen Anne, a woman who allows herself to be manipulated by her closest friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). The relationship between the two women allows Lady Sarah to effectively rule over the country, by proxy, and that displeases some (especially Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult, a member of parliament trying to put an end to a war with France). Things start to change, however, with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), a young woman who is a cousin of Lady Sarah, yet now seems a world removed from her due to a life of misfortune and hardship caused by her gambling father. Abigail sees an opportunity to get back all that she lost over the years, but she will need to ingratiate herself with the queen, push Lady Sarah out of her privileged position, and deal with the likes of Harley, a man happy to help or hinder anyone, depending on what they might be able to offer him.

Based on actual events, amazingly enough, The Favourite somehow works in every way that it can be viewed: comedy, political thriller, period drama. It works best as a mix of all three, obviously, but anyone who doesn't appreciate the other aspects of it should at least find one main strand they can appreciate. Lanthimos weaves it all together with an expert touch, allowing the more modern and unflinching presentation to play up the way in which all of the main characters are happy and quick enough to roll around in effluence, sometimes literally, as long as they know it's a way to eventually rise higher up than before. There are times when the more modern sensibility threatens to pull viewers out of the experience, but they aren't frequent enough to become a major issue.

The acting is equal to the material, with Colman already receiving plenty of deserved praise for her wonderful portrayal of Queen Anne. Weisz and Stone shouldn't be lightly dismissed though, and it's worth celebrating the fact that we get a film giving us three such fantastic portrayals of such enthralling female characters. Hoult has a lot of fun in his role, Joe Alwyn is fine as another gentleman who ends up involved in the scheming, and Mark Gatiss is fitting in his small role (almost a cameo, really).

Not for the prudish, The Favourite is a fascinating look at various people trying to influence one another in a variety of ways. It's about power, about reputation, about love, and it's about Lanthimos cutting further and further into the heart of things once again with the precision of a skilled surgeon.

8/10

You can buy The Lobster (still his best movie) here.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 6 January 2019

Netflix And Chill: Bird Box (2018)

It's fitting that those with the ability to see the world around them would have to have been blindfolded for the past few weeks to have somehow missed the promotion and memes that have been doing the rounds since Bird Box was released on Netflix. It all helped to turn the film into another big hit for the company (although exact numbers are always hard to come by when figuring out how good or bad things do on the platform).

Sandra Bullock is Malorie, a woman who was extremely happy at one point, just before the whole world went to hell. Malorie had been attending a standard check up on the health of her baby, accompanied by her sister (Jessica, played by Sarah Paulson), and then people started to act funny as they headed home. It's a strange force, something that people see that drives them to commit suicide. Malorie ends up in a house with some others (including Tom, played by Trevante Rhodes, and Douglas, played by John Malkovich) who have quickly surmised that the key to staying alive is to stop yourself from being able to see the outside world. But that makes things difficult when provisions need collected, and when there are some other people who are insane enough to want to help others look at what they somehow view as something glorious.

I approached Bird Box with no small amount of trepidation. Let's face it, I was already a week or two behind everyone else, a lot of people seemed to be having more fun with the memes than the actual movie itself, and I assumed that it was another case of Netflix doing a better job of creating viral content than a film that would actually impress me. I'm pleased to say that I was wrong.

This is a fantastic film. Not just a fantastic film to land on a home platform, although that undoubtedly helped it to snowball and find the kind of audience figures it may well have struggled to reel into cinemas, but a fantastic film for genre fans. Many have already labelled it as a cross between The Happening and A Quiet Place. While that comparison isn't entirely unwarranted, it's not exactly fare. Bird Box ends up being better than both of those films (which I know is an opinion that will leave me pretty lonely, in the case of the latter movie anyway, but I'm standing by it).

Based on a novel by Josh Malerman, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer is very good indeed, using jumps between the present and the past to help maintain tension and optimise the pacing. The fact that the central force is unseen (but physicality is certainly hinted at - people focus their sight somewhere, shadows are cast across windows, etc) helps to avoid any anticlimactic reveals, and there's also the variety added by the other survivors who become a problem, as happens in almost every "post-apocalyptic" movie, a subgenre that this film certainly has a foot in.

Director Susanne Bier has a solid enough filmography, although nothing that seems to be as horror-tinged as this is. But that may be another factor that really helps, Bier helps to keep everything consistent in tone by allowing the characters to lead the way, simply allowing the situation to allow them to show more of themselves as they have to act and react quickly, to preserve their own lives and anyone else they decide to try and protect.

Bullock is excellent in the lead role, but that's not much of a surprise to anyone who has been a fan of her work over the years (and I count myself among them), but I doubt the film would have worked as well if they'd placed it all on her shoulders, a la Gravity. No, this time around, a strong lead performance is boosted by strong supporting turns from a cast that includes Trevante Rhodes (who is very good), John Malkovich (as excellent as ever), Jacki Weaver (underused), Danielle Macdonald (saddled with being the character who makes the decisions that will make you roll your eyes), and Tom Hollander (very good in a role that is perhaps the weakest link in the whole film). There are also good performances from Paulson, B D Wong, Rosa Salazar, Lil Rel Howery, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Parminder Nagra, and young Vivien Lyra Blair and Julian Edwards as the young children accompanying Bullock for part of her journey.

Because of the sheer number of people who rushed to see this, Bird Box has very quickly proven to be a divisive film. And I already know a lot of people who don't want to watch it because they're already fed up of the gags that have gone viral. I would say, as with most movies, it's still well worth your time. See it and make up your own mind about the film itself. Not the marketing, not the reaction to it, just the film. And I hope you end up enjoying it almost as much as I did.

8/10

Here's a pack of other Sandra Bullock movies available to buy.
Americans can get a Bullock fix here.


Saturday, 5 January 2019

Shudder Saturday: Another Evil (2016)

Despite strong competition, Another Evil is one of the strangest, and least satisfying, films I have yet watched on Shudder. Written and directed by Carson Mell, his feature debut, this thing is such a mess that at times it's almost like watching a car crash in slow-motion. It gets worse and worse, you can't look away, but you just hope that it's all going to work out in the end. And then the end comes along.

Steve Zissis plays Dan, an average guy who finds that his house isn't very average. It has a supernatural presence inhabiting it, one that is now determined to make itself known. This eventually leads Dan to hire Os (Mark Proksch), a man who might just be able to clear the spirits and help him get his life back to normal. Or, as soon becomes clear, maybe not.

PART of my adverse reaction to Another Evil was my own fault. I thought I was going to be watching some crude, low-budget, horror comedy. I was prepared to overlook some rough edges if the material was clever or witty enough. But this isn't that kind of film. It is, instead, something much more similar to a film like Observe & Report, and people who know that before the movie starts might end up enjoying it a bit more. Might.

The problems start to become apparent quite early on. Mell doesn't nail down the tone, focusing on one aspect at a time when he should have found a way to mix everything together. There are intriguing elements here (the haunting, the mental health of Os and how it may or may not be linked to his skills, and how far people are willing to go along with someone they perceive as an expert/savior) but none of them are blended together into a wholly interesting movie, which this needed to be. The ambiguity that Mell thinks is a positive think ends up hurting the film, especially during the final scenes that prove to be completely unrewarding to patient viewers.

Zissis and Proksch are fine in their roles, with the former better served by the script that simply requires him to be a normal guy pushed into abnormal circumstances. There are other people onscreen, but this is mostly a two-hander between the male leads, and they do what is asked of them, which makes it inevitable that Proksch becomes more and more irritating as the movie plays out.

It's almost impossible for me to figure out who would actually appreciate this. It's not got enough atmosphere or scares for anyone looking for a horror movie. It's nowhere near funny enough for anyone wanting a comedy. And the psychological drama, the serious content at the heart of it all, isn't fully-formed, and what little is there is just drowned by the rest of the nonsense. This is a sad failure on almost every level, although it's made with a degree of competence that means I have to begrudgingly admit it is not amongst the worst films I have ever watched.

3/10

Americans who somehow like this movie can buy it here.


Friday, 4 January 2019

Hotel Artemis (2018)

We've had a lot of great action movies in recent years, and a number of them have taken the time to at least hint at an unseen criminal world running parallel to our own. Hotel Artemis is another film along those lines. It's a blend of sci-fi, action, and standard thriller stuff. It's not great though. Unfortunately, it struggles to even be good.

Jodie Foster plays The Nurse, the woman in charge of the titular building. It's a safe haven for criminals, an exclusive medical facility that has some hard rules in place for the safety of everyone who comes and goes. If you're not up to date with your subscription payments then you can't get in. You can't bring in weapons. And you don't hassle the staff (Foster and her right hand man, Dave Bautista). Of course, these rules all start to be broken on a night when one man (Sterling K. Brown, in a lead role that feels very much like a supporting one) turns up, wounded brother in tow, after a botched robbery. There's a riot in the city causing problems, a couple of other residents (Sofia Boutella and Charlie Day) not getting along too well, a wounded cop (Jenny Slate) in need of assistance, and a surprise visit from the wounded owner of the establishment (Jeff Goldblum).

Hotel Artemis is so close to being a good film that it's almost frustrating to consider how much it misses the mark. The cast are all very good, and very good in their roles (even Charlie Day, who I like in comedic work but sometimes seems miscast when in more serious roles), the hints at the unrest going on in society are intriguing, but never developed into anything more worthwhile, and the few scenes that show the more badass characters actually being badass are fun (although Bautista is sorely underused, and when will Sofia Boutella be given the action movie lead role that she deserves?).

Writer-director Drew Pearce spends far too much time showing that this is his first feature, and that most of his written work used him best as part of a team of creative minds working towards the same goal. There's a damaging lack of focus, an unearned confidence in the dialogue scenes (Foster and Goldblum may be enjoyable to just listen to as they speak but they still need to be given more than the cheesy and clichéd dialogue that they're given here), and a general inability to give any of the main players material that is worthy of their talents. I also had an issue with the way we were given the rules of the hotel, only for them to be broken with far too little time or pressure applied to the decisions.

Take a bunch of lesser-known names and this movie becomes a straight-to-disc time waster. With this cast, however, there's really no way it can be viewed as anything other than a disappointment. The only person who comes close to being used well is Boutella, and even that feels too little too late, in an action sequence during the third act that puts her front and centre.

5/10

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


Thursday, 3 January 2019

The Snorkel (1958)

Although Hammer are well known, and celebrated, for their crimson-filled reworking of the archetypal icons of the horror genre, they had quite a bit of variety in their output. There were the TV shows being moved to the big screen (but a lot less people are in a rush to revisit the likes of On The Buses), epic fantasy films made on less-than-epic budgets, and wonderfully strange attempts to deliver interesting psychological horrors (the disappointing Demons Of The Mind and enjoyably bizarre Straight On Till Morning being the most memorable examples). And there were the thrillers, which I believe actually outnumber their horror movies when you add every film up that made the total output from the studio (the classic incarnation anyway, as it were).

Which brings us to The Snorkel, a thriller from the studio that I had previously never heard of, and one that will hopefully be (re)discovered by film fans nowadays, and given some of the love that it deserves. Not only is this an enjoyable thriller, it's beautifully simplistic in the cleverness of the central conceit, providing a killer with a modus operandi so fiendish that it allows him to be more brazen and arrogant than most killers while authorities understandably never put two and two together.

Peter van Eyck is Paul Decker, and we first see him turning on a lot of gas pipes and then hiding under some floorboards, all the while wearing a snorkel. This leads to the death of his wife, who was the mother to young Candy (Mandy Miller). Candy is convinced that her stepfather is responsible, despite him being out of the country at the time (he also manages to get his passport stamped, which provides him with quite a solid alibi), because she has always insisted that he already killed her father years ago. As the film unfolds, Candy determines to prove how it was possible that her mother's apparent suicide was actually the work of a murderer. Meanwhile, she also has to keep herself safe from Paul.

Based on a story by Anthony Dawson, The Snorkel rattles along at a fair pace, thanks to the solid direction from Guy Green and a wonderful script from Peter Myers and Jimmy Sangster. Unlike some of their other thrillers, this has no ambiguity, no attempt to cover the central mystery with a cloak of potential supernatural spookiness. Viewers see the killer at work, we're on the side of Candy from the very beginning, despite nobody else believing her. This is what makes the film work so well, seeing the two leads interact and push one another in their conversations.

Van Eyck is very good in his role, able to charm others around him while always ready to glower at the young lady who knows his secret, and Miller is very capable in the role of the plucky girl who starts to piece together a very strange picture. Although essentially a two-hander, certainly in the best moments, there are enjoyable supporting turns from Betta St. John (a woman who helps to care for Candy) and Grégoire Aslan (the Inspector who needs some proof before he can investigate the death as a crime).

If you think you're familiar with most of the output from Hammer then may I recommend you start diving deeper, and The Snorkel is as good a place to start as any, ironically enough.

8/10

The Snorkel is part of this superb set (which is region free).



Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Prime Time: One Cut Of The Dead (2017)

You may or may not be aware that something quite odd happened just a couple of days ago. One Cut Of The Dead went on Amazon Prime. A friend told me about this, and I was delighted. I had head the festival buzz on the film, had the disc pre-ordered, and figured it would be a perfect way to start the new year (or so I hoped). But it turns out that it wasn't supposed to be there. There has still been no proper explanation, or apology (as far as I am aware), given to Third Window Films, who worked as quickly as they could to minimise the damage, considering that One Cut Of The Dead is also about to get a wider, but still limited, cinema release throughout the UK. After weighing up the good and the bad of the situation, and despite the film no longer being on Amazon Prime right now (because it should not have been there at all), I decided to still review it in this slot, hopefully reminding others about it, and maybe pointing one or two of you along to the cinema, or towards ordering the discs.

Now . . . on with the film review.

One Cut Of The Dead starts off like a standard zombie movie. It then cuts to show the movie being made. And then zombie stuff happens, interrupting the further filming of the zombie movie. And then, after about half an hour, it ends. Which is when we move back in time to see some more plot unfolding, all leading to a third act that, well, let me just say that it pretty much pays off everything that you've seen beforehand, and in a way that is smart, amusing, and quite audacious.

My reactions to One Cut Of The Dead while I was watching it went as follows: hmmm okay, still okay, oh it's doing THAT, now I know how things are going, I suppose that's alright, that can't be the end already, ahh it's not the end, but this stuff isn't all that interesting, I'm not quite sure how this got as much praise as it did, it's really starting to lose me here, oh that's interesting, NOW I know what it's aiming for, oh this is brilliant, oh this is brilliant on a number of levels, mental vision of a standing ovation. I refuse to say any more because part of the beauty of the film comes from seeing how it ultimately comes together.

Written and directed by Shinichiro Ueda, his third feature amongst a selection of shorts, this is a film that demands patience and trust from the viewer, and then rewards everyone with an immensely satisfying third act. Anyone who gives up during after the first third, or at any time before the halfway point, is going to miss out on something that comes close to being sublime, and will simply wonder what everyone else sees in the thing.

There's definitely a slight lag at the mid-point, but even those scenes will reward viewers on repeat viewings, with the mix of enjoyable gags and moments that both echo and foreshadow what plays out in the film within a film. And the gags and dialogue, as well as the apparent low-budget, also help distract, for good and bad, from the fact that the technical work and sheer logistics of the more memorable scenes are absolutely brilliant. This is a small film with big ambitions, and it achieves everything it sets out to achieve.

The main cast members - Takayuki Hamatsu, Yuzuki Akiyama, Mao, Harumi Shuhama, and Manabu Hosoi - all do very good work, with Hamatsu the obvious standout as the director tasked with creating the zombie film that opens the proceedings, the end result of a strange and obstacle-laden journey that is revealed later on.

One Cut Of The Dead is a hell of a journey, and those who stick with it may find themselves with a new favourite zombie film. But it's worth bearing in mind that it's not a horror. It's a smart, layered, comedy that happens to have some zombies in it.

8/10

You can order the disc here.
Here's a list of the cinemas screening the movie very soon. Please go along and support it if you can.

Image: Third Window Films

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

Mila Kunis plays Audrey, a young woman who is upset on her birthday when she is dumped by her boyfriend (Drew, played by Justin Theroux) through the callous medium of text message. This leads to a chain of events that see Audrey and her best friend, Morgan (Kate McKinnon), getting drawn in to a plot that includes spies, violence, death, and lots of comedic banter between the two out-of-their-depth ladies.

We've had a few action comedies in the past few years, and Melissa McCarthy has given us some big laughs in two of them (Spy and The Heat). The Spy Who Dumped Me tries to give things another twist, but it ultimately relies on the two leads more than the script or direction, and that's not enough to make this memorable.

Director Susanna Fogel, who also co-wrote the movie with David Iserson, may not be an absolute first-timer here but you could be forgiven for assuming that she is. This is a film riddled with amateur errors, although it has enough weight behind it, and polish, to keep it as an enjoyable disappointment, as opposed to a complete disaster. The script doesn't have enough laughs (I probably laughed aloud at about two lines, and they may have been in the same scene - an interrogation sequence), the action feels a bit carelessly planned out, and it's hard to care about any of the twists and turns that occur.

Kunis and McKinnon are two great actresses, but neither of them are well served by the script that they're given here. McKinnon suffers more, with her character often coming across as annoying and unhelpful throughout (bar a couple of moments that make her useful out of the blue), but Kunis just never feels like the best fit for the character that she's supposed to be playing. The men generally fare better, perhaps because they're all being made to look arrogant and shifty most of the time, with Theroux decent fun, and Sam Heughan and Hasan Minhaj just fine as the other agents who may be good or bad. Paul Reiser and Jane Curtin are a welcome addition, and could have done with some more screen time, and there are good performances from Gillian Anderson and Ivanna Sakhno (playing, respectively, an agency boss and an ex-gymnast turned assassin).

The Spy Who Dumped Me isn't a bad film. It's just not a very good one. And the fact that it has too few laughs, action scenes filmed quite badly, and leads who don't feel quite right in their roles make it a  bad action comedy. I REALLY hope someone makes another great vehicle for McKinnon soon, because I tend to enjoy her performances, even when she's given weaker material, and it would be a sin if we were denied her comedic talent because nobody figured out how to make the best use of her in movies.

5/10

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