Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Aquaman (2018)

Look, let me be clear, I don't have a dog in this fight. I have never been massively into comic books, with the exception of a couple of fun omnibuses that I had as a child (and the Knightfall storyline for Batman, which remains one of the best things ever), so I am not a person who has to stay in either the Marvel or DC camp. Having said that, it's almost impossible to argue with the fact that Marvel have set the gold standard in cinematic superhero adventures. I had heard good things about Aquaman though, so I was optimistic.

Hmmmmmm, yeah, that didn't last long.

Jason Momoa once again plays Arthur Curry, the half-Atlantean superhero who just wants to live his life peacefully, when he's not crashing into submarines that have been overrun by pirates and beating up lots of baddies. Unfortunately, plans are afoot underwater to wage war against those on land who have been polluting and changing the seas over the years. Those plans are being hatched by King Arm (Patrick Wilson). If only someone could turn up that has the potential to overthrow him and become the rightful heir to the throne. Mera (Amber Heard) knows that Arthur is that someone, even if he doesn't think it himself.

Although it has a runtime of over two hours, the best thing I can say about Aquaman is that it fairly flies by. The pacing is perfect, with the set-pieces nicely spaced out in between moments that showcase some fun exchanges between Momoa and Heard. Director James Wan, working from a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, has a knack for making the potentially ridiculous into something enjoyable and entertaining, and he does it here once again.

Momoa is great in the lead role, Heard does well alongside him, and Wilson is suitably cold and dangerous in his villainous turn. Alongside those main players, you get some decent moments for Willem Dafoe (an advisor to Wilson but his loyalties may still like with Momoa), Nicole Kidman (being enjoyably badass in her few scenes), Temuera Morrison (the human father of Arthur), Dolph Lundgren (being Dolph), and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an extra villain, Manta, seeking revenge.

I can see why some people really enjoyed this, and why some were saying it was the best DC film yet. The fun parts are more . . . fun than most of their live-action output has been so far. The world-building is impressively epic, a lot of lovely details are scattered throughout every scene, and the action beats aren't all dark and gritty. But all of that comes at a price. For every gorgeous moment (and few are more aesthetically pleasing than a scene in which Momoa and Heard fight back some dangerous fishmen as they dive into the depths of a dangerous underwater trench) there are many that aren't. Either due to the screen being too busy or just some bad cinematic choices, far too many scenes are just messy. People can't always use the right eyeline when it comes to looking at whatever is supposed to be in front of them, some of the design work is unintentionally laughable, and so much is made snazzy and complicated when it could so easily have been kept clean and simple.

While this is far from the best of the recent DC movies, at this point I am tempted to pick Suicide Squad as my own favourite, and to hell with the adverse reactions (although Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice got more right than wrong), it's also not the worst. That honour stays with Man Of Steel for a little while yet (although, for the sake of perspective, I rate both that movie and this one the same, with all of the others just edging a point ahead).

6/10

Here's a 3D disc.
Here's one for Americans.


Monday, 29 April 2019

Mubi Monday: Eighth Grade (2018)

The debut feature film written and directed by the sickeningly talented Bo Burnham, who has previously been at the helm of a number of comedy specials (and not just his own), Eighth Grade succeeds where others fail thanks to the way it looks at very modern problems in the lives of young teenagers while also showing that these things don't ever change the personal journeys, the battles, that almost every one of us will go through during those difficult years.

Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, the young girl who is just trying to survive until the end of eighth grade, looking forward to a fresh start at high school as she takes turns trying to fit in with various crowds and then simply not caring what others think as she stays true to herself. She has a loving, concerned, father (Josh Hamilton) but doesn't seem to have any friends. Her online videos haven't really taken off either, although she keeps making them. It's recognisable stuff, often painful, and a reminder that other kids suck when you're a kid. Thank god I didn't grow up in the age of social media. I am sure there are some moments I would never have lived down, and it was tough enough for me as it was (spotty horror fan with curly hair and not a lot of money . . . winner winner chicken dinner).

I'm not sure whether he thoroughly researched the current situation, whether he got lucky with his writing, or whether he is just so young that he remembers everything vividly, but Burnham has crafted a film here that seems to replicate the standard experience for many who are in that position of both dreading the impending transfer to high school while also hoping for it to sweep away all of the crap that has been endured for the past few years. Of course, it can all go horribly wrong on day one, but that doesn't stop you clinging on to that shred of hope.

Burnham is also helped here by one major factor. His casting. Let me be as clear as I can here. Fisher is a goddamn star, giving a performance that keeps you alongside her for every step of the way, even while she is making mistakes and lashing out in a state of distress. At times seeming wise beyond her years, at other times reminding you that she's very much a child needing protected from the world and the predators that are always out there, Fisher gives a better teen performance than any other I can think of. And I've been thinking on it for a fair amount of time. Hamilton is wonderful as her father, in terms of both performance and the character. It's a sweet central relationship, which comes complete with a speech in the third act that will be recognisable to any parent who has ever tried to placate an upset child and TRY to allay their many insecurities. There are other people in the cast, and they're all good, but the film belongs to Fisher and Hamilton (but mostly Fisher).

The tone is perfectly judged. Burnham knows how far to take things, in terms of how uncomfortable or cringey it will be, and when to then pull back. Not only that, viewers are rewarded by at least one character moment that is akin to a knockout punch finally being delivered by Rocky Balboa, it's THAT satisfying, and the film ebbs and flows beautifully between the thunderclouds that look set to stay over Kayla's head for a long, long time and the rays of sunshine that push through, and warm up and energise her spirit, to remind her that the weather changes. It changes all the time, and even just knowing that Kayla realises that is enough to save this from being too downbeat and difficult to watch.

There's some other movie out this week (I think, something to do with superheroes) but don't let the 1001 screenings of that make you forget all about this. That film will be there for weeks. This one won't be given the same exposure or schedule.

9/10

Americans can already get it here.


Sunday, 28 April 2019

Netflix And Chill: Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

Here's a simple test for you before you consider watching Hearts Beat Loud. How do you feel about seeing Nick Offerman when he briefly breaks into an expression of pure joy? There are few things that cheer me up more, he becomes a child (sometimes the expression is accompanied by giggling, sometimes it isn't). There are at least two occasions in this movie which show Offerman as happy as he can be, and those two moments alone make the film worth your time. Thankfully, there's also a lot more to enjoy here.

Offerman plays Frank Fisher, the fairly grumpy owner of a record store that is due to close soon. He's been running it for 17 years so he views it as a good run. Frank has a few people he enjoys spending time with, including his landlady (Leslie, played by Toni Collette), a friend who runs a local bar (Dave, played by Ted Danson), and his daughter (Sam, played by Kiersey Clemons). In fact, he and his daughter have a tradition of a weekly jam session that he knows he is going to miss when she heads off to university. And that makes it all the harder to let go when she comes up with a song that they tweak together. Frank uploads it to Spotify and is pleasantly surprised when it is noticed by indie music fans. He wants to use their recognition to do something more, while Sam wants to keep her head in the game, as it were, and just get used to the hard studying she has ahead of her.

Directed by Brett Haley, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marc Basch, Hearts Beat Loud is such a sweet and beautiful little film that I keep being tempted to raise my rating for it even further. It does everything in a deceptively simple manner, crafting the characters and plot points with a light touch that leaves you sightly surprised by how happy and emotional you are by the time it all ends. Okay, on the one hand, you can criticise it for the lack of realism and the constant sense of optimism but that's not the point. It's an optimistic film. It's a film that uses something that seems unrealistic to display a wonderful and idealistic parent-child relationship at the centre of everything, and then surrounds that central relationship with other great depictions (Offerman and Collette, Offerman and Danson, Clemons and her girlfriend, played by Sasha Lane, etc). People go through ups and downs with one another and it's all done in a really satisfying way without ever trying hard to make it overly cinematic or inauthentic. That's the reality the movie aims for, which counterbalances any and all of the plot contrivances, in my opinion anyway.

The cast are all perfect. I will watch Offerman in anything, ever since I discovered the greatness of him in Parks & Rec, but he's on top form here, and Clemons is every bit his equal, arguably working with the trickier role (as she struggles to adjust to her upcoming life, it would have been all too easy for the performance to be a bit too moody and in line with many sullen teens we have seen in cinema before). Collette continues to be as great as ever, always being a good friend to Offerman despite the moments in which he mistakenly aims his frustration and anger at her, and Danson is wryly amusing in his role. Lane has a lot less screentime to make an impression, but she does well in her role, and the only major mis-step is the plot thread revolving around Blythe Danner (who puts in a good performance but feels like an unnecessary addition, just there for added emotional moments, in the role of the elderly mother of Offerman, and someone not always as mentally acute as she used to be).

I would be remiss if I didn't include Keegan DeWitt somewhere in this review, the person responsible for writing the main songs that are played by Clemons and Offerman in the film. I would happily listen to this soundtrack, which is a major plus when the story is based around a father and daughter who work well together to create some wonderful songs.

There's not much more to say. This is sweet without being saccharin, predictable without being dull, and magical without feeling ridiculous and fake. I would recommend it to most people, but especially if you enjoyed the likes of Sing Street (which was probably the last film I saw to make me grin like this one).

8/10

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



Saturday, 27 April 2019

Shudder Saturday: Can't Take It Back (2017)

As soon as Can't Take It Back started, I started to get a good feeling about it. It was a supernatural horror about a vengeful spirit that made use of social media. Considering that I was entertained enough by Unfriended, and had enjoyed Friend Request even more, I thought this would be a bit of simple entertainment for me. Sadly, things soon started to dip, and it never recovers for the rest of the runtime.

Ana Coto plays Kristen Shaw, a young girl who ends up joining her friend (Morgan, played by Ivanna Sakhno) in posting hateful comments on the photo of someone's Facebook profile. Morgan is familiar with the target, Kristen is not. And that's what sets off a chain of events that will lead to moments of madness, death, and plentiful jump scares in rooms with unreliable lighting fixtures.

Directed by Tim Schechmeister, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Schechmeister, Can't Take It Back doesn't take long at all to devolve into a shapeless lump of clichés and moments that we've either seen in much better movies or we didn't need. It's clear that Schechmeister & Schechmeister had more ideas about the scares and set-pieces they wanted in the movie than they did about giving you characters to care about or a plot that makes any sense.

Arguably the biggest problem that the film has is the way in which most of the teen characters just accept some very odd occurrences, and surely had an idea that something was off from the very beginning, but don't give it any more thought until the pain and death begins. That's one reason that you don't end up caring for anyone onscreen, and the other is the lacklustre backstory given to the proceedings. It's good to have a film that utilises cyber-bullying as a central plot point but this one doesn't do it well. It turns one minor mistake into something life-ruining for everyone involved. I KNOW that anyone who has gone through a similar experience may feel the same way but at this point I am waiting on a more positive spin on the situation, a character who sends an embarrassing/naked photo/message and then shrugs when enemies try to use it as a weapon. Perhaps that way we can one day make social media a slightly safer space, meaning we will then only have to be on the lookout for ghosts in the machine, sexual predators, catfishing individuals, movie and TV spoilers, unexpected clips of Jimmy Fallon, and links to endless streams of pop-up boxes that want you to accept cookies, take the cookies, have ALL the cookies.

I wouldn't say that the cast are bad. They're just not very good, and seem worse when stuck in this material. Coto is fine in the lead role, and most viewers will probably want to see her figure out a solution to her big problem, but Noah Centineo, Ivanna Sakhno, Logan Paul, and all of the others just blend into one large blob of disposable teens.

The first third has some good stuff (including the first time that Coto has her mind messed up by an online encounter that understandably scares the crap out of her) but it's all downhill after that, as we move from one disappointing scene that looks as if it was rejected by Silent Hill to another, complete with pacing issues that make the 90-minute experience feel over two hours long. Not one to prioritise ahead of other choices.

3/10

Buy this instead.
Or a cheap laptop, if you're in America.


Friday, 26 April 2019

Anna And The Apocalypse (2017)

Written by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry (expanding upon his 2011 short, Zombie Musical), Anna And The Apocalypse is a fun time for people who can accept that it mixes some gore gags with teen drama, a bit of comedy, some musical numbers, and a wee bit of added Scottishness. It's a good film, almost a great one (and many have already showered it with love as they watch and rewatch it while singing along with the songs), and one I was happy to finally see a little while ago, and then buy on DVD. Some of the goodwill towards it MAY have been built up by some of that special film festival atmosphere and the attitudes of those involved (having heard director John McPhail in conversation a few times now, I find the guy hilarious and wonderful) but I don't think that should take away from the fact that the film still had to be good enough to win people round when it started to "do the rounds".

Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) is the Anna of the title, which means she's going to be right there in the middle of a horrible zombie epidemic. At Christmas. It breaks out around her before she realises what is happening, leading to her initially seeking shelter in her workplace, the local bowling alley. But she won't be alone. Alongside her will be her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming), and an assorted mixed bag of characters including Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), and eventually Nick (Ben Wiggins). All of them have different ways of dealing with the situation and different motivations. Some just want to survive, some seem to have fun killing zombies, and some still hope to be reunited with loved ones. Mark Benton is Anna's father, who ends up stuck in her school with a horrible headmaster (played by Paul Kaye) and other survivors, including Lisa (Chris's partner, played by Marli Siu).

Considering the relatively small budget that this must have had, Anna And The Apocalypse is a film that looks and feels very nicely put together. The quality of the sound and camerawork is excellent throughout, if sometimes a bit rough around the edges when it comes to some of the FX work and the cheats used to imply a bigger picture just offscreen, and the only major gripe I have with is the lack of choreography that feels creative enough in many of the musical numbers. Even then, I understand the time and money needed to work on these things so it's not something I find unforgivable. Don't expect this to be The Greatest Showman with zombies and you should be okay.

For most of my movie reviews I tend to work through the various performances from the main cast members to highlight any great, or very poor, work. I'm not going to do that here. It feels as if it would be unfair. Not everyone is on quite the same level, that's all I will say, but most at least get a moment in which they shine, or have a way of working with the others that shows why they were picked for their role. Okay, I'll say that Hunt is great in the lead role, and that Cumming is so likeable that it's almost sickening, dammit, but you'll just have to see how you feel about everyone else when you watch the movie.

I'm also not going to grade every song on the soundtrack. I wish a few of them were a bit catchier but, as I have said before, an original musical is bloody hard to get right. The fact that this film includes such varied joys as "Hollywood Ending" (the standout, I think most people would agree), "Turning My Life Around", "Soldier At War", "It's That Time Of Year" and "The Fish Wrap" (the latter two both make me laugh hard) proves that it's got enough to have you tapping your toes and singing along, once you learn the words.

The script may not be as jam-packed or hilarious as it could be, especially if you don't have the penchant for cheesy gags that I do, but it admirably weaves together everything that it makes time for, scatters plenty of references throughout (probably deliberately, but one or two may be coincidental), and unabashedly aims for some emotional punches that most other movies in this bracket wouldn't even attempt. It also makes great use of Christmas elements without making every single scene bright red and green and overstuffed with Santas and elves.

Will you love this? Maybe, maybe not. I hope you will at least enjoy it, especially if you're a British viewer after something home-grown. It's a film that you have to meet halfway, that's the way I see it. The opening scenes may put some off but once it gets going then you're in for a good time, and then you start to grow attached to the characters, the humour starts to work, and it ends up being a little gem that everyone involved can feel rightly proud of.

7/10

You can buy the DVD here.
Americans can get the film here.
And the official site is here (go on, stop in there and shop direct).


Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Wizard Of Speed And Time (1988)

There are two ways to view The Wizard Of Speed And Time, a film I had been eager to see for decades (since I was won over by the trailer). On the one hand, it's an astonishing achievement by writer-director-FX whizz Mike Jittlov. On the other hand, it's an indulgent and messy attempt to create his own legend.

The story is quite simple. Jittlov ends up being asked to make a couple of things on a very limited budget by two Hollywood figures (played by Steve Brodie and Richard Kaye) who are betting against one another. One has faith in him, the other does not, and does all he can to sabotage the process. The other thing sabotaging the process is seen to be the whole system itself, set up to make things as difficult and frustrating for independent film-makers as possible.

Every scene in this movie is almost overflowing with nice little details and special effects. Seriously. Despite the limited budget, Jittlov has made something that's a real treat for fans of the art, often also showing how some of the bigger moments are set up, or at the very least giving enough clues as to what you're about to see happen.

The biggest problem with this movie is something you will often see people mention when criticising much bigger movies, and this doesn't deserve to get any kind of free pass, a film shouldn't be made up of simply special effects. It needs more to it. A decent story (this is far too slight), good acting (more on that in a moment), and a smart script help.

The script has many decent moments but it cannot work around the weakest element of the film, and that is the fact that Mike Jittlov isn't half as funny or endearing as he thinks he is. No offence to the guy, he just doesn't have the charisma to carry the movie.

Having said that, his acting style is not completely out of place with the friends and colleagues he has assembled. Brodie and Kaye do decent work in their roles, and Paige Moore is enjoyable and sweet in her role (playing an actress who befriends Jittlov), but they are the highlights from the main supporting cast members, with one or two individuals highlighting their lack comfort in front of the camera.

My initial reaction to this movie, as the end credits were still rolling, was very negative. I hated it. I felt it was far too smug throughout, and resented the fact that I had spent decades dying to see it. Now? Having calmed down slightly, it's often a treat, and some will love it, but the good stuff is still outweighed my the bad, and that is saying something when you consider how much Jittlov has packed into every frame.

4/10

Here's a weird jumble of info and links.
The movie has never been available on disc, as far as I know, but has been put out there to find in lieu of an official release.


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Prime Time: Bad Teacher (2011)

Bad Teacher doesn't entirely work, mainly because it doesn't really spend enough time wallowing in the right kind of bad teacher behaviour, but I am surprised that it received the generally negative reaction that it did when first released. While not great, it IS good, and it IS funny.

Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth, a lazy teacher who is looking forward to marrying her rich fiancé and leaving working life behind her. Except that doesn't happen. So she's back at school for the next year, looking for ways to earn enough to pay for the boob job that she hopes will help her land another rich guy and allow her to live the comfortable, kept lifestyle that she years for. Her lessons consist of showing pupils films (Stand And Deliver, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds) and she is happy to do even less than the bare minimum, until she hears about a cash prize for the teacher of the class with the best test results.

Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (who previously worked together on Year One and the American version of The Office), this is most enjoyable when it is showing a character pushing things much further than any adult in a position of authority should. It's just a shame that they don't ever really risk pushing things towards darker, and potentially funnier, territory. This is a film that tries to be fun and edgy without ever being really becoming transgressive, which is understandable from a sales point of view but disappointing nonetheless.

Director Jake Kasdan does solid work, moving between a few of the bigger set-pieces (a car wash moment, a scheme to steal a test paper, the grand finale) briskly enough to ensure that the film doesn't overstay its welcome. It's a simple 90 minutes (give or take) of bawdy humour that does enough by the third act to have you rooting for the main character, despite her selfish and manipulative ways.

Diaz is a lot of fun in the lead role, whether she's trying to look wide-eyed and innocent or showing her true colours in amusing exchanges that leave others shocked. Lucy Punch is the other teacher who suspects that things are going very wrong in the classroom across the hall from her, John Michael Higgins is the Principal, and Phyllis Smith is a rather timid teacher who is also a friend, and unable to see the real badness of Diaz. All of them are great fun, as are Jason Segel and Justin Timberlake, two very different men who work at the school. The former is interested in Diaz while she, in turn, is looking to bag the latter (because his family has money). Thomas Lennon is as hilarious, as he so often is, in a small role, and all of the main child actors do well.

There are a number of mainstream comedies from the past few years that you could pick if you want more laughs, I can't deny that, but Bad Teacher is still good enough to pass some time and keep you amused. It's not ace . . . but it still makes the grade.

6/10

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



Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Sister Act (1992)

The reason high-concept films are releases is because they're an easy sell. Take Sister Act, for example. It's a fun comedy, a lot of fun, but you can sell it with the simple line "Whoopi Goldberg has to act like a nun." There you have it. Do you like that idea? Does it amuse you? If so, you're bound to get some enjoyment from this movie.

Goldberg plays a singer named Deloris who walks in on her married gangster boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) having someone shot. Running away, she eventually goes to the cops and is asked to testify. That could take a couple of months though, which is why she has to be hidden away in the meantime, hidden where nobody would ever think of looking for her. A convent. Maggie Smith is the Mother Superior who doesn't think this is a good idea, Kathy Najimy is a very cheery and friendly nun, and Wendy Makkena is a bit shy. After some difficulty adjusting, Deloris manages to convince the Mother Superior to let her work with the choir, and that's when she starts realising the good she can do, arranging some non-traditional hymns and helping everyone to do better.

Director Emile Ardilino had a good run of hits from the late '80s to early '90s (starting with Dirty Dancing and ending with this one) and he knows how to put everything together for a perfectly satisfying feature that should please a large demographic. Although this is a star vehicle for Goldberg, the talented supporting cast members all get chances to shine and the major set-pieces are surrounded by lots of great touches and exchanges of dialogue.

Paul Rudnick wrote the script (billed as Joseph Howard) and it's very impressive for a feature debut. Rudnick paces things perfectly, and he seems to know that viewers will forgive the by-the-numbers nature of the thing as long as it keeps entertaining them from start to finish (which it does). You know how it's all going to end, but that doesn't make the journey any less enjoyable.

Goldberg is very funny in the lead role, although slightly toned down compared to her more amusing earlier career turns (the films may not have been as good, or slick, as this one but her ability to be more free and easy with her language and material worked a bit better), and the hilarity steps up a level as soon as she is forced into wearing a habit. Maggie Smith does thin-lipped disapproval better than anyone else I can think of, Najimy is amusing throughout with her wide-eyed view of the outside world, and Makkena does well as the shrinking violet who responds well once given a bit more confidence. Keitel is perfect for his role, trying to be charming one minute and then just ruthless the next, Bill Nunn is good as the cop trying to keep Deloris alive, and Robert Miranda and Richard Portnow are both a lot of fun as the guys who do most of Keitel's dirty work.

The soundtrack helps a lot too, with Deloris adapting a number of the tunes we hear her singing at the start of the movie into various hymns. It will have you tapping your feet and singing along.

Some will rate this even higher, of course, but it just suffers from the air of predictability, especially during the grand finale. The humour is still there, but there isn't the feeling that anything is really at stake. That's not terrible, it's a comforting and safe bit of work, but it does stop it from being a true great. Of course, on any other day I may have just overlooked that and added another point.

7/10

The DVD discs are locked but the Blus are region-free here.
Americans can get the same set here.


Monday, 22 April 2019

Mubi Monday: The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

I think most people are already aware of my heathen ways but, for those who aren't, I am a committed atheist. And I'm starting this review with that reminder because I think people often confuse my lack of belief, and my ability to use anything and everything in joke form, with a disrespect in the beliefs of others. That's not the case, not at all. Everyone has the right to peacefully believe in whatever god they want to connect to, be it the Catholic god, Shiva, Buddha, the wonder of the cosmos, or whatever else you seek. I become disrespectful when those beliefs are used to harm others, used as weaponised rod rather than a firm support structure. If you talk to people who are earnestly following a belief system that they hope to do right by then you'll often find ways to engage and agree on things from differing viewpoints.

There's a wonderful scene, a favourite of mine, in the film Millions (perhaps the most underseen Danny Boyle film in his filmography) in which a character explains to a young boy a different version of the events of "the sermon on the mount". The young boy then seems unhappy that the explanation makes the feeding of the crowd seem like less of a miracle. The other character explains that the explanation doesn't make it less miraculous, it just shows how the miracle can come about in a very different way. I love that idea, and can believe in it. Which means I can agree with anyone who believes in that event, despite viewing it from a different perspective.

The Last Temptation Of Christ is not a film that wants to make Christ any less important as a figure, despite the fact that it has many scenes that show him battling with very human thoughts and conflict. It's a film that wants to make Christ equally important BECAUSE it is hypothesised that he did his good deeds while also having doubts and the potential to make mistakes. It arguably makes a more powerful argument for the inherent goodness and bravery of anyone who went through what Christ is said to have endured.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader, from the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, there's no question that the talent behind the camera here is both formidable and also well-suited to something looking to further explore Catholicism, temptation, and guilt. You could argue that both Scorsese and Schrader had been finding ways to tell this tale for the past decade, culminating in this, their most overt and explicit study of these themes. The fact that this doesn't quite match their previous collaborations, struggling to hold up under the sheer weight of the powerful tale they want to tell, doesn't mean this is any less worthy of your time. It's a hefty investment, over two and a half hours, but one you won't regret (if you're at all interested in the subject material and the artistry with which it can be tackled).

Willem Dafoe gives a performance that sits up there with his very best, possibly knowing that anything less when playing Jesus Christ would be a missed opportunity. Barbara Hershey is also very good, playing Mary Magdalene. Harvey Keitel feels a bit out of place, as Judas, but the fact that his belief and devotion is so strong makes the narrative even more interesting for those who think they know this tale back to front.

It's funny that I always remembered this film because of the controversy from when it was released. Yet I also put it off for too long because I assumed it would be a dull affair, too dry and preachy. It's neither controversial (although I can see why it upset some) nor is it dull. In fact, I'd say that it's impressively high up there in the general rankings of Scorsese movies, hindered only by a weak soundtrack (from Peter Gabriel) and some of the casting (as well as Keitel feeling out of place, David Bowie brings you out of the film in his small amount of screentime playing Pontius Pilate). Believe it.

8/10

You can get the film here.
Americans can get it here.


Sunday, 21 April 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Breaker Upperers (2018)

Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek are a talented duo. Not only do they star in The Breaker Upperers but they also co-wrote and co-directed the movie, and if you've enjoyed any other comedies from New Zealand over the years then I can't see you managing to resist the charms of this. It has that same warmth to it, the savvy use of gentle humour to support material that has some serious points scattered in between the frequent laughs.

The two leads star as Mel (Sami) and Jen (Van Beek), women who provide a unique service for people. They arrange break-ups. Whether it is helping to portray someone as a blatant cheat, delivering the message in song, or even pretending to be the police as they inform others that someone has gone missing, they aim to make the break serious and permanent. And they think they're doing a good job, convinced that those who have been given the bad news will come out the other side all the better for it. It's only a matter of time, however, until the reality of what they do starts to worry one of them, Mel, and this coincides with her becoming unwisely involved with a client (Jordan, played by James Rolleston).

Having heard good things about this for a few weeks now, The Breaker Upperers is one I was keen to get to, but scheduling kept meaning I had to delay it for other things. I implore others not to make the same mistake. It's not flawless, by any means, but it's much better than the majority of other comedies that you may have gone to see at the cinema over the last few years. At least just watch the start of it. The opening scenes quickly set up the characters, and the general vibe of the film, so if you don't like any of that then you're not going to like the rest. But you should like it. All of it.

Although the script lacks any major surprises, even if you can't see the details of the ending coming from the very beginning you can work out most of the general outcomes, the performances do plenty to make up for any sense of over-familiarity. Sami and Van Beek are fun leads, working off one another in a way that feels very natural and believable, and they have surrounded themselves with a talented supporting cast. Rolleston is hilariously dumb for almost every moment that he's onscreen, Ana Scotney is hugely entertaining as the tough young lady that Rolleston wants to break away from, and Celia Pacquola does great work as the woman who finally has our leads facing up to the consequences of what they do. Other fun turns come from Rima Te Wiata, Cohen Holloway, Jemaine Clement (in a brief cameo), and Angella Dravid gets a chance to shine at the very end of the movie.

Although it seems nice and light, and easy to enjoy, The Breaker Upperers is even more impressive because of how wrong it could have gone. The tone works throughout, with some of the more pointed moments still working dark humour throughout the interactions, and you get a fine clash of optimism and cynicism, as well as a belter of a Celine Dion moment on the soundtrack and a lively bit of singing and dancing to help wrap everything up during the grand finale.

8/10

Here's a disc that should work fine in the UK.
This SAYS it is an all-region DVD.


Saturday, 20 April 2019

Shudder Saturday: Last Ones Out (2016)

When it was released almost a decade ago, The Dead was an impressively unique, and tense, zombie movie. Set in Africa, it managed to stand out in a mass of shambling undead horror films. If Last Ones Out had been released some time before The Dead then maybe we would view that in the same way. Maybe it would be the one to hold up as a fine example of what can be done within the parameters of a standard zombie film. Or maybe it would still be as easy to dismiss as it is today.

Greg Kriek plays Henry, an American who is due to undergo an operation to remove his appendix while he's in Africa. Before that can happen, however, a viral outbreak turns the country into a zombie hotspot, leaving him to flee to safety with three relative strangers (Sunet, played by Christia Visser, and Siseko, played by Tshamano Sebe, and Vincent, played by Vukile Zuma). Can they avoid the zombies and reach safety? And will Henry be able to move on with his appendectomy left undone?

Last Ones Out isn't a bad film, not when you consider the obvious limitations on the budget and resources that must have been available to writer-director Howard Fyvie (billed here as Howard James Fyvie). He's scraped enough money and talent together to make something that is at least half-decent and well-intentioned, but we all know where good intentions can lead. What Fyvie hasn't done, unfortunately, is spent as much time as possible tweaking his script and plotting out a worthwhile tale that can carry viewers along from start to finish through a mix of thought-provoking situations and standard cannibalistic cadaver conflicts.

He also hasn't put together a strong enough cast. Kriek is far too hard to like, thanks to the mix of script issues and a performance that doesn't help matters. Visser, Sebe, and Zuma all do better, largely because they're not the standard lead players, and there are also decent supporting roles from everyone else who gets involved with the action.

There's one standout scene, I think it's at approximately the halfway point, which involves some off-the-cuff medical attention being given in an unsuitable, and vulnerable, location but the rest of Last Ones Out is disappointingly bland and cliched, whether it is the way people deal with others who may be infected, the behaviour of the selfish character who could endanger everyone while being so stubborn and careless, or even the flashes of feral viciousness that show when the zombies have prey in their sights.

Not enough is done with the setting, there's nothing new added to the subgenre, and I would have to say that, despite having a level of skill and polish that so many other, cheap, zombie movies lack, Last Ones Out should be one of the last you check out from any pile of potential new horror viewings.

3/10

Here's a much better African-set zombie movie, at a bargain price.


Friday, 19 April 2019

Pumpkinhead (1988)

The first feature to be directed by FX whizz Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead is a tale of loss, dark magic, and vengeance (indeed, there was a time when it was packaged as Vengeance The Demon). With a fantastic lead role for Lance Henriksen, this is a bit of a horror gem that is all-too-often forgotten by fans. It did well enough to gain a number of sequels, although I have yet to see any of those at this time (but one day . . . always one day).

The setting is middle-of-nowhere, USA. A group of city types have wheeled into the area, all for the purpose of riding around on their motorbikes and generally having a good time. Lance Henriksen is Ed Harley,  the owner of a small store who ends up seeking vengeance when the visitors accidentally ruin his life. That vengeance comes in the shape of a summoned demon, and it also comes with a lot of pain as the connection between the Harley and the embodiment of his vengeance grows stronger with each kill.

Taking a cue from a poem by Ed Justin, Pumpkinhead obviously benefits from the fact that it is a creature feature directed by someone who should know the best way to show off the practical effects work, and also cover up the weak spots. So it's a pleasant surprise to find that it also has a pretty good screenplay, written by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani. The selection of characters means that not everyone is given enough time or attention but when the focus is on Harley and the demon then it manages to emphasise the heart of the tale without ever sacrificing the entertainment factor.

The creature is seen from quite early on, and seen often. Again, this may seem obvious because of the direction from Winston, but it's a bold choice nonetheless, one that ends up working because of the pacing and the interesting turns that the film takes in the third act, as Harley struggles with his decision and tries to undo the events that have been sent in motion. Pumpkinhead doesn't always maintain the same look throughout, and the detailing of the growth and transformation of the creature become quite uncanny during the final scenes.

Although he's rarely a bad performer, Henriksen is on top form here. He casts his shadow over the entire movie, struggling to deal with his loss and rage as he makes one bad decision that fails to provide any satisfying resolution. Florence Schauffler is worth mentioning, playing the local witch woman, named Haggis, and I'll rarely review a film that gives George 'Buck' Flower a role without mentioning him. This is a slightly bigger role for him than usual, playing the head of a clan that includes one child (Bunt, played by Brian Bremer) who gets himself entangled in the proceedings and one child played by Mayim Bialik who gets herself noticed as being the first feature film role for Mayim Bialik. John D'Aquino plays Joel, a real douchebag who causes all of the horror to start, and the rest of the potential victim group includes Jeff East, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain, and Kerry Remsen. Nobody really stands out, for good or bad, which is fine while the vengeance is happening but takes away slightly from the impact of a finale that doesn't involve anyone you really care about (save for Henriksen).

Unjustly consigned to the pile of many forgotten horror movies from the 1980s (along with The Unnameable, from the very same year), Pumpkinhead is easily worth a revisit/first viewing. There are very few moments of down time, the effects hold up very well, and it underlines the thrills and set-pieces with a surprisingly poignant look at the harm you can do (to others and to yourself) when blindly lashing out in a grief-stricken state of mind.

7/10

Buy a DVD here.
Americans can buy a nicer disc here.


Oh, and here's the full poem by Ed Justin.

"Keep away from Pumpkinhead,
Unless you're tired of living,
His enemies are mostly dead,
He's mean and unforgiving,
Laugh at him and you're undone,
But in some dreadful fashion,
Vengeance, he considers fun,
And plans it with a passion,
Time will not erase or blot,
A plot that he has brewing,
It's when you think that he's forgot,
He'll conjure your undoing,
Bolted doors and windows barred,
Guard dogs prowling in the yard,
Won't protect you in your bed,
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead!"

Thursday, 18 April 2019

The Muppet Movie (1979)

There's no easy way to put this, sometimes I was very stupid in my youth. That would often take shape in obvious ways (such as swinging on that rope "tarzan" that was on a branch too weak to hold my weight, leading to me being dropped into a river while fully clothed, spending the rest of the day desperately trying to dry off before I reached home, and the potential wrath of my mother) and sometimes it would take shape in ways I didn't even realise until now, such as my opinion of The Muppet Movie.

I've always loved The Muppets. Always. I mistrust anyone who doesn't. And a lot of their feature films are wonderful, from this first outing up to the most recent, Muppets Most Wanted. But wonderful doesn't necessarily mean great, it can just mean enjoyable and comforting. Because they all star The Muppets. Which is all a way of saying that, for some reason, I always viewed The Muppet Movie with affection, yet also thought it was a bit . . .  dull. Maybe I had been spoiled by the hectic and energetic episodes of the TV show, maybe I was victim to my youthful inability to remain engaged by films that weren't hurtling non-stop from one impressive set-piece to the next.

Whatever the reason, I was wrong. This is a fantastic film that takes a simple premise - the tale of how the gang got together - and uses it to link together some enjoyable songs, loads of gags, and a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos. There's also a plot point about a villain named Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), and his right hand man (Austin Pendleton), who wants Kermit to become the face of his restaurant chain, one that sells a menu with frogs legs as the main draw.

It's very hard to find fault with this, a film that manages to both capture the heart of the show and also shows the creations in slightly different environments and ways (e.g. it's always odd to see Kermit's legs). It helps that most of the celebrity cameos are from some of the biggest names in comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks) and some of the biggest names, period (Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Cloris Leachman, and a final surprise that proves extra delightful for film fans).

The songs, by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams, are catchy, the jokes are wonderfully daft, and it's all as sweet and endearing now as it was when first released four decades ago (even if the stupid child version of me didn't fully recognise that).

If you're a fan of The Muppets then this is one to watch and rewatch whenever you need your day brightened up. If you're not a fan of The Muppets then, well, I don't know how to help you.

9/10

This set is available here.
Americans can buy the same set here.



Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Prime Time: Blood Clots (2018)

I have often started my reviews by discussing the process that leads to me picking certain films. It will depend on the genre I am in the mood for, the runtime, my need to complete any specific film series, and much more. Which is why I opted for Blood Clots. I hadn't heard of it before and I read that it was an anthology, which felt perfect for my frame of mind last night. I'd been a bit stressed and just wanted to unwind with some simple pleasures. As we all know, an anthology is good because if you hate one segment then you have a chance of enjoying the next one that comes along.

Here we have a number of horror tales that have all been released by Hewes Pictures, that's the connection between them. Seven tales, covering zombie outbreaks, cannibalism, slithery creatures, werewolves, and Lovecraftian figures, as well as some deadly jellyfish (in what is arguably the silliest and least effective of the segments). Highlights include "Still", a tale of a musical statue trying to avoid becoming food while zombies munch on others around him, and "The Call Of Charlie", a short film I had the pleasure of seeing a few years ago at Dead By Dawn (the horror festival here in Edinburgh).

Unfortunately, this has more misses than hits. The first tale - "Hell Of A Day" - is a particularly poor start. The second - "Never Tear Us Apart" - is a slight improvement, with a couple of good gore gags making up for the weak punchline. "Blue Moon" is much better, a fun idea, if an obvious one, that is just hampered by the lack of budget. Things wind down again, slightly, with "Time To Eat". And then it's a strong jump to top form with the excellent "Still", followed by the weak "Hellyfish", and finishing up with the wonderful "The Call Of Charlie".

You don't have any wraparound tale, and each segment is simply presented with title cards introducing them (Clot 1, Clot 2, and so on), so it really is up to each individual section to impress the viewer. Sadly, not enough of them do. What you have here are two great segments, one good one, and the rest ranging from decidedly mediocre to really quite poor, which isn't a good enough ratio for this kind of thing.

On the plus side, the runtime is brief, meaning none of the individual segments really outstay their welcome for too long, and at least whoever assembled these into anthology movie form had the good sense to end with the best short, even if it is also the quirkiest.

Having now looked through the catalogue of short films that have been released by Hewes Pictures, I applaud their wide and varied selection. The great short film is an art well worth mastering by people, whether they stay their and enjoy that format or want to move towards feature projects. So I recommend checking out all of their titles whenever you have small chunks (clots?) of time available to you. I just don't think this was the strongest mix to push together into an anthology feature.

4/10

Blood Clots is available on Prime Video, I don't find any disc release for it.


Tuesday, 16 April 2019

The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot (2018)

Yes, it's that film with the sensational title that isn't really how you think it is going to be, The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot is an interesting little gem, largely thanks to the main performance from the wonderful Sam Elliott, but it's hard to think of who it will appeal to. Genre fans will be left disappointed by the lack of certain elements while those who may appreciate the tone and themes of the film more will very likely be put off by the sensational title.

Anyway, despite it seeming redundant, here's the plot. Sam Elliott plays Calvin Barr (as does Aidan Turner, portraying the character when we see his past in a number of flashbacks). Barr is an ex-military man who seems to be doing his best to live a life of peace. Unfortunately, that's not going to be. He's approached by men who know about his past to do something now that he is uniquely qualified for. It's a mission that will stir up a lot of memories, and not many of them are good.

The feature debut from writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski, this is a very strange beast indeed, no pun intended. If you're not sure of how you might feel about any aspect of it, view it as a film that at least serves the noble purpose of giving Sam Elliott a wonderful lead role. If you like Elliott then you should at least find something to enjoy here, thanks to the scenes that make the most of his wonderfully hangdog expression and air of tired resignation.

Everything is well put together, even as it all feels slightly rambling and inconsequential, but it all lifts up when things become clearer in the second half, in terms of both the main thematic strand being explored and the real heart of the central character.

Elliott is cast about as perfectly as could be. You may not believe that he has done, or could do, what the title states, but you can easily believe that he is a man who has thought long and hard during many times in his life. He seems like a man who can take a moment to weigh up the pros and cons of any situation and then, no matter what it costs him personally, can be counted on to do the right thing. This film would be nothing without him, no matter the decent work put in by Turner, Larry Miller (giving a wonderfully understated performance), and Caitlin Fitzgerald (sweet and shining like a light in the storehouse of memories that our lead wanders through). The other person to note is Ron Livingston, although his role is a stereotypical American agent out to persuade someone who doesn't want to do the job that it is in their best interests to do so.

I'd really like to comment more on what this film is actually about but that would spoil the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Give it a watch, don't expect anything as silly as the title suggests (although it's not really mis-selling itself), and enjoy basking in the wonderful charismatic glow of Sam Elliott for a small part of your day. What more do you need?

7/10

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


Monday, 15 April 2019

Mubi Monday: Mid90s (2018)

Jonah Hill moves from star to writer-director with this nostalgic look at the life of a young boy who finds his place among some skateboarding kids who, let's try to be polite here, mostly don't seem to have any clue about the work-life balance attitude they will need to get through approaching adulthood.

Sunny Suljic plays Stevie, the young boy who spends a lot of his time trying to avoid being beaten up by his older brother (Ian, played by Lucas Hedges). But as well as being afraid of his sibling, Stevie obviously looks up to him, and that may well be the male figure he tries most to emulate on his way to finding himself, until he starts to hang around with some boys who enjoy spending their time skateboarding and generally trying to impress one another. A couple of the group members have ideas about things they want to do well in life, another couple can't really see themselves beyond the image they have established within the group. Such is teenage life.

The influences on Hill are obvious throughout his feature directorial debut, which is at least accomplished and more mature throughout than many might expect. Although nostalgia is at the heart of things, this is a film that feels more like a patchwork of other films than the semi-autobiographical experience it's supposed to be. Kids is a big touchstone, as is This Is England (both acknowledged by Hill as some of the main influences). In fact, despite the skateboarding aspect of the plot, this hews a lot closer to This Is England than any other film that Hill decided to use as a "template" for his tale.

Unfortunately, there's nothing new here, which would be fine if it didn't all feel slightly stale and overdone. For me, if I want to watch some skateboarding teens then I will watch some of the fine documentaries that have been released over the years. If I want to see turbulent teen years onscreen then I can pick from literally hundreds of other movies. And if I want something to identify with then, well, I'll obviously be looking at the home-grown UK films that seek to capture snapshots of past decades. Mid90s is perfectly fine, for what it is, but there's no single aspect of it that can't be found, in a better form, in many other movies.

Suljic is good in the lead role, and I hope to keep up with whatever he does after being impressed by his last few movie roles, and the rest of the teens he befriends do fine. Na-kel Smith fares the best, thanks to the script, but the performances from Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, and Ryder McLaughlin are all on the nose. Alexa Demie is the one young girl featured in the cast, she does well, and Katherine Waterston puts in another performance that fails to convince me why she is ever the first choice for any role, aside from her surname. But it's Hedges who is actually given the best role, which makes it more disappointing when his character is not explored further. He's more complex than his younger brother, and has seen more that is only mentioned in passing once or twice. His past would seem to make a better film than the main character's present, but that's not the movie we are given.

Despite what I have said here, in terms of my own ultimate ambivalence towards the film and my preference for the Shane Meadows work it got me thinking of, I can see why this will obviously appeal more to American viewers who can have their own teen experiences to feel nostalgic for, accompanied by an appropriate selection of tunes from that era. It didn't work that well for me but, then again, I am not the target audience.

6/10

Americans can already buy it here.


Sunday, 14 April 2019

Netflix And Chill: Await Further Instructions (2018)

Family gatherings are always a trying time, and many movies have been based around them. Await Further Instructions starts off with the usual stress and strain, everything heightened by the fact that it's Christmas, and then dives into the realm of the dark and mysterious, with the family suddenly trapped in their home and being given instructions through the TV set. Not knowing exactly what has gone on outside (some kind of viral epidemic, terrorist attack, or whatever else it could be), the family seem to have no choice but to trust the messages being relayed to them, and to act upon them. Some start to think differently, however, and the cracks that were already there under normal circumstances start to widen, potentially leading to more extreme arguments and reactions that could endanger their lives.

Sam Gittins is Nick, the young man visiting home with his girlfriend, Annji (Neerja Naik). He hasn't been home in a while, which is surprising when you see how lovely his mother, Beth (Abigail Cruttenden), is. It becomes less surprising when you meet his father, Tony (Grant Masters). And then you have the racist grandfather (David Bradley) to put up with, as well as a pregnant sister (Kate, played by Holly Weston) and her partner (Scott, played by Kris Saddler), who both seem intent on banding against Nick when he tries to ensure everyone acts like civil adults. Everyone survives the first night, barely, and the next day is when they find themselves shut inside their home, having messages delivered to them via their TV.

A lot of this movie works REALLY well, because you have a cast doing solid work with a decent script from Gavin Williams (who has one TV movie and a number of shorts to his credit before this). Williams ignores the usual pitfall of this kind of thing (how many times have we watched a slim premise like this padded out by repeated scenes and circular dialogue?) because he's developing things further in between each main set-piece, and there are some enjoyably tense ones here. Sadly, it slips up in the third act, where ambiguity is replaced by a bit too much explanation, although Williams still deserves kudos for firming up a wild idea that he manages to play out in a fairly plausible and intriguing way.

Director Johnny Kevorkian does a good job too, especially considering this is only his second feature.  This could have easily been a number of annoying scenes of characters arguing against one another strung together, and it obviously cannot avoid those moments here and there, but people are allowed to move away from one another, they're allowed to keep trying to think of all the possibilities available to them, and the simple deviousness of the instructions given effectively reveal a hell of a lot about those having to respond.

The women fare better than the men, in the acting stakes, with Naik and Cruttenden the most likeable of the main cast members. Gittins is fine, if a bit bland, and Saddler is given a surprisingly enjoyable character arc, but both Weston and Masters are a little bit too cartoonish with their bad attitudes, and Bradley is sadly underused in his role.

A lot of Await Further Instructions makes you think about what you would do if stuck in a similar situation. That's the beauty of it. It's simple and highly effective. When it starts to become more complex, and ambitious, is when it may lose some viewers. But there are worse cinematic sins than trying to become more complex and ambitious than you need to be, and this still deserves to find an audience.

7/10

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


Saturday, 13 April 2019

Shudder Saturday: The House By The Cemetery (1981)

I love me some Lucio Fulci horror. The man doesn't give a damn for things like logic or reality, but he can create some absolutely wonderful set-pieces, and can also layer on atmosphere so thick that you have to cut through it with a chainsaw to even just see the screen. Unfortunately, The House By The Cemetery (the last in his "Gates Of Hell" trilogy) is one of his weaker films. There are still moments that will please fans, they're just too few and far between in the middle of a plot that's hard to care about.

And I'm not going to take up this entire review with space trying to explain the plot. Let's just say that a family moves into a new home, that home having also been the site of evil happenings, and it's not long until more evil happenings start to, ummmm, happen. That will do, trust me, that's all you need to know.

You get some familiar Fulci-isms here, of course, including a random prologue that becomes relevant a bit later on, someone with psychic abilities, spooky children, an animal attack (this time it's a bat), and an undead figure shambling around and killing people. There are moments of gore, moments to bewilder anyone new to the cinematic world of Fulci, and general oddness throughout, but it all feels like someone trying to emulate Fulci without really managing to get things right.

Part of this can be attributed to the script, which was written by the director, Dardano Sacchetti, and Giorgio Mariuzzo (developing the plot thought up by Elisa Briganti), but scripts have never been the main focus of a Fulci movie. Yet, even in comparison to others that he brought to the screen, this is particularly weak. There's no building of tension because the core of the story is so weak, there are no characters to really care about, or be interested in, and the dialogue is either clunky exposition or reactions to moments of horror that would send most people running for the hills.

Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco are the two main adults, the latter being responsible for his family moving into "the creaky and creepy house of murder and death" (my title, not a name given to the location in the film, despite it being completely appropriate), and the main child, Bob, is played by Giovanni Frezza in a performance that is up there in the annals of most annoying movie children ever. Not that I blame Frezza entirely for that. It's a mix of the dubbing and however he was directed by Fulci. Ania Pieroni isn't onscreen long enough, playing a babysitter named Ann, while Giovanni De Nava is arguably shown too much in the second half, playing Dr. Freudstein, the character causing so much death and horror.

There are still moments here that make this worth your time, just, but it's probably the weakest film from Fulci to feature a shambling corpse, and it's not a patch on so many of his other movies that you could pick from the decades during which he gave us a pretty damn impressive number of memorable genre films.

5/10

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


Friday, 12 April 2019

Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)

I wonder who thought that now was a good time to bring back the character of Johnny English, a rather arrogant man who often has ideas he lacks the skill to turn into action, who views himself as superior to his global counterparts, despite consistently proving otherwise, and who seems stuck in a haze of past former glories that are formed from chance events, misconceptions, and moments of standing on the shoulders of others. On second thoughts, it makes perfect sense that this character came back now. But is this new movie any good?

Sort of.

The plot sees Johnny English (Atkinson reprising the role, of course) being the last resort, yet again, when a national emergency needs a hero to avert disaster. This time the disaster is caused by a cyber-criminal. English is reunited with Bough (Ben Miller), he has some classic gadgets to help him along, and also gets the chance to become smitten with a woman named Ophelia Bhuletova (Olga Kurylenko).

There are some good laughs to be had here, a couple of set-pieces made me chuckle throughout, but perhaps not enough to warrant an entire new adventure for the UK's most hapless spy (although, in fairness, this balances the character out between the useless man we first met and the more skilled agent of the second movie, albeit rusty after his years not being in active service). I will always laugh at a scene that has Rowan Atkinson dancing to an intense dance tune, but that can be done without a whole Johnny English movie framing it. Likewise, the sequence in which Atkinson dons a VR headset and causes havoc in London is a lot of fun, but also feels as if it could have been reworked within a better narrative.

Because for all it gets right, and director David Kerr (making his theatrical feature debut after a LOT of impressive TV work) certainly keeps everything moving along briskly enough, in line with the light and amusing script by William Davies (who also wrote the first film), there's an inescapable feeling that we've seen it all before, done better, or we're seeing something that could have been part of a much fresher experience. English is a character trotted out again when he should probably have been left in retirement, although that is a lot of what the film uses to get laughs.

As for the performances, everyone joins in with gusto. Atkinson and Miller make a good duo, once again, with the latter particularly entertaining during the many times he chooses not to comment after yet another disastrous episode or lapse in judgement. Kurylenko is the kind of glamorous and dangerous woman she can play in her sleep, Jake Lacy is a tech whizz who may just be the most obvious link to the cyber-terror, and Emma Thompson is a hoot as a Prime Minister who gets through each bad day with sheer force of will and canny decision-making. And alcohol.

Maybe slightly better than the first movie, especially during a wonderful opening sequence that shows English in his new role as a teacher, but not as good as the second, this is a third outing ultimately undone by how completely unnecessary it feels.

6/10

You can buy a boxset here.
Americans can buy the movie here.


Thursday, 11 April 2019

Dead Silence (2007)

After James Wan and Leigh Wannell found fame with Saw, for better or worse, they quickly moved into the territory that would become their more familiar ground over the next decade, the supernatural horror. Dead Silence is a film that is interesting now to watch for a number of reasons, not the least of them being the seeds of ideas that both men would use more effectively in a number of their more successful movies.

Things start with a dummy being delivered to the abode of Jamie And Lisa Ashen. It's not long until Lisa is dead, Jamie is the prime suspect, and a trip home sees him start to uncover a number of clues that point to the evil influence of a famous ventriloquist named Mary Shaw. He is trying to prove his innocence and find out exactly what happened, all the while being closely watched by a detective who clearly believes that it's only a matter of time until Jamie slips up and can be charged with murder.

There's so much here that I enjoy that I find it easy to overlook the things that Dead Silence does poorly. What it lacks in ANY sense of reality, what it fails to do in terms of hiding the minor and major twists, it more than makes up for with huge helpings of creepy atmosphere and a premise that allows plenty of chills to be wrung from that creepy standby, the ventriloquist's dummy. But this is a film that begins with a couple receiving a delivery of one such dummy and not immediately setting it on fire, setting their whole house on fire, and moving to the furthest possible zip code at the other end of the country. And that's not the least believable thing about the film. The production design is wonderful throughout, but turns a small town into nothing more than a succession of sets that wouldn't look out of place in any major Halloween haunt (it's no surprise to find that the film was used at Universal's "Halloween Horror Nights" in the year it was released), none of the characters feel remotely close to being normal human beings, and the finale, as enjoyably scary and effective as it is, is quite preposterous. It also suffers from the kind of editing that many disliked in Saw.

Wan directs competently enough, although he's at the beginning of a steep learning curve that he would easily stand astride within a few years, and he does enough with the pacing and atmosphere to help distract from the silliness. Wannell, on the other hand, can't seem to make headway with the script. He's gone on record with his unhappiness at the experience, and final product, but I'm surprised that he couldn't work his way out from the strong core and create something much better than what we ended up with. Both the exposition and dialogue are weak, although he deserves credit for creating the better scares that help to make things a bit easier for Wan.

Perhaps some stronger leads would have helped. I like Kwanten (although this was a while before I saw his work in True Blood and Red Hill, both allowing him to do much better work) but he's unable to do much with the material here. Donnie Wahlberg is so bad, at times, that he feels as if he's wandered in from an audition for the role of "obsessive and obstinate cop" in some parody. Judith Roberts is wonderfully creepy in the role of Mary Shaw, Bob Gunton and Amber Valletta do well as, respectively, the father and mother-in-law of Kwanten's character, and Laura Regan isn't onscreen for long enough to make a strong impression.

A dangerous dummy, a scary-looking old woman, an entity with a vendetta against individuals that isn't easy to placate and/or get rid of, a cop who may find himself in trouble while trying to keep track of a main suspect, Dead Silence may be viewed as a failure by some but it's an essential stepping stone in the filmographies of both Wan and Wannell. And it's actually a decent little chiller too, if also a bit of a silly one.

6/10

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


Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Prime Time: The Dukes Of Hazzard (2005)

There were two movies made in the mid-2000s that were based on TV shows that were, in turn, based around a car in a starring role. Well, two that I can recall, off the top of my head. Starsky & Hutch was the first, in 2004. The second was this one. It's not really a surprise to find that both were reworked for comedy. It's also not really a surprise, for those who know how easily pleased I am, that I tended to enjoy both. What IS surprising is that this film turned out as well as it did, considering who was involved in front of the camera.

Mind you, with taste being as subjective as it is, the very people I enjoy seeing in this movie may be the very reason that others never want to see it, and think it should be consigned to the bargain bin section of Hell. And if you're already thinking that then you should probably not rush to see it.

Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott play Luke and Bo Duke, the rough 'n' ready heroes of our story. Well, they are the characters that we tag along with, and they are the humans who look set to put a spanner in the works of any plan by 'Boss' Hogg (Burt Reynolds), but the real star is the General Lee, the car that Bo uses to cause vehicular carnage and stay one step ahead of pursuing baddies, or those wanting to shoot Luke because of his unchecked libido.

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (of Broken Lizard fame), this works well because of good casting, gags that range from decent to groan-inducing, and a number of sequences that allow for some great car stonework. You also get appearances from many of the other Broken Lizard troupe members, which helps.

Written by John O'Brien, the script manages to retain the essence of the show thanks to the way it uses the main characters, even while twisting them all slightly to up the comedy quotient. Knoxville and Scott may not be your favourite actors, and may not be absolutely perfect in these roles, but they're a decent fit for a couple of moonshine-running lads who can always try to excuse the irritation they cause with a big grin and air of childishness.

The rest of the cast fit just as well, whether it's Jessica Simpsons turning heads as Daisy Duke, Burt Reynolds as the villain of the piece, M. C. Gainey as his main henchman, who also happens to be the local Sheriff, and Willie Nelson as Grandpa. There are also fun turns from David Koechner, James Roday (playing a cocky ex-resident of the county back to take part in a local race), an underused Lynda Carter, and one or two others.

The soundtrack has some great selections, the chase sequences are genuinely entertaining, and the plot feels like the kind of thing that could have happened in a feature-length episode of the show, which is sometimes the best you can hope for from a movie reworking a beloved TV show from the past. This may not be the best film that anyone here is involved with, but it's fun stuff, nothing more, nothing less.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get a double-pack here.


Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Altitude (2018)

Here's the thing about my movie reviews. I often forget to mention the musical scores, I am woefully forgetful when it comes to namechecking people like cinematographers and designers (people that are vital to helping the director create their vision), and I don't always write essays based around the themes and subtext of the more meaningful cinematic classics I have watched over the years. Sometimes I try, don't get me wrong, but I'm often aiming to just relay a general feeling about the films I have watched. My reviews are often just about my reaction, as opposed to being a full dissection. Sometimes I manage to pack a bit more in there, and am always happy when the thoughts and words flow well for me, and sometimes I am happy that I am watching another film that doesn't really need such thoughtful criticism.

Altitude certainly falls into that latter camp.

Denise Richards plays Gretchen Blair, a female FBI agent who has boarded a flight after having a very bad time of things recently. She gets angry at an inconsiderate idiot who has ended up sitting in her seat and ends up being taken to first class. Result. Sitting alongside a man named Terry (Kirk Barker), her moment of happiness is short-lived. Some people want Terry, or at least what he has hidden away from them, and that means that they want to take control of the flight. Greer Grammer is the woman in charge of the criminal plan, and Dolph Lundgren is her right hand man (although she also has other muscle on hand, with the most recognisable being Chuck Liddell).

Altitude is preposterous. Of course it is. The characters are all ridiculous clichés, very few moments are plausible, and it's a film in which viewers have to accept Richards as the strong and smart goodie up against Lundgren.

Director Alex Merkin tries to keep everything moving along zippily enough, throwing occasional distractions in (like Jonathan Lipnicki as an over the top, dancing and singing, air steward) to break up the overly familiar plotting as we get the opening situation that puts our lead in need of a rest, an overview of the plane and the passengers, developing awareness of the dangerous plot, etc. The script, by Jesse Mittelstadt, also helps here, with the material sadly growing weaker when the actual action starts to take place. Neither Merkin nor Mittelstadt can do enough to get this anywhere close to any of the other, superior, plane-based action thrillers that we've already seen over the years. And some of the dialogue is either laughably cheesy or cringe-inducing, depending on your mindset.

Richards is okay in her role (although I did spend the majority of the movie squinting at the screen and asking myself "is that Denise Richards?"), and Barker is fine, if fairly bland. That leaves it to the villains to liven things up. They don't quite manage it, mainly due to the fact that Granmer plays her role in a way that makes you wish someone had been able to negotiate a fee for Krysten Ritter, and also the fact that Lundgren is sorely underused (he spends most of his screentime actually flying the plane). The least said about Liddell the better, but it's worth mentioning Jordi Vilasulo, who does a decent job as the air marshall who gets involved in the situation.

You could do a lot worse if you're after a mindless slice of action, which is all it is trying to provide. I'll watch anything Lundgren does, he improves pretty much any film that he stars in, and this may not be one of his better films, but it's still a fun one.

5/10

You can pick up the film, under the name "Hijacked", here.
Americans can get it here.