Sunday, 30 June 2019

Netflix And Chill: Shaft (2019)

You know the name. Shaft is the cool cat that we've been digging since he first appeared in cinemas back in the early 1970s. Richard Roundtree played the role, and memorably. A reworking of the bad mother (shut your mouth . . . but I'm talkin' 'bout Shaft) appeared in 2000, with Samuel L. Jackson taking on the main role. And now we have a film that features both of those actors playing the role, although the former isn't onscreen for long, while introducing a new member to the family (played by Jessie T. Usher).

Usher is JJ Shaft, a young man who hasn't seen his father in many years. That's because his mother (Maya, played by Regina Hall) decided to leave, in order to keep her son safe from the kind of trouble that his father would attract. But when JJ needs help to investigate the death of a good friend, he ends up tracking down his father, John Shaft (Jackson). Bones are broken, bullets fly, women start to find the danger arousing, and Shaft and Shaft Jr hurtle towards a grand finale that will require the help of someone equally capable. Grandpa AKA John Shaft, Sr (Roundtree).

Shaft is an enjoyable comedy, with some decent action beats that don't skimp on the gunfire and bloodshed, but that is something that will upset a lot of fans. It's not something that bothered me, however, mainly because the main incarnations of the character that we have seen before were rarely the butt of any jokes. Usher plays a man brought up in a very different world, and with a very different attitude, but the secret to getting things done is usually adding on a bit of that patented Shaft badassery. And it's fair enough to highlight the fact that the classic traits of the character wouldn't necessarily be as appreciated today as they have been in previous decades (although they're only really unappreciated here by other people who have not spent a decent amount of time in Shaft's world).

Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow have put together a decent script, allowing the leads to have some very entertaining moments together, and peppering many scenes with dialogue that both works for the characters and also proves amusing enough. It feels like a good pairing, with Barris having a few more movies under his belt and Barnow having a decent selection of TV shows under his.

As just mentioned, Jackson and Usher work well together. The former is his usual persona, Usher spends a lot of the movie playing catch up (although he does have one or two tricks up his sleeve, and has more skill than is immediately apparent). Roundtree still has his full serving of charisma, which makes his limited screentime all the more frustrating. The villains are decent enough, and Titus Welliver delivers a great little turn as The Man, the immediate boss to JJ who doesn't ever give him an opportunity to reach his full potential. The ladies may be sidelined for a lot of the runtime, but that doesn't stop both Hall and Alexandra Shipp (playing Sasha, a good friend to JJ) doing their best with what they're given. Both manage to stand out in a fill overflowing with testosterone, as does Luna Lauren Velez, in the role of a potential lead/criminal named Bennie Rodriguez.

Director Tim Story keeps everything moving nicely. This is a 110-minute movie that whizzes by. There's a great soundtrack (although it's missing one classic cut), some entertaining set-pieces, and a central investigation with a couple of twists and turns, despite the fact that most viewers will be able to point to at least one of the main villains within their first few scenes. And Shaft is still also very much Shaft. As is Shaft. JJ, on the other hand, well, he needs a lot of work. But he might be able to find his own Shaftiness by the time the end rolls around.

There are already mixed reviews appearing for this, and just as many advising viewers to stay away. Don't listen to The Man. Give it a watch and make your own mind up.

7/10

Get yourself a funky soundtrack here.
Americans can get a Roundtree triple-bill here.


Saturday, 29 June 2019

Shudder Saturday: Dark Water (2002)

Every horror fan of a certain age knows that we were delivered numerous treats between the late '90s to the mid-2000s, thanks to the release of a number of titles that would be labelled J-horror (Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge, The Eye*, etc). This golden period, as I like to view it anyway, has had a ripple effect that continues to this day. Whether considering the careers of some of the main directors to get more notice here, whether looking at some of the tricks used by Hollywood to scare moviegoers, or whether you're just visiting some of the movies that you missed during their initial release, the J-horror explosion remains a positive influence on the horror genre.

Which brings me to Dark Water, another film from director Hideo Nakata (who was placed at the forefront of the Asian horror movies making waves at this time, thanks to his success as the director of Ring). It is a film that was praised when it first came out, as I recall, and then quickly faded away. I think it was viewed by some as a decent, but ultimately, disappointing horror movie that held little of the power that imbued a film like Ring. An American remake (because few of the hits from this time would avoid the American remake machine) failed to do more than underline this feeling for many.

The thing is . . . Dark Water doesn't have the power of Ring. It will disappoint horror movie fans who are seeking the next thing to deliver one major memorable moment. But Dark Water has a different power. It's a quietly creepy film that proves even more effective because it doesn't go for the easy scares. It instead decides to show how the bonds between parent and child can so often be unbreakable, even if things appear very different from other points of view.

Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi Matsubara, a mother who is going through a divorce from her husband. She has one young daughter, Ikuko (played by Rio Kanno), and is struggling to balance her wellbeing with her new situation, which involves a new place to live, looking for employment again, and the ongoing legal wrangling. Things really aren't helped by the damp patch on the ceiling of her new apartment, a flooded area that constantly drips and seems unhealthy, it's a problem that doesn't look likely to be resolved any time soon.

Another horror adapted from the work of Kôji Suzuki (who also wrote the source material for Ring), director Nakata seems to find a better way into the material with this outing. He makes a more incisive and effective film, in terms of the complete experience, by focusing on the drama without pinning everything around a few great set-pieces. He's helped immensely by the screenplay, by Ken'ichi Suzuki and Yoshihiro Nakamura, which explores the main theme in a mature way that refuses to rush towards the finale, and refuses to recycle a lot of the genre tropes that could have turned this into a more standard horror tale.

Kuroki and Kanno are both fantastic in their roles, working well both together and individually in every scene. Kuroki is the seasoned professional, and it shows, but Kanno arguably deserves a bit more praise for doing so well in her first feature role. There are also numerous solid supporting performances, but the focus remains on the mother and daughter relationship at all times.

I know that many may think of this as hyperbole, I do, but it's worth reappraising Ring (still a great, iconic, film) as the forerunner to many movies that would surpass it. Dark Water is just one of the films that does that. It has a feeling of sadness throughout, and sometimes dread, and the final scenes are among the most quietly moving in horror. You can feel free to disagree, but I urge you to (re)watch the movie before you make up your mind on it.

*NOT a Japanese film but, like many other Chinese and South Korean movies from this period, it was grouped with the others to make the stronger case for just how much good stuff we were getting outwith mainstream American and British territories.

9/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy that same disc here.



Friday, 28 June 2019

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

I really enjoyed the timeloop slasher shenanigans of Happy Death Day so I knew I would be keen to see a sequel. My enthusiasm for it was not at all diminished when I heard that it takes things in a surprisingly different direction from the first film, focusing on more comedy than thrills, and I think that most people should be aware of that before the film begins. Because this IS a very different beast from its predecessor, despite early scenes trying to pretend otherwise (for all of ten minutes).

Tree (Jessica Rothe) is delighted to have finally reached the day after her birthday, the day that she was stuck in for the duration of the first movie, waking up every morning in a bed in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard).  Unfortunately, the same problem is now affecting Carter's roommate, Ryan (Phi Vu). But there's every chance that it has something to do with the science project that he has been working on with Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Andrea (Sarah Yarkin). And it's not just time that has been pushed out of whack, there are parallel universes to also consider.

As well as all of the returning faces in front of the camera, Christopher Landon is back in the director's chair, and also gives himself the writing duties this time around. There's not as much needed this time around when it comes to establishing the visual signposts, and Landon uses the freedom to get things moving along as quickly as possible, removing the tension and upping the quirkiness and the comedy. It's a bold choice, and not an entirely successful one, for reasons that I'll get to after the next paragraph (see, I DO plan what I write sometimes).

All of the leads do great work, with Rothe and Broussard once again proving a great pairing to anchor the main events. Vu is immediately likeable as soon as he is pushed front and centre, while Sharma and Yarkin get a nice selection of scene-stealing lines and moments between them. Steve Zissis is the stereotypical angry dean who gets in the way of things, and he is fun in that role, while Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, and Charles Aitken all seem to enjoy portraying their characters with a bit of a twist, compared to how we viewed them the first time around.

I quite enjoyed the comedy of Happy Death Day 2U (there's a death montage that is one of the most enjoyably twisted and amusing things I have seen in a "teen movie" in years). I didn't even mind the more dramatic moments, forced as they were, when Tree was once again struggling to deal with the loss of her mother. I could have done without that particular strand, and I think the film would have been better without it, but it's perfectly fine, for what it is. So it's a shame there's so little tension this time around, the little that is there dissipates by the time we get to the third act. And it's an even greater shame that more intriguing possibilities teased in the earlier scenes are then just dropped for the rest of the film. Those are the two main failings of the film, major enough to at least drag this just below the bar set by the first film.

If you ensure that you have calibrated your expectations before pressing play, Happy Death Day 2U is fun. It's just easy to see ways in which it could have been so much better.

6/10

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


Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

Writer-director Joe Cornish has, with his two features, gone out of his way to provide entertainment that touches on some great genre history while also staying very much its own thing. Indeed, comparing his movies to others can end up doing them a disservice, and give people preconceptions that I am sure he would prefer you not to have. That's how it was with Attack The Block, and that is how it now is with The Kid Who Would Be King.

It's all about a young boy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who ends up pulling a sword out of a stone. That sword is obviously Excalibur, making Alex the leader that is needed to stop our world being taken over by forces of darkness (led by Morgana, played by Rebecca Ferguson). Alex needs to convince others of his leadership suitability. He has one very loyal friend (Bedders, played by Dean Chaumoo), and there's a strange new boy at school who is actually Merlin (Angus Imrie), but the three of them aren't enough to defeat the approaching baddies.

First off, I think it is very important to emphasise what this movie isn't. It's not a hilarious comedy (although it IS funny). And it's not aimed at older viewers. That doesn't mean that older viewers cannot be entertained by it, as I was. It just means that the best audience for this would be kids aged, at a guess, between 8 and 13, when they can still enjoy the fantastical elements, perhaps even believing in some of the onscreen magic, yet also appreciate the dramatic strands that serve a number of life lessons for the main characters to learn and grow from.

Now let's pin down what the movie IS. What Joe Cornish has delivered here is a movie not unlike the live-action Disney movies from the '70s and '80s. It's a more polished, and slightly less childish, effort than most of those adventures, but it's absolutely branching off from that particular cinematic family tree.

The script and direction from Cornish keeps everything in line with his ultimate aim, this is a film with the kids front and centre for about 85% of the runtime. They are the ones who know about the impending danger, they are the ones who hope to stop it. This is not a place for adults, and the rules of the battles allow for them to be handily "set aside" during the major set-pieces.

Serkis is excellent as young Alex, a boy who seizes the reworked mythology in a way that shows him hoping it will provide an answer to one major question in his life (connected to his father). Chaumoo is equally good as Bedders, and Imrie adds a vital energy and humour whenever he appears onscreen (the older version of his character is portrayed by a relative newcomer named Patrick Stewart, who also seems quite good at this acting lark). Tom Taylor and Rhianna Doris play characters who are initially antagonistic towards our hero, and they do decent work. Their journey may not ring as true as the journeys of the other characters, this is where the script slips up slightly, but Taylor and Doris do all that is asked of them. Last, but by no means least, you have two very different women making an impression in very different ways. Ferguson is an impressively determined and menacing villain, and Denise Gough is the concerned mother of Alex, doing her best to support her son while also trying to stop him from being consumed by what she thinks is a fantasy story that he has taken far too much to heart.

As long as you know what Cornish is aiming for, this has everything you could want from a piece of family entertainment. It updates a classic tale without attempting to include all of the latest trends and pop culture references, and that makes it feel both old-fashioned, in a pleasing way, and also quite refreshing. Cornish is two for two now, and I am very much looking forward to whatever he gives us next.

7/10

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


Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Prime Time: Mousehunt (1997)

There are some movies that you form a surprisingly strong attachment to. I'm not on about those films regarded as absolute classics. I'm not on about those films that you saw at the cinema and were immediately blown away by. I'm on about the kind of films that don't get talked about too often, yet you used to own, on either VHS or shiny disc, haven't seen in a while, and then immediately fall immediately in love with (again) when you revisit them after a gap of many years.

Mousehunt is one of those movies for me. When I clicked on the "start watching" button, I immediately remembered how many times I had watched the thing when I bought it on VHS. I could recite almost every line, and I never tired of it. I was like a child with a beloved Disney favourite.

But what's it all about? I'll tell you, although the title sums it up adequately.

Two brothers, Ernie Smuntz (Nathan Lane) and Lars Smuntz (Lee Evans) come together to claim their inheritance after the death of their father (Rudolph Smuntz, played by William Hickey). The inheritance comes to a seemingly paltry amount. There are some old cigars, a string factory that doesn't look likely to become a big money-maker, and an old house. Amazingly, the house turns out to have been the work of a very famous architect. It is a "lost" masterpiece. Determined to renovate the house and sell it for a life-changing amount of money, the brothers get to work. And that's when they start to become frustrated by an extra, unwanted, house guest. A mouse. But this mouse is smarter than most.

This comedy works as well as it does because it benefits from a number of people doing work that is up there with their very best stuff. I can't think of anything from writer Adam Rifkin that tops this, so it's his absolute high point, and director Gore Verbinski may have a number of other films that could be considered better, but very few of them are as much fun.

As for the stars, both Lane and Evan are comic actors I have enjoyed in a variety of roles. They work perfectly here, playing to their strengths, with the former getting the best lines and the latter allowed to go over the top with the physical gags. If the film only involved those two actors and the mouse then I would have been happy, but there are more people joining in the fun. Maury Chaykin is the man most interested in bidding for the house, Vicki Lewis is the ex-wife of Evans, and has a couple of great scenes with him, and Christopher Walken almost steals the film away from everybody with his wonderful turn as Caesar, the exterminator called in when other plans to get rid of the mouse have failed.

There are at least half a dozen magnificent set-pieces, a delightfully playful score by Alan Silvestri, a mouse so cute that it tucks itself into a little "bed" when about to go to sleep, and a great energy throughout that builds and builds towards a frenetic and hilarious grand finale. Some may think I have rated this too highly. I would urge those people to revisit the movie and come back to me with any major criticisms. It's a near-perfect comedy that works for almost every member of the family.

9/10

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


Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Overboard (2018)

I tend to like Anna Faris. She's always amused me and I get the feeling that she never takes her success for granted. In fact, like many other actors, she seems to spend most of her time worried about being found out as an impostor. I remember hearing her say some years ago that Overboard (1987) was her favourite movie of all time, which made the news that it was being remade just slightly more bearable when I knew she was bagging one of the main roles. Unfortunately, nothing else here really works, and it certainly doesn't get anywhere near the sheer fun nature of the original.

Eugenio Derbez is the rich, rude, person this time around. He plays Leonardo Montenegro, and ends up overboard in the first act, of course. Faris is Kate Sullivan, a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Her only encounter with Leonardo ended in disaster, as he not only refused to pay her for her time but also threw her cleaning equipment into the water. Which helps to motivate Kate when the news displays Leonardo as someone who has washed ashore with no memory of who he is. She is now going to make him a hard-working husband and father, just long enough for her to feel she has been given what she is owed. Well...maybe a bit more.

Based on the original script by Leslie Dixon, this update cannot do enough to maintain enough laughs while also staying self-aware enough to acknowledge the problematic nature of the main premise. Bob Fisher and Rob Greenberg, who also directs, don't help. If it was anyone other than Faris in one of the main roles then this would have been unwatchable. As it is, it meanders along from start to finish, sprinkling occasional amusing lines in between moments that show the two leads finding a "surprising" connection that will have to be broken in time for the big finale.

It's no surprise to see that Greenberg has a filmography full of various TV projects. Overboard certainly feels like a TV movie that somehow managed to sneak into cinemas, the material so flat and lacklustre that it can't even be saved by supporting turns from Swoosie Kurtz and Eva Longoria (who are, frankly, standouts in a supporting cast that is missing a required injection of personality, although John Hannah also does a decent job).

But the biggest lack of personality is felt whenever Derbez is onscreen. I didn't think I was overly familiar with the filmography of Derbez but it turns out that I have seen a number of films that have had him there, in supporting roles, and I have just never registered him. I was going to be charitable and consider the fact that Derbez wasn't used to comedy but it appears that most of his movie roles have been in comedies, making it more bewildering that he isn't any better here. He's lucky to be working alongside Faris, who carries the whole movie along the track and over the finish line, thanks to her sheer force of will and personality. And the child actors all do well too, I shouldn't forget about them.

This was always going to be a difficult film to remake, especially at a time when it is much more difficult to overlook the many egregious behaviours and stereotypes that are often seen in romantic comedies, but there's no excuse for delivering something THIS bland.

3/10

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


Monday, 24 June 2019

Mubi Monday: Booksmart (2019)

Booksmart is a fun film, full of energy, that easily sits alongside a number of other teen comedies from the past few decades. Unlike many of those, it was directed and written by women, and also features two wonderful female lead characters (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever).

The set-up is quite simple. Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) have made a number of sacrifices as they aim to get the grades required for their favoured colleges. But Molly hears a number of people talking about their future plans, which leads her to the realisation that a lot of people had the same aim, they just managed to maintain a better life-work balance throughout high school. Determined to use their last night to make up for years of missing out, Molly and Amy set out to find the location of the hottest party being attended by everyone else in their school year. And so begins a night that will see the young women test their limits, test some drugs, and test their friendship.

Although very much female-centric, Booksmart works brilliantly because it is very much focused on the teen experience, the years spent under intense pressure to please so many people (peers, parents, teachers) before you learn that it's best to just please yourself. Molly and Amy start the movie thinking that they have to live their lives a certain way, which becomes less and less true as they become more comfortable just being themselves.

The script, written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, is arguably the best work that any of them have done. It's smart, full of scenes that have an honesty at the heart of them, and very funny. And one sequence involving a pair of Barbie dolls is hilariously surreal in a way that recalls the anarchic silliness of Better Off Dead... (an '80s teen movie that remains woefully underseen).

Olivia Wilde does a great job in her feature directorial debut. She has a number of shorts to her credit, and has obviously been able to observe the film-making process during her many acting jobs, but this is an accomplished and assured first feature, undoubtedly helped by her industry connections (it's hard to imagine the likes of her partner, Jason Sudeikis, or Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow taking on supporting roles otherwise, although you could also argue that a good enough script would have won them over).

Feldstein and Dever are great in their roles, with the former bringing more of the energy into most scenes while the latter is having a more difficult time adjusting to a new level of social interaction and self-identity. Molly Gordon does great work in her small role, Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd are wonderfully over the top as two rich kids who find it easy to buy company, but not so easy to make real friends, and Diana Silvers has a couple of very funny scenes as a partygoer who ends up seeing Dever in a more vulnerable state than either would have wanted, and Jessica Williams gets to play a supercool teacher who is rooting for our leads throughout.

Although this is typically rambunctious stuff on the surface, Booksmart excels, like all of the best teen movies, because there's a lot more to it. And a large part of it is truth. As silly as many moments seem, it also nails the maelstrom of feelings that can rush through any teenager's mind every time a major decision has to be made. That decision could be about higher education, or it could about what to wear to a party. It could be about love or lust, or it could be about how far you go to support a friend. Every one is just as important as the other. Well, that is how it feels at the time. Booksmart nails that feeling, and more.

9/10

The movie will be available here.
Americans can get it here.


Sunday, 23 June 2019

Netflix And Chill: Redcon-1 (2018)

I have said it before, and will say it again. There's nothing like a good zombie movie. And, unfortunately, Redcon-1 is nothing like a good zombie movie. I'm not sure if that's really so bad, we see at least a dozen bad zombie movies churned out every year, but it feels a bit worse than some others because, well, it seems to think that it is a good movie. It wants to be a smart horror that recalls the likes of 28 Days Later..., which is a bold move, but it falls down in a number of ways.

Here's a summary of the plot. Stop me if you have heard this before. There's been an outbreak of zombieitis. Soldiers, headed up by Captain Marcus Stanton (Oris Erhuero), are sent to find a scientist who may have a cure. The zombies are smarter than some other zombies we have seen over the years, but not smart enough to completely usurp the human race. You also get roving gangs of people who enjoy fighting and killing, and generally causing a bit of a ruckus, and there's a young girl who may have a better immune system than most, when it comes to this particular medical problem anyway.

Director Chee Keong Cheung has other films to his credit, but the last thing he directed was a decade ago, and that perhaps explains why he forgets a lot of the basics here. Because there's very little here that is executed with energy and style. You get some gore occasionally, and some of it is decent enough, but gore loses any impact when there's nothing else to grab your attention (despite what the more hardcore gorehounds may tell you).

The script, co-written by Cheung, Steve Horvath, and actor Mark Strange, is a mess. Characters are rapidly introduced to put them in a queue of people who will help check off the list of "50 zombie movie clichés", there's no tension, even in sequences that have the zombie menace overpowering a number of humans in their midst, and the dialogue makes the whole thing feel like a spoof.

Poor Erhuero, he tries his best but just can't do enough to lift up everyone, and everything else, around him. He's the best thing here, by some margin, but the film tries hard to make him look bad. At least he is someone you remember once the end credits have rolled, unlike the aforementioned Strange, Goodale, or even Katarina Leigh Waters. Or the little girl who plays . . . the little girl (I didn't jot her name down and I'll be damned if I am about to rewatch this crap just to get one name right).

Strange choices abound, from the editing to the soundtrack, the jarring jumps in tone, and the immediate changes in characters who are required to become brave/heroic/troubled as soon as some zombie dentures get too close to them. Even the pacing is off, with this thing clocking in at just under two hours, and the whole thing drags, despite there being an action scene thrown in every 10-15 minutes.

There are worse zombie movies out there. There always will be. But that doesn't make this one any better. It tries to have a little bit of polish but, as the old saying goes, you can't polish a turd.

3/10

There's a disc here if you want to waste some money.
Americans can buy the same disc here.


Saturday, 22 June 2019

Shudder Saturday: Holy Ghost People (2013)

Holy Ghost People is a film that I really wanted to like more. It's got a lot going for it, yet there's a sense of overfamiliarity that made it all feel a bit stale and unnecessary. Perhaps it will work better for people who haven't seen other movies in a slightly similar vein (from Winter's Bone to White Lightnin' to something like The Sacrament).

Directed by Mitchell Altieri, who is working once again with writer Phil Flores and actor Joe Egender, as well as some others who have had a hand in his previous movies (The Hamiltons and The Violent Kind probably being the best known originals, although the April Fool's Day remake is also on their CV), Holy Ghost People is certainly a further move away from the others movies he has made. It isn't a fun romp a la The Nightwatchmen, nor is it a grim but of nastiness a la The Hamiltons.

Emma Greenwell plays Charlotte, a young woman who wants to find her missing sister, who seems to have vanished since joining a church community. Charlotte hires an ex-military man, Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), to help her and the two of them quickly get inside the community, attempting to make discreet enquiries while under the watchful eyes of other church members, as well as the charismatic leader, Bill (Egender).

It's a shame to criticise this movie too much, considering that it is generally well made and technically sound. It's not a bad movie, not by any means, but it's hard to figure out exactly what it wants to say. Because there must be something being said, considering that it doesn't work as more simplistic entertainment. Altieri could have chosen a number of roads to go down here, from outright horror to a down 'n' dirty action adventure, but decided to keep things quite grounded and low-key. It feels like a very collaborative final product, with the script being written by Altieri, Flores, Egender, and Kevin Artigue, and that is a good thing for the sense of realism, but doesn't help anything that isn't performance-based.

All three of the main cast members mentioned do excellent work, with Egender particularly effective in a role that requires someone who can mix charm and menace in equal measure. Greenwell and McCarthy are both easy to root for, and believably vulnerable at times, and they are the ones we watch, even in the scenes that push forward a few of the main supporting players (who are few and far between).

Although I usually say this about much stranger movies, Holy Ghost People is a film I just can't quite put my finger on. I am not sure who else will enjoy it, or how anyone else I know will react to it (love, hate, indifference). I am still fully processing it in my own mind. My final rating for the movie increased by the time I got to this final paragraph. Which says it all, I guess. This is a film that at least deserves your time. Whether you end up liking it or not is a different matter entirely.

6/10

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


Friday, 21 June 2019

Glass (2019).

Okay, there's no way for me to discuss my biggest problem with Glass without it seeming slightly spoilery so I would ask you to stop reading this review now if you have yet to see the film. I still dislike spoilers, and I am not one of those people who thinks it is okay to spoil movies for other peopler if it is a movie that I personally disliked (and I did dislike this), but I was rooting for Glass to win me over for about 3/4 of the runtime. Then the finale locked all of the pieces into place, and that's where it lost me. Because after giving us a great, unique, superhero origin tale with Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan decided to make Split a surprise supervillain origin tale connected to that movie. It wasn't as good as Unbreakable but the cast helped to make it work and the ending had a lot of people (including myself) quite excited. So you have one origin story, another origin story, and then M. Night Shyamalan squanders the opportunity to make something truly memorable by cheekily turning this third entry in what is now a trilogy into . . . a third origin story. Yep, that's really what this is. And that may please Shyamalan, but it's less likely to please those who expected something more.

Here's the basic story. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) now patrols the streets and tries to seek out, and stop, criminals. He is helped by his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark returning to the role that last saw him acting onscreen as a child), and all is going well until he bumps into the dangerous multiple personalities of the character, Kevin/Dennis/Hedwig/etc, played by James McAvoy (let's just call him Kevin from now on). Caught in the middle of a fight, David and Kevin are locked up in a mental health institution, where another notable patient is Elijah Price (AKA Mr Glass, Samuel L. Jackson). Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) wants to convince them that the ideas they have in their heads, the notions that they have superpowers, are merely delusions, potentially dangerous ones. The doctor may soon find herself out of her depth.

Shyamalan still has talent. That's what perhaps remains the most frustrating thing about him, the biggest obstacle to his success is himself. Of course, I am saying this without knowing the general majority opinion on this movie (which, for all I know, could be loved by many people). But his good points are as obvious as his failings. The guy does well with plotting, the look and feel of his films, and I'd argue that he is often also very good at being able to get the pacing just right. Shyamalan rarely makes films that hurtle from start to finish, but he shoots the quieter, slower, moments so well that they are still engrossing in between any more exciting sequences. He also tends to get great work from composers, and the score here by West Dylan Thordson is no exception.

On the flipside, he often creates scripts that seem designed to showcase how good he is with his words and ideas (as good as he views himself, anyway), and he often builds his movies around one major idea or twist. That's all well and good when everything works, as happened with his solid run of four movies spread out around the turn of this century, but not so good otherwise. He's a gambler who continues to bet big with the hope that the last card turned over will be the one to give him the unbeatable hand. That card isn't always drawn, leaving him with a large investment on the table and nothing good enough to lay down at the end.

The cast all do well here, with McAvoy arguably getting to play around even more than he did in Split (and he's the best person onscreen). Willis at least looks present for a number of his scenes, which is more than can be said for many of his other performances in recent years, and Jackson clearly loves the chance to reprise the role of Price. Paulson is fine as the doctor, Anya Taylor-Joy (who was so good in Split) continues to prove herself as an intriguing and excellent screen presence, and it's nice to see Clark as the boy still trying to look after his "superdad".

Breaking everything down to their basic elements, Glass is not a bad film. There are a number of good moments throughout, the script is serviceable, it often looks great, and a couple of the leads are giving it their all. It just fails to come together by the end, and it fails in such a way that genuinely sours the films that came before it, which surely couldn't have been Shyamalan's intention. That failure is enough to drag it down by some margin, and I almost considered going even lower with my final rating.

5/10

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


Thursday, 20 June 2019

Men In Black: International (2019)

None of the trailers made me want to see this latest Men In Black movie. The stars didn't do anything for me either. As much as I like both Hemsworth and both Thompsons, they just didn't feel like they could do enough to stop me from missing Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (or even Josh Brolin). And then I started to hear more and more negative comments from people who had seen it. Yet I ended up at my local cinema to see it, despite all of these marks against it.

And I'm glad. Men In Black: International is another fun sci-fi comedy in the series. I have enjoyed all of these movies, even the oft-maligned second one, and am glad to spend some more time in this world. It's a fun place, often overflowing with imagination and wonderful little touches, and one that consistently works well running parallel to the everyday world around us.

This time around, the MIB are facing a danger from a species known as The Hive, who can take on the identity of other people once they have access to their DNA. There's also an incredibly powerful weapon to be kept in safe hands, all of this while Tessa Thompson (as M) tries to learn on the job during her probationary period with Chris Hemsworth (H). M is a bit of a natural in her new role, H is a top agent who appears to be getting more and more reckless and slapdash on each mission, able to coast along on former glory and the protection of his mentor, Liam Neeson (playing T). You also have Emma Thompson as Agent O, the head of MIB, Rebecca Ferguson as an arms dealer who used to date Hemsworth, Rafe Spall as Agent C, determined to bring down those he sees as playing too fast and loose with the rules, and Kumail Nanjiani as the voice of a small alien named Pawny.

Look, there are other ways I would have liked to see this play out. Other directions for the series that seemed so ridiculous that they also seemed more intriguing (that Jump Street crossover could have been great). The two biggest strikes against MIBI (as none of the cool kids are calling it) are the fact that a) it plays everything a bit too safe and b) it's not Men In Black.

Director F. Gary Gray has a filmography full of solid outings, but very few of them are amazing. He's a dependable pair of hands (in fact, from 2000 onwards you could view him as an African American version of Ron Howard, with the exception of the grim violence in Law Abiding Citizen). He does fine here, once again not really stamping any identity on the proceedings. That's fine though, this film is MIB-branded, and it at least feels consistent with the others in terms of the look, sound, and score.

The biggest problem comes from the script, by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum. Not only do they forget to include enough decent laughs, although there's a lot of fun to be had in the interplay between most of the main characters, but they flag up a couple of major plot developments with the structuring of the movie, starting everything off with a couple of big scenes that you just know are going to become relevant again in the third act. And isn't "pulling a David Ayer" (as I am calling it now, you'll know what I mean when you see it) already a worn out plot beat?

It's a good job that the script is being delivered by a charismatic cast. Hemsworth and Thompson still work well together (although they had a lot more fun with their last main pairing, Thor Ragnarok), Emma Thompson is a treat as the exasperated and wise boss, and Rafe Spall is admirably happy to be the "bad guy" who knows that something is going on, despite being unable to pinpoint exactly what. Neeson doesn't do much, but he does it with his usual stoic manner, and Ferguson makes a great impression with her one main scene, complemented by some interesting VFX work. Nanjiani has the perfect voice for his character, which is very cute and will most definitely please younger viewers.

As a completist, I would have probably picked this up for my own collection at some point anyway. So I'm glad that it's not as bad as some have made it out to be. It's just a shame that there isn't more packed in here, in terms of one-liners and memorable set-pieces. I came out of the cinema with a smile on my face but no great moments to single out as highlights.

6/10

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


Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Prime Time: Exposed (2016)

A film that was chopped and changed during the journey from script to screen, Exposed feels very much like what it is. Okay, almost EVERY film goes through a number of changes from script to screen but it's obvious that some are messed around with more than others. The different plot elements here are so badly mashed together that any attempt to provide a satisfying finale is undone by viewers realising how clumsily the main points are being made.

On the one hand, there's a young woman (Isabel, played by Ana de Armas) who is going through a pretty bad time of things. She's also a person of interest in an investigation being conducted by Detective Galban (Keanu Reeves) into the death of his partner. Unfortunately, that investigation may turn up a few details that people would like to stay covered up, and Isabel may be too busy trying to deal with recent events to be of any help. She has seen things that don't seem to belong to this world, has started to help a young girl (Elisa, played by Venus Ariel) who needs protection, and is also pregnant via some immaculate conception.

Written and directed by Gee Malik Linton (who changed his name for the directorial credit), Exposed is a mind-muddling mess, it really is. Nothing works, despite De Armas trying her best in a role that she is certainly capable of playing. The drama doesn't engage or affect viewers, the thriller side of things isn't thrilling, and you're left with a squidgy pan of flour and yeast that nobody has managed to turn into an edible loaf of bread.

This is, apparently, all the fault of the studio. Some people have managed to see the alternate cut of this (the version that was envisioned by Linton before the studios took it and chopped it up and made it unrecognisable). That is known as Daughter Of God and, if it ever becomes widely available, I'll check it out and see how it compares.

But, for now, this is what we're stuck with. It's atrocious. Reeves suffers the most, being given a role that should suit him (he's played cops who are heroic and/or shady a number of times) but with no feeling that he's in the same movie as De Armas. Remember when certain film-makers or studios would take movies and recut them with other movies to make a new title that they would then serve up to us, despite the way the end result would never quite fit together in any cohesive way? That's how this feels. On the one hand, you have Reeves, Christopher McDonald, and Mira Sorvino in a police procedural flick, and on the other hand you have De Armas. It's embarrassing.

There ARE one or two decent moments, scenes that move from reality to something strange and supernatural so smoothly that they manage to impress (an early scene with De Armas watching someone else in a subway station is excellent), but it's a real struggle to remember the few highlights once the film is over. In fact, it's probably as difficult as it was for the main actors to remember what kind of film they were starring in.

3/10

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


Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Brightburn (2019)

Brightburn can be summed up very easily in one sentence. What if Superman was evil? That's really all there is to it. Comic fans will already have some idea of what happens in that instance, because it has been done on a number of occasions. I'm not sure if it has been done quite like this though, with the real turning point occurring with our main character as a child, just figuring out who/what he is and then immediately starting to use his powers to get revenge on people he wants to lash out at.

Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are Tori and Kyle Breyer, a couple who have been unsuccessfully trying to have a child for some time. So they think their prayers are answered when something crash lands near their farm and they find a baby. Years later, all still seems to be going well, and young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is growing up much like any normal boy. Except he isn't a normal boy. And he is starting to figure that out. He cannot be cut by normal blades, he can blast heat rays from his eyes, he can be superspeedy, and, of course, he can fly.

Written by Brian and Mark Gunn (the former being a brother of James Gunn, the latter being his cousin), this is a film that would seem to have come along at the perfect time to entertain both those feeling that the superhero films are oversaturating the cinema screens and those who simply want an unpretentious, gory horror movie. Unfortunately, the timing hasn't been reflected in the box office, which was pretty poor when it opened over in America (although, to be fair, it was the much smaller film sandwiched amongst some big hitters). Whatever the numbers say, this is a pretty great twist on familiar material. The Gunns don't take long to start building the tension and, once the establishing scenes are out of the way, things move from one entertaining set-piece to the next, with young Brandon trying out his superpowers in different ways.

Director David Yarovesky hasn't done anything before this to make me take much notice of him, although he's definitely known members of the Gunn family for some time, with a couple of his previous jobs connected to the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies. He does well here, balancing a bleak horror aesthetic with imagery that feels akin to the iconography we have seen in comic book tales over the years. Brandon Breyer is a classic superhero-type name, in the Stan Lee mould, and the main character spends a good amount of time positioning his initials in a way that makes for an eye-catching emblem.

Banks and Denman are both really good as the concerned parents who see a situation spiralling dangerously out of control here, and Dunn is perfect in his role, wobbling between being confused about his place in life and absolutely determined to make the most of his superpowers and claim his position at the top of the "food chain", as it were. Meredith Hagner and Matt Jones are both good as the next two people closest to Brandon, and therefore the people in danger from him as he starts to leave death and destruction in his wake, and Emmie Hunter does well as a young girl who is the first to realise what Brandon might be capable of, thanks to his interest in her.

Not for the faint of heart, there are some moments of pain and gore here that will make even the most hardened horror movie fan wince, Brightburn knows exactly what it wants to be, knows what fans will want to see, and delivers everything you could want from it. I hope more people discover it, even if they wait until it's available for home viewing.

8/10

There's a disc going to be available here.
Americans will be able to get it here.



Monday, 17 June 2019

Mubi Monday: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

The first time I watched We Need To Talk About Kevin I must say I wasn't that impressed. It felt like two hours spent in the company of generally unpleasant, or blinkered, characters. There was a shocking finale, an event that has reverberated throughout the entire film without viewers knowing exactly what it is until the third act, but nothing much that otherwise worked for me, although I couldn't fault it in terms of the acting and technical side of things.

It worked a lot more for me this time around. It's still a very difficult watch, deliberately so, but it's one that gives you plenty to think about and doesn't really try to offer any biased view of the main characters, which makes it even more difficult to figure out and discuss.

Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, this is essentially a tale of nature vs nurture. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a woman who eventually becomes a mother to Kevin (played by various actors, but it's Ezra Miller who makes the strongest impression in the teenage incarnation). Eva is married to Franklin (John C. Reilly) and it soon becomes clear that their new baby is all for daddy and not much for mummy. It's also clear that Eva isn't really feeling the strong maternal bond that is usually a given in movie depictions of motherhood. We see all of these things in flashback, because Eva leads a very different life in the here and now. She seems to be away from her family, her home and car are splattered with red paint by unknown vandals, and she is aggressively confronted/assaulted by people who pass her by in public. It's clear that something bad happened, but not clear what that is.

Director Lynne Ramsay hasn't made a bad movie. Although I used to think this was one of her lesser films, despite the praise it received, I now see it as being almost on a par with the other films I have seen from her. Ramsay has a way of perfectly balancing out film techniques and naturalism, always getting just the right cast and working in a way that suits the material. I can't ever bring myself to fully love this film, it's just the subject matter being so offputting to me in a way that causes me to feel revulsion during some scenes (and probably not the scenes that would cause others to feel revulsion), but I'm no longer going to play it down as something lesser than it really is.

Swinton is very good in her role, a mother who doesn't seem to take easily to mothering. But the beauty of the film, and the adaptation of the source material by Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear, means that you're never 100% sure of that. Is she resenting her child and acting in a way that he can sense, or is the child acting so badly that his mother becomes more and more worn down by his behaviour? Reilly does well in his smaller role, giving a very typical portrayal of a parent who only sees the good in his children when he comes along in time for the better moments. He's not a bad father at all, he just doesn't ever happen to see any of the worst incidents. Although I have already mentioned Miller, who gives a performance here that may well remain a career-best for him for many years, I'll also praise Rock Duer and Jasper Newell, both playing Kevin in his younger years.

Complex, difficult, intriguing, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a film that sets out to ask questions it has no answers for. Because, perhaps most troublingly for many viewers, there often are no answers. Certainly no easy ones anyway. All we can do is manage our own behaviours, and try to do our best by those we love, and that is always going to be a more difficult, and more constant, option than finding easy answers.

8/10

You can buy the movie here.

A mother and her Kevins

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Netflix And Chill: Murder Mystery (2019)

A comedy that throws together Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston for a second time (after they were paired up in the enjoyable Just Go With It), Murder Mystery is a fairly enjoyable comedy thriller that allows the leads to work together just as well as they did the first time around. A lot of people will already be dismissive of it, Sandler's name nowadays is enough to make many steer clear, but this is a perfectly fine way to spend just over an hour and a half.

Sandler is Nick Spitz, a New York police officer who keeps failing the detective exam. He's really good at the detection part, sometimes, but is a lousy shot. Aniston is his wife, Audrey, and she is delighted to hear the "good news" when her husband cannot bring himself to admit that he failed the exam once more. As their wedding anniversary is coming up, it seems like the perfect time for that trip to Europe that had been delayed for years and years. And that's where they meet Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans), who ends up inviting him to a private party on a large and lavish yacht, which is when someone is murdered. And Mr & Mrs Spitz turn out to be very prime suspects in the eyes of Inspector de la Croix (Dany Boon).

Directed by Kyle Newacheck (who I am now familiar with after enduring Game Over, Man!) and written by James Vanderbilt (who has a filmography that includes the high of Zodiac and the low of something like Independence Day: Resurgence), I have to admit that my hopes weren't high for this. As much as I have tried to maintain my positivity when it comes to Sandler movies, his work over the past 10-15 years has been far from his best, to put it mildly. The fact that everyone pulls together to make something moderately entertaining is a very pleasant surprise indeed. Newacheck may not have the best eye, or any sense of style, but he does fine when it comes to keeping the energy building from scene to scene, allowing small gags to pile up in between the attempted bigger laughs (which don't work as well), and generally giving the leads room to play around with their interplay and physical comedy.

Vanderbilt hasn't crafted any kind of comedy classic here but he plays to the strengths of the cast. Sandler and Aniston have great chemistry together, Evans gets to be completely charming with almost every line he utters, and there is fun to be had with Terence Stamp being gruff, David Walliams being a bit catty, Gemma Arterton being a gorgeous actress, and, well, you can see what I mean.

The performances are all decent too, with the not-inconsiderate plus point of Sandler not putting on a "funny" voice for his main character. Everyone I've already mentioned does a good job, and there's also room for fun with John Kaji and Adeel Akhtar, as well as one or two others.

If you're a cynic then you could look at Murder Mystery and say that the thriller aspect isn't as good as it could be, the laughs aren't as prolific, and the set-pieces aren't anywhere near as ambitious as they could be. But that doesn't mean that any of those things are actually bad. They are all enjoyable, without reaching a level of greatness. And I know the fact that many aspects of this film are enjoyable makes the end result a lot better than most of you were expecting.

6/10

You could get yourself a boxset of Sandler movies here.
Americans can get a comedy collection here.


Saturday, 15 June 2019

Shudder Saturday: Boar (2017)

What is it about killer pig movies? Why do people keep trying to make them when most of them end up not being very good? I've sat through Pig Hunt, Prey (the best of the bunch), and now this. Okay, I have yet to see the celebrated Razorback, an oversight on my part, but it's not often that I get excited when I hear someone is releasing a new killer pig/boar movie. I decided to give Boar a chance nonetheless, and started to regret it within the first half hour.

I could describe the plot here, trying to add some details that might make you think there are characters and events to care about, but that would be making this into something it isn't. There ARE characters and events here, they're just not worth caring about. Seriously, not one. Okay, maybe one, or even two (I'll mention them soon), but they're not even the main characters that we're supposed to care about during the grand finale. This is a monster movie, pure and simple. It's about a huge beastie with a huge snout that likes to maul puny humans. And it occasionally delivers some decent gore.

Writer-director Chris Sun is trying to make something here that sits more in line with films like Tremors (the benchmark for monster movies that have a great seam of comedy running through them) and Lake Placid and that could be admirable. The fact that it is so far removed from those films, so poorly mishandled, instead makes it something that many viewers may end up resenting. There's no tension here, that dissipates quickly enough when you realise that the part of the movie that Sun thinks can provide most amusement is the "stunt" casting of people like Bill Moseley, John Jarratt, and Roger Ward.

Thankfully, that casting provides one or two pleasures. Nobody else really makes much of an impression (I wouldn't be able to point out Hugh Sheridan, Steve Bisley, Simone Buchanan, Christie-Lee Britten, Madeleine Kennedy, or any of the others, from a line-up right now) but Nathan Jones does okay in his role, and the aforementioned genre stars are at least given some moments to shine as the film hops from one redundant scene to the next. Jarratt and Ward are the real highlights, with the latter giving a particularly wonderful performance that makes you wish the film was good enough to deserve it.

There's nothing more that I can really talk about here. Boar is, in a horrible irony, often quite a bore. Those decent moments of gore aren't enough to make up for the rest of the film, which is too concerned with trying to make things quirky and comedic, to the detriment of what the film could have been, which is a creature feature with an impressive creation at the centre of things (the practical FX work here is another plus point). It still has scenes that work in that regard, but they're stuck between a multitude of scenes that don't ever manage to get the tone right.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy A disc here (but only if you can play other regions).


Friday, 14 June 2019

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Johnny Mnemonic is a pretty silly movie, in both the plotting and the way of so many '90s movies showcasing the future of technology, and I can't help but love it. It has some interesting ideas in the mix, a great cast, and a wonderful vein of dark comedy running through it.

Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a courier of sorts. He does jobs that involve data being stored in his head, delivered to someone who has the code to retrieve it. In need of a decent sum of money to retrieve memories that have been wiped for his work, in what seems like a bit of a vicious cycle, Johnny agrees to make one final delivery run, and it's one that will take up a lot more space in his head than he is used to. It's also a very precious bundle of data, so precious that he ends up being helped in his journey by a kickass woman named Jane (Dina Meyer) as he tries to stay one step ahead of various people who want to cause him harm, with a number of them literally wanting his head.

Written by William Gibson, who adapted his own story, Johnny Mnemonic can be described as many things, not all flattering, but it's never dull. The dialogue may often be slightly risible, with one or two notable exceptions, but this is a film that strives to do what it can on the budget to realise a near-future world and have fun with the main concepts.

Director Robert Longo, who gave us this as his one and only feature (to date), does a decent job of keeping everything in line, tonally, with the script. Silly moments abound, some intended and some not, but at least the whole thing doesn't devolve into a collage of music video moments, which is all the more impressive when you look over Longo's back catalogue of music video work. The action isn't ever as good as it could be, and a couple of big reveals in the third act just feel mishandled, but I really don't see why people view this as a BAD film. Okay, that's not true, I can see why the view it that way, I just don't understand why they can't overlook the failings to enjoy something so clearly interested in providing fun entertainment for viewers.

Reeves isn't doing his best work but he's just fine in his role, even when delivering some of the worst dialogue in the script. Meyer fares better in her role, as do most of the other supporting cast members, including Udo Kier, Takeshi Kitano, Ice Cube, Dolph Lundgren, and a typically ranty Henry Rollins.

Highlights include Lundgren attempting to steal his few scenes, a third act reveal that will have you either chuckling and staying on for the ride or wanting to check out immediately, a dangerous villain with a thumb attachment that unleashes a laser garrotte, Udo Kier enjoying moments that allow him to be full Udo Kier, and (while watching it nowadays) an amusing naiveté inherent in so many sci-fi movies from the past few decades when it comes to trying to showcase the technological marvels that were supposedly coming along some years from now.

I can't seriously recommend this to people, yet I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. Give it a go. If you end up hating it then at least the runtime is just over the ninety-minute mark. But I hope you learn to enjoy it as much as I do.

7/10

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


Thursday, 13 June 2019

Juliet, Naked (2018)

Chris O'Dowd plays Duncan, a middle-aged man who runs a website dedicated to a musician named Tucker Crowe. He's also in a relationship with Annie (Rose Byrne) but it quickly becomes clear that the two of them aren't in the best place. They have stagnated. But things liven up when a package is delivered that contains an unreleased, stripped-down, version of the most famous album by Crowe. Annie and Duncan disagree over the album. Annie writes a negative review on Duncan's site, and that honesty leads to Crowe (Ethan Hawke) getting in touch with her by email. Things get messy, emotionally speaking.

Based on a novel by Nick Hornby, which should come as no surprise as you realise how self-centred and obsessive some of the central characters are (in different ways), Juliet, Naked is a fun and engaging romantic comedy that is more about characters finding happiness within themselves than finding it with other people, although that's not what they're thinking about in the earlier scenes.

Director Jesse Peretz handles everything comfortably enough, keeping everything light enough even as it threatens to descend into darker territory. The first act break-up of Duncan and Annie is bad enough for anyone who was expecting a different kind of film, but when Crowe comes into the picture and describes his turbulent life to Annie, in some frank emails, it becomes clear that he has a lot of baggage that may end up weighing down those within his immediate vicinity. He initially seems to be the weakest of the main characters but that changes when you realise that he might be able to offer Annie something she cannot find elsewhere. Or maybe Annie already has everything she needs.

The script, written by Evgenia Peretz (sister of Jesse), Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins, does enough to entertain anyone who has enjoyed other Hornby novels/adaptations. It manages to make the more selfish moments seem easy to point and laugh at while making the sweeter moments quite effective without being too sickening. There are some good individual lines, although it could have done with a few more scattered throughout.

O'Dowd is a lot of fun in his role, which turns out to be a supporting one. He's an asshole, but he gets away with playing one because, deep down, O'Dowd is a likeable guy. Hawke does very well in his role, one that seems to both embrace the cliches and somehow veer away from them, not through any doing of his own but from the actions and reactions of the others around him. And Byrne is excellent, seeming to make the most of a lead role that doesn't require her to act too silly or have her life endangered by demonic forces. Elsewhere, you get good little turns from Lily Brazier and Phil Davis, among others, but it's the central trio who remain the focus throughout, even when more and more characters threaten to crowd them off the screen.

Overall, a very enjoyable film. Not great, not unmissable, but very enjoyable, especially if you're a fan of the main stars.

7/10

You can buy the DVD here.
Americans can get a disc here.


Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Prime Time: The Lake House (2006)

An American remake of a South Korean movie that was released in the year 2000, The Lake House makes good use of two stars being reunited after displaying such great chemistry in their previous movie (Speed, which was way back in 1994, so this was long overdue). The plotting is, frankly, ridiculous. The cheesiness often goes off the scale. And it's wonderful entertainment.

Things start off with Dr. Kate Forrester (Bullock) leaving a note in a mailbox for the next tenant of her lake house home to please forward her mail. She includes some details about the home that makes no sense to the apparent new tenant, Alex Wyler (Reeves). Quickly discovering the illogical detail that Kate is putting her notes in the mail box in 2006 and Alex is receiving them, and delivering his own notes, in 2004, so begins a quirky romance that leaves viewers hoping that the two leads will figure out a way to get together in the same time and space. Things keep getting in the way, however, and tension starts to build as things head towards a finale that could be uplifting or heartbreaking, depending on what decisions are made by the characters.

Although based on the original screenplay, the script here by David Auburn seems to work well because of the way it quickly sets up the main premise and then endeavours to keep viewers so firmly interested in the central couple, and invested in their plight, that less time is given over to considering how ridiculous and full of holes the whole thing is. The dialogue is sometimes awful, and when I say sometimes I mean most of the time, but it's improved by most of the exchanges involving either Bullock or Reeves. They talk in a way that doesn't ever feel realistic, yet it doesn't matter. This isn't a film about realism. It's a quirky romance tale with two beautiful people trying to do the best by one another.

Argentine director Alejandro Agresti shoots with an eye for the romance of it all. Whether that's scenes in which Reeves wanders around, looking handsome as he tries to set up something that will pay off in two years for the benefit of Bullock, or even just in the way the characters view their surroundings a little differently, the mundane being transformed by what they now consider the presence of someone they are falling in love with.

How much you like the movie will depend on how much you like the leads, but I personally find Bullock and Reeves two of the most likeable stars of the past few decades, which means I watch this movie with a smile on my face for most of the runtime. Support comes from Christopher Plummer (the father of Reeves' character, there are issues there that may or may not be resolved), Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Reeves' brother), Dylan Walsh (someone competing for the affection of Bullock), Shoreh Aghdashloo (Bullock's boss/mentor at her new hospital), and one or two more, but they're all there to simply help or hinder the central romance.

Although I had seen this before, maybe about ten years ago, I couldn't remember how things panned out. To say I was on the edge of my seat during the last scenes would be correct. Others may pretend to be unfazed, I was fully invested and considering the worst while hoping for the best. If you can overlook the massive plot holes, and if you can accept the standard of the dialogue throughout most of the film, you can enjoy this as much as I did. If you cannot put those things aside then, well, that's your loss.

7/10

There's a region-free disc available here.


Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Scared Stiff (1987)

Having previously enjoyed the silliness of Doom Asylum, I was all set to let director Richard Friedman entertain me again with this 1987 horror movie that had passed me by the first time around (as have so many, you think you're a horror aficionado until you start to dig below the surface, and then you just keep diving deeper and deeper).

What you get here is a supernatural tale involving a house with a bloody history, a protective rock, and a singer (Kate, played by Mary Page Keller) who is trying to convince her boyfriend (David, played by Andrew Stevens) that something is seriously amiss while she also keeps herself and her son (Jason, played by Josh Segal) safe from the forces that seem to be aimed at ending their lives.

The feature debut from Friedman, who also wrote the screenplay with Mark Frost (who would go on to help co-create Twin Peaks) and Daniel F. Bacaner (who would go on to help co-create nothing else in the world of TV and film), this is a very uneven, almost leaden, affair at times. What should have been a silly and fun horror film is weighed down by Friedman seeming too afraid to just cut loose and increase the levels of insanity.

There's a decent enough opener, one that hints at something very bad about to happen without revealing everything immediately, but then things seem to move far too slowly for most of the next hour. Considering this is a film that clocks in with a runtime of under 85 minutes, it's shocking that so much of it drags. The brief runtime is a saving grace, as well as a finale that at least delivers some gore and thrills.

Another saving grace comes in the form of the two adult leads. Stevens and Keller aren't the best in their chosen profession, but they're not too bad either. They often act as if they're in the middle of one of those episodes of a drama series that has been given some horror genre trappings for a seasonal special. That's fine, because it's perfectly in line with how the movie feels, for the most part. Young Segal does well enough in his role, David Ramsey is the main character from the past who may very well cause problems in the present, and you get amusing little turns from Bill Hindman and Jackie Davis as, respectively, a doctor and a detective parading a number of clichés in their scenes.

It's a shame that so many of the other elements work against what could have been a rough gem. Most of the supporting characters come and go too quickly to care about, or even keep track of sometimes. Very few of the death scenes benefit from decent build up and FX work (most of this movie is a disappointingly bloodless affair). And the backstory isn't actually fleshed out quite as well as it could have been. Characters investigate, but they only seem to do so in a cursory way, just finding out enough to prepare viewers for upcoming tension/battles.

There was a chance to make this stand out, a chance to even do something quite interesting and unique (for the time it was released), but that doesn't happen. What we get instead is something best described as . . . bearable.

4/10

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


Monday, 10 June 2019

Mubi Monday: Gloria Bell (2018)

Based on the original movie by director Sebastián Lelio, who also co-wrote it with Gonzalo Mazo, this remake has Lelio helming once again, the screenplay adapted by Alice Johnson Boher, and a cast that includes Julianne Moore, John Turturro, and many more. Having not seen the original, I cannot speak about how this compares to it. I can simply comment on the movie itself, and my comments aren't really overflowing with praise.

Moore plays Gloria, an older woman who enjoys spending some time in clubs and perhaps finding a new lover. She ends up meeting Arnold (Turturro), a man in a similar situation to herself. He is also a divorcee, and has two grown-up children (Gloria has a son and a daughter, Arnold has two daughters), and he claims to be in love with Gloria. Unfortunately, strain develops between the two when it becomes clear that Arnold is often too preoccupied with his daughters, either answering phone calls or disappearing to help them.

The above paragraph is a very basic summary of Gloria Bell, and there's a bit more to this character study than just what I have written there, of course, but not really that much more. In fact, take away the lead performances and this film becomes so lightweight that it's almost ethereal (and not in a good way).

Lelio directs competently enough, and the screenplay takes time to simply show a woman getting to grips with a certain period of her life, but it never really does a good enough job of making the interesting points it could make. Hmmmm, a central character may end up realising that loving oneself and/or life is a better route to happiness than trying to fall in love with someone else? There's something staggeringly original and daring. I really shouldn't lower myself to just delivering sarcastic comments, it's just difficult when a film like this comes along and seems to be viewed as saying something worthwhile. It's not. There's a small twist on the material with the age and situation of the lead character, yes, but when you see how she goes about her day you soon realise that not enough is done to make her anything more than a tool for the final obvious point that Lelio wants to hammer home. Gloria has a problematic neighbour, who is also the son of the landlady. Anyone could be in that situation. She has an ex who now has a new partner. Anyone could be in that situation. She has two children, which is where you think the material starts to feel more relevant to this specific character, but there's very little done with them that couldn't have been done if these central characters were siblings, for example, or close friends. And I understand that I could probably make this argument with many movies. It just stands out here because of the way everything seems underdeveloped. This is a film built around a couple of fun sequences, both set to enjoyable music choices, but without anything in between those moments to reward the patience of viewers.

Moore is as wonderful as ever in the main role, and she deserves better material to work with (although I can see why she would be drawn to this, considering the highlights and the fact that it allows her to be in almost every scene, which doesn't happen enough for such a great actress). Turturro is also as good as he usually is, portraying a different riff on the kind of character we have seen him play quite often throughout his career. The supporting cast includes Caren Pistorius, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett, Holland Taylor, and, the person I was most pleasantly surprised to see, Jeanne Tripplehorn (who deserves more roles in things I may see, cannot recall the last time I saw her in a major release). Everyone does good work, even if they are underserved by a script that is rightly more concerned with things as they are viewed and experienced by Gloria.

Although not a terrible film, I cannot think of many people who will come away from Gloria Bell thinking that their day was better for having watched it. Moore fans will get enjoyment from it, but I am hoping that whatever her next lead role is will also give her a better movie to match her considerable talent. Because this was a disappointment.

4/10

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


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Netflix And Chill: Catfight (2016)

All I knew about Catfight before I started watching it was that a) I had owned it for a while and b) it involved a fight between Sandra Oh and Anne Heche at some point. That's it. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a very darkly comedic film, taking a number of different fights as a way to completely change the lives of those involved.

Oh plays Veronica. She's quite happy with her life, supporting a successful husband and trying to dissuade her son from his interests in art in order for him to pursue a more successful path through higher education. Her main vice is drink. She tends to drink a bit too much when she starts on the wine, and gets a bit sloppy. This irritates her husband more than she knows, an irritation that is voiced as they are en route to a party. Heche plays Ashley, an artists who refuses to compromise her vision, even as her focus puts a strain on her relationship with her partner, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone). Ashley ends up helping out with bar service at the party Veronica is attending. The two eventually recognise one another from school days, with the conversation quickly turning into one full of barbs and vitriol. And that eventually leads to the first fight.

So, unless I am misremembering things already, there are three main fights scattered throughout Catfight, three times when characters have an opportunity to do things differently, and three times when things may change irrevocably for those involved. And this is part of the message being delivered by writer-director Onur Tukel, as well as an exploration of how people politely interact with others that they dislike, how they treat everyone around them, and how things can come undone when the illusion of civility disappears.

Starting in a fairly recognisable reality, Catfight dives further into the black comedy territory when the aftermath of the first fight is shown. From then on, it continues to get more twisted and amusing, all the way to an ending that manages to be wryly amusing, sad, and pointed all at once. Kudos to Tukel for shading the tone so subtly throughout and making the whole thing such a success, in terms of both simple entertainment and the commentary.

Oh and Heche are both very good in the lead roles, with the latter especially enjoying playing a character who is downright monstrous for most of her time onscreen (although Oh also certainly has her moments). Silverstone is very funny in her supporting role, especially in a scene that shows her receiving baby shower gifts (leading to her delivering some scathing critical comments with a sweet tone and a smile), and there are also good performances from Amy Hill, as an aunt of Oh's character, Myra Lucretia Taylor, as Oh's housekeeper, and Ariel Kavoussi, stealing a number of her scenes as the quietly-spoken assistant to Heche's character.

From the title, and from considering the potential of the premise, Catfight may seem like a wish-fulfilment kind of movie. A dream scenario, people saying what they really want to say and taking the gloves off. But that's not really a wish that anyone will want granted, and the dream can very quickly turn into a nightmare. Tukel makes that very clear. I'll be making sure to check out more from his filmography, and hope to be pleasantly surprised again.

8/10

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