Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Ready Or Not (2019)

If you haven't seen Ready Or Not yet then what have you been up to? Oh, I get it, you have just been too busy, like myself, dealing with life stuff. It's not always easy to get along to the cinema, even when something is being raved about, as this was.

Samara Weaving plays Grace, a young woman who is taken to the family home by her hubby-to-be, Alex (Mark O'Brien). The wedding arrangements allow for the usual mix of friendliness, civility, barbed comments, and resentment, but things take a turn for the worse when Grace is asked that evening to draw a card, one which will decide on a game the family has to play. She draws one that says "hide and seek", and it turns out that this means the family has to hunt and kill her before sunrise, or they believe they will be struck by a deadly curse.

Directed by the talented duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready Or Not is a fun and bloody romp (yes, I used the word romp here - deal with it) that is boosted by a few select talented cast members helping to raise the material. The canny casting is essential, as what could have been a sharp and witty script is surprisingly weak. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (AKA R. Christopher Murphy) do a good job of getting everyone into place and delivering the little morsels of exposition throughout, but they fail to do enough to raise this above a number of similar genre films from recent years (including the enjoyable Mayhem, which also starred Weaving). For those who have seen the film and don't agree with me at all, I'd like you to consider a) whether or not you enjoyed certain characters because of how they acted or because of who was portraying them, and b) how much worse this would have been with someone in the main role who didn't have the charisma of Weaving.

Fortunately, we DO have the charisma of Weaving, who seems to have been poised on the very edge of proper stardom for a couple of years now. She's consistently brilliant in this, moving believably from someone understandably freaked out by events to someone determined to survive. O'Brien is okay as the love of her life, despite showing no hint of what someone might see in him. Thankfully, you get a wonderfully wry turn from Adam Brody, trying to stay drunk while he wearies of the family traditions, Henry Czerny is superb as the patriarch of the family, and Andie MacDowell is amusingly unfazed by anything that happens. Her role may be a relatively small one, but it's her best in some time.

What works here is the commitment to lining up the gory surprises as people are killed off, one by one, some of them directly involved in the whole scheme and some of them just "innocent" bystanders. Plenty of blood is spattered over people, with most of it ending up on Weaving, and there's a nice balance of moments to make you wince and moments to make you laugh aloud, but I would once again emphasise that it all seems to work as well as it does thanks to the direction and the way the main players sell it.

A good time is guaranteed for most genre fans, but if you have cast your net far and wide in the past year then I'll be very surprised if this ends up as your absolute favourite horror of 2019. It might even be struggling to get into a Top 5 for some voracious cinephiles.


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

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Netflix And Chill: Marriage Story (2019)

The reason I didn't get this review written yet is beyond ironic. I will edit soon, when time allows.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Parasite (2019)

It's very hard to talk about Parasite without going into details that will spoil the experience of a first time viewing. So I am going to, as ever, err on the side of caution. Nobody every got themselves upset over a review that felt a bit too vague, in my experience. So here's the very minimal plot summary. Young Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is told by a friend that he should apply to be an English tutor, a role he is vacating as he heads off to study abroad, for in the wealthy Park household. Once he is in there, seeing the different staff members and potential for money to be made, Ki-woo and his family come up with a plan to integrate them all as staff members. The Park family won't know they're employing a group of related individuals, and the Kim family hope to make as much money from them as possible as they amass the means to move onwards and upwards from the squalor they have been used to for so long. And that's just the start of this squirming and slippery comedy/drama/thriller.

Director Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the movie with Han Jin-won, is a name already familar to fans of world cinema, having helped build the reputation of South Korean cinema over the past couple of decades with acclaimed films such as Memories Of Murder, The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer. I've seen half of those, and loved them. Yet, despite stiff competition, Parasite is right up there with his best work. It has his usual mix of genre elements, sliding from comedy to drama, and into something darker just in time for a third act that is both completely insane and also completely in line with all that has come before.

Song Kang-ho, as the father of the Kim family, will also be familiar to film fans, especially those who have enjoyed other Joon-ho movies, or the films of Park Chan-wook, and he's the strong heart of the film, even if it takes a while to realise it. His character isn't the smartest, but the family  look to him as they consider the full potential of their opportunity. Woo-shik does well, Park So-dam is quick off the mark too, as his sister, and Jang Hye-jin is the mother, arguably looking to supplant the most valuable member of staff in the Park household, the housekeeper (played by Lee Jung-eun). Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong are both very good as the Park family father and mother, respectively, while everyone else does exactly what is required of them in their supporting roles. This is a film that works very much because of the ensemble cast.

About as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, the commentary running throughout Parasite works beautifully because it IS so overt and obvious, reverberating through the material like some kind of shockwave. Attitudes are examined at both extremes, those who feel entitled and those who are more naturally servile, and it's quite audacious of Joon-ho to make his points by showing people literally locked into their roles.

Whatever you have already heard about Parasite, and I hope it is not TOO much, believe the hype. See it as soon as you can.


Friday, 14 February 2020

Ford V Ferrari (2019)

A contender that never really seemed to have a chance in the awards season, Ford V Ferrari came to cinema screens with a small amount of fanfare, but no real way to sell it to anyone other than fans of stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale (and, yes, I went into this film thinking one played Ford and one played Ferrari). That's a shame, because this turns out to be one of the more enjoyable films put forward in various award categories over the past year. It's easy to see why others edged ahead in pretty much every category, and it's easy to dismiss it as a formulaic movie that takes no risks, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that the film deserves to receive a bit more praise than it got (from the response I have seen to it anyway).

Matt Damon is Carroll Shelby, the man who ends up tasked with designing a car for Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) capable of beating the almighty Ferrari cars that have dominated the Le Mans racing event for many years. The car is only part of the solution though. What's also required is a driver who knows exactly how to get the most out of the machine. That's where Ken Miles (Christian Bale) comes in. But Ken is a racer who doesn't necessarily fit the image that Ford may want to put out there as the winning driver to get results that will also lead to more car sales.

Director James Mangold has a good foundation to work with here, with a smart and sharp script hammered into shape by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, and his quality cast. He also shows a great understanding of how to use the technology at his disposal to best display the intensity of the racing moments without making it all feel like a CGI showcase.

Although Bale is as good as you would expect in the main role, he's a man with a very singular purpose. He knows cars, he wants to win races, he doesn't care for whatever else may be happening around him, in terms of the business and PR side. Damon gets to have a bit more fun, knowing when to play the game with people and when to do whatever it takes to protect the man who he knows is the best fit for the car. The supporting cast is also full of treats, from Letts as Ford, to Jon Bernthal as the vice president of Ford, to Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, the supportive wife of Ken. Josh Lucas gets to be the kind of arrogant douchebag that seems to be the highlighted role type at the top of his CV, and he does it so well, and Ray McKinnon is Phil Remington, a team engineer who is also adverse to all of the games being played off the track, his only aim being to help Miles and Shelby make their case with the fastest lap times.

There may be few surprises for those who were already familiar with this tale (I wasn't, I have no knowledge of the history of racecar driving), but there's enough added, in terms of the character development and little fun details, to definitely make this worth the time of even those who think they know the story too well to find it tense or entertaining. Mangold uses a lot of tried and tested tricks to make sure that it is a complete, and completely enjoyable, cinematic experience.


Thursday, 13 February 2020

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Based on a novel by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit is another film written and directed by Taika Waititi, and another great mix of humour and emotion. It may not be his best film, and it's easy to initially view it as his weakest, but I suspect that it will grow on most people, over time.

Roman Griffin Davis is Jojo, a young boy living in Germany towards the end of WWII. Every child has an imaginary friend at some stage, Jojo has Hitler (Waititi). He also has a real friend in the shape of Yorki (Archie Yates), a loving mother (Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson), and lessons in the best way to serve Germany from the likes of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Jojo's worldview is challenged when he discovers that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl (Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.

I've seen some criticisms of Jojo Rabbit that seem to want to boil it down to "be nice to Nazis, because not all Nazis are bad" and I've seen comments being critical of opinions on the film that seem simplistic and naive. Both of these things are true, to some extent, and that stems from the way in which Waititi has wrangled his message of hope and optimism into a fun satire that is itself wrapped up in a layer of wide-eyed childish innocence and absorption. It may not be as simple as it seems, at first glance, but none of the more complex thoughts undo the central ideas of always maintaining the capability of love destroying hate.

Davis is superb in the main role, which will come as no surprise to anyone used to Waititi's knack for picking absolutely wonderful child stars for his project. Although not in it as much as I would have liked him to be, Yates is quite hilarious as the friend who isn't going to strain himself by thinking of the world events unfolding around him. Johansson is a solid anchor, and a pivot around which everything, and everyone, revolves. McKenzie is easily on par with Davis in her role, and the comedic turns from Rockwell and Wilson help, even underlining a couple of very serious moments in the third act. Alfie Allen does well in a small role, Stephen Merchant is very funny in his one main scene, and Waititi plays his sprung-from-the-mind-of-a-child version of Hitler very much like a version of him sprung from the mind of a child.

With the mix of quirky characters, the shot composition, and specific soundtrack choices, fans of Wes Anderson may occasionally forget that this is a Waititi film. It's been given a layer of artificiality that helps to create just enough distance between what we know of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and what we're being shown onscreen. The whole thing is a tightrope-walk, of course, but Waititi is up to the task. I can even see his reasoning behind some of the decisions made that I don't entirely agree with.

Imperfect and odd, Jojo Rabbit manages to do what it sets out to do. It makes you laugh, it provides some immensely powerful moments, and it sends you onward with a sense that there is always hope for humanity while individuals continue to hold on to their natural ability to, against some major odds, do the right thing.


Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Irishman (2019)

It's the film that everyone was desperate to see, and just as many were as keen to dismiss as yet another example of Martin Scorsese doing yet another gangster film. If you think that then a) you're unfamiliar with Scorcese's eclectic filmography, and b) you are dismissing the fact that every Scorsese gangster movie tends to say something very different. Goodfellas was about how the mob made a man into a monster, Casino was about how the mob built Las Vegas, Gangs Of New York tells of the growing pains there, of course, and now The Irishman comes along, a tale looking back at people who did things they thought needed done, putting themselves into a lifestyle not exactly known for the lengthy lifespan.

Robert De Niro is Frank Sheeran, the alleged Irishman of the title. He becomes a dependable guy who can do jobs for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and everything gets more complicated with the forceful personality of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in the mix. Some houses are going to need painted ("I Heard You Paint Houses" is the original title, from the book by Charles Brandt - the phrase is a euphemism for the work done by mafia hitmen), but who's going to be helping to decorate the walls?

Making use of some imperfect de-aging technology, The Irishman feels every bit like what it most probably is, a drawing of the curtain on the lives that Scorsese has taken interest in over the years. Almost every supporting character is given a quick subtitle that details the age and cause of death. There's a clear statement here. Although the main character is elderly, perhaps living with some regrets, he's in a much more privileged position than many who went into the same line of work.

Clocking in with a hefty runtime of three and a half hours, this is fertile ground for Scorsese to explore, helped along by Steven Zaillian's screenplay. Unfortunately, neither party feels quite at ease with this middle ground. It feels very much like this should have either been pared down by an hour or expanded to create a major TV limited series. You get the usual style and energy from Scorsese, including a nicely varied soundtrack, but he doesn't seem as focused as usual.

While their bodies cannot match the smoothing CGI making them appear younger in certain scenes, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci all do their usual sterling work, with Pesci a particular highlight. There are also good roles for Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and a super (as usual) Stephen Graham. Much has been made of the fact that there are no main female roles, and Anna Paquin has been singled out for her lack of dialogue, but don't let that take away from the fact that Paquin says a hell of a lot more with some of her expressions than some of the male characters say in their ongoing attempts to keep looking tough and stay on the trigger end of the guns.

If you're a fan of everyone involved then it's hard to see you hating this, even if there are a number of moments that can't help but feel similar, and maybe less impactful, when compared to other classic Scorsese moments. If you assume it's going to be a greatest hits selection of everything that they've done before, and you roll your eyes at the thought of that, then this probably isn't going to change your mind, despite the different heartbeat working throughout every scene.


Tuesday, 11 February 2020

1917 (2019)

Directed by Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the thing with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 is that WWI film that looks as if it is all made in one shot, with some of the hidden cuts easier to spot than others as you follow the main characters on a quest to the front, to deliver a message that will stop a load of soldiers from falling into a trap laid for them by the enemy.

That's really all there is to it. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofeld, respectively, the two soldiers sent through dangerous territory to deliver the message. And the cast also includes small roles for Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The more recognisable faces seem to help mark various chapters in the journey, with most of the other people onscreen either unrecognisable or just featured as one part of the military unit they're enlisted in.

There was a time when I considered attempting to write this review in one long ramble, hence that lengthy opening paragraph. But then I decided that would be too painful to read. It's a gimmick that would work worse on this blog than it does onscreen, and it doesn't work that well onscreen. Maybe war isn't the best subject for gimmickry, or maybe this technique (one shot/long scenes without cuts) already feels slightly overused, thanks to some recent great examples.

That's the main thing about 1917. It's quite dull. The acting is just fine from everyone involved, the cinematography from Roger Deakins is pretty glorious, and the music by Thomas Newman is there to ensure that you never forget how important and impressive the film is. That's in line with every other aspect of the film.

Considering the main message of the film is one we have seen many times before (which, in itself, is no reason to NOT make a film), and considering we don't get to learn as much about many of the main characters, 1917 is a film that turns out to be all about itself. It's all about that pretend one shot, it's all about Mendes marshalling everyone to get his vision onscreen, it's all about nothing more than how it all looks.

That wouldn't be so bad if it was also thought-provoking or interesting. It isn't. 1917 is a very dull war movie. And war during wartime is far from dull, I'm sure, which leaves me thinking that Mendes has somewhat let down the many people he had set out to honour. There are a couple of cinematic moments that do make it worth your time, for the scale and skill of the visuals, but that's the best thing I can say.


Monday, 10 February 2020

Joker (2019)

Director Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Joker with Scott Silver, isn't really someone you might associate with gritty and compelling psychological dramas. He sets out to change that here, and many people view it as an absolute success. I really like Joker, but there are two main points (maybe three) that drag it down slightly, which I will get to in due course.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man with some serious mental health issues, and a pretty poor quality of life. He wants to be a comedian, but he's not good at making people laugh. He may, however, be good at laughing while he plans to get revenge on people around him. But his fortunes may change if he gets the chance to appear on the chat show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

Okay, first of all, a lot of people have criticised Joker for being little more than a diluted mash-up/reworking of Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. I'm not going to wield those reference points as weapons in any criticism of the film, because I feel that other great films can come from directors hewing close to past classics. This does go VERY close to both of those films, but there are so many worse films that Phillips could have had in his sights.

What works here, and works so well, is the performance from Phoenix. His portrayal of a man pushed further and further into the black pit of a complete mental breakdown is absolutely compelling. He's a superb Arthur Fleck. What he isn't, to me, is a superb Joker. I just don't see enough of that character in this interpretation, which is entirely to do with my own experience of the character through the years, from the comics to the TV show to the various movies. I am all for all of the praise being heaped upon Phoenix for his performance here. I just can't agree with anyone who labels him as the new gold standard for interpretations of the Joker (although nobody will ever be worse than Leto, I think that low point is safe).

There's also a good world created onscreen, a Gotham that is teeming with people who are struggling to get through their everyday lives. This is a pre-Batman Gotham. Not so much dark and full of convenient shadows, it's more like an interconnected set of glass cubes, each one oppressive and reeking of nicotine and potentially-contagious diseases.

The rest of the cast also do a great job. I'd be tempted to call them flawless if the casting of De Niro in his pivotal role didn't seem so much like an obvious stunt. He is good though, and has fun in his small amount of screentime, as is Zazie Beetz, the third point in the central triangle that the film creates. Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, and Douglas Hodge are on par with one another, portraying a mix of new characters and some you may be familiar with, albeit in a different guise.

These positives are enough to make this a very good movie, and it remains a very good movie, despite my three main problems with it. So bear that in mind, and let's move on to the negatives.

First up is the script. It's not terrible, by any means, but Phillips and Silver rely on the cast to elevate their words. Which the cast manage to do, seriously limiting the damage that could have been caused here.

My second and third main issues stem from the same thing so I'll just bundle them together here. This film has been hailed as an interesting departure from standard comic-book movies, it has been described as a scathing commentary on some major problems in the current climate in America. It's not. It's neither of those things, and that stems from Phillips giving himself an easier option when the opportunities arose. He made much of the fact that this was a standalone film, this Joker was different from what you'd seen before, and it didn't necessarily have to tie in to any DC movie universe. So why, WHY, even bring in the characters who make up the Wayne household? Those scenes feel like fan-service, they feel out of place, and they feel totally unearned (I know that doesn't seem like the right word, but it is, somehow). And as for the scathing commentary, I don't deny that Phillips works some very good points into the movie, and even has them at the heart of the whole thing, but he gives himself an "out" by setting it in the early 1980s. That allows him to shrug, it gives him plausible deniability, it really dulls what could have been a sharp, relevant message for people who may squirm when forced to look at the mirror being held up to modern society. Phillips decides not to commit to holding up the mirror, instead settling for a kaleidoscope. And everything looks a little better through a kaleidoscope.

There's plenty to like here, even plenty to admire, and it does feel like a more interesting film from Phillips than anything else he has done, to date. It's far from perfect though, and I think people have forgiven some mis-steps because they were impressed by the kaleidoscope.


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

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Prodigy (2019)

There's probably a good movie to be made about The Prodigy, the British dance band that suffered the sad loss of charismatic member Keith Flint last year. There's so much energy and attitude there, and quite the journey through rave culture and beyond. Having said that, there's also probably a good movie to be made about a child prodigy. A "bad seed" child with the smarts and innovation to start killing many people they encounter without relying on the stupidity of others to avoid being caught. Or just a child mentally developing so rapidly that it causes them to lash out, mood swings and strong arguments being put on display that are far removed from the standard behaviour of a child at that age.

The Prodigy isn't any of those. It's a depressingly dull slog through familiar material, trudging from one predictable moment to the next, lacking tension, scares, and energy. If you ever decide to give yourself a triple-bill of home viewings and you pick The Prodigy as one of your options then place it in the middle, to be carried by the other two a la Weekend At Bernies.

Here's the plot, because I suppose I must. Taylor Schilling and Peter Mooney are Sarah and John Blume, and they have a son, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). Miles is a very smart cookie. Which doesn't matter much, not until he starts to speak a different language in his sleep and show signs of being what is known in proper medical terminology as . . . an evil little shit. That's all I'll say. There IS more to it, but a) I don't want to spoil anything for those who like to know as little as possible, and b) I can't be bothered expending more energy on something so lazy and horrible.

Director Nicholas McCarthy has a decent filmography, from those I have seen. The Pact is a supernaturally-tinged thriller that worked well with genre tricks, while At The Devil's Door was an improvement, in terms of confidence and atmosphere. So it's a shame to see him take this big step back. I'm not going to give him all the blame though, because Jeff Buhler is the person who wrote the screenplay, and Jeff Buhler seems to be doing his best to upset horror fans recently, considering his work on this, Pet Sematary, the Jacob's Ladder remake, and The Grudge reboot/reworking/sequel. I really enjoyed his first screenplay over a decade ago, Midnight Meat Train, but perhaps that was more down to the vision of the director than anything that Buhler put on the page.

Cast-wise, there's nobody helping to make this more bearable. Schilling and Mooney are just present, Scott makes mean faces, usually changing suddenly after making sweet faces, and Colm Feore is the only one managing to stand out from the supporting cast that includes Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, and Paula Boudreau.

There's a minimum degree of competency in all departments, which saves it from being among the worst of the worst, but this is an absolutely dire mainstream horror movie. Viewers aren't drawn in at the beginning, the middle section meanders from one incident to the next without much sense, and the ending is as unengaging as it is tiresomely nonsensical, and also painfully predictable.


Don't buy the movie here.
Americans can not buy it here.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Shudder Saturday: Anguish (2015)

Inspired by true events. Every movie could use that, if you think about it. Does your film have one human being talking to another? Then it's inspired by true events. Does it show some particles moving through space? Then it's inspired by true events. Is it a tale of superheros battling supervillains, but also includes the previous elements? Then it's inspired by true events. My point is that this claim is often spurious, even more so than the "based on a true story" that all of us horror fans know to take with a pinch of salt nowadays.

But Anguish is inspired by true events. And, for all I know, it may have been so inspired by them that writer-director Sonny Mallhi tried to recreate everything as accurately as possible. Or maybe it was just a jumping-off point for this tale. Both of these approaches should lead to the same result, a movie that is ultimately worth your time. Sadly, this is not.

Ryan Simpkins plays Tess, a young woman who starts to become more and more unstable in her mental health as she feels as if her body is not her own. It seems that she may have been invaded by the spirit of a young woman, Lucy (Amberley Gridley), who was killed by a car while storming away from a heated argument with her mother (Sarah, played by Karina Logue). Tess's mother, Jessica (Annika Marks), obviously struggles to consider this scenario, although psychiatric treatment and even the idea of possession are not ruled out, eventually.

For a first feature, Mallhi does a lot right here. The script and direction are both decent, there's certainly nothing here that you can point to as completely incompetent (even if some moments are a bit heavy-handed and clumsy), and it's admirable that he tried to deliver something different from so many of the easier options horror fans are sold every other week.

Mallhi also does well with his casting. Simpkins is good in the lead role, and ably supported by Logue, Marks, and Gridley, as well as everyone else making up the supporting cast. Histrionics are on display every so often, but they feel more like breakdowns in mental health than overdone reactions to jumps and scares.

What isn't done so well is the tone of the film. The first half is especially bad, with a meandering and dull approach to the material. It is completely lifeless, no pun intended, and leads to a lack of interest in the main events, even as things start to become more interesting in the run up to the finale. And that isn't me simply demanding a horror movie provides more blood 'n' guts, or more scares (although, y'know, neither of those things are bad when there isn't much else going on). Mallhi doesn't even think of looking further into the psychological side of things, disappointingly avoiding a sense of ambiguity and exploration that would have made things significantly more interesting.

At least made with a bit of care, it's just a shame that Anguish doesn't say anything worthwhile, and doesn't make up for this by being more entertaining.


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

Friday, 7 February 2020

Harpoon (2019)

Written and directed by Rob Grant, Harpoon is the kind of black comedy thriller best described as enjoyably vicious. It takes three people, throws them together in a small environment, and starts to allow them to twist the knife into one another. And twist. And twist.

It all starts with Jonah (Munro Chambers) packing up things after the death of his parents. He is visited by his friend, Richard (Christopher Gray). Richard punches Munro in the face because he believes that Munro has been cheating with Richard's girlfriend, Sasha (Emily Tyra). Once that misunderstanding has been cleared up, the three head off on Richard's yacht for a day trip. Tension is still there, as well as a spear gun that is a birthday surprise for Richard.

Framed by the words of an unreliable narrator (Brett Gelman), Harpoon moves deftly between the very funny and the very painful. The truth can often hurt, but so can a swift kick to the balls. The latter will also happen to make viewers laugh. The three central characters show themselves, at various points, to be people who aren't really very nice, which makes their pain ultimately more satisfying, and also more expected as momentum starts to build towards the finale.

The praise must all go to Grant for his script (with some input from Mike Kovac). He's managed to take a simple three-hander of a tale, add some more humour and uncertainty with the help of that sharp narration, and somehow keep things both blindingly obvious and yet entertainingly serpentine at the same time. Everything is there from the very beginning, in many ways, as you are shown the characters, their actions, and main relationship dynamics.

It helps that the main cast all do very well in their roles. Gray is, of course, the one we take an immediate dislike to, being the rich kid who comes onscreen and punches his friend in the opening sequence. Chambers is enjoyably mistreated by Gray, the two of them perfectly illustrating an unlikely, and unhealthy, friendship, and Tyra is a perfect third point in what is set out as an obviously problematic triangle.

Although not as simplistically entertaining as Mon Ami (a 2012 film from Grant, featuring Kovac in a lead role), Harpoon is a similar tale of snowballing events leading up to a finale that looks set to be pretty bad news for everyone involved. It's still just a little bit too slight, and not quite as sharp as it could be, but you can certainly see the growth in Grant as a film-maker, and good to see him recently getting some more praise and attention from genre fans.


You can buy the movie here.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Fanged Up (2017)

I was only a few minutes into Fanged Up when I started to realise I knew the lead actor. His face, his manner, he was familiar to me. But how? Well, annoyingly enough, Daniel O'Reilly, who also co-wrote the movie, is probably best known to many as the man who was a bit of an internet hit, for a while, with Dapper Laughs. I'm not going to go into the details of his act here, you can Google it, so it should suffice to say that his persona was that of a cheeky chappy, to put it mildly.

O'Reilly plays Jimmy Ragsdale here, a . . . cheeky chappy who ends up arrested after a brawl in a nightclub, and placed in a jail that deals with prisoners in a very unique way. They get eaten. A lot of the prison staff are vampires, hence the name, and their appetites are growing. Can Jimmy survive? Never mind the vampires, will he be able to avoid death at the hands of his cellmate, Victor (Stu Bennett)? And will he also be able to build a bridge with the prison nurse, Katie (Danielle Harold), an old flame who believes that he once cheated on her while on a holiday with friends?

Directed by the talented Christian James (who started with Freak Out and also gave us Stalled, two films you can at least admire, even if you don't love them), Fanged Up has a surprising number of positives to make up for the negatives. I admit that I was worried about what I was letting myself in for, especially after enduring a number of low-budget British horror comedies mixing criminal geezer types with evil forces, but my worry abated slightly as things began to play out.

The general look and feel of the film is polished and professional, including the vampire make up and any gore gags. James knows how to give value for money, and he focuses on the film-making ahead of the comedy, and not vice versa.

The cast also do a good job. Yes, even O'Reilly. He won't be everyone's cup of tea, but this is a toned-down version of the kind of character he has played before, and there are some critical moments that show just how much of his overcompensating bravado and lewd behaviour is all just a front. Bennett is impressively tough, Harold makes for a good beauty who has more brains than our "hero", and Vas Blackwood is very enjoyable in a main supporting role. Steven Berkoff is the Governor, and has a bit of fun, while Lauren Socha is the woman in charge, and the one deciding who is to go on the menu first.

But things fall down at the script. The contributions from O'Reilly seem obvious, considering how he manages to stay in his comfort zone. Nick Nevern has a filmography that includes a couple of more straightforward British gangster movies, so that would seem to be his addition to the recipe. Then you have Dan Palmer, who has written the scripts for most of James' movies, shorts and features. The fact that almost all of the features feel both undercooked and yet also slightly padded out in places makes me think that he was the one trying, and failing, to bring everything together and tighten it all up. It almost works, because there are enough different elements jostling for attention, but ultimately doesn't.

Remember what I said about James focusing on the film-making ahead of the comedy? That would have paid off in dividends if the comedy had worked. Sadly, it doesn't. Which means the film ends up being nothing more than a mildly amusing genre mash-up. Although it could have been so much worse, which is why I charitably score it right at the halfway point.


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

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Prime Time: Lighthouse (1999)

Certainly deserving of attention for being a bit different, and sometimes a bit more stylish, than many other British horror movies from the decade, Lighthouse is (it would seem) a bit of a forgotten horror from the end of the 1990s. I wouldn't go as far as saying that it's ripe for rediscovery, and it's no overlooked classic, but there are enough moments throughout to make it worth 90 minutes of your time.

The lot concerns a prison ship that ends up crashing on to a tiny, rocky island. That's not a good situation to be in, and it gets worse when a psycho killer (Leo Rook, played by Christoper Adamson) sets out to kill everyone.

Directed by Simon Hunter, who also worked on the story with writer Graeme Scarfe, Lighthouse is a strange mix of various elements. First of all, the prison ship itself seems quite incongruous. Perhaps nothing we see onscreen is meant to be taken literally, which would explain this choice, but it's definitely an odd starting point. Second, the usual mix of characters don't really get to do enough, aside from wait to be offed by the killer. In fact, they're only made memorable thanks to the actors picked to play them (such as Paul Brooke, Don Warrington, and one or two others).

The third thing worth mentioning is the fact that there are a small number of set-pieces that feel as if they could have been lifted from some classic gialli flicks. More of these moments filter throughout the third act, with impending potential death intercut with vague memories taking root in the forefront of the mind of one character, but Lighthouse has stuck in my mind over the years thanks to one brilliant sequence that involves someone hiding from the killer in a bathroom stall. The layout of the bathroom itself, the camera angles used, and the way in which the tension is drawn out, all of these things add up to a moment in the movie that the rest of it fails to match.

James Purefoy is the main prisoner we know is capable of being a hero, of course, and Rachel Shelley is Dr. Kirsty McCloud, who may just end up pairing up with Purefoy to stay alive until the end credits. As well as those already mentioned, you also get roles for Christopher Dunne, Bob Goody, Pat Kelman, and one or two others. None may be household names, but most will be generally recognisable, even if you cannot recall where you last saw them.

It's a shame that Hunter and Scarfe couldn't manage to tighten this up, to tweak and polish the script until it was developed into something much better than what we ended up with here. The skill is there, and Hunter certainly shows that he is more than capable of delivering bloodshed and vivid imagery, but there's not a strong enough framework, in terms of story, characters, and dialogue.


You can buy the DVD here.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Beats (2019)

Ahhhhh the '90s. Although I consider myself a child of the 1980s, as I was born in the mid-70s, I tended to develop most of my own taste, as dubious as it is, in the 1990s. I was finding my own TV shows, I was enjoying the grunge music scene, I was obviously an absolute whirlwind of hormones, and I also got into rave music. Yes, some of it is annoying and rubbish, but there are a lot of tunes from that time (and I may regret admitting this) that are still in rotation in my playlists, whether for the gym or just for general liveliness.

Everyone associates rave culture with garish clothing and lots of pill-popping. I never popped pills. I was high on life. And I never wore garish clothing. Okay, that's a lie. I enjoyed the comfort of some Bermuda shorts, and I had one hypercolour t-shirt that was my favourite thing ever. But that's not too bad, considering the variety of t-shirts, shirts, and onesies I have in my wardrobe nowadays.

My one regret was not getting to one of the big raves, with the biggest of the main events, Rezerection, taking place just on the outskirts of my home city. To compensate, I picked up all the cassette tapes I could, from the live shows (featuring sets from DJ Ratty, UltraSonic, all the way to Carl Cox, etc) to the TTF albums, from The Prodigy to standard, slick mainstream packages that compiled hits from the likes of Altern-8, Praga Khan, Utah Saints, and Messiah.

Beats opens with THE classic track from UltraSonic, Annihilating Rhythm, which will prove immediately comforting to anyone thinking this is a film from people who don't know what they're doing. Everything about the film feels authentic, all the way to a bittersweet coda that reveals the future lives of most of the main characters, and that is what elevates it to a low-key kind of greatness.

Cristian Ortega is Johnno, being willingly led astray by his mate, Lorn Macdonald (playing Spanner), and the two do a great job in the lead roles, very natural and believable throughout. Johnno has his mother (Laura Fraser) and potential wannabe-stepfather/policeman (Brian Ferguson) trying to keep him on a better path through life, while Spanner just has his older brother (Fido, played by Neil Leiper) giving him hassle at every opportunity. Ross Mann is a DJ, D-Man, and Cat, Wendy, and Laura are three young women who make the idea of risking major punishment for having a wild night out seem a lot more appealling, and they are played respectively by Amy Manson, Rachel Jackson, and Gemma McElhinney.

Based on a play by Kieran Hurley, who co-wrote the screen adaptation with director Brian Welsh, this is something that needs to conjure up all the right memories and feelings to work, and it absolutely does. The soundtrack choices are spot on, the black and white cinematography allows for a burst of colour to open out your reception to the good vibes at just the right times, and there's a perfect distillation of the feelings you can have for what you view as that one, somehow hugely important, big night out. Some people used to head out every weekend, even every other night if they knew enough people having enough different smaller parties, but there would always be one night that would see you a different person watching the sunrise from how you were as you'd watched the sunset.

I look forward to whatever comes next from director Welsh (and also need to see The Rack Pack, a film he directed about the rivalry between snooker players Alex Higgins and Steve Davis), I am already a big fan of Hurley (having also been lucky enough to see his play, "Square Go", here in Edinburgh last year), and I hope to see both Ortega and Macdonald in some more movies.

In case it wasn't obvious, I loved Beats. Loved it. I was transported to the early-to-mid-nineties, I could recognise so many familiar moments (even that horrible moment when you're hanging with people who have come along accompanied by an antagonistic asshole), and it's a perfect celebration of the positivity of the rave scene, and the beauty of even the most seemingly-mismatched friendships.


You can buy the movie here.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Mubi Monday: Pillow Talk (1959)

Although the idea may seem beyond comprehension to modern viewers, Pillow Talk is a rom-com based around the idea of two people sharing a party line. They both have a telephone, and can listen in on the conversations of the other. This causes a problem when one is a well-behaved young lady and the other is a, well, a bit of a cad. Hilarity, and romance, ensues. Of course.

Doris Day is Jan Morrow, the lady in this tale, an interior designer with a good life and no man in it to cause her any grief. Rock Hudson is Brad Allen, the cad, a man who plays the same tune on his guitar for different women, just changing the name to suit whoever he might be wooing. Brad is getting romantic with a number of woman. Jan is trying to politely avoid the affections of one of her clients, Jonathan (Tony Randall). Jonathan also happens to be friends with Brad, which is how the cad finds out about the lovely appeal of a woman who he has only encountered so far over the telephone, with her interrupting his calls to ask for some time on her own line. Brad decides to have some fun, giving himself a Texan persona to try and seduce Jan. As things play out, he finds himself falling for her, which makes things complicated as the truth must eventually out.

Written by Stanley Shapiro (who wrote a few movies featuring the pairing of Day and Hudson) and Maurice Richlin, Pillow Talk is light fun, entirely predictable throughout, and a real delight. And I do mean a delight. Director Michael Gordon has a filmography with very few titles that leap out as classics (this and the Day/Garner film Move Over, Darling being the highlights, from my experience), but he does a good enough job here. Everything is as bright and breezy as it should be, and the script has enough great laughs to keep things ticking over.

But this isn't really a film about the directorial style, it's a film about Day and Hudson working alongside one another. Both highly enjoyable stars in their own right, having them together onscreen creates the kind of chemistry we don't see enough of. I can't really think of any modern comparisons, although I am open to suggestions. Randall does just fine in his role, although he's really just the third wheel for most of the film, and Thelma Ritter steals a few scenes, playing a drunken housekeeper who has had her share of enjoyment listening in on the party line.

It's old-fashioned, in some ways it feels far too dated, and coasts along more on the charms of the two leads than any other aspect of the film, although things are done well, but I will happily watch this whenever I want to spend 102 minutes in good company. Day has always made me smile, just by appearing onscreen, and Hudson is as charismatic as she is beatific. They would enable me to enjoy even a bad movie, and this is by no means a bad movie.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get a nice 4-pack here.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Netflix And Chill: Uncut Gems (2019)

Written and directed by the Safdie brothers (Benny and Josh, with Ronald Bronstein once again collaborating with them on the writing of the script), Uncut Gems is another superb film for those who have already warmed to their particular style, a kind of paradoxically slick and polished roam through some grimy environments alongside down-on-their-luck characters the brothers seem to find fascinating. It's also, as I'm sure you're already aware, the best that Adam Sandler has been in years.

Sandler plays a jeweler named Howard Ratner. He's in an unhappy marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) that they're close to bringing to an end, he has an apartment that he uses to spend a lot of time with his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox), and he owes money to various people, not least Arno (Eric Bogosian), who keeps using some tough guys to hopefully scare Howard into paying up. But Howard knows his time is about to come. He's ordered a stone that contains some valuable uncut gems, he's developing a rapport with Kevin Garnett (played by, well, himself), and he's just one audacious bet away from a big payday. But nobody will really support you waiting for that big payday if you're gambling away all of their money to try and get it. And Howard is certainly happy to bet big.

Uncut Gems is a tough movie to watch. There's no major respite from the tension as events conspire against Howard, whether it be in the shape of a lower-than-expected auction valuation for an item he wants to sell, a number of arguments with an associate named Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) who is also the go-between for Garnett, or his continued attempts to delay paying back money to people who want to physically harm him. Whether it is Howard himself or the camerawork, it feels like a constant bob and weave from one desperate moment to the next, all accompanied by a fantastic score from Daniel Lopatin.

You can choose to like or dislike the movies that the Safdie brothers make, they're definitely happy to stay in a certain wheelhouse at the moment and not everyone will enjoy spending time there, but you can't deny that they bring characters and situations to life with a magic combination of realism and cinematic finesse. They sugar-coat the pill, but only to allow themselves to make the core even more bitter.

Sandler has received a lot of praise for his performance here. It's good. Very good indeed. All I will say, to temper some of the hyperbole that has inevitably appeared in the praise for him, is that his banter and constant need to talk over people, hoping to keep himself in the right by simply repeating whatever point he thinks will help him at a higher volume, is not a million miles away from many of his other performances. It's just that this one is within the context of a drama. I am surprised that I haven't seen more praised aimed at Fox, making her feature acting debut with a pitch-perfect performance, and portraying a character who could easily have unbalanced the tone of the film on a number of different occasions. Menzel does very well here, in a live-action and non-singing role that I hope she does more of in the near future, and both Stanfield and Garnett are good additions to the heart of the film. Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik are believable heavies, Bogosian steals a couple of scenes with the kind of turn that immediately makes you wish he picked more movies to star in, and the few minutes of screentime that Judd Hirsch has helps with that sugar-coating I mentioned.

As a stupid child, I would often raid the tubs of chocolate that we would get in our household for Christmas. My mother would remind me to just have one or two a day, I would always have way more, and I would place the empty wrappers back in the tub as a decoy, somehow thinking that I would use my pocket money to buy a smaller packet and refill the tub. That never happened. My mother eventually opened the tub to have a sweetie, immediately seeing red when she picked up a handful of empty wrappers. The game was up. If you ever tried the same thing then you'll know what I mean when I say that watching Uncut Gems will give you a sensation akin to watching that tub, counting down to the time when you can either refill it or you get busted. If you haven't tried that same thing then just know that Howard is the child who has filled the tub with sweetie wrappers, and the runtime of this movie is spent seeing if he can replenish the container before other people put their hands in.


Saturday, 1 February 2020

Shudder Saturday: Bliss (2019)

Dora Madison plays Dezzy, a young artist who isn't really in the best place. She isn't making the progress she hoped to be making on her latest piece, she seems to be saddled with a guy (Clive, played by Jeremy Gardner) who is happy to freeload his way along and coast through life, and she's dropped by her agent. But thank goodness for drugs. Dezzy heads to see Hadrian (Graham Skipper) to purchase some recreational mood-enhancer, and she ends up getting some Bliss, which is not to be taken lightly. What follows is a crazy rollercoaster of sex, unconsciousness, productivity, and blood. Quite a lot of blood.

Written and directed by Joe Begos (who impressed a lot of people with his directorial feature debut, Almost Human), Bliss is a very nice pairing of form and content. Viewers are dragged along with Dezzy as her senses are bombarded, with inventive and varied visuals often paired up with a loud and pounding soundtrack. I liked the full audio-visual experience, although it's easy to see how this could end up putting many people off.

What I liked a little less was the lack of specific points that could have been made. I appreciate that is my own thing, and it's unfair to be too critical of a film because of what it isn't when there's a lot to appreciate about what it is, but it held it back from being as great as I wanted it to be. I kept waiting for Bliss to step up to a higher level, but it always seemed poised to make a leap without ever committing. Having said that, Begos certainly pulls out all the stops in the third act, which certainly takes a step up in terms of the wilder moments, the bloodshed, and gore. There's one moment, just beyond the one hour mark, that is absolutely incredible, and major kudos should go to Begos for getting hold of enough resources/talented people to help him complete his vision.

I try not to focus on negatives when it's a film I am being generally supportive of. It's not good to mistake insults and unnecessary nastiness with constructive criticism. With that in mind, I will say that Madison is slightly uneven in the main role, disappointing in the scenes in which she has to act more "normally" opposite people (it feels very much like her attitude, both to others and to her art, is something that doesn't fit right on her), but fun to watch when getting wild and vicious and bloody. Gardner continues to be as impressive an actor as he is as a director (so I will happily watch anything he does), and he's a highlight here. Tru Collins and Rhys Wakefield are a hedonistic couple who help to start Dezzy on her main journey, Skipper is just fine as your friendly neighbourhood drug dealer, and you get some nice little supporting turns from George Wendt, Abraham Benrubi, and Jesse Merlin, as well as some other familiar faces who have become part of a loose collective of impressive artists within the horror community.

I've yet to check out some more of the offerings from Begos so far, after being one of the few people underwhelmed by Almost Human, but I'll hope to change that soon. He certainly isn't afraid to make some bold decisions, and that helps to freshen up a central concept that doesn't really shake up the subgenre it's working in as much as it could. He deserves credit for this singular vision, as does everyone, from cast to crew, who helped him get it all onscreen.


You can order the disc here.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Japanuary: Gozu (2003)

Rightly or wrongly, I viewed Gozu for many years as a Takashi Miike film that I had to mark off my watchlist. I don't know where the notion first came from, but I viewed this as one of his top titles, and one that I should have seen during his initial wave of popularity. It's not one of his top titles, not by a long shot, but it does have enough bizarre moments in it to make it something I can imagine fans of his work recommending to others.

It all starts with Ozaki (Show Aikawa) going a bit crazy. He's a yakuza gangster, which is not the kind of person you want going a bit crazy, and a crime boss orders Ozaki's friend, Minami (Hideki Sone), to kill him. This sets Minami off on a journey that includes a number of eccentric characters, with one of them being a woman (Kimika Yoshino) claiming to be someone that defies possibility.

There's plenty here to mark this out as decidedly Miike, from the excessive lactation reminiscent of Visitor Q to a typically bonkers finale. Teaming up once again with writer Sakichi Sato (who also wrote Ichi The Killer, as well as both the live-action and animated prequels) could have yielded some great results, but the result this time around is a mixture of dull moments and, well, more dull moments that are dressed up in bizarre clothing. It doesn't matter how many cow-headed men you squeeze into your movie if you don't do anything interesting with them. The same goes for any of the other strange characters in this movie, who all seem to have their quirks simply for the sake of having quirks. There are people that can make that work (David Lynch being the most obvious), there are movies in which those threads add to a fine patchwork, but Miike and Sato don't manage it here.

Sone does well in his role, carrying most of the movie on his shoulders as he has to react to a growing selection of oddities. He's not as fiery or over the top as many other protagonists in Miike movies, which works well in contrast to the journey he ends up going on. Keiko Tomita makes a strong impression as the Innkeeper, a woman who at least keeps things interesting whenever she's onscreen, because of how she acts around Sone, almost defying him to view things he is uncomfortable with until he sees what events seem to be conspiring to tell him. Yoshino feels strangely like someone who was hired to be in the film and then left to wait while everyone else got their script pages. She's not necessarily bad in her role, although it's hard to tell, but she never seems truly engaged with the people around her. This may have been a very deliberate decision, for reasons that will be obvious to those who have seen the movie, but it's not good that the character who is an essential third within the plotting of the film so often feels as if they're not present.

Overall, I'd have to say that this is one of the most disappointing Miike movies I have seen. But it's still not a BAD movie. I know a few others who like this more than I do, and there were one or two scenes here that still had me glad I watched the thing. Those who know the filmography of Miike already know that his more prolific periods are not matched by a consistency in quality. You get some low points, but the highs are more than worth it.


There's a disc here.
Americans may want to check this one out here.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Japanuary: Meatball Machine (2005)

A splattery body horror flick with some great set-pieces and one hell of a punchline, Meatball Machine is a lot of fun for those after some gory practical effects. If you liked films such as Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police then I think you'll like this one.

Issei Takahashi plays Yôji, a factory worker who falls for a young woman named Sachiko (Aoba Kawai). After saving her from an assault, Yôji ends up with Sachiko back at his home, but his timing is lousy. He also has some kind of insectoid in his home that he recently found, and this infects Sachiko and transforms her into something called a NecroBorg. Yôji also becomes transformed, not long after Sachiko, and the two end up battling one another.

Based on a short film by Jun'ichi Yamamoto, who gets a credit here alongside director Yūdai Yamaguchi, Meatball Machine is silly and over the top from start to finish. You get to see some extreme violence and gore before you really have a clue what's going on, because a proper explanation is provided at about the halfway mark, but that's fine, because this is being sold on the violence and gore. It's one of those films in which nobody is killed in a way that sees them slumping out of shot as they breathe their last. No, everyone dies with lots of physical trauma involved, and geysers of blood spraying everywhere.

The screenplay by Jun'ya Katô is, in many ways, what you expect, but has one or two nice surprises tucked away in there, mainly in the third act. There are many different ways this material could have been played, and it's admirable that it gets pretty wild with no real care given for the humans caught up in the middle of the body-changing nastiness.

Takahashi and Kawai are fine, making a decent impression before they're transformed. And Takahashi even manages to somehow keep showing his humanity striving to stay present while he's in full NecroBorg form. The other main character is played by Kenichi Kawasaki, a father who has already seen his daughter afflicted and is out to kill as many of the mutated creations as he can. Kawasaki does well, bursting in with a good bit of exposition that makes everything clear before opening the floodgates to the blood-soaked third act.

If there's one major problem with Meatball Machine, and I realise this may seem silly to say, it's that it doesn't have anything else going on below the surface. I know that some others do get a bit more from it, but it just felt like an FX showcase without any substance to it. Not that there has to be any more to it, especially when the gory set-pieces are so much fun, but it's easy to see how this may have made a more impactful short than the expanded feature.

Still, this is recommended for those who know what they're getting in to.


You can buy the DVD here.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Prime Time: Hide And Go Kill (2008)

There is, apparently, a game called Hide And Seek Alone. To take part in this game you have to remove all of the stuffing from a stuffed toy and fill it with rice, then turn every light off in your home, with the exception of the TV. You soak the stuffed toy in water, stab it and say that it is now the devil. Then go and hide. Stuff will happen, and things tend to end with people losing the game in a fatal manner.

Hide And Go Kill concerns teens who play this game. It's structured episodically, showing us the various events that led to three different games of Hide And Seek Alone. Unfortunately, there's not enough in every episode to make it feel different enough from the others, which leaves you with a repetitive and dull horror movie. There is no decent build up of atmosphere, no great scares to give you goosebumps, and nothing that can't be found in at least twenty better movies released before this one.

Director Tomoya Kainuma, who also co-wrote the film with Jun'ichi Kanai, made his feature debut with this, and has made nothing since. So we can at least be thankful of that. I don't want to seem gleeful about someone not being able to make any progress in their dream career, but Kainuma shows such a lazy attitude, and complete misunderstanding of how to spice things up cinematically, that it's really a blessing he has not been allowed to mess up any other projects. Kanai has a few other films under his belt, but not many, so I can only speculate that he took this particular film as a steep learning curve for his own first step into the movie world.

None of the cast stand out. They're all completely interchangeable, silly enough to get sucked into the whole urban legend malarkey and play the ridiculous game until it all ends predictably badly for them. In fact, I'm not sure if the cast even get a decent amount of time in which they have to do any normal acting, there are so many moments of people peeking out while in hiding, and don't even start me on the horrifying moments that just have message board/phone text conversations typed out on a plain black background. That's how the movie starts. Yes, at the time when most people want to draw you into the film and grab your attention, Kainuma decides to display a lot of text between people discussing the "phenomenon" of Hide And Seek Alone. This then happens another three or four times throughout the movie, including at the very end, and is never interesting, or even all that enlightening.

I assume that I don't have to go on any longer about the reasons to avoid this film, especially when you already know so many other curse/urban legend movies you could either watch or rewatch. The sadomasochist in me is slightly tempted to also watch the sequel to this, but everyone with a normal brain can go through their lives happily enough without seeing any of them.


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Japanuary: Tomie: Re-birth (2001)

Based on the comics by celebrated artist Junji Ito (the man who also conceived of the spiralling horrors in Uzumaki), Tomie is a character who has featured in nine movies, to date. The main power she has is the ability to resurrect after death, but she also drives others to madness, and can create more and more copies of herself (something that is used most effectively in the 2011 film, the last one to have been made just now, Tomie Unlimited).

This particular tale begins with Tomie (played this time around by Miki Sakai) being killed by her artist boyfriend, Hideo (Shûgo Oshinari). He two friends (Shun'ichi and Takumi) to help him bury the body and cover up the crime, which doesn't really matter when Tomie reappears in their lives. She begins to exact her revenge, even if that revenge means sometimes sacrificing her physical body to people who end up with murderous intent on their minds.

Directed by Takashi Shimizu (the man who gave us so many movies in the popular, and effective, Ju-on series), this is a decent enough Tomie tale, albeit one that is deliberately subtle and slow-paced, yet it seems to once again miss out on the huge potential of the character. I'm not sure how the source material makes use of this creation, and I'm sadly still lacking in my knowledge of most of the other movie versions, but Tomie can be used to explore so much, from toxic relationships to partners who are overprotective and stifling (which I realise still counts as a toxic relationship, I am just defining different aspects), from the shared female experience as they so often face the same troubles while navigating the minefield of relationships to self-identity, from peer pressure to victim blaming. Unfortunately, all of that seems to be kept below the surface, although it's often churning and raging there like a river flowing beneath a thin layer of ice.

I'm not going to blame Shimizu entirely for this. He seems to know that the subject matter isn't a traditional horror, and subsequently refuses to delve into his usual grab bag of scares and jumps, but he relies on a script, by Yoshinobu Fujioka (who also the next film in the series), that seems to cast the more interesting elements aside in order to focus on a typical supernatural entity out for revenge plot. Perhaps those tackling the material don't know where to begin when it comes to unpacking the possibilities. Perhaps Ito left all of that aside anyway, figuring that no artists could more effectively comment on something that could provide viewers/readers with hours and days of deliberation and conversation.

The cast do a decent enough job, I guess I'd better say that before I wrap things up here. Sakai is appropriately pretty and passive throughout most of the film, even as things get wilder and more dangerous for her. Masaya Kikawada and Satoshi Tsumabuki are the males who spend most of the time being slowly tortured, and Kumiko Endô is a young woman who also gets caught up in the strands of webbing that Tomie can spread far and wide as she allows people to weave their own nooses.

If you get the chance to check out any Tomie movies then please do so. You can, from my limited experience, jump into any one without needing to be familiar with the others. As long as you know the essence of the character, as explained here, you'll be fine. Tomie: Re-birth is slightly better than the only other one I have seen, so far, and I look forward to checking out the others. Going by my usual schedule, I should get to another one by about 2027.


Get yourself some art here.
And here is the main site for all things Junji Ito.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Mubi Monday: Death Becomes Her (1992)

Although you may worry whenever you hear the words "a film directed by Robert Zemeckis that also serves as an FX showcase", there's really no need. In fact, it's worth remembering that Zemeckis spent many years perfectly marrying entertaining concepts to the latest technology that would help him best present things. Then he got a bit carried away with himself.

Death Becomes Her is the tale of a man (Dr. Ernest Menville, played by Bruce Willis) who leaves his girlfriend (Helen Sharp, played by Goldie Hawn) to embark on a life with a famous and beautiful actress (Madeline Ashton, played by Meryl Streep). This changes all three individuals for the worse. Ernest becomes bitter, and drinks excessively while he works on dead bodies. Madeline is afraid of ageing, and seeks solace in the company of at least one younger man. And Helen is just miserable at what she lost, and wants some revenge. When the day comes for that revenge to take place, everything is complicated by the fact that Madeline has managed to get her hands on a potion that will give her immortality. But being immortal means you really need to look after the one body you have.

Written by Martin Donovan and David Koepp, this is a wonderful black comedy that blends The Picture Of Dorian Grey with no small amount of Sunset Blvd. Although these three characters could have been from any walk of life, the fact that one is a doctor and one an actress allows for some more pointed digs at the notions of vanity, the pressures on so many in the entertainment industry to have cosmetic surgery, and the attitudes and failings of people who cannot find themselves content with all of their blessings in life.

Zemeckis does a great job here. Using the first half of the film to weave lots of fun jokes in between the character development (there's not much, but it's there) before treating the halfway point as a turnstile into the FX-laden second half, which leads to plenty of superb visual gags working alongside the dialogue. The special effects, a mix of practical gags and computer work, hold up brilliantly. Almost thirty years later, this is better than even some major films released in the last decade.

Although she didn't enjoy the experience of working with all of the special effects, Streep is on top form in her role. All three leads are great, with Willis being atypically schlubby and Hawn a bit more calculating and sharp than usual, but Streep stays just a little ahead of everyone, thanks to it being quite a different role for her and the fact that she's the focus of many of the memorable effects. Ian Ogilvy also raises a smile in his brief appearance, and Isabella Rossellini is the mysterious and alluring woman who offers up the chance of immortality before belatedly adding words of caution.

Not entirely dissimilar to many short tales that have warned us against the perils of trying to gain immortality (from the many miserable vampires who have found the experience lacking to the kind of stories you get from Ray Bradbury and Tales From The Crypt, to name just a couple), Death Becomes Her is slick, macabre fun that also proves to be eminently rewatchable.


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

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Netflix And Chill: Tuna Girl (2019)

Fûka Koshiba plays Minami, a pleasant young woman who struggles to settle into her student role at a research institute focusing on studying and improving the survival rate of farmed tuna, hence the title. Minami is viewed favourably by her Professor (Hidetoshi Hoshida), but less favourably by a young man, Sudo (Tom Fujita), who doesn't think she is serious about doing her bit to help the institute.

Part rom-com, part drama about facing up to your responsibilities, and part informative presentation about tuna, and the ways in which it is farmed and looked after, Tuna Girl is about as light and disposable as they come, but has a certain unassuming charm to it that makes me glad I decided to give it a watch on Netflix. I may be the only one who does so, I can't see it ever being at the top of anyone's list, and I won't ever revisit it, but I don't feel that I wasted my time. I know, that's a hell of a ringing endorsement, right? "I watched this and didn't feel that I wasted my time" - Kevin "7/10" Matthews.

There's not much information available about this online, I'm not even sure of who wrote the screenplay. Mana Yasuda is the director, and he approaches the material with a basic, almost after-school special, approach to things. For all I know, this IS an after-school special. It has that feeling of lessons being learned, friction between individuals without anyone being singled out as one main baddie, and you get all of that bonus tuna info throughout. There's also a good point made about social media, how it can alter your image, how best to react to any major blow from something that feels very embarrassing, and how to stand up for yourself when it becomes clear that people are pretending to take an interest in you for the sake of their own agenda.

Koshiba is a lovely lead, she's all smiles and lightness for the most part, a demeanour that belies her commitment to the decisions she has made. Not that she is fully committed from the very beginning. Her acting unsure, and squeamish, during the opening third of the movie is the starting point of her journey, one that she begins with enthusiasm and naiveté, before being shown, slowly but surely, what she really needs to be doing, and why it is important and worthwhile. There are a few other supporting players, and they're fine, but the others that remain most important throughout are Hoshida as exactly the kind of Professor you would want, someone patient and able to remember that everyone starts their path through academia from different points, and Fujita, who does the moody and serious thing for most of the film, watching the development of our lead as she moves, slowly but surely, to the confident young woman who can be assured of doing her best by the institute.

Destined to be forgotten within a few weeks, at most, Tuna Girl at least gets a couple of bonus points for doing something a bit different. It's sweet, moderately amusing, and will probably be viewed by about a dozen people, at most.


Saturday, 25 January 2020

Shudder Saturday: Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Another hand-held horror means another divisive movie that fans should still seek out and make up their own minds about. This is a film I first watched over a decade ago, after having it recommended to me by many other horror movie fans, and it's one I was long overdue to revisit.

Imagine a cross between The Blair Witch Project and The Grudge and you're close to the overall content of this movie. It's another videotaped horror but this time most of it is edited together in readiness for a video doc that was never completed by a supernatural investigator (Masafumi Kobayashi, played by Jin Muraki) who disappeared.

I certainly had a feeling of dread while watching this movie (does anyone do dread better than our Asian friends?) but it's worth noting that the creepy moments, the genuinely creepy moments, are interspersed sparingly throughout the third act. That's not to say that you can't be scared by the rest of the film, it's just that the other details are deliberately layered in a way to build up to one hell of a finale.

The direction by Kôji Shiraishi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Naoyuki Yokota, is spot on. Shiraishi has a filmography well worth exploring, and his name will be familiar to fans of "J-horror", but this is most possibly his finest hour. Everything feels genuine throughout, helped by the performances. Muraki is convincing in his way with everyone he meets, adapting to how they are in his direct interactions, Satoru Jitsunashi is believably jittery and unnerved as an apparent psychic, Mitsuo Hori, and Marika Matsumoto does well in a role that has her playing a version of herself.

The only main downfall to the film is that I felt I was two or three steps ahead of the investigator when apparent "revelations" appeared throughout, therefore I can't recommend this as highly as something that uses the format in a similar way, but keeps things moving a bit quicker in a way that stops you having the time to think ahead ([*Rec] being the main example that springs to mind).

Having said that, it would be remiss of me not to highly recommend any film that goes on at length about ectoplasmic worms, contains at least two subtly spooky ghost moments, and managed to get me to put the lights back on for a while when the sun went down. It's not quite the flawless classic that some of the praise for it might lead you to believe, although it certainly comes closer than most films done in this style,

Noroi: The Curse is definitely one to make time for. It's a crime that we've never had a decent disc release for it here in the UK, because so many people have instead ended up watching it on . . . various other sites.


Friday, 24 January 2020

Japanuary: Dead Sushi (2012)

Directed by Noboru Iguchi, who also wrote the script with collaborative help from Makiko Iguchi and Jun Tsugita, I knew that Dead Sushi would be a bit of a risky viewing choice, coming from the man who gave us the "F Is For Fart" segment in The ABCs Of Death, as well as the somehow-more-awful Zombie Ass: The Toilet Of The Dead. But it sounded like fun, and I sometimes just want something fun. Iguchi has also delivered the likes of Tomie: Unlimited and The Machine Girl, so I had to remind myself that not every film he does is focused on backsides and flatulence.

Rina Takeda plays Keiko, the daughter of a famous sushi chef. Keiko doesn't seem to be able to reach his impeccably high standards, so she runs away and ends up working in a rural inn. While stumbling and panicking through her job, Keiko ends up in the middle of a crazy situation when the recent batch of guests are targeted by a vengeful man (Yamada, played by Kentarô Shimazu) who can transform their sushi into something sharp and deadly.

Although this is a fun film, first and foremost, just how much fun you will get from it will really depend on your tolerance for bad CGI and plot developments that get sillier. The first third is mildly amusing (there's even a fun Evil Dead II reference tucked in there), and the lead up to the first fishy kill is perfectly fine. But things just get worse from then on, and there is nothing else to help distract you from the negatives.

The script isn't that good, although there's always a chance that some things are lost in translation when watching something with English subtitles. It's at its best when juxtaposing the silliness with the very serious way sushi chefs take their craft. Unfortunately, the rest is fairly useless. Aside from Keiko, none of the main characters are given enough characterisation or worthwhile lines of dialogue to make them worth spending any time with.

Takeda is a good lead, and the saving grace of the movie. She does well to act seriously within situations that just keep getting more and more ridiculous, culminating in scenes that have zombies around her, flying fanged foodstuffs to be evaded, and nunchucks made from sushi. Nobody else works as well as she does, although nobody does a terrible job either. It's just a shame that Shimazu is the only other memorable character, and that's only due to him being the villain of the piece.

If you can handle crazy, if you can accept that some films revel in special effects that aren't that special or effective, and if you appreciate the fine art of making perfect sushi, you can maybe get some enjoyment out of this. Although I was left unimpressed, overall, there were moments here and there that helped to keep this relatively painless as I waited for it to get to the end (and it still feels a bit overlong, even with a runtime of just 92 minutes). It may be more fun with the right company, or the right amount of alcohol.


You can buy something fishy here (that's also the cheapest option for many other people, although it's a Region B disc).