Friday, 20 May 2022

The Bad Guys (2022)

If there is one problem I have with The Bad Guys it’s the fact that a film featuring Sam Rockwell as a smooth and conniving thief should also be available in live-action form. But here we are, and this animated comedy crime caper should do enough to entertain most viewers.

Rockwell is Wolf, the head honcho of a crew that also includes Snake (Marc Maron), Tarantula (Awkwafina), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos). Busted during a big robbery, this group of baddies is allowed to escape jail time if they opt to place themselves in the care of the benevolent Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade). The Professor wants to show that baddies can change their ways, but a lot of other people are very doubtful, including Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) and Police Chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein). There might also be someone looking to frame our main characters for one big job. Or maybe they will trip themselves up, especially as they took the Professor’s deal to simply avoid jail time while they planned their next big score.

Based on books by Aaron Blabey, The Bad Guys has a lot going for it. First of all is that voice cast, but I will get back to them in a moment. The script, written by Etan Cohen, with additional material from Yoni Brenner and Hilary Winston, is a great mix of cool and funny. Wolf is very much a charming gentleman thief, in the vein of Cary Grant or George Clooney, and he enjoys the thrill of each job, especially when it can lead to a long car chase. Each main character has an identifying prime trait, and many have a secret or two to be revealed by the finale. And if you have kids who don’t enjoy the energy or wit of the film, don’t worry, they will be amused by the upset tummy of Piranha leading to a couple of amusing fart gags.

Director Pierre Perifel has a nice body of work already, working as an animator on films such as the Kung Fu Panda movies and The Illusionist (to name just a couple of highlights). He certainly knows what he is doing. Every main sequence has just the right energy running through it, including a very enjoyable dance number, and there are lots of gags that make the most of the medium.

Let’s get back to that cast though. Rockwell has been a magnificent star for some years now and his voice is a perfect fit for the charming and fast-thinking lead. Maron, Awkwafina, Robinson, and Ramos all fit well with their characters, and they each make their scenes funnier in different ways. Ayoade, likewise, has a voice that fits his role perfectly, and both Beetz and Borstein are excellent as two authority figures who view Wolf and his gang very differently, the former hoping they can change their ways while the latter just really wants to lock them up.

Some people have commented on the little nods to Tarantino here and there, which is worth pointing out to film fans who may otherwise overlook this, but The Bad Guys is more interested in being an animal-centric riff on the “Ocean’s [Insert Number Here]” movies. And it completely works in that regard, with the stealthy thievery, action sequences, and gags all accompanied by a fantastic score from Daniel Pemberton (who has slowly become an absolute standout musical talent over the length of his career, and I hope we get plenty more from him).

Entertaining for all ages, especially if you can stay in touch with your inner child as easily as I can, this is recommended. It isn’t top-tier animated fare, but it is well put together and . . . well, it’s just a good bit of fun from start to finish. 

7/10

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Thursday, 19 May 2022

We're All Going To The World's Fair (2021)

The main thing to bear in mind when you start watching We’re All Going To The World’s Fair is that it may well not be the film you want it to be. That isn’t the fault of the film, especially when some people have been discussing it in horror genre terms. There are ways in which this could be viewed as an interesting, and experimental, horror movie, but there are so many other ways in which this isn’t a horror movie, at least not in the traditional sense.

Anna Cobb plays Casey, the lead character, a young woman who wants to join in with people who have been attempting to play a game entitled “We’re All Going To The World’s Fair”. The game seems to be a gateway to a world of creeping madness and unnerving horrors, but things start to change slowly and insidiously. Recording herself, attempting to show any transformation, Casey connects online with someone named JLB (Michael J Rogers), someone with knowledge of the game and a serious concern for her well-being.

Written and directed by Jane Schoenburn, it’s unsurprising to find that this film really homes in on subtle changes and a growing discomfort that the central character keeps trying to process. Showing herself to the world, via her computer, allows others to observe and comment, perhaps viewing her very different from how she views herself. Schoenburn is a trans woman, and she has impressively packaged the experience of confusion, determination, and transition into a thought-provoking work of art.

Having said that, unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan. Although it works in some ways, particularly when you mull it over after it is all over, I didn’t think that it worked, crucially, in the moment. Disjointed scenes are slammed together without any real narrative flow, and the more impressive moments of strangeness are offset by the moments that just deliver a few minutes of tedium.

Cobb is very good in the main role. She is the focus of  nearly every scene, even when she isn’t actually there, and she certainly has a great presence that helps the movie a lot, making it more bearable than it otherwise would be. Rogers has a much smaller role, and he does okay, but it is a shame that his character is left to tie up some loose ends as things wind down towards the very end.

I am not sure what I would have preferred here, whether it would be improved as a more straightforward drama or a more overt horror, but I think that We’re All Going To The World’s Fair really suffers from trying to be an unsatisfying blend of different film styles. Some people could have made this work, but Schoenburn cannot manage it. Moving forward though, I wouldn’t be averse to see her next film being a remake, reworking, or continuation of this material.

A lot of people really enjoyed this, and there is good stuff to unpack. It just didn’t work for me. It’s a love or hate kind of film that I didn’t love.

3/10

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Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Prime Time: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

I feel it is relevant to, once again, state my view on remakes. No film is untouchable. And a bad remake doesn’t actually do anything to supplant a great original in your mind. It doesn’t. But most movie fans agree that some decisions don’t make much sense, like deciding to try remaking a classic when there are so many lesser films that might benefit from others retelling the story. And The Day The Earth Stood Still is a classic. It is, alongside Forbidden Planet, one of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time. This remake . . . certainly isn’t.

An alien ship lands, presenting a figure who is welcomed to Earth by being fired upon by the military. Of course. While recuperating, the figure turns into someone who looks much more human than alien (Keanu Reeves), and he starts putting things in motion for the destruction of humanity. Because humans are the cause of so many problems on this planet. The military continues to try and stop him, while a few scientists try helping, and try to convince the visitor that there is still hope for humanity.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, who has at least half a dozen titles in his filmography I would rush to recommend ahead of this, The Day The Earth Stood Still is yet another example of a remake that feels as if it has been done all because we can now make more epic images of destruction thanks to the power of CGI. The film plods along, criminally dull in places, but manages to reserve space for scenes it assumes will impress viewers with the sheer size of the spectacle. That assumption is incorrect.

Reeves, as beloved as he is today (and maybe always has been), is horribly uncharismatic in the main role. It’s almost as if he was cast because he wanted to join any movie that would at some point attach wires to his head. Jennifer Connelly, playing the female lead, and main scientist helping Keanu, is okay, but the script mistreats her character, more so when she is whisked away from the main plot to become stuck in scenes that really should have been for the supporting cast only. Kathy Bates is good as a tough bureaucrat, Jon Hamm is just fine as another scientist trying to help, Kyle Chandler is a standard military officer underestimating things, Jaden Smith is a grumpy child, and John Cleese does well with his few minutes onscreen, putting forward the case for humanity.

It’s all leading to the CGI though, whether it is the new version of GORT, the spheres that have landed on our planet, or the wave of destruction that is triggered when the time is right. It doesn’t hold up too badly, but it’s just so overdone, in terms of there being too much of it in the big FX moments, and tiresome.

I don’t envy writer David Scarpa. Being asked to remake such a classic sci-fi film was surely a poisoned chalice, especially when this was only his second movie (after the solid, but low-key, The Last Castle). Maybe another writer could have done something better, but it was always going to be a big ask. 

The best thing I can say about this is that it seemed to be an atypical blip for the main players involved. Scarpa hasn’t done much, but his other scripts are much better than this. Derrickson has gone from strength to strength. And the cast have generally managed to keep the good far outweighing the bad. So let’s go back to forgetting that this exists and we can all rewatch the brilliant original film instead.

“Klaatu barada nikto!”

3/10

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Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Lost City (2022)

To use the simplest shorthand available, The Lost City is, in some ways, an updated version of Romancing The Stone. It has a few tweaks, with the main one being making a potential hero/rescuer someone who is often quite useless and out of his depth, but the basic premise is a romance novelist (Loretta Sage, played by Sandra Bullock) who is kidnapped by people looking for mythical treasure. An escape attempt leaves her stuck in the jungle, taking her on the kind of perilous adventure that she usually writes about in her novels. Alan (Channing Tatum) is the handsome man who may be able to save her from her predicament. The only problem is that Alan is completely ill-prepared for such an undertaking, having spent years as a model, notably portraying the heroic Dash on the cover of Loretta's work. Meanwhile, her agent (Beth, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph) is trying to locate her, without any help from authorities.

Although the balance isn’t quite right, and there are developments in the third act that feel a bit false (even within this fictional framework), The Lost City is easy entertainment that aims to please as many people as possible. That is both a strength and weakness. It’s a star vehicle for Bullock, who has proven how good she is at comedy on a number of occasions, but it also allows Tatum to remind people of how well he does in comedic roles.

Directors Aaron and Adam Nee may find themselves stuck once it comes to the finale, from a script that they worked on with Oren Uziel and Dana Fox, but the journey more than makes up for the disappointment of the destination. They do themselves the biggest favour by casting well, with the few supporting roles played well by Randolph, Patti Harrison, Oscar Nuñez, Daniel Radcliffe and a certified a-list star making a hilarious cameo.

Bullock is on great form here, playing someone jaded and tired. Starting the film being put into a purple-sequinned dress that she hates, the fact that she has to tolerate that same item of clothing for a large portion of the runtime serves as a reminder that she was unhappy even before the kidnapping. Now she is very unhappy, but arguably still most put out by still wearing that dress in an environment that makes it even more impractical. Tatum is doing dumb, and he does it brilliantly. Always happy to smoulder for any female fans, he soon shows that he is at least more sweet and considerate than you may think, and the film allows him to become less and less ridiculous as the adventure continues, which subsequently allows Tatum to round out his character a bit more. Randolph is a lot of fun, constantly in a state of great stress, Harrison is a fairly unhelpful assistant, and Nuñez helps to lift things slightly when his character appears just in time to help, and fall for, Randolph’s character. Then there’s the villain, a role that allows Radcliffe to pretend to be charming and composed as he becomes increasingly desperate, and dangerous, on the way to finding potential treasure.

A few set-pieces sprinkle just enough action through the film to remind you that this is a rom-com adventure movie, but most people should remain happy enough while Bullock and Tatum bicker, flounder, and generally distract one another while they really should be staying focused on the many dangers around them.

While everyone contributes to making this a glossy, wonderful, blockbuster production, I will also single out Pinar Toprak, who delivers a great score that manages to suit the material without feeling too derivative. 

In case I didn’t make myself clear, I really enjoyed this. Is it great? No. Nor is it very original. But it is consistently amusing and entertaining, and boosted by two stars who are perfect in their lead roles, and who also both work very well alongside one another.

7/10

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Monday, 16 May 2022

Mubi Monday: The Worst Person In The World (2021)

Having now seen a few films from director Joachim Trier (including the most excellent Thelma), it's easy to see why he already has such a sizeable fanbase. His films explore human nature in a way that is honest, dark, and also usually very witty. While The Worst Person In The World has some elements that don't quite work for me, it's generally another easy recommendation for fans of Trier's work.

Renate Reinsve plays Julie, a young woman who we see going through a number of relatively speedy changes in her life within the first main sequence of the film. She ends up in a relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), which leads to a scenario that will be sadly familiar to so many women . . . the questioning about when they're going to start a family. Julie then meets Elvind (Herbert Nordrum), someone she connects with at a party. There's no cheating, but there's definitely an instant connection and an inappropriate level of intimacy between the two. Things once again look set to change rapidly for Julie.

First of all, anyone expecting a dark comedy delivering us a character who really IS the worst person in the world will be sorely disappointed. This is a film about how people battle their way through life, and how they feel others will view them. Julie makes a number of decisions in her own best interests, but those decisions are open to dissection and criticism from others.

Trier, once again working with Eskil Vogt on the screenplay, simply allows events to unfold, keeping the viewers as close as possible to Julie in an attempt to show how her decisions are made, how we are all prone to chopping and changing our minds as we navigate these murky waters, and how nobody really ever knows what someone else is going through.

Reinsve is excellent in the lead role, just absolutely believable as an everyday woman dealing with the many small bits of bullshit that people (but mostly women, especially when it comes to the baby talk) deal with every day. Lie and Nordrum also do great work, playing the two main men in Julie’s life, the former an artist who creates “shock” comics, the latter a barista who is perhaps even less sure of his path through life than Julie.

There are one or two easy “set-pieces” that will be remembered long after the credits have rolled, but this is a film in which every scene makes a strong point. That point could be about the importance of not being dragged down by family members who no longer make any effort. It could be looking at how intimacy without physical contact can still be viewed as cheating on a loved one. It could even explore regret, and whether or not that overwhelming urge to move backward is a good thing for those who were once very much in love.

My minor criticisms come from the runtime and the structure, both of which I feel could have been trimmed and reworked better. There’s a middle section that sags a bit, and the chapter breaks feel very much like Trier was shying away from one or two other tricks he could have used.

Overall, however, this is pretty great. Everyone involved, both in front of the camera and behind it, deserves some praise, and everyone who appreciates world cinema should make this a high priority on their viewing schedule.

8/10

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Sunday, 15 May 2022

Netflix And Chill: Senior Year (2022)

I have been someone who, for a few years now, has gone against the majority opinion when it comes to Rebel Wilson. I actually think that she's good at what she does. Well, I used to think that. I am now, belatedly, coming to agree with the people who dislike her film appearances. Just a quick glance over her recent movie roles is enough to show that the bad far outweighs the good. And Senior Year is one of the bad ones.

In a standard ridiculous movie concept, Stephanie is a young woman who managed to turn herself from uncool nerd to super-popular cheerleader captain, with the boyfriend she always wanted and her life unfolding exactly the way she wanted it. That all changes when a cheerleading move leads to her being comatose for twenty years. When she finally wakes up, Stephanie (now played by Rebel Wilson) struggles to adjust. It was just moments ago that she was about to become Prom Queen. She still wants that. She wants her moment. But a lot of things have changed. Her friend, Martha (Mary Holland), is now the school principal. Another friend, Seth (Sam Richardson), works at the school. Both would like to help Stephanie adjust, but both find themselves disappointed and unsurprised when she starts to fall back into very bad habits, spurred on by social media and a desperate need to right the ship that sailed away without her twenty years ago.

Written by Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, and Brandon Scott Jones, the biggest problem with Senior Year is the fact that the central character is too thoroughly unpleasant. That's sometimes all well and good, especially when you expect a predictable bit of redemption and some lessons learned in the third act, but this is a film that doesn't really rectify anything that way. It tries to make it look that way, but it doesn't. So you have someone who has, for the most part, acted like an asshat to many people around her, and she avoids any punishment that feels proportionate to her actions.

Director Alex Hardcastle has a pretty easy job, keeping Wilson as the focus while things move from one scene utilising a pop hit and some nostalgia to the next scene . . . often utilising a pop hit and some nostalgia. The fact that it all ends with the kind of sing-and-dancealong moment usually shoehorned in at the end of an animated family flick maybe indicates how much he underestimates anyone choosing to view this. The problems may have come from the script, but Hardcastle just seeming to go along with everything really compounds them.

Wilson is Wilson. This isn't a good role for her, but she has moments where she gets to deliver her usual schtick, which can lead to an occasional chuckle. Thankfully, the supporting cast are much better, with Holland once again stealing the show (she was also great in Happiest Season) and Richardson very sweet and funny as the friend who has long held a candle for Stephanie. Zoë Chao is the high school nemesis who has grown up and starts off by pretending that the past is left in the past (spoiler - it's not), Justin Hartley is very funny as Blaine, her husband who was once dating Stephanie, and Chris Parnell plays a typically wonderful movie dad. Other good turns come from Avantika and Joshua Colley, students who befriend Stephanie when she rejoins high school, and Jade Bender, playing the daughter of the old high school nemesis who is manipulated by her mother into competing with someone she doesn't want to compete with.

I really disliked the first third of this, the middle section was a bit better, and I can't say that I completely hated the third act while everything was playing out. Thinking about it more though, as the terrible musical sequence was playing out, I started to resent giving it my time. I feel bad for contributing to whatever viewing figures are collected for these streaming releases, and I hope others don't make my mistake. Although it's not irredeemably awful, this is bad. I hope those who still managed to make the most of their roles are rewarded by some better movie options in their near future. And I hope that the director and writers seriously consider their approach to the medium before their next project.

4/10

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Saturday, 14 May 2022

Shudder Saturday: The Sadness (2021)

Okay, first of all, The Sadness may, for all intents and purposes, play out like a zombie movie, but it's not really a zombie movie. I don't really care, however, if anyone wants to label it as such. I'm still holding my position on that hill for 28 Days Later. But the characters who are "zombiefied" in The Sadness still seem to have will and intelligence, it's just that they are absolutely uninhibited by societal norms and morality, and their overriding urge is to indulge in every sadistic and depraved thought that they can imagine.

A stunning feature debut from writer-director Rob Jabbaz, and (as many others have already said) the closest we'll probably ever come to a filmed adaptation of Richard Laymond's One Rainy Night, The Sadness is a simple tale of two separated lovers (Jim, played by Berant Zhu, and Kat, played by Regina Lei) trying to survive and reunite with one another as the population around them becomes infected by a plague that spreads madness and death. Jim needs to avoid crowds of deadly strangers as he makes his way from one location to the next. Kat, on the other hand, finds herself targeted by a businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang) while she tries to help a wounded woman named Molly (Ying-Ru Chen).

From a very quick start to a very tense finale, this is a film that doesn't let up for a moment. Any peace that characters find is fragile, and viewers know it is likely to be shattered within minutes. The opening scenes show the madness infecting people almost instantly, leading to various assaults and acts of self-harm/suicide, a pattern of behaviour that becomes the norm for the ever-increasing horde of the infected.

Jabbaz doesn't dive deeply into the backstories of the lead characters. He's smart enough to just show that they are in a loving relationship, and being apart from one another during such a dangerous time means that their main aim is to get back together and find somewhere safe to stay. He's also smart to make one villain, The Businessman, stand out from the others, of course, in a little trick that is often used in zombie/infected movies. The fact that The Businessman is SO determined to get to his potential victims, and can occasionally take a moment to verbalise what he wants to do to them, is an easy way to keep things more focused and intense than they might have been if the film just showed Kat and Molly trying to avoid one crowd after another.

Zhu is good in his role, and viewers stick with him for approximately the first quarter of the movie, but it's Lei who excels in what turns out to be the lead role. Although blindsided by the turn of events, and not looking as if she may last long in such a situation, her character keeps her wits about her, constantly trying to get the right people to help while she calculates the odds of survival, and Lei handles herself very well in the role, even as she is being soaked by more and more sprayed blood. Chen is also very good, hampered by an eye injury early on, and she is able to strike a nice balance with her character by making her understandably upset and in pain without having her ever become an irritation. Wang, that determined and depraved businessman, is an excellent main baddie, emanating pure evil throughout. Even his first scene, before he is infected, show someone with a core that isn't exactly overflowing with goodness and positivity, and Wang, like everyone else, seems to enjoy himself more as things get wilder and wilder.

Full of amazing, and wince-inducing, special effects (Logan Sprangers is credited there) and make-up work (Azzurro Kuo) throughout, and with a couple of scenes that will test the stomachs of even the hardiest horror film fans, The Sadness is an entertaining and jaw-dropping cinematic orgy of violence. From the sound design to the sets, from the decisions about what is shown and what isn't, it's a near-perfect modern horror. I look forward to anything Jabbaz decides to do next, and I hope he has been inundated with a variety of offers since this was released.

9/10

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Friday, 13 May 2022

Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th (2000)

I am not going to say that Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th (a title that will be referred to from now on, if at all, as SIYKWIDLFT13) is any kind of classic, but I still think it is the better of the two main horror movie parodies that ended up being released in the year 2000. Give me this over Scary Movie any day. If both Anna Faris and Regina Hall could have ended up in this film then we would have had the best of both worlds.

The plot, as slight as it is, mixes Scream with  I Know What You Did Last Summer, with the main characters being drawn from both. There's a new kid, Dawson (Harley Cross), there's desperate-to-lose-his-virginity Boner (Danny Strong), there's the beauty queen type, Barbara (Julie Benz), a slab of beef named . . . Slab O'Beef (Simon Rex), and a potential final girl in the shape of Martina (Majandra Delfino). Once it becomes known that there's a killer on the loose, you also have reporter Hagitha Utslay (Tiffani Thiessen) on the scene, and a security guard named Doughy (Tom Arnold) keeps trying to do his bit to ensure nobody else dies on his watch. It has to be said, however, that he fails spectacularly.

There aren't many other projects written by either Sue Bailey or Joe Nelms, which isn't really any kind of great blow to cinema, but they do a decent job here. The gags are silly, they're obvious, and they're often downright juvenile, but the same can be said of numerous, more successful, parodies from this time. There's certainly nothing here that feels as bad as the kind of stuff we would all have to suffer from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and it's hard not to laugh as so many scenes are crammed with amusing lines, sight gags, and subtle details underpinning the more obvious material. Like the best movie parodies, although it's not quite on the same level, this rewards repeat viewings. There's more to take in than just whatever is happening front and centre.

Director John Blanchard, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a body of work that includes a lot of comedy sketch shows (SCTV, The Kids In The Hall, MadTV, The Martin Short Show, and quite a few more) and he conveys a constant sense of being eager to please viewers. While some of the gags that don’t work REALLY don’t work, the scattershot approach, another trait common to parodies, provides many more hits than misses. Even a third act selection of “Pop Ups”, now a relic from a bygone era of MTV, provides some solid laughs.

Arnold is pretty good in his role, and works well alongside Thiessen, who is also well-suited to her character. Rex and Benz both deliver some of the best overt comedy with their characters, while Cross and Delfino make for enjoyable enough “leads” (it’s very much an ensemble cast though, any one of the seven main characters could be considered a lead). The weakest of the bunch is Strong, stuck with a character who is defined only by his constant, and frustrating, horniness. There are some familiar faces in supporting roles, including Artie Lange, Kim Greist, Shirley Jones, and Coolio, and the only major mis-step comes from the occasional use of someone just thrown onscreen to reference a horror movie character (I’m looking at you, Chucky).

I am not going to try to convince anyone that this is a misunderstood masterpiece. There is plenty here that many viewers will find unfunny. The soundtrack has some misguided attempts to emulate generic songs from the teen slasher sub-genre. I cannot help still finding it funny though. I liked it when I first saw it, I like it just as much today. It IS better than Scary Movie, and I would be delighted if I started to find more people agreeing with me.

7/10

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Thursday, 12 May 2022

The House Of The Dead (1978)

The only theatrical feature film directed by Sharron Miller, who has since built up a body of work made up of TV shows (and at least one TV movie), The House Of The Dead is a horror anthology that suffers in comparison to other horror anthology movies, but it's actually far from the worst of them. 

John Ericson plays Talmudge, a man who we see leaving a lover to head home to his wife. There's a heavy rainstorm though, and that stops him from getting back to his hotel. He ends up receiving shelter from a mortician (Ivor Francis), who decides to show him some recent “clients” and relates the tales of their untimely ends. A grumpy teacher (Judith Novgrod) is terrorised. A prolific killer (Burr DeBenning) likes to film all of his exploits, which means the second tale displays footage seized from his home/lair. A pair of detectives (played by Charles Aidman and Bernard Fox) engage in a deadly battle of wits. Finally, a man named Cantwell (Richard Gates) ends up having his life completely changed once he falls into a lift shaft.

Writer David O’Malley (who also wrote both The Boogens and the wonderful Fatal Instinct) tries to deliver a number of tales that feel relatively fresh, especially when compared to many other anthology horror tales. Although not successful, in terms of the scares and entertainment factor, it’s interesting enough (once it gets the weakest first tale out of the way). A better cast would have helped, and a bit more inventiveness and energy from Miller’s direction.

Ericson and Francis are fine in their roles, going through the motions in a framing segment that is winding towards a predictable ending, but nobody else is really worth mentioning. Maybe DeBenning, who at least delivers a cold and unflinching portrayal of a psychopath who tries to put people at ease before going in for the kill, but will also do whatever it takes to get the job done once suspicions have been aroused. Novgrod is very forgettable, Aidman and Fox at least have a bit of fun sparring with one another, and Gates is stuck with a story that requires him to deliver a near-parodic interpretation of someone who finds that their position in society has just been radically changed.

So the cast isn’t the greatest, the material isn’t the strongest, and nothing here is unmissable, but I still think someone better at the helm could have made this into a film that is more fondly remembered today. Although it clocks in at just under the 80-minute mark, it feels slightly overlong. There isn’t one single moment that doesn’t look like it could have been lifted from something like Tales Of The Unexpected (a great TV show, but one that always absolutely felt like TV, as many shows did before television became more and more cinematic). Even one truly great scare or gore gag  would have helped, but there are none to be found here.

Yet I somehow liked this. O’Malley tries to bolt some modern sensibilities on to the format in a way that at least feels interesting and is trying not to be lazy. It’s just a shame that his writing couldn’t be lifted up by anyone else working on the film. 

6/10

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Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Prime Time: Terminal Rush (1996)

It may have taken me far longer than anyone would have expected, but I finally decided to take the plunge and check out a Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson action vehicle. Maybe not one of his best films, as I have now gathered from some other reviews written by those who have seen more of his work, but one of them nonetheless.

Wilson plays a cop named Jacob Harper, with a history that included a very successful spell in the army (of course), who ends up heading in to the Hoover Dam to fight against terrorists that have taken it over. Michael Anderson Jr. plays the main villain, Harrison Dekker, but the bigger treat is that his main henchman is played by ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper.

What this film wants to be, in case you hadn’t guessed already, is yet another riff on Die Hard. One man against a group of terrorists, a main plan that might actually be a distraction from another plan, and some family issues to be solved between the start and end of the movie (although it’s handled here in the most cursory manner). It’s no Die Hard though, and I would have to say that it doesn’t even do a very good job of being a lesser Die Hard wannabe, unlike half a dozen other titles I could mention that you would already be familiar with.

Part of the fault must lie with the director, Damian Lee, and writer, Mark Sevi. The script is weak, few of the characters stand out, and the choreography of the action isn’t that impressive. There is also no good sense of the location, with any geography being thrown out the window to focus on shots that try, and fail, to hide the low budget.

Another main fault is, unfortunately, the leading man. Wilson does okay when he gets to show off his considerable fighting prowess, but he’s not good when required to do some actual acting. You could say that about many action movie stars, and the main thing is really how they handle themselves in the fights, but Wilson is sadly worse than most, mainly due to him also lacking some much-needed charisma. Anderson Jr. and Piper do their bit to help, with Piper the absolute highlight (it’s impossible to not want more screentime for him once you see him take off his sunglasses to reveal black eye make up, like some kind of brilliant Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker gag), but there isn’t really anyone else worth mentioning, although one or two key characters do help to move the plot along.

It moves along at a decent enough pace, tries to keep odds stacked against our hero for most of the runtime, and is elevated every time Piper is front and centre, but I cannot recommend this one. If you are after some action fare that used to fill up the “straight to VHS” shelves then you could do much better than this. Even Wilson fans tend to agree that he has a number of other movies you should prioritise ahead of this one. Maybe I will even get to one of them soon enough. 

4/10

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Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (2022)

A sequel that, I’m just going to say it now, is actually better than the first film, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 manages to be a fantastic bit of fun for everyone. Maybe I was just in a slightly better mood when I saw it, maybe it was helped by not having the baggage of the first film, or maybe it just is a little bit better.

The plot is once again a fairly simple one. Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) wants to get back to Earth, and he wants to get revenge. Meeting the mighty Knuckles (voices by Idris Elba), Robotnik increases his chances of success, especially when they also locate a green emerald of great power. Meanwhile, Sonic (Ben Schwartz) is joined by Tails (Colleen O’Shaugnessey), who has arrived just in time to warn our blue, spiky, hero of impending danger, while Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie Wachowski (Tika Sumpter) try to enjoy their time at the wedding of Maddie’s sister, Rachel (Natasha Rothwell), and Randall (Shemar Moore).

When I first started to get interested in videogame consoles I ended up drawn to the world of Sega. My trusty Spectrum 48k had lasted me through many years, I could never master the moves for Street Fighter II or really show off on a Mario game, but when I started playing on a Sega Master System I soon began mastering Sonic The Hedgehog. Between that and Alex Kidd In Wonderland, I was finally starting to develop some gaming skills. From there it was on to the Megadrive, where Mortal Kombat drew me in further, and a trajectory that would lead me to the Sony PlayStation, with any incarnation of that console now being my favourite. What I am trying to say is that Sonic was my jam. For a number of years. The character design, the level design, the gameplay, it had everything I wanted from a platformer (although let’s also take a moment to remember the brilliant advert/game that was Cool Spot).

Maybe that is why I enjoy this sequel even more than the first movie. After everything being set up last time, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 will especially please those with fond memories of the videogame series. Elements are incorporated into the movie in ways that feel natural and organic, and nothing disappoints, from the name of a coffee shop “HQ” to the use of the golden rings, and even to the final form of the main villain.

Schwartz is still great as the voice of Sonic, and both Elba and O’Shaugnessey give vocal performances that are perfectly in line with their characters. Marsden and Sumpter are the reliable human friends again, of course,  although both are great at what they do, but it’s Rothwell and Moore who get to have more fun, particular when their wedding starts being interrupted. And then there’s Carrey, once again having a blast as the big baddie. He may not have the kind of standout moment that I had to highlight in the first film, but he delivers one great moment after another.

Jeff Fowler returns to the director’s chair, easily finding a sweet spot that evaded him for most of the first film, and Pat Casey and Josh Miller once again handle the writing duties, couching their exciting adventure in a couple of nice moral lessons, one about what it takes to be a hero and one about friendship and family.

Bright visuals, full of FX work that pops out of the screen without giving you a headache, a great score, also with one or two fun musical moments in there, and cute characters make this a real winner. It might be slightly overlong, and it is missing a truly memorable set-piece/moment, but I could have easily watched it again as soon as the end credits rolled. Because it reminds me of everything I loved about the games.

7/10

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Monday, 9 May 2022

Mubi Monday: The Souvenir: Part II (2021)

If you look around for just a few seconds then you will find numerous glowing reviews of The Souvenir: Part II, the filmic continuation to the semi-autobiographical film from Joanna Hogg, The Souvenir. This is not one of those glowing reviews. Frankly, the number of critics hailing this as a modern classic is baffling to me. But maybe this just isn't my thing, which I suspected after also not enjoying the first part as much as many others did.

Honor Swinton Byrne once again plays Julie, a young woman now trying to move on with her life after the death of someone she was in a relationship with. Julie decides to try and process her feelings on this matter through the graduation film that she still has to make, asking people to play out certain key moments in ways that may allow her some sense of catharsis. Characters discuss the mingling of art and fiction, everything feels very precious and pretentious, and it's a real slog to get to the end.

I don't believe for one second that anyone will care about my opinion on this film. And I'm absolutely positive that both writer-director Hogg and her leading lady have moved on to other projects already, other artistic endeavours worthy of their time. So this review, as negative and contrary to so many others, is really just for my benefit. It allows me a bit of space to vent. I didn't expect to like this, but I was certainly willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (as I do with every film). The fact that it squandered a great opportunity, with most of the more interesting points hidden behind a veil of navel-gazing and vague pontification, makes it even more frustrating than the first instalment.

Not that Hogg isn't entitled to craft her movie however she likes, of course, and I assume that this is the way she wanted everything to turn out. It's just that what feels like a personal form of therapy through film doesn't, in my view, resonate with many people who will end up watching it. Whether or not it is true, everyone onscreen feels annoyingly privileged, as well as being in the very earliest stages of any career that they want to have in film. That combination makes so much of what we see happening here just tiresome, at best, and massively out of touch with many viewers. This isn't cinema as an escape, it's not cinema as a filter through which to view reality, it's cinema as a nicely-dressed window. This is the filmic equivalent of a humblebrag social media post, and there's rarely anything of real value in a humblebrag social media post.

I like seeing Richard Ayoade, and his scenes are the absolute highlight of this, but nobody else makes a very good impression here, not even the might Tilda Swinton, acting in a couple of scenes with her daughter. As for "Swinton Jr.", I think it's worth waiting to see how she works with stronger material. She's ultimately just too passive here, a blank avatar. Despite being a representation of Hogg herself, the writer-director seems much less interested in her than in showing the fragmented and meandering process to actually get a film made.

I doubt this review will put off anyone who is already set on seeing the film, but it's here anyway, for better or worse. Maybe one day someone will accidentally stumble upon this and agree with me. I won't be holding my breath though.

3/10

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Sunday, 8 May 2022

Netflix And Chill: FeardotCom (2002)

A film from the early 2000s that is all about a criminal apparently making use of the internet to ensnare victims, Feardotcom couldn't date itself any more if it tried. It doesn't help that it is helmed by William Malone, an inconsistent director who also gave us the fantastic remake of House On Haunted Hill and the sheer lunacy of Parasomnia. Malone likes to deliver films that have moments full of quickly-edited disturbing, sometimes mind-bending, imagery, and this is no different. It's just not as good as anything else he's done.

The basic plot concerns a killer (played by Stephen Rea) who is may or may not be infecting people with the help of a very dangerous website. Stephen Dorff is Mike, a detective who wonders why this killer is using the same method that led to him previously being caught, and Natascha McElhone is Terry, an employee from the Department Of Health, involved in the case because the first one or two victims have show initial signs of a virus being the cause of their deaths. With it being revealed that every victim ended up visiting www.feardotcom.com before they died, both Mike and Terry make the absolutely logical and sane decision to, ummmmm, visit www.feardotcom.com, which leads to dangerous hallucinations and paranoia. Can they keep themselves focused enough to catch the killer? MAYBE it would have been easier if they hadn't logged into the fucking website that seems to have killed off everyone else who visited it.

I have nothing good to say about FeardotCom, and this review could have easily been one profanity-laden stream of consciousness. The performances aren't great (Dorff is okay, McElhone has often just been a bit dead-eyed in her performances, Rea is aiming for a career low, and Jeffrey Combs is sorely underused), the visuals are downright ugly throughout, and the plot is just as ridiculous as anything churned out most months by The Asylum. I'm not surprised that this was the last feature script from writer Josephine Coyle, even if she was "helped" by a couple of other people, but I am surprised that anyone had the sheer nerve to give Malone a "Masters Of Horror" episode just a few years after this. Parasomnia currently stands as his last feature, and maybe that is for the best.

I have struggled to think of one thing positive to say about this, to end on a moderately upbeat note, and I have come up short. Even the Udo Kier cameo is far too short, while other supporting players who get a bit more screentime aren't as memorable. I quite liked the small role for Amelia Curtis, and her character gets to have what may be the only decent scene in the whole film, so I guess that will be the silver lining to this huge cloud. Feardotcom = worth struggling through if you're a REALLY big fan of Amelia Curtis. Everyone else should avoid it like the website at the heart of the plot.

2/10

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Saturday, 7 May 2022

Shudder Saturday: The Twin (2022)

Teresa Palmer plays Rachel, a woman who is distraught after an accident that causes the death of one of her twin sons. Her husband, Anthony (Steven Cree), wants to help make things better, and so they end up moving to a new home for a fresh start. But it's not long until Rachel starts to freak out, worried that some supernatural force is after her surviving son, Elliot (Tristan Ruggeri). Is something spooky and evil happening, and do other people around her know all about it?

Directed by Taneli Mustonen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Aleksi Hyvärinen, The Twin is the kind of horror film so bad and predictable that it feels as if those who made it have absolutely no knowledge of the genre whatsoever. Mustonen and Hyvärinen previously gave us Lake Bodom, which also suffered from a mix of predictability and some bizarre decisions made by the film-makers, but this is a big step back from that. Where Lake Bodom was flawed, it was at least flawed in a way that felt as if those behind the camera were trying to do something different. The Twin feels very much like people trying to craft a collage of horror movie moments.

Palmer is actually quite good in the main role. She's someone I have always generally enjoyed onscreen, although maybe rarely someone I would think of as a first choice for any role, and here she has to be dour and on edge for almost the entire runtime, something that she manages well. She's a sad, broken, woman, although she is also asked to give a performance that is constantly set at 11. I also thought Ruggeri was decent enough, playing the child who may or may not be different from how they were pre-accident. Barbara Marten is a welcome addition, playing someone who thinks she may be able to help Rachel, and it's a great shame that her character ultimately serves no purpose. The weak link is Cree, playing the caring, but frustrated, husband in a way that is far too passive. He's almost just a bit of set dressing in many scenes, someone who appears just to make you think of how many other, better, actors could have been given his role. They might not have done any better, but they wouldn't have been any worse.

With one or two decent moments in the first hour, The Twin really takes a turn as it moves into the third act. You end up willing it not to go in a direction you suspect it is going in . . . and then it goes there. And it doesn't just go there, it goes there hard. Doubling down on a central plot point that is as ridiculous as it is obvious, it ultimately feels like a waste of everyone's time. I guarantee you that even the most horror-averse movie viewer will see where this is going from very early on, and any attempts to trick viewers feel contrived and dishonest. Nothing is earned here, and nothing much really has any actual consequence, when you think it all through. I'll give it points for looking decent enough, for Palmer, and for having some individual moments that would have been more appreciated in a better movie, but this is one to avoid. 

3/10

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Friday, 6 May 2022

Uncharted (2022)

I am not a massive gamer. I am too old and I was never that good at videogaming when I was a kid. But improved technology has delivered better and better videogame experiences over the years, including games that I have found absolutely hit the sweet spot for me. The Resident Evil series has always been an all-time favourite. I really like the more recent Tomb Raider games. Pinball, both real and in videogame form, has long been my jam (despite my enthusiasm being unmatched by my skill level). And the Uncharted games. With gameplay that mixes in some great puzzles, extended and intense action sequences, and often a hint of the supernatural, I can play and replay these games as long as the company keeps making them.

Other fans of the game may understand why I was hesitant to see the movie after the trailer dropped. Tom Holland, as much as I like him, seems very young for the role of our hero, Nathan Drake. The same goes for a Mark Wahlberg, playing mentor/friend/untrustworthy Sully. But I knew I had to give it a go sometime. So here we are.

The plot is fairly simple. Drake is hired by Sully to help him recover a legendary treasure. It can be found with the help of two ornate crosses. Unfortunately, the other cross is in the hands of Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali). And they are being pursued by Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), as well as a number of other people on the payroll of the determined Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas). What follows is an adventure full of brainteasers, booby-traps, and some impressive parkour. And a very cool set-piece lifted from one of the main games that has our hero struggling to get back to an airplane he has been rudely ejected from.

Directed by the fairly dependable Ruben Fleischer, who seems to have a knack for turning something very silly into something that is at least solidly entertaining, Uncharted is a bit better than I expected it to be. It still suffers from the casting, which is perhaps more down to my attachment to those videogame characters than anything else, but it moves nicely from one sequence to the next, building up the scale of the action until you get a finale that is as entertaining as it is ridiculous.

It’s unsurprising to see a number of different names credited with writing the screenplay, but Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway are the main ones I will mention, with the latter two having worked together, for better or worse, on a number of blockbusters released over the past decade or so.

Once you adjust to the fact that this is a younger, slightly inexperienced, Nathan Drake then it becomes easier to enjoy Tom Holland’s performance. He is a likeable presence, and has always managed to impress with his physical work onscreen. Wahlberg is Wahlberg in most of his movies, but he is also easier to enjoy as the film plays out, helped by some fun dialogue and a constant sense of weariness as things conspire to keep him from the treasure he knows is so close. Gabrielle is a badass, and an excellent one, and Ali is good as a someone who may be vital to finding the treasure, but may also be looking around constantly for a way to escape with a bigger reward. Banderas is as smooth and charming as ever, and Steven Waddington creates a few laughs as a villain with a Scottish accent that our hero finds impossible to understand.

All in all, this is good fun. The special effects are nicely done, with some big sequences being visually impressive without feeling overly busy, the score feels like a nice balance between movie music and something in line with the games, and there is one of the best fan-service cameos I have seen in a while. I could happily rewatch this, and I hope we get the sequel that is so obviously set up in the post-credits sequence.

7/10

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Thursday, 5 May 2022

Ambulance (2022)

Based on an 80-minute movie from over 15 years ago, Ambulance is Michael Bay once again being as Michael Bay as possible. And if you remember one thing by the time the end credits have rolled it will be just how much Michael Bay likes to use drones now.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Will Sharp, a young military veteran who is struggling to get the money required to get his wife the surgery she needs. He decides to visit his brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), and ask him for a big favour. It turns out that his timing couldn't be better/worse, as Danny is planning a large bank robbery that day and wants a man on the team he can fully trust. Danny has robbed many banks, and he doesn't like to hurt or kill people. Will reluctantly accepts the offer to get in on what could be a massive payday. Things don't go to plan, which leads to Danny and Will fleeing the law in an ambulance that still has a paramedic, Cam (Eiza González), inside, treating a wounded police officer.

Where Ambulance works best is in the relationship between Danny and Will, who may not be brothers in the strictest sense (Will was taken in by Danny's family when he was very young), but show, at every opportunity, that they absolutely consider themselves real brothers. There's also an interesting dynamic between the two when it comes to planning their endgame, with Danny constantly figuring out odds and options while Will just does whatever he can to keep others safe.

Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen II are both excellent in their roles. The former is a blend of charm and danger, the latter is a man who immediately regrets a mistake he made. Both feel like a good fit, and they have nice chemistry with one another. González does equally well, working out her own best way to survive the situation while trying to keep a patient alive. She quickly sizes up who is the better of the two men, and it’s nice to have a central female figure in this kind of movie that isn’t “potential love interest”. Garret Dillahunt is great fun as the main authority figure pursuing the fleeing robbers, Keir O’Donnell is also very good, an agent from a different bureau who has a history with one of the brothers, and Olivia Stambouliah delivers a constant line of dry humour as a tech whizz assisting the police operation.

It’s just a shame that this is ultimately hampered by Bay doing what he does. Some parts still work really well - the bank robbery itself is a great mix of escalating tension (in some ways) and violence, there are some shots that throw viewers into, and under, carnage in a way unlike any others I can think of - and there’s certainly a good sense of momentum once the leads end up in their getaway vehicle. Sadly, overediting spoils a number of stunts, the constant drone camerawork becomes tiresome, even when it is delivering some stunning shots, and, perhaps ironically, the film could stand to lose at least twenty minutes from the runtime (ironic because of the overediting negatively affecting other aspects of the movie). There are also one or two characters too many (the two worst of them being a criminal kingpin and a cop out for revenge) and a grand final plan that seems to make absolutely no sense at all. I am not sure how the original film plays out, and I am keen to see it one day, but writer Chris Fedak must take the blame for some of the mis-steps here, flaws that really weaken what should have been a strong third act.

Michael Bay has his fans, I am sometimes one of them, and this has enough onscreen that will generally keep them/me happy. It’s just a shame that the concept couldn’t have been placed in the hands of someone with a similar sense of scale and bombast who could also maintain a sense of fluidity throughout. This is a film designed to flow, a river that develops from a trickle of water and ends at a dangerous waterfall. Bay ensures that it is simply a series of ever-increasing puddles, satisfying to hop from one to the other, but without any real, natural, connections between them.

6/10

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Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Prime Time: Flight 7500 (2014)

Directed by Takahi Shimizu, the man who delivered so many great scares in the Ju-On: The Grudge movie series, as well as some other decent films, you could be forgiven for expecting good things from Flight 7500. Those expectations should be drastically lowered when you notice that this is written by Craig Rosenberg, a writer who also delivered The Uninvited (a middling remake of a classic) and The Quiet Ones (which is just terrible). Expectations should then nosedive when you realise that this is based on/inspired by a true story.

A varied bunch of passengers get on a plane, all seated and looked after by Laura Baxter (Leslie Bibb) and Suzy Lee (Jamie Chung). You have a pair of newlyweds, Rick (Jerry Ferrara) and Liz (Nicky Whelan), a moody goth (Scout Taylor-Compton), and Brad (Ryan Kwanten) and Pia (Amy Smart), a couple who have recently broken up, but don't want to ruin a non-refundable holiday for their friends by letting them know. There are others on board, some of them getting a story arc, many of them not, but it's this core group that becomes the focus of the movie.

I hope people don't misunderstand me here when I say that this is genuinely awful. While it is technically decent enough, in terms of the sound work and some general cinematography, it's almost constantly getting enough wrong to ruin any potential scares and/or atmosphere. The geography of the plane, the positioning of characters compared to one another, the confused looks from people as sounds or movements occur just off-camera, it's all very poor. And for a film set on a plane, it rarely feels as if it is actually set on a plane (I am talking about the background noise and little movements that you normally see in plane-set movies, replicating the real experience, they're missing here).

That might not be so bad if the cast was stellar. This is not a stellar cast, and they're sorely mistreated by Rosenberg's weak script. I tend to like Kwanten, but he's rarely managed to get himself movie roles that work well for him (a notable exception being the excellent Red Hill). I tend to dislike Smart, and have rarely seen her in a role that another actress couldn't have done better with, but it's not her fault that this movie decides to give her a few lines of dialogue and then largely act as if she's a background character. Bibb and Chung are treated slightly better, and Whelan is made so smug and lacking in self-awareness that she 's amusing enough, but those are the only people who have some trait that makes them remotely memorable. Even Taylor-Compton, doing standard goth girl schtick, suffers from writing that confuses hair and make-up with actual characterisation.

The ending, which at least comes along soon enough (the runtime is only 80 minutes, approximately), is obviously part of the movie that some felt would make the whole journey worthwhile. It doesn't, and those familiar with the real-life event this is based on may find that it leaves an unpleasant taste. It doesn't justify anything that viewers have just sat through, and it easily ranks as one of the worst horror films from Shimizu, who has so many other greats you can choose from.

2/10

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Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Moonfall (2022)

Despite strong competition from a couple of other blockbusters from the past decade or so, including at least one other film also from director Roland Emmerich, Moonfall is the dumbest mainstream release you will see this year, and perhaps even the dumbest mainstream movie you will ever see. It is so dumb that it at least makes it easier to forget about following the plot and just concentrate on the spectacle of the whole thing. In fact, I think it might be dangerous to try keeping your brain fully switched on while watching this.

Basically, in the way of almost all Emmerich movies, something happens at the start that teases the mass devastation due to come along later in the movie. The very basic premise is, as the title tells you, the moon changing orbit. Earth has about three weeks to figure out a solution. The only hope for humanity lies with Jocinda Fowler (a top bod at NASA, played by Halle Berry), Brian Harper (a disgraced ex-astronaut, played by Patrick Wilson), and KC Houseman (an amateur . . . skywatcher, a label I will use to avoid spoilers, played by John Bradley). Meanwhile, tsunamis start destroying major cities, gravity is changing, and people seem remarkably unconcerned about the threat of super-werewolves.

Co-written by Emmerich, Harald Kloser, and Spenser Cohen, here is a film that almost gets things so right, but ultimately ruins the third act with an overdose of CGI madness that makes it genuinely hard to see, or even know, what is going on. The fun ideas set up in the opening act become less fun as things met become more relentless. And there are only so many times you can look at a supermoon in the sky before it becomes worthy of little more than a shrug (once, one time is all you need).

Emmerich can direct this kind of stuff in his sleep, but he seems to get very easily distracted by the toys at his disposal. He is a man who doesn’t believe in “less is more”. More is more, and more on top of that, and even more. It’s tiring, especially by the time you get to a final act that manages to be overlong and surprisingly unsatisfying.

The cast do what is asked of them, and their performances are in line with the material. Berry comes out of it best, having to be the level-headed lead of the mission, and Wilson tries hard, despite being weighed down by the many clichés that he’s given (washed up, no money, a beer in the morning, a son he hasn’t always been as close to). Bradley is a mixture of comic relief and Mr. Exposition, he does well enough in his role, but his character is an odd one to turn into a hero, for obvious reasons. Charlie Plummer plays the son of Wilson’s character, Michael Peña is the stepfather you suspect may end up moonstruck to pave the way for a reconnection between Wilson and Carolina Bartczak (as his ex-wife), and Wenwen Yu is absolutely wasted in a role that feels horribly undefined.

If you need something that will provide spectacle without taxing your brain then this might just fit the bill. Personally, I would recommend (re)watching past glories, pick from either the fantastic The Day After Tomorrow or the silliness of 2012. Pick Independence Day (not exactly the same kind of movie, but the template is similar enough). This isn’t as good as any of those. But it still isn’t as bad as Geostorm.

5/10

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Monday, 2 May 2022

Mubi Monday: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014)

Written by the Zellner brothers (David and Nathan, with the former also taking on directorial duties and a small role in the film), Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a film that uses the fact/fiction-blurring of Fargo as inspiration for a beautiful little character study.

Rinko Kikuchi plays the titular Kumiko, a woman who one day finds a VHS copy of Fargo in a cave. Intrigued by that opening title card, the one that the Coen brothers used to cheekily label their darkly comedic crime caper as a true story, Kumiko starts to think that she is destined to find that briefcase of cash that film fans last saw being covered over by snow. Trying to pinpoint the location of that treasure has to be a better alternative to her life as it is, which involves her working for a boss she doesn't like, who in turn doesn't like her, and being berated by her mother for not finding a suitable man to marry yet. Kumiko is 29, which means she should already be settled into domestic bliss, apparently.

The Zellner brothers seem to have a knack for crafting enjoyably unique films, and it looks like they have been doing a good job of it for many years. I wish I could say that I'd seen more of their work, but I've so far only managed to check out the film they made before this, Kid-Thing (which I highly recommend). More of their films have been on my "to watch" list for some time though. Time waits for nobody, especially when you have to push stuff aside to get through every entry in the Lake Placid series.

On the one hand, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a film all about a lonely and desperate woman who thinks she has stumbled on to a way to create her own happy ending. On the other hand, it's all about the escape provided by art. That escape is something that many of us take for granted, and perhaps even forget about, even while we ourselves are being offered that window of time away from our own thoughts and problems, but it's a lifeline for many others. A great film can act as a precious memory, available to loop again and again to create your own little piece of paradise. A book is a doorway to another world. A painting can show you vibrancy and beauty that you'd forgotten even existed in the world, as well as offering a multitude of interpretations available to every different person who views it. The fact that Kumiko mistakes the events of Fargo for a literal truth is a problem, but it's also ultimately a way for her to motivate herself to get away from an environment that hasn't given her one ounce of joy in many years. 

Other people help to fill out the cast, including David Zellner himself, but this film is carried along by Kikuchi, and what a strong, captivating, lead she is. Timid, confused, frustrated, at times sweet and impish, Kumiko is a character that you end up fully supporting in her quest, as futile as we know it is. There can't be any happy ending here, no satisfying resolution, and Kumiko could put herself in serious, even fatal, danger while chasing her delusion. But Kikuchi has an earnestness that has you hoping for something impossible to happen, and it helps that she conveys the absolute (misplaced) conviction of her character in every scene that has her focused on the treasure hunt. 

A wonderful, moving, film that plays out, partially, as a love letter to Fargo, and makes use of it as the central plot point without ever making it all seem laughable, Kumiko, Treasure Hunter should easily become a firm favourite for anyone who sees it. It's almost perfect, and it is perhaps ironic that the minor points that work against it are the moments in which reality refuses to be kept at bay, pushing and prodding at Kumiko until she gathers enough strength to swat it away again.

9/10

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Sunday, 1 May 2022

Netflix And Chill: Triple Threat (2019)

Sometimes you want to settle down to the sit and brilliance of the Coen brothers. Sometimes you want to dive back into a comforting horror favourite. Sometimes you have some laughs with Buster Keaton. Cinema is there for you, whatever you want to do. Even if you want to spend over half of your waking day with someone like Lav Diaz or Béla Tarr. And sometimes you just want to watch skilled people kick each other in the face. If you're in the mood for the latter, Triple Threat is an option for you.

Directed by Jesse V. Johnson (who has helmed a number of enjoyable action flicks, one of the best being Accident Man), this is the tale of some people with big guns raiding a prisoner encampment in Thailand to free prisoners. The mission is a cover, however, and the people actually want to free their criminal leader, Collins (Scott Adkins). Once free, his group are then out to kill Tian Xiao Xian (Celina Jade), a wealthy woman who wants to use her wealth to battle corruption and crime. One thing leads to another, enemies become allies, people are used as bait, and the film eventually becomes a battle between one team (Adkins, Michael Jai White, Michael Bisping, and Jeeja Yanin) and another (Xiao Xian, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, and Tiger Chen).

Based on an idea by Chen, developing a movie that didn't come to fruition, this was then written by Joey O'Bryan, with Fangjin Song, Jian Huang, Sheldon Pang, and Lei Yan all credited as co-writers, as well as some additional work from Paul Staheli, it's amazing to think a) that so many people worked on the script for this, and b) this was the best they could come up with. Because this is a mess in places, with the first half moving between flashbacks and different moments that have no feeling of just how much time has passed. What could have been a decent framework, with the opening salvo, betrayals, and seemingly fluid loyalties, is instead turned into something that feels burdensome to a film that should have stripped everything else back in favour of making the most of the action stars in the cast.

Thankfully, the action/fight scenes are worth your time. Jaa, Chen, and Uwais may be relative superstars to those who want full-on fights that look as if they were put together with blood, sweat, and tears, but Adkins and White are no layabouts, and both of them are easy favourites of mine when it comes to modern action movies of this ilk (both having great presence AND the appearance of being able to handle themselves against crowds of unwitting henchmen). Bisping and Yanin are the lesser-known names, but both do well, and Jade is perfectly okay as the woman who finds herself in the middle of an absolute maelstrom of gunfire and hand to hand combat.

The cast list alone will be enough to attract anyone hankering for some enjoyable action that goes a step or two beyond what you would see in most glossy blockbusters, and there's enough here to justify choosing this for a weekend watch. It's just a shame that the non-fight scenes are so bad. That's something you can say about many action movies, and it's something that action movie fans are happy to put up with while they are at least getting GREAT fights, but I still think that this particular assembled cast could have been better served by a script that figured out how to pack in even more stuntwork within a much flimsier connective storyline.

Good stuff, but feel free to ask anyone (including myself) for better films that feature any of these stars doing what they do best. I guarantee you that asking the right people will get you at least 20 recommendations of films much better than this. At least.

6/10

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Saturday, 30 April 2022

Shudder Saturday: Jamie Marks Is Dead (2014)

We come, once again, to a film that is very good, and very well made, but perhaps not what people may be looking for if they're scheduling some standard horror genre fare. Although Jamie Marks Is Dead is very much, as it says, about Jamie Marks no longer being a sane pick for the dodgeball team, it's a teen drama that has more in common with the likes of River's Edge (I STILL need to see that film, but the imagery here certainly brings it to mind) and Submarine than it does with any full-blooded horrors. There are ghosts here, yes, but they're barely any more ethereal than teenagers who hide away from their peers as they deal with their problems.

The story begins with some snapshots of teen life. Sort of. It all really begins with the discovery of the corpse of Jamie Marks (Noah Silver), a young man who seems to have spent most of his high school years being an outcast and a victim of bullies. A shared fascination with the death brings Gracie (Morgan Saylor) and Adam (Cameron Monaghan) closer together, which allows them to stay distracted from their own problems. Adam, in particular, is struggling with the fact that his mother (Liv Tyler) was paralysed in an accident caused by a woman (Lucy, played by Judy Greer) that she is now friends with. Things get more intense when both Gracie and Adam start seeing, and talking to, the ghost of Jamie, which gives them hope that they can find out exactly what, or who, caused his death.

Based on a novel, "One For Sorrow", by Christopher Barzak, Jame Marks Is Dead is one of those films that is easy to see struggling to find a target demographic. The issues explored are relevant to teenagers everywhere, but the presentation is more serious, and surprisingly grounded, than teen viewers may want. Older viewers, such as myself, can still identify with the things being worked through, but writer-director Carter Smith, who previously delivered solid horror for fans with the excellent plant-based nastiness of The Ruins, seems unwilling to believe that people will be drawn in by the drama alone. He adds an occasional scare here or there, which may stem from the source material, when things may have worked better with more time spent straying away from the horror elements.

Monaghan and Saylor are both very good in their roles, playing up their sensitivity and empathy without making it all seem too much like an assumed affectation. They work well together, but also separately, and Monaghan gets some excellent scenes in which he can direct his frustration and anger at Tyler and Greer, who both do well in supporting roles. Silver is slightly hampered by the fact that he has to spend a lot of his screentime looking miserable and lonely, for obvious reasons, but he gives a good performance, and the film is at its best in the few moments that have all three of the main characters shifting the dynamic between them. Madisen Beaty is also very good, playing another spirit named Frances Wilkinson who has her own, volatile, way of reacting to living souls around her.

There's nothing really wrong with this, in terms of the performances, the technical side of things, and the visual style. It's a good story, and it's generally presented well. It's just disappointing that nobody, whether that's Barzak or Smith, or both, was unable to nail down something more fitting and consistent when it came to the overall tone.

I tentatively recommend Jamie Marks Is Dead, but I don't know who I recommend it to.

6/10

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