Thursday, 2 February 2023

Fresh (2022)

If I was single and ready to mingle, and if I were so inclined, then I could see myself easily falling for the charm of Sebastian Stan. He seems sharp and witty, and he has the major bonus of looking like Sebastian Stan. So Fresh doesn't seem to require any major suspension of disbelief when viewers get to see Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman jaded by the modern dating scene, fall for the charm of Steve (played by Stan). Things start to move quite quickly, and it's not long until Noa is heading off for a weekend break with Steve. They'll be in the middle of nowhere. No phone signal. No other people to be bothered by. And no easy way to head home if Steve turns out to be quite different from how he presents himself. And here's something you may not have seen coming . . . Steve turns out to be quite different from how he presents himself.

Most people already know what Fresh is about, but I'm going to keep things as vague as possible here, if only for the people who may be completely surprised by how the film plays out. Let me just say that Fresh quickly turns into a film that is very different from the opening scenes, yet it also stays focused on the same issues at the dark heart of the story. There's tension, there are moments that feel quite horrific, and there is a lot of black comedy running through it, but the most impressive aspect of the movie is the way it remains so identifiable for anyone who has even dipped one toe into the murky and dangerous waters of the modern dating experience.

Director Mimi Cave, making her feature debut after almost a decade of work in short film/music video formats, knows exactly what tone she wants throughout, working well with a smart script from Lauryn Kahn (her second feature), and she knows what to show onscreen and what to imply. The plot doesn't stand up under any decent amount of scrutiny, but Cave and Kahn keep things well-paced and entertaining enough throughout to distract anyone from overthinking the whole thing.

The likeable leads also help, of course. Stan makes use of every ounce of his innate appeal to keep his character eminently watchable, even when his behaviour becomes worse and worse. Edgar-Jones provides a good balance to Stan, countering his upbeat and carefree demeanour with her cynicism and determination to outwit a man she realises seemed too good to be true because he was too good to be true.  Jojo T. Gibbs is a real treat, playing Mollie, the BFF of Noa, and someone who ends up doing some investigating into the life of her new man. Daya Okeniyi is also very good, his character dragged into a situation by Mollie that he soon realises he's not really wanting to be involved in. Andrea Bang and Charlotte Le Bon are two women who are connected to Steve in very different ways, and both do very well in their relatively small roles.

I can see many people being put off by the main turn that this film takes, it certainly takes things down a surprisingly dark and twisted path, but anyone sticking with it will be rewarded with some sly comedy that offsets a lot of the horror with constant reminders that the real horror, the horror we are all more likely to experience ourselves, comes from the experience of women trying to find someone worth spending time with in a world full of misogyny, internal debates about standards and compromises, and random dick pics. 

8/10

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Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Prime Time: Shotgun Wedding (2022)

A destination wedding can be a stressful affair. It is just like any other expensive wedding, but usually even MORE expensive. You have to work even harder on curating your guest list. You want everyone getting along while they stay in the one location. You have a lot of work to do in order to enjoy the big day. The last thing you would want is for everyone to be upset by armed pirates. Unfortunately, that is what happens at the wedding of Darcy (Jennifer Lopez) and Tom (Josh Duhamel).

Yep, Shotgun Wedding is a mix of rom-com and action that stars some attractive people in a sun-bathed location. It’s ridiculous fluff, and it’s easygoing entertainment if you are in the mood for something slick and predictable.

I am quite happy to watch anything directed by Jason Moore (who also did Pitch Perfect and Sisters, two comedies I really enjoyed) and this continues his streak of mainstream comedies that manage to deliver a good time without trying too hard to break or subvert any kind of formula. Formulaic entertainment isn’t necessarily bad, not when you have a decent selection of people behind and in front of the camera. Okay, the script is by Mark Hammer, and I don’t think anyone is rushing to see the next film from the writer of Two Night Stand, but this is a marked step up from that film, perhaps due as much to the canny casting as the script.

Lopez and Duhamel pair up nicely here, despite the fact that I have never seen Duhamel in a role that I didn’t think could be improved by replacing him with Johnny Knoxville (this film included). They bicker with one another well, enjoy moments of sweetness in between bursts of chaos, and both keep looking ridiculously attractive, even after spending a lot of time fighting to stay alive. Jennifer Coolidge tries to steal a number of scenes with her supporting role, playing the mother of Duhamel’s character, and there’s fun to be had with Cheech Marin, Sonia Braga, Lenny Kravitz (playing a hilariously “perfect” ex-boyfriend), Steve Coulter, D’Arcy Carden, and Callie Hernandez, as well as one or two others.

Impressively, everyone gets time to make an impression without the runtime becoming bloated (this clocks in at 100 minutes, and that feels only slightly too long), the balance of the comedy and the threat to lives is well-maintained, and, rightly or wrongly, you get the feeling that those making the movie were all having fun, whether in the midst of the action or spending most of their day standing in a swimming pool (where the guests are held hostage for the majority of the film).

I am not going to rush to rewatch Shotgun Wedding, I would never need to own it, nor will it be one I am likely to recommend to people after it has vacated my memory in a few weeks. But I won’t pretend that I disliked it. It did make me laugh, it was comfortingly simple, and I would happily watch an unnecessary sequel entitled, I dunno, Shotgun Honeymoon. This was a star vehicle that managed to get a lot of things right, and that is worth a bit of praise, because we can all name a LOT of star vehicles that get plenty wrong.

7/10

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Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Cursed AKA Eight For Silver (2021)

The main thing that you may have heard about The Cursed already is that most people preferred the other title for it, Eight For Silver. I actually don’t mind either title, both are equally vague until you see what the film is about. And the film has bigger problems than the title and marketing.

I don’t want to spoil anything about this, you can find details elsewhere if you want to know more, but The Cursed is an attempt to do something a bit more interesting and fresh with a horror archetype. You have a central family in peril, you have a newcomer to town who is armed with guns and vital knowledge, and you have characters on a journey of discovery and growth on the way to a standard final confrontation between forces of good and evil (sort of).

Written and directed by Sean Ellis, who has a small and eclectic filmography I would recommend checking out (I will keep recommending The Broken as something well worth your time), The Cursed is a handsome film that gains some goodwill for the approach it takes to the material. Everything is played straight, there are no sly winks to viewers or attempts to slip some modernity into the period setting, and it generally keeps viewers one step ahead of the main characters. Trying to make this a mystery just wouldn’t have worked, although the film is bookended by a cinematic puzzle and solution (which is, sadly, a big mid-step, considering how it feels anti-climactic).

The cast are all perfectly fine, I suppose, but they are saddled with having to play characters who aren’t really developed enough to make them memorable. I know to mention Boyd Holbrook here (the newcomer to town) because I know Boyd Holbrook, the same goes for both Kelly Reilly and Alistair Petrie. Everyone else, whether adult or child (and it is children who are the main targets of the unfolding horror), feels almost completely interchangeable. They are all potential victims, although some are related to the central adults and some are not.

While Ellis does well with the presentation of his ideas, and while he deserves praise for doing something that nicely blends traditional elements with one or two unique details, The Cursed ends up ultimately failing to be as good as it could be. It just needs a little bit more in the mix, whether that is a little bit more bloodshed, a little bit more work on the character development, or a little bit more complexity to the plot, giving viewers more to care and think about during the quieter moments.

I am sure that some people will like this much more than I did, and I remain happy that Ellis is still helming movies that aren’t as easily pigeon-holed as many, but this won’t be something I rush to revisit. I don’t regret watching it. I just wish the script had been given at least one more pass, and maybe the casting could have been a bit better.

6/10

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Monday, 30 January 2023

Mubi Monday: Shopping (1994)

The feature film debut from writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson, Shopping is an energetic slice of nihilism that places a number of pre-stardom UK names in a plot that often feels lifted from the Grand Theft Auto videogame series.

Jude Law plays Billy, a car thief who enjoys crashing into stores, looting some goods, and escaping with a number of keepsakes. He also enjoys picking a speedy car and teasing cops into a road chase he knows he will win. Sadie Frost is Jo, the woman who often feels like Mallory to Billy’s Mickey (albeit in a much less psychotic and murderous way). Having recently been released from a short stint in prison, you might think that Billy would be wanting to keep a low profile for a while, but that isn’t the case. Billy wants to continue on his many “shopping” trips, much to the chagrin of Tommy (Sean Pertwee), a man who finds his criminal business empire shaken up whenever Billy brings too much heat down on the local area.

There’s enough to enjoy here, despite the fact that the script isn’t strong enough to bring everything together in a truly satisfying way. Fair play to Anderson for refusing to make a British film that feels like a hundred other British films, and fair play to the person responsible for the casting, but there’s not much actual character development, and the dialogue is usually laughable and cheesy.

Law and Frost don’t work as well in the lead roles either, despite both being relatively good actors in other movies. Law feels okay when being cocky and confident, but doesn’t convince as much when having to mope around and convey the hurt and anger that helped to make him what he is. Frost tries too hard to be cool and tough, hindered by both the script and her attempt at what I think was supposed to be an Irish accent. Pertwee is excellent though, fitting well in his role. Jonathan Pryce is also very good as an authority figure keeping tabs on Law’s character, and there are small turns from Sean Bean, Eamonn Walker, and Ralph Ineson, among others. Marianne Faithful gets a notable position in the credits, but it’s nothing more than a brief cameo.

Whatever you may think of Anderson’s filmography, it’s easy to see why this worked well as a springboard to a career in the USA. He creates an intriguing, almost noir-like, version of modern Britain, tries to present some decent action, and has an impressive soundtrack to accompany the slick/grime visuals.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an essential watch, but there are worse things you could spend some time on. While Shopping may not hold up as any kind of modern classic, it feels like an important film for many of the people involved, both behind and in front of the camera. And it’s always nice to be reminded of film-makers who choose to make a bold statement, whether successful or not. This film is many things, but I think it certainly classifies as a bold statement.

6/10

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

Netflix And Chill: You People (2023)

An updated version of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with some additional commentary on cultural appropriation and white privilege, You People is the kind of film you will know you should love or hate based on the trailer alone. I thought it looked fun, I watched the film, and I had fun with it.

Jonah Hill plays Ezra, a Jewish man who is working in a financial role that he doesn’t really enjoy. What really makes him happy is a podcast he co-hosts with his best friend, a woman named Mo (Sam Jay), all about the commonalities and differences between white and black culture. Ezra also really enjoys an encounter with Amira (Lauren London), a beautiful black woman, that leads to a serious relationship, but that emphasises the differences between them more than any chat on a podcast could. Ezra gets a hard time from Amira's parents, played by Eddie Murphy and Nia Long, while Amira finds herself made uncomfortable and unhappy by the oblivious stereotyping and insensitivity of Ezra's parents, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny.

Directed by Kenya Barris, who has written numerous features and directed some TV show episodes before this, You People is a fun mix of Meet The Parents and that classic movie I mentioned in the first sentence. It's not as good as Meet The Parents, which puts everything in place and escalates the comedy in a much better way, but it's certainly a lot better than Guess Who (the remake/update of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner that tried to mine the topic for laughs without giving enough time to the more serious side of the situation). The biggest problem seems to be that the script was co-written by Barris and Hill, with the latter feeling like some idealised version of a white ally who knows enough of the music and fashion, and can play basketball well enough, to be viewed as safe and cool when compared to other "tourists". Maybe that side of things came from Barris, but it doesn't feel that way.

Am I saying that it hits a number of surprisingly similar beats to the much-maligned Soul Man? I might be. People will perhaps tell me off for that, but when you think of a few key scenes, they're either an inversion or recreation of moments from that movie. But I guess it's okay, because Barris is at the helm, and a number of transitions are given a funky, graffiti, style. And we get shown a lot of cool footwear. Seriously, WHAT is going on with the focus on the footwear here? Our two leads are defined by their footwear, they're used to show the passage of time in a relationship, and sneakers even tie in to the grand finale. Maybe finding true love is just meeting someone else who loves the same Nikes as you do and being brave enough to ask "shall we just do it?"

Hill and London are good in the lead roles, with the latter doing the important job of lighting up the screen and showing herself as a beautiful and strong young woman who has chosen someone that makes her happy. Despite the strand that allows him to be an ideal cool guy, Hill is a lot of fun when cringing at events unfolding around him, usually caused by one set of parents or another. That's where you get the real treats though. Long doesn't get as much to do, but Murphy enjoys another great role in what might yet be another resurgence in his lengthy film career. He's a stern figure for almost every minute, and enjoys trying to prove that Ezra isn't the right man for his daughter. Duchovny is hilarious with the way his character is always grasping for cultural references to use and rapper names to drop into conversation, but it's Louis-Dreyfus who gets more of the laughs, being the kind of person who doesn't realise how inappropriate they are being when trying to overcompensate for their ignorance of black culture. Both of the characters played by Louis-Dreyfus and Duchovny seem unable to view Amira as a strong and gorgeous woman without viewing her through an additional filter because of her skin colour. Jay is an extra shot of energy in her scenes, and there are a few effective bits of scene-stealing from Molly Gordon, in the role of Ezra's sister (a young lesbian who is already very used to their parents making them cringe).

You People is most interesting when showing people unaware of their own behavioural changes, or when Ezra is made to think more about his ability to comment on cultural aspects that he may never be fully immersed in. There are a good selection of laugh throughout, a number of decent soundtrack choices, and the runtime just manages to avoid feeling overlong, despite coming in at just under the two hour mark. It's a well-made comedy that allows some performers to remind you of why they have had such enduring careers. And I look forward to seeing more from London, who has had a decent film career already, but hopefully gets some more central parts after being such a star in this.

7/10

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Saturday, 28 January 2023

Shudder Saturday: The Lair (2022)

Some people, SOME, have been saying that The Lair is a return to form for writer-director Neil Marshall. They are becoming an even smaller minority, but they're around. Somewhere. They're also being far too kind to a film that, rather than reminding you of how good Marshall can be, actually serves to remind you how far away he has moved from his best work.

Charlotte Kirk, who also co-wrote the movie with Marshall, stars as a pilot, Kate Sinclair, shot down over Afghanistan. She ends up encountering some hostile enemies, to be expected, but also discovers something else aiming to cause her harm. Eventually in the company of other military allies, Kate has to convince them of what she saw, and everyone has to figure out how to survive, and destroy, the monsters on the prowl.

Marshall may be very happy with the work he gets to do now, movies in which he can work with actress/co-writer/partner Kirk, but I cannot help thinking that he has lost his way, and that is sadly even more obvious in The Lair than it was in his previous film, The Reckoning. I don't think that Kirk helps him in the writing department, and she's certainly not a good enough actress to make up for the weaknesses in the script (compare any part of her performance to the many other women that Marshall has worked with and it will highlight how poor she is).

I could barely work up the energy to fully review this, it was so surprisingly dull throughout, but people should know what they're getting into. The creature design isn't bad, I guess, but nothing else works here. Action beats aren't exciting, none of the characters are given any personality (which leaves the other cast members hung out to dry), and there's no sense of anything that should be here: no tension, no real sense of place, no oppressive atmosphere, not even good banter between the soldiers.

As already mentioned, and I don't want to seem mean about it, Kirk isn't great in the lead role. Sadly, the rest of the cast pitch their performance in line with the lead/what Marshall wants. Jonathan Howard, Jamie Bamber, Leon Ockenden, and many others do poor work. Hadi Khanjanpour is the only person who almost rises above the material. Almost.

I remember one good gore gag. There were maybe one or two more, it's strange how my brain is already trying to erase this from my memory after just watching it last night, but it's hard to appreciate any fleeting highlight under the cumulative weight of one bad moment after another. And there's no silver lining on this cloud. Nothing works - score, cinematography, production design, etc - and the whole thing feels cheap and unworthy of Marshall's considerable talent. IF he has managed to hold on to some of his considerable talent.

I am happy that Marshall and Kirk are very happy together. I would be a lot happier if they could maintain that happiness without making movies together. 

3/10

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Friday, 27 January 2023

The Fabelmans (2022)

A Steven Spielberg film, directed and co-written by him (with Tony Kushner, his regular collaborator over the past few years), and based on his life. The Fabelmans is, unsurprisingly, a film about falling in love with cinema, about how movies can reveal uncomfortable truths, and how people can be manipulated by the magic of movies. The surprising thing is that the film itself stops far short of greatness.

Gabriel LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman (after Mateo Zoryan has depicted him as an even younger child), a young man who turns his passion for movies into a life-changing hobby that we all know will turn into a hugely successful career. His parents are played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, and there’s a friendly “uncle” (not actually related, just named as such as a term of endearment) played by Seth Rogen. There are other family members, but they’re background players, especially throughout a second half that shows Sammy being bullied by Logan Hall (Sam Rechner) and Chad Thomas (Oakes Fegley).

Very traditional in the way it all plays out, The Fabelmans is a nice film. Even the darker plot points (family issues, the antisemitism/bullying) are handled with great care, every main sequence more about appreciating the power of movies than it is about anything else. That’s to be expected, I guess, but it leaves you with a film that somehow feels less insightful than the excellent documentary on Spielberg from a few years ago. As Sammy immerses himself into movies and movie-making, viewers may find it far too easy to keep in mind that Spielberg is keeping himself well within his comfort zone. Even things that surely caused him pain in his life are made safer, more palatable, by his ability to put them in a movie, and that observation is spoken aloud within the film.

The cast all do a good job, with Dano and Williams real standouts. The former gives one of his typically restrained and controlled turns, in line with his good-hearted, but somewhat dull, character, and the latter gets to shine like the brightest star in the sky, her light casting a glow on the loving faces of the men in her life. LaBelle is a perfect stand-in for young Spielberg, Rechner is pretty good, and Fegley is a worryingly effective Chad, if you know what I mean. Chad’s gonna Chad. Chloe East and Isabelle Kusman have fun as two teenage girls who befriend our lead after a particularly rough encounter with his bullies, but their relative insignificance, compared to the affirmation he ends up getting from those who watch his films, feels as depressing as it is (probably) accurate.

The very end scene will leave many people smiling, but it’s the only moment that hints at how much better the whole thing could have been. It’s harder to join in with a celebration when some people are sobbing, and there’s only so much work that a John Williams score can do.

Slightly misjudged, slightly self-indulgent, slightly too . . . well, slight, The Fabelmans is still a good film, and Spielberg absolutely deserves to treat himself with this cinematic retelling of his youth, but it’s kind of like knowing how a magic trick works. You can still appreciate the skill, but you’ll never be as impressed and entertained as you were before you knew the mechanics of it.

7/10

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Thursday, 26 January 2023

M3GAN (2022)

If you want to stay up to date with the latest funky memes and social media trends then you need to see M3GAN (which stands for Model 3 Generative Android). For better or worse, it is a film that feels designed to immediately inject itself right into the heart of popular culture. It’s also another film that feels strangely in line with some major blockbusters from last year, riffing on a theme that has started to become more and more important to film-makers who have seen their medium constantly threatened by videogames, new tech that makes it easier for everyone to be able to make their own movies, and VR, among other things. But, first and foremost, it’s basically a “killer doll” film.

When her parents die in a tragic accident, young Cady (Violet McGraw) is put in the care of her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma has a busy workload, tasked by her boss to make a cheaper, but just as popular, version of their hit toy, which is basically a more advanced type of Furby. On the down low, Gemma and her team have also been working on M3GAN (and, yes, I will write it out in that form every time I mention her name), a “toy” that could sell at a much more expensive price point, but would also be THE toy that every household would want. Struggling to balance her work time and her responsibility to Cady, Gemma decides to pair her niece up with M3GAN. The android is designed to be comforting and supportive, and will help children learn as they play, but Gemma immediately starts to use it as a substitute for her own presence. M3GAN will keep Cady safe, but she starts to adjust her parameters as she realises how many different people may threaten to break the strong bond between them. There’s gonna be some killin’.

Directed by Gerard Johnstone (only his second feature after his horror comedy debut, Housebound), and written by Akela Cooper (who previously helped to get the madness of Malignant onscreen), this is a strange blend of sci-fi, horror, and black comedy that feels like it could have leaned further into any one of those elements, but may have been kept in a more centralized position by the likes of Jason Blum and James Wan (two people who, love or hate them, know how to turn a movie into a big hit). I wasn’t sure how to take things in the first half, the plotting and dialogue aren’t great, and every set-up is blindingly obvious, but I was won round by about the halfway mark. Whatever the genre blend is for any scene in the second half of the movie, the emphasis is on fun.

Williams and McGraw are okay, but it’s hard to judge them fairly when the script treats them so poorly. They are secondary characters, as the title would suggest, and not enough is done to make viewers fully invest in them. Amie Donald performs the physical side of M3GAN, while Jenna Davis provides the voice, and these two are the best performers in the movie, bringing to life a creation that is realistic and unnerving, even before she becomes a threat to others. Ronny Chieng is a decent enough boss who the film-makers want us to view as a potential villain, Brian Jordan Alvarez and Jen Van Epps are two work colleagues who help to build and test M3GAN, and a few other people appear in roles that set them up as obvious potential victims.

A good soundtrack and clean visuals, up until the grand finale anyway, as well as a good selection of special effects, also help to make this a decent watch. It could have been trimmed down a bit, and it certainly could have gone even wilder with the potential for carnage, but I like what is here. I also like the commentary on our relationship with modern technology, and the potential danger of leaving children too long with their devices/toys (a danger that has been ongoing since concerns were raised about letting the TV be the main babysitter).

I liked this enough to look forward to whatever might come next. I would suggest M3GAIN for the sequel title.

7/10

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Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Prime Time: Mortal Kombat (2021)

I may have said this before, but I have always been a Mortal Kombat guy. I like Tekken, I was always frustrated when playing against people who knew more than me on any incarnation of Street Fighter, but Mortal Kombat was MY fighting videogame. It had the special moves, had plenty of blood and gore, and had great characters. And, against all odds, it was turned into one of the better movie adaptations.

A lot of people were excited when they heard that it was being rebooted in film form (or whatever phrase fits best for this incarnation), but I wasn’t too bothered. I already had a fun Mortal Kombat movie. The second one wasn’t great, but I also had some animated adventures, and the game series has endured throughout the past few decades in a way that I think may have surprised many.

A feature debut from director Simon McQuoid, as well as a debut for writer Greg Russo (although his co-writer, Dave Callaham, has plenty of credits under his belt), Mortal Kombat is a slice of action that feels very much like a film placed in the hands of a very capable stunt team, and that’s no bad thing. In fact, I wish there had been time made for even more fight sequences. Why let plot get in the way of a good Mortal Kombat movie?

Speaking of the plot. It’s time for the big battle that will decide the fate of Earth, of course. Some people who have been chosen to fight are unaware of the full situation, despite being marked with the symbol that tags them as a participant in the tournament, and Cole Young (Lewis Tan) only starts to become aware of his fate when he and his family are threatened by Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). Coke encounters Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who sends him to connect with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Sonya might be able to help, but she also has her hands full with Kano (Josh Lawson), a man she is keeping on a short leash while using him to get to the tournament. Other familiar faces who appear here are Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), and Shang Tsung (Chin Han). You also get screentime for Goro, Reptile, Nitara, Mileena, Kabal, and quite a few other moral fighters, and Hiroyuki Sanada gets to portray the legend we all loved to play . . . Scorpion.

This is a perfectly enjoyable film, with some decent fights that occasionally include a decent bit of blood and nastiness. I just don’t know why so many people raved about it though. It’s slightly overlong (clocking in at 110 minutes), some of the editing could have been improved to give the fights more fluidity, and to showcase the talented physical performers, and, as so many others have mentioned, it is a Mortal Kombat movie without the actual Mortal Kombat tournament at the heart of it. That is the aim, yes, but Shang Tsung wants to break the rules, which means being able to fight in a variety of locations that aren’t within the standard tournament environments. On the one hand, I can understand why this choice was made. On the other hand, Mortal Kombat should feel like Mortal Kombat. This doesn’t. It feels like what it is - a way to use the characters and fight moves in a rather standard action movie storyline.

Technically competent throughout, and the score does well enough, overall, to make you forget just how much you are missing the bombastic theme song from the first movie, there’s nothing particularly wrong here. The cast fit their roles well, and I believe every one of them could beat me up in a matter of seconds, and the special effects enhancing their capabilities are spot on. It just doesn’t have quite the right tone and narrative thrust to feel like the definitive Mortal Kombat movie. Maybe they will do even better with the next outing.

I will revisit this, it’s got enough good action and is entertaining throughout, but I will undoubtedly revisit the 1995 movie more. It is less polished, but just a bit more fun. And, despite inputting a code to get the maximum amount of blood ‘n’ guts, playing Mortal Kombat was always fun. 

7/10

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Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Till (2022)

I am not sure why I have recently decided to put myself through the emotional wringer. I think it just happens during the time of year that is labelled “awards season”, forcing me to go out of my way to watch movies that I hope will be worthwhile, even as I worry about feeling drained by the time the end credits roll.

As much as I like to avoid spoilers, Till is based on a real incident that eventually, decades later, led to the creation of a law named after young Emmet Till. So I am going to specify that incident. Now. Here is your last chance to look away, if you have so far remained unaware of the case of Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was an African American boy who was abducted, tortured, and lynched for offending a Whyte woman in Mississippi. He was fourteen years old. It was sadly obvious from the outset that the jury would vote one way when the case went to court, but that didn’t stop Emmett’s mother from campaigning for change, for some good to come out of the horrendous murder of her baby boy.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, who is someone new to me (although I really want to see her previous feature, Clemency), this is a film that uses a factual event to underline how dangerous and unwelcoming many parts of the USA can be to black people. It may be a period piece, but seeing how slowly anything changes, and seeing parallels in the news today to show how many things have stayed the same, makes it horribly relevant. It is a potent reminder of how the imbalance in modern society has been set up over decades and centuries of prejudice and abuse.

Chukwu also worked on the script, alongside Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp (the latter having also directed a documentary on Emmett Till back in 2005), and the focus stays on the death of Emmett, and the subsequent court case. That’s a smart move, allowing viewers to see the butterfly effect of Emmett’s death, and providing a valuable opportunity to show the real courage of those who decided to speak up in the face of overwhelming odds, and risking their own lives to do so.

The cast all do their bit to elevate the material, and I will now be keeping my eyes peeled for whatever a couple of them do next. Jalynn Hall is as lovely as he needs to be in the role of young Emmett, his more childish moments all the more poignant while we await his fate. Whoopi Goldberg does good work in the role of a caring grandmother, and Frankie Faison, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tosin Cole, and John Douglas Thompson are a number of different men who play varyingly important roles in the life of Emmett and/or his mother. Haley Bennett is the woman who claims that young Emmett mistreated her, and she is duly viewed as a major villain by those who know the truth of the matter. I have omitted one notable name, and that is Danielle Deadwyler, in the role of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Deadwyler is consistently great here, often remaining composed, determined, and mindful of the perception of onlookers while others start to have doubts about the path they are set on. There’s one display of grief here that is heart-wrenching, and it is that moment that made me determined to watch more work from Deadwyler, who gives the kind of powerful performance that should affect everyone who sees it.

Till works exactly how it is supposed to work, and I think that is at least partly tied to the fact that it presupposes viewers having knowledge of how things play out. Highly recommended, and it should be mandatory viewing for idiots who say “all lives matter”, conveniently forgetting the slavery, abuse, legal wranglings, and deaths that brought us to the here and now.

8/10

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Monday, 23 January 2023

Mubi Monday: Let The Sunshine In (2017)

Juliette Binoche stars as Isabelle in this Claire Denis movie that some people have labelled as her version of a rom-com. I wouldn’t, but some have, although I can certainly see how she has taken certain sub-genre elements and reworked them into her own particular approach to film-making.

Isabelle is unable to find real happiness, moving from one encounter to the next with a series of men who aren’t right for her. But Isabelle tends to know that they are not right for her, either from the way she feels about them once the warm afterglow has worn off or from the way she recognises that they just aren’t all that interested. That doesn’t help though, and sometimes someone being disinterest makes Isabelle want to pursue them even more.

Binoche is excellent here, but Binoche is excellent in pretty much everything she does, whether or not the film is deserving of her skill. She’s joined by a variety of actors portraying flawed male suitors, to put it mildly, including Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and one or two others, all doing good work. And there’s a small, but pivotal, role for Gérard Depardieu, playing a character who comes in to the movie just in time to confuse our lead some more. 

Working from a script co-written by herself and Christine Angot, adapting the book by Roland Barthes, Denis enjoys taking us on a journey with her main character that many will recognise. You try to be guarded sometimes and don’t find happiness. You let your guard down and don’t find happiness. You try to find The One, end up settling for the one who is available, and get stuck in what can seem like an endless cycle of dates that you suspect won’t lead to anything that actually lasts. Getting away from that cycle leads to a huge sigh of relief, but no escape is guaranteed to be permanent.

Despite what I have said about the rest of the cast, there are one or two decent men also given some screentime alongside Isabelle. They just don’t take up as much space and time in her life, perhaps because Isabelle has spent so much time with the wrong people that she cannot recognise someone who might be right for her.

Let The Sunshine In is a call to all. It’s a way of reminding people that they deserve to be happy. That shouldn’t be so difficult. But it is. We see it in the trials and tribulations of Isabelle, and we can see it in the highs and lows of our own lives. 

I thought I was quite enjoying Let The Sunshine In while it was on, although it certainly wasn’t a film full of, well, sunshine and rainbows. Thinking about it more, however, it turns out that I REALLY liked it. It is one of my favourite Claire Denis movies, and features what may now be my all-time favourite performance from Binoche. Which is really saying something.

8/10

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Sunday, 22 January 2023

Netflix And Chill: The Ninth Gate (1999)

While people have a number of different reasons for holding whatever opinions they have on director Roman Polanski, something that isn't mentioned enough is the simple fact that he has never equalled his cinematic output of the 1960s and 1970s. That's not to say that he hasn't made some very good films in more recent decades, but they're certainly not his best, and some are perhaps given a bit more leeway because of his name being attached to them. The Ninth Gate is one of those lesser films, and you can still find many people who champion it as a fine modern horror movie . . . which I think proves my point.

Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, a rare book dealer who is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to locate and check over copies of a book that supposedly gives the reader the chance to summon the devil. This job leads to Corso crossing paths with Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), two women who may be in possession of the valuable texts. It also leads to him encountering a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who may want to help him, but could easily be seeking to frustrate his ongoing attempt to complete his task. The more that Corso investigates the book, the more he starts to see things that become harder to explain rationally.

Adapted from a novel, 'El Club Dumas', by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate has a screenplay by Polanski, John Brownjohn (who collaborated with the director on 4 or 5 movies), and Enrique Urbizu, that feels exactly in line with what Polanski wants to deliver. It's another one of his films that walks a tightrope in between horror and comedy, but that tightrope-walk is something that Polanski managed much more successfully in many of his earlier movies. Give me the inspired madness of The Tenant or Cul-de-sac. Please don't give me something else that reminds me of the ridiculous Bitter Moon.

Depp is fine in the main role, although he plays a character so unflappable that the third act fails to provide any real tension, but there are a few treats to be had in the supporting cast. Langella is his usual formidable presence, and plays his part with an admirably straight face. Olin does well, up to a point, but the screenplay sets out to make her character very silly by the time she is given a more active role in the second half of the film. Jefford is excellent, helped by the fact that she seems to be more savvy to what is really going on, and she doesn't seem to be as easily manipulated as other people in the movie. Seigner does what is asked of her, and I won't waste time being too rude about her appalling inability to give anything close to a decent performance. There's a good reason that her biggest movie roles seem to have been in movie directed by Polanski AKA her husband.

There's a decent score from Wojciech Kilar, some shots look nice enough (I guess), but there aren’t many more compliments I can give it. I will begrudgingly admit that one or two moments of humour work, especially one moment in which a character essentially berates a group of satanic cult members as nothing more than ignorant cosplayers, but that’s a rare moment that works in a movie that runs for just over two hours. If this wasn’t directed by Polanski, it would have been series and dismissed immediately, and completely forgotten by now.

3/10

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Saturday, 21 January 2023

Shudder Saturday: Sorry About The Demon (2022)

Writer-director Emily Hagins already has a career that spans just over 16 years. That's not a particularly notable detail, until you realise that Hagins is just 30 years old. So, yeah, here's yet another person who managed to start making their dreams into a reality at an age when I was, well, let's keep this between us, I was just trying to plan ten minutes alone with the exotic hosiery selection of the Littlewoods catalogue that was in my house. Anyway, let's get back to Hagins. Despite that lengthy career, and a filmography that includes numerous shorts and one or two other features, Sorry About The Demon feels like a confident film from a first-timer. I don't mean that as an insult. This is a film that gets the humour right, knows how to play around with familiar horror movie moments, and has an energy that you might not find in a more jaded film-maker.

Jon Michael Simpson is Will, a young man who has his heart broken at the start of the movie when he is ditched by his girlfriend, Amy (Paige Evans). He moves into a new place, and soon realises that he's not the only tenant. There are supernatural entities that don't want him in their space. Distracted by the situation, Will is then further put out of sorts when his friend, Patrick (Jeff McQuitty), tries to pair him up with a young woman named Aimee (Olivia Ducayen). Blurting out his current dilemma, Aimee eagerly volunteers to helm cleanse the house and exorcise the bad spirits. That won't necessarily go down too well with the main troublemaker, a demon named Deomonous.

You're not going to want to pick this as a viewing choice if you want any proper scares or gore. It doesn't really have either. What it does have is a classic "possession" premise, a central cast of characters that are fun to spend some time with, and the ability to make up some rules that it then sticks to until the end credits roll. Hagins generally does the right thing with her script, creating the humour from the situation and the juxtaposition of all-too-calm attitudes in the face of potential scares without ever making the main threatening presence a complete joke. Despite the amusing ridiculousness of many scenes, Deomonous always feels like a credible danger.

Simpson is excellent value in the lead role, doing a great job of playing the kind of likeable loser that you hope to see turn things around for the better, and both Ducayen and Evans are excellent as Aimee and Amy, respectively. McQuitty provides some laughs, and Dave Peniuk, Sarah Cleveland, Presley Allard, and Jude Zappala make up the nuclear family unit who give Will a great deal on their home in the hope that his soul may placate the demonic entity that tried to attack their family. Allard is the highlight, her character given a bit more to do than either her parents or her brother, but everyone feels like a good fit in their role.

Sorry About The Demon isn't great. It's not unmissable. There's nothing here that ever really lifts everything up. But there's also nothing here that drags everything down. It's a well-made horror comedy that simply sets out to entertain people, and it succeeds in that regard. I would happily rewatch it, I recommend it to people who aren't going to expect a new modern classic, and I look forward to seeing what else we get from Hagins (who I think could effectively drop the comedy and give us a fantastic straight horror one day . . . and hopefully not too far in the future).

7/10

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Friday, 20 January 2023

She Said (2022)

It's always good to see a movie about investigative journalism, not least due to the fact that any such movie serves as a reminder that we still HAVE some investigative journalism. I cannot think of a time when the quest for truth and justice has been more noble, especially when juxtaposed against "news" that is simply made up of repurposed social media quotes, sensational headlines that are designed as clickbait, and opinion pieces placing the outlets in whatever "culture war" position they think will be most profitable for them. I enjoyed Spotlight from a few years ago, but She Said may just edge ahead of it as the better movie, perhaps because the story it is telling was picked up more eagerly by every major news outlet once the details were widely available.

Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan play Jodi Kanto and Megan Twohey, respectively, two investigative journalists who work for the New York Times. Their names may be familiar to you. They are the two people who pulled together various witness testimonies to build up a picture of sexual abuse, manipulation, and bullying that eventually landed Harvey Weinstein in prison. This film details how the story broke, and how it took the courage of victims to come forward and tell their truth, helping others to subsequently realise that they weren't alone, and that they could also come forward and do their bit to help make a criminal pay for his heinous crimes.

The talented Rebecca Lenkiewicz delivers another very good screenplay, helped by the book co-written by Kantor and Twohey, and Maria Schrader directs well, keeping her shot choice and framing interesting, without being distractingly overly stylised, and she knows to keep the focus on her cast delivering the pertinent points and evidence-backed facts.

Kazan is good, solid in her role, but Mulligan is given some better moments and is the better of the two leads (and it feels like a dry companion piece to her superb work in Promising Young Woman). Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher are both very good in supporting roles, playing the New York Times senior staff members who allow the story to be investigated, and ensure that everything complies with legal requirements, and you have Keilly McQuail delivering a fine impression of Rose McGowan over the phone, Samantha Morton being very effective in her one main scene, as Zelda Perkins, Jennifer Ehle portraying Laura Madden, a pivotal figure in the development of the story, and Ashley Judd as herself, a movie role that I suspect may have been very cathartic and satisfying for her to play.

She Said doesn't only show the hard work and sensitivity that was required in handling such a shocking exposé, it also shows how events and public figures seemed to create the darkest possible moment for women everywhere. Things aren't exactly sweetness and light now, of course, but it feels like 2016 - 2020 were years in which misogyny and abuse seemed at an all-time high. Assholes were emboldened by one of their own being elected President, and a general change in language and tone showed that what should have been a unifying movement, the #metoo campaign, was going to be used as another line in the sand for those individuals wanting to lash out at everyone as they tried to plant their "not all men" flag on a hill that really didn't need it.

There may not be anything flashy or too memorable here, not when it comes to the film-making itself, but this is an excellent film that serves as an essential snapshot. It's a snapshot of bravery, tenacity, and good grace held by those standing up to an abusive bully (who surely thought he was untouchable). It's a snapshot of a moment when the tide turned. It may have only been for a few brief seconds, but it turned. 

8/10

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Thursday, 19 January 2023

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

There are a number of times in my adult life when I have rewatched a film I haven’t seen in decades, only to realise that it wasn’t the film I was thinking of. It happened again with The Dunwich Horror, a film I always used to confuse with The Devonsville Terror. I realised my confusion back when I finally rewatched The Devonsville Terror, but that meant that I was eager to revisit The Dunwich Horror. And I don’t think many people have been eager to revisit this.

Dean Stockwell plays Wilbur Whately, a young man who wants to borrow a copy of the infamous Necronomicon and chant some words that will unnerve anyone who has already heard of the mighty Yog-Sothoth. He charms young Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee), a woman who returns with him to his home, soon getting a sense of how local people feel about his family name, and unwittingly being prepared to play an important part in a ritual that Whately has been planning for some time.

Working from the source material by H. P. Lovecraft, three people worked on this script, including a writing debut from Curtis Hanson (credited as Curtis Lee Hanson), but nobody can really do enough to turn it into a satisfying horror movie. Instead, it all rests on the dark charm of Stockwell (which works) and the exchanges between the rest of the cast (which doesn’t). Director Daniel Haller doesn’t seem to know how to make things more cinematic (it’s unsurprising to find that he only did a handful of movies before spending most of his career directing episodes for a wide variety of TV shows), and many scenes waver between being dull and being laughable.

Stockwell almost makes it all worthwhile though. His strange and enjoyable performance allows him to prove what fantastic screen presence he has. It is a shame that nobody else can come close to him, with Dee particularly bland, her casting more damaging to the film because she brings no energy to it. Ed Begley and Lloyd Bochner and wiser elders, hopefully due to figure things out and save Nancy before it’s too late, and Sam Jaffe is fairly enjoyable in the role of Old Whately, a combination of grumpy grandfather and “Crazy Ralph”. I wish that Donna Baccala (playing Nancy’s friend, Elizabeth) had more screentime, because she makes a much better impression with her few scenes than Dee makes at any time. Unfortunately, she disappears all too soon.

Lovecraft, like many other horror writers, has been translated from page to screen with greatly varying degrees of success, but some people will always enjoy seeing any attempt to film his work. The Dunwich Horror still has just enough in it to make it of interest to those who know the source material, and deserves to be watched by anyone who likes Stockwell, but I am not sure how many people would try to class it as a good movie. It isn’t one. But it does have an odd charm that will endear it to some.

4/10

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Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Prime Time: Needful Things (1993)

I went for my first proper holiday overseas when I was about 16-17, finally experiencing proper sunshine in the glorious land of Los Christianos in Tenerife. And that first proper holiday overseas meant that I picked my first chunky book that I decided would be perfect to read by the swimming pool. And that book was Needful Things, another Stephen King tale set in Castle Rock, Maine. It was a very enjoyable read.

Then the book was made into a movie, which I always thought for many years was a TV movie (but it did have a theatrical release in the USA), and I was young and naive enough to be optimistic about it.

Watching it now . . . my goodwill towards the story, and goodwill towards many of the cast members, means I still like it more than some other King-based tales (I will never understand all of the love that gets heaped on Storm Of The Century), but I know it’s not actually a good film.

Max von Sydow plays Leland Gaunt, a newcomer to the town of Castle Rock, and the owner of a new store named “Needful Things”. The store seems to have just what people what most, and the prices are affordable. A specific cash amount . . . and a small prank. But Gaunt knows how to make things snowball, with pranks being used to turn people against one another, leading to bickering, fighting, and potentially deadly consequences. Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris) is initially confused by the way his friends and neighbours so quickly turn into bloodthirsty maniacs, but he soon starts to realise who is at the heart of a dark and wide-reaching web. He wants to save the town, but he also wants to save the woman he loves (Bonnie Bedelia).

Adapted into screenplay form by W. D. Richter (who has a filmography with titles ranging from the likes of 1978’s classic The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to the not-so-modern-classic Stealth), Needful Things doesn’t have a premise that works half as well when moved from page to screen. Not that anyone wanting to make money from Stephen King tales has ever been put off by that idea. It’s a hurdle that Richter cannot overcome though, sadly, and nothing is helped by Fraser C. Heston’s pedestrian direction, which makes my memory of this as a TV movie all the more understandable. Nothing here feels particularly cinematic or exciting, despite the best efforts of the cast, and it all just fizzles along to a climax that presents a damp squib when it should be a full firework display.

Von Sydow is a great fit for the role of Leland Gaunt, an elderly man who can deliver a physical shake-up of someone as easily as he can deliver a charm offensive. Gaunt has more fun as those around him become more miserable, and Von Sydow almost always pitches his performance perfectly, despite an odd moment that has him a bit too close and personal with Bedelia’s character. Harris is an excellent Pangborn, a very reliable and stoic figure who fortunately avoids being seduced by the allure of anything that Gaunt has for sale. Bedelia is a bit wasted in her role, sadly, although her character plays a vital part in the unfolding chain of events, and Amanda Plummer is fun to watch, delivering another prime mid-90s bit of Plummer madness. J. T. Walsh is the standout though, playing the kind of shady and sweaty businessman that appears in so many Stephen King stories, a role elevated here by the kind of performance you can rely on from J. T. Walsh. And it’s also worth mentioning Shane Meier, who plays young Brian Rusk, the first customer in Needful Things, and the first person asked to play a little prank in service of Gaunt’s grand plan.

I still like Needful Things. I have that strong attachment to the source material, the premise is a great one, and many of the supporting cast members have one or two moments to shine. I doubt many others will view it as I do though. Part of me knows that it’s not good, a bigger part of me knows that I will never actively dislike it. It feels like a story that has joined me on a journey, as I moved from a voracious reader to more of a cinephile, and that attachment certainly skews my rating slightly.

6/10

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Tuesday, 17 January 2023

The Invitation (2022)

If you're going to update a classic horror tale, but want to keep it all feeling like an old-fashioned slice of gothic, then you could do a lot worse than watching The Invitation, where director Jessica M. Thompson and writer Blair Butler show us exactly how it should be done.

Nathalie Emmanuel plays Evie, a young American woman who finds herself in a whole new world when a DNA/family tree test leads to her discovering relatives she was previously completely unaware of. They may be distant relatives, but it gives her a chance to visit their lavish home in England, where her distant cousin, Oliver (Hugh Skinner), does his best to ensure that Evie isn't made to feel too uncomfortable. Unaccustomed to mingling with the upper-class, Evie is both intrigued and upset by what she sees around her, particularly when it comes to the way the head butler (Sean Pertwee) treats the staff, but she soon becomes much more relaxed in the company of the charming Walter (Thomas Doherty), the lord of the manor. Maybe Evie will end up making a new home in England, but she will have to deal with the skeletons in the family closet first.

There's nothing in The Invitation that will surprise, or even impress, most viewers. Every main story beat feels familiar, and the execution of the scares, and how they are doled out en route to a third act that completely clarifies everything (not that this is a complex or unpredictable plot), is in line with 101 other horror movies. That doesn't make it bad though. In fact, the wonderfully traditional visuals and witty, self-aware, script come together to create something that is, first and foremost, fun. Thompson heads up a very talented crew, considering what we see onscreen, and Butler enjoys setting up the film in a very specific way, playfully revealing key details throughout the second half, and then having all of the pieces in place for the expected rip-roaring finale.

Emmanuel is an excellent lead, and this is probably the biggest movie role I've seen her given. Here's to many more. She's a naturally captivating screen presence, and convinces here as someone who can feel like a welcome breath of fresh air in a stuffy old English manor. Doherty is as suave and charming as he needs to be, Skinner does another one of his endearing "oh gosh, nice, posh" performances, and Pertwee is enjoyably blunt in many of his exchanges with people he considers beneath his employers. Carol Ann Crawford and Tian Chaudhry get to play supporting characters who are surprisingly integral to the main plot strand, and Alana Boden and Stephanie Corneliussen are two very privileged young women who couldn't be more dissimilar in the way that they act around Evie.

I'm sure that some will be put off by the decision to fill the frame with things like unsettling stonework figures, billowing curtains, and large rooms that people are forbidden to enter, it's all a bit more Shirley Jackson than Peter Jackson, but that's what helps it stand out. This isn't another new horror movie trying to break any kind of world record for bloodshed, nor is it a film trying to use new tech as the central "demon". It's a film that takes something old, twists and plays around with it for a while, then turns it into something that feels enjoyably different. Some people may resent the core of the premise, but I thought it was both witty and entertaining.

7/10

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Monday, 16 January 2023

Mubi Monday: The Levelling (2016)

I've seen quite a few movies and TV shows recently that seem to be focused on families and pain. Maybe you can't have one without the other. You certainly can't have a strong connection to someone without an increased worry about losing them, that much is for sure. The Levelling is about loss, but it's about someone losing their life in a way that creates a sudden void in the lives of others, perhaps urging them to rethink whether or not they want to stay disconnected from other people who share their worries and hurt.

Ellie Kendrick plays Clover, a young woman who has to return to the family farm after receiving the news that her younger brother, Harry, has shot himself. This means that Clover has to deal with her father, Aubrey (David Troughton), a man who doesn't seem to view her as the capable and intelligent young woman she is. There's also a few lads ready to help work on getting the farm back into shape, including James (Jack Holden), who was a friend to Harry. The more that Clover discovers about the way her brother was running the farm, the more questions start to arise. 

A slow-moving film, The Levelling shows just how suddenly drops of grief and resentment can build up to create a raging river. The title of the film can be taken a number of different ways, but I think it mainly refers to the accusatory tone that Clover and her father aim at one another, as well as a reminder that death itself IS the great leveller. Bearing that in mind, many scenes work as well as they do because of the layers of what is said, what is unsaid, and what is being twisted up in the pained minds of characters who aren't necessarily the best communicators in the best of circumstances.

Writer-director Hope Dickson Leach does well with her feature debut, keeping everything nicely tight and focused, thematically, and allowing for many moments that show characters working around one another, whether that is trying to run the farm or trying to get answers to probing questions. Although it’s a very small central cast, basically just a two-hander for many scenes, Leach is also helped by having the right people onscreen.

Kendrick and Troughton are both equally excellent, the former trying to keep her hurt and confusion contained while keeping herself busy on the farm, the latter realising just how his life has suffered from the loss of his children, even before the sudden death of his son. Holden does very well in his one or two main scenes, and Joe Blakemore appears in flashback to give us the very briefest glimpse of the deceased Harry.

Not necessarily an easy watch, it is cold and slightly awkward at times, but that is how it should be. That is how it can feel when grief forces people to reunite, to reconsider the past, present, and future, and to keep everything moving along when all you really want to do is hide under a duvet and cry your heart out.

8/10

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Sunday, 15 January 2023

Netflix And Chill: The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

I read a book that was gifted to me many years ago called "Quoth The Crow", by David Bischoff. I enjoyed it, but I also recognised that it wasn't great. It just happened to tie into things that I enjoyed; namely The Crow and Edgar Allen Poe. I also quite enjoyed The Raven, a film that pits Poe (played in that movie by John Cusack) against an inventive serial killer, despite also recognising that it wasn't great. It was entertaining, and fun, but not great. The Pale Blue Eye isn't great, yet it has a great cast and the makings of something great. So why did I dislike it quite so much?

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a detective who is hired to investigate the murder of a young military cadet. Landor soon meets a young, striking, Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling). Poe is insightful, but also soon comes under suspicion himself. Getting to the bottom of the mystery may not lead to a happy ending for either of our two main characters, and they will surely ruffle some feathers on their way to unmasking the killer, who murders once again while the investigation is ongoing.

Based on a novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, writer-director Scott Cooper gives himself a big helping hand by casting the film well. Bale remains an undeniably effective and talented performer, but he seems to settle into a bit of a rut nowadays when aligning himself so closely to the likes of Cooper, and David O. Russell (of course). Melling is a good fit for the role of young Poe, and the supporting cast includes such notable luminaries as Timothy Spall, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, Robert Duvall, and Gillian Anderson. Unfortunately, most of them are sorely underused, leaving time and space for performances from Harry Lawtey, Lucy Boynton, Fred Hechinger, Joey Brooks, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as many others populating a tale that paradoxically delivers far too much and far too little. You get a wealth of talent unable to shine, you get a murder mystery without any real tension developed, and you get Poe as a main character without making it feel as if him BEING Poe is really relevant to the premise or plotting of the film.

I would rush to say if the script was the big weakness of this film, and it could certainly do with some tweaks and improvements here and there, but I think the biggest problem is the way that Cooper half-heartedly serves up a film that he doesn't seem passionate about. The thriller side of things doesn't thrill, the drama is even less engaging, and there's no sense of anything coming together as it should. That wouldn't be so bad if Cooper had decided to at least sprinkle some fun into the mix, but he doesn't do that either. The Pale Blue Eye, lacking any one successful element, cast notwithstanding, just feels like a few people showing how smug and clever they can be, all while onlookers (and that includes other cast members) become increasingly bored and exasperated.

It looks nice, generally, but that's not enough. This is a movie with the money and resources to do more than just look nice. A basic level of technical competence is the minimum to be expected, and it's what you get (including a score by Howard Shore). But you don't get more than that. The Pale Blue Eye = the bare minimum.

3/10

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Saturday, 14 January 2023

Shudder Saturday: Undead (2003)

I have owned Undead for many years, and have enjoyed it since I first saw it back in the early 2000s. I want to say that I first saw it on VHS, but I'm not exactly sure. It's been about twenty years, cut me some slack. What I always remembered about Undead was the visual style and the quirky humour. There are certain elements of it that I always forget though, and they end up leaving viewers with a mixed bag, in terms of the viewing experience.

An avalanche of meteorites end up turning a small Australian town into the epicentre of what could be labelled as a standard zombie outbreak. René (Felicity Mason) finds herself caught up in the middle of some undead awfulness, but there's a silver lining to the cloud when she encounters the sharp-shooting skills of Marion (Mungo McKay). Others soon join them as they hide out in an isolated house, and it's soon time to come up with a proper escape plan.

The feature debut written and directed by The Spierig Brothers (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig), Undead is a fun horror comedy that takes a familiar premise and adds one or two fun twists (which I won't spoil here). The special effects, mostly created by the brothers on home equipment, hold up well, with a great mix of practical gore and VFX helping to present a realistic world in which the unrealistic carnage is unfolding. The whole movie has a specific visual style, and The Spierig Brothers have retained that trademark, variations on their rather unique look, throughout their entire filmography (from the superior Daybreakers to the disappointing Winchester).

Mason is a good female lead, showing a core of strength and intelligence even when relying on the skills of McKay's character, while McKay himself does a great job of being the typical strong and silent "hero" of the piece. Dirk Hunter and Emma Randall are fun, playing a pair of confused and nervous police officers, and Rob Jenkins and Lisa Cunningham are a young couple, the latter also pregnant, who take a bit longer to, let's put it politely, show how useful they might be in a scenario that doesn't allow a lot of room for error.

I have to end on a slightly negative note though, sorry. Undead is never as good as I remember it being. It feels a bit overlong, mainly due to a wealth of scenes that simply focus on people shooting hordes of the undead, the humour isn't as consistent as it could be, and that cool visual style makes it feel like one scene just bleeds into another, which also seems to make each sequence feel stretched out, once again affecting the energy and pacing of the film.

Worth your time, but more for the small moments of inventiveness than the other things you might expect from a movie, like tighter plotting, a good sense of momentum, and fleshed out characters.

6/10

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Friday, 13 January 2023

Tár (2022)

Written and directed by Todd Field, with the main role specifically earmarked for Cate Blanchett, Tár is a character study and a murky psychological thriller that claims to be making a statement about abuse and manipulation, but seems to sadly muddy the waters of a conversation that still doesn’t seem to be allowed to fully unfold without numerous caveats and attempts to put a different angle on things. I will get back to this point later, but please bear it in mind.

Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a phenomenal musician and composer who is aiming to present a symphony she believes may well be her greatest triumph. Lydia has a loyal assistant (played by Noémie Merlant), a supportive wife (played by the incredible Nina Hoss), and numerous students and peers all ready to bask in the glow of her talent and heap more praise upon her. She also has a history of manipulation and exploitation of her position, whether it is intentional or not. The death of a former student, and the circumstances surrounding her relationship with Lydia, leads to the start of a whirlwind change of events that may see the maestro feeling more in the pits than on the podium.

There’s no denying that this is an interesting film, paced slowly to draw viewers into the world of the main character, and featuring a superb core cast all doing great work. I would argue that both Blanchett and Hoss are two of the best actresses working today, and they are joined onscreen by the talented Mark Strong, Julian Glover, and others I am less familiar with, but who were certainly bringing their A-game while orbiting such a flawless lead performance. Because Blanchett, whether conducting an orchestra, playing piano, or shredding apart a student for letting their modern day morality affect their choice of music to work with, IS flawless here. She can do cold and calculating as well as she can do confused and flustered, and she seems to relish playing someone we get to see, at one point, menacingly threaten a child.

Field knows what he is doing, constantly framing the film around Blanchett’s imposing figure, with most of the scenes showing passionate and dedicated musicians doing their work in displeasingly dark and cold environments, unless relishing the times when playing to an audience. There is an ugliness here, from the visual palette to the light levels, but it feels like a reflection of the world that Lydia has created for herself, one that is only lit up by a few different elements.

Getting back to the conversation this is part of though, Tár would seem to be a film originating from the #metoo movement, making it another important part of an ongoing process that hopes to make our world safer and more transparent for women (not exclusively women, but predominantly so), but that is where it feels least valuable. This feels, to me, like a “not all men” movie, but the phrase has been contorted into the equally-redundant “see, women do it too”, which doesn’t really feel as helpful, in the grand scheme of things, as something that could have been more complex, more subtle, and ultimately more effective, which I feel is owed to any viewer affected by the issues at the heart of the film.

I guess, rightly or wrongly, I viewed this with a raised eyebrow because it is a story I feel should have been left at the back of a queue for a while. I don’t think we have had enough films properly showcasing other scenarios yet, whether it is more powerful men being held to account or other common victims having their voices heard (the statistics regarding assault and abuse of trans people, for example, always seem to be omitted from this bleak landscape).

Tár has one towering performance, and sterling work from others onscreen, but it doesn’t actually have enough beneath the surface to make you feel that it is worth 2 1/2 hours of your time. I would still recommend it, and think Blanchett will continue to receive a lot of well-deserved credit for her portrayal of such a sharp and “jagged” character, but it’s not actually a great film.

6/10

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