Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Prime Time: Black Box (2020)

There’s the germ of a good idea in Black Box, but the biggest problem it has is that you could easily imagine it being handled so much better in an episode of Black Mirror, and at half the runtime.

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Stephen Herman), I will state clearly now that nothing here made me eager to seek out other films from him. This film is pedestrian, at best, and shows how to mishandle a concept so badly that it wrings every drop of potential interest out of it before serving it up to audiences. It’s like a plate full of chicken and veg that has had all flavour boiled out of it.

Mamoudou Athie plays Nolan, a pained man trying to carry on with his life after an accident that affected his memory and led to the death of his wife. He is supported by his young daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), with the two of them digging deep into reserves of strength to keep muddling forward. One doctor (played by Phylicia Rashad) has a new procedure that may help Nolan tap into all of his memories. But it soon becomes clear that it is bringing out a very different side of him.

If a director and writer work with a team of talented people to create a film that is their finished work of art then Black Box is a canvas lazily covered in magnolia matt paint. It is that dull, despite having the potential to go in a number of different directions. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few decent moments here and there, and one or two intriguing ideas, but the film seems determined to leave them just hanging there, like laundry on a washing line that has been forgotten about for days.

Athie does well enough with what he’s given, and Rashad is a fairly standard “obsessive scientist” type, but they are seriously hampered by the ways in which the script has to make them deliberately dumb to keep the plot moving along. Christine comes out of this best, her character being smart, strong, and sweet, a real highlight in a film with too few of them.

It’s all competently constructed, and technically fine, and the third act really drags you into a situation that quickly becomes more intense and uncomfortable. But this is a thriller that fails to thrill, fails to make you think enough about the elements being moved around in the plot, and simply fails to properly do anything that it should have easily managed.

3/10

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Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Screwed (2000)

The only film both written AND directed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Screwed is an enjoyably silly comedy starring Norm MacDonald in the lead role. The acting isn’t amazing, the plotting is unbelievably stupid, but fans of the star will have a great time with it.

MacDonald plays Willard Fillmore, a man who has spent most of his adult life as a butler/chauffeur/cleaner for the thrifty Miss Crock (Elaine Stritch). She is so mean to him that she won’t even buy him a new suit, making him wear the same one that she had removed from his father’s dead body. Hatching a plan that involves kidnapping her beloved dog, Willard and his friend, Rusty (Dave Chappelle), end up committing to a life of crime, which ends in disaster. The dog escapes, which means Miss Crock is left with the impression that Willard is the one kidnapped. And why would she pay ransom money for Willard?

If you only see one Norm MacDonald movie then you should definitely see Dirty Work, which is his best actual movie, thanks to the gags and supporting cast. But if you see two then you should easily make room for this one, which is a lot of fun. Highlights include a battle with the small dog, the main characters making a video of Willard “pleading for his freedom”, and a meeting with a gross and inappropriate morgue attendant (Danny DeVito).

Even if you were unaware, it’s clear that Alexander and Karaszewski are much more comfortable as writers than directors. There’s no real style or finesse here, from the shot choices to the soundtrack, and the focus is always on simply moving from one gag to the next. That isn’t necessarily the worst thing ever though, especially in a comedy that you don’t expect great cinema from. This isn’t great cinema. It’s just great fun.

MacDonald was never a great leading man, which I am sure he would agree with, but he was used a couple of times in films that managed to use his style without trying to change him. That works well, probably because he seemed to never change for the sake of others anyway. Love or hate him, Norm was unique. Chappelle is a fun co-star here, his nervous energy working well alongside the laconic and dry style of MacDonald. Stritch is good as the tight-fisted employer who mistreats her staff, Sherman Hemsley has a few scenes as another member of staff, Daniel Benzali is a tough detective who doesn’t like loose ends (which is obviously problematic for our leads), and Sarah Silverman has a small role as an ex-girlfriend who might be able to help MacDonald’s character, if she is filled in on the details of the scheme. And DeVito steals a couple of scenes as that aforementioned morgue attendant.

The more I think about it now, the more I can recall that made me heartily chuckle. It may never appear on many “favourite movie” lists, and it won’t ever be discussed in the context of cinema that made an impact on psyches and pop culture, but it is a comedy that delivers a steady stream of good gags. Which makes it worth your time when you just want to laugh.

7/10

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Monday, 20 September 2021

Mubi Monday: Sweat (2020)

Magdalena Kolesnik plays Sylwia, a young woman who works as a fitness instructor, which involves putting herself out there online, building up a fanbase and building up an inspirational image. But it isn’t all smiles and fitness. Sylwia is going through a very rough time, feeling lonely and having to deal with a stalker who has parked up outside her home.

What’s interesting nowadays is how perception of celebrity has changed in the arts, as celebrity itself has changed. We used to see movies about famous actors and musicians, films that explored their persistence, and often their need to feel love emanating from a receptive audience of fans. Now we see different journeys, and different levels of effort made, as it has become so much easier to attain a certain level of fame. If you want fame then you can have it. If you don’t figure out how to become famous, you can become notorious. And all of this usually happens with a filter that keeps the truth hidden away.

Writer-director Magnus von Horn wants to look at the fairly common modern phenomenon of living your life with consideration for your public image, and he takes things in a couple of interesting directions. Unfortunately, the best of the points being made end up buried by a lot of familiar moments that pad the runtime out far beyond what was needed. It’s actually hard not to imagine Sweat working better as a short film, but Von Horn tries to justify his feature runtime with a number of varied plot beats, some that work much better than others.

Although there are a number of solid supporting players here, from the stalker to Sylwia’s relatives, this film relies on the attention of viewers being held by Kolesnik, and she is more than up to the task. Finding ways to increase her energy levels, and often put on her best smile, Kolesnik managed to convey the enthusiasm and dedication of her character without coming across as vapid and fake. The script helps her out a lot, especially when presenting conversations about one piece of content that people view as “off brand”.

Admirable for not going in the most obvious direction, Sweat is also a film that ultimately cannot provide viewers with a truly satisfying experience. It shows someone struggling to be the best they can be on a stage they have built for themselves, and some of the more interesting points to be made about that life are lost, arguably much like the central character. This is a nice character study, intriguing for choosing to reveal more about someone who alternated between being as transparent as possible and being a marketable commodity, but it never feels like essential viewing. 

6/10

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Sunday, 19 September 2021

Netflix And Chill: Kate (2021)

When will movie assassins learn? You cannot live that life and then be allowed to retire to a happy life. It just rarely happens, and is more often the case that the last job leads to a potential victim who the assassin perceives as a way to get a small amount of redemption. Kate is happy to follow this template.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the main character, an assassin wanting to retire after one last job. Her handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson), will be sad to see her go. But, wouldn’t you know it, things go wrong with her very last hit, a powerful target named Kijima (Jun Kunimura). It turns out that Kate has been poisoned, which puts her on a race against the clock to finish her last job, something she might be able to do by grabbing Kijima’s niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau). 

As I have said so many times before now, if every other film was either an Escape Room movie or a John Wick riff then I would be easily pleased. Kate is a John Wick riff, with the main character being one of the very best at what she does, which happens to be killing people.

Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (only his second directorial feature after The Huntsman: Winter’s War), this is a fairly simple film that relies on action set-pieces to help viewers forgive the mass of clichés. And it works. The set-pieces are pretty great, especially an extended firefight/chase sequence that showcases the physical skills of everyone at about the halfway mark. The fact that this comes along soon after a sequence that shows Winstead as a formidable force tearing through a building full of gangsters who might have information she needs means you never feel that the main character is incapable of getting her revenge. She may be hurt, and weakened, but her intelligence and tactics help her to maintain an edge, even against overwhelming odds.

Writer Umair Aleem (who previously did Extraction . . . not that one) does a great job of sketching out the main characters, positioning the lead perfectly between wounded woman seeking that oft-sought redemption and superwoman, and uses a lot of familiar elements in a way that feeds nicely into the satisfying, and bloody, final act.

Winstead is excellent as Kate, compensating for her slight build with moves and viciousness that make her a very believable killer. Harrelson has fun in his supporting role, even if he is barely present for most of the middle section. Kumimura is strong and noble, Tadanobu Asano is his second in command, which makes him a potential threat to everyone around him, and Martineau grows nicely into her role as the film drags her along on a journey that features some touchstones recognised by Winstead’s character.

The soundtrack is very energetic, there are a lot of neon-lit action sequences (Japan makes a great backdrop for the main sequences), and the stunt team do a fantastic job of taking the hits and co-ordinating fights that should easily please every action movie fan. 

8/10

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Saturday, 18 September 2021

Shudder Saturday: Bleed With Me (2020)

Another low-budget film that relies on a slow burn, strange character interactions, and a fairly sudden ending (although, thankfully, this doesn't just cut to the titles at a very ambiguous moment), Bleed With Me is an interesting oddity for those who have the patience for it. Mind you, I'm not sure exactly how many people WILL have the patience for it, but I hope there are a few.

It's time for a little break in a cabin in the woods. Emily (Lauren Beatty) is there to spend time with her boyfriend, Brendan (Aris Tyros), but has decided to bring along a friend, Rowan (Lee Marshall). Rowan is a bit awkward and quiet, but soon starts to come out of her shell more in the company of Emily and Brendan. Everything is going quite well, but that changes when Rowan starts to become convinced that at least one of the people keeping her company on this break is also stealing her blood during the night.

The first feature released by writer-director Amelia Moses, who had both this and Bloodthirsty come out in 2020, Bleed With Me is a film that makes good use of limitations. Sticking mostly to the setting of the cabin, the fact that viewers get to delve further and further into the troubled mind of Rowan makes it easy to overlook the lack of any meaningful movement and variety. It also helps that Moses presents the material in a way that can allow people to feel satisfied with events as they are depicted, while also allowing for the option of creating your own interpretation of events. Everything seems quite firmly set out by the very end of the film, but I was left considering some interesting options, despite the fact that the script seemed to have an air of certainty about it.

The big weakness, I'm sorry to say, comes from the performances. Tyros may be the best of the three leads, and he's the person onscreen for the least amount of time. Marshall isn't bad, even if she overdoes the timidity and twitchiness, but Beatty is. While I understand the way in which certain scenes were being played, Beatty is unable to feel natural and real at any point during the film, giving you a sense of something being off from the very first scene. Beatty is also the lead in Bloodthirsty, which means I will eventually check her out in that film and discover whether her performance here was a directing decision or whether that's just how she is onscreen, but this turn certainly didn't make me a fan.

Moses, on the other hand, is someone I will be keeping an eye on. She is able to mix the familiar and the strange with aplomb, spinning a number of small moments here into a nicely-crafted tale that looks at potential vampirism, stalking, co-dependency, self-harming, and more. Even more impressive is the fact that Moses handles all of these topics sensitively enough without bringing the main narrative strand to a clumsy halt. I just hope she starts to work with better actors, or perhaps starts to get better at directing the actors that she hires. Because two out of the three people starring in this film do enough damage to drag it down from a good viewing experience to an average one.

6/10

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Friday, 17 September 2021

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008)

The third instalment in this particular selection of Mummy-centric tales, focusing on heroic Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his family, is pretty much what you'd expect it to be, considering the turnaround behind the cameras. It's now Rob Cohen directing, and the writing duties have been taken over by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, but the central concept is still all about someone wanting to come back from the dead and take his place as a beloved warrior and leader. 

There's an opening sequence that explains who the new villain is this time around, the titular Dragon Emperor (played by Jet Li), and then it's time to catch up with the O'Connells once again. Rick is sort of content, but also kind of bored, while Evelyn (Maria Bello replacing Rachel Weisz in the role) seems to be just fine about a life where she's not being put in mortal danger every so often. Or maybe she's just better at keeping up a pretence. Young Alex (Luke Ford) is now old enough to be gallivanting about on his own adventures, which is why he is in Shanghai, as is his uncle, Jonathan (John Hannah). The whole O'Connell family soon ends up in Shanghai, and they end up having to work hard to stop the resurrected Emperor from becoming immortal.

Fraser, Li, Bello, Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, and Isabella Leong, and even Liam Cunningham, all do pretty good here, in relation to the script that they have to work with. It's a messy film that wants to recapture the spectacle of the previous movies without slavishly repeating any of the set-pieces, but it ends up falling flat. I'll put a small part of the blame for that on Ford, playing the youngest of the O'Connell clan. Whether it's a weak script that he can't overcome or just his own inability to emanate any sense of real charisma, Ford is the least of the cast members onscreen here, and that is a problem exacerbated by the way in which his character is foisted upon us as if he could somehow become a natural successor to Fraser's character. I'm maybe being a bit unfair to Ford here. He's certainly not terrible, but he cannot overcome the failings of the script in the same way that everyone else can, because we already know, and already like, most of the other main players.

Gough and Millar obviously wanted to work with a certain structure, but also wanted to keep things at a certain distance from the previous two movies. They want to deliver a nice, comforting, helping of filmic fun that is the same . . . but different. Unfortunately, they completely forget to add the actual fun. Even the fact that the villain doesn't really have any seriously misguided motive for his actions, other than his selfishness, brings everything down a notch. You don't watch this movie for the script, or direction. You watch it to enjoy some of the stars, mainly Li and an underused Yeoh.

Cohen can be a dependable pair of hands for this sort of thing, but he doesn't seem to have any enthusiasm for this story. The plotting has a number of predictable moments you have to trudge through, the set-pieces have their entertainment factor hidden by horrible CGI and cack-handed editing, and any amusing calbacks to past events in the movie series just make you wish that you'd spent your time revisiting the previous films.

It’s a shame that this ended up being the end of this series (although there are a good number of separate The Scorpion King movies by now) because it almost turns the entire trilogy into a warning to others, perfectly illustrating the standard law of diminishing returns for this kind of stuff. I hope to never watch this again, but the completist in me is happy enough that I finally marked it off the list.

4/10

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Thursday, 16 September 2021

Unhinged (2020)

With a talented writer and director having fun with their material, Unhinged would have been a decent enough thriller for film fans to enjoy easily enough. The addition of Russell Crowe in the lead role, giving a performance as gleefully psychotic as any I can think of, makes it even better, turning it into something that feels surprisingly unmissable for this particular subgenre.

Essentially, this is a “*insert noun* from hell” movie. Crowe plays a character who is having such a bad time, apparently, that his only solution is to kill some people. And with that killing done, he is sitting in traffic, and zones out while a traffic light turns to green, when he is given a horn honk from Rachel (Caren Pistorius). Rachel is late, a bit stressed, and also has her son, Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), in the car with her. Thinking that she is having a bad day, the man she upset with her horn honking becomes determined to show her just how bad her day can get.

Director Derrick Borte has an interesting filmography that includes Cat Run (very enjoyable stuff) and The Joneses (excellent). He doesn’t seem drawn to any one genre, but rather seems to simply react to material he thinks he can treat well. Carl Ellsworth, on the other hand, definitely feels comfortable writing thrillers, having also worked on the excellent Disturbia, Red Eye, and the remake of The Last House On The Left. Ellsworth knows how to make the most of a cracking concept, and both he and Borte do superb work here. Because the unique aspect to this movie is the fact that Crowe’s character gives absolutely zero shits. He doesn’t care who seems him acting like a psycho, and doesn’t care who else he has to hurt by his one-man tsunami of violence and pain.

Crowe is more than up to the task when it comes to being intimidating, vicious, and also playing things in a way that feels very darkly comedic. Pistorius is a solid lead, starting off bewildered by the sharp turn of events before accepting the madness and digging deep to find extra reserves of strength. Bateman is a decent child actor, there’s a great little scene for Jimmi Simpson that underlines just how dangerous Crowe’s character is, and Austin P. McKenzie, Juliene Joyner, and others do a good job portraying likeable individuals who could very easily become unable to continue breathing due to the actions of one madman.

If this had gone along the same lines of many other films we have seen like it then Unhinged would not be as memorable as it is. It goes from zero to one hundred within the first few scenes, and that makes it a memorable viewing experience. It allows the film to feel different from others in this subgenre, despite heading to the same third act. And I like to think that some candy cane scissors owned by the lead character were a nice nod to another superb thriller about a vicious psycho behind the wheel of a big engine. 

Highly recommended. In fact, you will be mad at yourself if you dismiss it as something not worth your time. And the fact that it's a nice and well-paced 90 minutes (something becoming increasingly rare nowadays) is another reason to recommend it.

8/10

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Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Prime Time: Initiation (2020)

There’s an idea here that could have been developed into a good movie, but let me quickly state that this is not a good movie. Social commentary that falls flat, slasher movie moments that fall equally flat, Initiation is just a huge missed opportunity that seems too focused on depicting social media and shared text messages onscreen.

The ball really starts rolling when a young woman, Kylie (Isabella Gomez), ends up in a room full of young men, including Wes Scott (Froy Gutierrez). Taken home by a friend, Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy), who also happens to be the sister of Wes, Kylie starts to worry the next day about just what may have happened.  It may be tied to a horrific “game” that the males play once a year, marking their victims out online with an exclamation mark, and Ellery has to accept the fact that her brother is complicit in a sexual assault, unsurprising as he was accused of the same thing just one year before. Then the killing begins.

Directed by John Berardo , who co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Frager and LaVanchy, Initation seems so focused on getting exploring the damage that can be done through social media that it forgets to deliver anything worthwhile, including a proper look at the damage that can be done through social media. It’s as if everyone was so happy to fill the screen with photos and messages characters send/receive on their phones and computers that they forgot all about what they were actually targeting with their material.

Aside from the character played by Gomez, nobody makes a strong impression. Nobody, whether they are supposed to be good or bad. I liked seeing Yancy Butler and Lochlyn Munro, but just because of the recognition factor, nothing to do with the characters they play. One of the other main actors shared a surname with the director, which I suspect explains his inclusion, and I think that sums up the approach to making this. It feels like a group of people who were lucky enough to get a budget allowing them to turn their pet project into a feature.

It may not be entirely bloodless, but Initiation will certainly disappoint anyone seeking it out as a standard slasher. The runtime clocks in at just under 100 minutes, and the first half really drags. Absolutely nothing stands out, except the staggering ability the film has to have nothing standing out.

Lacking any courage, in terms of both the commentary on culture and the “boys will be boys” mantra that has people overlooking so many serious assaults and in terms of standard slasher movie fare, Initiation is so weak that it has me hoping those involved work with much stronger individuals, or people with much clearer vision, on any future projects. This is an initiation to avoid.

3/10

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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Malignant (2021)

There are some things to consider about the conversations people have been having about Malignant, the latest horror movie from James Wan. First of all, the fact that it is a very divisive film isn’t necessarily a negative. Whether you end up loving or hating this, kudos to Wan for taking such a huge swing with it. Secondly, someone having a different opinion of it does not mean they didn’t “get it”, even if the film has a lot in there that will be recognised mainly by older horror fans who are more likely to spot the many influences, from giallo to grindhouse films. Third, you can enjoy a movie without loving absolutely everything it does. Despite what the internet may be telling us, reactions still do not have to be absolutely weighted to one end or the other.

Now we can get to the film itself. Annabelle Wallis plays Madison Mitchell, a woman who starts to experience visions of violent murders. Knowing a bit too much, and the victim of an attack herself, the police start to consider Madison as a suspect, especially when it turns out that she has connections to the victims. Does this mean that Madison’s childhood friend, a presence nobody else would ever see, has reappeared?

Although it’s not just Wallis onscreen, with supporting turns from Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, it’s a film that stays so focused on her character, and people are asked to act in a certain way, most of the cast are secondary to the vision of Wan. Simply there to be puppeteered, ironically. It’s hard to judge people for performances that have been directed in a very specific way. Although Marina Mazepa deserves a special mention for her outstanding physical performance.

The script, written by Akela Cooper (from a story thrashed out in conjunction with Wan and Ingrid Bisu), is pretty terrible. It’s the combination of bad writing and weak acting that has led to so many people saying that Wan has delivered a wild American giallo, but that claim forgives a lot of mis-steps. There’s no style here good enough to feel faithful to the giallo flicks it wants to emulate, a lot of it overshadowed by horribly unnecessary CGI, and the bonkers ending is disappointingly telegraphed from the earliest scenes (and giallo fans will know that most of the maddest endings they have enjoyed have been anything but predictable).

As inevitable as the final act is, it is also where Wan pulls out all of the stops and presents an audaciously fun sequence that makes the whole film worth your time. Perhaps that is a sign that he is more at home wallowing in gore and carnage than trying to be stylish and homaging giallo flicks, but it certainly allows him to provide nods, some bigger than others, to the works of Frank Henenlotter, Stephen King, Brian De Palma, and his good friend, Leigh Wannell. I don’t mind this pick ‘n’ mix approach when the end result is such a hoot, and nobody will feel bored by the time the end credits roll.

Malignant is good, sometimes really good, but the first hour or so isn’t. You have some disappointingly weak death scenes, characters it is hard to really care about, a score from Joseph Bishara that doesn’t really work alongside the visuals most of the time, and constant overuse of CGI when practical effects would have added to the overall feel that Wan was aiming for. That final act makes up for a multitude of small sins, however, and how far it pushes the envelope towards real cinematic insanity makes it one of the strangest horrors to be pushed into the mainstream in a very long time. Which makes it worth your time and support.

7/10

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Monday, 13 September 2021

Mubi Monday: Good Vibrations (2012)

This is the story of Terri Hooley, a man with a passion for music so great that he ended up opening a record store in Belfast, and forming a label, that would support, and hugely influence, the punk music scene in Belfast. Not that either business made any money. Profit was never a motivation for Terri. It was always just about the music.

Hooley is certainly someone who deserves to have their life story shared and celebrated, whether you read any books written about him or (like me) just watch this movie. Taking place during the infamous years of bloodshed and death in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, Hooley did his best to stay apart from everything he viewed as unnecessary distractions from the music. It was a view that ended up being infectious, allowing him to gather together a number of like-minded individuals, all of them using music in different ways to the same ends. Escape. Whether that is physical or mental.

With the role of Hooley played by Richard Dormer, Good Vibrations is a film lifted by that performance and, appropriately, the music pumping through it. Dormer has a blast, portraying Hooley with charm and savvy, if a lack of business sense, and there’s a lovely supporting role for Jodie Whittaker, playing his partner, Ruth. Aside from the people portraying some key figures in the industry, Kerr Logan as Feargal Sharky and Kieron Forsyth as John Peel, the cast also has consistently solid turns from Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Karl Johnson, and many others. 

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn do a fine job of capturing the time and the place, and conveying that feeling of stumbling on to some life-changing music, and the script, by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson, keeps the humour, that seems to have been a central part of Hooley’s nature, juxtaposed alongside the very real threat posed to so many people in Northern Ireland during that time. 

It may not be an essential story, although it will inevitably be essential to those impacted by it, and it may not be a standard feelgood film, with the highs and lows leading to a fairytale happy ending, but Good Vibrations mixes the authentic with the fantastical and perfectly illustrates that way in which we can all be transported from mundanity by one great song that resonates through our entire body. It also has a predictably great soundtrack.

You could say that . . . it's well worth keeping an eye open for it.

8/10

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Sunday, 12 September 2021

Netflix And Chill: The Block Island Sound (2020)

Written and directed by The McManus brothers (Kevin and Matthew), The Block Island Sound is an enjoyably atmospheric horror movie that ends up taking viewers through very familiar territory.

Harry (Chris Sheffield) is devastated after the sudden death of his father (Neville Archambault), which sends him on a downward spiral as he struggles to maintain his sanity while forces continually try to mess with his mind. Harry’s sister, Audrey (Michaela McManus), wants to help her brother, but she also starts to fear for the safety of her daughter, Emily (Matilda Lawler). Although people are trying to find some answers, or a “cure”, Harry seems destined to follow his father to the other side.

The best thing about The Block Island Sound is, undoubtedly and unsurprisingly, the sound design. There is an audio mix here that tries to unsettle at every turn, especially when viewers are placed closely alongside Harry as he struggles to keep a grasp on reality. But it’s not just about the sound, you get some fantastic scares dotted throughout, mainly from the sudden appearance of the character played by Archambault. Traditional scares are executed well, but the main thrust of the plot allows them to feel a bit different from genre standards that we have seen so many times before.

Sheffield does well in his role, often having to act like someone who has had his mind addled (which he has) while he fights against an invisible tormentor. McManus is easy to root for, especially as she finds herself torn between the love for her brother and the overriding need to keep her daughter safe. Archambault plays his part very effectively, allowing himself to be used as a vessel for some of the more discomforting audio moments, and everyone else, from Lawler to Jim Cummings, Ryan O’Flanagan, and Heidi Niedermeyer, puts in absolutely solid work.

Although not a debut from the McManus brothers, this feels like it. I don’t mean that as an insult. It is an interesting film, working with one main idea in a way that makes the most of its potential, and the budget is used well to deliver one or two impressive moments in a narrative that keeps you unnerved throughout.

Although things end with a fairly traditional resolution, The Block Island Sound is not a film for anyone wanting something in line with many other horror movies from recent years. It’s not an easy viewing, especially in the first half, but it’s an interesting and rewarding one.

8/10

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Saturday, 11 September 2021

Shudder Saturday: Martyrs Lane (2021)

As some may have noticed, I tend not to ever go out of my way to join in with things like "52 movies directed by women" or other ways that movie fans seek to make up for the imbalance that works against females in the movie industry. This isn't any bias on my part, and it's certainly not me trying to say that "it shouldn't matter who is directing, as long as it is good" as an excuse to go along with the status quo that has men still getting the bigger opportunities, whether they succeed or fail. There is some truth to that, however, and why I have never taken on any mission to see more movies directed by women is simply because, well, I do my best to consume SO many movies every week that I thankfully end up watching a lot more movies from female film-makers than the casual film fan. This here blog has a review on it every day (so that's 7 films a week), I watch between 2 and 5 films for the podcast, and I have, for the past few years, done my best to keep up with every movie that appears daily on the MUBI streaming service. It may be the latter that exposes me to a much more interesting variety of film-makers, but this Shudder selection for this week has shown me the impressive talent of writer-director Ruth Platt. Considering how impressed, and moved, I was by Saint Maud last year (the astonishing debut from writer-director Rose Glass), not to mention the emotional punch packed by Tigers Are Not Afraid (from Issa López), I felt that it was time to remind others of how much excellent work has been done recently by women mixing horror with sadly identifiable traumas.

Martyrs Lane focuses on young Leah (Kiera Thompson), a girl who lives in a large vicarage. It's a busy environment, but can prove to be an equally lonely one for a young child. Leah feels disconnected from her mother, Sarah (Denise Gough), and her father, Thomas (Steven Cree), is more comfortable discussing aspects of faith and spirituality than being a relaxed father. Then there's the older sister, Bex (Hannah Rae), who likes to torment Leah. The dynamic could feel very normal, a standard family that often has members rubbing each other up the wrong way, but there's something a bit off, something that nobody seems to want to address. Leah finds herself receiving visits from another little girl (played by Sienna Sayer), and the conversations between the two of them may end up laying out the problem at the heart of the family that nobody wants to discuss.

Although a tale of a mother and her children, Martyrs Lane stays focused on the viewpoint of a young child. It's a great approach, with Platt convincingly creating moments that will be familiar to anyone who had strange sensation of walking in on adults who you know had just been arguing with one another, or had been discussing something not to be spoken about within earshot of the kids. That's what this is, essentially, but that feeling is also wrapped in a layer of something that evokes loss and grief, but without young Leah being aware of what others are missing. As she gets closer to discovering the truth, helped along by her new friend, she also reminds her mother of pain that was barely being held back by the smallest of dams.

All of the cast are superb in their roles, and all play things perfectly. Gough and Cree are flawed parents who feel absolutely real at all times. Rae is the typical older sister, with her own teen turbulence distracting her from the bigger picture for most of the runtime. But the heart of the film lies with Thompson and Sayer, and both give performances so good that I hope other directors can figure out ways to keep making the most of their talents. Both are very natural, but Sayer has to act up a little bit more, playing her character as she is, someone wearing a costume/mask who wants to be completely honest with others, but fears the full repercussions.

Perhaps a little bit undecided on tone and look throughout, Platt nevertheless makes the right choice in being committed to keeping most of the film as events observed by children. Would I have liked a more gothic style? Would I have enjoyed a few more moments of creepiness, some actual scares? Yes. This isn't a film to watch if you're after some standard jumps and a bit of bloodshed, but it could have added a little bit more of either without losing its way (as far as I can tell). Platt clearly had her mind set on the way to best tell this story, however, and it's hard to really fault an end result that feels as if it accomplished everything she wanted.

I was enjoying Martyrs Lane while it was on, especially when I realised what kind of film it was, but I was a little bit in love with it by the third act. The ending may be a bit too unambiguous for some, especially after the dreamy quality of many moments in the first two acts, but it worked for me. As the end credits rolled, accompanied by some more of the lovely music provided by Anne Müller, I knew it was a film I would have to hastily recommend to others. I suspect few will like it as much as I did, but I'll be happy if one or two others share my view.

8/10

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Friday, 10 September 2021

Popcorn (1991)

Originally helmed by Alan Ormsby, his directorial role soon taken over by Mark Herrier, Popcorn is a substandard slasher movie boosted by a fun central gimmick that will appeal to fans of the antics of William Castle.

In a bid to raise funds for their film department, a group of university students decided to put on a horror movie marathon in a run-down cinema. The films being shown are wonderfully cheesy, and each one will be accompanied by an interactive feature (a giant mosquito that “flies” over the audience, electric shocks, the always dangerous odor-ama). They will also be accompanied by a number of murders, but those were never part of the plan. The killer seems most intent on targeting and terrorising a young woman named Maggie (Jill Schoelen), but what is the motivation for this night of terror?

When I call Popcorn a substandard slasher, I am not meaning to write it off completely. It is an enjoyable horror film, if a bit daft throughout, but just doesn’t sit alongside the many better slasher movies. If you want some decent gore and a high bodycount then you should look elsewhere, although there are some excellent special effects where they are needed, but if you want something that has a palpable sense of affection for the kind of film experience that forms the core of the plot then you should give this a go. It IS a popcorn horror, and it wants you to remember that throughout.

Schoelen is a decent potential final girl, whether she is wandering through a nightmare sequence in the opening sequence or being astounded when the killer is revealed. Other characters are played by Derek Rydall (playing someone amusingly “mistreated” at every opportunity by a script ensuring he is repaid for bad behaviour),  Dee Wallace (the mother of Schoelen’s character), Kelly Jo Minter, Tom Villard, Malcolm Danare, and Tony Roberts, as well as a number of others all doing absolutely fine for the kind of film that they’re a part of.

As messy as it could have been, considering the departure of Ormsby and the arrival of Herrier, Popcorn is a surprisingly coherent, and enjoyably inventive, horror film that relies on viewers sharing the obvious love for the genre that it has running through it. The technical side of things may seem a bit less inventive than the main “gags”, but it all comes together to create something more than the sum of its parts. And ends up being one I recommend.

7/10

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Thursday, 9 September 2021

Vice Academy (1989)

It’s easy to remember the cinematic trends that ended up making a huge impact. The template for buddy cop flicks, for example. Superhero-populated cinematic universes. Films about little creatures that came out not long after Gremlins. But it’s also worth noting the cinematic trends that came and went without making anywhere near the same amount of impact. Like the films that came along after Police Academy. Not only did you get a number of forgettable comedy films about hopeless amateurs being thrown into situations way over their heads, there were also a number of films that tried to cash in on that film’s success by cannily re-using the word “academy” in the title. I have seen Combat Academy (starring Keith Gordon, and also featuring a role for one George Clooney). I never did see Mortuary Academy (which I do want to see). And now I have finally seen Vice Academy.

Written and directed by Rick Sloane, Vice Academy is a paper-thin comedy with very few laughs, although there are one or two there for the more forgiving viewer. The best way to view it is simply as a fan of some of  the stars, and those stars are Linnea Quigley, Ginger Lynn, and Karen Russell. So you should know what kind of film you are in for.

If you think I have forgotten to mention the plot, I haven’t. The plot is irrelevant. Essentially about some hopeless trainees working towards earning a spot in the vice squad. Those trainees are played by Quigley, Russell, and Ken Abraham. They aren’t impressing their teacher/boss (Jayne Hamil), and their progress is being hampered by the “good girl” scheming to ensure they fail (played by Ginger Lynn). But maybe they can accidentally find a way to show everyone how good they are before the end credits roll, even if they still never actually seem to deserve their chances.

Technically, this is lousy. It feels cheap and rushed throughout, the acting from everyone involved is far from great, and the plot could have been written down on the back of a small sachet of salt. There’s nothing of note in any part of the production, from the camerawork to the editing, from the production design to the score. Having said that, it at least sometimes attempts to look more like a film than a cheap project allowing friends to work together in some nice house they have found (*cough* David DeCoteau *cough).

You don’t put on a film like Vice Academy when you want to watch an actual good movie. It is the epitome of something to watch with “beer and pizza”, even if you don’t indulge in either of those things. Switch your brain off, wait for the occasional bit of nudity, and keep your frame of mind receptive to humour that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Fred Olen Ray movie, or even a tame Troma flick.

4/10

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Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Prime Time: Cinderella (2021)

Writer-director Kay Cannon has a number of films to her credit, but is arguably best known for her work on the Pitch Perfect movies. I enjoy the Pitch Perfect movies, despite them generally going along with the usual rules of diminishing returns. So I went into this new version of Cinderella with a sense of optimism that many others lacked. Even when the bad review started to appear, I tried to have a little faith in the idea that I would be simply entertained. That faith didn’t take long to start dissipating.

Cinderella isn’t terrible, not all of the time anyway. It’s just often not that good, and then some sequences get worse than that. And you have to tolerate small appearances from certain cast members that I just keep finding less and less tolerable each time I see them.

I won’t summarise them story. I cannot help you if you don’t know about poor Cinderella already. The titular character is played here by Camila Cabello, the Prince is played by Nicholas Galitzine, and the cruel stepmother is played by Idina Menzel. Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, and Tallulah Greive are the other royals, Billy Porter takes on the fairy godmother role, although it is reworked slightly, and British panel shows were robbed to place Rob Beckett, James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan in amongst the fairytale antics. And James Corden gets some screentime, unfortunately. 

Mainly placing itself in that specific category now known as “jukebox musicals”, Cinderella starts off well enough, with an enjoyable mash-up that includes the excellent “Rhythm Nation”. It’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t do as well, with most of the other song choices being mistreated by their rearrangements. A Queen song is murdered, an En Vogue song just reminded me of their appearance in Coming 2 America, and the less said about “Seven Nation Army” the better.

Cannon knows what she wants to present to viewers, and she delivers something obviously straining to blend the modern and cool with all of the traditional fairytale moments that you expect. This is olde worlde antics with modern sensibilities laid over everything, but it doesn’t work as well as it could.

A big reason for that is cast. The “old guard” have a lot of fun in their roles, particularly Brosnan and Driver, but the leads fail to convey any real sense of them actually enjoying themselves. I don’t like the singing style of Cabello (all whiney, quivering, use of five syllables in words where two are present) and she doesn’t have the right presence to hold your attention in the non-singing parts. Galitzine is no better, lacking charisma and unable to sell either the heart or humour in his main scenes. Porter is fun in his small amount of screentime, which is really just one main scene, and Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer raise some smiles as “the ugly sisters”, but it must be said that the British personalities don’t get enough to do, so are just there to prompt thoughts of “oh, look who it is” when they appear. At least Nandi Bushell also gets to join in with the fun for all of two seconds.

Fairytales have been adapted and twisted so often over the past few decades that you are spoilt for choice. Almost all of the other movies you could think of, right now, are better than this. It isn’t absolutely terrible. It is just a mess that consistently feels like it is trying to hard to be clever and cool, while rarely managing to be either.

4/10

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Tuesday, 7 September 2021

There's Something In The Shadows (2021)

Writer-director John Williams has an anthology horror movie coming out soon called Tales Of The Creeping Death, and I am keen to see what he can do in that format. That is despite the fact that he has, with There’s Something In The Shadows, delivered one of the very worst found footage movies that I’ve ever seen.

There are good elements here, if they were separated and placed in a movie that had any way to use them coherently. First of all, the main cast are a group revolving around someone who presents YouTube videos of his investigations into supernatural shenanigans. That character is played by John Solomonides. Seems okay so far, right? Then you have the fact that they are travelling to Loch Ness. A found footage movie set on the banks of Loch Ness? I am there. Then you have a theory that a Bigfoot creature may be in that area. Wait . . . what? And there could be portals allowing for these creatures to appear, as well as causing other strange phenomena. 

If you read all of the above and felt the same way as I did about it, you can see why I checked out early with this one. I knew that Williams didn’t care about what he was creating here. He just wanted to throw everything together, get some people acting amongst lots of trees, and move to a third act that makes you wish you had just rewatched The Blair Witch Project instead.

Solomonides doesn’t seem great in his role, but nobody is. They are stuck with the unenviable task of trying to make this nonsense seem even remotely believable. The other main cast members are Pete Bennett, Darren McAree, Williams himself, and Steve Wood. Fair play to them all for doing what is asked of them, considering what is asked of them seems like some kind of elaborate prank to rope them into an abysmal movie.

There’s nothing else to say, other than negative comments. The camerawork gets shakier when Williams needs to hide his extremely low budget, the opening title card even mis-spells the word “amateur” (admittedly, maybe some kind of small gag I just didn’t get), and there is a dummy fall/throw here on par with the worst, and most hilarious, I usually see in Italian thrillers of the 1970s.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, I am hopeful for the next movie from Williams. That at least should feel more like a proper movie, instead of a weekend lark with mates. But I advise everyone to avoid this one completely, with my generous rating simply based on the fact that the second half just managed to avoid being completely boring.

Oh, there’s also a closing credit that somehow made me resent the film even more. Plan a film around the concepts of film-making, not around a gimmick you think could excuse any and all shortcomings.

2/10

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Monday, 6 September 2021

Mubi Monday: Annette (2021)

Although very much a film from director Leos Carax, Annette is also very much a film from the minds of writers Ron and Russell Mael (AKA Sparks). A strangely antagonistic and defiantly non-traditional musical about performing, about the relationship between performers and audiences, this is also a look at strong passions running between people who may view themselves as separate from the masses who flock to appreciate their talents.

Adam Driver plays an acerbic and dark comedian named Henry McHenry, a man who seems to find his unique talent dissipating when he falls in love with, and marries, an opera singer named Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). Things are further complicated when they have a daughter, Annette, who shows signs of inheriting her mother's talent.

Deceptively light and amusing at the start of the whole thing, with the wonderful "So May We Start" a musical highlight the rest of the film never quite equals, Annette soon drags viewers into the surreal and strange style of the modern opera it hews close to. Nothing here is subtle, although a number of moments in the first half initially feel more ambiguous than anything in the second half, and almost every moment is delivered in song, even if it veers away from musicality for a while before veering back.

Carax is in his element, clearly relishing the opportunity to stage those Sparks songs in unusual settings and situations, and actually makes a lot of correct decisions for the material, including the use of a “puppet” for most of Annette’s screentime. There are one or two ingredients that feel extraneous (a sequence about women coming forward with some accusations ultimately goes nowhere, disappointingly, and one character gets to bemoan a missed chance at love in a way that doesn’t really make any impact), but he mostly delivers something that feels like the perfect result of this collaboration.

Whether you will enjoy it or not is an entirely separate thing. I was on board, willing it to challenge and impress me, then it lost me for quite some time, and then I got back on board during the third act.

Although it is both Driver and Cottilard in the lead roles, and both are more than up to the task, the film is largely carried by Driver, who is excellent and completely trusting in how the director will use his raw performance. Simon Helberg has some screentime, playing that character who missed out on love, and he does just fine, but I would have preferred the whole thing to focus simply on McHenry, Defrasnoux, and Annette.

For the performance from Driver, for the creativity from Sparks, and for the audacious staging, I cannot rate this as a bad movie. It’s not average either. But the bad onscreen almost outweighs the good, which is why I ultimately rate it only just above average.

6/10

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Sunday, 5 September 2021

Netflix And Chill: Sweet Girl (2021)

Grief can affect you in so many ways, as we have seen in various movies over the years. I very recently watched Nicolas Cage change people around him as he searched for a beloved pig, and now I have watched Jason Momoa and Isabela Merced kick ass on a quest to counter the injustice of unaffordable medication that led to the death (by cancer) of wife/mother, Amanda (Adria Arjona).

That almost sums up the plot here. After the death of Amanda, Ray (Momoa) and Rachel (Merced) want answers. Ray is contacted by someone who claims that he has information on the pharmaceutical company responsible for blocking the route to market of the cheaper medication that could have saved Amanda’s life. There’s then a death, which leads to more death, and it’s not long until the bodies start to pile up while the murky deals and corruption lead, of course, higher and higher up a chain of prominent individuals. The police are on the case, and one (Alex Scott Davis) has much more insight than the rest, as well as some more direct communication with Rachel.

Directed by Brian Andrew Mendoza, his first feature in that role (although he has been involved as a producer on some other Momoa vehicles), and written by Gregg Hurwitz and Philip Eisner, Sweet Girl is a solid, if unspectacular, bit of action with a couple of fun turns and a sadly relevant strand of commentary on the financial pain of being sick in the USA. It’s a film that doesn’t hold any real surprises, despite the fact that one or two moments are played out that way (although one reveal in the third act was nicely done, admittedly). Some may think I am being unfair by saying that, but the general structure, and fate of most of the characters, allows me to make that statement, and stand by it. This may be wearing some new clothes, but it's a very familiar framework.

Momoa is fine in his role, trying to make the most of the emotional moments in between throwing his fists and firing guns. Merced is also absolutely fine, although I must admit to being more of a fan of her Dora The Explorer work (it’s a fun film, no matter what you may assume). Davis is enjoyable in the role of  “effective, but understanding, cop”, and Justin Bartha, Amy Brenneman, and Raza Jaffrey offer decent support. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a highlight, playing a determined killer who is contracted to tie up loose ends.

Unsophisticated, slick, entertainment, Sweet Girl is something easy to stick on when you want to kill some time without keeping track of any majorly twisty plotting. It’s disposable, but also enjoyable enough. And the 110-minute runtime feels enjoyable brief, compared to the current propensity for these kinds of movies to rarely clock in at under two hours nowadays.

6/10

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Saturday, 4 September 2021

Shudder Saturday: Superhost (2021)

Writer-director Brandon Christensen may not be immediately recognisable to most horror fans, but he's been creating some enjoyably solid genre fare over the past few years, and seems to be improving slightly with each film (I thought Still/Born was okay, I liked Z a bit more). While Superhost may not be the darkest or scariest horror movie you see this year, it's a hell of a lot of fun, helped by a completely unhinged turn from Gracie Gillam.

Gillam plays Rebecca, a young woman aiming to be reviewed as a "superhost" by Teddy (Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Canning). Teddy and Claire have had a successful YouTube series for some time, but are currently losing followers, and relevance in that crowded field. Rebecca hopes to keep everything perfect though. A bad review from Teddy and Claire can ruin someone's business, as Vera (Barbara Crampton) discovered. 

Best summed up by the tagline "don't forget to like and survive", Superhost is generally fun from start to finish. The main potential problem that it has is the fact that Rebecca seems quite batty, to put it mildly, from the very beginning. But that's part of the fun, because Teddy and Claire think what they can get on camera will end up getting them a great reaction online, and push their numbers back up. Christensen does a good job of mixing the thriller element of the plot with a nice bit of full-on creepiness, at least one great gore moment, and the commentary on how things are presented online compared to how things are in reality. 

The leads do a good job, with both Chau and Canning believable in their normal interactions and equally believable when using their louder and more lively personas for their online videos. Crampton may only be onscreen for a few minutes, but she's as welcome as ever. Then you have Gillam, the manic and unbalanced heart of the film, giving a performance that easily puts her up there with the very best of the modern movie psychos. There's no surprise when her potential is fully realised, it's just up to the viewers to try and figure out what her actual motivation is.

Christensen gets everything right here. I can easily imagine a version of this movie that would have been painful to sit through, (either not casting the right people, deciding to go the found footage route, or any of a multitude of ways this could have felt wrong) but his instincts steer him right. And the fact that it all builds to an ending that is as darkly comedic as it is obvious means the whole experience is a satisfying and entertaining one.

I look forward to whatever we get next from Christensen. He's been on the right path for years, and if he delivers some minor modern classic in the next decade or so then remember that I told you so. Because I'll also say "I told you so".

8/10

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Friday, 3 September 2021

Pig (2021)

Every time another Nicolas Cage film comes along lately, I end up wondering when he will finally stop having his better onscreen moments viewed with the surprise that seems to meet every other performance he delivers recently. Yes, he still takes on more projects every year than most actors, or so it seems (well, so it seems to everyone but Eric Roberts), but he constantly does his best in them. And when the film is worthy of his best, as this one is, you get something special.

Cage plays Rob, an antisocial individual living in a cabin in the middle of the woods. It's just him and his pig, and the two do a damn fine job of finding truffles, which are collected by a young man named Amir (Alex Wolff). The whole delicate balance is upset when Rob's pig is stolen - pignapped - and Rob has to track down the thieves. He and Amir go on a journey that leads Rob to reconnect with a number of people from his past, and that means also creeping towards some memories that have been buried by Amir's father, Darius (Adam Arkin).

The first full feature directed by Michael Sarnoski, who also wrote the film with Vanessa Block, Pig is a film that requires some patience as it takes you down a path you think you know before then sidestepping any number of easy options in favour of something genuinely moving and grubbily beautiful. You may be expecting a film about a man who gets desperate and angry while trying to find his beloved pig, but you end up with a film that does more to illustrate the incapacitating and sometimes-insurmountable tidal wave of grief that can hit someone than any other recent film I can think of, with the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis.

Cage is superb in the main role. He's slightly Cage-y, but also has a lot of times when he's just creating space, moments of quiet, for others to fill. He is a man avoiding a confrontation with himself by confronting others, even if many of those confrontations are calm and non-violent ones. Wolff continues to pick decent roles in films that have allowed him to build a filmography already filling up with a great variety of interesting choices. His character may not be the focus of the film, but his own journey, and that of his father, ends up inextricably linked with Rob in a way that crystallises beautifully on the way to an ending that is, and I'm not exaggerating here, deeply moving in an unexpected, but earnest, way.

You can love someone, or something, and that can fill a huge space in your heart. And you can then be stuck with one hell of an empty feeling if you lose that loved one. Pig shows people who have that emptiness, for different reasons, but it also shows that you can work towards filling that space again. Maybe not entirely, maybe not by much, maybe just providing yourself some kind of interior cushion made up of memories that you hope will help you get through a few more days until you can figure out some other way to deal with things, or find some other distraction. If Pig managed to remind just one viewer that they're not alone in how they have ever struggled with grief/loss of love then it would be a success, but I suspect it actually reminds everyone of moments they have battled through, or at least reminds everyone that most people we know in our lives have been through, or will go through, at least one huge trauma that will irrevocably change them in some way.

If you're somehow unable to empathise, it's still a good, simple, tale of a man out to retrieve his stolen pig.

9/10

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Thursday, 2 September 2021

Demonic (2021)

Writer-director Neill Blonkamp is back, this time with a film purporting to be more of a horror than his usual sci-fi fare, but don’t be fooled. This is actually the kind of lame blend of horror and tech that would appear throughout the 1990s, usually revolving around someone using a chunky computer and cumbersome headset.

The basic plot concerns Carly (played by Carly Pope), a woman who is asked to visit her comatose mother (Nathalie Boltt). Her mother was imprisoned for some major incident years ago, which means that Carly isn’t really that bothered about checking on her health. There’s been a breakthrough though, a way for Carly to effectively enter the mind of her mother and communicate with her. Carly seeks closure, but what she sees and hears ends up providing more questions than answers. Just what exactly ended up driving her mother to commit her crime, and is it something that can still affect Carly?

There’s no way to tiptoe around this. Demonic is terrible. Blommkamp has been on a steady downward descent since his superb debut, District 9, but this is, for now, his nadir. A horror movie with no tension or scares, but with a pinch of preposterous sci-fi to take the plot wherever Blommkamp wants it to go.

The script is terrible, which is the biggest hurdle to overcome. The fact that Blommkamp clearly believes in his own material makes you realise early on that it’s not going to be surmountable. Familiar moments crash against one another, despite the new set of clothes draped over everything, and the premise feels half-baked throughout. “Rules” are laid out, or so it seems, only to be cast aside later, when those restrictions need to be undone.

It doesn’t help that the central cast aren’t as strong as they could be either. I wasn’t a big fan of Pope or Boltt, and Michael J. Rogers, Chris William Martin, and Terry Chen are stuck with characters who simply aren’t interesting enough for them to make any decent impression. They’re all collateral damage, unable to fight against the material they are stuck with, and I doubt a stronger cast could have done enough to majorly improve things.

Trying to pass itself off as something refreshing and new, Demonic is actually, sadly, worn out and tired by the time the very first scene has played out. Nothing stands out, unless it is for all the wrong reasons, from the score to the editing, from the production design to makeup and effects. While the budget may save it from being alongside the worst of the worst that I have seen, it is undeniably dull, dumb, and just quite terrible.

3/10

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Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Prime Time: Momentum (2015)

I have said it on numerous occasions, but there are people who will always get me to watch any movie, for all sorts of reasons. I have been a fan of Olga Kurylenko since her time spent being the highlight of a very messy Bond film, Quantum Of Solace. So I went in to Momentum with the small hope that it would provide me with some easy, unsophisticated, entertainment. That hope soon disappeared.

Things begin with a robbery, one that doesn’t go to plan, and everything is about to get very tricky for the robbers, who have inadvertently stolen a drive that contains some very sensitive information. Olga Kurylenko is Alexis, the most skilled of the robbers, and she ends up being aggressively pursued by the ruthless Mr. Washington (James Purefoy) and his assistants.

That is all I want to say about Momentum. Trust me, that is plenty. The first feature directed by Stephen S. Campanelli, this is an absolute mess from start to finish, a muddled heap of clichés and ineptly-shot action beats. It’s so bad that I am amazed Campanelli has been allowed to make more movies after it.

To be fair, most of the awfulness is delivered by the script, by Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan (two people who have done much better work on films actually directed by Marcus). It’s absolutely ridiculous throughout, and not in an entertainingly knowing way. The main character is always a step or two ahead of the villain, despite relying on one piece of good fortune after another, and the supporting characters are so barely sketched out that they really needn’t even be there. And you get Mr. Washington taking every opportunity to pretend to be reasonable and eloquently comment on the situation as it is unfolding.

Campanelli takes the script and does nothing to help distract from it. Every decision made seems to highlight either the incompetence or the lack of budget, or both, and most viewers will be keen for this to get to the final scene. There’s one wince-inducing torture sequence, but it feels as if it has been placed here from some other film.

Kurylenko isn’t at her best here, and cannot really sell herself in the role, unfortunately, so the saving Grace turns out to be Purefoy, who at least seems to enjoy being committed to the performance of his one-note villain. Everyone else seems to come from either the cheapest supporting actor agency or Rent-a-thug, with the only other standout being Shelley Nicole, as a badass woman named Ms. Clinton. You also get a cameo from Morgan Freeman, who can easily now put this film as one of the very worst he has been involved with.

You may just glean enough enjoyment from this if you go in with the lowest of expectations, maybe, but it’s pretty terrible, even for the type of entertainment it aims to provide. That still won’t stop me from checking out the many other Kurylenko movies I have yet to see though. I’ll just never revisit this one.

3/10

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Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Candyman (2021)

There are two things associated with this latest working of the Candyman mythos that can provide a lot of irritation and/or amusement. First, the amount of people that keep referring to it as a bloody Jordan Peele film, when it was directed by, and co-written by Nia DaCosta (ironically . . . say her name, and remember it). Peele also worked on the screenplay, and his name as producer most probably helped the studio get behind this, but the ignorance/laziness of people wrongly crediting Peele, whether they love or hate the movie, is astonishing. Not the first time, of course (remember "Eli Roth's" Aftershock, or poor Henry Selick so often being forgotten as the actual director of The Nightmare Before Christmas?), and it won't be the last, but if the past few years have taught us anything it is, surely, the importance of correcting inaccuracies and misinformation. The other main thing that you should choose to just roll your eyes it, well, it's the amount of people complaining about the content of this film, either trying to call it racist, or complaining about it being "too woke", as if the original films weren't exploring the racially-charged mistreatment and abuse of a black man, the social climate and systemic issues that bundled African Americans together in one small area where they could be left to their own devices, gentrification, and the power that can be gained by examining something in the open that has been left to fester for so long behind closed doors.

Anyway, let's get to the film itself, a continuation of the story delivered to audiences in the original film. This time the main characters are an artist, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and his successful partner, Brianna (Teyonah Parris). Struggling to find his way back to anything like his previous form, to put it mildly, Anthony finds his imagination fired up when he bumps into William Burke (Colman Domingo), a man who confirms the tale of Candyman, and the subsequent incident that ended with a stolen baby being returned and the fiery death of Helen Lyle. Anthony creates a new selection of work, based around the phrase "say his name", and starts a chain of events that could drastically affect his future, while also forcing him to find out a bit more about his past.

From the very first seconds of Candyman starting, the focus of this film is crystal clear. Much like the first film, it's about exposing something that has been kept in the dark for too long. This is the perfect way to craft a sequel to a well-loved modern horror classic, despite the fact that some people will just want more of the thing they enjoyed most the first time around. You still have commentary on gentrification, you still have the amusing dissection of art and culture from people acting smug and superior while living outwith the main sphere of influence that helped to create that art and culture, and you have a study of an urban legend, and how it can be reshaped and turned into something better or worse over time. You also get a look at the ongoing problem of police brutality, something strongly underlined by the whole "say his name" mantra that runs through the whole film.

DaCosta doesn't go for many easy scares, but they're very well done when she does. She instead creates a growing atmosphere of unease, emulating the original film with a blend of fear of the boogeyman and fear of very real problems afflicting some of the main characters. The script, co-written by herself, Peele, and Win Rosenfeld, is smart, layered, and pretty much a textbook example of how to respect an original work while not feeling the need to slavishly replicate everything it did. There are mirrors, and other reflective surfaces, everywhere, and so many shots are framed to allow viewers to consider everywhere a danger could be lurking.

Abdul-Mateen II is a fantastic lead, someone charismatic enough to make it easier to stick alongside him as his journey takes him further and further away from the person he once was, and Parris does well with a character who is allowed to react naturally to someone who changed into what could be a very dangerous presence. Domingo is fine, but ends up overacting slightly in the third act, and Vanessa Williams reprises her role from the 1992 film. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky help to lighten things up a bit, playing Brianna's brother, Troy, and his boyfriend, Grady, respectively. Brian King, Miriam Moss, and Rebecca Spence play people who may well say "Candyman" five times while looking in a mirror, and the inclusion of Tony Todd will surely keep fans happy.

Is it a flawless masterpiece? As is the case with the majority of movies released throughout time, no. But it's easily one of the best mainstream horror movies I can think of in recent years, and it's a thought-provoking, and often beautiful (I didn't even mention the backstories told in shadow puppet form), piece of work. It also doesn't forget that people will want a hook-handed "boogeyman" to turn some victims into a mass of blood and gore. I would definitely be interested in seeing what could happen in a sequel to this, and I am very keen to see what comes next from DaCosta (say her name).

8/10

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Monday, 30 August 2021

Mubi Monday: The Harder They Come (1972)

A rather simple tale of the rise (and fall?) of someone who ends up pushed around by many people until he turns to a life of crime, The Harder They Come is a landmark film for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was the first hit movie to come from Jamaica, as far as I can tell. Secondly, the soundtrack is full of what you might want to call "absolute belters". 

Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a young man who returns home to his home in Jamaica with the hope of becoming a successful Reggae singer. He gets a job to tide him over in the meantime, and also makes time for the company of a lady who has caught his eye (Elsa, played by Janet Bartley). Things soon take a turn for the worse, leading to a crime that is punished with a harsh whipping, and then Ivan becomes more and more determined to record and release a song, "The Harder They Come". In typical producer fashion, apparently, the producer stiffs Ivan out of any chance to make some decent money, and this leads to the next main chapter in his life, a drug-running career that gets him into more and more trouble. That's not bad for the record producer though, who keeps making money from Ivan's song as he promotes it with the image of Ivan as an anti-authoritarian "gangster" on the run.

When you look at the actual film-making here, specifically the direction from Perry Henzell (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Trevor D. Rhone), there's not much to recommend The Harder They Come. It feels rough and very simplistic, in many ways, but that's also part of the charm, the way it is presented as if the screen between viewers and the lead character is thinner than it usually is. Ivan is shown at one point enjoying Django in the cinema, and you know that a lot of his spontaneous actions feel informed by his imagined creation of the kind of character he would enjoy watching in a movie, which is the character we end up enjoying watching in this movie. Whether deliberate or accidental, I really can't tell, it's a nice bit of characterisation that brings up parallels, as well as highlighting major differences between fiction and reality.

Cliff is decent enough in the man role, with the big plus being his vocal talent. Bartley is fine, but stuck with simply being there to cave in to the charms of Cliff, while there are decent turns from Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane (an intimidating preacher), and Winston Stona. Everyone may feel a bit awkward and stilted at times, but they're essentially there to simply support the real star of the show, the soundtrack, which includes the title track, "You Can Get It If You Really Want", "Pressure Drop", and "Many Rivers To Cross", as well as a few other greats.

I may have enabled the subtitles, to make sure I could understand everything being said, but you can make a personal choice on that front, depending on how quickly you find yourself able to get the gist of the words being spoken in the Jamaican Patois. Let's face it though, this isn't about catching every syllable. The dialogue and plot aren't very complex, and the strong accent has a certain lyrical quality that winds nicely in and out of the soundtrack choices.

8/10

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