Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Prime Time: CarousHELL (2016)

Another low-budget bit of madness from director Steve Rudzinski, who also co-wrote the film with Aleen Isley, CarousHELL is a typical tale of horny folk, party games, and a carousel unicorn that wants to get off the ride and kill as many people as it can.

I first encountered Rudzinski when I checked out one of the “Meowy” movies (and let me say now . . . it was cute and fun, and you could pick many worse low-budget short films to watch, as long as you know what to expect). Having then discussed it briefly online, Rudzinski was gracious enough to point out more in-jokes I may have missed, and directed me to where I could see more of his work. I am just sorry that it took me this long to dive back into the weird and wonderful world of this guy, because he definitely works on my wavelength.

Despite the obvious low-budget here (and we may be talking a few hundred dollars), CarousHELL delivers one or two fun gore gags, but it’s first and foremost a comedy. The unicorn (named Duke, and voiced by Steve Rimpici) may be a threat to everyone, despite being so ridiculous in terms of visuals and dialogue that it never feels like a main concern, but the focus never strays far from the assortment of partygoers, from one horny individual to another, to the poor pizza delivery guy (played by Rudzinski) who just wants the money owed to him, plus tip.

As well as Duke and the pizza delivery guy, other memorable characters include the lusty Laurie (Sé Marie), the unicorn-loving Sarah (Haley Madison) and potential hero Cowboy Cool (P. J. Gaynard in an amusingly silly park-worker outfit). The acting may vary wildly in quality, but at least everyone involved taps into the infectiously silly vibe that Rudzinski puts ahead of everything else.

You also get the usual load of nods and references from Rudzinski scattered throughout the film, from Dumb & Dumber to The Evil Dead and many more. If you’re a movie fan then you can see the same love for certain films in every Rudzinski outing, and that is another factor that can help you overlook the limitations of his minuscule budgets.

Do I recommend this to all? Hell, no. Do I recommend it to anyone? Not without a main proviso. I hope some people watch this, and I hope they have as much fun with it as I did, but you have to accept it for what it is. It is a film made with a sense of fun, a load of heart, elbow grease, spit and polish. And maybe some sticky tape. If all of that cannot make up for the fact that it was made with very little actual money available then look elsewhere. But I hope some people can look beyond the surface, because you don’t get enough comedy slasher movies about deadly killer carousel unicorns.

6/10

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Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Paganini Horror (1989)

The kind of bonkers Italian horror movie from the eighties that we fans seem to automatically love, Paganini Horror is a film I long intended to mark off my own watchlist, and others who knew me told me that I should enjoy it.

It’s all to do with a cursed piece of music written by Paganini, which connects seemingly random events, from a small girl killing her mother to a rock band having a nightmare of a time in an isolated house as they film a music video. Logic is, of course, thrown out of the window early on, so viewers can quickly decide whether or not they're willing to go along with the general lunacy of it all.

Directed by Luigi Cozzi, who also co-wrote the movie with star Daria Nicolodi, this is the kind of film you need to watch with your brain in a certain mode (maybe not switched off, but certainly just idling over without being moved into any gear). It’s not actually a good film, but it is enjoyably silly, especially in the grand finale.

The script is hilarious, with those moments you often get in these films that have characters discussing the most ridiculous ideas with complete earnestness, and the acting is . . . well, it is on par with other films of this ilk.

Aside from Nicolodi, you get a fun role for Donald Pleasence, playing someone offering a kind of Faustian pact for those seeking a better life, and Jasmine Maimone (Kate), Maria Cristina Mastrangeli (Lavinia), Michel Klippstein (Elena), and Pascal Persiano (Daniel) make up the rest of the main cast. Pietro Genuardi is just fine as Mark Singer, and you get someone creeping about as a murderous spirit of Paganini. 

Sadly, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I hoped I would. The gore is uneven, in terms of both the pacing of the kills and the quality of the effects, and it feels too padded out, despite not exactly having an epic runtime. There’s still fun to be had though, but connoisseurs of Italian horror from this decade may enjoy it a lot more than I did.

5/10

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Sunday, 20 June 2021

Mubi Monday: The Hummingbird Project (2018)

Two cousins, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), have a dream to pursue in The Hummingbird Project, which uses an unusual central idea to create a fascinating journey for the main journey. It is a film full of familiar moments, but things feel fresh because of the main character motivation.

Basically, the plan is to lay a 1000 mile long line of fibre between one location and the New York Stock Exchange, which could allow someone to get stock market information milliseconds before anyone else. And those milliseconds can allow people to make millions more dollars. Vincent is the one driving this plan, and Anton is busy working through computer code to see how much time he can shave off the data transfer.

Written and directed by Ken Nguyen, someone I am not familiar with (but a quick look over his filmography shows that I should check out the rest of his work), The Hummingbird Project gives a unique perspective on the race to make money from the stock exchange. While focusing on the attempt to create that one, absolutely straight, line - under properties, through mountains, underwater, etc - it manages to emphasise that single-minded pursuit of monetary gain, with no real thought to others affected by it.

Things are helped a lot by the leads. Eisenberg is able to do a lot of his usual stuff, talking quickly and with confidence to get people on his side even as they are still trying to process the information, and he’s a perfect fit. Skarsgård is playing someone much more awkward and quiet, the typical genius who isn’t so good at social interaction, and he does a great job, especially on moments that show him not being quite as vulnerable and lacking in common sense as you might suspect. Salam Hayek gets to add tension, playing their ex-boss who knows something is going on and wants to either be part of it or beat them at their own game, and Michael Mando is superb in a large supporting role, playing the man who can head up the massive job of getting that line stretched out along 1000 miles.

As described by Eisenberg’s character at one point, this is a “David vs Goliath” tale, which means viewers can all root for the underdog, even if the underdog is harder to distinguish from the strong reigning champion this time around. You get strong performances, an intelligent and thoughtful script, and an enjoyably bittersweet third act. Highly recommended.

8/10

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Netflix And Chill: The Devil Below (2021)

A near-perfect example of how not to make a creature feature, The Devil Below manages to be even worse than the first feature from this director, Chernobyl Diaries and a lot worse than almost every other movie I can think of that contains elements of this material.

The plot may be pretending to be worth you investing some time in, but it really isn’t. Ostensibly, a group looking to investigate a “lost” mining town/community believed to have disappeared into sinkholes some years ago, things start to get dangerous for everyone onscreen when some monsters start to drag people underground. Hence the title.

Written by Stefan Jaworski and Eric Scherbarth, The Devil Below at least has a half-decent creature at the heart of it. Unfortunately, you don’t really get a good look at the creature, with the decision made to blur the image and keep it only ever half-glimpsed. Outwith the creature action, the rest of the script weaves between dull and simply awful, with some of the worst scenes being unbelievable debates on ideas of science vs faith. This is obviously one point that the writers thought could be interestingly developed as things move towards the climax. It isn’t. The rest is too unoriginal, and not treated well enough, to find entertaining. Creatures using sound to hunt, locals being mean to outsiders in order to keep others safe, a third act that has one of the most obvious callbacks to an earlier moment shared between two of the main characters (seriously, if you don’t see it coming then shame on you), the only real fun here is seeing just how unengaging things can be for the entire runtime. 

Will Patton is the one star I recognised, and he is always welcome, but most of your time is spent in the company of Alicia Sanz, Adan Canto, Zach Avery, and some other people you won’t really care about. 

Although the script is at fault, director Bradley Parker should receive more of the criticism, because every decision he makes seems to work against the material (e.g. the shot choice when a creature is in frame). Parker seems to make every wrong choice possible, despite it being difficult to envision any version of this that plays out much better.

Not good, even for the most undemanding fans of creature features. I would even recommend many silly Asylum movies ahead of this one. At least they try to set out to keep boredom at bay. 

3/10

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Friday, 18 June 2021

Shudder Saturday: Monstrous (2020)

A film about Bigfoot that doesn't really focus on Bigfoot, Monstrous is an interesting way to make a low-budget creature feature without leaving viewers completely unsatisfied. Which isn't to say that everyone will be pleased with the final result. This is a film that people should be warned about beforehand, in order to suitably lower expectations.

Spurred on by her friend, Jamie (Grant Schumacher), a young woman named Sylvia (Anna Shields) heads on a trip to try and discover what happened to a missing mutual friend, as well as some other missing individuals. She meets up with Alex (Rachel Finninger), a young woman who may have some idea of things that have gone on, and a relationship starts to develop. Bigfoot, meanwhile, may be waiting to strike, supposedly starting to kill humans after years of existing peacefully alongside them.

Shields, as well as bagging the lead role, also wrote the screenplay here, and she has a good overall feel for dialogue and teasing out some of the main plot points. It's fairly obvious early on exactly what is going on, but there are some nice misdirections that never feel as if they're cheating viewers.

Director Charlie Wemple, who made this as the first of three creature features in a row (his last one, Dawn Of The Beast, ALSO being a Bigfoot movie written by Shields) knows what he's doing when it comes to overcoming the limitations of a low budget, most of the time anyway. He puts in some cracking shots that show the size of the main creature, but keeps things either shown from afar or partially hidden. It's only in the finale that he slips up, but we all know that his only other option would be to get criticised for never showing the central creature, so I think he tries his best with what is available to him. Importantly, and often a small thing not well-used enough by independent film-makers, the sound design helps, especially in a key creature moment.

Shields and Finninger do well in their roles. Although she gets a lot right, the main problem with the writing is the rapid pace with which the two main characters form quite a strong connection, but the performances help to make that less of an issue. Schumacher isn't onscreen for long, but he does well enough with what he's given. And Dylan Grunn is credited as the main monster, so he deserves a mention here for his good physical work.

Probably destined to be criticised by many for what it isn't, rather than what it is, Monstrous comes close to being a rough little gem. It's a Bigfoot film that's not really about Bigfoot, with the title having a nice double meaning, but it's also a character piece that also has the monster available to keep things from becoming staid. The fact that it doesn't all quite come together as well as it could is outweighed by the fact that everyone tries their best to make it work. It's an admirable attempt to avoid the laziness that can so often be found in this subgenre. 

6/10

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Young Einstein (1988)

I was very young when I first saw Young Einstein, an offbeat and whacky comedy starring Yahoo Serious, a man so serious about being Yahoo that he once tried to sue Yahoo. I had a blast with it. I knew that I would have a very different experience watching it as an adult, but I decided to dive in anyway.

Yeah, it wasn’t great.

Serious plays Albert Einstein, but this Albert Einstein grew up in Tasmania. He comes up with a very famous theory to do with energy, creates a potentially dangerous source of power while trying to put bubbles into beer, and invents rock and roll. He also endears himself to Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio).

The script, co-written by Serious and David Roach, isn’t actually THAT bad, in terms of being generally harmless fish-out-of-water fare that also enjoys rewriting some well-known history. Einstein is as naive as he is smart, and this provides a few chuckles during the first half of the movie, even when he is given a major problem in the form of Preston Preston (John Howard).

I would also tentatively recommend this as a way for younger viewers to find out very small snippets of science grounded within comedy moments. Is it a good primer for anything used here? No. But it is, for the most part, well-paced (aside from an awkward and strangely dark turn in the third act) and engaging enough.

There’s also an energetic soundtrack, with a couple of tracks “performed” by Serious, making his character a smart rock ‘n’ roller. 

Serious is the wrong person for the lead role. He tries to sell himself as much as the film, which is not a recipe for success, but at least both Howard and Le Clezio do better, the latter having to be shown to fall for our lead while the former gets to be a pantomime villain brought back into the plot for key scenes that provide obstacles for our hero to overcome.

There are a few fun running jokes, with apples being used often in a way that is integral to the plot, and some quirky details that manage to be more amusing than annoying, but the biggest problem that the film cannot really hope to overcome is, sadly, Serious himself. Good on him for trying to make this work, and not having it feel entirely like a vanity project, but a better star in the lead could have made this so much better. And you don’t need to be Einstein to figure that out.

4/10

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Thursday, 17 June 2021

Scrawl (2015)

I only learned of the existence of Scrawl a few days ago, when the writer-director mentioned that it had appeared on Amazon Prime here in the UK without anyone letting him know. I admired his little bit of self-promotion, and the message was a nice and slightly self-effacing one. So I decided to give this a watch.

Unfortunately, Scrawl is almost completely dire for every minute of the just-under-80-minute runtime. I feel sorry for the people who check it out because Daisy Ridley is in it. She's just as bad as everyone else onscreen.

Let me tell you what it's all about anyway. Simon (Liam Hughes) is working on a comic with his friend, Joe (Joe Daly). Things start happening to people around him that are directly from the comic. And Daisy Ridley plays Hannah, a young woman who is basically a force of death. Characters have moments of looking seriously off into the distance as they contemplate a number of tedious flashbacks, the script lines up one bit of terrible dialogue after another, and everyone overacts until the end credits come along to mercifully end the experience.

I don't like to be outright rude when reviewing movies. A lot of people work on these things, and sometimes the end result just doesn't come close to what they had in mind when starting their journey. So I will try not to go overboard with the easy insults. The fact remains, however, that Scrawl is sometimes incomprehensible, lacking any polish in any department, and really not worth your time at all.

Peter Hearn, the man who wrote and directed this, is probably delighted that he was lucky enough to cast Ridley in her feature film debut. I am almost certain that Ridley herself won't be as delighted, and I doubt she even has this on her CV nowadays. Her performance here, although not good, is a point of minor interest to those who want a complete overview of her film career. Hearn provides nothing else that even comes close to making the film more bearable.

Hughes and Daly just aren't very good in their roles, sorry to say, and poor Annabelle Le Gresley is stuck with most of those moments when a flashback is occurring. Nathalie Pownall and Mark Forester Evans both fare slightly better, perhaps simply due to them being more experienced adults in the midst of such a relatively young cast, but they also can't overcome the inept script.

I don't think I can be any clearer here. The acting is poor, the cinematography is worse than an advert filmed by a local takeaway restaurant to appear on your regional TV, the score is weak, and the effects range from the amateurish to the so-bad-they-must-be-taking-the-piss. The last time I sat through something that was this bad it had the word "Amityville" shoehorned into the title.

1/10

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Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Prime Time: Mary (2019)

I think the best way to warn people against Mary, a painfully poor horror movie from the director of the stupid-and-why-can't-more-people-see-it-is-stupid Megan Is Missing (honestly, I have no idea how so many people were so affected by that film, apart from considering it an internet-savvy way of tapping into the modern equivalent of Satanic panic), is to describe it as a film that could have easily been put out by Dark Castle at the turn of the 21st century. The big difference is that Dark Castle would have delivered some much better production design and visuals, thrown around some blood and fun scares, and not made the mistake of thinking the silly premise could be turned into something serious.

The plot is quite simple to summarise. A family buy a boat, and that boat turns out to be, well, not very nice. It may even have an evil spirit on it. As the family are taken further out to sea, things get more dangerous. That's all you need to know. Oh, there's also some tension, of course, between the husband and wife, because one partner had an affair.

I can only assume that the script, by Anthony Jaswinski, seemed like something that might work better when adapted to screen. Or maybe those involved were just big fans of The Shallows (also written by Jaswinski). I can't think of any other reason for both Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer to sign on for this. I really like both actors, but they are unable to do anything here to outweigh the dire material. Maybe they both had large, unexpected, bills that needed paid. People do what they have to do for a decent payday. And I am not saying that they are bad here, just to clarify, I am just saying that they're unable to polish this turd.

Others acting alongside Oldman and Mortimer are Stefanie Scott and Chloe Perrin (playing their daughters, Lindsey and Mary), Owen Teague, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Jennifer Esposito. Teague and Garcia-Rulfo are wasted, at least Scott and Perrin get one or two decent moments between them, and Esposito feels like a character drafted in from a more straightforward cop thriller flick.

Mary is more annoying for the fact that it could easily have been something pleasantly surprising and fun. But that would have meant someone at the helm who wanted to show that they cared about the thing. Director Michael Goi doesn't want to do that. He instead just meanders from one moment of melodrama to the next, occasionally stopping for a bit of horrible CGI to shake up one of the main characters, and keeps heading towards an ending that is as bad as everything else that precedes it. Although most of the problems stem from the script, a bit of restructuring and some time spent working on the overall tone could have made this less of an endurance test. The runtime is only 84 minutes, yet it feels like it goes on so much longer than that.

3/10

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Tuesday, 15 June 2021

A Return To Salem's Lot (1987)

A sequel to the classic Stephen King vampire tale, made into a memorable TV movie by Tobe Hooper (and remade a few decades later), I had avoided A Return To Salem’s Lot for many years, having heard it was a real stinker. It isn’t. As imperfect as it is, and it seriously lacks actual scares, director Larry Cohen (who also co-wrote the script with James Dixon) used a tale of vampirism to explore some very interesting ideas.

Michael Moriarty plays Joe Weber, an anthropologist always willing to go that one step further to document tribal behaviour without interfering. Unexpectedly having his teenage son returned to his care, Joe heads back to Salem’s Lot, a small town he grew up in. Salem’s Lot is full of vampires though, which is bad news. The good news is that the vampires want Joe to tell their story to the world. The bad news is that Joe doesn’t want to tell their story, but he may be forced to do so if he wants to stop his son being offered eternal life as a teenager.

Although it is never subtle at any point, things are really hammered home here when the lead character ends up planning his fight back alongside an elderly Nazi hunter (played by Samuel Fuller). The script is pointedly showing how evil needs complicit helpers to thrive, whether they are people “just following orders” or human vampire helpers who work during the daylight hours while their masters sleep safely.

Cohen directs in a rather perfunctory manner, seemingly assuming that it would also just end up on TV, but that still cannot completely outweigh the quality of the ideas at the heart of the script.

Moriarty is a decent lead, as ever, and it’s a delight to see Fuller join in for most of the second half of the film. Ricky Addison Reed is just fine as the moody teen son, Andrew Duggan is a decent patriarch of the vampire community, although he never feels as menacing as he should, and there’s a small role for a very young Tara Reid, if you keep your eyes peeled.

Perhaps even more deserving of your time now than when it was first released, A Return To Salem’s Lot is one of the more interesting vampire movies I have seen from the crowded subgenre. It is weakest when trying to deliver standard horror moments, but you will get more from it if you don’t go seeking genre thrills. It’s striving more to be a study of the insidious and seductive nature of darkness, and the people who will do anything to assist those that they view as being able to help them maintain a comfortable life.

6/10

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Monday, 14 June 2021

Mubi Monday: Shiva Baby (2020)

There is often comedy gold to be mined from a situation in which a character has to survive some kind of event that just seems to be filling up with misfortunes and moments of fate conspiring against them. And that's exactly the kind of embarrassment pile-up that makes up the plot of Shiva Baby.

Rachel Sennott plays Danielle, a young Jewish woman who has to do her duty of appearing with her parents at a shiva (a Jewish ritual for mourning the dead that begins immediately after the funeral). Danielle and her parents run through some potential answers to questions she may be asked, about her education and career path, and things start to feel awkward when she sees that an ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is also in attendance. Then she is introduced to Max (Danny Deferrari), a man she already knows intimately. Which makes things much more awkward when Max's wife, Kim (Dianna Agron), arrives. Can Danielle get through the day with her sanity intact?

Written and directed by Emma Seligman, expanding her short from a few years previously (which also had Sennott in the lead role), Shiva Baby is worth seeing, and worth praising, for a number of reasons. It balances the central Jewish way of life for the main characters with the many pressures that all young people go through at one time or another. Figuring out relationships, finding ways to make money while also studying, even picking the right course to hopefully lead you to some better prospects in your career choices. All of these things are difficult enough, but all can feel even more difficult to deal with when you're also being scrutinised by parents who are presenting you to everyone around them at a large gathering.

Almost a one-location film for the duration, Seligman uses this to her advantage, using the confines of the shiva, the bustle of people, and the atmosphere (that mix of solemnity and socialising that happens at these things) to keep you empathising with Danielle as she starts to feel trapped.

The script isn't really surprising, but Seligman allows one or two moments to play out nicely without having characters explicitly state the words they really want to say. The conversations may be strained, but they remain just about civil enough, even as the body language says something very different.

Although Seligman deserves to be recognised for her work here, she's lucky to have captured what is almost certainly a star-making turn from Sennott, who is simply fantastic for every minute that she's onscreen (and she's in onscreen for pretty much the entire 77-minute runtime). Constantly scrambling for the right thing to say that will allow her to get away from many of the people around her, Sennott is a nervous ball of energy, and she never feels unnatural or unrealistic. Gordon is also very good in her role, and works well with Sennott, while Deferrari and Agron lend capable support as they provide more problematic moments for our lead. Fred Melamed and Polly Draper are Danielle's parents, and both are quite excellent.

Despite the great work here, it's almost impossible for Shiva Baby to feel fresh or vital. It's still very much worth your time, but it's far from essential viewing. I hope you enjoy it when you do give it a watch though, and I look forward to seeing Sennott in many more movies.

7/10

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Sunday, 13 June 2021

Netflix And Chill: Ma (2019)

It's kind of heartening to know that the standard "insert noun - from hell" thriller movie has never really gone away. It's just been dressed up in a variety of ways, from the many TV movies you can see in the schedules (with a hell of a lot of them featuring Eric Roberts, if you want to watch someone stalked by their doctor anyway) to the slick, mainstream outings that start deceptively tame before letting things go enjoyably crazy in the finale.

A departure for both director Tate Taylor (who has The Help as arguably the best-known film in his filmography) and writer Scotty Landes (although he also wrote the pretty poor Deadcon, released the same year), Ma is all about Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a woman who finds herself in the company of some teens when she buys alcohol for them. She sets things up in a way that gains the trust of the teens, turning part of her home into a bit of a party area, and becomes more and more reliant on their friendship, Or so it seems. While initially fun and strange, the teenagers soon realise that they should maybe distance themselves from Sue Ann AKA Ma. She seems particularly interested in Maggie (Diana Silvers) and Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), but she also may have some reason for recapturing a youthful experience that she seems to have missed out on.

Ma is ridiculous, yet it's also a lot of fun. A large part of that is thanks to the performance from Spencer, pitched perfectly between the believable and the absurd. We've all probably known that one "cool" adult who would prefer teenagers to drink in their home than out in the streets. Ma is just portraying herself as that kind of person, until she keeps pushing her way into the lives/phones of the young revellers.

Silvers and Fogelmanis do just fine in their roles, and McKaley Miller is a lot of the fun as the first person to become wary of Ma, calling her out directly. But there's more fun to be had here with the rest of the experienced adults populating the cast. Juliette Lewis plays Erica, Maggie's mother, and does well with her small role. Luke Evans is Andy's father, Ben, and has a past with Ma that makes him wary of her behaviour, and Allison Janney is Ma's boss, quick to notice when she is becoming more distracted in the workplace.

It gets awkward at times, and may certainly cause a cringe or two, but Ma generally strikes just the right balance to keep it entertaining throughout. You get a backstory teased out throughout the proceedings, you get one or two developments that you know are going to become vital in the third act, and you get some enjoyably over the top acts of crazed rage before the end credits roll. In fact, considering the motivation of the main character, and the attempted bodycount, this could easily be considered a slasher movie. Fans of that subgenre would expect some more blood and guts though, but you may be pleasantly surprised by this anyway.

7/10

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Saturday, 12 June 2021

Shudder Saturday: The Amusement Park (2019)

A film from George A. Romero that was considered lost for decades, The Amusement Park is a surprisingly excellent short feature (it clocks in at just over 50 minutes), and one that is absolutely in line with the work that Romero did when he wasn't back in the company of his shambling ghouls.

Lincoln Maazel plays an elderly gentleman who goes for a day out in an amusement park, still heading out there after being warned by a disheveled and distressed elderly gentleman who has just returned from the experience. The amusement park is quickly shown to be a bit of a nightmare for all of the elderly people visiting it, from stalls offering very little money as they buy items of value to bumper car experiences that allow people to pass blame on to drivers they assume are too old to be driving reasonably. And it just keeps getting worse, to the point that the character played by Maazel starts to crave a moment of genuine connection with anyone else.

A work commissioned by the Lutheran Society, The Amusement Park was envisioned as a film that would show the abuse of the elderly, and how important it is to look after them. That means both protecting them from a number of perils, such as those that seek to prey on their vulnerability, and also just giving them your time and attention without making them feel like a burden. As wild and hellish as this is, it absolutely fulfils the remit. Romero seized on a great an idea that he ran with, and I have to say that it works perfectly. 

Most of the stuff here is very much on the nose, but that doesn't make it any less effective. In fact, on this occasion, the more blunt and obvious the mistreatment of the characters onscreen the more it should give people watching it a wake up call. Writer Wally Cook stabs at the heart of a major issue that has, if anything, only grown worse over the decades since this was made (back in 1973). We see it every day, even if we don't recognise it immediately. Every advert that uses fear about people leaving their loved ones unprepared after their passing, every company that offers to "free up the value of your home", and the general feeling of being a bit left behind as younger generations find more of their time taken up by phones, computers, and anything else that stops them from wanting to just spend some time with, or talk to, their parents/grandparents.

Romero doesn't overtly pick from his bag of horror movie tropes, despite the amusement park setting being rife with imagery we've seen used throughout the genre so often, but he contents himself with building an atmosphere that starts to become oppressively disorientating and bleak, arguably culminating in a beautiful and horrifying moment that shows the main character breaking down after trying to tell a short story to a young child, only for her to then be moved away by her mother.

Maazel is superb in the main role, although all of the cast does a very good job. Considering the budget, I suspect that many non-actors were put in the mix, but you can't really tell. That's helped by the fact that many of the elderly people onscreen, as in life, are talked over and left confused by others trying to bamboozle them and frighten them into giving up their money, assets, and rights.

Of course it's a curio piece, but The Amusement Park holds up surprisingly well as a strong outing from Romero, a film that shows his continuing attempts to mix intelligence and social commentary within some loose horror genre confines. I'd go so far as to say that this is in his top five, personally, and the other four would be Martin and his first three "Dead" movies.

8/10

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Friday, 11 June 2021

Nobody (2021)

When a family are terrified by a home invasion one night, and the youngest member of the family loses her favourite kitty bracelet, the man of the house, Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) decides to head out and get some revenge. This leads to him being on a bus at the same time as a group of assholes who are harassing a woman, and Mansell decides that he can take out his rage on this group. This gets him noticed by the wrong people, mainly the very powerful Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksey Serebryakov), and that means that people start to realise his past life was spent being the last person that many people ever saw.

Pretty much sold to people as another John Wick kind of movie, but with "Saul Goodman" in the lead, Nobody will definitely please fans of that series. The fun comes from the fact that Wick reluctantly returned to his killing ways while Mansell is actually keen to let out some rage that has been kept locked away during years of a steady 9-5 grind (a dreary life of routine shown in a montage at the start of the film). The only reason he doesn't want to start back down that path is because he knows how much he's going to enjoy the journey, and he knows how good he is at killing people.

Written by Derek Kolstad, who wrote the first John Wick movie, this is a smart and funny action flick with some impressive violence in the fight scenes. It's hard not to feel a sense of glee as Mansell slides comfortably back into his former habits, and he makes great use of every environment around him to remove the advantage that his opponents usually think they have.

Director Ilya Naishuller is no stranger to this kind of thing, having started his directorial career with an impressive POV short  ("Bad Motherfucker" for Biting Elbows) that would lead to him helming Hardcore Henry. Although I couldn't get on board with that POV gimmick for a whole feature, Naishuller certainly showed that he was happy to revel in gunshots, bone-breaking melee fights, and the kind of forward momentum that should keep most action movie fans pleased.

Odenkirk is superb in the lead role here, believably strong without having bulked up to seem huge. A great actor in pretty much everything I've ever seen him in, it's great to see him have fun in a role that seems so far out of his wheelhouse. I really hope more people see this and become Odenkirk fans. Serebryakov is the standard big baddie, and is just fine in his role, overseeing an army of henchmen who will all likely fail in their attempts to kill Odenkirk's character. RZA has a small role, which he does just fine with, and Christopher Lloyd is a real treat, playing David Mansell (father of Hutch), someone with a similar past. Connie Nielsen is a very understanding wife, Michael Ironside has a small role as a boss/father-in-law, and Colin Salmon has a nice little moment as "The Barber".

All in all, this is everything you could want it to be. The action satisfies, the plotting is good enough to make it all seem plausible (within the movie world), and the sense of humour throughout makes it feel even more suited to Odenkirk having the lead role. Everybody should see Nobody.

9/10

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Thursday, 10 June 2021

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

I really enjoyed A Quiet Place. I wasn't the only one. It was very successful. I'm not sure how many people were wanting a sequel to it though, but here we are. Unsurprisingly enough, a sequel to a film that relied on tension and solid performances to distract you from the plot holes would seem to be an opportunity for more plot holes, considering the need to stretch out an idea that was really ideally suited to one movie. There are good moments in A Quiet Place Part II, but it does nothing to really justify existing, and may in fact cause some viewers to re-appraise just how much holds up in the first film.

After an unnecessary prologue sequence, seemingly designed to show one bit of sign language that will play into the third act, we join the characters who survived the first film. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and her children (Regan, played by Millicent Simmonds, Marcus, played by Noah Jupe, and one tiny baby) have to move along after their home has been trashed by the alien beasties that stalk their pray by hearing their movements. They stumble upon the shelter of Emmett (Cillian Murphy), and things then jump from one bad decision to the next, mainly due to Regan having the idea of heading to a radio station to use her hearing aid in a way that can broadcast feedback on a certain frequency. Because these aliens are like insecure, arrogant males - they are caused confusion and pain by any kind of feedback.

Back in the director's chair, but this time taking on the writing duties solo, John Krasinski remains a reliable pair of hands. With the direction. It's just a shame that he doesn't take the time to make a sequel that slows things down further and patches up some of the holes in the first film. He instead opens things up, which just makes it easier to weigh up every moment, and every character decision, and find them wanting.

Blunt is once again very good in her role, as she always tends to be, and the younger cast members, Jupe and Simmonds, do a good job, with the latter continuing to be the big plus that she was the first time around. Murphy is also a consistent performer, but feels misused here, a character who is basically being proven wrong about how he has decided to settle for a life of safety and survival. Djimon Hounsou and Scoot McNairy get a few scenes, playing very different characters, and both are just fine.

The thing to admire most about A Quiet Place Part II is the fact that we're once again given a film that encourages people to be completely silent as they listen for, and are wary of, every sound. It's just a shame that the rest of the film is so carelessly constructed, with major injuries dismissed as minor handicaps for characters, reckless decisions that create needless peril for others, and also, perhaps worst of all, one or two main sequences that seem to misunderstand the way a creature could use acoustics to hear any moving prey.

A big step down from the first film, there are still some things to enjoy here (not least of which is the fact that this is a blockbuster horror flick not falling in line with some of the more common trends of the past decade), but you have to work harder to forcibly overlook the stuff that doesn't work.

5/10

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Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Prime Time: Double Dragon (1994)

In the many conversations that I've had over the years about videogames that have been adapted into movies, Double Dragon seems to get the least attention. There's probably a good reason for that. Namely, it's not a very good adaptation of the videogame. It's certainly not a terrible movie though, not if you're after some family-friendly martial arts antics with some fun baddies.

Robert Patrick plays white-haired Koga Shuko, a crime lord desperately seeking a magic medallion that goes by the name of the Double Dragon. The medallion gives the wearer power over body and soul, and Shuko has one half already. He can place himself inside the body of anyone else in his vicinity. But if he also gained the other half, which bestows super-strength, then he would be unstoppable. That part of the medallion ends up in the care of brothers Billy Lee (Scott Wolf) and Jimmy Lee (Mark Dacascos), which means Shuko will do anything to capture the brothers.

Written by Michael Davis and Peter Gould, who would both go on to comparatively better projects in the 2000s, Double Dragon is in line with other films and shows that decide to tame numerous elements of the source material to appeal to a family audience. I remember Double Dragon on my Spectrum 48K and being blown away by the fact that one of the enemy types you fight were whip-wielding women (represented here by a woman named Linda Lash, played by Kristina Wagner, although she's depicted in a way that only hints at the videogame character). There were also weapons you could pick up and use, another element largely discarded here.

Director James Yukich has a long list of directorial credits, but this is the first of only two fictional features that he helmed (unless I have missed a title while perusing his extensive filmography). The rest of his work is largely made up of music videos and comedy specials. Thankfully, he doesn't do himself a disservice here. Double Dragon has energy and a slightly whacky sensibility, which is much better than it being over-edited to oblivion and couched in a combination of misguided stylistic choices.

Wolf and Dacascos are decent enough leads, with the latter bringing his impressive fighting skills to the film. Patrick is a fun villain, helped by the look given to him for the film, including the wide-shouldered suits worn throughout. Alyssa Milano is Marian Delario, a rebel fighter working against the system (the world of the film is a weirdly vague dystopian society) and a less passive supporting female character than you might expect. Milano is suitably appealing and resolved to help enact change in the world around her. Wager is underused, sadly, but okay, and Nils Allen Stewart and Henry Kingi play a large thug named Bo Abobo, with Kingi playing him in his mutated form.

I understand why this isn't exactly celebrated, or even remembered often. The fighting isn't impactful, the plotting is silly, the dialogue between the characters has lines to make you cringe, and there's no real brand recognition for the target demographic. But, and it's a big but, taken for what it does onscreen, as muddled and silly as it is, it's not a bad way to spend just over an hour and a half. Especially if you have kids, I'd say aged about 8-12, who may enjoy the action and effects.

5/10

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Tuesday, 8 June 2021

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

Is this the final film in The Conjuring cinematic universe? I hope so. If not, it should be. Mainly because there are only so many times viewers should be made to swallow another horror film that posits the Warrens (Ed and Lorraine, played here once again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as shining beacons of goodliness helping to save innocent souls from the clutches of demonic forces. That's not me deliberately "forgetting" any other horror franchise that maintains the same leads throughout, but I cannot think of any other characters within the genre who are painted as being so constantly right and slightly above everyone around them.

Let me get to describing the plot here. The Warrens are helping a young boy who has been possessed. That young boy is in serious trouble, but his older brother (Arne, played by Ruairi O'Connor) tries to save the day by offering himself as a vessel for the evil. Ed Warren has a heart attack, but has to get himself fit as soon as possible, and he and Lorraine want to help save Arne from a death sentence when he is arrested after murdering his landlord. Things play out as you expect them to play out, all underlined by that fear-inducing selling point that it is all "based on a true story".

There are a few things working against this third Conjuring movie, but the main one may be the fact that it's no longer James Wan directing. That role has been handed to Michael Chaves (the man responsible for the massively average The Curse Of La Llorona). Say what you like about these movies, or the widening cinematic universe they have created, but Wan knows how to best execute scares, and he is a master at laying out the geography of sites in order to set up atmosphere and jumps later. Chaves, to put it bluntly, does not. There are some lovely shots here, and a lot of the cinematography by Michael Burgess is better than the weak material deserves, but there aren't any good scares. And there's a disappointing lack of anything that reinforces the period, or even the locations of the various set-pieces. That's not to say that the production design doesn't set out to replicate the early '80s, or Connecticut, but the films is so focused on the Warrens, or the force they are battling, that nothing else in the film feels like anything other than the minimal amount required of setting required for the main events.

The second thing working against the movie is the script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. Having worked with James Wan on a couple of previous movies, I suspect that Johnson-McGoldrick had his hands tied here, with Wan helping in the story department and obviously wanting to maintain the value of a horror franchise that has now been able to sell itself as much on his name as the actual onscreen content.

Last, but by no means least, there's an over-familiarity here, and it feels like a big mis-step to try and move away from the haunted house horrors of the two main films that preceded it. I'd rather watch an imperfect haunted house movie than a dull story that mixes demonic possession with a big court case. The latter now feels overdone, mainly thanks to the many films that have mixed horror with standard drama/thriller tropes over the past few decades (and, while it has been over 15 years, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose has cast a long shadow here, for better or worse), while the former can always work well, even if far too familiar, by providing some easy spookiness and scares.

Wilson and Farmiga do well in the lead roles, very comfortable in the skin of these characters, and they arguably bring more to the material than it deserves. They are both very likeable, and completely believable as a couple in love for all of their time together. O'Connor is good, but has to deliver a performance that is overwhelmed by jerky movements and crackling sound effects when he's in the throes of the possession. Nobody else really matters, which is a shame when you have decent supporting turns from John Noble, young Julian Hilliard (playing David, the first victim of possession), Sarah Catherine Hook, and Keith Arthur Bolden. 

It starts off feeling like a film you have seen many times before, with even a strong nod to The Exorcist (and it's a brave film that so blatantly references THE iconic shot), and then stitches mediocre moments together from many other films you have seen before, leading to a finale that inevitably feels like, well, you've seen it all before. Because you have. Sometimes in movies within this very cinematic universe.

Competently done, in terms of the standard drama, but ultimately a disappointing end to a number of Warren-based movies that have exemplified the cinematic law of diminishing returns.

4/10

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Monday, 7 June 2021

Mubi Monday: Born In Flames (1983)

Set ten years after a revolution in the USA, Born In Flames is a depressingly prescient film that shows a government struggling to deal with many groups - feminists, those fighting for gay rights, minorities, etc - it used to be able to just ignore completely. Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield) is the main figure rallying people around her, firing up large numbers of women who want the equal treatment that they fought for without being dismissed by the men around them.

Written and directed by Lizzie Borden, basing the work on a story by Ed Bowes, this is consistently interesting and consistently on the nose throughout. Filled with a righteous fury, it's even more rewarding (and horrible) nowadays, when we see the fight back against people who are just hoping to have some proper semblance of equality.

What may have seemed like complete fantasy, or unbelievably over the top comedy, back in the early 1980s has been proven to be almost non-fiction when you look at the world around us nowadays. Look at the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at the tiresome and constant annual questions of "why can't we have a straight pride month?" and "when is International Men's Day?" (November 19th, as anyone who follows Richard Herring on Twitter will already know) Look at every straight, white male whining about being marginalised and erased from society, stunningly unaware of how prominently placed they are in every facet of our society. It's like listening to someone who won £50m in a national lottery and cannot stop complaining about how they didn't win on the week that the jackpot was £100m.

The cast all do good work, with it being mainly women (of course). It seems that the material resonated with everyone involved - again, no surprise - and people seize the opportunity to embrace their hopes, dreams, and fierce refusal to allow the world to maintain a status quo that has been tipped hugely in favour of one particular demographic for centuries.

Notable also for featuring both Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Bogosian in small roles, Born In Flames is a perfect way to confront viewers with outdated attitudes and oppression that all still loom large today. It's a prehistoric bug caught in amber, but someone made sure they could extract the DNA and synthesise it to keep dinosaurs alive, rampaging around the world and treating all of the smaller animals in the food chain with disdain.

I've only seen one other film from Borden, Working Girls, but she's absolutely someone I recommend to those seeking out important female film-makers of the 21st century. It's a shame that her filmography is not as large as it deserves to be, but be sure to watch her features whenever the opportunity arises.

10/10

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Sunday, 6 June 2021

Netflix And Chill: Resident Evil: Vendetta (2017)

Every time we view any movie can be a different experience. If you're in a bad mood then a great film can really lift your spirits, or a terrible movie can make you feel even worse. If you've recently been revisiting films in a series before a new sequel then that new release can either be great or awful, depending on how it compares to the rest of the films that came before it. People being twats in a cinema can make any film unbearable. Memories you cannot detach from films (some stuff you first saw as a child, a favourite film you would watch with an ex-partner, etc) become part of the fabric of your own big cinematic patchwork quilt. And I am just starting this review with that statement because, well, I've been able to dive back into the world of gaming lately, and that means I've been able to get back into the world of Resident Evil: a world of zombies, shady business practices by Umbrella, and heroes trying to stop the world being consumed by a number of deadly viruses and creations. Which brought me to this, the latest CG-animated movie making use of the world of Resident Evil. 

The main villain here is Glenn Arias, a man who wants revenge on the world because of a deadly drone strike that killed pretty much everyone he loved on his wedding day. That kind of thing would, admittedly, put you in quite a bad mood. His method of revenge is, yep, zombiefying virus, which means it ends up being up to  Chris Redfield and Rebecca Chambers to stop his plan, and they need the help of Leon Kennedy. Whether or not he'll agree to help them is another matter.

Directed by Takanori Tsujimoto, and written by Makoto Fukami (with Joe McClean adapting it into English), Resident Evil: Vendetta is a big step up from the two previous CG movies. But, and that's why I started with everything mentioned in my opening paragraph, that might be partially down to the fact that I have been able to get back into this world, and to start exploring it even more than I ever did before (I like gaming, I'm not that good at it though). Or maybe this is more enjoyable because, despite the evolution of the series, the is mostly content to throw the main characters in situations that have them dealing with hordes of familiar zombies, including zombie dogs and one or two bigger "tyrant" villains.

The talented voice cast all fit their roles well enough, with Kevin Dorman and Matthew Mercer suitably tough and focused as, respectively, Redfield and Kennedy, and John DeMita has fun as the main baddie. Erin Cahill is equally good in the role of Chambers, the scientist who might be able to save everyone with a potential vaccine.

I'm not going to pretend this is great though, in terms of the dialogue and plotting. It still feels like a videogame storyline, which isn't meant as a major insult. It fits well in the RE universe, and the storylines in the game series have always been more enjoyable and interesting than most, as far as I'm concerned. What is great, however, is the action. When the zombies attack then you get some great thrills and gore, and the third act throws in better undead-killing carnage than you see in most zombie movies, with a sequence featuring an overwhelmed Redfield being an absolute highlight of the sub-genre.

Far from essential, which you could say about any of the films in this series (even - especially? - the ones starring Milla Jovovich), Resident Evil: Vendetta is actually a fun mix of action and bloodshed, and fans of the game series should be very happy with it. 

7/10

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Saturday, 5 June 2021

Shudder Saturday: Black Roses (1988)

As every parent who lived through the 1980s knows, there is no more powerful corrupting influence on the innocent youth than music that features loud guitar parts. Those long-haired rockers will steal souls and turn everyone against one another. That's what some used to think anyway.

Black Roses is about a rock band, much like a movie from the previous year that was also helmed by director John Fasano (Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, which I definitely need to see). The parents worry about this band coming to town and ruining their children, but the first performance is enough to allay their fears. The band is actually quite mild and well-behaved. Until the adults lose interest and leave. Then it's time to really get rocking, and to also start . . . stealing souls and corrupting the innocent. As things start to change very quickly, one conscientious teacher (Matthew Moorhouse, played by John Martin) aims to get to the bottom of things and save the kids.

I'm not going to say that Black Roses is a great film. It's very silly, but it also seems to know how silly it is. I am going to say that I had so much fun with Black Roses that I could almost forgive Fasano for helping to write the screenplay for Darkness Falls. Almost. writer Cindy Cirile only has two movies to her credit (and she uses the name Cindy Sorell here), this and Rapid Fire. Considering how many people also like Rapid Fire, I'm very surprised she doesn't have a bigger filmography. Cirile doesn't treat the material as a joke, but rather packs in plenty of amusing moments of craziness that make the most of the daffy premise. Supporting characters are given just enough screentime to show when they have been transformed by the band, you get an unlikely crush on the teacher by one of his favourite female students, and there's a very memorable scene that has Robin Stewart making one lucky man very hot under the collar with a game of "strip Gin".

Martin isn't the best lead, but he doesn't have to be. Thankfully, Sal Viviano has at least some amount of presence, he plays Damian (lead singer of the band), the teens are all disposable, and you get some fun special effects moments that use puppetry and make-up to decent effect. Don't come here looking for realistic mayhem and death that will make you wince, but do give it your time if you can view some rubbery, almost cartoonish, creations with a small amount of affection.

There's a score here, but you won't be surprised to know there are a few rock songs on the soundtrack. I've forgotten them already, which isn't a big deal. The bonus is that they're not ear-splittingly awful. They're just in line with the music you expect from the band, and it's just another example of how everyone involved gets little things right while crafting a film that's ultimately just a disposable bit of fun.

Will Black Roses be a firm favourite for anyone? A film you revisit once a year? I doubt it. It doesn't want to be. It wants to be a film you remember when you have the right company, or are in the mood for something that won't tax your brain while you set about demolishing some unhealthy weekend snacks. And it succeeds in that regard, making it a lot better than some horror movies made by people who seem unable to just revel in the more fun journeys that the genre can take people on.

6/10

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Friday, 4 June 2021

Great White (2021)

Another shark movie means another movie I have to see ASAP, and that's why I went into Great White with the hope of being easily entertained. I saw one trailer for it, saw that it was people stuck at sea being terrorised by a big shark, and figured it would definitely be worth a watch. It turns out that I was very wrong. Details are coming along shortly, but Great White is the worst big killer shark movie that I've seen in the past decade . . . well, not including the SyFy and straight-to-streaming creature features that are still churned out every month for viewers even less discerning than myself.

Things start with a couple having a pleasant swim beside their big boat, which is close to a small, isolated, island. Then a shark attacks. We then move on to our main characters, Kaz (Katrina Bowden) and Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko), a couple who work on chartered small flight experiences, with an employee named Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka). They get offered a good payday to take a married couple, Joji (Tim Kano) and Michelle (Kimi Tsukakoshi), to a small, isolated, island for a nice day out. A corpse is soon found, and then the shark appears, attacking the seaplane and forcing the group to use the inflatable life-raft to try and get back to safety.

The first thing you may notice about Great White is the fact that none of the characters are easy to root for. Kano plays one of the most annoying people I've had to tolerate in film in the past few years, but Tuhaka is also fairly hard to like, mainly because of how quickly his character clashes with Kano's character. Bowden is a positive presence, although she can't do enough to lift this material, and Tsukakoshi is just fine, but Jakubenko is painfully lacking any real presence. That wouldn't be so bad if more characters were thrown in the mix, more people to be picked off by shark attacks, but it's a lot worse when there are only five people onscreen for most of the runtime.

The second thing you may notice here is the shockingly poor CGI when the seaplane gets attacked. Thankfully, most of the special effects are better than that, but it's not an impressive start to the shark action, and it makes you more aware of any other moments that fall short of the standard expected from a film made with a sheen of professionalism.

The third thing you will notice is how surprisingly boring this is for a movie about a shark stalking some floating prey. A lot of that is due to the weak script from writer Michael Boughen (this is only his second script), but director Martin Wilson, making his feature debut, makes things worse by not course-correcting at all when things start to drift aimlessly. And the exciting finale just a) feels a bit dumb, and b) reminds you of how you could have just rewatched The Shallows for a better film featuring a shark and limited cast numbers.

I don't expect every film with a great white shark in it to be Jaws (very few shark movies even come close to that greatness), but I do expect them to be entertaining. This had me hankering for the sheer silliness of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, and that's saying something. A general level of competence easily saves it from being among the worst films I have seen, but it's definitely below average.

4/10

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Thursday, 3 June 2021

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw (2021)

When is a Saw movie not a Saw movie? When it's Spiral: From The Book Of Saw, an attempt to get more golden eggs from a goose that should have been killed off about five years ago. And I say this as someone who has tended to enjoy most entries in the series, including Jigsaw (2017).

Chris Rock plays Detective Zeke Banks, a cop who cannot really trust other cops at his precinct. He's been left to fly solo ever since turning in a dirty cop some years ago, but his latest escapade sees the Captain (Marisol Nichols) pairing him up with young Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella). The two soon have their nerve tested when they investigate a crime scene that feels very much like the kind of thing that would have been planned by Jigsaw. But Jigsaw's dead. So who is doing the killing now, and why are they just targeting bad cops? Detective Banks might be more able than most to follow the trail, even if he ends up asking his father (Samuel L. Jackson) some uncomfortable questions about his tenure as Captain.

With Darren Lynn Bousman back in the director's chair (he helmed the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Saw movies) and the competent writing team of Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (who gave us the decent Sorority Row, one of the better remakes, Piranha 3D, and Jigsaw), you'd be forgiven for expecting more from this film than it delivers. These films never hold up to close scrutiny, of course (otherwise every killer has to have perfect timing, in-depth medical knowledge, and access to more real estate than your average billionaire), but if everything moves along well enough, and packs a punch in the final act, then that's okay. Spiral doesn't manage that, which is a shame.

The first problem is how heavily signposted everything is here. As rubbish as I am at spotting twists, I formulated my theory for how this whole thing would play out within about 15-20 minutes. And I was absolutely spot on. Not that the Saw movies have often been impossible to predict, but this feels as if it's a lacklustre ending in search of a trap-filled movie to go before it. It's almost Saw-lite, especially when the victims are people with more reason to be judged than a lot of the previous victims in the series.

The second problem is the cast. I quite like Chris Rock. Not for the lead in a Saw movie though. He's not ever convincing as the tough cop who can do right while so many others are doing wrong, and he's not helped by the fact that the script has him actively putting people in danger just because the bodycount needs to rise. Max Minghella, sorry to say, is someone I have never really warmed to, perhaps due to the characters he tends to play. He's okay here, I guess, but that's only because most people would seem better opposite Rock. And you have Samuel L. Jackson in a main supporting role, doing well enough, but also being underused. Nichols has to work her way through "Movie Police Captain Dialogue 101", but I guess she does what is asked of her well enough. And everyone else is there to either be a red herring, a victim, or both.

There are some decent deaths here, which is what you want from any entry in the series, and a couple of moments should make you wince, but it's also fairly muted, in terms of the really nasty intricacies of each trap. None of the attempts to misdirect viewers work (well, they didn't work for me anyway), some characters are built up only to be discarded by the time it gets to the point where Chris Rock must do everything on his own, and there's even a use of the hyper-editing that feels as if it's bordering on parody.

It's nowhere near as bad as the nadir of the series (which will always be Saw IV to me, but I AM overdue a rewatch of the series), but Spiral just feels like an instalment being steered in a number of wrong directions by people who are well-intentioned, but refusing to double-check their instrumentation and maps.

5/10

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Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Prime Time: Madness In The Method (2019)

I like Jason Mewes, and I like almost everything that Kevin Smith has done, in film form, so I went into Madness In The Method hoping to like it. It looked silly, and I don't mind silly, and it looked like another attempt by Mewes to do something not completely tied to Smith and co.

Mewes plays himself, a movie version of himself anyway, and the start of the movie rolls through a brief history of his life and rise to cult stardom. The problem that Mewes has is that nobody will take him seriously as an actor. He wants to develop his career, but everyone sees him as "Jay", Mr Snooch To The Booch. When he's recommended some reading material about becoming a method actor, Mewes soon gets so serious about things that he starts killing people. He might be able to pin the blame on his friend, Vinnie Jones, but there will be many more deaths as Mewes struggles to bag the lead role in what is expected to be a huge hit movie directed by Brian O'Halloran. Oh, and Kevin Smith comes onscreen for a few conversations with his good buddy, of course.

I was surprised to find that Mewes didn't also write the script for this - that job went to Dominic Burns and first-timer Chris Anastasi (for reasons unknown, although I wouldn't be at all surprised if a number of scenes were improvised when certain actors were available) - but his first time behind the camera for a feature film isn't terrible. It's just not all that good. Considering the company he has kept for so many years, you'd think that Mewes would be wary of making something so meta. Maybe other people who enjoy his body of work expect that, but maybe some of them will be as tired of it as I am. It's a joke worn too thin at this point, certainly with this cast of characters, and that just leaves everyone involved here looking a bit, well, old and tired.

Fair play to Mewes for making himself essentially the butt of the joke, and for using his directorial debut to try to deliver both jokes and catharsis. It just doesn’t work, mainly because it’s an idea that requires a smarter approach.

The stunt casting helps a little bit. Jones is fun in his role, Smith and O’Halloran are both acting in line with every other screen performance they have ever delivered. Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher are reunited, although never onscreen together, Gina Carano plays the wife of Mewes, and Danny Trejo has fun being extra camp for a minute or two. Many other people come and go, including the cops on the tail of Mewes, but the film is all about the familiar faces roped in to the shenanigans.

Not quite as bad as I expected it to be, and Mewes doesn’t embarrass himself in the role of director, Madness In The Method is a low-budget bit of fun that fans of the View Askewniverse may find at least passable. Nobody else should bother with it.

4/10

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Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Cruella (2021)

It's very much the norm now. After milking most of their properties with multiple sequels and spin-offs, and those constant "live-action" remakes, Disney have now figured out another way to sell product. They retell a story from a different angle, which mainly allows them to turn classic villains into strong anti-heroes. This approach didn't really work for me when they gave us Maleficent, mainly due to the fact that I felt the central character was reshaped too much to fit in with the new spin they wanted to give her, but it delivers a better result here, thanks mainly to the central cast and the fun spirit of the main set-pieces.

Starting with a sequence that shows a young girl named Estella (a wonderful turn from Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) being a bit troublesome for her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), viewers soon learn a few important details. When her troublesome side comes out, Estella refers to herself as Cruella. And one particularly lively escapade ends with her mother dying. We then move swiftly on to a montage that shows Estella meeting Jasper and Horace, living a life of opportunistic thievery, and then *voila* it's time to join the characters as young adults. Estella (now played by Emma Stone) wants nothing more than a chance to become a great fashion designer. Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) may be able to help her achieve that dream, or they may just muck things up as they plan everything with an angle for an easy payday. Everything seems to be looking up, however, when Estella is noticed by The Baroness (Emma Thompson), and her eye for design gets her some rare praise. But some details soon come to light that make Estella realise she has been living a lie for some time, and the best person to set things right is . . . Cruella.

There's a lot to like in Cruella and, despite the overlong runtime (why must every major movie lately be over two hours long?), it's one that should keep many viewers happy. There's a fun, punk-lite, approach to the material that gives it an energy and vibe I cannot recall in any other Disney movie. It also manages to make the central character likeable without changing her completely, mainly because the events depicted here feel as if they take place quite some time before the events depicted in 101 Dalmations. As predictable as the plotting is, the actual character interactions and dialogue make things feel fresh and fun throughout. 

That's also down to the cast. Stone is clearly having a ball for every minute that she's onscreen, and she gets to showcase a number of different looks and fashion styles (all of them pretty stunning and cool). Alongside everyone else onscreen, she pitches her performance perfectly, showing both the monstrous personality that will come to the fore in a few decades time and the twitchy girl quick to survey any situation to size up the potential loot and escape routes. Although more one note, Thompson is absolutely wonderful as The Baroness, a woman with a villainous manner who inadvertently helps Estella to put more of her faith in Cruella. Fry and Hauser are both fun as Jasper and Horace, although it's fair to say that both are also outshone by a small dog named Wink in any scenes that feature him. No slight on their performances, it's just that very few people could manage not to be outshone by Wink. John McCrea also gets to have a lot of fun, and costume changes, as Artie, a Bowie-esque young man who takes a liking to the style of both Estella and Cruella. As much as I love him, and I do, the only cast member who feels out of place is Mark Strong, maintaining his usual level of earnestness and gravitas in a film that wants to be a bright and funky cartoon.

Director Craig Gillespie was a good choice for directing this, based on his track record, but I'm less sure about the pairing of Dana Fox and Tony McNamara in the writing department. Fox has a number of so-so romantic comedies to her credit, but McNamara has the likes of The Favourite, "The Great", and the excellent (you should check it out) The Rage In Placid Lake to his credit, all of which seem more suited to writing a script about the formative years of Cruella de Vil. At least someone saw the working script for Birds Of Prey, but I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing.

What is a bad thing is the excessive use of music throughout. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the intrusive needle drops are on a par with Suicide Squad. The songs here may feel more relevant for every main scene, but I can only assume that music supervisor Susan Jacobs was told "get a song for every single scene . . . we'll decide the ones we don't need later". It spoils a lot of the movie, especially when you hear just enough of the score from Nicholas Britell to appreciate his work, and want more of it.

I personally liked most of the set-pieces, mainly a couple of heists and the big finale, but the aesthetic throughout works both for and against the material. What works one minute can grate the next, simply because of the unrelenting cacophony of music and camera moves. There's also the problem, inherent in most Disney movies, of knowing exactly how things will turn out. That's highlighted here with a sentence delivered in the opening scenes that you know cannot be taken as literal truth, which immediately undermines the ways in which the script tries to be a bit more clever and subversive.

You'll have a fun time watching Cruella, and almost any scene involving both Stone and Thompson is a pure delight. It's nothing great though. Maybe cinematic greatness is almost impossible when Disney keep raiding their own history, as opposed to creating some entirely new heroes/villains/anti-heroes to take us on pathways we haven't already walked over at some point.

6/10

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