Wednesday 28 February 2018

The Death Of Stalin (2017)

People living under Josef Stalin didn't have an easy time of things, to put it mildly. He was a dictator who ruled with fear, forcing citizens to adore him and cater to his every whim. Anyone who opposed him, or his views, could end up on a list, spirited away in the middle of the night to be imprisoned and/or executed. His death led to a vacuum that needed filling immediately, while also giving everyone a chance to rewrite the recent narrative to play up their positive aspects in his regime while trying to downplay the negatives. And it's this turbulence, this almost farcical warping of the facts, that is looked at in a comedy that WILL make you laugh aloud without shying away from some of the nastier elements (e.g. some men are spared a bullet in the head as a change of order is delivered mid-way along the line, the difference between life and death being nothing more than a political tactic).

Based on a graphic novel, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it's easy to see why this material appealed to director Armando Iannucci (a sharp comedic commentator, arrguably best known nowadays for popping the bubble of British politics with The Thick Of It). Iannucci knows how hilarious it can be to observe the hoops that politicians will jump through to serve themselves while also trying to cling on to their elected positions. And he knows that those moments should all be weighed against just how the general public are affected. The scenario shown in The Death Of Stalin may be a bit extreme, but it's undeniable that politicians make life-affecting decisions every single day, sometimes with seemingly very little thought to the consequences.

Bringing all of these points to the screen, playing up the absurdity of certain moments while showing sudden threats and death, Iannucci has banded together with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows to adapt the screenplay by Nury. That's a talented pool of people right there, and their dialogue is handed over to a hugely talented cast.

Simon Russell Beale may not be on the main poster but he's the main character, Lavrenti Beria, the right hand man to Stalin and the one who has to do the most scheming to try changing his perceived image. He was the man who handed out the "death lists". Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is the other main figure trying to get himself into a better position, with Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) being the man stuck in the middle, replacing Stalin for the time being, despite not having any real thoughts of his own about the best way to move forward. Othe rmain figures include Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin's children (played by Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend).

You may have noticed that none of the actors above are Russian. I can't think of anyone who is. Certainly not Paddy Considine, Paul Whitehouse, Tom Brooke, Paul Chahidi, or any of the other supporting players are either. Olga Kurylenko is the closest, I guess, originating from Ukraine, and there are a few people in much smaller roles who seem native to the country, but that's about it. Which is fine. Iannucci has gone for the best actors, not the best Russian actors, and he hasn't made anyone put on dodgy accents that might make them sound silly. I assume, considering the reaction to the film from certain people in Russia who have commented on the content of it, that this may have been a film difficult to populate with an all-Russian cast. Nobody living there would want to fear a major backlash over their involvement here, which makes the approach from Iannucci sensible, and ultimately beneficial when it comes to the selling of the film.

Nobody puts in a bad performance and it's genuinely hard to pick a standout. I was going to praise the wonderful no-nonsense machismo of Isaacs (his appearance just over the halfway mark also standing out as a way to help the pacing of the film). Then I was going to praise Palin for tapping back into some of his golden comedic ability, especially considering he has been on both sides of such a dictatorial regime now. But Tambor made me laugh a hell of a lot, Buscemi was entertainingly determined to turn things around and not be kept on the back foot, and Beale was a great mix of weaselly charm and Machiavellian scheming at all times.

Darker than you might expect, or just as dark as it should be, The Death Of Stalin is a fantastic comedy aimed at adults, allowing Iannucci to once again chop off the heads of the arrogantly powerful with a gleaming sword of brilliant comedy. And one or two gags about a man wearing a corset.


Buy it here.
The graphic novel is available here.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Witchcraft V: Dance With The Devil (1993)

There's a magical man, Cain (David Huffman), who wants to collect the souls of those who have bargained with him for fame and/or fortune. But he can't just go along himself to pick them up. Oh no, that would be too easy. So he uses a warlock he has managed to hypnotise. And that warlock is William Spanner (this time played by Marklen Kennedy). Marta (Nicole Sassaman) is the woman who ends up helping Cain, Will is supported by Keli (Carolyn Taye-Loren). There's also a Reverend who features in the plot (played by Lenny Rose), and a fleeting appearance by Greg Grunberg, that wouldn't be worth mentioning if it wasn't for the fact that he may be the most famous person to have appeared in the entire series. At least up until this point.

Directed by Talun Hsu, and written by James Merendino and Steve Tymon, there's still a small amount of effort being made here to craft an actual plot. Things get ever more ridiculous, such as the way in which Will is still apparently a lawyer and the way he has shrugged off all of the past events in his life, but they hang together just enough to make you think someone wrote more than just the moments of nudity.

Ah yes, moments of nudity. Having been wandering down this path for the past couple of movies, Witchcraft V: Dance With The Devil dives fully into the sexy, with both Sassaman and Taye-Loren, among others, being required to bare all for the sake of magical rituals. These rituals involve a lot of writing around, men squeezing breasts, and women then . . . squeezing their own breasts. Basically, if you have a handy pair of breasts to squeeze then you should be able to work on your own bit of spellcasting at home, which is a handy tip for any wannabe warlocks out there.

The cast names may have changed but the acting remains as poor as ever. Kennedy is perhaps just a little better than the actor who preceded him, and Sassaman and Taye-Loren have to spout some awful dialogue in between their nude scenes, which makes it hard to tell if they are acting poorly or being mistreated by the script. The only highlight is Huffman, who appears to be working in a completely different movie to everyone else. He's gloriously over the top and theatrical in his delivery, expressing himself in a way that screams "I AM smoothness and evil incarnate" from his first moments. You can laugh at many of his moments, and I did, but you can also appreciate that the film is a lot better for his presence.

I am now about a third of the way through this series. I don't envision things improving much. Expect future reviews to contain more and more incoherent ramblings as my brain is worn down to complete mush by these movies.


It can be bought here.

Monday 26 February 2018

Mute (2018)

There are many pros and cons to the immediacy and availability that Netflix gives to viewers. Many now prefer having some big titles that can be watched from the comfort of their own home (and I am one of them), many complain that it is taking us further away from the big screen experience. Many of their original movies, and titles they have acquired, have been interesting and enjoyable, although just as many people now see Netflix as a dumping ground for the dross that studios realise won't make them enough money at the box office. And everyone has an opinion ASAP, which can make it harder to fully form your own thoughts for a review without considering what others have already said.

Many of the reviews I have noticed so far for Mute have not been kind, and I will mention some of the criticisms here because they are, for the most part, fair. Regardless of the problems it has, however, I have to say that I really enjoyed Mute. It's far from perfect, but it's a stylish and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that takes some dark turns I really wasn't expecting.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a young man who lost his voice in a childhood accident. He works in a bar, avoids most tech due to his Amish upbringing, enjoys crafting wood into little pieces of art, and is in love with a young woman, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). When Naadirah suddenly goes missing, Leo sets out to find her, taking himself deeper and deeper into murky and dangerous waters, populated by powerful criminals and lesser crooks, like the two characters portrayed by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux.

Directed by Duncan Jones, who also co-wrote the movie with Michael Robert Johnson, Mute is a good idea that isn't realised to its full potential. In fact, it's a mish-mash of good ideas that aren't all handled as they should be. The whole idea of Leo being Amish isn't ever used as well as it could be, and in one scene he takes to driving almost as well as Michael Myers did. It's something that could have set this film further apart from others in this subgenre, but not enough is done with it. The same can be said about the world created onscreen, and the fluidity of gender depicted in a number of the characters. Jones has created a fine top coat, there's just nothing underneath to keep it there, leaving it to wear thin and eventually flake away to nothing.

The above paragraph won't be news to anyone who has read any other reviews of Mute. They are common criticisms, and I agree with them. What I don't agree with is the opinion that some of the darker and more disturbing moments are unnecessary. There's a character development in Mute that will make viewers very uncomfortable, and rightly so, and the pay off is huge. If this element hadn't been incorporated into the script, as horrible as it made me feel, then the final act would have had less tension and less impact.

I also disagree with anyone complaining about the acting from the leads. Skarsgård is superb in his role, he's so great at displaying both strength and vulnerability, those wide eyes ready to tear up when he is being hammered with truths he doesn't want to hear. Rudd is equally superb, playing his character with such energy and sardonic humour that you're often not sure whether to enjoy his company or simply loathe him, and Theroux does very well with arguably the easiest of the three roles. Robert Sheehan is impressive in his various incarnations, while Noel Clarke and Robert Kazinsky feel as if they have wandered in off the set of a very different type of film. And then we have Saleh, who is just . . . okay. Viewers have to buy into the central relationship by buying into the portrayal and appeal of Leo, otherwise this wouldn't work, mainly due to the fact that we don't get enough time to know Saleh. She is not the onlt female character given short shrift. The film, as a whole, doesn't give us many female characters at all, and those who do get screentime aren't handed anywhere near the best roles, to say the least.

But here's the thing about the problems with Mute. They don't matter so much while the film is playing. Jones paces things well enough, he incorporates some beeautiful shots (a sequence in a bowling alley is a real standout), and he clearly has faith in his actors to distract you from the weaknesses. Which they do, and that easily makes it worth a couple of hours of your time.


It's on Netflix now so there are no links here for shiny discs.

Sunday 25 February 2018

Jigsaw (2017)

As much as I love the Saw series, and I do, my eyes rolled hard when I heard that they were adding to it with one more instalment (for now). Unlike many people, I was very pleased with how the last instalment had attempted to tie up numerous strands and end things on a satisfying note for fans.

Then I discovered that the Spierig brothers (Peter and Michael) were going to be involved, and I've been a fan of almost all of their previous movies. This made me tentatively optimistic. Then I saw the trailer. I was sold.

The plot is exactly what you expect from a Saw movie. A group of people come around and find that they have been unwillingly volunteered to participate in some deadly games. Everyone has a reason to be there, but will any of them be able to survive? Two detectives (Callum Keith Rennie and Cle Bennett) are on the case, and two pathologists (Matt Passmore and Hannah Emily Anderson) start their own investigation, with each party mistrusting the other.

Jigsaw delivers exactly what you want it to deliver. You get some great traps, a number of twists and turns, and editing sleight of hand that tries to keep you in the dark for as long as possible. Of course, part of the fun with these movies now comes from trying to figure out just where the trickery is taking place, not just with the traps but with the structural playfulness and the hidden character motivations. The script, by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (who also gave us the fun of both Piranha 3D and Sorority Row), isn't as clever as it thinks it is. Saw movie scripts seldom are, however, and it works as a gory thriller that at least attempts to avoid being as dumb as possible.

The visual palette feels similar to previous instalments, yet the Spierig brothers even manage to effect some positive changes here. You get the feeling that a lot of the environments are quite dingy, and perhaps covered with blood shed from past victims, but there's also a cool hue to many of the scenes that save it from being as relentlessly dour and murky as some of the other films.

You don't come to these movies for the acting, let's all admit that, but I'm happy to say that nobody stinks up the screen here. Rennie, Bennett, Passmore, and Anderson all have moments of being a bit over the top in acceptable ways, and Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, and Brittany Allen actually do pretty solid work as some of the chosen players.

It's completely unnecessary, often a bit ridiculous, and a bit overly familiar in the many scenes that obviously nod and wink to past deathtraps . . . and I will happily buy a ticket whenever they decide to do another one, especially if it's once again helmed by the talented Spierig brothers.


Jigsaw is available to buy here.
Americans can get it here.

Saturday 24 February 2018

Phantom Thread (2017)

There are times when I remember that I have yet to see a couple of movies from Paul Thomas Anderson and then kick myself for my oversight. Mainly because I OWN The Master, I just haven't given myself the time to watch it yet. Seeing Phantom Thread was certainly a reminder that I love his work, because this is another almost perfect movie.

At the centre of it all is a flawless performance (his last?) from Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Reynolds Woodcock. Woodcock is a celebrated designer of dresses, the name everyone wants to be wearing on their biggest days. He is also, in his own words, a confirmed bachelor. He finds himself interested in women, but only in the ways they inspire him to create more dresses. Or so it seems. The one constant woman in his life is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), but things get shaken up a bit when he finds a more fiery muse than usual in the shape of Alma (Vicky Krieps).

I'm going to try to restrain myself until I revisit this film for another couple of viewings, which I will, but my first thought as the credits rolled was that I had just watched ANOTHER masterpiece from Anderson. And, considering I had initially been reluctant to give this one my time (mistakenly assuming the film would just be a rather sedate look at the life of a dressmaker), that came as a bit of a surprise.

Everything works, with the exception of a few of the scripted lines of dialogue that feel a little bit forced. Anderson is as assured as ever in his roles behind the camera (he both wrote and directed this), the quality of the design and detailing shines through in every scene, the score by Jonny Greenwood works wonderfully with the visuals, and the tone is allowed to be quite serious while also allowing for small moments of comedy, sometimes very dark comedy.

That's all well and good, and would be enough to make this a pleasure to watch, but the trio of lead performances takes it all to another level. Day-Lewis clearly assumed that this role would allow him to end his acting career with another Oscar, and I hope there's a chance it may (time will tell). Awards or not, his turn here is up with his very best, and that's saying something. I wasn't familiar at all with Krieps, who deserves almost an equal amount of praise for holding her own alongside Day-Lewis in a way that seems effortless. And Manville makes the most of her key scenes, allowed to ebb and flow as the script requires.

What plays out as a film looking at the drive and focus of an artist also says a hell of a lot more. Phantom Thread is about creating, it's about finding inspiration, and yet it's also about finding yourself matched with someone you only realise you need when you see aspects of yourself buried within them. The old saying tells us that opposites attract. Phantom Thread shows that it can just as often be the similarities that create a stronger bond for some people.

I want to try and say more about the film, but I can't. Even the title is incorporated in the narrative as a telling character moment, something with more than one meaning that becomes obvious once it has been discussed. Yeah, I am pretty sure I will be upping my rating to a 10 further down the line. Not yet though, not quite yet.


You can buy it here.
Or Americans can buy it here.

Friday 23 February 2018

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird is a film I assumed I was going to love. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who I have been a big fan of for years now, starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, both great actresses, and it has already been on the receiving end of a lot of love. I was ready to be impressed.

And I was.

Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a young woman who wants to go by the name Lady Bird, who wants to get away to university and start her life properly, and she has the standard troubles of a teenage girl while her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) try to deal with their own problematic situation. That's really all there is to it.

Staying in very familiar territory for her solo directorial feature (she previously co-directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in a film with Joe Swanberg), Gerwig certainly has a feel for all of the characters in this tale. There are moments that feel authentic, here and there, but a lot of the moments feel as if they're very much based in a cinematic reality.

Ronan is superb in the lead role, perfectly portraying the strange mix of curiosity, confidence, nerve-wracking insecurity, restlessness, and frustration and anger that makes up most of our teenage years. Metcalf and Letts are equally superb as the mother and father who have different approaches to their interactions with their daughter. The other young co-stars also do very well, with solid turns from Beanie Feldstein, playing the best friend, Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet as two young men Lady Bird finds herself attracted to, and Odeya Rush as a "cool girl" who ends up an unlikely friend of Lady Bird.

All of those performances were enough to impress me, as were many chunks of the script. It was all good, if a bit familiar. But there was something else here, something that I haven't noticed anyone else mention, despite it seeming blindingly obvious. Without focusing on a pink dress or the opportunity of a perfect date, Gerwig has given audiences a John Hughes movie for the 21st century. Ronan is a stronger lead than Molly Ringwald, Eric Stoltz, or . . . Molly Ringwald, but she's given a character very close to those '80s souls that were also desperate to change the direction of their lives. It's even commented on more than once that she, according to some (including Lady Bird herself) lives on the wrong side of the tracks.

It's nice to see such a movie dressed up enough to gain a good bit of critical and commercial acclaim, but that's also a slight problem for the film. It tries to feel natural and realistic while also using characters that often feel indelibly like movie characters.

I was impressed by Lady Bird, I liked it a lot. But I still prefer the likes of Some Kind Of Wonderful and Pretty In Pink.


I THINK this is where the Blu ray will be available to buy.
Possibly here, in America.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart (1992)

This fourth entry in the enduring Witchcraft series features the lovely Julie Strain in a fairly prominent role. I decided to start this review with that sentence because it is one of the few highlights I can think of, days after having endured the full film.

Directed by James Merendino, who also co-wrote the script with Michael Paul Girard, viewers are once again given a whle load of nonsense to swallow, from the opening credits right through to the very end. Charles Solomon Jr returns (as of this moment, for the last time) to the role of Will Spanner, an attorney who also happens to be a bit of a warlock. He is still reluctant to use his powers, but what is a warlock attorney to do when he crosses paths with an evil music exec/manager who is collecting souls in exchange for fame?

If you are unable to get your hands on a copy of Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart then feel free to try recreating the experience in the following way; have two of your friends talk inane nonsense, plug your ears up with cotton wool, and listen to them for about 90 minutes. Because not only is this film bad, it sounds as if all of the audio was recorded and filtered through a bowl of mashed potatoes.

Solomon Jr seems to have assumed that if he kept being hired to play the same character then his acting was obviously good enough to be a valuable cast member. It isn't, making him one of the weakest lead characters I have seen in any "horror" movie series in many years, and I have placed the genre label in quotation marks because these films really only use a couple of fantastical elements to allow for plots that cram in some confrontations and sex. Clive Pearson plays the villain, Santara, and was obviously directed by being told "yes, keep doing that, but less subtle." And then you have Julie Strain being at least gorgeous enough to prove a pleasant distraction while the plot hilariously unfolds, even shoehorning in a moment that feels like a horribly clumsy homage to Blue Velvet. Lisa Jay Harrington and Jason O'Gulhur also appear, with the former almost an interesting character, the sister of the young man accused of a murder that draws Spanner into the whole situation.

There's no sign of competence here in any department. Script and direction are awful, this is one ugly film in terms of the sheer murkiness of the visuals and audio, the acting is laughably bad at times, and it's impossible to care about the events.

If the fifth Witchcraft is worse than this then . . . well, no, I just can't believe that things actually get worse than this. But we'll see. God help me, we will see.


DO NOT buy this here, just get it on Amazon Prime instead.
Americans can NOT BUY this version.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Man Bites Dog (1992)

It's redundant to say that a film is not for everyone. Of course it isn't. Tell me one film that is and I'll find you at least one dissenter. But that knowledge doesn't stop me using the phrase occasionally, as is the case now. Because Man Bites Dog is certainly not for everyone. In fact, some people will watch this and find their stomachs churning even before things take an even nastier turn at about the one hour mark. I still think it's a fantastic film.

Benoit Poelvoorde plays Ben, a thief and a killer who is being followed around by a documentary crew. Ben is quite good company when he's not killing people. He's even amusing sometimes when he IS killing people, such as the scene in which he gives someone a heart attack to save himself having to use any other weapon. But don't forget that he's an evil man, even as he pals around with the documentary crew and drinks with them and allows them to meet his family. He commits many heinous acts, some of which end up filmed in stark contrast to the lighter moments.

Part mockumentary, part found footage "horror" (in many ways), Man Bites Dog is an astonishing achievement. Anchored by a charismatic performance from Poelvoorde, it effectively mixes pitch-black humour with nastiness in a way that wouldn't work if it wasn't for the talents of the cast, some of whom were unaware of the main content of the film, and the crew.

Brought to fruition by Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Poelvoorde, with all of them sharing the directing and writing credits, this is a look at the fascination the media has with serial killers, and also toys around with the idea of covert and overt complicity. As the crew film the many misdeeds (to put it mildly) committed by Ben, they are already responsible for damage caused even before they get closer to their subject, becoming entangled and entwined with his lifestyle and twisted morality.

It's a shame that neither Belvaux nor Bonzel seemed to be able to use this film as a stepping stone on what should have been a great career. Poelvoorde has a number of other acting credits to his name, and rightly so, but his colleagues only have a handful of other jobs listed, with none of them coming close to the greatness of this.

If you CAN stomach the nastier elements then you will find something that keeps you thinking from start to finish, even as it also makes you laugh with a small running gag about ill-fated individuals tasked with recording sound. But bear in mind . . . it's not for everyone.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Geostorm (2017)

Gerard Butler. He comes so close to being an enjoyable movie star, for me, and yet his choice of movies keeps leaving him as a second-tier option, at best. He's given us fun performances in 300 and Olympus Has Fallen but he's also given us performances in The Bounty Hunter and, well, London Has Fallen (which I still sort of enjoyed, but perhaps only because it was better than the prospect of a sequel to The Bounty Hunter). And now he's the star of Geostorm, a disaster movie/thriller about a system of weather satellites that may well be commanded to fall to Earth and cause global chaos and destruction. If you don't want to read this whole review, let me just say that Geostorm does not sit alongside the better Butler films.

Directed by Dean Devlin, who has already destroyed large parts of Earth on numerous occasions with the films he produced with Roland Emmerich, the plot is, well, it's really just what I already mentioned above. Butler plays Jake Lawson, the man who helped to build the system, and who is then sent back up into space to figure out what is happening to the system. Meanwhile, on the ground is his brother, Max (Jim Sturgess), who might just be able to help him figure things out with the help of his secret service girlfriend, Sarah (Abbie Cornish, and don't start me on how badly she needs to change her agent for someone who won't leaver her to be wasted in such thankless roles). You have a mystery plot, you have a number of obvious villains, and you have Butler being the one man who may just be the person able to save our entire planet.

And yet it's all crushingly dull. Yes, this is another CGI-laden blockbuster that forgets to throw in characters you might care for, any hint of believability, and any real weight to the planet-threatening elements. It's so busy showing you the huge scale of the problem that you get nothing more intimate to make it seem more urgent and dangerous.

Butler isn't at his best in the lead role, he can't overcome the weak script, and this isn't a film that works on his strengths. Basically, he doesn't get to be sweary and violent enough. Sturgess and Cornish are almost completely wasted, their characters being used to move the plot along so predictably that I wouldn't be surprised if it was discovered that a scriptwriting app was used to write this film rather than the minds of Devlin and Paul Guyot. Andy Garcia and Ed Harris do a bit better, but that's more to do with the strength of their personalities as opposed to anything from the material, and Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Robert Sheehan, and all of the other cast members struggle to shrug off a script that weighs them all down like an overcoat made of wet cement.

But it's the dullness that remains the biggest problem. Many blockbusters can distract you from a bad script and thin characterisations if the spectacle is good enough. This just doesn't manage that. As realistic as the CGI may be in places, it is also never placed alongside enough actual real elements to ever feel completely convincing, which means viewers are never drawn in or made to feel any tension.

In his ongoing quest to make his disaster movies ever bigger it would appear that Dean Devlin has simply led himself along a path to bigger and bigger disasters, but not in the way he intended.


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

Monday 19 February 2018

Blue Jay (2016)

Blue Jay is, for the most part, a two-hander of a film that allows stars Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass to show how well they can work together. If you're fans of those two then you should get some enjoyment from this. If you're not . . . well, it's certainly a riskier proposition.

Paulson plays Amanda, and Duplass plays Jim. The two meet in a convenience store, completely by chance, and viewers are quickly made aware of the fact that they used to be in a relationship. Many years may have gone by since they were student sweethearts but that doesn't necessarily mean that all of those feelings, buried for so long, aren't still simmering away just below the surface. The two settle into an easy and comfortable mix of reminiscences, play-acting, and talk about their lives in the here and now.

Blue Jay will certainly strike the right chord with some people. There are moments of honesty and melancholy that will resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship, a surviving one or a broken one. But it has the potential to aggravate others, which is how I reacted to it for most of the middle section. I blame Duplass, who also wrote the film. And when I say that he wrote the film I mean that he came up with a summary and decided to enjoy an extended improv session with Paulson. That could have worked if the conversational tangents didn't feel so obviously affected and downright actorly. Instead of a naturalism in the performances, we instead get the feeling that we are watching two people desperately trying to match one another for the approval of some guests. This is just the same as the two children who set up a curtain in the living room, lift it up to step forward and perform the little play they just wrote, and bask in the glow of proud adults. That's sweet, it's good for the kids, and often good for the adults who may not have other plans on a rainy day in November, but it's not always the best approach to film-making.

Paulson and Duplass aren't bad actors, as anyone who has seen them in other roles will know, and they manage to elevate a few moments here and there, making the whole thing almost worthwhile. There's also a small role for Clu Gulager, and I often enjoy seeing him appear onscreen. It's just a great shame that nobody warned them that a number of their scenes might come across as being a bit smug.

Director Alex Lehmann, making his feature debut, does what is asked of him. Or what he's told to do. There's no escaping the fact that this feels like a product more controlled by the Duplass brothers than anyone else involved, which should have been a big plus. Unfortunately, this is a well-intentioned misfire that serves more as an inspiration to other low-budget film-makers out there than as an actual entertaining movie.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Sunday 18 February 2018

The Snowman (2017)

I have read one book, so far, by writer Jo Nesbø. It was, I believe, the book that really launched Nesbø to another level of popularity. I loved it. Many people loved it. It was a great thriller, with almost every chapter ending on a cliffhanger. Despite not being the fast reader I used to be in my youth, I tore through the book in no time at all.

A film of the book seemed like a good idea. Having Tomas Alfredson directing it seemed like a very good idea. He had already done such great work recently with two previous theatrical releases that successfully translated written works to the big screen (Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Michael Fassbender in the lead role? Sold.

Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole, a man who spends his time self-medicating with alcohol when he is not being kept busy with murder cases. Having not been kept all that busy for a while now, he finds himself challenged when a killer known as the snowman starts to taunt the police, revealing a pattern of female victims abducted during periods of snowfall.

What you may have already heard about The Snowman is very true. It's a complete mess. Not messy as in "dammit, why does every action sequence directed by Michael Bay need to have 50 edits in every minute of film?" but messy as in a way that makes you wonder where entire sequences have disappeared to. It's so disjointed and unsatisfying that it barely qualifies as an actual movie, feeling more like a montage of snowy noir moments.

Fassbender isn't bad in the main role, and Rebecca Ferguson tries to do her best with the material given to her. The rest of the cast includes Charlotte Gainsbourg (who I tend to dislike in most films anyway), Jonas Karlsson, J. K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Chloe Sevigny, James D'arcy. I could tell you how some of these characters figure in the plot, but there wouldn't be much point. They appear as and when necessary, and disappear just as abruptly.

Writers Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Søren Sveistrup obviously liked the central idea. Who wouldn't? It's unfortunate, then, that they are unable to craft a worthy narrative around some of the story beats and visual motifs. It's almost as if the screenplay was handed over to Alfredson with only a handful of the main scenes written or someone decided to take the final product and edit it into an incomprehensible mess. I've seen many films even worse than this, but few major mainstream releases have been released in such a mind-bogglingly shoddy state.

Maybe best enjoyed by people who have never read the book, although god knows how they would make ANY sense of the plot (despite having read it, I could barely figure out the unfolding storyline), The Snowman is bad, and not the kind of bad that can make your viewing experience a fun one. It's just plain bad.


I guess you could get the film here.
Or, in America, you can get it here.

Saturday 17 February 2018

The Shape Of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro has made a career out of trying to convince everyone to view monsters and ghosts the same way that he does. They're just the same as us, but different. In fact, sometimes the very things that make them monstrous or scary are the things that make them a little bit better than your average Joe. The Shape Of Water may very well be his most overt guide to loving monsters yet, taking it quite literally.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a secret research facility. She spends her workdays alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and when at home she sometimes enjoys the company of Giles (Richard Jenkins), an elderly, lonely gay man. There's excitement in the workplace when a bipedal amphibious humanoid specimen (Doug Jones) is brought in, under the watchful eyes of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and Elisa finds herself forming a strong connection with the creature. Some people might be happy to see that development, Strickland isn't one of them.

While it's certainly a very derivative film in many ways (from the obvious "gillman" movies to the tone and visual palate of Jean-Pierre Jeunet), The Shape Of Water takes the familiar and mixes it into something that feels quite unique. I would say that those looking to hammer the film for the range of influences on display aren't considering how well Del Toro has placed everything. Never one to skimp on the detailing of the worlds he wants to let viewers into, the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor from his own story, somehow manages to fill every scene with little touches and thematic strands without having it all feel too busy and overdone.

Dan Laustsen, the Director of Photography, deserves a special mention, because there are a number of scenes here that stand out as some of the most beautiful from last year (and I know I am terrible for not often singling out the DPs in my reviews), and Alexandre Desplat has come up with an appropriately beautiful score to accompany those visuals, with everything coming together to make a film that feels very much like a Del Toro film in content and theme, while moving away from his standard visual palette.

Hawkins gives a wonderful central performance, as does the prosthetically-covered Doug Jones. The two manage to say so much without actually speaking. Spencer and Jenkins both give great supporting turns, and chatter away to Hawkins throughout the film, and Shannon is the villain of the piece that the film requires (allowing him to have a lot of fun with some over the top moments). Michael Stuhlbarg is another good presence, but it's easy to forget the other people involved during the moments that show Hawkins and Jones wordlessly connecting with one another.

The biggest problem with The Shape Of Water stems from the biggest plus point. This feels very much like a film Del Toro has had in his mind for years, something he was just waiting to finally be allowed to do. Now, having been given permission, he loads it up with no small amount of self-indulgence. That is fine when it comes to the detailing and style of the film, but it also means that the runtime feels just a bit too long, there are one or two extra plot points that didn't really need to be in there, and some of the quirkier moments don't work.

Those minor mis-steps, however, are nowhere near irritating enough to detract from the gorgeous and uplifting experience that the film provides. It's not up there with the very best films we've already had from Guillermo del Toro, but it's leagues ahead of many other films that you'll see this year.


There's a lovely book available here.
Americans can order the film here.

Friday 16 February 2018

I, Tonya (2017)

I am quite an inactive person. Well, right now I am training to run for a marathon (click and show support here, feel free to share and/or donate), but I am generally not a sporty type. Never have been. I try to do enough to stop my body from seizing up, that's all. I don't even watch any sporting events, certainly not with advance planning. But I do admire those who are physically capable of great sporting feats. And I do recognise that those performing in competitions, and those trying to become good enough to represent their country at the Olympic level, are individuals who have sacrificed a lot in order to get the smallest chance at achieving greatness.

And I think that's really worth bearing in mind when you think of the story of Nancy Kerrigan. This film may be about Tonya Harding but it's Kerrigan who was the victim, an ice skater who could have been irreparably harmed in a vicious attack that was for no other reasons than to let someone else (Harding) slip into their place. If you don't know the full story then I recommend you look into it. I vaguely remember being gobsmacked as I saw the trial unfold.

This film has been made because of that shocking event, and that's really what it's all about. But on the lead up to that event we get to see what a horrible life has been led by Harding (played by Margot Robbie), suffering a lot of grief at the hands of her nasty mother (Allison Janney) before rushing into a turbulent relationship, to put it mildly, with her first husband (Sebastian Stan). Her constant pleasure is ice skating, something she was very talented at, and something that led to her fame and infamy.

Written by Steven Rogers, who has previously given audiences a bundle of tear-jerking dramas, and one Christmas movie, this is a zippy, entertaining biopic that seems to take Harding's own perspective of events over any conflicting views. That's not a terrible thing, especially when the film states at the very start that a lot of the events are being depicted as they were described in different interviews, but it does lead to a number of moments that have had left some viewers feeling rather unhappy with how things are depicted.

Director Craig Gillespie does good work, despite the obvious soundtrack choices and the execution of certain scenes feeling very much like moments lifted from better films in this mould. I'm not going to namecheck the directors that Gillespie seems to be emulating because a) so many other people have already done that, and b) it's obvious to most film fans as soon as things start to play out.

But it's the cast really making this worth your time. Robbie is superb in the lead role, perfectly portraying both rebel and victim. Stan and Janney both do well as the main people in her life who excel at, well, treating her like shit, and Paul Walter Hauser is amusing as someone creating a fantasy life in his mind that eventually turns into something life-altering for everyone involved in The Incident.

Despite being too flattering to Tonya Harding (well, the title is a clue to where it will stand), and despite slipping here and there, this still makes for a decent show. Even if, unlike the main character, it never comes close to landing its own triple axel.


Fans of the film may enjoy this book.
Over in the USofA you can order the disc here.

Thursday 15 February 2018

Happy Death Day (2017)

Just because everyone else has mentioned it already doesn't mean that I will refrain from using the same words; Happy Death Day is best described as Scream meets Groundhog Day. If that very brief summation of the plot doesn't appeal to you then you're unlikely to enjoy it. But if your face lights up at those words . . . this will work for you.

Jessica Rothe plays a college student named Theresa, AKA Tree, who wakes up on her birthday, goes about her usual activities, and ends up dying violently at the hands of a murderous madman. She then wakes up again, on her birthday, and starts trying to figure out what is going on, and trying to get through the day without dying. Unfortunately, someone is very very determined to have her dead by the end of the day. And each death leads to a jump back to the start of the day.

Although you could point at Happy Death Day and bemoan the lack of bloodshed and more adult content, that would be nitpicking. This is, after all, a film for teens, and it succeeds brilliantly in that regard.

The script by Scott Lobdell gets everything right. There aren't too many main characters (with most of the action revolving around Tree and the boy she first sees upon waking up every morning, Carter), the main activities throughout the day are obvious pointers of the timeline, and also ready to be changed by the actions of Tree, the deaths are decent enough, and the mystery element - the who and the why - is simple and effective.

Director Christopher Landon shows, once again, that he's a dab hand with the horror genre tropes. This may not be as much fun as his previous outing, Scout's Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, but it's almost an ideal teen horror (with a little bit of comedy) to please most people wanting something for the weekend.

Rothe and Israel Broussard (playing Carter) make for decent leads, despite my not being overly familiar with either of them. They work well together, and Rothe is in almost every scene (due to the nature of the plot device), and there are also decent enough supporting turns from Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, and everyone else involved. Surprisingly, considering how often it happens in these movies, there aren't any seasoned genre stars in cameo roles, as far as I can recall, but the material is strong enough to make any such concessions or winks unnecessary.

I can understand why some horror fans wouldn't want to give any of their time to this. It's fairly safe and inoffensive stuff, in many ways. But that doesn't mean that it isn't worthwhile. While it may not be all that intense, or any kind of splattery gorefest, it's a surprisingly smart and enjoyable twist on standard slasher fare.


Pick it up here.
And Americans can pick it up here.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Witchcraft III: The Kiss Of Death (1991)

Here is where I start to doubt the sanity of my plan to make my way through the entire Witchcraft series. The third entry, a step back after the fun of the second, just doesn't instil a great sense of optimism in me for what is yet to come.

The slim plot sees William continuing to get on with his life. He's surprisingly unfazed by the events of the second movie, instead choosing to focus on his career as an attorney and the lovely life he might have with his girlfriend, Charlotte. Things only start to come apart when he meets Louis, a cool dude who starts off friendly enough but soon shows his true colours.

Directed by R. L. Tillmans (who is actually Rachel Feldman, apparently), Witchcraft III: The Kiss Of Death is the kind of shoddy incompetence that gives a bad name to films that try to cover up their incompetence with random moments of enjoyable silliness. This has no such moments, there's no reprieve for viewers, apart from the fact that the runtime comes in at just under 90 minutes.

Writer Jerry Daly seems to have been given some notes on the first film, told that the main character has powers he doesn't really want to use, and then left to craft a tale of rivalry and magic that removes most of the fantastical elements in favour of standard soap opera melodramatics you could catch most weekdays on Channel 5.

The cast don't help either. Charles Solomon Jr (billed here as Charles Soloman on the end credits) is playing a man with a dark past and the potential to unleash some dangerous power but you wouldn't know it from his rather monotone performance. Domonic Luciana is ever so slightly better, as Louis, but that's more to do with the fact that villains are usually a bit more interesting than goodies. Lisa Toothman tries hard as Charlotte, caught between the two men as the game starts to be played, and Leana Hall isn't too bad as Roxy. William Lewis Baker livens things up a bit whenever he's onscreen, it's just a shame that his role is such a small one.

It boggles the mind to think of who these films were ever aimed at. There's not enough horror content for horror fans, not enough gratuitous content for those after cheap thrills, not enough care given to the plot for anyone after simple drama, and generally nothing that will appeal to anyone except individual masochistic idiots determined to wade through the entire series. We're not a big demigraphic, but we're bloody tenacious.


Watch it here.
Or watch it here.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (2018)

Unbeknownst to me, not being a huge comic book guy, DC have been running for some time now with a series known as the Elseworlds stories. This takes familiar heroes and places them in unfamiliar settings/times. Perhaps an alternate universe, perhaps a different time period, perhaps something that feels very similar to what we know but is just a bit of a sidestep to make it all seem fresh.

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight sees Batman prowling the streets of a bygone Gotham. His job is the same, there are familiar characters populating the city, but the biggest public enemy of the time happens to be a dangerous killer who carves up women and goes by the name of Jack. Yes, this is the Batman Vs Jack The Ripper tale that you never knew you wanted, and I must say that it's pretty damn great.

First of all, if you haven't realised by now that the DC animated movie universe is where they have been churning out all of their good stuff then you have a lot of catching up to do. Not all of them are brilliant, but I can't think of any that are truly dire. Second, this is one of their very best, thanks to the premise lending itself well to a perfect blend of the familiar and the reimagined.

Based on the graphic novel by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, writer James Krieg has taken the storyline and embraced the more fun elements that fans will get a kick out of, which helps to balance out the darker aspects of the whole thing (e.g. the actual identity of Jack). The relatively brief runtime, just under 80 minutes, is in line with most of the other DC animated features, and ensures that things move quickly enough, even if it's not crammed full of action sequences. This is definitely a case of quality over quantity, and ain't nothing wrong with that.

Director Sam Liu benefits from some gorgeous visuals and animation, a superior voice cast (Bruce Greenwood is a great Bruce Wayne/Batman, Anthony Head is a fine Alfred, and Jennifer Carpenter delivers a very effective Selina Kyle performance, without excessive purring or wordplay), and the sheer fun factor of the core idea. Some purists may balk at a few of the character changes, but I don't have a problem with them being here, considering we're very much seeing everyone involved in an Elseworld context.

Unless you're one of those purists I just mentioned, Batman: Gotham By Gaslight is guaranteed to entertain you and give you your Bat-fix until the next adventure comes along. The story could have easily been put together with much less care, and one or two of the supporting characters are obviously here without being all that necessary to the plot, but everyone involved actually takes the fine silk of the material and spins it into gold.


Buy it here, Batfans.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday 12 February 2018

The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017)

Let me be upfront from the very beginning here, if LEGO did a version of one of the movies I hate most (e.g. Elephant by Gus Van Sant) then I would watch it, I would enjoy it, and it would be something I would buy. I grew up with tubs of mismatched LEGO, I continue to look on eagerly if I see LEGO sets being built by small children I might be able to bump out of the way and hold back while I work with the bricks, and I have been mightily impressed by the almost all of the LEGO movies I have seen so far, both the cinema releases and the smaller titles (they have been doing better DC films than the proper DC moviemakers for a few years now).

I didn't really know what Ninjago was, and I'm still not sure. Basically, it seems to be some kids who turn into ninjas when they need to battle evil. It's also the name of the city in which they live. That city keeps coming under threat from a villain named Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), which keeps Green Ninja (voiced by Dave Franco) and the rest of the good ninja group very busy. Green Ninja is also known as Lloyd, when not hidden in his suit, and Lloyd is actually the son of Garmadon. Uh oh.

Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, The LEGO Ninjago Movie keeps the fun and laughs coming thick and fast throughout, with one or two inventive action sequences doing enough to keep the main characters in peril as they learn some life lessons. Everyone involved in the LEGO movie universe seems to understand the universal appeal of it, and how to make the most of it for that brick-centric visual style and the many brilliant gags. The script here, written by Logan, Fisher, William and Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, and John Whittington, makes the most of the strained father-son relationship at the centre of everything, while also utilising the tropes of martial arts movies (Jackie Chan is a lot of fun as the wise old master).

All of the voice cast do well, although some are immediately more recognisable than others. The leads, obviously, and Kumail Nanjiani and Michael Pena were the ones I already knew, as well as Olivia Munn, (as Koko, Lloyd's mother) but Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, and Zach Woods also lend their voices to some of the main characters, and all are good in their roles.

Once again mixing in some live-action elements with the main animated section of the film, this might not be as good as The LEGO Movie, and might even fall short of the level of fun of The LEGO Batman Movie, but that is just a reminder of how great those two films were. This one is very good, and manages to be very good without any one main identifier (e.g. Benny wanting his spaceship in The LEGO Movie, and, well, Batman in the The LEGO Batman Movie).

I am not sure, as of this moment, what we can expect next from the world of LEGO movies. I am only sure of one thing; If they build it, I will watch.


Pick up the disc here.
Americans can buy it here.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Witchcraft II: The Temptress (1989)

I have to admit it, I was keen to continue my quest through the Witchcraft series after I discovered just how many dubious treats it might have to offer me. Sixteen films, possibly getting worse with each subsequent instalment? That's the kind of challenge I lap up. And here is the first of the many sequels (as you will all have noted from the title).

Directed by Mark Woods (his only feature film as director), and with a script by Jim Hanson and Sal Manna (neither wrote another film), it's no surprise that this is a wonderful mess, following on from the strange first movie with a recipe that adds more death and a bit of nudity.

Charles Solomon Jr plays William Adams, a much older version of the baby we all saw in the first film. William is about to have a very strange episode in his life, to put it mildly, and it will also affect his girlfriend (Mia M. Ruiz), his friend (David Homb, playing a guy named Boomer), and the man and woman who have brought them up for most of his life (John Henry Richardson and Cheryl Janecky). This is all tied to his past, of course, and definitely tied to Dolores (Delia Sheppard), the temptress the title is referring to.

Okay, I had a bit more fun with this than I did with the first film. As mentioned in that review, when something is trying to be a bit cheap 'n' cheerful in the horror genre then a dose of gratuitous nudity and/or violence doesn't harm things. This film knows that, and it adds some of the easy fun that was missing the first time around. It's not enough to make the whole thing into a properly good movie, but it's welcome as additional spice to the main dish.

None of the actors do very well, seemingly chosen more for their low fees than actual acting talent. Solomon Jr is a poor lead, Homb is awful as his buddy, and Sheppard overdoes her performance in a way that is at least amusing and entertaining. Richardson and Janecky do a bit better as the parents, Ruiz tries to do well in her role, and Kirsten Wagner is enjoyable for the small amount of time she is onscreen (it's a shame that her character, Audrey, isn't given more to do).

Look, this is not a film that you should check out if you're wanting a day of quality cinema, or you're checking prioritised titles off your "watchlist". It's one to watch, as I did, when you find out about this series and feel compelled to check them out. You don't need to concentrate on any complicated plot, you don't need to invest yourself emotionally in the events, and you really just need a spare hour and a half, with or without alcohol to enhance the viewing experience.


You COULD treat yourself here, or watch it on Amazon Prime.
American fans can pick it up here.

Saturday 10 February 2018

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage (2017)

Taking a leaf from the later instalments of the Fast & Furious franchise, this third film in the xXx series gives the lead role back to Vin Diesel, as you may have guessed from the title, and surrounds him with a bit of an all-star cast of people who bring various specialist skills to the table.

Xander Cage (Diesel) is asked to help once again when the world is endangered, this time by a group of people who have stolen a device that can control weather satellites. The danger of the situation is made apparent when one such satellite is sent on a crash course to Earth. Reluctant to help "the man", represented this time by Jane Marke (Toni Collette), Cage eventually agrees to do what he does best, on one condition; he gets to pick his team. It's not long until they're facing off against a group of equally talented fighters, but who are the real villains at work?

Directed by D. J. Caruso, xXx: Return Of Xander Cage has three major elements working in its favour. First of all, Caruso himself does well at the helm, working from a fun script by F. Scott Frazier that perfectly blends laughs and enjoyable action set-pieces. I've liked pretty much everything I have seen directed by Caruso, and this keeps his track record consistent for me.

Second, the tone of this is just perfect. The first two xXx movies tried to show that they were working with tongue in cheek, yet it never quite worked, and I think that's because at the heart of each storyline was a hero who wasn't ever really seen to be in on the joke. Diesel, in this instance, has more fun as he gets to play up the legend of his character while bantering with others who share his sense of recklessness, and that works really well.

Third, the cast. Diesel may not be the best thespian around but he knows how to strut around onscreen like someone with such a big ego, even when he's interacting with martial arts stars like Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (who both get some decent onscreen moments, and I was impressed by how much screentime Yen actually got). Collette is fine as the suit in charge, Nina Dobrev is a lot of fun as the tech support worker who gets flustered around our hero, and Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, and Rory McCann are all good additions to the series, either individually or thanks to how they are teamed up with others.

It may have been a high benchmark to exceed, but it's still surprising just how much more entertaining this film is compared to the two that preceded it. It is, in a way, exactly how this series should have been working from the very beginning. If you disliked the other films then still give this one a try. If you enjoyed the other films, albeit to varying degrees, then definitely check this one out. By the time you get past the main opening sequences (one involving Neymar, one involving a daring raid, and one involving Diesel jumping and skating around at breakneck speeds) then you will know what you have let yourself in for, and you will probably already be grinning.


The Bluray is available here.
Americans can buy it here.

Friday 9 February 2018

Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles (2001)

Coming along 13 years after the second film, Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles is almost the very definition of an unnecessary and unwanted sequel. It's not a complete dud, and I laughed on a few occasions, but it's nowhere near as good as the previous films, and it really adds nothing to the characters beyond anything you could have imagined happening after the credits rolled at the end of the second film.

Paul Hogan returns to his most famous role, Mick Dundee, this time travelling to LA with his partner, Sue (Linda Kozlowski, also returning), and their young son (Mike, played by Serge Cockburn). Sue ends up investigating some possible shenanigans, Mick encounters more differences between cultures with the Los Angelean people, and the whole thing winds ever so languidly towards an unexciting finale that it's hard to care about.

It's obvious that this wasn't created as a passion project for those involved. Someone wanted to make some money, and they thought that this brand would be a good way to do that. Except it didn't. Well, it may have made some individuals money but it didn't make much of an impression in the worldwide box office, especially compared to the previous two movies.

Hogan already looks too old to still be up to the antics we see here, Kozlowski is just fine, and young Cockburn is required to do little beyond be the kid with the awesome father. Jere Burns and Jonathan Banks are both wasted in their roles, with neither given enough to do in their main scenes, but Alec Wilson is good fun as Mick's pal, Jacko.

The poor script was written by Matt Berry and Eric Abrams, the two obviously relying on established jokes and goodwill to carry the film along for the majority of the runtime (unless they had some amazing ideas that were mercilessly chopped out), and Simon Wincer is the person responsible for the lacklustre direction.

Not only is this a film that's hard to love or hate, it's one that's hard to muster the energy to write too much about. It's just there. We all know why it was made, we all know that it felt majorly dated as soon as it came out, and we all know that it's one even completist movie collectors won't bother about if they can get the first two films in a cheap and convenient double-pack. Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles? They maybe should have just titled it Dundee III: Croc Of S**t.


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

Thursday 8 February 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq (2017)

There are good things in Roman J. Israel, Esq, quite a few good things, not least of which is the lead performance from a superb Denzel Washington. It's just a shame that the film suffers from a real lack of clarity. Does it want to be a character study, or a magnifying glass hovering over some of the biggest flaws in the American justice system, or a look at the slippery slope you can end up on when you make a wrong moral choice even just the one time?

Denzel is the titular character. He's a man who knows the legal system inside out, he has almost total recall of court statistics and numbers, and he's a good man to have on your side if you're ever in trouble. He doesn't appear in court, however, because he does the work behind the scenes while his partner makes the court appearances. That's an ideal situation until his partner has a heart attack, and when Roman turns up to court it doesn't take long to see why he's normally hidden away behind the scenes. He has no filter, which can lead to trouble for himself, and perhaps even his clients.

Trials are expensive. The American system is designed in a way to minimise people actually going to trial. So lawyers will offer plea bargains. Go to trial and risk a sentence of 25-30 years if found guilty, plead without going to trial and we'll give you 5, you can get out in 3 with good behaviour. That kind of thing. Which means, on a lot of occasions, people are too scared to even take a gamble on their RIGHT to a trial, even if they may actually be innocent of the crime.And that's what writer-director Dan Gilroy seems to want to look at here. Then he wanders over to a different area. Then back to the right to trial idea. And then somewhere else. He looks at it, and goes away and comes back to look at it some more, but not as pointedly. It leaves viewers feeling exactly how my wife feels when she sees me hovering around a nice new movie boxset I want to buy, going to other parts of the store before going back to it, making my pleading face until she caves in and says I can buy it. The frustrating thing is that Gilroy doesn't need our permission to commit to his idea, he just thinks that he does. Or he doesn't think he can make a whole movie from it, so he mixes in other ideas that just don't feel as if they belong there.

The great shame is that this confusion, this muddying of the waters, will lead to a lot of people missing one of the better Washington performances in recent years. Despite some of his familiar tics appearing here and there, this is far removed from the usual confident and cocky turns Washington has given us over the past couple of decades. There's also two fantastic supporting performances from Colin Farrell, playing someone who seems like an enemy to Roman but is actually a slick lawyer looking for a chance to improve things somewhat while still working well within the system, and Carmen Ejogo, a young woman who is inspired by Roman, as he is in turn further inspired by her.

In terms of actual dialogue, the script works well. Characters are fleshed out, exchanges are sharp and smart, and interesting ideas are drip fed throughout the main narrative. Again, it's just the meandering lack of focus and structure that undoes a lot of the good work. Viewers don't really get a feel for the time and place, the events take place over three weeks and yet it all feels as if it stretches out for much more than that, and instead of provoking more thought the jumble of elements simply results in a bit of a disinterested shrug.

But those performances make it worth your time. They are THAT good. You also get a very good soundtrack, some cracking songs interspersed by a decent score from James Newton Howard, and at least things move along quickly enough that the 2-hour runtime feels slightly brisker than it otherwise might.


Americans can buy it here.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Arq (2016)

I do like a good bit of time trickery in movies. Time travel and timeloops usually do enough to keep me thinking and entertained throughout, which is why I knew it was only a matter of time (no pun intended) until I gave ARQ a watch.

Robbie Amell and Rachael Taylor play Renton and Hannah, two people who wake up just as their house is being invaded by people. We quickly learn that the invaders are after "scrips", and maybe some food, but Renton suspects that they're after something else, a machine that will benefit a company he doesn't want to get their hands on it. And that same machine ends up causing a time loop, which is very handy when Renton is killed . . . and then wakes up again just as the house is being invaded. Certain things play out the same way while certain other things start to be changed by the actions of the characters. Sometimes they remember how everything plays out, sometimes they don't.

It's a decent enough premise at the heart of the movie, and I would say the same about most films featuring a timeloop, but writer-director Tony Elliott fumbles things when it comes to the bigger picture. Each iteration is freshened up by twists and developments, including just how many people start to remember what has happened to them before, but he throws too much in the mix when trying to complicate the character motivations and also hint at the bigger picture of the world outside the house.

Amell and Taylor are decent enough leads, and they do what they can to carry the film. They can't do enough, however, when weighed down by the vagueness of the script, which only starts to nail down some of the finer details in the second half, and the nondescript nature of most of the supporting cast members. Shaun Benson, Adam Butcher, Gray Powell, and Jacob Neayem do what they're asked to do, which makes it more frustrating that they're not given decent material to work with.

Elliott does well when you consider how he tried to best utilise the budget to match the scope of his vision. It's a shame that he doesn't do as well when keeping the events and characters in order for viewers to keep track of. Not that the film is incoherent. It just doesn't have enough indicators that most films of this type usually use to help viewers track any locked events and any changes.

There's still enough here to make this an enjoyable sci-fi thriller, especially if you like time trickery in your movies as much as I do. It's just a shame that it isn't a bit better, in terms of the characterisations and plotting. Not the worst way to spend 90 minutes but, unlike the main characters, I won't be repeating the experience.


ARQ doesn't seem to be on disc just now, so enjoy this one instead.
Americans can get the DVD here.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

It has long been the case that if a movie was released with very little marketing and/or no advance screenings for critics then everyone could safely assume that it wasn't going to be very good. A lot of stinkers have been dumped into cinemas this way, making a cash grab before the word starts to spread on just how bad it is. But the times they are a changing, as a popular song will tell you. And that is how so many people ended up spending their time after the recent Super Bowl watching The Cloverfield Paradox. Very few people knew it was being released so soon, and even less expected the trailer from Netflix advertising it as being available to watch right after the game. Well played, Netflix, well played indeed.

Now let's get to the film itself. Tenuously linked to the previous two films, The Cloverfield Paradox shows us an Earth that is limping through a dire energy crisis, which is the perfect time to develop and build a huge space station thingummybob that will head upwards into the stars and fire a big beam down on our planet with probably no long-lasting negative effects to us or the universe, obviously. The crew are impressively multi-cultural, with Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) being the one we are kept alongside the most, and they take turns at working together and fighting one another when things go wrong and Earth seems to disappear. If they can ever make it back there, and if some strange force will actually let them, becomes the focus of the film, with occasional diversions to show us what is going on back on Earth itself (which you should already be aware of if you've seen the previous two films).

You have a few things working very well here. The cast, for one, are a great mix; as well as Mbatha-Raw, there's Daniel Bruhl, Aksel Hennie,  Zhang Ziyi, David Oyelowo, Chris O'Dowd, and more. The production values are good, with some impressive special effects throughout. And fans of the previous movies will enjoy scouring each scene for small connections and references to other events.

Julius Onah directs well enough, showing especially good instincts when it comes to the scares and surprises, which are just a bit too few and far between. One moment features some squirm-inducing eyeball freakery that perked me right up again just as my interest had started to wane.

The biggest problem lies with the script, written by Oren Uziel. Hampered by a lack of logic, even movie-based logic, and possibly also hampered by having to shoehorn in those Cloverfield connections, the script falls completely flat in between the better set-pieces. Worst of all, it undermines the decent acting on display by making most of the characters very hard to care about. There's also no attempt to give us a decent hint at an explanation for certain events. I don't need everything spelled out for me, most people don't, but that doesn't mean a film can just be made up of various moments thrown together with no real idea of the cause and effect. That way lies anarchy and a lack of satisfaction for viewers.

Everything else makes up for the poor script, but only just (and I have already heard from a LOT of people who disagree with me). The weakest of the series so far, I can still see this being a big, even monster, hit for Netflix, thanks to the (lack of) marketing and the curiosity that fans will have. I just hope that whatever we get next is a bit better.


Get the previous two movies here.
Or, in America, get them here.

Monday 5 February 2018

Flatliners (2017)

I am not going to tell you that the original Flatliners was a classic horror movie. It was a fun Joel Schumacher film, utilising a fun premise, decent enough script by Peter Filardi, and a cast of hot young stars of the time. I just never thought it as great as some others. I did like it though.

This remake starts with the same basic idea (medical students get themselves involved in experiments that lead to them dying for some time, which subsequently leads to them bringing something back over from the other side). But we get Niels Arden Oplev directing, and a script by Ben Ripley.

Ellen Page is Courtney, the first medical student to come up with the plan to flatline. She actually wants to do so because she thinks reading the data from the experience, as she does it while her brain activity is recorded,  could help deal with certain medical situations. She's joined by Jamie (James Norton), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons). And eventually, reluctantly, Ray (Diego Luna) gets caught up in the whole mess. Things start getting weird, and death isn't necessarily going to let anyone go without a fight.

When it comes to the actual logic of the way events pan out, Flatliners does a surprisingly good job. It starts off as being about more than people just trying to get their kicks, but eventually shows competition between the leads and the element of thrill-seeking involved. Ripley has done a decent enough job of updating a premise that didn't feel too badly dated to begin with, bringing in an interesting element that removes it slightly from the original (although I won't detail that - no spoilers here). It's just a shame that the new element also ends up proving the undoing of the film during the third act. Things feel a bit tamer than they could have been, even compared to the original film, which wasn't exactly pushing the boundaries of the horror genre. 

Oplev directs competently enough, but only just. The scares are, for the most part, the easiest options, the visuals are quite drab and lacking any sense of foreboding or decent atmosphere, and even the grand finale feels more like a whimper than a bang.

Then we have the cast. I like most of the people involved. Page, Dobrev, and Luna are all good enough for me to watch. I can't recall what else I have seen Norton and Clemons in, if anything, but they seemed just fine in their roles. They aren't, however, the hot stars of today. That doesn't make them bad actors, it just removes some of the spark that this premise had when it was first put in front of viewers. I'd imagine that some of you reading this will have no idea who half of these people are, yet we all STILL know Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland (who cameos here), Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin (okay, you don't remember him individually but you know there's a Baldwin clan), and maybe even the great Oliver Platt.

All of these elements add up to make something that's just a bit . . . disappointing. The tame script, the unspectacular and drab visual style, the star cast that doesn't feel exactly stellar. It makes a good attempt to rework the original material but there are too many mis-steps for it to become something decent (even the score by Nathan Barr is just average, at best).


UK folks can buy Flatliners here.
If in America you can buy it here.