Sunday 30 September 2018

Netflix And Chill: 24 Hours To Live (2017)

Ethan Hawke stars in this action thriller, the kind of slick, violent fare that you would be forgiven for assuming had Luc Besson in a producer role. It's generic stuff, but it's fairly well put together and has a very small role for Rutger Hauer (always welcome).

Hawke is a top assassin named Travis Conrad. He wants to enjoy a holiday but is pestered back into the field by his colleague, and friend, Jim (Paul Anderson). It's an important job, and the pay available for it reflects that. Despite his skills, Travis is shot and killed. But that's just a temporary setback, and the company soon have him back on his feet and ready to finish the job. For 24 hours anyway (hence the title). Travis quickly realises that there's more to this job than just taking out someone who deserves to be dealt with. There's something not right about the whole thing.

Directed by Brian Smrz, 24 Hours To Live is fast-paced and full of decent action moments. Considering the premise of his previous feature, Hero Wanted (his directorial debut), it would seem that Smrz has an affinity for movies in which guys drag themselves out of hospital beds to head off and kill lots of people. Nothing wrong with sticking to what you know, and as I have yet to see Hero Wanted I cannot say if there are many other similarities.

The plotting, although obvious, is perfectly acceptable in the way the premise is set up and played out. Writers Ron Mita and Jim McClain (who have been writing together for a few years now, judging by their filmography), and Zach Dean keep everything at just the right level of enjoyable silliness. This is not a film designed for anyone who wants to overthink things, but it manages to avoid seeming completely unbelievable, even during some of the bigger set-pieces (with a sequence showing Hawke trying to keep his "target" safe from various sharpshooters being a definite highlight).

Hawke is fine in the lead role. He's surprisingly believable as a shooter who can also win out in hand-to-hand combat, especially when the odds are stacked against him. Andersdon does okay in his role, although he's hampered by some of the more predictable script elements, and Liam Cunningham has a lot of fun in his limited amount of screentime. Xu Qing (playing a guard of the main target) should have been given more to do, instead of becoming the main motivator for Hawke's character, but she fares better in the first half of the film, when actually given some of the action, than in the second half.

I doubt this is going to be a film that will be remembered years from now, and it's not one that anyone should rush out to make their top priority, but it's a decent way to spend 90 minutes. And if they found a way to extend the lifespan of Hawke to give him Another 24 Hours To Live then, yes, I would be up for watching that.


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

Or you can always click on the links and shop for other things.

Saturday 29 September 2018

Shudder Saturday: Hounds Of Love (2016)

Written and directed by Ben Young, making his feature debut, Hounds Of Love isn't the kind of film that seems to give you much to comment on, or discuss. Everything is delivered clearly enough, and in an unflinching, but not gratuitous, manner. Yet the psychology of the main characters, as unpalatable as it may be to explore, is more complex than the plot details might suggest.

Ashleigh Cummings plays a schoolgirl named Vicki Maloney. She's adjusting to the fact that her parents are now separated, which puts her at odds with her mother (Susie Porter). After a big argument, Vicki sneaks out of her room and heads off for a night out. She ends up being picked up by Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry), two degenerates who pretend to be friendly while actually plotting to render her unable to defend herself once she is in their home, where she can be kept captive and tortured.

If you want films featuring unsavoury characters that will make you tense while also often making you feel as if you need to give yourself a good scrub down afterwards then Australia should be your first port of all. I could reel off a list of films to illustrate this point (from Chopper to Animal Kingdom, to Cut Snake and, probably the closest to this in terms of grim atmosphere, The Snowtown Murders AKA Snowtown). Hounds Of Love is another fine offering, although it's also one that I can't see many people rushing to rewatch. It's just such a tough experience.

There are two things that this film does very well. First of all, the technical side shows a confidence and canny knack for judging things perfectly that you wouldn't necessarily expect from someone making their feature debut. While the film features violence, sexual abuse, and nudity, it never ever throws all of those things together in any one scene to make it seem exploitative. This is a harrowing story being told, it's not a slice of shockerama to be viewed as a challenge for horror fans (as some others might be, not that I am going to namecheck them here).

Second, the acting is perfect from all involved. There are no overwrought histrionics here, which isn't to say that the characters never get loud and emotional (because they do), and no moustache-twirling moments for the villains. They are evil people, that's clear from the very beginning, but it doesn't have to be shown in an exaggerated way because their despicable behaviour means that even the more mundane moments feel awful because the mundanity is just part of their day in between moments that allow them to get their kicks. Cummings has to do all the thrashing and screaming, which looks like it would have been incredibly draining, but Booth and Curry play their parts with a mix of chillingly quiet menace and explosive anger. Cummings may be the latest prey for them but she's also the latest accelerant on a strange relationship that has been burning too hot for some time now. Porter, Damian de Montemas (as the father of Vicki), and Harrison Gilbertson (Vicki's boyfriend) also do well, and Fletcher Humphrys makes a strong impression in his small role, playing a hard man owed some money by John.

There's a lot more that can be said here: praise for how Young gives backstory to almost all of the main characters without using it to justify any of their actions or manipulate viewers. the framing and shot choice that underlines the violence without gloating over it, the fact that these people are pretty much hiding in plain sight and how they can get away with that in their neighbourhood, and more. It may not be entirely new ground that we're being taken through, but it's got a lot of interesting details tucked away behind the same old doors and walls.


Here's the film on shiny disc.
Americans can pick it up here.

Friday 28 September 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Pink Cadillac (1989)

Clint Eastwood can do many things. He can squint perhaps better than anyone else in cinema. He can portray iconic characters who usually solve their problems with violence. He can direct, some of his films being much better than some others. And he can even get away with temporary embarrassments. Some may have forgotten his famous dialogue with an empty chair in an attempt to make some political points a number of years ago. I haven’t. Regardless, it was a blip. He’s allowed a blip. Because Clint Eastwood can do pretty much whatever he likes. Except comedy. No, that is not one of his strengths (unless he’s co-starring with a great ensemble – a la Kelly’s Heroes – or an entertaining orangutang – “right turn, Clyde”). Pink Cadillac is an action comedy, but it’s sadly lacking in both action and laughs.

Eastwood plays Tommy Nowak, a skip-tracer (seems to be the same as a bounty hunter) who ends up tracking down a woman named Lou Ann McGuinn (Bernadette Peters). Lou Ann was found with counterfeit money that actually belonged to her husband (Timothy Carhart) and his fellow crooks. Heading off in his prized car, the pink cadillac of the title, Lou Ann hopes to evade the law long enough to spend more of the counterfeit money and somehow turn it into real money, thanks to some good luck at casinos, that will set up a better future for her child. Nowak finds Lou Ann quite easily, but he's unsure of the best way to get things done when he hears about her dilemma, involving her child, her husband, and a group of white supremacists who were due all of the money that she drove off with.

The first film written by John Eskow (who has written some others that I have really enjoyed), this script shows an obvious unease, a lack of faith in any of the main elements. That's why the comedy is never funny enough, nor are the action moments as thrilling as they could be. That could have been an issue easier to overlook if the leads were better but Eastwood seems determined to remind viewers that he is working hard at pretending to have fun.

Director Buddy Van Horn directed three movies in total, all starring Clint Eastwood. Starting with the passable enough Any Which Way You Can, he then moved on to the disappointing The Dead Pool (which is also places Jim Carrey in a small role, his very brief cameo in this movie means that he has been in two more Clint Eastwood films than most people would think him suitable for), and finished with this one. They must enjoy working together, however, as Van Horn has spent many years doing stunt work, either performing or co-ordinating the work, for many other Eastwood movies. So it's a distinct possibility that everyone working on this film was having a blast. They just didn't manage to convey that to viewers.

Eastwood is at his worst here, and I consider myself a fan of the man. This was a role that should have been bulked up and developed for someone more naturally comedic (with some hard work, this could have been a great vehicle for someone like Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy). The material being weak is no excuse for Eastwood being so uncharacteristically lacking in charisma throughout, and that is the biggest problem that the film has. Peters tries harder, and she's as enjoyable as usual, but isn't given enough to do. Carhart is okay as her asshole of a husband, Michael Des Barres is good as the main baddie, and I would have liked to see him be even more of a threat, and you get a fun turn from Geoffrey Lewis, as well as a fleeting bit of screentime for Bill Moseley.

What can I say to sum things up any clearer? You get a weak script, weak direction, and a weak leading turn from someone who is usually on much better form. The saving grace is Peters, but even she doesn't do enough to make this worth your time. 


You can, if you feel the need, buy it here.
Americans can get it here.

Thursday 27 September 2018

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Blacula was a big success when it was released in 1972. So, as expected, a sequel was quickly created. And it is, also as expected, not quite as good as the first film. It's not bad though. Not bad at all.

William Marshall returns to the title role, once again bringing such a great presence and certain dignity to the role. He's resurrected by a young man (Willis, played by Richard Lawson) who wants to become a leader in his voodoo circle. That doesn't go to plan. Willis is instead almost immediately bitten and ordered to stay within the confines of his own home. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde (AKA Blacula) starts to venture out into the night once more, quickly falling for the lovely, and voodoo-wise, Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier). Perhaps the magic that brought him back to life can cure him of his vampirism.

Writers Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig also return, joined this time around by Maurice Jules, and they continue to use the main character in a mixture of traditional vampire moments and also scenes that let him angrily call out situations that he sees around him (specifically when it comes to how people treat one another, as well as how valuable heritage and history are).

It's Bob Kelljan in the director's chair, taking over the role from William Crain, and he does a decent job. Although the film lacks the freshness of the first film, obviously, it makes up for that with the added voodoo elements and a handful of vampire moments that come very close to being genuinely creepy. This may be due to the fact that Kelljan had already given audiences the Count Yorga movies (which, as of this moment, I have yet to watch - sorry, not enough hours in each day). The third act is also almost on a par with that of the first film, walking a familiar path, but with just enough of a twist to avoid it feeling like a carbon copy.

Marshall is just as good here as he was in the first movie and, having recently rewatched that film (before getting to this one), I wouldn't expend too much energy arguing with anyone who wanted to hold him up as one of the best incarnations of Dracula, even if he's a successor to the title rather than the, ummmmmm, original fangster. Grier is good enough in her role, although she's not at her very best (the really good stuff is saved for her leading roles in this era). Lawson suffers from the script making him too weak and whiney, but Don Mitchell manages to even things out with his fine turn, playing the man who puts two and two together and comes up with a batty result.

I was tempted to rate this even higher, placing it much closer to the first film, but I ultimately realised that there's not much in the first hour of the film that comes close to some of the great moments in the finale. There's a lot to enjoy, here and there, but it's only the last 10-15 minutes that show how much more could have been done with the premise. Well worth a watch if you enjoyed Blacula, but it doesn't really avoid many of the standard sequel problems (especially when it comes to the plotting, which is copied almost beat for beat).


The double-pack can be bought here.
Americans can get the movies here.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Prime Time: Darktown Strutters (1975)

Despite knowing that my own experience of blaxploitation movies is rather limited, certainly in comparison to other connoisseurs, I am going to go out on a limb here and describe Darktown Strutters as one of the most bizarre examples you could choose to watch. I’m not even sure I can describe the plot, which often takes a backseat to some hijinks that seem to have been lifted from some unfilmable episode of The Monkees.

Okay, here is my best attempt. Trina Parks is Syreena, she’s a badass leader of an all-girl motorbike gang. She’s also searching for her missing mother, Cinderella, who subsequently finds out used to provide a service for young women who found themselves in a state of impending motherhood and wanted to, let’s say, avoid the end result. There are some comedy cops bumbling around, some KKK members that like to chase the gang and cause a lot of trouble, and a man named Commander Cross (played by Norman Bartold) has a scheme to replace prominent black males with identical copies that will be programmed to fall in line and insidiously, exponentially, spread a message dictated by white America.

If some of those details are incorrect then please accept my apologies. I can only tell you that I spent most of the movie either grinning gleefully or cringing at the casual awfulness of some of the comedy ("highlights" include some light-hearted attempted rape, a dollop of homophobia, and those bumbling cops, both inept and abusive . . . hilarious).

The script by George Armitage was apparently written in just a few days, which explains a lot. This is the product of some fever dream, although that's not to say that there aren't enjoyable moments. Most of my grinning took place during some of the musical moments, and most scenes featuring Parks are hugely enjoyable, thanks to her being a wonderful badass in the lead role.

Aside from Parks, and Bartold (as the villain of the piece, he gets to make more of an impression than some of the other cast members), nobody else really stands out. There are just too many disparate moments, and no attempts to make the characters anything more than cartoons ready to set up or fall for a gag.

Director William Witney feels like he's herding cats here with the many tangents that see the film hurtling towards more insanity, veering back to the plot (itself not entirely sane), and then enjoying another diversion when it's time for a chase or a song. He keeps everything cheap 'n' cheerful, and at least maintains a consistent tone of whackiness, even if some of the material maybe shouldn't be given the whacky treatment.

The good and the bad end up almost cancelling each other out here, leaving you with a film that falls squarely in the middle. Darktown Strutters will rarely be high on any list of favourite blaxploitation movies but its non-stop deluge of delirium make it worth a watch, especially if you've already worked your way through a lot of the usual suspects.


There's a pricey DVD available here.
Americans can get this disc.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Here it is. The Star Wars spin-off/prequel that we were all excited about when Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the masters of making unlikely hits) were attached. That excitement started to fade when they parted ways from the project, the safe "creative differences" was the excuse given. And then there were expensive reshoots. And then the film was released, going on to achieve some fairly disappointing numbers at the box office.

I didn't rush to see it, and I didn't hear from too many people who did. It felt like something lacking the spectacle and magic of the main movie series (which even includes those much-criticised prequels, I hasten to add). It felt a bit, dare I say it, pointless.

The mess that led to this film underperforming and being viewed as a big mistake in the ongoing development of the Star Wars cinematic universe is a bit of a shame, because the film itself is a fun sci-fi adventure that benefits from some great lead performances and an enjoyable backstory for a beloved cinematic icon. Okay, we never needed that backstory, I agree, but the writers here - Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan - at least make it a fun one.

I'm not going to cover the plot details here. It's enough to say that the film follows young Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich) as he sets out to make a name for himself, gets involved with someone who taches him a valuable lesson or two, befriends a large Wookie, meets Lando Calrissian (owner of the Millennium Falcon), and ends up flying through the Kessel Run.

I can't emphasise enough how much this film is lifted by the casting of Ehrenreich in the main role. Some may disagree, and my wife numbers among them, but I think he has just the perfect mix of what young Han should be, in terms of both looks and attitude. I first enjoyed Ehrenreich's acting, like so many other viewers, when I caught him in Hail, Caesar! and I hope that he just keeps going on to bigger and better things (and I would have liked to see him in another Solo movie, but that seems unlikely now). The other three people who easily hold the screen alongside Ehrenreich are Woody Harrelson (as Beckett, a criminal type who becomes a bit of a mentor), Joonas Suotamo playing Chewbacca, and Donald Glover as Lando. All of them are fantastic, but it's Glover who would steal the movie if it wasn't full of so many great little moments for everyone. Emilia Clarke, playing the woman who inavdvertently set Han on his path through life, is better here than she has been in some other movie roles, Paul Bettany gives a fine performance as a crime boss that you should never cross, and Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau (his voice anyway), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (also a vocal performance) all do solid work. Waller-Bridge has the most fun, which makes it a shame that her character wasn't onscreen for a bit longer.

Ron Howard is the man who ended up in the director's chair. He does the perfectly competent job that you would expect him to do. It's not up there with his best work, and it's not up there with the best of the Star Wars movies, but it's a genuinely good time for viewers wanting to sit back, relax, and spend a couple of hours in the company of a reluctant hero they can find out a little bit more about. The script drops a number of lovely little details throughout, fleshing out a few of the main characters in scenes that entertain without ever betraying their essence (although it's quite easy when you keep things so simple - e.g. Lando is a charming rogue).

There are some touches that feel a bit forced, especially in the third act, but the pleasant surprise is just how much the film feels like Han at every turn. The music by John Powell aside (it never hits the heights that viewers might expect), this feels effortless and charming. It's one that I can see myself revisiting often, which is all down to how much I enjoyed spending time with these characters.


You can buy the shiny disc here.
Americans can buy it here. Or buy other goodies instead.

Monday 24 September 2018

Mubi Monday: Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock once said something about how an explosion will give audiences a fright but showing a ticking bomb under the chair of some unsuspecting potential victim would have them on edge right up until the explosion. I'm paraphrasing but I remember the essence of his message. He liked to scare people, but he equally enjoyed making them tense.

Rope starts with a murder, committed by Phillip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall). The body is hidden in a chest and, for the rest of the movie, there it stays while the two murderers host a small dinner party, all the while hoping that nobody suspects that they're sharing a room with a hidden corpse. The one person who may suspect is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), an old schoolteacher they believe would actually enjoy their whole plan. Of course, they cannot tell him what they have done. The only thing they can do is enjoy watching Cadell mull over how strange the evening is.

As famous for the way it was shot as for the content, Rope is a film unfairly viewed by some (including Hitchcock himself, and I should mention that it was he who directed it) as nothing more than a gimmicky experiment. There's no denying that the lengthy takes, the logistics of how every shot was set out, and the manipulation of the main environment (including a wonderful display showing the city skyline turning from day to night), is technically impressive, but that's only part of the reason to enjoy the film. The script, by Arthur Laurents (from a play by Patrick Hamilton), is a lot of fun, allowing viewers to watch two nasty individuals grow increasingly edgy as their own arrogance starts to bite them on the backside.

Granger is the more agitated of the pair, tense from the very beginning and only getting worse when alcohol is added to the mix. Dall gets to have more fun, unflappable throughout, even as it looks more and more unlikely that their "perfect crime" will be discovered. Stewart, despite the fact that he didn't think himself suited to this role, is his usual good self, a smart and sophisticated man who is equally happy chatting to the other guests as he is joking with the maid (Edith Evanson). Joan Chandler and Douglas Dick are both enjoyable enough as the other, younger, guests,  and both Cedrick Hardwicke and Constance Collier are very good as the two older attendees, with Collier a particular delight.

Although it would be easy to confuse Rope with the attitudes of the two main characters - smug, self-absorbed, interested in creating something audacious and impressive just for the same of being able to say it was done - I think it holds up as a fine piece of thrilling cinema. Few other films spend the entire runtime showing you that ticking bomb under the chair. This one does, and to great effect. The ticking bomb just happens to be in the shape of a stashed corpse.


A fine selection of Hitchcock films, including this one, can be bought in this set.
Americans can buy this set.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Netflix And Chill: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (2017)

A variety of things can save movies from being terrible. There could be one great performance, there could be an enjoyable twist in the third act, there could be some screentime for Diora Baird (what? each to their own, don't you judge me). Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets manages to avoid being a terrible movie because of the sheer abundance of visual gorgeousness and design creativity on display. There are also a couple of great supporting turns, but it's the visuals that help to make the 120+ minute runtime much more bearable than it otherwise would be.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian, an agent who works alongside Sergeant Laureline (played by Cara Delevingne). He's also in love with her, but she is wary of his long list of past loves signifying a fear of commitment. More importantly, the two are tasked with a mission that will take them into the city of a thousand planets, hence the title. There are moments of action, many different lifeforms on display, and a race against the clock. That's all you need to know.

Written and directed by Luc Besson, based on a comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, this is a film that could have been great. Besson is on good form here, obviously in love with the material and pulling out all of the stops to realise as many vibrant and fully-textured different environments onscreen as he can. He takes time to let the camera soak up plenty of details, but is equally happy to zoom and spin around while following characters through a number of chase sequences. He doesn't do as well with the script but it's standard pulpy sci-fi stuff, and fans of this kind of fare will have endured much worse.

The problem really comes from the leads, who just aren't anywhere close to being charismatic enough to cover over the weaker parts and sell the shenanigans. I like both DeHaan and Delevingne, the former is especially good in the right roles, but neither of them work here. It's not that they're terrible, they're just not a fit for the roles, nor do they work well off one another. That just becomes more and more obvious whenever we get fun turns from Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, and even Rihanna (yes, she's very good in her small role). Herbie Hancock is a standard, gruff, authority figure, and he's fine in his role, but it's the others who get to look like they're actually enjoying themselves whenever they're onscreen.

There are other problems. The score by Alexandre Desplat doesn't feel right for the visuals (and I know that I don't mention music in films as often as I should, mainly because when it works it's easy to notice it less, like great CGI). It lacks any sense of grandeur or magic, often bringing it to your attention by being so relentlessly . . . flat while the visuals dazzle. It's also too busy at times, in terms of both characters and plot points. An action sequence in the first act never works as well as it should for this reason, although it is still a lot of fun. Last, but not least, you have the same problem that affected the unfairly-maligned John Carter. We've seen a lot of this stuff before, but that's down to the source material being around since the late 1960s, which is some time before many of the movies and stories it may have subsequently influenced.

If you're looking for some smart sci-fi then look elsewhere, but if you're looking for some easy sci-fi entertainment full to the brim with imagination and a sense of fun then this should hit the spot. It's just a shame that it didn't do enough in the other departments to complement the style and visuals.


Here's a shiny disc available for you.
Americans can get it here.

Or you can click on either link and shop for anything you like, which works for me.

Saturday 22 September 2018

Shudder Saturday: Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018)

A lot of people REALLY liked Hell House LLC when it appeared a few years ago. It's not hard to see why. It was a found footage movie that smartly built up tension and supplied scares with good structuring of the tale and many unsettling details scattered throughout almost every scene. I liked it. Just liked it. The acting was so-so, it didn't do enough to provide the all-important reason for anyone to keep filming, and it felt a bit slight. But it was still a lot better than dozens of other found footage movies I have endured over the years.

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel is a better film. It compares to the first film as Grave Encounters 2 compares to Grave Encounters. Basically, everything is elevated, making it far less believable but also far more entertaining. There are some truly bonkers moments here. More importantly, there are some scares that had me swearing at my TV screen as I waited for my heartbeat to calm down a bit.

The plot follows on from the events of the first film. People are still curious about just what happened at the opening night of Hell House, LLC, and a TV show featuring the man who made the documentary about it (Mitchell, played by Vasile Flutur) eventually leads to a return trip to the location. The brave souls heading back in there are an investigative journalist (Jessica Fox, played by Jillian Guerts), her colleagues (Molly, played by Joy Shatz, and cameraman David, played by David Austen), a psychic (Kyle Ingleman), his main colleague (didn't get his name, never mind), and the only one who knows what danger they might be getting themselves into - Mitchell. Once inside, it starts to become clear that the site of the Hell House, the Abaddon Hotel, doesn't want them to leave.

Once again written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, this is a sequel that seems to have been made by someone given a chance to have more fun and cut loose with his sophomore feature. As well as the main narrative strand, there are a number of sequences that show how others have fared when they have decided to bravely enter the hotel on their own. All of those sequences have at least one great scare, making it easier to forgive the fact that Cognetti has decided to use the found footage format in a very loose way. There's no cohesive "end product" here, and no real rhyme or reason to the editing of various clips, aside from making things easier for Cognetti to have fun with viewers and save some decent reveals for the final act.

The acting is serviceable from everyone involved. Nobody really excels (although Ingleman stands out as the showbiz psychic) but they all do a good enough job of looking suitably petrified and running away from scary figures that have no right to be moving around in the building.

For me, this is a film all about the scares. Some may enjoy the way the plot unfolds, I could take or leave the way Cognetti expands things from the first film, but it's the effectiveness of the scares that make this a film I can see a lot of horror fans taking a shine to. There are jump scares, yes, but they're not used as often as the more effective, subtle until they become blatant, scares. I'm on about the scares that are there, almost front and centre, but it takes your mind a moment to realise that something is very off with the image you're looking at. Or scares that happen while the main characters are oblivious, some making you reach for the rewind function even as the iciness of you rblood in your veins is already convincing you that you did indeed just see what you think you saw.

I HIGHLY recommend Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel. October (which is a whole month of Halloween treats for us horror fans) is just over a week away. This should definitely be on your list of potential viewings.


Americans can get the first film on DVD here.

Friday 21 September 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Tunes Of Glory (1960)

When you think of a film starring Alec Guinness that focuses on a battle of wills between two commanding officers then I would be very surprised if you didn't think of The Bridge On The River Kwai. That film is a gold-plated classic, and if you have yet to see it then please do so immediately. Tunes Of Glory, however, is no slouch. It may be a lesser-known film, certainly compared to "Kwai", but it's almost as good, and arguably more interesting in the way it shades the two main characters.

Guinness plays Jock Sinclair, a Colonel due to step down from his commanding position as another man steps in to take charge. That other man is Basil Barrow, a Lt. Col. played by John Mills, and he's very different from Sinclair. Barrow likes order and for his men to be on their best behaviour at all times, Sinclair prefers to let his men have fun, and thinks that people will easily forgive any perceived rudeness or social indiscretions committed by soldiers in high spirits. A lot of the soldiers side with Sinclair, who obviously has popularity, but a few support their new commander, and don't appreciate the friction being caused by Sinclair.

Director Ronald Neame (who had also used Guinnes so well in his previous film, The Horse's Mouth) has the great benefit of a near-perfect cast doing their best with a fantastic screenplay, written by James Kennaway, adapting his own novel. Which isn't to take anything away from Neame's work. He knows exactly how he wants each scene to play out and paces everything perfectly to give viewers plenty of time to chop and change their minds about the good or bad standing of various characters.

With his bright red hair and fine Scottish brogue, Guinness provides yet another acting masterclass in his portrayal of Sinclair. He's an obstinate, proud, man who is unwilling to consider compromise as anything other than a repudiation of all that he stands for. Mills is equally good in his role, although he has to sweat and twitch a bit too much during the moments that see his unflappable demeanour being pushed to the . . . flappable. Gordon Jackson also excels, playing a decent soldier trying to help the new commander in his role. It's testament to both the script and the performance that Jackson never comes across as a sycophant or goody-two-shoes. He's stuck between two men he admires in different ways. Dennis Price also gives a great turn, taking on the role of the one man who will call out both Sinclair and Barrow on their mis-steps. Kay Walsh gets the one main female role, although Susannah York has a small part to play too, and there's a fine selection of supporting actors, including John Fraser, Duncan Macrae, Percy Herbert, and Allan Cuthbertson, as well as many other wonderful faces.

Full of pipe music, whisky, and moments in which tempers flare, Tunes Of Glory is steeped in Scottish flavour throughout, yet also remains a quintessentially British film. It's about doing your duty, about being in a position that you wish to see as being beyond reproach, and about the overriding need to save face above all else. Yep, quintessentially British.


You can buy the DVD here.
Americans can get a Criterion edition here.

OR, as some people did the other day (and I thank you for it), you can click on either of those links and then just shop for whatever else may take your fancy, and that helps me immensely.

Thursday 20 September 2018

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Based on an incredible true story, one of those truth is stranger than fiction deals, BlackKklansman tells the story of an officer named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who managed to become a well-regarded and respected member of the Ku Klux Klan, as part of a major undercover operation. That's not so strange in itself. The strange part is, as the title suggests, Stallworth being an African American. Having won people over with his telephone manner, Stallworth gets permission to work with his colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to create a composite Ron Stallworth. The man himself will continue to have the phone conversations, Zimmerman will act the part of Stallworth in person, at great personal risk. As things start to gather momentum, Stallworth finds out about a major plot being brewed up that might be even more dangerous than the Klan meetings and cross-burnings.

Directed by Spike Lee, who also helped to co-write the script along with three other writers (from the book written by Stallworth - a book I need to buy soon), BlackKklansman is a sensational piece of work. It's both a testament to some incredible, and brave, police work and a damning critique of the state of the world around us today, a world that has not moved on as far as we'd like to think, despite the best efforts of people like Stallworth and Zimmerman. The script has some great lines in almost every scene, and there's a lightness of tone throughout making it easier to enjoy everything in a fairly straightforward manner (more on that later), but it's really that incredible central idea that makes this a riveting watch from start to finish, helped by lively direction from Lee that seems to convey how energised he was while bringing this tale to the cinema screen.

The acting from all involved is super. Washington plays a sharp young man who is confident in himself, no matter how others want to pigeonhole him (be they fellow officers, racist assholes - who are also sometimes fellow officers, or fellow African Americans who view him as an enemy because he's a police officer). He's a hugely charismatic lead, and his mannerisms and ability to move between personas helps to sell the core of the story. Driver, as the other half of his fictional Stallworth creation, is equally brilliant. And, although not relevant to any other part of the film whatsoever, he does one of my favourite evr "slow, surprised, turns" here. There are times when his character seems a bit too smart and confident for the Klan, but that's what makes him a more appealing new member. Laura Harrier is a socially-conscious young woman named Patrice, and she plays her character with passion and wit. It's easy to see why Washington's character is drawn to her, and also why things won't go smoothly as truths eventually have to come out. Topher Grace gives a wonderful turn as David Duke, the (now former) Grand Wizard of the KKK. He's perfectly pleasant and charming and easy to laugh at, and evil in a form that is acceptable to those around him. I've supported Grace for many years, always been a fan of his work, but know that it takes just the right roles to bring out the best in him. This is one of those roles. Elsewhere, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, and Paul Walter Hauser play the main KKK members who welcome Stallworth into their fold, and Ashlie Atkinson is the wife of Pääkkönen's character, welcoming people into her home with snacks, beverages, and cosy soundbites about how to maintain whites as the superior race. Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, Frederick Weller, and Michael Joseph Buscemi also do great work, portraying a variety of law enforcement officials who either help or hinder the investigation at various times.

But let's get back to that light tone I mentioned earlier. I admit that I was slightly uncomfortable at times while watching BlackKklansman, worried that Lee was minimising the threat, downplaying tension in many scenes that could have really started to have people on the edge of their seat. It was easy to laugh at Klan members, easy to view them as fools that no reasonable people would want to be stuck alongside. And that's another main point that Lee is making, emphasised by everything that happens in the third act. It IS easy to laugh at these people, it IS easy to dismiss them as ignorant idiots looking to blame the wrong people for situations they don't understand, and it IS easy to be bemused by meetings of racist assholes being catered by caring loved ones, discussions of potential acts of racial hatred right beside a full plate of biscuits and a nice cup of tea. We laugh, we ignore, we don't think that anyone else takes notice, and then others DO take notice, some get swept up in the hyperbole and the vitriol, many start to feel that if nobody is taking them to task (because a lot of us are just ignoring them) then they can become more emboldened in their words and deeds, and it builds and builds, until we have "tiki torch" marches in present-day America, we have a media gullibly seduced into thinking that showing a lack of bias also means giving platforms to those who spew their vile hatred whenever they are given the opportunity, and we have peaceful protests marred by violence and death, a fatal backlash from that endangered section of society known as the, ummmm, white male (typically).

BlackKklansman doesn't address every wrong that has, is, and will be perpetuated on black people around the world. Today, off the top of my head, you could look at reports on racial profiling, you could look at the links between various crimes and jail sentences, you could start to count the number of police shootings of African Americans in the USA, and you could go on and on and on. BlackKklansman addresses the complacency that allows all of those wrongs to continue, largely unchecked, and serves as a stark warning that you ignore idiots at your peril. Because idiots can end up being more dangerous than the smarter men who try to stir them up. Why? Because they're idiots. You will rarely convince a smart man to sacrifice himself in an attempt to strike a blow for a cause that is built on nothing more than insecurity, cowardice, and absolute ignorance.


Here is a link to the main Black Lives Matter page.
Here is a link to the NAACP page.

The disc can be bought here.
Americans can get it here.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Prime Time: Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992)

Arguably the most atypical movie in the filmography of John Carpenter, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man is very much a studio movie/Chevy Chase vehicle that just happens to have been directed by the horror maestro. It's an interesting one to watch, and some of the special effects remain impressive (while some others don't), but it's important to go into it not expecting a Carpenter movie.

Chase plays Nick Halloway, a slick office guy who finds his world turned upside down when he's caught up in an accident that renders him invisible. This makes it more difficult to continue his new relationship with the lovely Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah). It also makes him a target for some shady government agent types (headed up by David Jenkins, played by Sam Neill).

Utilising noirish narration throughout most of the story, and paced briskly enough to get you along to the fun of the invisibility, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man is a consistent mix of the old and the new. It gets to restrict the need for hundreds of special effects by showing many scenes with Chase visible, although it often cuts to show the reality of how his invisible self is manipulating the environment or people around him, and the plot focuses just as much on the chase aspect than it does on the problem of no longer being able to see parts of your own body.

The script, credited to Robert Collector, Dana Olsen, and William Goldman (who has never seen the finished product and doesn't know how much of his material was left in there), is a bit of a mess. It's good in the way it moves from one (non)sight gag to another but not so good when weaving between the standard thriller aspects and the moments between Chase and Hannah.

Speaking of the leads, they don't do a bad job. Chase, however, would have been better playing this as audiences expected him to, more comedically. There are scenes that come close to capturing that cheeky twinkle he does so well, and then it's all undone by the need to have him acting seriously, either opposite Hannah or Neill, who is entertainingly ruthless in his bad guy role. Solid support comes from Michael McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky (not onscreen nearly enough), and Jim Norton (mentioned because Father Ted may wish to see "Bishop Brennan" in a John Carpenter movie).

The direction is surprisingly flat, you can tell that this was a paycheck gig for Carpenter, who doesn't provide the soundtrack either. Put this into a player without showing anyone the opening credits and I would defy anyone to put the director's name to it. That doesn't stop it from being fun, and Carpenter does well with the variety of effects (showing a wide array of previously-unseen visuals, as far as I am aware, like an invisible man smoking, and also, at one point, vomiting). It's just not a film with any fingerprints on it.

While not worth putting high on your list of priorities, especially if you have other Carpenter movies to see, this is an easy film to watch and enjoy, with a couple of great set-pieces and a fun ending.


You can buy the movie on blu here.
Americans can buy it here.

OR you can click on either of those links and then just shop for whatever else may take your fancy, and that helps me immensely.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

The Predator (2018)

With Shane Black directing, and working from a script he co-wrote with Fred Dekker, it's fair to say that expectations for The Predator were high, higher than the expectations that fans had for any other instalment in the series. And then came the reshoots and the controversy, and those expectations started to dip. And now some people are claiming that this film has turned out to be their biggest cinematic disappointment of this year. I'm not sure what they were expecting but I got a Predator movie, so am happy enough.

Boyd Holbrook is a soldier, and he's also the person who first comes into contact with our hunting alien beastie. He even manages to get the better of it. This leads to him being interrogated and then loaded on a bus with other problem military personnel (including Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jane). Meanwhile, the predator is being examined by a team, overseen by Sterling K. Brown. Olivia Munn plays a scientist type called in to help, Jacob Tremblay is a child who unlocks some predator-tech that he gets his hands on, and there are a number of fun set-pieces throughout that feature people being targeted by those familiar three red dots.

Okay, it feels a little tamer than some other Predator movies, in terms of bloodshed and savagery of the violence on display. And there are some ideas mixed in that I can understand people being put off by, although I didn't mind them (they're fun and never really slow down the momentum of the plotting). There's also a bit more comedy running throughout the movie than some might have expected (although when did Shane Black last write or direct a movie that didn't have a strong vein of humour?). But, despite those differences, this is still a Predator movie.

The cast all do a decent job, although some aren't well served by the script. Having Tremblay play a boy with Asperger Syndrome feeds well into the plot, although it also feels lazy to have his character be one of those all-too-common magical and supertalented Autistic individuals that crop up occasionally as convenient plot points in Hollywood movies. The bigger mis-step is having Thomas Jane play a soldier who suffers from Tourette's syndrome (and Jane suffers because of that). Holbrook is a solid lead, Munn holds her own alongside the guys, Brown is a lot of fun as the man heading up the team already well-informed about the alien species they finally have available to inspect more closely, and Rhodes, Key, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera fill out the rest of the core group.

Where the film suffers is in the actual direction, and the editing. While the script may not be as sharp as I would like, it's passable in terms of fun dialogue and exposition. But the weak execution of the material shows a surprising lack of focus, and maybe even a lack of heart, from Black. Individual scenes are fun but rarely come together to form something that flows organically from beginning to end. What's worse, none of the death scenes have any impact, even if some of the characters are more likable than others. There's never a feeling that there are real stakes at play here. The whole thing is a romp, but it at least has a consistency of tone throughout (whether or not you like that tone is a different matter altogether - I did).

If this was one of 100 other movies with the same failings then I could have easily disliked it more, and I am very surprised at some of the mistakes made by Black here, but it's a Predator movie, and it still does enough to keep fans of our favourite dreadlocked hunter alien happy. Hell, I was grinning when I heard someone tell others to "get to the chopper", so maybe that tells you all you need to know about how easy it is to please me sometimes.


It can eventually be hunted down here.

Monday 17 September 2018

Mubi Monday: The Bling Ring (2013)

Based on a Vanity Fair article ("The Suspects Wore Louboutins") by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring is a very unique crime film that also plays out very much like a time capsule showing certain types of shallow narcissists who have begun to multiply and thrive at the start of this century.

Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga, and Claire Julien are the youngsters who discover an easy way to become just like so many of the celebrities they idolise. Rob them. When they see articles describing various people hosting, or heading to, parties that are out of town then they know that they can find out where those celebrities live, find a way to access the house, and help themselves to a few trinkets that probably won't even be missed. It's a great way of life until they start getting themselves noticed, ironically enough.

Directed by Sofia Coppola, The Bling Ring is a strange movie to enjoy. For starters, the cast are an annoying and vapid bunch who start to blend into one another. They're defined more by the clothing and accessories they covet than any actual personality, and that's really the whole point. The script is also a fairly shallow and pointless affair, again in line with the characters, and the direction sees Coppola spending most of the time just letting viewers hang out with the gang and being relentlessly worn down by their attitudes to possessions, fame, and success.

Everything that Coppola does here, and everything she asks of her cast, has a point. In that regard, the film succeeds. Unfortunately, the film spends 90 minutes making the same point, pretty much, over and over again. If you don't enjoy the first few scenes then you sure as hell aren't going to enjoy any of the rest of the movie.

Chang and Broussard are the leads, basically, but Watson, Farmiga, and Julien conribute just as much by being so similar in attitude and self-centred inability to even think of the bigger picture, or the repercussions that may befall them. Leslie Mann is the one adult to get some decent screentime, but she's not given that much to do, and there are some obvious celebrity cameos (either in acting roles or utilised in snippets of archive footage).

It can often be hard to enjoy a movie about crime, or criminals, if you suspect that it's somehow glorifying either the act or the people. The Bling Ring avoids that, despite showing the main characters usually being so absorbed in the opportunity to have a piece of an "unattainable" lifestyle that they're not being overtly malicious in any of their actions. That doesn't mean that viewers won't want to see them get their comeuppance, however, and there are a number of scenes in the final act that make it worth having endured some of the more annoying moments elsewhere.

I can see it being very easy to hate The Bling Ring. It's a frustrating experience. But it's also one worth your time, if only to fully understand the bizarre disconnect between reality and what can be seen on a computer/phone screen. A gaping divide always looking to be bridged by those looking up to online celebrities, promoters, and lifestyle gurus.


You can get some bling here.
Americans can get it here.

Sunday 16 September 2018

Netflix And Chill: Sierra Burgess Is A Loser (2018)

I wouldn't have prioritised a viewing of Sierra Burgess Is A Loser if I hadn't read yet another selection of articles written by people getting upset about content that I wasn't sure was intended to offend, in context. But we all know that anyone being offended doesn't give a damn about context. Just ask, well, anyone who has recently been offended.

As suspected, there isn't much here to cause offence, certainly when you compare it to the works that have influenced it (such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and the many John Hughes movies of the 1980s). There are mean-spirited things said about various people, but all of those insults say more about the attitudes and mindsets of the characters delivering them than they say about the makers of the movie. And the characters, including the one that viewers are supposed to root for, do some bad, deceitful, things. I refer you back to the influences just mentioned. So let's move forward with a more standard look at the film without making any attempts to defend aspects that don't need defending.

Shannon Purser plays Sierra, a high school student who doesn't fit in with the crowd of more popular girls, and therefore is labelled as a loser. When Veronica (Kristine Froseth) decides to have fun by handing out Sierra's phone number, claiming it to be her own, it's not long until romance is budding, by text, between Sierra and a young man named Jamey (Noah Centineo). To keep up the pretence, Sierra will need help from Veronica. And it turns out that the latter may need some help of her own, in the form of tutoring, so the two work together, discovering that they have more in common than either would think.

I don't know how things work for Netflix picking up, or creating, their original content but it seems to be working out well for them to often take calculated risks. Perhaps the stars, content, and viewing habits are enough for the algorithms to give them the nod to throw money at a variety of projects (and let's not forget that their data-analysing system gave us House Of Cards). This is, I assume, why we have Sierra Burgess Is A Loser as the directorial feature of Ian Samuels, after a string of shorts on his filmography, and the screenwriting debut of Lindsey Beer. Both do well enough, with Beer using the teen comedy framing to explore loyalty, friendship, peer pressure, honesty, and the benefits and downsides of connecting with others on the worldwide web. Samuels may not stamp his personality on the material, but he shows a knack for emulating the vibe of past teen movies (ones that we still view fondly, despite the many problems that come packaged with them).

Purser has been garnering quite the fanbase since her turn in Stranger Things, and she puts in another good performance here. Sierra is a good young woman, but she makes bad decisions when she starts to become more selfish, neglecting her close friend (Dan, played by R. J. Cyler) and piling one lie on top of another to keep up a dishonest relationship. Froseth is the typical high school clique queen, initially, and does well with that part. She also gets to show another side of her as she and Sierra grow closer, an aspect of the film that is necessary but feels slightly rushed. Centineo is a likable male lead, helped by the fact that his character is kind and earnest as well as the object of Sierra's affection, and Cyler is a lot of fun in his role. The other supporting players are all well and good, but it will please many veiwers to see that Alan Ruck and Lea Thompson play the parents of the main character.

What this film gets right is the general high school movie feel and the selection of standard teen problems. And the cast. What it gets wrong is the lack of believability in a lot of the character developments, which affects everything, although still doesn't do enough damage if you're happy to overlook the flaws while enjoying the predictable beats that lead up to a predictable, if undeserved, finale.


As this is a Netflix presentation, here is an alternative take on similar material.
Americans can get that same film here.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Shudder Saturday: Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

Escape From Tomorrow begins with a man (Jim, played by Roy Abramsohn) receiving a phone call that is giving him bad news. He's lost his job. And he still has to finish off a family holiday in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. What follows is a steady breakdown, much to the dismay of his wife (Emily, played by Elena Schuber) and children.

You've probably already heard about this movie. It's the one that's most famous for being secretly shot in those aforementioned Disney parks. The font of the opening credits even emulates the Disney flourish. It's a gimmick, one that seemed to work in favour of the film, but I was curious to find out if there was any more to it than that.

Surprisingly, and the film is certainly a divisive one, I found that there IS more to this movie. Although, and I'll state this now before I forget, I was less impressed with it being sold as some bizarre horror film. Whether intentional or not, writer-director Randy Moore has given viewers a pitch-black, subversive riff on the popular Vacation movie series. The father hiding bad news, the incidents that occur with the children (he takes his son on a ride that leads to a lot of vomit), the fake cheer throughout, the scenes in which he starts to follow two attractive young women, the moments of fantasy, this would definitely have featured Chevy Chase in the lead role if it had been made a couple of decades ago, and had more official backing from Disney.

Unfortunately, that's not enough to make this a film deserving of the attention it got. No, that attention was all down to the gimmick. Which is a great shame, because the gimmick actually adds very little to the film. If anything, it makes things worse. If Moore had been able to fake things on his budget, we could have been spared some of the uglier visual moments, including some shots that look like they recycled some rear-projection from the 1950s. Being set in the House Of Mouse allows for a lot of sly references and gags, admittedly, but being shot there does the film no favours whatsoever.

It's obvious that Moore had a great idea he wanted to develop into a feature. It's equally obvious that he didn't have enough to quite get to 90 minutes (which is the approximate runtime here). The script is woefully uneven throughout, devolving into a horrible mess during the "clever" final act. At least the direction is competent enough, I guess, despite the ugly visuals, and Moore at least does a good job of dropping some enjoyable crumbs along the trail that leads viewers from the start to the finish.

Abramsohn is fine in his role, Schuber is better, but given less to work with, and the children - played by Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton - do what is asked of them. A few other supporting players do fine, and make a memorable impression thanks to the quirkiness of their characters, but the focus is always Jim, with or without his family around him.

It's hard not to at least slightly admire Escape From Tomorrow, even if you end up hating it. It creates an interesting and disturbing world within a familiar, comforting, environment, and Moore can be given credit for doing that. I enjoyed enough here to recommend it to others, tentatively. I just wish that there had been a better way to work on the end result, because the guerilla film-making required takes away from what could have been something unforgettable and brilliant.


Some mouse problems can be bought here.
Americans can get small world problems here.

Friday 14 September 2018

Filmstruck Friday: Adam's Rib (1949)

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are iconic when it comes to famous cinematic duos. And Adam's Rib is a perfect film to watch if you ever forget that. It has them on great form, and features some delightful supporting turns around them.

The story starts with a shooting. Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) has had enough of her philandering husband, Warren (Tom Ewell), and sees red when she interrupts his latest liaison with Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen, who so many should recognise from Singin' In The Rain). The court case is going to be an interesting one, and Spencer Tracy finds himself heading up the prosecution. Spurred on by the thought of how differently things might play out if the accused was a male, Katharine Hepburn heads up the defence. This causes some tension at home, because Tracy and Hepburn are also married to one another.

Having worked together on a total of nine movies, Adam's Rib can be viewed as the quintessential Tracy and Hepburn movie. The two have a difficult relationship, strained to breaking point by their differences of opinion, but there's obvious affection for one another in almost every scene. The script, by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, may not be as full of zingers as some other films from this era of Hollywood but it has a lot of laughs throughout, elevated by the cast. It is, however, more interesting than many other comedies you could give your time to, making a number of salient and interesting points about gender bias that, sadly, still exist today.

Director George Cukor doesn't do anything wrong. He simply gets the camera in the best position to showcase Tracy and Hepburn doing their thing, which is all that is required, and he works with the script to take the central couple on a journey that will push them towards a couple of real low points without viewers every really worrying that everything won't be sorted by the time we get to the end credits. Tonally, things get dark (especially in a scene that has someone else being threatened with a gun in the third act) but there's always a reprieve coming along to make up for those moments.

It feels redundant to spend more time praising the leads, they've been two favourite actors of mine for many years and watching them work together onscreen is always a delight. Holliday is wonderful as the wife who has been pushed beyond breaking point, Ewell is amusingly arrogant as the bad husband who doesn't think he's done too much wrong, and Hagen steals a scene or two, making me wish that she was in it a bit more. David Wayne is also enjoyable, playing a friend and neighbour who obviously has great affection for Hepburn.

Fans of the two main stars of this film will probably have already seen this. And they'll already know that it's a very enjoyable film to revisit at any time. Newcomers? Well, this is as good a place to start as any. You get some fun dialogue, memorable characters, and two people going through a range of emotions while making it all look completely effortless.


Here's a set containing the movie.
Americans can get it here.

Thursday 13 September 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

Following the sequel template, Pacific Rim: Uprising stars some lesser-known actors, compared to the first film, and isn't quite as good. Thankfully, it's still a lot of fun for those who enjoyed the world that the first film dropped us into.

John Boyega is Jake Pentecost (son of Stacker Pentecost, played by Idris Elba in the first film). Cailee Spaeny is a young girl named Amara Namani, a talented mechanic who keeps working to improve her single-pilot Jaeger (Jaeger = large, fighting robot for those who are playing catch up). Last, and least, is Scott Eastwood as Nate Lambert, a Jaeger pilot who has a past with Jake. All three come together, as well as some other, sadly forgettable, supporting players , when it looks as if there's a new threat from the monsters that had previously been thought dealt with. That's all you need to know.

As technically proficient as the first film, Pacific Rim: Uprising both benefits and suffers from the need to avoid just repeating the exact same set-pieces as the ones we already saw. The plot this time deals with upgrades and hybrids, which is fine, but also reduces the tension quite early on. Viewers can see that the new enemy is even stronger, and a lot tougher to beat, so the finale is very predictable from the first act. Director Steven S. DeKnight helps to offset this with some impressive, and impressively clear, visuals throughout. He knows that this is a huge helping of cheese (because who wouldn't know it?) and he at least makes the payoff worthwhile, keeping the Jaegers front and centre during the set-pieces that are interspersed throughout. Do you want quotable dialogue and thought-provoking explorations of responsibility and mortality or do you want to see a giant robot produce a giant pair of swords and use them against another giant robot? You can't have both, but the latter is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

As much as I enjoyed Pacific Rim, the script was not it's strong point, and it's the same here. Without Travis Beacham or Guillermo del Toro taking care of things, it's left to Emily Carmichael, T. S. Nowlin, Kira Snyder, and DeKnight. They do what needs to be done in order to connect events and allow this to feel like a proper next chapter in the story, which it does, but they saddle the cast with a lot of lame lines in between the action beats.

That could have been easier to overlook if the cast were on good form with the material but, sadly, most of them aren't. Boyega is very good in the lead role, and both Charlie Day and Burn Gorman have fun reprising their scientist roles, but nobody else makes much of an impression. Spaeny and Eastwood don't have the charisma required to make this, at the very least, a decent three-hander, and the other supporting players fade into the background almost as quickly as they appear. At least Spaeny might do better in other roles, Eastwood is already making bland his standard acting style for every role (he may have the name of his father, but he didn't inherit his talent).

If you want to get your fix of giant robots fighting one another then this is much better than the majority of the Transformers series. It's not as good as the first, and it's no Real Steel, but it's a fun idea that is well-realised on the screen. And the bigger the screen you can watch it on, the better it will seem.

You can buy Pacific Rim: Uprising here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Prime Time: Casper (1995)

If you're anywhere near the same age as me, or older, then you'll remember the cartoons featuring Casper, the friendly ghost. A lot of them followed the same template. Casper would float around, trying to make friends, and inevitably scare off almost everyone that he met. There would be cries of " it's a g-g-g-g-ghooooooooost" and everyone would flee. Even campfires would be shown as living entities, picking up their sticks and running away as fast as they could.

This live-action movie, featuring some decent CGI that holds up surprisingly well over two decades later, sees writers Deanna Oliver and Sherri Stoner taking that core idea and managing to nicely frame a whole movie around it. There are a lot of cute gags, plenty of supernatural shenanigans, and a perfect tone throughout that just about keeps the schmaltz palatable, thanks to the darker moments being handled with an impressively light touch.

Bill Pullman plays Dr. Harvey, and Christina Ricci is his daughter, Kat. The two end up in the same house as Casper (voiced by Malachi Pearson, and portrayed by Devon Sawa in one sequence showing him in "non-ghost" form) because the doc has been hired by a woman named Carrigan (Cathy Moriarty) who wants the house cleared of the spirits that live within it. As well as Casper, there are three nuisance ghosts named Stretch, Stinky, and Fatso. Carrigan needs them all gone so she can find the treasure that she knows is hidden somewhere inside the house, which she inherited from a dead relative.

Directed by Brad Silberling, who has a relatively small filmography with one or two gems tucked in there (why am I still the only one who enjoys A Series Of Unfortunate Events so much?), Casper is a pretty perfect way to adapt a cutesy cartoon character into a feature film. It doesn't waste too much time setting things up, with credit again due to Oliver and Stoner, who do a fantastic job in the script department, and it plants the more serious/emotional moments in between numerous gags (with the initial confrontation between Dr. Harvey and the three non-Casper spirits being a highlight).

Pullman and Ricci do very well in their roles, acting opposite the special effects naturally enough and doing a fine job when called upon to deal with the themes of loss and loneliness (both miss their wife and mother, respectively, who died some time ago). Ricci may be the focus of Casper's attention but it's a pleasant surprise to see Pullman get to have more of the outright fun moments, thanks to his interactions with the other ghosts. Moriarty is a good villain, helped in her scheming by Eric Idle (as the sycophantic and selfish Dibs), and both characters are led to a fitting end by their plans. There are also a number of fun cameos, none of which I will spoil by namechecking here.

Having not seen this since I first caught it when it was released on VHS, Casper was a pleasant surprise when I rewatched it recently. It's a great family film, dealing with some big themes that will surely lead to good conversations between kids and their parents, and I hope that others don't allow it to be completely forgotten further down the line.


Casper can be picked up here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Journeyman (2017)

Journeyman is the second directorial feature from Paddy Considine, who also wrote the script and stars in the lead role, and it's another incredibly moving and sad film, albeit in different ways from his impressive feature debut, Tyrannosaur.

Considine is Matty Burton, a boxer coming to the end of his career. He has a loving wife (Emma, played by Jodie Whittaker) and a very young daughter. He also has some good friends in his corner (including Tony Pitts and Paul Popplewell) as he faces off against a young, tough boxer who calls himself the future (Anthony Welsh). When his last fight ends, Burton ends up with an injury that affects his brain, and his personality.

The first thing that I noted about Journeyman was the quality cast. Considine has a knack for picking people that can handle the material he gives them, and his own performance is yet another flawless turn in a career full of them. While everyone else does well in their roles, it's Whittaker who easily equals Considine, going through a whole range of emotions in many scenes as she watches the man she loves act like a child, a stranger, or even a potential threat, as his brain refuses to let him find himself.

The second thing I noted is a minor criticism. As the boxing sequence began I felt that it wasn't shot too well. I started to hope that the film wouldn't be focused on the boxing if it wasn't going to be as well shot as any other scenes. I needn't have worried. The boxing is integral to the plot but this is not really a boxing movie. It's a film about a journey, and not just the journey of the main character. The journey also involves his friends and, most importantly, his wife, often struggling without any other support around her.

You could argue that this is a clichéd film, and there are certainly moments that will feel familiar if you have watched any other film about someone trying to overcome major adversity, but that doesn't dilute the power of it. I spent a couple of scenes on edge, there is the threat of violence in a couple of scenes that affected me like a bucket of cold water splashed into my face, but most of the film reduced me to a tear-streaked wreck with a big lump in my throat (a scene with a phone call between Considine and Whittaker will move even the toughest viewer in my opinion).

The film is about love, loyalty (Pitts and Popplewell spend a chunk of the movie avoiding the friend they no longer recognise, or know how to help), pain, and forgiveness (kudos to the writing for not painting the boxer played by Welsh as a panto villain, which allows the actor at least one great moment in the second half).

I was encouraged to watch this recently when it was picked as a film club choice. If that hadn't happened then I don't know how long I would have taken to get to it. Don't make the same mistake as I did. Get on it as soon as you can. Considine has been one of my favourite actors for many years, and he's now also one of my favourite writer/directors.


Journeyman can, and should, be bought here.

Monday 10 September 2018

Mubi Monday: Cry-Baby (1990)

Johnny Depp plays Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, a young, rocking rebel who tries to do something that will make him shed one tear a day in memory of his dead parents. He's the leader of a gang of delinquent youths, although they aren't really too bad once you get to know them, and things get all shook up when he falls in live with a "square" named Allison (Amy Locane). This sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to fights, character smears, and even prison. All set to a fantastic soundtrack of classic songs and new toe-tappers in the style of the era it is set (1950s).

Coming along immediately after Hairspray, Cry-Baby has a similar formula, but perhaps didn't work so well with audiences because of the much less significant subject matter. Whereas the former movie lightheartedly depicted teens helping to fight against racism in their world, this film just shows that being a square isn't the best way to live your life.

Waters unsurprisingly sides with those that society views with wariness, and often disdain, and he provides the usual entertaining selection. Alongside Depp you get Rikki Lake as a horny teen (two kids already, one on the way), Traci Lords, Darren E. Burrows, and Kim McGuire as "Hatchet-Face".

What is more surprising, although it shouldn't be to those familiar with Hairspray, is the absolutely perfect way in which the song and dance numbers feel authentic to the period. I already enjoyed the tunes that I was familiar with ("SH-Boom" and "Mr. Sandman") but also immediately loved all of the new songs, even with their added cheese and over the top outpouring of emotions.

Depp is superb in his role, playing it just in the sweet spot between melodrama and ridiculous. The script is as hilarious as you would expect, made all the better by Depp and co. playing it all quite straight. Locane also does well as the lady who captures his heart, and as a wild spirit trapped in the form of a square. Lake, Lords, Burrows, and McGuire are all a lot of fun, especially the first and the last, and you get more fun turns from Susan Tyrrell and Iggy Pop (as the family of Depp and Lake's character), Polly Bergen is the protective relative of Locane's character, and Stephen Mailer is hilarious as the main square, also in love with the leading lady (of course).

Perhaps not quite as funny as his best work, and perhaps just hewing so close to the form that he's emulating that it's only an inch away from being a straightforward '50s drama transplanted to the cinema screens of the 1990s, Cry-Baby holds up as well today as almost every other film that Waters has bestowed upon us over the past few decades. It's not quite up there with Hairspray and Serial Mom but few films are.


You can see some tears being shed here.
Americans can cry over the movie here.