Thursday 31 January 2019

Constantine: City Of Demons (2018)

Constantine. He's a character who hasn't really been given the best treatment, if you ask fans. I am one of the people who actually enjoy the Keanu Reeves movie but I can see why the changes made ended up upsetting those who had waited patiently for the character to get the big-screen treatment. And then there was the short-lived series with Matt Ryan in the main role, an actor who seemed to be right for the part but couldn't do enough to boost the ratings for the show, which was cancelled after one season. Ryan reprises the role here, in voice form (as he did in Justice League Dark), and his attitude and fit for the character remain a big plus, which should please most people.

Here's the plot anyway. John Constantine (Ryan) is asked by a good friend, Chas (Damian O'Hara), to help out when his daughter falls into a coma. This leads to the two men travelling from London to Los Angeles, finding out that a powerful demon there may want to negotiate a deal for the soul of the comatose little girl, and also recollecting a traumatic incident that happened some time ago in Newcastle. Will Constantine's past come back to bite him on the rear, or does he have enough tricks up his sleeves to ensure another victory against evil forces?

Based on an animated series that first appeared online, five short episodes, this is another enjoyable bit of entertainment from the animation branch of the DC movie universe.

Director Doug Murphy does a fine job, working from a script by J. M. DeMatteis that pitches things perfectly between sheer fun and little gags and grace notes that remind you that this isn't a cartoon aimed at children. It's not exactly a Legend Of The Overfiend kind of film but you get a decent layer of darkness and a couple of moments of sexual chemistry. The animation isn't quite as good as the work I have seen in other DC titles, but that is easier to forgive as the story zips along from one enjoyable beat to the next.

Ryan and O'Hara are very good in their main roles, with Ryan equally at ease conveying the pain of his character or delivering fun lines about how he cannot just magic enemies away because he isn't Benedict Cumberbatch, and the rest of the cast all slip well into their (often multiple) roles.

Having never read any of the source material, I only know the character of John Constantine from his appearances onscreen. I still like Keanu's performance, despite the main differences from page to screen, but fans should find more to please them in the animated adventures. I hope we get some more, and I also hope to have seen the live-action TV show by then.


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

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Prime Time: Honor And Glory (1993)

It had been a while since I enjoyed some simple Cynthia Rothrock entertainment, which is why I skimmed through the titles available on Amazon Prime and eventually settled on this, a film I had previously not seen (I've not actually seen many of her movies, despite being a fan of her martial arts skills).

Let's not beat about the bush here, this is a bad movie. It's actually quite terrible during many moments. It's also hugely entertaining, as are most of the movies that have Rothrock kicking ass in a leading role.

The plot is simple stuff. Rothrock plays Tracy Pride, an FBI agent after the dastardly Jason Slade (John Miller). Her sister, a news reporter named Joyce (Donna Jason), also has the same aim. This puts both woman, and the people close to them, in danger. But that won't be enough to stop them from trying to get their man.

Written by Herb Borkland, this is a cheesy, breezy, slice of '80s madness that just happens to have been released in 1993. If I didn't check details for these reviews then I would have sworn that this was 1988, at the very latest, but it's just one of those '90s movies that feels like a holdover from the previous decade. A lot of the dialogue is amusingly inane, especially when it's supposed to show chemistry between our female leads and men who admire them, but the best stuff is saved for the baddie, who even gets a moment in which to rant about how he can beat any man in a fight and make any woman he beds want to stay with him forever.

Director Godfrey Ho does what he usually does. Things are okay, and it all steps up a gear when you get the martial artists performing their martial arts. That doesn't always mean an actual fight though. The sisters playfully fight one another while arguing over who is going to drive a car. Joyce ends up sparring with someone, with chopsticks, as they enjoy a meal together. And then you get the proper fights. It's a shame that they're not as good as many other fight scenes I have seen in these types of movies, but there are just about enough of them, and both Rothrock and Chuck Jeffreys (as Jake Armstrong, a man who once protected the villain) help to liven things up when they can.

Is there any need to comment on the level of acting on display? Not really. If you've seen any other Rothrock film then you'll already know what to expect. She isn't the best, but she's also far from the worst, when it comes to onscreen fighters anyway. Nobody unbalances things by being much better. Jason is okay, if a bit bland, Jeffreys is quite charismatic, and Miller veers between wooden and completely bonkers, depending on what message his character is delivering in between his moments of oiled-up muscle displays.

There were so many other, better, movies that I could have given some of my time to this week, yet I am not unhappy with my choice. This was just under 90 minutes, it was very simple entertainment, and Rothrock kicked people in the head. Sometimes that's all I am looking for in my film choices. If you're ever in that frame of mind, check this one out.


You can get a DVD here.
Americans can get a Region 2 disc here.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

The House With A Clock In Its Walls (2018)

IF you don't mind his presence in films, Jack Black has spent the past 10-15 years steadily building up a great selection of family-friendly adventure films. Okay, I'm the only one who enjoyed Gulliver's Travels but most people seemed to enjoy the Kung Fu Panda movies, School Of Rock, Goosebumps, and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. And here's another to add to the list, a film full of magical delights that is an unexpected directorial effort from Eli Roth (a man more well-known for his gory horror movies and twisted thrillers).

Owen Vaccaro plays Lewis Barnavelt, a young boy who ends up going to stay with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) after his parents die in a car crash. Uncle Jonathan lives in a very strange house, is himself a very strange individual, and has a good friend in the shape of the very strange Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). There's a lot of magic being bandied around, and Lewis wants to learn how to use it as soon as he sees it happening, and that clock in the walls, a device placed there by a warlock for reasons unknown. But it's counting down to something, and that something can't be good.

Based on a John Bellairs book that was first published in the early 1970s, The House With A Clock In Its Walls manages to feel surprisingly fresh and fun, despite not being entirely dissimilar to so many other movies we have seen aimed at children in the post-Potter entertainment years. A large part of that is to do with the cast but it's equally down to the surprisingly spot-on handling of the material by Roth, working from a script by Eric Kripke. This is not a film concerned with mystery and personal discovery, it's a film about magic. Young Lewis finds out about it quite quickly, making it a very normal part of his life for most of the movie, and the fun and thrills come from that magic being used, and from a third act that culminates with the final ticking and tocking of the clock.

Black is as energetic and amusing as he usually is (IF you like him, those who don't will want to find some other viewing choice), and Vaccaro is perfectly likeable in his main role, but it's always a lot of fun to see Blanchett in a lighter role, and she's her usual wonderful presence here. You also get Lorenza Izzo in a small, but important, role, and Renee Elise Goldsberry and Kyle MacLachlan as the two main characters who want to be there when the clock finishes the countdown. Colleen Camp is a neighbour who witnesses some odd stuff going on, Sunny Suljic play a boy who befriends Lewis, but may just be using him, and there's an array of enjoyable CGI creations that have fun personalities of their own (the best being a pet armchair that acts like an excitable puppy).

You can probably already guess the main problem that the film has. It's just too similar to so many others that we've seen over the past decade or so. The fantastical elements don't quite go as far as they could, it lacks some tension, and the grand finale feels more like an afterthought. There are also some toilet humour gags that don't feel in line with the rest of the film, just a couple of them but they're in there. These things aren't enough to spoil the whole movie, they just drag it down slightly.

Roth will always have his detractors, no matter what genre he tries his hand at, as will Black, so that also provides a lot of people with more reasons to give this a miss. I think it's worth your time though, especially if you have children at just the right age for it (probably between 6-14 being the optimum demographic . . . or anyone with the same mental age as me).


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

Monday 28 January 2019

Mubi Monday: Island Of The Hungry Ghosts (2018)

The title sums up the spiritual and thoughtful experience that you get with this cinematic documentary, a tale of migration, both animal and human, both unrestricted and carefully monitored.

Poh Lin Lee works on the island, and lives there with her family. Her job is to support and talk to asylum seekers who are being held on the island in a high-security detention centre. It's a difficult job, especially when some people have appointments booked and then are unable to attend, for reasons that aren't given out by the people on the other end of a phone line. Christmas Island is, essentially, a focal point for migration. As well as the people who are held there, with no idea of the timescale or end result, there is also the mass migration of the red crab population (you may have seen the photos). The difference between the condition of the two species is an important element here, in terms of their freedom and how they are viewed/treated by others. and the documentary also shows the toll that the situation takes on those trying to offer support to the vulnerable.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. This is a point explicitly stated, and also constantly implied, in Island Of Hungry Ghosts. It is the solid ground upon which Poh Lin Lee tries to stay standing, even as authority figures and bureaucracy try to wear it down, with their actions, the red tape, the constant dehumanising (deliberate or not) and a general air of either unwillingness or inability to help.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Director Gabrielle Brady weaves a narrative with some beautiful imagery in between, and all around, this message. She has seen an important tale that deserves, perhaps needs, to be told right now, summing up the conflicting attitudes of people who are looking around them and finding a world growing ever more fractured when it should be easier to get closer and much more integrated.

There is also a spiritual side on display, with Brady taking time to show the rituals carried out by local residents who wish to appease the spirits who may be wandering the jungle, spirits of those who have died on the island without a burial.

People can take time to do admire the journey of the crabs. They can also take time to assist with the journey of those they believe have moved from this life to an afterlife. So why do so many people not see the same noble purpose in the journey that some of their fellow human beings have to make? Spirits are dead, crabs are alive, asylum seekers are stuck in a limbo space that feels like neither life or death. And seeking asylum is not illegal.

It's hard not to be moved by this, especially when listening to some of the tales from those seeking asylum or when seeing how Lee is unable to do the job that she signed on for, and I hope that some people see this and think long and hard about what it says about treating those who are on a difficult journey. If you ever help a crab get safely from one place to another, would you help someone seeking asylum? Because, remember, seeking asylum is not illegal.


Not available to buy just now, here's a link to Mubi instead.

Sunday 27 January 2019

Netflix And Chill: Mo' Money (1992)

We've all got movies that we've sat through because, well, a partner enjoys it and relationships are about compromise. Sometimes that leads you to some new favourites, sometimes you end up seeing every single Twilight movie, and sometimes you sit there with a smile plastered on your face while trying to figure out what is so entertaining about Mo' Money. I found myself in that last situation a couple of decades ago, and have studiously avoided the film ever since. But I decided that I would revisit it when I saw it on Netflix. Maybe my memory of it was all wrong. Maybe it was actually a good film. Neither of those statements proved to be correct.

The plot revolves around a couple of crooks that viewers are supposed to root for, two brothers named Johnny (Damon Wayans) and Seymour (Marlon Wayans). Johnny, in an attempt to win over a beautiful woman (Amber, played by Stacey Dash), gets a job in a credit card company. He eventually realises that he can use the returned cards, which are all sent out pre-authorised, to treat himself to the good life. This quickly gets him in trouble, but he doesn't realise how much trouble. The head of security (Keith, played by John Diehl) is already working a very profitable scam, and the first scenes show that he will kill to keep himself safe.

Okay, I'm not a big fan of any of the Wayans brothers, although Damon is probably the one I dislike the least (he did at least star in the greatness that is The Last Boy Scout), but even that factor isn't enough to explain why Mo' Money is such a bad film, and it is a BAD film. As much as I may not mind Wayans onscreen, his script here is atrocious. It must have been bad back in the early '90s but it seems a hell of a lot worse now. The plot and characters give you nothing to invest in, the comedic set-pieces include the Wayans brothers pretending that one of them has a mental health issue causing him to throw food around a store until they get a free sandwich to help calm him down, the Wayans brothers pretending to be a simple "foreigner" who could be easily ripped-off by a cab driver (distracting the driver while the other man tries to rob his takings), and the Wayans brothers pretending to be supremely gay as they misuse a credit card in a jewellery store. And that's before we start to look at the way the character played by Dash is viewed at one point (willing to endure a bad relationship for the money), the jokes derided from the look/longing of a woman named Charlotte (played by Almayvonne), or the simple fact that viewers are supposed to root for the main characters here because they're crooks who probably won't kill anyone.

Peter Macdonald directs with the feeling that he has been given a paycheck and then overruled on every aspect of the film by the Wayans brothers. Never any kind of auteur, in my limited exposure to his filmography, it's difficult to see a lot of the decisions made here as anything other than the sort of decisions made by a writer-star with a self-inflated sense of their own importance. And, considering the tales that have been told in recent years about Wayans, that becomes a lot easier to imagine.

Wayans and Wayans are how they are, both aiming to riff on Eddie Murphy's stylings and both failing to do anything other than remind you of how great Eddie Murphy was when at his peak. Dash, although not helped in any way by the script, is a welcome presence, and Diehl is a small saving grace, portraying the charming and menacing villain so well that you forget that he looks like someone playing Kevin Costner in a TV movie entitled "The Tide Has Turned: Waterworld And How I Survived It" within a few minutes. I've already mentioned the poor treatment of Almayvonne, Harry Lennix does what he can with his weak role, and Joe Santos actually makes his role (a tenacious cop who wants the lead to turn his life around) better than it should be.

"Why settle for less?" was one of the main taglines for this when it was first released. That definitely still seems like the best line to use, but more as a warning than a selling point.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Shudder Saturday: Pod (2015)

Pod comes very close to being a good little horror movie, oh so close, but just falls short, perhaps due to writer-director Mickey Keating suffering from a slight lack of confidence. Or maybe he wanted to make a film that just didn't work quite as well for me as the potential films I thought it could have been.

Brian Morvant is Martin, an ex-military man with some mental health issues who has kept himself relatively isolated, even more so when he claims to have caught and trapped a dangerous creature that was responsible for the death of his dog. This news alarms his brother (Ed, played by Dean Cates) and sister (Lyla, played by Lauren Ashley Carter), who head out to his home and hope to somehow settle him down and bring him back to some semblance of sanity.

Morvant is left to shout and wave weaponry around as he displays his frustration and fear, which he does just fine, but Cates and Carter are given more interesting journeys, attempting to be strong for the sake of a loved one they don't really know how to help. You also get a small role for Larry Fessenden.

There are times when Pod makes you forget how low the budget must have been, thanks to the level of technical competence and decent acting on display, but also one or two moments that fail to hide the shortcomings so jarringly that it feels downright lazy (a night-time car journey is among the worst I have seen, especially for anyone who has heard John Carpenter or Sam Raimi describe how this effect can be achieved quite convincingly with very little money). Keating seems to have deliberately held everything back for the third act, which is good but not quite worth the wait.

Although I can see why the decision was made to keep things ambiguous for 2/3 of the movie - is Martin mentally unstable or has he captured something nasty that is now imprisoned in his cellar? - but things could have been greatly improved here by simply laying out the truth, one way or another, and having the main characters working together with that information. When I first read the plot synopsis of this movie I started to think of Altered (the 2006 horror from Eduardo Sanchez). This could have been a similarly intense experience, with or without any real exterior threat, but Keating takes things along a different path.

But for all of the things that it gets wrong, Pod gets enough right. I don't want the fact that I was disappointed by the end result to deter other people who enjoy seeking out interesting and entertaining independent horror movies. This may not end up on many lists of personal favourites, but it's worth just under 80 minutes of your day


Americans can get a Pod here.

Friday 25 January 2019

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (2018)

Since enjoying a number of the animated WB superhero movies, I have become familiar with the Teen Titans. I was not, however, familiar with Teen Titans Go, the more child-friendly version of the heroes. But there's not exactly a lot to figure out, as long as you are at least passingly acquainted with the DC superhero universe. You just need to get used to the unique style of animation on display here. And tolerate a few fart gags.

The plot is fairly simple. Our heroes don't seem to get the respect they think they deserve, an issue that becomes clearer to them all when they find themselves unable to get a movie made about them, despite every other superhero being given adventures on the big screen. Robin (voiced by Scott Menville) is the one taking it hardest of all, but that doesn't stop him from leading the team in a brave battle against the nefarious Slade Wilson AKA Deathstroke (Will Arnett), who has a cunning plan to steal a powerful crystal from S.T.A.R. Labs (Scientific and Technological Advanced Research Laboratories) and take over the world.

Having both worked on the TV show, directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail are a safe pair of hands for this movie incarnation, assuming a certain familiarity with a lot of the main characters while also introducing the actual Teen Titans with a mixture of gags and fun song lyrics (yes, there are a couple of musical numbers here). Horvath gets extra credit, thanks to his fine work co-writing the script with Michael Jelenic, a script that often gets the biggest laughs from the idea that, yes, the market for superhero movies may be a bit oversaturated at the moment.

Although I am unfamiliar with many of the voice actors, they all do well in their roles (having played incarnations of the Teen Titans for over fifteen years now). I feel I should namecheck them here, at the very least. As well as Menville playing Robin, you get Greg Cipes as Beast Boy, Khary Payton as Cyborg, Tara Strong as Raven, and Hynden Walch as Starfire. The fun is helped along by the performances from Arnett (between this and his LEGO Batman work, he's arguably my favourite DC performer), Kristen Bell, Stan Lee (it's hard to pick his best cameo but this gets extra points for using him in a DC movie), Nicolas Cage, Michael Bolton (yes...Michael Bolton), and Greg Davies, as well as Jimmy Kimmel, John DiMaggio, Patton Oswalt, and a few others.

It's bright, it's lively, it's got a brisk runtime to ensure it doesn't outstay it's welcome, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies manages to be a fun superhero comedy that cares for many of the main characters while simultaneously skewering them with glee. This is fun for all age groups, as long as you don't mind some of the toilet humour, and I enjoyed it so much that I am hoping to check out the cartoon series it stems from.


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

Thursday 24 January 2019

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a bright and fun romantic comedy, made into something that feels a bit different from so many others thanks to the cultural caricatures and lavish displays of wealth. Both of these things could put off anyone looking for reasons to be put off, but they work well in service of the actual focus of the movie, which is a very standard tale of love, family, and identity.

Constance Wu plays Rachel, a young woman who is about to accompany her boyfriend (Nick, played by Henry Golding) to a wedding that will allow her to finally meet his family. What she doesn't realise is that Nick is part of a ridiculously wealthy family. We're talking "let's just buy the island" kind of money. Hoping to make a good impression, Rachel soon realises that she doesn't have a fan in Nick's mother (Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh).

This could have been a much more unpleasant movie to watch if everyone had been snotty and quick to look down at those who don't have a gazillion pounds in their bank account, which is why the script from Peter Ciarelli and Adele Lim (adapting the novel by Kevin Kwan) is commendable for offering such an enjoyable array of characters. There are plenty who enjoy their wealth, some who prize it above everything else, and some who couldn't care less about it. Of course, it's easy to say you don't care less about wealth when you have it, which is why Rachel is the constant we root for in the busy series of gatherings, parties, shopping, and general socialising. Things are also helped along by a prologue that shows part of why this very rich family may have such an ingrained desire to keep hold of their position in society.

Wu and Golding are a solid central couple. The film focuses on the former, of course, but Golding isn't shown as a complete pushover. He's a nice guy who doesn't want his wealth to affect the woman he loves, and the film keeps him around long enough to remind viewers that he's exactly how he puts himself across. We never have doubts about Wu, or the integrity of her character, so making time for Golding is equally important here, underlining the fact that the main obstacle in this particular romantic adventure is the close family, the matriarch driven by self-preservation and a misplaced notion of what is best for her son. Yeoh is excellent in her role, easy to dislike while also easy to grudgingly admire. Everything she does is for her family, even if that doesn't mean things are going perfectly in the lives of her children. Gemma Chan is quite lovely as Astrid, Nick's sister and a shining example of how to act while representing the public face of the family (despite personal difficulties), and there are laughs to be had in most scenes that involve Awkwafina (playing Rachel's friend, Peik Lin Got) and Ken Jeong.

Director John M. Chu does a great job, crafting a layered film that provides plenty to think over while it also provides simple entertainment. The subgenre tropes may be hidden under a different coating but they're all there, nonetheless, and Chu makes sure to tick them off the checklist. He also takes the script and embellishes the dialogue with relevant mise-en-scènes, great work that peaks in a third act scene showing an important game of Mahjong between two central characters.

Everything is topped off by a soundtrack full of great cover tunes, plenty of moments that will have people daydreaming about what they would do if they ever had their own overstuffed bank accounts, and a standard rom-com finale that proves to be as satisfying as expected.


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

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Prime Time: Time Runners (2013)

AKA 95ers: Echoes.

Okay, here's the problem with watching movies online. Sometimes the film starts and you're not sure if it's the actual film or some connected advertisement that has been clumsily tacked on. Which was the case with Time Runners, a film that began with a preview of what was to come in a way that felt like some TV show intro. Maybe the film wasn't meant to be presented that way, but maybe it was.  Either way, I won't hold it against the film. There are so many other things I can pick out while criticising it anyway.

Alesandra Durham plays Sally Jo Biggs, a young woman who can manipulate time, but only by rewinding things by seconds. That may not seem like a lot, but it allows Sally Jo to get many things right in her day to day life (avoiding spillages, perfecting pool shots, cracking passwords, and more). What it doesn't allow, however, is for Sally Jo to be able to save the life of her husband, Horatio (Joel Bishop). That needs more than the ability to rewind time by seconds, and the unfolding plot seems to hint at Sally Jo somehow gaining more power.

Look, I may not know the exact nature of their relationship but there would seem to be an obvious link between writer-director Thomas Gomez Durham, story co-creator James Durham (who worked with Kip Rasmussen), and the leading lady, Alesandra. This isn't to undermine the talents of the lead actress, but rather a comment to undermine the ability of the main people creating this tale to view things subjectively and admit when something isn't working. Because there's a lot here that doesn't work.

What should have been a fun premise, and a smart and interesting one, is spoiled by clumsy writing, poor editing, and a misplaced faith in the twisting storyline being clever or entertaining enough to keep viewers from becoming bored. Although nobody really impresses in the acting department, the blame lies fully with the writer-director. Nobody watching this will be surprised by the time everything is messily brought together for the finale, which results in a boring middle act spent just waiting for the predictable plot points to be lined up.

Yet I can't bring myself to hate this film. Despite the poor special effects on display, despite the mess that it becomes, despite the wildly varying quality of the acting (I won't name any names, they will know how they did when they finally saw their performances onscreen), there were at least some good intentions here. But we all know where good intentions can lead.


You can buy Time Runners here.
Americans can buy it here.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

A Simple Favour (2018)

After a string of hit comedies that ended with his take on Ghostbusters (which I liked anyway, even if it failed to live up to its potential), director Paul Feig has returned with something a bit different. It's still in the realm of comedy, but it's a different kind of comedy, and it's mixed into a plot that is decidely . . . well . . . Hitchcockian. And very enjoyable it is too.

Anna Kendrick plays another typical Kendrick role, a single mother named Stephanie who spends her time vlogging, looking after her children, and trying to sign her name up for every school project that requires volunteers. The other parents seem to gently mock her, from a slight distance, but her hyper-busy and efficient lifestyle eventually leads to her meeting Emily Nelson (Blake Livey), a successful married mother who isn't adverse to using foul language and taking a very relaxed approach to home-made happy hours. But the new friendship is not due to last long, mainly due to the sudden disappearance of Emily. Stephanie starts trying to find out exactly what is going on, and uncovers some truths that prove that she probably didn't really know anything about the woman she quickly became firm friends with.

Based on a novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favour is a slick film that could have easily gone so wrong. Keep piling on the jokes and you remove any intrigue in the actual mystery, make the mystery too dense and you threaten to lose those who have been enticed by the glossy, easygoing, opening act.  Thankfully, Jessica Scharzer's script deftly balances those two different main aspects, helped immensely by the central performances.

Kendrick is as easy to like as she usually is, but she's almost overshadowed by a ridiculously fun turn from Lively, wonderfully droll, sharp, and giving not one care about anyone other than herself. I did say almost, and the film allows each of the leads to make the most of some great moments. Henry Golding is the other main adult character, Emily's husband (Sean aka prime suspect #1), there's an all-too-short bit of screentime for Linda Cardellini, and the child actors all do well enough.

Strangely enough, despite the sterling work of the writers and the stars, it's hard to take credit away from Feig. He may not have a signature style, or even much style at all, but he's skilled enough to work on this without messing it all up. Much like the script, the direction could have easily unbalanced this. Considering the material that Feig has previously seemed most comfortable with, his ability to stop himself from breaking something that didn't need fixed is admirable.

If Nancy Drew ever became friends with Patsy or Edina from Absolutely Fabulous then the end result would be very similar. And if you like the sound of that then you're bound to enjoy this.


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

Monday 21 January 2019

Mubi Monday: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

If you haven't yet checked out the films of Buster Keaton then you really should rectify that as soon as possible. He remains a giant figure in the field of cinema, technically innovative, insanely delighted to throw himself across various scenes of peril, and still very funny. He was also massively influential, of course (just watch any Jackie Chan film for some of the most obvious homages). A lot of people will tell you that Steamboat Bill, Jr. is one of his films that you should prioritise. At the risk of having tinned tomatoes thrown at me, I would not be one of those people.

Don't get me wrong, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a very good comedy. It's just not up there with some of his marvellous shorts, and it's also a step behind The General and Sherlock Jr. (still his best film, as far as I'm concerned).

The story is as slight as you'd expect. A man is waiting for his son to return from college, assuming he has grown from boy to man and will help him with the work of operating his paddle steamer. The son arrives, in the shape of Buster Keaton, and it's immediately apparent that he's not a natural fit for the role. But he will try. He will also fall in love with the daughter of a rival businessman, he will try to break his father out of jail (due to him assaulting the aforementioned rival), and he will wander around in the midst of a destructive cyclone.

Directed by Charles Reisner, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is arguably most famous for two things. First of all, this is the film in which the house falls on Keaton, his life saved by the placing of a window. Second, it was the last movie that Keaton made with this blend of team players and creative control, just before he moved to MGM.

Like so many of these movies, you can divide this into three main acts. Act one is the arrival of Keaton and his attempts to fit in with the role that his father wants him to take on. Act two shows the state of the paddle steamer and has his father jailed, leading to an attempt by Keaton to break him out. And act three is the cyclone. All three of these acts have wonderful moments, and some good laughs, scattered throughout, but none of them have quite enough in the set-pieces to make them as good as they could be. There's no consistency to them, unlike the extended sequences in other Keaton movies.

Keaton is as brilliant as ever in the main role, I still can't think of anyone in cinema to this day who maintains the deadpan expression better than "Old Stone Face". Ernest Torrence is amusingly exasperated as his father, Tom McGuire is the villain of the piece, and Marion Byron is a pretty love interest.

The script may be credited to Carl Harbaugh but it would seem that Keaton actually put the thing together. Maybe that is why this doesn't feel quite as great as some of his other works. I know that Keaton seemed to have his hand in every department, and it was surely his inventiveness and creativity that gave us so many iconic moments, but this film feels like it could have benefited from some more gag writers coming up with more little moments to connect up in between the bigger highlights.

But what do I know? Who am I to criticise the work of a fully-fledged comedic genius like Keaton? Watch the film for yourself, and then you can enjoy it, AND enjoy telling me how wrong I am.


I recommend this set, if it's available anywhere.
Americans can get this beauty.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Netflix And Chill: Source Code (2011)

The second film from director Duncan Jones, working this time from a script by Ben Ripley, Source Code feels like the kind of film that is a step up, in terms of the budget and size of the cast, but also manages to keep the focus on a very cool sci-fi premise, and that's what helps it avoid some of the common flaws that can often come up in sophomore directorial features.

The easy sell of the concept is this; Jake Gyllenhaal plays a U.S. Army pilot named Colter Stevens who wakes up to find himself in the body of Sean Fentress  a la Quantum Leap. He has eight minutes to not only locate a bomb on the train that he is on, but also figure out who the bomber is. On the train with him are a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and various other passengers, who are all suspects. Helping him to complete his mission, but only there once he is back at base, are Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and a Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). It's a race against the clock, eight minutes at a time.

Yes, this is a time-loop movie, on the one hand, and that is how it was sold, which is fine, and you get the time markers that are always required in this sort of thing (conversations, phone calls, things being spilled or dropped), but it's also a bit more than that, although I am not going into any details that could spoil the reveals. I will just say that it requires your attention, patience, and trust, and it rewards them all completely before the end credits roll.

Gyllenhaal is as good as ever in the lead role, one that allows him to use a little bit of everything he can do (drama, a small amount of comedy, a bit of action), and Monaghan is also very good, despite her role being arguably the most thankless one in the film. Farmiga and Wright have to stay much more focused and controlled in their communications with the main character, even when deciding whether or not to explain to him exactly why that eight minute window is so important.

Ripley has crafted a great script, mixing in simple popcorn entertainment thrills with interesting ideas and moral quandaries, and Jones works confidently with the material, seeming to take great delight in the individual elements that build into a more complex picture by the third act, a delight that is conveyed to viewers throughout.

Jones has tried to continually entertain people in the decade since he started helming feature films, and I personally don't dislike Warcraft (although, as a non-gamer, it was a bit lost on me) or Mute as much as many others did, but I hope he eventually makes another couple of movies as good as his one-two punch of Moon and this. Everyone continues to praise his debut, but this film seems to get forgotten, a great shame considering it is one of the better mainstream sci-fi movies to come out in the last ten years.


You can buy the movie, at a bargain price (just now), here.
Americans can get it here.

Saturday 19 January 2019

Shudder Saturday: Don't Grow Up (2015)

A group of teens living in a care home facility suddenly find themselves unsupervised, which leads to them immediately having an evening of drink, drugs, and ransacking the office areas. But once they have gotten their kicks, they realise they should look a bit further afield, and that's when they find that some kind of virus has turned all adults into dangerous psychopaths. They need to stick together to survive, and hopefully reach somewhere safe.

Don't Grow Up is an odd one. It's not a bad film, technically, and yet it never really turns into a good one. Considering how well the same idea was used in the more recent Mom & Dad, I was looking forward to this. Unfortunately, it soon becomes obvious that a film from the viewpoint of the kids is a lot less interesting than a film from the viewpoint of the adults. There's no added strand of intrigue, or black comedy, here and the moments that have the kids facing off against violent attackers could have been snatched from a multitude of zombie or virus films.

Director Thierry Poiraud shows a fair degree of competence without ever showing any flair. This is not a visually-impressive or inventive film, which is a failing of both the direction and the script (by Marie Garel Weiss). It is far from impossible to make a film featuring central characters that viewers don't love but it needs to be done with more effort than seems to have been made here.

The young cast all do okay, with Fergus Riordan and Madeleine Kelly given the most screentime. It's a shame that Natifa Mai wasn't given more to work with, as she's the best of the bunch, with other main roles going to McKell David, Darren Evans, and Diego Méndez. Nobody makes a strong enough impression, beyond Mai, which isn't entirely their fault, it's a sign of the weak script that they're forced to work with.

Perhaps it was a deliberate irony to make a thriller/horror movie about kids being threatened by random adults in a way that left the child actors being hung out to dry by the adults in charge of things, but I doubt it. The simple fact is that this comes close to being a decent little watch, at times, and consistently fails to step up to the next level. There are a couple of moments that would make for decent set-pieces in other films. But they're squandered opportunities here, lacking both the tension and the heart to make them more than just another moment to get out of the way en route to the end credits.

I don't know what I was expecting when I pressed play on this movie, I just know that it didn't deliver anything really satisfying. The horror element doesn't work, because it doesn't do enough with the concept to differentiate from a hundred other movies, and nor does the heart. It could have tried to comment on something, anything, but doesn't seem to do that either. Instead we get something too vague and unengaging to rise above the level of mediocre.


You can buy an imported disc here.
Americans can buy it here.

Friday 18 January 2019

Bodied (2017)

Rap battles, eh. They're a lot of fun. But they're also often full of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and general advice along the lines of violence being the possible answer to everything. You can say the same of rap itself, of course, but rap battles have an extra edge. They ARE battles, with the words and rhyming lines being built into an impressive combo until the knockout blow is delivered.

Bodied, directed by Joseph Kahn (who also co-wrote the movie with Alex Larsen),  starts with our main character, Adam, observing an evening of rap battles for his university thesis. He's interested in the use of language, particularly "the n word", and the idea of what is and isn't offensive when it's in the form of lines delivered by people who have created necessary personas for themselves while performing. After being asked to rap battle an interloper who tries to ruin the evening, Adam finds himself getting further and further into the world of rap battles, gaining more insight than he could have ever dreamed of, and even becoming friends with a very talented rapper named Behn Grymm.

Sometimes tense, sometimes hilarious, often offensive in ways that force viewers to think harder about what offends them, and why, Bodied is a two hour movie that flies by, thanks to the script and performances helping it to be consistently entertaining and interesting. It also helps that the central idea, although based in the field of rap, equates to an idea I very much ascribe to: you can joke about anything as long as that joke is actually funny or clever enough to warrant it.

Calum Worthy is excellent in the lead role, easily believable as a young men who feels out of place in the world he is observing before he finds that he has a talent for rapping, a talent that may get him just as many enemies as friends. Jackie Long is also very good in the role of Grymm, a man who best illustrates the clear divide that can exist between an individual and their stage persona. Rory Uphold is Adam's girlfriend, Maya, looking on in horror as she witnesses a barrage of what she views as incredibly offensive, Jonathan Park, Walter Perez, and Shoniqua Shandai all do well, and Dizaster is an intimidating "big boss", named Megaton, that you just know is going to feature in the finale. Elsewhere, you get solid supporting turns from Anthony Michael Hall, Simon Rex, and Debra Wilson.

What works so well here is the way in which viewers can be provided with a viewpoint that isn't necessarily a right one, or maybe it is. The choice is ultimately up to each individual, whether to go along with it or not, and the case is made in a way that would be welcomed by any top debate team. It just so happens that the debate here is taking place in the form of rap.

I've liked a lot of work I've seen from Kahn (who has a filmography that includes many music videos, the ridiculous Torque, and Detention), but this is easily his best work so far. It works equally as simple entertainment and a thought-provoking conversation-starter, and I recommend it to everyone. Well, I recommend it to everyone who can watch something about offensive material without getting offended by it.


Bodied is available to watch here.
Americans can also watch it there.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Dark River (2017)

If there's one thing that British cinema can do it's explore damaged individuals in a cloudy, tempestuous, dreary landscape that reflects the mindset of the featured character. And here we have Dark River, a film that begins with news of a death and quickly reveals that there isn't all that much life left in a couple of people who are resolutely clinging onto this mortal coil.

Ruth Wilson plays Alice, a woman who, after being informed of the death of her father (Sean Bean), heads back to the family farm for the first time in years. She wants to get it all back in order and move forward with the whole endeavour, which doesn't impress her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who has spent many years getting his hands dirty while his sister stayed away. It's not long until the two siblings butt heads, with anger and resentment bubbling up to create a mixture that could explode at any time.

There aren't really any surprises in Dark River, in terms of the main plot developments. Most viewers will know what is coming from the very first scenes. That's not a problem, however, when the film is carried by two performances as fantastic as those from Wilson and Stanley. The former is a bit ahead of the latter, but both do excellent work here. You get a selection of supporting cast members, and Sean Bean appears here and there in flashbacks/visions, but the film really belongs to the two leads, and they make the most of the opportunity.

Director Clio Barnard (adapting the novel by Rose Tremain) takes what could have been an unrelentingly grim experience and manages to make it more bearable, somehow, showing the surrounding land to have more to it than just what is visible to the uninformed viewer, the necessarily hands-on relationship that the leads have with the environment and animals, and the strong bond between brother and sister that is still there, despite all of the heated emotions that they direct at one another.

Dark River covers familiar territory (funnily enough, one movie that came to mind while I was watching this was another with river in the title, Mystic River) but does enough to separate it from other works. A large part of that is down to the central performances, but an equally large part of it is down to the fact that so many moments show this as being from someone, either in the source material or the translation of it, who actually understands how people can react to others around them while trying to process an intense trauma from their past that will never leave their thoughts.

Sometimes you get angry enough to lash out at those closest to you, sometimes you are a jangling bag of nerves, and sometimes you just wander in a field until you fall down, lying there while the rain continues to pour down upon you while your breath hitches and you hope the end may have come at last. This movie shows all of that, and more.


You can dip your toes in the water here.
Americans can get it here.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Prime Time: Splatter University (1984)

Splatter University is pretty awful, but it's awful in that amusing way that other slasher films from this era are, still managing to entertain me 100% more than some films that have more going for them (in terms of cast, budget, ambition, etc).

Things start off in a semi-traditional slasher manner (with the most traditional beginning being the trusted "prank gone wrong" scenario). A patient escapes from a hospital. The patient has dangerous mental health issues, which may just get worse after he kills a staff member and steals the uniform. Some time later, a teacher is killed. Some time after that . . . the university that was the site of the murder is welcoming a new teacher (Julie, played by Forbes Riley, billed as Francine Forbes). The murder still resonates with many of those attending the college, but not enough for everyone to be more careful and avoid setting themselves up as potential victims during the predictable killing spree that's about to get underway.

Directed by Richard W. Haines, who also wrote the screenplay with a few other people, although how the hell it took more than one person to knock out this nonsense is beyond me, Splatter University is lazy and unimaginative from start to finish. There are no standout kills, there's no wonderfully twisted backstory to be developed on the way to the grand finale, and almost all of the characters are completely interchangeable.

Riley does okay as the new teacher who soon finds that the university may not be as safe as it should be, Ric Randig is also okay as Mark, the bland main male character, but both of them are outshone by the enjoyable performance from Dick Biel as Father Janson, a man who seems to want everyone to shrug off the murders and get on with their daily duties.

If you want to see a killer in a cool or freaky mask then look elsewhere. If you want loads of violence and gratuitous nudity then look elsewhere. If you want something that is willing to take any risks at all then, well, this has one or two tricks up its sleeve to make it just about worth your time. Unfortunately, many viewers may have given up before those tricks appear, because the rest of the film plods along as if it was The Turin Horse.

Say what you like about it, it does enough to pass by the fairly brief runtime without getting too painful. And I somehow managed to link it to The Turin Horse. So not a total waste.

3/10 (yes, it still ends up with the same rating as The Nun, despite me finding a bit more to enjoy in it).

You can buy your prime cheese here.
Americans can get the same disc here.
Or just click on links and buy anything, I then get pennies. It's a win win.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

The Nun (2018)

It’s very difficult for me to sit here and write a thorough review of The Nun. Not because I can’t find the right words for it. Not because my memory has failed me. Just because it’s pretty crap. Yes, The Nun is depressingly bad, not just because it’s a poor movie, but also because it’s probably still going to prove popular enough with mainstream audiences to lead to more movies just like it (this film itself coming along as a tangent from The Conjuring 2, of course).

Taissa Farmiga is Sister Irene, a young nun (trainee, so . . . trying to develop a habit?) who ends up taken along to a Romanian monastery by Father Burke (Demián Bichir). The monastery has become home to a supernatural force, one that has led to confusion, fear, and death, and it is up to Father Burke and Sister Irene to get to the bottom of things. There’s also a potentially helpful local lad, “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), as well as a fleeting appearance by the Warrens (played, as ever, by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to remind viewers of where this story came from.

If I could do a word-filled review that could essentially represent that meme of Robert Downey Jr making that exasperated face (you know the one, you know) then, trust me, I would. It's all it deserves, which is a real shame when you consider everyone involved.

First of all, Farmiga and Bichir aren't terrible in their lead roles, they just happen to be stuck in the middle of a terrible film. Bloquet may not be quite as good, but he does well enough, and Bonnie Aarons makes quite an impression once again, for it is she who portrays the evil nun.

Writer Gary Dauberman (who seems to be the go-to guy that James Wan likes to work with while establishing The Conjuring spin-offs) has a decent filmography. He gave us Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation, as well as having a hand in bringing It to the big screen. Perhaps he needs a group of people to be working with, for best results, or perhaps on this occasion he was too hampered by the path that Wan wanted this origin tale to travel along.

Corin Hardy directs, and does so without any sign of the imagination and heart he showed in his superb feature debut, The Hallow. There are some weak jump scares, a selection of dull CGI moments, and nothing to distract from the fact that most viewers, if familiar with The Conjuring 2 will at least have some idea of how things are going to end.

There's not any real reason why I should hate this as much as I do, but it's not often that I have such low expectations for any film and have none of them met. This doesn't even do the bare minimum I look for in a mainstream horror movie. Which shows how far removed I can sometimes be from the average cinema patron, with this currently being the biggest box office success of the CMU* so far.


*Conjuring Movie Universe

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

Monday 14 January 2019

Mubi Monday: Colette (2018)

It seems that I am behind the times when it comes to Keira Knightley, having placed her in the "I tend to enjoy her but she's usually not that good REALLY" category some years ago. This may have all been because of the long shadow cast by her horrible turn in Domino, or maybe I just have such a bad memory that I forgot every time I'd actually praised her work while somehow remembering . . . that horrible turn in Domino. Look, it's basically all the fault of Domino. As long as that's clear, let's move on.

Anyway, let's get to Colette, a film in which Knightley plays the title role. She is a country girl when the film begins, until she moves to Paris with her husband-to-be (Dominic West). And this begins a series of fortunate and unfortunate events that eventually lead to Colette developing into the famous and celebrated writer that she remains to this day. Sadly, her writing is all published under her husband's name, because that was more appropriate for the time and he had a brand to sell. Colette causes quite the stir throughout France, and starts to enjoy it even more, especially as she begins to explore her sexuality. As society seems to work ever harder to restrict her and keep her "in her place", Colette finds more ways to ruffle feathers and ensure she cannot be ignored or silenced.

Many people have already commented on Colette being a film that feels incredibly timely right now (the battle for sexual equality rages on and men still seem to have the position of having value to their names that women rarely get) and it is. It's an interesting, passionate, film that condemns the treatment of the leading lady, and also the treatment of many others. But that isn't the only thing that Colette is putting under a magnifying glass. As Knightley and West play out their complicated love/hate relationship throughout the film, it's equally an interesting study of the way in which people choose to believe various fictions, be they myths about the differences in gender, the power of artistic creations, or choosing to hope that a horrible and abusive relationship is anything other than that.

Director Wash Westmoreland, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, sets everything out in a traditional way, picking out the most important moments from a life that must have had many highlights to choose from. The score may be a bit generic, for this kind of thing (in my view), but the camerawork is given one or two moments to shine, such as the sequence that allows it to glide through a crowded room alongside Colette as she takes in the various displays of excess and "sophistication".

Although the script is a good one, and there are a couple of brilliant speeches that Knightley must have read on the page with sheer delight at the prospect of getting to deliver them, it's the cast who raise everything up. In case you were in any doubt, Knightley is excellent. Really excellent. This may be the best performance she has given in her career so far, relishing a role that allows her to be strong, sharp, funny, eloquent, sexual, and generally downright inspiring. She's equalled by West, who manages to do so well in his role that it's only much later in the film that you realise just how shitty he has been to his wife for so much of their marriage. Neither speak French, or attempt an accent, despite the nationality of their characters, and nor do many of the other cast members, which is a decision made for the better. The environment is enough to remind you of where everyone is living, and the writing (the heart of the film) is shown to be in French, as it obviously would be, while characters sometimes read out the prose in English. Other important characters are played by Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julian Wadham, Al Weaver, and Ray Panthaki, and everyone fits well in the role they're given (although both Gough and Tomlinson ARE given certain specific accents, with the former faring much better than the latter).

Oozing quality from every frame, Colette is superior drama, bringing a slice of history to life and exploring some issues that resonate just as much today as they did back at the end of the 19th century. Despite the pretty, perhaps what some may even call quaint, packaging, it manages to make things more palatable to observe and mull over without ever feeling as if it has held so much back that it warps the reality that it is all based on.


The disc will be available here.
Americans may want to order here.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Netflix And Chill: Escape Room (2017)

Here's the thing. I knew when this movie started that it wasn't the latest movie called Escape Room. But I only just realised it. An amusingly cheeky little move from Netflix, this popped up and I immediately thought that the latest movie was one of their products, somehow getting a cinema release while also dropping on their service. Then I saw who was involved. And then I started to check out the headlines of some of the reviews for it. This was definitely not the same film that is now in cinemas in America, and it's not been that reviewed all that favourably.

The latter is quite odd, because there's nothing here that really makes this stand out as awful. In fact, I quite enjoyed it, and would expect others who enjoy horror movies with an element of puzzle-solving to at least be reasonably entertained.

The plot is simple. For his birthday, Tyler (Evan Williams) is given an Escape Room experience. He and his friends are taken to the location by limo, phones and all other items are taken off them, they have hoods put over their heads, and when they can next look around they are in different rooms with puzzles that need answering to provide an exit. Tyler is in a room all on his own, one couple is in another room, and one couple is in yet another room. And Tyler's girlfriend seems to be imprisoned somewhere. The time limit is an hour. Can the friends work together to get out? And how will they react when they realise that the rooms are actually rigged with very deadly, very real, boobytraps?

Written by Noah Dorsey, who worked on the idea with director Will Wernick, the biggest problem with Escape Room is the generic cast. Even that's not a huge minus. They're not awful, and the script does eventually start to differentiate individuals from the homogenous mass that they make up, but they're just not that interesting or memorable enough to make as good an impression as they should have been able to. Williams, for example, is given a scene early on that shows his character being quite the whizz with numbers. That's all fine and dandy, and his intelligence is also shown in a number of other sequences, but the plot constantly requires him to be helped by others, without any other real nods to their individual strengths or skills until the very moment it is required (see a scene involving the riddle of the Sphinx for the prime example).

Wernick doesn't do a terrible job with the direction, although he keeps everything a bit tamer than some horror fans may want. The deaths don't come thick and fast, but they're enjoyable when they finally start to happen, even if some are the result of ridiculously slow reactions from the main characters (again . . . that damn Sphinx riddle scene). Between the direction and the script, the main thing is that the puzzles don't seem impossible. They all play out in a way that provides a nice balance between tension and fun, at least until the risks start to increase as people get closer to the exit (of course).

I've not seen the most recent film that shares this title, so I can't say how this one compares, but I can say that this is a slick horror movie that does enough to entertain for most of the runtime. The opening act is a bit wobbly, but things pick up immensely once everyone is placed in the puzzle-filled environments. And that's what I hoped would happen.


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Saturday 12 January 2019

Shudder Saturday: Road Games (2016)

There's a moment in Road Games, a thriller from writer-director Abner Pastoll, in which everything that could have been tense and plausible is brought crashing down. It's a moment that has characters obstinately not blurting out information that could change everything, but the script obviously cannot allow that to happen, so it doesn't. And that's a great shame, because Road Games has a decent run up until then.

The premise is simple. Jack (Andrew Simpson) is hitch-hiking in France, trying to get to Calais, which is his route back home to England. He meets Veronique (Joséphine de La Baume), the two decide to continue on together, and eventually they are picked up by Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot) and taken to his home (where his wife, Barbara Crampton, also resides). Things become a bit tense and strange, and we shouldn't forget the fact that a killer has been roaming the countryside.

This is only the second feature from Pastoll, who has also helmed a fair number of shorts, and it's clear that he has a level of competency undermined by what seems to be either a slight lack of imagination or an unwarranted confidence in his main story beats (many of which are either far too familiar to fans of thriller movies, slightly fumbled in the execution, or often both). Seeing one or two twists coming isn't always a mark against a movie, but it is when plotting starts to feel as if things have been twisted and manipulated ONLY to create a third act that doesn't offer anything more than those twists.

The varying quality of the acting doesn't help. Most of the cast do okay (Pierrot and Crampton do well, despite being hampered by the required level of oddness given to their characters) but De La Baume and Simpson let the side down, with the latter particularly weak in some scenes that need an actor capable of conveying a good mix of fear, bewilderment, and determination. I haven't seen him in anything else, that I can think of, and I wouldn't rush to watch any other movies that have him in a lead role. Féodor Atkine is the only other main actor, and he does just fine.

As ever, I have tried to write this review without spoiling anything. It's disappointing that the same care wasn't taken by Pastoll. Road Games has enough to make it an okay watch, but that's an opinion that comes from me, a notoriously kind and forgiving film fan (most days). Others may find it all a bit too tedious, and perhaps slightly drawn out. Even at a runtime of just 95 minutes, some sharper editing could have improved things.

This is a road that we've all been down before, and this journey doesn't lead to anywhere all that exciting.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.
Or you can click on either of those links and then buy whatever you like, that still works for me.

Friday 11 January 2019

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

There are many movies that just don't hold up when you revisit them. They are tinged with a glow of nostalgia that quickly fades away in front of your older eyes. Many were just aimed precisely at the you as you were then, compared to the you of today. But many of the classics can be relied on not to disappoint. They endure for a reason. That's what I was hoping when I finally revisited Angels With Dirty Faces anyway, a film that I loved as a young boy, and a film that would always set me to tears every time I watched it (seriously, my mother would have a towel ready for me as things moved towards the finale, and I would cover my red, snotty, bawling face with it as the end credits rolled).

There's a bit more going on here than I remembered. I forgot, for example, that Humphrey Bogart played a shady lawyer who makes his name, and riches, off stolen loot that was being held for his client (Rocky Sullivan, played by James Cagney). And I forgot how the third act brings everything together, with a net closing around Rocky thanks to the persistence of a friend (Father Jerry O'Connolly, played by Pat O'Brien) who wants to clean the criminal element out of the neighbourhood.

But let me start at the beginning. Rocky and Jerry are first seen as a pair of cheeky kids. They try to steal some pens from a railway carriage, are caught in the act, and flee. Jerry slips, Rocky picks him up. They run. unfortunately, Rocky isn't quite as quick, which leads to him being caught. He won't give up his friend to help lighten the sentence, and so he begins a life mostly spent behind bars, in between further criminal activities.
Fast forward to Rocky and Jerry as adults, two men who ended up on two very different paths, but also two men who immediately rekindle their friendship when they meet up again. And both men end up offering a helping hand to a group of young larcenists (The Dead End Kids) - Jerry has known them for some time, Rocky meets the group when they try to steal his wallet. That's the main story. The kids idolise Rocky, once they realise who he is, and Jerry tries to use this in a positive way. Meanwhile, Rocky is also wanting to get his money back and make himself a more comfortable life, others will go to deadly lengths to stop that from happening, and there's a woman (Laury, played by Ann Sheridan) who catches the eye of our (anti-)hero.

Based on a scenario by Rowland Brown, Angels With Dirty Faces is a perfect combination of a wonderful script (by John Wexley and Warren Duff), great direction (from Michael Curtiz), and dazzling star power. It's also a perfect combination of gangster action, comedy, and a heart-swelling look at how strong the bonds of friendship can be when forged at the right age.

I am a fan of Cagney in pretty much anything he ever did, but this remains one of his best performances, allowing him to play the comfortable tough guy role that made him famous while injecting a lot more humour and sweetness. O'Brien is a bit stiffer in his role, but that's not a major negative, considering the very earnest and unwavering part he plays in the proceedings. Bogart is as good as ever (I may not have seen much of his work while a youngster, but became a firm fan of his in my adult movie-watching years), all about his self-enrichment and self-preservation, and Sheridan does well to make a lasting impression in a film that is otherwise all about the guys. As for the Dead End Kids, well, it's perhaps inevitable that I don't enjoy their antics quite as much today as I did when I was a youngster, but they're still an amusing and likeable bunch.

I eventually covered the beginning of the film and I guess I should end on the ending. I won't reveal any details, because I don't believe the age of a movie should let people assume that everyone already knows all about it, but I will say that it still packs a punch. It's in line with the whole direction of the story, it's played beautifully by all involved, and, yes, I may have had a quivering lip while I tried to stop my eyes leaking everywhere.


Here's a DVD copy available.
Americans can get it here.

Thursday 10 January 2019

Death Wish (2018)

I was not looking forward to Death Wish, the remake of the 1974 Michael Winner film, for a number of reasons. Despite me enjoying a number of his films, I didn’t think director Eli Roth would be a good fit for the material, Bruce Willis in any leading role nowadays gives me concern, and there were trailers that didn’t look promising. The one small shred of hope I had was that they’d kept enough of the ideas contained in the original script, by Joe Carnahan, to make this more interesting and relevant for a new generation.

Willis plays Paul Kersey, a surgeon who we first see losing his battle to save the life of a shot police officer before heading off to try and save the life of the man who shot him. That’s what he does. He saves lives. When not saving lives, he spends time with his family (his wife, Elizabeth Shue, and daughter, Camila Morrone, and also his brother, Vincent D’Onofrio) and seems to have everything in place for a content time. That all changes when a robbery leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. Frustrated by the fact that it looks as if the police won’t make much progress, Kersey becomes a deadly vigilante, unsure of his own capability at first but quickly becoming more confident in his role.

There are a number of plus points here. Making Kersey a surgeon, rather than the architect he was in the original movie, is a good move. It further illustrates the transition from peaceful family man to gun-toting “grim reaper”, and it allows him to do more to cover his own tracks (he picks up clothing that is due to be disposed of by the hospital, he can treat some of his own wounds). There are also a couple of good points made about modern attitudes and accessibility to dangerous weaponry and information. These points may be hidden away beneath the sheen and the montage moments that throw AC/DC alongside the visuals, but they’re still there nonetheless, adding at least a modicum on intelligence and commentary that didn't have to be included.

Willis is slightly less comatose than he has been in so many other roles in the past decade, but he’s still the weakest link of the main cast. One moment that has him trying to convey the pain at what the criminals did to his loved ones is almost laughably bad, but he's better when growing more at ease with the death-dealing vengeance. D’Onofrio is as good as he always is, Shue and Morrone do well in their supporting roles, and Dean Norris puts in yet another great turn as the main investigating officer, a man who seems to be earnest in wanting to help and also starts to put two and two together as the criminal bodies start to pile up.

Roth does well in the director's chair. Everything moves along quickly, and predictably, enough and there are a few impressive moments of grue that serve as a reminder of who is at the helm. He makes some mis-steps, as he is won't to do in most of his movies, but makes a better fist of things than many other directors I could have considered for the job.

It's not as good as the original, which is expected, but this ends up being a perfectly serviceable reworking of the material for those who want to give it 100 minutes of their time (or thereabouts).


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.
Or you can feel free to use those links to shop for anything else that catches your eye.

Wednesday 9 January 2019

Prime Time: Fractured (2018)

Fractured starts off as a fairly simple, and effective, little horror movie, albeit one that isn't delivering anything new. You get the young couple travelling through isolated areas of countryside en route to their final destination (yes, it's a house in the middle of nowhere), you get car problems, you get strange behaviour from people, you get the usual creaks and bumps as it becomes clear that the couple looking for some alone time may not necessarily be alone. And then you get something different, enjoyably so, and I won't go into any further detail, because the fun comes from being pleasantly surprised by the direction that things take.

Michael and Rebecca are the young couple at the heart of things, played by April Pearson and Karl Davies, and the reasons for their need to get away aren't made immediately obvious, leaving viewers to wonder if this is a romantic getaway for them, a chance to recover from some personal difficulty, or maybe even a make or break time for their relationship. As things become a bit clearer, they also become a bit stranger. And that's when the atmosphere starts to change, almost creeping in from the edges of the frame like a palpable fog bank.

Director Jamie Patterson has built up quite the filmography over the past decade, and I am looking forward to exploring more of his work after enjoying this one so much. The script here is from Christian Hearn, but based on a story/idea from Patterson, who obviously knows his stuff. He's familiar with the horror genre standards, gambling on the fact that viewers will stick with the movie throughout a very familiar first half to be rewarded by what comes after it. Characters are given dialogue that sounds quite enjoyably naturalistic, the plotting puts all of the required pieces in place without stretching everything too far, and the relatively brief runtime helps the pacing somewhat (although impatient viewers may still get fed up before things start to pay off).

Pearson (obviously a favourite of Patterson, having been in almost half a dozen of his movies, to date) and Davies are both excellent in the lead roles, pretty essential while they're onscreen for over 90% of the runtime. There are very few other cast members, with the other main player being Louisa Lytton, who also gives a great performance.

It's always a pleasant surprise nowadays to find a low-budget horror movie that isn't a found footage film, unimaginative slasher, or a zombie flick. There are gems out there, always appearing with little to no fanfare, but they're often lost in the sea of films that use the aforementioned subgenera, so it's always worth celebrating finding a good one. And Fractured is a good one.