Sunday 31 March 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Great Wall (2016)

The first English language film from director Zhang Yimou, who has given us some absolutely gorgeous films in the past few decades, The Great Wall is a film that I think I can best sum up as being, well, one I never worked up the enthusiasm to watch. I didn't want to see it in the cinema, I didn't pick up the shiny disc until I saw it in a sale selection one day, and I didn't watch it until now. And, here's the thing, my lack of enthusiasm seems to have been warranted.

The story sees a couple of European Mercenaries (played by Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) encountering a monster while they rest en route to the Great Wall. Once at their destination, they are looking to somehow get their hands on a load of gunpowder stored there, they are taken prisoner. While trussed up and helpless, they witness the wall being attacked by a horde of monsters. Managing to get free and join in with the vigorous defence of the wall, the two men are then made to feel more welcome. They learn the story of the monsters, they help to figure out a plan to potentially defeat them, and they may find themselves being rewarded with much more than just gunpowder. If they can resist the urge to steal and flee.

There are enough separate elements that work here to make The Great Wall an enjoyable enough piece of entertainment. The acting is generally okay (although it's a rather weak turn from Damon, who seems as puzzled as most viewers as to why he should be the lead), the special effects do what is needed, the story is a fun creature feature that makes good use of one of the most famous structures on the planet, and there are sequences that contain such colour and grace that remind you Zhang Yimou is sitting behind the camera.

Sadly, it's never as good as it could be. Compared to other monster movies, or action movies, or even the past highlights from Yimou, this is just okay. And just being okay can be okay, but it's disappointing when it comes from a director with this eye, and this much talent.

The screenplay, by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, never does enough to underline the points it is making about culture and order, about the nobility of the sacrifices being made by The Nameless Order, those tasked with protecting the wall from the attacks of the monsters. You get some decent exchanges between the main characters, but they're like gasps of breath in between crashing waves of muddy water. None of the characters feel as developed as they could be, and every relationship dynamic feels unearned and simply there to tick off the checklist that the film is working through.

Damon, as already mentioned, seems a bit out of place here, in more ways than one, and it's not one of his better performances. Pascal fares better, helped by the fact that his character is set up in a way that doesn't require him to go through any major transformation. Jing Tian and Andy Lau are both very good in their roles, even if they are working with material that feels slightly beneath them (not in terms of the standard content, I mean in terms of the way their characters are sketched/treated). Willem Dafoe is the other name worth mentioning, although he also suffers at the hands of the script.

It's always hard when foreign directors transition from working in their own language to working on an English language production, and it's good to see the sequences here that Yimou uses to indulge in his usual mix of bright colours and grace, but this isn't anywhere near the disaster it could have been. It's a mediocre movie with a couple of standout set-pieces that make it worth your time. Or you could just pick one of the better, subtitled, movies that Yimou has directed in the past. Hero, House Of Flying Daggers, and Curse Of The Golden Flower are all good choices to start with.


You can buy the disc here.
Americans can buy the disc here.

Saturday 30 March 2019

Shudder Saturday: King Cohen: The Wild World Of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017)

There was one obvious choice for this blog selection this week, due to the death of celebrated filmmaker Larry Cohen. Cohen is one of those people I have always admired, yet haven't actually seen as much from as I should have. That included this very documentary, one that has been on my radar for some time.

Of course, watching a documentary and then figuring out how to review a documentary are two completely different things. This has a pretty standard format, various talking heads in between clips from most of Cohen's movies, and it does it well, providing a sense of respect and love for Cohen that will be immediately obvious, even to those unfamiliar with his work before seeing this.

You get a lot of the usual suspects for this kind of thing. Joe Dante can talk about these movies until your ears fall off, and John Landis never met a spoken sentence that he couldn't then follow up with a dozen more sentences. They're as good value as ever, but the joy comes more from those who haven't been seen in so many of these kinds of things. Fred Williamson and Yaphet Kotto are both enjoyable to listen to, Eric Roberts once again reminds people that he seems to enjoy working with as many people on as many different filming experiences as possible, Barbara Carrera has some good stuff to share, and Michael Moriarty is, fittingly, the star of the show when it comes to delivering a mix of information, anecdotes, and good-natured disagreement over individual recollections.

Although he may initially seem like someone in the same mould as Corman, this documentary does a great job of reminding you of how different he is from that other celebrated figure. Cohen was always a writer who could impress people with his creativity and his prolific output. His journey to being a director stems from the fact that he could then work on his scripts, without seeing them warped and altered too much from their original form, and that's an attitude that he has passed along to others over the years.

If you're new to Cohen then this serves as a decent highlight reel without actually spoiling too many of his "greatest hits", although you will see some key scenes. I have yet to check out the likes of Bone, The Ambulance, and, the one I feel I should have checked off the list a long time ago, God Told Me To. I've seen It's Alive but have still to check out any of the sequels. Now I know I need to bump them back to the top of my "to watch" pile because this documentary reminded me of how much I love Cohen's work. He may not always be delivering absolute classics but he's always interested in trying to say something interesting while never forgetting that movies should also entertain.

A bittersweet experience to watch now, especially when you see how energetic and enthusiasm Cohen remained throughout his life, it's also one that all genre fans should check out. Either get to know the man for the first time or get to spend some quality time with someone who has probably already given you a couple of your favourite movies over the years.


There's a region-free disc here.
Americans can get it here.

Friday 29 March 2019

Slender Man (2018)

I've said it before, as have many other people, and I will say it again. The worst thing that a movie can do is to leave you feeling absolutely nothing. The ones that just exist, you watch them, you wonder what else you could have done during that time, and you hope to never have to watch them again. Slender Man is one of those movies. I can't give it the lowest possible rating, mainly due to the fact that it has a degree of technical competence and acting ability that the worst films end up lacking, but I don't want anyone thinking that this comes even close to being any good.

The very basic plot sees a group of friends discussing the modern urban legend that is the Slender Man and then working together to summon him, for no other reason than shits and giggles (this is no Candyman). Their plan works, they start to disappear one by one, and it's then a race to figure out how to get him to go away and leave them alone.

As far as I can tell, the Slender Man was created in stories on the internet about a decade ago, by someone named Eric Knudsen AKA Victor Surge, and the creation snowballed and grew into something impressively convincing and developed. My own experience with the character happened when I started to dig into the online series, Marble Hornets (look it up on YouTube, it's highly recommended), and I have been aware of his "brand" growing over the years, in videogames, movies, and as the figure at the centre of a number of crimes and media-crafted tales of fear and panic.

His presence, and the way it has developed from those early days, makes this movie all the more disappointing. What we have here is a bland, safe, mess of a film that tries to make use of the character without ever capturing the real sense of creepiness you can find in most of the tales.

The cast all do what is asked of them, without being memorable or interesting. Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, and Annalise Basso are the four main girls involved, Taylor Richardson is a younger fifth character who may get dragged into proceedings, and Alex Fitzalan plays one of the few male characters, and is so redundant that he may as well not be onscreen at all. Nobody stinks. They just can't work well enough to make up for the drab, familiar, aesthetic that is used for the nightmare imagery and scares.

Director Sylvain White has spent the past decade doing mostly TV work (his last feature was The Losers) and this doesn't look likely to lead to an increase in demand for him to try creating more cinematic outings. Although the script by David Birke is about as middling and horribly predictable as you can get, White does nothing to help, instead content to work with imagery and scene construction that feels as if it could have easily been cut and pasted from dozens of other teen horror movies from the past decade.

Do yourself a favour, skip this movie and instead spend 90 minutes browsing the internet for the early tales and videos that brought the Slender Man to the attention of the masses. You'll find a lot of that stuff much scarier.


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

Thursday 28 March 2019

The Hurricane Heist (2018)

The Hurricane Heist is quite terrible. The characterisations are laughably bad, every scene is overloaded with CGI, and there are moments in which it's very difficult to remember just what the hell is going on, thanks to the choppy editing and fast and loose nature of the screenplay.

Toby Kebbell and Ryan Kwanten play two brothers, Will and Breeze Rutledge, respectively. At the very start of the movie we see the younger versions of their characters in the middle of a super-strong hurricane that kills their father. This has led to Will becoming a meteorologist and Breeze being at a bit of a loss after his time in the military. One of his recent jobs involved working on a generator in a treasury facility that has the task of shredding millions and millions of dollars. When very bad weather causes generator problems, a Treasury agent named Casey (Maggie Grace) calls on Breeze to take him to the facility and help fix things, not realising that while she is out of the picture the place is being taken over by robbers. The weather keeps getting worse, but Casey is with the right people to help her use the conditions to foil the robbers.

Directed by Rob Cohen, who has a few other titles in his filmography in the same vein as this slice of silliness, The Hurricane Heist is the kind of entertainment that you put on when you don't want to think too much. It has spectacle and decent pacing, although anyone after stuff like decent characters, logic, and surprises should look elsewhere.

The script, by Jeff Dixon and Scott Windhauser, is the big weakness. Revelations and character developments are awkwardly shoehorned in between action sequences when the best approach would surely have been to take a bit more time during the opening act to set everyone up before then leaving them to battle robbers and insanely strong wind and rain.

Kebbell and Kwanten may not want to put this film on any highlight reel but at least both know exactly what movie they're in, and they have fun in their roles (with Kebbell involved in a couple of the more enjoyable set-pieces). In fact, everyone at least plays their part well enough, with Grace also doing a decent job as the agent facing overwhelming odds as she tries to foil the robbery, and Ralph Ineson as another agent mixed up in the whole mess. Nobody else really makes much of an impression but that doesn't really matter, as they're mostly there to be a threat to our leads while the hurricane continues to build and build into an even bigger threat.

Not the worst film of last year, not by a long shot, but enjoying this movie is only possible if you know exactly what you're letting yourself in for. It's definitely not as good as it could be, and the first few set-pieces show how good it could have been (I was impressed by both the car chase sequence and the later moments showing Kebbell using the strong wind to his advantage as he threw stuff around a corner to be blown into the baddies), but it's an easy, disposable, watch.


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

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Prime Time: Curtains (1983)

I'll be honest, I thought I was going to either end up bored with Curtains or frequently laughing at it. It's a film I have been aware of for many years, mainly thanks to a famous clip that has been shared around the internet again and again, but didn't think was supposed to be any good. It turns out that it actually IS pretty good, although there are still chuckles to be had (mostly thanks to the wonderful performance from John Vernon as a director with an eccentric approach to casting).

Anyway, here's the plot. In order to prepare for the role she has wanted for many years, a mentally unstable woman in a film called "Audra", an actress, Samantha Sherwood (played by Samantha Eggar), conspires with a director (Stryker, played by Vernon) to get herself committed to an insane asylum. Her plan seems to be working out, until she hears that Stryker is letting a group of six young actresses visit his home to audition for the part. Before you can say "professional rivalry", a killer wearing the mask of an old hag decides to get rid of most of the wannabe-stars.

Despite the fact that the production of this film was a troubled one, apparently director Richard Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson clashed over the ultimate aim of the film, Curtains still manages to do enough to keep it in the top half of the many slasher movies released at this time. The mask worn by the killer is a large part of that, it's creepy and memorable, and the plotting works well enough to allow the corpses to pile up, it's both silly and plausible in all the right ways, especially as the auditioning actresses like to assume that everyone else is just trying to inhabit the role of Audra.

Writer Robert Guza, Jr also does enough to make all of the main characters memorable enough, simply allocating each one with a main talent that allows you to keep track of who is who when they start to be pared down. There's the comedienne (Patti, played by Lynne Griffin), the actress with more experience than the rest (Brooke, played by Linda Thorson), a ballet dancer (Laurian, played by Anne Ditchburn), a musician (Tara, played by Sandee Currie), and an ice skater (Christie, played by Lesleh Donaldson). There's also a woman named Amanda, played by Deborah Burgess, but *spoiler* she doesn't even make it along to the actual auditions.

The standouts in the cast are Vernon, Eggar, and Griffin, although very few of them do a terrible job, especially considering some of the scenes that they have to take part in (and it's almost impossible to watch Eggar in another movie that features a man yelling at women to free themselves and get in touch with a dark part of their psyche without thinking of The Brood). There's also a very small role for Michael Wincott, if you're a completist who needs to see everything he ever did.

It's often slightly daft, it's far from the bloodiest slasher movie you could watch, and it even decides to forego the many opportunities it has for gratuitous nudity, which is a surprise (considering how the subgenre so often uses that to distract from other weaknesses), but Curtains is also a very enjoyable, and even memorable, little slasher film. And the end scenes cap everything off very nicely.


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

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Kolobos (1999)

Perhaps not deliberately, considering what it took to get the thing made, Kolobos is an odd little horror movie that made a big impression on me at the end of the 1990s because it was different from so many other movies of that time. Right in between the surge of Scream imitators and the super-spooky ghost tales that would prove to be such massive box office hits, not to mention the deluge of "J-horrors" that a lot of fans were about to be turned on to.

And discussing it fully is to spoil some of the treats that it had in store so I am going to try to be slightly vague, even as I attempt to convince others to watch it. Is it a masterpiece? No. Some of the elements, such as the poor acting from almost all of the cast members, make it very difficult to fully embrace. But it tries hard to be a unique and intense horror, and there are times when it succeeds.

The plot, or at least the most basic part of it that I will share here, sees a group of young people (Amy Weber being the nominal lead, Kyra) taking up the offer to share some time together in a house while they are filmed as part of an experiment. But what they signed up for and what happens in the house are two very different things.

Written and directed by Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk (with assistance from Nne Ebong in the screenplay department), Kolobos is a psychological horror movie that also doesn't forget to deliver the visceral goods every so often (one of the death scenes here holds up as a gruesome favourite of mine). It's a look at a fractured mind, it's an early mix of horror a scenario that feels very much like the standard reality TV set-up for modern audiences, and it's a love letter to Argento that manages to blend many influences together while still feeling fairly fresh and unique.

The cast are, sadly, a bunch of duds. There's no point in sugar-coating that particular pill. They can't do anything to improve the weak script (weak in terms of actual dialogue, not the ideas being played around with) and are just far too unappealing. But they're also all ultimately unimportant, with all deaths being about the method rather than the motive or consequences. The film gets better, in my opinion, as logic starts to dwindle and a sense of madness really comes to the fore, although I am sure others may feel quite the opposite.

Padded out with some extra scenes that were required to get it released as an actual feature, and you can tell, Kolobos is a scrappy, low-budget horror that should please fans after something a bit different, as long as you can overlook the weaker aspects of it. If you can tolerate the dialogue and acting then you're rewarded with some great set-pieces, some amusing clips of a fictional film within the film, and that impressive score by William Kidd. All thrown together in a feature that admirably blends Deep Red with My Little Eye (a couple of years before that film came along).


Buy the shiny new release here.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday 25 March 2019

Mubi Monday: The White Crow (2018)

For his third directorial feature, Ralph Fiennes would seem to have edged further into more challenging territory with this look at the life of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, the development of his talent and the building tension that led to his defection to the West. But that's not entirely true. Although I am sure he stretched himself to develop the ballet sequences, this is just far too by-the-numbers stuff that shows a man remaining well within his safety zone.

Oleg Ivenko plays the lead, with Fiennes himself also onscreen as Pushkin, a man who helps him to be the best he can be, and the behaviour of Nureyev is familiar stuff. He's arrogant, he rubs many people up the wrong way, and he has to overcome a number of major problems on his way to becoming the most famous male ballet dancer in the world (certainly to an uncultured layman like me).

Fiennes, either through lack of confidence or some unwise choices, never allows this to lift up as it should. Okay, it's about a crucial point in the life of Nureyev, but viewers should still know just how good his talent is, and that rarely comes across onscreen, despite the efforts of those involved to show some technical skill. Most of the time, we know that Nureyev is the best at what he does because he says that he is the best.

The script, by David Hare, feels far too meandering when it should be focused either on Nureyev's talent or the events being set in motion around him that he remains ignorant of until it's too late. The grand finale of the film is dramatic and tense, with viewers finally realising the very real and weighty stakes at play, but it's a case of too little too late.

It's all competently put together though, with enough there to make me want to check out the source material by Julie Kavanagh (her book about Nureyev being the inspiration), but there are enough minor failings and mis-steps to make this seem like a first attempt by Fiennes to sit in the director's chair.

It doesn't help that, I assume in an attempt to assemble a cast mixing talent and authenticity, very few people stand out in the acting front. Ivenko is quite poor, but he seems to have been picked more for his ability to emulate some dance moves than actually act, as is Adèle Exarchopoulos, playing a young woman who becomes Nureyev's closest friend, and it doesn't help that they pale in comparison to the performances from Fiennes and Chulpan Khamatova (playing the wife of Fiennes' character). Olivier Rabourdin and Raphaël Personnaz do decent work, playing two men who impact the life of Nureyev in very different ways, but nobody else stands out, unless it's for the wrong reasons.

I'm sure there's a great film to be made about Nureyev. Sadly, this isn't it.


The disc will be available here.
Americans may want to pick up some red shoes.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Netflix And Chill: Johnny English Reborn (2011)

I have no idea what movie I saw, and so disliked, some years ago but it seems that it wasn't this one. Or, if it was, I was in some kind of terrible mood that completely clouded my judgement. Because Johnny English Reborn made me laugh a lot. It's silly, it's predictable (seriously, if you cannot spot the main villain as soon as they appear then I'll be amazed), and it's superior to the first outing in a few key ways.

Atkinson returns to play the main character, a man we last saw basking in the glow of success. That glow has long faded, after an incident in Mozambique that was so bad that he even had his knighthood removed, and he has spent a long time training with Tibetan monks. But an opportunity for redemption awaits when he is requested back by MI7. There's a plot brewing to kill the Chinese Premier and the main lead will only talk to English. Partnered up with a young man named Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) and armed with the latest gadgets, English is determined to foil the plot. And he's a lot more skilled than he used to be.

There's a level of polish and ambition here that was missing from the first film, although I think it may have been possible here as a direct result of that film's success. And it also does a great job of delivering what audiences want more of while not simply rehashing all of the previous highlights.

Director Oliver Parker oversees everything with a sense of confidence and style, working with a great script from Hamish McCool that, sensibly, makes the main character a much better agent than he used to be, although he still lacks essential knowledge and social skills while remaining oblivious to his own failings. Rather than just derive laughs from the ineptitude and clumsiness of English, McCool gives the character a different flavour. He's an agent who now compensates for his failings with new techniques and tricks.

Atkinson has just as much fun in his role, perhaps even more so with the moments that allow him to look a lot cooler than he ever has before (a chase sequence in which he relentlessly, but sedately, strides along after a daredevil practitioner of parkour is a highlight in the first half that best rings the changes), and the supporting cast is even stronger than it was for his last spy adventure. Kaluuya is as likeable as ever in his role, Gillian Anderson is the weary boss, Dominic West is the standard British agent in the mould that we're all more familiar with, and Rosamund Pike is a behavioural psychologist who obviously finds herself fascinated by English, and you also get small roles for Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard Schiff, Tim McInnerny, and Pik Sen Lim (as a deadly assassin).

If you enjoyed the first film then you're likely to enjoy this. There's even a chance that, like me, you enjoy this one even more. And I'm looking forward to checking out the next instalment.


Here's a triple-pack for you.
Americans can buy the same set here.

Saturday 23 March 2019

Shudder Saturday: Lake Bodom (2016)

Taking a true event as its starting point, Lake Bodom is a decent, twisty, horror movie that has the misfortune of coming out at a time when the way things play out already feels slightly overdone, although there are usually different motivations for it in other movies. It also doesn't help that it makes a couple of choices that are, quite frankly, odd.

A quartet of teens, two boys and two girls,  go camping out at Lake Bodom, an area that was the site for some vicious murders back in 1960, with those involved being, yep, two teenage boys and two teenage girls. While the main characters settle in for their ghoulish night, you get the usual mix of platonic moments, awkward flirtiness, and attempts to create scares.

Nelly Hirst-Gee and Mimosa Willamo are Ida-Maria and Nora, the two female members of the party, and both do good work in their roles. Mikael Gabriel and Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä are Elias and Atte, the two boys who think they will have a fun time before being rudely alerted to the fact that it maybe isn't such a good idea to fool around at an infamous murder site. They're also good, although working with characters that are give less depth than their female counterparts.

Directed by Taneli Mustonen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aleksi Hyvärinen, Lake Bodom isn't a terrible film, by any means. Nor would I say it is one that is completely predictable from start to finish. Unfortunately, once it starts to develop a couple of the main plot points it then becomes easy to see where everything is headed, making what should be an enjoyable and thrilling second half into nothing more than a decent waste of time until you get to the inevitable ending.

This feels like a movie planned around a couple of twists and one main set-piece, with the rest of the runtime simply padding things out. The twists are okay, if obvious enough from the moment the spring starts to coil (as it were), but, fortunately for the makers of the film and the viewers,  the main set-piece is pretty great. Enough to lift this above average.

As for those odd choices I mentioned in the first paragraph. First of all, character motivation is not what it should be, not by half. Considering what happens in the second half of the movie, the reveal of previous developments, shown in flashback, doesn't really make anything seem plausible. Secondly, the use of the real-life murders as a springboard for events seems to be a completely unnecessary (and some might say tasteless) detail. Although it may resonate more with the people of Finland, where this is set, would it really have been so difficult to take any location, create a fictional unsolved murder case, and let the plot unfold in the same way? No, it wouldn't. There MAY be another reason for it, beyond the name recognition, and the case has been directly cited in at least one other horror movie (Bodom, 2014) and influenced at least one extreme metal band (Children Of Bodom), but I can't think of anything beyond the cynical and obvious.

Everything works, at least on the surface. It's just a shame that there's nothing more to it when you dig a little deeper.


There's a DVD available here.
The same disc (R2) is available here.

Friday 22 March 2019

Night Train To Terror (1985)

Well, this is a hell of a wild ride. Night Train To Terror is an anthology movie that stitches together parts of some other movies (one unfinished) and frames them with a tale of God (Ferdy Mayne) and Satan (Tony Giorgio) having a philosophical debate while travelling on a train that also features a groovy group of dancers who keep gyrating around while a lead singer keeps repeating the same song.

There are three stories here. Story one shows an insane asylum that seems a lot more interested in mutilation and murder than curing anyone. Story one is also the hardest one to get through, but more on that later. Story two is about a man who ends up in a club that enjoys playing deadly games. Everything is set up so that one person in the group should always die, with methods ranging from electrocution to deadly insect. Last, but not least, we have a tale about a servant of Satan and the people out to stop him.

Due to the way this movie was assembled, there are a number of different directors involved here (which can be the case with anthology horror movies anyway). John Carr is the man behind the first two segments, while Philip Marshak, Tom McGowan, and Gregg G. Tallas are responsible for the third tale. The framing device was filmed by Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and the screenplay is credited to Philip Jordan, the man responsible for writing the movies that were edited together to make this.

Like any anthology, there are good and bad sections here. The first tale is just too random and bonkers to be as effective as it could be, although you get to enjoy a performance from John Phillip Law that sees him permanently confused by the events around him, as well as a menacing turn from Richard Moll, playing a sadistic orderly. The second is the strongest, despite the silly moments throughout, lifted slightly by the presence of the lovely Meredith Haze in the role of Gretta, the woman who starts the main male character on his journey through these death challenges. Although the final segment is, unbelievably, even less coherent than the first, it throws in some better imagery, has decent performances from Faith Clift and Robert Bristol (the latter being the Satanic helper), and also lets Richard Moll back onscreen, playing a very different character from the one he played in the first tale.

I wasn't enjoying Night Train To Terror, feeling that it was a slog throughout the first 15-20 minutes, and then it started to win me over. Maybe it was the lengths it would go to in order to line up the shocks and bloodshed, maybe it was the attempts to sandwich some debate on good and evil in between the tales, maybe it was just that bloody song, that gets repeated again and again, and turns into quite the earworm by the time the end credits roll.

Sometimes you want movies that comment on the world around us, sometimes you want slick thrills and chills, and sometimes you can be entertained enough by something that is just complete nonsense, lacking any logic or attempt to stay within spitting distance of a sense of reality. Night Train To Terror is a film for those times.


Americans can get a decent disc here.

Thursday 21 March 2019

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

Not content with upsetting people who took a dislike to his output in the music industry, Crispian Mills (son of Hayley, frontman for Kula Shaker, who I actually really enjoyed) seems intent nowadays to equally upset people who dislike his output in the movie industry. This is his second feature, both with Simon Pegg in a lead role, and I can only say that, judging from this one alone, Mills is a much better musician than he is a director.

The plot of Slaughterhouse Rulez is quite a simple one. You have a new boy (Don Wallace, played by Finn Cole) trying to fit in at a posh public school. He finds a friend (Willoughby Blake, played by Asa Butterfield), finds a girl that he immediately starts pining for (Clemsie Lawrence, played by Hermione Corfield), and finds himself incurring the wrath of a bully (Clegg, played by Tom Rhys Harries). And this all coincides with trouble at a nearby fracking site that has unleashed some dangerous beasties.

The cast don't do a bad job. Everyone mentioned fits nicely in their roles, even if those roles are quite thin stereotypes to help this feel very much like an old comic tale brought to life onscreen. As well as those mentioned, you get Simon Pegg as a teacher, Nick Frost as an environmental activist, Michael Sheen as the headmaster, and very small roles for Jo Hartley and Margot Robbie, as well as a number of lesser-known actors doing their bit to add to the fun.

Look, you can't see a film like Slaughterhouse Rulez and call it one of the worst things ever made, you just can't. It has a degree of technical competency that is achievable for people who can get a decent budget in place (no blockbuster money but certainly not at the lowest end of the indie scale), it has fleeting moments that hint at how much better it could have been, and it has a delightful performance from Sheen.

You can, however, see this and be massively disappointed. In much the same way that 101 different British crime caper movies came along after the success of Guy Ritchie, a horde of British movies have all tried to capitalise on the success of Edgar Wright, some of them doing so by blending horror elements with some particularly British comedy stylings, and some doing so by trying to get Simon Pegg and/or Nick Frost involved. This does both, allowing it to be doubly disappointing.

Mills must take most of the blame. He directed. And, with Henry Fitzherbert, he also co-wrote the script. The pacing is off, without any decent set-pieces to make things move along quicker, the supporting characters aren't interesting or well-developed enough to make the time spent with them worthwhile, and, worst of all, very few of the jokes land. The monster moments work, but are too infrequent, which leaves the whole thing feeling like a wasted opportunity, especially considering the cast assembled.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy the same disc here.
Or you can just click on the links and buy whatever you like.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Prime Time: Ouijageist (2018)

There are many things in life more painful than having to sit through Ouijageist, the second low-budget horror feature from director John R. Walker, but I cannot think of them right now. Maybe receiving an injection of bleach directly into my eyeballs. Having my kneecaps placed in a vice before they are then slowly unscrewed by murderous Oompa Loompas holding power tools. Being forced to eat broken lightbulbs, coated in kale. All of those things sound extremely painful, and yet none of them would make me as unhappy right now as watching this bloody movie.

I think it's always fair to try and find any positives when reviewing a film. If you end up just churning out insults and dismissing every single thing about a movie then it only leads to people thinking that you must be exaggerating, which then leads to them checking out the film for themselves. And there are very few films that have NO redeeming features. This one, EVEN this, has a couple of minutes at the beginning that seems to suggest a decent little time-waster lies ahead. But then it starts to go downhill, and keeps going that way. Fast.

The basic plot, and I use the term in the loosest possible sense, concerns an evil witchboard. This troublesome item, to put it mildly, ends up causing a lot of pain and terror in the life of a young single mum named India (Lois Wilkinson). People die, a baby is put in peril, a dog is killed, and even the window cleaner isn't safe from . . . the ouijageist.

I don't WANT to be unnecessarily rude to anyone here but I do have to emphasise how bad this all is, so I guess I just have to hope that nobody involved ever reads this (and why would they? I'm astonished daily when more eyes end up here than just those belonging to me and my cats, and sometimes my wife when I make a special plea).

Let's start with the cast. Wilkinson is just bad, but she's far from the worst one. Far worse performances come from Roger Shepherd (playing a friendly gent who has a suspicion about the cause of the strange events) and Lesley Scoble (playing Karen, India's mother). Scoble isn't helped by the script, which has her spend half of the movie repeating the end of every previous sentence in order to drag out the conversation or set up plenty of exposition, but she's helped even less by her own inability to convincingly portray a real human being. Nicholas Kendrick only has to star in a couple of scenes, and fair play to him for being involved in one of the more ridiculous moments, so I'll not spend too much time criticising him (but rest assured that he IS also awful), and Nigel Buckley, Michelle Jennings, and everyone else onscreen seems to have been hired immediately after passing the advanced class in "Acting Comedically Bad For Every Moment Of Screentime You Get". The only one I didn't mind was Gabriella Calderone, who played India's best friend, Becca, but I'm not sure if that means she was doing any decent acting or just seemed better compared to every one of her co-stars.

Darrell Buxton and Steve Hardy don't help anybody either. Their script is a real mess, with the bizarre tonal jumps (just sit and scratch your head when you get the "comic relief" moment of a Bishop enthusiastically discussing the Poltergeist movies while figuring out if he can be of any help), a lack of any explanation or rules for the malevolent activity, and bits and pieces pilfered from other, much better, movies. If I've endured a worse script this year then I cannot recall it right now, and that includes anything delivered to me via mobile phone by some agent trying to convince me that I was involved in a recent motor vehicle collision (if you've had those calls then you know what I'm on about).

I guess, ultimately, it's John R. Walker that gets to take the full credit for this mess. I do understand that it's a great achievement for anyone to get full films made, and to get them out there into the world. But that doesn't mean everyone gets bonus points for doing the bare minimum, and this often feels like the bare minimum. A lot of the camera shots are flat and drab, the score and foley work stays in line with the visuals, with the exception of a fun constant menacing sound that signifies the evil spirit, and more time should have been spent either in casting the roles or just getting the cast he could afford able to do what was being asked of them.

I'm going to be really generous with my rating here, but everyone should remember that it's only down to the fact that, incredibly, I have seen worse. Not everyone will agree, and I don't encourage anyone else to watch this, but I am charitably doubling my initial rating.


Brave UK film fans can rent it here.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

The Darkest Minds (2018)

Another month goes by, another YA novel is unsuccessfully adapted into movie form. This time it's The Darkest Minds. There's something about these teen-friendly film (wannabe-)franchises that often appeals to me, perhaps due to many of them being created with so many fun genre tropes in the mix (all of the ones I can think of right now are either horror, sci-fi, or whirling through a landscape of magic and fantasy, of course). Or perhaps it's just the case that the older I get, the more I try to pretend I'm still energetic and young at heart.

This particular tale starts with a MAJOR EVENT. It's not given any explanation, it's just a sudden occurence that immediately kills of a lot of the children on our planet and imbues those left behind with special powers. Some become smarter, some can use and control the electricity around them, some have telekinetic powers, and the most dangerous have the ability to brainwash others, even to the point of them being led towards harming themselves. Amandla Stenberg is Ruby, a young woman who is now viewed as one of the most dangerous of the child population. Her power is discovered while being graded in an internment camp, which she then has to escape from with the assistance of an adult (Mandy Moore) who seems to be wanting to help her. Unsure of who to trust and what to do, Ruby ends up teaming up with three other youngsters: electricity-wrangler Zu (Miya Cech), supersmart Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson). The quartet end up heading towards a rumoured place of safety, headed up by a mysterious figure who has set himself as a leader of a resistance movement.

I suspect the biggest weakness here lies with the source material, by Alexandra Bracken, or the changes that have been made by Chad Hodge to adapt it into his screenplay. Although the main premise seems like a decent one, it's far too derivative and predictable once it gets past the opening act. It also feels a bit too haphazard, without enough scenes showing the ripple effect of the deadly initial incident, instead just giving us a couple of scenes to set up some main characters that will figure during important plot points. Although this is a film about a global crisis, you never get the feeling of that. I had, in fact, forgotten quite quickly that most of the other children around the world had been killed off in the opening moments.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson doesn't help. Everything is in place, but it's all assembled in a perfunctory way. The characters never feel well-rounded, they're just reduced to the tags given to them after the MAJOR EVENT, and none of the potential surprises in the plot are surrounded by enough distractions to make them work. There are a couple of good sequences that tease the horror genre ideas at the core, and a satisfying battle in the grand finale, but not enough to make up for the rest of the movie being so disappointingly generic.

Despite the weak direction and script, things could have been lifted a little bit more by the cast. Sadly, that doesn't happen. Stenberg tries, she just isn't quite good enough (although she's not bad). Brooks fares the best from the younger cast members, Patrick Gibson does well as the young leader assembling the young fugitives, while Cech and Dickinson fare the worst. The adults all do a bit better, with decent performances from Moore, Gwendoline Christie, and one of my favourite "big meanie" actors, Wade Williams, here portraying a . . . big meanie.

While not working with a huge budget, the money and people involved here ensure that it's far from unwatchable. It's just not surprising to find out that it underperformed, and probably won't be getting any of the intended sequels. But if it does end up getting them then I'll still end up watching them.


You can buy the DVD here.
Americans can get the Blu here.

Monday 18 March 2019

Mubi Monday: Under The Silver Lake (2018)

Although this is his third feature film, David Robert Mitchell's Under The Silver Lake most definitely feels like a sophomore effort. It's a film made by someone who has been given the budget and casting choices to let loose and indulge himself after making a name with his previous outing (in this case, the enjoyable It Follows).

The plot, seemingly dense but also actually fairly slim for the 2hr+ runtime, sees a young man named Sam (Andrew Garfield) drawn into a Hitchcockian web that involves a missing girl (Riley Keough), a number of local urban legends, and a conspiracy theory so grandiose that it dances and twirls through absurd territory. It's a mix of The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with the obvious influence of The Long Goodbye also in there. It's also frustrating, because so many individual moments are great, without adding up to anything really worthwhile.

Garfield is great in the lead role, playing someone smart but without any drive or focus. He's so likeable that it's easy to watch the film without being preoccupied by the many questions we should have about him. What happened recently in his life? What did he do to get money when he was working? How the hell does he attract some gorgeous women while placing himself firmly in slacker/loser territory? You get some details that help to answer the first question but not much else. Now I don't need a film to fill in every space for me but when you spend most of the lengthy runtime with a character who delves deeper and deeper into an investigation of his own making then it's good to know a bit more about that character, as far as I am concerned. Instead, Mitchell's script is more concerned with putting together a collage of cool visual motifs and soundtrack choices. It's a fever dream, but one without the sense of urgency or energy, which is an odd combination.

The direction matches the script, not bothering about logic or coherence when there's a chance to jump from one memorable moment to the next (and the less said about the repeated touch of having women turn to the main character and eventually start making dog noises the better). This means that you get a lot of wonderful moments in a film that only had to bring them all together in a satisfying way to become something great. It doesn't manage that, instead turning into one of those enjoyable albums that you stay in love with because there are always two or three tracks that you skip, leading to some confusion about why you love it so on the rare occasions when you listen to it all the way through.

Alongside Garfield, Keough does well in her small role, and you have decent turns from Riki Lindhome, Grace Van Patten, Jimmi Simpson, Topher Grace, and, in one particularly memorable scene, Jeremy Bobb, playing a super-talented songwriter responsible for all of the most memorable tunes throughout the years. The acting is pretty flawless throughout, which is another major plus helping to keep the film enjoyable in the lesser scenes.

I liked this, at times I liked it a lot, but it's obviously a film that was made by Mitchell coming up with some memorable ideas and moments that he then had to find a plot for. I don't think he came up with a good enough plot, not for the lack of trying, but the individual moments ensure that it's not without many pleasures for cinephiles.


Here's the film on shiny disc.
Americans can browse a whole load of movies here.

Sunday 17 March 2019

Netflix And Chill: Johnny English (2003)

Movies come from many places. Original ideas (don't laugh, this does still happen occasionally, it's just not the source for 95% of the big names you'll see advertised at your local multiplex), TV spin-offs, tales springboarding from real events, and reworked board games. But very few other movies, if any, have been developed after a successful series of adverts. Beginning his life in a series of Barclaycard adverts, Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) was a comedic riff on the James Bond character. Never that savvy, pretty hopeless with the gadgets, and yet still trying to give off that image of unflappable cool, he was the kind of character that it would make sense to create a movie around.

The plot sees every other MI7 agent in the land killed during the funeral of one top agent (who died because of misinformation given to him by English). With nobody else available, English is tasked with keeping an event secure that will focus on a display of the Crown Jewels in the Tower Of London. Those jewels are stolen, which takes English on a journey that will lead him and his partner (Angus Bough, played by Ben Miller) on a collision course with Pascal Edward Sauvage (John Malkovich), a Frenchman who has been celebrated for a series of "superprisons".

Since making his feature debut with Sliding Doors, director Peter Howitt was, for the first few movies that had him in the big chair, a fairly safe pair of hands. None of his films were particularly memorable, but most of them did exactly what they were supposed to do. Johnny English sits perfectly among those titles.

What you have is a script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies that feels incredibly light, focusing on a number of plot points while leaving a few spaces here and there in which Atkinson can do the kind of physical comedy that he does so well. It hits all of the required Bond-isms, not surprising as Purvis and Wade have been working on that franchise for the past twenty years, but doesn't do quite enough to make the comedic set-pieces as funny as they could be.

That's all pretty much left to Atkinson, who is good, but never great. Constrained by the suit he has to wear, Atkinson is left to bumble around like an inferior Inspector Clouseau, with too many of the jokes either obvious or just falling flat. There are minor chuckles throughout most scenes, but very few big belly laughs. Miller is excellent in the role of suffering assistant, however, and Malkovich clearly has a lot of fun with his role. You also get Natalie Imbruglia doing a decent job as the beautiful woman mixed up in everything somehow.

There's something to be said, of course, for entertainment of this nature. Genuinely fun for all, fairly inoffensive, and paced and timed almost to perfection. In that way, and with the 007-like music cues running through it, this works well. It just didn't make me laugh as much as expected, considering how much I often enjoy Atkinson's style of comedy.


Here's a triple-pack for you.
Americans can buy the same set here.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Thaw (2009)

The Thaw isn't a bad movie. Not really. It's just too derivative, and doesn't do enough with the main premise, to become a truly good movie. If more characters had been thrown into the mix, leading to more moments of peril, and if the ending didn't feel so silly then it could have been an excellent little horror flick that would make viewers itchy in between moments of extreme unpleasantness.

Val Kilmer plays Dr. David Kruipen, a research scientist who makes an astonishing, and terrifying, discovery while working in the Canadian Arctic. Unfortunately, that discovery takes place just before he is due to be joined by a group of "lucky" students AND his disgruntled daughter. When the youngsters arrive at the main camp, they find it unsettlingly quiet. I would say it was uninhabited but, in all honesty, something is still residing there. Lots of little, dangerous, somethings that have defrosted and are looking to continue their normal life cycle.

There are plenty of movies I could name here that cover similar territory to this, but with better results. The Bay, Ticks, Blood Glacier, Deep Freeze (okay, not better, but similar anyway), and, of course, the "Ice" episode of The X-Files. That's the biggest problem. Pick any of those movies, or that TV show episode, and you will be more entertained.

Although he's put front and centre on the poster design, and in the cast list, Kilmer is offscreen for a lot of this movie. He's fine in his role, but it's one of those roles that uses a star name to play a character vital to events without having to pay them more for being in more of the runtime. Sadly, none of the younger cast members are as good as Kilmer, with the best of the bunch being Aaron Ashmore. Martha MacIsaac is okay as the grumpy daughter, but Kyle Schmid and Steph Song are far too forgettable, making it hard to care during the moments that try to rack up the tension. Anne Marie Loder (billed as Anne Marie Deluise) is okay as another member of the core group at the camp, and Viv Leacock is good in the role of Bart, the guy who takes everyone up to the base by helicopter and then sticks around to try and help.

Mark A. Lewis directs capably enough, and there are some good gore effects used throughout that mix practical work and fairly decent CGI, but he's let down most by the script, which he co-wrote with Michael Lewis. The two writers seem to think that the core idea is strong enough to carry things along with no need for tension throughout most of the first half, forgetting that they should also scatter some more treats throughout, in the shape of either scares, gore gags, or, y'know, decent characterisation to have viewers invested in the third act.

That's not to say that they weren't almost correct though. Despite there not being much memorable here (from the cast to the score to the set-pieces), this still manages to be worth a watch, all thanks to the fact that it's a creepy-crawly creature feature. But it has nothing in it to warrant a revisit, and the sheer awfulness of the twist in the final act, which I won't spoil, almost undoes all of the good work.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.
Or just click on those links and go shopping for better movies. I win, you win.

Part of a poster that in no way represents the actual movie!

Friday 15 March 2019

Bridget Jones's Baby (2016)

Here we go again. With no disrespect intended to anyone involved, Bridget Jones's Baby is a sequel that feels like you have to see it out of a sense of obligation, as opposed to it being something you were really waiting on for years. It's much like the second film, which was a pale imitation of the first film, and that is both a positive and negative.

In case you couldn't tell from the vague title, Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger again, of course) finds herself pregnant. It usually takes two to tango but Bridget, as different as ever, has decided to complicate matters. The baby may have been fathered by Mark (Colin Firth again) OR a handsome American chap named Jack (Patrick Dempsey). Deciding not to tell either man about her lack of certainty, Bridget goes through her pregnancy while trying to keep her secret. Thankfully, she has a very accommodating doctor (Emma Thompson) willing to help her. But the truth will need to come out eventually. I know what viewers will be hoping to see happen by the time the end credits roll, but is that the kind of happy ending that Bridget can get?

Look, I've reviewed the first and second movie already, so the easiest thing to do here would be to copy bits from those reviews and place them here. The main characters of Bridget and Mark are essentially the same, just a bit older, and the comedy generally works, even during the times when it seems that Bridget is about to crumble under the weight of her situation.

Director Sharon Maguire, who helmed the first film, returns, and she has a better feel for the tone and characters than Beeban Kidron seemed to in the previous outing. It helps that she's working from a better script too, this time Helen Fielding and Dan Mazer are joined in the writing department by Thompson (which MAY help to explain why she almost steals the show with her few scenes but, then again, Thompson is just always that good). There aren't too many moments that are outright hilarious but there are plenty of little chuckles supplied in between the few bigger laughs.

Zellweger and Firth know their characters very well, and have always felt like perfect casting in those roles, so they slip back into things with ease. Dempsey is a great addition, considerate and caring and seemingly perfect in a way that very much irritates Firth's character, and I just mentioned Thompson almost stealing the show. The rest of the cast crop up for moments that show their characters are still around, Hugh Grant aside, so you once again get to see Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent, Sally Phillips, Shirley Henderson, James Callis, Jessica Hynes, Neil Pearson, Joanna Scanlan, and a few other familiar faces.

Still not as good as the first movie, this is a slight step up from the second film and at least provides a better ending to the Bridget Jones saga, as far as I'm concerned. I hope they can now leave these characters were they are. But I know I'll end up watching the next movie if they decide to make another one.


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

Thursday 14 March 2019

Serving Sara (2002)

There was a time when I thought that Matthew Perry should have done well in his film career. I always thought he was the funniest main member of the Friends cast (well . . . second to Lisa Kudrow) and he had a way of being cheeky while still remaining likeable. Sadly, you wouldn't know that from most of his film roles. It would be unfair to say that he kept picking duds. He obviously tried to stick with what was viewed as a winning formula, and I happen to like both Three To Tango and The Whole Nine Yards, but it soon became clear that his talent was best contained in episode form, as opposed to lead roles on the big screen.

Serving Sara, the tale of a process server (Perry) who tries to catch an elusive target (Sara, played by Elizabeth Hurley) until he is convinced by her that they should actually turn the tables on her scurrilous husband (Bruce Campbell), is far from the worst thing he has starred in. The plot is light enough to allow the leads space to have plenty of fun, there are some great line deliveries from Perry, and there's one sequence that seems specifically designed to get Elizabeth Hurley out of an everyday outfit and into something much more revealing (which is good news if you're a fan).

Director Reginald Hudlin does well enough, keeping things looking good enough to help viewers forget that most of the budget seems to have been spent on putting the cast together. There's nothing that stands out here, it's all just put together competently enough when it could have easily been a much lazier and sloppier film.

Writers Jay Scherick and David Ronn do a lot better here than they have done with many other entries in their filmography. Although weaker than many better comedies, I wouldn't have believed that this was from the same people who gave us National Security, Norbit, and Baywatch (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I actually rate that one about the same as this - and will always remind people of how easily pleased I can be).

But it's the cast who really help to keep this enjoyable throughout, even if Perry doesn't quite do enough to sell himself as a viable leading man. There may not be any chemistry between Perry and Hurley but they both always seem to be having fun, which helps a lot. Campbell is a lot of fun as the husband who wants to divorce his wife in a way that will leave him with all of his acquired wealth, and Cedric The Entertainer and Vincent Pastore are amusing as, respectively, the boss and competing colleague of Perry's character. Jerry Stiller pops up as a cop who is willing to offer helpful information for the right price, Terry Crews is the tough guy hired to ensure Campbell's character doesn't get served, and Amy Adams has a small amount of screentime as "the other woman".

Serving Sara is the kind of breezy comedy you may well find yourself catching on a TV channel one afternoon or evening. You then watch some of it, don't mind what you see, and watch some more, all the way to the end. Unless someone else picks up the remote control and presses the menu button to remind you of the better options playing on some of the other channels. It's inessential, it's forgettable, and it's perfectly passable comedy entertainment.


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

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Prime Time: The Club (1994)

The Club isn't a particularly terrifying, or original, horror film. It's a slick teen movie that peppers the runtime with moments attempting to show interesting character dilemmas and moments showing a grinning villain wisecracking as he dances around those who are in peril. Easy enough to forget, it somehow still has enough charm to make me want to save it from complete obscurity.

It's prom night. One couple (Kyle and Laura) are at a stage in their relationship when it looks like the best thing for them to do is go their separate ways. One couple (Amy and Evan) seem happy enough with one another, but there's a lecherous, and potentially dangerous, counsellor (Mr. Carver) to deal with. And one young man (Darren) is miserable enough to be considering suicide. The clocks stop at midnight, leaving these six characters alone and trying to figure out just what is going on, with a young man named John Rotman on hand to further mess with their minds.

Although director Brenton Spencer has a large body of TV work in his filmography, The Club is a rare non-TV feature for him, and the same goes for writer Robert C. Cooper (billed here without the middle initial). Perhaps that explains why this sometimes has a made-for-TV feel, but I can see it being potentially problematic when it came to raising the money for a horror film that wasn't part of a franchise heading downhill at this point. There are still genre gems to be found from this time but they're few and far between, with mainstream American horror feeling quite stagnant in the '90s, before the shot in the arm that came from Scream and the second shot that came from the success of The Blair Witch Project at the end of the decade.

The cast are a mixed bag. Rino Romano and Andrea Roth are a bit too bland as Evan and Amy, whereas Zack Ward and Kelli Taylor do better with their more troubled characters. Matthew Ferguson is okay in the role of Darren, although he's pretty much sidelined for most of the movie, with the exception of his one main scene, and the ever-enjoyable Kim Coates is as . . . enjoyable as ever in the role of Mr. Carver. J. H. Wyman (billed as Joel Wyner) is surprisingly good fun in the role of Rotman, although he only really comes into his own during the third act, when the script really lets him cut loose and become amusingly impish in almost every scene.

Although it takes a bit of time to get going, perhaps a bit too long for this kind of easy entertainment, The Club picks up enough after the opening third to at least keep viewers entertained until it's time for a few decent set-pieces. That's when you get some good practical effects and some fun confrontations that serve as practice runs for the real battles of wills to come during the grand finale.

Unlikely to make any top lists (unless it's something entitled "fairly enjoyable horror movies you may not have seen and could live without but just give them 90 minutes of your life anyway"), The Club is a decent little time-waster for the undemanding. It's no classic, and relatively bloodless, but it does exactly what it sets out to do.


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

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Captain Marvel (2019)

We've been here many times before. You'll have seen a lot of people singing the praises of Captain Marvel and just as many people calling it the worst film they've seen in years. The reality, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle.

Another origin story, but one that's a bit different from so many of the others that we've already been given by Marvel, this tells the story of a Kree Starforce member named Vers (Brie Larson), a young woman who may have once been a human being named Carol Danvers. The Kree are currently engaged in a war with the Skrulls, and one battle leads to Vers ending up on Earth in the 1990s. There she meets Nick Fury (a youth-enised Samuel L. Jackson), fights more Skrulls (they can take on the form of anyone they have seen), and starts trying to piece together her past on the way to fulfilling her potential future.

There's a lot to like here, but almost as much to dislike, and it's a shame that so many people on both sides of a dividing line completely separate from the actual quality of the movie itself have decided to use their stances to attempt to build up or tear down Captain Marvel (both the film and Larson).

Let me start with the good. The cast are almost uniformly fantastic, with Larson yet another perfect choice by Marvel. Jackson works very well alongside her, and there's a lot of fun to be had wondering just when he will need the eyepatch we're all so used to him wearing, and the other big names are Jude Law (a Kree warrior/mentor figure), Ben Mendelsohn (appearing in both Skrull and non-Skrull form), and Annette Bening (playing a scientist, a memory, and an incarnation of a Supreme Intelligence . . . it makes sense when you watch the movie). As good as they all are, there are also excellent supporting turns from Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar, portraying a mother and daughter who have a strong connection to Carol. In fact, Lynch and Akbar have some of the best moments with Larson that emphasise the empowering message of the movie.

Which leads me on to the next big plus point. Although this has been promoted with a message of positivity and strength for women, it also has plenty of other messages in the mix, with some that feel constant, and fairly standard in the realm of comic book movies, and one that feels very relevant, and very well-handled.

What else works? The humour, for the most part. There are numerous laughs to be had here, with targets ranging from the older tech of the '90s to the cuteness of a feline named Goose, but they're interspersed in a way that doesn't tip the balance away from the essence of the story - the superhero origin. There's also a great soundtrack, including big tunes from Elastica, Nirvana, and No Doubt. And then you have the world-building, with fans being allowed a nice sense of satisfaction as you see pieces being moved into place that have already been shown established in previous films.

Now to the bad stuff. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also helped to write the screenplay, seem as confused and unsure of themselves as the central character does. The opening act is a muddied and fractured collage of scenes that you know will have some context by the end of the film, which doesn't make the start any more enjoyable, and the ending is almost impossible to care about. You get a twist everyone knows is coming from the very start of the movie, you get a superhero up there with Superman (which means they're so powerful that there doesn't seem to be any real threat to them), and none of the action sequences are put together with the care and polish that we've come to expect from these movies in recent years. It's also a dull movie, in terms of both the light levels (unless they were projecting it incorrectly at my local IMAX) and the visual style. Things brighten up once we're on '90s Earth but other moments that should be treats for the eyeballs just don't feel all that spectacular or . . . shiny. And that soundtrack? As good as it is, only one song really works for the scene it is in. The rest feel either completely unnecessary or are just there to sell soundtracks and allow some viewers to enjoy a warm glow of nostalgia. The biggest mis-step may be the way a song is used in a third act fight scene, with no attempt made to at least match the rhythm of the visuals to the audio or actually use the song as part of the experience. It plays. People fight. That's all you can say about the scene.

Despite me sounding like a crotchety old man, I found enough here to have a good time at the cinema. And I'll buy Captain Marvel when it comes to shiny disc. There's a decent middle section, a nice nod to The French Connection, a pinch of The Right Stuff, a moving Stan Lee tribute, and a statement about heroism that proves more effective than many of the others (how many times do we really need to see Tony Stark have fun in his suit and defeat baddies before then feeling tortured and guilty?). It's not a terrible film, not at all. But it's not a great film either. Compared to many of the other Marvel movies, since they started their proper schedule of dominating the box office, it falls short. Not at the bottom of the pile, but maybe just below the other titles I would have ranked in the middle section.


The movie will be available to buy here.
Americans will be able to get it digitally here.

Monday 11 March 2019

Mubi Monday: Orlando (1992)

Written and directed by Sally Potter, adapting the book by Virginia Woolf, Orlando makes use of the androgynous form of Tilda Swinton in a lead role that allows her to command the screen for the majority of the runtime.

Swinton is the titular character, commanded by Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) to always stay as he is. "Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old." Remarkably, he manages to obey this command, with one major change happening many years later. On a journey that takes in love, art, politics, and more, Orlando wakes up one morning as a woman, which brings another viewpoint and some extra problems.

Difficult to review, Orlando is a well-made, intelligent, and interesting film. But it's also one that, much like the main character, just seems a bit too aloof, slightly disconnected from anything else (it certainly didn't connect with me, I'm afraid).

The script is full of enjoyable lines, as fans of Woolf would expect, and Potter does a great job of wrestling what could have been a troublesome sprawling narrative into something surprisingly straightforward, despite the gender change that occurs about halfway through. Although I am unfamiliar with the source material, a phrase I am aware that I use all too often nowadays, but the episodic structure, whether from the book or decided upon by Potter, feels like the best way it could have been done.

Swinton is as good as ever in the main role, although it's still harder to find her convincing in the male role than it is in the female role, something that could have been improved by some more work on the hair and make-up. Not to insult fans of her performances, but she plays up the androgyny better than she plays up any perceived male traits, as silly as that may sound. Crisp is wonderful in his royal role, a fitting one for someone of his stature in the LGBTQ+ community, and singer Jimmy Somerville (arguably best known for the hit song "Don't Leave Me This Way" when he was the front man in The Communards) pops up to impress with his vocal range. Charlotte Valandrey is a potential love interest for male Orlando, Billy Zane is a potential love interest for the female incarnation, John Wood is good value in the role of an Archduke who thinks very highly of Orlando, and there are small roles for Heathcote Williams, Toby Stephens, and more (including Toby Jones, although his appearance is fleeting).

This is a good film, in many ways, and there are people who will find more of value in it than I did. It just didn't ever fully click into place for me, despite the sure hand of Potter and the many solid performances from her assembled cast.


Buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.