Monday 30 September 2019

Mubi Monday: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Perhaps most easily viewed as the antithesis of Brief Encounter, this look at love, marriage, sex, and loss oozes quality from start to finish. It might look dreary throughout, a deliberate choice, and the exploration of the main themes may be quite depressing, but it's a fantastic showcase for the talents of the oft-overlooked Rachel Weisz.

Weisz is Hester Collyer, a young woman stuck in a marriage to Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) that doesn't satisfy her. This is her excuse for beginning an affair with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a dashing RAF pilot who is trying to make the most of his time after doing his part to help win the war. Unfortunately, Freddie isn't as committed to the relationship as Hester, although how much of Hester's contribution comes from love, how much is lust, and how much from a sense of duty is hard to tell, especially as her husband, who has refused to give her a divorce, does his bit to allow her a way back to her marriage.

Based on the play by the prolific Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea is directed by Terence Davies, who adapted the material for the screen, in a way that dances between the big outbursts and the quieter moments of sadness. It mimics the extreme highs and lows of such a relationship, and does so without inadvertently turning the whole thing into some kind of parody of this kind of thing. That's easier said than done, considering the oh-so-Britishness of it all, the difference between what characters try not to say in public and what they shout aloud in relative privacy, and the old-fashioned values at the heart of it (and, no, those values are not shown as necessarily being any good).

When I mentioned Weisz being oft-overlooked I was mainly referring to my own view of her, but I also don't see her praised enough by film fans when general discussions are taking place. That's a shame, because she's almost always very good. Her skill is particularly noticeable here, playing a woman who feels the need to supplicate herself as she tries to keep hold of a man she loves, even though he doesn't feel things as strongly as she does. Hiddleston works well in the opposite role, happily revealing a colder and more cruel persona as he tries to distance himself, all juxtaposed alongside the sweeter moments in which he uses his charm and attractive smirking ways. Beale also does very well, taking on the least interesting of the three lead roles and allowing his character to regain your sympathy once his initial anger has abated.

It would have been very easy to push everyone here to go bigger, to take every scene to a point at which it starts to hammer you over the head, but Davies is the right person for the material, keeping things nicely quiet and underplayed throughout, the occasional Hiddeleston outburst aside (and I don't think anyone can keep Hiddleston from having an occasional outburst).


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

Sunday 29 September 2019

Netflix And Chill: Creep 2 (2017)

A lot of people loved Creep when it first appeared in 2014. I can definitely see the positives. It was independent cinema done right, in terms of main characters and the blend of naturalistic performances and everything feeling a bit off, but it also suffered from a couple of major flaws. Like so many other found footage movies, it was hard to buy into the fact that someone would keep filming while things started to get crazier. And it was just a bit too lightweight.

Creep 2 feels like a far superior sequel, despite having made the smallest of changes to the concept. Mark Duplass is back in the main role, calling himself Aaron, a serial killer who seems to derive more pleasure from the build up to the murders than the actual act itself. He has hired someone this time around, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), to document what he says will be his final video. And so begins the mind games.

I can't quite put my finger on the reasons why, but this felt easier to buy into than the first film The character of Sara is someone desperate to try and boost the viewing figures of her small internet show, so the combination of the fee and watching something play out that may draw some good traffic makes her feel like someone who can tolerate more nonsense than other people may put up with. There's also the fact that we now know the main character, unless you decided to go wild and watch this without having seen the first movie. We know that he IS a killer, and that is also clarified in the opening scene here (which basically gives a good reminder of his M.O. and manner within the first few minutes).

Director Patrick Brice has less to worry about here, not being also onscreen as he was in the first movie, and that also seems to factor in. Despite working from an outline (by Brice and Duplass), and despite the fast and loose improvised nature of most of the scenes, this feels like a tighter film all round.

It helps that there's a better, stranger, dynamic between the leads here. Duplass is still as excellent as he was in the first film, often coming close to being gleeful as he peppers his lies with some complete honesty that the person recording him just doesn't believe, and Akhavan (who has done great work on the other side of the camera, having written and directed the excellent The Miseducation Of Cameron Post) proves to be a surprisingly good match, becoming more and more intrigued by her subject as he shows more and more of his . . . oddness.

If you enjoyed Creep then you're going to enjoy this. More importantly, you may enjoy this even if you didn't enjoy the first one that much. The construction of the film may be enough to put some off, but the performance from Duplass alone makes this a brilliant watch, and he's created one of the best new killers in the past decade. What's more impressive is that he's managed it simply by being a brilliant actor.


Creep and Creep 2 are both on Netflix. A perfect little double-bill to warm you up for your October horror movie viewings.

Saturday 28 September 2019

Shudder Saturday: Hell House LLC III: Lake Of Fire (2019)

The third film in what is, to me, one of the best set of found footage movies around, Hell House LLC III: Lake Of Fire may also prove to be the best point at which to end the series (although I am sure that others think that should have happened after the first film).

Once again written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, the Abaddon Hotel is open for business yet again, this time due to be the setting of a theatrical riff on Faust, put on by the rich and successful Russell Wynn (Gabriel Chytry). The preparation for the experience, which will take audiences on a journey through the hotel, is recorded by a local reporter, Vanessa Shepherd (Elizabeth Vermilyea) and her small team. And it's not long until strange things begin happening.

Not quite as good as the second film, but still a step ahead of the first, "Lake Of Fire" works best when it's being nothing more than a series of brilliant, and creepy, scare moments. I can absolutely understand why people may prefer the slightly more subtle approach of the first film, but things have improved for me ever since that first story was out of the way, allowing Cognetti to push onwards and upwards with tales of the hotel and recurring nightmare imagery.

Okay, this is not going to win any awards for the writing or the acting, or anything else really. I didn't really enjoy the performance from Chytry, who doesn't bring enough to the role to make up for the fact that the script gives him almost no depth at all, but Vermilyea at least did better, and was someone worth rooting for. The only other person to mention is Sam Kazzi, as a producer trying to hide away the worst things that happen on the way to opening night. Kazzi does alright, and is at least more memorable than some of the others onscreen. This is a film that adds more characters to the main storyline without giving them anything to do beyond being targeted in main scare scenes.

Here's the thing though, I am not too bothered by that. When the scares are as well done as they are here (e.g. an initial chilling encounter with some clown figures that provided plenty of chills in the last two movies) then it helps to forgive all manner of failings.

Cognetti definitely tries, but he can't do enough to flesh out the cast while setting up all of the plot points that he wants in place by the grand finale, all in between the spine-chilling set-pieces. Ideally, a slightly longer runtime could have been used effectively to spend more time with different characters, although he's also constrained by the "found footage" format. His biggest mis-step comes towards the end of the whole thing, where he decides to make a few decisions that a) feel out of character for this series, and b) feel far too contrived as he attempts to tie everything up in a way that connects all three movies and provides an all-too-neat ending to the whole tale.

Ending aside, which is still good enough, if not what I personally wanted, this is an excellent little horror movie, and I hope they leave the Hell House movies alone now that we have a damn fine trilogy. I'll definitely be keen to see what Cognetti gets up to next.


Hell House LLC III: Lake Of Fire is currently streaming on Shudder, and that new Creepshow series just launched, AND they have Tigers Are Not Afraid, so now is a good time to bag that free trial.

Friday 27 September 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Okay, I cannot really formulate my thoughts on this film in a way that makes sense, but I'm going to try my best to explain myself. A lot of Bohemian Rhapsody is quite rubbish. It is laughable that the film won an Academy Award for best editing, especially when you can highlight some key sequences that wouldn't look out of place in a Paul W. S. Anderson movie. It is a "greatest hits" version of the history of Queen, and the life of charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury. It's a family-friendly rock opera, in a way, with the mix of humour, tragedy, and elation you can expect from such a thing. And yet . . . that doesn't stop it from being a bloody good time. The highlights are absolutely goosebump-inducing, and easily impressive enough to make up for the weaker aspects.

Rami Malek is Freddie, in a performance absolutely deserving of all the praise heaped upon him, as well as his win at the 2019 Oscars. He becomes the lynchpin of Queen, with the talent of Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello). He also develops a life-long relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), constantly astounds the band manager (Aidan Gillen) with his vision, and his ability to make that vision into a fan-pleasing reality, and enjoys gently mocking the lawyer that they have in their corner, Jim 'Miami' Beach (Tom Hollander). And, as the start of the film makes abundantly clear (as does the advertising imagery and any trailers you may have seen), it all leads to a legendary live performance at Live Aid in 1985.

Directed by Bryan Singer (but with the whole thing finished in the last few weeks by Dexter Fletcher after Singer had gone AWOL for a while), Bohemian Rhapsody is almost exactly what you want it to be. As long as you want it to be a fun time in the company of Queen. The screenplay, written by Anthony McCarten, is more concerned with keeping viewers entertained and in high spirits than it is with providing a story that feels grounded in the truth. Even the moments that really happened just feel so unreal, so apocryphal, that it never allows the film to feel like anything more than a rocking fairytale.

It's a good job that Malek is uncannily good in the main role, and that you have Gillen and Hollander to look out for, because none of the other main cast members do anything worthwhile. Well, none of the cast members portraying members of Queen anyway. Lee, Hardy, and Mazzello are poorly treated in a storyline that serves as nothing more than a testament to someone they obviously loved. The sad thing is that you get the feeling that everyone deserved something a bit better, even if that meant showing more of the low points and exploring just what would drive the band, individually and together. Boynton is the other person who actually manages to make an impact, thanks to both her performance and the fact that she is the only character in the film given any hint of depth.

Please believe me when I say that I am not being snobbish (and people who know the wide variety of films I watch will know I am no film snob) by saying that this is quite rubbish, and quite rubbish in oh so many ways. Yet, despite the myriad flaws, it's easy to see why it's a crowd-pleaser. You get all of those familiar Queen songs, you get a number of great moments, and you get a finale that is up there with the best I can think of, in terms of making you want to stamp your feet, throw your fist in the air, and vicariously join in with one of the greatest live performances of all time.


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

Thursday 26 September 2019

Ad Astra (2019)

Is it sheer coincidence that exactly twenty years ago Brad Pitt played a man who commanded an army of "space monkeys"and now, in Ad Astra, he has a moment in which he actually encounters a space monkey? It probably is, but I like to think not. Because while Fight Club (which featured Pitt as Tyler Durden and his space monkeys) delved into the recesses of a dangerous and destructive mind, Ad Astra takes viewers on a journey that shows part of what it takes to keep exploring the further outreaches of our universe. Captain Marvel may have been sold with the tagline "Higher. Further. Faster." but the same applies here.

Pitt is an astronaut named Roy McBride, and a damn fine one at that. Nothing really phases him, as we hear near the start of the movie when those appraising his health comment on how low his heart rate remains, even in more stressful times. He's divorced, explaining this to others with a resigned acknowledgement that his job is not an easy one on anyone who would be waiting at home for him, and has no strong connection to anyone, so it would seem, which makes him an ideal candidate for a mission that involves him travelling to try and contact his father (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut assumed dead many years ago when no further communication was received from him.

Starting with a huge power surge, the main event that serves as the motivator for the main mission, Ad Astra then settles in to what it ultimately is. It's the thoughts of a man pushing himself, both physically and mentally, in order to discover what else lies out there in our universe, be that answers we have been seeking for centuries or nothing. There's a possibility that the only thing beyond the stars is more space. A void. Which would then serve as a reminder that there are many journeys we can all make on our home planet, within our own minds and bodies.

Director James Gray, who also co-wrote the script with Ethan Gross, wants to deliberately slow things down. Space travel, especially over the kind of distances shown here, is often imagined as sleek and quick and easy. But it's really not. It's a long time spent waiting, often alone with your thoughts and the vastness of space around you. Moments of crisis may punctuate the relative monotony, but even those aren't film-friendly crescendos. They are emergencies only until things are stabilised, and then it's business as usual. The film reflects this, locking viewers in with Pitt's character, he is still for many sections of the film and we hear his thoughts in voiceover narration, but it also realises the environments with some top-notch CGI.

Although you get decent supporting turns from Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, and Jones, of course, this film rests very much on the shoulders of Pitt and, in much the same way he has been stealthily and steadily improving with almost every movie he's done in his career, it's a superb central performance. The film may still be too slow and ponderous for some, and perhaps Gray realised that such a different look at the stars would need a major star at the centre of everything. What better surface to show reflected starlight on than a different kind of starlight.

Two main sequences disappoint, one at the halfway mark and some beats during the third act, but, overall, Ad Astra is a welcome slice of intelligent sci-fi that shows how much outer space can relate to our deepest inner space.


You will be able to buy the movie here.
And American sci-fi fans may enjoy this book.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Prime Time: Strictly Sexual (2008)

I was fortunate enough, if you can call it that, to spy this title when I was browsing Amazon Prime for a viewing choice this week. Wondering if it would be some kind of sex comedy based in the world of shows like Strictly Come Dancing, I decided to look at some of the details. I saw that it starred Amber Benson, a name that rang a bell. "Oh," said my wife, who had been watching me in amusement as I rushed to my usual stance of firm indecision, "she was Willow's girlfriend in Buffy, and she was in that film you watched that had her mourning Ron Jeremy." My wife retains some bizarre snippets in her brain, and is rarely wrong. Today was no exception. I had enjoyed Benson in both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and One-Eyed Monster. And so the decision was made.

It was a bad decision.

There's a core idea here that could have been decent. The basic plot concerns two women (Donna, played by Benson, and Christi Ann, played by Kristen Kerr) who decide to head out and pick up a couple of male prostitutes. They end up picking up Joe (Johann Urb) and Stanny (Stevie Long), two men who ARE NOT male prostitutes, but could do with the money when it comes up in post-coital conversation. This leads to the women agreeing to an arrangement that should benefit them all. They will let the men stay in their pool house, where they can enjoy an easy life in between any time they are called upon for sex. But, as we've seen explored in movies many times before, can sex without feelings ever really last as a good thing?

I'd be interested to see what this material could have looked like, filtered through a female gaze. Director Joel Viertel doesn't manage to keep things balanced, although he's definitely held back by the script, which was written by Long (something that seems so obvious now, considering how his character is viewed throughout the film . . . let's just say that he's most definitely packaged as the wise alpha male). One or two amusing exchanges aside, Strictly Sexual does nothing to make the characters engaging enough, or even make the conversations and dynamics more interesting.

Benson does okay, hampered by the fact that her character quickly turns into someone who turns on those around her, especially when she suspects that she's about to catch a dose of icky feelings. She's the best of the bunch anyway. Kerr and Urb are a bit weak, but it's Long who really throws off the balance. If his writing is . . . problematic, to put it as kindly as I can, then his acting makes it all a lot worse. Although far from the worst actor I have seen in movies, the combination of his poor performance and poor dialogue makes almost every minute that he's onscreen slightly painful.

In summation, Strictly Sexual is a film that desperately wants to present itself as something honest, modern, and risqué. Unfortunately, it begins to spiral early on, nosediving into a mire of overdone melodrama and false-sounding attempts to sound cool and progressive that it never recovers from.


There's an overpriced DVD that Americans can buy here.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Waterworld (1995)

If there was one movie that came to symbolise the excess, and potential waste, of blockbuster movie productions of the 1990s, it was Waterworld. Supplying cinema fans with plenty of gossip before we'd even seen one main scene, it was the film that caused more strife between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, the film that had the biggest budget of all time (until James Cameron gave us Titanic, which then opened the floodgates, no pun intended, for budgets to go up and up and up), and the film that allowed everyone to (unfairly, in my view) knock Costner down a peg or two.

The sad thing is that the film itself, without taking everything else into consideration, is actually pretty good. I'd go so far as to call it a great action adventure. But that's easy to forget when the final product has been long overshadowed by that troubled reputation.

The plot is pretty simple. Costner plays the Mariner, a lone traveller on an Earth that has long been covered in a deluge of water, so much so that any notion of dry land is nothing more than a legend. But one little girl (Enola, played by Tina Majorino) may have the location of dry land, in the form of a skin tattoo, and she ends up on the Mariner's boat, along with her guardian, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). This makes them of interest to a marauding gang, the Smokers, and their leader, Deacon (Dennis Hopper).

I thought long and hard about this, I think long and hard about every statement I make in my reviews (even if it doesn't appear that way), and I stand by the fact that Waterworld MAY be a contender for the best physically-realised movie environment onscreen. A lot of the screentime is taken up by our leads floating on the water, true, but there's an astonishing atoll set that is the focus of the action in the opening third of the film, fantastic design work on the main vehicle that belongs to Costner's character, and a wonderful reappropriation of the Exxon Valdez as a main HQ for the villains. There's not one moment in this movie that takes you out of it, in terms of the look and the production design, no matter how silly some of the plotting may be.

The script, by Peter Rader and David Twohy, may be little more than Mad Max on water, but that's not a bad thing to aim for when you're out to deliver some post-apocalyptic, stunt-filled, action. And everything is directed well by whichever Kevin you want to give the most credit to. This may have been the most expensive movie of all time, for a while, but you have to admit that you can see pretty much every dollar onscreen (well . . . apart from the thousands of dollars that it cost for every night that Costner stayed in his villa, which also had a chef and butler, apparently). Every set-piece is grand and impressive, without tipping over into the overdone and tiresome style we so often see in modern movies that have no limits on the spectacles they can provide, thanks to the computer tools at their disposal.

None of the cast members are doing their best work, but neither are they doing any of their worst. Costner does the strong and silent type well, Tripplehorn does as much as she can while not being given a lot to do, and Hopper is just about as fun a villain as you could wish for in this kind of fare (a scene with him trying out a replacement eye still makes me laugh harder than many big gags in comedy films). Majorino acts well opposite the adults, Michael Jeter is fun in a small role, and Gerard Murphy is another crafty villain in league with Hopper and co. The list of people in much smaller roles also includes a number of familiar faces: Leonardo Cimino, Robert Joy, Jack Black, Kim Coates, and one or two others.

Does it have flaws? It sure does. It's overlong, even in the shortest version available, it often misses the mark when it comes to the moments that aren't full of action, the computer effects, when on display, are mid-90s computer effects, and the ending is, well, it's a bit anti-climactic. But none of that is enough to spoil a movie that aims to provide viewers with a thrilling cinematic adventure. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it in years, then do check it out.  Maybe you'll agree with my opinion of it. Maybe enough time has passed, and the tide has turned for Waterworld.


You can buy this fantastic set here.

Monday 23 September 2019

Mubi Monday: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

Note - this review originally appeared over on

Edgar Wright returned to the director’s chair with his first big American picture and produced another hugely entertaining modern classic that put him at three for three.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a twenty-something slacker dating a high schooler (Knives Chau, played by Ellen Wong) and playing in a band, Sex Bob-Omb. When he falls in love with the beautiful and aloof Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) it certainly looks like things are on the up and up, especially with Sex Bob-Omb finally moving from playing in a living room to taking part in a local battle of the bands. Things get complicated, however, when it transpires that Ramona has seven evil exes and Scott has to fight each one of them if he wants to keep her in his life.

Although it’s based on a series of graphic novels, Edgar Wright has here shown how to make the very best videogame movie possible. The structure, at heart, is the standard “beat each successively harder end-of-level boss” and the movie is full of great videogame references and audio and visual gags. Basically, Wright does for videogames with this movie what he did for action flicks in Hot Fuzz and zombie movies in Shaun Of The Dead.

The script, based on the original work by Brian Lee O’Malley and co-written by Michael Bacall and Wright himself, is chock full of great lines and you’re never more than mere seconds away from a great gag.

The direction, as fans such as myself would expect, is superb. With the design and look of the thing inspired both by the graphic novels and numerous videogames everything is eye-catching and every frame is full of little details for you to catch up with on repeat viewings (as was also the case with Wright’s previous two movies). The execution of the comedy is something completely unsurprising but what IS an eye-opener is the choreography and shooting style of each of the big fight sequences. Wright uses visual FX and editing to add energy and impact but he also takes time to showcase some great physical action, providing us with some of the best mainstream kick-ass fun since . . . . . . . . . . . well, I don’t know when. The Expendables, The A-Team, and The Losers were the more straightforward, and hugely enjoyable, action movies of 2010 but Scott Pilgrim, uber-geek that he is, fights his way up to earn a deserved spot right beside them.

As for the cast, there is nobody here who disappoints and it’s a testament to the quality from beginning to end that I can’t write this review without wanting to mention some highlight relating to every single main character onscreen. Michael Cera’s effortless geek persona fits perfectly with his character, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is cool and sexy and Ellen Wong is just as cute as a button. Kieran Culkin puts yet another great, fun role in his growing catalogue of great, fun roles and Anna Kendrick cements her reputation as someone to keep an eye on. The band members (Mark Webber, Alison Pill and Johnny Simmons) are a great bunch with Alison Pill providing the most entertainment as feisty girl drummer, Kim. And then we have the numerous evil exes – Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Keita Saitou and Shota Saito and last, but by no means least, Jason Schwartzman – each one with their own quirky style and each one necessitating a special, super duper finishing move. Chris Evans and Brandon Routh stand out as major highlights but that’s not really a fair statement because every major character and set-piece brings something memorable to the proceedings.

I feel like I’ve missed something out now, some great comment on the superb dialogue or some praise for one of the actors or even talk about the soundtrack (which I actually DID forget to mention despite how energetic and great it is), but that’s just because Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is so good that you want to praise every aspect of it. It just falls short of being perfect but it’s easily one of the very best, and most entertaining, films of 2010.


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

Sunday 22 September 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Debt Collector (2018)

It's a shame that the unrelenting march of technology also comes with a few downsides. There are the obvious issues, to do with identity, security, predators, and trolls. But there are some other things that it is easy to forget about. And one of those things is the relative dearth of the kind of movies that would appear "straight to video" and provide perfect, uncomplicated, entertainment for those in the right frame of mind. You have ninety minutes, you have food and/or snacks, and you want a bit of action. Most blockbusters nowadays tend towards the two-hour mark, even if you're getting your fix of fights from someone like Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson, and there aren't many that aren't part of some ongoing franchise (be it the bigger titles you always see cropping up or the lesser titles that have more sequels than you knew about, such as The Scorpion King movies and The Marine series).

So take a moment to appreciate the ass-kicking skills of Scott Adkins, here teaming up once again with director Jesse V. Johnson to deliver the kind of solid action fare that perfectly scratches that itch you didn't realise you wanted help with.

Adkins is French, a martial artist struggling to make his business a financial success. To make himself some extra money, he gets a job as a debt collector. Paired up with a veteran of the job, Sue (Louis Mandylor), it's not long until French is being tested against a number of muscular guys who are employed to protect their bosses from any harm. Things get even worse when French and Sue are given a job that involves someone who has double-crossed a gangster boss named Barbosa (Tony Todd).

I'm not going to try and make this sound like any kind of masterpiece. It's a film developed to showcase some fight scenes for Adkins, nothing more and nothing less, and the fight scenes are very well shot, always being both entertaining and believably painful. The script, co-written by Johnson and Stu Small (who previously worked with both director and star on their previous outing, the even more enjoyable Accident Man), has enough amusing banter between Adkins and Mandylor, makes it clear that our hero has a slightly better calibrated moral compass, and sets everything up to be unleashed in a super-violent finale. Basically, it does everything you need it to do.

I'm not sure what exactly has held Adkins back slightly over the years, whether it's his delivery of dialogue or his past choices, but this could be his best role yet. It allows him to show a more well-rounded character than some of his other roles, and there are some good running gags with people lightly mocking him as they underestimate his combat skills. Mandylor works reasonably well alongside him, although the film does him a disservice by adding some backstory details that weren't really required, and Todd is very well-suited to his character, one who exudes an air of menace even from his first moments onscreen. Vladimir Kulich is fine, playing the boss of Adkins and Mandylor, and there's an all-too-small role for Michael Paré.

There are better action movies out there, there are better Adkins movies out there, but there isn't the range of these kinds of movies that we used to be able to find, so I recommend this one for those who want to encourage those involved to make more. You know what you're letting yourself in for, and you get exactly that.


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

Saturday 21 September 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Girl In The Photographs (2015)

Although not all horror movies need to fit nicely into a narrowly-defined genre pigeonhole, some films seem to make their biggest mistake in being far too non-committal to the genre. They want to be a thriller, or they want to be too funny, or they want to concentrate on some more serious dramatic elements. None of these things are wrong, depending on your movie, but they feel wrong when placed in a horror movie framework that you think has been reluctantly chosen by a director who couldn't figure out another approach.

The Girl In The Photographs is one of those movies. It's a thriller, for the most part, and a fairly standard one, but you get a bit more nastiness here and some gore in the finale. It's not enough, however, to distract you from the weak script, lack of logic, and poor acting from almost everyone involved (including/especially Kal Penn).

The standard plot sees a young woman (Colleen, played by Claudia Lee) targeted by some sick kidnappers/killers. They keep leaving her photos of their latest victim, photos that somehow show things clearly enough to be upsetting without giving away anything that could help the police. An arrogant photographer (Peter Hemmings, played by Penn) finds out about this, assumes that the psycho is homaging his work, and decides to head back to his home town, thinking he may lure the killer out and solve the case (yes, the plan is as dumb as it sounds).

Nick Simon doesn't have too many features to his credit, as director, but perhaps the most telling thing about his filmography is the fact that 2 Lava 2 Lantula! seems to be one of his better outings. He also helped write this script, alongside Oz Perkins and Robert Morast, and it's worth wondering just how well this could have turned out if it had been shaped by the singular, and more assured, vision of Perkins (who has built up a small, but acclaimed, filmography that has him marked out as a not-inconsiderable talent). From the character moments to the tonal slides, this film is one hell of a mess. Some people will still be able to enjoy it, messiness and all. I did not.

The performances really don't help either. Lee isn't too bad in her role, and there are some okay supporting turns here and there, but it's the bigger names who throw the film further out of balance. As much as I tend to like him onscreen, Penn is giving the worst performance I have ever seen from him here. He's a mix of Austin Powers (in standard photographer mode) and whoever you have met in your life that turned out to be the most irritating asshole you never wanted to meet again. Katharine Isabelle is onscreen just enough to remind you of how wonderful she is, and how the film would be much better if she was in the lead role (no offence intended to Lee, it's just . . . Katharine Isabelle), and Mitch Pileggi feels like he's only cast to make viewers go "do I know him? I think I know him, oh wait, that's him from The X-Files, isn't it?" That may seem unfair to Pileggi, who is just a working actor keeping himself in work, but his role feels just a bit too minor for him to be in it, which is what makes it feel even more like a simple case of distracting stunt casting.

I was almost more generous here with my rating, considering the things that seem perfectly okay, on a technical level, but the more I thought about it, the more I found to dislike. I don't want to mention the other performances, that range from the bland to the awful. I don't want to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who acts as if they were too worried about making an outright horror movie while being too inexperienced to make a cracking thriller. And I don't want to spend more time on a movie that felt like a waste of 95 minutes already.


The movie is currently available on Shudder, but I'd recommend picking something else on there instead.

Friday 20 September 2019

The HIlls Have Eyes Part II (1984)

Wes Craven gave horror fans two movies in 1984. One was the slasher classic, the birth of a new icon, A Nightmare On Elm Street. The other one was this, a very different kind of slasher, and a film not considered one of his best (to put it mildly).

A group of friends travel across some desert land as they try to get themselves to a bike race. Having got their timing wrong, it soon becomes clear that they need to take a shortcut if they want to get there on time. And that is how they end up in territory being overseen by members of the cannibal family last seen in The Hills Have Eyes. You'd think that the area might be a bit safer now, with most of the family seemingly dealt with by the end of the first movie, but that's not the case. There is still a very real threat there, thanks to Pluto (Michael Berryman) and a character known as The Reaper (John Bloom).

There are two big mistakes made here (not including the infamous moment in which we see the flashback of a dog). The first is deciding to connect this to the first one in ways that were unnecessary. Craven obviously wanted to say something interesting about those who survive such a traumatic experience, but it's a wasted bit of commentary, with the surviving character of Bobby (Robert Houston) simply used as a lead in to the events, and Rachel (Janus Blythe) too easily "tamed" after first being shown as Ruby in the original movie. The second big mistake is taking too long to set everything up in the first half of the movie. This is not a long film, it clocks in under the 90-minute mark, but it feels longer, mainly thanks to the uninspired mix of thin characterisations and flashbacks that make up the opening act.

Berryman and Bloom are both good in their roles, although Berryman isn't as good here as he was the first time around (made slightly less threatening and more pathetic this time), and they certainly fare better than the crowd of young folk who we're supposed to be rooting for, nominally led by Cass (a blind woman played by Tamara Stafford) and Roy (Kevin Spirtas). John Laughlin, Willard E. Pugh, Peter Frechette, Colleen Riley, and Penny Johnson Jerald are given far too little to work with, aside from one or two decent death scenes, and even Blythe suffers at the hands of a poor script that sets her character up to be more interesting than it is allowed to be.

Having said that, the film is not without some charm for fans of simple slasher fare. The larger cast means that you just know there are due to be at least a couple of extra death scenes, there's a score from Harry Manfredini that works well (even if, or because, it feels like it could have been lifted from any Friday The 13th movie), and Craven tries to put all of the pieces in place for a satisfying finale. He doesn't succeed . . . but at least he tries.

Far from essential viewing, this now sits as one of those many films dismissed by horror genre fans that isn't quite as bad as its reputation might suggest, but it's also not one that deserves to be reappraised as any kind of misunderstood classic. It's a weak sequel, mainly due to a weak script from Craven (and the fact that he was only given enough of a budget to film about two thirds of what he actually wanted to film), but those after a bit of dumb fun could do a lot worse.


You can buy the movie in a super-duper edition here.

Thursday 19 September 2019

The Other Side Of The Door (2016)

Why do people so stubbornly avoid adhering to the rules when given supernatural solutions to their problems? Probably because we'd have a shocking lack of horror movies otherwise. It often makes it easy to know where horror movies are going. Here, for example, it's easy to observe the tale of a grieving mother being offered one last chance to speak to her son and know that when she is told that she can only speak to him through a certain door, and must never ever open that door, that she's absolutely going to end up opening that door (hence the title).

Sarah Wayne Callies is that mother, Maria. She was involved in a car accident that led to the death of her son (Oliver, played by Logan Crenan), made even worse by the fact that she managed to save her daughter (Lucy, played by Sofia Rosinsky). Some months later, Maria is still tormented, her husband (Michael, played by Jeremy Sisto) doesn't know how to help her, and she attempts suicide. And that's when she is told about the one way that could allow her to say some final words to her son. The door, the one that she shouldn't try to open.

When I saw the trailer for The Other Side Of The Door I was left decidedly unimpressed. It looks pretty predictable, similar to almost every other mainstream horror movie released over the past few years, and uninteresting. Strangely enough, it IS all of those things, and yet I still ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected to. At this point, I suspect I am maybe ready to automatically give a bonus point or two to any horror movie that isn't a remake, sequel, or connected to The Conjuring universe.

I will also tend to give a bonus point to anything directed, as this is, by Johannes Roberts, who also co-wrote the script with Ernest Riera (continuing their working relationship that has been working well for over a decade now). Roberts is one of the better genre directors out there, even if he doesn't always get the budgets to match his vision (as was the case with Storage 24), and this is another case of him doing solid work with ideas that are both derivative and still full of potential. The plotting and scares may be predictable enough, but they're all nicely handled, and you get some more impressive visuals dotted in between the standard grab bag of spooky CGI tricks.

Callies does well in the lead role here. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that this is her best work in years, thanks to the strength of her performance when in absolute misery before things start going all supernatural and tense. Rosinsky is also very good, playing a young girl who takes strange new circumstances in her stride, and Sisto does just fine as the husband/father kept out of the way for the many scenes when his presence won't help the engineered scares. Suchitra Pillai is the character who helps to direct the main character towards the door that leads to so many problems. It's a thankless role, many viewers will be waiting for her inevitable fate, but she does as well as can be expected in the role.

I'm not going to oversell this, the imagery and jumps are as enjoyable as they are familiar, but I am surprised that more people haven't given it a chance. Stemming from such a moment of pain and trauma that it is easy to identify with (even if I hope most viewers identify with it from a distance), this is a horror movie with a little bit more emotional weight to it than most. And I tentatively recommend it to horror fans who don't mind their genre fare occasionally being a bit glossy and slickly packaged for mainstream audiences.


There's an American disc available here, otherwise you can rent/buy the movie digitally.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Prime Time: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970)

It's worth noting that the Prime Time choices for the past couple of weeks have been all thanks to Rebecca Booth and Mark Cain, who are involved with the United Nations Of Horror podcast (both together), The Good The Bad & The Odd podcast (mainly Mark, although Rebecca has contributed), and House Of Leaves publishing (Rebecca), as well as numerous other projects. I listen to a wide variety of podcasts, and read many great writers (as well as *ahem* doing my own stuff), but felt that these two recent blog posts were so directly drawn from comments made by Rebecca and Mark that the least I could do was mention them.

A tale of a very dysfunctional family unit, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly focuses on those four characters, the games they play, and the guests that they keep in their home. Their new friend is a man (Michael Bryant) who soon starts to learn how best to play the games he is forced to partake in, and also starts to figure out how he can possibly play individuals off one another while he keeps himself safe from harm.

Directed by British stalwart Freddie Francis (who gave us so many treats scattered throughout his filmography), and written by Brian Comport (who only wrote less than half a dozen features, but gets kudos for this alone), what you get here is a wonderfully British slice of murderous madness. Think of it as The Country Estate Has Eyes and you're not too far away from the vibe of the whole thing. It's interesting that so many of these movies popped up in British cinema throughout the late '60s and all throughout the next decade, but most of them are either forgotten or dismissed. That's a shame, because they're all a natural progression from the kitchen sink dramas that still get plenty of praise heaped upon them to this day.

While this was based on a play by Maisie Mosco, it somehow feels both completely unique and yet also an inevitable addition to a range of films that include, but are not limited to, the likes of Straight On Till Morning, Demons Of The Mind, any number of Pete Walker films, and even the sci-fi horror weirdness of films like Prey and X-tro. There are many others I could bring up here, films that either mix the scares with the apparently quintessentially British way of being very well-mannered about every inconvenience, films that give us Brits some homegrown families that slay together while staying together, but I'm not attempting to completely diverge from this main review. Suffice to say, it's worth digging into the subject.

Getting back to this, the four main characters are played by, in titular order, Ursula Howells, Pat Heywood, Howard Trevor, and Vanessa Howard. And I've already mentioned Bryant as the new playmate for them. All of them do very well in their roles, with each member of the quartet feeling equally cheery and dangerous at all times, and Bryant suitably bemused before his sense of self-preservation kicks in and he starts catching on to every main cue. Vanessa Howard arguably steals the scenes, thanks to Girly being the most interesting character to watch, in the way her mind works and her allegiances may be liable to change, but everyone has fun in a film that is paced perfectly, throws up plenty of uneasy psychosexual content, and laces most of the runtime with a healthy dose of very black humour.

It's obviously not going to be for everyone, and some may find it too laughable while watching the performances of a young man and woman acting younger than their years, but I'll still recommend it to those who have enjoyed any of those other titles I just mentioned. It's a heady brew, and an entertaining one, and deserves to be saved from the relative obscurity it has been languishing in for many years.


There are ridiculously overpriced discs available online, we can simply live in hope that this is the kind of title picked up by the boutique labels I enjoy giving my money to.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

The Curse Of La Llorona (2019)

There's a lot to like about The Curse Of La Llorona, on the surface. I am going to start with that, just in case I get distracted and give the impression that I hated it. I didn't. Hell, it gets bonus points straight away for giving a lead role to Linda Cardellini. So it's just a shame that so many moments that could have worked well just fall surprisingly flat, with all concerned seemingly happier to turn what could have been an impressively fright-filled bit of mainstream horror into something a lot more tame, and sillier, than it needed to be.

The main premise is simple. There's an evil spirit, La Llorona, that frightens and takes away children, once they come under her gaze. Cardellini plays Anna Tate-Garcia, a woman employed in the social service sector, first seen being asked to work on a case involving a fraught mother (Patricia, played by Patricia Velasquez) and two young boys. More importantly, Anna has her own two children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). It's only a matter of time until La Llorona catches sight of those two, giving her two new potential victims while Anna tries to figure out just what is going on, and how she can put an end to it.

Cardellini does well with her complex role of "strong, frightened mother", the kids do well while being terrorised and terrified, and Raymond Cruz is the other main cast member, playing Rafael Olvera, a priest on the edge who doesn't necessarily play by the rules but gets things done, dammit. Velasquez is fine, Marisol Ramirez is given a makeover to play La Llorona, and Tony Amendola appears to connect events to Annabelle. Because, yes, it is tangentially linked to that movie, which gives it a head start at the box office, and in the home entertainment market, thanks to the value of the IP, always fairly visible on all of the marketing materials.

Considering this is his first feature, Michael Chaves does a very good job in the director's chair, even if he wraps every main scare sequence in low lighting and murkiness. There are some nice visual touches throughout, but it's hard to remember them once the end credits have rolled after you realise that you spent most of the film squinting at one patch of darkness after another. The jump scares are reasonably effective, but only until you realise that it's the same couple of tricks being re-used every few minutes (either something glimpsed in one part of the frame to then be seen a lot closer to a main character in the next moment or a feigned bit of misdirection while La Llorona gets within reach of her prey), and the third act subsequently suffers because of this. What should have been a sustained helping of tension just becomes a bit tiresome, something you want over and done with at least 10 minutes before you actually get to the end.

Writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who previously wrote Five Feet Apart together, this is their first horror movie) seem to know what is expected of them, and I'm curious to know how much of this is their own creation and how much of it was shaped by the producers who wanted another hit entry in the ever-expanding Conjuring universe. They don't do a terrible job at all, considering this is their first foray into the horror genre, although the simplistic plot should have been fertile ground for some much better, scarier, set-pieces.

Far from the worst of these movies (that would still be The Nun), this is also far from the best. It just feels like some kind of place-holder, something to throw out as a treat for audiences in between the titles expected to do bigger business.


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

Monday 16 September 2019

Mubi Monday: Our House (2017)

One of those little, effective movies that you often catch at film festivals, just before they disappear and become almost impossible to track down, Our House is an engrossing drama that feels very much like it's one step away from being a supernatural horror movie. In fact, I'm still not entirely convinced that it isn't.

Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) lives with her mother (Yukiko Yasuno). Her father died, something she is struggling to move on from, and things become more difficult as she learns that her mother is dating a new man. Toko (Mei Fujiwara) lives alone, but only until she finds Sana (Mariwo Ohsawa), a woman who is troubled by a lack of memory. This quartet of people live in the same house, with neither couple realising that the other couple exists. Is there an explanation for this, be it time trickery or some dimensional overlap, and does it even matter?

I struggled to even piece together the cast list for this film, taking my information from a variety of sources (IMDb, MUBI, various pieces already written about the movie), so I apologise now for anything that is incorrect. Just about the only thing I am sure of is that this was directed by Yui Kiyohara, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Noriko Katô. It is the debut feature of Kiyohara, created as a graduation project (this nugget of information was provided by MUBI), and marks her out as someone definitely worth keeping an eye on.

I'll mention the four main performances, before I forget about them. Kawanishi and Yasuno both do very well alongside one another, giving realistic and grounded portrayals of a child and parent who love one another but are temporarily at odds. Fujiwara and Ohsawa get more interesting material to play around with, more moments that are often surreal and strange, and both do equally well in their roles, showing themselves to be individuals battling with whatever is hidden deep within themselves, another aspect never fully revealed.

But this is a film about atmosphere, and about time and place. It's a film in which lives interconnect without anyone really realising that, all shown in an interestingly overt way to sum up the various interactions we have that make us what we are. Toko may be the lynchpin, seeming to spend most of her time away from so many other people and happily alone. Compared to every other character in the film, she feels like the one person who doesn't need anything else in her life . . . until she does, which she struggles to deal with during the third act. It's almost as if Kiyohara and Katô are telling people that it is absolutely impossible to ignore all of the experiences that made you who you are today. Blocking them out will only lead to a painful reawakening further down the line.

Or maybe they're not saying that at all. Maybe this is something else entirely. Maybe it's just an exercise in atmosphere and subtle acting. It also works in those simpler terms. I didn't love Our House, I would have liked a little bit more to it (although I am not one of those people who needs every question answered in my movies), but it hooked me in quite early on, and kept me there for the entire, brief, runtime.


Sunday 15 September 2019

Netflix And Chill: The Strangers: Prey At Night (2018)

A sequel that nobody was really crying out for, released a decade after the original movie, I have to say that my hopes weren't high for The Strangers: Prey At Night. But I'd heard some people say they loved it, which was a plus, and I knew it was directed by Johannes Roberts (another plus, check out his filmography . . . he's like the modern Renny Harlin of genre fare).

And I ended up enjoying it, in a very different way from my enjoyment of the first film.

Although it starts with the usual nonsense about it being based on true events (almost every movie could be sold that way, considering how little you need to actually link things to reality), The Strangers: Prey At Night quickly sets itself up as something out to entertain, rather than completely unnerve and scare you. Not that it doesn't have unnerving moments. They're just interspersed between scenes that focus on murderous set-pieces, often accompanied by a fine selection of '80s tunes.

A family is heading off on a long journey, and they're due to arrive very late at a trailer park. There's the usual dollop of family tension, this time caused by a strain on the finances as the parents plan to send their daughter to a private boarding school, but that is quickly pushed aside when they start to realise that there's something amiss at their lodgings for the night, especially when a young girl comes to the door twice to ask for someone who isn't there.

Co-written by Bryan Bertino, who directed and wrote the first film, and Ben Ketai, this is a film that feels very much like someone cutting loose and having fun after having to show some restraint the first time around. There are some more kills, a more interesting environment for the characters to inhabit, and more moments that feel enjoyably cinematic.

Roberts directs with a keen eye, with both the script and the visuals allowing for some nice nods to a multitude of other movies (from slasher classics to the thought-provoking work of Haneke), and he maintains a perfect pace as he drags viewers through an 85-minute thrill ride that gets going quickly enough and doesn't really slow down until it's all over.

Cast-wise, the main family unit is made up of Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, and Lewis Pullman. Hendricks and Henderson are both solid as the parents, but it's Madison and Pullman who get to shine more as the kids/young adults. As much as I have enjoyed seeing Madison in the many TV movies she has appeared in over the past few years, I hope to see her in more films that don't feel planned around ad breaks. She's very good here, as is Pullman (who also gave a great turn last year in Bad Times At The El Royale), and both play well off one another as siblings who believably wind one another up until they are threatened, at which point they pull together to show their true united front.

All the more refreshing because it isn't being meta, or feeling the need to add a load of laughs in between the bloodshed, The Strangers: Prey At Night is a very pleasant surprise indeed. I'd even say that it edges just ahead of the first film, and I recommend it to all slasher movie fans.


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

Saturday 14 September 2019

Shudder Saturday: Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)

Issa López has been working in the film industry for a number of years now, and those years of hard work have well and truly paid off with Tigers Are Not Afraid, a sweet and effective horror movie that, it's very fair to say, has elevated her profile considerably and allowed her to make what may well be a major step up, in terms of her career opportunities and a wider potential audience. That will happen when festival-goers, genre fans, and such luminaries as Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro, all rush to throw praise and superlatives at your latest film.

I had to wait a hell of a long time to see this, which is even annoying when you consider the fact that I was at the Glasgow Frightfest event that first put this film on my radar. A burst water pipe at home meant I had to head back early and deal with arranging emergency repairs, all while we battled "the beast from the East" towards the beginning of 2018. I read enthusiastic social media comments with despair, being convinced by everyone who was in attendance that weekend that I had missed the best film of the festival. Now, having finally seen the film, it's hard to argue with that opinion. I tried to keep my expectations in check, but I needn't have worried. López has crafted something beautiful and mesmerising here, and it's no surprise that Del Toro has been so impressed (considering how much it feels like something he could have made when he was still making smaller, more intimate, chillers).

The basic story focuses on Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl who returns home one day to find her mother has been killed by local gangsters. This leads to her encountering a group of children who all keep each other company on the streets of Mexico, living by their wits and their ability to support one another through their darkest times. A chain of events, involving a stolen phone, leads to the children making enemies of the gun-toting gangsters. Estrella may be the one person who can save them. She has a limited number of wishes that can come true. Of course, Estrella knows that she is now seeing the corpse of her mother appearing intermittently after wishing she could have her back, so the wishes may not be a blessing.

I hope that those who know me well enough will know that I am not prone to hyperbole. It's why I resigned myself to simply utilising this little corner of the internet to basically talk to myself every time I write a little bit about movies. Nobody really needs to take note. The things that get noticed nowadays are the extremes. You have to LOVE or HATE something, yet the reality is that a lot of things end up somewhere in between. Tigers Are Not Afraid is not one of those things. I LOVE this movie. I simply cannot think of any one thing I would change about it, and I've been thinking hard over the past 24 hours, since the end credits rolled and I wondered whether or not I would be delivering a rare 10/10 rating (heads up . . . that's a yes).

López has written and directed a small masterpiece, and packaged it in a tight 83-minute runtime that perfectly suits the mix of the light, fairytale-esque, narrative and the moments that linger on something eerie or emotionally impactful, or both. I just can't think of any one moment in which she doesn't make the right decision in her approach to the material, making the end result a beautiful collage of commentary, atmosphere, and hugely satisfying cinematic moments. Between the real-world dangers being shown onscreen and the film techniques used throughout, López shows that she can navigate both territories.

She's helped by her cast. There are some adults here, doing good work, but the film really belongs to the children, particularly Lara, Juan Ramón López (playing Shine), Hanssel Casillas, and Rodrigo Cortes. Every single child actor gives a great performance, even if the film understandably gives some of them a lot less to do than others.

I'll either run out of words soon enough or I'll keep throwing out too many platitudes, which I am loathe to do, so I'll just say that I have seen some people refer to this as a supernatural-tinged Calvin And Hobbes, which is true. It's also quite similar to a land-based Life Of Pi (hey, it's my review and I'll throw around any wild ideas I like). Most of all, however, Tigers Are Not Afraid is your new potential genre classic. It doesn't need to be compared to other movies or creative works, even if those comparisons are favourable, because López has crafted familiar elements into something special and unique.


Tigers Are Not Afraid is still in some cinemas, and it's now on Shudder.

Friday 13 September 2019

Long Shot (2019)

Director Jonathan Levine has worked with Seth Rogen on a couple of other movies (both 50/50 and The Night Before), and the two seem to work well together. So it's no surprise that adding the wonderful Charlize Theron to the mix, and working from a script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah that effectively flips The American President around, and adds some obligatory drug gags, makes for a film that, while no classic, is at least amusing and enjoyable throughout.

Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a journalist with principles, doing his best to stand by his work in a world that is making it harder and harder for individuals to maintain their integrity. In fact, he walks out of his job when the company he works for is taken over by a manipulative media mogul named Parker Wembley (an unrecognisable Andy Serkis). This leads to him being at a party with a friend (Lance, played by O'Shea Jackson Jr) and reuniting with Charlotte (Theron), a woman he last saw when he was a teen, and someone he was in love with even before she turned into her final Theron form. Charlotte is about to throw her hat in the ring as a presidential candidate, and she figures that Fred may actually help her with his writing ability. But more develops between them.

Here's the thing about Long Shot. Much like most other Seth Rogen movies, this will be more or less enjoyable depending on how you can handle Rogen. I tend to enjoy him onscreen but there's no denying that he's very often the same "lovable stoner" character in almost all of his films. You get the occasional statement about drugs helping people be relaxed and happier, you get him laughing his recognisable laugh, and you get him being wide-eyed and incredulous as events unfold around him that leave viewers in the same way. There's more to enjoy here, but it will still depend on whether or not you can put up with Rogen in the lead role.

Although the heart of the film is a romantic comedy, Sterling and Hannah do a good job of mixing in a strong strand about the slippery slope of compromising your beliefs, and the realities of getting results while you're trying to build support for something that may seem fresh and radical to some. The film isn't exactly bogged down by the politics, really just trying to milk the whole scenario for more laughs, but it does enough throughout to ground the laughs, certainly never feeling as ridiculous or unbelievable as it could.

A lot of that is also down to Theron. I don't know about you, but I would vote for her. She's smart, witty, passionate about her chosen main cause, and also Charlize Theron. Rogen being paired up with her seems very unlikely, but it works better than it should because of him finding it as hard to believe as everyone watching the film. Bob Odenkirk is a lot of fun as the current POTUS, who landed his position after years of TV work and now wants to move on to a career in movies, June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel are both a lot of fun as advisers to Theron's character, and Jackson Jr does just fine as the supportive friend. Another highlight is Alexander Skarsgård, playing a handsome Canadian Prime Minister (or, I guess, just a Canadian Prime Minister, the handsome part comes from him being Alexander Skarsgård) who is always looking to enjoy the company of Theron's character, and their chemistry together seems to often provide a small boost in their approval ratings.

Surprisingly sweet at times, Long Shot is a well-made rom-com that hits all of the expected notes throughout, yet also feels a bit different, thanks to the raunchier and more outlandish moments (Theron being unexpectedly called into an emergency military negotiation is a VERY funny sequence). Levine works well with Rogen, as well as everyone else involved, and this is an amusing diversion, managing to somehow avoid overstaying its welcome, despite clocking in at about two hours. It also has the funniest . . . orgasm fluid . . . gag I have seen since There's Something About Mary.


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

Thursday 12 September 2019

The Last House On The Left (1972)

Some films feel like you MUST see them. That's doubly true when you're a horror fan. In fact, it's triple (triply??) true when you're a British horror fan who spent a number of years hearing about infamous titles that were removed from public consumption by an over-zealous BBFC. Yes, I'm on about those video nasties again, but I'm not just on about the situation here in the UK. I'm on about those moments that lead to conversations, that lead to you becoming friends with more and more horror fans, discovering the huge global community of people who have all been given the same funny looks and had the same judgements made about them as they enthusiastically rented some piece of nastiness from their local video store. Those moments lead to you hearing about, or discussing, key films. You get the undisputed classics, you get the enduring favourites, and you get films that wallow in their infamy for a short period of time, often just before their power starts to fade away.

The Last House On The Left is a film in that latter category. It is the kind of film you will most likely have a vivid memory of seeing for the first time, perhaps even something that you can deliver as an anecdote (but a different kind of anecdote from one like being taken as a child to see E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial and remembering how many other children were as wet-eyed and snot-nosed as you were while the parents wondered what they had done to upset Steven Spielberg so).

Having said that, I don't have any anecdote to put here. I saw this film as I was making my way through a lot of the horror movies I had never been able to find in my pre-internet days. This was one of the better video nasties, I knew that much as soon as I'd watched it, but it wasn't up there with the very best. Yet it stays with you. It's a film that feels dangerous in a way a lot of the others don't. It sticks to you. If some movies feel like a cosy blanket, The Last House On The Left is a layer of dust and debris that cakes your skin after a day spent in a harsh environment, the kind of thing that won't wash off without applying the kind of force to your scrubbing that will hurt.

Written and directed by Wes Craven, his feature debut, this is a savage reworking of The Virgin Spring. A young woman (Sandra Peabody) and her friend (Lucy Grantham) head to the city. They meet some bad people. Terrible things happen to them. The bad people end up at the home of the parents of the young woman (ma and pa played by Cynthia Carr and Richard Towers). Those are the plot points that you'll probably already know. I'm not going to say any more.

Craven was an angry young man when he made this film. He wanted to create something brutal and shocking, but also wanted to make it bearable (which he attempts to do with the biggest mis-step of the film, scenes involving a pair of bumbling police officers, one of whom is played by a young Martin Kove). It's a film that he would look over many years later with a critical eye, acknowledging the negative aspects while still admiring what he achieved.

And he's right to feel that way. While not quite as powerful or intense as it may have been when first released, this is a brutal piece of work, open to multiple interpretations by different viewers, from a warning about the dangers of drugs to an exploration of common nightmares to a commentary on the Vietnam War. It's also one hell of a calling card for Craven, putting out there the mastery of horror elements and obsession with the thin line between civility and barbarism that he would display repeatedly over the next few decades.

There have been major essays written about this movie. Much more than I could ever say, and in a clearer and more intelligent way. I'll just say that it's a film that you can never unsee. David Hess gives the most memorable performance of his career, playing the loathsome Krug (a role that would see him typecast that way in a few other movies), he's ably supported by Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, and Fred J. Lincoln, all of them effectively nasty in a way that makes any viewer want to see them get their just desserts by the time the end credits roll.

Craven may now view this as something he would have approached differently, but horror fans can be glad that he rushed headlong into a boundary-pushing slice of exploitation nastiness that easily holds up alongside anything else we've had under that umbrella. You may not enjoy it, you may not rush to rewatch it, but it's an essential horror film, and one of a number of touchstones in the career of someone who gave us such a wide variety of scares.


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

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Prime Time: The Blackwell Ghost (2017)

Hmmmmm, there were moments during The Blackwell Ghost that gave me goosebumps. Moments that had me wondering just how real the whole thing was. Unfortunately, that feeling quickly dissipates once you start to realise that none of it is real, making the end result quite a frustrating experience.

Turner Clay plays a version of himself onscreen, a film-maker who decides to take his career in another direction as he sets out to prove the existence of ghosts. That leads to him getting footage of something that resembles a ghostly presence, which then leads to him being able to stay at a house that may or may not be haunted.

First of all, this is very well done, in terms of the mix of spookiness and the usual filming style (we get some stationary camera shots and, of course, the shakier handheld camerawork in places). It's also far too short to overstay its welcome, clocking in at a shade under the one hour mark.

Clay is convincing enough in his lead role, almost doing enough to make me temporarily forget how much happens in the last few minutes that would have me either running out of the main door or jumping out of the nearest window. There's no way I would be able to wander around with a camera in my hands anyway. I've been with my wife for almost a decade now, and she knows all too well that if she hears a strange noise in our home in the middle of the night . . . she is more than welcome to get out of bed to investigate it.

Subtlety is the key here, but it's just a bit too subtle for its own good. There are two ways to look at this. If you want to believe it is real, all well and good, but that should mean that the background, the history viewers will expect to be unearthed, should be spookier and darker than what we get here. You also have to be able to accept the actions of the main characters, which gets harder and harder to do in the third act. But if you aren't seeking something authentic then you may sit there, waiting for a satisfying conclusion that is never going to happen. And you may well be thinking "subtlety be damned" by the time it is all over.

A film that will work much better on people who stumble upon it and think it is real, The Blackwell Ghost could have been something truly exceptional. It's just a shame that Turner Clay didn't put a bit more thought into the delivery of the material. The main premise is great, the execution is sadly lacking.

This movie is available now on Amazon Prime, as is a sequel (that I have yet to watch . . . maybe that will appear here next week).


Tuesday 10 September 2019

Holmes & Watson (2018)

How bad is Holmes & Watson? Considering how much is was roundly battered by critics, and anyone brave enough to go and see it at the cinema, could it really be THAT bad? Yes, yes it could. And I can say this with a degree of confidence, having been one of the few people to have now seen it twice.

The first time doesn't really count though. When I first watched this movie I was laughing aloud at a number of moments. I'd also taken an excessive amount of valium before a short flight (I'm just a nervous flyer, and it turns out I wasn't listening to my wife when she reminded me of the recommended dosage of something I wasn't used to). But you can certainly take that as a different view of the film. It will make you laugh if your brain has been suitably altered by some substance that keeps you in a very good mood, be that alcohol, medication, or your favourite Doritos.

So, for the purpose of this review, I am going to focus on my second, most recent, viewing. My brain was not altered in any way (beyond the usual warping), although I definitely wish it had been.

Will Ferrell plays Sherlock Holmes, John C. Reilly is Doctor John Watson, his constant sidekick, and their latest adventure involves the dastardly Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) and a plot to kill the Queen of England (Pam Ferris). That's about all you need to know, other than the fact that Kelly Macdonald is Mrs. Hudson, and Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus play two women who turn the heads of our detecting duo.

It has been a decade since Guy Ritchie entertained audiences with a Sherlock Holmes that mixed the traditional elements with some fun cinematic updates (the "Holmes-vision"). We have had Sherlock since then, and also Elementary, both shows that have smartly updated the famous detective for modern viewers, while retaining a lot of the little details that make Sherlock so quintessentially Sherlock. So Holmes & Watson feels like too little too late as soon as it begins. That would be fine though, as long as writer-director Etan Cohen had some good enough gags to make it worthwhile. Sadly, that is not the case.

Cohen seems to rely on the chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly (used so effectively in their previous comedy work), but that's not enough on this occasion. Not when the script is full of unfunny jokes transposing modern habits (selfies, drunk text messages) into the period setting, numerous gross-out gags that fall flat, and sequences that make use of that aforementioned "Holmes-vision". The one time I smiled was due to a fun cameo towards the very end. Nothing else really works, one or two very minor chuckles aside.

Ferrell and Reilly are quite irritating in the lead roles, Macdonald is the highlight of the film, and Fiennes at least manages to get paid for a relatively short amount of screentime. Ferris is very game in her royal role, Hall almost comes out of the whole thing with her dignity intact, but Lapkus is undone by the fact that she has to match Ferrell at his juvenile antics. There are also small roles for Rob Brydon (who is actually a good fit for Inspector Lestrade), Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, and that great cameo star.

I am going to give this a fairly generous rating, considering how well it amused and distracted me while I was on valium and trying not to think about anything that could send me plunging to my death. But don't let that fool you into giving this a try. Even Sherlock Gnomes was better than this.


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