Saturday 29 February 2020

Shudder Saturday: Spring (2014)

Life and love, sometimes it feels like you can't have one without the other, and both are arguably only most appreciated when you have an idea of what their loss really means. If you went through life without any idea of death coming along for you one day then how would you do things? And if you loved every time with the intensity of your first true love then it's hard to say whether that would improve your life, or make it a lot worse. It all depends on whether or not that feeling is reciprocated.

Spring was the second feature film to be co-directed by the winning combination of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and it shows them to be consistently mature and thoughtful creators, utilising horror movie ideas in a way that places them in situations viewers can easily identify with.

Lou Taylor Pucci is Evan, a young American man who finds himself in a bit of a spiral after the death of his mother. Thankfully, he meets a beautiful young woman, Louise (Nadia Hilker), while in Italy. But there's something different about Louise. Something she wants to keep hidden away from Evan, and something that could define the short-term nature of their relationship. Is the potential for their love worth what either of these two people could end up having to give up?

In a similar way to their previous feature, Resolution, Spring is an imperfect film in a way that makes it all the more endearing and enjoyable. It has gone up in my estimation since I first watched it a few years ago, and may rise further after future rewatches.

Although Pucci isn't the best person I could envision in the role of Evan, he does give off a nice mix of vulnerability and the sense of searching for a lifeline. He's lost, floating off a cliff edge, even during the moments in which he thinks he has everything in place and settled. Hilker is better in her role, but it's one that allows her to chop and change her personality as viewers sense something making her subject to something outwith her control. But beyond their individual performances, Pucci and Hilker do work very well together, and that is arguably the most important thing.

While Benson and Moorhead explore love, what it takes to be with the one you feel such a strong connection to, they also take the space and time to thoughtfully look at processing grief, being at a stage in your life when you're liable to make one mistake that can lead to another, and another, and another, and also how people can set on a certain path acting like a tourist and gradually become something better as they take in their surroundings more and start to appreciate them.

The kind of rich and rewarding horror film not designed to appeal to those just looking for a bodycount or load of gore (not that those films are automatically less worthy under the wonderful, pitch-black, umbrella of the genre), Spring is best described as an impressively insightful drama that just happens to have some monstrous moments. As well as some well-placed humour that feels in keeping with the central characters.

I bought this disc.

Friday 28 February 2020

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Never you mind those other Terminator sequels, THIS is the one true sequel to the first two movies. This is the timeline to stick with. This is the film that will right any wrongs from previous instalments. That's what James Cameron would like you to believe anyway. And some people might have believed him, there's always a slim chance, but most of us had been burned before, with a lot of the same positive soundbites being used to sell increasingly inferior sci-fi action movies that were always suffering from a lack of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The good thing is that this will be, for many, better than Terminator Genisys (although that's not a high benchmark to surpass). I still slightly prefer the previous instalment, but that's just me. The other good thing is that this has a decent amount of screentime for Schwarzenegger. There are some more positives, but not enough to quite outweigh the negatives.

Fate has been changed, and humanity may be safe. To a degree. There will still be a war, deadly machines will still want to kill off the human race, but at least everyone may have avoided judgment day, thanks to the actions of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Which just means that it's time for a new person to become the prey (this time it's Dani Ramos, played by Natalia Reyes), a new protector to help her (an augmented human, Grace, played by Mackenzie Davis), and a newer type of robo-killer (REV-9, played by Gabriel Luna, a terminator that can operate his fluid exterior and metal endoskeleton independently of one another, if necessary). Sarah Connor ends up helping Dani and Grace, as does a surprisingly domesticated T-808 (Arnie).

Tim Miller is the man trusted to direct the action this time around, working from a script by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray, and something becomes clear within the first 10-15 minutes. This has been created to remind you of how much you love the second Terminator movie. That's all I can think of anyway. There's no other reason to have such poor CGI on display (the first main action sequence in a factory setting is an embarrassment of rich embarrassments), and to kick things off with a sequence that essentially feels like a gauntlet being thrown down that it doesn't deserve to have grappled hold of in the first place.

Things do pick up after the first act, but it's a bit too little too late, and relies on a hell of a lot of goodwill, and NO moments of overthinking things, from the viewer. Paradoxes and illogical moments abound, while characters range from the horribly bland (Dani, the REV-9) to the horribly malformed by the needs of the script (Connor, the T-808). Grace is the high point, which is mainly thanks to the sheer willpower of the talented Mackenzie Davis.

I am struggling to think of those who will find this anything more than a sci-fi action flick with a couple of ridiculous set-pieces (most of the third act is chock full of the kind of action that relies on every viewer not just suspending disbelief, but deliberately forgetting how any physical forces around us actually work). Newcomers won't get the references, those who have enjoyed the series from the first film will wish they weren't getting the references, and everyone will be happy enough if this is the last ever attempt to yet again keep wringing money from something that became irrelevant at least a decade ago.


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

Thursday 27 February 2020

Countdown (2019)

The theatrical feature debut of writer-director Justin Dec, Countdown is the kind of slick teen horror that will either make you roll your eyes or grin and go along with the main premise. I chose the latter option, and am glad I did. One or two notably weak moments aside, this is much better than so many other films released to the same target demographic.

Things start with some partying young 'uns downloading an app, and that app is called Countdown. Countdown tells you when you're going to die. Which is all well and good for those who are given a fairly normal life expectancy. It's not so good for those who are given days, or even hours. And when the clock reaches zero, there's no avoiding your fate. A chain of events lead to a young nurse named Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) downloading the app, being given a very short amount of time left on this mortal coil, and trying to stop whatever force is going to help her shuffle off it. She joins forces with a young man named Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway), attempting to save both their own lives and that of her younger sister, Jordan (Talitha Bateman).

Okay, it's not very atmospheric. It's not got any decent bloodshed or gore. It adds some comedy into the mix when maybe it was best to leave it out. And it's about an app. The separate ingredients aren't that good. But Dec does enough to give viewers what they want from this kind of thing, a fun time with some decent deaths. Rules are established, but in a way that allows for some ambiguity while the leads figure out the full extent of the danger that they're in, and everything is played out in a way that is, for this kind of thing, surprisingly plausible. Movie plausible, of course, not real-world plausible.

Lail is a decent lead, if a little bit lacking in anything to make her truly memorable, and the same can be said of Calloway and Bateman. Peter Facinelli is a doctor working alongside our lead, and you just know that he's going to either be trouble or get himself caught up in the situation at some point, or both. Then there's P. J. Byrne, almost unbalancing things as a young priest all too ready to believe the killer app, although there's more fun to be had with Tom Segura, playing a phone shop worker treating everyone he encounters with disdain.

There are a number of ways in which this could have been more enjoyable (a bit more nastiness in the deaths, some more twists and turns in the build-up a la Final Destination), and an attempt to play a set-piece in which some characters take shelter within a circle of protection is undone by one character being written to be stupid enough to allow things to be drawn out for even longer, but there are also so many ways in which this could have been worse.

Not one to recommend to hardened horror fans, but an amusing enough distraction for those who don't mind a bit of lighter fare.


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

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Prime Time: Swimfan (2002)

A teen version of Fatal Attraction, but without any leads that come near to the star power or talent of Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, Swimfan is the kind of trashy fun that will have you both rolling your eyes and smirking with amusement.

Jesse Bradford is Ben Cronin, a young man who has managed to overcome his troubled past and put his energy into excelling in the school swimming competitions. He has a happy life, and a very lovely girlfriend in the shape of Amy Miller (played by Shiri Appleby). So it's a real puzzle why he would risk all that when a new girl (Madison Bell, played by Erika Christensen) comes along, makes big eyes at him, and quickly shows herself to be more than capable of making trouble for him if she cannot have him all to herself. Everything escalates at great speed, making the attempted building of tension inadvertently hilarious as things go from bad to worse for our flawed lead.

Directed by John Polson, who would next direct a much-maligned horror (that I quite enjoy), Hide And Seek, before one other film and then a solid selection of work on various TV shows, Swimfan seems to know exactly how silly it is. The script, by Charles F. Bohl (credited without the middle initial) and Phillip Schneider, doesn't waste any time in bringing the characters together and starting to develop the danger, and madness.

The cast are all just right in their roles, even if they're not always acting in the same movie. Christensen, for example, is absolutely revelling in the self-delusion and psychopathy of her character, while both Bradford and Appleby could be dropped into pretty much any teen drama from this time. Clayne Crawford and Jason Ritter struggle to make an impression with their limited screentime, but old pro Dan Hedaya has no such trouble, of course, and James DeBello does well in a role that doesn't rely on him to use the kind of exuberant, brash persona he had front and centre in a number of his other performances. Kate Burton should have been given more to do, playing the mother of Bradford's character, and enlarging her role could have helped to add some tension to the third act (this could have been much more entertaining with more people available to be terrorised and harmed, or even killed).

This remains a distracting bit of fun because of it so obviously riffing on something much better. As a standard teen thriller, however, it falls below so many others. I've not seen all of the titles available in this market, but I've seen enough to have a good overview. And I'd put Disturbia, Disturbing Behaviour, Gossip, and maybe even The In Crowd ahead of this, even if some of them are a very close call.


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

Tuesday 25 February 2020

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987)

Ahhhhhhhh the 1980s. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the best of the worst of times. Just look at deeley bobbers, Minipops (seriously . . . search for clips of Minipops and look on in absolute horror), and the Cabbage Patch Kids, which the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards were very much parodying. Cinematically, it was a decade that wasn't afraid to put kids in real peril, wasn't afraid to use ANY fleeting fad in order to make a quick buck (arguably, every decade of cinema does that), and wasn't afraid to deliver something so wild and ridiculous that the only possible explanation for some of the creative decisions made starts with co and ends with caine. And The Garbage Pail Kids Movie ticks all of those boxes.

Directed, produced, and co-written (with Linda - AKA Melinda - Palmer) by Rod Amateau, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is like some kind of Troma-esque attempt to make a modern day fairytale with some of the most unappealing animatronic creations you've ever seen in your life. It doesn't exactly speed along at a breakneck pace, yet it feels that way because the plot just seems to take one erratic turn after another.

The plot, and I'll try to summarise it without vomiting all over my keyboard, focuses on a bullied young lad named Dodger (Mackenzie Astin, impressively looking anywhere between 8 and 15 at any given moment). Dodger has a crush on Tangerine (Katie Barberi), the girlfriend of main bully, Juice (Ron MacLachlan). One scene of mild torture later, Dodger is handcuffed to a rail in a sewer, a pipe pouring nasty waste onto him, and is saved by the Garbage Pail Kids. It turns out that the Garbage Pail Kids have been living in the antique shop of a man named Manzini (Anthony Newley). Dodger is a friend/relative/groomed pet of Manzini and this leads to a plan in which Dodger . . . gets the kids to make clothing that Tangerine can sell as part of her very odd business model of entering nightclubs with piles of clothes for sale. There are many more clothes to be made, one or two bars to be visited, a State Home For The Ugly, and a grand fashion show that serves as the background for the finale.

There you have it. All of it. An adult with an unspecified relationship to a teenage boy. A bunch of "kids" who crawl out of a bin and then are mistreated by someone who decides to make use of them in a way that surely contravenes a number of child-labour laws, and may even veer perilously close to a thinly-disguised sweatshop environment, and a third act that gives you nobody to really root for. 

This could have been better if it had delivered some more memorable characters. Greaser Greg, Valerie Vomit, Ali Gator, Foul Phil, Nat Nerd, Windy Winston, and Messy Tessie are far removed from the more fun creations that I remember seeing on some of the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards that I managed to get my hands on.

To add insult to injury, the soundtrack features two songs that are so ear-offendingly bad the speakers on my TV hatched a plan to detach themselves and dive into the nearby duck pond.

It's no surprise that a number of people involved in this movie went on to do not much else of note. Amateu wrote one story after this (Sunset), Linda Palmer has written one movie since this, and it's about killer ants, and Anthony Newley became quite the fixture in UK TV schedules. Astin and Barberi have managed to move beyond this, fair enough, although I wouldn't be surprised if they still have nights in which they wake up coated in sweat and anything else that may have leaked out while their brain had used this movie for their nightmare fuel. That has been happening to me lately, and I only watched the bloody thing.

Horrible stuff, but undeniably interesting for all the wrong reasons, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is not for the faint of heart, not for anyone after the real gems of cinema, and not for anyone of sound mind. So I KNOW that one or two friends of mine will enjoy it.


Knock yourself out with this disc.

Monday 24 February 2020

Mubi Monday: Little Joe (2019)

Emily Beecham plays Alice Woodard, a young woman working for a corporation that specialises in developing new species of plants. One of those plants, referred to as "Little Joe" in a reference to her own son (Kit Connor), is designed to respond to care and attention, much like a pet or well-behaved (and very stationary) child. Alice takes one home, although that's very much not allowed, and soon starts to worry about what the plant might be doing in order to ensure its continued survival. There are also co-workers acting strange, by either getting too emotional (in the case of Bella, played by Kerry Fox) or not seeming very emotional at all (in the case of Chris, played by Ben Whishaw).

The first film I have watched that was directed by Jessica Hausner, who also co-wrote the script with her regular collaborator Géraldine Bajard, this certainly won't be the last time I explore her filmography. Hausner and Bajard have taken an interesting premise, a quirky way to rework some material very reminiscent of the paranoid '50s sci-fi classics, and given themselves a huge boost by utilising a great cast in the main roles. It also helps that they have reframed the ideas in a very relevant, almost cutting-edge, environment. This is a film about plants, about emotions, about personality, and about the scientific ways in which all of those things can be manipulated.

Beecham, who I last saw in the excellent Daphne, is an excellent lynchpin for everything that occurs. She's very composed, but retains an ability to observe and empathise that some of the other main characters seem to lack. As her character reacts, or doesn't react, to various changes, it allows the viewer to consider just how things have the potential to be viewed in different ways as the situation develops. Whishaw is in his safety zone, very quiet and slightly uncomfortable when interacting with anyone else, but he's perfect in his role, and works very well alongside Beecham. Connor is a very good young actor, David Wilmot is very good in the role of Karl (basically . . . a team leader/boss), and Fox gives yet another of her many great performances as the alarmed and potentially paranoid Bella.

The beauty of Little Joe lies in, well, the beauty of Little Joe . . . and co. It's a visually gorgeous film, making use of sterile environments that contain some vivid splashes of colour, and both the shot composition and the ways in which the actors are placed/set to move throughout really provide a treat for the eyes, all while the intriguing ideas being sprinkled throughout the runtime provide a treat for those who enjoy intelligent sci-fi.

I can easily see many people hating this. Unlike the creation at the centre of everything, it's not an easy creation to love. And yet love it I did/do. Almost every scene has something to either draw your eye or get you thinking, and many scenes have both. And there's at least one moment that would easily rank for me as one of the best of the year. Hausner has assembled a hell of a collective to get this just right, and that ends up showcasing the fact that Little Joe sure can sing!


Sunday 23 February 2020

Netflix And Chill: Piercing (2018)

Piercing is weird. There's no other way to describe it. It starts weird, gets weirder, and then manages to get even weirder. Whether you like it or not, well, that's not something you will be able to glean from many reviews. I ended up liking it, and liking it a fair bit, but there were many times when it could have easily just completely lost me.

Christopher Abbott plays Reed, a man with some problems, to put it mildly. He wants to get a prostitute and cause her a lot of harm, ending in death. He ends up having Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) sent to his room. Jackie might be a very suitable victim, or she might end up being something more. And, considering how often we see Reed hearing unusual dialogue from other people who encourage him to follow his urge, it's impossible to really figure out just how much of what we're seeing is real and how much is just how Reed views his world.

The second film from writer-director Nicolas Pesce (I have yet to see his debut, The Eyes Of My Mother), Piercing is an impressively unique piece of work. Although influenced by a variety of cources, from what I could tell, the most interesting "lift" here is probably the music from Tenebrae,  a piece both familiar and yet not instantly recognisable, and one that feels initially jarring alongside the visuals as you know it doesn't belong there . . . but then it starts to quickly belong there. This sums up the approach that Pesce has to the material, originally a novel by Ryû Murakami, and highlights how much effort he puts into allowing something to retain its individuality while also folding in a mass of other interesting touches.

He's helped immensely by his two leads. Abbott performs with the appropriate amount of oddness, viewing the world around him with a mix of disgust, confusion, and mistrust, while filtering the fact that he's determined to claim a victim back into his brain, you can almost visualise his thought process throughout as he says or does things that feed into either his growing security or growing nerves. Wasikowska is perfect in her role, flitting between vulnerable and potentially very cunning and dangerous, and the strange chemistry with Abbott works well. There are some other people onscreen, with the main one being played by Laia Costa, and they all give very good performances of characters as interpreted by the leads.

A film that I can imagine few people absolutely loving, there's enough here to mark it out as something unforgettable, and singles out Pesce as an impressive talent. The boldness of the content, and his approach to it, is admirable, even when it doesn't all work as well as it could. I'll be checking out the other films from Pesce, and I can see myself revisiting this one when I want an atmospheric and visually impressive mindfuck.


You can buy the movie here.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Shudder Saturday: Torment (2013)

If you go into Torment expecting something wildly exciting and tense, and maybe even twisty and turny, then you are going to end up quite disappointed. It's all put together well enough, but seems to constantly be about to deliver something it then swerves away from. It's not intense enough, it's not interesting enough, and it ends up not changing things up enough to distract from the obvious influences (numerous home invasion horrors).

Sarah (Katharine Isabelle) and Cory Morgan (Robin Dunne) are moving into their home, along with young Liam (Peter DaCunha). Unfortunately, other people view the home as their home. A whole other family unit, and they view the interlopers as prey to be toyed with. They've struck in this area before, and will do so again.

Directed competently by Jordan Barker, and with a script written by Michael Foster and Thomas Pound, Torment is essentially a flipped around version of something like The Strangers. The home invaders are already lying in wait, but the M.O. remains very similar, with sadistic torture and a strange need to integrate others into their small and select group. The way in which this is familiar to genre fans, yet also subtly different, is interesting. Unfortunately, like every interesting aspect of the movie, it's not developed into anything that rewards those wanting to give it more than a passing thought. Family relationships and tensions are given surface-level lip service, and there are a couple of unsurprising twists that will either make you roll your eyes or simply shrug.

At least the central casting helps to make everything a bit better. Isabelle has been a welcome presence in horror movies for many years, and once again ends up a highlight, while Dunne does just fine as the less interesting family member. DaCunha is small enough, and suitably imperiled, Stephen McHattie brings his particular brand of charm and charisma to a small supporting role, and Amy Forsyth does her best in a role that really should have allowed her to shine, but doesn't.

As you may have gathered from my distinctly middling response to everything, nothing here is actually bad. Some moments, some of the plot elements, are actually quite good. It's just a shame that nothing is given enough time and space to make it as interesting as it could be, whether it's the initial interactions between Isabelle, Dunne, and DaCunha, or the minor revelations that are teased out throughout most of the second half. If you're a fan of Isabelle then it's far from the worst thing she's done, but it would have benefited from giving her even more screentime.


Friday 21 February 2020

Doctor Sleep (2019)

I don't think anyone was overly excited when Stephen King announced that he was releasing a belated sequel to The Shining. It was a story that was all done, and nothing else needed added to it. Yet King wanted to know more, he wanted to check in on the man that young Danny Torrance became, the man who must have struggled throughout his life to process all he had gone through. We'll come back to this point in a minute.

Directed, and adapted into screenplay form, by Mike Flanagan, one of my favourite people working in the horror genre lately, the movie version of Doctor Sleep is like a box full of hyperactive kittens. There's a visual appeal, there's a worry as things keep moving and you think one or two might run away and hide somewhere, and there's a transition from happiness to slight discomfort as tiny paws produce tiny claws while a brave little body starts to climb up your legs.

Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance, a man still battling ghosts and demons of his past. He's aided in this by the spirit of Dick Halloran (played this time around by Carl Lumbly). He also tries to aid himself with lots and lots of alcohol. While making a serious attempt to straighten his life out, and finally passing some years in relative contentment, Danny ends up on the receiving end of some messages from a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran). Abra also shines, and shines strong, which brings her to the attention of Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her friends, a group of powerful entities who increase their lifespan by taking the lifeforce from those who shine. Danny needs to put himself back in a position he thought he would be able to avoid for the rest of his life, and that may also involve a trip back to The Overlook Hotel.

The more I think about Doctor Sleep, the more I find to like about it. Flanagan gave himself the unenviable task of tying together The Shining movie, The Shining novel, and the main source material (which I have yet to read), in a way that would try to please everyone, but could end up pleasing no one, and he's done a remarkable job, in that regard.

I always say that Stephen King tales are harder to adapt when most of the content belongs in the heads of certain characters. See Dreamcatcher, for example. Or, y'know, don't. But Flanagan proved that he could work around that with his superb adaptation of Gerald's Game, and he tries hard to make this work. It's a bigger challenge this time. Different people have different headspace environments here, and psychic conversations are always tricky to convey without either the actors looking silly or the momentum of the movie grinding to a halt.

The other challenge is, of course, reworking the famous imagery film fans all know and love from The Shining. Making the wise decision to recreate certain moments with new actors portraying the characters in ways that are in line with what we've seen already, but absolutely not just impressions of previous performances, Flanagan gets this all just right. Lumbly is a wonderful Halloran, Alex Essoe is very good as Wendy Torrance, and Henry Thomas is a decent Jack, despite coming closest to imitation (perhaps because Jack felt quite like, well, JACK).

For those giving us all new portrayals of characters, McGregor does okay, but is the weakest link. Whether it's the script or his own take on it (and I usually find McGregor to be a very good actor), he never feels quite right in the role of Danny, and is overshadowed in any scenes he shares with the excellent young Curran, and even Cliff Curtis and Bruce Greenwood, who are both very welcome in small supporting roles. Ferguson makes up for her inconsistent accent with a physical performance that displays her character as one light of touch until it is time to rip open "a meal". The only other disappointment with Ferguson is that her character takes up more screentime than the brilliant Emily Alyn Lind. Lind, playing a young woman who can control the minds of most people around her, is arguably the most terrifying figure onscreen, due to the careless way she will wield her power without a second thought.

A dark fantasy drama rather than an outright horror, in my view (although labels are a constant source of frustration for us genre fans), Doctor Sleep may disappoint anyone looking for proper scares, or some gore, or even a hair-raising atmosphere. Sadly, it lacks all of those things. But it still manages to be a decent watch as you invest in the characters and root for them to overcome the many obstacles in their path.

Which brings me back to what I referred to at the start of this review. King wrote his novel because he got curious about Danny, and what kind of life he would lead. He wanted to check in on him, psychological scars and all. The film starts off with this as a focus. I am sure that Flanagan would argue it never moves far away from that, but it does. I was drawn in to the first scenes with McGregor, already anxious for him as he picked the absolute wrong ways to numb his pain, and that journey leads up to the halfway point of the film, before then veering off to drag us along on a psychic horror adventure. The second half isn't necessarily a worse film, not in and of itself, but it's just a shame that what started as an exploration of ghosts and painful memories becomes a tale of ghouls and fresh wounds, and we already have a lot more of the latter than the former.

For the details dotted throughout, for the many little touches that will please King fans, and for the exploration of the troubled and assaulted mental state of a survivor, this is probably still worth your time, even at two and a half hours. A reserved recommendation.


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

Thursday 20 February 2020

Contamination (1980)

Luigi Cozzi, who wrote and directed this movie (billed as Lewis Coates), must have thought he'd struck gold when it was banned during the infamous "video nasty" debacle of the 1980s because it's yet another movie on the list that doesn't deserve any of the attention it gets from fans (with myself being guilty as charged) looking to seek out the forbidden fruits of the past.

The story is all about alien eggs being smuggled in to New York and the three people who may be able to stop some sneaky plan to enslave America or somesuch nonsense. The three involved include someone who survived a mission that found the first substantial stash of eggs being imported(Marino Masé), a female Colonel (Louise Marleau) and an ex-astronaut who mentioned the same eggs when he returned from Mars and was subsequently mocked and regarded as slightly mad (Ian McCulloch). Oh, when the eggs get to a certain temperature they can explode and make people who get sprayed with the . . .  albumen (????) explode too. Chests burst open much like they did in that far superior little movie known as Alien.

Trying to mix horror with some kind of intriguing detective thriller movie, this film fails to satisfy fans of either type. The main attempt, at about the halfway point, to draw out one main set-piece into something nail-bitingly tense is just undermined by the ludicrousness of it all, and the audio work that seems designed to work against, rather than complement, the visuals.

Cozzi doesn't do too bad when it comes to working with whatever budget he managed to scrape together though. He's certainly better in the directorial role than he is with the writing duties, shared with Erich Tomek (who did much better work just one year later with the very enjoyable Bloody Moon).

The acting is a bit shoddy, to be honest, although it's often entertaining enough. McCulloch is fun to watch, as he was in a number of other movies during this period (and I have heard horror fans speak highly of his way of discussing them with good grace and humour), so it is a shame that nobody else is really reading from the same sheet, as it were. The action and plot is really rather dull in between moments of gut-busting carnage, most of the second half feels like it has been excised from the very weakest Bond movie you could imagine, and even the gore gets dull pretty quickly when it's clearly the same "gag" being used over and over again.

Things do get a bit better in the last 15 minutes or so, and there's a good practical creation that gets some star billing in the opening credits so, added to the fun of the characterisations and the frequent exploding goons, it's not all bad. There will always be others who like it a lot more than I did. For me, it just never rises above average.


You can buy the movie here.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Prime Time: The Ghostmaker (2012)

Another film inspired by true events, which means so little nowadays that it's practically not even worth using as a selling point, The Ghostmaker at least has an interesting premise to separate it from the multitude of generic horrors available on various streaming platforms. So it's a shame that director Mauro Borrelli, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Svatos, seems intent on turning it into a generic horror.

Kyle (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) manages to get his hands on a strange coffin-like device, a curiosity that he decides to keep and play around with. It's a nice piece, with some interesting clockwork mechanisms in place to allow it to . . . well, it essentially turns people into spirits. Kyle enjoys giving it a whirl, as does his friend, Sutton (J. Walter Holland). Being without a physical body allows the guys to try out some tricks, find out some information they otherwise wouldn't have been privy to, and seems like fun. But if you keep cheating death then it's not long until the reaper comes to claim a prize.

Feeling like a well-presented debut feature (although it isn't, Borrelli has a few to his credit before this), The Ghostmaker makes the mistake of simply not having enough faith in the main concept, deciding to add some drug issues to one of the characters, as well as some relationship trouble between Kyle and his partner, Julie (Liz Fenning). You have character details revealed that start to turn the film into some strange kind of soap opera when it should be content to sell itself as the solid little horror movie beating away beneath the distractions.

The cast are okay, but it's hard to judge when their characters are written like some constantly evolving improv sketch. There are also some minor characters given more screentime than they deserve, especially while poor Fenning seems to be forgotten about for much of the runtime.

This could have been an excellent, enjoyably novel, genre flick. The potential was there for it to be the kind of film fans discover and start telling one another about, which could then have led to a sequel or two (because it's always easy to bring in a new bunch of unsuspecting victims when you're playing around with ideas picked out from Final Destination and Flatliners). It still comes close to being that kind of film, thanks to the magical device that the plot is built around, but it falls somewhat short.

Maybe in a few years we'll see someone get the idea in their heads to remake this. That wouldn't be such a bad thing, especially if they pare down the extraneous elements and add some more characters to take their turn in the ghostmaker. But we all know that these little movies aren't the ones that get picked for remakes.


Tuesday 18 February 2020

Ready Or Not (2019)

If you haven't seen Ready Or Not yet then what have you been up to? Oh, I get it, you have just been too busy, like myself, dealing with life stuff. It's not always easy to get along to the cinema, even when something is being raved about, as this was.

Samara Weaving plays Grace, a young woman who is taken to the family home by her hubby-to-be, Alex (Mark O'Brien). The wedding arrangements allow for the usual mix of friendliness, civility, barbed comments, and resentment, but things take a turn for the worse when Grace is asked that evening to draw a card, one which will decide on a game the family has to play. She draws one that says "hide and seek", and it turns out that this means the family has to hunt and kill her before sunrise, or they believe they will be struck by a deadly curse.

Directed by the talented duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready Or Not is a fun and bloody romp (yes, I used the word romp here - deal with it) that is boosted by a few select talented cast members helping to raise the material. The canny casting is essential, as what could have been a sharp and witty script is surprisingly weak. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (AKA R. Christopher Murphy) do a good job of getting everyone into place and delivering the little morsels of exposition throughout, but they fail to do enough to raise this above a number of similar genre films from recent years (including the enjoyable Mayhem, which also starred Weaving). For those who have seen the film and don't agree with me at all, I'd like you to consider a) whether or not you enjoyed certain characters because of how they acted or because of who was portraying them, and b) how much worse this would have been with someone in the main role who didn't have the charisma of Weaving.

Fortunately, we DO have the charisma of Weaving, who seems to have been poised on the very edge of proper stardom for a couple of years now. She's consistently brilliant in this, moving believably from someone understandably freaked out by events to someone determined to survive. O'Brien is okay as the love of her life, despite showing no hint of what someone might see in him. Thankfully, you get a wonderfully wry turn from Adam Brody, trying to stay drunk while he wearies of the family traditions, Henry Czerny is superb as the patriarch of the family, and Andie MacDowell is amusingly unfazed by anything that happens. Her role may be a relatively small one, but it's her best in some time.

What works here is the commitment to lining up the gory surprises as people are killed off, one by one, some of them directly involved in the whole scheme and some of them just "innocent" bystanders. Plenty of blood is spattered over people, with most of it ending up on Weaving, and there's a nice balance of moments to make you wince and moments to make you laugh aloud, but I would once again emphasise that it all seems to work as well as it does thanks to the direction and the way the main players sell it.

A good time is guaranteed for most genre fans, but if you have cast your net far and wide in the past year then I'll be very surprised if this ends up as your absolute favourite horror of 2019. It might even be struggling to get into a Top 5 for some voracious cinephiles.


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

Monday 17 February 2020

Mubi Monday: Son Of Saul (2015)

NOTE: This review originally appeared on the Flickfeast website. So if you get the feeling that you have read it before, maybe you did. Thanks.

When I first heard about Son Of Saul I have to admit that I made some flippant jokes about being oblivious to any cinematic Better Call Saul spin-off. I had no idea what this movie was about, only starting to take more notice of it as praise for it continued to grow and grow (yep, as usual, late to the party). So I bought the Bluray and decided to give it some of my time.

Let me warn you from the very beginning, Son Of Saul is a film that could potentially ruin your whole day. There’s no way around that. It’s about as bleak as they come, yet director László Nemes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer, tries to do what he can to make things bearable for viewers.

Géza Röhrig plays Saul, a Hungarian POW in WWII who is one of the many selected to actually work to keep the Holocaust machinery moving. They are there to watch other prisoners being herded up. They help them get ready to enter “the showers”. And they then go in to clean up the aftermath; moving bodies, scrubbing down the area, sorting through clothing for anything of value. These workers know that one day their own time will come, but delaying death gives them time to plan for either some kind of escape or way to expose the atrocities. But all of that goes to the back of Saul’s mind when he discovers the body of a boy that he wants to ensure receives a proper burial. Why? Well, I refer you to the actual title of the film.

Although there are many other people in the cast, and all of them do good work, it’s hard to think of anyone onscreen other than Röhrig, who gives a lead performance as good as any I can think of in recent years. The camera focuses on him, staying close, and in turn allows viewers to glimpse only a small, often blurry, selection of horrifying details around him. Corpses are moved around and placed in piles, ready to be incinerated. Anyone causing too much trouble is simply executed. People are worked to breaking point and beyond, shovelling piles and piles of ash to be disposed of in a river. And Saul keeps moving through this, sometimes showing emotion on his face but largely trying to remain undistracted as he considers how to make arrangements for the burial of one small boy.

Nemes, and Royer, instinctively know that the human mind can barely comprehend the true extent of the horrors of the Holocaust. Not only do they keep the core of the story a small, and personal one (although there’s also a subsequent story strand about a planned escape/fight back), but they only show a fraction of what could have been shown. For the same reason that any film about the potential end of the Earth needs one or two individuals for viewers to latch on to. The bigger the numbers become, the harder it is to feel the impact of death. The harder it is to process. It’s why we all watched entire cities destroyed in Independence Day with a sense of awe and then clenched the sides of our chairs when a dog was endangered by a tunnel-filling fireball.

Yes, this may be the only review of Son Of Saul that also cites Independence Day, but that also reiterates my point. We all have different reference points, different comparisons we can make, and different ways of dealing with the horrors of the world, whether historic or in the here and now. Nemes uses the central father and son storyline to give viewers easier access to roads that explore some interesting ideas, some startlingly simple and a few of them quite complex. By making things a bit smaller, including the frame itself, he actually widens the possibilities of what each viewer can take away from the experience.


You can buy the movie here.

Sunday 16 February 2020

Netflix And Chill: Marriage Story (2019)

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is the tale of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), a married couple who are also parents to one young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Marriage Story sounds much nicer than Divorce Story, but the latter title would be a better  description. This is, in many ways, a Kramer Vs. Kramer for the 21st century, showing how the most well-intentioned journey from marriage to amicable divorce can lead to ugliness, point-scoring, and a feeling akin to being scraped away, layer by layer, like the walls in an old house that are having years of different wallpapers removed. It cuts down to the bone at times, mainly because who can hurt you best more effectively than someone who once loved you the most? That hurt doesn't have to be intentional, it can come from watching your partner manage to get up and go about a normal day with you no longer in it, it isn't even always intended when it comes out in the form of some hateful speech vomited out by someone lashing out while feeling backed further into a corner.

Driver and Johansson are both superb in their roles here, and I would have been happy to see both of them showered with awards for their performances. Both have moments that will reverberate with anyone who has been in, or close to, the painful circumstances on display. And I would say that Driver has one moment of raw, childish, rage, both thoughtless and yet constructed to cause maximum damage, that holds up as a small movie moment that will be seared into your memory. Alan Alda and Ray Liotta are two very different types of lawyers who end up helping Driver, and both do excellent work, and Laura Dern is the formidable lawyer hired by Johansson, a role she clearly sets about with relish from her very first appearance in the movie. Small roles for Julie Hagerty and Wallace Shawn help to lighten the material, with Hagerty a real delight as the mother-in-law who cannot just put an end to a friendship with her son-in-law, despite what her daughter would prefer.

This isn't a review in which I feel the need to go on about the score, camerawork, production design, etc. Baumbach puts everything in the right place, allowing the main characters to feel like real people in our world, but the material feels like it could work just as easily in play form, with the focus always on the dialogue and the acting above any potential cinematic flourishes.

This is not an easy watch. What may seem slick and out of touch with most people (Driver is a successful director of stage plays, Johansson is an actress, these are not your everyday working class folk trying to navigate these waters) actually contains a lot of honest moments that many will be able to identify with, whether that's good or bad. Considering the timing of my viewing, I don't think I'll be rushing to watch it again. But, trust me, that is just a testament to how much it gets right.


Saturday 15 February 2020

Parasite (2019)

It's very hard to talk about Parasite without going into details that will spoil the experience of a first time viewing. So I am going to, as ever, err on the side of caution. Nobody every got themselves upset over a review that felt a bit too vague, in my experience. So here's the very minimal plot summary. Young Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) is told by a friend that he should apply to be an English tutor, a role he is vacating as he heads off to study abroad, for in the wealthy Park household. Once he is in there, seeing the different staff members and potential for money to be made, Ki-woo and his family come up with a plan to integrate them all as staff members. The Park family won't know they're employing a group of related individuals, and the Kim family hope to make as much money from them as possible as they amass the means to move onwards and upwards from the squalor they have been used to for so long. And that's just the start of this squirming and slippery comedy/drama/thriller.

Director Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the movie with Han Jin-won, is a name already familar to fans of world cinema, having helped build the reputation of South Korean cinema over the past couple of decades with acclaimed films such as Memories Of Murder, The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer. I've seen half of those, and loved them. Yet, despite stiff competition, Parasite is right up there with his best work. It has his usual mix of genre elements, sliding from comedy to drama, and into something darker just in time for a third act that is both completely insane and also completely in line with all that has come before.

Song Kang-ho, as the father of the Kim family, will also be familiar to film fans, especially those who have enjoyed other Joon-ho movies, or the films of Park Chan-wook, and he's the strong heart of the film, even if it takes a while to realise it. His character isn't the smartest, but the family  look to him as they consider the full potential of their opportunity. Woo-shik does well, Park So-dam is quick off the mark too, as his sister, and Jang Hye-jin is the mother, arguably looking to supplant the most valuable member of staff in the Park household, the housekeeper (played by Lee Jung-eun). Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong are both very good as the Park family father and mother, respectively, while everyone else does exactly what is required of them in their supporting roles. This is a film that works very much because of the ensemble cast.

About as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, the commentary running throughout Parasite works beautifully because it IS so overt and obvious, reverberating through the material like some kind of shockwave. Attitudes are examined at both extremes, those who feel entitled and those who are more naturally servile, and it's quite audacious of Joon-ho to make his points by showing people literally locked into their roles.

Whatever you have already heard about Parasite, and I hope it is not TOO much, believe the hype. See it as soon as you can.


Friday 14 February 2020

Ford V Ferrari (2019)

A contender that never really seemed to have a chance in the awards season, Ford V Ferrari came to cinema screens with a small amount of fanfare, but no real way to sell it to anyone other than fans of stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale (and, yes, I went into this film thinking one played Ford and one played Ferrari). That's a shame, because this turns out to be one of the more enjoyable films put forward in various award categories over the past year. It's easy to see why others edged ahead in pretty much every category, and it's easy to dismiss it as a formulaic movie that takes no risks, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that the film deserves to receive a bit more praise than it got (from the response I have seen to it anyway).

Matt Damon is Carroll Shelby, the man who ends up tasked with designing a car for Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) capable of beating the almighty Ferrari cars that have dominated the Le Mans racing event for many years. The car is only part of the solution though. What's also required is a driver who knows exactly how to get the most out of the machine. That's where Ken Miles (Christian Bale) comes in. But Ken is a racer who doesn't necessarily fit the image that Ford may want to put out there as the winning driver to get results that will also lead to more car sales.

Director James Mangold has a good foundation to work with here, with a smart and sharp script hammered into shape by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, and his quality cast. He also shows a great understanding of how to use the technology at his disposal to best display the intensity of the racing moments without making it all feel like a CGI showcase.

Although Bale is as good as you would expect in the main role, he's a man with a very singular purpose. He knows cars, he wants to win races, he doesn't care for whatever else may be happening around him, in terms of the business and PR side. Damon gets to have a bit more fun, knowing when to play the game with people and when to do whatever it takes to protect the man who he knows is the best fit for the car. The supporting cast is also full of treats, from Letts as Ford, to Jon Bernthal as the vice president of Ford, to Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, the supportive wife of Ken. Josh Lucas gets to be the kind of arrogant douchebag that seems to be the highlighted role type at the top of his CV, and he does it so well, and Ray McKinnon is Phil Remington, a team engineer who is also adverse to all of the games being played off the track, his only aim being to help Miles and Shelby make their case with the fastest lap times.

There may be few surprises for those who were already familiar with this tale (I wasn't, I have no knowledge of the history of racecar driving), but there's enough added, in terms of the character development and little fun details, to definitely make this worth the time of even those who think they know the story too well to find it tense or entertaining. Mangold uses a lot of tried and tested tricks to make sure that it is a complete, and completely enjoyable, cinematic experience.


Thursday 13 February 2020

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Based on a novel by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit is another film written and directed by Taika Waititi, and another great mix of humour and emotion. It may not be his best film, and it's easy to initially view it as his weakest, but I suspect that it will grow on most people, over time.

Roman Griffin Davis is Jojo, a young boy living in Germany towards the end of WWII. Every child has an imaginary friend at some stage, Jojo has Hitler (Waititi). He also has a real friend in the shape of Yorki (Archie Yates), a loving mother (Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson), and lessons in the best way to serve Germany from the likes of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Jojo's worldview is challenged when he discovers that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl (Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.

I've seen some criticisms of Jojo Rabbit that seem to want to boil it down to "be nice to Nazis, because not all Nazis are bad" and I've seen comments being critical of opinions on the film that seem simplistic and naive. Both of these things are true, to some extent, and that stems from the way in which Waititi has wrangled his message of hope and optimism into a fun satire that is itself wrapped up in a layer of wide-eyed childish innocence and absorption. It may not be as simple as it seems, at first glance, but none of the more complex thoughts undo the central ideas of always maintaining the capability of love destroying hate.

Davis is superb in the main role, which will come as no surprise to anyone used to Waititi's knack for picking absolutely wonderful child stars for his project. Although not in it as much as I would have liked him to be, Yates is quite hilarious as the friend who isn't going to strain himself by thinking of the world events unfolding around him. Johansson is a solid anchor, and a pivot around which everything, and everyone, revolves. McKenzie is easily on par with Davis in her role, and the comedic turns from Rockwell and Wilson help, even underlining a couple of very serious moments in the third act. Alfie Allen does well in a small role, Stephen Merchant is very funny in his one main scene, and Waititi plays his sprung-from-the-mind-of-a-child version of Hitler very much like a version of him sprung from the mind of a child.

With the mix of quirky characters, the shot composition, and specific soundtrack choices, fans of Wes Anderson may occasionally forget that this is a Waititi film. It's been given a layer of artificiality that helps to create just enough distance between what we know of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and what we're being shown onscreen. The whole thing is a tightrope-walk, of course, but Waititi is up to the task. I can even see his reasoning behind some of the decisions made that I don't entirely agree with.

Imperfect and odd, Jojo Rabbit manages to do what it sets out to do. It makes you laugh, it provides some immensely powerful moments, and it sends you onward with a sense that there is always hope for humanity while individuals continue to hold on to their natural ability to, against some major odds, do the right thing.


Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Irishman (2019)

It's the film that everyone was desperate to see, and just as many were as keen to dismiss as yet another example of Martin Scorsese doing yet another gangster film. If you think that then a) you're unfamiliar with Scorcese's eclectic filmography, and b) you are dismissing the fact that every Scorsese gangster movie tends to say something very different. Goodfellas was about how the mob made a man into a monster, Casino was about how the mob built Las Vegas, Gangs Of New York tells of the growing pains there, of course, and now The Irishman comes along, a tale looking back at people who did things they thought needed done, putting themselves into a lifestyle not exactly known for the lengthy lifespan.

Robert De Niro is Frank Sheeran, the alleged Irishman of the title. He becomes a dependable guy who can do jobs for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and everything gets more complicated with the forceful personality of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in the mix. Some houses are going to need painted ("I Heard You Paint Houses" is the original title, from the book by Charles Brandt - the phrase is a euphemism for the work done by mafia hitmen), but who's going to be helping to decorate the walls?

Making use of some imperfect de-aging technology, The Irishman feels every bit like what it most probably is, a drawing of the curtain on the lives that Scorsese has taken interest in over the years. Almost every supporting character is given a quick subtitle that details the age and cause of death. There's a clear statement here. Although the main character is elderly, perhaps living with some regrets, he's in a much more privileged position than many who went into the same line of work.

Clocking in with a hefty runtime of three and a half hours, this is fertile ground for Scorsese to explore, helped along by Steven Zaillian's screenplay. Unfortunately, neither party feels quite at ease with this middle ground. It feels very much like this should have either been pared down by an hour or expanded to create a major TV limited series. You get the usual style and energy from Scorsese, including a nicely varied soundtrack, but he doesn't seem as focused as usual.

While their bodies cannot match the smoothing CGI making them appear younger in certain scenes, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci all do their usual sterling work, with Pesci a particular highlight. There are also good roles for Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and a super (as usual) Stephen Graham. Much has been made of the fact that there are no main female roles, and Anna Paquin has been singled out for her lack of dialogue, but don't let that take away from the fact that Paquin says a hell of a lot more with some of her expressions than some of the male characters say in their ongoing attempts to keep looking tough and stay on the trigger end of the guns.

If you're a fan of everyone involved then it's hard to see you hating this, even if there are a number of moments that can't help but feel similar, and maybe less impactful, when compared to other classic Scorsese moments. If you assume it's going to be a greatest hits selection of everything that they've done before, and you roll your eyes at the thought of that, then this probably isn't going to change your mind, despite the different heartbeat working throughout every scene.


Tuesday 11 February 2020

1917 (2019)

Directed by Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote the thing with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 is that WWI film that looks as if it is all made in one shot, with some of the hidden cuts easier to spot than others as you follow the main characters on a quest to the front, to deliver a message that will stop a load of soldiers from falling into a trap laid for them by the enemy.

That's really all there is to it. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofeld, respectively, the two soldiers sent through dangerous territory to deliver the message. And the cast also includes small roles for Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The more recognisable faces seem to help mark various chapters in the journey, with most of the other people onscreen either unrecognisable or just featured as one part of the military unit they're enlisted in.

There was a time when I considered attempting to write this review in one long ramble, hence that lengthy opening paragraph. But then I decided that would be too painful to read. It's a gimmick that would work worse on this blog than it does onscreen, and it doesn't work that well onscreen. Maybe war isn't the best subject for gimmickry, or maybe this technique (one shot/long scenes without cuts) already feels slightly overused, thanks to some recent great examples.

That's the main thing about 1917. It's quite dull. The acting is just fine from everyone involved, the cinematography from Roger Deakins is pretty glorious, and the music by Thomas Newman is there to ensure that you never forget how important and impressive the film is. That's in line with every other aspect of the film.

Considering the main message of the film is one we have seen many times before (which, in itself, is no reason to NOT make a film), and considering we don't get to learn as much about many of the main characters, 1917 is a film that turns out to be all about itself. It's all about that pretend one shot, it's all about Mendes marshalling everyone to get his vision onscreen, it's all about nothing more than how it all looks.

That wouldn't be so bad if it was also thought-provoking or interesting. It isn't. 1917 is a very dull war movie. And war during wartime is far from dull, I'm sure, which leaves me thinking that Mendes has somewhat let down the many people he had set out to honour. There are a couple of cinematic moments that do make it worth your time, for the scale and skill of the visuals, but that's the best thing I can say.


Monday 10 February 2020

Joker (2019)

Director Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Joker with Scott Silver, isn't really someone you might associate with gritty and compelling psychological dramas. He sets out to change that here, and many people view it as an absolute success. I really like Joker, but there are two main points (maybe three) that drag it down slightly, which I will get to in due course.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man with some serious mental health issues, and a pretty poor quality of life. He wants to be a comedian, but he's not good at making people laugh. He may, however, be good at laughing while he plans to get revenge on people around him. But his fortunes may change if he gets the chance to appear on the chat show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

Okay, first of all, a lot of people have criticised Joker for being little more than a diluted mash-up/reworking of Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. I'm not going to wield those reference points as weapons in any criticism of the film, because I feel that other great films can come from directors hewing close to past classics. This does go VERY close to both of those films, but there are so many worse films that Phillips could have had in his sights.

What works here, and works so well, is the performance from Phoenix. His portrayal of a man pushed further and further into the black pit of a complete mental breakdown is absolutely compelling. He's a superb Arthur Fleck. What he isn't, to me, is a superb Joker. I just don't see enough of that character in this interpretation, which is entirely to do with my own experience of the character through the years, from the comics to the TV show to the various movies. I am all for all of the praise being heaped upon Phoenix for his performance here. I just can't agree with anyone who labels him as the new gold standard for interpretations of the Joker (although nobody will ever be worse than Leto, I think that low point is safe).

There's also a good world created onscreen, a Gotham that is teeming with people who are struggling to get through their everyday lives. This is a pre-Batman Gotham. Not so much dark and full of convenient shadows, it's more like an interconnected set of glass cubes, each one oppressive and reeking of nicotine and potentially-contagious diseases.

The rest of the cast also do a great job. I'd be tempted to call them flawless if the casting of De Niro in his pivotal role didn't seem so much like an obvious stunt. He is good though, and has fun in his small amount of screentime, as is Zazie Beetz, the third point in the central triangle that the film creates. Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, and Douglas Hodge are on par with one another, portraying a mix of new characters and some you may be familiar with, albeit in a different guise.

These positives are enough to make this a very good movie, and it remains a very good movie, despite my three main problems with it. So bear that in mind, and let's move on to the negatives.

First up is the script. It's not terrible, by any means, but Phillips and Silver rely on the cast to elevate their words. Which the cast manage to do, seriously limiting the damage that could have been caused here.

My second and third main issues stem from the same thing so I'll just bundle them together here. This film has been hailed as an interesting departure from standard comic-book movies, it has been described as a scathing commentary on some major problems in the current climate in America. It's not. It's neither of those things, and that stems from Phillips giving himself an easier option when the opportunities arose. He made much of the fact that this was a standalone film, this Joker was different from what you'd seen before, and it didn't necessarily have to tie in to any DC movie universe. So why, WHY, even bring in the characters who make up the Wayne household? Those scenes feel like fan-service, they feel out of place, and they feel totally unearned (I know that doesn't seem like the right word, but it is, somehow). And as for the scathing commentary, I don't deny that Phillips works some very good points into the movie, and even has them at the heart of the whole thing, but he gives himself an "out" by setting it in the early 1980s. That allows him to shrug, it gives him plausible deniability, it really dulls what could have been a sharp, relevant message for people who may squirm when forced to look at the mirror being held up to modern society. Phillips decides not to commit to holding up the mirror, instead settling for a kaleidoscope. And everything looks a little better through a kaleidoscope.

There's plenty to like here, even plenty to admire, and it does feel like a more interesting film from Phillips than anything else he has done, to date. It's far from perfect though, and I think people have forgiven some mis-steps because they were impressed by the kaleidoscope.


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

Sunday 9 February 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Prodigy (2019)

There's probably a good movie to be made about The Prodigy, the British dance band that suffered the sad loss of charismatic member Keith Flint last year. There's so much energy and attitude there, and quite the journey through rave culture and beyond. Having said that, there's also probably a good movie to be made about a child prodigy. A "bad seed" child with the smarts and innovation to start killing many people they encounter without relying on the stupidity of others to avoid being caught. Or just a child mentally developing so rapidly that it causes them to lash out, mood swings and strong arguments being put on display that are far removed from the standard behaviour of a child at that age.

The Prodigy isn't any of those. It's a depressingly dull slog through familiar material, trudging from one predictable moment to the next, lacking tension, scares, and energy. If you ever decide to give yourself a triple-bill of home viewings and you pick The Prodigy as one of your options then place it in the middle, to be carried by the other two a la Weekend At Bernies.

Here's the plot, because I suppose I must. Taylor Schilling and Peter Mooney are Sarah and John Blume, and they have a son, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). Miles is a very smart cookie. Which doesn't matter much, not until he starts to speak a different language in his sleep and show signs of being what is known in proper medical terminology as . . . an evil little shit. That's all I'll say. There IS more to it, but a) I don't want to spoil anything for those who like to know as little as possible, and b) I can't be bothered expending more energy on something so lazy and horrible.

Director Nicholas McCarthy has a decent filmography, from those I have seen. The Pact is a supernaturally-tinged thriller that worked well with genre tricks, while At The Devil's Door was an improvement, in terms of confidence and atmosphere. So it's a shame to see him take this big step back. I'm not going to give him all the blame though, because Jeff Buhler is the person who wrote the screenplay, and Jeff Buhler seems to be doing his best to upset horror fans recently, considering his work on this, Pet Sematary, the Jacob's Ladder remake, and The Grudge reboot/reworking/sequel. I really enjoyed his first screenplay over a decade ago, Midnight Meat Train, but perhaps that was more down to the vision of the director than anything that Buhler put on the page.

Cast-wise, there's nobody helping to make this more bearable. Schilling and Mooney are just present, Scott makes mean faces, usually changing suddenly after making sweet faces, and Colm Feore is the only one managing to stand out from the supporting cast that includes Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, and Paula Boudreau.

There's a minimum degree of competency in all departments, which saves it from being among the worst of the worst, but this is an absolutely dire mainstream horror movie. Viewers aren't drawn in at the beginning, the middle section meanders from one incident to the next without much sense, and the ending is as unengaging as it is tiresomely nonsensical, and also painfully predictable.


Don't buy the movie here.
Americans can not buy it here.

Saturday 8 February 2020

Shudder Saturday: Anguish (2015)

Inspired by true events. Every movie could use that, if you think about it. Does your film have one human being talking to another? Then it's inspired by true events. Does it show some particles moving through space? Then it's inspired by true events. Is it a tale of superheros battling supervillains, but also includes the previous elements? Then it's inspired by true events. My point is that this claim is often spurious, even more so than the "based on a true story" that all of us horror fans know to take with a pinch of salt nowadays.

But Anguish is inspired by true events. And, for all I know, it may have been so inspired by them that writer-director Sonny Mallhi tried to recreate everything as accurately as possible. Or maybe it was just a jumping-off point for this tale. Both of these approaches should lead to the same result, a movie that is ultimately worth your time. Sadly, this is not.

Ryan Simpkins plays Tess, a young woman who starts to become more and more unstable in her mental health as she feels as if her body is not her own. It seems that she may have been invaded by the spirit of a young woman, Lucy (Amberley Gridley), who was killed by a car while storming away from a heated argument with her mother (Sarah, played by Karina Logue). Tess's mother, Jessica (Annika Marks), obviously struggles to consider this scenario, although psychiatric treatment and even the idea of possession are not ruled out, eventually.

For a first feature, Mallhi does a lot right here. The script and direction are both decent, there's certainly nothing here that you can point to as completely incompetent (even if some moments are a bit heavy-handed and clumsy), and it's admirable that he tried to deliver something different from so many of the easier options horror fans are sold every other week.

Mallhi also does well with his casting. Simpkins is good in the lead role, and ably supported by Logue, Marks, and Gridley, as well as everyone else making up the supporting cast. Histrionics are on display every so often, but they feel more like breakdowns in mental health than overdone reactions to jumps and scares.

What isn't done so well is the tone of the film. The first half is especially bad, with a meandering and dull approach to the material. It is completely lifeless, no pun intended, and leads to a lack of interest in the main events, even as things start to become more interesting in the run up to the finale. And that isn't me simply demanding a horror movie provides more blood 'n' guts, or more scares (although, y'know, neither of those things are bad when there isn't much else going on). Mallhi doesn't even think of looking further into the psychological side of things, disappointingly avoiding a sense of ambiguity and exploration that would have made things significantly more interesting.

At least made with a bit of care, it's just a shame that Anguish doesn't say anything worthwhile, and doesn't make up for this by being more entertaining.


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

Friday 7 February 2020

Harpoon (2019)

Written and directed by Rob Grant, Harpoon is the kind of black comedy thriller best described as enjoyably vicious. It takes three people, throws them together in a small environment, and starts to allow them to twist the knife into one another. And twist. And twist.

It all starts with Jonah (Munro Chambers) packing up things after the death of his parents. He is visited by his friend, Richard (Christopher Gray). Richard punches Munro in the face because he believes that Munro has been cheating with Richard's girlfriend, Sasha (Emily Tyra). Once that misunderstanding has been cleared up, the three head off on Richard's yacht for a day trip. Tension is still there, as well as a spear gun that is a birthday surprise for Richard.

Framed by the words of an unreliable narrator (Brett Gelman), Harpoon moves deftly between the very funny and the very painful. The truth can often hurt, but so can a swift kick to the balls. The latter will also happen to make viewers laugh. The three central characters show themselves, at various points, to be people who aren't really very nice, which makes their pain ultimately more satisfying, and also more expected as momentum starts to build towards the finale.

The praise must all go to Grant for his script (with some input from Mike Kovac). He's managed to take a simple three-hander of a tale, add some more humour and uncertainty with the help of that sharp narration, and somehow keep things both blindingly obvious and yet entertainingly serpentine at the same time. Everything is there from the very beginning, in many ways, as you are shown the characters, their actions, and main relationship dynamics.

It helps that the main cast all do very well in their roles. Gray is, of course, the one we take an immediate dislike to, being the rich kid who comes onscreen and punches his friend in the opening sequence. Chambers is enjoyably mistreated by Gray, the two of them perfectly illustrating an unlikely, and unhealthy, friendship, and Tyra is a perfect third point in what is set out as an obviously problematic triangle.

Although not as simplistically entertaining as Mon Ami (a 2012 film from Grant, featuring Kovac in a lead role), Harpoon is a similar tale of snowballing events leading up to a finale that looks set to be pretty bad news for everyone involved. It's still just a little bit too slight, and not quite as sharp as it could be, but you can certainly see the growth in Grant as a film-maker, and good to see him recently getting some more praise and attention from genre fans.


You can buy the movie here.