Tuesday 31 March 2020

Charlie's Angels (2019)

I watched Charlie's Angels some time ago, when it was first released in cinemas. And I kept delaying my attempts to review the film. I knew that I'd enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I also struggled to write down my problems with it. So I waited, and waited. And waited. I waited so long that I ended up having to rewatch the film recently. I'm glad that is the way things worked out, because it turns out that most of my problems with this take on the classic trio of kick-ass young women aren't enough to stop me from recommending this, especially to the target viewers demographic.

Naomi Scott plays Elena Houghlin, a young woman who has created a device that could potentially replace the need for any major wiring and national grid. It can supply electrical power to a whole building, at the very least. Unfortunately, it can also misfire, killing anyone nearby with the human equivalent of an EMP. But people still want the device to be sold, which puts Elena in danger, and that is how she ends up under the protection of Charlie's Angels, mainly Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart), Jane Kano (Ella Balinska), and one of the main Bosleys (Elizabeth Banks). They all know what has to be done, but it soon starts to seem as if someone on the side of the baddies is getting some inside information.

As well as giving herself a major supporting role, Banks also wrote (Evan Spiliotopoulos and David Auburn get a story credit) and directed this incarnation of Charlie's Angels. That means that she got all the blame when it didn't perform as expected. Although I know not everyone will enjoy this as much as I did, I think it's a shame that people decided not to give it their time, and I think it mainly stems from the fact that a) people still don't really want to see Kristen Stewart in movies, and b) the recent movie versions of the Angels doesn't seem that long ago. Hey, that doesn't matter for Superman, or Batman, or Spider-man, I know, I know. I hear you. I just think it worked against this film more.

Speaking of Kristen Stewart, let's keep . . . speaking of Kristen Stewart. She's great fun in this, showing a decent flair for the mix of physicality and comedy given to her character. I was laughing aloud during the first main sequence, which has Stewart yelling out "you swiped right, I'm your girlfriend now" before headbutting a villain, and I was often smiling, at the very least, whenever she was onscreen, either being slightly behind everyone else as plans unfolded or acting dumb to put people off guard. The other leads work just as well in their roles. Scott is the newcomer, the one who can be shown everything along with the viewers, learning all about how the agency works, and how far-reaching they can be. Balinska is impressively fierce, and her working relationship with Stewart improves every time she sees her colleague get results, or at least try her hardest in her attempts. Banks is a good Bosley, Djimon Hounsou is another good Bosley, although hid role is a much smaller one, and Patrick Stewart is his usual wonderful self as a Bosley shown just at his time of retiring from the agency. Sam Claflin is the kind of businessman you know will want everything to go his way without him having to get his hands dirty, and Jonathan Tucker is excellent as the kind of tough "employee' always willing to get his hands dirty. There are also a number of familiar faces in smaller roles, and a selection of nice cameos (mostly throughout the end credits, which are at least worth sitting through once).

Banks has nothing to be ashamed of here. The film isn't perfect, mainly because it leans so hard into the idea of the Angels network being available everywhere, when needed most, but it's absolutely ideal for those who want to see an action thriller, with some comedy sprinkled throughout, that showcases young women who can take on their enemies with a mix of brains and fighting prowess. The action sequences are the best choreographed ones yet, for this particular brand, and things move breezily from one set-piece to the next, en route to an energetic ending that keeps the stakes high.

If you don't like the idea of another Charlie's Angels movie then I am not going to try to convince you that you should give this your time. You may still end up hating it, could think my rating and review too kind, and just be annoyed at me once you've given it your time. I will just say that it's better than the general consensus would have you think. And you MIGHT, just might, end up having as much fun watching it as I did.


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

Monday 30 March 2020

Mubi Monday: Secretary (2002)

Sex. It's hard to deny that the world could be a better, happier place if so many people weren't so uptight about sex, whether that leads to them trying to move sex workers further and further to the edges of society, where they are more likely to be abused and harmed, or spending the vast majority of their time concerning themselves about the contents of someone else's underpants. And then you have the people who either judge others for their likes and dislikes, or spend a lot of their time unhappy because they haven't actively discussed some sexual preferences that give them more satisfaction than what some may call "vanilla" sex.

Secretary is about someone discovering themselves with the help of someone else, it's about a shared love of a certain lifestyle, or small choices made when the lifestyle allows, and it's a film that gets more right about the mindset of those involved than any of the few mainstream movies that have tried to venture into this territory (and it's ironic that James Spader plays a character named Mr. Grey).

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a young woman named Lee who starts the movie by leaving an institution that has clearly been trying to help her with her mental health. Lee goes through some training to be a secretary, and then ends up in the employment of Mr. Grey (Spader). Things start off fairly standard, but one or two moments lead to both employer and employee exploring, and enjoying, a closer relationship that allows them to explore their shared kinks.

Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, which was adapted by director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, Secretary is constantly walking a tightrope that it admirably never slips on. That's not to say it does everything perfectly, but it keeps moving without giving a second thought to any minor wobbles or near-misses. And the more troublesome elements, including the mental health background of Lee before she finds something that truly satisfies her while it scratches an itch she didn't realise was there, aren't so troublesome when you consider that a) a lot of people DO find themselves suffering mentally before they allow themselves to more fully explore something that easily makes them happier, and b) while Gyllenhaal is shown as submissive, to use one of the labels she is given, the script takes care to show that what is going on is communicated subtly between the two in ways that make it consensual, and also shows that submissives have just as much, if not more, control in any effective sexual dynamic.

Both of the leads are as good as you'd expect, with Gyllenhaal making a strong impression early on in her career while Spader does the kind of kinky SOB he's played effortlessly for decades (even in roles that didn't say anything about his character . . . he always played them like a kinky SOB). Lesley Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie are fine in their small supporting roles, the parents who are concerned about their daughter, but also don't necessarily know what's best for her, and Jeremy Davies is very sweet as Peter, a young man who may want to have a relationship with Lee, but may not be the right person to manage to scratch that constant little itch.

Although Secretary may seem, on the surface, as if it is designed to appeal to a very specific viewer demographic, that's not the case. You just need to adjust your perspective slightly. The script and direction work together to make everything clear, with wit and the nice subtleties of the character interactions helping everything along, and what you have is ultimately an offbeat, but still quite sweet, romantic film for those who don't really like romantic films.

And if none of it makes any sense to you, maybe read up further on kinks and fetishes, without judging others or eagerly dismissing it as evil filth. At the very least, you might read some unusual anecdotes from some very cool people.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get a shiny disc here.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Hustle (2019)

There's a part of me that realises I am being a tiny bit unfair to The Hustle by judging it so harshly against Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, one of my favourite comedies of all time. That film is itself based on an earlier film, Bedtime Story, which I have still not seen. And here we have something that works the premise for a third time, placing female stars in where there were previously men. Those women are played by Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, which may be a mark against the film already for some.

Wilson plays Penny Rust, a small-time con artist who enjoys preying on men and getting them to hand money over to her. She never feels guilt, there's always a point that shows her that they deserved to be parted from their cash. Hathaway is Josephine Chesterfield, a con artist who plans more sophisticated schemes for much greater rewards. When these two cross paths, Josephine tries to send Penny away. Failing at that, she instead opts to train her, using her in some cons that make use of her talents. But there can only be one to really rule the roost, which is when the two bet on extracting a set sum of money from a young tech millionaire, Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp).

The feature directorial debut from Chris Addison, who has had a decent bit of practice with TV work over the years, The Hustle is a strange film to judge. Addison, who has been acting onscreen for just over a decade and has been part of some great comedy shows, seems to think that he's landed the perfect leads in Hathaway and Wilson. That's not the case, and it's this wrong decision that constantly threatens to sink the film.

Not that Hathaway is bad. She just doesn't feel right for the role. The same can be said for Wilson. Her con work never feels believable, because she has to spin things further and make them sillier and sillier. Even Sharp, not at all terrible, just doesn't feel right. That's the biggest problem the film has, the cast.

The script has lines to make you laugh, many of the best ones either unchanged, or only slightly changed, from the original script. It's also good when it allows Hathaway to roll her eyes and effortlessly one-up Wilson, but not so good when things feel most adjusted to either cater to a more modern sensibility, or manipulated to be in line with the style of Wilson. There's something about this premise, two con artists who decide to compete in a beautiful location to extract a set amount of money from one target, that lends itself to a timeless quality, something that then makes any talk of apps feel jarring. And the same goes for the many insults Wilson fires at Hathaway, as chucklesome as they sometimes are in their own right.

Perhaps I am being far too harsh, perhaps I am still being too kind to make up for my self-perceived harshness, but The Hustle doesn't ever work. Even the final scenes seem to get things wrong, in a small but very obvious way (to those familiar with the previous take on the material).


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

Saturday 28 March 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Furies (2019)

An impressive slasher film from writer-director Tony D'Aquino, The Furies has some interesting ideas in the mix, even if they're not all executed perfectly (no pun intended).

Airlie Dodds is Kayla, a young woman we first see arguing with a good friend, Maddie (Ebony Vagulans). And then it's not long until we see Kayla rousing from unconsciousness in the middle of some woods. She, and some other young women who have also recently woken up, are being hunted by large masked men with large tools that can be used to mutilate and kill people. Kayla starts off feeling understandably terrified and frantic, but things start to look different when she figures out how she and the others can work together to possibly improve their odds.

On the one hand, I was interested by the extra ideas mixed in here. On the other hand, I couldn't help wishing that this was more of a pure slasher film, without the need for any framing device that added some tech quirks to the format and made you think of the reason for the hunt/game. There's also a particular plot device that, while not dissimilar to something we have seen done before, feels a bit sillier this time around, ironically because you get an attempt at an explanation for it. Sometimes the known can be known and the supernatural can stay unexplained.

It doesn't help that the main characters are hard to really identify with. That's not to dismiss the good work from Dodds in the lead role, but D'Aquino forgets to give anyone any personality beyond one main trait (and our lead has epileptic fits, that's really the one thing that defines her). Having watched the film very recently, I can already impress you with my lack of being able to recall the few main supporting characters, with the exception of Rose (played by Linda Ngo). I know that slasher films aren't renowned for the character development and depth, but there are still ways to present things in a way that at least tricks you into thinking you learn more about the victims before they are despatched in various ways.

Having made that particular complaint, however, there's no denying that this is a real treat for horror fans who want to enjoy some gory FX work (which seems to be mostly practical). The first big kill is a particularly jaw-dropping moment. I won't describe it, suffice to say that I cannot recall seeing anything like it onscreen before. You get limbs ripped off, eye trauma, heads exploding, all delivered with aplomb and loads of the red stuff thrown around. Well done to those involved in creating every one of the main gags.

Dodds does a good job in her role, moving nicely from confusion to survival mode, and then on to kick ass. Ngo is, as just mentioned, the other person who stands out onscreen. That's it though. The other young women are just there to be victims, apparently, because it's almost impossible to care about them until a large killer appears in the same frame.

There are one or two key elements that I've deliberately left out here, and I certainly appreciated one of them as something that brings a nice twist to the standard stalker/victim tension, but The Furies feels very much like a film that D'Aquino made while worried that he couldn't just deliver a straightforward slasher flick. Considering the best moments are the brutal death scenes, he really didn't need to try and complicate things. It's an impressive feature debut from him, nonetheless, and I'd be interested to see what he does next.


Friday 27 March 2020

The Hunt (2020)

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Hunt, but I can tell you that my expectations were low. It seemed to be a standard riff on The Most Dangerous Game that managed to gain some notoriety by using the modern day polarising of political opinions as the basis for a lot of the main thrust of the plot. Well, that in itself didn't gain it the notoriety. The fact that it had the release date pushed back, and it could tag itself as "the film they didn't want you to see", helped to give it some notoriety. But is that all it has to offer?

No. It turns out that The Hunt is actually a smart and funny thriller that does itself a big favour by not aligning itself fully with one side or the other, in terms of the class divide, and the gap between those who are perceived to be in favour of all freedoms and those who are perceived to be "snowflakes".

Things start off with a number of great moments, a number of short, sharp shocks that deliver bloody entertainment while also making the most of some amusing cameos. It lets viewers know that they're going to see some extreme violence, if sometimes in an almost cartoonish way, and that nobody will be safe. And then we meet the one person we think may be safe for most of the movie. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is onscreen for a minute or so before showing how much sharper she is than the rest of the people who have been scattered around as prey for some privileged folk who want to bag the ultimate kill. And that's all you need to know. The bodycount is impressive, Crystal has to constantly outwit opponents with more resources and intel than she has, and viewers are carried along to a third act that should provide some answers about how the hunt began, as well as some predictable satisfaction. Hopefully.

Although directed, and directed well, by Craig Zobel, this is a film that is very much covered in the fingerprints of the writers, Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (who both also worked together on the excellent Watchmen TV series). It seems pretty clear where they like to align themselves, politically, but they do at least take some time to show how the current lack of tolerance from those who find themselves offended can become a bit of a chicken and egg scenario with opinions being doubled down on and jokes being turned into a reality.

Gilpin is great in the lead, and it's her best movie role yet. She's believably tough and smart, and quickly sets her mentality to a focused survival mode. There are a few hunters given screentime, all of them fun in the way they can't comprehend ever being one-upped by someone they picked to be killed off, but the most recognisable is played by Glenn Howerton, who has fun with a role that taps into the sociopathy/psychopathy of his most famous comedic persona. Macon Blair is good in a very small role, and I'll mention Wayne Duvall, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Amy Madigan, Reed Birnet, and Ethan Suplee, all of them doing their bit to add to the thrill of the hunt. Hilary Swank is also in the mix. She may not be onscreen for that long, but she makes a great impression (and it made me realise that I hadn't seen her in a major release for some time, certainly not having as much fun as she has here).

I'm sure that some people will watch this and be annoyed by the script, for one reason or another. It's a no-win situation for anyone writing something that weaves the current trend of making everything an ideological war with standard exploitation thrills. But everyone involved knows that. That feels like it's part of the point.


Thursday 26 March 2020

Look Who's Talking Too (1990)

I knew there had to be a reason for me having never seen any of the sequels to Look Who's Talking before now. That would be because they may be awful (the verdict on the next one is due next week). Where the first film had the novelty of allowing viewers hear what a baby may be thinking as they make sense of the world around them, this sequel decides to . . . ummmm . . . actually, it decides to just keep doing that more. In a way that is much less entertaining.

James (John Travolta) and Mollie (Kirstie Alley) are now an item. There's another baby on the way. It's a girl. So Mikey (still voiced by Bruce Willis) has to figure out what is required of him in his new role of big brother to Julie (voiced by Roseanne Barr). Meanwhile, things start to become strained between James and Mollie, a situation not helped by the arrival of Mollie's brother, Stuart (Elias Koteas).

With Amy Heckerling returning to the director's chair, this time co-writing the script with Neal Israel, you would hope that she had an idea good enough to help her recapture the magic of the first film. That's not the case. Look Who's Talking Too isn't without very occasional moments of fun (one being the unexpected treat of watching Gilbert Gottfried dancing alongside Travolta), but it generally tries to rework elements of the first film with less wit and smarts. That's what many sequels do, of course, but it's harder to enjoy something that feels a lot lazier and poorly handled.

The adults don't do a bad job. Travolta and Alley still work well together, and I am always happy to see Koteas have some screentime. The aforementioned Gottfried cameo is as bewildering as it is highly amusing. If the film somehow managed to sideline the kids and stay focused on the adults then it could have been an okay, if unspectacular, comedy about parents dealing with the various issues that life throws at them. But this is a film trying to focus on the kids, and it's the kids who do the worst work. To be fair, they're not exactly to blame. Remember when Mikey seemed a bit too old by the end of Look Who's Talking to continue communicating with the inner monologue of Bruce Willis and not his own words? Yeah, that's a much bigger problem here, what with him being an older character, and the child seemingly unable to stop wanting to babytalk to anyone close enough to him in every scene. Although Julie is younger, it also feels as if she has already gone beyond the point of just having an inner voice. Willis and Barr deliver their lines in a fairly perfunctory manner, which also doesn't help, but there are a couple of fun voice cameos from Damon Wayans and Mel Brooks, with the latter portraying a bizarre "talking" toilet.

It's a shame that they didn't decide to either do away with the inner voice gimmick, or perhaps mix that inner voice with whatever the kids might have been able to say in person, because this could have been more bearable if that hadn't been the focus. As it is, you will end up smiling far too infrequently, rolling your eyes at the contrived finale, and being glad when it's all over.


You can buy this set here.
Americans can also buy that, or get this set here.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Prime Time: Dead Ant (2019)

AKA Giant Killer Ants.

There seems to be something about ants in movies. Modern films just don't seem to be able to make good use of them. While we had the likes of Them!, It Happened At Lakewood Manor (AKA Ants!), The Naked Jungle, Phase IV, and (one I have a soft spot for) Empire Of The Ants many decades ago, nothing in the 21st century seems to have managed to use our hard-working insectoid friends.

You can always find a selection of films to scare arachnophobes. But for the ants? I can only think of It Came From The Desert, The Hive, and this one. And The Hive is one I have yet to see. Maybe it's the best of the three. It's certainly unlikely to be the worst.

Dead Ant is a film about a rock group travelling to a festival to play a set. The group has their best days behind them, but this performance may give them a boost. Their manager (Tom Arnold) is certainly hoping for that result. But all of that pales into insignificance when there is some cursed peyote smoked that then leads to an assortment of pesky ants, growing larger in size every time one is killed.

Although writer-director Ron Carlson doesn't do a terrible job here, he doesn't do anything particularly great either. The script isn't as funny as it could be, the ant attacks aren't all that exciting, and the only highlights are some amusing gore gags in the third act (especially moments that show a character losing their hands).

Thankfully, the cast are all game, almost all of them giving more to the material than it deserves. Arnold is fine, if you don't mind his schtick, in the role of the manager who has made it his life's work to look after one band, and both Sean Astin and Jake Busey are very entertaining as band members, given fine support from everyone else onscreen, whether they are portraying temperamental musicians, disruptive girlfriends, or festival attendees.

I REALLY wanted to like Dead Ant, mainly because the cast take on their roles with such gusto (and it has an amusingly cheeky opening that shows a young woman discarding her clothing while being chased down by a giant beastie). But it never does enough to make it a decent entry in this particular subgenre of the creature feature realm. I just couldn't stop thinking about better movies, even when the film was supposedly working through an action-packed final act (that also left me cold).

Not enough laughs, no tension, not enough bloodshed, Dead Ant is disappointingly lifeless. Maybe the NEXT killer ant movie will buck the trend. I won't hold my breath though.


Tuesday 24 March 2020

The Invisible Man (2020)

Let me start by saying that The Invisible Man is a good film. It uses the idea of invisibility to make some good points about control, gaslighting, and how a domestic abuser can continue to hold a victim in their grasp even when "not present". That all works well, and makes the material ripe for reworking in this day and age. Unfortunately, things don't hold together too well when it comes to the actual thrills and spills.

Elisabeth Moss is Cecilia Kass, a young woman we first see trying to make a stealthy getaway in the middle of the night. She's drugged her partner, has prepared an "escape kit", and is desperate and afraid. Helped by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), Cecilia then stays with sone friends, Sydney Lanier (Storm Reid) and her father, who also happens to be a cop, James (Aldis Hodge). Scared to go outside, scared to be found by her partner, and generally unable to move on with her life, all seems to be looking up when it turns out that someone has stupidly managed to shuffle themselves off the mortal coil. Cecilia is in line for a lot of money, as long as she doesn't commit any major crime, but she can't quite shake the feeling that she is still being watched, still being messed with, and still being controlled. The title of the movie may give you an idea of whether or not her suspicion is correct.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, a man who knows how to use genre trappings to tell a wide variety of stories (including his previous film, the impressively bloody sci-fi action fun of Upgrade), The Invisible Man is worth celebrating for the fact that it manages to diverge from the classic interpretation of the material without feeling as if it is disrespecting the legacy of the character. The metaphor may be more pointed this time around, but that doesn't mean Whannell stops delivering a lot of enjoyable spectacle. The first half of the film feels like a lot of build up, with negative space used expertly as Moss starts to worry about her safety, even when everyone else is telling her that she has nothing to worry about. And then it's all fun effects sequences through to a surprisingly satisfying finale.

Unfortunately, those moments see an invisible killer in the middle of many people who have guns. And ALL of those people turn all around with their guns drawn without once firing the damn things. I know, I know, you wouldn't fire a gun if you couldn't see anything in front of you and your colleague was in the line of fire, but people are quickly out of harm's way, usually after being thrown around or wounded by the unseen attacker, and no character trying to shoot once just becomes more and more annoying. That may not seem like a big deal, and I am sure some can easily overlook it, but it undermines the payoff after such a well-constructed first half.

Moss is very good in the lead role, a bag of nerves after spending years held prisoner by her abuser, and she does well in the many times that have her reacting to what is simply empty space. Of the supporting players, Hodge stands out as the cop and ally who you can't blame for finally considering that events have driven the lead character to madness. Oliver Jackson-Cohen is the abusive partner, and his screentime is understandably limited, while Michael Dorman gets some great scenes, playing his brother and another victim, but one who may also have helped to enable the great invisibility scheme (if he has a clue about it).

The good does outweigh the bad here, but it's a closer call than you might think. It sometimes just takes the smallest details to throw everything off balance, and that is what happens with The Invisible Man. It's very good when it uses the idea to show how domestic abuse can change the life of someone forever, and then it starts to falter when it should be more easily entertaining in the third act. Not bad at all, and Whannell keeps proving himself a valuable contributor to genre cinema, but not quite as good as some are making it out to be.


Monday 23 March 2020

Mubi Monday: Lady Vengeance (2005)

The last instalment of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, Lady Vengeance is a deceptively light tale that leads to a finale that allows viewers to question what vengeance really brings, be it closure, catharsis, guilt, dissatisfaction, or any other number of feelings.

Lee Young-ae plays Lee Geum-ja, a young woman who is released from prison at the start of the film. She has served a 13-year sentence for the kidnap and murder of a small boy, and throughout that time she has been coming up with a grand plan and building up a store of favours. Because, as becomes clear quite early on, she wasn't the person responsible for the horrific crime. Despite confessing to it.

The first script collaboration between Chan-wook and Jeong Seo-kyeong, Lady Vengeance is a well-constructed piece of work that skirts close to being a mystery before showing you all of the cards quite early on. You have questions during the opening act, those are answered during the middle section, and the third act sets everything out, as our lead does for other characters, and shows a stark choice to be made, one that will reverberate through the lives of others for many years to come.

Although there are many interesting supporting characters here, with one of the most memorable being a spiteful and abusive prisoner named "The Witch" (played by Go Soo-hee), Lady Vengeance never loses focus of the main characters. You have Lee Geum-ja, Detective Choi (Nam Il-woo), who was never convinced of her guilt, and Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik, returning for a smaller, but no less vital, role after his peerless turn in Oldboy).

What Chan-wook and Seo-kyeong do so well is the detailing and forward momentum of the script. Even as you perhaps have to play a bit of catch up, reminding yourself of who various characters are between the present and the past, there's a narration to help, as well as various signifiers telling you what plot point any particular sequence is revolving around. Whether it's a dream sequence, a memory, or simply a scene showing you something happening that seems out of the blue, there's always enough within the frame to stop viewers getting totally lost.

Young-ae is a great protagonist, she is a perfect mix of sweet, innocent, scheming, and absolute ruthlessness. Il-woo is a nice addition to the core group, showing how frustrating it must be to go along with a majority verdict while you have no concrete evidence to back up your own feeling on the matter. And then you have Min-sik, being horrible, and doing so well at it. Kim Si-hoo also deserves a mention, playing Geun-shik, a young man who would have been about the same age as the murdered child, and a co-worker that is drawn into a relationship with our lead.

The previous two instalments showed how vengeance affects individuals, in a way, while this shows how it can bond together a group of people, for better or worse. It remains a lighter look at things, compared to the other movies, but that's down to the deceptive direction from Chan-wook, who uses every trick in the book to keep you entertained and enthralled throughout, with the exception of one or two moments that stop things and turn your face to look directly at the consequences of what is being done. And that is the brilliance of this final instalment of what is an unmissable cinematic trilogy.


This is a set you may want to pick up.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Netflix And Chill: Extra Ordinary (2019)

Extra Ordinary is a supernatural comedy that benefits from that very lovely and low-key type of Irish humour that has worked so well in a variety of past gems. It's all about the characters and their fairly nonchalant way of dealing with a situation that keeps getting a bit crazier with every passing minute. A hit at many festivals, and I can see it playing well with a big audience, it sadly didn't quite work for me as well as it did for many others.

Maeve Higgins plays Rose Dooley, a driving instructor who also has a talent for communicating with the dead. This is why she ends up being contacted by Martin Martin (Barry Ward), a man who is being haunted by the spirit of his dead wife. Unbeknownst to Martin, his daughter (Sarah, played by Emma Coleman) may also need help, having been targeted by Christian Winter (Will Forte), a one-hit-wonder pop star who wants to make a deal with the devil to give his career a new lease of life.

Higgins is quite the star here, giving the kind of perfect comedic performance that will surely see her gaining some more roles in the near future (although some have been recognising her talent over the past few years already). She's the reason that this works as well as it does, and her scenes with Ward are all very good. But that makes it harder to understand how Forte doesn't quite work in his role. I've been a big fan of him for many years, the guy has great natural talent, but his turn here just doesn't work. It's somehow either too low-key or too weighed down by the expectations of the stereotype (the faded pop star longing for the return of his golden years). I'd go so far as saying that a number of his scenes see him outshone by his onscreen wife (played by Claudia O'Doherty).

Perhaps Higgins shines as the star because a) well . . . she's the star, and b) she was able to work more into the script, alongside Demian Fox. The main body of the script was co-written by the directors, Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, so it's hard to consider who should get credit for the better moments, but Higgins has so many great little moments that it would seem obvious that she knows how to shape things slightly to play to her strengths.

As for the rest, it's all competently done. Ahern and Loughman show what needs to be shown, and make great use of their relatively small budget, whether they're showing ghosts onscreen, demons, or just another personality coming through a host body, complete with materialised cigarette. It's just that everything seems to sit in a strange middle area, being quite simple and yet having too many elements in the mix that get in the way of the comedy. You have a main character with a strange talent, and then she meets someone else with a different strange talent. You have a villain who could be an amusing and over the top character, but he ends up being quite banal and mediocre most of the time (which I know is done for comedic effect, it just doesn't feel as fun as it could be). And there's a backstory that plays into things, despite not needing as much time devoted to it as it gets.

I liked Extra Ordinary. I just didn't love it. It made me chuckle occasionally. It tried to be a bit different from many other comedies that have used the horror genre trappings over the past decade or so. And it's worth your time. I just think it may be one you enjoy more in the right company.


Saturday 21 March 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Room (2019)

A wander through very familiar territory for horror fans, The Room is a decent reworking of The Monkey's Paw (the W. W. Jacobs tale so beloved by Stephen King) that starts off nice and light, and then gradually be comes darker and more twisted, leading to one hell of a "punchline".

Olga Kurylenko and Kevin Janssens are Kate and Matt, a couple who move into their new home and soon find a hidden room. Not just any hidden room. This one allows wishes to come true. There are catches, of course, but Kate and Matt need to find out what they are. Not before they have a child though, because who wouldn't use a mysterious wish-granting facility to wish for a child before figuring out all of the small print? Things start to seem a bit off, to put it mildly, and then get worse and worse for the new parents.

Directed by Christian Volckman, his live-action directorial debut after years of working on shorts and one animated feature (Renaissance, from 2005), The Room is a film that ends up being pitched in a bit of a sweet spot, for what it is. Volckman also came up with the idea and the screenplay, helped by Eric Forestier, Sabrina B. Karine, and numerous others, and he knows exactly what he has on his hands. This is a film, like many, that feels as if it could easily be an anthology TV show episode. It works better than some, however, because Volckman doesn't fill the runtime with obvious padding. Things get moving quickly enough, you get some lighter moments in the opening section of the movie, and then it takes a turn. And then another. And another.

The more the room starts to be shown as something dangerous, the more it becomes impossible for the characters to easily extricate themselves from the situation, at least not without using the room even more, even as some kind of "holodeck" to bring the outside to the indoors.

Kurylenko and Janssens are fine in their lead roles, if not the best choices. I'll always enjoy watching the former onscreen, because I like her (insert Jim Carrey from Dumb & Dumber impression here - "I like her a lot"), but there's no real chemistry between the two, although that helps in one or two of the more disturbing later scenes. Joshua Wilson is okay as the young child, while Francis Chapman handles heavier material as the older version of the same character.

Wisely keeping the focus on the house, the room itself, and the two parents dealing with their new child, The Room works as well as it does because it's happy to stay focused on a central predicament that it continues to make even worse than you expect. I'll be honest, it took me an extra few seconds to figure out the implication of that final shot, one that helps to raise an entertaining genre distraction into something that bit more memorable.


Friday 20 March 2020

Contagion (2011)

Yes, I was as curious as everyone else who had been watching Contagion over the past week or two. So I caved in and gave it a watch for myself. It had been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, to be fair, and I figured that now was as good a time as any.

It's the tale of a global pandemic, as unbelievable as that sounds, which is all inadvertently started by a bat (I know, I know, impossible). The first person to be affected by things is Gwyneth Paltrow, getting such a dose of the virus that not even a vagina-scented candle can heal her. She is married to Matt Damon, and they have a teenaged daughter. Other people who end up closely working with the virus include Laurence Fishburne (as Dr. Ellis Cheever), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears), Marion Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman), and an Australian (?) blogger, played by Jude Law.

Written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, allowing him to utilise the kind of interweaving and fractured narrative style that he seems to prefer for stories with a BIG picture, Contagion is a film that most definitely feels more like a documentary right now. The timeline shown at every step of the way is scarily close to what we're going through here and now. That may prove some comfort, but may also worry some people more who are already worried, so I am not sure if it's one to recommend at this time or not. Interestingly, the one main factor not explored enough in the movie is the HUGE economic impact, something many of us (who have lost jobs or income) are all acutely aware of right now. People being told to self-isolate without sick pay, people being laid off, many venues eerily empty, cinemas, galleries, and museums closed, and if you think folks are rushing out to buy a car or house in the middle of a global pandemic then you can think again. Contagion conveniently forgets to show us that massive upheaval, because these kind of things never affect the Matt Damons of the world.

The performances are all generally very good, especially Fishburne, Winslet, and Damon. The jarring exception to that rule is Law. I don't know who decided that his character needed an accent, and I still am not entirely sure where it was supposed to be from, but it's so bad that it ruins what could have been an absolutely fine, if unnecessary, addition to the plot. His character is there to antagonise those in charge, and to pull back the curtain, in a manner of speaking, while showing what is being hidden from the general public. The point being that it is often hidden because a) those who are in charge aren't much further ahead, in terms of knowing how to deal with the situation, and b) protecting the general public from their own actions is as important as curing the virus (something I think we can all agree on after having seen the disgraceful behaviour of many in recent days). I just wish that point could have been made without using Law's character.

Engrossing from start to finish, and with a nice balance between standard thriller tension and something far more grounded than you might usually get from this, Contagion is the global pandemic equivalent of The Andromeda Strain. Both are riveting without aiming to sensationalise things too much. And you get some scary facts interspersed throughout, although finding them out now may just be enough to help us consciously change some of our behaviours/habits when they most need changed.

It's also worth remembering the tagline: "nothing spreads like fear". Take heart in something fictional, even if it is hewing VERY close to where we are right now, and do so while taking whatever precautions have been deemed necessary to protect people from a particularly nasty bug doing the rounds right now. Then follow it up with Osmosis Jones. It's the virus/Laurence Fishburne double-bill you never knew you needed.


Contagion is available digitally, which saves you battling to the shops to buy it.

Thursday 19 March 2020

Look Who's Talking (1989)

I was about thirteen or fourteen when I first saw Look Who's Talking, which is just about the perfect age. This is a family film, but it's from a time when you could start and end such things with footage of sperm swimming merrily on their way to tray and fertilise an egg. I was old enough to realise what I was seeing, realise that this was the result of *gasp* sex, and appreciated every time the film gave me a scene that presented a mix of simple guffaws and some mildly risqué humour.   

Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, this is best summed up as the comedy about that baby voiced by Bruce Willis. That's all there is to it, basically, but it also has so much more. Kirstie Alley, who doesn't get nearly enough credit for her enjoyable comedic ability, is the Mollie, woman who gets pregnant by her married lover (George Segal, playing an amusingly selfish and obnoxious ass), and then finds her life intersecting with the taxi driver, James (John Travolta), who ends up speedily driving her to the hospital and helping as much as he can during the delivery of baby Mikey (aka voice of Bruce Willis).

There are a number of factors here that help to keep Look Who's Talking almost as much fun today as it was when it was first released, despite the dubious "the best thing I can do for my baby is find him a worthy father" motivation of the central character.

First of all, the cast are all great. Pulp Fiction may have been the more solid resurrection of John Travolta's career, but this role makes better use of his particular mix of charisma and his cheeky, rugged charm. He's always done well at roles that show up his flaws, often as he tries to put on a front in front of others, and this is no exception, although his flaws are largely only flaws in the eyes of a woman who is being a bit too critical and judgemental. Alley is a lot of fun, whether she's suffering the symptoms of pregnancy, being fed line after ridiculous line by Segal, checking out how much her own breasts have swelled, or just being worn down by a baby that has figured out crying gets him fed. Some of the line delivery from Willis isn't as good as I can imagine it being from some others who were considered for the role (Steve Martin, Robin Williams, etc) but his smirky sassiness generally suits the script. Segal is ridiculous and fun, Olympia Dukakis is an over the top movie mom, and Abe Vigoda gets a couple of nice moments in his role as the grandfather of Travolta's character.

Second, the writing and direction from Heckerling are just what you want for this material. She takes the concept, makes a lot of the obvious gags (that still raise a chuckle), and expertly keeps everything moving along nicely for the perfect popcorn movie runtime of just about 90 minutes (IMDb has it listed at 93 minutes, the main point is that this film starts, entertains you for the duration, and ends before overstaying its welcome). Although coming hot on the heels of a number of other movies from this time focusing on the joys/perils of sudden parenthood (e.g Baby Boom, She's Having A Baby, Three Men & A Baby, and, well, Parenthood), this doesn't feel like a cash-in on the trend. Heckerling was inspired to make the movie by her own experiences with parenting, including the way her husband would make up a voice as he pretended to relay what their child might want to say, and that inspiration takes this on a different path from those other movies, even if there is some crossover. Point me towards any comedic look at parenthood and I will eat my hat if there's not a scene in which a parent at one point has to deal with a stinky nappy.

Third, and connected to the previous point, the high concept here is centred in something that all parents can identify with, whether it's wanting to know what your baby is desperate to communicate with you, being worn out at the end of a long day, or even trying to arrange date nights around the schedule of a little one you cannot just entrust to the care of any babysitter.

There's also a decent selection of hits on the soundtrack, a few good nods to Travolta's past, and special effects showing Mikey in utero that hold up surprisingly well. I think people, for a variety of reasons, like to dismiss some of the hit films of years gone by, viewing them as something they enjoyed at the time but not worth revisiting. Look Who's Talking is still worth your time, even if it is perhaps not quite as sophisticated or smart as it could have been. It isn't aiming for that. It just wants to entertain, and make you laugh. It succeeds.


You can buy this set here.
Americans can also buy that, or get this here.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Prime Time: Detention Of The Dead (2012)

The only film, to date, directed by Alex Craig Mann (who also helped to get it into screenplay form, from the play by Rob Rinow, and it seems like odd material to present on stage), Detention Of The Dead is exactly what you expect it to be. It's The Breakfast Club with a load of zombies thrown in to the mix.

You have the nerd (Eddie, Jacob Zachar), the jock (Brad, Jayson Blair). the jock friend of the alpha jock (Jimmy, Max Adler), the stoner (Ash, Justin Chon), the cheerleader (Janet, Christa B. Allen), and a goth (Willow, Alexa Nikolas). There's one other pupil in detention, Mark (Joseph Porter), but he's only there to suffer from a bite wound and then attack the teacher (Mrs. Rumblethorp, Michele Messmer). That's it. The zombie problem becomes apparent very early on, the teens all figure it out and start to make a plan that they hope will help them avoid being eaten, and everyone takes turns at getting along with one another and letting long-held feelings of anger rise to the surface.

Detention Of The Dead, despite how much fun you think it could be, is disappointingly average throughout. Utilising a group of characters who are nothing more than complete cinematic stereotypes can work, usually by underlining every aspect of them conforming to the stereotype or by subverting expectations, but nothing is done here to make them of any more interest. At all. I wish I was exaggerating, but this could have easily been written by teenaged me, overflowing with my wealth of John Hughes movie references and deciding they could be mashed up with some zombie carnage. If you want that kind of thing done well then I encourage you to seek out the far superior Dance Of The Dead (the fantastic second feature from talented director Gregg Bishop).

The cast don't do a terrible job, considering how little they are given to really work with. The leads are likeable enough, but that stems from how easy it is to dislike some of the other characters for various reasons. I also usually like goth gals in movies, so that helps, even if Nikolas is playing someone who seems fairly uncommitted to the full goth aesthetic.

Mann directs competently enough, punctuating the runtime with occasionally excellent gore gags and balancing things nicely between the fight for survival and the standard teen conversations we've heard many times before. The script has enough dialogue to clarify that at least one of the characters knows enough about zombies to be more useful in this situation than the others, and it moves on quickly enough after namechecking Romero, but it's clear that this is a film to be accessible to those after a light horror comedy, as opposed to zombie movie fans who would appreciate a lot more nods to the big names in the subgenre.

The biggest problem, and it can often be a problem for films that use zombies in a way that tries to mix genres, is that the zombies never feel like a major threat. They ARE, and we see them munching on bodies and obviously trying to get at our heroes, but there are too many moments that have the main characters either still having fun in the middle of the flesh-eating or making progress just that bit too easily.

Not a bad film, it's just a shame that Detention Of The Dead doesn't do enough to be a good one. It's passable entertainment, but it could have been much better.


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

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Verotika (2019)

The feature directorial debut of Glenn Danzig, this horror anthology will ensure his name is remembered by film fans for many years to come. Not necessarily for the right reasons though. There's no easy way to say this. Verotika is laughably bad, and I mean that for almost every single minute of the runtime.

The least painful aspect of the whole film is the wraparound section, "Morella", which has Kayden Kross onscreen playing a horror hostess. Even these moments are undone by the fact that different cameras are pointed in her direction while she has obviously been directed to focus on a different point while speaking about the segments. Buckle up though, that is just the start. "The Albino Spider Of Dajette" is all about a beautiful woman (Dajette, played by Asgley Wisdom) who has eyes where her nipples should be, and also has a weird psychic link to some guy in what can only be described as a cast-off, bleached suit from any episode of "The Tick" (Scotch Hopkins is the man having to suffer this embarrassment). Next is "Change Of Face", a tale all about a Mystery Girl (Rachel Alig) who often likes to . . . change her face. And finally you get "Drukija Contessa Of Blood", which is exactly what it says it is, with Alice Tate in the role of Drukija.

It would be easy to make this review nothing more than a list of criticisms, a way to let off steam about all of the things that Danzig somehow thought would cut it with adult horror fans. The dodgy French accents, the fact that the nudity is both fairly constant and yet also completely unarousing, the moment in which you see that albino spider man standing upright with the ragged hole in the crotch area of his suit clearly visible, all of these things are worth mentioning, but it feels like singling them out for comment somehow detracts from everything else that needs to be mentioned.

I am also not going to slate all of the stars. They all do bad work, some even worse than others, but they're also handicapped by bizarre creative decisions made by the writer-director. I am not sure that many of these actors would fare any better in other movies, but I know that nobody on the planet would want to be judged by their performance in this alone.

Adapting these stories from his own comic books, Danzig shows a stunning lack of good decision-making capability in almost every major facet of his film (and we are definitely placing all of the blame on his shoulders, as director-writer-executive producer-musician). I am unfamiliar with Danzig's music career, although I know he has his fans, but even the music throughout Verotika is painfully bad, often a disjointed piece with a bad audio mix that wouldn't seem out of place in the worst SyFy Channel original. The script has some of the worst dialogue I have heard onscreen since The Room, easily, and part of me was wondering if Danzig was aiming to get himself the same kind of infamy as Tommy Wiseau, but I decided against it. This is either well-intended, incompetent nonsense or it a lot worse, a lazy and cynical attempt to milk some money from fans who will accept everything he puts out in good faith.

Many may claim this as the worst film they've ever seen, certainly the worst with an alleged $1M budget, and I wouldn't argue too strenuously with them. It only avoids being rated amongst the lowest of the low by me because I gave it one point for some of the decent sets used and then one extra point for Kayden Kross.


Monday 16 March 2020

Mubi Monday: Oldboy (2003)

The second (and many would rate it as the best) instalment of  Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy is a film I deliberately haven't revisited in many years. I was always waiting for the right time, and I always wanted to watch it as part of the trilogy, compared to my first viewing, when I was blown away by the film, then saw Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance some time later, and eventually saw Lady Vengeance when that was released later.

Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-su, a man who is snatched off the street and imprisoned in a room for fifteen years. He doesn't know who his captor is, nor does he know why he was chosen for the punishment. When he is released, again without any explanation, he sets out to find out who was responsible for taking such a large chunk of his life from him. On the plus side, he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). On the downside, he sets off on a path of revenge that may not lead to the resolution he wants. It may, in fact, lead to a realisation that his time alone in that room was only part of his punishment.

Oldboy is a film with a few amazing set-pieces helping to make it unforgettable. If you've not seen the film already then you've still probably heard about moments from it, be it the eating of a live octopus, the dental trauma, the astonishing corridor fight between a number of men and a hammer-wielding Min-sik, or even the details of the ending (I would never discuss such things, but you may have read or heard something spoilerific by now, especially if you're a fan of Asian cinema). Thankfully, the film doesn't JUST rely on those moments. Based on a manga of the same name, and adapted into film form by Chan-wook, Hwang Jo-yun, and Lim Jun-hyung, the entire movie is a carefully constructed puzzle, full of tense moments as you become more and more invested in the central characters and hope to see no further harm befalling them.

Min-sik is an absolute tour-de-force in the lead role, starting as a useless drunkard detained by police, becoming the traumatised prisoner, and then turning into the survivor consumed by a need for explanation and revenge. Hye-jung is very good in a role that could have easily felt too fake and contrived, and the goodness she emanates is something that reverberates through the finale, lending more impact to every plot development that feels like a very hard slap in the face. Yoo Ji-tae is suitably conniving and confident as the main figure taking his amusement in working the main character like a puppet. That's not a spoiler. The reveal of who is ultimately responsible for such prolonged imprisonment and torture is not really a big deal once it becomes clear that the main question to ask is why? The other main actors worth mentioning are Kim Byeong-ok, playing a bodyguard to Ji-tae's character, and Oh Dal-su as an employee who oversaw the day to day running of the prison.

But it's hard to deny that this is Chan-wook's film all the way. He may have gathered up some great players, drawing what may well remain a career-best turn from Min-sik, but his attention to detail, his audacity in the execution of the material, and the choices made while leading viewers to what I consider to be one of the best third act reveals of all time, while also leaving enough ambiguity for everyone to provide their own interpretations, all come together to make this his masterpiece (and that is despite stiff competition from the likes of Thirst and The Handmaiden).

If you can only ever see one Park Chan-wook film then make it this trilogy. Because you cannot JUST see one Park Chan-wook film. You should see them all. This is his best film, but it's all the better because of it also being the central point between two other damn fine movies.


This is a set you may want to pick up.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Netflix And Chill: Deadcon (2019)

If you're going to create a horror movie set at an event alleging to bring together some of the biggest social media influencers in the world (mainly YouTube and Instagram stars) then you should do your best to avoid making the main characters as annoying as viewers will, rightly or wrongly, expect them to be, or you can ramp up the nastiness in a way to make it all more satisfying.

Deadcon does neither of these things.

Lauren Elizabeth is Ashley, a young woman who ends up in a haunted hotel room after an overbooking situation. Claudia Sulewski is Megan, and her big problem for the weekend is trying to get some private time with the young man she is secretly dating. He's Dave (Keith Machekanyanga), and he's not happy when given such limited time, especially when Megan hasn't completely broken up with her boyfriend yet. All of these things are revealed after a prologue that shows a man on a computer speaking to a spirit named Bobby. The years may have passed by, but Bobby (Judah Mackey) has stuck around.

Although he seems to have a background in comedy material, writer Scotty Landes ended up with his name on both this and Ma in the same year. Having now seen this, I shall reserve judgement on his value as a contributor to the horror genre until I see Ma. Because I think it might be a bit harsh to dismiss him immediately, based on this alone, especially when there are moments that show him doing some decent work in between the weaker scenes.

Director Caryn Waechter has a bit more experience with darker material, although most of her previous work consists of short films in the run up to her debut feature, The Sisterhood Of Night, and she tries to do what she can with what is essentially a supernatural curse movie revolving around characters who are social media stars (just typing that out made me want to throw up in my mouth slightly). It's a shame that the budget didn't stretch enough to make the onscreen environment feel more real - background noise feels like it's pulled from a generic "crowd noise" selection, and there are scenes in which a dozen heads/hands holding phones up are supposed to give the illusion of a big crowd . . . it never works - but Waechter makes up for these moments with some of the teen-friendly scares. The brief runtime, just under 80 minutes, also helps.

Elizabeth and Sulewski are both fine in their roles, with the former particularly nailing how entitled and out of touch you expect these young, new breed of celebrities to be. Machekanyanga does enough to make his character likeable enough, despite having at least one major doucehbag moment, and Mackey does a lot better as the silent and spooky did than he did in his "normal" role in Anderson Falls. Carl Gilliard is the one person who believes he knows what is going on, and he does well in his thankless role, while everyone else is either eminently forgettable or just annoying enough for you to want them to disappear ASAP.

Although nobody, from the director and writer to the various cast members, can quite do enough to make up for the inherent pointlessness of the whole thing (and I mean that in relation to the main characters and also the main paranormal activity), Deadcon almost rises up to the level of average because of a number of people trying to do the best with what they've got. It doesn't manage it, but I was impressed that it almost did.


Saturday 14 March 2020

Shudder Saturday: Luciferina (2018)

Oh wow, just . . . wow. Luciferina is a bad film, and it just gets worse as it travels to an ending that viewers won't care for, and certainly won't find tense. At all. The fact that writer-director Gonzalo Calzada intends it to be the start of a trilogy is depressing enough to make this review even harder to write.

Sofia Del Tuffo plays Natalia, a young woman who returns home from her time in a convent to check on her comatose father after the recent death of her mother. This puts her in the line of fire as her sister, Angela (Malena Sánchez), wants to target someone with her anger and frustration. Angela feels that something has been wrong in their home for some time, so she obviously invites Natalia and a bunch of friends to a jungle excursion that will lead to some kind of cleansing spiritual rite.

There's a lot going on in Luciferina, a number of interesting, if mishandled, ideas that help to justify the 111-minute runtime, but Calzada doesn't seem to be able to step back and remember what he's aiming for, in terms of both the tone and the main comments he makes. You can pick and choose certain individual elements, but it's a case of sifting through for the nuggets of gold, all while being soaked and chilled by muddy water that just keeps rising up while .you do your panning.

Del Tuffo is good, as is Sánchez, but there's nobody else here that I can recommend. Not all their fault, the  script makes almost every other character either a pain in the backside or just a bit of a cretin, to say the least. I get it, to a degree. A film like this requires people around the main character to be disposable, to be available as potential victims to any evil forces that may manifest themselves and grow stronger on the way to the finale. That still doesn't excuse how poor they are though, and Calzada really needs to work on this side of his craft, because it unbalances everything.

The other thing unbalancing the movie is the rather novel way of meeting evil head on and dealing with it. There's something very intriguing at the heart of this, something that takes the common sub-genre tropes (this is essentially a possession/exorcism movie) and gleefully turns them upside down. But it ends up all being silly, and a case of too little too late after a middle section that constantly wears you down with so much dull nonsense that you don't care about anything by the time things potentially perk up again.

This could have been a unique and thought-provoking take on familiar material. Sadly, Calzada undoes it all with his poor writing, his inability to connect one moment of eerie imagery to the next, and an overall clumsiness that undermines everything he tries to do. I am sure there are some people who will enjoy this more than I did, but I'd be very interested to find out how they could overlook all of the noisy and distracting mis-steps made throughout


Friday 13 March 2020

The Addams Family (2019)

I think it's safe to say that when most people heard about an animated movie version of The Addams Family, it didn't seem to be the best idea. Having now seen the film, it was actually a smart way to refresh the property and present it to a new audience. Can you imagine a new live-action version? Who would try to replace the incomparable Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston? This side-steps that problem, but also assembles a bloody great voice cast to take on the iconic roles.

The plot is nice and simple. We start with Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) about to get married. Angry locals barge into the ceremony, and the Addams family end up in the old gothic home that we know. Life seems good, even as Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) spend most of their time trying to harm one another. But things are happening downhill from their home, where Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a famous TV home makeover personality is creating a whole idyllic little suburb. She wants it to be perfect, and wants to make a profit from selling all of the homes, so when the Addams home comes into view . . . something has to be done about it.

This is a very pleasant surprise from start to finish. The screenplay, by Matt Lieberman (with a number of people involved in shaping the story), is full of fun little gags most people would expect from any Addams Family tale. There are the usual macabre details, the sibling rivalry, a big family event coming up, and even a fun story strand that sees Wednesday becoming slightly corrupted by the influence of a young girl she befriends (when I say corrupted I mean there's at least one worrying moment when Wednesday looks to add a bit of colour to her usual look).

The direction from Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon all seems fine (even if it is a mile away from their last feature, Sausage Party, although both men have a good selection of child-friendly work in their filmography) as they take simple plot beats and allow the characters to lift the material. You also get a couple of musical moments, including the familiar theme near the start of the movie, and some enjoyably over the top fight choreography (mainly between Gomez and Pudsley, as the former prepares the latter for a rite of passage ceremony that will take place in front of the whole family.

Theron and Isaac are great in the lead roles, and I think both COULD possibly work as live-action versions of these characters, and Moretz, Wolfhard, and Kroll are very enjoyable as the two kids and Uncle Fester, respectively. Janney is as fun as she usually is, and her voice also perfectly suits her character, while everyone else does decent work. It's also worth noting that, despite not really being as recognisable as usual, it's fun to have Snoop Dogg voicing Cousin It.

I hoped that this wouldn't prove to be too painful. Instead, I ended up quite enjoying it. It still sits behind the Sonnenfeld movies and the TV show, but it's a nicely detailed bit of fun that balances everything between the fun for kids and the recognisable elements that fans of the characters will appreciate.


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

Thursday 12 March 2020

Daniel Isn't Real (2019)

The second full feature from director Adam Egypt Mortimer, who also worked with writer Brian DeLeeuw to adapt his novel into screenplay form, Daniel Isn't Real is a fantastic psychological thriller with some impressive horror moments interspersed throughout.

After some opening scenes that show a young boy named Luke cope with his life by creating an imaginary friend named Daniel, things get to the here and now. Luke (Miles Robbins) has spent many years keeping Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) locked up, but it's now time to set him free once again. Luke believes that Daniel, despite not being real, is there to help him through difficult times in his life. Daniel, on the other hand, believes that he is there to take over, and that will be the best result for both of them.

It's impressive to watch Daniel Isn't Real and watch it start off as something feeling very familiar and predictable before moving further and further towards quite a different angle in the second half. Not that anything then automatically becomes impossible to see coming. Genre fans should be able to stay at least one step ahead of the unfolding plot, but it's all done in a way that certainly proves to be slicker and trickier than the opening scenes would lead you to believe.

The two leads both do great work. Robbins is very insecure and willing to be led around by others, Schwarzenegger is almost Patrick Bateman-esque in his lack of care for anyone around him who gets in the way of his plans. Sasha Lane and Hanna Marks are two different young women who end up caught between the two identities, to different degrees, and I was delighted to see Mary Stuart Masterson in a strong supporting role, playing Luke's mother, someone who has suffered from her own mental health issues for years. The other main actor is Chukwudi Iwuji, playing a therapist named Braun who tries to help Luke without realising the full extent of the problem.

Mortimer obviously saw some main aspects of the story that he wanted to enjoy exploring, starting with that familiar shared experience of having an imaginary friend to help us get through hard times, and the sense of fun and curiosity he has is infectious. Although using the problematic mental state of Luke as the main "battleground" for the film, Mortimer successfully walks a tightrope between creating the tension, and fear, and treating the subject with the respect it deserves. Perhaps most surprising of all are the moments that terrify because they feel pulled from real life, moments in which people cannot stand to see things around them and want to choose suicide, moments in which people battle loved ones until jolted to their senses. If you have ever been in a situation while trying to help people in this confused state, either someone who has been plagued by episodes throughout their life or someone who has hit a certain age and then been cruelly attacked by the onset of dementia, then you'll recognise that balance between wanting them to feel happy, and less confused than necessary, and wanting them to remember who and where they are.

Working equally well on two fronts, Daniel Isn't Real is an entertaining film and also one that will keep you thinking. Some may have issues with the way it portrays some aspects of difficult mental health issues, but I think the beginning and the finale allow it to sidestep most major criticisms, and also push it from a thriller into more solid horror territory.


You can buy the movie here.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Prime Time: Xmoor (2014)

The one standard narrative feature, to date, written and directed by Luke Hyams, Xmoor is a film that I was mentally defending while watching it, yet found myself unable to do so once the end credits rolled. In fact, the more time passed since I watched it, and it has been a good few hours now, the more I found myself getting really quite angry at it.

The plot, initially, is about two people, Georgia (Melia Kreiling) and Matt (Nick Blood), visiting Exmoor in an attempt to capture footage of a big cat that has apparently been seen prowling the area. They're joined by Fox (Mark Bonnar), a hunter who is going to help them as they wander the countryside. That's the plan anyway.

I'd say that the main problem with Xmoor is that it has a few too many ideas in the mix, but that's not quite right. The problem is that it adds a few too many ideas at the expense of everything else. The first third has some interesting moments, showing Georgia and Matt learning that there is more to the situation than they first suspected, and also learning that Fox was already aware of the circumstances. It then keeps twisting and turning in a way that constantly feels unnecessary, adding nothing of actual value to the storyline, which feels padded out, despite the relatively brief runtime.

The big plus here is that, despite the temptation, Hyams has not gone for a found footage approach here. That's genuinely admirable, considering the premise and the fact that it may well have saved him a bit of money. Mind you, as unengaging and dull as it is now, I hate to think how awful this would have been if done in that style.

Kreiling, Blood, and Bonnar are all left hanging by the script. Bonnar is the best thing in the film, and even he can't do enough to make his character better, or help lift the whole thing. Kreiling and Blood may not be terrible, but they're not that good either. Both of them are too bland to make much of an impact, which makes it impossible to care about them when things start to inevitably go sideways.

Hyams shows that he has potential, at least in terms of a couple of the ideas that he has thrown in the mix, and I'd definitely watch other films from him as he learns more about translating his ideas into cinematic moments. It's the execution that lets him down. What could have been a tight and interesting little thriller is instead turned into something a bit too messy, and a bit too ridiculous, to succeed.

That anger that was building up earlier? It has faded again by the time I have written this much about the film. Xmoor feels misguided, as opposed to cynically cobbled together with all the wrong intentions, but that doesn't help viewers have a better time with the end result.


You can buy the DVD here.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Knives Out (2019)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is a hugely entertaining murder mystery that actually doesn't bother too much to keep things mysterious. Johnson seems to expect viewers to be one or two steps ahead, allowing them to get extra pleasure from many of the incidental details along the way.

It all starts with the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). This death is investigated by a detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Everyone seems to have a motive, and the fact that the death seems like an obvious suicide makes the whole investigation a rather strange affair. While the family bicker over what could be revealed in the will, Harlan's nurse (Marta, played by Ana de Armas) finds herself caught up in a lot of drama that she'd really rather do without. Monsieur Blanc views her as a valuable resource, however, due to the fact that she has a condition that makes it incapable for her to tell a lie without having to immediately vomit.

A whodunnit that quickly turns into a howdunnit, I cannot think of a major mainstream release that I enjoyed as much as Knives Out when I saw it in the cinema last year. Although not perfect, and murder mystery purists may be irritated by some of the decisions made by Johnson, it's a dream mix of a quality cast having fun with a smart and playful script. And everything is overlaid by Johnson making directorial decisions that help it all to retain the sheen of classic cinema while never distracting from the dialogue, the mix of characters, and the interplay between everyone.

With the likes of Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette playing members of the Thrombey family, you can rest assured that there are some great performances, but the real surprises come from those you might not expect greatness from. Craig, as much as I tend to enjoy him onscreen (especially as Bond), looks like he's having the most fun he's had in years, accent and all, and it's infectious, particularly while he is being supported by LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan. De Armas is so good in her role that this is surely her gateway to many more opportunities (I assumed she wouldn't be around much after Knock Knock, but her turns in both Blade Runner 2049 and this show that she is making some canny career choices). Chris Evans is a dick, and I love him for so happily sliding into that kind of role after so much time being decidedly non-dickish in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially when he's so good at that mix of charm and irritating arrogance.

Nobody puts a foot wrong, from the big stars to those who may only have one or two lines, and it's hard not to think that Johnson brought out the best in everyone with his plan to deliver something that manages to feel both fresh and traditional at the same time. From the opening scenes to the standard "assemble the suspects as the killer is about to be revealed" finale, this is pure Agatha Christie fare, through and through. It just has some more swearing, and a bit of vomit. You shouldn't let either of those things put you off.


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