Tuesday 30 June 2020

The Fear Of Looking Up (2019)

I'm not entirely sure what I think of The Fear Of Looking Up, and I'm also not entirely sure that's necessarily a bad thing. It may be a bit too slow for its own good a lot of the time, and I don't think the payoff rewards the viewer as much as other options would have, but it's an interesting look at revenge and grief, bolted to a surprisingly straightforward "good cop hunting a killer" plotline.

Friday Chamberlain is Jamie, a cop who is on the tail of a serial killer who claims to be inspired by the god of sleep. Jamie also ends up having to deal with the death of her partner, which plunges her into a strange existence, one in which she spends time either thinking about her deceased loved one or thinking about the killer still out there. And if that all sounds pretty straightforward, well, it is. But it's just a background on which a number of delicate brushstrokes are placed to create a deeper, and effectively moving, picture.

Directed by Konstantinos Koutsoliotas, someone better known for his special effects work, although this is his second feature film as director, The Fear Of Looking Up is a horror-tinged drama that is aimed squarely at adult viewers. There are no big set-pieces here, no stupid characters slavishly obeying any sub-genre rules, and only a few moments of bloodshed, although it is surprising, stark, and generally unstylised. The script, by Koutsoliotas, Theo Albanis, and Elizabeth E. Schuch, also doesn't concern itself with having to provide answers to everything. This is a mood piece, first and foremost, and it moves along at a pace that allows anyone watching to enjoy the building atmosphere while also maybe considering some of the moments in their life when they may have felt similarly at a loss, or felt the weight of unfairness from some aspects of life pressing down like a physical weight.

Chamberlain does well in the lead role, although she was more enjoyable in the much lighter Bit (also from 2019). She has time to work on her craft and become better with each role, but this film doesn't allow room for error, keeping her as the focus for so much of the screentime. This makes it easier to see when she doesn't quite nail her performance, but there's definitely more to praise than to criticise. Tom Galasi makes a strong impression in his role, and Suzan Crowley does well as Annie, the boss trying to keep her good cop doing the right thing. Elsewhere, Kathryn Haynes does well in her vital role, and William Kalinak does decent work as a relatively minor, but equally important, supporting character(s).

Although I didn't love this as much as many other people seemed to, I'm certainly glad that I gave my time to it. It would be a very dull world indeed if all of our genre fare looked and felt exactly the same (well . . . we would have to name it WanWorld), and Koutsoliotas and company deserve praise for bringing something quite unique to the table. Despite technical limitations, this is an interesting vision. And interesting visions don't have to be neat or satisfying to be worthwhile.



Monday 29 June 2020

Mubi Monday: Prince Avalanche (2012)

Written and directed by David Gordon Green, based on an earlier film by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigur∂sson (and, yes, it took me a good ten minutes to figure out how to type that out on my standard keyboard), Prince Avalanche is very much in line with a number of his other low-key comedy dramas, especially his earlier works.

Paul Rudd is Alvin, a road worker who is painting yellow lines and placing roadside posts with Lance (Emile Hirsch), a young man who is also the brother of his girlfriend. These two individuals in the middle of nowhere find the isolation affecting them in different ways. Alvin likes the peace, Lance misses some of the relative hustle and bustle of small-town life. Their time is occasionally interrupted by a local truck driver (Lance LeGault), and Alvin also has an encounter with a woman (Joyce Payne) who shares a sad tale of loss that helps to underline what is worth holding dear in life.

Your enjoyment of Prince Avalanche will depend on a couple of main factors. First of all, how you feel about Rudd and Hirsch in the lead roles. I don't know of anyone who dislikes Rudd (and if anyone reading this hates the man then I just don't understand how you go through life with such darkness in your soul), but Hirsch has definitely lost a bit of goodwill over the years. I've always liked him onscreen though, even if he's rarely the best choice for any role, and he works well here, often annoying Rudd by doing nothing more than being a standard "kid" who struggles with what could be meditative time in nature.

The other main factor here is the direction from Green. After three comedies that were more brash and broad than his usual style, Prince Avalanche feels very much like an attempt to ground himself once more, to prove that he could go back to the quieter, more naturalistic, style of film-making that brought him to the attention of film fans at the turn of the century. It works, but I am sure it would be a bit disappointing to anyone hoping that they would be getting more stoner gags and silliness.

All of the main performances are very good, with the bulk of the runtime seeing the film carried by Rudd and Hirsch. LeGault and Payne may not have much screentime, but the script, and their performances, allows them to provide another angle of reflection for the leads. The same goes for the main work being done, the painting of the yellow lines and the other work making a quiet road into a safer route to travel. It's monotonous, quite thankless, and ultimately quite important to those who will get the benefit of it. Much like many other tasks in life.

Although the characters spend some time walking around, journeying through the quiet landscape around them, this could easily have been a stage play, and that's perhaps the best way to view it. It's a two-hander, for the most part, with a background of trees, quiet road, and lives temporarily left behind that will need to be faced up to again in the near future.



Sunday 28 June 2020

Netflix And Chill: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga (2020)

When I first heard that they were making a comedy about the Eurovision Song Contest, and that it was starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, I was immediately keen to see it. If done right, it could be a mix of wonderful camp and many laughs. Well, the comedy here may be a bit gentler than I expected, but it's essentially done right.

Ferrell and McAdams play Lars and Sigrit, a musical duo who are given an unbelievable opportunity to represent their home country of Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest. The only thing working against them is the fact that they're not very good. They have been put in this position thanks to an unbelievable tragedy, and Iceland prepares to look on in embarrassment as they most likely come in behind every other participating country. That doesn't necessarily dissuade Lars and Sigrit though, although they certainly have some idea of the odds stacked against them.

Much like a previous Ferrell vehicle, Blades Of Glory, this is a comedy that takes something very camp, and enjoyed by many, and creates the humour around that, and around the perception of it. While we have a number of fun characters (Dan Stevens almost walks away with the entire movie) and some mishaps for our leads (the biggest one taking place about two thirds of the way in, and I cannot promise that a little bit of wee didn't escape as I laughed so hard), the actual idea of Eurovision is not itself mocked. Indeed, it's all the main characters have been dreaming of for their whole lives, but perhaps not with the fraction of talent required to achieve that dream. Perhaps.

The leads are both absolutely perfect. Ferrell once again works in his favoured arena, someone with a hilarious lack of self-awareness and a readiness to storm off in a big huff, and McAdams is completely earnest from start to finish, and the one who will see everything through even as she loses faith in their ability to pull off some kind of miracle. To be fair, both characters benefit from being played with that earnestness, but it's Ferrell who is more likely to quit when the going gets tough, despite being the one who maintained such strong willpower to get to this stage. I just mentioned Stevens above, and after seeing his turn here as Russian singer Alexander Lemtov I want to see him try some more comedy work. The guy is just superb here, with the film making great use of his uber-handsomeness and playing up every moment that he can make seem sexy (which is pretty much every moment he breathes, dammit). Pierce Brosnan is Ferrell's father, and acts disappointed in his son for most of the movie, Melissanthi Mahut is another Eurovision star, Natasia Demetriou isn't onscreen for long enough, and Graham Norton, so synonymous with the Eurovision Song Contest nowadays, does a great job of playing Graham Norton.

Ferrell has also taken on the writing duties here, with Andrew Steele. Considering the latter also worked on The Spoils Of Babylon, among other projects, the two seem a perfect pair to get the tone just right here, embracing the silliness of things while keeping a surprisingly sweet heart beating beneath it all. Director David Dobkin doesn't deliver any surprises, and it's admirable that nobody tries to cram in more gags as the characters are given time and space to simply progress through their main journey. It's also admirable that, overall, this isn't aiming to make the kind of puerile gags that have featured in other Ferrell movies. Not that I always dislike that humour, but it's an excellent choice to play things out here in a sweeter, softer, way.

You're unlikely to enjoy this if you already dislike Ferrell. He does what he does, for better or worse. But if you're on the fence about it, or if you're a big fan of Eurovision and missing your fix, then I say give it a go. You might enjoy it as much as I did.



Saturday 27 June 2020

Shudder Saturday: Yummy (2019)

Directed and co-written by Lars Damoiseaux (working with Eveline Hagenbeek), Yummy is a lively and splattery zombie comedy horror, and it's one that manages to keep things moving briskly enough from start to finish without any truly brilliant set-pieces to set it apart from many others.

Maaike Neuville is Allison, a young woman heading to a hospital in Eastern Europe for a long-awaited breast reduction procedure. She is attending with her partner, Michael (Bart Hollanders), and her mother, Sylvia (Annick Christiaens). Unfortunately, something has happened to a number of other patients, which results in your typical zombie outbreak scenario. Joining up with another staff member (Janja, played by Clara Cleymans), Dr. K. (Eric Godon), and the irritatingly flirtatious and horny Daniel (Benjamin Ramon).

Yummy does everything well. Damoiseaux is a good enough director, and the script is competent enough in setting the tone of the film, as well as putting the characters in place and progressing everything along from bad to worse. Where it falls down is in the dialogue, and the lack of any real depth for the main characters. Allison and Michael are sweet, that's about it. Oh, and Michael can't stand the sight of blood. Sylvia is vain. Daniel is lusty. Janja is an attractive nurse who goes about being an attractive nurse.

The cast don't do a bad job, and they fit their characters well enough. Neuville has to put up with her breasts being the focus of the film for most of the opening third, and she does that while also being a good female lead to root for, and Hollanders is a sweet partner for her. Ramon is enjoyably over the top, and he's the kind of character you need in almost every zombie film (the asshole you want to see being munched before the end credits roll). And Cleymans has to look very attractive, and also as if she knows more than she is letting on. She does both easily enough. Christiaens and Godon aren't bad, but they're never the focus of any scene, so you suspect that they're more disposable than some of the others.

The blood is thrown around in generous amounts, and there are some good special effects on display as zombies bite into people or struggle to move around with their own serious injuries meaning a lot of their body parts aren't where they should be, and keeping the majority of the action set in the hospital is a good move. It's not good enough though, unfortunately, and the goodwill it earns with the sheer sense of enthusiasm and fun throughout it is diminished by the lack of any real tension, and a lack of interest in how everything will actually resolve for everyone.

There's enough here to make me interested in everyone involved, however, both behind and in front of the camera. And enough here to entertain horror fans after a fun 90-ish minutes of zombie action.



Friday 26 June 2020

The Dead Don't Die (2019)

Well, for better or worse, The Dead Don't Die is a zombie comedy from the wonderfully quirky Jim Jarmusch. There's a superb cast, a whole lot of potential, and, well, that's all it ends up having. I had heard a lot of the negative talk about it, it seems very hard to find any reviews that are actually positive, but I still held out hope that it would work for me. It didn't.

The plot is simple. A small town police department finds that they face a unique problem when the dead start rising. It could be worse though, maybe. Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) may not know what is going on, but Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) seems to immediately recognise the beginnings of a potential zombie apocalypse. Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) tries to follow the lead of her colleagues, while local mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) catches on very quickly, and is handy with a sharp sword.

Very odd, but not in the right ways, The Dead Don't Die is even more disappointing as the Jarmusch take on the zombie film following on so soon after the Jarmusch take on the vampire film (the super Only Lovers Left Alive). Unlike that film, which managed to provide a fresh spin on vampires while also utilising so many familiar beats, The Dead Don't Die sees Jarmusch delivering a zombie film that shows him very disinterested in the actual zombies. There are some fun scenes, intermittently, with the shambling undead acting on whatever main purpose they had in life, and a few wonderful little meta moments, mostly delivered by Driver, but the overall feeling is one of carelessness and laziness.

The cast works though, even if they're not given material worthy of their talents, and at least Jarmusch got everyone together to at least attempt to live up to the advertising line of "the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled". Murray and Driver work very well together, both deadpan and dry in different ways, and Sevigny works well alongside them, despite being given very little to do. Swinton is very amusing, Caleb Landry Jones is a horror movie fan who also ends up realising early on what is happening, and you also have fun little turns from Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, and Tom Waits.

There's no denying that it's a bad film though. I tried to be charitable, and I HAVE, but it's hard to think about this after the end credits have rolled and not feel more and more disappointed with the final result. I think it would be unfair to ever expect anything more standard from Jarmusch, that's not really his style, but it would have been nice to have something that just decided to cut loose and go wild, either providing a lot more zombie activity throughout or just leaning so much more into the meta madness.

The dead may not die, but your sense of enjoyment will as this sedately meanders along from start to finish.



Thursday 25 June 2020

The Darkness (2016)

There's a decent pedigree here. Director Greg McLean, stars Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell, the not-inconsiderable backing of the Blumhouse brand (I know, I know, that name isn't a sign of quality, but it at least allows the end product to be glossy potential fun). But let's not beat about the bush, The Darkness is rubbish.

A family are enjoying a vacation, part of which involves them visiting the Grand Canyon. The youngest member of the family, an autistic young boy named Mikey, finds a small cavern, in which he finds some rocks with symbols drawn on them. Taking them home, young Mikey inadvertently endangers his whole family, because the rocks seem to be a link to some demonic entities that then start to cause trouble by doing things as varied as repeatedly turning on the taps, making black handprints appear on different surfaces, and setting a wall on fire. The two worried parents race to find a solution to their serious problem, although it's hard to think that they should have just raised their kids not to go exploring strange caves and taking unauthorised ownership of strange rocks.

Written by Shayne Armstrong and S. P. Krause, as well as McLean, The Darkness is yet another mainstream horror movie highlighting the worst things that you can find in mainstream horror movies. The characters aren't very interesting, the tension is pretty non-existent, it's not scary, and it's just all too silly to go along with for any length of time. I am all for suspending disbelief and enjoying a wide variety of cinematic entertainment, but the writers still have to put the work in to get you ready to put you in that mental state.

McLean directs with competence, I'll give him that. That's the minimum praise I can give him, and it's the minimum praise that he deserves. Considering his past releases, The Darkness is undeserving of his involvement. Although everything is generally in the right place, it could have been anyone at the helm. It's THAT generic, and the third act just reminded me of the fact that it's been far too long since I attempted to rewatch every season of The X-Files (you'll see what I mean when you watch the film).

The cast are okay, trying their best with the weak material. David Mazouz is young Michael, and has to just be quiet and look blank (which he does), Lucy Fry is perfectly fine as the older sister, Stephanie, and Bacon and Mitchell are the best thing in the movie, as ill-served by the script as anyone else, but managing to fare a bit better thanks to simply being who they are.

Really not worth your time, unless you're looking for a fairly dull thriller that won't scare you in any way, The Darkness was a film that I was unaware of until last week. Now I have seen it, I know why that was the case.



Wednesday 24 June 2020

Prime Time: Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012)

The directorial debut from Lorene Scafaria (who recently entertained audiences with the very enjoyable Hustlers), what you get here is a drama with some weighty themes that benefits enormously from a great script (written by Scafaria) and a pair of winning lead performances.

There's not long left. An asteroid is heading to Earth. The end is very much nigh. And things are made worse for Dodge (Steve Carell) when his wife leaves their car and just runs out of his life. So many people are taking the upcoming end of days as an excuse to cut loose and enjoy their time without real consequences, but Dodge just wants to connect with a special someone before it's too late. He ends up working towards this aim with a neighbour, Penny (Keira Knightley), and their journey takes some interesting turns, despite the knowledge that they're not going to have a happy ending.

We've seen films similar to this before. Someone finds out they don't have long to live, which in turn leads to them finally doing things they always wanted to do. The big twist here is that the new lust for wanting to make the most of a very truncated lifespan applies to pretty much everyone in the world. Many people indulge in a fair amount of hedonism, some riot, and some try to take control of their fate in other ways. Dodge actually acts quite normally, considering the circumstances. Although it may seem foolish, or like a missed opportunity, he is determined not to use the upcoming ELE to completely change how he lives his life. The biggest change he makes is being in the company of Penny, which is enough to lead to cause some serious repercussions.

Carell is superb in his role, no surprise to those who have enjoyed his dramatic work for a number of years now (he's as good with the drama as he is with the comedy, and I love his comedy work), and Knightley gives one of her best performances in a non-period film. The two work well together, an unlikely pairing made a lot easier to believe in thanks to the unusual circumstances that have led to them growing closer after a long time of not really taking any notice of one another. Connie Britton and Rob Corddry are a married couple viewing the limited time left as an excuse to be totally free, Adam Brody gets a few minutes of screentime, and you get some nice little turns from Melanie Lynskey, Martin Sheen, T. J. Miller, Gillian Jacobs, and quite a few other familiar faces.

Scafaria certainly doesn't feel like a first-timer here, directing with skill from her excellent script. This could easily have been either too light or too dark, making the casting of Carell in the lead role an extra risk, but she gets the tone perfect throughout. This manages to be bittersweet in the best way, providing a worthwhile journey for the main characters without letting viewers forget that, whatever happens, everything is still set to end when that asteroid hits.

Sweet, touching, different enough from many other movies you may have seen in this mould, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is one to prioritise on your viewing list. Definitely watch it before humanity goes extinct.



Tuesday 23 June 2020

Dream Demon (1988)

There were a number of movies in the 1980s that tried to successfully sell a premise plunging lead characters into a world where nightmares and reality blurred together. It's not hard to think why, considering that Freddy Krueger was the slasher icon who came along in time to rule the decade. Unsurprisingly, none of these movies could equal A Nightmare On Elm Street, but some did better than others. Dream Demon is one of the others.

The basic plot here concerns Diana (Jemma Redgrave), a young woman about to get married to a young celebrated military hero, Oliver (Mark Greenstreet). The wedding has many interested, especially two horrible paparazzi types (played by Jimmy Nail and Timothy Spall), and Diana's mind is a messy mix of stress and fever dreams, with her nightmares bleeding into reality. She also encounters a young woman, Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), who ends up being pulled into all of the madness.

Directed by Harley Cokeliss, credited here as Harley Cokliss, Dream Demon may be a strange film, but it's nestled nicely in a filmography that includes such varied treats as The Glitterball (1977 Children's Film Foundation movie) and the John Carpenter-written Black Moon Rising. Cokeliss also co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Wicking, a genre veteran also responsible for a few of the later Hammer movies. The emphasis throughout is on atmosphere, which would be fine if Cokeliss and co. didn't think that every dream felt like you were wandering through a Meatloaf video.

Redgrave does okay in the lead role, following the direction that asks her to look scared and/or a bit out of sorts, and Wilhoite brings some welcome energy when she enters the storyline. Greenstreet is essentially there to be an unworthy potential spouse, and both Spall and Nail are pretty over the top from their very first scene, pestering Redgrave in their normal guise before becoming main elements of her panic-filled nightmares.

Although you can see everyone involved trying their hardest to sell this, Dream Demon just never works that well. The nightmares don't really delve enough into the potential surrealism and strangeness, the main characters aren't really that interesting, even as you learn more during the third act, and nothing here is actually scary. In fact, the best moments look as if the crew have found some old sets from Hellraiser (just the areas that are shown behind the walls) and quickly grabbed some footage while they could.

I can't really say that it's ultimately worth your time, yet I found it fascinating as I watched it all unfold. It's an oddity, and oddities are always at least more interesting than, well, . . . non-oddities.



Monday 22 June 2020

Mubi Monday: Animal Crackers (1930)

Based on the successful musical play of the same name, this was the second film to try and sell The Marx Brothers on the big screen, and it's a film beloved by many. You get a very slim plot, plenty of enjoyable lines of dialogue, and some fine moments for each of the brothers to show off their main talents.

Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is hosting a large party in her home. It's a celebration honouring the return of Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), with a big part of that celebration involving the unveiling of a newly-acquired painting. Some musicians turn up to help with the entertainment, with the two main players being Harpo and Chico, and Zeppo swans around being all Zeppo-ish, as usual. Will Captain Spaulding get through the party without upsetting everyone? Will Harpo and Chico get riches? Will the painting stay where it should be until the unveiling?

Where to begin with one of the all-time classic comedies? Is it okay to say I don't love it? I think so, especially because I don't love it. In putting the play onscreen, everyone involved has decided to just keep everything pretty much as it would be in a stage setting. That's all well and good when there's enough material carrying the movie along at a breakneck pace, which happens more often than not, but it makes things a bit clunkier when lines are delivered in a way to leave room for reactions that aren't really there as you sit and watch the movie in the comfort of your own home.

Morrie Ryskind is the main writer responsible, and was part of the musical play team, alongside George S. Kaufman, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby, but it always seems like things are easier when dealing with a quality team like The Marx Brothers. You just need to get them in the right situation where they can cause the most chaos, all while Groucho gets to deliver the best one-liners.

Director Victor Heerman does well enough in the big chair, certainly throwing enough characters around our leads to keep up energy levels and potential for hijinks. The actual plot, which also revolves around a prank leading to the main painting being switched for a fake, is minimal, and there's a decent enough set-piece every 10-15 minutes to keep everyone happy.

There's not much point in mentioning the talents of the cast. They're The Marx Brothers, you know what you're going to get from them, and you get it. Groucho talks, Chico talks, in a way that doesn't sound as smart, but often gets him the right result, and Harpo does great work without any words. And you have Zeppo, swanning around being all Zeppo-ish. Dumont is good fun as the put-upon party hostess, Lillian Roth and Margaret Irving do well in smaller roles, and Louis Sorin and Robert Greig have their moments as, respectively, the art collector and the butler.

Just because I don't love it, and it's already making me slightly wary as I type that out, doesn't mean that Animal Crackers shouldn't still be held up as a bit of a comedy classic. It just happens to pale in comparison to the better films starring The Marx Brothers, the films that would come along soon after this one.



Sunday 21 June 2020

Netflix And Chill: He's Out There (2018)

A straightforward slasher movie (or, maybe, a stalk 'n' slash movie), He's Out There has sone things worth recommending. It's made well, has a decent cast, and creates some nicely atmospheric moments. But there are also some big mis-steps.

Yvonne Strahovski is Laura, a mother to two young daughters (Kayla, played by Anna Pniowsky, and Maddie, played by Abigail Pniowsky). The three arrive at their isolated holiday home, hours ahead of hubby/dad Shawn (Justin Bruening). Things start to get dark and strange when the girls find a small outdoor tea party, and one eats a cake that doesn't give her the happy full feeling that cake should. It may actually have been poisoned. And then everyone finds that he's out there. But who is he, and what does he want?

First of all, and I hope this doesn't sound too patronising, this in no way feels like a debut feature from director Quinn Lasher or writer Mike Scannell. The criticisms I have of the film aren't in line with criticisms I would have of some flawed first outing. Scannell certainly frames the central story in an interesting way, and Lasher enjoys the simplicity of the concept while building things to what many may view as a tense and interesting final act.

Strahovski walks a fine line between sheer panic and always keeping enough of her wits about her to ensure that her daughters are the focus of any plans to get to safety, and both of the Pniowsky girls (sisters? I'm going to go ahead and assume so) do well, even if the girl playing Maddie spends the majority of the movie being sick and tired, in a post-vomit state. Bruening isn't on screen for long, but he's fine in his role. You also get Julian Bailey as Owen, a young man who lives nearby and meets the family when they first arrive. I guess he also plays a main suspect once the terrorising begins, but that leads me to the more critical viewpoint.

There's far too little tension here. If you're going to keep the central cast so small then you need to be able to really ratchet up the tension, and this doesn't. There are one or two fine moments, but as soon as you realise that the film-makers aren't going to take things in a certain direction then it simply becomes a waiting game until the end credits. Everyone involved should have kept going down the tunnel, as it were, to darker and darker depths. Alternatively, throw in more disposable characters, allowing for a few more moments of gratuitous bloodshed throughout. To fall in between the two just leaves the end result a bit less satisfying.

There's also not enough here to make it satisfying in terms of movie logic. While Scannell can be praised for creating something that feels like a nice, macabre, fairytale, it holds together like wet tissue paper when you get to the end. The motivation never feels legitimate, and this is one of those films in which some people are killed immediately while others are left in pain as the killer procrastinates long enough for a fight back to start.

It's worth a watch. I'd go as far as saying that this is better than quite a few better-known horror releases of the last few years. Just try not to think too much about all of the stuff that doesn't work. 


Saturday 20 June 2020

Shudder Saturday: Scare Package (2019)

An anthology film that wants to revel in a sense of fun, and layers of meta self-awareness, Scare Package is, much like so many other anthology movies, inconsistent fun throughout. It's full of over the top gore and gloopiness, but it may pile things on a bit too thick for those who tire of it within the opening scenes.

There are two framing narratives, essentially. One involves characters who are a bit tired of having the same thankless roles in horror movie narratives. The other, and the one that continues to thread more throughout each tale, involves Chad (Jeremy King) talking over the genre rules with the newest employee, Hawn (Hawn Tran) in his videostore. I'm not going to detail every individual story, but most of them revolve around general skewering of very familiar tropes.

Despite the fact that it has a decent coating of technical proficiency, and that includes a talented cast all joining in with the fun, Scare Package is a hard one to really love. First of all, it's difficult to really decide whether or not it's being affectionate and knowledgeable, or whether it's concentrating on trying to be too smart for it's own good. Second, the separate tales feel far too close to one another, in terms of the ground they cover. They're all about the established rules, and focus on highlighting the ridiculousness of elements that we all take for granted, especially in slasher movies (which make up the majority of the runtime here).

On the other hand, considering how many different people are involved here, in both the direction and the writing I ended up counting about a dozen names, it's actually impressive that this manages to feel so silly and entertaining throughout, while also not feeling like any of those anthology movies created by making a patchwork of unrelated shorts. Aaron B. Koontz is responsible for the majority of the content, in terms of the framing device and a final tale, and he does a good job, but I'll also single out the sheer insanity of the segment "One Time In The Woods", written and directed by Chris McInroy, as a real highlight.

The biggest name onscreen is Noah Segan, and he seems out of place until you realise that he also co-wrote and directed his segment, which is a good way to get someone on board with an anthology movie. King and Tran are fun in their roles, but there's nobody here standing out for the wrong reasons. Mind you, fans of Joe Bob Briggs will also be delighted to see him appear in a cameo role.

I think, overall, Scare Package just drags itself down by being so unrelenting in the way it keeps insisting on unsubtly pointing out every single horror movie trope being made fun of. I would have liked some of the tales here to perhaps play out in a more straightforward manner, with the punchline then revealing a fun rug pull (a la The Babysitter Murders), but instead it feels like a bit of an assault on the senses from people shouting "it's META, get it?" for the duration of the whole film.



Friday 19 June 2020

Outcast (2010)

Note: This review is here after being written originally for placement on Flickfeast.co.uk.

The perfect film to point people toward if they’re claiming that the 21st century horror movie has no originality any more. Yes, there are plenty of great influences and references here (from Night Of The Demon and The Devil Rides Out to An American Werewolf In London) but this UK horror blends them all together with a style and intelligence amidst some material not often utilised within the genre, at least in the movie world.

Fergal (Niall Bruton) and his mother (Kate Dickie) are being hunted (for reasons that we learn about as the movie unfolds) and so, when they have settled down in their latest residence in an Edinburgh housing estate, they begin to prepare for the final stand that is inevitably coming. Well, Fergal’s mother prepares while the lad himself struggles to cope with the normal social awkwardness of the late teens amplified by his travelling lifestyle. James Nesbitt (in a fantastic performance that makes me think he really should do more work showing off his darker side) is the one doing the hunting, accompanied by someone trying to keep him within the rules and limits ordained by the elder, wise ones. To complicate matters further, Fergal finds himself attracted to the girl next door, Petronella (a wonderful turn from Hannah Stanbridge), despite warnings from his mother hinting at a bad outcome for all involved. And did I mention the monster attacking people at night?

The best thing about Outcast, for me, is how it takes things that really could have been mishandled and made into something laughable and depicts them as powerful, traditional methods used by people who believe in what they’re doing absolutely. I don’t know how much shown onscreen is based in fact and researched lore but it certainly feels authentic and while you’re watching people use magic here (e.g. at one point the hunter tries to locate his prey by calling a bird and slicing it open with a knife to read the entrails) you never start thinking that everyone should just bugger off to Hogwarts and leave the screen free to be full of standard, knife-wielding “muggles”.

The cast is a good mix of the youthful and the elderly and experienced (basically mirroring their characters) and this is another bonus for the film: solid acting from people portraying characters you invest in. Kate Dickie (who I recognise most from her being brilliant in Red Road, see it if you can) may not have your sympathies at the beginning of the movie, and doesn’t always keep you onside throughout, but her character reveals details that explain her actions and gain your support, to a degree. Alongside those mentioned we also get small turns from the great James Cosmo and even a small amount of screentime for Karen Gillan (best known to fans of Dr. Who as one of his many assistants).

Effects throughout, achieved through both practical make up and some decent camera trickery, are of a very high standard and the design of the creature I mentioned is excellent, especially considering the relatively low budget.

Speaking of money, does it all seem a bit cheap? Not at all. Yes, there are moments set in the city centre that are a little hastily cut and closely cropped but the majority of the movie manages to excel despite its limitations. Director Colm McCarthy and his brother Tom, who helped craft the screenplay, deserve some high praise indeed because putting aside some minor editing and synching awkwardness, this is an object lesson in how a smart, cool, intelligent indie horror should be made.



Thursday 18 June 2020

Apartment 1BR AKA 1BR (2019)

It's interesting that 1BR has been made and released now, when the economy has taken a massive downturn, and mortgage lenders have decided not to allow people to borrow as much as they used to (due to the current corona virus weirdness plunging so many of us into the toilet, financially speaking). I am sure writer-director David Marmor couldn't predict the future, but with the central idea revolving around people doing their best to maintain a decent rental home, the value of that offered as more than anything else, it's hard not to think of this as not quite as fantastical as it may have seemed last year. It had a good festival run throughout 2019, but having it available for home rental/purchase means that many more people may discover it now. Between this and Vivarium, maybe the modern message is just telling people not to sweat it if they live in a far-from-perfect home.

Nicole Brydon Bloom plays Sarah, a young woman starting a new life in Los Angeles. She gets a lucky break when she is picked from numerous potential renters to be the new tenant in a property that seems perfect. All of her neighbours are lovely, the apartment itself is decent, and the only potential problem is the "no pets" rule, which means she has to sneak her cat in and keep it out of sight. But tenants aren't allowed to break the rules. They're not allowed to upset the perfect ambience of the residence. And there are a strict set of punitive measures in place.

The feature debut from Marmor, 1BR is impressive stuff. Technically competent throughout, Marmor also deserves a lot of praise for the way he constructs the script to make something so unbelievable seem even slightly plausible while things get worse and worse for the lead character. He populates the script with a variety of interesting characters, and the plotting provides enough intriguing details without having to stop and explain every element. It's also interesting that this shares a song with the Shallow Grave soundtrack (the wonderful "Happy Heart"), considering how that film spun a tale around a seemingly perfect tenant who ends up adding a lot of tension to the lives of the others, to say the least.

Bloom does a good job in the lead role. She's likeable enough, and her transition works well as she is manipulated and made to submit to the will of people around her. Giles Matthey and Taylor Nichols seem a bit too nice at times, during the opening scenes, which also helps to make the rest of the movie easier to believe. Alan Blumenfeld has a couple of key scenes, playing Bloom's father, Celeste Sully is a friend (enemy . . . frienemy) who comes in and out of the plot to add one or two twists, and Susan Davis stands out as the elderly and sweet Miss Stanhope. Clayton Hoff, playing Lester, is rewarded during the third act for the first hour he has to spend playing the overtly creepy guy who may or may not be as bad as he looks.

There's nothing spectacular here, but it's all very slick and constructed with a decent amount of care. This could have easily been laughable and ridiculous, and I may still have enjoyed it that way, but good on Marmor for keeping the tone just right, and for taking the main premise in a more interesting direction than expected.



Wednesday 17 June 2020

Prime Time: Vampire In Brooklyn (1995)

It may have a bad reputation, as far as I'm aware, but Vampire In Brooklyn is one of those films I had been meaning to get around to for a decade or so now. It's one of the few Wes Craven movies I had somehow missed, and a starring vehicle for Eddie Murphy that intrigued me.

Murphy plays Maximillian (although, of course, he also plays some other characters onscreen), a vampire who arrives in Brooklyn in search of the woman he loves, Detective Rita Veder (Angela Bassett). He gets himself an assistant, Julius Jones (Kadeem Hardison), and starts his attempt to get Veder to fall in love with him almost immediately. That's really all there is to it.

I have to say that I expected the worst when I started watching this. I recall this period not giving us anywhere near the best from Murphy, and Craven was a year away from the film that would push him back up the horror strata and cement his reputation as a provider of quality pop culture content (Scream being that big hit).

This isn't all that bad. It's not fantastic, but it's not all that bad. The biggest problem with it, as you might suspect, is the tone. The comedy often works well enough, but only when everyone involved remembers it can be in the mix. Thankfully, Murphy works well enough while playing his character straight to make it worth your time. He's an excellent vampire, even if he's often just playing a more restrained and old-fashioned version of his usual confident persona.

The script, by Michael Lucker, Chris Parker, and Charlie Murphy, works best when twisting the familiar tropes. Highlights include Hardison's character going from zero to maximum Renfield in super-quick time, a sequence in which Murphy plays a preacher and then has to excuse himself from church, and an ending that actually feels like it belongs in a proper vampire movie. If a bit more of this could have been added, although I have gone blank on specifics (it's early, I need coffee), then the end result would have been even more enjoyable.

Having already praised Murphy for his performance as Maximillian, I'll just say that he's also good when portraying both the aforementioned preacher, and also portraying a low-level hood. The makeup works, as does the fact that he plays these characters for a few key scenes, and not throughout the entire movie in a way that indulges his seeming need to sometimes play everybody onscreen. Bassett is great (when is she not?), and Allen Payne does a solid job of being the Detective working alongside her, and also falling in love with her. Hardison is a lot of fun in his role, especially as soon as he starts to lose body parts, while both John Witherspoon and Zakes Mokae are welcome whenever they're onscreen in their supporting roles.

Maybe my low expectations factored in here, but Vampire In Brooklyn is a good attempt to mix the familiar and the new. The 100-minute runtime means it manages to not overstay its welcome, the cast play well together, and it certainly belongs at this part of Craven's career, when he was trying some different approaches to horror material.



Tuesday 16 June 2020

The Shed (2019)

The humble garden shed. Somewhere to stash things that you intend to use for one or two months a year, if you can put a braver face on things and move them out from all of the spiderwebs that are built on them throughout the rest of the year. Or a place of solace that people escape to, often indulging in some beloved hobby in there. There have also been, certainly in recent years, scary things lurking in there. Zombies (although I have only seen the trailer for Shed Of The Dead so I may be exaggerating things slightly), David Cameron, and now a vampire.

Frank Whaley is Bane, someone we see hunting a vampire at the start of the movie. And then he gets bitten. Seeking shelter from the sun, he ends up running into a shed. That's how young Stan (Jay Jay Warren), who lives with his grandfather (Timothy Bottoms), ends up eventually finding out that he has a bloodsucking creature in his shed. This may make it difficult for him to try and date the lovely Roxy (Sofia Happonen), or it may make it easier, which is how his best friend, Dommer (Cody Kostro), views it. Because you don't need to fear anyone, not even the bullying Marble (Chris Petrovski), when you have a way to get rid of them.

Only the second feature from director Frank Sabatella in the past twelve years (that was the enjoyable Blood Night: The Legend Of Mary Hatchet, and he has a number of shorts to his credit), The Shed is a film that feels like it should have been made a few decades ago. It's an enjoyable blend of vampire action and teen movie beats, but would have ultimately worked better with the cast members who populated so many John Hughes movies of the 1980s. This should have been the kind of gem that fans of Fright Night held in the same high regard as that slice of fun. Instead, it's just here and now, not a bad film, but not able to fulfil the potential of the central idea.

Warren isn't a bad lead, although he's not the most charismatic either, but he's a solid enough anchor for the events, especially when surrounded by a good mix. Happonen is a bright presence, Kostro does the put-upon teen thing well enough, and Petrovski is a bully that you look forward to getting his comeuppance, however bloody that may be. And Bottoms is as good as ever, even if he's not being all that nice to his grandson.

The Shed deserves kudos for trying to do something a bit different. Based on a short story by Jason Rice, Sabatella gets the tone just right as things move between schoolday threats and the ominous presence that viewers know is waiting in that shed. It's everything else that needs tweaked and tightened, from the dialogue and character moments to the pacing. The film clocks in at a not-overlong 98 minutes, but it feels longer than that, thanks to a slow start, saggy middle section, and a third act that really only pays everything off in the last 15 minutes or so.

It's still worth your time though, and I hope we don't have to wait as long for the next feature from Sabatella. The man has talent. He just needs to work with better material.



Monday 15 June 2020

Mubi Monday: Love And Friendship (2016)

Based on a novella by Jane Austen, Love & Friendship is a sharp and witty period film that provides a great lead role for Kate Beckinsale, being so enjoyable here that it's enough to make you wish she didn't spend so much of her film career as a leather-clad vampire caught in a war between vampires and lycan (and I never thought I would type that sentence).

Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, a widow who is set to arrive at the home of some in-laws. She has a reputation as a renowned flirt, although some say that she is simply someone who creates fine and enjoyable company for those around her. Her main concerns are finding a suitable match for her daughter (Frederica, played by Morfydd Clark) and ensuring her own position in society remains as safe and secure as can be, which is no easy task.

Director Whit Stillman, who also adapted the source material into screenplay form, keeps everything as expected for a period film, with the language and look of the thing as prim and proper as can be, but is able to also make it feel quite fresh and modern thanks to the attitude of the woman at the heart of the main events. Lady Susan is quite the go-getter, and in a manner more overt than most characters we see in this kind of thing.

Beckinsale has a lot of fun in the main role, almost every scene that has her interacting with others has her performing in a way that manipulates them to assist her in whatever her aim is, be it short or long-term. Clark does fine as her daughter, although it's a role that maybe could have been kept offscreen for most of the movie, such is the long shadow of her mother and the seeming lack of personal motivation in the character. As for the main men onscreen, Xavier Samuel is typically handsome and courteous in the role of Reginald DeCourcy, a potential suitor, and Tom Bennett is very amusing as the well-meaning, but quite dim, Sir James Martin. There's also solid work from Chloë Sevigny, as a friend married to a man (Stephen Fry) who disapproves of the friendship, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, and a number of other familiar faces.

Strangely enough, however, when you look beyond the more modern sensibilities that are surprisingly prevalent throughout the film, it's hard not to consider that this is something that still feels far too close to the other, better-known, classic works from this period. Whether it is the mother trying to ensure a good life for her daughter, with sacrifices made and compromises considered, the filtering of rumours and damaging observations through various social circles, or even just the interception of a letter that may cause damage to the parties involved, this is all very familiar fare in some enjoyably vibrant packaging.

It's still worth your time though, and the ending is a particularly amusing "punchline" after all that has been shown beforehand.



Sunday 14 June 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Hole In The Ground (2019)

An acclaimed debut from director Lee Cronin, who also co-wrote the script with Stephen Shields, The Hole In The Ground is a well-made little horror movie with a couple of good ideas. It's just a shame that it didn't really work for me, especially during moments that felt a bit too vague, and in a way that seemed like a cop out as opposed to an interesting artistic choice, while so many other moments left no room for anything ambiguous.

Seána Kerslake is Sarah O'Neill, a single mother with her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). The two have recently moved into a fairly isolated house in the midst of some woods, of course, and things get a bit strange as Sarah starts to suspect Chris of changing somehow. This idea firms up in her mind after she discovers the backstory to a local woman, Noreen (Katie Outinen), who some say killed her young son when she became convinced that he had been turned into a demonic entity.

Although this is an original horror, always something worth celebrating among the selection of remakes, reboots, and sequels, The Hole In The Ground doesn't actually FEEL very original. All of the component parts will be very familiar to genre fans, and some aspects are almost laughable. Let me pick one main example, this could have felt even more unique, and interesting, if set in a town environment. Need a massive sinkhole for the child to discover? Have him clambering over a fence and into an abandoned building site. There. Anyone who wants to remake this movie in about twenty years can make that change, at least, and thank me in the credits.

Cronin knows what he's doing, the technical side of things is generally quite perfect (including the dreary colour palette), but the script disappoints, with character development not as good as it could be and the tendency to weave between over- and under-explaining things.

Kerslake does as well as she can in the lead role. She's a good actress, and Markey works well alongside her. Both are hampered by the motions they have to go through as the plot plays out. Outinen does well as a female version of Crazy Ralph - "you're doooooooomed" - and James Cosmo is excellent as her caring husband, but there aren't enough other strong supporting players given a chance to lift things up slightly.

I can't call this a bad movie. It isn't, even though it didn't work for me as well as it seems to have worked for many others. Everyone involved knows what they're doing, to a degree, and it's good to see some praise being given to something trying to be a bit different from the many films trying to capture that Wan-iverse vibe. I just can't call it a good movie either. None of it worked for me, not when it came to the horror movie moments. I was never tense, never scared, never really bothered by where things were going. And the final scene just had me rolling my eyes, especially when viewers know that there's absolutely no need for it.



Saturday 13 June 2020

Shudder Saturday: Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019)

A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge is undoubtedly one of the strangest, perhaps THE strangest, second instalment in any slasher movie franchise. It's certainly the most bizarre instalment to follow on from an original film featuring one of the major slasher icons (e.g. Freddy, Michael, Jason, Leatherface, Pinhead, Chucky, and co.) and everyone who caught it when it was first released was a bit taken aback by it, I think it's fair to say.

The thing that made it so unusual is just how gay it all is. No, I don't mean that in a derisory and insulting way, although I am sure some have that attitude to it. It's just that the film has a homo-eroticism to it that, although interesting and unique (certainly for the time it was made), unbalances the whole thing. People wanted more Freddy. This didn't really give them as much screentime for him as they hoped, focusing instead on the young man who was going through a variety of disturbing changes while he felt another man growing inside him. Yes, I phrased the plot that way deliberately.

That young man was played by Mark Patton, and Patton got a lot of grief when the movie was released. He was blamed for turning the subtext into text, he was tagged as an openly out gay actor not right for the role (Patton was not out at the time), and the experience really soured him on the showbusiness life.

This documentary, directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, shows the long and hard journey that Patton went on, and gives him a chance to seek some answers, and some closure, about his experience in the Elm Street series. It's worth your time if you have even the slightest bit of interest in Patton's story, and the story of Freddy's Revenge, and it's amazing to hear from people who still seem oblivious to what they were making back then. It's also amazing to hear just how quickly both Roberts (Englund and Rusler), as well as Clu Gulager, acknowledge that they knew exactly how the material was intended to play out, while some people, like director Jack Sholder and writer David Chaskin, continue to push back against the idea.

It's a strange experience though. I wanted more of this documentary to focus on the making of the film itself, and perhaps a bit less time finding out about the like of Patton, but it's hard to watch this and not accept the fact that the two are inextricably intertwined, that Patton's life was irrevocably changed by his experience with the movie, so the two seemingly separate journeys are really just the one journey. The film is a weight, baggage, that Patton has carried with him for the past few decades, and here he finally gets to make some other people realise what was put on him, that shouldn't have been. People washed their hands of the film, only starting to return to embrace it when it because an enduring cult hit (especially among the gay horror community).

SPOILER WARNING - the biggest problem, and one that drops this down a notch or two, is Patton seeking some kind of catharsis that he ends up having to give to himself. He FINALLY receives an apology from someone he thought would never provide one, but it's an absolutely infuriating "non-apology". It's not an "I'm sorry I did this" kind of thing, but rather an "I'm sorry you felt that way" statement. And Patton, as well as everyone watching, deserves better.

Not a bad little doc to spend some time with, but it ultimately feels more like something made for the benefit of the central figure than any viewers. Having said that, nobody should begrudge him that time, not after everything that he's wrestled with over the years. It's a great shame that it essentially ends at the same place it begins, and I think people have just spent too long already being obstinate about their view of the film.



Friday 12 June 2020

Ronin (1998)

An action thriller loved by a lot of people, thanks in no small part to a car chase in the second half that ranks very highly in the echelons on great automotive set-pieces, Ronin is a film I didn't love when I first saw it, but I picked up a shiny disc release of it anyway, and I have now revisited it for the first time in decades. It turns out that I still don't love it.

The overly-convoluted plot can be boiled down to one main description, a team being put together to get hold of a valuable suitcase. The most talented member of the team seems to be Sam (Robert De Niro), a man who used to be a top agent in the CIA. Natasha McElhone plays Deirdre, an Irish woman who is working for employers who want the job done without having to give out more information than necessary.

Although De Niro is the star of the show, essentially, Ronin benefits from a top-notch ensemble cast that also includes Jean Reno, not in his best role but used better here than he has been in many other English-language movies, Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgård, Jonathan Pryce, and Michael Lonsdale. Not that everyone is as well utilised as De Niro. Bean is disappointingly wasted in his small role, and both Pryce and McElhone are saddled with accents that they don't really manage that well. They're far from the worst I have ever heard (Justin Theroux still sits high on that tree for his atrocious accent mangling in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle), but they're off enough to be slightly distracting, which may well just be down to me being used to Pryce and McElhone speaking in their native accents for most of their roles.

Written by J. D. Zeik, his first feature script, it's unsurprising that the muddled plotting sags around some great character moments. This seems to focus on dialogue first, set-pieces second, and then the logic of the plotting last. The great David Mamet also helped to polish things up, but there aren't any lines here that feel up to his usual high standard.

Director John Frankenheimer has a filmography full of very missable, but equally worth seeking out, titles. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is arguably his best film, released in the same year as his other top contender, Birdman Of Alcatraz. Considering his filmography, Ronin is pretty much what you might expect from him. It's good, and I cannot praise the car chase in the second half of the film highly enough, but it's strange to think back to when this was released and remember the amount of love it seemed to get from everyone. I suspect everyone was just relieved in the late '90s to watch an action movie that wasn't yet another slickly packaged, and hyperactive, Simpson/Bruckheimer joint.

If you're a fan of the cast members, if you're a fan of slick action thrillers, or if you just want to see something that feels like a bridge between one mainstream stylistic choice for action sequences and what would become more prevalent in the 21st century (e.g. this feels like a very clear dividing line between the bombastic excess of many previous films and the likes of The Bourne Identity and the next incarnation of James Bond that would come along in the years preceding it), then this is still worth a watch. It's just a hard one to love.



Thursday 11 June 2020

Psycho II (1983)

It's a bold move to make a direct sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all-time. It's an even bolder move to use the first moments to show the most famous sequence from the original film. I am not sure how it was initially received, but everyone should now be aware of the fact that Psycho II is a pretty fantastic film, a smart and entertaining psychodrama that is more than worthy of following the flawless original.

It has been over two decades since Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, reprising his role) was committed to psychiatric care after the grisly discoveries shown in the first movie. He has now been declared sane, which means he is a free man. This upsets Lila Crane Loomis (Vera Miles), also reprising her role from the previous movie, and Lila plans to get Norman sent back to prison as soon as possible. But Norman may have an ally, in the shape of the lovely Mary (Meg Tilly), even if Mary may also be manipulating Norman at times.

Although not quite on a par with his portrayal of the character in the first movie, being over 20 years older naturally removes some of the vulnerability and seeming innocence of Norman, Perkins is once again a captivating screen presence. Despite his past, viewers know that he's not necessarily bad, or evil. He's sick. And, compared to those around him who want to make him sicker, or want to take advantage of him, he's often sweet and well-intentioned.

Tilly is the heart of the film, Mary is a young woman with a way about her that makes it easy to believe Norman would fall for her, and want to believe the best about her. And Miles is fantastic, playing a relentless woman who wants justice, no matter how far she has to go to get it. Robert Loggia is also very good, playing the doctor who is trying to help Norman, Dennis Franz adds another sweaty douchebag role to his filmography, and Hugh Gillin returns to the role of Sheriff Hunt.

Director Richard Franklin doesn't overdo things, in terms of style and technical flourishes, he seems very much aware of the fact that the film relies on the brand name, the main character, and the script, from Tom Holland. Speaking of the script, it's a fantastic concoction of reworked moments from the original film, twists and turns involving the new characters, and a beautifully-crafted narrative that uses Norman, and his struggles with sanity, in a way that allows everything to move along on an intriguing journey that never betrays the essence of the central character.

There are some minor issues. It often feels a bit flat, more akin to a TV movie than a cinematic release, and it's a shame that the rest of the movie doesn't manage quite the same level of dark humour and playfulness that is packed into the superb third act. Those quibbles aside, however, Psycho II holds up as one of the best sequels ever. Nothing was really going to equal the first film, but this comes surprisingly close.



Wednesday 10 June 2020

Prime Time: The Vast Of Night (2019)

If there's one way to damn The Vast Of Night with faint praise, it's by telling everyone that for a movie it makes one hell of a radio play. I'm not sure how much I really WANT to damn it with that sentence, but I know that it's true. This feels very much like something that was created for an audio format, and then had visuals layered over the top, with room left at about the 30-minute mark for an unnecessary, but impressive, tracking shot that should guarantee director Andrew Patterson some bigger gigs in his immediate future.

The story is a simple one, although it's framed as an episode from a TV show very similar to The Twilight Zone (and the featured radio station being WOTW is another unsubtle clue of where the influences are coming from). Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) is a switchboard operator who hears a strange noise, which she then passes along to local radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz). Everett talks about it on the air, leading to a phone call from someone who has past experience with the sound, in turn leading to someone else who knows even more about it. As our two leads investigate the matter further, most of the townsfolk are oblivious, all attending a local big basketball game.

The directorial debut from Patterson, and the first filmed script written by him and Craig W. Sanger, The Vast Of Night certainly has a lot to appreciate. The small-town Americana feel is perfect throughout, the cast do a decent job of rattling off dialogue that feels very much in line with 1950s sci-fi movies, and there's an ending that makes good use of every resource to reward patient viewers.

Unfortunately, there's also a few elements that work against it, although you wouldn't necessarily know that from the impressive amount of praise it has been getting over the past two or three weeks. First of all, the script feels padded out. The film may come in at just under the 90-minute mark, but it feels like something that should have only been an hour long. Secondly, it's far too derivative, both in terms of the root source of inspiration for it and also the many TV shows and movies that have since travelled through the same territory. It's also, as mentioned at the very start, more of an audio work than anything else. That tracking shot feels like something created when someone said "I like this, but WHY is it a movie?"

McCormick is very good in her role, the better of the two leads, and Horowitz is fine as the DJ, although he never seems quite as good or charismatic as he should be for his position. Gail Cronauer also does well in a small role, and Bruce Davis voices a caller who starts the leads off on their more in-depth investigation. A few other people crop up here and there, but nobody else stands out.

This is a solid little slice of sci-fi drama, and the quality throughout is all the more impressive as it is coming from someone with nothing else on his filmography. But it's nothing essential, and ultimately just an enjoyable distraction that feels like it should have been an episode of some TV show that may have done things slightly better.



Tuesday 9 June 2020

Bad Boys For Life (2020)

I went to see Bad Boys in the cinema when it first came out. That was twenty five bloody years ago. It was great fun. The film itself didn't do anything new, not really, but it worked so well because of the pairing of stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, as well as some great supporting players. I cannot recall when I first saw the second movie. Taking things up a level, it was a bombastic and entertaining flick, making the two movies a great double-bill. But nobody seemed to be crying out for a third, especially this far down the line. Well, nobody except maybe Martin Lawrence (who seemed to pretty much disappear after a number of star vehicles that showed how he worked best when paired up alongside someone more talented).

Life is pretty much the same for Miami detectives Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence). The former is still a cool ladies man, the latter is settling more and more into the content family life he hopes to embrace fully when he retires. Everything changes for them, however, when a mother (Kate del Castillo) sends her son (Jacob Scipio) on a mission to target and kill a number of people she has a vendetta against, including Lowery, who is to be left until last, after he has watched the others die.

It may no longer be Michael Bay at the helm (nice cameo though), but this has a touch of his style here and there to ensure that this third instalment fits perfectly alongside the others. You get plenty of shots that feel almost filtered directly through the Miami sunshine, you get at least one "Bad Boys" shot (you know the one, camera looking up at the main characters, moving around them as they grit their teeth and silently agree that shit just got real), and the action isn't afraid to pile up the bodies while anything flammable gets ready to explode. There's nothing here quite as over the top as the action set-pieces in Bad Boys 2, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Every main sequence is very well put together, and the finale delivers something very satisfying.

Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah do a great job of working the familiar elements into something both entertainingly familiar and yet also fresh enough to make it worth your time. The script, by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan, has the blend of action and humour you expect, and also brings in a main story strand that forces the main characters to rethink their whole approach to things.

Smith and Lawrence slip very easily back into their rapport, with both bringing out the best in one another, and a number of actors return from the previous two movies, not least of which is the great Joe Pantoliano as the put-upon Captain. There's a new team tasked with working the main case, headed up by Paola Núñez, and featuring Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton. All of them do well alongside the more seasoned stars. Scipio is a very believable threat at all times, and Del Castillo is a scarily single-minded mastermind behind the death and destruction.

Some people really LOVE the Bad Boys movies, and I'm not sure if they will enjoy this one as much as I did. I have tended to like them all about the same, each one has strengths and weaknesses, and this allows it to now be a superb action comedy trilogy. Will they go for a fourth one? Possibly. Will I watch it, despite reservations? Definitely. Whatcha gonna do?


https://ko-fi.com/kevinmatthews (you can help me pay for by Bad Boys purchases there, haha).

Monday 8 June 2020

Mubi Monday: The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975

As a straight, white male, it is sometimes frustrating to look around at current events, and events that have been repeated throughout our history in an ongoing case of the worst deja vu possible, and feel unable to do anything more to help, or to be a visible and vocal ally. This happens when I see the LGBTQ+ community fighting for rights, it happens when I see the ongoing divide between sexes, and it happens as people make use of building momentum to try and convince people that centuries of exploiting, abusing, and killing black people isn't something that should be continuing throughout the modern age.

I LIKE to think that my attitude always shows where my loyalties lie (which means, basically, I support the rights of every human to be treated like a human should be treated), but I know that I can't do as much as many others manage. I don't always use my small platform in the most effective way, which is partly due to the fear of being, as mentioned, a straight, white male. It makes it advisory not to try and lead any conversations within the demographics that I am not a direct part of.

And all this is just a way of me explaining my decision to watch The Black Power Mixtape: 1967 - 1975, a documentary I had originally intended to watch a number of years ago at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It was pulled from the festival, not sure if that was a rights issue or the film just wasn't finished in time, and I wasn't sure I would ever get a chance to see it. But now here we are. The timing couldn't really be more perfect, and I am sure Göran Hugo Olsson, the credited director, will be very happy if this becomes the time for more people to discover what stands out as a vital historical document.

Compiled from 16mm footage that was filmed by Swedish journalists decades ago, it was due to be screened on Swedish television, this documentary looks at a turbulent era in American history, although I realise how things today seem a lot more incendiary, which had prominent African Americans trying to lead a literal fight back against the suppression of their rights and abuses of power. You get some great conversations with Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and others, as well as footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and many others who were trying to effect change at the time. Overlaying this footage is some modern commentary from people such as Questlove, Harry Belafonte, Melvin Van Peebles, and many more.

Always worth your time, The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975 has now taken on much more resonance, especially while you can compare the arguments, protests, and problems onscreen with everything going on in the world around us right now. Nobody who has been watching the news and tries to pull the shitty "all lives matter" card will have their mind changed by this, sadly, but it may just prove to some people why everyone involved in current protests are seizing the opportunity to join with so many allies around the world and push for something long overdue, global pandemic or no.

There's never been a good time for a protest, as deemed by those who want to put themselves in charge of such allowances (generally . . . rich, white people). This may be the worst time for such massive protests. Which means it also may just be the best time for them. Here's to change, hopefully it is coming, and here's to being able to view this documentary as a testament to the enduring spirit and tenacity of those seeking to disrupt the established systems and force that change.



Sunday 7 June 2020

Netflix And Chill: Norbit (2007)

This is where my brain takes me, and I hate it as much as you do. I had seen Norbit many years ago, and I remembered not liking it. I couldn't find anywhere I had reviewed or rated it, however, since my reformed completist attitude to logging my movie viewings on both IMDb and Letterboxd. I saw it was on Netflix and figured I might as well give it a go.


The basic plot revolves around Norbit (Eddie Murphy), a timid young man who was abandoned as a baby and taken in by Mr. Wong (also, ummmmm, Eddie Murphy, in a bit of stunt casting more troubling than most of his multiple roles over the years). Norbit ends up in a relationship with Rasputia, an obnoxious and overpowering woman who doesn't really treat Norbit as he might deserve to be treated. And the adult Rasputia is played by, yes, Eddie Murphy. Things start to look different when an old flame, Kate (Thandie Newton), comes back to town.

The first of a few movies that Murphy starred in while being directed by Brian Robbins, this remains arguably the worst of their collaborations, despite the stiff competition from their other outings. Based on a story by Eddie and his brother, Charlie, the screenplay was then worked on by the two of them, with additional work from Jay Scherick and David Ronn, a writing duo who have a filmography most politely described as a bit hit and miss. Nobody involved can really make the material more palatable, which leaves the comedy falling flat at almost every turn.

Murphy is decidedly okay as Norbit, but only because he's more relatable and human in that incarnation than he is in either the role of Rasputia or Mr. Wong, with both of them being exaggerated caricatures designed to get easy laughs from the low-hanging fruit. Fortunately, although Murphy gets the lion's share of the screentime, there's some enjoyment to be had with the supporting cast. Terry Crews is as fun as ever, Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams have a couple of fun moments, Marlon Wayans is more amusing here than he has been in anything else from the last couple of decades, and Newton is an appealing romantic interest. You also have Cuba Gooding Jr. here, and he ends up being a LOT of fun as the man due to marry Newton, the fly in the ointment of Norbit's potential happiness.

Any fan of Murphy nowadays will know that they have to suffer through some real clunkers if they are completing a journey through his filmography. I've not seen EVERYTHING yet (that Pluto Nash movie has never felt like a high priority), but it's hard to think of anything he could do that is worse than this. It's not funny, it's full of characters you don't ever really care about, and it's just another excuse for Murphy to get made up and act in scenes alongside himself. And did I mention that it wasn't funny? Because it REALLY isn't.



Saturday 6 June 2020

Shudder Saturday: Devil's Mile (2014)

The lonely American highway. It can be fertile ground for movies, the setting for some fine thrillers, some fine horror movies, and now Devil's Mile.

The description of the movie on IMDb starts off by saying this: "A relentlessly-paced hybrid of gritty crime thriller and Lovecraftian supernatural horror..." So at least we know what director Joseph O'Brien, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Opausky, was aiming for. To be fair, there are moments where he hits the target. It's just a shame that they are few and far between.

Three people are driving on a road at night. They are Toby (David Hayter), Cally (Maria del Mar), and Jacinta (Casey Hudecki). You get an idea that these are not good people, and that becomes clearer when they make a stop, taking time to also deal with two women they have stored in the trunk of the car. Things don't feel right, and they're about to go a lot more wrong for everyone involved.

A small cast, I think there were only about ten or twelve characters, at most, and use of some compact locations (the car, space beside the car, one or two rooms shown occasionally) allow O'Brien to focus on the atmosphere and scares. Unfortunately, he doesn't do a good job with either, and then seems satisfied with himself for turning the third act into a mess of easy get-outs and unsatisfying twists that are supposed to make up for the nonsense that came beforehand.

Del Mar and Hudecki carry most of the scenes, and both do as well as they can, considering the material that they're working with. Hayter is used sparingly, and Frank Moore appears in a few scenes, playing a character named Mr. Arkadi, to spout nonsense and suffer more at the hands of the writers than anyone else onscreen.

If you're thinking about checking this one out then I would advise against it. I can point you to at least a dozen similar movies that would prove to be more entertaining, whether it's the classic noir titles like The Hitch-Hiker, the intense brilliance of The Hitcher, the surreal horror of Dead End, or the neo-noir "Twilight Zone-esque" Dark Country. All of those are better than Devil's Mile, which ultimately doesn't really settle on what it wants to be. You get the crime story unfolding throughout, you get random characters bursting into the narrative to show you that you can't trust the chronology, or even then way events are being perceived, and you also get occasional encounters with demonic entities. If mixed together more effectively, this could have been a decent little distraction. As it is, it just feels like a waste of time. Maybe O'Brien will do better next time, this was only his first feature, but I can't say I'll be rushing to check out his work.


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