Friday 31 July 2020

Artemis Fowl (2020)

Of course I'd heard all of the bad reviews. Of course I was aware that not one person who watched Artemis Fowl ended up having a good thing to say about it. Of course I thought I might find at least some small bits to enjoy.

Of course I was wrong.

Artmeris Fowl has the might of Disney behind it, but it's hard to think of a more misjudged and messy piece of family entertainment. Nothing works as it should. Nothing.

Let's start with the plot. Ferdia Shaw is Artemis Fowl, a young boy who ends up alone, having to defend his home, when his father (Colin Farrell) is whisked away by some shady villain. Artemis finds out that there's a whole world around him that he doesn't know about, and there's an item, the Aculos, that many seem to want to get their hands on. This leads to Fowl Manor being besieged, where Artemis works to defend it with the magical Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), "Dom" Butler (Nonso Anozie), and Dom's niece, Juliet Butler (Tamara Smart). You also get Judi Dench appearing as Commander Julius Root, determined to get in to Fowl Manor and retrieve the Aculos.

Based on the popular novel by Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl is written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl, which may be where the the problems begin. McColl has a background that would make him seem suited to this kind of material, perhaps, but McPherson doesn't, and the mix of the two leads to a film that feels inevitably ill-fitting, in terms of the various plot elements. Director Kenneth Branagh also doesn't really feel like the right person to be sitting in the big chair, but it would be unfair to rule him out immediately (considering some of his surprising successes). Sadly, it turns out that he ISN'T the right person to be sitting in the big chair. In fact, he doesn't seem to have spent much time in the chair at all. This feels like something not directed by anyone with any vision, or even a sense of effective film-making techniques.

Then we get to the cast. Shaw is horrible in the lead role. It's not really his fault. His character is annoying, almost from the very first frame, and he acts accordingly. Gad is pretty annoying, although he at least gets to show some of his personality, unlike the majority of the cast. McDonnell is the highlight, a plucky and tough fighter with good intentions, but Anozie is also very good as the talented protector/butler. Judie Dench looks suitably embarrassed every now and then, and Farrell has the good sense to take on a role with such little screentime that I'm sure he was handsomely rewarded for what amounted to a day of work, at most.

Artemis Fowl isn't as bad as you've heard. It's worse. Characters are generally awful and unappealing, the plot is slight and impossible to care about, and the action sequences wouldn't have impressed most viewers a decade ago. It's mind-boggling to think of how many decisions were made by people who all tried to go for the worst possible options. It's only the fact that it had enough money thrown at it that saves it from being among the very worst I have seen. It's definitely one of the very worst blockbusters of the 21st century though.


Thursday 30 July 2020

Bats: Human Harvest (2007)

I've seen movies that are much worse than Bats: Human Harvest. There are so many to choose from. At least half of them have the word "Amityville" in the title. So going by that low bar, Bats: Human Harvest isn't really that bad at all.

It's bad though. Very bad. Worst of all, it doesn't have anywhere near enough batty action to warrant being a sequel to Bats. And as for the "human harvest" part, that's REALLY overstating any kind of carnage you might expect the movie to deliver.

A bunch of army types run around in some woods and look to shoot some people. There are bats in the immediate vicinity. These bats cause some issues, but only in enough scenes to try and warrant the movie having the word "bats" in the title. There's also a bad scientist (Dr. Benton Walsh, played by Tomas Arana), and a woman who may or may not be helping the perceived good guys (Katya, played by Pollyanna McIntosh).

I'm not familiar with director Jamie Dixon, who has a filmography that shows his main role to be in the world of visual effects, and there's nothing here that will make me ever want to see either his first film or anything else he may end up helming. It's hard to give him all of the blame though, particularly when the script by Chris Denk and Brett Merryman is so weak. Even for this kind of venture, it's bad. No part of this script works to engage viewers, from the slipshod plotting to the weak characterisations, which is my way of forewarning you that I'll not be going into detail about ANY of the thin characters thrown around in this mess.

Arana isn't bad as the scientist who has created some dangerous bats, and the rest of the cast includes David Chokachi, Michael Jace, Martin Papazian, and Melissa De Sousa, but the only one standing out, for both the right and wrong reasons, is McIntosh. She's her usual striking self, she's allowed to utter her dialogue in an amusingly clumsy accent, and she at least makes most of her scenes seem fun, which is more than anyone else manages. Sadly, she won't be a big enough draw for many people, but I have been a fan of her work for many years, so that gets the film a bonus point.

This is a schedule-filler, nothing more and nothing less, but even a schedule-filler doesn't have to be this bad. If you're not going to include many scenes with actual bats then let the cast onscreen have some decent action, and if you're not going to let the cast onscreen have some decent action then throw in more scenes with actual bats. This does neither, making it hard to consider as an option for even the most easily entertained of viewers (like myself).


Wednesday 29 July 2020

Prime Time: Bad Match (2017)

A riff on Fatal Attraction for the swiping generation, Bad Match is the kind of premise that I am sure has been done before, but it's hard to think of it being done as well. The blend of fun and proper nastiness here, in terms of the mean-spirited way that the plot tortures the "date 'em and ditch 'em" lead, is almost perfect for those after an entertaining thriller that doesn't want to become too complex, and doesn't need to stay chained to anything other than the onscreen logic.

Jack Cutmore-Scott is Harris, a man addicted to the thrill of swiping for attractive women. He has his patter nailed down, he likes to have a date, have some energetic sex, and then sneak away in the middle of the night as he gives some sweet parting words about doing it again soon and definitely intending to call. And then Harris meets Riley (Lili Simmons), a beautiful woman who doesn't really want to just be a one night stand/notch on a bedpost.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, which I know I AM nowadays, nobody dates any more. Nobody needs to worry about making good conversation. If you want a relationship then you still need to make some effort, but it's never been easier to meet people purely for sex. I say that without meaning it as a bad thing. As sex has got easier for people to get, attitudes towards sex have become generally healthier. There will always be exceptions - the guys who want to slut-shame women for behaving the way they like their mates to behave, the people who mistake 50 Shades Of Grey for any standard d/s dynamic - but being more open about sex, and just being open about what we want, makes people a bit happier. Life's too short to be putting up with unsatisfying sex. Where it gets a lot less healthy is in the way some people become addicted to the swiping method. It's a numbers game to them, and they need to keep adding to their tally. Those people have always been out there, working in pubs and clubs as they aim towards another night in a different bed, but now they can reach so many more people with so relatively little effort.

In the role of Harris, Cutmore-Scott is pretty perfect. He has enough charm to be believable, and that even helps you to root for him as things start going very wrong, despite also considering the fact that he deserves at least some of what is happening to him. Simmons is also well-suited to her role, her looks and feigned innocence making it less immediately obvious to our lead just how far she is willing to go to upset his lifestyle. There are other people onscreen, and they all do good work, but the focus, quite rightly, remains on the two leads.

Writer-director David Chirchirillo goes for a lot of the obvious little moments en route to an enjoyably twisted final reel. It all starts with an alarm being switched off and an unplanned visit here and there, but quickly develops into job security being threatened, crimes being committed, and fraying threads of sanity. Chirchirillo also does well to have Harris be apologetic, but in ways that underline how little he really understands about the impact his predatory behaviour may have had on so many women.

This could easily have been a lightweight "teen thriller", it could have been absurd and still enjoyable, but Chirchirillo allows the main characters to keep digging and digging in a way that brings to mind that old proverb: "The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves."
Or maybe it's a whole new proverb. Two wrongs don't make a right, but too many swipes right can lead to wrongs!


Tuesday 28 July 2020

Bats (1999)

A film called Bats is not going to surprise anyone when it turns out to be about genetically-mutated killer bats, and this film is not out to deliver surprises. It's simply out to deliver some creature feature goodies for those seeking them out.

Dina Meyer is Dr. Sheila Casper, a bat expert who ends up called in when a situation gets out of control. Some people have been attacked by bats, and that could just be the tip of the iceberg as the creatures get ready to swarm and attack a small town. Teaming up with Sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Dr. Alexander McCabe, a man who can be suspected of having some kind of hidden agenda, simply due to the fact that he's played by Bob Gunton, it's a race against the clock to stop the killer bats from further spreading their leathery wings of death.

Writer John Logan has quite the varied filmography, and this was one of his earlier works, but he certainly shows here that he knows the beats needing hit as things move along briskly enough from start to finish. You get an opening attack, heroes filled in on the situation, a major set-piece in the first half of the film that stands out as the highlight of the whole thing, a misguided "villain, and an attempt to resolve things before the proper resolution in the big finale. It marks everything off the checklist you would expect.

Director Louis Morneau has plenty of experience with the kind of thriller/horror fun that would not necessarily aim for a theatrical release (although this somehow did manage that) and he does well with the resources at his disposal. The bats aren't necessarily realistic, in terms of their movement and behaviour, but the puppets are well made, most of the shots work well when showing the bats looking cunning and dangerous, and it's surprising just how easy viewers may find it to stop picking apart the lack of logic and simply enjoy it for the fun it is. The pacing also helps, as does the cast.

Meyer adds another plucky female lead to her filmography, and she's good in the role, while Phillips doesn't play his small town Sheriff with a small town attitude. Another pleasant surprise here, in fact, is the way in which everyone immediately proceeds in the knowledge that there's no big mystery, no misdirecting coincidences as people die. It's the bats, they're killing people and need to be stopped. Gunton gives good Gunton, and Leon (yeah, no idea who he is either, but he's famous enough to perform under just the one name a la Madonna) tries to be a bit of fun as Jimmy Sands, general assistant to Dr. Casper, but the script doesn't treat him well at all, with one of his first witty comments being so misjudged that it immediately puts you off him.

It may not be any kind of classic, not even within the creature feature subgenre, but Bats deserves credit for some fine practical FX work, lead performers getting the tone just right, and one or two big sequences that show where a lot of the budget went.


Monday 27 July 2020

Mubi Monday: Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014)

I haven't actually seen that many films from writer-director Olivier Assayas, but what I HAVE seen from him has impressed me. He's a very talented director, eliciting superb performances from his cast and crafting scenes of sedate thoughtfulness that never feel just dull. Clouds Of Sils Maria is exactly in line with the other Assayas films I have knowledge of.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an elderly actress with a rather unique problem/opportunity. She has been offered the chance to play the older character in a play that helped to set her on her way to stardom when, decades earlier, she has portrayed the younger character. Discussing the work with her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria has to also adjust to acting opposite a new up-and-coming actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), and ends up using her time in preparation for the role as time spent also considering her own approach to her career, her life, and her relationships with some other key people, including Valentine.

At a shade over two hours in length, Assayas is in no hurry here, which is as it should be. The central character is herself delaying things, plagued with doubt and insecurity as she considers a big step that will draw a lot of attention to where she is in her career. There's also more weight to the decision because of the death of the director, Wilhelm, who helped her get that big break. In fact, Maria was on her way to accept an award on his behalf when she learns of his death. There's musings on mortality, a thought or two about certain immortality (certainly in terms of powerful performances that create a reputation to ripple through the decades), and the constant struggle of battling against the ravages of time, particularly in a business that often values youth and beauty above so many other qualities.

Binoche is at her best in the main role, as fierce and strong as ever, with moments of vulnerability that take place either fleetingly, or very much hidden away from those she fears seeing her in a state of weakness. Stewart works great alongside her (and Assayas would have faith in her again, giving her a fantastic role in the quietly effective Personal Shopper), the relationship between the two an interesting and complex one, muddied by the scenes in which they work through the play together. Moretz is . . . well, she's okay, but the weakest of the three central females. I like Moretz a lot, but she seems to have struggled in the transition from talented child star in the right roles to an actress with a fully-rounded skillset.

Easy to dismiss as languid and pretentious, Clouds Of Sils Maria is certainly one that will be appreciated best by those who are closer in age to Binoche than Moretz. It's a character study, superficially, but it's also a meditation on some things we all experience as we wander through life, and that could include grief (not just for the loss of loved ones, but for the loss of past glories, the loss of time, the loss of moments that we didn't know enough about to fully appreciate at the time, and more) as well as the unhalting march of the minutes, hours, days, and years.


Sunday 26 July 2020

Netflix And Chill: Wounds (2019)

It seems as if I have been hearing about Wounds for a long time, and very little of it was good. Written and directed by Babak Anvari, who previously delivered the great Under The Shadow, his feature debut, it's a horror film that seems to have left many viewers underwhelmed and unsatisfied. I really don't know why, and I personally put it on par with Anvari's first film.

Armie Hammer is Will, a bartender with a bit of a messy life situation. He lives with his partner, Carrie (Dakota Johnson), may have a thing for regular patron, Alicia (Zazie Beetz), and has to put up with crap during his shifts like fights started by Eric (Brad William Henke). And then he finds a mobile phone that contains some disturbing photos and video clips, and makes him a target for who, or what, is at the other end of the line.

Based on a novella - 'The Visible Filth' - by Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds is a slight film that chooses to focus on a fracturing psyche and small moments that hint at a disturbing bigger picture. Moving from the subtle spookiness of his debut feature, Anvari continues to show how good he is at building atmosphere, but this time it's an atmosphere of immediate dread and confusion, once people see certain images that are impossible to perceive as being based in our established reality.

As strange a comparison point as this may seem, and maybe not a positive one for many people, Wounds feels very much like a film running in tandem with Unfriended: Dark Web. It's someone discovering a hitherto-unknown world, one in which those running things seem scarily knowledgeable and powerful, and where the most twisted acts are committed just, well, just because someone thought something up. There may not be any obvious price list, but there's never any doubt that people are paying something, even if it's not with cash.

The only downside of the film comes from the casting. I quite like Hammer in the right role. This isn't the right role. He seems too cocky for a bartender who also seems too old to be at that place in his life (trust me, I picked up some bar work in my early thirties, and felt far too old for it then). Johnson is an actress I have liked in a few other movies, and she can deliver when asked to stretch herself, but she's completely wasted here. Beetz is allowed to shine, albeit momentarily, but she's alone. Henke isn't a good character, he's a plot point, used effectively on the way to an interesting final scene. And you have Karl Glusman as Jeffrey, the young man in a relationship with Beetz's character. He's also not used well, and is actually given one of the worst scenes in the whole film.

I'll forgive the problems in the casting/acting department though. Wounds is a film of ideas, it's one that puts together a number of unsettling moments as things spiral further and further towards the kind of cosmic horror and insanity that Lovecraft fans should enjoy. And it solidifies Anvari's reputation as a very talented director. I hope he gives us some more horror genre work in the future.


Saturday 25 July 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Pool (2018)

A creature feature that puts one man in an empty swimming pool that also happens to become a lair for a big mean crocodile, The Pool is a film that could have been a streamlined and slick thriller/horror movie. Could have been.

Although the first sentence has effectively summarised the movie, there's a bit more to it. You also get the hero's partner in trouble. You get a dog being a help or hindrance. And you get some backstory shown that fleshed out the two main characters and exactly where they are in their relationship.

There are things in The Pool that are easy to forgive, and things that aren't. Writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng has a number of credits to his name already, although I am not sure if any of his other movies are within the horror realm (a cursory glance doesn't show anything that stands out, concept-wise), and he handles the basics of the film-making techniques with a certain proficiency. There may be many moments in which the crocodile looks as if it has escaped from one of the very early Tomb Raider games, but it's kept as a very visible threat without always having to be shown in the kind of detailed way that highlights the wonky CGI.

Theeradej Wongpuapan is very good as Day, the man who somehow finds himself in this very dangerous situation, and Ratnamon Ratchiratham is equally good as Koi, although she doesn't have to do as much. The two of them being so good helps massively, however, especially in the scenes that decide to dwell on a sub-plot about a potential pregnancy and plans for the future (including whether or not to keep the baby).

Where things go wrong is in the plotting. Lumpraploeng seems determined to keep stacking all of the odds against our hero, which is fine, to a degree. Everything goes from bad to worse at such a fast and steady trajectory that it almost becomes comedic. It also allows for some moments to make viewers wince, one you can see coming as soon as you see some barbed wire hanging down from the edge of the pool. But it also allows for some moments that feel as if they go a bit too far, including one moment in the final act that had me almost throwing something at the screen and actually shouting aloud "fuck you, just fuck you". It's not just a mean-spirited way of adding more pain on to the main character, it's a genuinely cheap way to add an extra bit of nastiness to things and create a plot development that should have been less lazily planned out.

The simplicity of the premise still works in its favour, and The Pool excels when it is showing the leads making use of their very limited resources to avoid toothy death, but it's a shame that Lumpraploeng decided to pad the whole thing out with a number of unnecessary elements (the relationship stuff could have been jettisoned, along with a number of minor hurdles that crop up in between the bigger moments). It's an okay watch, for a 91-minute movie. It could have been a great film to recommend if it had pared down to about 80 minutes.


Friday 24 July 2020

The Kitchen (2019)

Based on a comic book series, by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, The Kitchen feels more like something so strange and unbelievable that it must be based on a true story. I'm slightly disappointed that it isn't true, considering how badass the main characters are.

Melissa McCarthy is Kathy Brennan, Tiffany Haddish is Ruby O'Carroll, and Elisabeth Moss is Claire Walsh. These three women are friends and they are married to men who are part of a rather illegal lifestyle. Basically, they're gangster's wives, but with none of the rewards that you normally see heaped on women in this kind of situation. And things get worse when their husbands are arrested and jailed, leaving the women to fend for themselves. After being given an insulting amount to live on, they decide to help the local criminals collect their protection money. Then they end up deciding to run some of the territory themselves.

Although it's very familiar territory, The Kitchen differentiates itself from other films like this by showing the women moving into power, and also by showing how they don't necessarily have to copy everything that the men do. They work smart, they use the right connections, and they often decide to show a little compassion when others may have been ruthless. The men they married seemed to enjoy their lifestyle, whereas the women are forced into their position, growing into their roles as certain characteristics become necessary.

Writer-director Andrea Berloff makes her debut in the big chair, and does a great job of things. She's written a number of screenplays before this one, but this feels like a project with material that she finds more to connect with, in terms of the interesting mechanics of how someone develops a reputation in the criminal world, and in terms of the female angle.

All three leads are excellent, and all have a very different view on their predicament. Moss takes time to ease into her role, having arguably suffered the most from her husband, but grows with confidence as she befriends the dangerous Gabriel O'Malley (Domnhall Gleeson, doing a decent job). McCarthy is the one who seems the most well-balanced, doing what needs to be done and trying to manage the growth in ways that don't exceed their aims, and Haddish has fun as the woman who becomes the most at ease with her new lifestyle. Margo Martindale is an entertainingly horrible mother-in-law, and everyone else onscreen does just fine.

With everyone, and everything, in place, it's worth mentioning how well Berloff also does at pitching the tone perfectly. This is an entertaining film, but it neither makes too much light of the choices being made, and nor does it wallow in one bleak scene after another. It creates a movie world that allows for serious moments, some lightness, and a building of tension as viewers wonder just how dangerous things might get for the women doing a much better job in "a man's world" than the men who wanted to keep them in their place.

And with a pretty great dramatic turn from McCarthy, it also allows me to say that even if you can't stand The Heat, try getting into The Kitchen.


Thursday 23 July 2020

Predator 2 (1990)

Sadly, Predator 2 seems to get more and more forgotten in the growing franchise. I think that is because the first film is so iconic, introducing the memorable creature and pitting it against big Arnie, while the rest have varied wildly in quality for many viewers. Personally, I haven't seen any Predator film that I have disliked, but I know many disagree. This, however, remains close to the first film when thinking of the highest-rated.

I also LOVE the tagline: "He's in town with a few days to kill".

Set in the "near future" of 1997, Predator 2 takes the action from the wildlife of a Central American jungles to the wildlife of a simmering Los Angeles. There's a heatwave, various drug cartels are at war, and Danny Glover is Lieutenant Mike Harrigan, a brave man who may be feeling a bit too old for this shit. Harrigan leads a team that includes Detective Archuleta (Ruben Blades), Detective Cantrell (María Conchita Alonso) and Detective Lambert (Bill Paxton). Everyone is doing what they can to get some kind of handle on the situation, a situation made worse by some very strange and bloodier-than-usual kills, but they are then told off when they end up crossing over into an ongoing investigation by a special team (led by Special Agent Keyes, played by Gary Busey). While so many people are confused, and so many deaths are occurring in Los Angeles, the Predator is enjoying his field trip.

Once again written by brothers Jim and John Thomas, Predator 2 switches things around in a brilliantly simple way (real jungle becomes urban jungle) and expands upon the character of the featured creature, showing the "code of conduct" that dictates the hunt. Everything else is pulled from the handbook of "tough city cop movies of the '80s and '90s", but that's not a problem, because the cast all do decent work in between some enjoyable set-pieces.

Director Stephen Hopkins handles everything well, and it's impressive that this doesn't need more than the 108-minute runtime, considering how many different blocks are being moved around at times. That's thanks to everyone doing their best by the material, and Hopkins works well with the budget, as well as working around the fact that this is a sequel to a celebrated Arnie movie without any Arnie presence to give it a boost.

Glover is very comfortable in the kind of role he'd already done at least a couple of times before this, and he's a surprisingly effective opponent for the Predator, using his wits and knowledge of the environment to try and stay alive. Paxton is a standout from the core supporting group, but both Blades and Alonso are as dependable as ever. Then you have the characters standing in the grey area, the ones who may or may not know more than they're letting on, brilliantly portrayed by Busey, who is flanked by Adam Baldwin, and a few others. Robert Davi has a little screentime, Kent McCord is the Captain who has to appear exasperated by one of his best cops, Lilyan Chauvin is the doctor who helps Glover to figure out the mystery, and Calvin Lockhart has fun in the role of King Willie, a boss of the Jamaica Voodoo Posse. And it would be remiss not to mention Kevin Peter Hall in the suit.

If you have yet to see this one, treat yourself soon. If you saw it years ago, and remember it being a poor film in comparison to the first, check it out today and see if you feel the same way. Not only is this a solid sci-fi/action/horror mish-mash, it deserves to be mentioned more when discussing the very best sequels.


Wednesday 22 July 2020

Prime Time: Nekrotronic (2018)

Having made a great impression on horror fans with the hugely enjoyable Wyrmwood, the Roache-Turner brothers then went a bit quiet, although they have delivered some enjoyable shorts over the past few years. Thankfully, they returned to feature projects with this horror comedy, a film that feels like a demon-infested mix of Ghostbusters and The Frighteners, with a hint of Big Trouble In Little China also in there. The end result is one of my favourite first watches in a long time.

Ben O'Toole plays Howard North, an average guy who one day finds out that he's really not that average. He's actually a powerful demon slayer. He just needs to be shown how to use his power. And the people hoping to show him are Luther (David Wenham), and his daughters, Molly (Caroline Ford) and Torquel (Tess Haubrich). He'll also get some assistance from his friend, Rangi (Epine Bob Savea), although Rangi kickstarts the whole chain of events by accidentally unleashing some demons through a mobile phone app. There are plans afoot to make the world a very bad place indeed, and those plans are being overseen by Finnegan (Monical Bellucci). This makes things a bit more complicated when Howard finds out that Finnegan is also his mother.

It's hard to write this review because, on the one hand, I want to convey to everyone just how much I enjoyed this movie, but, on the other hand, I don't want this to give everyone high expectations that the film then doesn't live up to. Director Kiah Roache-Turner, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Tristan, has gone all out to give horror fans something bloody and fun. There's a bit of exposition at the very beginning to set everything up, and then it's non-stop fun with demons, apparitions, and the kind of splattery kills that deliver some bloodshed while still somehow keeping a sense of fun (hey, multiple deaths don't always have to be a downer, don't you know).

Everything is helped along by the cast, all giving performances that shrug off the silliness of it all, even as the third act careers from one wild idea to the next. O'Toole is the kind of hero who is largely useless until that moment of self-belief that has to happen, while Ford and Haubrich are entertainingly badass, and Savea is the most overtly comedic of the performers, his character helping to keep things light as he also asks questions that can lead to some more helpful exposition. Bellucci makes a great impression in her first scenes, thanks to the imagery of her beauty and grace juxtaposed with some crazy "sorcery", but she's not served as well by the script when the time comes for her to deliver typical dialogue expected from a main villain. Wenham is very good, but fans of the actor will want to be warned that he has less screentime than the others mentioned here.

I finished watching Nekrotronic and immediately shared my love for it, convinced that everyone I know would feel the same way. That wasn't the case, and it would seem to be more divisive than I would have thought. But that won't stop me from heartily recommending it, and I can only hope that those with the same good taste* as myself will enjoy it as much as I did.

*not guaranteed to actually BE good.


Tuesday 21 July 2020

Pledge (2018)

As we all know, how you react to movies can depend on many different factors. Your own personal life experiences, what other movies you have seen (that may have influenced, or been influenced by, whatever you're watching), and even just what mood you are in on that particular day. Pledge is a horror film based around the fact that some young men are so desperate to get into an exclusive fraternity that they will let the experienced frat members put them through hell.

I hated this movie, and I can pinpoint why I hated it. I am, for better or for worse, one of those people who agrees with the motto that "I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member". Fraternities, and the act of pledging to them, embody that notion arguably more than anything else I can think of. It's such a major thing for so many American students, and I am not saying that if I was a young American that I would be able to avoid the peer pressure, but I've always been majorly averse to the idea. That doesn't mean I cannot enjoy that rite of passage being used in movies, from the MANY enjoyable comedies that make use of it, to the silliness of something like The Skulls (remember that movie about the secret society that had a building with their insignia high up on their building for all to see?). But a horror movie showing people trying to stay happy while they're abused and tortured, all because they want accepted into such a shitty little "club"? No thanks.

I don't need to summarise the plot, I've basically done that already. So let's just cut to the chase, which is the part where I complain about nothing else in the movie doing anything to lift the material.

Writer Zack Weiner, who also gives himself a lead role, seems to have done no more than come up with what he thought was a great idea, and then made sure he had a place for himself in it. The characterisations are thin, nobody is believable, the plotting is so silly that it makes it impossible to suspend your disbelief for more than a few minutes at a time (I almost lasted a whole five minutes without questioning everything happening onscreen, but it turned out I was almost dozing off, so I had to rewind the film and watch parts of it again).

This is the third feature from Daniel Robbins, and nothing here makes me want to see anything else from him. That may be a mistake, however, as the summary for his previous film, Uncaged, doesn't sound too bad (I am sure some of my friends can give me a yay or nay on that one). Perhaps he found his hands bound too tightly by the script, or perhaps he just thought, like Weiner, that the central concept was strong enough to make up for the many failings. Both of them were very wrong.

I'll mention Zachery Byrd, playing Justin, as a bit of a highlight, but I don't even want to bother namechecking the others. Those trying to pledge are shown as whiny weaklings, while the posh "kids" have all the power and enjoy abusing it throughout most of the runtime. Nobody is necessarily terrible, but nobody is given any shading to their character, despite moments that look to be heading that way.

Unless I am misremembering something, this is probably the worst mainstream horror movie I have seen in the last few years. And that includes The Nun.


Monday 20 July 2020

Mubi Monday: Transit (2018)

Well, this had been recommended to me some time ago (by a friend who I resent sometimes for how much bloody impeccable taste she seems to have) and I am glad to finally mark it off my watchlist. I'm also glad that, as expected, this was as good as expected. Writer-director Christian Petzold is now 4 for 4, from his films that I have seen, and it's hard to pick an outright favourite from his more recent releases, each one just oozing quality in pretty much every department.

The core of the story here is quite simple. Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a German political refugee who is travelling from Paris to Marseille, from where he hopes to gain safe passage to Mexico. This is complicated by two main events. First, Georg has the ID and last manuscript of a writer named Franz Weidel. Second, his injured friend dies en route. Because he is using the details of Weidel, this puts Georg on a collision course with the writer's wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who doesn't realise that her husband has passed away. Can everyone work together to get to safety, or will the fragile balance be upset by revelations and complicated relations?

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, previously adapted into a movie back in 1991, Transit is another Petzold film that nails some very specific ideas and feelings, while also presenting characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances in ways that anyone can identify with. Petzold is a master at ensuring viewers know what world his main characters are living in, sketching things out in the opening scenes to start building drama and tension right away, and he also works with a damn fine selection of actors that rise to meet the demands of the material.

Rogowski and Beer are the beating heart of the film, even if they don't actually spend any meaningful time together onscreen until the third act. It's their intersecting lives that drive the narrative, as one thinks she is always just missing her husband and the other starts to be drawn to this woman he both wants to seek out and also keep at bay. Godehard Giese is also very good, a doctor who is inadvertently caught up in the whole mess, and Lilien Batman and Maryam Zaree are excellent as a child and mother befriended by Georg, other human connections that may make things complicated as he continues to plan his journey to Mexico.

Tweak this in a number of different ways and you could have a number of different types of movies here. The easiest option would me to make this a straightforward "spy thriller", but you could make an action movie from it, there's potential for it to be turned into a black comedy, something Kafka-esque that wrings humour from spiralling nightmare scenarios, and there are some other directions it could take, but Petzold knows exactly what he's doing as he handles the whole thing with care, ensuring it goes the way he wants it to go, while allowing viewers the chance to consider moments that hint at other possibilities. Not better possibilities, just other ones.

It's also worth noting that the final scene is enough to bump it up a whole point.


Sunday 19 July 2020

Netflix And Chill: Boyka: Undisputed (2016)

Despite the departure of Isaac Florentine from the director's chair, Boyka: Undisputed, the fourth film in the impressive Undisputed series, surpasses all expectations to be the very best in the series. If this is where it all ends, it is definitely going out on a high.

Set some months after the events of the previous film, Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) is a free man, making a good deal of money from underground fighting competitions. Things take a turn for the worse when he accidentally kills someone he is fighting, which leads him to seek out the family of the deceased, attempting to make amends. Alma (Teodora Duhovnikova), the widow of the man killed by Boyka, is indebted to a crime boss, Zourab (Aloni Moni Aboutboul). Refusing any help from Boyka, the fighter takes it upon himself to offer his talents to Zourab in order to gain Alma's freedom. He has to survive a number of fights, but Zourab can always try to change the rules to ensure that he doesn't lose out.

Considering how well he handles the action on display here, I am now very keen to see the other films directed by Todor Chapkanov. Because this feels on a par with some of the work from Florentine, and I was surprised to be reminded that he didn't direct this instalment. Writer David N. White seems to have less on his plate this time around, with the plot even slimmer than any of the previous movies, leaving time and space for even more fights. They're nicely spaced out, leading up to a third act that delivers some absolutely top-tier bloodshed and pain. If you want something to satiate an urge for some hand-to-hand combat in a style akin to the "halcyon days" of the Van Damme years (which also gave us treats from Mark Dacascos, Don "The Dragon" Wilson, and many others) then this is just about the best movie I could think of.

Despite it being shown briefly in a flashback montage, the continuity of the damage that Boyka has endured seems a bit off by now, which is a minor complaint. He's gone on a journey from villain to hero in need of rehabilitation, and now is the absolutely bulletproof fighter needed to allow the fights to get as wild and entertaining as possible. And Adkins is still brilliant in the role, dubious accent and all. I've seen a few of his movies now, and I am struggling to think of one in which he is in more astoundingly perfect physical condition than he is here. His muscles have muscles, and the moves he pulls off show every way in which he can punch, kick, and spin around opponents. Duhovnikova has to look in need of rescuing, in a vulnerable and pretty way that will draw our hero more quickly into his journey, and she does. Then you have Aboutboul, being fine, if not that intimidating, as the crime boss used to getting his own way.

The plotting is ridiculous, there's no attempt to ground things in reality, the mix of accents is wild, and you know how this is going to end from the very beginning. And none of that matters when the action is happening onscreen, which elevates this to absolutely perfect popcorn entertainment for those after a macho movie night.


Saturday 18 July 2020

Shudder Saturday: Lake Of Death (2019)

It's strange that I ended up watching Lake Of Death just after discussing The Midnight Swim with someone because, certainly at the very start, I thought the two movies were going to be very similar. It turns out that they're actually quite different, with this movie being the better of the two, but that doesn't mean I highly recommend this.

Lillian (Iben Akerlie) is first shown in a boat, alongside her twin brother. We then see her a year later, travelling with friends to a small cabin by that same lake where she last spent time with her brother. It's not long until strange things begin happening, which some decide to blame on Lillian and her sleepwalking habit, and others put down to the local legends around the lake.

Written and directed by Nini Bull Robsahm, Lake Of Death is apparently inspired by the 1958 movie, Lake Of The Dead (which I haven't seen). Let's start with the obvious positive, this is much better than Robsahm's previous film, Amnesia (2014). Where that seemed to play out its standard thriller plot with a small sense of self-loathing, Lake Of Death at least embraces the many genre moments throughout, with characters occasionally referencing horror movies as they initially enjoy the thrill of their atmospheric surroundings.

There are individual moments here to enjoy, and some nice imagery that moves between haunting and less subtle scares, but Robsahm cannot just leave it at that. Sadly, she has to build everything to an ending that doesn't have the impact she obviously thinks it does, an ending so absolutely tepid that it makes you almost regret sitting through everything that came beforehand. Almost, but not quite, thanks to the better scenes that deliver some quality chills.

The cast all do well enough, with Akerlie very good in the central role. Patrick Walsh McBride may not have too much screentime as Bjørn, the lost twin brother, but his character casts a large shadow over everything, and he makes a good impression when he IS shown. Everyone else is either just orbiting Akerlie or, as is the case with Jakob Schøyen Andersen, on hand to provide some exposition and foreboding. This is done by making Andersen a podcaster who likes to explore tales of mystery and horror.

It's frustrating to watch Lake Of Death and consider the directions it could have taken. Robsahm seems to know the mechanics of the genre, but is either then pre-occupied with the idea of layering things and twisting them away from what would seem to be a more natural narrative flow, or she maybe just doesn't have her heart in it. But the more effective moments here seem to disprove the latter way of viewing her approach.

Despite my complaints, this is worth a watch. It's a good film. It just could have been even better if the final 10-15 minutes had been handled in a different way.


Friday 17 July 2020

Undisputed 3: Redemption (2010)

A number of main players return for this action movie sequel that, as the title indicates, allows for a bit of redemption. Moving even further away from the more grounded style of the first film, this establishes a world of more cinematic potential in which prisons all have major fighting tournaments, and the biggest one allows you to earn your freedom, but can also result in death for the losers.

Scott Adkins is back in the role of Boyka, who we last saw getting, pardon my wording here, pretty fucked up. He has been biding his time, rebuilding his strength, and trying to rebuild his body. And he eventually takes a chance in front of Warden Kuss (Hristo Shopov) and the powerful Gaga (Mark Ivanir). He knows it may be his only way to gain his freedom, but the opponents are a tough bunch, of course. And everyone also has to survive the brutality of the general prison life.

Writer David N. White returns, but is working solo this time around, and he's allowed to just throw away anything that doesn't relate to the prison brutality, the set up of the fights, and the new focus on Boyka moving from villain to (sort of) hero. It's all one cliché after another, which is absolutely not a problem when director Isaac Florentine continues to deliver the goods in terms of the action.

Adkins is once again solid in the role of Boyka, a role that actually works really well for him. As wobbly as his accent can be, it allows for him to speak in a way that  covers up the usual soft-spoken manner he has (something that can undermines his physical work). And his performance works well alongside the script, allowing his journey to seem believable, in this context, and worth rooting for. The other main fighter of note, at times an adversary and at times an ally, is Turbo, played by Mykel Shannon Jenkins. Jenkins does well as the typical talented fighter with the attitude of someone who thinks they are unbeatable while others start to realise the very real danger to their lives. And Marko Zaror is Raul 'Dolor' Quinones, the favoured fighter who may well take care of everyone else stepping into the ring. Valentin Ganev returns as Warden Markov, for a few scenes, and Ivanir has a bit more of a presence this time around, but the other big baddie is Warden Kuss, played by Hristo Shopov. It's another by-the-numbers character for this type of thing, but another case of it all working because of everything being kept so simple and familiar.

Depending on what you want from your movie entertainment, three movies in shows the Undisputed series as one that goes from strength to strength. The fun factor keeps being ramped up, with realism being pared away as viewers are taken further and further into a world that sets things up for plenty of gritty violence between plenty of characters who look like they can take way more punishment than I ever could (let's just say if I was in this world then I'd be in the montage of people concussed/killed with one powerful blow).

My high rating was something I debated in my mind for some time, but it is, as ever, based on comparison to other movies of this kind, and this is a perfect example of this kind of film, which makes the relatively high rating much deserved.


Thursday 16 July 2020

Undisputed 2 (2006)

Walter Hill may have gone, and there's no Wesley Snipes or Ving Rhames returning, but Undisputed 2 (AKA Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing) replaces them with Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White in front of the camera, and the very talented Isaac Florentine in the director's chair. And it's the start of an upturn in a series that delivers some fantastic and brutal fight scenes.

White is George Chambers, the character played by Rhames in the previous movie. He's once again being sent to prison, but this time we know from the very beginning that he's an innocent man. Drugs have been planted in his home to get him sent to a Russian jail. That's where he can be forced to face the mighty Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) in the ring.

Taking things up a notch from the first movie, while also streamlining the ideas (there's no moral ambiguity here, you have a goodie and a baddie), Undisputed 2 is perfect entertainment for those who want to see some muscular men knock the crap out of one another. The only problem it really has is in still trying to keep things fairly grounded, which allows for a bit less action than some might want.

The script, by James Townsend and David N. White, is about as predictable as you could get, and they revel in the familiarity of the character beats as our hero gets jailed, encounters the main villain, is pressured into fighting, etc, etc, all the way to the expected final fight. It could be better, easily, but sometimes the simplest approach works well enough, as is the case here.

Florentine knows what he's doing with the action, and it's obvious why he has made a name for himself with the kind of movies that used to go straight to video. He has faith in his leads to show off their moves, he keeps the camera working well, without relying on too much headache-inducing editing, and he knows how to move things along well enough in between the punchy-kicky highlights.

There may not be many people worth mentioning in the supporting cast (aside from Mark Ivanir, who would also appear in the next movie), but that's fine. This is a film for White and Adkins. The former has long been a charismatic presence in every movie he's been a part of, and should have been getting even juicier roles for the last decade or so, and he's convincing as the boxer who ends up having to change up his fighting style. Adkins sports a different look, and a wobbly accent, but is as physically impressive as usual in the fights, and Boyka is a fun character to boo and hiss at on the way to fight night.

The fights are better than the fights in the first film, the rest of the cast brings things down slightly, which makes this deserving of an equal rating. Even if it's also just a bit more fun.


Wednesday 15 July 2020

Prime Time: Cut (2000)

A slasher movie that utilises that interesting idea of a cursed film, Cut starts and ends strong, but suffers from a lack of decent characters, and a sagging middle section that makes it hard to care about whatever is at stake for those involved.

When the actor playing the killer in a movie, Hot Blooded!, goes berserk, killing the director and attacking the female lead, the movie is understandably canned. Many years later, a number of students decide that they should try to finish the film, tempted by the legendary status of it, and they manage to procure the lead, Vanessa Turnbill (Molly Ringwald), to help them complete it. But maybe it's destined to remain incomplete, especially after being cursed by the man who went mad while portraying the killer.

The directorial feature debut from Kimble Rendall (who did slightly better with his flawed sophomore effort, the shark-in-a-supermarket entertainment of Bait 3D), Cut is a film that consistently finds ways to leave viewers slightly disappointed. Most of that would seem to be the fault of Dave Warner, who wrote the script, which never turns into something as clever or witty as it wants to be. Perhaps not wanting to look too obviously derivative, it eschews most opportunities to get meta with the material, despite it being a slasher film in which the people are making a slasher film. The main deaths are pretty good, and enjoyably gory, but the actual killer isn't very memorable, although the source of his supernatural power is a solid idea.

Despite Kylie Minogue appearing onscreen for all of about two minutes, Ringwald is the main recognisable face here. As we are now well over three decades from her teen movie hits, can we acknowledge that she's never been that great an actress? She doesn't do a terrible job here, and it's good to have someone with her filmography in that role, but I would have much preferred any number of better candidates. At least she gets to make an impression though, although that's more for being Molly Ringwald than any characterisation in the script. As for Jessica Napier, Sarah Kants, Geoff Revell, and everyone else, they simply get to wander around onscreen until it's their time to be threatened by the killer.

In some ways, it's worth admiring both Rendall and Warner for not taking the easier option. Making this less of a straight slasher movie, and more of a comedy horror, would have made it more appealing to a wider audience, but it also would have made it similar to so many other slasher movies that aimed to subvert the tropes and sell itself more on its own self-awareness. The people making this clearly have faith in their central idea being strong enough to elevate things. Unfortunately, that's not the case. A lot more could have been done, in almost every main scene, to make this a much more entertaining film.

Not a complete waste of your time, but not one to make a high priority either.


Tuesday 14 July 2020

Undisputed (2002)

Written and directed by Walter Hill, fans of the director may be completely unsurprised to hear that Undisputed is a tough, entertaining, action movie. It's a bit more low-key than many other releases in his filmography, but it certainly holds up as a Walter Hill movie.

Wesley Snipes is Monroe Hutchens, a prisoner in Sweetwater, and the number one boxing champ for ten years. The prison has a major boxing match every few months, with plenty of money to be won and lost, and Hutchens is given due respect because of his fighting prowess. Ving Rhames is George "Iceman" Chambers, a boxing champ who is imprisoned after being found guilty of a rape charge that he denies. Chambers immediately starts to try and throw his weight around, but that doesn't matter. What matters is the inevitable showdown in the ring between the two pugilists.

Despite the prison setting, this isn't really a prison movie. You get very few of the familiar tropes there (no tense shower scenes, for example), but it is also a way to heighten the atmosphere and veritable need for these two men to fight, and decide an ultimate winner.

Snipes is on good form here, and certainly brings his A-game with the physicality, but it is Rhames stealing a number of scenes, giving a performance that feels very much inspired by a troubled boxing talent that rhymes with Schnike Schnyson. Peter Falk is good to see in a supporting role (an old mobster without the memory and wits he once had, but with the right connections), Michael Rooker is impressive as a tough guard who isn't also unnecessarily sadistic, and both Wes Studi and Fisher Stevens do well, each aligned with a respective fighter.

Hill directs with his usual good eye for some solid action beats (there are few people who have more consistently made manly movies that successfully blend bone-crunching violence with real art), but things fall down slightly in the script, which he co-wrote with David Giler. It is hard to know who we are really supposed to be rooting for, and what they might have done to deserve any extra support. Okay, a revelation about why Snipes is inside helps to show him in a better light, but he's still a prisoner serving a long sentence. And Rhames is still in there on a charge of rape, with his character doing himself no favours in the way he maintains a cocky and unapologetic stance.

Quality throughout, if inessential, Undisputed is worth a watch. If only to get through it and on to the sequels, which are allegedly more fun. I will be finding out soon.


Monday 13 July 2020

Mubi Monday: The Bigamist (1953)

With the blunt title hitting at some kind of shocking melodrama, The Bigamist isn't a film that you go into with expectations of subtlety and twists. Director Ida Lupino still manages to do a bit more with the material than others might have done, working diplomatically with the screenplay by Collier Young to make something arguably better than it has any right to be.

Edmond O'Brien is Harry Graham, loving husband to Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine). The two are looking to adopt a child, which puts them under the scrutinising gaze of Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), and it's not long until that man discovers that Mr. Graham has a secret, another wife (Phyllis Martin, played by Lupino). In fact, he has a whole second life, something that he surely knew would be discovered when he began the adoption process.

Interestingly, especially considering the time this was made, The Bigamist takes time to show the various little moments that lead to the main character making some very foolish decisions, but it does so without constantly judging, and tutting at, all of those moments. It also lets a fairly silly plot unfold in a way that feels grounded and realistic, thanks to Young's script, and, again, I'd say that's a very pleasant surprise for the time it was made. The hardest part to swallow is the "framing device" which allows the morally-unshakeable Mr. Jordan to learn the full details of the story.

O'Brien is a decent enough lead, he's not a special man, he's just managed to get himself in a very unique situation. Fontaine and Lupino are both excellent, showing two different personalities with enough similar appeal to the lead, and it's impossible not to feel sympathy for both as you see things heading towards a third act that needs a revelatory moment on the way to some kind of punishment. Gwenn is fine, he does what he needs to do, which is mainly listen with interest as O'Brien unburdens himself of a secret that has been weighing on his mind for some time.

It's interesting to think of how this would be perceived if directed by a man, and how the material would have been executed. Lupino, an excellent director, and a woman with one of the most interesting careers to incorporate the glowing past of Hollywood (in terms of the path she took at a time when women had even less opportunities than they do today), allows everyone to be viewed with compassion. There's a man who battles his feelings until he thinks he can make everything work, and there are two women who both love that man, and are both unaware that their very presence would be a cause of pain to one another.

You know exactly what you're getting into with The Bigamist, and yet it also delivers the central message, the expected cautionary tale, with a surprising amount of care and understanding.


Sunday 12 July 2020

Netflix And Chill: Maniac (2012)

It was surely a fool's errand to even try to remake the notorious Maniac (1980), the film directed by William Lustig that remains a disturbing and grimy modern horror classic to this day. And Elijah Wood being involved? I am one of many who generally guffawed at the idea. Guffaw, I say, and guffaw again.

And here we are, eight years later. This remake has been acclaimed as a great film by many horror fans, and Wood has made a lot of interesting choices over the course of his career that highlight what a big horror movie fan he is. I figured it was time to finally see if this would work for me.

It definitely did.

Wood plays Frank, the maniac of the title. He spends most of his evenings killing women, scalping them, and placing the scalps on mannequins that he views as being able to act like live women. He tries to keep his worst impulses under control when he meets a young actress, Anna (Nora Arnezeder). But a man like Frank cannot keep everything under control for long.

Written by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, who have both worked previously with director Franck Khalfoun, this is a very smart updating of the original Joe Spinell screenplay, and also manages to side-step the big hurdle of trying to replace the irreplaceable Spinell in the lead role. They do this by showing most of the movie from the POV of Frank, which makes it fresh and also makes it easier to avoid direct comparisons. And yet the spirit of the thing remains the same. This is a nasty piece of work, the central character is a nasty piece of work, and the death depicted onscreen is disturbing and visceral.

Wood, although not shown all that often, is actually quite a revelation in this role. He makes the most of his usual reserved style, but layers it under something disturbing and almost pulsating with murderous instinct. Arnezeder does well in her role, the one female who gets time to show herself as more than just what Frank is projecting. And there are others who do well, even as they just appear long enough to set themselves up as victims a lot of the time. America Olivo is Frank's mother, while Genevieve Alexandra, Liane Balaban, Megan Duffy, and Jan Broberg have a number of memorable moments.

In much the same way as the original, it would be easy to dismiss this as a misogynistic film. There ARE male victims, but they're killed off in a way that feels more flippant than the treatment given to the women. But that is what the main character does. His mind views women a certain way, he wants to kill women, that is his main aim. It's misogyny because he is the misogynist, and the film shows him descending further and further into a quicksand hell of his own making. It's not comfort viewing for anyone, but it's very well done, and horror fans will want to check it out.

I delayed and delayed this viewing, and I really shouldn't have. Don't make the same mistake.


Saturday 11 July 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Beach House (2019)

Although writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown displays no small amount of talent in his feature debut, I must admit to being surprised by the amount of love I have seen going around for The Beach House, a decidedly okay horror movie that doesn't do enough to rise above the many other films it is derivative of.

Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros are Emily and Randall, a young couple looking to enjoy a romantic break at the titular location. That changes when they find that the house already has guests, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel). The house is big enough for all of them, however, and as Mitch and Jane knew Randall when he was a child, everyone decides that they can still enjoy their time there with some extra company. Fast forward one evening meal, and some edible treats, and things start to take a turn for the strange.

It's hard to talk about The Beach House without giving away how the plot unfolds, and I don't want to do that. It's a major pet peeve of mine when people dislike a film and therefore think it doesn't matter how careless they are with plot details. Which isn't to say that I really disliked this either. I just didn't love it, and my opinion wasn't helped by an ending that just seemed to crawl along limply until the very last scene. So let's just say that there's something very familiar about the threat that faces the main characters, even if it's given a tinge of Lovecraftian colour to try and separate from the other films it so closely resembles (which doesn't work).

The central cast all do well. Weber and Nagel are excellent as the older house guests, feeling authentic and well-written as the exchanges play out in that way that can happen when you meet up with people who last knew under very different circumstances, and try to just settle into the comfort of all being adult company for one another. Le Gros is fine, but he's playing second fiddle to Liberato, who is allowed to get better and better once the scene-setting is all out of the way.

The cast can thank Brown for the material they have to work with. He does well in the writing department, certainly when it comes to the characterisations and the quick sketching of the main relationships. He also does well enough when it comes to actually directing his material, with the pacing and developing atmosphere of unease well-handled as he leads viewers up to that unsatisfying ending. It's just inevitable that he can't do enough to make you forget so many other, better, movies that have wandered through very similar territory. If you're doing something along these lines, it has to be something very special to fight for a space at the top of this particular sub-genre. While The Beach House isn't a terrible movie, and those who haven't seen many of the films that influence it will enjoy it more, it's just not good enough to justify the elements that have been pilfered from elsewhere.

I won't completely dismiss it because of it being so derivative, some of the films I absolutely love are guilty of that very same thing, but I can't rate it highly. It just fell a bit flat for me, despite it all being put together with some care and skill.


Friday 10 July 2020

Mockingbird (2014)

Writer-director Bryan Bertino started his film career pretty strong. He gave us The Strangers, which a lot of people view as one of the better home invasion horrors in the past couple of decades. He also played a part in giving us the better sequel to that movie. When I discovered Mockingbird, it was in a bundle of movies that I'd mostly heard of. This was one of the only titles I didn't know about. There's a reason for that. It's not good.

Three people are left a video camera on their doorstep, each one thinking they have won it and may have the chance to win something more if they keep recording. You have Tom (Todd Stashwick) and Emmy (Audrey Marie Anderson), a loving couple who also have children, you have Beth (Alexandra Lydon), a young student, and you have Leonard (Barak Hardley), a "momma's boy" who is also given a clown suit, and make-up, along with the camera.

That's the start of everything here. People think they have won a prize, there's some celebration and fun, and then they are told to keep recording or die. So they keep recording. Which all adds up to a found footage horror movie that jumps between the various parties, leaving viewers wondering about the motivation as it builds to a climax that is as predictable as it is decidedly un-shocking, despite what Bertino thinks he is giving the audience.

First of all, the acting from everyone isn't bad. Stashwick and Anderson are the best of the leads, feeling the most authentic as they play around with the camera before things take a turn for the manacing. Lydon is left to flounder around alone, becoming more and more frightened before the other characters, because she's the character who seems the least likely to want to keep using a videocamera without any specific reason. Hardley, given the props of the clown suit and make-up, is okay, but his enthusiasm never feels quite real. It's necessary though, especially as things start to ramp up in the third act.

That's the positive out of the way then. I have nothing more. At all.

Bertino obviously thought he had something worthy of a movie here, he had an idea of using the video footage to create something with multiple strands that will ultimately start to twine together before the end credits roll. It just doesn't work. This is due to a number of reasons. One, we don't really care about any of the characters. Two, it doesn't solidify the threat to make it convincing that people would keep recording. Three, viewers will see what is coming a mile away as it all leads up to the grand finale. Four, it all gets harder and harder to believe as the plot becomes more interconnected and complex, which is even sillier when you get a reveal at the very end of the film.

I've already seen a lot of bad horror movies this year, but this feels like one of the worst of them. It's competently done, in some ways, but it's also completely mishandled throughout. One to avoid, and one to stay at the bottom of a barrel until it is forgotten by everyone. Which hopefully includes myself.


Thursday 9 July 2020

Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase (2019)

I've always been aware of Nancy Drew, but have never tried to read the source material. While a voracious reader as a child, something I carried into adulthood until time became more limited and movies became my main obsession, I tended to focus on the tales aimed at young boys, the likes of The Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators. There was a good mix in The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, but they still felt suitably boyish in their narrative. Nancy Drew, to my young and closed-off mind, was just a plucky girl who probably didn't get up to anything as exciting as her male counterparts.

Ah well. It's never too late. Maybe I should revisit my youth, this time including Nancy on my reading list. But at least I had a general idea of the character, from my limited exposure to her over the years. To put it in very simple terms, Nancy Drew is a smart young investigator. She's like a one-woman Scooby gang, without the big dog accompanying her. That's all you need to know to appreciate this enjoyable teen flick.

Things start with Nancy (Sophia Lillis) helping a friend get revenge on a bully. This gets her in trouble, which leads to her doing some community service. While doing this community service, Nancy ends up helping Flora (Linda Lavin), an elderly woman who has to endure strange occurrences in her haunted home. Flora's niece, Helen (Laura Slade Wiggins), ends up helping Nancy in her investigation, despite the disapproval of Nancy's friends, George (Zoe Renee) and Bess (Mackenzie Graham).

Based on source material that fans of Nancy will already be very much aware of, written by Mildred Wirt Benson (under the pen name of Carolyn Keene), Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase has a solid script from Nina Fiore and John Herrera (taking quite the sidestep from work that has been made up of genre TV shows, from The Vampire Diaries to The Purge) and fine work from director Katt Shea. You get the gist of the character from the opening scenes, you get the sense of fun mixed with the potential for very real, serious consequences, and you can see everything being slotted into place for a fun mystery that won't hold many surprises for anyone with experience of this kind of adventure, although it's probably pitched just right for younger viewers.

Lillis is great in the lead role, a perfect fit. She's absolutely believable as the smart, plucky investigator who cares about the people she is helping. Renee and Graham are also very good, friends who are willing to help, even while they disagree with the company that Nancy starts keeping, and Wiggins gets to enjoy a nicely-worked character arc. Andrew Matthew Welch is a sweet young man, Deputy Patrick, trying to help while he also tries to make sure that he upholds the law, and the adults are played by a likeable bunch, including Lavin, Sam Trammell (playing Nancy's father), Andrea Anders, and more. The villain of the piece is obvious, but also played in a way that doesn't let things descend into some kind of pantomime finale. The tone stays just right, not too scary for kids, but with some threat to the main characters that feels very real.

It may not be your first choice, especially if you're not a teenage girl (what can I say, I am happy to watch anything, and can always keep in touch with a teen version of me who is happier to watch movies aimed at any demographic), but Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase is a quality little film, even better than the 2007 Nancy Drew movie, which I also enjoyed. It's entertaining, it's well-paced, and it has a great character that youngsters can view with admiration, and hopefully want to emulate sometimes.


Wednesday 8 July 2020

Prime Time: Here Comes Hell (2019)

I have been keen to see Here Comes Hell since I first saw the trailer for it. The central conceit is so delicious that I suspected it would work well for me. And my suspicion was correct. It's a lot of fun, and a great directorial debut from Jack McHenry, who also co-wrote the script with Alice Sidgwick. And, at about 80 minutes, it doesn't outstay its welcome.

The bulk of the action takes place at a 1930s dinner party in a grand English home. It's a mix of flowing wine (although not for Elizabeth, who doesn't drink), crisp posh accents, and simmering tensions between the guests. Christine is especially quick with a barbed comment or two. And then it's time to make an event of the spooky history of the house, utilising the skillset of Madame Bellrose. Which is when everything goes bloody and mad.

With everything displayed in gorgeous black and white throughout, the most fun here comes from the juxtaposition of the insanity and bloodshed crashing right into the centre of a very prim and proper social gathering. Once the supernatural side of things comes to the fore, it's a wild ride where anything goes. Heads are destroyed by gunshots, although that doesn't necessarily stop the victim from moving around, people are possessed by evil spirits, and there's even a healthy dose of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland in the mix.

Although the cast are all enjoyable enough, the focus is on the female leads. Jessica Webber is good as Elizabeth, a woman who feels as if she changes more than anyone else in between the madness starting and the end credits. Margaret Clunie is a highlight as Christine, as jaded as they come, and Maureen Bennett is wonderful as Madame Bellrose. Tom Bailey, Jasper Britton, Timothy Renouf, and Charlie Robb play the main interchangeable men, and there's a nice little cameo from Robert Llewellyn.

Although McHenry directs with aplomb, and there aren't many instances that feel as if the shots were dictated by the budget, although I am sure that happened, it's a shame that he and Sidgwick couldn't take one more run at the script. It gets the tone mostly right, but would have been greatly improved by a sharper edge to a lot of the dialogue. Perhaps some more overtly comedic lines here and there, or perhaps just some more character details and a better building of ominous atmosphere.

Despite not quite hitting the nail on the head, Here Comes Hell is a smart and fun ride that I cannot imagine many horror movie fans being disappointed by. As long as you are willing to enjoy the first half of the film, the second half rewards with plenty of impressive gore and nastiness (even if there's no red stuff on display, due to the black and white cinematography). Recommended, but with reservations for those who may find the non-horror moments too irritating.


Tuesday 7 July 2020

Killer Unicorn (2018)

There was a lot of buzz about Killer Unicorn before I settled down to watch it. The word was that this was a fantastic gay slasher movie with a fine line in twisted humour. It certainly almost IS all of that, it's just not good enough to be classed as fantastic.

Young Danny (Alejandro La Rosa) survives a close encounter with a unicorn-mask-wearing killer, putting him understandably on edge at the start of the movie. Skip forward a year, Danny is being taken for a big night out by his friends. They refuse to let him miss out on the big party event of the year, despite his anxiety.

A feature debut from director Drew Bolton and writer José D. Álvarez (also starring onscreen, as Puppypup), this is the third movie, I think, that I've seen that could be classed as a gay slasher. It joins the ranks of both Hellbent and Knife + Heart. And it falls below both of those.

Leaving aside the quality of the acting just now, the cast are a lively mix of characters. La Rosa plays arguably the dullest of them all, and he is outshone in scenes that feature Markus Kelle, Monica Garcia Bradley, Jroyce Jata, Christopher Vancleave, and Grayson Squire, all playing characters with names that include MDME Mortimer, Coke, and Horse Foo. They're all very ready to party, potential killer threat be damned, and that both energises the film while also making it tougher to be invested in it. Nobody seems to really care about what's going on, until the time comes for them to be personally endangered, and that means viewers don't really care.

The script seems to be the weakest element. Álvarez doesn't seem to have really thought things through, and certainly decided not to flesh out any of the main characters (who are displayed in relation to what stage of partying they're currently at). There are some enjoyably inventive death scenes, and the killer is both amusing and silently menacing, but things seem to bounce from one moment to the next like a drunk party guest trying to ask people for a lift home after missing the last bus. And let's not dwell on the ending, which is equally amusing and frustrating in the way it so suddenly puts an end to the proceedings.

Bolton doesn't do a terrible job, but someone with more experience might have been able to cover over some of the cracks, in terms of the script and also the production design (some scenes look great, some scenes are simply unable to convey the energy and atmosphere clearly being reached for). Everything feels as if it needs just a bit more time, and/or a bit more money. As well as a much better writer involved.

Gorehounds will enjoy some of the set-pieces, and members of the LGBTQ+ community should enjoy the variety of colourful leads, but this should have been much better.


Monday 6 July 2020

Mubi Monday: Family Romance, LLC. (2019)

The latest film from writer-director Werner Herzog (although that is no guarantee that he hasn't already made another two by the time this review appears), Family Romance, LLC. is about familial connections and having the chance to change the narrative of your own life story. It's also about the business side of things.

Yuichi Ishii is the boss of a company that rents people to fill roles in the lives of others. This includes pretending to be the father of young Mahiro Tanimoto, and this role is one taken on by Ishii himself. The film shows how their connection grows while they take in a variety of idealistic father-daughter times together, and also shows other people seeking to rent specific figures as they process their emotions through some different situations.

Although there are interesting ideas bubbling under the surface here, this ends up being a subject that isn't best served by the loose and unfocused Herzog approach to it, although a few scenes (including a memorable ending) definitely hammer home some of the points that the director would have found so fascinating in his lifelong quest to view various aspects of humanity under his personal microscope, which so often happens to have a movie camera attached to it.

Using a variety of non-actors in his cast, Herzog manages to get suitable performances from them all, perhaps helped by the very nature of the artifice being explored. The development of the relationship between Ishii and Tanimoto is the heart of it all, and it's good that we first see them when they first meet, but this also causes reverberations through the mental state of both, as they consider the nature of their relationship, and as the adult starts to consider the wider implications.

Still working with his fast and loose approach to things like filming permits and established moviemaking practices, Herzog does what he can to make a film that is both intimate and yet also full of energy. It just doesn't feel like the right fit though, much like his lack of focus. For some reason, this story feels like it would be better if it was allowed to unfold in a more relaxed and traditional way. The runtime, about 89 minutes, feels even shorter than it is, with certain parts of the film leaping from one moment to the next without a feeling of any real connection, and without really letting them breathe. That may well be a point that Herzog is making, but it doesn't work well for the film in cinematic terms.

What this ends up being, ultimately, is a lesser film from Herzog. But I'll take a lesser film from Herzog over many other films most days. It leaves you with a lot to think about, which is admirable, but I just wish that more of the onscreen moments had been judged to allow for the many different points being made to stand out a bit more.


Family Romance, LLC. was presented as an exclusive online preview to MUBI subscribers, and I am sure it will be back.