Monday 31 August 2020

Mubi Monday: Matthias & Maxime (2019)

Xavier Dolan is sickeningly talented for someone so young. Seriously. I have now seen a fair number of his movies. They may not all be outright winners, but they are very impressive for someone who looks to be about twenty years old.

Matthias & Maxime is all about friendship, but it is a very different look at the strong bonds that form between close friends. This may not be in the same ballpark as something like Chuck & Buck, but it is certainly close enough to hear the crowd roar and smell the aroma of the various snacks.

Gabriel D' Almeida Freitas is Matthias, best friend of Maxime (Dolan). Maxime has various struggles. He has gone through life with a large birthmark on his face, is constantly battling against the will of his ill mother (Anne Dorval), and generally doesn't seem to have things as sorted and balanced as Matthias. All of that changes when the two young men agree to star in a short film, and end up in a scene where they share a kiss.

Brilliantly handled by Dolan, who is once again writing, directing, AND starring in his work, Matthias & Maxime moves from one exploration of friendship and love to the next, whether it is the ramifications of the kiss, the arguments that Maxime has with his mother, or just the different dynamics that come about when our two leads are in the company of others, sometimes while settled and sometimes while wanting to bring underlying tension to the surface.

Both Dolan and Freitas do very well in their roles, each one going on a different, but no less emotionally turbulent, journey. Freitas has the moments that could make him harder to like, but the script always tries to give an idea of bad behaviour stemming from confusion and/or pain. Dorval makes a very strong impression in her few scenes, highlighting another way in which loved ones can hurt one another. There are others in the cast, all doing good work, but this central trio do most of the lifting of the material.

Another excellent film from Dolan, who has already created a body of work more impressive and mature than many who have decades of experience ahead of him, this should please fans of his work. And anyone new to his filmography could easily start here and figure out if they want to see more of his stuff.


Sunday 30 August 2020

Netflix And Chill: I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016)

Oz Perkins has now made three movies, one of which I have yet to see. His directorial debut, February AKA The Blackcoat's Daughter, is one that many people stumbled across, only to find that they were very impressed by it. It was an atmospheric work, one that jumped around time and space, piecing together a puzzle that revealed a spooky and sad picture.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is another atmospheric work, and also jumps around time and space, AND ALSO pieces together a puzzle that reveals a spooky and sad picture. It shows Perkins to be more confident in his abilities, and more confident in the patience and abilities of anyone viewing his film.

Ruth Wilson plays Lily, a nurse who ends up working in the home of Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). Iris has written some enjoyably creepy work, but Lily doesn't normally read such stuff. She's too easily scared. But she decides to check out something that Iris wrote, something that she thinks may be tied to the real history of the house in which she has found herself.

Dark and oppressive, yet also light (thanks to the nature of the lead character), I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is a traditional ghost story in almost every sense, apart from the way in which certain scenes are lined up alongside one another. It's all very much on a par with the kind of atmospheric tales you know and love from Henry James and Shirley Jackson, but Perkins also does himself a favour by not including absolutely every trope and creaky door you might expect.

Wilson gives one of her best performances in the main role, and she never really does less than very good indeed in her work. She's there to do a job, to care for someone who has nobody else at her side, and she often walks through the house like some kind of illuminated will-o'-the-wisp. Prentiss has a lot less to do, the film belongs largely to Wilson and Lucy Boynton (playing Polly, another young woman who is inextricably linked to the house), but does just fine.

Perkins has a great knack for taking the elements of a particular subgenre and reshuffling them in a way that allows his films to feel both fresh and veritably overflowing with blood drained from many tales that have been told before. Perhaps not the best kind of film for those who have enjoyed some mainstream bumps and jumps, this should still strike a chord with horror fans who can enjoy a modern spin on some gothic melodrama and tragedy.

Beautifully constructed, nicely scored (by Elvis Perkins), perfectly cast (there's even a nice small role for Bob Balaban), and effectively spooky, this deserves to be seen and appreciated by patient viewers.


Saturday 29 August 2020

Shudder Saturday: The Bone Box (2020)

The only feature film, to date, written and directed by Luke Genton, The Bone Box is a slightly messy affair that doesn't quite make you forget the low budget. Yet there is definitely enough here to enjoy, and to mark Genton out as someone worth keeping an eye on.

The plot sees young Benji (Aaron Schwartz) in some dire financial trouble. So dire, in fact, that he has indulged in a bit of grave-robbing. Viewers don't have to see this macabre act, they are told of it as he discusses things with his friend, Elodie (Michelle Krusiec). Helping his elderly Aunt Florence (Maria Olsen), Benji may be an opportunistic and horrible scammer, or he may be genuinely trying to help out as he also attempts to dig his way out of a hole. Things get worse, and creepier, when Benji starts to suspect that he is being visited by the spirits of those he has robbed.

Let's not pretend otherwise here, there's more than a touch of The Conjuring and Insidious about the execution of this material. Genton peppers the film with a mix of subtle moments and enjoyable "boo" jump scared, the latter becoming more and more prevalent in the enjoyably busy third act, where more and more dangers are added to the mix and you know everything is due to bite the lead character on his ass, as it were.

Schwartz does a decent enough job in his role. He responds well to the moments that induce fear in his character, and he manages to be surprisingly easy to like for someone taken to a bit of grave-robbing. Krusiec is a very good co-star, being an excellent best friend, the type who can accept all your failings, but also try to warn you against making things worse. And Olsen, a familiar face to genre fans, has what I think may well be her best role yet, and one she relishes accordingly, in the form of the elderly aunt, blissfully ignorant of the worst things happening around her.

It is very much a "paint by numbers" horror movie, and those who aren't fans of the supernatural shenanigans we have had from the likes of James Wan and Leigh Whannell should just avoid it, but being so competently put together, even if a bit familiar and predictable to some, isn't terrible, especially when you have sat through so many lesser movies that try to do the same thing and fail.


Friday 28 August 2020

Sputnik (2020)

I don't think I have seen anything else from director Egor Abramenko, but I'll be looking forward to anything he does next. Which I guess already clues you in on my opinion of Sputnik, his feature debut. Co-written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev (who both also co-wrote the very enjoyable Attraction, although Zolotarev seems to have confused IMDb by being credited there as Andrey Zolotarev - has to be the same person though, surely), this is quite possibly one of the best sci-fi horrors that I've seen in quite some time.

It's the early 1980s and two Russian cosmonauts find themselves in a bit of trouble. Upon landing, one has the misfortune of being a bit dead. The other, Konstantin (played by Pyotr Fyodorov), is clearly not quite himself. A young psychiatrist, Dr. Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), is recruited to help Konstantin process all that has happened to him, despite the moments he can no longer remember. But there's something much more wrong with her patient than she could have imagined and when Dr. Klimova finds out just what is going on, well, she may struggle to find a solution that keeps Konstantin safe and keeps herself from being an insubordinate in the eyes of the man who brought her in to do her job (Colonel Semiradov, played by Fedor Bondarchuk).

As it is on the main movie advertising imagery, I don't think it's a major spoiler to say that Konstantin has come back from his space mission a changed man. That part of the movie is pretty much a given, and the opening minutes show this. Sputnik is not about any hidden secret, at least not in the usual way. It's about something very strange happening that people in power look to use in a way that is beneficial to them, and to hell with the consequences.

Akinshina is an excellent lead, her character established in her first scene (defending herself in front of a panel because she saved a patient by temporarily drowning them). She gives off just the right air of wanting to play the political game, within reason, but also not letting anything get in the way of her saving lives. Fyodorov may have a much lesser role (the film is less about him, and more about what has happened to him), but does well, and Bondarchuk is the kind of stern superior officer you expect to find in any '80s-set movie featuring Russian military.

Malovichko and Zolotarev do great work with their script, giving you plenty of standard genre beats while also adding a layer of palpable tension as our lead character realises just how much trouble she may get herself in if she tries to do the right thing. The details of the main "problem" are well-detailed, and everything is set up in the opening act to lead viewers through some twists and turns on the way to a cracking finale.

Abramenko does plenty to distract you from the fact that the film maintains a tight focus, and budget-friendly selection of limited sets. The space-set opening is short and sweet, and other locations are shown occasionally, allowing you not to feel too confined in the main area that has everyone working and observing Konstantin, and a decent amount of money has been spent wisely on getting some top-notch CGI onscreen. It feels necessary, but not overdone.

Something rarer and rarer nowadays, this was a film that I only started to notice when I saw others had marked it off their watchlist. I'm glad that it piqued my interest, and hope many other horror fans check it out. Superior genre entertainment.


Thursday 27 August 2020

Lake Michigan Monster (2018)

Written and directed by Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, who also has the lead role, Lake Michigan Monster is a black and white cheesefest that many viewers may well end up outright hating. I really liked it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it may become a firm favourite. Which is odd, because I was slightly nonchalant as the end credits rolled.

Tews plays Seafield, the kind of old-fashioned sailor type who looks as if he enjoys the feel of saltwater splashing his skin and a good smoke of a pipe. Not at the same time, of course. Anyway, Seafield gathers together a team of people he hopes will help him capture the titular monster, a creature that killed his father some time ago. The team includes a former member of the Navy (Dick Flynn, played by Daniel Long), a sonar operator (Nedge Pepsi, played by Beulah Peters), and a weapons expert named Sean Shaughnessy (Erick West). As soon as they get close to potentially capturing the monster, the motives of Seafield are called into question.

With a budget that would probably make even make a young Robert Rodriguez turn pale, a plot as flimsy as service station loo roll paper, and no minimum standard required for any of the jokes zipping across the screen, this will be dismissed by many, or will torture those who give it a watch without being fully aware of what they are letting themselves in for.

Knowing is half the battle though, and if you know what this is then you can, I hope, sit back and enjoy something that has been put together with more love, care, and a desire to genuinely please viewers than a hundred slicker movies from the past decade.

Although a lot of the fun comes from the limited resources, and this requires Tews to either skirt around or emphasise those limitations, nobody involved acts as if they don't have to care about things. Which may seem like a small thing, but it really isn't (not when you think of movies with much bigger budgets that feel much less considerate to those watching).

The acting is in line with the overall tone of the material, the special effects are designed to get by on charm, rather than spectacle, and it's all plotted out in a way that feels nonsensical without making you feel irritated at the ultimate pointlessness of it all (somehow). I struggle to think of why I found this so endearing, while films made with similar intentions sometimes leave me rather cold, and I think it's simply that the humour works. It has a constant sense of absurdity that runs parallel to the central quest, with no individual gag being all that great, or memorable, but each one being added to the next to create a, well, a kind of mural of mirth.

The whole thing clocks in at just under 80 minutes, which makes it an easy choice to fit into your viewing schedule, even it's really 50/50 on whether you end up liking or disliking it. I hope you like it.


Wednesday 26 August 2020

Prime Time: Exhibit A (2007)

I had this found footage movie recommended to me by a friend. Don't let the same thing happen to you. In fact, just consider how much you really trust your friends.

I am being silly, of course. It was a recommendation I accepted willingly, and with enthusiasm, but I am going to balance things out now by warning others away from what I view as a highly flawed, and disappointing, viewing experience.

Bradley Cole is Andy King, an oddball head of a family unit of four (his wife is Sheila, played by Angela Forrest, his typical teen son is Joe, played by Oliver Lee, and his daughter, Judith, played by Brittany Ashworth). Everything is looking up. Andy is up for a promotion, which means the family will move into a new home, and their finances will receive a nice boost. If all goes well. Meanwhile, Judith is filming everything as she processes some confusing feelings and Andy constantly tests the patience of his loved ones with his constant mugging and attempts to make others laugh, no matter the cost.

Written and directed by Dom Rotheroe, developing an idea by Darren Bender, Exhibit A just doesn't manage to become really interesting or thrilling, and that's due to a number of reasons. First of all, the actual title and imagery used to advertise the film keys viewers in to the fact that something is going to go horribly wrong. Second, the script isn't good enough to distract anyone from the obvious plotting en route to a disappointingly predictable final act. It's also yet another one of these movies that doesn't really give a good enough reason for someone to be using the camera to record every main moment in their life.

Third, and separate from the other two issues, is the varying quality of the acting. Although nobody completely stinks up the screen, nobody feels as natural as they should. Cole is especially jarring, mainly as he is the focus of so many scenes, and has to carry the film on his shoulders, but Ashworth and Lee are hit and miss, while Forrest is the most believable of them all, as the wife who has to be the responsible adult of the household. Even then, however, the script requires her to be more oblivious to some obvious signs of things going amiss than any average person.

It's not a bad idea, especially with the very firm grounding in reality that is there for the first third of the film, but Exhibit A isn't entertaining enough to make up for its failings, and isn't gripping enough to make up for the lack of entertainment.


Tuesday 25 August 2020

Repossessed (1990)

Here it is, The Exorcist spoof you never knew you needed. Or wanted. It's strange to think that this was in UK video stores before The Exorcist itself was deigned suitable for British adults to view in a certificated video form in their own homes (you can look up the history of the film with the BBFC to see what I mean, although many horror fans will already know what I mean).

Anyway, written and directed by Bob Logan, this is a film that relies on two main bits of canny casting. First of all, Linda Blair plays Nancy Aglet, a woman who has her head turned by the devil. Second, Leslie Nielsen plays Father Mayii, the elderly priest who may be the one to save Nancy.

The story is all about Nancy, a married mother of two, becoming alarmed when she starts to utter profanities and spew pea soup. She asks for help from Father Luke Brophy (Anthony Starke), but this also brings her unwanted attention from two fake celebrities (played by Ned Beatty and Lana Schwab) who think they can cure her and get great ratings. Maybe the only one who can really help is Father Mayii, but he is reluctant to take the chance.

Logan throws everything he can at the wall here, and some of it sticks. You gets lots of obvious gags based directly on the source material (the "lick me" turn, as silly as it is, always makes me laugh), and you get lots of tangents, such as the scenes showing Father Mayii trying to get himself fitter and stronger. Unfortunately, the gags that miss the mark sometimes miss by a wide margin. Perhaps the worst moment has an incongruous rap interlude from Father Brophy, it's cringe-inducing to watch nowadays, but there are also a number of moments breaking the fourth wall that are never as witty as they think they are.

Kudos to Blair for accepting the role and having fun with something that derives comedy from her most famous performance, and Starke does well for a lot of his main scenes, but Beatty and Schwab are underused, while Nielsen is overused, often mugging and delivering his lines in a way that undermines the potential laughs.

Many people may still have fond memories of this spoof, but it doesn't hold up very well. The better gags still work, they just remain so few and far between, and nothing is done in a way that manages to distract from how cheap and careless it all is.


Monday 24 August 2020

Mubi Monday: Rescue Dawn (2006)

Written and directed by the always-interesting Werner Herzog, who turned the subject of his documentary "Little Dieter Needs To Fly" into a narrative feature, Rescue Dawn feels like one of the stranger Herzog movies, which is saying something when you consider his whole filmography.

Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a German-born American citizen who is shot down in his aircraft during the Vietnam War. He ends up in a jungle prison, doing time alongside other individuals who have given up all hope of freedom until the war is won. Dieter is quick to start plans for an escape, despite the protestations of his fellow prisoners. The prison itself may not be that challenging to escape from, it's the jungle environment surrounding them that makes it a life-threatening challenge.

Things start off a bit wobbly here, to put it bluntly. Herzog depicts the downing of Dieter's plane in a way that shows him to be far less confident with a special effect sequence than he is with actors and ordinary people. But it's not long before things settle down after that, with the main character confused and pained by his captors.

Although I have said that this feels like one of the stranger Herzog movies, the reason for that is because it feels like his most mainstream film. It's a prisoner of war drama, and the moments that feel most like a prisoner of war drama are the moments that feel less . . . Herzogian, but there are also a lot of great little moments showing people handling their very extreme amounts of stress in different ways, and forging different connections with one another.

Bale is fantastic in the main role, giving the kind of performance that allows him to once again also change his physicality as he gets put through the wringer, and there are two superb supporting performances from Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn. Both are very different in the way they handle their prison life, but both are equally good and fitting in their roles. And everyone else onscreen does decent work, whether they're portraying American military personnel or Vietnamese soldiers.

Despite the documentary already being out there (and I still need to see it for myself), it's easy to see why Herzog was drawn to the material for a second feature. Especially with this cast and the way it very much feels like a well-plotted Hollywood drama. I'm not sure how many liberties were taken with the original tale, but it turns into yet another standout film from a director who has given us more than his fair share.


Sunday 23 August 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Call (2013)

Despite what you may think, director Brad Anderson actually has quite a large and varied filmography. It's easy to think of him as just the man who gave us the excellent psychological horrors of both Session 9 and The Machinist (a film I find genuinely uncomfortable to watch because of how emaciated Christian Bale became for his performance), but he has been providing a lot of interesting entertainment for film fans over the past few decades. The Call is another one, and it's another very good one too.

Halle Berry is Jordan Turner, a 911 operator, and she makes a fatal mistake at the start of this movie that makes her want to take a step back from the role. She moves to an instructor position instead, but ends up taking over a call when a colleague is flummoxed by an intense call from a young kidnap victim (Casey, played by Abigail Breslin). Jordan does all she can to keep Casey safe, and to help her leave clues for the police to trace her, but the odds seem to be stacked against them getting the happy ending that they want. The kidnapper (played by Michael Eklund) seems to have planned everything perfectly, and he'll stop at nothing to achieve his ultimate aim, even if that means killing anyone who gets in his way.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes (which includes the end credits), The Call is a slick and tense thriller, with some twists and turns that you can easily accept as it's all playing out, even if you then start to question things as soon as it's all over. The script, by Richard D'Ovidio, does very well in sketching out the few main players and leading you from one nail-biting scene to the next, and Anderson compensates for what could have been something dull to present (two people on either end of a phone call, albeit an important phone call) by keeping the camera and editing very . . . energetic, but without turning it into a headache-inducing shakey-cam-fest.

Berry does some of her best work in the main role, and she has just the right kind of attitude and tone to be very convincing as a 911 operator (I know, actors act, but Berry is much more suitable to the role than I thought she might be). Breslin has to be distraught for most of her time on screen, and she handles her role very well. Eklund is a good mix of pretend composure and complete psychopathy, and there are decent little turns from Morris Chestnut (as a cop), Michael Imperioli (as someone who notices something funny while the kidnapper is stopped at some traffic lights), and everyone else filling out the supporting cast.

It doesn't really do anything new, yet it also doesn't feel like something you've seen a hundred times before (despite the fact that you probably have), so that may be the biggest plus point for The Call. It's certainly reason to congratulate everyone who worked together to create such a well-crafted work of sustained suspense.


Saturday 22 August 2020

Shudder Saturday: Random Acts Of Violence (2019)

I like Jay Baruchel. A lot. He's predominantly been in comedy movies for most of his film career, but the past decade has seen him stretch himself a bit, mainly with his writing and directing work on the Goon movies (he wrote the first movie, directed the second, gave himself a small role in both). And he's had good results. Which had me looking forward to Random Acts Of Violence, a thriller/horror movie directed and co-written by Baruchel, who also has a main supporting role, based on a comic by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti.

The story is all about a comic creator, Todd (Jesse Williams), who has made his name with the creation of a murderous character, Slasherman, based on a real-life killer. On a press tour with his publisher (Ezra, played by Baruchel), his girlfriend (Kathy, played by Jordana Brewster), and an assistant (Aurora, played by Niamh Wilson), Todd ends up being contacted, and toyed with, by someone emulating some of the more grisly murders that have been drawn by Todd.

If the opening paragraph to this review didn't give you a clue, Random Acts Of Violence ended up being a bit of a disappointment for me. It's not a bad film, not really, but the more interesting elements are badly mishandled, which I have to sadly blame Baruchel for, and that leaves viewers with nothing more than a mediocre thriller akin to many we have seen before, putting someone in dangerous proximity to a killer they have a connection with, and a finale that is about as weak as any I can think of from recent years (perhaps deliberate, but I doubt it).

The screenplay, by Baruchel and Jesse Chabot, stumbles along for the first half, but at least has a great confrontational scene that crystallises the main thinking point. Todd is being interviewed on a radio show, and that interview turns to how much he has considered the victims of the murderer that inspired his fictional creation. Some also point out that Todd isn't saying anything with his content. He's just depicting violent deaths, mostly involving women, and cannot come up with a proper ending to his story because he ultimately has nothing to say.

The cast do a decent job. Williams is excellent in the lead role, a good mix of ambition and insecurity, and Brewster has her best role in god knows how long, especially when she tries to call out what she sees as ever-increasing bullshit. Baruchel is arguably the odd one out, and has the least to do, but the reason for him casting himself is obvious, in terms of budget, resources, and being able to use his name on a number of fronts. Wilson is a nice enough addition, completing the central quartet with the kind of character you start to like most while also knowing they may be the most in danger.

The worst thing about Random Acts Of Violence is the lack of consistency. There are some great visual flourishes. Here and there. You get some interest musings on what those who create horror fare may or may not wish to consider. Here and there. You get some commentary on horrors creating art that creates more horror. Here and there. There's no solid through line though, and the third act is almost unforgivably poor.

I hope to enjoy whatever Baruchel does next a bit more than this, which I am generously rating as average.


Friday 21 August 2020

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

With pretty much everyone returning, unless I am forgetting someone, Jumanji: The Next Level is an enjoyable lesson in how to put everything together competently enough for a sequel to a blockbuster family film.

A few years have gone by since the events of the first film. All is well, sort of. Spencer (Alex Wolff) just isn't feeling right though. Things aren't exactly awful, but he remembers how much better he was when stepping into the world of Jumanji. So he heads back in.  His friends understandably want to rescue him, as soon as they realise what is going on, but they don't get to pick their characters this time. They also have two new players with them, Spencer's grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his friend, Milo (Danny Glover). Once in the game, it is time to have more fun with Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, and Kevin Hart. Which is what viewers really want to see.

Nothing here is as good as it was in the previous movie, but, and this is important, nothing here is a lot worse either. As well as deriving fun from the new players being befuddled by everything, Jumanji: The Next Level also throws a couple of tricks in there to keep everyone on their toes. The emotional content doesn't work, but it is well-intentioned enough, and played well, to make it bearable. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt (dance fighting moves are displayed, Johnson gets to smoulder, and both Black and Hart get plenty of moments to act amusingly frustrated or bemused), but there is wisdom in mixing just enough fresh faces to help it not feel like a complete retread.

Jake Kasdan once again directs, and once again helped to write the screenplay with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, and he does well, handling the action-packed set-pieces as well as the smaller moments of comedic interplay. He's helped by a cast that all seem to emanate that feeling of slipping into familiar and comfortable clothing.

All of the main players are as good in their roles as they were the first time around, and they get to enjoy showing some different sides of their personas, while both Akwafina and Rory NcCann are solid additions, with the latter especially good as the new main villain causing problems in Jumanji-land.

If you liked the last movie then you will like this one. That's all it wants to do, keep fans happy and entertained. I would watch it again. And I would watch a third adventure. Job done.


Thursday 20 August 2020

Deep Rising (1998)

Part action movie, part disaster movie, part creature feature, Deep Rising is one of those little films that genre films always view with affection, and rightly so. It may be very cheesy at times, and there are some moments nowadays that highlight the FX budget, but everyone is working well with the tone of the material.

Treat Williams plays John Finnegan, a cocky captain of a speedy little ship that has been hired by some tough guys to take them to an ocean liner in the South Pacific Ocean. The liner has been rigged to sink, but not before it is looted. Things don't go to plan, however, and when Finnegan and co. get to the liner, it's already been attacked and raided by someone. Or something.

Deep Rising hits all of the beats that you want it to, from the enjoyable opening scene displaying some unseen threat to the big ship to the perverse and satisfying comeuppance that ends the storyline for one of the baddies. Williams is posited as a very reluctant hero, with his repeated refrain of "now what?" every time things seem about to go from bad to worse, and the supporting cast is a good mix of people who provide varying degrees of enjoyment.

Writer-director Stephen Sommers certainly uses every trick in the book to make the most of his budget and resources, with a lot of the first half of the movie benefiting from very little actually being seen onscreen (the creatures remain underwater, or can be seen/heard trying to get into rooms from the other side of the walls). And there are a lot of good moments that show off some special effects, it's just a case of them not quite having the capability to perfectly render everything they want to display in the third act. The dialogue is a grab bag of clichés and exposition, but it all works well enough. This is a film that isn't attempting to hide the many films influencing it, from the old b-movies with giant monsters in them to the adventure flicks with a square-jawed hero doing his best while out of his depth. It's a formula that Sommers would arguably hone to perfection in his Mummy movies, but it's here in an even more horror-tinged form.

Williams is decent in the lead. He never quite made the step up to full-on cinematic hero, but this is the closest that he comes. The main female in the cast is Famke Janssen, playing a thief named Trillian, and she's fantastic, but that is usually my reaction to any Famke Janssen performance. Wes Studi is the leader of the looters, he's a formidable bit of wretchedness, and Kevin J. O'Connor is supposed to be someone you root for, but is so bloody annoying that you're wishing for his onscreen death from just about the first moment he speaks. Elsewhere, you get Anthony Heald trying to stay smug in the face of overwhelming danger, Jason Flemying, Cliff Curtis, Clifton Powell, Trevor Goddard, Djimon Hounsou, Una Damon, and Clint Curtis making up most of the other players (I may have forgotten one or two main names, it's an impressive cast anyway).

You have some great set-pieces, a number of really impressive death scenes, and a finale that pulls out all the stops when it comes to some stunts involving a Jet Ski zooming along on the water (no sarcasm, more people should appreciate just how good that stuntwork is). Deep Rising is a very fun way to spend 106 minutes, and all the better for not having any cheap sequel coming along to sully the memory of it. Yet.


Wednesday 19 August 2020

Prime Time: The Witches Of Eastwick (1987)

The more I think about it, the harder it is to think of a more bizarre mainstream hit (I believe it was a hit, it certainly seemed to be known and seen by enough people) than this movie.

It's essentially the tale of three women who would like a perfect man. You have Alex (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer). And it looks like their wish may come true when the mysterious Daryl Van Horn (Jack Nicholson) comes into town. He's devilish, direct, and deemed to be just what the women need. For now.

If you haven't seen The Witches Of Eastwick in many years, here are some things you may have forgotten. First of all, it is directed by George Miller. Yes, the George Miller who only seems to be remembered for the Mad Max movies or films about dancing penguins. Second, Veronica Cartwright is REALLY good in her role. She plays Felicia Alden, a woman afflicted by the presence of Van Horn as soon as he comes to town. You may remember her most memorable scene - spewing out a lot of cherry stones - but she does great work in every scene she is in.

If you haven't seen the film at all then just know that it has a great script by Michael Cristofer (based on a novel by John Updike), unfussy direction from Miller that keeps the focus on the dialogue and characters, and great performances from the leads, as well as that fantastic turn from Cartwright, who is given equally fine support from Richard Jenkins, as her husband.

Cher, Sarandon, and Pfeiffer are all excellent, portraying three very different women who want the same thing. Each one starts off as very different from the other, although the journey they go on together sees them discovering themselves in ways that bring them closer and closer together, as well as growing more similar in their outlook. Nicholson doesn't so much attempt to be all things to all women, but rather knows just how far he can push things and how much his charm and bluntness will make up for any perceived failings.

It's very interesting to rewatch this movie, and perhaps more satisfying than any first viewing. Knowing how things end, and I'll try not to give any spoilers, helps to put up with some of the more infuriating moments that take place in the middle section. It's a witty and insightful battle of the sexes that seems quite patronising at times before revealing its true colours.

There are issues. This is one of many films that have Jack Nicholson feeling very much like he's playing Jack Nicholson, the transformation of the female characters is quite clumsily handled, and there's one main special effect in the final act that may well have been best left offscreen, or created in a different way.

Those minor niggles aside, this is great entertainment. Smart, sexy, funny, and you'll never look at cherry stones the same way again.


Tuesday 18 August 2020

Blood Rage (1987)

Although often dismissed as a lesser slasher movie, and it's hard to really argue against people who don't view it with the same affection as I do, Blood Rage is most definitely a fun entry in the sub-genre. What it lacks in certain areas, such as the script and some of the performances, it more than makes up for with decent pacing, some impressive practical effects, and a constant feeling of glee.

Things begin at a drive-in theatre in 1974. Young Todd and Terry, identical twins, take the opportunity to sneak out of the car while their mother is making out with her date. Terry kills someone with a hatchet, then ensures that Todd is blamed by smearing him with blood and putting the hatchet in his hands. Todd is too shocked to speak, and ends up being placed in an asylum after being found guilty of the murder. A decade later, Todd escapes from the asylum. This times perfectly with Terry once again feeling murderous, this time after learning of his mother's engagement to her fiance. And so begins a night of murder, mistaken identity, and multiple utterances of the line "that's not cranberry sauce" (oh, it also takes place on Thanksgiving).

Directed by John Grissmer (who only did one other film before this) and written by Bruce Rubin (credited under a different name), Blood Rage is wildly uneven in how it tries to achieve a satisfying final result. I'm not surprised it made little impact when first released, having been shelved for a good few years after completion and ending up limping out to audiences once the slasher star was definitely shining less brightly than it once did.

Mark Soper does a good job in the dual role of Todd and Terry. It's not always easy to keep up with who is who (although the main thing to remember is that it is actually Terry who is always killing people), but Soper does well as both the killer who has everyone fooled and the innocent man who everyone thinks is dangerous. You also get a decent selection of attractive young women to be potential victims, including Julie Gordon, Lisa Randall, and Jayne Bentzen (although the latter is playing the mother of another character). There are a number of male characters too, but few of them stand out, with the exception of Ted Raimi in his amusing cameo at the start of the movie, selling condoms in the men's room of the drive-in. Louise Lasser and William Fuller are a different matter, playing the mother and her fiance, respectively. They are given a lot of the worst lines from the script, admittedly, but also deliver their dialogue in a way that adds to the off-kilter feeling of things.

When it comes to a slasher from this time period, however, what can help is a decent bodycount, and Blood Rage certainly has that. I didn't keep an exact count, but I'd be very surprised if the tally for Terry wasn't into double figures, and a number of those kills are shown with surprisingly decent special effects (largely created by Ed French, who also has an amusing onscreen cameo). So it delivers on that front. It also uses the standard template well enough - opening "tragedy", psychological issues, escaped killer years later, bodies piling up, final act that comes with a bit of a twist on things - to be rated well enough alongside many other slasher movies from this decade.

I can see some people being put off by what it doesn't get right, but that adds to the overall experience for me, making Blood Rage more fun than it otherwise would be. You might like it as much as I do, you might end up hating it, but it at least remains more memorable than many others.


Monday 17 August 2020

Mubi Monday: Swimming Pool (2003)

Written and directed by François Ozon, working with writer Emmanuèle Bernheim and translator Sionann O'Neill, Swimming Pool is a sun-soaked psychosexual drama that turns into more of a standard thriller in the third act, anchored by two fantastic lead performances.

Charlotte Rampling is Sarah Morton, a writer who is given the use of her publisher's vacation home in Southern France. She writes detective thrillers, usually, and needs complete peace and quiet for her working process. It turns out, however, that her publisher (who is played by Charles Dance) has forgotten that his daughter (Julie, played by Ludivine Sagnier) is also due to spend some time at the house. Things soon become tense as Sarah and Julie clash, the former trying to get into the right headspace for her writing while the latter keeps herself busy with a series of one-night stands.

Moving between English and French, Swimming Pool is a fascinating character study of two people who are very comfortable in the personas that they choose to reveal to one another, yet completely out of their comfort zone when needing some real support. Both also have an arrogance about them, but for different reasons. Rampling has her assumed position of superiority simply by being older, and a polite Brit, while Sagnier has youth and a lack of care for any consequences, for most of the runtime anyway.

Rampling is excellent in the role of Sarah, as is Sagnier with her embodiment of Julie. Both leads skirt perilously close to their characters being completely unsympathetic, yet they manage to keep you watching as things develop between them into what could be a friendship, if no other agendas cause it to become unbalanced. Jean-Marie Lamour is Franck, a man who ends up inadvertently caught between the two women for an evening, and he also does a great job. Dance is only really in the movie for the start and end, bookending things with moments that show a big difference in the dynamic between himself and Rampling's character.

Although it takes a while to find its feet, Swimming Pool turns into something riveting and thought-provoking, especially when you get to a final scene that leaves things enjoyably ambiguous. It's about tapping in to your innermost desires and impulses as you try to access your creative side, it's about allowing yourself the freedom to just enjoy the company of others (good conversation, some dancing, a healthy helping of sex). It's even about just becoming someone else for the duration of your holiday in a foreign country, letting the mix of hot sunshine and cool water help you to view yourself as someone a bit steamier than usual.

Fans of Ozon will know that so many of his movies revolve around the idea of identity, what people can discover about others, what they can discover about themselves, and Swimming Pool is in line with his preferred thematic exploration. There may be a number of characters here, but it's all about Sarah discovering some other parts of Sarah.


Sunday 16 August 2020

Netflix And Chill: Time Freak AKA Time After Time (2018)

A romantic comedy with the added element of time travel, and the complications that can bring. It's amazing that nobody has thought of trying this before. Except they have, and most recently with a British flavour in a film called About Time.

Time Freak (which is the title I am going to prefer to use for this, as Time After Time is a different, better, movie) won't remind you of About Time at all though. It's totally different. It may be a romantic comedy with time travel as a major component, but the leads are two fairly well-known Brits, and most of the plotting leads towards a lesson about the risk of ruining everything else while trying to make things perfect for yourself. Okay, it may really remind you of About Time. The biggest difference is that this has much more of a teen feel, which helps. A bit.

Asa Butterfield is Stillman, a young man who has had the good fortune to be in a relationship with Debbie (Sophie Turner). Then one day he gets a text, one saying that they need to talk. It's time for their relationship to be over, which he then attempts to desperately avoid, thanks to his invention of time travel. He doesn't travel back alone though. He takes his best friend, Evan (Skyler Gisondo), and the two are able to try and create positive changes in both of their lives.

The second feature from writer-director Andrew Bowler, and his first with the resources of a half-decent budget and selection of better-known leads, Time Freak is a film that starts off well, it's only moments into the thing that we see the time travel in effect, but seems to become more and more unsure of itself as things play out. Bowler realises that the comedy needs to give way to drama, but he throws up some moral quandaries that he doesn't really answer with any satisfaction, or conviction.

Thankfully, the cast help a lot. Butterfield is a decent lead, and certainly feels like someone who could remain likeable while battling his own compulsive nature, while Turner does some of her best work, in what is arguably the toughest of the lead roles (playing the character who repeats a lot without ever being aware of them being repeated). But it's Gisondo who gets to have the most fun, whether he's using the time to try and chat up an attractive young woman or being inadvertently trapped in a short elevator ride that turns into a timeloop hell, he's a big plus for the whole thing, and helps viewers to forget the more troubling aspects of the film for a while.

There's something good in here, something either a lot funnier or a lot darker, but Bowler doesn't have the sense to take everything in one clear direction. That leaves viewers to have conversations in their own heads, or with others, about the ramifications of the central idea. You could argue that many great movies do the same thing, and you'd be right. But those movies provoke thought and dialogue about what has been presented onscreen. Time Freak leads you to consider everything it gets wrong. I still found enough here to enjoy, but it's a very problematic film, in many ways, and I could completely understand anyone hating it, or even feeling that it was quite repugnant for most of the runtime.


Saturday 15 August 2020

Shudder Saturday: La Llorona (2019)

Julio Diaz is Enrqiue Monteverde, a man followed around by the apparition of death. Sometimes he knows it is there, and sometimes he doesn't. There are moments when he seems to be haunted, but there are many moments when he seems completely nonchalant about everything. Monteverde is a former dictator, having been responsible for the slaying of many native Mayans during his time of rule, and he is finally forced to appear in court, where witnesses illustrate a number of the atrocities committed in his name. The past looks as if it is reaching out a bony arm to clutch at his heart, which makes it all the more interesting when the Monteverde household takes in a new worker, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who seems to start off a burst of supernatural spookiness.

Directed by Jayro Bustamante, who also co-wrote the screenplay with first-timer Lisandro Sanchez, La Llorona is a smart and sensitive horror that uses some historic horror to ground a familiar tale of ghostly retribution. The biggest problem it has is that it ended up coming out in the same year as The Curse Of La Llorona. I didn't hate that film as much as some people, mainly due to my habit of being easily pleased, but it certainly wasn't good enough for me to look forward to other movies with similar titles. Thankfully, this is more in line with Pan's Labyrinth than Wan's Laboratory. Although nowhere near as fantastical and fairytale-like, it beautifully blends some very real atrocities with some solid horror genre material.

It's not all that scary though. I know that may seem completely backwards after what I have just said above, but I think it is worth warning horror fans about. La Llorona goes for a thick sense of atmosphere throughout - something that almost lays over the central characters like a woollen blanket, making things get uncomfortably warm and creeping up so far as to stifle breathing - and it maintains it impressively all the way to a fitting final scene. The horror here comes from watching people either attempt to justify or completely discard awful deeds committed by awful men.

Diaz is very good in his role, physically frail and suffering, mentally in and out of clarity, but the film is more about how others view him than how he views himself, which is through a filter allowing him to feel fine about all he has done. The people who have more to do are Margarita Kenéfic and Sabrina De La Hoz, playing, respectively, the wife and daughter of the central character. Both view the whole thing rather differently, with Kenéfic either too proud or too embarrassed to see her husband as anything other than a wrongfully-accused man who did what had to be done, and De La Hoz mentally leading herself to question more and more what she was told as a truth throughout her life. Coroy is good enough in the role of Alma, she has to stand around and be quiet while sometimes looking spooky, and Ayla-Elea Hurtado does well as the youngest member of the household, Sara, and the one who quite early on asks her mother why the internet is saying so many nasty things about her grandfather.

I can see what Bustamante and Sanchez were going for here, and there are a number of scenes that work in either standard horror visual language or in the way violent protests are shown (such as Monteverde being taken into his home while trying to avoid an angry crowd who throw bags of fake blood at him), but it's not quite as effective as it could be. I think it would have helped to either show more of the history or work in more of the here-and-now spookiness, yet the film is happy to use both elements sparingly, although both infuse every part of the movie.

It's worth your time, and another horror-tinged drama that I respect more for being defiantly aimed at adult viewers, but La Llorona misses a chance to be something absolutely great. Not by much though, not by much at all.


Friday 14 August 2020

Come To Daddy (2019)

Any film that features Elijah Wood shuffling around with the haircut of that guy that used to live at the back of our local shops and carry his whole life around in a dozen plastic bags is going to be a) weird, and b) worth your time. Come To Daddy is certainly weird. It's also very much worth your time.

Directed by Ant Timpson, who also came up with the idea for the story which was turned into screenplay form by Toby Harvard, it's almost not worth going into detail here. Suffice to say, Come To Daddy is best enjoyed without knowing any of the twists and turns it contains, and it's also a film in which many of the characters are pretending to be someone they're not. That goes for Norval Greenwood (Wood), his father, and anyone else who wanders into the proceedings.

I guess I should still try to summarise. Here's the most vague summary I can come up with. Norval Greenwood embarks on a trip to reconnect with his estranged father. Hijinks ensue. And when I say hijinks I am actually referring to conflict, tension, and a disturbing scene involving a pen smeared with feces. That covers the main points.

Wood is a lot of fun here. He's clearly uncomfortable at all times, trying to impress someone he shouldn't be that bothered by, and clearly trying to keep up a facade. Stephen McHattie is as good as ever, antagonising Wood and being thoroughly unlikeable, while also being inherently likeable due to his innate McHattie-ness, you get a small role for Martin Donovan, and there's a scene-stealing turn from Michael Smiley, who comes into things at about the halfway mark and really shakes everything up with the nature of his character.

Timpson puts everything together well, following the twisty script from Harvard while allowing the strong performances to carry viewers through the building atmosphere of head-messing strangeness and general what-the-fuckery. While it's no surprise to discover that this is written by someone who helped to write The Greasy Strangler, it's very easy to assume that Timpson has a number of other features to his credit already. He doesn't. This is his feature directorial debut, but there's nothing to signify that in the slick professionalism of the final product.

This won't work for everyone, and if you dislike it then I can safely assume that you will probably REALLY dislike it, but if you hop on for this dark and twisted ride, willing to go along with it all, then I think you will be able to appreciate it as a bold and warped thriller that also has a rich vein of pitch-black comedy running all the way through it. You just need to know what you're getting into, which is a film that doesn't want you to ever be sure or what you're getting into. Does that all make complete sense? No? Good, you're ready to check out the film now.


Thursday 13 August 2020

Boy Eats Girl (2005)

As lovely as she may be, it's weird to think that there was a time in which Samantha Mumba was being sold as some kind of worthy addition to a movie cast. I cannot even recall her musical hit(s), but I recall never thinking of her as being poised for a career in acting. But a small filmography proves me wrong. The quality of the movies there, well, that's a different matter entirely.

Boy Eats Girl isn't terrible. It's just a bit confused. Which is what you might expect from a zombie film that is also hitting all of the beats for a standard teen flick. It's still better than Warm Bodies, but that's not saying much.

Mumba plays Jessica, a young woman who has an admirer in the shape of Nathan (David Leon). But Nathan doesn't want to make a move, for fear of ruining their friendship. Despite the encouragement from his other mates, Diggs (Tadhg Murphy) and Henry (Laurence Kinlan). Much like so many other teen movies, you get a school bully (Samson, played by Mark Huberman), a gorgeous "rival" (Cheryl, played by Sara James), and a mother (played by Deirder O'Kane) who panics when she finds out that her son has accidentally suicided himself and tries to fix it with a book of mumbo jumbo sorcery that starts a zombie epidemic. That last part may not feature in many teen movies, but it's in this one.

There aren't many other titles in the filmography of director Stephen Bradley or writer Derek Landy that stand out. You might say that Boy Eats Girl is the biggest thing they've done, in terms of the cast involved and the exposure it had when first released. Which makes it easy to see why they've never really clawed themselves up to some higher level. There's enough here to make it a fairly enjoyable enough 80 minutes, as long as you're not too demanding or hard to please, but there's not enough here to make it stand out in any way. The comedy falls a bit flat, the zombie carnage is very tame, and the third act just leads to everything ending with a whimper, rather than a bang. What works, surprisingly, is the mix of characters. They may be a bundle of stereotypes, but they're all given enough individual moments to help them be more memorable than they otherwise would be, and the cast provide varying results.

Leon isn't a bad male lead - imagine if Andrew Lincoln made his debut as a strung-out goth - and Mumba is pretty and sweet enough to make the central potential pairing worthwhile. James, Huberman, O'Kane, and the likes of Bryan Murray and Lalor Roddy all do well in their supporting roles, but the main chuckles come from Murphy and Kinlan, the sidekicks who are willing to help their mate when able to break through their fear-induced paralysis.

A lot of people will absolutely hate this. It uses zombies in a way that zombie movie fans will dislike, it tries to coast along on a mix of small-time charm and youthful energy. But it almost works. Almost. It might have done a bit better if it didn't also feel designed to give Mumba a push that never really felt earned (as much as I don't actively dislike her).


Wednesday 12 August 2020

Prime Time: Black Water (2007)

"Based on a true story" is a phrase that I, and many other horror fans, got used to dismissing a long time ago. Because it's not any sign of quality. It's not even any sign of authenticity. Many film-makers, sadly, end up using it as some kind of excuse to make up for anything that they want to put onscreen, be it ridiculous or crushingly dull.

In the case of Black Water it ends up being the latter. Three people take a boat ride into the mangrove swamp, which leads to them encountering a dangerous and hungry crocodile. There's Grace (Diana Glenn), her husband, Adam (Andy Rodoreda), and Grace's sister, Lee (Maeve Dermody). Grace is pregnant, which makes her survival here all the more important because you also have to think of the unborn child. And if you start to forget, don't worry, the film will remind you.

Written and directed by David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki, Black Water is a potentially interesting premise that doesn't do enough to keep it tense and entertaining for the runtime. The film-makers obviously think that "based on a true story" will make up for any other failings, which includes a weak script, poor selection of main characters (but you're not supposed to dislike them because they band together around a pregnant woman, in order to protect her and her unborn child), and a third act that weaves between the ridiculous and the surprisingly boring.

The thing to bear in mind is that anything that really happened can also be ridiculous or boring, so perhaps Nerlich and Traucki are sticking closely to the truth that they've based the story on. But that doesn't make the movie itself more satisfying.

Dermody is the best of the leads, giving you someone actually likeable and worth rooting for. Glenn is stuck with the thankless task of just trying to emotionally manipulate viewers by occasionally rubbing her belly, and Rodoreda is sidelined at times for moments that allow the sisters to be sisterly and have sisterly conversations. None of the conversations are particularly revealing or interesting, which means the time spent with the leads, when the crocodile isn't onscreen, isn't all that  enjoyable.

Don't worry though, because most of the crocodile footage is real. Very little CGI was used. So that should help you to appreciate the movie as it plods from one moment to the next. It doesn't. Of course it doesn't. It's just a gimmick, used in conjunction with the "based on a true story" line, that people again mistakenly throw out there as some kind of critic-proof value added to the film. I've seen a number of killer croc movies from the past couple of decades and I can safely say that Black Water is the worst of the lot. I am sure that some will enjoy it more than I did, and there are fleeting moments of decent tension when the croc remains underwater and you sense the characters being stalked, but it really didn't work for me. Part of that comes from the elements that feel cynically incorporated as pre-emptive defence moves, part of it stems from the end result just not being good enough.

Bonus points for how good the croc footage is though.


Tuesday 11 August 2020

The Fanatic (2019)

I'd heard a hell of a lot about The Fanatic before finally getting the chance to check it out for myself, and most of it wasn't good. Some people were talking about it as if it was one of the worst films ever made, and mocking the central performance from John Travolta as being akin to that of the character playing "Simple Jack" in Tropic Thunder (you know the phrase, I know the phrase, I'm just not going to use it here in the main text of my review).

The Fanatic is quite bad, I don't think anyone is really going to stand up and make a case for it being a misunderstood modern classic, but it's nowhere near as bad as many have tried to make out. I'd also have to say that it has real moments where it tries to do something unexpected and interesting, especially when you think of the movies it seems to be following, films that have the same initial idea but take the characters down a much different road.

Travolta is Moose, a huge film fan who also has some clear mental health issues. If you encountered him in any social setting then you'd immediately be able to guess that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum that made him unable to pick up on standard social cues and body language. His favourite actor is Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), and it looks like Moose is about to be very happy as he is all set to get Dunbar's autograph on an expensive prop. But events conspire to stop that from happening, which leads to Moose planning some way to encounter Dunbar and take up one minute of his time. Every encounter just ends up making Dunbar angrier, however, and makes Moose look more and more like a stalker, which is exactly what his friend, Leah (Ana Golja), warned him about.

Directed by Fred Durst, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Bekerman (his first feature), The Fanatic is an uneven mix of right and wrong. The weird thing is that sometimes the wrong stuff doesn't seem so wrong as the film plays out in a surprisingly effective third act. Okay, Travolta's performance is a consistently bold one, for better or for worse, and the dialogue throughout can be painfully clunky, but the shading of the two characters who provide the heart of the picture, the ungrateful star and the fan being too invasive, is really well done, and allows for moments in which the film lays bare the problematic paradox at the heart of the relationship. There's usually a divide, and lines should be kept between public personas and their personal lives, but it's impossible to deny that people who become famous are only lifted to, and kept in, their position through fans.

I'm still really trying to decide what I think about Travolta's turn here. It's sometimes terrible, especially in the scenes that show him practicing his street artist routine as a British policeman, but sometimes surprisingly spot on. He has no filter, and no real sense of how others may be feeling as he stomps around and pursues something that he has set as some symbolic pinnacle of his own happiness. Sawa is great, and the fact that his character may seem like a stereotypical asshole who just happens to be a movie star feeds very much into the main points that the film is making. Moose is surrounded by those kinds of characters elsewhere (Todd and Slim, played by Jacob Grodnik and James Paxton), but he doesn't give them any respect because he can see them for what they are when they aren't covered by the dazzling cloak of stardom. And Golja does well as a friend who makes some strange choices, or glaring errors, and then has to simply bide her time elsewhere until she is ever needed again, if ever.

I started this review without my final thoughts being fully formed. That happens sometimes. Writing down my reaction to various elements in the film can help me decide on where I want to place it in any basic rating system. There are things working against this. The score isn't great, the Limp Bizkit song being pointed out as it appears on the soundtrack, and the whole thing is visually flat and messy.

It's got something though. Not enough to make it worth a rewatch, or to rate it as something good (cinematically), but certainly something to save it from being talked about as one of the worst things you could ever watch. For that reason, I end up rating it bang in the middle.


Sunday 9 August 2020

Mubi Monday: Good Manners (2017)

Isabél Zuaa plays Clara, a woman who ends up getting a job as a nurse/helper/nanny in the household of pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano). Clara ends up being more than just an employee to Ana, helping her get through a very difficult time in her life by becoming a companion, and a sexual partner. But the baby coming along could change everything, especially when Clara is told of how he was conceived, and what that might mean for the future.

Co-written and co-directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas, Good Manners is a film that feels very much in line with some other titles from the past few years that have successfully mixed some very real human drama with elements of creature features. It's a sweet tale that also uses some decent special effects in the second half to realise the less realistic aspect of the storyline, leading viewers carefully through ground that covers love, loss, fear, and the general nature of being a parent and wanting to keep your child safe from the dangers of the outside world.

Zuaa is the player who gets the most screentime here, and she does a very good job. More awkward and stiff in the early scenes, that's absolutely in line with how her character is as she is struggling to get a job that she may not be entirely qualified for, but she definitely needs. Estiano has a slightly easier time of things, in terms of what she's asked to convey, but does equally well. Then you have Miguel Lobo as young Joel. Lobo gives a frankly fantastic performance, as sweet and endearing as it is worrying and frustrating at times. There are a number of supporting roles, all cast perfectly, but the heart of the film is the relationship between parent and child, and I'm not going to single anyone else out from a uniformly excellent cast.

Apparently inspired by an urban legend, Dutra and Rojas have made something that feels very much steeped in the spirit of Brazil, yet also brings to the fore some themes and moments universally recognisable to all. There are times when this could all too easily be seen as something silly, or at least something tonally inconsistent, but Dutra and Rojas are savvy in keeping the focus on the leads, and how their relationship is affected by one huge problem that they're trying to cope with, which allows for the rest of the film to play out sensitively, and in a pretty grounded way.

The main thing that Good Manners gets wrong is simply not being as good as some of the other movies I have alluded to in a way that is vague enough to try and avoid spoilers. It's not as moving as some, not as visually stylish as others, and just falls a bit short of the mark for anyone who has found themselves lost in other cinematic worlds exploring similar dynamics. That's not a massive failing, and everyone working on this seems to be doing their best with what resources are available to them, but it does stop it from being at the very top tier of a recent crop of movies within a specific sub-genre.

Watch this, enjoy it, and look forward to the next films we get from Dutra and Rojas, whether they're working together again or helming projects on their own.


Netflix And Chill: Freaks (2018)

Although I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, overall, I think there's something worth mentioning about Freaks that COULD seem very spoilery to those wanting to go into the movie completely blind. So stop reading now if that is you.

Right, everyone else gone?

Just me and anyone who has seen the film here? Or people who don't care about comparisons that may reveal the essence of the movie? Okay then, we can continue.

Freaks is the story of a young girl (Chloe, played by Lexy Kolker) who is being kept at home by her father (Emile Hirsch). The reasoning behind this isn't clear, but it seems that the father is just trying to protect his daughter. Or maybe he's protecting the world outside from his daughter. All is revealed as the plot unfolds, and that includes the revelation that some people in this cinematic world have dangerous powers, and there's an ice cream vendor (Bruce Dern) taking an interest in the life of Chloe, which means he may want to harm her, although he may equally want to help her.

Okay, that was a whole extra paragraph, at least, in between my warning and what may come as quite a big spoiler to anyone wanting to go into this film blind. So I am saying it now. Freaks is a better onscreen representation of the character of Phoenix than we've seen in any X-Men movie so far. It's all about a young girl growing to a stage in which her powers will start to show, which will endanger her and everyone around her. And she can become stronger when she lets her emotions build up and drive her actions.

If you like the sound of that then Freaks is for you. It's really well put together, from the co-directing and co-writing team of Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, depicting a big vision onscreen while keep everything focused on one or two small locations. Lipovsky and Stein are smart in the way they illustrate many big brushstrokes just offscreen while they keep the camera pointed at areas they have layered with some lovely and detailed painting.

The cast all do very well in their roles, with Hirsch and Dern both playing to their strengths as two adults butting heads while they consider the best ways to help the young girl at the centre of everything. Hirsch alternates between being caring and being too heavy-handed in his protective approach, Dern is as cantankerous as usual, and both actors play the material ambiguously enough until the truth starts to be revealed. Kolker is pretty fantastic in the vital role of Chloe, starting off with a sense of innocence that keeps being worn away as she becomes more informed and angrier. Grace Park is an agent who serves as an obvious physical threat, and Amanda Crew is odd to watch, considering she's now old enough to be asked to play the "mother" role in these kinds of films (it still just seems like yesterday when she was the headstrong younger sister of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Final Destination 3).

Freaks is very familiar stuff, but it's done so well. It is, essentially, a superhero-type tale without all of the usual trappings. You don't get the name recognition, you don't get the huge budget or set-pieces, and you don't even get the bombastic musical score (with no offence intended to Tim Wynn, I can't even recall much of the score already). What you get is a gripping story with some well-sketched characters and a satisfying third act that just keeps shifting the plot points nicely into place while adding more and more danger.


Saturday 8 August 2020

Shudder Saturday: They Look Like People (2015)

The first feature film from writer-director Perry Blackshear, and the second feature I have seen from him (having heard about it for a while, but I got to The Siren first), They Look Like People is an impressive, and ambiguous, psychological horror that does great work within some very limiting boundaries.

MacLeod Andrews (who keeps impressing me, but also keeps reminding me of Hugh Jackman, if Jackman had spent many years not eating well enough to get all of his vitamins) plays Wyatt, a man who ends up spending some time with a good friend, Christian (Evan Dumouchel). The two men have something in common, things have recently taken a bit of a downhill turn in contrast to where they wanted their lives to go, but there's one big difference. Wyatt is receiving messages that are warning him against people around him being infected and turned into evil creatures. He has weapons, he has a plan, and he needs to get some corrosive acid to deal with the upcoming "war".

As he has proven with pretty much every movie I have seen him in, MacLeod Andrews is one of the best actors working today. I don't do hyperbole. I really believe that. Whether that's due to him picking roles/projects that he knows he's a great fit for or whether it is his innate talent is another matter. He's a big positive here, portraying a troubled man who is growing increasingly terrified by a world due to change around him, yet also worrying that he cannot trust his own mind. He's complemented by Dumouchel, who has the lesser role, but becomes essential as a friend at a low point willing to put his complete faith in someone who doesn't have complete faith in himself. You also get a wonderful turn from Margaret Ying Drake, playing Mara, someone who works with Dumouchel and may be interested in him on a more personal level.

The other thing about the lead performance from Andrews is that you always feel the threat bubbling away just under the surface. He's a lovely man, but believing what he believes makes it feel like just a matter of time before he seriously hurts someone, working under the impression (real or false) that they are no longer an actual person. Not only does this make for an effective and tense bit of horror, albeit not one for those needing bloodshed and death every ten minutes, but it's also a very honest depiction of someone doing their best to hold things together while their brain tries to convince them to do something that they know will lead them into some big trouble. Many of us have been in that situation, even if it's to a much lesser extent (either through mental health issues or mental health being temporarily altered by various drugs, including alcohol).

Although Blackshear allows himself the luxury of ambiguity and atmospheric creepiness for most of the runtime, They Look Like People isn't a film designed to build and build to an anti-climactic ending, as so many independent horror movies seem to be. You can still interpret things in a different way if you wish, I guess, but the ending works beautifully, and feels almost cathartic after spending time getting to know, and like, the main characters.

I'm glad that some other people kept mentioning this one in conversations about favourite movies from the past decade (special thanks to Mitch Bain of the Strong Language & Violent Scenes podcast), and I'll now be recommending it to others, as well as looking forward to what is next on the cards for Blackshear.


Friday 7 August 2020

Fantasy Island (2020)

Do you think it would be fun if someone decided to make a movie version of The Love Boat, but then decided to take the basic premise and twist it into a slasher movie? I am guessing probably not, at least not if you are familiar with the show, and have a fondness for it. The same goes for Hotel, although that was much more of a soap opera. But the same might go for Fantasy Island, a film based on a brand name that will satisfy neither fans of the TV show nor younger viewers who won't know what they're letting themselves in for.

The plot starts off simply enough, after a prologue scene showing someone being terrorised. A bunch of people arrive at Fantasy Island, where they hope that their fantasies will come true. There's Gwen (Maggie Q), a woman who thinks that her fantasy will allow her to make up for a past mistake, Melanie (Lucy Hale), a woman who wants revenge on a school bully (Sloane, played by Porita Doubleday), Patrick (Austin Stowell), who wants to play soldier, and brothers Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and J. D. (Ryan Hansen), who just want to party hard. Michael Peña is Mr. Roarke, the head of the island, and the one ensuring that people stay the course as their fantasies play out, even if they turn into something unexpected.

Re-uniting some of the people who gave us the much more enjoyable Truth Or Dare (director Jeff Wadlow, who also helped to write the screenplay with Jillian Jacobs and Christopher Roach again, and Hale in a central role), Fantasy Island is just about the most ridiculous and pointless mainstream thriller/horror I can think of in recent years. I guess there's a vein of black comedy running through it, which may help viewers who respond to it more, but it certainly wasn't enough to help me find everything more bearable.

The cast are an admirably diverse selection, I guess, but the one thing they have in common is a level of blandness that doesn't help lift the weak material. Maggie Q ends up becoming the foremost character, working things out ahead of others and trying to change the situation for the better, but that doesn't make her any more interesting. Hale is good though, and she's someone I tend to enjoy in the main roles I have seen her in, and Yang and Hansen work well together, bringing more of the fun moments in the first half of the film. Stowell is saddled with an annoying strand that shows him desperate to have a moment of heroism, and Peña speaks in platitudes while smiling enigmatically. Thankfully, Doubleday is another person I just tend to automatically enjoy onscreen, and there are supporting roles for the always-welcome Michael Rooker and Kim Coates.

It just goes to show you that you can pretty much do anything you like with a well-known brand name and nobody will question you if they think enough teens will go to see it. This makes all the wrong choices, from the lack of characters you want to root for to the downright stupid final act, but thinks all will be forgiven when it moves along slickly enough while occasionally winking at those who remember the TV show. All is not forgiven. And my fantasy has now changed from me being locked in a room with Scarlett Johansson and twelve jars of strawberry jam to simply never having to endure a sequel to this.