Wednesday 30 September 2020

Prime Time: Driven (2019)

Casey Dillard, who also wrote this film, stars as Emerson, a woman who earns a living driving for some kind of taxi service type of company. She also aspires to be a stand up comic, although that may not happen while she never actually takes the step up to the stage to give it a proper go. Things get very weird for Emerson when she picks up Roger (Richard Speight, Jr), a man who is actually dealing with a demon menace. Although they don’t get along at all, Emerson may end up being the best person to help Roger in his demon-destroying quest. 

Directed by Glenn Payne, Driven is a fun film that feels like it could have been even more fun if two things were changed. First, Dillard could have made the script much more amusing. She does well in fleshing out the main characters, and her own character has enough interesting aspects to her persona without being quirky for the sake of quirkiness, but there’s a lack of sharp wit in the plotting and dialogue. Second, this could have been made years ago. It now feels like a film that will be easily lost in the shuffle of movies that have a lead character working for an Uber-like company or cab firm. 

It would also help to plot this in a way that actually provided any tension, or made you feel that something was actually at stake. That would mean softening some of the edges of at least one character, or perhaps even making a point of explaining the repercussions of the demon problem in a way that signifies end of days kind of danger. 

Although a few other characters appear throughout the movie, it’s essentially a film focused on a driver and her problematic fare. Dillard is very good in her role, and gets to do even better as the second half allows her to develop her character further, and it’s obvious why she excels in a role that she wrote. Speight, Jr also does decent work, but is hampered by the fact that his character isn’t one viewers ever get to warm to. Even in the second half, Speight, Jr is left as a reluctant “hero” who doesn’t appreciate how his actions may impact others, or even how their lives may differ greatly from his own. 

Making movies is all about making what can seem to be an infinite number of choices, and I know that I have the easy life of commenting on them while having never made my own. There are people who may like the choices made here by both Payne and Dillard. The latter certainly seems to have wanted to ground some genre fun in a story that shows someone finding her own ability to bite the bullet and help others. And that is a very good choice to have made. I just wish there had been ways to either make the end result darker or much more fun, or both.


Tuesday 29 September 2020

Teen Witch (1989)

I'm not saying Teen Witch killed the careers of those behind the camera, but it's the last film written by Robin Menken and Vernon Zimmerman, and the second-last narrative feature from director Dorian Walker. Some of the cast members have managed to continue their acting careers, which seems like a miracle when you see some of the stuff they have to do here.

Robyn Lively is Louise, a typical teenage girl who spends her time in the company of her friend, Polly (Mandy Ingber), swooning over Brad (Dan Gauthier), and wishing she was more popular at her school. After a bike accident leaves her a bit shaken up, Louise ends up encountering Madame Serena (Zelda Rubinstein), a woman that informs Louise that she's due to inherit some magical powers by the time she turns sixteen. When that happens, Louise finds that she can make herself popular, and put everything in place to give her a good shot with Brad, but at what cost?

Teen Witch is quite a mad film, and I immediately resented watching it as soon as the end credits started to roll. I may have been a bit too harsh though. It's very much a film from the 1980s, it's very much a film thinking it provides a story that teenage girls will identify with and enjoy, and it's unafraid to lean into the sillier moments (at least one of which, an impromptu street rap scene, is the stuff of cinematic legend).

Lively at least makes a good, personable, lead. Ingber is also very good, playing the typical best friend who has become resigned to accepting their station in high school, and at least enjoys the fact that she doesn't pander to her peers in an attempt to gain brownie points. Rubinstein is a lot of fun, and Gauthier, well, he just has to stand in the right spot and look like a handsome schoolboy/middle-aged yuppie. Dick Sargent being cast as Louise's father is a nice touch, Joshua John Miller is a pesky little brother, Shelley Berman and Marcia Wallace are teachers affected in very different ways by witchy powers, and Noah Blake and Megan Gallivan both get standout moments.

There are set-pieces here that have to be seen to be believed, and even then I cannot guarantee that you'll believe them, wild events that have no long-lasting consequences, and characters who learn an important moral lesson or two by the time everything ends. And these things irritated me while I was watching the film, but later struck me as elements typical to pretty much any teen movie. It still may not have worked for me (although I am far from the target audience), but it would be unfair of me to mark it down for elements that I have enjoyed in so many other teen flicks.

I was going to end this review by warning people away from Teen Witch. My view of the film has softened though. I think you should watch it at least once. You may even enjoy it. Whatever you think of it, you certainly won't forget it.


Monday 28 September 2020

Mubi Monday: Space Dogs (2019)

Here's the blurb for Space Dogs, according to the sources where it is listed online (such as IMDb, MUBI, etc). I'm going to just copy and paste it here because it is the best starting point for giving some idea of the mood of the film, a documentary that considers the use of animals by humans in the quest to make better use of advancing technologies.
"Laika, a stray dog, was the first living being to be sent into space and thus to a certain death. A legend says that she returned to Earth as a ghost and still roams the streets of Moscow alongside her free-drifting descendants."

As you might expect, although I am emphasising it right here and now, this is NOT a documentary that animal lovers will enjoy. I consider myself an animal lover, although I don't have that hard a time when it's fictional harm/death on display, and Space Dogs had a number of scenes that I found uncomfortable to sit through, to say the least.

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter have opted to give viewers an important perspective on the history of the space race, and the subsequent treatment of animals in the name of science. Animals have been used as pioneers on numerous occasions, and yet nobody can really fully judge how any of those experiences change them. If a chimpanzee is sent into space, and returns unharmed, then how can humans know what thoughts have gone through its mind? Considering the effect that space travel can have on human beings, it's not impossible to think of animals being seriously affected by their time away from their home planet.

As well as trying to ruminate on this kind of thing (perhaps a particular "do sheep dream of electric androids?" kind of sci-fi/sci-fact approach), the documentary shows some stray dogs wandering around Moscow, acting in accordance with their nature and not being treated as anything special by those they wander by. This emphasises the chasm between the mindset of animals and the mindset of people, for the most part, but also serves to remind us that we often bemoan the lack of care given to those who were taken in, and used up, by military forces. Astronauts are travellers, yes, but also akin to soldiers, acting on behalf of their nation to take huge risks as they outdo other nations, heading to an isolated spot upon which they can plant a flag to claim it in the name of whoever sent them on their dangerous mission. They often come back to a warm welcome, and can be ambassadors for their sector. Animals are a different matter though. If they come back at all.

Space Dogs may be about space travel, it may show footage of stray dogs, it may also take a turn in the final reel to discuss turtles, but it's also about all animals, and what we owe them. It's hard to truly calculate what animals have done for us over the centuries, and how we can ever really repay them. But starting to remember their contributions more, and to help any that have been abandoned, would be a good start. A stray dog saw the vastness of space. It's not right that so many of them experience a similar cold emptiness while here on the planet they share with creatures able to provide them with warmth, shelter, and safety.


Sunday 27 September 2020

Netflix And Chill: Bloodline (2018)

Seann William Scott plays Evan, a school counsellor who has a very direct way of helping some of his students deal with serious problems. He kills people, and it often seems to be people who fully deserve it. He's also about to be a dad, so spends his time caring for his pregnant wife, Lauren (Mariela Garriga), and dealing with his slightly overbearing mother (Marie, played by Dale Dickey).

Arguably a strange choice for the fictional feature debut from director Henry Jacobson (with the majority of his time over the past decade spent on documentary works), Bloodline is an enjoyable, grisly thriller that lets everything unfold with an unabashed lean into the macabre humour of the whole situation, whether that's Evan simply doling out fatal justice or his plans being interrupted by a request from his pregnant wife. Despite me only being familiar with the overall premise of the show, I can see this being the kind of thing to appeal to fans of the slightly similar Dexter.

Scott does well in the lead role, playing up his nicer side as he interacts with people on a day to day basis and going about his more bloody business with a very matter-of-fact approach to the deadly deeds. His killing time is him at his most assured, while the everyday life moments have him working harder than anyone else around him, something that is made clear without his performance becoming too over the top (just). Garriga has to play the vulnerable pregnant woman, for the most part, and feels like a passive character until events conspire to give her some knowledge she was previously not privy to. Dickey plays up her bad streak more than anyone else, being the kind of passive aggressive parent who spends a lot of time being critical while supposedly just trying to be helpful, but she's good fun in her role. All of the younger cast members do good work, and Kevin Carroll is the kind of weary and suspicious detective so often found in these kinds of movies.

The script, co-written by Jacobson with Avra Fox-Lerner and Will Honley, is a bit silly when you stop to think about all of the separate elements. Thankfully, it doesn't make you want to stop and think about everything too often. It just moves from one enjoyably twisted scene to the next, trying hard to keep things just as grounded as they need to be, and always poised to take one giant leap into entertaining absurdity. Whether you go along with it or not is a different matter entirely, and I can see people rolling their eyes and dismissing this as a truly awful viewing choice. Personally, I had fun throughout.

It's not really making any major comment on social issues, it's not asking you to overthink the central situations, all Bloodline wants to do is entertain you for the runtime. I think it does that. Some may want more gore, some may want more tension. It's not put together perfectly. But it's put together well enough for all it wants to do. I tentatively recommend it to those who want a movie not aiming to make them overthink things.


Saturday 26 September 2020

Shudder Saturday: In Search Of Darkness (2019)

I watched this ridiculously long '80s horror doc on Shudder, despite being warned by people who had already seen it. It's all too familiar stuff, and ultimately unsatisfying, sadly, but here's a way to review it without really reviewing it. It's overlong, at almost four and a half hours, and there are no real insights into the genre that you can't find in other, better, documentaries. I'd also have to say that the people picked to comment range from the wonderful to the absolutely awful (but I'll name no names). What it did, however, was spur me to think back on my own relationship with horror films, and films in general.

The babysitter who would let me watch the late-night Hammer horrors while he taped all of the vinyl albums that my parents owned. The Star Wars action figures that my cousins had, that I conspicuously did NOT have (although I don't think I had even seen the movies at that point). Afternoons spent with grandparents while the TV schedule was filled with old Westerns that put me to sleep, with the occasional Cary Grant movie appearing to cheer me up no end. These elements all helped to keep movies in my young mind, but it was the VHS years that set me on a path to obsession and adoration, both with movies and with the horror genre.

My parents rented their first VHS player. It was quite common when they were new. Big chunky TV, and those could also be rented (some even had a coin-slot at the side where you could put 50p in for a few hours, that change paying for the rental and any extra being paid back to customers), and a big top-loader video player. I remember pretending to sleep while uncles and cousins came to visit and watch horror movies. Because horror really sold the format. That seems to be all my parents watched, well horror movies and films like Who Will Love My Children? and Melanie (1982).
So I was excited when I heard they were going to rent the likes of Scanners and Creepshow.
I watched both of those films through eyes squeezed tight to pretend that I was sleeping. Both intensely terrified me. Both gave me nightmares. Both also helped me move from the classic double-bills of Hammer horrors to more modern fare.

I'd already also been freaked out by TV movies such as Don't Go To Sleep and the Salem's Lot epic, but neither of those had the real show-stopping moments that were in the even more recent theatrical releases.

Move forward a few years and I get used to just trying to sit there and be quiet while adults plan their horror viewings for the evening. I saw John Carpenter's The Thing in black and white, on a weird little combo TV/radio device, and I saw George A. Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, and that had tension I had never experienced before. Funnily enough, I caught Night Of The Living Dead on TV a few years later, and I was still slightly shaken by the intensity and power of it.

Don't spend minutes discussing Morricone's great score for The Thing and then put up this image!

I loved Halloween, was bemused by the lack of Michael Myers in Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, and first encountered Jason in Friday The 13th Part 2 (a series I didn't see again until we rented Part 7). Then I met Freddy, thanks to an uncle who had "copies" of every movie ever. Or so it seemed.

A Nightmare On Elm Street freaked me out. I went to bed. I sneakily put my lamp on, thinking I would get up early to put it off again. Yeah, right.
Mum came in and was very angry in the morning.
No more horror movies for me, she said.
"Nooooooooooooo, I'll be fine," I replied.

There was the video van, an old ice cream van converted (I believe) so you could wander into the back and browse a limited selection of titles. I rented the original Freaky Friday many times (crush on Barbara Harris helped) and kept mistakenly renting The Ghost Busters (a video with 2 episodes from the 1970s TV show, NOT the movie Ghostbusters). I also rented Children's Film Foundation movies, but wanted the genre-based stuff. The Glitterball was a favourite.

I saw The Company Of Wolves, wasn't sure of what it was doing, but absolutely loved it (still do, wrote about it in a book and everything).

The Amityville Horror was a "family favourite", and Amityville II: The Possession was wild, especially to a kid who didn't realise the third act was ripping off The Exorcist.
And both An American Werewolf In London and The Howling were shown some love. As well as The Omen movies, but those were relatively glossy and "acceptable" mainstream hits, for the most part.

And I think back on the films that terrified me, that I now can't view as anything other than wonderful horror comedies. Films that I was allowed to rent just by nipping along to a local video store and using the card held in the name of my mother.
Evil Dead II, Re-Animator, The Return Of The Living Dead. Hell, even Creepshow has that E.C. humour all through it. Child's Play may seem ridiculous to many modern horror fans. I was thirteen when I first saw it (night in with a mate, and we figured we could handle it). It was, as we described it to others, "the scariest thing ever!"

I thought I was becoming a trusted teen when we hooked up a cable that meant I could finally watch a video in my own room, as the VCR signal was threaded through to my own little portable TV. It was going to be the next step in my cinematic journey, due to begin with Night Screams.
Night Screams (1987) is a terrible film, but my memory of it is just gratuitous sex and violence. Result.
Except all the sex was fast forwarded by my mum, who was overseeing the film as it also played in the living room.
Fun denied. Dammit.

Is there a point to this ramble? Not really, but maybe there is. Instead of watching all of these documentaries that regurgitate the same information, just reach back into your own memory and recapture that feeling. Whenever you need to. You grew to love the horror genre as you.
Don't start having the impact of it dictated to you by others (not that anyone means it that way as they discuss their love/favourites). And never let anyone tell you what you should like in order to be a "true fan", or how, and how often, you should watch your movies. Gatekeepers aren't necessary. The fact you find the gateways is the main thing. Unless it comes to Jaws. Because, y'know, nobody should dislike Jaws.

There will always be good and bad movies coming out. But nothing changes how you became the film fan you are today, whatever your fave genre.


Friday 25 September 2020

The King Of Staten Island (2020)

Pete Davidson, in case you are unaware of him, has established a persona of being a lovable asshole. He's been doing some fun work on SNL, and is almost equally well-known for being someone who lost his firefighter father when he was only a young boy (during the work to rescue people trapped in the rubble of the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th).

In The King Of Staten Island, which Davidson co-wrote with Dave Sirus and director Judd Apatow, he plays Scott, a young man who has never really managed to get over the fact that his firefighter father died in the line of duty when he was a young boy. He acts like it doesn't bother him, most of the time, but it clearly does. And it bothers him even more to see his mother (Marisa Tomei) become involved with another firefighter (Bill Burr). Will this affect his desire to be an inconsistent tattoo artist, get stoned, and maintain a far-too-casual relationship with the lovely Kelsey (Bel Powley)?

A lot of how you feel about The King Of Staten Island will depend on two factors. First, how you feel about Davidson. I get that his schtick isn't for everyone, but he has a nice line in self-deprecation mixed in with his attempts to get a gasp or laugh from people. Second, how you feel about Apatow movies. Yes, this runs for just over two hours. Of course. At least Stephen King used to remember how to churn out slim and exciting stories. Apatow has needed an editor on every one of his comedy features. Having said that, The King Of Staten Island doesn't feel overlong, thanks to the way it is structured. It has four main acts, and each one develops nicely from the one preceding it.

The central performances are great, and Davidson's character works with everyone that he's alongside. He's a sweet son used to pushing his luck with his mother, he's constantly antagonistic towards Burr's character, he cares for a girl he is also scared to commit to, and he goofs around with friends who allow him to stay comfortably in his state of arrested development. He also works well with the two youngest main cast members, Luke David Blumm and Alexis Rae Forlenza, maintaining that cool and messed-up older brother vibe he gave off in Big Time Adolescence. It's very much a two-way street though, with Davidson surrounded by top talent. As well as everyone mentioned, who are all on absolutely great form, you get some nice little turns from Steve Buscemi, Pamela Adlon, Maude Apatow, Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moises Arias.

There aren't any major set-pieces here, nothing that stands out as the easiest scene to use in selling the film, and some may want more laughs from it, but The King Of Staten Island is one of the best comedies I've seen in the past couple of years. And it also turns into something surprisingly sweet without feeling untrue to the nature of the central characters.


Thursday 24 September 2020

Magic Camp (2020)

I think I would have reached the inevitable conclusion eventually, but it was about a third of the way into Magic Camp when I realised exactly what it is. My girlfriend had been listening to my viewing choice and asked if Jack Black was a lead character. It was not. It was Adam Devine, playing a magician named Andy. Except he isn’t doing his magic act. He is a driver. And ends up given a chance to shape some young minds at the titular Magic Camp he had so much success at in his youth. The kids who end up being led/taught by Adam are a mismatched bunch who need to find their confidence and tap into their potential. Magic Camp is School Of Rock, but with magic in place of rock music. 

Andy is a main character, the adult encouraged to remember what he so loved about a life full of magic by the camp owner (Jeffrey Tambor). The actual REAL main character is Theo (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), a kid who is a real whizz with a deck of cards. He also really misses his father, who passed away, and thinks that both his mother and little brother don’t sense the wonder and skill as much as his father always would. Lessons are to be learned, the various kids involved in the storyline make friends and enemies, and Andy gets to air some of his grievances with ex-partner Kristina Darkwood (Gillian Jacobs), even if he perhaps can nowadays admit that Abracaduo was a terrible name for their act.

Although it took about seven people to write this thing (how? how does something so formulaic take seven main credited writers??), Magic Camp benefits from being directed by Mark Waters. If you recognise the name, that's because he has probably directed a few films you have enjoyed. The House Of Yes, Freaky Friday (2003), Mean Girls, and, errrr, Mr. Popper's Penguins are some of them. He's well-suited to material that focuses on the journey of the kids while also allowing for plenty of time with the older characters sorting out their lives. The script is decent, don't get me wrong, I just struggle to think of seven people hammering it into shape.

Devine is someone I can like or loathe, depending on the movie. He's in good form here, working well with the kids. McIntyre is a decent lead, playing the usual notes that any Disney child actor is required to play, and Jacobs is perfectly fine, if wasted, in her supporting role. Tambor is a lot of fun, appearing at just the right times to offer pearls of wisdom, and Rochelle Aytes and Aldis Hodge both do well enough as Theo's loving parents, one being deceased and shown in flashback only. Most of the young cast do well, but I'll single out Isabella Crovetti, who made me properly laugh with her turn, playing a young girl who is obsessed with the idea of performing magic tricks with bunny rabbits. Cole Sand is also a LOT of fun as Nathan, a kid who can actually work magic with numbers.

It's all very paint-by-numbers stuff, but it's all done in a nice and entertaining way. And the moments showing magic being performed feel authentic. Everyone gets their moment, a number of running gags have solid pay-offs, and the predictable ending surely indicates a sequel coming along some time (that I will absolutely watch).


Wednesday 23 September 2020

Prime Time: Pet Graveyard (2019)

Since finishing this movie, her feature debut, Rebecca Matthews has churned out about another half dozen in the past year, some due out in 2020 and some due out next year. You have to admire her work ethic. Momentarily. When you realise that most of them could end up like this one though, well, your opinion could change.

I saw the poster for Pet Graveyard a year or so ago and thought that it was obviously a rip-off of Pet Sematary. It definitely uses that film to sell itself anyway, but the plot is more in line with Flatliners, if Flatliners was written by someone who could barely knit a plot together. 

Jessica O'Toole is Lily, a young woman studying to be a nurse. She is roped into a scheme by her brother, Jeff (David Cotter), to help him gain more traffic on his vlog. Jeff plans to "brink" with Francis (Hindolo Koroma) and Zara (Rita Siddiqui). Brinking is when you die for a few minutes, allowing you time to catch up with someone special on the other side. It obviously doesn't go according to plan, with the trio bringing back another presence. Because once you die you cannot come back. The race is then on to beat the reaper figure that is going to kill them off. And you get clumsily-inserted shots of a cat, with eyes made to glow red occasionally.

Sadly, there's nobody working on this film that I can say good things about. I'm sorry. Hey, more power to them if they got a decent payday out of it and another title to add to their filmography. This is one of many small independent UK horrors in recent years to ride the coat-tails of a blockbuster hit and deliver a final result that is depressingly cheap and inept. It would seem that we only have three main categories of British horrors being made nowadays: the gems, the "mockbusters", and a dozen annual selections with the word Krampus in the title.

Matthews shows no style or imagination in her direction, and the scenes on the other side are simply people who seem to be on a black-painted stage. Gore gags are generally awful, there's absolutely no tension, or sense of actual horror, created, and the plotting is quite laughable throughout.

A lot of this is down to the script, by Suzy Spade, which forgets to include anything decent, from the characters to logical progression of the situation. Scares are just not present, and the attempts to instead focus on some of the emotional consequences of playing around with death are cringe-inducing.

O'Toole, Cotter, Koroma, and Siddiqui are not very good, which means I won't spend extra time here being insulting to them. Kate Milner Evans does a bit better, portraying the deceased mother of the two leads, and someone who gets to have the most fun in the third act.

I knew this wasn't going to be good. I hoped I would have some fun with it anyway. That proved difficult. I'll rate it generously, for a minimum degree of competence in certain areas, but don't let that fool you. This is definitely one to avoid, and I'm going to assume that many of the other films churned out by Matthews will be aiming for the same low bar. Which won't stop me checking them out. Eventually.


Tuesday 22 September 2020

Bill And Ted Face The Music (2020)

There's a sweet message at the heart of Bill And Ted Save The Music. In fact, there are a couple of sweet messages. This will come as no surprise to fans of the previous two movies, in which our hapless heroes stumbled on adventures with a kindness and optimism to make up for their lack of intelligence. The film itself may be the weakest of the three, but maybe it's just what we need in the midst of the dumpster fire that is 2020.

The plot doesn't take long to get going at all. Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are still friends, and still married to the two princesses (Joanna, played by Jayma Mays this time, and Elizabeth, played by Erinn Hayes). There are also two daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving). They also still have yet to write and perform the one song that will keep time and space holding together, something that becomes a much more pressing concern when they are visited from the future by Kelly (Kristen Schaal) and informed that the song is needed in a matter of hours. Unable to think of anything, Bill and Ted come up with the idea of travelling to see their future selves to get the song they will know by then. Things start to get complicated.

Written once again by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and bringing back a lot of the same cast members able to reprise supporting roles (including William Sadler as Death, Hal Landon Jr. as Ted's father, and even Amy Stoch as Missy), this is a film that feels made by people with their heart in the right place. Director Dean Parisot should also be a good choice, and he handles everything well enough.

It's a hard film to dislike, and I don't. It's also hard for me to pin down exactly why I didn't love it. The characters feel too old for their shenanigans this time around, but that is kind of the point. The plot does complex in a childishly simple way, but that is also part of the appeal. It has plenty of little touches for fans to enjoy while never keeping newcomers in the dark. What's not to appreciate about that?

I'm really not sure. There was just something that felt odd this time, and I am not completely unconvinced that my own mixed feelings to the film don't stem from the sweetness of it being juxtaposed against what may well be the personal worst year of my life (so far).

Winter and Reeves are great in the lead roles, as expected. They may have a little less energy this time around, in their main incarnations, but they certainly love these characters, and clearly have fun. Weaving and Lundy-Paine are saddled with having to do impressions of their onscreen dads, which is something performed better by the former than the latter. Sadler is yet again a highlight, Schaal is a good time-travelling agent, and Jillian Bell is a lot of fun in her small role (playing a marriage counsellor). Anthony Carrigan is less enjoyable, playing a killer robot sent to take care of Bill and Ted, and the portrayals of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong feel a bit off, but these characters are all offset by everything else going on.

You also get some fun cameos, plenty of unexpected wisdom from Kid Cudi, and impressive plotting that leads us to an ending that manages to be both slightly unexpected and yet also quite predictable and satisfying (I hope that makes sense when you see it).

Lots of people loved this. I liked it. I think it is a distraction that many people will enjoy just now, more for the fact that it's appropriately available at a time when it feels almost needed than the actual quality of the final product. 


Monday 21 September 2020

Mubi Monday: Lights In The Dusk (2006)

Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, Lights In The Dusk is a very interesting crime drama that takes some familiar tropes and delivers them in a strangely stilted and sedate manner that shouldn't really work, but does. I must admit that the first few scenes left me feeling slightly cold and confused, but sticking with it led me to enjoy something impressively unique and worthwhile.

Koistinen (Janne Hytiäinen) is a lonely nightwatchman, hoping to one day start his own business. He is friends with Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a woman who works in a food van, but doesn't seem to have anyone else in his life. This looks set to change when he is approached by the lovely Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), a beautiful woman who screams icy femme fatale from her very first appearance. It turns out that Mirja is in the employ of a crime boss (Lindholm, played by Ilkka Koivula) who wants her to gain information from Koistinen and rob his place of work.

Although superficially very simple, almost laughably so when you think of how the lead character accepts everything around him, Kaurismäki seems to be very deliberately utilising the familiar to underline a message. It happens all the time, to varying degrees. People can see others around them about to cause harm, or just use them, and yet they still go along with it all. Because of loneliness, because they can convince themselves that it's not really going to turn out as bad as it looks, or because of a few other reasons. 

Hytiäinen is very good in the lead role, all weariness and loneliness embodied in the body of an everyday man just trying to make his way through life with a minimal amount of pain, and Järvenhelmi is a wonderful icy blonde, able to work her magic on the main character simply because he will accept it, knowing there will be a catch somewhere, but not caring enough about the consequences to want to miss out on his time with her. Koivula is a standard crime boss, always in control and always ready to sacrifice meek lambs, and Heiskanen is the lone sweetness in amongst all of the bitter moments.

Kaurismäki certainly knows what he's doing here, and both the visuals and the dialogue deliver so much more than just whatever appears on the surface. He makes a lot of deliberate choices, very few of them the easiest options, and the end result is all the more impressive once you realise that you've been quietly affected by the power of the film as the end credits roll.

Although strange in the way everything is played out, from the style of many characters to the feeling of artifice around many of the main scenes, Lights In The Dusk works because of the way it uses the strangeness to dress up the mundane. It makes viewers work a little bit harder to see the obvious, which is itself part of the lesson here. 


Sunday 20 September 2020

Netflix And Chill: Eli (2019)

The more I think about his filmography, the more surprised I am by the fact that director Ciarán Foy keeps getting opportunities to helm potentially decent horror movies. His debut feature, Citadel, was solid, but nothing since then has shown him to be an assured hand. Eli is a prime example, although he's hindered by a laughably weak script.

Eli (Charlie Shotwell) is a very sick young boy, with an auto-immune disorder that makes him unable to live a normal life. His parents, Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini), pin all of their hope on one last treatment, headed up by Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor). But all is not well in the facility that they end up in, as Eli sees spirits around him, and starts to wonder if those treating him really have his best interests at heart. Perhaps he'll just end up being the latest victim of their experimental approach.

Eli just isn't all that interesting, I'm afraid to say. The way in which the main character is shown to be affected by the world around him isn't set up well enough, doesn't feel consistent, and will simply remind many viewers of one or two much better movies (such as The Others, for example). It doesn't help that you feel no sympathy, or care, for the other characters, a mix of the writing and poor casting.

Reilly can be good in the right role, and I have enjoyed her work in a number of movies, but this isn't the right role for her, especially when she's required to both turn some things around and provide some exposition in the final reel. I'm not too familiar with Max Martini, and his turn here doesn't make me want to rush to refresh my memory with his roles in other movies I have seen. Taylor is a highlight, doing her best with weak material, and almost managing to overcome it by simply being Lili Taylor. Shotwell actually does a good job, and his relationship with a young girl, Haley (Sadie Sink), who visits to talk to him from the other side of his window is another highlight, thanks to the performances of both young actors.

The cast might have fared better with a better script though. We'll never know. David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing have worked together to craft something absolutely risible. Not only is it a silly premise, once all becomes clear, it makes no sense and treats viewers like idiots by assuming they will just accept everything without questioning the logic of the film (important reminder, questioning the logic of a movie on the terms it is delivering material is not the same as expecting real-world logic from every movie you watch). Eli makes no sense throughout, and everything falls apart during a time when the writers obviously think they are being clever and creative.

Foy is no help. He admittedly does okay with individual scare moments, but fails to do enough to distract viewers from the failings of the script. If you're going to utilise cliches then you need to try to make other elements feel fresh. If you're going to journey into silliness then you need to either lay the groundwork from the earliest scenes or do a better job with the tone. Foy just goes along with a script that he really should have been aiming to constantly improve.

I am sure that some people will enjoy Eli. I have no idea who those people are, and I don't think many of the horror fans I know will think this one worth their time.


Saturday 19 September 2020

Shudder Saturday: Spiral (2019)

Okay, let me start this review, as I sometimes do, by informing you that a lot of people love Spiral. And good for them. It certainly has a lot of good qualities, and I am happy to see it getting a lot of praise recently ahead of some blander fare. Although I didn't love it, I did like it. It's just a shame that it felt a bit too familiar and derivative in the third act.

Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) are a same-sex couple who move to a small town so they can start the next chapter of their lives together, and raise their teenage daughter (Kayla, played by Jennifer Laporte) in a good environment while they try to instil the best values in her. They have some pleasant neighbours (Tiffany, Marshal, and their son, Tyler), but it's not long until unpleasantness appears, in the form of some homophobic graffiti that seems to make it clear that the couple are not welcome. This seems at odds with the attitudes of the people around them, but Malik becomes more and more anxious about the potential for things to get dangerous.

Written by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin, Spiral is strongest when it starts to build an atmosphere of threat and suspicion. Despite us seeing that Malik has good reason to be worried, most people (including his partner) try to dismiss his concerns. Which I can only imagine is akin to the experience many people in the gay community find when they sense intolerance but struggle to find empathy in those who don't notice it, either deliberately or simply because their life experiences have allowed them to remain blissfully ignorant of that kind of attitude. Often, and it is something we have seen become more prevalent as a lesson to be learned in the past few years, it's easier to accept the hateful morons who are loud and proud with their prehistoric attitudes than it is to deal with people who wrap their hatred and intolerance up in small gestures, "innocent" faux pas, and a rigid adherence to rules, regulations, and formats all created before society was more progressive than it is today.*

Spiral starts to stumble when it puts things in place to become a more standard horror movie, and that's a shame. It's not as if the script takes a dive, or director Kurtis David Harder does anything majorly wrong. There are horror elements in the first half that impress, even while they feel incongruous alongside the more grounded atmosphere of fear being created. There are also some great moments involving Lochlyn Munro and Chandra West (who play their characters, Marshal and Tiffany, with a great blend of charm and something just being a bit off, but it all becomes weaker as you realise it's wading further and further into proper horror territory.

Bowyer-Chapman carries a lot of the movie on his shoulders, and he does a great job. Cohen works well alongside him, while Laporte and Ty Wood impress as the younger characters who try to connect with one another while some strange events are unfolding around them. There aren't too many other main characters, but everyone does good work.

Other plus points include the overall look and feel of the movie, considering the lower budget that I imagine was available, the plotting of the film, and the way things build to a bittersweet final sequence. 

Spiral is very much worth your time. I'm just surprised by how much it started to lose my interest whenever it took a turn from the drama to the outright horror. Give it a watch though, and let me know what you thought of it, and whether or not you agree with me.

*No, not everyone, and not everywhere, is as progressive as we would like. Like an IKEA display room, everything is there but there's still a lot more work to build a comfortable house for all.


Friday 18 September 2020

Primal (2019)

I don't know what others were expecting from Primal, one of the many recent Nicolas Cage movies to appear on streaming platforms, seemingly weeks after we heard about it being made, but I was surprised when I heard the plot summary and then heard people reacting negatively to it. I do understand people disliking the film, don't get me wrong, but I don't understand people loathing it if they have any rough idea of what they're letting themselves in for.

Cage plays Frank, a hunter of wildlife who is heading home with his latest shipment of captured animals, including a large white jaguar. The ship he is travelling on is also carrying a prisoner, Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand). Ain't it just a wild bit of misfortune that Loffler escapes? He also starts freeing some of the animals, leading to the ship having a bit of a dangerous Jumanji vibe about it (especially when people have to deal with dangerous monkeys). Frank wants to keep his collection of animals safe, and ends up being the best chance to recapture Loffler.

Okay, just to be clear here, Primal isn't really a film to class as good. The script, by Richard Leder, is far too full of groan-inducing dialogue and contrivances, there's a sad lack of any tension or thrills, and it lacks decent action beats. The fact that director Nicholas Powell has a background in the world of stunts makes the last omission all the more disappointing, considering the potential for some wild and crazy set-pieces. It's clear that someone had a fun idea that was then turned into a film without a big enough budget to realise even half of the potential.

Thankfully, if you're a fan anyway, you get Cage chewing the scenery. He's a blast in the main role, the kind of anti-hero who doesn't care about the people in charge, and just ends up spurred into action because he realises nobody else is as capable as he is. Durand is a decent villain, he can turn on the right mix of charm and menace, while both Famke Janssen and Michael Imperioli help to round out the main cast, as well as LaMonica Garrett.

You know what is coming along in the third act, you know that by the end of the first act, and there are some decent moments along the way. Monkeys, a snake, big cats, they all add to the fun, but none of them are used enough. There's also a lack of any good twists and turns, although things are hinted at here and there that the script never really turns into anything major. 

Let's be very clear. This is a film that has Cage as a hunter, on a ship with a dangerous criminal, and a bunch of wild animals that are set free as events unfold. If you like Cage as an onscreen presence then how can you fail to at least enjoy this? If you dislike Cage then I don't know what to tell you, other than . . . you're missing out.


Thursday 17 September 2020

Split Second (1992)

Director Tony Maylam has two main features worth checking out. One is The Burning (the slasher classic), the other one is this. What could have been an interesting buddy cop thriller, with a dark heart, instead ends up being a bit too murky throughout, and clumsily written. Which doesn’t mean there is no fun to be had here. And I will maintain until my dying day that this feels very much like a movie adaptation of the James Herbert novel, Moon. 

Rutger Hauer is Harley Stone, a cop with a gritty attitude, a big gun, and a psychic link to a crazed killer (someone who likes to rip out hearts and then take a bite out of them). He is partnered up with Detective Dick Durkin (Neil Duncan), a more by the book kind of cop, of course. As the killer keeps trying to lure Stone to him, those around him end up in danger. He already lost his partner, and extra guilt comes from the fact that he was having an affair with his partner’s wife, Michelle (Kim Cattrall).

A really strange hybrid of elements, Split Second is perhaps most frustrating because it never fully settles on what it wants to be. A cop flick? A dark thriller? A full-on horror movie? It ends up being none of those things, yet it also amuses and entertains as it works with elements from all of them. 

Maylam directs with competence, but contributes to the lack of focus inherent in the messy script from Gary Scott Thompson. The waterlogged future UK setting could have been a great feature, but it is just as wasted as every other part of the plot.

Thankfully, Hauer helps to elevate everything with the power of Hauer. He spouts numerous lines of absolute nonsense, grizzled and single-minded as he wanders through the city on the investigation that defines his entire character. Duncan is nowhere near as much fun, but his differing style works well opposite Hauer’s driven mania. Cattrall is as welcome an addition as she usually is, and there are good little turns from Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, and Michael J. Pollard. 

I have never loved Split Second, something I always found surprising. But I have also never hated it either. That isn’t surprising, mainly because I cannot think of any film starring Hauer that I have strongly disliked. Give it a watch, it’s adequate b-movie fare. Just remember that it is a lower-tier Rutger Hauer movie.


Wednesday 16 September 2020

Prime Time: Get Duked! (2019)

Get Duked! enjoyed a good festival run last year, if my memory serves me right, but I didn't catch it. It was then titled Boyz In The Wood (which I think is a better title) and I just didn't fit it into my schedule when it was a potential viewing choice back then. I'm glad I finally got to it now though.

Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben, and Viraj Juneja are, respectively, Dean, Duncan, and legend-in-his-own-lunchtime DJ Beatroot. They're all in a bit of trouble, which leads to them being signed up to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. They'll be dropped into an area of Scottish countryside and left to make their own way to a pre-determined point, with a number of factors being rated during their experience. One of those factors is teamwork, which looks a lot less likely when they're joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley), an eager young man who actually volunteered for the scheme. In fact, getting to their destination at all starts to look very unlikely when the teens start to be hunted by a gun-toting "duke" (Eddie Izzard) and his wife (Georgie Glen).

Written and directed by Ninian Doff, Get Duked! is a fantastic feature debut from someone I'll now be eager to see more from. Doff has built up a decent selection of music videos in his filmography, having worked with the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Kasabian, Miike Snow, and Run The Jewels, and he delivers a film that crackles with energy, genuinely great humour, a smattering of hip-hop, and class warfare.

Funnily enough, as light and disposable as the film may seem, in some ways, it's that last element that separates this from many other riffs on The Most Dangerous Game. The people doing the hunting here are the ones we have seen in the news more and more lately, usually for all the wrong reasons. People that have everything they want, take whatever else they fancy, and don't think the rules apply to them. They're not breaking the law. They're helping to maintain a natural order.

The script is sharp and witty (there's a monologue here from a scene-stealing Alice Lowe, talking about a bread thief, that is one of the funniest things I have enjoyed in years), the soundtrack is very enjoyable, and the very end scenes bring everything together in a way that is both ridiculous and yet also absolutely satisfying, and bound to make you smile.

It also helps that every single cast member is doing top work. The young leads are about as perfect as you could want them to be. Gordon and Gribben are very standard . . . idiots (certainly in how quick they are to just try whatever idea first comes into their heads), Juneja keeps having an opinion of himself that doesn't seem in line with his rapping abilities, until he discovers an unlikely fan base, and Bottomley is the kind of young man you just know has a favourite Thermos flask. Izzard and Glen are suitably menacing as they stalk their prey, more so in the way they really don't seem to try and hide their homicidal intent, and Jonathan Aris is the teacher responsible for dropping the teens off and leaving them to their own devices. You also get some Highland police officers (the two main ones played by Kate Dickie and Kevin Guthrie), their quest for the aforementioned bread thief nicely juxtaposed with a more dangerous potential threat, and a farmer (James Cosmo) who ends up being gifted a DJ Beatroot CD. Cosmo has given many great performances over the years, but the sight/sound of him driving his tractor while singing along to some juvenile penis-centric lines of rap should be high on any list of favourite Cosmo moments.

This would double-bill nicely with Attack The Block if you want to see both urban and rural adventures of youths being hunted by dangerous predators. I'd argue that the enemy here is much more dangerous than any alien entity. And I'd also argue that this is the better of the two films, but there's not much in it, and let's revel in the fact that the past decade gave us both.


Tuesday 15 September 2020

Dead Dicks (2019)

Sometimes a title just grabs my attention, and Dead Dicks is quite a title. Having no idea what it might be about, I decided to at least look at the number lot synopsis. And I was intrigued.

Written and directed by Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, this is the tale of a brother and sister. Jillian Harris is Becca, a woman about to embark on the next stage of her life. She has a good opportunity, and wants to make the most of it. But that means first visiting her brother, Richie (Heston Horwin), and figuring out how to break the news to him. Things take a turn when she gets to his home and finds his corpse. They take another turn when Richie appears in a form that is very much alive and well. Something strange has happened after he committed suicide. Obviously. Not expecting to come back, Richie now wants Becca to help him figure out just what is going on.

Working well within the limitations they have, Bavota and Springer help themselves immensely with the strength of their central idea. Someone dying and then coming back to life, yet still seeing their corpse in the space where it has been left, is an inherently unsettling idea. And there’s also a new wall cavity that looks suspiciously like a birth . . . gateway. The cast is, for the most part, just made up of three people (as well as those already mentioned, Matt Keyes plays an irritated neighbour), and there's an investigation into the central mystery without anyone ever getting your hopes up that it will be solved. I won't say whether it is or not.

Harris and Horwin work very well together, both creating a believable chemistry of love and tension between siblings. Horwin is stuck with the more difficult character, in a way, as he is the brother who has made a lot of mistakes that his sister has helped him try to bounce back from, but he's helped by a script that makes him just the right amount of annoying, without ever going overboard. It helps that we first meet him with the knowledge that he died, and Harris is the one often left to react to what is going on with ever-increasing fear and panic. Keyes does well in a rather thankless role, becoming one more obstacle on the road to the leads experimenting as they try to get to the bottom of things.

The biggest plus point here has to be the fact that it essentially all stems from a suicide though. Not a suicide attempt. A suicide. Once the initial shock of the strangeness she is seeing fades, Becca has to try and process the fact that her brother took his own life. She wants to know his reasons, wants to know how she could be more helpful. It's all stated in a very matter-of-fact way by Richie, but the conversations that have to explore this part of the plot end up reverberating through the rest of the movie, all the way through to a very satisfying finale.

The title may lead you to believe that this is a very different kind of film, but give this a go and you may end up being very pleasantly surprised. It doesn't take long to get to the sci-fi weirdness at the heart of it, and it's a winning combination of thought-provoking moments, macabre humour, and one or two dark turns.


Monday 14 September 2020

Mubi Monday: Lolita (1997)

I am not familiar with the tale of Lolita, having somehow never seen the film by Stanley Kubrick, or even read the source novel by Vladimir Nabokov. All I knew about it is what most people know about it. There's something at the heart of it that involves an older man and an underage girl. Yeah, if you've spent the past week or so getting upset about Cuties then you may want to stop reading now.

Jeremy Irons plays Humbert Humbert, a gentleman who ends up residing as a lodger in the home of Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith) and her young daughter, Dolores "Lolita" Haze (Dominique Swain). Swiftly growing infatuated with the child, Humbert eventually marries Charlotte, all the while scheming to do the minimum he has to do, in terms of his husbandly duties, and keep himself available to Lolita. Things do not go well in the marriage, of course, but that leads to a period of time during which Humbert and Lolita can give in to their distasteful urges.

I'm struggling to fully balance out my thoughts on Lolita. It is not a film I enjoyed, not one bit, and I am struggling to figure out the appeal of the source material, which perhaps makes some points lost in the adaptation from page to screen by Stephen Schiff (in what seems to be his first credited writing role). I guess, considering the third act, it's about a man so oblivious to how wrong his behaviour is that he needs to find someone worse than himself to help him find some kind of redemption.

Everyone involves deserves credit for giving it a try, even in 1997 this wasn't exactly something that moviegoers would be rushing to see, and the fact that it tries very hard to walk a tightrope between the intriguing and the disgusting is enough to remind you that no small amount of effort was exerted to get this done.

Director Adrian Lyne shoots things in a way that is either passive or, worse, lingering from the POV of Humbert. He places you alongside the main character, who has the benefit of being so well portrayed by Irons, and gives you nowhere to hide, even as things become darker and more sordid.

As well as a top-notch performance from Irons, Swain does well in the titular role. Her character is often very annoying, and treats the people around her quite appallingly, but she's a child being a child, even when she has moments of trying to act like a woman. She never is, and that point is emphasised at every turn, even when viewing her through the eyes of Humbert, who views her in a different way from everyone else. Griffith has a limited amount of screentime, but does well with it, and there are a couple of scenes stolen by Frank Langella.

The more I think about Lolita, the less I like it. That's not really the fault of the film though. I found the central idea too disturbing, as it was intended to be, but I also appreciated watching something that proved to be such a strong challenge. Not to sound too pretentious, but that can happen sometimes with art. A strong averse reaction can be just as rewarding, in some ways, as a strong connection to the material. The worst thing that any art can do is leave you disengaged, and Lolita certainly doesn't allow you to view it without becoming engaged.

The technical side of things is generally decent enough, and the performances give it a boost, but I hope to never watch this again. I will, however, check out the Kubrick film one day. And I may see how the novel presents things.


Sunday 13 September 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

Everyone was surprised by just how good The Babysitter was. Despite my own ability to tolerate his work, even I could see why McG had become so hated by film fans. Perhaps now is the time for some to realise he's actually never been THAT bad. Although it doesn't change the fact that he credits himself as McG.

Anyway, this sequel to The Babysitter brings back all of the main players. That may surprise people who remember the events of the first film, but the trailer gives you all the info you need. There's a deal with the devil that allows the dangerous youngsters from the first film to return for one night and once again terrorise Cole (Judah Lewis). There are also some new extra characters involved in the madness this time, including an attractive and resourceful young woman named Phoebe (Jenna Ortega).

The approach may not work for everyone, but The Babysitter: Killer Queen has a lot of fun trying to cram in as much fun, and as many movie references as possible, into every scene. Whether it's a running comment about the very few sequels that surpass the originals, the use of "Apache" in one key scene, or the evocative score from Risky Business underpinning some scenes in which we see Cole both afraid and yet also enjoying his time with Phoebe.

Brian Duffield may not have returned to the writing duties, but Dan Lagana, Brad Morris, Jimmy Warden, and also McG himself, do well by all of the central characters, maintaining the tone of the first film, peppering everything with a mix of new gags and fun callbacks. This may not be better than the original, but it comes close enough to be rated on a par with it. It's just a shame that the excellent Samara Weaving has a lot less screentime this time around, understandably so.

The direction is as lively and irreverent as it was in the first film, with the subtitles returning when a point is being made, and some quick flashbacks for most of the main characters. It's not quite as successful this time, simply due to the familiarity with the form, but McG definitely seems to be having fun, which is passed on to viewers.

Lewis and Ortega are a decent pair of leads, with the former having the added characterisation now of working through the PTSD of a traumatic incident that so many people don't believe. Emily Alyn Lind is a lot of fun as Melanie, another girl that our lead character likes, even if his chances of anything actually happening with her look slim to none, and it's hard to pick a favourite from Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, and Andrew Bachelor, who are all generally involved in some fun and gory death scenes. It's also worth mentioning the increased screentime for Ken Marino and Leslie Bibb, with the former managing to deliver many more laughs with his wonderful narrative strand.

It's not better than the first film, but if you liked that then you're bound to enjoy this. And patience is rewarded whenever Weaving appears. Her shadow falls over the whole movie, but it moves up a notch whenever she's there in person. I am glad we got a second outing for these characters. I hope they don't try to stretch things for a third outing though.


Saturday 12 September 2020

Shudder Saturday: Wendigo (2001)

Larry Fessenden is, by all accounts, a lovely person. He's been a vital figure in the world of independent horror for many years, and many people love his work as a writer and director, although he's equally welcome when popping up in front of the camera (a Fessenden cameo is almost always a fun moment). I know much more about the man nowadays than I did when I first watched Wendigo. People had been heaping no small amount of praise upon it, and I guess my expectations were raised. It proved to be a disappointing experience. So I was interested in how I would view it now, almost twenty years later.

Well, it's still disappointing.

George (Jake Weber) is looking to enjoy a winter break with his wife, Kim (Patricia Clarkson), and young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan). Things don't get off to a great start, however, when they hit a deer. This antagonises a hunter named Otis (John Speredakos), who is angered by the fact that he was hunting it for some time, and broken antlers have far less value. Things then get stranger when a shopkeeper tells Miles about the legend of the Wendigo, putting an idea in his head that the creature may be responsible for some of their current circumstances.

Although this movie just leaves me cold (no pun intended), it's not a film I really want to pick apart. I know some people really enjoy it, perhaps for the way it at least tries to do something rather unique and interesting with a central horror idea that could have easily just been another "people stalked by a monster in some woods" movie. Fessenden at least deserves credit for trying to stay away from a number of horror genre standards, but he does this to the detriment of the whole experience. If a horror doesn't work as a horror then it's not a horror. Perhaps it can then be viewed as a dark thriller, but this doesn't do enough to work in that way either. So you're left with a strange drama that doesn't satisfy because of the way it takes time to create some atmospheric moments that would be much more effective in a dark thriller or horror movie.

The cast aren't too bad. Weber and Clarkson are a believable married couple, and young Sullivan was quite the superb child star for a number of years. Speredakos is a bit over the top, but that flaw seems to come from the writing, which insists his character is the outright rage-filled prick from his very first scene. Christopher Wynkoop and Lloyd Oxendine also do well in their small roles.

I was rooting for this to work better this time around, thinking that my lowered expectations might help, or maybe just the fact that I am older (though no wiser) and much more used to being patient with many of my viewing choices. It just still doesn't work for me in any capacity. That's a shame, but it's also great that it is just one of many Fessenden projects out there for people to discover, and to like or dislike. The films may vary in their levels of success, but Fessenden is a constant stalwart within the horror genre.


Friday 11 September 2020

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996)

Quasimodo, eh. That name rings a bell. *guffaw*

With that lame gag out of the way, it's worth starting this review by mentioning that THAT gag is funnier than most of the lines in this movie. I could also belt out a tune and tell you that my choice of songs would be better than most of the tunes in this movie. Neither of these things made me enjoy the film any less though. I'm just making this clear at the very start.

My lame gag is also a way of clarifying that I'm going to assume people know enough about this story already. Written by Victor Hugo, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is all about a deformed bell-ringer (Quasimodo, voiced here by Tom Hulce) who lives in the heights of Notre Dame Cathedral. He ends up out in the midst of the public one day, jeered and mocked, and shown some kindness from a beautiful Gypsy woman (Esmeralda, voiced by Demi Moore). The plot then concerns Quasimodo's love for the woman who was kind to him, a "trespassing" suitor (Captain Phoebus, played by Kevin Kline), and the nasty Judge Claude Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay), who is the acting guardian of Quasimodo.

So, bearing in mind it's not too funny and none of the songs are that memorable, what would make The Hunchback Of Notre Dame worth your time? Well, it's just a really good movie, and one that incorporates a number of themes not usually found in cute and colourful animated outings. And the fact that it's not too funny doesn't mean it's completely unfunny, while the songs not being too memorable doesn't mean that they're bad. I found this entertaining throughout, and I enjoyed a few of the main songs, even if I cannot hum any of the tunes right now. Maybe a rewatch will change that.

Written by a whole heap of people, and directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, it's worth celebrating this as a Disneyfied adaptation of quite a dark and twisted classic. All of the voice cast do a great job, it's worth mentioning the presence of Jason Alexander as a gargoyle appropriately named Hugo, and they match their characters perfectly. Kline and Moore are the standouts, but you also have small roles for David Ogden Stiers, playing a kindly head priest, and Paul Kandel as a puppeteer who introduces the main theme of the story.

It's an immersive and rewarding experience, made so by the gorgeous animation and shot choices that bring viewers into the world of late 15th-century Paris, letting them float and fly around the streets and rooftops when free from the confines of Notre Dame itself, and putting viewers alongside some nicely-rounded characters. I'm kicking myself for not getting to this sooner, and I'll look forward to revisiting it. Who knows, maybe one day I'll even check out the sequel, although my expectations will be kept very low down for that.

Highly recommended, unless you're wanting the more standard Disney flick, complete with more hearty chuckles and singalong moments. But you can pick from about fifty of those. So at least give this one your time someday.


Thursday 10 September 2020

The Gruesome Twosome (1967)

Note - second time writing this review.

Herschell Gordon Lewis has his fans. I am one of them. To a degree. His approach is definitely not one to appreciate in the company of people unused to his style, but he does what he does well. And what he does well is use very limited resources to showcase some imaginatively nasty bloodshed and mutilation.

Here we have a tale of death and scalping, introduced by two shop dummies (in voiceover, thankfully not animated). Old Mrs Pringle (Elizabeth Davis) sometimes provides a room to rent for the girls at the local university. And this brings Kathy Baker (Gretchen Wells) into her home. She also has her dangerous son, Rodney (Chris Martell), living with her. Mrs. Pringle has a reputation for providing some of the best wigs in the area. But it turns out that they are the best because Rodney helps.

Written by Louise Downe, this is a mix of preposterous fun and very nasty grue, with a lot of dull dialogue filling out the rest of the runtime. So pretty much on a par with every other Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. Having said that, the man knows what his fans want from him, and he provides. This may be a lesser film from him, but it is certainly not one of his very worst. Dare I suggest it could be another that would benefit from a remake? I dare, I dare.

Davis is okay as the deadly old lady, and Wells is a pleasant enough lead, and Martell has to grin and leer in scenes that show him either being sweet or being in full killer mode. If you have seen any other Lewis movie then you will know what to expect from the actors.

It's very hard not to at least admire any Lewis movie, even if only for the fact that he got it made. Everything else may be lacking, but the practical effects were always done enthusiastically enough to keep viewers distracted while they were the focus.

It's no Blood Feast or Two Thousand Maniacs! but few films are, for better or for worse.


Wednesday 9 September 2020

Prime Time: Twister (1996)

As a director, Jan de Bont started strong (with Speed). Things were looking promising. The man who had provided such impressive cinematography for the likes of Die Hard and Basic Instinct showed that he had good instincts. Speed remains the high point of his directorial gigs. Twister, the second movie that had him sitting in the big chair, is the next best one, but it is a major step down.

Helen Hunt is Dr. Jo Harding, a woman who chases tornados and hopes to find out more about them to create a better warning system. Bill Paxton is Bill Harding, her sorta-ex, who needs divorce papers signed so that he can get married to Dr. Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). As Bill and Jo try to finalise the end of their relationship, a lot of exciting tornado action takes place. The chasers give chase, trying to stay out of danger while getting closer than most people would like to be, and also trying to stay ahead of sneaky rival, Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes).

Co-written by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, Twister is obviously a film thought up by people who figured that tornadoes were fascinating, and that they could make a thrill ride of a movie. They were half right in both instances.Making use of the latest CGI, as well as plenty of practical effects, De Bont tries to provide movie entertainment that feels designed for a gimmick-laden immersive experience. Twister is the one movie I might consider watching in one of those awful-looking 4DX cinema screens.

The cast is generally pretty good, and generally deserve better than they get from the script. Hunt and Paxton are two likeable leads, given just the one note to work with each (she NEEDS to succeed in her main quest to get a research device inside a tornado, he will help and also show that he still has feelings for her), but I can imagine better choices, and I say that with lots of love for Paxton. Their friends/colleagues include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck, Sean Whalen, and a few other familiar faces. Elwes does well as the non-tornado villain of the movie, and Gertz does her best to look bemused/interested/exasperated while being the sounding board for all of the exposition audiences need about tornadoes, and the strange ways they can behave.

Although it's pretty awful as a movie, Twister holds up as a shallow blockbuster. The effects may not seem as impressive nowadays as they seemed in 1996, when it comes to the CGI (the practical work is still top notch), but it's always working on the remit of entertaining audiences with spectacle and thrills. And you'll probably smirk when you see the cow flying through the air. Personally, I will always prefer other weather-based action movies like The Day After Tomorrow and The Perfect Storm. Even The Core would be a better option. But not Geostorm though. Never Geostorm.


You know you want to buy me a "coffee" here -

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Schlock (1973)

The first film from director John Landis, Schlock is a comedic creature feature that shows a creature causing problems in a small town. Known as "The Banana Killer", it turns out that the creature is the missing link, aka Schlock.

Riffing on King Kong, and many other classic creature features, Schlock is a slim plot used as a hanger for an array of jokes, most of them pretty terrible (even by my standards). After a first half that shows Schlock scaring a variety of people, but not necessarily wanting to deliberately harm anyone, the second half feels like something much more familiar, with the creature taking an interest in a lovely young blind woman named Mindy Binerman (Eliza Roberts, billed as Eliza Garrett). It's not going to end well, surely.

There's some fun to be had here, and you have to admire Landis for throwing it together (while he also stars in the main role), but there's also plenty here to keep you from forgetting that you're watching the first film from someone who has an approach you could never categorise as subtle. It's a case of everything being thrown at the wall to see what sticks, but with Landis at the helm it's hard to say whether that is "first film syndrome" or just his own standard approach.

The best gags reference films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Blob (which the characters watch within the film), and you also get the start of the "See You Next Wednesday" trademark, of course, but the many moments that aren't referencing specific movies often end up falling flat. Watch Schlock discover the joys of a concession stand in a cinema. Watch people talk to one another in a way that just feels like the sentences have been constructed to lead to some lame punchlines. Roll your eyes at the final shot of the film (okay, that's not actually a gag that falls flat, it's just very predictable and poorly executed).

None of the cast do great work. Although Landis wanders around and tries to do his best apeman impression, the sheer obviousness of it being a man in a pretty bad ape suit undermines every one of his scenes, despite the bad ape suit most likely being a big part of the joke. Roberts is okay, and at least gets to have a decent part in the finale, and Charle Villiers is allowed to act protective towards her, playing her boyfriend, Cal. I'll also mention Saul Kahan, playing Detective Sgt.Wino, but I'm not singling anyone else out.

It's fortunate that Landis would do much better with his next parody film, The Kentucky Fried Movie. This one may have been his first, and is also notable for being the first credited special effects gig for Rick Baker, but it's also arguably his worst. For completists only.


Monday 7 September 2020

Mubi Monday: A Couch In New York (1996)

A rom-com so strange that I am not entirely sure whether or not it is actually working as both a traditional type of film within the sub-genre and also some kind of knowing satire of the form, A Couch In New York nevertheless works any way you decide to take it.

Written and directed by Chantal Akerman, who developed the main story with Jean-Louis Benoît, what you have here is an apartment swap between a psychoanalyst (Henry Harriston, played by William Hurt) and a Parisian dancer (Béatrice Saulnier, played by Juliette Binoche). Both are seeking an escape, and both find themselves fascinated by the alternate lives the vicariously step into. Harriston struggles to deal with the messy chaos he discovers, but Ms Saulnier finds herself quickly growing to enjoy the role of substitute psychoanalyst when people turn up for appointments that they won't let her cancel.

Absolutely ridiculous once things start to play out, with both of the leads barely having time to adjust before the mistaken identity antics begin, there's something wonderful about just how this juxtaposes attempts at real with and intelligence with tropes that were already well-worn by this point. Hurt and Binoche bring a certain class to the proceedings, in a manner of speaking, and they have a good connection between them, but they have to work through scenes that have misinterpretations of cross-over talk, prolonged fakery stemming from an inexplicable inability to simply tell the truth and clear up any misunderstandings, and even a dash to catch a flight in the final act.

You could also check off some other very familiar rom-com elements throughout the course of the film. There's a cute pet, supporting characters who provide either help or obstacles (Anne, played by Stephanie Buttle, is a friend to Béatrice, while Dennis, played by Paul Guilfoyle, tries to advise Henry), some other people who pop in and out of the story long enough to help the main characters consider how they are acting, and that airport run.

I'm not meaning to sound like I am disparaging the rom-com at all when I say that Hurt and Binoche bring a certain class to the proceedings. I am just giving my own view of both leads. The rom-com is a type of film easily looked down on, and dismissed, by far too many people, but a terrible one will remind you of how much work it takes to make the great ones . . . great. Just watch Leap Year to see what I mean. No, don't watch that. Anyway, back to the cast here. The leads are great, although Hurt seems more ill-at-ease in his part than Binoche seems with what she has to do, and Guilfoyle adds some fun. Buttle has very little to do, which is fine when it allows for an extra minute or two of Richard Jenkins doing his stuff (he's a patient who comes to lie on the couch and discuss his problems).

Akerman knows what she's doing, as does everyone in front of the camera, but the end result somehow manages to feel both comfortably familiar and yet also slightly skewed. However you end up feeling about the film, it's an interesting viewing experience.