Monday 30 November 2020

Mubi Monday: Images (1972)

A strange psychological horror movie from Robert Altman, Images is a film that deserves to sit alongside the likes of Repulsion and Persona. It's well worth your time, and very much open to a number of different interpretations.

York plays Cathryn, a children's author who has suspicions about the behaviour of her husband (Hugh, played by René Auberjonois). The two of them head off for a little holiday to an isolated cottage in the countryside, but the isolation seems to cause Cathryn's mental health deteriorate further, as she starts to see people who may or may not really be there. The main figures who appear are Marcel (Hugh Millais), an ex-lover, and his young daughter, Susannah (Cathryn Harrison). As well as meeting, or not meeting, these figures, Cathryn ends up getting rid of them in a variety of ways, that also may or may not be real.

As Cathryn struggles to grip reality as tight as she needs to, and as characters transform into other characters, or change their personalities and intentions, Images quickly becomes a disorientating and difficult watch, for all the right reasons. It is, to me, one of the best cinematic portrayals of schizophrenia that I have seen (and would make a great double-bill with the excellent Patrick’s Day).

York is very strong in the lead role, a woman constantly frayed at the edges without falling into overcooked histrionics. Working in collaboration with Altman, everyone finds just the right approach to the material, with Auberjonois, Millais, and Harrison acting in a way that often stays oblivious to how tense York is. People often react in ways contrary to what you would expect, but that is all down to the fact that what is being shown isn’t always what is actually happening.

Altman may seem as if he is just piecing together various fragments, but things build to a definite climax, with Cathryn due to get better or worse as she battles against the visions causing her so much confusion. The ending is as impressive and powerful as it is ambiguous, given the “unreliable narrator”, and it is as the end credits roll that viewers can consider the full horror of what has just unfolded.

Some may view this as a masterpiece, and I wouldn’t argue too forcefully in opposition of that view, but I didn’t think of it as being at quite that level. I may, however, change my mind during any future viewings. And I certainly aim to rewatch it.


Sunday 29 November 2020

Netflix And Chill: Kindred Spirits (2019)

There are a number of elements within Kindred Spirits that seem a bit strange, but not really in a bad way. First, Thora Birch is now cast as a mother character. Second, director Lucky McKee and writer Chris Sivertson have fully committed to something that feels like it could have easily been released in the late '80s to mid-'90s amongst the likes of Poison Ivy, Single White Female, and numerous other movies focusing on someone who is an entertainingly demented psychopath.

Birch plays Chloe, mother to Nichole (Sasha Frolova). Their relationship isn't exactly all sunshine and roses, but that may improve when Chloe's sister, Sadie (Caitlin Stasey), appears on the scene. Sadie wants a chance to regroup and maybe restart her life. And she ends up being more like a sister to Nichole than an aunt. Meanwhile, Chloe is also trying to keep her relationship with Alex (Macon Blair) a secret. And not just because Alex is the father of Nichole's best friend, Shay (Shonagh Smith). Tension is simmering away, and it eventually rises right up to the surface again, leading to some startling revelations and a number of deaths.

As long as you know the type of film you're getting then there's very little chance that Kindred Spirits should disappoint you. And if you don't know what you're getting into before the movie starts, fear not, McKee and Sivertson do a great job of setting everything up to ease viewers along a path that soon becomes a slippery slope towards unbridled insanity.

All of the cast play it straight, and fill their roles well. Birch may still look too young to be a mother, even if she is the right age nowadays, but her attempts to deal with her daughter will ring true with any parent who has gone through some difficult times. Frolova, for her part, manages to be an unhappy teen without ever becoming too annoying. Stasey is a lot of fun in her role, even when the plot starts to twist and change, and Blair is a very nice everyman, a sweet potential partner for Birch, despite her trying to keep some distance between them. Smith and Isai Torres also do good work, with the latter playing Nichole's boyfriend, Derek, and having to take part in what I would happily call the silliest scenes in the movie.

Although I am not going to rate this as anything unmissable, I'm taking pains to emphasise just how good it is for what it is aiming to do. More than that, it does everything in a way that is admirably free of the need to be coy, or wink at viewers in a self-aware display of "yes, this is trashy nonsense, everyone can roll their eyes and smile while they enjoy it ironically" deflection. Sivertson and McKee know what they're doing, no doubt about that, and they also know that this material wouldn't work as well if it was given the kind of meta layering that so many horror movies now think they have to contain.

If you want some self-aware horror then pick from the hundreds around. If you want an entertaining thriller played completely straight, and with a real crescendo in the third act, then this is for you. 


Saturday 28 November 2020

Shudder Saturday: Porno (2020)

It's not surprising to find that Keola Racela, the director of Porno, and Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli, the writers, don't have too many other works to their names on IMDb. This is a film made with more enthusiasm than pure talent, and I don't mean that to sound as insulting as it does.

It's all about a group of cinema employees who find a hidden room in their place of employment, and that hidden room contains an old porno movie. Screening the movie, they soon find that an entity has been unleashed from it, a succubus that wants to get them all in a state of heightened sexual arousal, allowing it to kill and feed.

It's hard to pin down just how this manages to so often avoid the sense of fun it is aiming for, but a large part of its failure lies with the inability to commit to any one approach to the material. The early scenes have some movie discussions (the employees are going to enjoy their own screening in the cinema once the public have gone, and are debating between Encino Man and A League Of Their Own), but the rest of the movie drops any attempt to use the cinema setting for more nods and references, making those moments feel like some easy point-scoring. You get the Christian ethos of the group, the employer (Mr. Pike, played by Bill Phillips) viewing his workers more like members of a congregation than staff. That does play into the plot more, but is also never explored as fully as it should be. And you get the main characters themselves, given footnotes of a backstory that simply never adds enough to the proceedings.

It also doesn't help that the cast, while not terrible, aren't the best at pitching their performances in line with the material. Mind you, considering what I have just said in the preceding paragraph, I'm inclined to think that it is hardly their fault if they're unable to find the most suitable style to match the changeable tone. I liked Jillian Mueller in the role of Chaz, the main female employee, and Katelyn Pearce made a believable succubus, but nobody else really stood out, or stood out for the wrong reasons.

Racela directs with a lack of flair, the one high point being some clips of the movie within the movie (it's enjoyably odd and dark), and the script only livens up during moments of genital-related gore. The standout scene involves some trauma that will make most male viewers squirm, and maybe even look away, but it's a shame that the rest of the film doesn't come anywhere close to that, in the mix of bloodshed, unease, and amusement.

Perhaps one that you will enjoy more in the right company, and with the right amount of alcohol in you, Porno was a disappointment for me, and I had been looking forward to seeing it for some time. 


Friday 27 November 2020

Mansquito AKA Mosquito Man - A New Breed Of Predator (2005)

It's a familiar premise to sci-fi horror fans. A dangerous killer is given a chance to reduce his prison/death sentence by taking part in a science experiment. Going along with things, the killer seizes an opportunity to escape, getting hold of a gun and causing havoc in a laboratory before crashing into an environment that contains a number of insects that were also a part of the scientific process. Some DNA alteration occurs, and the killer becomes a giant killer insect (a large mosquito, in this instance, hence the name). There's a determined cop after him (Lt. Thomas Randall, played by Corin Nemec) and a doctor who also seems to have suffered from the incident (Dr. Jennifer Allen, also the partner of the cop, and played by Musetta Vander). And there are a number of bodies that are starting to show up with a large amount of blood lost.

A creature feature made for TV, Mansquito (the better, original, title) is a really good example of this type of thing. It is, in fact, one of the best of these movies that I can think of, despite still suffering from that feeling of things being slightly padded-out in the second half. But the good stuff more than makes up for the weaker moments.

The screenplay is by Michael Hurst, working to a formula that has been successful on many different occasions (and also bringing some Cronenbergian body horror to the mix . . . I am pretty sure you HAVE to put those words together - Cronenbergian and body horror - it's some kind of rule), and the direction is from Tibor Takács, a man with a filmography made up of some interesting late '80s movies (and one late '70s debut), a bunch of creature features, and a growing amount of Christmas TV movies. He is, from my limited knowledge of his work, a fairly safe pair of hands, and he certainly shows here that he can make the most of some relatively limited resources.

Nemec isn't too bad in the "hero" role, personally invested in the whole situation because, of course, he helped catch the killer originally, and he also wants to keep his girlfriend safe. As the scientist who finds herself affected by the violent escapade, Vander is very good. She has a striking beauty that makes her stand out in every role, and she plays things well as her character starts to realise the full extent of the situation. Matt Jordon (billed as Mathew Jordan) isn't onscreen for long in his natural guise, but does just fine with what he's given, and you get Patrick Dreikauss and Jay Benedict as Detective Charlie Morrison and Dr. Aaron Michaels, respectively. The former is partnered up with Nemec's character, the latter is the boss of Vander's character, and doesn't take things too well when his potential experiment is ruined. Christa Campbell also gets her name quite high on the cast list, but she only has about a minute of screentime.

The real star, however, is the practical effects on display. Mansquito is a genuinely impressive creation. If you watch the beginning of the film and think the transformation is going to be a slow and steady one then think again. It only takes about 15 minutes or so for the full creature to appear, and it's glorious. A fascinating, ugly, horrifying, deadly creature out for blood. And if they ever want someone to consult on a belated, Scotland-set, sequel entitled "Midge Man" then I am all over it.

The title alone may be enough to put many off, and outlandish creature features are not for everyone, but if you enjoy solid sci-fi horror movies then you'll find plenty to like here. Especially in that better-paced first half. I would happily rewatch this. 


Feel free to "buy me a coffee" here, if you have enjoyed any of my reviews.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Concrete Plans (2020)

Although it brings nothing very original to the table, Concrete Plans is an enjoyable thriller that puts people into a bad situation and slowly makes things worse and worse until it is time for the end credits to roll. The script isn't bad, and the cast all help to lift it slightly.

A group of workmen are hired to renovate an old farmhouse, not knowing that the posh owner who hired them (Simon, played by Kevin Guthrie) is having some major financial issues. He keeps doing all he can to delay making any payments, which is no good for the foreman/boss, Bob (Steve Speirs), and leads to him being badgered about it by his increasingly-wary workers. The group is made up of Dave (William Thomas), the old hand, bratty young Steve (Charley Palmer Rothwell), Jim (Chris Reilly), and hard-working Viktor (Goran Bogdan). As storm clouds start to gather, it soon becomes clear that at least one of the men will push things further and further to ensure they get the money due to them.

Trying to balance everything out, and not with complete success, Concrete Plans has a group of central characters it is often hard to like, making it potentially more satisfying when everything starts to go wrong. Viktor seems like a nice guy, Bob too, and Dave has been in the game long enough to know that causing a fuss might lead to you not being picked for future jobs (although paying someone for their work is a pretty basic civility). Steve is a twat, there's no better word for him (okay, maybe brat, but a brat is just a twat with added childishness and energy), and Jim has, we discover, lied his way on to the job. Then there's Simon, the worst kind of toff, someone who feels entitled to shout at others, and try to boss them around, even when he's not actually in any position to be giving orders.

Writer-director Will Jewell, making his feature debut (I'm not counting This Time Next Year, a 2011 film that only runs to an hour), handles everything well enough, and puts all of the pieces in place nicely for a third act that delivers some nastiness and a number of twists and turns. It's a shame that the execution of the material leaves it slightly lacking the full impact it should have (Jewell dilutes the strength of things by having one or two moments happen offscreen, or he presents them in a way that allows you an extra moment to see things one step ahead of the characters), but the overall end result is still good enough to make this worth your time.

I mentioned that the cast all help to lift the material, and that is true, although some are more restricted than others. Some of the less likeable characters are made even worse to make the third act more tense and satisfying, which leaves both Guthrie and Rothwell stuck in their respective “horrible shit” pigeonholes. Reilly is riveting though, and all of the relatively good characters are excellent, even with the moral ambiguity (to put it diplomatically). There are also good turns from Amber Rose Evah (as Amy, Simon’s girlfriend) and James Lance (Richard, a slippery financial advisor).

Probably not a film destined to be remembered as a classic, or one you will turn to for numerous rewatches, this at least provides an enjoyably tense distraction for about ninety minutes, and at least shows Jewell as a writer-director who takes good care of his material when getting it from script to screen.


Wednesday 25 November 2020

Tales From The Lodge (2019)

The general idea of Tales From The Lodge is a good one. It’s a comedy horror anthology that makes the framing device just as enjoyable as any of the main tales, and also has a lot of fun with the horror genre tropes. Mind you, it is another movie co-starting Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook. The last time I recall seeing them onscreen together was in Sex Lives Of The Potato Men. I’ve not been brave enough to revisit that, but the scar is still on my psyche. 

A group of friends gather to scatter the ashes one of their number, Jones, who committed suicide in a lake very close to the titular lodge. There’s Martha (Laura Fraser) and Joe (Crook), a couple battling on as Joe waits for a new heart. There’s Emma (Sophie Thompson) and Russell (Vegas), a couple happy to get away from their kids for a while. Last, but by no means least, is Paul (Dustin Demri-Burns), a womaniser who has unwisely decided to bring along his latest girlfriend, Mickey (Kelly Wenham). Things soon get a bit tense and emotional, and everyone has a turn of telling a dark and twisted tale.

Written and directed by Abigail Blackmore, making her feature debut, Tales From The Lodge is a strange beast. It is sometimes fun, sometimes quirky and entertaining, but always never too far away from one sour note to undo any good work. As a sweetener for the cast, I’m sure, each participant gets to direct their own tale, but nobody brings any unique voice to the proceedings. That isn’t necessarily bad, in a way, as it allows the film to flow as one piece made up of the interconnecting parts, but it also feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. 

The cast all do well enough in their roles, although some fare better than others at the hands of the script. Fraser comes off the worst, a pretty unrelentingly horrible and moody person (for a reason, but it doesn’t make her any easier to enjoy while onscreen), but Wenham and Demri-Burns are also required to twist themselves in some knots to sell their stories, which becomes even more difficult to buy into during the climax of the proceedings.

And that climax. To say it is problematic is putting it mildly. The more I think about it, and having been more aware than ever before of certain issues that the ending here brings to mind, the more horribly misjudged, at best, and ignorant it seems. It’s undoubtedly one of the worst I can think of in recent years, although there’s also a part of me thinking it may well be playing into some of the ridiculously wild endings of some of the schlocky horrors of yesteryear. If the rest of the film had been in the spirit of a throwback slasher then that would be easier to accept. As it stands, not so much.

Ending aside, although I know many who will not be able to see past that (and rightly so), this is a film that keeps skirting close to being good, without ever fully reaching that standard. Blackmore needs to learn some lessons from this, and hopefully do better next time.


Tuesday 24 November 2020

What Happens Next Will Scare You (2020)

It seems like only the other day that everyone was going crazy for the WNUF Halloween Special, an authentic-looking presentation of a fictional show recorded in the late 1980s that presented some spooky supernatural events. I thought it was okay, slightly undone by the sheer number of fake ads (all very well done, mind you) and without a payoff that was as satisfying as it could be. I'm in the minority though.

I think less people will love this effort, another excuse for director Chris LaMartina to show his knack for getting things pretty spot on when it comes to recreating a particular style, but What Happens Next Will Scare You at least deserves some goodwill for trying to provide horror fans with some pure and simple fun.

The main premise concerns a bunch of people who work for a click-bait website being asked to stay late by the boss and pitch their latest suggestions for an article about the scariest online videos. This allows them to show clips, giving us an anthology movie that tries to be equal parts comedy and horror.

The stories shown cover a wide variety of topics, from a sasquatch to a lake monster, from a demonic toy (a wonderfully cheeky riff on Annabelle) to a vlogger who ends up regretting her bullying ways. And there's a cursed vinyl record played in one recording that seems to start affecting the group itself.

Co-written by Jimmy George and LaMartina, What Happens Next Will Scare You works best when it edges away from the comedy. The framing format is amusing, and I hope many people hate click-bait as much as I do (does anyone actually enjoy it?), but the three best tales focus more on the details and creepiness than any comedy. One involves a clown, one involves a 911 call, and one involves that aforementioned toy. Having said that, one of the weakest, surprisingly, looks at exorcism rites.

The cast are all just fine. Kalima Young is the boss, June, keeping everyone back and demanding that they earn their positions in the company, and Melissa LaMartina, Rachel D. Wilson, Kathy Carson, Troy Jennings, and Johnny Marra make up the core characters, all bringing their own particular approach to the exercise. Nobody really stands out, but all do well. The standout is actually a voice-only role, Nolen Strals as the voice of George O'Bannon, the man who makes a very memorable 911 call.

It would be easy to criticise the varied quality of the FX on display here, and equally easy to criticise the sillier moments (the lake monster is quite bad, and a moment with a VHS tape is partly awful and partly amusing), but What Happens Next Will Scare You simply aims to entertain for a little while, and it mostly succeeds. Unlike a number of other modern horror anthologies, this has a nice and strong connective tissue throughout, and I wouldn't mind another go at the format from LaMartina and co.


P.S. It was a real treat to watch this for free over at the Shocktail Hour With Aurora Gorealis on Facebook, and I really appreciate the film-makers providing us with a little treat in these monotonous lockdown times.

Monday 23 November 2020

Mubi Monday: The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

The second feature from writer-director Sara Colangelo, a remake of a 2014 movie, The Kindergarten Teacher is all about, funnily enough, a kindergarten teacher (Lisa, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who becomes quite obsessed with a young boy, Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), who seems to have a knack for poetry. Lisa wants Jimmy Roy to have the freedom to reach his full potential, which starts her on a path that leads to selfishness, awkwardness, and damaged relationships.

Although specifically about the journey of Lisa, both using Jimmy Roy and also trying her best to get him to develop his talent, The Kindergarten Teacher is more generally about the frustration of a soul wanting a life in pursuit of art and culture, and wanting to encourage others to do the same. Lisa initially seems very sweet and supportive, but it quickly becomes clear that her approach is guided by her own agenda, as opposed to what Jimmy Roy may want for his own life.

Colangelo, her screenplay based on that from Nadav Lapid, plays things just right, creeping in close when Lisa starts to focus more on Jimmy Roy, staying there for some quieter conversations that are designed not to be heard by the other children, and then pulling back slightly to show the two of them together, often highlighting just how much one child is being separated from a larger group that may keep him in a more suitable environment, allowing him to simply be a child.

Tricky material to handle, things are elevated by the central performances. Gyllenhaal is excellent, managing to just about keep viewers on board, even as her behaviour becomes more and more unacceptable. Sevak gives a wonderful turn, often acting sweetly oblivious to the inappropriate actions of one of the main adults in his life. Gael García Bernal stands out as the teacher of a poetry class, unwittingly motivating Lisa, who starts to test the waters by sharing the poems from Jimmy Roy, while claiming them as her own. Michael Chernus plays Grant Spinelli, the husband of Lisa, and does good work, as does everyone else with their name in the credits, but any scenes not featuring Gyllenhaal and Sevak tend to end up feeling like so much padding. They are the heart of the film, in terms of the ideas being explored and the strongest performances, and they make the whole thing worth watching, even during the times when you may want to cringe and turn it off.

Far from perfect, and many viewers will lose patience with the lead character before I did, this is still one to give your time to, a thought-provoking rumination on what it takes to fan a childish spark of creativity into a life-long passion for the pursuit of art, but equally a reminder to let children be children, because their world-view and innocence, their ability to keep hold of what we may have lost on our way to adulthood, is not for our benefit. It's just all part of being a child.


Sunday 22 November 2020

Netflix And Chill: The Monster (2016)

Part horror movie and part an effective study of a seriously damaged mother-daughter relationship, The Monster is yet another worthwhile horror that gets things right by ensuring that both of the main components are given the right amount of care and attention.

Zoe Kazan is Kathy, a mother driving her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), to go and live with her father. There doesn't seem to be too much sadness about this, not from either party, and a lot of that has to do with the problems that Kathy has had with alcohol. The daughter has sometimes had to act like the parent, which has rarely been appreciated, especially when Kathy has been trying to hang on to some new asshole boyfriend. As they drive along a quiet road at night, they hit a wolf that runs out in front of them. But it seems that the wolf was running way from something. Something bigger, and much more dangerous.

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, The Monster is so good that I'm even willing to forgive him for the awfulness of Mockingbird. It's a decent creature feature elevated by the portrait of a parent-child relationship that has already spent some time being put through the wringer, which leads to the strongest mix of love and hate that you can have in any damaged relationship.

Kazan is very good in her role, being allowed to give a performance that shows her at her worst, in a number of flashbacks were her selfish, and abusive, behaviour is shown, and also at her best. No matter how good she is, however, the star here is Ballentine, who has to consistently show a wider mix of emotions, and also a sharper mind, as the child so used to acting like the adult, with the resentment and the sadness, and maturity, that brings. There are some other characters who pop onscreen to be put in peril, but the main one is, Jesse, a roadside mechanic who has been called to the scene. Aaron Douglas gets to play this role, which is written in a slightly odd way. I'm not sure if Bertino wanted viewers to consider Jesse as a potential danger, or if he was just playing up the fact that being stuck in a broken-down car in an isolated road makes EVERYTHING seem like a potential danger, especially to a mother and young daughter. Whatever his reasons, Jesse is the one part that doesn't work as well, but that's no fault of Douglas, who does just fine.

There's not much to comment on elsewhere. The cinematography seems to have been kept slightly too dark in order to hide any flaws in the creature design (which isn't that bad, but would have been better if they had avoided showing it out in the open so often), and the music by tomandandy is far from their best work, although that is probably just my preference for some of their more bombastic numbers. The creature is interesting, imperfect in a way that still has you trying to take in some of the details, but there's really nothing else onscreen, visually, that makes a strong impression (with the exception of a very tender moment that shows Lizzy looking after her mother after some alcohol-induced illness).

Despite criticising the overall look of the film, The Monster is well worth your time. It's not a film that's wanting to give you beautiful frames and original imagery. It's a film exploring something painful and depressingly common. It's a film about parents who can act like monsters, and it just happens to also have another monster in it.


Saturday 21 November 2020

Shudder Saturday: Creepshow Animated Special (2020)

Here we are, a special episode of the much-anticipated anthology series springboarding from the classic movie, and I felt it should be discussed here. It's not a movie, I know, but it's not the first time I have discussed something here that is not a movie. And it won't be the last time either.

A lot of people were delighted with the news that this series was coming. Many people are still delighted that it has happened, with some commenting that the feel of the show is just what they wanted, and the stories and framing make everything seem nicely in line with that Creepshow vibe.

I have to respectfully disagree.

Much like the tale of the monkey's paw that features in one episode in the first series, Creepshow is a classic example of being careful what you wish for. We already had the classic first movie. A lot of people really like the second movie. But there was a third movie, which was pretty bad. Now we have this, arguably the weakest of all of the products that have the Creepshow name attached.

I don't know why I held out hope that this animated special would be better, but I did. Maybe I was carried along on the wave of positivity that seems to keep coming from the horror community. But let's be clear, I cannot help thinking that the positivity, the love, for this series is coming from people who are still hoping it becomes better than it has been so far. As easy to please as I am, the hit rate for the show has been just below 50%, at a conservative estimate. The better stories have been good, the worse stories have been godawful.

A lot of the success depends on the source material, so I was pleased to see that the first tale this time around was "Survivor Type", a dark and twisted Stephen King story about a man who ends up on a desert island, and aims to stay alive for as long as possible, no matter what. I've long been a fan of this story (which I first read in "Skeleton Crew" and, considering the nastiness of it, using animation to tell it seemed like a perfect choice. Kiefer Sutherland voices the main character, the animation style is okay, and it wasn't that bad. If the second tale was a good one then I could see myself enjoying this special.

The second tale, "Twittering From The Circus Of The Dead" was not a good one. I'd actually say it sit easily alongside the worse of the tales featured in season one. A young girl (voiced by Joey King) and her family end up going into a roadside circus attraction, which features zombies and people in peril. The people in peril act as if they're genuinely afraid. I am sure you can guess why. Based on a short story by Joe Hill, I can only assume this was picked as a way to give the special that father-son writer connection, all this did was make me wish they had gone with some other, ANY other, Joe Hill story. Given the form, this would have been an ideal opportunity to introduce people to the quirky world of Pop Art (okay, not as grounded in horror, maybe, but a much more interesting choice).

I'll watch a second season of the show, but it's become increasingly obvious with each episode, and particularly with this special, that the people crafting Creepshow (and it's Greg Nicotero who has his name writ large over most of it) have forgotten how to capture that spark of magic that makes the original film such an enduring classic, and even makes the second film a fun time for horror fans. I hope they bring some people on board soon who can help them remember how to find it.


Friday 20 November 2020

Inferno (2016)

Despite knowing how they are generally viewed by many other people, I am a BIG fan of the previous movies featuring the character of Robert Langdon. Having read most of the books written by Dan Brown, I knew the way he created the contrivances and characters, and the movies managed to move along at a brisk enough pace to make me forget the increasing incredulity of the set-pieces (almost). I was looking forward to Inferno, remembering the high stakes and the tense final act.

Sadly, this is the weakest of the cinematic trilogy, and it's easy to see why. The source material just isn't as easy to translate into cinematic entertainment, and there's also the small problem of each subsequent film highlighting just how many times Brown reaches for the same bag of tricks. Director Ron Howard cannot do much while tied to the novel, and writer David Koepp doesn't want to take any risks in his adaptation of the work.

Hanks returns once again to play the hero, who this time starts things by waking up in an Italian hospital with what seems to be a very bad case of amnesia. He barely has time to try and remember who he is before Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) is helping him to evade a deadly assassin. The two of them then race against the clock to hopefully stop a madman from releasing a virus that will cut the population of the entire planet in half.

It's hard to work up any enthusiasm for Inferno, it's such a mediocre and disappointing movie, especially coming after two much better films. Things start promisingly enough (there's the suicide of the madman who has already put his plan in motion, there's Langdon having a nightmarish vision of people burning to death around him), but that is all soon forgotten as the plot starts to trudge along from one weak set-piece to the next. Even the travelogue aspect isn't all that enjoyable, with the camerawork and visuals surprisingly dull throughout. How the hell do you make Venice look anything less than eye-poppingly gorgeous??

Hanks is yet again a comfortable fit in the role, and Felicity Jones is an enjoyable co-star for him, hampered by the material, but buoyed by the fact that she's Felicity Jones. Omar Sy is okay, but equally hampered by the material, and there are unmemorable supporting turns from Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Ana Ularu. Ben Foster stands out, despite his limited screentime, thanks to his role in one or two of the most intriguing scenes.

Others might end up enjoying this more than I did. If you haven't read the books, or seen the other movies, then you may have a better viewing experience. I found it a big disappointment, especially following on from the two movies that preceded it.


Thursday 19 November 2020

Angels & Demons (2009)

The pope must die . . . in order to kickstart the proceedings of this, the second cinematic adaptation of the implausible adventures of Robert Langdon. It’s a rip-roaring “treasure hunt” through Vatican City, and holds up as an equal to the first film.

Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called to Vatican City after a plan is put in motion that involves killing potential new Popes (I cannot recall the name of the ceremony, they really should just call it Pope Idol by now) in a manner tied to the four elements, branding bodies with special writing that may signify the work of the Illuminati, and having everyone do their damnedest to track down a vial of anti-matter that has been set to explode in mere hours.

With Hanks back in the lead role, Howard back in the big chair, and Akiva Goldsman back on writing duties (this time alongside David Koepp), Angels & Demons is very much a happy reunion for people who clearly enjoyed doing such a great job of things the first time around. While you could continue to complain about to the disparity between popular entertainment and great art (and the common ground), the source material from Dan Brown certainly stands high in the former camp, and both Howard and Hanks are used to delivering to people what they want.

The only downside of this film is the female thrown alongside Langdon for this particular escapade. Ayelet Zurer plays Dr. Vittoria Vetra, but she’s really not given much to do. Compared to the other onscreen allies that Langdon has been paired with, this woman is sorely undeveloped and redundant, for the most part (which is really saying something, considering how consistently weak Brown is when it comes to visiting the same well over and over for his stock of supporting characters).

Hanks is comfortable reprising the famous symbologist, Ewan McGregor is a treat, playing someone who was close to the previous Pope, and believes the church should attempt to be even more progressive, and Stellan Skarsgård is as dependable as ever, here playing a stubborn, no-nonsense, head of the Swiss Guard.

The end may become a bit too ridiculous (which you could arguably say about all Dan Brown tales), but this feels a bit more intense than The Da Vinci Code, and makes absolutely fantastic use of the gorgeous environment of Vatican City. For slick mainstream thrills, I think this is top-notch stuff.


Wednesday 18 November 2020

Prime Time: Brahms: The Boy II (2020)

I'm not going to spoil anything that happened in the film, but The Boy was a pleasant surprise. A supernatural tale that became an enjoyable thriller, it managed to perfectly mix the silly and the effective in equal measure. It was no classic, but I'd happily recommend it to people looking for some tame entertainment. 

It certainly didn't need a sequel though. And it certainly didn't need a sequel as daft as this.

Katie Holmes and Owain Yeoman play the parents of a young boy named Jude (Christopher Convery). After the traumatic experience of having their home broken into, Jude stops speaking. They head off for a little convalescence, and happen to end up in the same location as Brahms, the doll that seemed to spooky and lively in the first movie. Jude grows immediately attached to Brahms, and wants his parents to abide by a number of rules that ensure people treat the doll as he likes to be treated. Things start to get increasingly tense within the family unit, and anyone trying to separate Jude and Brahms does so at their own peril.

Director William Brent Bell and writer Stacey Menear both return for this second doll-centric tale, and it's almost as if they resent some of the decisions they made in the first film. This decides to push things further, to remove any ambiguity, and to take viewers on a journey that ends with some moments that are so ridiculous, and so far removed from the first film that I'm surprised Bell and Menear even decided to use the name. You could argue that the developed backstory makes it obvious that this follows on from the first film, but all of that could have been tweaked (or, better yet, just dropped).

Yeoman is the more passive of the two adults, just following the lead of Holmes, who has to show stress and worry from her earliest scenes. Neither of the leads ends up faring well, considering the nonsense they have to work with, but it's Holmes who suffers the most, mainly due to her having to seem freaked out by the doll even before things start to get stranger and stranger. Convery is good enough in the role of Jude, spending a lot of the film almost shielding himself with Brahms, and it is always good to see Ralph Ineson pop up in movies recently, even when his role takes him to as silly a place as this one does. 

If you're morbidly curious about this after seeing the first film, let that morbid curiosity go. There's a minimum degree of technical competence throughout, saving it being the very worst of the worst, but it's a pretty terrible movie. All it does is undo the goodwill earned by the first film.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown is not Charles Dickens. He's no Brontë. No Stephen King. Even when it comes to thrillers, he's not as good as the likes of Patricia Cornwell, Lee Child, or even (when he's on form) Dean Koontz. But that's not to say that his writing is terrible. He has amassed a huge fanbase over the years, and a lot of that stems from the success of The Da Vinci Code, a thriller that blended some fact with a whole lot of fiction in a way that intrigued readers and made them feel as if they were becoming a bit smarter while the plot became dumber and dumber. That kind of success is very easy to turn your nose up at (especially when you recognise the formula that Brown has used in almost every one of his books, and I have read, and enjoyed,  Deception Point, Digital Fortress, and three of his Langdon adventures, the ones that have so far been adapted into movies), but it also happens for a reason.  Brown knows how to thread together ludicrous plot points into something that is entertaining and thrilling.

You could say the same of director Ron Howard, who has been at the helm of numerous hit movies throughout his career. It's also easy to turn your nose up at many of his works, but they're often hugely popular for similar reasons. Howard is a pro when it comes to the technical side of things, and when it comes to crafting moments of cinematic emotional manipulation. Has he made any absolute classics? You can be the judge of that, but if he's not made one movie that you would always enjoy if you caught it randomly on the TV then I'd be very surprised.

So Howard directing the cinematic adaptation of the book that really made Dan Brown a household name was surely always a guarantee of a blockbuster hit. Put Tom Hanks in the role of Robert Langdon and what could possibly go wrong? Not much, actually, not much at all.

It's a simple enough premise, a straightforward journey complicated by numerous obstacles and twists. Langdon is called to a murder scene inside the Louvre, and that sets him on a quest to both clear his name and find the Holy Grail, which seems to have had its location hidden away in a number of coded messages over the years. Langdon is accompanied by Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), and hopes to enlist the help of and old friend, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), as he tries to continue evading Captain Fache (Jean Reno), a self-flagellating albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany), and others who are in hot pursuit.

Although Howard is in the big chair for this, a lot of the credit should be shared by everyone involved. This is a film that makes it clear just how much care and attention has gone into every department, from the props and design to the casting, and it's also got a gorgeous score by Hans Zimmer. Brown came up with the source material, but Akiva Goldsman does a superb job of making things more cinematic. The twists and turns are nicely handled, the exposition delivered in ways that don't let the film feel as if it has come grinding to a halt, and Hanks and Tautou are a winning pairing in the lead roles.

The supporting cast aren't half bad either. Reno works with an ambiguous character who may have an agenda of his own while he tracks our hero, McKellen has fun with a character who is oh-so-English that it's positively precious, and Bettany is an intriguing presence. Alfred Molina and Jürgen Prochnow also have good parts to play, with the latter involved in a set-piece that emphasises how silly some of the plotting can be, which doesn't necessarily make things any less fun.

It's very easy to mock and dismiss the Dan Brown books. It's also very easy to mock and dismiss the movies based on his books (and I know many complained at the time that Tautou seemed a bit wasted in her role, I think she remains a plus, thanks to her sheer screen presence). Maybe try to see how many positives there are, and simply accept the fact that being a crowd-pleasing work of art is almost always far removed from being the best work of art, but isn't any less worthy when it comes to having made people feel happy and entertained.


Monday 16 November 2020

Mubi Monday: Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Bruce Greenwood is not Ethan Hawke. I wouldn't normally start a review by saying that, but I wouldn't normally watch a movie thinking that one character has been played by Ethan Hawke, only to find they were played by Bruce Greenwood. 

Greenwood plays Stephen Meek, a frontier guide who leads a wagon train through some arid countryside, taking everyone perilously close to a sticky end, due to the ongoing scarcity of food and water. Tensions grow when a Native American (Ron Rondeaux) is captured, with different members of the group trying different ways to get him to reveal information to them about the surrounding desert environment.

Directed by Kelly Reichardt, and written by her regular collaborator, Jonathan Raymond, Meek's Cutoff is an attempt to tell a very strange story from history in a way that allows for a different kind of Western. The end result is a mixed bag, a film that strives to avoid all of the moments that you’re used to seeing in the genre. That is no bad thing, not in and of itself, but the fact that it so defiantly gives viewers nothing recognisable also works against it. There’s no playfulness here, no major subversion, despite the exploration of the shifting power dynamic between Meek, the Native Smerican, and others in the group.

The cast all do good work, even if I thought Greenwood was Hawke (which is a compliment for this role, honest). Michelle Williams and Will Patton are the main couple who don’t immediately dance to the tune that Meek wants to play, which is probably well-advised as it becomes clear that he may not know as much as he claims to know. Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and everyone else in the group does solid work, and Rondeaux is superbly stoic and ambiguous in his way of interacting with the others.

Do seek this out if you don’t mind a slow-paced film that features some top-notch actors giving superb, but unshowy, performances. But it is worth warning people who decide to check this out if they are after a revisionist Western. You could label it that way, but it is more simply classed as a historical drama that happens to take place in a location more commonly seen in Western movies, with people who sometimes look to settle disagreements with their guns. Sort of like a Western.


Sunday 15 November 2020

Netflix And Chill: His House (2020)

If you're the kind of person who believes that the UK is being swarmed by "illegal immigrants", all aiming to come here because the system is so easy to play, and immediately being handed a 7-bedroom house and £500 a week, then His House is definitely not the film for you. This depicts the lead characters, a pair of asylum seekers, as real people with very real horror in their lives. It then adds some more horror, a bit of cinematic horror, and starts to intertwine things together in a way that endangers both of their lives.

Sope Dirisu is Bol Majur and Wunmi Mosaku is Rial Majur. They have travelled together from a country where ongoing war has cost the lives of too many already. It wasn't always just the two of them either. A child was lost along the way. Having waited to have their case processed, Bol and Rial are given a small house to live in, with numerous conditions to their stay (as their case goes through the next stage) and a weekly sum of £74/week to live on. It seems like a great new start for them. But there's something else in their new home, a supernatural force that knows exactly how to frighten and torture them. If they cannot defeat it, they will lose everything.

Based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, His House is a feature debut from writer-director Remi Weekes, who has a number of shorts to his credit from just over the past decade. It's not only a superb feature debut, it's a superb horror movie. It mixes together the horror and the journey to seek asylum so well that it's a reminder of just how effectively the genre can be used against a backdrop of thought-provoking social commentary. There is nothing wrong with a horror movie that has a maniac going all stabby on horny teens, but there is equally nothing wrong with a horror movie that has a bit more to say alongside some solid scares.

Visually intriguing throughout, Weekes keeps things varied as we are shown scenes of the dangerous journey to the UK, scenes of Bol and Rial trying to integrate into a local community that doesn't seem to want them there, and scenes of the house becoming more creepy, lively, and damaged. Things may grow increasingly dark as the story unfolds, but even daylight does not guarantee safety. We see that in the sun-drenched scenes of a war-torn landscape, we see it as our leads encounter "neighbours", and there's no escape from a nightmare that could end lives in a couple of different ways, either by destroying the Majurs physically or resulting in them losing their status in the UK, which would lead to them being deported back to somewhere they would be much less likely to survive.

Dirisu and Mosaku are both excellent in their roles, believably earnest and worried about their futures, trying to work things out within an environment that places extra restrictions on their freedoms (as they wait in hope for a real freedom that will allow them to finally relax). The full story of their journey to the UK, revealed in flashback throughout the film, doesn't really change how well-placed they are as lead characters, because you've taken a liking to them from the earliest scenes, and you can consider how desperate anyone escaping their situation could be. Matt Smith gives great support in the role of Mark, the liaison officer who shows them to their new home and seems to hope for their success. There are other, no less important, characters who appear, but I'll leave you to discover those for yourself.

Loaded with poignancy and real consideration, and with a script that emphasises the language used to keep things officious at all times, even as people may be almost crying out for a more human, a more empathetic, approach to their situation, His House is one of the best films of the year, a timely one at that, and certainly the best horror movie.


Saturday 14 November 2020

Shudder Saturday: Lizzie (2018)


"Lizzie Borden took an axe

and gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

she gave her father forty-one."

Is it even possible to write something about Lizzie Borden without quoting that macabre little rhyme? I think not.

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to watch Lizzie this week, and place the review here. First of all, it's a good story of intrigue and murder. Lizzie Borden surely remains the most famous, alleged, axe murderer in history (unless I am forgetting any other obvious choices). Second, although I have not loved all of the movies that she has been in, I have started to enjoy different performances from Kristen Stewart in recent years. She's actually been as eclectic in her choices as her past co-star, Robert Pattinson, but has received not a quarter of the praise. Is she his equal? I am not going to say. All I know is that my opinion on her changed after seeing her performances in a couple of Olivier Assayas movies (Personal Shopper being a real highlight) and enjoying her flair for the comedy in Charlie's Angels.  With the upcoming Happiest Season (a LGBTQ+ Christmas movie featuring Stewart in a lead role), it's clear that she has been picking and choosing her projects based on an instinct that has allowed her to both enjoy her post-Twilight career and show some more sides of her personality. 

Stewart plays Bridget Sullivan, a new member of staff to the Borden household in this tale. The titular Lizzie is played by Chloë Sevigny. Things start with the discovery of a hacked corpse, and then it is time to wind back and look at the days and weeks leading up to the murders, with the two main victims being Abby (Fiona Shaw) and Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan). You have standard family tensions, chemistry between Lizzie and Bridget, and creepy, predatory, abuse from Andrew. There's also an ongoing dispute over the potential family fortune, something that John Morse (Denis O'Hare) wants to keep an eye on.

Written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill, with neither individual having many other full movies to their credit, it's easy to see why Lizzie was viewed as quite an easy tale to make into a solid little biopic/crime drama. Most people tend to be familiar enough with the story, it doesn't need a whole lot of fancy bells and whistles, and there's the enduring allure of it being an "unsolved crime", mainly thanks to how things were handled in the immediate aftermath.

The thing is . . . Lizzie doesn't sell any of that angle. It settles for being a salacious telling of the crime that people think they already know. Want to know that Lizzie definitely committed the crimes? Sure thing, here you go. Blood on her clothing? Hell no, we'll make her naked. A look at the various conflicting and cocked-up evidence that wasn't properly used? Nope. But look . . . naked woman with axe. This is a film that seems to have been written from a basic notion of the crime, everything that has been assumed for years by people who haven't read even a little bit more on the case. I COULD be wrong, but they even seem to get Lizzie Borden's age wrong when the end title card notes her death years later.

Sevigny is very good in the main role, and Stewart works well enough alongside her. They may not give their best performances, but they're saddled with a script that wants to make this nothing more than a fairly standard tale of sex and violence. Shaw and Sheridan also do good work, with the latter having to play up every bad part of his character until he's almost a pantomime villain by the third act (if pantomime villains were also a bit rapey), and O'Hare is fun in his scenes. Kim Dickens isn't given much to do, playing Lizzie's sister, Emma, and the same goes for Jeff Perry, playing Andrew Jennings, the defense attorney for Lizzie.

Considering the various aspects, this isn't a bad film. The acting is good, the look and feel of the film works, even if it tries to make the most of the budget by being made up of mostly interior shots (which is fine, considering the story showing us the growing tension within one household), and it does a good job of depicting the actual act of the murders. It's just a shame that the script feels so sloppily put together, and takes no interesting turns.


Friday 13 November 2020

You Got Served (2004)

The fact that I got to this point in my life without having seen You Got Served is bewildering, especially when you consider that I have seen all of the Step Up movies (I love them), many of the Bring It On movies, Drumline, and even Dance Flick (which is mostly inspired by this, but follows such a well-known formula that I'd argue you could already predict most of the gags if you have seen even one of the other films mentioned). Anyway, we're here now. I am all up to date.

David (Played by Omanri Grandberry AKA Omarion) and Elgion (Marques Houston) are the two young men who lead the hottest dance crew in the busy world of dance battles. They don't think there's any threat when they are challenged to a battle for a hefty amount of cash by a rich white dude named Wade (Christopher Jones, looking very much like the douchiest white dude to ever breathe outside of an Oddspring music video). Things don't go according to plan, unfortunately, and the crew get served. So it's up to the crew to endure as they aim to take their turn of doing the serving. Things get complicated by the fact that David is injured while running an errand for a local gangster, on his own because Elgin is making googly-eyes at his sister, Liyah (Jennifer Freeman).

You Got Served is certainly worth a watch, especially if you are as interested in dance movies as I am (from Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly, to all of those . . . Step Uppers, I just love watching people dance like nobody is watching in a way that guarantees everyone will watch). It's just a shame that it is overshadowed by so many of the films that came after it, for a number of reasons.

First up, sorry to say, the leads aren't very good. They're not awful, and they show some good dance moves (importantly), but they don't have the instant likability that would help a film like this. Pushing aside the guys, Freeman is a great presence, but her character is the one who causes friction, undermining her easy warmth and sweetness. Jones does a great villain turn, and could easily have been a NPC in some arcade dance game. Steve Harvey is fun as Mr. Rad, the man who referees a lot of the dance battles, and tries to keep things civil, and you get a third act cameo from Li'l Kim allowing her to show how compassionate and cool she is (not sure how much I should underline that as sarcasm, which may or may not be fair).

Written and directed by Chris Stokes, who did another couple of dance movies after this, and has built up an eclectic filmography over the past couple of decades, the other main reasons for this film not being as good as it should be rest with him. The script sets up some problems for the leads, but then decides to let them off the hook relatively easily, which undermines the core message about these young adults using their dance skills to pave the way to a new life. There IS that message still there, but it's weakened when we're told that there's a lot less at stake for the big final number. There's also a real mess in the back half of the film, with poor editing and plotting making it slightly confusing as you just sit back and wait for the inevitable rematch that will make up the final battle.

Worst of all, the dancing isn't showcased as well as it could be. The dance moves seem pretty great, and there are some huge moves pulled out of the bag when most needed, but things are undone by, yet again, poor editing (going to namecheck Earl Watson here) and a script that doesn't think to plot things out with some better stepping stones, decent build-up, or any sense of victories and losses being fully earned.


Thursday 12 November 2020

The Great Outdoors (1988)

The third, and final, collaboration, between writer John Hughes and director Howard Deutch, this is also their weakest. It's good fun, with two leads doing excellent work, but it's just a bit strangely divided between the storyline for the adults and a storyline following a smitten teen.

John Candy is Chet Ripley, the husband/father keen to give his family a proper holiday experience in a lakeside cabin. The Ripley family is unexpectedly joined by Roman Craig (Dan Aykroyd), Kate Craig (Annette Bening), and their twin daughters. Kate is the sister of Chet's wife, Connie (Stephanie Faracy), and it is very clear from the earliest scenes that the Craigs have a very different outlook on life than the Ripleys. 

The Great Outdoors works as well as it does for two reasons. First, the interplay between Aykroyd and Candy. Written as very opposite characters, Aykroyd revels in being obnoxious and having no class while Hughes very quickly becomes tired of his nonsense. Second, there are some very entertaining set-pieces spread throughout the runtime. There's the tale of an angry bear that was made bald, a restaurant that has a challenging steak on the menu, some thrilling time spent water-skiing, and a group of cute raccoons that just want to enjoy picking through the trash.

Although Aykroyd and Candy are both doing top work here, they're nicely complemented by Faracy and Bening, playing two sisters who have gone on very different paths in life. This was the theatrical movie debut for Bening, and it's arguably one of her simplest roles, but she's a natural onscreen presence. Faracy does well to avoid just being stuck as "the boring, nice one", and both women feel well-suited alongside their partners. Chris Young is the older of the Ripley sons, and he does just fine in his own storyline that sees him falling for the charms of a local girl, Cammie (Lucy Deakins), but both of these youngsters suffer from the teen movie dialogue jarring against the rest of the movie, which enjoys building and building the friction between the adults. You also get a fun small turn from Robert Prosky, and the other child actors do everything asked of them.

Deutch directs as competently as he usually does, and he once again stays nicely in line with the tone that Hughes provides. Although predictable from start to finish, the set-pieces work really well, and are given just the right of time to let the laughter build without overstaying their welcome. Lessons are due to be learned, different views clash with one another, and some of the one-liners are hilarious, helped by the performers delivering them.

Despite the better qualities, I'd still end up placing The Great Outdoors somewhere around the halfway mark if ranking the movies written by John Hughes. It's a lot of fun, yet nowhere near his best.


Wednesday 11 November 2020

Prime Time: The Graveyard Story (1991)

Written and directed by Bozidar D. Benedikt (who you may not have heard of, his filmography is made up of a few shorts and about four features), The Graveyard Story is an attempt to blend the supernatural and the classic detective tale format . . . up until the moment, quite early on, when it jettisons any supernatural elements. So it's really just an odd detective story.

John Ireland plays Dr. McGregor, a man who becomes obsessed with discovering what happened to a young girl, Dolly Cooper, after he discovers her grave. He hires a detective, Ron Hunt (Adrian Paul), and he starts digging into some local history. What he discovers ends up taking him on a journey further and further away from the grave, but closer to some real danger.

This is a bad film, but it's also quite a treat. It's bad in a way that leaves everything quite flat, with the dialogue and pacing dragging down/bumping up what would otherwise be a very standard crime thriller (albeit one with few thrills). Some moments are so amusingly bizarre that you'll either end up loving it or wanting it to end ASAP.

Paul, not someone with a huge filmography to look through, tends to let himself, and the movie, down by not fully committing to the role. I understand his reasoning, wanting to play his character in a way that is not just a bag of familiar tropes and cheesy dialogue, but the character is written in a way that makes him, yes, a bag of familiar tropes and cheesy dialogue. So leaning into that would have been a better fit for the movie. As it is, Paul does what he needs to do, but doesn't seem to have any faith in playing his character as an entertaining archetype. Christine Cattell, on the other hand, has about as much fun as she can have with her clothes on. Her character, Vicky, is interested in solving the mystery that is brought to her attention, but a lot more interested in solving the dilemma of removing Ron Hunt from his underoos. Nobody else stands out, which isn't a bad thing, considering how bad a number of the performances could have been. I won't say that anyone is doing great work, but they're working well enough with the material.

Benedikt does a surprisingly good job of setting the film up as one thing and then turning it into something else, and the plotting feels as if it holds up under a little bit of scrutiny (or maybe, as sometimes happens, I was in a forgiving mood as I enjoyed a day off, munched snacks, and watched the movie). There's a lack of polish throughout that makes it feel like a TV movie, which may have been the fate befalling it outside of Germany, but the weaker elements - lack of any visual style, clumsily-scripted moments - are offset by the way things come together so well in the third act, including one payoff that had me both laughing and wanting to applaud the audacity of it.

I watched this with an idea that I would end up having to just tolerate it, and maybe thinking I would at least wring some comedy from it for this blog. Now I end this review by saying that I would happily watch it again, and not just for all of the "wrong reasons".


Tuesday 10 November 2020

Pure Luck (1991)

I have been in the mood lately to watch some undemanding '80s comedies, mainly movies that I remember seeing advertised, but didn't actually get around to watching. And I could have sworn that Pure Luck was a 1980s comedy, but it was actually released in 1991. The concept certainly feels like a very 1980s one.

A young woman (Valerie, played by Sheila Kelley) goes missing while on holiday. Her father (Highsmith, played by Sam Wanamaker) is distraught, especially as the investigator he has on the case (Campanella, played by Danny Glover) hasn't managed to find any solid leads. The fact that Valerie is one of the unluckiest people in the world makes things even trickier, but it also leads one man to come up with a theory. He knows someone employed by Highsmith who is equally unlucky. That man is Proctor (Martin Short), and a plan is formed. There's a chance that Proctor's bad luck will allow him to more closely follow the route taken by Valerie, and allow her to be found.

Based on a French film, La Chevre, Pure Luck is exactly what you might expect it is, a vehicle for Martin Short to commit himself to numerous pratfalls in the name of making viewers laugh. And Short is not the problem here. But I'll get back to him later.

Director Nadia Tass doesn't have a grip on the kind of comedy that would allow this movie to be all it can be. I'm not familiar with the original, which may well be a quirky and gentle comedy throughout, but this American take on the material feels too low-key and low-energy. It needs a sense of the bad luck piling up, allowing set-pieces to start small and escalate all the way to some grand finale. That never happens. The film isn't helped by the writing from Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris, two individuals who have worked together on a number of better comedies than this one. The problem is that they are aware of the focus of the film being on the physical side of things, and that keeps the dialogue as a lesser priority. The fact that the physical side of things isn't as good as it could be leaves you with a film that has no memorable sequences AND no decent dialogue. There's also a very strange section of the film that starts to change the rules, but it is soon dropped without any satisfying resolution.

Let's get back to Short anyway. I love Martin Short. He's a fantastic comic actor, arguably one of the very greats, and this lead role would seem to be ideal for him. It's not though, mainly because the whole film depends on him tripping, falling, and hurting himself in a variety of ways. He does what he can, but the lack of variety makes it soon feel a bit sad, watching someone throw themselves around for something not really worthy of their commitment to the cause. Glover gets the better end of the stick, disbelieving the ridiculous theory until he starts to see it play out in front of his eyes. He also has to pretend to be taking orders from Short for most of the movie, which allows for a couple of fun moments. Kelley does well with her small amount of screentime, also full of pratfalls, Wanamaker and Harry Shearer (who comes up with the central theory) are just fine, and Scott Wilson has a bittersweet turn as an opportunistic criminal who doesn't realise how much bad luck is about to rain upon him.

Pure Luck is absolutely forgettable, and I am sure that there are very few people who would seek it out. Fans of Short, maybe, and people like me. If you're in the latter category then I feel very sorry for you.


Monday 9 November 2020

Mubi Monday: Wuthering Heights (2011)

I have some issues with the tale of Wuthering Heights, that classic moors-set tale of love and psychological torture written by Emily Brontë. My biggest problem with it is that I sometimes confuse it with the superior Jane Eyre, the great gothic romance written by Charlotte Brontë. I know, I know, entirely my fault, but I can't ever just let go of the fact that this is the weaker of the dark works from any of the Brontë sisters, despite it giving us a bloody great Kate Bush song.

There have been many TV and film adaptations of the tale, and this time around it is the turn of Andrea Arnold, who directed and reworked the material with Olivia Hetreed. It got some awards, some critical acclaim, and probably doesn't stand out to anyone as an embarrassment to her filmography. Unfortunately, I really didn't like it.

We first meet Heathcliff and Cathy as youngsters, played by Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, respectively. It is then up to James Howson and Kaya Scodelario to portray them in adulthood. There are other people involved in the plot, but it's all about Heathcliff and Cathy. The main twist given to the material here is that Heathcliff is played by a black actor, and he is allowed to use the word "cunt".

Perhaps I wanted something more traditionally cinematic, or perhaps I felt that the new twists on the material felt disappointingly like someone desperate to shock viewers (I'm on about the language and one or two sexual scenes here, not the casting). Maybe I am just sick to the back teeth of films that shove the realism in your face by having far too many scenes of characters getting their fingers caked in mud, delivering ugly and irritating camerawork, and, of course, having the soundtrack feature a lot of heavy breathing. Because nothing says "critically-adored cinema verité" like murky cinematography and a lot of breathing sounds.

The leads don't do a bad job in their roles, considering what they're given to work with, but they're hampered by the script and shooting style. Howson, who was not acting before this (and has done nothing since), is admirably confident throughout scenes of growing intensity, and Scodelario makes an appealing Cathy, with both leads certainly selling chemistry between them as they take turns to treat one another with love and apparent loathing.

I am sure a lot of people will love this. My own reaction to it is simply based on the fact that I know showing some bleak, ugly scenery doesn't mean your film has to necessarily be bleak and ugly throughout. Arnold made a stylistic choice, and it's one I disliked intensely. Add the "try hard" elements to that, and this just really wasn't for me. The strength of the source material still manages to barge through at times though, so there's that.


Sunday 8 November 2020

Netflix And Chill: How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003)

It had been quite some time since I had seen How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. The last time was certainly before the transformation of Matthew McConaughey from rom-com lead to versatile actor in more critically-appreciated fare. And here's the main thing I couldn't help thinking about while watching the movie; McConaughey is doing work here that is as good as work he has been doing in recent years. It's just a very different kind of performance, one that makes use of his innate charm and his ability to handle light comedy. I'm actually keen to check out a number of other McConaughey movies from this period, to see for myself whether or not I was being a bit unfair to just ignore them while the man was cashing those paychecks and laying the foundation for years in which he could make some more daring choices.

McConaughey plays Ben, an advertising executive who wants to be in charge of a large campaign selling diamonds. Ben doesn't seem to understand women, however, because he hasn't had a relationship that has lasted more than a few days. If he can meet a woman, and get her to fall in love with him, before a big event party then his boss may just let him head up the campaign. He is told to make his move on the lovely Andie (Kate Hudson). What he doesn't know is that Andie writes a "How To" column in a popular woman's magazine, and her latest project is "How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days". Andie is about to test the waters, using every major faux pas committed by women who become too needy, clingy, and overbearing. Despite their agendas, Ben and Andie really start to warm to one another, and you know there will be a standard rom-com third act full of revelations, confrontations, and a race-against-time to fix some major damage.

Based on a book by Michele Alexander and Jeannie Long, subtitled "The Universal Don'ts Of Dating", How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days is a self-aware and clever entry in the rom-com subgenre. The screenplay, by Kristen Buckley, Brian Regan, and Burr Steers, is very happy to hit all of the required beats while also letting the central characters try to push each other further and further apart as they feel themselves growing inexorably closer, emotionally.

Director Donald Petrie has a good handle on things (his varied filmography doesn't show this as a given, but he had a great double-whammy of Miss Congeniality and then this movie in the space of a few years) and he's helped by the assembled cast, with a number of wonderful supporting players orbiting our charismatic leads.

Hudson is perfect here, having a lot of fun as she goes more and more over the top in her "girlfriend from hell" guise and still radiant when her character is allowed to relax and not work on her agenda. McConaughey is his usual charming self, all abs and gleaming teeth and gentlemanly politeness and respect. Bebe Neuwirth and Robert Klein play the bosses of Hudson and McConaughey, respectively, and there are fun moments for Kathryn Hahn (the unlucky-in-love friend of Hudson, and inspiration for the article), Adam Goldberg, and Thomas Lennon (the latter two friends of McConaughey, hilarious when they get to look on and comment on their friend's disrupted "new life").

You can act snobbish and dismiss films like this easily enough. Okay, they are formulaic and predictable. But that doesn't mean they aren't enjoyable, especially when you have stars who so easily emanate such an air of, well, stardom. Sometimes it's a treat to watch actors you know disappear into roles that explore various facets of the human experience, and sometimes it's a treat to watch stars be stars.


Saturday 7 November 2020

Shudder Saturday: Blood Vessel (2019)

When Blood Vessel started, I am not going to pretend that I didn't make a couple of assumptions. The first one was a prediction of the ending, and I am happy to say that I was wrong. The second one was a thought about this being a remake of a fun '80s horror Death Ship. If you're a horror fan of a certain age then you remember Death Ship, even if you never saw the movie itself. It was yet another one of those titles that had a ubiquitous trailer during the early-ish days of VHS.

But that is neither here nor there, because Blood Vessel is a different beast. And it happens to feature a different beast. It starts with a group of people drifting along in a life raft. They're in the North Atlantic. It's 1945. Tired, thirsty, and hungry, their fortunes may change when they pass by a huge ship that they manage to board. It's a Nazi ship though, but also a seemingly abandoned one. As this is a horror movie, however, viewers can be pretty sure that the ship is not as abandoned as it seems. The corpses littered around show that something very bad happened. But what? That may be revealed in time for the second half. 

Directed by Justin Dix, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan Prosser, this is a film that ends up becoming a bit more disappointing after every main sequence. Not that anything is handled so badly that it is unforgivable, it's just that it starts off with a bunch of very familiar tropes and never does anything to subvert them. The stock group of characters feel as if they could be lifted from any other survival horror movies (the greedy one, the "fair maiden", the person of lower rank who is now an equal, the enemy they are forced to work with, the person driven by self-preservation, etc), and not enough of them stand out from the group to help you become invested in wanting them to stay safe. That's a shame, because Dix does a great job in the other departments, making the visual side of things a real treat. The production design throughout, the special effects, the camerawork, all of those things are great. The two main areas that let things down are the script and the main death scenes, with the latter even more disappointing than the former in some ways (us horror fans are used to some weak writing, but one or two spectacular deaths can often make up for that).

The cast don't do a bad job. Nathan Phillips is the rough potential leading man, and Alyssa Sutherland is the leading lady, both at times arguably better than the material they have to work with. The rest of the group allows for turns from Robert Taylor, Christopher Kirby, Alex Cooke, Mark Diaco, and John Lloyd Fillingham. It's a shame that they're all wasted, with nobody getting a big moment here and there to punctuate the proceedings (although you can tell that some scenes have that aim). Ruby Isobel Hall makes a stronger impression in her role, a young girl named Mya who is found on the boat, but even she is just a riff on the whole "Newt in Aliens" storyline.

Not a hard film to watch, Dix tries to at least pace everything well and it doesn't overstay its welcome, but Blood Vessel could have been much better than it is. It could have been a bloody and exciting adventure, whereas it ends up feeling like a flashback episode of The Strain instead.


Friday 6 November 2020

Toys Of Terror (2020)

The last film I saw from director Nicholas Verso was the atmospheric horror-tinged drama Boys In The Trees. Toys Of Terror is quite a step away from that, although it shows Verso once again happy to deliver a movie without easy labels. 

At the very basic level, Toys Of Terror is a film summed up by the title. A family move in to a large house. There are parents, three children (one a teen and two younger kids), and a nanny. And there is a big chest that is found to be full of toys. Those toys are livelier than most, and quite deadly.

It isn’t a great movie, marred by some uneven CGI and occasional moments that are simply bizarre, but Toys Of Terror somehow uses everything onscreen to its advantage. That uneven CGI makes it feel like a “little film that could”, while the more bizarre moments show that those involved are happy to acknowledge the influences from both the world of horror and the world of Christmas tales (there’s definitely a hint of Rankin/Bass in the mix).

The script by Dana Gould is worthless when it comes to most of the dialogue, but shines in the more creative moments. It is also impressive for being enjoyably playful and often showing things as they would best appear to children. Take Dolls, Krampus, Child’s Play, and The Orphanage, throw them into a blender, and flick the switch, and here is your end result.

Unfortunately, Verso doesn’t have quite the grasp on the material as he had on his previous film. That doesn’t mean he fails in his directorial duties, it just means that things tend to bump from one sequence to the next, rather than flow smoothly throughout. Again, that slightly adds to the charm, even as viewers may be baffles by some of the more surreal scenes.

Kyana Teresa and Dayo Ade are fine in the role of the parents, and Verity Marks is good as a plucky teen that you can root for, but I was personally most taken with Georgia Waters, playing the nanny, an actress not entirely unlike Jessica Chastain in looks and mannerisms, but obviously less precious about the kind of film roles she takes. And good for her. Saul Elias and Zoe Fish are the younger children, and both do a good job of becoming sullen and influenced by the house/toys.

If you get to the end of Toys Of Terror and end up disappointed by what was in the film then it's ultimately on you. The film hasn't hidden what it is, from the title to the trailer, and it's perfectly enjoyable for those in the right mood. Will you revisit it? Will it be one remembered years down the line? I doubt it, but it's a passable distraction nonetheless.