Sunday 31 January 2021

Netflix And Chill: Mad Genius (2017)

I knew I was in trouble even before I pressed play on Mad Genius, a film that it states on IMDb had the original title of Mindhack: #savetheworld (urgh, god help me). The whole thing, from the central idea to the poster design, had an air of Mr. Robot about it, most probably without the talent and resources that made that show so gripping and successful.

Let me run the one-line synopsis by you and see if you roll your eyes as hard as I did. "A young mad genius attempts to 'hack the human mind' in order to fix himanity" There you go. That's the central idea, with Chris Mason in the central role of the mad genius, named Mason, and Scott Mechlowicz as an alter-ego named Sawyer (and he's very aware of his alter-ego status, this isn't a case of "Scotty doesn't know").

A mad genius trying to sort out the problems of society. An imaginary figure helping him along. A powerful nemesis, in the shape of a man named Eden (played by Faran Tahir). Writer-director Royce Gorsuch certainly doesn't do himself any favours in his solo feature debut. Not only can he not help himself from running so close to the Mr. Robot vibe, he also cannot back up any of his ideas with enough capability to fully realise them onscreen.

As is often the way with indie film-makers who don't want to let their ideas be constrained by the realities of their level of film-making, Mad Genius has a few elements that have potential, were they not constrained by the realities of the level of film-making. Things get a lot worse by the third act, mainly because Gorsuch has misplaced faith in his own intelligence, seeming to think that he is providing a thought-provoking and satisfying finale when it's just a complete mess, and a mess that never engages viewers (who I suspect will, more often than not, be wondering why they haven't just opted to rewatch Mr. Robot instead).

It's often unfair to rate a movie for what it isn't. You should rate it for what it is. I agree with that, for the most part. It's impossible to rate certain movies on their own, however, when they do so much to invite unfavourable comparisons. And Gorusch, whether deliberately or not, invites those comparisons with every minute of this film.

The cast are decidedly okay, although Mason struggles to convince as the titular mad genius. Mechlowicz has a lot of fun, Tahir is a believable threat, and Spencer Locke brightens things up slightly as a young woman named Sawyer.

I like to be pleasantly surprised by movies. Trying not to have any expectations can be hard, but going in with certain expectations and having them proved inaccurate is always a pleasant experience. This film was not a pleasant experience. I'd suggest simply avoiding it until it disappears further and further beneath an ever-growing pile of better films you can watch instead.


Saturday 30 January 2021

Shudder Saturday: Dachra (2018)

As unfair as it may seem, especially as it's not aiming to be the same type of movie (not really), Dachra is a film that suffers most by seeming to follow too closely in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project. It's about a trio of journalism students who head off on the trail of a hot story (one about a woman who was kept in a local asylum and tried to bite anyone who came close to her), leading them to an isolated woodland village where things aren't what they seem. You get frustrations among the group, you get things found in the woods that seem bloody and scary, and you get a gradual splintering until we're waiting to see the fate of one main character.

Yassmine Dimassi plays Yassmine, Aziz Jebali plays Walid, and Bilel Slatnia plays Bilel, making up the central threesome. They're required to wander around and put up with excuses that keep them stuck in the local area for far too long, all for the sake of getting everything ready for the finale.

Writer-director Abdelhamid Bouchnak, making his feature debut, perhaps hoped to make a strong impression with this Tunisian horror movie by simply making a Tunisian horror movie (they're quite few and far between, from what I can gather), but he fails to play to his strengths. The script is weak, the location isn't used well, and there's nothing that feels as believable as it should. This should be a simple and easy concept to buy into, yet it rings false.

Most of the first half feels unnecessary. The runtime here is 114 minutes, and this could have easily been trimmed down to a better, pacier, 90-minute experience. Bouchnak does well with individual scare moments here and there though, a few daydream/nightmare images standing out, as well as some visions that Yassmine has throughout. It's when the creepiness is set aside for some more blood and guts that things falter.

Dimassi, Jebali, and Slatnia do just fine in their roles, although it's hard to judge them based on the material they have to work with, but they suffer most from a lack of any characterisation beyond the surface level stuff. Dimassi is given some more to do, especially in some interesting scenes with her grandfather (Bahri Rahali, who does very well), but she's the only one. The others could have been swapped for any other supporting characters with much the same end result.

It's a shame that this doesn't quite work. You can feel Bouchnak probing for just the right amount of dread, just the right scares, throughout, and he certainly deserves points for trying. Considering my comparison in the very first paragraph of this review, the fact that he didn't settle on the found footage format for his tale is enough in itself to gain him a little bit of goodwill. Perhaps his next outing will be stronger than this, and he may yet have something really great to deliver to genre fans soon.


Friday 29 January 2021

Critters (1986)

Although I have no idea how well Critters did at the box office when it was released, I suspect it was a film that truly found a fanbase in the home video market. I know that is where I found it. And so did many other kids I knew. 

It’s quite a simple story, really, but has plenty of unique little touches to fill the runtime to feature-length without ever seeming to sag. A few aliens, known as Krites (aka the critters), escape from a prison and steal a spaceship, eventually crashing down in a small town here on Earth. This causes a lot of trouble for the Brown family, and things get more chaotic when two shape-shifting bounty hunters arrive in pursuit of the hungry wee alien beasties. 

Dee Wallace is Helen Brown, Billy Green Bush is her husband, Jay, Nadine Van der Velde is older teen daughter, Nadine, and Scott Grimes is young Brad. They are the main cast members. Billy Zane is also here, playing Steve, the boyfriend of Nadine, and Don Opper is Charlie, a child-like adult who is friends with Brad. The other person of note is Terrence Mann, who plays one of the bounty hunters, having taken on the appearance of a rock star named Johnny Steele. 

Directed by first-timer Stephen Herek, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Domonic Muir, Critters is the kind of fun creature feature that serves as a great gateway film for younger viewers, and proves equally entertaining to those who know the tone it is aiming for (a tone it nails consistently throughout). The titular creatures, designed by the talented Chiodo brothers, are deadly, but also portrayed as often being mischievous and unfocused, crazy animals that turn dangerous when they are threatened by others.

The cast all do a good job of reacting quite realistically to the madness around them. Although Grimes is the plucky kid at the heart of the film, Wallace and Bush are a good pair of cinematic parents, and Mann has fun keeping his demeanour calm throughout. Opper is okay, and gets to play two versions of his character, but he also feels undeserving of the importance he ends up having. There are also small roles for the wonderful M. Emmet Walsh and Lin Shaye. 

One of the better little creature features that came along in the mid-1980s, Critters not only holds up well today, it is also the first of a quartet of movies (in the original series) without any massive downturn in quality. And I am already looking forward to revisiting them all. And reviewing them here.


Thursday 28 January 2021

The Business (2005)

"My old man wrote me a letter from prison once. It said if you don't want to end up in here, stay away from crime, women and drugs. Trouble is, that don't leave you much else to do, does it?"

That quote starts The Business, and it's not a bad start. In fact, the first act of The Business is quite a pleasant surprise. And then it starts to go downhill, leading to a third act that has lines of dialogue like the following: "The good thing about losing everything is there was nothing else to lose."

Danny Dyer plays Frankie, a young lad who ends up heading from London to Spain when he needs to lay low for some time. He delivers a bag to the charismatic Charlie (Tamer Hassan), a club owner and big cheese in town. Charlie works with his hot-headed partner, Sammy (Geoff Bell). And what follows is the rise and fall of some typical British gangster types.

Written and directed by Nick Love (who apparently didn't meet a FILA-wearing thug he didn't like), The Business is a mass of things you've seen done before, and done better. It glamorises the lifestyle shown onscreen, despite the section showing the downfall of certain characters, and it accompanies many scenes with a lively '80s soundtrack.

Which isn't to say that this isn't a fun watch when it is getting some things right. It's hard to not enjoy watching people swan about in sunny Spain while some great tunes are playing, but the fun factor starts to disappear as soon as, well, the fun disappears. 

Dyer does a good job in the main role. It’s well within his wheelhouse, of course, but he does everything well, particularly in the early scenes that have him trying to do well while being a lot less cocky than he becomes later. Hassan is the big-hearted, “good”, criminal boss, for the most part, and it’s one of his better roles. And Bell gets to be the typical psycho who causes things to spiral. Not forgetting Georgina Chapman, the woman who turns heads, and knows it. Chapman does fine in a role that is typical of how women are viewed by these kinds of characters. Other familiar faces appear in small roles, but the focus remains on Dyer, Hassan, Bell, and Chapman. 

Although not for everyone, and there are probably a number of people who will enjoy it for all the wrong reasons, this is quite an easy film to enjoy if you are in the mood for what it is aiming to provide. It’s one of the better movies that Dyer has done. Although that isn’t saying much, considering he is an actor with Run For Your Wife in his filmography. 


Wednesday 27 January 2021

Prime Time: The Vatican Tapes (2015)

Here's a strange thing. When I stumbled across The Vatican Tapes I made a couple of assumptions. I knew it was directed by Mark Neveldine, so I thought there may be some hyperactive insanity. And, considering the title and the tagline, I thought it was a found footage horror movie. Neither of those things were applicable, and yet I spent a lot of the runtime wishing that they were.

Olivia Taylor Dudley plays Angela, a young woman who takes a turn for the worse. It's obvious from the start that she's going to be causing a lot of trouble, to put it mildly, as some demonic entity uses her body to enter our world. This is upsetting for Angela's boyfriend, Pete (John Patrick Amedori), and her father, Roger (Dougray Scott). Maybe they don't need to be too worried though, especially with Cardinal Mattias Bruun (Peter Andersson) and Father Loranzo (Michael Peña) on the case.

It's hard to fully convey just how shockingly redundant The Vatican Tapes is, a horror movie so mediocre that you wish for it to change format at some point. To do something, anything, that will make it seem like something worth your time. It does nothing well. You get the body contortions, you get the different language(s) being spoken, you get the new-found strength and powers. It's a very dull game of "possession movie bingo".

Although it would be easy to blame writers Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin (developing the story from Borrelli and Chris Morgan), the framework that they create for the film is covered in a wet blanket that is the direction from Neveldine. I'd rather have seen some headache-inducing hyperactive craziness than the stream of visually dull nothingness that ends up being passed off as a slick horror movie. 

You'd think some of the casting might help. It doesn't. Any time that Scott or Peña appear onscreen leads to a slightly more enjoyable time, thanks to their presence, but they can't do enough to make up for the weak performances from Dudley and Amedori. Andersson is also a deficit, a pale imitation of so many other old wise men we've seen in these kind of films. Kathleen Robertson does okay as Dr. Richards, a psychiatrist who ends up receiving some acerbic honesty from Angela, and Djimon Hounsou deserves more than the few minutes of screentime that he gets. That's all I can say about the central cast.

This takes no risks, provides no surprises, and delivers no scares. It's very difficult to think of why this was made, and who it is intended for. I definitely won't ever recommend it to anyone, and I hope it fades from my memory as quickly as possible.


Tuesday 26 January 2021

Seoul Station (2016)

Life is full of difficult decisions. Some more difficult than others. I have been lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh International Film Festival annually for the better part of the past decade, and often with a press pass (thanks to my time writing for Flickfeast). And it was an absolute treat for me, despite trying to cram in five or six movies a day for ten days. I would get the schedule and pick films, often based on nothing more than the timings. This allowed me to enjoy some very pleasant surprises, but also led me to some disappointments. One of those disappointments was me missing out on a chance to watch Seoul Station, an animated zombie movie that I thought sounded interesting. That disappointment was compounded over time when I saw Train To Busan, an excellent zombie movie that many horror fans immediately fell in love with. Seoul Station is a prequel to that movie, although it takes a very different approach to the zombie epidemic framework of the narrative.

The film focuses on Hye-sun (voiced by Shum Eun-kyung), a young woman who has run away from her pimp and is currently struggling to make a better life with her boyfriend, Ki-woong (Lee Joon). The two get separated during the start of an outbreak of zombieism (with Seoul Station the point of origin for the infection), and Ki-woong ends up on a search for Hye-sun, accompanied by her daddy, Suk-gyu (Ryu Seung-ryong). 

Written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho, Seoul Station is a very interesting take on the zombie movie. Not only is it a very different beast from Train To Busan, it's also very different from many other modern zombie movies that seem to have the social commentary in the mix by accident. This is a very pointed film, shining a bright light on the class divide and the problems that can affect the most unfortunate citizens of South Korea. And it's done in a way that perfectly balances the personal stories with the zombie carnage.

The voice cast do well enough, although they're part of a very effective audio tapestry that complements the animation throughout. Horror fans may be disappointed by the fact that things aren't as wild and gory as the format could allow them to be, but there's a decent amount of bloodshed, although the style is realistic and restrained throughout much of the runtime. 

There's not too much else to say about the film though. It's a solid bit of entertainment, it's a good little slice of animated horror, and it nicely kicks off what would become a trilogy of diverse and interesting zombie movies. Worth a watch. And if you don't like it, or have little time for animated horror movies, . . . the next instalment will reward your patience.


Monday 25 January 2021

Mubi Monday: In The Cut (2003)

I remember being hugely disappointed when I first saw In The Cut, a film which was the first (and, sadly, still the only) I saw from Jane Campion. It was promoted as an adult erotic thriller. It was Meg Ryan moving away from her lovely, cute, roles. It seemed to be something that I would enjoy. The end result left me resenting a number of the people involved.

Here we are, almost two decades later, and this is the first time I have rewatched the movie since that initial disappointment. I don't know why I hoped that my response to it nowadays might be very different, all of the problems that I saw in it back in 2003/2004 (whenever it hit the home rental market) are still very much there).

Ryan is Frannie Avery, a woman who teaches writing. She is also working on her own project, which is why she meets up with student Cornelius Webb (Sharrieff Pugh) at a bar called The Red Turtle. And in that bar she ends up in a back room where she sees someone receiving oral sex. Although not seeing the face of the man, she spies a tattoo, which may be of some importance when the woman involved in the sex act turns up dead. Detective Giovanni A. Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) is investigating the murder, which brings him into contact with Frannie. The two have some chemistry together, and start having sex. But Detective Malloy also has a tattoo that looks identical to that which may belong to a killer.

Adapted by Susanna Moore and Campion, from the novel by Moore, In The Cut is a trashy erotic thriller that can't ever be comfortable as nothing more than a trashy erotic thriller. The sexual politics are interesting, to say the least, and a woman being in the director's chair doesn't make it any less strangely old-fashioned when it comes to dealing with what could have been an interesting look at what women can enjoy in their sex life while rejecting a number of those elements in any other context (the power shift, something dangerous, an abandonment of intelligence). Campion, and Moore, don't give more than a cursory nod to this complex subject, although there's a recurring narrative strand that shows Ryan's character exploring some of her thoughts with all the sense of a fumbling adolescent.

The weak screenplay and disappointing direction (meandering, unfocused, camerawork that is also trying to distract viewers from the kind of film Campion and Moore seem to want to deny making) would be less obvious is covered up by a decent cast, but In The Cut has a number of people giving far from their best performances. The worst of these, arguably, is Ryan, who just cannot convince in a role that sets her up as someone trying far too hard to shake off an image she crafted through years of successful rom-com work. Ruffalo may not be AS bad, but he seems to be bored throughout, perhaps knowing that the technical aspects won't mask the deficiencies in the material. Nick Damici is Ruffalo's partner, and he seems equally bored. Jennifer Jason Leigh is as good as ever, playing Pauline, a much more interesting character, Frannie's half-sister who seems less repressed, but also more troubled. Pugh is very good, and sorely underused, and Kevin Bacon appears just long enough to, well, I'm still not sure of the reason for his character being added to the plot (apart from, I guess, he was in the novel).

In The Cut is, essentially, an erotic thriller for people who just cannot sit comfortably with the idea of watching an erotic thriller. And it's made by people, both behind and in front of the camera, who all feel the same way. You may watch it and somehow appreciate it as a work of art. If so, feel free to call me an ignorant heathen. It wouldn't be the first time. Others should just go and watch Basic Instinct or  Poison Ivy again instead.


Sunday 24 January 2021

Netflix And Chill: Dark Light (2019)

Writer-director Padraig Reynolds has been doing some great work over the past decade or so. You wouldn't necessarily know that from watching Dark Light thought. Not that it's a terrible film. It's just not very good, and it's not as good as his past work.

Jessica Madsen plays Annie Knox, mother to young Emily (Opal Littleton). They move into an old family home, Annie having recently separated from her husband/Emily's father, Paul (Ed Brody). Strange things soon start happening, including noises, standard opening and closing of doors, and some mysterious figures around the property. Annie decides that she must defend her property/loved ones with a shotgun, which makes things look a hell of a lot worse for her when Emily disappears and she is arrested. None of this is a big surprise, the film starts with that big moment.

What you have here is a standard monster movie, and that's about it. It does the minimum required for this kind of thing, and Reynolds is fortunate enough to have at least cast well. Madsen is very good in the main role, a solid mix of nerves and strength. Littleton and Brody are both fine, both portraying people who don't see the full picture building up around them, and Kristina Clifford is an enjoyable presence as Sheriff Dickerson, someone understandably unaffected by the story that Annie tries to tell her about the circumstances around Emily's disappearance. The other prominent character, who appears mainly in the third act, is played by Gerald Tyler. He's the man who seems to know the truth about our world, and the dangers lurking in some of the shadows, and Tyler plays him well enough, despite being hampered by weak writing.

There are so many ways in which Reynolds could have easily improved this. Maybe create some interesting mythos about the creatures being shown onscreen. Maybe make things much more ambiguous for most of the movie. Maybe do a better job of illustrating the bigger picture that is discussed in the third act. Sadly, he does none of these things. He instead settles on making a film that does nothing more than make you think of better films. Signs often springs to mind, as does The Wretched, as well as many others. Okay, this is better than the similar-ish Dark Encounter, but that's a very low bar.

I don't recommend this. It's a weak film without any sense of Reynolds having a clear idea of where he really wants to take the material. Fortunately, the cast and technical side of things help to save it from being a dire viewing experience. It's just a very disappointing one. I hope the next film I see from Reynolds is a return to form.


Saturday 23 January 2021

Shudder Saturday: Super Dark Times (2017)

First of all, Super Dark Times was recommend to me by someone I like to think of as a good friend, yet also know doesn't always have tastes in line with my own. Whenever he recommends something highly though, well, I always go into it with a sense of optimism. That optimism isn't always well placed. Secondly, and important to note for others who may be debating whether or not to watch this movie, Super Dark Times starts off feeling very much like so many other movies that have mined the same ground as Stranger Things lately, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded with a very different beast.

Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (who have built up a nice selection of genre films over the past few years, including the enjoyable Stephanie), this is the tale of teenagers being typical teenagers. The heart of the film is Zach (Owen Campbell) and his firm friendship with Josh (Charlie Tahan). Everything seems happy and normal until a nasty accident starts to push a wedge between them. Covering up their misdeed, to put it mildly, Zach becomes more and more worried, and Josh seems to be becoming more and more distant. And maybe even more determined to use the accident as a springboard for a whole new way of life.

The directorial feature debut from Kevin Phillips, this is a well-paced and well-crafted work that mixes together the ups and downs of teenage turbulence. And the journey that the main characters go on is done in a way that somehow manages to avoid feeling as if things have gone from 0 to 100 with no gradual increase in the speed of the changes. That's not to say that the plot doesn't actually unfold that way, it does, but there's enough time given to little moments scattered throughout that help to distract viewers from feeling rushed towards what is an enjoyably dark and twisted final reel.

I'm not sure there was any need to really set this in the early 1990s, and keeping everything set in the modern day would have helped to avoid that early feeling of "uh oh, they're going to do Stranger Things", but it doesn't feel forced down our throat for most of the runtime. It also doesn't really affect the plot in any way. Maybe Collins and Piotrowski assumed that the latest tech would remove any tension. Or maybe that's the time they remember from their own teenage years (I have no idea what age they actually are, this is purely hypothetical).

Campbell and Tahan are both great, and they both go through some big changes from their first scenes to their last. Max Talisman and Sawyer Barth are also good as part of the foursome who eventually start to go their separate ways, some less voluntarily than others. Elizabeth Cappuccino gets less to do, playing Allison, a subject of young love, but she does well in her role, and everyone else, whether teen or adult, helps to round out a movie world that stays quite believable and grounded.

Weak opening aside, Super Dark Times is an excellent little film that lives up to the title. Check it out if you already enjoyed Summer Of '84. Check it out even if you didn't enjoy that one. It's worth at least giving a shot.


Friday 22 January 2021

I, Monster (1971)

It would appear that the last six months or so have been determined to prove to me that there are some movies I remained far too ignorant about, despite being aware of their existence. I finally saw The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas after finding out it was a musical, I finally TRIED to watch the glorious The Tales Of Hoffmann without realising it was almost a straightforward adaptation of a famous opera, and now . . . I get to I, Monster, a film I never realised was simply an adaptation of the famous Jekyll & Hyde tale from Robert Louis Stevenson.

Christopher Lee plays Charles Marlowe, a doctor who starts to research the possibilities of removing inhibitions from people with the help of drugs. Moving forward, he then considers whether or not you could distil/remove pure good and pure evil, a topic he has discussed with friends. Experimenting upon himself, he creates an ugly and immoral alter-ego, Edward Blake. As the behaviour of Blake gets worse, and more overt, Frederik Utterson (Peter Cushing) believes that Marlowe is being blackmailed. He attempts to save him from Blake, initially not realising that he is saving Marlowe from himself.

An Amicus film, although not one of their top-tier efforts, I, Monster benefits, as any film does, from the inclusion of both Lee and Cushing in major roles. One of those legends appearing in your film will get it a bonus point from me, both of them gets at least double, of course.

It's a shame that the film isn't a better one for them. Director Stephen Weeks wants to keep things quite classy and tame, but I can't help feeling that this would have been a better film if it had been more willing to "get down 'n' dirty" with the main character, showing his descent with more debauchery and a willingness to break the rules of society (a Dorian Gray without the good looks/portrait to allow him to be given the benefit of any doubt). This is also due to the script from Milton Subotsky. I understand the decision. Amicus, like Hammer, often tried to keep their horror films as a well-balanced blend of the classy and the bloody. This lacks the blood though, and lacks any real horror (although there's a great sequence at about the halfway point, or maybe just after, in which Blake is at his very worst). If you just want another adaptation of the classic tale, however, then this is the strength of the film.

Lee enjoys himself in the lead role, whether he's the polite and intelligent Marlowe or the brooding and evil Blake. He's excellent in either incarnation, and I wouldn't be surprised if he looked back on this film with great fondness. Cushing probably wouldn't though, being sidelined for a lot of the film as he is allowed to eventually come to realise the truth in time for the final battle. There's a decent selection of supporting players, but it's very much a film for Lee/Cushing fans.

I was strangely disappointed AND impressed by this. It does well in the telling of the original tale, but there's more that could have been done. It seems things were also hampered by the fact that it was originally intended to be a 3-D movie (and some scenes can still seem that way if you wear the old-style glasses, or simply try to watch it with a pair of glasses on that have a dark filter over one lens). It's still not a bad film though, which was guaranteed when I saw the top two names on the cast list.

Do check out this wonderful blog post I found HERE.


Thursday 21 January 2021

The Stone Tape (1972)

A TV movie that has rightly been praised by horror fans over the decades since it was first shown, The Stone Tape is another excellent blending of science and the supernatural from the pen of Nigel Kneale.

The plot revolves around a research team who move into an old house in order to start working on a major project. Things change, however, when Jill (Jane Asher) witnesses a ghost, leading the team director (Peter Brock, played by Michael Bryant) to start investigating the phenomenon. As they use every measuring instrument at their disposal, including themselves, it soon becomes clear that the building holds some psychic impressions within its walls (the stone tape of the title).

Okay, if you're watching this for the first time nowadays then you have to bear in mind that this was made for TV in the early 1970s. It isn't a polished work, it doesn't often move outwith the main rooms/house that the team are working in, and there are some moments that absolutely clang with how dated they are (in terms of the attitudes of the characters and the language of the medium, no pun intended). What it IS is an intelligent and creepy story that takes time to establish the motivations of various characters and allows the plot to unfold in an unforced and logical way.

Director Peter Sasdy is a dependable pair of hands, having worked on many TV shows and a few enjoyable movies (with Countess Dracula being a highlight), and he excels in his role here by working with a great cast and allowing Kneale's dialogue to build and build on the way to a genuinely interesting and unsettling finale.

Asher has to play her character as a fragile woman from start to finish, more receptive to things than anyone else and always a jittery bag of nerves, but she does what she's asked to do well. Bryant has to be the blunt obsessive, doing whatever it takes to dive further and further into unknown territory, which could lead to dire consequences. Iain Cuthbertson, Michael Bates, and a few others round out the main cast, and it's always interesting to see James Cosmo as a relatively young man.

I may not find it the very best from Kneale (as a Quatermass fan, that will always have the top spot for me) and it's not even my favourite science-based take on the haunted house subgenre (that would be The Legend Of Hell House), but The Stone Tape deserves a lot of the praise it has had heaped upon it. It's atmospheric, interesting, intriguingly plausible, and intelligent. And you don't always get all of those things coming together in works of horror.


Wednesday 20 January 2021

Prime Time: Don’t Hang Up (2016)

It’s a very familiar thriller/horror premise nowadays. Someone is “captured” by a mysterious person controlling their environment, maybe for a very specific reason or maybe just random, and they are given a series of choices that will affect the wellbeing of those they care about. 

Don’t Hang Up, although often both ridiculous and completely predictable, actually has a great central idea, and a solid payoff to all of the events. It starts with a series of prank calls made by Sam (Gregg Sulkin) and Brady (Garrett Clayton), which leads to a montage of their dubious highlights. They get a decent amount of attention for their shenanigans, and think nothing of the people they may have given a scare to. That all changes when the tables are turned, of course, and one caller decides to toy with them for an evening. Is it a very twisted prankster, or is it someone who wants to take things down a much darker path? 

The only feature film, to date, from directors Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot, this is an enjoyable teen thriller that is ultimately dragged down by the fact that it is determined to remain nothing more than a teen thriller. If the tension levels were ramped up in the third act then I wouldn't have a problem with that, but they aren't. Not to anywhere near where they should be anyway. Which means you have an entertaining distraction that isn't able to be as bloody or nasty as it should be. 

Writer Joe Johnson doesn't help. He's done a great job in sowing the seeds that blossom just before the end credits roll, but the dialogue and the reveals that come along before the third act are both pretty poor. Sam and Brady aren't particularly likeable, which makes it impossible to care about things like their loved ones or what plans they may have for the future.

Sulkin and Clayton give distinctly average performances, although it's hard to say how much of that is down to the script. Their interactions with one another are fine, but it never feels convincing when they start to figure out the reality of their situation and act scared. Bella Dayne isn't onscreen for long enough, as Peyton Grey (Sam's girlfriend, and someone who has just changed her relationship status to the non-Facebook-infringing equivalent of "it's complicated), but she's a welcome presence when she IS there. The other main performer here is the caller (voiced over the phone by Philip Desmeules). He has a good voice for the role, cold and menacing while pretending that he just wants to play a game, and play fair, with his victims.

I won't be rushing to rewatch this, and nor will I be recommending it to everyone I know, but I didn't mind it while it was on. It's a decidedly okay thriller, with a number of decent nods to other films, and it at least manages to pull off an ending that doesn't feel like a lazy cop-out.


Tuesday 19 January 2021

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Considering how many people still view Wonder Woman as the best of the initial wave of DC cinematic universe, it's no surprise that expectations were high for this sequel, set in the 1980s (as you may have gathered from the title). It's equally unsurprising that many have been disappointed by it, although I'm not sure whether the rescheduling of the release helped or hindered it with audiences.

Gadot returns to the main role, Diana Prince, and this time she's helping to defeat baddies in the 1980s. She dives in, rounds them up, and disappears again. Things are about to get quite strange, however, when someone discovers an artefact that can make your wishes come true. At a price. The quiet and clumsy Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) wants to be more like Diana, not realising exactly what she's wishing for, and Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wants, well, everything. And he seems to know exactly what it will entail. Does Diana have anything she would wish for? Well, the return of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), taking over the body of another man, would strongly suggest that she does. Will she be able to defeat Lord, knowing that it may lead to her having to rescind her wish?

Patty Jenkins is back in the director's chair, and she's once again more than up to the task. Wonder Woman 1984 isn't a film that suffers from poor direction. It suffers from the writing though, which has Jenkins working alongside Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham. From a pointlessly lengthy opening sequence to a serious dearth of action set-pieces, Wonder Woman 1984 is a pale imitation of its predecessor. It's also not helped by the fact that the time period isn't used to just cut loose and have some more fun. There aren't even a number of easy needle-drops throughout the soundtrack. And let's not dwell on the way in which Diana and Steve get to have some more time together, a problematic scenario that isn't ever glossed over enough to make it seem any more palatable.

Lord is a weak "villain", and Minerva at times feels exactly like Catwoman in Batman Returns, which is even more of a shame considering how good Wiig does in the role, but there IS one big plus. The main thrust of the plot, and the moral lesson at the heart of things, is a timely one. Some people may view it as being a bit too nice and safe, without any feeling of major stakes being played for, but it's a nice antidote to the motives behind so many other comic book movie villains in recent years.

Gadot is still perfect in the lead role, and Pine works hard to make his shoehorned inclusion feel worthwhile. Pascal has to spend a lot of time being stressed and sweaty, which he does well enough. The highlight is Wiig though, giving a performance that present an impressive transformation of her character. I hope she gets to do something similar soon, but preferably in a film more worthy of her talent.

Despite the major script problems, I still enjoyed this. It has a lot of heart, and a sweet optimism that feels in line with the era it is set in. But it also has a multitude of problems that could have been easily solved by another couple of drafts of the script. And the confidence to go with the brash and bright stylistic choices used in the trailer and advertising campaign. I guess we'll just need to see if things are changed up enough for the inevitable third instalment.


Monday 18 January 2021

Mubi Monday: Poor Cow (1967)

The debut feature film from Ken Loach, Poor Cow is a calling card in line with everything else that he has since added to his filmography. And it has some moments here and there that resonate strongly, especially for anyone who has ended up, even fleetingly, regretting their choice of partner. And who hasn't been in that position?

Carol White plays Joy, a young woman who lives her life seeking simple pleasures, often at the expense of her own wellbeing. She has a child, sees her abusive partner sent to jail after a robbery, and then tries to figure out her best path through life. Well, she tries to figure out how to have some fun, get some money, and be as footloose and fancy free as she can. Which leads her from one bad situation to another, even if she doesn't realise it at the time.

Adapted from the novel by Nell Dunn, who also helped co-write the screenplay with Loach, Poor Cow is a nice balance of the good, the bad, and the ugly. White helps to keep things upbeat and energised, her indefatigable presence perfect for the main role, and there's also a surprising array of pop hits scattered throughout the soundtrack. While Joy is shown to be repeating mistakes throughout her life, there are also times when she's to be admired for simply doing what she thinks needs to be done. That may be for money, it may be for security, it may be for the benefit of her son, but she doesn't rule out many options when she has her mind set on ways to help her immediate future.

As well as White, John Bindon stands out in the role of Tom, the man that Joy ends up with, for better or worse, and Terence Stamp impresses as Dave, a man who treats Joy much better than Tom ever did. Ellis Dale turns up, playing a solicitor, while the rest of the cast is made up of relative unknowns (I certainly cannot recall seeing many people here in other films anyway). 

It's perhaps even more interesting to watch Poor Cow nowadays than when it was first released, considering how much of Joy's behaviour may have been judged more harshly back in the 1960s. She's very often portrayed as a girl, and a girl playing happy families until that illusion is shattered, but she's also a woman able to walk through her neighbourhood without being made to bow her head by the others gossiping about her. Perhaps this was always there in the material, viewers figuring out whether Joy is to be pitied or admired, or perhaps it's just an inevitable consequence of watching the film through the filter of modern life. Either way, Poor Cow holds up as a fantastic first film from a director who has been consistently impressive now for over five decades.


Sunday 17 January 2021

Netflix And Chill: Level 16 (2018)

Written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy (who more recently gave us the enjoyable and strange The Banana Splits Movie), Level 16 is a bit of a disappointment, mainly because it hints at a bigger picture that it never shows, leaving viewers with too many familiar ideas and moments in the midst of the intriguing central premise.

Katie Douglas plays Vivien, a young woman trying her best to do well at an exclusive school for girls. The aim of the school is to educate them on how to best behave, preparing them for their eventual adoption into well-to-do families who will keep them safe (because they're also told that the air outside the school is toxic). But Vivien is told by Sophia (Celina Martin) that there's something else going on. Something much darker. The headmistress (Miss Brixil, played by Sara Canning) and school doctor (Dr. Miro, played by Peter Outerbridge) know a lot more than they would ever tell the girls, which means it's time to plan an escape.

With Esterhazy able to gain access to a decommissioned police station in Toronto and do whatever she wanted to it, Level 16 certainly feels like a movie made . . . in one building that allowed someone creative to work with an idea that wouldn't necessarily warrant a full feature without more to flesh it out. It's not that Esterhazy does anything particularly wrong in her writing or directing duties. It's just that she doesn't seem to do enough.

Douglas and Martin are both very good in the main roles, with the latter being the typical sci-fi character who suspects a twisted truth while everyone else acts oblivious and happy as they go on about their lives. Outerbridge and Canning, as the main adults, are an interesting mix. One is written much better than the other, with Outerbridge getting to layer his scenes with some interesting hints of danger lurking just beneath his carefully-maintained professional demeanour. Canning doesn't get to do much beyond the stern headmistress thing, and a change in the status quo towards the end doesn't feel right, simply due to viewers being so used to her one-note turn throughout (more to do with how she is written than the actual acting).

If you're after something that will give you The Handmaid's Tale vibes, and check the boxes of sterile, dystopian, sci-fi tropes, you could do a lot worse than this. It's made with a certain level of polish, and helped by the performances from the younger cast members. But you could also do a lot better. If you're going to base your movie around one main idea then that idea should be a great one. This isn't. It's just okay. And sci-fi that is just okay is, well, ultimately disappointing.


Saturday 16 January 2021

Shudder Saturday: Hunted (2020)

This is a very strange film to review. Mainly because I didn't like it. Then I did. Then I started to really like it. And then it just ended. I knew it would end at some point, of course (not every film has to be a Lav Diaz epic, thank goodness), but the ending felt a bit abrupt and disappointing. Which led to me remembering how I hadn't been won over by the beginning. So I had to work a bit harder to retain the positive thoughts I had about it, and to not let the weaker moments bookending everything affect my whole viewpoint.

The central part of the film, the best through line, concerns Éve (Lucie Debay), a young woman who is saved from a pushy guy at a bar by a man who seems to be normal and nice (Arieh Worthalter). Unfortunately, he's exactly the opposite of what he appears to be, and he wants to abuse Éve and kill her, helped in this by his accomplice (Ciarán O'Brien). Things are complicated by the tenacity of Éve, and also a woodland encounter with a woman credited as The Huntress (Simone Milsdochter) and her son, Jeremy (Ryan Brodie).

A heady brew of recalibrated fairytale elements and ugly misogyny, Hunted is most effective when boiling everything down to the basics. A bad man wants to hurt, and kill, a female victim. It remains effective in the scenes that have that bad man lashing out at the person supposed to be helping him. And any moments involving The Huntress and Jeremy work brilliantly. All of these scenes have an undercurrent of viciousness intertwined with a strangely surreal quality, and they feel like the movie that director Vincent Paronnaud most definitely wanted to make.

But then you have the rest. The opening is easy to forgive, when you see how the rest of the film plays out it feels like a nice bit of scene-setting, but the last 10-15 minutes are astonishingly bad, throwing in some other characters, including a bunch of paintballers and some people viewing a house. This may have been done to emphasise the idea of the pure hunt crashing through into something close to our actual reality, I guess, but it feels ridiculous and out of step with the atmosphere that was so nicely created throughout the rest of the film. Writers Stephen Shields and David H. Pickering may have come up with this idea, or perhaps it came from the draft tweaking from Paronnaud and Léa Pernollet.

Nobody stands out, performance-wise, but everyone does a good job. Worthalter is an incredibly effective psycho, and deserves some credit for his absolutely unhinged turn (especially in the second half), but everyone feels like they're being puppeteered by Parronaud, in a way that is almost literal. I wouldn't be surprised if there were storyboards for this that initially had the whole thing planned out for something that was to be fully animated (especially when you consider how well Parronaud has worked in that form previously).

Hunted may lose you. It may prove to be an ultimately disappointing viewing experience, especially if you don't appreciate the atmosphere and dark playfulness of it. But it may just be one that you end up appreciating a lot more when you think of the reasoning behind some of the decisions made. That's where I ended up anyway.


Friday 15 January 2021

Godmothered (2020)

Crashing through from the fairytale world to the harsher realities of our own world is a seam that has been mined by Disney before, most notably with the very enjoyable Enchanted. And if you liked that movie then you should like this one. It's very similar.

Jillian Bell plays Eleanor, a fairy godmother in her training years. Unfortunately, by the time/if she ever qualifies, it may all be too late. People don't seem to need fairy godmothers any more. Nobody is getting their "happy ever after". Eleanor decides to change things by making things right for a young girl named Mackenzie, after finding her letter in the archives. That letter, however, was written some time ago, and Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) is now a stressed-out single mother, working for a news station that seems determined to gain ratings by focusing on negative stories and fear-mongering. Mackenzie seems to have accepted that she's not going to have a "happy ever after", but she may also be holding back her daughters, Mia (Willa Skye) and Jane (Jillian Shea Spaeder).

Your enjoyment of Godmothered will depend on a number of factors, not least of which is how much you warm to Jillian Bell in her main role. I tend to find Bell very hit and miss, depending on how irritating her character is supposed to be (and she tends to be given irritating characters in many of her films), but she's a lot of fun as the trainee with more enthusiasm than natural talent, doing her best to get results without the full skillset that some others have. You also have to accept the predictability of it all, the weak mix of characters, and the sweetness of the big main lesson. Having said that, you usually have to accept those things with most Disney movies, so it's no major inconvenience if you know the kind of film you're about to watch.

Although the script by Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack doesn't take any chances, director Sharon Maguire keeps everything moving along nicely enough, and staves off boredom with some smaller-scale set-pieces (be it Mackenzie being inconvenienced by a huge ballgown that has magically appeared on her or a race-against-the-clock finale that relies on Eleanor finally perfecting one or two of the traditional spells).

Bell and Fisher have fun together, Spaeder and Skye are just fine, Santiago Cabrera is a prospective "prince", literally named Hugh Prince, and Utkarsh Ambudkar provides some laughs as the boss who thinks bad news = ratings. June Squibb is a delight as Agnes, the fairy godmother who narrates the tale, and Jane Curtin is the strict head of the fairy godmothers who ends up racing to stop Eleanor making what she assumes will be a big mess of things.

Light and enjoyable from start to finish, the biggest thing going against Godmothered is that, while it wanders through some very similar terrain, it isn't Enchanted. That's no reason to criticise this movie too harshly though. One Disney movie being very similar to another Disney movie is hardly anything new. It's often part of the appeal.


Wednesday 13 January 2021

Prime Time: Blind (2019)

There's something quite mesmerising about Blind, and I don't mean that in a good way. Or maybe I do. It's an interesting oddity, which certainly makes it hard to forget once it's all over. I'm really not sure what the intentions of the film-makers were though. Did they want to make some cult comedy work, or were they aiming for something dark and serious? Either way, it doesn't work. 

Sarah French plays Faye, an actress left blind after a botched surgery. She spends her time chatting to others in her support group, mainly the equally blind Sophia (Caroline) and the handsome Luke (Tyler Gallant, playing a character unable to speak without the aid of a voicebox device), and wandering around a house filled with way more candles than any blind person should surely have. Unbeknownst to Faye, she is the target of an obsessed killer (Pretty Boy, played by Jed Rowen).

Directed by Marcel Walz, and written by Joe Knetter, it's hard to think of who to blame more for this amusing mess. French does the best she can, and I'll get back to the performances later, but can only do so much. 

I'll start with the script. Knetter obviously has some ideas buried in the material here, ideas that he doesn't flesh out enough, but they're in there nonetheless. Faye has adjusted to her new state, and seems to have adjusted better than I think I would have managed, but her mental state is a different matter. An actor makes their living from having eyes on them, which is where I think Knetter wanted to play around more in his script, and Faye doesn't feel too good about encountering people who recognise her and wonder what has happened. As Pretty Boy stalks and watches her, is it often just the same way anyone else would look at her without having to worry about her spotting them? Maybe, but the material isn't executed well enough to make this point effectively.

Walz makes one bad decision after another, whether it's his shot composition or the way he holds on scenes for so long that they become laughable (the best example of this being a moment in which Faye rambled on at great length to a presence she thinks is Luke). I haven't seen anything else from Walz, and this has reassured me that I haven't missed out on anything major. He seems to have a problem grasping the basics of horror film-making, although there's at least a degree of technical competence to keep things from being unwatchably bad.

French is good in the lead role, good enough to make it obvious why she was picked ahead of anyone else in the cast anyway. I was worried that she would overplay things while acting blind, but she strikes a good balance, for the most part. Williams and Gallant are okay, although both suffer from being the supporting characters who end up involved in scenes with tinkly emotional music (a technical term that musicians will know) making it clear that they are helping the lead character on her journey. Rowen has to stand around and wear a mask, which he does.

As I said, there's almost a good point to be made here, even as the standard horror genre stuff keeps being mishandled, but it's not successful. And it's certainly nowhere near successful enough to warrant the second instalment promised/threatened during the end credits.


Monday 11 January 2021

Mubi Monday: Ratcatcher (1999)

Having seen three other features from Lynne Ramsay, and not being at all disappointed by any of them (although it took me a rewatch of We Need To Talk About Kevin to fully appreciate), I was excited to finally watch this one, her feature debut.

Set in 1970s Glasgow, Ratcatcher allows us to tag along with a young boy named James (William Eadie). There are piles of physical rubbish stacking up around the estate he lives on, due to a strike by the refuse collectors, and piles of psychological litter starting to weigh more and more heavily on his mind. Sometimes seeming comfortable in the company of others close to his age, sometimes seeming to want to get as far away from everyone as possible, James interacts with, and learns from, a variety of characters, from his parents (a father who likes to drink a lot, played by Tommy Flanagan, and a mother trying to do her best for the family, played by Mandy Matthews) to a teenage lass named Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen).

Ramsay has a way of making her films look interesting and muddily beautiful, even while characters are being thoroughly dragged through the mud. I think this comes from her unwavering ability to always ground her characters in a world that is either seriously affecting them or being seriously affected by them. There's almost a symbiotic relationship between the characters she creates and the reality she puts them in. Here we get those piles of rubbish, we get a lot of shots alongside a canal, and we get homes that aren't very well looked after. Sometimes these environments are playgrounds for James, sometimes they're much worse. You don't need to put bars on the windows to imprison people who are already so unable to climb a ladder weighted down by their place in society, their family, and who they befriend during their childhood years.

Eadie, in his only feature performance (to date), is very good. He's natural and realistic onscreen, keeping a lot of things hidden below the surface, as every young boy does. Mullen is equally good, her character being someone who is trying to navigate safely through a world of boys that she has already found can be easily placated when they're thinking about sex. Flanagan and Matthews are important, as parents (good or bad) always are, and they cast shadows over a number of scenes, despite their actual screentime being relatively limited. I'll also mention young John Miller, who plays a boy named Kenny. Kenny is the most childish character shown here, and easily led astray (which reminds James of how easily his path could change), and Miller is a good fit for the role.

You might be upset by the scenes that involve rodents, and you definitely need to be in the right mood to take in the fairly dour tone (although there IS lightness and humour here and there, in small amounts), but you should definitely check this out. As you should check out every film from Ramsay, who is arguably the best female writer-director working today, and far too often forgotten in conversations that cover the very few names that people tend to remember ahead of her. Watch this movie, watch all of her movies, and start bringing her up in more film conversations.


Sunday 10 January 2021

Netflix And Chill: Spree (2020)

The more I see of his work, the more I think that Joe Keery may be the only one to have a major career ahead of him once Stranger Things is all wrapped up. Like some of the older cast members, he doesn't have to navigate his later teen years as if it's a minefield. Unlike some of them, he actually has a great screen presence. He also seems to have a good nose for material (or his agent does).

Keery plays Kurt Kunkle here (aka @kurtsworld96 on his social media channels). He's been trying to get some decent traffic for years, often making videos to post online that end up with only a couple of viewers. But he keeps on at it. It's almost as if it's the only thing he wants in his life. Which gives him a plan. He kits his car out with a number of cameras and sets out to capture an audience with his latest shift as a Spree driver (think Uber, but definitely not Uber, if any lawyers ask about it). He is determined to go viral with a livestream that he will call "the lesson", all about helping people boost their viewing numbers, but it soon becomes clear that "the lesson" will be a deadly one. Except it's not clear to people who are checking in, assuming it is all as staged as so many other big moments on the internet.

As well as providing a lead role for Keery that may well open doors for him to a number of other projects (although, to be fair, he seems busy enough already), director Eugene Kotlyarenko, who also co-wrote the screenplay with first-timer Gene McHugh, appears to have taken this opportunity to fully expand on ideas he has been playing with in some of his previous work. And while we've seen this done before, someone looking to commit more and more extreme acts as they chase internet fame, the commentary here is arguably better than many other examples I can think of.

Keery plays his character perfectly, always trying to hard as he interacts with people while trying his best to deliver great content for his viewers. The other main character is Jessie Adams, a comedian teetering on the brink of being very famous. Played by Sasheer Zamata, Jessie shows the other side of the coin, to a degree. She is someone who knows how to play the long game, she knows the real impact of her actions, and this creates a third act conflict that both takes things towards a dark and twisted conclusion, while also proving to be a slight disappointment (only because I was hoping for one last plot reveal that never happened). Zamata is excellent, portraying the kind of successful and smart woman who can easily intimidate anyone who underestimates her. You also get some decent performances from David Arquette (playing Kurt's father, a DJ who often spends his time getting high), Sunny Kim (a much more famous DJ who keeps promising to tag Kurt in her social media channel), and Joshua Ovalle (Bobby, someone with a large internet following).

You may dismiss Spree as a film taking easy shots at an easy target, but that's not all it does. Kotlyarenko has made something that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and the third act effectively ramps things up to show just how many more people will tune in when they get wind of a moment of madness being caught live and on camera.


Saturday 9 January 2021

Shudder Saturday: Fingers (2019)

Part crime thriller, part dark comedy, Fingers is a real little gem of a film that is surprisingly unsettling in between the moments that may make you laugh.

Sabina Friedman-Seitz plays Amanda, a woman who is irrationally freaked out by certain triggers. It could be a birthmark. It could be a short, black man. So her anxiety starts to go through the roof when a colleague, Walter (Stan Madray), comes into work missing a finger. It only gets worse when he starts missing more, prompting Amanda to seek help from Dr. Scotty (Michael Richardson). Walter claims that he has just been clumsy while trying DIY at home, but soon confesses that men are coming to take his fingers, one at a time. He doesn't know why. Dr. Scotty thinks he has made up a wild story, but it's even wilder because it's true.

I decided to give Fingers a watch because I saw that Jeremy Gardner was in the cast. I've become a firm fan of Gardner and he's built up a solid body of work, with both his direction and his acting turns, in genre fare that tends to have some additional quirkiness, and often no small amount of subversion. This film, as you may have guessed, falls firmly into the same category.

Writer-director Juan Ortiz does a fantastic job, even more so when you think that this is only his second directorial feature, and his dark and witty script is helped by some astute casting. There are moments here that are deeply disturbing, but Ortiz knows what to show, and what to imply (a line that is essential to keep viewers on board when, at one point, a dog is put in peril). And the mannered way in which most of his main characters communicate with one another reminded me of the films of Yorgos Lanthimos. Which is no bad thing.

Friedman-Seitz has fun in her role, although it's interesting that she's a lead character who becomes secondary to others involved in the finger-severing madness for most of the runtime. The same can be said of Madray, who suffers through a very painful and bewildering situation almost daily. Gardner is, in many ways, the main person we stick with, which is an unexpected bonus. He often works with an accomplice (played by Sterling William), and the two are involved in scenes that constantly, and brilliantly, teeter in between surreal hilarity and dark horror. Michael St. Michaels plays Fox, a crime boss who has hired Gardner to get this unpleasant job done, and he also has some fun. In fact, everyone does. Except Madray, but at least he gets a great punchline.

Although there are moments when you can sense the low budget and the limitations here, Fingers is an impressive piece of work. So impressive that I'll definitely hope to check out Ortiz's first film, and will look forward to whatever he does next. Especially if he decides to work with Gardner again.


Friday 8 January 2021

Witness Infection (2020)

A comedy horror movie that is neither funny enough nor scary enough, and doesn't even do a good enough job with some lashings of gore and carnage, Witness Infection is almost a textbook example of how NOT to deliver a zombie comedy. The fact that it is written by two of the stars should have set my Spidey-sense tingling.

Robert Belushi plays Carlo, a nice young man who happens to be the son of a mobster (played by Carlos Alazraqui). He has a brother (Dominic, played by Bret Ernst) who is more at ease with their mobster status, but Carlo is required to marry his brother's girlfriend (Patricia, played by Erinn Hayes) in order to make peace between his family and that of a rival mobster (played by Maurice LaMarche). Carlo puts his foot down, but his timing couldn't be worse. Some bad sausage has created an outbreak of zombiefication.

I've previously seen The Funhouse Massacre from director Andy Palmer, which showed that he could make an enjoyable comedy horror movie, but this film makes him look a lot less competent, and a lot of that is down to the script, although a few of the performances also don't help matters. Written by Alazraqui and Jill-Michele Melean, this is a film that seems to have been written by two people who have only ever seen the weaker movies in the zombie sub-genre. Or maybe they just watched Cooties (which I know many people liked more than I did) and figured that was enough research to give them a solid grounding to work from. They were very wrong. And what you end up with is a mix of characters that it is very difficult to care about, sloppy effects, and a sorry dearth of laughs. I understand that the effects may result from a not-entirely-successful crowdfunding attempt (5% of their flexible goal was raised) to add more to the movie once filming had finished. Maybe there's a lesson there, one in which people are reminded to try and use some inventiveness and actual heart instead of relying on money to patch over shoddy work.

Belushi isn't terrible in his main role, but he often feels sidelined as the zombie plot unfolds. The fact that there's no feeling of any real threat doesn't help, it means that viewers are never all that invested in his journey. Melean does better onscreen than she does with the writing, playing Gina, the woman that Carlo is genuinely interested in having a relationship with. Alazraqui and LaMarche are fine in their roles, Hayes does well with what she's given, and Tara Strong is always welcome onscreen (although she doesn't get to do a lot here). It's hard to figure out who is most annoying, however, between Ernst and Vince Donvito. The latter plays a friend to the leads, and someone who is interested in being an amateur film-maker. Which means his only real reason for being there is to make pointed references to other, better, films. That's it. And I'd love to think that we'll soon retire the laziness of the film character being a film fan in order for the film to cram in lots of nods and references they don't have to put any effort into, but it ain't gonna happen.

I didn't get on board with this one from the beginning, and my mood wasn't helped by the fact that it didn't seem to do enough to improve the standards of the audio and visuals, but it went from bad to worse. At least it allowed me to come up with one of my favourite last lines for any review I have written thus far. After the haunted hotdog instalment of Creepshow 3 and now this, perhaps it's best to stop trying to craft horror plots around dodgy weiners. 


Thursday 7 January 2021

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Sometimes reviews are here to help encourage others to seek out films that are relatively unknown. Sometimes I'm pretty much preaching to the converted. This review of The Last Boy Scout falls into the latter camp. 

Bruce Willis is Joe Hallenbeck, a detective who is nothing more than a crumpled heap of neo-noir tropes. He gets dragged into a case that involves a stripper named Cory (Halle Berry) and her boyfriend, ex-quarterback Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans). People start dying as they start to untangle a plot that involves gambling, corruption, and a ruthless businessman named Sheldon Marcone (Noble Willingham).

Starting with a hell of a set-piece that shows a football player tearing through a field of opponents and pulling a gun as he continues to run towards some points he desperately needs to placate some dangerous blackmailers, The Last Boy Scout is a small-scale film that works as well as it does thanks to the mix of characters and the impact of the many moments that have Hallenbeck cornered by deadly thugs.

Director Tony Scott brings his usual flair for this kind of material, without his usual love of excessively hyperactive editing (oh, you can tell it is HIS film, but it's much less headache-inducing than some of his later movie), and Shane Black is on form with his use of tropes and witty one-liners, making Hallenbeck one of his most memorable characters in a filmography that is just crammed with memorable characters.

Willis and Wayans are a good central pairing, with the former being older and cynical while the latter is a flawed wannabe-hero who perhaps isn't as familiar with how bad people can truly be. That's not to say that the character played by Willis isn't flawed, but his flaws are shown as part of the whole package that helps to make him so good at his job (or, at least, a stereotype who nobody expects to be able to achieve great things until he starts to defy the odds). Willingham is a charismatic villain, as is Taylor Negron (playing one of his right hand men), and Danielle Harris steals a couple of scenes, playing Hallenbeck's moody, but also smart and brave, daughter. Berry doesn't do too bad in her role, Chelsea Field is Hallenbeck's suffering wife, and there are one or two scenes for the great Bruce McGill.

You can predict a lot of the main plot beats here, and Black has never been bothered about being predictable, his focus is always on the dialogue and pacing, but this is yet another film that gives you joy through the actual journey, rather than the main destination. Which isn't to say that the finale is a disappointment. It brings everything together beautifully, and keeps the stakes high for all involved.

Willis gives one of his best, grizzled, turns (this performance sits just below the better Die Hard movies and Twelve Monkeys, in my opinion, if only for the pure fun of it), Wayans is on good form, there's a great score from Michael Kamen, and Scott and Black make a great team. It's a shame that this was their only film together. It's a high point for both of them.


Wednesday 6 January 2021

Prime Time: Road House (1989)

About as '80s as they come, Road House features a lot of fun lines, some bruising fights, a "Bigfoot" truck, a great soundtrack (featuring Jeff Healey, who also appears in the film, and other artists), and the nigh-unbeatable combo, for some of the screentime, of Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott. Cheese, yes, but it's some of the best brie that you can indulge in from this decade.

Swayze is Dalton, the best bouncer in the business (referred to throughout the film as a "cooler"). He's observant, smart, and very tough. Which is why he ends up being hired by Tilghman (Kevin Tighe), a man who wants to make a roaring success of his business, the Double Deuce. Unfortunately, Tilghman's business is located in a town that is choking from the grip of the rich and powerful Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). Brad employs a number of people, many of them helping him to collect funds from local businesses, but his main right hand man is Jimmy (Marshall Teague). It's only a matter of time until Dalton has to face off against Jimmy and co. 

Directed by the aptly-named Rowdy Herrington (this was his second directorial gig, and most likely remains his best), Road House is a star vehicle for Patrick Swayze that should appeal to all, as long as you're ready for the kind of movie that it is. The script, by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin, knows just how to keep viewers engaged throughout, mixing in some humour with the action, and helping the pacing along with the introduction of various characters (alongside those already mentioned, Kelly Lynch appears as Doc, a potential love interest, and then everything moves up a notch when Elliott steps into the plot, as Dalton's BFF, Wade Garrett).

The first big fight scene may feel like a cross between The Blues Brothers and Airplane!, but most of the blows feel like they land, and feel impactful. Swayze is not only swoon-inducingly handsome, but also looks convincing whenever he's in fighting mode, especially when it's a bigger challenge (as it is against Jimmy).

The highlights of the movie are the scenes in which Swayze and Elliott are together, undeniably, and both shine in their roles, with the former easily proving his winning status as a leading man and the latter just being the bundle of laid-back charm he usually is. Gazzara is an enjoyably cold villain, flanked by the tough Teague and a ridiculously flirty Julie Michaels (playing Denise, someone else won over by the obvious appeal of Dalton). Lynch is stuck in the typically thankless role required for this kind of film, and she's okay, while everyone else, from Tighe to Healey, gets to have much more fun. I won't mention everyone else, which is a shame as the supporting cast is full of so many enjoyable little turns, but I'll at least namecheck Red West, John William Young, and Kathleen Wilhoite.

It's not wanting to strain your brain, it's not wanting to cause any seismic shift in cinema, Road House is just out to entertain you. Action and attractive women are there for a lot of male viewers, action and some hunky men are there for a lot of female viewers. And it has a level of homo-eroticism running through it that almost rivals Top Gun. It's highly recommended.


Tuesday 5 January 2021

Soul (2020)

Jamie Foxx plays Joe, a music teacher who regrets the fact that he never managed to pursue his love of jazz fully enough to make it a career. He lives and breathes jazz, and when playing his heart out we get to see him go into the zone. But everything might change when he's given the chance to play for the legendary Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Which is when he dies. And that really puts a spanner in the works. Working his way through the afterlife, the soul of Joe teams up with the soul of someone just named 22 (Tina Fey) for a plan that may benefit both of them. 22 doesn't really want to go down to Earth and start life, Joe wants to get back. If they swap places then everything might work out. But it's not going to be that simple, of course.

Despite the love I have seen heaped upon this film, and despite the fact that this is the first Pixar movie with an African American protagonist, Soul is yet another Pixar movie that is simply okay. They seem to have plateaued for a while now, with both this and Onward being technically wonderful animated movies that lack something in the plotting department. This is better than Onward, it has something at the heart of it that feels a bit less cynical and more worthwhile as a life lesson, but it just doesn't quite come together fully. There are times when this feels very Fantasia-like, times when it will remind you of Inside Out, and times when it is overshadowed by the live-action movies it was so obviously inspired by (It's A Wonderful Life being a key touchstone). It's a shame that there are very few times when it is just able to entertain and wow viewers while being itself. The fact that the best moments accompany the times when Joe is playing his beloved jazz music is telling.

Pete Docter and Kemp Powers do a good job with the directing duties, having also worked on the script with Mike Jones, and there's an obvious feeling that every scene has been crafted with great care and affection. It's no great return to form for Pixar though, largely due to the fact that the third act fumbles things when it could have done so much better. It was interesting to me that 22 was initially supposed to be the main character, and then they created and developed Joe as the guide to life on Earth, because that indecision is clear when you get to the resolution (or lack of resolution) for the two leads.

Foxx and Fey both do well in their roles, with the former hitting a particular sweet spot as someone who has spent a lot of his life ineffectively trying to control his enthusiasm for jazz music. It's strange to hear Graham Norton pop up, but his role is a good one, and his voice does suit it, but the cast is also filled out by the likes of Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, and Phylicia Rashad. Although she may not say much, Bassett once again reigns supreme as the cool Dorothea, and she's a welcome addition to any film, even if it's just her voice.

Soul is a good film, and it's a real treat for Disney+ subscribers to have access to it immediately, without any extra charge to watch it. There are times when it is a very good film. I just wish we'd been able to go on more of a journey just with Joe. It's his story, he is a very likeable central character, and his viewpoint that shows all of the small pleasures in life that are too easily taken for granted, but there are too many times when it doesn't feel like it. That's the biggest mistake, big enough to stop this from being great, although it's still absolutely worth a watch.


Monday 4 January 2021

Mubi Monday: La Grande Bouffe (1973)

Note: this review originally appeared on the Flickfeast website. It's been a busy week, therefore I have made use of it here.

A film about satisfying different kinds of appetites, La Grande Bouffe is an odd, though never dull, comedy drama from director Marco Ferreri. Although never half as graphic as it could be, the mix of nudity, carnal pleasures, and fun with foodstuffs may be enough to put off viewers with more delicate sensibilities.

Four friends come together for a weekend in which they intend to kill themselves by overeating. As well as an abundance of food, the group also decide that they need women, which leads to them arranging a visit from three prostitutes (and one other female guest, Andrea, a teacher who has caught the eye of one of the men). As the behaviour of the four men starts to escalate, fun hijinks starts to take a turn for the serious. And life-threatening.

Developed into a film by Ferreri and Rafael Azcona, with the dialogue from Francis Blanche, this is a film that maintains a light and amused tone throughout while taking an interesting look at some aspects of human nature. It’s no surprise, for example, that all four of the protagonists are men. Women probably wouldn’t come up with such a silly idea in the first place, and you can’t help feeling that they certainly wouldn’t end up racing one another to “the finish line” as the shadow of death started to fall over them. Mind you, those preconceptions are turned upside down by the constant presence of Andrea (Andréa Ferréol), a woman who shows herself to have just as much of an appetite as the men, in some ways, once allowed to let herself be free of societal norms.

Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi all do well in their roles, giving performances that show a slight desperation underlining all of the proceedings. After a lighter opening act, it’s not long until the fun feels tinged with a lot more than simple playfulness. Machismo and competitiveness starts to make our four males push things further and further, quickly beyond the point when even the prostitutes no longer want to be a part of it. Whether stressing out and being aggressive due to impotence, mistaking trapped wind for a bigger problem, or rationalising the sexual freedom going on around them, these men are obviously in need of something more helpful than their own final solution. But that would require much more effort, and much more courage.

Although it has more depth to it than at first may seem apparent, I admit that I was left wishing the film had done a bit more. It could have turned even darker, it could have been even more interesting and insightful. But that didn’t stop me from giving more thought to what I had just witnessed, and ultimately rating it as something well worth seeing. It’s a unique and contentious work of art, one that is just as much at ease with the crude comedy of a fart gag as it is with a surprisingly tender death scene. And that’s one hell of a note to end a review on.


It's been a hell of a mad week, any coffee is appreciated -