Sunday 28 February 2021

Netflix And Chill: What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Colin Minihan may have impressed me a few times already, thanks to his work as one half of "the Vicious brothers (who gave us the fun Grave Encounters as their first feature), but I didn't realise he wrote and directed this movie until I started to sort out the full details for this review. I tend to do that, taking most movies as I find them and doing my research when it is required for reviewing purposes. That way keeps most biases at bay, in theory, and allows me to occasionally be pleasantly surprised, as I was here.

Because this is the best film yet from Minihan. It's a hard film to describe without spoiling, but I'll try anyway. I just hope that people believe me when I say that this is arguably better than a film it often calls to mind, Gone Girl (although I am due a rewatch of that one day), and should become a strong favourite for those who seek it out.

Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) are a married couple looking to celebrate their one-year anniversary at a lakeside cabin. It's an isolated area, and they are surrounded by gorgeous woodlands and rocky terrain. There are also two people living nearby (Sarah, played by Martha MacIsaac, and Daniel, played by Joey Klein) who remember when Jackie was there before, when tragedy struck someone that she was very close to. Will history repeat itself? Will someone go out of their way to ensure that history repeats itself?

With his script neither patronising nor exploiting the relationship at the heart of the film, Minihan focuses on the impact that certain twists and turns have on the leads, taking some sudden moments of violence as springboards to explore how feelings can change, and just how betrayal inevitably leads to the betrayed reappraising everything that they previously assumed to be true about their current importance to a significant other. It allows the film to move like something simple and streamlined while it retains an undercurrent that examines relationships, trust, and love. The title of the movie relates to willpower, but also relates to what people seek out in order to satisfy some very dark urges.

It's hard to separate the two leads in any way, with both Anderson and Allen giving flawless performances under very different circumstances. Anderson gets to have more fun, and is an absolute standout in certain moments I won't detail here, but Allen remains convincing throughout, even as her character has to endure more and more pain. MacIsaac and Klein have just a few scenes here and there, but they both do good work in their roles.

I write reviews for my own benefit. It helps my memory of the many movies I watch when I can check out what I had to say about them, and it helps my OCD as I check out ratings/reviews while I work through lists on both IMDb and Letterboxd. But sometimes I hope a review can reach people who may seek out a film based on my praise. That has happened a couple of times this week. The first time was my review of Muscle, and now it's this review. Give it a watch, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Saturday 27 February 2021

Shudder Saturday: The Dark And The Wicked (2020)

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, this just shows that the dismal Mockingbird was a momentary blip from someone able to keep delivering the goods for horror genre fans. With this and his last film, The Monster, Bertino has provided two equally impressive, yet very different, horror movies.

The Dark And The Wicked has Louise (Marin Ireland) and her brother, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) returning to the family farm in Texas because of a very ill father. It's not long until their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) harms herself and then dies, which leads to both Louise and Michael then starting to feel a strong presence taking over the area. It seems to want to wish harm open them, and upon anyone else who associates with them.

Although made with a decent amount of skill and polish, The Dark And The Wicked is not a film for those who just want some safe, mainstream, horror. It's not too bothered about making sure you get a full explanation for the unfolding events, for example, and there's a sense of puzzlement about the whole thing that simply adds to the horror. As has been said many times before, and by many writers better than myself, a strange killer without any obvious motivation is much scarier than a killer with a very specific agenda. This is, in many ways, an interesting companion piece to Bertino's first film, The Strangers, with the random acts of evil this time around perpetuated by a supernatural force, as opposed to a group of psychopathic strangers.

Ireland and Abbott Jr. are decent leads, and they’re also happy to not really be the focus of the film. Although Ireland gets a few more scenes that let her get her teeth into some more emotional content, this is a film about a pervasive evil. It’s almost a non-stop walk under a cloudy and portentous sky. Too Nowicki also does good work, and has a memorable encounter just as the third act starts to build towards the very end of everything, and Xander Berkeley is excellent as a priest who stops by to visit the farm. And it should be said that all of the visuals are accompanied by a superb, menacing score from Tom Schrader, providing music so good that it almost feels like the embodiment of the dark force at the heart of the movie.

Blending some occasional gore moments with some superb scares, The Dark And The Wicked is highly recommended. Bertino has a knack for keeping viewers on edge, even during scenes in which nothing much seems to be happening, and it's great to see his filmography expanding in a way that both highlights his strengths and also shows him happily moving between various sub-genres. Let's just hope he never decides to try another found footage horror and we're all good.


Friday 26 February 2021

Muscle (2019)

He might not have been getting the love and praise that some of his peers receive, but writer-director Gerard Johnson has been doing some truly outstanding work over the past two decades. His debut feature, Tony, is a hell of a film that you could easily double-bill with Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer if you want an Anglo-American pairing of films about killers that will make you want to bathe in bleach once they're finished. He then waited five years to deliver the astonishing, and all-too-often sorely overlooked, Hyena. It's been another five years. And Muscle is worth the wait. Although I'd prefer to not have to wait ANOTHER five years for the next Johnson movie.

Cavan Clerkin plays Simon, a guy with a depressing phone job, a relationship with his girlfriend that he doesn't realise is going very sour, and no real idea of how to turn his life around. He joins a local gym, and that is where he meets Terry (Craig Fairbrass). After some initial exchanges that have him doubting his decision, Simon eventually agrees to let Terry train him. The two grow close, seeming to become firm friends, and then Terry needs a place to stay, the training becomes more intense, and tempers rise as a potential dream looks set to transform into a nightmare.

Johnson has, in every one of his three feature films, explored various aspects of toxic masculinity (embodied by a secondary character in Tony, then intertwined with a culture steeped in violence and high pressure in Hyena), and Muscle has it brazenly front and centre for most of the runtime. It almost feels, at this point, like the culmination of his film-making obsession, and it makes the film an incredible, and incredibly uncomfortable, watch.

The gym environment is, of course, a perfect setting for exploring this subject. Simon doesn't head along to any big, shiny, national chain. He finds a small gym that seems to be populated only by men, making himself more nervous and applying more pressure before he's even started to train properly. Any gym is an intimidating space. One full of burly men who know what they're doing, where Craig Fairbrass can suddenly loom over you and check your form . . . well, that is already the idea of hell for some people.

Johnson directs with his usual confidence, infusing the scenes with a high energy when necessary and happy to hold the camera on the actors being still when that is equally necessary. The whole film has a palpable sense of violence just simmering under the surface, although you end up seeing more content tied to sexual acts than outright violence, and Johnson moves perfectly from one level of unease to the next, all the way up to a third act that pulls out the stops.

It helps that the main actors here are unafraid to go wherever the story takes them. Clerkin is superb, and absolutely transforms himself after the opening few scenes. Lorraine Burroughs is very good as Crystal, a woman who also ends up in Simon's life after Terry brings more and more shady people into Simon's life and home. Then you have Fairbrass, a man probably still best known to many people either for his main TV roles and his ongoing appearances in many British gangster flicks (half of them seemingly revolving around "the Range Rover murders" of 1995). To say that his turn here is revelatory is not hyperbole. It's the best performance I have seen from him, and he knows exactly how to play things in every scene, whether he's being aggressive or acting vulnerable. There's also a small role for Peter Ferdinando, a regular collaborator with Johnson, and you have solid supporting turns from Polly Maberly, Mark Stobbart, and one or two others.

Muscle may not be QUITE as good as Johnson's previous two features, but that is almost as much to do with how good those films are as it is to do with any small negatives here (mainly some moments in the third act that become a little frustrating as some details are kept hidden away from viewers). Much like Hyena, there's a lot to unpack here as the end credits roll, and rewatches may even lead to you changing your mind on the meaning of the film. I view that as a mark of success.


L - R: Peter Ferdinando, me, Gerard Johnson, and . . . a super-lovely colleague/friend of Johnson whose name I have gone blank on, and can only apologise. Pic taken when Hyena was shown at EIFF.

Thursday 25 February 2021

Sator (2019)

Ideas for movies come from many places, for better or worse, and the idea for Sator, and commitment from writer-director Jordan Graham, came from the mind of a woman (June Peterson, Graham's grandmother) who claimed to have known the supernatural entity at the heart of the film.

Before I get into the slight plot, I think I should make something clear. Sator had me feeling quite conflicted when I went into it, knowing the background to the movie. I'm not entirely sure that taking something from the mind of someone who had some serious mental health issues is the best way to start creating your movie. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened though. Of course, Graham has enjoyed mixing fact and fiction in his previous feature, Specter, so that seems to be his favourite way to deliver some unique horror.

And now for the slight plot. Michael Daniel plays Pete, a man who joins with some family members in a pretty isolated house in the middle of a forest. One of those family members is his Nani (June Peterson), a woman who has spent many years claiming to be aware of a supernatural creature called Sator. Things happen, and I'm not going to pretend that I kept track of what every scene meant, and then you get an ending that provides quite the impressive "punchline" to everything.

Made over a period of years, with Graham taking on almost every role behind the camera, Sator is a low-budget horror movie that starts falteringly before picking itself up once the opening 20-30 minutes is out of the way. It has a nightmarish quality about it, helped by the fact that some scenes feel shoehorned into places where they don't really belong. Thankfully, that nightmarish quality builds throughout, leading to a number of very memorable moments in the second half of the movie. You may not want to rush to revisit Sator, and it may not become a firm favourite, but it's hard to deny that some of the imagery is memorable for all the right reasons.

Daniel does just fine in his role, and Peterson is a sad and sweet presence, but the real star is Graham, a man who did whatever he needed to do to get this movie made. Although it feels low-budget, it never feels cheap. Graham doesn't cheat, doesn't take short-cuts, and doesn't let his limited resources strangle his ambition. 

If you want a straightforward modern horror movie then stay away from this. It's an oddity, and sometimes a frustrating experience. But if you're willing to try something new, something that contains fragments of brilliance in among an infuriating and disjointed narrative, then definitely give this your time. The good outweighs the bad, and it's an outstanding mood piece.


Wednesday 24 February 2021

Prime Time: Eat Locals (2017)

It all starts with an argument over feeding rights. Eat Locals is a vampire movie that shows the tricky task of vampires trying to navigate both the modern world and one another. And the best way to do that is to establish rules and rations on feeding. But you just know that there's always someone who will be greedy.

When the plot kicks in properly, Eat Locals focuses on a young man (Sebastian, played by Billy Cook) who unwittingly finds himself among a group of vampires, where he seems destined to be fed upon or turned into one of them. That cannot go as smoothly as planned, however, due to a special little army unit who are out to kill the pointy-toothed devils.

Directed by Jason Flemyng, making his debut, and written by Danny King (who has a number of shorts to his name, and one feature co-created with Dexter Fletcher), this is a film that may have viewers willing it to do better, although it never manages to hit the giddy heights of even an average horror comedy.

People try though, I'll at least say that, and the cast has plenty of familiar faces to help keep things ticking along nicely enough. Freema Agyeman, Charlie Cox, Annette Crosbie, Vincent Regan, Eve Myles, and Tony Curran are the most memorable vampires, Dexter Fletcher and Ruth Jones are a couple living close to Fanged Feeders HQ with their own dark secret, and Mackenzie Crook has a minute or two in the role of a military man named Larousse.

It's a shame that Eat Locals tries to mix in a bit of everything without ever doing it well enough. There's some blood and gore, but usually either hampered by some dodgy FX work or the fact that it doesn't go far enough. There are some very low-key laughs, but this material seems to be crying out for much better dialogue and a number of smarter gags. There are a couple of good ideas as the plot looks, at one point, as if it is going to tie together some separate elements in time for a cracking grand finale. That doesn't happen.

Lovers of vampire movies will find nothing here to draw them in. The sub-genre has so many other films to choose from, and many of those are funnier, or bloodier, or smarter than this. Which leaves the cast as the main selling point. As a selection of names, the list isn't bad, but they have the same problem that everything else in the film has. Nobody gets enough time/space to properly realise their potential. That's a real shame, especially in the scenes featuring someone as great as Curran.

Maybe Flemyng will use this as a learning experience. Maybe he had fun and will just make his next film in exactly the same vein (no pun intended). Or maybe this is all we'll see from him. Not everyone who has a career in front of the camera can slide into place behind the camera. At least he didn't make something absolutely dire though, so that's something.


Tuesday 23 February 2021

Critters Attack! (2019)

It's another day when I cannot really be bothered to come up with a full review, because it's another movie that doesn't deserve more of my time and energy. But I am still compelled to write this, if only to warn others.

A disappointing reboot of the fun creature feature series, Critters Attack! is all the more infuriating because it comes after four movies that managed to consistently entertain genre fans over the span of a few years. 

Dee Wallace is the only returning cast member from the first movie, as far as I can tell, although her character is simply named Dee, apparently for legal reasons. She's not the main character here though. That would be Drea (Tashiana Washington), a young woman who spends most of the movie looking after her younger brother, Phillip (Jaeden Noel), as well as Trissy (Ava Preston) and Jake (Jack Fulton), the children of a professor she hopes to make a good impression on. Something crashes down from the night sky, which means it isn't long until critters are running amock.

Although Dee Wallace is happy to return, Critters Attack! is best appraised by the people who don't return to contribute to another slice of krite carnage. Don Opper and Terrence Mann are both missing, their first absence from the movie series, and there's no credit given to the Chiodo brothers, the men behind the top-notch creature designs from the earlier movies. You would think that the puppets are quite easy to get right, but there's a feeling throughout that things are a bit off this time around, and that costs have been cut wherever possible.

Writer Scott Lobdell doesn't do a good job here, seeming to be too restricted by what is deemed necessary for the series. The characters are underdeveloped and uninteresting, and the critter moments are mostly things we've already seen in the first four movies. Where they were done better.

Director Bobby Miller has one other feature, and numerous shorts, to his name. This is no calling card for him. It's hard to think of this as anything other than a cynical move, and I'm not sure what attracted Miller to the project, unless he has a love for the property and thought he could do something worthwhile with it.

Washington is a good lead, wasted in a film undeserving of her talent, and the youngsters alongside her all do very good work. It's Wallace who stands out for the wrong reasons, mainly because she feels so obviously placed within the movie as ill-conceived fan-service. I won't mention anyone else, but most are decidedly okay.

Being realistic about it, this is far from the worst movie I have ever seen (as many will know, having read some of my reviews of worse movies I have seen). It just feels like it when it gets so much wrong that every other Critters movie got right. Stick with the first four films, just forget this one exists. 


Monday 22 February 2021

Mubi Monday: The Color Wheel (2011)

Directed by Alex Ross Perry, written by Carlen Altman and Alex Ross Perry, and starring . . . Carlen Altman and Alex Ross Perry, The Color Wheel is almost an absolute masterclass in how to craft a low-budget comedy drama full of tiresome characters and moments that bring to mind much better films.

Altman is JR, the sister of Colin (Perry). JR drags Colin on a road trip to visit a professor that she had a relationship with, and then follows this up by insisting that they attend a party that Colin really doesn't want to go to. That's the main plot, and the two main characters wander from one moment of awkwardness to the next.

The most obvious cinematic touchstone here might seem to be the filmography of Woody Allen, but that would be giving the film too much credit. Woody Allen makes films that seem genuine in their intelligence and attempts by characters to give themselves some form of therapy, whereas this feels like it's a couple of people taking part in an exercise. That's not to say that Altman and Perry are dumb, not at all, but rather that they fail to set the dialogue and problems of their characters in an environment that feels connected to some kind of bigger picture. It feels fake. It's a play that happens to have some scenery changes. It's people running lines that they have practiced so often that any feeling of spontaneity died a long time ago. Aside from Allen, the other main touchstones are Noah Baumbach, David O. Russell, and Todd Solondz. All three of those film-makers would have done a bit better with this material.

Nothing here feels as if it has any impact, which is the biggest problem. There were moments when I laughed, mostly during the middle 30-40 minutes (it's a mercifully short film, clocking in at about 83 minutes), but I wanted more. I wanted to be affected by the lives of these two characters, finding some small amount of sympathy/empathy as they struggled to find their place while in the company of people who seemed to already be happy with where their lives had taken them. That never happened. And it never happened while leading up to a moment in the final scenes that could have been effective and memorable, had it not been shot in such a low-key way that it also lacked the proper impact.

Altman and Perry do work well together onscreen, although not necessarily in a way that has each helping the other to raise their game, and I'd like to see what they do after a bit more time and experience. Maybe they would benefit from working on someone else's material, or a project helmed by someone who pushes them further and keeps them more on their toes. Or maybe this is their best fit, and I'm just never going to be a big fan of their work.


Sunday 21 February 2021

Netflix And Chill: Snakes On A Plane (2006)

Okay, I understand if you hate the idea of Snakes On A Plane because, as it was developed, decisions were made to lean into the silliness of the b-movie concept and try to create an instant cult hit. Some people view that as a cynical ploy, and they think it makes the film a lesser one. That's not really true though, is it? You could say that most major movies are made that way, with a central idea fleshed out and tweaked to appeal most to whatever demographic they're aiming for. Snakes On A Plane may not be a major movie, but it certainly tries to be a hugely entertaining one, with the budget used well as things move quickly from one enjoyable set-piece to the next.

Nathan Phillips plays Sean Jones, a young man who has witnessed an execution carried out by the deadly and powerful Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). With his life in danger, Sean ends up in the care of Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who convinces him that the best way to stay alive is to testify against Eddie Kim and get him in jail. The two board a plane to Los Angeles. And that's where the main plan starts to become clear, with Eddie Kim having apparently exhausted every other possibility in his thoughts about stopping Sean. The plane is full of typical disaster movie stereotypes. You get a flight attendant (Claire, played by Julianna Margulies) on her last job, a young woman (Mercedes, played by Rachel Blanchard) with a small dog, a mother and child, two unaccompanied minors, a horny couple, a moaning Brit (Paul, played by Gerard Plunkett), and others. There's also Three G's (Flex Alexander) and his two "minders" (Troy, played by Kenan Thompson, and Big Leroy, played by Keith Dallas). The timer counts down. The snakes are released from their container in the hold. There have been pheromones sprayed strategically to, in the scientific parlance, send them fucking mental. 

As silly as you expect it to be, Snakes On A Plane is also a fun rollercoaster ride for the runtime of 1 hour and 45 minutes. It is much more terrifying if you really have a phobia of snakes, which I found out this time around while watching it with someone very ophidiophobic. But no matter how you feel about the creatures, there's no denying that this film tries hard to make everyone squirm, showing you snakes casually snaking their way into places they really shouldn't (biting boobs, coming up from toilet bowls, heading up skirts, nestling inside bags, etc). The script by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez mixes things up nicely, also building up the problems caused with the actual mechanics of the plane.

Moments of dodgy CGI aside, although some of it holds up surprisingly well (it's very hit and miss, as you might expect considering the time it was made and budget), director David R. Ellis does good work at the helm. The layout is easily displayed, the characters get to interact with one another, and one or two deaths are actually unexpected. The snakes are varied enough, although most of the deaths result from them lashing out to bite people, and the perils doted around the plane are numerous as panic takes hold.

Jackson may get to deliver THAT line, and is his usual cool self, but everyone else mentioned does well to remember what film they're in. They play their roles with admirably straight faces, going through some standard soap opera moments. I'm not going to say that anyone here is doing anything worthy of awards recognition, but everyone knows the tone of the film. Lin Shaye, Sunny Mabrey, and Bruce James also do well as the other flight attendants, David Koechner and Tom Butler are the pilots, and Bobby Cannavale and Todd Louiso end up working together, as FBI agent and snake expert, respectively, to race against time in order to deliver a variety of anti-venoms to the victims, IF the plane can land somewhere in time.

It ain't high art, but this is absolutely perfect fodder to liven up an afternoon, or to enjoy any evening when you want something that doesn't require too much thought. I have owned the DVD for years now, and this recent rewatch was an even better viewing experience than the last time I watched it (and not JUST because my girlfriend sometimes cried out "oh, shit the bed" during certain moments of serpentine carnage).


Saturday 20 February 2021

Shudder Saturday: Shook (2021)

I have to start this review by admitting that I'm not exactly sure I haven't entirely misunderstood Shook. The tale of a social media star (Mia, played by Daisye Tutor) being terrorised by a mystery caller, it gets so much wrong from start to finish that it clearly fails in whatever it was trying to do.

The plot is just as described. We learn that Mia is a social media star, but only because we're shown a poorly-conceived montage that is meant to give that impression. The very first scenes of Shook are where I started to wonder about the intention of the movie. You see Mia alongside a couple of other "influencers" at a red carpet event, being photographed and made the fleeting centre of attention. Then you see that the people being photographed are actually just in front of a small backdrop set in a dingy alleyway. There isn't really any big crowd. It's just a few people taking part in this one moment that looks glamorous if you stay tightly focused on those in the light of the cameras. Is this a comment on the ways in which social media only shows what people want you to see? I couldn't decide, especially as I have seen similar hasty set-ups at numerous festivals over the years. The film, either deliberately or not, maintains this ambiguity throughout. Mia is a star, but is that just her own perception coloured by her circle of contacts? She is being terrorised, but is it real or not? This film claims to be a horror, but is it a horror with no care for plausibility, or is it a dark comedy making fun of social media fame and different perspectives on streamed content?

Directed by Jennifer Harrington, her second directorial feature of the past decade (she also wrote the script, developing a story with Alesia Glidewell), it's hard to view Shook as anything other than a half-baked idea completely mishandled from start to finish. Harrington either seems to assume most viewers of genre fare are complete idiots who won't question anything (there's a moment in the third act involving a threat to break legs that leads to one of the most unbelievable sequences I have ever seen in something not claiming to be a spoof) or just doesn't care enough about her main premise to properly plot out a cohesive and effective chain of tension and thrills.

It doesn't help that the cast are almost all terrible, although I am tempted to also blame Harrington for that, considering the weakness of her writing and direction. Tutor is a poor lead, and never convinces as someone fearing for the safety of herself and others. Emily Goss is over the top and unbelievable as her sister, Nicole, and a number of other performers are stuck portraying people that it is absolutely impossible to care about.

Although it's not often treated well in films, I can easily think of at least a dozen options you could go for that would entertain you better than Shook, many of them also making some great points mixed in with the entertainment factor. Spree is one of the best, but even the online aspect of Eighth Grade says so much more, in a much better way, than Shook. If this film was a social media account then it would be one of those accounts with no followers that sends you spam messages on how to get thousands of followers, THAT is how irritating and pointless it is.


Friday 19 February 2021

Benny Loves You (2019)

It's always good to give your support to a movie clearly made with more love than funds and resources, and Benny Loves You is a fun comedy horror that deserves to be seen by those who can enjoy the whackiness of it. BUT it's also good to offer some constructive criticism, where relevant, and not overhype something that others may then end up disappointed by. This is a decent little movie, one with no small amount of charm (particularly in the character of the titular killer toy bear), but it's not quite the flawless modern classic that some people may want you to think it is.

Karl Holt stars as Jack, a man who really could do with a bit of a break. Having lost his parents in a bizarre double-whammy of accidental deaths, on his birthday, Jack is trying to keep his job, manage his finances, and get himself some occasional female company. Having long ago left behind his childhood toy, Benny, it seems that Jack is about to find himself on the receiving end of some unwanted attention from a one of the cutest little psychopaths to ever be seen in a movie.

As well as acting in the lead role, Holt also wrote and directed Benny Loves You, but it feels more like a case of him needing to take on every role to get the film made, as opposed to anything to do with vanity. Sadly, he's good in every one of his roles, but not great. Yet it's hard to spend too much time faulting him, considering how hard he must have worked to get the film made. It's not exactly an easy sell, and the very least you can say about it is that Holt fully commits to the crazy main idea. The humour is never as sharp as it should be though, the movie references are a bit too clunky and obvious, and the pacing is just a bit off, with the more entertaining moments spread out a bit too thin.

As for the other people involved in the film, Claire Cartwright is a good choice to play Dawn, a friendly woman who may also be able to help Jack, George Collie is enjoyably smug and irritating, James Parsons is amusing as Jack's boss, Ron, and Anthony Styles and Darren Benedict do good work as, respectively, "bad cop" and "good cop".

I know that this review doesn't seem like a ringing endorsement for the movie, and I'm not sure Holt would be too pleased to read it, but I DO recommend Benny Loves You to horror fans after something with some chuckles and bloodshed. Although the flaws hold it back from being truly great, they also add to the charm of the thing. This wouldn't work if it was all too polished. It's just a shame that it wasn't a little bit better in a number of small ways, enough to take it from being watchable and gently amusing to being something I'd highly recommend to all.


Thursday 18 February 2021

Critters 4 (1992)

Look, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the fourth movie in the Critters series is as good as all the rest, especially when it makes the inevitable choice to set the majority of the action in space, but it's still nowhere near the lows you can find in many other low-budget sequels.

The opening scenes of the movie are the moments that were interspersed throughout the end credits of Critters 3, with Charlie (Don Keith Opper) being informed that he cannot destroy the last of the krites. This leads to him being frozen and stored with some krite eggs, maintained in stasis in a spacecraft for over fifty years. Eventually collected by a salvage ship, the krites set about doing what they do best, all while a crew bicker about the best course of action as they try to stay alive.

Very much riffing on the best-known sci-fi horror populated by a space crew of blue-collar workers, Critters 4 makes good use of everything it has going for it, which is mainly some decent production design stretching every dollar for the sets and a great cast. Filmed at the same time as part three, it's nice to watch something with decent continuity that doesn't have to tie itself in knots to keep stretching the central idea through more movies.

David J. Schow returns to the writing duties, assisted this time by Joseph Lyle, and it's all competently put together. The characters could have done with a bit more to them, it's clear that the intent is to show a group of people who work together without necessarily all liking one another, but they're all given enough room to breathe before they start to be endangered by the critters. Rupert Harvey, a producer on many of the movies in the series, directs with an equal amount of competence, if also a disappointing lack of creativity or flair (although this isn't a series known for flair).

But never mind who is behind the camera, with respect to everyone who came together to make this happen, just check out the cast. Opper may be one of the few people to have made it through every movie in this quartet, and he's fine in his role, but this time around you also get Anders Hove, Brad Dourif, and Angela goddam Bassett. There are other people onscreen, but the best moments involve Brad Dourif or Angela goddam Bassett being very Brad Dourify or Angela goddam Bassett-y.

To be completely honest with myself, this is a very average film. You never feel that the stakes are high, there aren't any great set-pieces, and even the comedy moments don't happen often enough to make it worthwhile. But with that cast in place, and in comparison to many other films of this type, it still manages to be worth your time. Especially if you want to enjoy and finish the main story arc.


Wednesday 17 February 2021

Prime Time: The Eye (2008)

Although not from Japan, The Eye (2002) was one of many horror movies to be lumped in with the hits that were coming thick and fast in the J-horror boom at the start of the 21st century. It holds up as a superb horror movie, and it's a shame that the makers of it, the Pang brothers, didn't do anything else that came close to it.

The remake was probably inevitable, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept, especially with so many things wrong.

Jessica Alba stars as Sydney Wells, which is the first major error (more on that later). Sydney is a talented violinist, and she's blind. After undergoing a cornea transplant, Sidney has to get used to seeing the world around her, but it takes her a while to realise that she's not seeing the world the way that everyone else sees it. Much like a young Haley Joel Osment, she sees dead people. She sees so many of them, at times, that it's almost as if she's receiving an important message.

Okay, I may as well address my first complaint right here. I don't hate Jessica Alba, and I've enjoyed her in a number of roles, but she's not always the best choice for some of the lead roles that she's been given over the years, and I think her inclusion here just feels wrong. She's not convincing, whether playing the violin or reacting to the environment around her. Sadly, the rest of the cast don't do much better, which is more surprising when it comes to the likes of Alessandro Nivola (playing Dr. Paul Faulkner), Parker Posey (playing Sydney's sister, Helen), and Chloë Grace Moretz (playing a young hospital patient named Alicia).

The cast aren't helped by either the script, by Sebastian Gutierrez, or the direction, from David Moreau and Xavier Palud. None of these people manage to stick close to the atmosphere and style of the original, despite sometimes trying, which is a massive disappointment for those familiar with the 2002 film. Those seeing this story being told onscreen for the first time might be a bit easier to please, but even the most casual horror fan may start to feel that something is lacking. You get a number of jump scares, a load of messy CGI, and a third act that takes things in a direction that was not only done better the first time around, it was also done better in another fantastic 2002 horror movie (that I won't name, in order to avoid spoiling things for anyone).

It would be easy to go on and on about more of the things in this remake that irk me so much, and I do like a rant every now and again, but it's not really worth the time or energy. The Eye is simply a typical example of the laziest kind of remake. It's the kind of film we can all point to as an argument against remakes, despite the fact that there have been (thankfully) a number of modern remakes that have managed to get things very right.


Tuesday 16 February 2021

Willy's Wonderland (2021)

It had been discussed for some time now. An unofficial movie version of Five Nights At Freddy's with Nicolas Cage in a main role, battling killer animatronics. So when it finally appeared, coming along soon after the trailer had been put out there for Cage fans to enjoy, there was no way I was going to miss out.

Cage plays a silent man who ends up damaging his car while driving through a small town. The repair is going to cost a fair bit, but a couple of locals make him a deal. If he spends the night in the closed premises of Willy's Wonderland, cleaning it as best he can, then the work will be paid for. It's not long until the newly-hired cleaner realises that he's been put to work somewhere very dangerous. There are a number of animatronics that are far too lively, and out to kill. But they don't count on the Cage rage.

Willy's Wonderland is very silly, and not necessarily in the right ways. It's a very odd one to consider, tonally, with Nicolas Cage often seeming to be in a very different movie from anyone else who appears onscreen (and the cast includes Beth Grant, Emily Tosta, and a number of disposable supporting players). Both of those movies work, to a degree, but they never really gel together.

Writer G. O. Parsons has fun with his first feature script, largely keeping things tightly focused on the fun of the central premise, and director Kevin Lewis doesn't do a terrible job, although I suspect he's the one responsible for the film not working as well as it should. There's a lack of any singular style throughout, and even the levels of bloodshed and gore vary wildly from one set-piece to the next. The more amusing touches pop up often enough to remind you of how self-aware of the silliness everyone is (especially the timer that Cage uses to ensure he takes a break every couple of hours, but there's also a frankly glorious bit of gratuitous dancing from our lead as he relaxes with a bit of pinball), which makes it a bit more frustrating when things don't just keep getting wilder and wilder.

Cage is awesome, playing his role with just the right blend of cool, toughness, and awkwardness, and his fanbase should have a lot of fun with this. If you don't like him then nothing here will win you over. But also . . . you should just learn to like him. Grant is fine as the local Sheriff, very much aware of how dangerous Willy's Wonderland is, and Tosta is a very enjoyable second lead (named Liv), a young woman who leads a group of friends on a mission to destroy the animatronic-populated killing ground.

As much as it sounds like an overused cliché, this is the perfect movie to enjoy on a Saturday evening with your favoured selection of snacks and beverages. It's got Cage fighting silly villains, it's paced briskly enough, and it gets everything done in just under 90 minutes. Pair it up with The Banana Splits Movie and you have a great double-bill.


Monday 15 February 2021

Mubi Monday: The African Queen (1951)

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in a dramatic adventure classic with a great helping of romance, I knew I was in for a treat when I finally settled down to watch The African Queen, a film I had been wanting to get to for many years already. And a treat it was.

Bogart is Charlie Allnutt, the captain of a riverboat in Africa. When the country is affected by WWI, Charlie tries to get himself out of the way, but ends up assisting a missionary named Rose (Hepburn). Rose has other ideas, however, and tries to persuade Charlie to turn his boat into a vehicle that can launch a torpedo at an enemy ship. Both Charlie and Rose have to survive rapids, enemies who may get them in their sights, and one another.

Based on a novel by C. S. Forester, The African Queen is an ideal mix of two great characters plunged into a situation that will have you rooting for them from start to finish. The script, by James Agee and director John Huston, sets up the situation easily enough, whizzes from one big moment to the next (big in terms of action or character beats, not necessarily big in scale), and delivers a third act that manages to be bother rewarding and ever so slightly surprising. There are one or two big coincidences, especially during the very last scenes, but the film is so wonderful and enjoyable throughout that it feels earned.

Huston treats his stars well, even doing his best to try making them look glorious as the conditions wear them down and make them look the worse for wear. He knows that they are capable of selling everything they are supposed to be going through, even if the special effects around them vary from sequence to sequence.

What is there to say about Bogart and Hepburn? Thanks to the script and their status in cinema, they work together in one of the best onscreen pairings ever. None of their chemistry develops naturally from the unfolding events, although they're supposed to, but nothing is ever in doubt because it's Bogart and Hepburn. Of course they'd be attracted to one another, and that makes it much easier to believe that their characters would be attracted to one another. Robert Morley has a good few minutes onscreen, and there are others who take part in the second and third act, but the movie needs nothing more than the two leads.

Like so many other films that have been celebrated over the decades, The African Queen has retained the great reputation it has for one simple reason. It IS as good as everyone says it is. And I encourage everyone else to treat themselves to a viewing of it as soon as possible. You won't regret it.


Sunday 14 February 2021

Netflix And Chill: Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel (2021)

When I heard that there was a documentary coming on to Netflix that looked at the strange case of the disappearance of Elisa Lam from the infamous Cecil Hotel I knew I wanted to watch it ASAP. Directed by Joe Berlinger, a documentary-maker who has delivered some astonishing work over the years (as well as a few feature films), there are four episodes that explore the history of the hotel, the mental state of Elisa Lam, and the persistence of everyone involved in the investigation, from the detectives to a bunch of internet sleuths.

Having been unaware of how this case unfolded, and what, if any, resolution there was, I started watching this program for the same reason as many others. I was captivated by the strange video that captured the last images of Elisa Lam alive. A video showing her entering an elevator, acting very strangely while the elevator doesn't move, and then eventually leaving the area covered by the camera. Slight spoiler here - the real explanation is quite simple, and not as interesting as we all want it to be.

While you get an interesting story told throughout Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, it is (as can often happen with these things) a story that could have easily been told in one feature-length episode. Having said that, a lot of the background to the Cecil Hotel is fascinating, and it's an eye-opener to learn more about that area of Los Angeles, with Skid Row shown as a startling and horrifying reality, as opposed to a movie conceit where people end up temporarily while down on their luck.

The downside here is that you get the many conspiracy theories given a fair amount of time, a lot of YouTubers, Podcasters, and internet commenters trying to make themselves out as experts in things that they clearly aren't, and people who attach themselves to Elisa Lam, and this mystery, in a way that allows them to appear to be caring about her fate while managing to make things all about themselves. These are the kind of people who make commiserating posts every year about some deceased relative and gain comfort from the amount of replies that give THEM some extra comforting words from people who offer up the expected "thinking of you" or "thoughts and prayers". They are the people who dismiss/downplay something like bipolar disorder because a) there has to be a more sinister element at work, and b) everyone can have a bit of a bipolar day, it just means being a bit up and down in moods (surely . . . yeah, that's not how seriously damaging bipolar disorder works, far too many people forget that).

There are a number of people here worth listening to, and some interesting history and context. I'd also say that this is worthwhile for the memory of Elisa Lam. It's just a shame that her last moments became such a touchpaper for so many, including those who mistakenly hounded a death metal singer because he'd stayed at the same hotel . . . a year previously. It's a sad irony that those who say she was an inspiration, and that they felt connected to her, constantly fail to accept her for who she really was. And her death becoming a mystery, and a creepy video, it arguably even more tragic as it distracts from the fact that yet another young life was snuffed out by mental health problems. If more people put the same amount of energy into helping the system, and individuals, affected by mental health issues as they did into creating theories, and/or ghoulishly visiting the scene of a death to recreate some final steps, then maybe things could improve. Slightly.


Saturday 13 February 2021

Shudder Saturday: A Nightmare Wakes (2020)

Sometimes I have to blurt out a film review summary before I start to share some details, and that is the case here. I hated A Nightmare Wakes. Really hated it. Purporting to tell the story of "the birth of Frankenstein", through a depiction of Mary Shelley and her mindset during that period of creation, not one moment of it ever rings true.

Alix Wilton Regan plays Mary Shelley, a woman who starts to blend her personal problems, nightmares, and imagination as she builds up the layers of the classic horror tale she would be forever attached to. Giullian Gioiello is Percy Shelley, her lover and a source of some of her ill-feeling. There are many moments in which you can imagine storm clouds gathering, people stand around with brooding looks as low lighting creates more shadows around them, and the whole thing feels less like a celebration of a complex creative process and more like the out-takes from a mid-00s Evanescence music video.

Written and directed by Nora Unkel, making her feature debut, it's easy to see why this is such an unsatisfying mess. Most movies that show a glimpse of a life that we know about can go one of two ways. You either try to show the truth, or the essence of it, or you decide to "print the legend". Unkel cannot decide where she wants to take her movie, filling it with details that are inconsistent with the facts while never doing enough to lift up the central figure and fully celebrate her strength and talent. It would be easier, sadly, to come away from this film and think of Mary Shelley as a fragile and broken woman who somehow managed to write a popular book in a rare moment of high spirits in between days and days of moroseness and pain.

Regan doesn't do a bad job in the main role. She has to keep looking downbeat, and often feels like she's playing a secondary character, but the problem doesn't lie with her performance. The same can be said of Gioiello. Claire Glassford gets to seem a bit happier, for the most part, in the role of Claire Claremont, and the more exuberant characters of Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori are capably portrayed by Philippe Bowgen and Lee Garrett, respectively.

I guess the whole thing looks alright, although it doesn't do enough to distract you from the fact that Unkel seems to have had access to one main location, and the sound is audible throughout, so full marks for a basic level of technical competence. The performances, as weighed down as they are by the script, get another point. That's as high as I'm willing to go. Frankenstein, and the creation of it, is ripe for so many different adaptations, as we've seen over the years. Make it true to life, make it a fever-dream phantasmagoria, make it gritty and basic, make it gory and ridiculous. Just don't, please don't, make it as horribly boring as this.


Friday 12 February 2021

Possessor (2020)

It must be both a blessing and a curse to be Brandon Cronenberg. On the one hand, your father is the top name in psychologically-intriguing body horror movies. On the other hand, that's a huge shadow to step out from. After making a decent impression with his debut feature, Antiviral (a film many people enjoyed more than I did), Cronenberg looks like he may be about to solidify his reputation among horror fans with Possessor, a dark and bloody movie that is arguably much more horror of the mind than anything to do with the body.

Andrea Riseborough is Vos, an assassin who takes over the bodies of other people, via an implant, in order to get to her victims. When the job is done, Vos gets the unwitting "host" to commit suicide, thus allowing her psyche to return to her body, which is housed in the machinery allowing her connection to the implant. Vos seems to be struggling with her own identity, understandably so, and also has certain attachments to items/people that may be an issue to someone in her line of work. This all comes to a head in her next job, when she's placed inside Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Tate isn't as easily controlled as others, but maybe that is partly to do with Vos not necessarily wanting to immediately return to her own body.

The start of Possessor is certainly a sequence that immediately draws in viewers, showing the assassination M.O. of Vos and then adding enough little details for things to be pieced together. And the end of Possessor is quite jaw-dropping. This is a film book-ended by moments that you won't forget, with Cronenberg showing an ability to deliver real shocks that aren't just delivered in a vacuum. The middle section is where things are a bit problematic, with a number of scenes that are surreal and dark, but not as interesting as the more energised moments around them.

Cronenberg has a bit more room to play here, or so it seems, compared to his debut, and he doesn't squander the opportunity. There's a cast that also includes Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, and Jennifer Jason Leigh in small roles, and there's a feeling of a more completely-realised movie world here than there was in Antiviral. Dialogue may not always seem to make sense, but a lot of it is loaded with more meaning that becomes obvious on a rewatch.

Riseborough is very good in her role (although I remain convinced that she isn't now able to take on a role without knowing that it satisfies a certain misery quotient). Even while not seen onscreen, her quiet and cold performance, and how the script conveys this, means that you always feel her presence. Abbott is equally good, and in mostly the same way. He may be onscreen a lot more than Riseborough, but he's portraying someone not always in control of his own actions or thoughts. Everyone else already mentioned does good work, but it's Riseborough and Abbot who own the movie.

I rate this very highly, despite my problems with the middle act. That's how effective the rest of the film is, and how unique it feels. I've not seen anything that caused me to react so strongly in a long time, and a film that can manage that deserves a fair amount of credit.


Thursday 11 February 2021

Mako: The Jaws Of Death (1976)

If you're a film fan who will watch anything then you inevitably start to work your way through a lot of films that others may consider . . . not very good. Some films are so infamous that you assume you've already seen them, and finding out that you haven't can end up being quite a surprise. That's what happened here, the result of me confusing Mako: The Jaws Of Death with The Last Shark. I have finally corrected my error.

Richard Jaeckel plays Sonny Stein, a man who wears a strange medallion that allows him to have a telepathic connection with sharks. This makes him angry at the humans who try to profit from hunting the creatures, and he can either deal with the situation by confronting the shark killers himself or he can ensure that they end up in the water alongside some ferocious fins. Jennifer Bishop plays Karen, a woman who is about to end up swimming with sharks as some kind of weird attraction in a bar, run by a man named Barney (Buffy Dee). Various people interact with Sonny, who becomes more and more irate about the way sharks are being mistreated, and it all leads to an impressively downbeat third act.

Directed by William Grefé, who also came up with the idea that was turned into a screenplay by Robert W. Morgan, Mako: The Jaws Of Death is somehow both exactly what you expect it to be and also quite different from almost every other "sharksploitation" movie I can think of. You get all of the underwater footage, and the quality of it varies wildly, you get business interests clashing with the local ecosystem, and you get a potential bit of romance between Sonny and Karen, although it's really more about just setting up the chain of events in the third act.

Jaeckel isn't the best actor to ever appear onscreen, but he doesn't do too bad in the role of Stein. He's certainly better than Dee, who feels like he belongs in a very different movie (maybe something with Burt Reynolds as a charming rogue getting the better of him). Bishop isn't bad as Karen, although she's required to be understandably confused by Sonny's obsession. The other main stars are the sharks and Harold Sakata, billed as Harold 'Odd Job' Sakata (because of his most famous role).

It's just a shame that the script cannot do a better job for the cast of characters because the main premise, as silly as it seems, is at least interesting and unique enough to help this stand out from a crowd of movies that came along in the wake of Jaws (no pun intended). It's a pro-shark movie that still has them featured as a main threat, and it juxtaposes their uncomplicated shark ways with some of the uglier aspects of human nature.

I liked Mako: The Jaws Of Death, yet I also see it as a cheap and crude work. It's a low-budget exploitation movie with some great ideas being explored. That puts it ahead of many other, more polished, films you could choose to watch instead.


Wednesday 10 February 2021

Prime Time: Greenland (2020)

Having done his time protecting the President Of The United States, saving the world from terrorists, and even catching a dangerous submarine, Gerard Butler now gets to focus on trying to keep his onscreen family safe. I'm sure he has had a previous family-in-peril needing his strength and courage, but I can't think of any specific title just now, Because so many Gerard Butler movies just blur into one another. Which isn't that big a deal for me, mainly because I happen to like Butler anyway.

Butler plays John Garrity, a structural engineer. He's currently going through a difficult patch with his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), but the two of them try to put a brave face on things for the sake of their young son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). They need to work even harder to keep brave faces when John receives an automated call as people group together to watch a passing comet. It turns out that the comet isn't just going to provide a pretty lightshow in the sky. It has bits falling into the Earth's atmosphere that will destroy entire cities. And one major chunk will bring about an Extinction Level Event. Heading to safety, the Garrity family finds numerous obstacles in their path, and the clock is ticking.

Written by Chris Sparling, a writer with a filmography that varies wildly in quality from the greatness of Buried to the sheer awfulness of ATM, Greenland is an entertaining disaster movie that wants to pretend it's a bit more grounded than most. It's really not, especially when you consider the coincidences required during almost every major plot beat, but it somehow manages to find a nice sweet spot between the more bombastic disaster movies and the likes of the more thoughtful, and disappointing, Deep Impact (note, don't hold me to that, as I am long overdue a revisit of Deep Impact, having not seen it since it first came out on VHS).

Director Ric Roman Waugh has an action thriller background (his previous film before this one being the Butler-starring Angel Has Fallen) and he capably delivers the goods here. You get some chases, you get a fight or two, and you also get some decent CGI causing big problems. The fact that this is a disaster film is almost secondary to the fact that it's a Gerard Butler film, for better or worse.

Butler is good in the lead role, one that doesn't really stretch him or take him out of his comfort zone, but it at least places him in a developing situation that feels a bit different from many of his other interchangeable movies. Baccarin is also good, even if she has to spend a lot of the movie hoping that she can stay alongside Butler while he offers protection and the possibility of escape. And then you have Floyd, a young actor who somehow manages to avoid being too annoying, even as his character makes things a lot harder than they otherwise could have been. Hope David, David Denman, Scott Glenn, and Holt McCallany are the other main names appearing here and there, all in small supporting roles as Butler, Baccarin, and Floyd attempt the seemingly impossible.

If you like disaster movies then there should be enough here to keep you entertained. If you like dramas with a bit of action dotted throughout then likewise. And if you like Gerard Butler movies then, well, you've probably seen this before spotting this review.


Tuesday 9 February 2021

Critters 3 (1991)

After two movies set in the same small town, it was time for the Krites to head to the city. But how do you make a movie about critters in the city without going way beyond the small budget you have? Well, you set most of the action in one apartment building, keeping everything manageable and also allowing people to refer to this instalment as “Die Hard with critters.”

I cannot really consider it worth my time to write a more detailed summary. That first paragraph sums up the plot. One or two characters return, but the majority of the action involves some youngsters (Aimee Brooks, Christian and Joseph Cousins, being used to portray one character, and a teeny tiny Leonardo DiCaprio). There’s an attempt to make things a bit more tense, as opposed to the gag-filled second movie, and that’s all you need to know.

Written by David J. Schow, a writer with a decent body of work to his name, Critters 3 may move towards a slightly darker tone, only ever so slightly though, but it remains consistent in all the most important ways, with the general main aim of entertaining viewers and the M.O. of the creatures.

Director Kristine Peterson makes the most of her limited resources, giving a decent overview of the simple geography of the building while moving at a decent pace between set-pieces of critter carnage and her talented young cast.

DiCaprio may be the biggest name in the cast nowadays, and he is fine in his role, but he’s a supporting player, overshadowed by both the impressive puppetry on display and the lead performance from Brooks. Cousins and Cousins do just fine as the cute little brother of Brooks. Don Opper returns, although his role is smaller this time, but no less pivotal, and John Calvin is the father of Brooks and Cousins, a father who seems to have let his get up and go . . . get up and go. 

Not as good as the first two movies, this is still a fun creature feature. And for a third entry in a low-budget sci-fi horror series, with a nice line in gentle comedy through it, it remains one to highly recommend.


Monday 8 February 2021

Mubi Monday: The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)

I'll admit it, sometimes I end up picking and choosing movies for this blog based on how well I think I can actually come up with a decent review for it. That can lead to me putting aside some lesser-known films (if there aren't enough details available then it can be hard to get the review exactly right), it can lead to me putting aside some very well-known films (because they've already had so many words written about them), and it can lead to me swithering on whether or not to review something like this, a film often listed among the all-time best, but one that features less main aspects for me to comment on. It's a silent film, and it mostly focuses on the lead actress.

Having said that, however, and as you may have noticed from these words already appearing here, sometimes I challenge myself. I want to write about a movie that deserves the effort it will take me to review it. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is one such movie.

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also co-wrote the movie with Joseph Delteil, a better title may have been The Trial Of Joan Of Arc, because that's what is depicted onscreen. Surrounded by a group of critical jurists, Jeanne d'Arc (Maria Falconetti) tries her hardest to stick by her claims that others deem heretical. Viewers should know the end result, but that doesn't make it any less effective as you try to watch one brave woman convince others that she deserves some mercy.

I can't take the time to comment on the supporting cast, although they all do a decent job in their roles. It's not that other people don't get much screentime, but they seem to merge into one mass of patronising males wanting to prove a woman wrong for speaking in a way, and showing a courage, that scares them. Falconetti, on the other hand, can definitely be given some time and space here. Her performance has sometimes been pointed to as one of the greatest of all time, and it's a hyperbolic claim that is actually hard to argue against. She's front and centre for the majority of the film, of course, and is always perfect at showing the mix of strength, vulnerability, honesty, fear, and so many other emotions that her character goes through on her way to the end of her journey.

It's hard not to give Dreyer almost equal credit for that performance, although (astonishingly) it is said that the entire master print was accidentally destroyed after the original cut of the film was complete, forcing the director to construct it from takes that he'd previously rejected. I think that just proves how consistent that performance from Falconetti was for every minute that the camera was pointing at her.

There's nothing else to say, not really. Will this convert film fans who are wary of diving further and further back into the realms of silent cinema? I'm not sure. Perhaps the staged nature of the material will keep them a step removed from being able to really enjoy it, but I like to think that many can look beyond that, helped immensely by the expressive turn from Falconetti.


Sunday 7 February 2021

Netflix And Chill: The Sleepover (2020)

Kevin (Maxwell Simkins) is having a bad day. He's been recorded on phone doing a funky dance in the bathroom at school, a video that's about to go viral. His sister, Clancy (Sadie Stanley), is also having a bad day. Their mother (Margot, played by Malin Åkerman) doesn't let them own phones, doesn't approve of social media, and isn't letting Clancy go to a great party with her friend, Mim (Cree Cicchino). Kevin is having a friend, Lewis (Lucas Jaye), sleep over, but things soon get crazy when their parents are whisked away by criminals to get involved with a robbery. It turns out that mum had a secret life before becoming a mum, a life that even her husband, Ron (Ken Marino), was unaware of. Margo is forced to work with her ex-boyfriend, Leo (Joe Manganiello), while the kids work together to save their parents.

A first feature script from Sarah Rothschild (well, a first to be made into a film anyway), The Sleepover is a lightweight bit of fun that is lifted above the level of average by a great cast. Director Trish Sie handles everything competently enough, moving from one unbelievable moment to the next with the right mix of laughs and zippy pacing to stop viewers from overthinking things and dismissing the entire film. It's not aiming to be a gritty drama, it's aiming to provide laughs for everyone.

Although the adults do good work here, with Ken Marino a highlight, as usual (especially in any scenes that have him being jealous of Manganiello), it's the kids who are the real stars here. Stanley is the main character when it comes to a personal journey, discovering the reality of her mother's life and why she has made their life a certain way, and she does good work in her role. Simkins is consistently hilarious, whether he's engaging in childishly fantastic lies or swaggering past adults with an air of confidence that he really shouldn't possess. Cicchino is enjoyably sassy and attempting to stay cool at all times, while Jaye is the polar opposite, having spent his life coddled by a mother who has warned him of the dangers of almost every situation he might ever find himself in. Åkerman convinces as the housewife/mother with a dangerous past, armed with a skillset that comes to the fore in the second half of the movie, and she's a great actress to set at the centre of things, always able to bring a mix of toughness and sensitivity that has served her well in the few roles that use her in the best way.

There are no surprises here, even the one main twist is eye-rollingly obvious, and no punchlines that can't be predicted by set-ups dotted throughout most of the first half of the movie, but that's not a major problem when you're after something simple, light, and entertaining. Which this is. The worst moment may be a fight scene soundtracked by the song "I Want Candy" (faltering because it attempts to make some characters look cool in fighting mode while letting Marino continue to pratfall alongside them), but it's a small mis-step. The biggest problem the film has is that it is one in a long line of similar comedy-action-thrillers that we've seen over the last decade, a sub-genre that seems to be the perfect choice when streaming services look for extra content.


Saturday 6 February 2021

Shudder Saturday: Head Count (2018)

Remember when everyone embraced It Follows, despite a third act that had one of the dumbest attempts to capture a villain I can think of? The central idea was strong enough to make it stand out, and the execution of the main scare moments was pretty flawless. I mention it here because Head Count is a very similar film, in certain specific ways.

Isaac Jay plays Evan, a young man who heads into the desert for some quality time with his brother (Peyton, played by Cooper Rowe). Meeting a group of students there, and becoming quite immediately drawn to Zoe (Ashleigh Morgan), Evan heads off to spend some time enjoying their company, leaving Peyton behind. Things eventually lead to the inevitable tradition of telling scary stories around a campfire, and Evan scours the internet until he finds a tale about a creature called a Hisji. It's something that appears once its name is spoken five times, but it appears in the guise of someone else in any group of five. And the students number ten, which is two groups of five. And so begins a creepy tale of paranoia and stolen identities.

Written by Michael Nader, Head Count is based on a story idea by first-time director Elle Callahan. The springboard for everything may be a bit silly, and is the weakest part of the film, but it's easy to forgive as the film starts to get interesting, using some more obvious tactics to develop the creepy atmosphere before focusing on the more subtle ways in which it can become unsettling. You may think this is a film that spends a lot of time without any big scares happening, but get used to trying to keep track of the various characters and making sure everyone is where they should be. Callahan has crafted something that feels surprisingly original, and effective, and I am keen to give it a rewatch with my mind/eyes prepared to be even more observant.

Jay is a decent lead, and has to react to some very unexpected scenes in the third act, while Morgan is excellent alongside him, drawing viewers in and staying a likeable and sympathetic character that nobody wants to see affected by this odd, shape-shifting creature. The large supporting cast makes it hard to keep up with everyone, and some individuals make less impact than others, but this also adds to the trickery on display (or not on display, because one extra person being in a group often isn’t noticeable with so many bodies onscreen at any one time).

A promising feature debut from Callahan, who is definitely someone to keep an eye on, Head Count is a fascinating and thought-provoking film, with ideas bubbling under the surface about the sense of self-identity. The developing mistrust and paranoia is slightly reminiscent of The Thing, although it's not on a par with that absolute classic. I'd easily rate it as equal to It Follows though, and would be interested to find out whether or not fans of that film agree with me.


Friday 5 February 2021

Moonwalker (1988)

Cast your mind back, if you can, to the late 1980s. Michael Jackson, as yet untainted by any serious allegations, was massive. I really don't think there was anyone more famous at that time. He was certainly the biggest pop star on the planet, and arguably the most famous person in the world. His appearance had changed considerably, he had a pet chimp named Bubbles, there were rumours of him sleeping in an oxygen tank, and his eccentricity peaked, without any dark clouds gathered overhead (to our knowledge). I was allowed to pick my two main presents when I turned thirteen. I was becoming a teenager, almost an adult by then (to my mind). I picked up the Star Wars RPG manual (a superb tome that I absolutely loved reading through, even if I never did play the thing). And I HAD to get "Bad", on cassette, with a notebook and pencil packaged alongside it. That birthday is one of the clearest memories I have from my childhood years, and was one of my best birthdays ever.

Then came Moonwalker, the movie that Michael Jackson made, based on a story by Michael Jackson, and starring Michael Jackson. Jerry Kramer and Colin Chilvers may be the directors, but this is a Michael Jackson movie. David Newman may be the writer, but this is a Michael Jackson movie. In fact, in 1988 it was THE Michael Jackson movie that any Michael Jackson fan could have wanted. Looking at it nowadays . . . it's a very different experience.

There's an extended opening montage sequence, mashing up a number of Jackson hits (both with the Jackson Five and on his own), and then you get a slim plot. Michael has to spend some time avoiding some very excited fans, and he then becomes the guardian figure to three children (played by Sean Lennon, Kelley Parker, and Bradon Adams), allowing them to see some of his major dance sequences, a la "Smooth Criminal", and protecting them from the evils of drug-dealing Mr. Big (Joe Pesci), who wants to get every kid in the world hooked on his product.

Fascinating for a number of reasons, Moonwalker may be one of the most interesting vanity projects of all time, not only because of the music and visuals, but also because of the way it shows Jackson and his worldview. He wants to be cute and innocent one minute, he wants to be raunchy and sexy the next. He can make anything possible through the power of his dance moves. He likes to transform into different forms. And, most interesting of all, he views a large section of his fanbase as voracious animals who want to tear various strips off him, feeding their hunger while Jackson gives and gives all he can.

Is this a great movie when compared to other proper movies? No. Is it a fascinating and entertaining movie that celebrates someone at the peak of their powers? Yes. Unfortunately, it has an earnestness and lack of self-awareness that helps other star vehicles to be more enjoyable (yes, I'm going to mention Spice World again). Whether or not you can watch it now without considering the accusations made against its star, to simply view it as the time capsule it is and to enjoy the soundtrack, that's up to you. I can. But I also have the strength of that thirteenth birthday memory to boost my opinion of the whole thing.


Thursday 4 February 2021

Hosts (2020)

A feature debut from co-directors Adam Leader and Richard Oakes, who also co-wrote the movie, Hosts is a horror film that should entertain genre fans after a bloody treat. And it certainly makes a decent calling card for Leader and Oakes.

Jack (Neal Ward) and Lucy (Samantha Loxley) are a young couple who have been invited to a neighbour's home for Christmas dinner. But something strange happens just before they head over there. One major bout of possession later, Jack and Lucy are out for blood. And they're also aiming to get Michael (Frank Jakeman), the patriarch of their Christmas dinner hosts, to be more honest with his family. That's really all there is to this, although there are a few more details to come out, both in relation to the family and to the two evil entities.

Ward and Loxley do good work in their main roles, enjoying some time as normal characters in the first few minutes before becoming unfeeling killers. Jakeman is also very good, as are all of his family members (played by Nadia Lamin, Jennifer K Preston, Lee Hunter, and Buddy Skelton, the youngest of the lot). Although there are times when the cast struggle to deliver some of the more ridiculous lines of dialogue, they're not a major problem. I don't think any actors could do well with certain parts of this screenplay.

The biggest problem that Hosts has is when the film-makers move away from the simple core of the film. Although I understand that they may have been worried about delivering something a bit too slight to justify the 89-minute runtime, there's something refreshing about a film that takes one main idea and effectively works a feature around it. It's debatable whether or not Hosts could have been tweaked in other areas to still make it work, but perhaps slimming it down even further could have been beneficial. The opening sequence is enjoyably unexplained, which means that every bit of dialogue that subsequently tries to explain some of the motivation feels unwanted and unnecessary. And the moments that go off on a bit of a tangent, having the actors wax lyrical about some evil deeds, are worse.

Leader and Oakes do a decent job with their direction. It's a shame that they can't avoid one of those main first-time mistakes, scenes that feel as if they either grind things to a halt or simply repeat earlier beats. That's not the biggest error that a film-maker can make though, and there are one or two fantastic gore gags that help to punctuate the proceedings, but it's enough to keep the film from being a truly great discovery.

Hosts is a good, grisly, bit of macabre entertainment. I'd recommend it, and look forward to what Leader and Oakes do next. It's probably not one to revisit though, and some people will probably like it a fair bit less than I did.


Wednesday 3 February 2021

Prime Time: Dahmer (2002)

Anyone with knowledge of serial killers will have heard of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Wisconsin killer who was eventually apprehended by the police and found guilty of murdering 17 men. That's not a spoiler. Not if you know of Dahmer. It's not even a spoiler for this movie, which instead decides to focus on a certain time during Dahmer's various murders, interspersing things with flashbacks to show Dahmer's relationship with his father.

Jeremy Renner plays the title role, a shy young man who seems to be struggling with ways to live his life the way he really wants to. He's spent years processing his own sexuality, and he usually doesn't feel at ease in the company of others. He also wants to create a living zombie. 

There's not much else to say. Jeffrey Dahmer was an evil man who did't look evil. Because serial killers often don't walk around with horns growing out of their heads and glowing red eyes. But even if you're familiar with his M.O. then there may still be one or two moments here that will make you squirm in discomfort, at the very least.

Writer-director David Jacobson knows what he wants to do with the plotting, and he does it all very well. A few shocks scattered throughout are enough to keep you remembering just how messed up Dahmer is, yet nothing feels too overdone or gratuitous. And there are times when you can see how some circuitry has blown, how Dahmer started down a path that made it easier and easier for him to shed any good intentions he may once have had. The movements between the present and the past aren't always immediately clear, but you usually get up to speed quickly enough to see how all of the pieces are fitting together, a jigsaw puzzle of a character study being put together without you having seen the picture on the box.

Renner is excellent, giving a performance that easily ranks as the best I have ever seen from him. He is, understandably, the focus of pretty much every scene, and that makes it hard to heap too much praise on the rest of the cast, who all do well enough. I'll just mention Bruce Davison, who plays Lionel Dahmer. Although Davison is always an excellent actor, it's fortuitous that the man who was the awkward and dangerous Willard portrays the father of the awkward and dangerous Jeffrey Dahmer.

Even more so than films with criminals/anti-heroes at the centre of them, films about serial killers have to walk a fine line between showing the abnormal minds that people find so fascinating without glamourising their horrific crimes. Jacobson walks that line with ease, and he's delivered a film that should work for anyone at all interested in the macabre subject matter.