Monday, 31 May 2021

Mubi Monday: The Two Of Them (1977)

I have now seen approximately half a dozen films from the talented Márta Mészáros. They may vary in terms of quality, although the ones I haven't liked as much as others were still easily worth my time, but I already recommend her work to anyone, without hesitation. Mészáros is positively Bergman-esque in her ability to present people maintaining a calm exterior while their systems are positively ready to explode in a firework display of strong emotions.

The story here revolves around a woman named Mária (Marina Vlady) who takes more than a passing interest in young Juli (Lili Monori). Juli has a defiant streak, mainly as she protects her daughter and expects the worst from people, and a husband who is a violent alcoholic. Mária and Juli start to grow much closer over time, with Mária muddling through a tangle of potential relationship issues as she tries to best help Juli.

Simplifying the central notion of this film, Mária is the well-intentioned progressive female who is far from perfect, despite seeming to have everything much more together than the troubled Juli. It's obvious from the start that the approach taken by Mária can yield much better results than the approaches preferred by those around her, but there comes a point when kindness and magnanimity sometimes need to be supported with a tougher resolve to help people who won't always want to help themselves, whether they feel genuinely unable to improve their own position or whether they become too comfortable in the pattern of always being helped by their new "guardian angel".

Mészáros, directing a script that she worked on with József Balázs, Géza Bereményi, and Ildikó Kórody, approaches the material and characters with her usual mix of cool detachment and sympathy (which I know seems impossible, but she manages it). She knows the difficulties that these women have gone through, are going through, and will continue to go through, and she also knows the many fleeting times in which they could have made some better decisions connected to the men in their lives. It ultimately draws you even closer to the main characters, because we're all prone to making mistakes in life (especially where love is concerned), and Mészáros has been relying on viewers to remember that throughout so many of her exploratory movies.

The cast do a very good job, but there's no point in really mentioning anyone other than the two leads. Although a couple of men provide some complexity to the situation, they're only important in relation to how they affect Mária and Juli. Vlady is easy to like in the former role, and her "happy and settled" demeanour is worn away to show her own problems as things move towards a bittersweet finale that takes more time to highlight the horrors of being caught in the grip of alcoholism, yet also suggests a better future ahead for the two women working together. Monori is just fine, not required to go through as much of a range of emotions as Vlady, but it's the contrast between the two that works best, both having different strengths and weaknesses that allow them to fit together like two perfect jigsaw puzzle pieces.

If you're interested in cinema, throughout different genres and the history of the medium, then Mészáros is someone you should get to know. And The Two Of Them (AKA Women) is another one of her top-tier outings.

8/10

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Sunday, 30 May 2021

Netflix And Chill: Premonition (2007)

One of a couple of movies in the very small subgenre we can label “Sandra Bullock is confused by time not acting in a linear fashion while she tries to save the man she loves”, Premonition is a slick mystery thriller that makes good use of the supernatural idea at the heart of it. It’s just a shame that nobody feels right in the main roles, and the writing and direction remain distinctly average throughout.

Bullock stars as Linda Hanson, mother of two young girls and wife of Jim (Julian McMahon). This is how her character is defined, and that is all viewers need. A police officer comes to the door one day, delivering the awful news that Jim has been killed in a car crash. As distraught as she is, things become more confusing when Linda wakes up “the next morning” and finds Jim alive again. She eventually gets pulled back to the time in which Jim remains dead. And is then back to before the crash. And so it goes on, with Linda trying to figure out how to fix things, while those around her assume that grief has made her lose her mind.

Written by Bill Kelly and directed by Mennan Yapo, Premonition perfectly illustrates why these two people have a very limited filmography, and nothing that stands out as being even close to this kind of thing. There’s a solid central premise to be worked with here, but neither writer nor director leans hard enough into any direction with it, although things improve slightly in the third act. None of the plotting keeps viewers off-kilter, meaning we all know more than the main character almost every step of the way. And there’s an annoying refusal to make things any more dramatic, or tense, or horrific, than your average evening soap opera.

Bullock is okay in the lead, but I am only saying that because I like Bullock. She feels miscast, just never as comfortable as the stressed-out and mentally fraying woman she has to portray. McMahon is also miscast, mainly because he is SO good at playing shitty men that it can be hard to root for him as a normal guy. Peter Stormare and Nia Long are both sorely underused, the child actors are decent enough, and Kate Nelligan does good work as Linda’s concerned mother. There’s also a small role for Amber Valletta, who is perhaps the biggest victim of the poor writing and execution.

Not exciting, not tense, not populated by people you can really care for, I predict most people will rate Premonition even lower than I do.

3/10

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Saturday, 29 May 2021

Shudder Saturday: Skull: The Mask (2020)

Everyone knows that you shouldn't wear ancient masks containing huge power, especially if their mythology is known to scholars and people searching for the thing. Just ask Jim Carrey. The mask in Skull: The Mask does a lot more than turn your face green and amplify your inner character. It turns the wearer into a relentless, and seemingly unstoppable, killer.

The start of the movie shows the mask being moved, and things end in a strange, and very bloody, crime scene. It then really kicks into gear when someone cleaning up the crime scene (Rurik Jr) is taken over by the mask, sending him on a path of death. Meanwhile, a woman named Beatriz (Natallia Rodrigues) ends up tracking the item, which intertwines her fate with that of an interested party named Tack (Ivo Müller).

People often dismiss horror fans, claiming they are easily pleased by some of the worst that cinema has to offer. Alright, sometimes that is true (after all, if a film has nothing else going for it then I have often held out hope for some extreme gore or gratuitous nudity to at least help make it watchable), but we're also often a discerning bunch of cineastes. Those who dive much deeper into the genre than just the biggest mainstream releases tend to have explored a lot of older films, and many world cinema titles. But that doesn't stop us from sitting back and being entertained by something that aims to provide some simple entertainment. And it's hard to think of a horror sub-genre more designed for simple entertainment than the slasher movies. Which is why I'm surprised that I didn't enjoy Skull: The Mask more.

In essence, it has so many elements I should love. It's a slasher, and not a bloodless one. It adds a decent backstory for the killing, without letting that detract too often from some of the carnage. And the visual design of the main killer is pretty great. Sadly, it never really makes the best use of the central idea, and none of the supporting characters are really worth rooting for, considering most of their motivation.

The cast all do well enough, but nobody stands out. Rodrigues is certainly a good presence, but everyone is overshadowed by the hulking menace portrayed by Rurik Jr. I'll also mention Ricardo Gelli, a priest who gets to have a great battle with the killer at one point.

Written and directed by Armando Fonseca, ably assisted by Kapel Furman, this is a film that feels like a debut feature, even though it isn't one. Neither man makes a firm decision to lean into any one direction with the material, which means you get the various strands feeling a bit disconnected until the inevitable bringing together of characters in time for the grand finale.

There's some fun to be had here, and some subtext that you may find interesting, but other people seem to have enjoyed this much more than I did. I felt it just did enough to drag itself above average, but no more. Ah well, I can always go back to singing along to "Cuban Pete".

6/10

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Friday, 28 May 2021

Joshua AKA The Devil's Child (2007)

A film with an alternative title that is as useful as it is incorrect, Joshua is a “bad seed” movie that sadly never settles on just the right tone it wants to have. It’s a creepy slow burn on the way to an unsettling final scene, but it’s neither subtle nor ridiculous enough to be as impressive or entertaining as it could be.

Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga are Brad and Abby, the parents of a newborn baby girl. The newborn already has an older brother, Joshua (Jacob Kogan), and it is established early on that the family unit isn’t as cosy and happy as some. Abby is suffering, the baby won’t stop crying, and Joshua gets weirder and weirder, and potentially more dangerous to those around him.

Directed by George Ratliff, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Gilbert, this is a silly film, but only when you stop to think of the many ways in which the main characters could resolve their situation. To the credit of the film-makers, the pacing of the third act, as things hurtle towards a worthwhile “punchline”, helps you to overlook the many plot holes.

The cast also help, of course. I will watch Rockwell in anything, and he does well in his role here, and Farmiga is easily just as good a performer as he is (although she hasn’t had as many plum roles). Both are playing people under different pressures, and a lot of that is applied by young Joshua, even though they don’t always realise it. In that vital role, Kogan is pretty good, although his entire persona is defined as awkward and/or creepy. Michael McKean has a small, but welcome, role, playing the boss of Brad, and only really caring about anything that affects the profit margin of the business. And you have some decent moneys for both Celia Weston, as the gran, and Dallas Roberts, as the uncle Joshua enjoys spending time with.

It would be fair to warn new parents away from this, considering the unrelenting atmosphere of misery and stress that permeates the entire runtime, because the scenes that play out more realistically will resonate strongly with anyone who has, for example, struggled to get a baby to feed or sleep. Most people, hopefully, won’t have a little psychopath making their lives worse, but parenting can be hard enough, at times, when you cannot find an immediate solution to keep a child content.

That aside, Joshua should have been deeply unsettling by and disturbing, or simply just bonkers and fun. Sadly, it is just disappointingly average.

5/10

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Thursday, 27 May 2021

Mirror Mirror (1990)

A title I have been aware of for years, but somehow never got around to seeing, Mirror Mirror is a decent enough, if unspectacular, horror movie that benefits from some interesting names in the supporting cast.

Rainbow Harvest stars as Megan Gordon, a young woman who has just moved into a new home with her mother, Susan (Karen Black). Moving into a new home means also integrating into a new school crowd, which Megan finds difficult. But things look set to improve when she makes a friend in Nikki (Kristin Dattilo). They may improve even more as she starts to inadvertently draw some power from a mirror that sits in her new home. 

Directed by Marina Sargenti, who also co-wrote the screenplay with about three other people, this is an odd, but not unsatisfying, mix of offbeat character moments and standard “Carrie-esque” fare. The mirror itself may be the main supernatural force at the heart of the film, but everything becomes much more interesting when Megan starts to realise what is going on, and subsequently starts to enjoy her power. It's worth noting, however, that this is a tame horror movie, with the death scenes lacking any major bloodshed and gore. Not that any horror always needs loads of the red stuff, but this would have been more fun with added splatter. At least there are some good special effects used in a couple of key scenes.

Harvest is good in the main role, maintaining a persona that never feels completely malicious, even as her actions become worse and worse. Dattilo is perfectly fine in her role, even if it is a much easier one, and Charlie Spradling is good value as the bully, Charleen. There are some young males in the cast, but they make much less of an impression. Karen Black doesn’t get enough screentime, despite having a couple of superb scenes with the inimitable William Sanderson, but you do get a decent number of little scenes featuring the much-loved Yvonne De Carlo (playing someone who learn of the history attached to the mirror), and that makes everything better.

Very derivative, easily forgettable, and lacking one standout sequence to make it one to recommend, Mirror Mirror nevertheless entertains for the runtime. And I will inevitably check out the sequels one day. 

6/10

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Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Prime Time: Among The Shadows (2019)

It is a well-used trope in the horror genre, the hidden war of vampires vs. werewolves. We could all make at least two franchises based around this idea, and there are many more stories about it that haven’t penetrated popular culture. And now Among The Shadows is an addition to the battling lycan/vamp subgenre.

And it is absolutely terrible. 

I’m not exaggerating. This is the kind of film to show people who think something like Army Of The Dead or Jurassic Park III is the worst thing ever. It’s staggeringly incompetent in almost every way, and manages to take a very basic plot and construct everything so messily that you stop caring long before the third act plays out.

Lindsay Lohan (or, very possibly, a hologram of Lindsay Lohan, considering how often she is shot against an awful, fake backdrop) plays Patricia Sherman, a recent widow who hires Kristy Wolfe (Charlotte Beckett) to find the killer of her husband. Political games are being played, the war between werewolves and vampires seems to be heating up, and Lieutenant McGregor (Gianni Capaldi) spends a lot of time grumbling and looking broody in the middle of it all.

It’s unsurprising to see that neither director Tiago Mesquita nor writer Mark Morgan have many other feature films to their credit. I would be happy if this one was their last, unless they learned so much from this experience that anything else from them proves to be at least ten times better. The only thing worse than the plotting is the dialogue, which almost makes you feel sorry for the cast. Almost. And then you have the direction, all slo-mo mood shots, disparate moments featuring nonsensical voiceover, and occasional unexciting confrontations.

It wouldn’t be saved by better people acting onscreen, but it’s certainly not helped by the three nominal leads. Lohan is hampered by the fact that she looks like she was added to every scene by George Lucas, Beckett is never once believable in her role, and Capaldi is a laughable stereotype who belongs in a very different movie (probably something more like Loaded Weapon 1). I won’t even mention anyone else, and I am sure a few people may keep this one off their C.V.

I almost gave this the very lowest rating possible, and it’s certainly a contender. Yet it manages to somehow remain a bit more watchable than some. It’s unbelievable, atrocious, and sometimes painful, but it also becomes strangely mesmerising to watch something so consistently inept. And it isn’t quite as dull as some films I have endured, which is something I view as the biggest cinematic sin.

2/10

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Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Fast & Furious (2009)

New Model. Original Parts. That was the way Fast & Furious was advertised, heavily pushing the fact that Vin Diesel was back, as were Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster. It's apparently what fans of the series wanted. And it's hard to argue with the decision, considering the enduring success of the series across two decades.

Let me try to keep things very simple. After an intro that shows Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and co. pulling off a dangerous heist, Dom knows that he's bringing down too much heat on those close to him. So he decides that it's time to leave. Then Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is killed. It may have something to do with a major criminal named Campos, which leads to Dom crossing paths once again with Brian (Paul Walker), the famously criminal-friendly cop who is somehow back in the bosom of the FBI workplace. The way to get to Campos is to, obviously, show off your driving skills, and that means Dom and Brian race against one another, and others, to get closer to their target.

You know what, I liked this a little more this time around than I did when I first saw it. I think it has an enjoyable simplicity to it, even as it starts to put the pieces in place for what would define the shape of the series for the next few films. It's more overtly showing Vin Diesel as the smartest and toughest and most desirable male in any situation, which is also irritating, but even that is nowhere as bothersome as it is in other Diesel-fulled cinematic engines.

With director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan once again along for the ride, Fast & Furious is a film that shows everyone being very comfortable with the format, with delivering what people expect, and with the chemistry between the leads (the frisson between Dom and Brian is something we haven't experienced this strongly since Tom Hanks started side-eyeing Wilson the volleyball).

I'm not the biggest fan of either Diesel or Walker, but they're both pretty perfect in their main roles here. Diesel gets to do all of his usual stuff, but Walker has a bit more variety and fun, especially in his running "war" with one main colleague (played by the great Shea Wigham). Rodriguez gets taken offscreen very early on, but at least she doesn't have to spend the rest of the film fawning over Diesel, with those moments now taken by Gal Gadot. Brewster, on the other hand, has to split her time between looking lovingly at her brother and looking ready to forgive and fall back in love with the cop who lied to her before. John Ortiz and Laz Alonso are both good fun, playing a couple of main villains, and fans of the third film will be pleased to see a small role for Sung Kang.

It's a different level of ridiculousness than the films that would come along after it, but this is all still quite ridiculous. Fortunately, it's done with an emphasis on sheer entertainment and thrills, with a decent smattering of lively car races and some bruising fights. The more of these films I rewatch, the easier it is to see why the series has developed into the massive success it is.

7/10

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Monday, 24 May 2021

Mubi Monday: Touchez Pas au Grisbi AKA Hands Off The Loot (1954)

If a film has some criminals hoping to enjoy the spoils of their last big job then you may find it a familiar tale. The same can be said about a film that has a criminal with a relationship that causes him to lose his cool or make some major error. And I'd also say that any film showing a wiser and more experienced criminal figuring out the best way to defeat a stronger, inelegant, younger wannabe would be one you have seen a number of times before. All of these things are here in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (which also goes by the decent English title of Hands Off The Loot), but it doesn't ever feel redundant, thanks to some minor, but vital, tweaks to the plotting, and a very talented cast doing great work.

Jean Gabin and René Dary are Max and Riton, respectively, two elderly gangsters who hope to enjoy a life of comfortable retirement. Unfortunately, Riton has been a bit careless around a young lady, Josy (Jeanne Moreau), who has also been receiving attention from a gangster named Angelo (Lino Ventura). There's a lot of gold at stake, and Angelo wants it all for himself.

Directed by Jacques Becker, who also helped to adapt the novel by Albert Simonin (with the help of both Maurice Griffe and Simonin himself), what you have here is a film that knows how to make everything work perfectly. Although not overlong, a bit of time is taken to introduce the main characters and their circumstances. And everything plays out in a way that is highly plausible, grounding the characters and events in a world that isn’t just all whizzing bullets and outrageous schemes.

It also helps that most of the film can rest on the strong shoulders of Gabin, delivering a superb performance that easily offsets his advanced age with his intelligence and cool approach to everything. Dary is also very good, but has to play the weaker of the two men, the one who makes a mistake that threatens to undo all of their hard work. Ventura is a convincingly threatening young heavy, and Moreau is lovely enough to see why Dary would fall for her so heavily. There are also a number of wonderful supporting players, all helping to round out the movie world (whether helping or hindering our leads).

Entertaining from start to finish, and with a pacy and thrilling third act, Touchez Pas au Grisbi is highly recommended to fans of gangster fare, French cool, and tightly-constructed crime thrillers that balance the cinematic with events that feel completely plausible.

8/10

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Sunday, 23 May 2021

Netflix And Chill: Army Of The Dead (2021)

I went in without any expectations, I assure you I did. Zack Snyder isn't someone I have a very strong opinion on, despite his ability to stir up lots of fans online and get away with much more than most directors would. I like his visual style, he's done a couple of great modern blockbusters, and I'll still try to view anything he directs with an open mind.

Unfortunately, it seems that Snyder, like one or two other big name directors I could mention, has started to believe his own hype. And may be surrounded by people who don't say no often enough. There's no other reason I can think of for the succession of bad decisions made here. And I will roll my eyes and wag my finger at anyone who forgives all other errors because "zombie tiger . . . coooool."

The plot is simple. A nasty accident means that there's a massive outbreak of zombieitis in Las Vegas. There's a lot of carnage, and then Las Vegas is basically quarantined, thanks to a handy complete ring of large containers placed around it. If you're already unable to handle this level of disbelief, it just gets worse from here. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is tasked by Mr. Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to put together a team and head into Las Vegas, with the aim of collecting a massive sum of money from a casino vault before the place is flattened by nuclear rockets that don't cause any other issues for the surrounding area. Yes, this is a film in which a plan to enter a zombie-infested area just to snatch millions of dollars becomes one of the least dumb things in it, certainly by the time you get to that nuclear rocket strike.

It's also a film that features a fleeting cameo by Sean Spicer. At that point I knew that it would have to work bloody hard to win me back around. It never did.

There's some good stuff here. The gore isn't tamed down, there's an interesting variety to the zombies, and Bautista is a good leading man. It also helps that they ended up with Tig Notaro in the role of Marianne Peters, the pilot for this exploit. Notaro, from her very first scene to her last, is gold. And I'm not completely oblivious to the coolness of a zombie bloody tiger, which is involved in what is the very best death sequence in the whole film.

That's all I can think of for the positives. The script, co-written by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold, is mostly awful. Everyone is given too much time, no matter how minor their characters should be, the motivations are unbelievable, and the attempt to establish an actual society within the zombie realm is a big mis-step, especially when you get to a reveal in the third act that is properly hilarious when I suspect it was meant to be a serious attempt to surprise people. Surprises are lacking throughout, from the characters who turn out to have other agendas to the inevitable resolution to different relationship issues.

The runtime, just under two and a half hours, is another issue. This is a film that should have been all about forward momentum, especially if that would help to distract from the poor script, but it meanders around instead, with Snyder needing to show off every idea that popped into his head while creating the film.

Although the cast aren't bad, some are better than others. Standouts are Bautista (not great, but feels just right in his role), Notaro, Nora Arnezeder (playing someone who can guide the team into Las Vegas), Matthias Schweighöfer (the safecracker), and Garret Dillahunt. But when is Dillahunt not a standout? Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, and Raúl Castillo do what is necessary, but are either hampered by the script or just not as good as some of their co-stars.

It's not that I hated watching every minute of this. I just wished that I'd spent two and a half hours watching something much better. And there's a much better film to be made from this premise. Snyder, however, does what Snyder does. And that includes filling up the soundtrack with some horrendous cover songs, despite starting well with another bit of Richard Cheese (used so memorably in Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead remake).

I've already seen some high praise for this, and it's confounding. Everyone can like whatever they like, and it's always different strokes for different folks, but I can't help thinking that some of the people rating the film so highly are simply looking to continue keeping the pedestal upright that Snyder has managed to get himself placed on. 

4/10

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Saturday, 22 May 2021

Shudder Saturday: Psycho Goreman (2020)

Written and directed by Steven Kostanski, a part of the hugely talented Astron-6 company, Psycho Goreman is the best film I have seen in years when it comes to nailing the tone and sheer sense of fun we used to find throughout many silly sci-fi horrors of the 1980s. It also has buckets of blood and guts thrown around every main sequence, so fans of practical effects should have a field day with it.

Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) finds a gem that leads to the freedom of an imprisoned being of darkness, pain, and death. But it also controls him. This leaves Mimi in charge of a creature, now named Psycho Goreman AKA PG (played by Matthew Ninaber, voiced by Steven Vlahos), that could destroy her entire planet. Others are out to kill Psycho Goreman, but he soon reluctantly starts to warm to Mimi, her brother (Luke, played by Owen Myre), and some others who learn of his existence.

There are a few things that work here to make Psycho Goreman as good as it can be. First of all, the script and direction by Kostanski get things absolutely perfect throughout. You get an opening crawl to set the scene, there's a montage or two, a number of lines and moments are side-splittingly funny, and there's even a rap song over the end credits that pretty much narrates the entire film you just watched. Yep, this is a film that will make you think you just came back from the video shop with something that actually lives up to the cover art.

Secondly, the performances are all wonderful. Hanna plays a little girl who also happens to be deliciously carefree about people living and dying, a pint-sized psycho herself, and Myre is suitably nervous throughout, because of his sister and then PG. The physical performances from people disguised under a large amount of prosthetics deserve a good amount of praise, with Ninaber and Kristen MacCulloch (as Pandora, a visitor looking to finish PG off, once and for all) having a much bigger share of the screentime than any of the other supporting players. And you have Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey enjoying themselves as a pair of concerned parents who then simply return to arguing with one another as their strained relationship comes back into focus.

Last, but by no means least, the practical effects are sublime. Over the top, inventive, and often moving from properly nasty to properly hilarious (if it's in line with your sense of humour). Top marks to everyone involved with that side of things. In fact, just top marks to everyone involved.

The music fits, the visual style is perfect, this just all blends together to deliver something I'd actually label as perfect, for what it is. So many films have come along in the past decade or so that people have told me were a throwback to fun flicks of the '80s, and none of them have got it just right (the best have all come from Kostanski and co. though). Psycho Goreman gets it right. I can't wait to rewatch it already. I may just listen to that fun rap song again, in the meantime.

10/10

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Friday, 21 May 2021

The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

First of all, before anyone gets the wrong idea, this isn't going to be a series of reviews of the whole The Fast And The Furious franchise. I've already reviewed 2 Fast 2 Furious some time ago. I also already reviewed Hobbs And Shaw here. A number of other instalments in the series were reviewed when I was writing for Flickfeast. So I can always point you towards my thoughts on any specific title in the series that you may want to read my opinion on (if you're strange enough to ever want that), but there's still very little rhyme or reason to my review scheduling.

But on with this one anyway.

Moving away from featuring any of the characters that we'd seen in the first two movies, this third Fast And Furious film starts by introducing viewers to Sean Boswell (played by Lucas Black). Sean likes his car, and is a good racer. He also gets himself into trouble quite a lot. After his latest escapade, Sean ends up being given one last chance, which involves being sent to Tokyo to live with his father. It's not long until he takes a shine to Neela (Nathalie Kelley), befriends a young entrepreneur named Twinkie (Bow Wow), and attempts to make his name on the racing circuit. But the racing style is very different from any he has known before. It's all about drifting. Han (Sung Kang) takes a liking to Sean, and agrees to teach him how to drift while Sean runs errands for him. D. K. (Drift King, played by Brian Tee) really dislikes Sean, setting up tension that may just lead to things needing resolved with one major drift race before the end credits roll.

I used to view The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift as the black sheep of the Fast And The Furious movies. It didn't really feel connected to the others, apart from a tenuous link at the very end, and the different racing style on display meant that it didn't have the simple engine-revving thrills of the other movies. But time has been kind to it, or I am just getting softer in my old age. I now view this as a solid entry in the series because of the way it manages to deliver the expected driving sequences while also doing things a bit differently.

The first in this series to be written by Chris Morgan, who would maintain a prime position with the series for the next half a dozen entries, and directed by Justin Lin, who would also direct the next three films, this is an energetic and fun film that perhaps relies a bit too much on the charm of a leading man who doesn't have the benefit of top-tier star power. Not that Black is bad (I really like him), he just isn't a fully-fledged star ready to fit into this kind of material.

Other than Black, who I will reiterate is very good (he just stands out when you compare him to the other main leads in these movies), Kang and Tee stand out for different reasons. Kang is effortlessly cool and charming, a great addition to the core cast of characters, while Tee is a worthy competitor/threat to our young hero. Kelley is nice enough, Bow Wow is good fun in his role, and there are fun cameos for Sonny Chiba and Keiichi Tsuchiya (AKA the Drift King).

The first main race sequence is a destructive blast, the next main race sequence is lively and fun, you get a montage or two to show the learning curve for how to drift, and the third act ramps up the danger while setting up the final race. It is, as these movies so often are, exactly what you want if you know how these things usually play out. It's also an interesting stepping stone in the storyline that weaves through most of The Fast And The Furious movies.

7/10

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Thursday, 20 May 2021

The Fast And The Furious (2001)

Point Break with flashy car races - that's all The Fast And The Furious is, but that's all it needs to be. It's a lot of brainless fun with a lot of very good looking cars on screen for most of its duration. There's also a lot of turn of the century CGI working to make the speedy sequences seem speedier and the car engine parts sometimes visible when drivers push the button for an essential NOS boost.

Paul Walker plays Brian, an undercover cop trying to get into the street racing circuit to find out just who is responsible for a number of daring heists on moving trucks (trucks that are moving, not trucks being used by removal companies). The prime suspect is Dominic Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, who is the centre of the street racing scene and the man that most of the main players look up to. But Brian gets close, too close. He likes Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and gets to like Dom as he gets closer to cracking the case.

Rob Cohen directs with aptitude and certainly knows that, whenever possible, the car is the star here. The script, written by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, and David Ayer, is full of nonsense that builds into a creed these racers live by, but it gets the plot from A to B to Z, and has occasional moments of wit in there.

The cast all do what they have to. Paul Walker is likeable enough in the main role, Vin Diesel is a big man who growls a lot, Jordana Brewster looks pretty, Michelle Rodriguez does that scowl-gurn thing as the tough woman once again. There's also Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, the great Ted Levine, Ja Rule, Noel Gugliemi (you may not recognise the name, but you'll know his face) and Matt Schulze (playing a douchebag who also happens to be the one person that is right about the character played by Walker).

Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack features a mix of loud rock and dance/hip-hop tunes with a strong bassline. It's what you'd expect for a movie about cars with stereo systems that cost more than most people's first runaround. What is surprising is how bad some of the processed shots are with some of the driving scenes akin to something from the 1950s. But, of course, you're not supposed to be looking out of the windows, you're supposed to be looking at the attractive stars and their attractive cars.

It's good fun, there are some enjoyable race sequences and good stuntwork on display, and, as I'm not a "gearhead", I'd say you can add an extra point if you're REALLY into cars. The best is yet to come though, and this should be viewed as the starting point for a franchise that would go from strength to strength (even the weaker instalments don't stop it from easily being the best movie series built around Vin Diesel).

7/10

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Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Prime Time: The Turning (2020)

Having actually read “The Turn Of The Screw” some years ago, the classic horror tale from Henry James, I am very familiar with, and a big fan of, the story beats. I am also a big fan of The Innocents, and have even been lucky enough to see it adapted into a stage version that included puppets. Because what isn’t made better by puppets?

Despite the poor to middling reviews, I was looking forward to this interpretation of the tale. Mainly because I would always be happy to see it delivered to new audiences. And I am a massive fan of Mackenzie Davis.

Davis plays Kate Mandell, a young woman who takes a job teaching one young child, Flora (Brooklynn Prince) in a large house that only contains the two of them and the live-in helper, Mrs. Gross (Barbara Marten). All seems okay at the start, but tensions soon rise when Flora’s older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard) unexpectedly comes home from school. And something bad happened between the other staff who used to be employed there.

Written by Chad and Carey W. Hayes, possibly best known for writing The Conjuring, The Turning is a strange misfire that ultimately lets down everyone involved, and the blame needs to be shared out by the writers, and director Floria Sigismondi. 

Those familiar with the tale already will undoubtedly wonder why so much of the ambiguity seems to have been removed. There’s also the strange decision to set it in the 1990s, without that really factoring in at all. And don’t get me started on the absolutely atrocious ending, which I am sure was intended to make up for the rest of the mishandled third act. But doesn’t.

The cast don’t do a bad job, but cannot distract from writing and direction that wants to undermine the better elements of the story. Davis is particularly good in the lead role, just the right amount of warmth, naïveté, and nervousness, while both Prince and Wolfhard do well, even if the latter suffers from the fact that his character is written to be so unsympathetic. Marten is a formidable figure, and the far-too-brief screentime for Joely Richardson allows her to make a strong impression, even if the inclusion of her character feels largely redundant until the very end of the film.

The Turning is ultimately a drama that is hard to care about, a horror film with no actual scares or atmosphere, and only really serves as a shining example of how not to reinterpret a classic for modern audiences.

4/10

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Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Microwave Massacre (1979)

In the history of movies, there have been few cult works as inept and horribly old-fashioned (in terms of both attitudes and style) than Microwave Massacre. It is an exploitation piece that tries, and fails, to balance things between the nasty and the comedic.

Jackie Vernon is Donald, a construction worker who is stuck in a love/hate relationship with his wife. He doesn’t enjoy his life, despite spending part of his work day ogling women who pass by the construction site while daring to have breasts. Donald kills his wife, and his sense of taste is changed forever when he accidentally eats a part of her that was stored in the freezer. This leads to him picking up a variety of women, somehow, to kill and eat them.

Written by Thomas Singer and directed by Wayne Berwick, this is horrible from start to finish. And yet it’s also strangely mesmerising, a car crash caught on film that everyone decided to release to the public, years after it was completed. Almost every line of dialogue is either aiming to offend or make you groan (in a couple of ways), and it certainly makes for a unique viewing experience.

Vernon is, and there’s no diplomatic way to say this, dire in the main role. His delivery is on a par with someone trying to fake a pratfall video in order to have an online viral hit. To be fair to him though, nobody else does any better. Berwick is clearly directing without any care for the performances, either due to time restrictions, a low budget, inexperience, or a mixture of all of those things.

You get some gratuitous nudity, some gore that would have to struggle to look any more fake, people failing to stay still enough when they’re playing dead, and truly terrible “witty” lines that will make you want to cut your own ears off. Which makes it perfect to watch when you want something enjoyably dumb and entertainingly atrocious.

4/10

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Monday, 17 May 2021

Mubi Monday: The Reunion (2013)

I have said this many times before, and will keep saying it until the end of my days. The people who tell you that “school gives you the best years of your life” are full of shit. They had a lovely time, obviously, and were fortunate enough to fit in and be popular during the crucial years of development in an environment that treats a lack of confidence, and/or a sense of being different from everyone else, like a drop of blood in a tank full of piranha. 

Anna Odell, artists and film-maker, knows this. You could, quite rightly, say that the best thing to do is to shake off the stench of those horrible memories and win the war, after so many lost battles, by doing well and being happy in your adult life. But what about those who behaved so deplorably? Saying “oh, they were just kids” isn’t good enough. It is as harmful a way to continually perpetuate bad behaviour as the awful “boys will be boys” mantra. Because we were all kids, roughly of the same age. And not everyone decided to be a bully to others. Not everyone joined in with the mockery, or caved in to the peer pressure. And that is tough, especially when peer pressure could crush you like a huge boulder.

But back to Odell. Having not received an invite to her school reunion, Odell decides to make a movie about what could have happened, had she been there and decided to call people out on their behaviour from decades ago. She then calls up her ex-school”mates” and tries to show them the film, trying to get their side of the story. The Reunion is the film interpretation of that real experience, including the adults having a chance to talk and consider why their own recollections don’t match up with the recollections of those who suffered at their hands, and I was on the side of Odell for the entire runtime.

Uncomfortable and confrontational, Odell has created something that should actually be required viewing in most schools. It’s amazing that we’re where we are today and this remains a daily issue. Nobody realises how bad it gets. Why? Simple, bullied kids don’t want to tell adults (because there’s nothing that makes your bullying worse than going to an adult who tries to sort it out as adults would . . . it doesn’t work that way). And bullies either hide it well from their parents and other grown-ups, or simply repeat behaviour taught to them by parents who never really matured beyond their high school level.

This is the first movie, art piece, I have seen from Odell. It definitely won’t be my last. She’s instantly become a bit of a hero of mine, and I am sure a lot of other people will feel the same, especially if they didn’t enjoy their high school years.

9/10

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Sunday, 16 May 2021

Netflix And Chill: The Mitchells Vs The Machines (2021)

Sometimes you cannot stop hearing about a new movie that everyone has been watching, and enjoying, and that was the case with The Mitchells Vs The Machines. I tried to keep my expectations in check, but I must admit that hearing almost unanimous praise for it made me think I was going to really like it. I also thought it was made by producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, considering how many people had to mention them while discussing the film (and I guess I just joined them). It's actually directed and co-written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, although it definitely fits nicely within the selection of brilliant animated movies that Lord and Miller have delivered to audiences over the last decade or so.

Young Katie Mitchell is an aspiring film-maker who has just been accepted into a film school in California. The night before she is due to head off, however, her technophobic father, Rick, breaks her laptop, which could be the final nail in the coffin for their already-strained relationship. Desperate to think of a way to make amends, Rick decides to cancel Katie's flight, and packs up the car for a road trip for the whole family. That's him, Katie, Linda (Katie's mother), Aaron (Katie's younger brother), and a goofy dog named Monchi. As they drive on their lengthy trip, it eventually becomes apparent that there's an apocalyptic robot uprising taking place, all because a tech guru made a show of dismissing some super-smart computer AI for an upgraded line of robots that he assures everybody would never turn evil and try to destroy humanity . . . mere seconds before they all turn evil and try to destroy humanity. 

With an energetic animation style that may put some people off, and a runtime that is closer to two hours than ninety minutes, there's a feeling here that this is a film made by people who were allowed to have as much fun as possible, and incorporate a multitude of gags and homages within the storyline. It generally works really well though, and that approach allows the wide range of references and in-jokes to play out without feeling dated (not something I would always say about a film that features a Kill Bill reference, for example, although the fact that it's also very much playing on the Lone Wolf & Cub imagery also helps).

The voice cast is pretty perfect throughout. The Mitchell family are made up of Danny McBride (Rick/Dad), Maya Rudolph (Linda/Mum), Mike Rianda (Aaron), and Abbi Jacobson (Katie). They interact so well as a family unit that there are times when you can easily forget this is an animated movie. And the rest of the cast is full of delights, from Olivia Colman as PAL, the AI, to Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett as a pair of confused robots. There's a "perfect" set of neighbours, with the adults voiced by Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, a small role for Conan O'Brien, and some great Furby sound effects for one main sequence.

The lessons learned are ones that we've mainly seen before, but there's a rather unique viewpoint offered when Mr. Mitchell finally realises just how good the creative work of his daughter is, and why she puts so much energy into something that it turns out a lot of other people enjoy. It's something that a lot of young viewers will relate to, and maybe even a number of adults who have yet to realise that the only thing that matters when doing something you love is that YOU enjoy doing it (case in point . . . this blog).

Well worth seeing, and with definite sequel potential, The Mitchells Vs The Machines could have been a perfect 90-100 minute movie. It is, instead, a really good 113 minutes. That time spent in the company of it isn't wasted, but it notably affects the pacing, mostly in the first half.

8/10

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Saturday, 15 May 2021

Shudder Saturday: The Reckoning (2020)

It's hard to say why The Reckoning doesn't really work as well as it should. Perhaps it's the feeling of watching something from Neil Marshall that is far below what we've been used to getting from him in years gone by, perhaps it is the fact that the story is far too familiar to fans of classic horror (coming closest to the fantastic Witchfinder General). Perhaps it's even the irritating score from Christopher Drake that swells and rolls around as if it is accompanying scenes with much more dramatic weight in them. 

Charlotte Kirk stars as Grace Haverstock, a woman who is left a widow when her husband visits a local tavern and drinks from the wrong cup, giving himself a dose of the plague. Trying to keep her property and land, and rejecting the overbearing advances of the local squire (Steve Pendleton), who doesn't mind getting what he wants by force. Upsetting a few different people with her attempts to simply get on with the rest of her life, for the benefit of herself and her young child, Grace is soon accused of being a witch. Which means the Witchfinder General, John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), is invited along to deal with her. 

Not ever tense or bloody enough to be a great horror, and not ever affecting enough to be a great drama, The Reckoning sits in a bit of an unsatisfying middle ground. It's all the more annoying for the fact that there are some very good moments here and there, but they're in a movie that takes just under 2 hours to say nothing really worth your time. If you don't know by now that a horribly large amount of women were accused of witchcraft, tortured until they confessed, and killed then this might be an eye-opener for you. Otherwise, it's certainly not the wake-up call that it seems to present itself as.

Based on a story by Antony Jones and Edward Evers-Swindell, the script co-written by Evers-Swindell with Marshall and Kirk is entirely predictable and composed of moments that we've seen a number of times before. Which isn't such a big problem when you have some great scene-stealing from someone like Pertwee.

It's more of a problem when you have the movie resting on the shoulders of Kirk, who doesn't ever feel like a good fit for the lead role. She's not exactly terrible, but always feels like she's obviously acting. It's like when a talented child actor attacks their first lead role in a new stage show with the same approach they gave to their previous work. The performance may not be bad, but it feels out of time and place, and you can tell they're working constantly all the way up at eleven (to use a Spinal Tap-ism). Waddington is entertainingly horrible, Suzanne Magowan does alright as an assistant to Pertwee's character, and Callum Goulden is decent as a young man out to help the lead. But it's Pertwee who does the best work, bringing the right kind of energy to help save this from being a complete bore.

I've seen far worse than this. I can also easily think of about a dozen movies you should watch before this (one mentioned in the first paragraph, but I'd also list the likes of The Witch, A Field In England, Blood On Satan's Claw, 1960s Black Sunday, and a few others). There are even at least two episodes of Inside No. 9 that come close enough to this material to make them worth a watch ahead of this. Work your way through all of those before giving this your time.

4/10

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Friday, 14 May 2021

The Rock (1996)

Despite being directed by Michael Bay, The Rock comes oh so close to being a perfect modern action movie. SO close. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that it's only a horribly-edited car chase sequence that drags it down. Everything else, from the predictable moments of cheese to the interplay between the leads, is absolutely spot on.

A group of soldiers, led by General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris), steal some very nasty chemical weapons and take over Alcatraz. They have a number of citizens held hostage and are threatening to send some guided missiles to give many of the people of San Francisco an instant death sentence. The people in charge need to send in some Navy SEALS, led by Commander Anderson (Michael Biehn), but that team needs to be accompanied by a chemical weapons expert, Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), and John Mason (Sean Connery). Mason is the only person to have ever escaped from Alcatraz. In fact, he is pretty good at escape, which is why the main government representative is wary of getting him to help out. Mason was alleged to have stolen a microfilm just chock full of many dark and dirty secrets decades ago, and he's been held without trial ever since. Maybe revisiting Alcatraz will help him to become a free man once more.

You may not have thought so from the first sentence, but I tend to enjoy the movies of Michael Bay. They're absolutely fine when you're in the mood for some slick, bombastic, action. But they are rarely truly great. The Rock is truly great, and that is often despite the usual style of Bay being stamped all over it. It’s great because of the characters scattered throughout the groups of heroes and villains, and great because of a script, by David Weisner, Douglas Cook, and Mark Rosner, that makes things more morally shaded and complex than most of these action blockbusters. Ed Harris gets to play arguably the most interesting and ambiguous “villain” of the nineties, and he is just one essential part of the puzzle.

Cage is fun in his role, playing someone who steps up to do what needs done, despite being way out of his depth. Connery is perfect, an old survivor who has retained skills that make him a great ally or dangerous enemy. And Harris holds your attention completely every time he’s onscreen. The supporting cast also includes fantastic performances from John Spencer, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, Tony Todd, David Morse, and many other familiar faces, all making the most of their screentime. Vanessa Marcil isn’t given much to do, she is “the girlfriend” who helps Cage to explain his personal investment in stopping those rockets being launched.

There’s a superb score, mainly from Hans Zimmer, some great fights that mix fun choreography and moments of brutality, and every interaction between Cage and Connery is gold. You cannot do much better than this if you want a fun action movie to fill a couple of hours during a Saturday evening. Almost an outright modern classic.

9/10

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Thursday, 13 May 2021

Monster Island (2004)

Carmen Electra stars as . . . Carmen Electra in this goofy homage to big bug movies of yesteryear, and you could do a lot worse than checking this out if you want a decent time-waster that doesn’t make you think too hard.

Daniel Letterle is Josh, a young man who has won a competition that sees him and some of his schoolmates attending an Electra gig on a small island. Josh didn’t enter the competition though. His sister (Chelan Simmons) did. But Josh cannot refuse the prize, despite wanting time to move over his ex, Maddy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Everyone else is ready to party, which would be all well and good if it wasn’t for the fact that the island is home to a number of oversized creepy-crawlies.

Written and directed by Jack Perez, what you have here is an attempt to appeal to MTV fans with elements and tropes that will be very familiar to older viewers who grew up enjoying the exotic creations of Ray Harryhausen (namechecked as a character played by Adam West). It works for many scenes, the first half sets everything up nicely enough, there are some cute creations, and one shot showing what was clearly a toy boat in a miniature water setting definitely gave me a big grin, but the combination is also clumsy, and the third act fumbles things in a big way.

Letterle is a decent young male lead, Winstead is quite likeable in an early role, and Electra is very cute in a role that used her appeal well, and lets her try to subvert assumptions as she surprises the main character with how she is in “real life”. West is fun in his small role, C. Ernst Harth makes a good impression as Eightball (basically the main security officer for Electra), and even the likes of Joe MacLeod and Chris Harrison do well with roles that aren’t exactly fleshed out to any great degree.

What works outweighs what doesn’t work, but only just. Perez clearly has affection for the monster movies that he is paying homage to, and that comes across in every scene that has a bug looking as if it was made from a posable skeleton and modelling clay. He seems less interested in finding a way to satisfyingly resolve everything, and doesn’t manage it. Although, to be fair, the ending is in line with some of strange and/or abrupt endings of the Hammer and Harryhausen movies.

A good time, but not a great time. I am happy we got it though, even if it was from the MTV stable.

6/10

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Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Prime Time: Walking Tall (2004)

Based on a film that was based on a strange and enjoyable true story, Walking Tall is a good star vehicle for Dwayne Johnson (still billed here as “The Rock” while he grew into his movie stardom), even if it’s far from a perfect movie.

Johnson is Chris Vaughn, a man who returns home after years spent in the military. The mill has closed, his old friend (Neal McDonough) has bought up lots of businesses, and something stinks. Problems become obvious when Chris and his friends have a night out at the local casino, where he spies a game being rigged and drugs being sold. The cops aren’t interested, which leads Chris to nominate himself for the position of Sheriff.

Directed by Kevin Bray, the biggest surprise about this movie is that it took about three people to write the simple script. I guess the challenge was fitting the material around Johnson and his co-stars, because the template of the original tale doesn’t seem like it would need a lot of work. There are also very few scenes here that are on the level of dumb fun you would expect from this kind of thing.

Johnson does his thing though, and that makes up for a lot. He is a solid choice for the role, and easily convinces in any of the more physical sequences. McDonough is also very good as the slimy, polished, friend who has turned into quite the powerful businessman. Johnny Knoxville does his amusing sidekick thing, and is just fine, while Kevin Durand is the main henchman squaring off against Johnson during the first half of the movie. Ashley Scott is the required love interest, and cannot do anything to improve her thankless role, but John Beasley and Michael Bowen are enjoyable as, respectively, the father of our leading man and an ineffective cop. Other people flesh out the cast, and Khleo Thomas stands out as the young nephew, Pete, but the film focuses on Johnson and Knoxville doing what they can to battle the baddies.

Certainly not the worst film that Johnson has done, nor is it close to his best, Walking Tall will satisfy people after an easy ninety minutes of action (even if the editing is a bit messy) and general camaraderie between the main characters. 

6/10

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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Empire Of The Ants (1977)

There are a number of films that I saw at an impressionable age that I can never bring myself to criticise too harshly. Bad films, but films that thrilled and excited me when I was young enough to not see how poor the special effects were. The Giant Spider Invasion is one, Night Of The Lepus is another, and Empire Of The Ants certainly belongs alongside them, although it's the best of a bad bunch.

Directed by Bert I. Gordon (Mr BIG), this is the tale of a group of people who are being taken on a ride, literally, by a dodgy real estate dealer. Joan Collins is that dealer, named Marilyn Fryser, but even she wouldn't try to sell people properties that had been taken over by giant ants, which is a problem that crops up in the middle of her ongoing sales pitch. The motley group of individuals seek a safe passage away from the giant ants, but it may not be as easy as it looks. Even if they can get to a small town nearby.

If you want some ant-based horror movies then you have to look elsewhere (and I HIGHLY recommend the sublime Phase IV here), but Empire Of The Ants delivers pretty much what anyone might want from a 1970s movie that is aiming for moments of spectacle over anything believable. If the special effects had been a bit better then this could have been a decent little sci-fi horror movie. They're not though. Most scenes are shot with normal ants magnified in size and placed alongside the actors. Some of the scenes have the ants clearly separated by glass. And at least one memorable moment shows the little blighters are clearly interacting with miniatures and photographs.

Allegedly based on a short story by H. G. Wells (which I am assuming had the word "ant" in it, and that's all the connection needed to give it that label), the script, by Gordon and Jack Turley, is about as standard as you'd expect for this kind of thing, despite the enjoyable turn that the whole thing takes in the third act. This isn't an extremely tense or gritty film. It's basically an episode of something like The Love Boat, just with a bunch of big ants making things complicated for the assorted guests.

Collins is game enough in her main role, and she manages to stand out due to her status as THE Joan Collins, but the rest of the cast are interchangeable. Robert Lansing and John David Carson have moments in which they can be pro-active and manly, Albert Salmi is a local Sheriff, and the secondary female leads, because every female is secondary in a cast that bills Joan Collins at the top, are Jacqueline Scott and Pamela Shoop, who do just fine with what they're given. Special mention should be made of Harry Holcombe and Irene Tedrow, playing an elderly couple who separate from the main group at about the halfway point, with memorable results.

This is a bad film. And I'll never stop having a soft spot for it. The more I think about it right now, while wrapping up this review, the more I am smiling as I remember how enjoyably daft it is throughout. I recommend it to everyone, but I expect very few people to actually enjoy it as much as I do.

5/10

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Monday, 10 May 2021

Mubi Monday: Billy Liar (1963)

Adapting the play of the novel, written by Keith Waterhouse (who, along with Willis Hall, also developed the play and screenplay), Billy Liar is a film from director John Schlesinger that holds up as a near-classic. It mixes the dreary kitchen sink drama approach with the daydreams of a character not a million miles removed from Walter Mitty, and the end result is deliciously bittersweet.

Tom Courtenay (who was an understudy of Albert Finney in the stage play) is Billy Fisher, a young man who doesn't see any easy escape from his job and family. He lives at home with his mum (Mona Washbourne), dad (Wilfred Pickles), and grandmother (Ethel Griffies). And his job is in an undertaker's office. Maybe his many flights of fancy will keep him happy as he goes through his daily routines, or the fact that he has a number of women convinced that they are going to be the one he marries. Billy also wants to get a new job, writing for a famous comedian, and thinks he could make a better new life for himself in London. But that may be just as much of a pipe dream as everything else that goes through his head.

An easy film to watch and digest, Billy Liar can be enjoyed simply as a look at someone who cannot help but tell a lie whenever he has the opportunity. Many of us have known people like him, and his tales alternate between being amusing, especially when visualised in sequences that punctuate the standard dreariness of a normal day in the life of a man who feels he's being held back from something great, and being the cause of some distress for those around him. He's in a bit of trouble with his employer (played by Leonard Rossiter), he's exasperated his father, and he's almost certain to upset one of the women that he's dating.

But dig just under the surface and there's even more to chew over. That sense of being entitled to something better, is it the usual male ego or is it something that has grown and mutated through every daydream that Billy has ever had? And where can Billy escape to if he cannot escape himself, which may very well be the biggest hurdle for him to overcome? It's this dilemma that comes to the fore in the last reel of the film, taking a look at how committed people can be when they weigh up the reality around them against the prospects they have dreamed about for many years.

Courtenay is superb in the main role, just managing to be charming and childish enough to stop viewers from hating him for his antics. Washbourne, Pickles, and Griffies are also very good, tolerating (or not) Billy's behaviour in different ways. Gwendolyn Watts and Helen Fraser get to be two very different women romantically involved with a liar, and they both do well with the material, but the standout is Julie Christie, playing a third woman, Liz, who somehow understands Billy better than most. The two of them are similar, but different in at least one crucial way. Rossiter is as brilliant as ever in his role, and there are supporting turns from Rodney Bewes, George Innes, Finlay Currie, and a few others that you may or may not recognise.

This is a film that I meant to see many years ago. It has a reputation that precedes it, and rightly so. I'm glad that I finally got to it, and I can now join in with the chorus of voices recommending it to others. An essential piece of British cinema.

9/10

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Sunday, 9 May 2021

Netflix And Chill: Rocketman (2019)

Okay, here's the thing about my review of Rocketman. I had to decide early on whether I wanted to mention Bohemian Rhapsody. Part of me thought it was unfair to do a piece comparing and contrasting the two. Another part of me realised that this film highlights just how much was wrong with the other film, and they do have a lot of connective tissue (from the onscreen subject matter to the use of Dexter Fletcher behind the camera).

This is the story of how Elton John became Elton John, from his humble and quite difficult childhood years, as Reginald Dwight, through a number of years blurred by a quest for love that also saw him embracing excess in every part of his life, from his stage presence to his problems with alcohol and drugs. That's about all you need to know about this musical journey through the life of Elton John. And it obviously helps if you like at least some of his songs . . . and who doesn't like at least some of his songs?

The best decisions made by director Dexter Fletcher and writer Lee Hall involve the staging of this material. What you get is a proper musical, with a proper feeling of artifice at every turn. Hall has a solid background in films that either make great use of music or adapt stage work to screen (having worked on the likes of Billy Elliot, War Horse, and, errrrr, Cats). And Fletcher had a big hit with the film adaptation of Sunshine On Leith, of course, and seems to have a knack for creating rousing moments that prove to be easy audience-pleasers. It helps that Elton himself is the kind of figure you can imagine seeing the world in such an overdone and stylish way, working for many years with a hazy filter of booze and drugs over his trademark spectacles.

Taron Egerton is superb in the lead role, very much a believable combination of the tortured artist and the constant showman. It's a superb transformation, and arguably his best onscreen performance to date (which comes after a burgeoning career already full of pretty great turns). Jamie Bell is Bernie Taupin, a vital figure in Elton's life, and he's okay, left to be the one really decent figure in a sea of people who seem to be either manipulating or using our lead, or both. Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh are fairly horrible parents, but both are outshone by the deliberate coldness and cruelty of John Reid, which allows Richard Madden to impress in a performance that paints him in a very unflattering light, both physically and in terms of his character.

Although there are moments in which Elton John licks his wounds and indulges in a session or two of self-pity, deservedly so, the other big plus about the film is the self-awareness. We're not being shown a saint, at times we're not even being shown someone being very nice at all. We're shown someone with a huge amount of talent who took a long time to find the coping mechanisms required to maintain some kind of mental equilibrium. And he's often mistreated by those who should have been there to help him.

It's a happy film, overall, but there's plenty of unhappiness to wade through on the way to the ending we all know is waiting. The songs help to offset the darker moments, as do the wardrobe choices and the cutting wit of the dialogue at times. It's also deceptively inspiring. I hope anyone who has spent time trying to maintain toxic relationships can look at this and realise that cutting those people from your life can absolutely complement any attempt to cut out any health-endangering vice that you may have. As the life of Elton John proves, you can start to focus on your health and true happiness at any age. You may stumble, you may not always have the focus or motivation, but making that start is the best thing you can do. And it may just lead to a whole new lease of life for you. It did for him.

And one last testament to the film, I wrote this review while listening to a playlist of Elton John songs. Because I was reminded of how many of them I really like.

8/10

Here's the bit everyone ignores . . .
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Saturday, 8 May 2021

Shudder Saturday: Fried Barry (2020)

Barry (Gary Green) is a drug addict, a terrible partner to a woman named Suz (Chanelle de Jager), and a general waste of space. Which makes it harder for anyone to notice a major difference when his body is taken over by an alien, making him a walking flesh-suit keen to explore the streets and people of South Africa. Lucky for Barry, or maybe not, he seems to have a new way with people, attracting others who are as . . . idiosyncratic as himself, and somehow emanating an aura of desirability that make many women immediately want to have sex with him.

Written and directed by Ryan Kruger, fleshing out a short from a few years ago, Fried Barry is a decent idea that allows Kruger to work within a very low budget and still show what he's capable of. I'm disappointed that he didn't title it "Under The Foreskin", but that's for my own amusement. Having said that Kruger both wrote and directed this, it's worth correcting myself slightly to say that many of the scenes were improvised or workshopped with the cast.

Green may have some of the least amount of acting experience of those onscreen, having worked as a stuntman for some time, but his performance, more directly controlled by Kruger, is a fantastic one. His character is unsavoury, unrepentant, and completely free from social and moral norms. It's part of the fun to see him suddenly encounter this opportunity for fleeting happiness, and he manages to be odd and inquisitive without being too far removed from the selfish man we saw in the very first scenes. De Jager has some memorable rants, and does great in her main supporting role, and Bianka Hartenstein is equally good as a prostitute who has a life-changing encounter with Barry. You also get people popping up who don't mind doing a bit of impromptu dentistry (Jonathan Pienaar being gleefully sadistic), a number of patients in a psychiatric hospital who don't view Barry as being all that odd, and someone popping up at the start of the film to remind you of the meaning of film certification, in a clip that will make viewers of a certain age smile as they remember being given the same information from Simon Bates before most feature films on VHS.

The big problem with Fried Barry is the fact that it has little point. The central character gets to wallow in his preferred lifestyle, observations of human behaviour are filtered through the life of Barry, and even the inserted moments for the VHS generation (e.g. that certification intro just mentioned) are spliced in with no real reason, as enjoyable as they are. Not that every film has to have some big point to make, or commentary running through it, but Fried Barry seems like it will have both of those things, and then it doesn't.

I had a lot of fun with this, and Kruger has definitely marked himself out as someone to keep an eye on. I just wish it hadn't felt QUITE so random and pointless (pointless as in avoiding any real comment, not pointless as a viewing experience) by the time the end credits rolled.

7/10

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