Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022)

I was really happy when I saw the trailer for Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers. It looked like a hell of a lot of fun. Finding out that it was being delivered by a couple of the main figures behind Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping just made me even more keen to see it. Then I started watching it, the smile fading from my face quicker with each passing minute. You can find a lot of people around who really liked this movie. I'm not one of them. There are some good gags, but I'll attempt to highlight some of the biggest problems I had with the film here.

Having gone on separate career paths over the years, Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) are reunited by a worrying phonecall from their friend, Monterey Jack (Eric Bana). Jack's addiction to stinky cheese has landed him in trouble with the wrong people, and he fears that he will soon be kidnapped, altered slightly, and trafficked to somewhere overseas that has characters creating bootleg versions of their works in perpetuity. Chip and Dale have to get back into old habits, hoping to crack the case in time to save their friend. They end up dealing with the police, in the form of Captain Putty (J. K. Simmons) and Officer Ellie Steckler (KiKi Layne), a variety of twisted cartoon creations, and a big baddie who goes by the name of Sweet Pete (Will Arnett).

When you look at the separate elements here, this is hard to view as anything other than an easy win. Chip ‘n’ Dale have always been my favourite animated chipmunks, nostalgia is arguably one of the most profitable filmic commodities right now, and the direction from Akiva Schaffer is decent throughout. There are also some fun gags in the script, written by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, who also wrote the very enjoyable, although formulaic, Magic Camp and the less enjoyable Dolittle. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough good gags, especially when you have scenes too busy cramming in familiar personalities and entertainment archetypes. And those gags feel harder to laugh at when you realise the dark truth being reconfigured as something of an extended punchline throughout the second half of the film. I am willing to give both Gregor and Mand the benefit of the doubt, willing to believe that they were trying to pin the comedy on one serious point, on one subversive critique of the Disney studio system (of old?), but it doesn’t work. It rankles as much as that book by O. J. Simpson called “If I Did It: Confessions Of The Killer”. I would never want to read that book, and I never want to revisit this movie.

Another big problem that the movie has, and I know this will sound like a very silly complaint, is a lack of any rhyme or reason to the different types of characters. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the nearest touchstone for this, underlined in a scene that actually has a cameo from the man himself, but that had clearly defined populations of people and toons. This doesn’t. You get some people living their lives, some cartoon characters everywhere, some cgi creations, muppety puppets, even the difference between Chip and Dale feels very random (one traditionally animated and one fleshed out into a CGI animated character). I know there is a reason for it, but the reason feels a bit arbitrary. 

Mulaney and Samberg are a great fit in the lead voice roles, Simmons is equally enjoyable, and there are entertaining turns from Arnett, Seth Rogen, Eric Bana, Tim Robinson (in the absolutely brilliant role of Ugly Sonic), and many others. Layne also does well, playing one of the few actual humans onscreen, and there’s no faulting the mix of live-action and animation throughout.

There are jokes that work, and some scenes are very funny. References to the uncanny valley are a lot of fun, as is a special appearance from Post Malone, and the meta commentary of older properties being freshened up for a new audience is surprisingly effective, acknowledging that all of these things are just as formulaic as standard sequels or remakes. This is fairly easy to like and enjoy, and many people have done just that. I just couldn’t manage it, especially when I kept circling back to the backstory of the villain (not to mention the way in which it attempts to put a darkly comic spin on people trafficking, which is equally misguided). So I guess I will just wait to see if the inevitable Roger Rabbit sequel will work better. There’s going to be a Roger Rabbit sequel now, right? Right??

4/10

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Monday, 30 May 2022

Mubi Monday: My Brother The Devil (2012)

A superb feature debut from writer-director Sally El Hosaini, this is a film that looks at brotherly love and idolatry, family units, prejudice, and the difficulty of finding yourself becoming a very different person to the one who was living your life 24/7 for so many years.

Fady Elsayed is Mo, a young man who greatly admires his older brother, Rashid (James Krishna Floyd). Rashid is a core member of a gang, which means he also has a mortal enemy (Demon, played by Leemore Marrett Jr.), and that means that he is much more aware of the dangers around him than Mo, who seems so naïve and vulnerable that you can understand why his older brother is trying to keep him away from the gang life. One major incident changes everything for the brothers, and Mo grows more confused as he sees Rashid distance himself from his old life and start off on a new path that those around him may find much harder to accept.

Although it starts in a way that recalls so many other British movies from the past couple of decades, My Brother The Devil soon starts to show viewers that it aims to be a very different look at this particular aspect of British culture (and it is worth noting that the young lead characters are also sometimes trying to incorporate and/or process their Egyptian heritage as they figure out how they want to define their lives). El Hosaini has clearly written about something that she can at least partially identify with, being of British Egyptian parentage herself, and having spent the first few years of her life in Cairo, and she gives her film a clear identity, ironic when you think of the main characters being so unsure of how they want to identify. The writing and direction here give no hint of someone working on their first feature, I can only guess that El Hosaini really honed her craft in her first couple of shorts, which I need to remember to check out at some point.

Both Elsayed and Floyd are fantastic in their roles, natural and believable as brothers. Floyd is clearly the more capable of the two, but he spends a lot of the runtime trying to get his bearings as circumstances around him force him into some surprising and profound self-realisations. Anthony Welsh does great work in his small, but pivotal, role, as does Saïd Taghmaoui, and Elarica Johnson deserves to be singled out for making her character, Vanessa, a standout from the few female characters who get some screentime.

A film about love, while having almost every scene pulsating with an undercurrent of violence and danger, My Brother The Devil is powerful stuff that takes viewers from despair to sweet jubilation. It is El Hosaini’s only feature, to date, and I really hope we get something else from her soon.

8/10

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Sunday, 29 May 2022

Netflix And Chill: The Departed (2006)

Although I had seen The Departed before, and I watched it more than once (between a cinema visit and viewings when I picked it up to add to my movie collection), I realised that my last viewing of it was over a decade ago. So now was as good a time as any to give it a revisit, and once the end credits rolled I knew that I wouldn't leave it over a decade until my next viewing. Because The Departed is an absolute triumph for everyone involved, and serves as another reminder that not all remakes are inherently bad (although I also need to rewatch Infernal Affairs soon, which I've ALSO not seen for well over a decade).

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan, respectively. Both are cops, but both are very different, and they don't know one another (which is very important for the plot). Costigan is judged to have the right background and character to be used as an undercover agent, tasked with the job of getting close to a criminal kingpin named Costello (Jack Nicholson). That's difficult enough, but Costello also has a cop who helps to keep him one step ahead of most investigations. And that cop is Sullivan. As things start to heat up for Costello, everything gets much more dangerous and intense for Costigan and Sullivan, and it looks likely that things will end up with even more names being added to the list of the recently departed. 

Director Martin Scorsese has good form when it comes to picking material to remake, having also done an absolutely stellar job with his version of Cape Fear. He arguably has stronger material to work with here, and an even more impressive roster throughout the cast (not to cast any aspersions on those he cast in Cape Fear at all, this just has more roles available due to the bigger canvas being painted on), and the script by William Monahan adapts the 2002 original with skill and care for each member of the cast being able to shine in their role. I'd still recommend that anyone watching, and enjoying, this film should check out the original, but this is so well reshaped towards the Boston setting and cast that I feel it's actually the superior telling of the tale (only just though). And it's worth noting that I have yet to watch the other two movies in the Infernal Affairs trilogy, despite owning the boxset for a number of years.

Nicholson may be a bit daffy, perhaps giving off an air of someone having too much fun in a very dangerous situation, but I think his performance works very well. He is a thug who at times tries to wear a cloak of civility, and he is always uncomfortable doing so, making him almost desperate for his own reign to come to an end. Damon is excellent, a really sneaky sonofabitch who you want to see get his comeuppance, but also end up thrilled by as he constantly pulls out audacious moves to keep his role a secret from those around him. DiCaprio owns the movie though, playing someone who is both tough and brave without ever taking anything for granted. You somehow never forget that he is the good guy, even during the scenes that have him participating in some awful criminal activities. Elsewhere, Vera Farmiga is superb as a police psychologist who becomes strongly attached to both men, all while remaining oblivious to them actually working on opposite sides of the law, Ray Winstone is once again a very convincing tough guy, and both Anthony Anderson and James Badge Dale are a couple of cops who may end up being played like pawns by those who know much more than they do. Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg are cast appropriately, playing characters who know more than the young leads, and both Baldwin and Wahlberg (always a main choice for any Boston cop role) bring a lot of humour to the film, trading insults, riling people up, and happy to physically assault anyone they think isn't taking any of their major investigations as seriously as they should. There are also great supporting turns from David O'Hara, Mark Rolston, Kevin Corrigan, and Kristen Dalton.

As with pretty much every Scorsese movie, another main character is the soundtrack, with "Gimme Shelter" and "I'm Shipping Up To Boston" being the two to make the biggest impact. You also get the expected directorial flourishes, a load of profanity, and outbursts of violence that will make you wince. The final 20-30 minutes is an extended bloodbath, with every loose end being tied up by a number of fatal shootings and sudden deaths, and even those used to movie violence may be taken aback by scenes that seemingly dance from one major death to another.

Once again, I want to make one final clarification that I think the original film is superb. I NEED to revisit it. I used to have some problems with The Departed, mainly with the tone of a couple of the performances (Nicholson and Wahlberg sometimes seeming a bit out of place with the outbursts that made me laugh). I no longer have those problems. It all just works for me. While I expect few people to rate this as highly as I do, most should really like it, especially if you're already a fan of the director and/or stars. I now view it as a modern masterpiece. It's perfect, and I could happily rewatch it again right now.

10/10

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Saturday, 28 May 2022

Shudder Saturday: A Banquet (2010)

There’s a lot in A Banquet to enjoy, from the central idea to the main performances, so it’s a bit of a shame that it feels very similar to the other excellent Saint Maud. People may watch this and start to think of that film, but that’s a bit unfair. Because there are also a couple of key differences that make this equally worthy of your time, mainly with the central mother-daughter relationship at the heart of things.

It all starts with Holly (Sienna Guillory) being shocked by the suicide of her seriously ill husband. This leaves Holly to bring up their two daughters, Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and the slightly younger Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), on her own, with occasional visits from their gran, June (Lindsay Duncan). Things become strained when Betsey falls ill, losing her appetite and quickly becoming convinced that her deteriorated state is being caused by something more than just a medical issue.

The first feature directed by Ruth Paxton, and also the first feature written by her long-time collaborator Justin Bull, A Banquet is a slow burn of a film that paces things perfectly with the help of some key scenes that are densely packed with disturbing imagery and complexity that separates it from more standard horror fare. As well as the central idea, someone feeling that their body no longer belongs to themselves, there are moments that will be identifiable to anyone who has tried to help a loved one in any kind of major difficulty, from illness to addiction, from problems with bullying to mental health issues. Things will resonate a lot more with those who have unwillingly engaged in a battle of wills with their children, especially with one character pushing away others during a major change of their personality, but it applies to any major relationship, be it between family or good friends.

Alexander is up to the task of delivering the strong performance that needs to be at the heart of the film, she does a pretty flawless job that marks her out as someone to keep an eye out for in other works, and Guillory matches her with her very believable turn as the concerned and loving mother. Stokes doesn't have to deal with quite as many of the truly heavy moments, but she also does good work, and Duncan is used well, playing a character who details some nightmare imagery that feeds into one or two scenes further down the line.

As redundant a phrase as it is, this is a film that isn't for everyone (no film is for everyone, I know, I know). I do think, however, that patient horror movie viewers will get a lot out of this. As much as it is about the pain of the people caught up in the situation, it's equally about the need for people to seek out answers, reassurances, and any small comfort that can support their ideas about what the giant and turbulent cosmos has in store for them.

8/10

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Friday, 27 May 2022

Licorice Pizza (2021)

I am usually an easy mark for Paul Thomas Anderson movies. He makes amazing movies that I tend to love, thanks to his technique often being accompanied by great performances from the people he casts in main roles. Licorice Pizza still has his technique on display, but the strangely unsatisfying script isn’t helped by young leads who aren’t up to the usual high standard of acting seen in other Anderson works. Also, to be flippant, this feels like a Richard Linklater film directed by a stand-in.

Cooper Hoffman plays Gary, a child actor who is struggling to find the right roles now he is an older teen. He can no longer get away with the cheeky antics he used to, he can no longer get by on cute and adorable, but he cannot just go back to a normal life. So he spends his time being an entrepreneurial businessman, looking to profit from whatever the latest fad might be, from water beds to videogames and pinball. Gary also, from the very start of the film, falls for the older Alana (played by Alana Haim). In her mid-20s, Alana scoffs at the idea of a relationship with Gary, but he’s certainly interesting and charismatic enough to make her interested in his life. And so begins a friendship that may or may not develop into something more.

Part period piece, part ode to the bittersweet intensity of that first BIG crush, Licorice Pizza isn’t a film to dismiss. I don’t think I would ever say that about any film from Anderson. It is, however, his least interesting and least successful work to date (in terms of translating ideas from script to screen). 

Taking on his usual writer-director role, Anderson can at least be thankful for the talented people he works with. The production design here is wonderful, as expected. The wardrobe and make up departments do equally good work. The biggest problems here stem from the script and the casting.

Hoffman is great in his role, giving a performance that shows him as an actor who could easily follow in the daunting footsteps of his late father. Haim isn’t so good. I am not sure how much of that is down to her and how much of that is down to the script, with that age gap making things inherently a bit odd and icky, so I won’t spend too much time complaining about her. Bradley Cooper and Sean Penn, on the other hand, can both take some extra criticism. They clearly saw that they could have some fun with their roles, but both of them quickly teeter too far over into performances that are too silly. This may have been in service to the material, but neither of their performances fit well in a movie that otherwise wrings humour from a nice selection of references, time stamps, and winks to viewers, although let’s just not mention the scenes featuring John Michael Higgins. Mainly because I cannot decide on whether they are awful or amazing. The other person worth mentioning is Mary Elizabeth Ellis, very good in her small amount of screentime as the mother of Gary.

I have seen a lot of love for this, and some fans of Anderson rank it just as highly as some of his other works (and, in my view, he had delivered more than one cinematic masterpiece already, with a number of other movies from him coming very close to that status). It just didn’t work for me.  Many of the performances worked against the better elements, and the better elements felt like moments I could find in other, more enjoyable, movies. This isn’t one I think I will ever want to revisit, which is the first time I have said that about any Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

5/10

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Thursday, 26 May 2022

Morbius (2022)

Here we have a film in which Jared Leto has to play a privileged guy who gets himself into a position where he can abuse the trust of people around him and be creepy and menacing to anyone he decides to target. No, it’s not Jared: A True Story. It is Morbius, another superhero film given some new clothes to wear, and also another film trying to forge connections to the Spider-Man movies.

Leto plays Dr. Michael Morbius, a great scientist who has spent years trying to cure the debilitating disease that has afflicted him. If he does find a cure then he can also help his good friend, Milo (Matt Smith). As his disease is blood-related, Morbius ends up trying some radical work with vampire bats. And he gets a successful result. Unfortunately, it also turns him into a blood-craving man-bat. That is all well and good when it comes to his strength, athleticism, speed, and a new sense of echo location. It isn’t so good when he needs to feed. Maybe synthetic blood will help him, for a while anyway, but it isn’t long until exsanguinated bodies start showing up. And Morbius becomes public enemy number one, despite him doubting that he did anything wrong.

For the basics of this kind of movie, Morbius is perfectly fine. The origin story is enjoyable enough, there are decent effects dotted throughout, and a couple of action sequences work well. Leto works well in a main role that seems to fit him very well, and there are even a couple of moments that tap into the potential for some horror movie moments.

The script, written by Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless, is decent, if fairly predictable, and I have to admit to enjoying the films, like this and the Venom movies, that have recently packaged darker and deadlier characters into movies that remain available to a surprisingly wide viewer demographic. I know that a lot of people disagree, and I also wouldn’t mind seeing darker riffs on this material, but the compromises often seem to give these films a sense of fun that they would otherwise be lacking. Morbius is actually fun at times, especially when Matt Smith gets to cut loose, and I never thought I would say that.

Director Daniel Espinosa spoils things though, deciding to overload some sequences with details and CGI that don’t really make sense. Scenes have colour added to them, but it soon feels like you’re watching the afterglow of someone drawing an image with a sparkler in a dark room. Although I did say that a couple of the action sequences work well, others don’t. You get no true feeling of danger, and there are a couple of occasions that have things happening that are only explained after you have tried to figure out what is going on (which is fine for plotting, not so good with action beats).

I have already said that Leto works well in the main role, but it feels like such a good fit for him that I would be astonished if he failed. Maybe he was just happy to have a vehicle that didn’t have him portraying the worst onscreen Joker ever, or maybe he just managed to find his character very easily. Smith is solid, although his character arc could not be any more obvious. The second half allows him to shine, but I wish he could have been allowed to do even more. Adria Arjona is a good female lead, a colleague/friend of Morbius, and Tyrese Gibson does just fine as a cop one step behind the unfolding danger. There’s also a cameo at the end that is well worth sticking around for, although I had been hoping another character might be introduced here (someone who would make complete sense in this storyline).

Although not great, and I don’t know anyone who expected this to be great, Morbius is enjoyable and entertaining for most of its runtime, and the fact that the runtime is also about 104 minutes is also a plus.

6/10

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Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Prime Time: The Trust (2016)

Part dark comedy, part crime thriller, The Trust is a very odd film that deserves to be seen by more people. The fact that it gives another starring role to Nicolas Cage may have put some people off, this was released before his latest renaissance (although *cough* some people have always enjoyed Cage onscreen, no matter the majority opinion), and maybe the fact that it's a hard film to pin down, tonally.

Cage plays Stone, a cop who comes up with what he thinks is a great plan to deliver a huge payday for himself and Waters, a friend and colleague (played by Elijah Wood). Stone has figured out the location of what could very well be an overflowing safe, one that has been filled up with profits from criminal activity. If Stone and Waters can break into it then it's a win-win, because they end up rich and the only immediate victims are the crooks. But it doesn't take long for things to start going . . . a bit wrong.

Directed by Alex and Benjamin Brewer, the latter also having co-written the script with Adam Hirsch, The Trust is an enjoyably slippery film, moving from something close to a buddy cop film to a riff on the “heist gone wrong” movie. The central characters are easy to like, even as circumstances start to push them to act more unpleasantly, and the third act is an enjoyable storm of bad luck and confusion.

Cage and Wood are both very enjoyable in the lead roles. Cage plays his character in a very controlled, and slowly deliberate, manner. Wood, on the other hand, is a bit more antsy, and his character is really only willing to go along with everything if he can keep convincing himself that it is risk-free. There are a few other supporting cast members, including Sky Ferreira, Ethan Suplee, Steven Williams, and Jerry Lewis (given a cameo that pops up at just the right time to remind viewers to keep paying attention).

Although everything is well put together, the easy rapport between Cage and Wood is the main reason to watch this, and your opinion of the film will depend on how you feel about the two stars. They are bad cops, but good bad cops, if you know what I mean, and it is fun to see them put more energy and effort into their plans for robbery than they put into their standard workdays. There’s also a very enjoyable score from Reza Safinia, which I have to mention here because of the feeling I had that I’d heard it elsewhere (it turns out that parts of it were reminding me of the remix of “Radioactivity” by Fatboy Slim).

Maybe a difficult one to recommend, the comedy is very dark and the crime/thriller side of things is played lightly in between sudden bursts of violence, but I will recommend it anyway. It’s good to watch something occasionally that is quite hard to place neatly in any pigeonhole.

7/10

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Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

I hope you have already heard from other people raving about just how good Everything Everywhere All At Once is. That will make up for my own poor attempt to convince you to see it. Because it is an easier film to experience than to discuss, but it is a strong contender for film of the year (and, arguably, a strong contender already for film of the decade). It isn’t for the faint of heart though, and I am sure that many casual film fans will be put off by the unrelenting craziness of it all.

Michelle Yeoh stars as Evelyn Wang, a woman who is at a low ebb. She runs a launderette with her husband (Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan), and both a full tax audit and possible divorce looms on her horizon. She also struggles to find a strong connection with her daughter (Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu), and uses her critical father (James Hong) as an excuse to avoid non-judgemental acceptance of Joy’s lesbianism. Evelyn doesn’t mean to be hurtful, she is just projecting from her own life experience. And here’s where things get complicated. It turns out that there are an infinite number of multiverses, and Evelyn is suddenly asked to harness the power of various incarnations of herself in order to protect them. This is done by acting in the most illogical way, allowing the “jump” to the access point, and absorbing the skillset from the person in the alternative timeline. Why is Evelyn required to do this? Someone is out to destroy every timeline, and Evelyn may be the only one able to stop them.

I know, trust me, that the paragraph above is a bit dense and odd. It’s also a decent enough summary of the opening 15-20 minutes of this movie. All you need to know is delivered in one main info-dump, spoken by Ke Huy Quan, and other details are noted as everything becomes more action-packed.

Written and directed by Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), this is a tour de force of consistently inventive and astonishing film-making. The editing alone is an absolute masterclass (I don’t often namecheck editors, just because I focus on the “front of house team” most of the time, but Paul Rogers definitely warrants a mention here), but the script and direction lead to an end product so brilliant that it will be hard for Daniels to top this. In fact, it could be argued that it will be hard for anyone to top this. 

They help themselves greatly with the casting. Yeoh is someone who film fans should have been in love with for years already. If that isn’t the case, change it now. She has always been a massive talent and this gives her the role(s) of her life. Showing so much range, in terms of the characters portrayed and her ability to move from comedy to action to heartfelt emotional moments, Yeoh is one important chamber of the heart of the movie. Quan is another important chamber, and I cannot think of a recent movie moment that has made me happier than the sequence in which he beats up some security guards with a small fanny pack. He makes for a sad, tired, figure in many other scenes, but he also provides a reserve of strength that others use, and it is all conveyed with a quiet, unassuming, performance that is absolutely pitch perfect. Hsu is yet another chamber, and she gets to move between massive highs and massive lows with her character. She is dreadfully unhappy in a way that feels like every “lost” teen ever, but also symbolises unfulfilled potential and dashed hopes just as much as anyone else onscreen. The fourth chamber, ensuring the strong heartbeat that powers the whole film, is made up of both Hong and Jamie Lee Curtis, the former playing the formidable tax auditor. Both are painted as villains at different times, both are much more than that, and both do their bit to ensure that there is not one weak link in the lead acting chain. In an ideal world this would lead to every award everywhere all at once. Maybe in another universe.

There are great action scenes, great moments of absurd humour (highlights include googly eyes, a riff on Ratatouille, and a universe in which people have somehow evolved to have hotdogs for fingers), and simply great moments that will have you grinning from ear to ear. Did I keep track of the timelines and the science? Not quite. Do I think it all fits perfectly together? Not quite. But it is, like a number of other movies, something so magnificent that one or two minor quibbles don’t stop it from feeling perfect. And it is worth noting that, aside from the fighting and silliness, pushing the brain-melting science out of the way, this is a film about love and support. It is important that you have people who give you that love and support, and it is equally important that you pass that same love and support along to those you care about.

Although I know many people who would absolutely hate this, I consider it unmissable. And those who cannot enjoy the full experience it delivers are, quite frankly, missing out.

10/10

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Monday, 23 May 2022

Mubi Monday: Burn Burn Burn (2015)

The first feature directed by Chanya Button, as well as the first feature written by Charlie Covell, Burn Burn Burn is an enjoyable enough comedy drama that also feels a bit like a film made by committee. It is the kind of low-budget indie that makes good use of some familiar faces in canny cameos, forces main characters to “pick at scabs”, and ends with only a passing nod to something that feels like proper resolution. Because life is never properly resolved, of course.

Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie play Seph and Alex, two friends who have been tasked with scattering the ashes of another friend, Dan (Jack Farthing). This involves a road trip, ashes contained in a tupperware box, and various video clips that Dan has recorded to be played at the various locations. Those video clips, and the travel, all prompt Seph and Alex to be more honest with one another, and more honest with themselves.

This is enjoyable enough, and Carmichael and Pirrie are decent leads, but it’s also very similar to approximately one thousand other movies I could direct you to, whether they are quirky road movies or quirky comedy dramas about dealing with the loss of a loved one. Or even quirky movies about the ups and downs you go through in a close friendship. 

Button directs competently, making good use of the few main locations and managing to avoid the car scenes feeling too claustrophobic. Nothing can really lift Covell’s script, which will give even most casual film fans a feeling of deja vu, but there are enough distractions scattered here and there to try and make things more entertaining.

Alice Lowe is one winning distraction, stealing the film with her minute or two of screentime. Julian Rhind-Tutt is another, delivering a performance that is a perfect combination of creepy and, well . . . also creepy, but with the same creepy vibe as the sideways-staring cuddly toy you used to have as a bedside companion when you were a child. It was always there for you, and the real creepiness only becomes more obvious when you take a step back from it. 

There’s nothing here to make anyone very angry, but there’s also nothing here to make anyone truly delighted. It is all decidedly okay, but decidedly okay just isn’t good enough when you have so many other films available to choose from, and I suspect that this is destined to be forgotten (if anyone still remembers it today).

4/10

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

Netflix And Chill: 21 Bridges (2019)

I'm slightly annoyed that it took me this long to finally watch 21 Bridges, mainly because it finally showed me a performance from the late Chadwick Boseman that really showed him delivering fantastic work. I enjoyed his Marvel turn, pretty much everyone knows that he played Black Panther in a number of movies (including, of course, Black Panther), but I didn't really see anything else from him that made me take notice of his acting chops. 21 Bridges, as mired in predictability and cliché as it is, is lifted by Boseman's performance, especially in a couple of scenes that have him sparring with the equally great J. K. Simmons.

Boseman plays a New York detective named Andre Davis. Following in the footsteps of his father (who died when he was a child), Davis strives to be a good cop. Even while being investigated for a shooting, he stands firm on his record. He has had to shoot people when there was no other choice, but he insists that every one was justified, a "good" shooting. When a big theft goes wrong, two drug thieves kill a number of cops, and Davis is put on the case. He wants to bring the two to justice, but there are others, including Captain McKenna (Simmons) who would much prefer the two to be shot on sight, sparing the relatives of the dead cops a long and painful trial. Davis doesn't work that way though, and he's even less inclined to shoot first and ask questions later as details of the case start to add up to more than just a robbery gone awry. The routes in and out of Manhattan are blocked, and the clock is counting down fast for the robbers, who won't know that Davis is their best chance at making it through the night alive.

Written by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael (brother of Joe) Carnahan, this is a very enjoyable, standard, thriller. The pacing is perfect, with the robbery and some subsequent gun battles punctuating the ongoing detective work being carried out by Davis, and there are plenty of opportunities throughout the film for the viewer to get one step ahead of the main characters. This is arguably a big weakness within the script, but it still delivers a bit of tension, albeit in a different way. Anyone watching this is just wondering how long it will take certain characters to realise certain truths, and what confrontations will stem from those realisations.

Director Brian Kirk doesn't really elevate the material, relying on his cast to deliver some of the better lines from the script. He also doesn't mess things up, however, and that can be just as important when helming something as entrenched in crime movie tropes as this is. Kirk has faith in his cast, but it's a shame that he didn't get some better people to fill out some of the smaller supporting roles. Seeing some more faces like Keith David (who plays a Deputy Chief) would have helped enormously, even if they were just in for one small scene.

The leads more than make up for any weaker elements though. Boseman is believable, matching the tough attitude of his character with an intelligence and diplomacy that makes Andre Davis the one cop you would want alongside you if things were going from bad to worse at great speed. Sienna Miller plays Frankie Burns, partnered alongside Davis for the night, and she is very good in her role, playing someone who is looking to both crack the case and help get the suspects an immediate death sentence. Simmons has given many great performances in his career. This may not be up there with his very best, but it's much better than you might expect for the type of character he's portraying, arguably more effective in the more placatory moments that he has in between shouting at people. Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch play the two thieves, with James by far the better of the two, possibly as much to do with the script as it is to do with his performance, and there are a few other players who do decent work while they get caught in the crossfire (including Alexander Siddig, Louis Cancelmi, and Gary Carr).

Distinctly average in terms of the plotting, 21 Bridges is treated like so much more than that by everyone else involved, both behind and in front of the camera, and Boseman and co. turn it into a surprisingly riveting viewing experience.

7/10

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Saturday, 21 May 2022

Shudder Saturday: Becky (2020)

Co-directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, Becky is the film arguably best known to many for being the one that has Kevin "King Of Queens" James playing a Neo-Nazi criminal. It has also been referred to as a twisted riff on Home Alone, and I am sure that people have already heaped some praise on the young actress, Lulu Wilson, who portrays the titular character.

The plot is deceptively simple. Becky is taken away by her father (Jeff, played by Joel McHale) to spend some time back at the lakeside home that contains many memories of her deceased mother. It's not going to be an easy time for them though, as Jeff is informing Becky that he wants to marry his girlfriend, Kayla (Amanda Brugel), who has joined them at the house, accompanied by her young son, Ty (Isaiah Rockcliffe). Becky leaves the house, wanting some time to herself, wanting to be alone with her rage. And that is when Dominick (James) and co. enter. They want something that has been hidden away on the property, and they don't mind killing to get it. It turns out that Becky won't necessarily mind killing people either, and she has the advantage while the criminals take time to fully realise the situation.

There are a lot of people involved in this that I've been aware of before now, but not particularly impressed by. A lot of people enjoyed both Cooties and Bushwick, also from Milott and Murnion, but I wasn't a big fan of either. Cooties was average, at best, and Bushwick was a slight improvement. Becky shows that they have kept moving in the right direction though, and this is their best work yet. The script, written by Ruckus Skye, Lane Skye, and Nick Morris, is enjoyably effective when it comes to shaping the central characters and placing them in every main sequence. The crux of the relationship between Becky and her father is nailed down within their first few scenes together, their big problem stemming from a reaction from a young girl that is as hurtful to her father as it is understandable, and all we need to know about the bad guys is that they are generally very bad indeed. It also helps that there's a great little speech delivered by James that is supposedly about a dog, but very quickly and obviously shows that it encompasses his horrendous world view, and isn't really just about a dog at all.

Wilson is excellent in the main role. She's believable throughout, even as she grows tougher and more determined to cause pain and death to others. Her skill and strength seems to grow with each cathartic moment, and she always seems to be thinking one step ahead of those around her. I have seen Wilson in a few other films, but this is her standout role, for obvious reasons. James is also excellent, delivering a menacing and unpleasant character with a performance that could easily be described as revelatory. Okay, he's helped by the script and the fact that it is so far removed from his usual fare, but he still deserves a good bit of praise for taking on the role. McHale and Brugel are both very good as the adults who end up pinning their hopes on a young girl to help them get out of a very dangerous situation, and Robert Maillet is a highlight in the role of Apex, a large and intimidating criminal who actually wants things to stop before more people lose their lives.

While it avoids some common pitfalls (it doesn't try to make things overly cool, it doesn't often play things for laughs), Becky becomes slightly unstuck in the more violent moments. It becomes a bit ridiculous, whether in terms of showing what Becky can do or in terms of the damage caused to people. Watching someone cut off their own dangling eyeball is fine for causing a wince, a gut reaction, but it's also something that feels a bit preposterous. The same can be said of some other gory moments. It's not enough to completely unbalance, or ruin, the film. It's enough to knock a point or two off it though.

Nicely bookended by a couple of scenes that will prompt a wry smile from viewers, this is a thriller that I highly recommend to anyone looking for something just a little bit different. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it puts a funky new hubcap on it.

8/10

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Friday, 20 May 2022

The Bad Guys (2022)

If there is one problem I have with The Bad Guys it’s the fact that a film featuring Sam Rockwell as a smooth and conniving thief should also be available in live-action form. But here we are, and this animated comedy crime caper should do enough to entertain most viewers.

Rockwell is Wolf, the head honcho of a crew that also includes Snake (Marc Maron), Tarantula (Awkwafina), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos). Busted during a big robbery, this group of baddies is allowed to escape jail time if they opt to place themselves in the care of the benevolent Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade). The Professor wants to show that baddies can change their ways, but a lot of other people are very doubtful, including Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) and Police Chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein). There might also be someone looking to frame our main characters for one big job. Or maybe they will trip themselves up, especially as they took the Professor’s deal to simply avoid jail time while they planned their next big score.

Based on books by Aaron Blabey, The Bad Guys has a lot going for it. First of all is that voice cast, but I will get back to them in a moment. The script, written by Etan Cohen, with additional material from Yoni Brenner and Hilary Winston, is a great mix of cool and funny. Wolf is very much a charming gentleman thief, in the vein of Cary Grant or George Clooney, and he enjoys the thrill of each job, especially when it can lead to a long car chase. Each main character has an identifying prime trait, and many have a secret or two to be revealed by the finale. And if you have kids who don’t enjoy the energy or wit of the film, don’t worry, they will be amused by the upset tummy of Piranha leading to a couple of amusing fart gags.

Director Pierre Perifel has a nice body of work already, working as an animator on films such as the Kung Fu Panda movies and The Illusionist (to name just a couple of highlights). He certainly knows what he is doing. Every main sequence has just the right energy running through it, including a very enjoyable dance number, and there are lots of gags that make the most of the medium.

Let’s get back to that cast though. Rockwell has been a magnificent star for some years now and his voice is a perfect fit for the charming and fast-thinking lead. Maron, Awkwafina, Robinson, and Ramos all fit well with their characters, and they each make their scenes funnier in different ways. Ayoade, likewise, has a voice that fits his role perfectly, and both Beetz and Borstein are excellent as two authority figures who view Wolf and his gang very differently, the former hoping they can change their ways while the latter just really wants to lock them up.

Some people have commented on the little nods to Tarantino here and there, which is worth pointing out to film fans who may otherwise overlook this, but The Bad Guys is more interested in being an animal-centric riff on the “Ocean’s [Insert Number Here]” movies. And it completely works in that regard, with the stealthy thievery, action sequences, and gags all accompanied by a fantastic score from Daniel Pemberton (who has slowly become an absolute standout musical talent over the length of his career, and I hope we get plenty more from him).

Entertaining for all ages, especially if you can stay in touch with your inner child as easily as I can, this is recommended. It isn’t top-tier animated fare, but it is well put together and . . . well, it’s just a good bit of fun from start to finish. 

7/10

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Thursday, 19 May 2022

We're All Going To The World's Fair (2021)

The main thing to bear in mind when you start watching We’re All Going To The World’s Fair is that it may well not be the film you want it to be. That isn’t the fault of the film, especially when some people have been discussing it in horror genre terms. There are ways in which this could be viewed as an interesting, and experimental, horror movie, but there are so many other ways in which this isn’t a horror movie, at least not in the traditional sense.

Anna Cobb plays Casey, the lead character, a young woman who wants to join in with people who have been attempting to play a game entitled “We’re All Going To The World’s Fair”. The game seems to be a gateway to a world of creeping madness and unnerving horrors, but things start to change slowly and insidiously. Recording herself, attempting to show any transformation, Casey connects online with someone named JLB (Michael J Rogers), someone with knowledge of the game and a serious concern for her well-being.

Written and directed by Jane Schoenburn, it’s unsurprising to find that this film really homes in on subtle changes and a growing discomfort that the central character keeps trying to process. Showing herself to the world, via her computer, allows others to observe and comment, perhaps viewing her very different from how she views herself. Schoenburn is a trans woman, and she has impressively packaged the experience of confusion, determination, and transition into a thought-provoking work of art.

Having said that, unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan. Although it works in some ways, particularly when you mull it over after it is all over, I didn’t think that it worked, crucially, in the moment. Disjointed scenes are slammed together without any real narrative flow, and the more impressive moments of strangeness are offset by the moments that just deliver a few minutes of tedium.

Cobb is very good in the main role. She is the focus of  nearly every scene, even when she isn’t actually there, and she certainly has a great presence that helps the movie a lot, making it more bearable than it otherwise would be. Rogers has a much smaller role, and he does okay, but it is a shame that his character is left to tie up some loose ends as things wind down towards the very end.

I am not sure what I would have preferred here, whether it would be improved as a more straightforward drama or a more overt horror, but I think that We’re All Going To The World’s Fair really suffers from trying to be an unsatisfying blend of different film styles. Some people could have made this work, but Schoenburn cannot manage it. Moving forward though, I wouldn’t be averse to see her next film being a remake, reworking, or continuation of this material.

A lot of people really enjoyed this, and there is good stuff to unpack. It just didn’t work for me. It’s a love or hate kind of film that I didn’t love.

3/10

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Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Prime Time: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

I feel it is relevant to, once again, state my view on remakes. No film is untouchable. And a bad remake doesn’t actually do anything to supplant a great original in your mind. It doesn’t. But most movie fans agree that some decisions don’t make much sense, like deciding to try remaking a classic when there are so many lesser films that might benefit from others retelling the story. And The Day The Earth Stood Still is a classic. It is, alongside Forbidden Planet, one of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time. This remake . . . certainly isn’t.

An alien ship lands, presenting a figure who is welcomed to Earth by being fired upon by the military. Of course. While recuperating, the figure turns into someone who looks much more human than alien (Keanu Reeves), and he starts putting things in motion for the destruction of humanity. Because humans are the cause of so many problems on this planet. The military continues to try and stop him, while a few scientists try helping, and try to convince the visitor that there is still hope for humanity.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, who has at least half a dozen titles in his filmography I would rush to recommend ahead of this, The Day The Earth Stood Still is yet another example of a remake that feels as if it has been done all because we can now make more epic images of destruction thanks to the power of CGI. The film plods along, criminally dull in places, but manages to reserve space for scenes it assumes will impress viewers with the sheer size of the spectacle. That assumption is incorrect.

Reeves, as beloved as he is today (and maybe always has been), is horribly uncharismatic in the main role. It’s almost as if he was cast because he wanted to join any movie that would at some point attach wires to his head. Jennifer Connelly, playing the female lead, and main scientist helping Keanu, is okay, but the script mistreats her character, more so when she is whisked away from the main plot to become stuck in scenes that really should have been for the supporting cast only. Kathy Bates is good as a tough bureaucrat, Jon Hamm is just fine as another scientist trying to help, Kyle Chandler is a standard military officer underestimating things, Jaden Smith is a grumpy child, and John Cleese does well with his few minutes onscreen, putting forward the case for humanity.

It’s all leading to the CGI though, whether it is the new version of GORT, the spheres that have landed on our planet, or the wave of destruction that is triggered when the time is right. It doesn’t hold up too badly, but it’s just so overdone, in terms of there being too much of it in the big FX moments, and tiresome.

I don’t envy writer David Scarpa. Being asked to remake such a classic sci-fi film was surely a poisoned chalice, especially when this was only his second movie (after the solid, but low-key, The Last Castle). Maybe another writer could have done something better, but it was always going to be a big ask. 

The best thing I can say about this is that it seemed to be an atypical blip for the main players involved. Scarpa hasn’t done much, but his other scripts are much better than this. Derrickson has gone from strength to strength. And the cast have generally managed to keep the good far outweighing the bad. So let’s go back to forgetting that this exists and we can all rewatch the brilliant original film instead.

“Klaatu barada nikto!”

3/10

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Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Lost City (2022)

To use the simplest shorthand available, The Lost City is, in some ways, an updated version of Romancing The Stone. It has a few tweaks, with the main one being making a potential hero/rescuer someone who is often quite useless and out of his depth, but the basic premise is a romance novelist (Loretta Sage, played by Sandra Bullock) who is kidnapped by people looking for mythical treasure. An escape attempt leaves her stuck in the jungle, taking her on the kind of perilous adventure that she usually writes about in her novels. Alan (Channing Tatum) is the handsome man who may be able to save her from her predicament. The only problem is that Alan is completely ill-prepared for such an undertaking, having spent years as a model, notably portraying the heroic Dash on the cover of Loretta's work. Meanwhile, her agent (Beth, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph) is trying to locate her, without any help from authorities.

Although the balance isn’t quite right, and there are developments in the third act that feel a bit false (even within this fictional framework), The Lost City is easy entertainment that aims to please as many people as possible. That is both a strength and weakness. It’s a star vehicle for Bullock, who has proven how good she is at comedy on a number of occasions, but it also allows Tatum to remind people of how well he does in comedic roles.

Directors Aaron and Adam Nee may find themselves stuck once it comes to the finale, from a script that they worked on with Oren Uziel and Dana Fox, but the journey more than makes up for the disappointment of the destination. They do themselves the biggest favour by casting well, with the few supporting roles played well by Randolph, Patti Harrison, Oscar Nuñez, Daniel Radcliffe and a certified a-list star making a hilarious cameo.

Bullock is on great form here, playing someone jaded and tired. Starting the film being put into a purple-sequinned dress that she hates, the fact that she has to tolerate that same item of clothing for a large portion of the runtime serves as a reminder that she was unhappy even before the kidnapping. Now she is very unhappy, but arguably still most put out by still wearing that dress in an environment that makes it even more impractical. Tatum is doing dumb, and he does it brilliantly. Always happy to smoulder for any female fans, he soon shows that he is at least more sweet and considerate than you may think, and the film allows him to become less and less ridiculous as the adventure continues, which subsequently allows Tatum to round out his character a bit more. Randolph is a lot of fun, constantly in a state of great stress, Harrison is a fairly unhelpful assistant, and Nuñez helps to lift things slightly when his character appears just in time to help, and fall for, Randolph’s character. Then there’s the villain, a role that allows Radcliffe to pretend to be charming and composed as he becomes increasingly desperate, and dangerous, on the way to finding potential treasure.

A few set-pieces sprinkle just enough action through the film to remind you that this is a rom-com adventure movie, but most people should remain happy enough while Bullock and Tatum bicker, flounder, and generally distract one another while they really should be staying focused on the many dangers around them.

While everyone contributes to making this a glossy, wonderful, blockbuster production, I will also single out Pinar Toprak, who delivers a great score that manages to suit the material without feeling too derivative. 

In case I didn’t make myself clear, I really enjoyed this. Is it great? No. Nor is it very original. But it is consistently amusing and entertaining, and boosted by two stars who are perfect in their lead roles, and who also both work very well alongside one another.

7/10

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Monday, 16 May 2022

Mubi Monday: The Worst Person In The World (2021)

Having now seen a few films from director Joachim Trier (including the most excellent Thelma), it's easy to see why he already has such a sizeable fanbase. His films explore human nature in a way that is honest, dark, and also usually very witty. While The Worst Person In The World has some elements that don't quite work for me, it's generally another easy recommendation for fans of Trier's work.

Renate Reinsve plays Julie, a young woman who we see going through a number of relatively speedy changes in her life within the first main sequence of the film. She ends up in a relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), which leads to a scenario that will be sadly familiar to so many women . . . the questioning about when they're going to start a family. Julie then meets Elvind (Herbert Nordrum), someone she connects with at a party. There's no cheating, but there's definitely an instant connection and an inappropriate level of intimacy between the two. Things once again look set to change rapidly for Julie.

First of all, anyone expecting a dark comedy delivering us a character who really IS the worst person in the world will be sorely disappointed. This is a film about how people battle their way through life, and how they feel others will view them. Julie makes a number of decisions in her own best interests, but those decisions are open to dissection and criticism from others.

Trier, once again working with Eskil Vogt on the screenplay, simply allows events to unfold, keeping the viewers as close as possible to Julie in an attempt to show how her decisions are made, how we are all prone to chopping and changing our minds as we navigate these murky waters, and how nobody really ever knows what someone else is going through.

Reinsve is excellent in the lead role, just absolutely believable as an everyday woman dealing with the many small bits of bullshit that people (but mostly women, especially when it comes to the baby talk) deal with every day. Lie and Nordrum also do great work, playing the two main men in Julie’s life, the former an artist who creates “shock” comics, the latter a barista who is perhaps even less sure of his path through life than Julie.

There are one or two easy “set-pieces” that will be remembered long after the credits have rolled, but this is a film in which every scene makes a strong point. That point could be about the importance of not being dragged down by family members who no longer make any effort. It could be looking at how intimacy without physical contact can still be viewed as cheating on a loved one. It could even explore regret, and whether or not that overwhelming urge to move backward is a good thing for those who were once very much in love.

My minor criticisms come from the runtime and the structure, both of which I feel could have been trimmed and reworked better. There’s a middle section that sags a bit, and the chapter breaks feel very much like Trier was shying away from one or two other tricks he could have used.

Overall, however, this is pretty great. Everyone involved, both in front of the camera and behind it, deserves some praise, and everyone who appreciates world cinema should make this a high priority on their viewing schedule.

8/10

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Sunday, 15 May 2022

Netflix And Chill: Senior Year (2022)

I have been someone who, for a few years now, has gone against the majority opinion when it comes to Rebel Wilson. I actually think that she's good at what she does. Well, I used to think that. I am now, belatedly, coming to agree with the people who dislike her film appearances. Just a quick glance over her recent movie roles is enough to show that the bad far outweighs the good. And Senior Year is one of the bad ones.

In a standard ridiculous movie concept, Stephanie is a young woman who managed to turn herself from uncool nerd to super-popular cheerleader captain, with the boyfriend she always wanted and her life unfolding exactly the way she wanted it. That all changes when a cheerleading move leads to her being comatose for twenty years. When she finally wakes up, Stephanie (now played by Rebel Wilson) struggles to adjust. It was just moments ago that she was about to become Prom Queen. She still wants that. She wants her moment. But a lot of things have changed. Her friend, Martha (Mary Holland), is now the school principal. Another friend, Seth (Sam Richardson), works at the school. Both would like to help Stephanie adjust, but both find themselves disappointed and unsurprised when she starts to fall back into very bad habits, spurred on by social media and a desperate need to right the ship that sailed away without her twenty years ago.

Written by Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, and Brandon Scott Jones, the biggest problem with Senior Year is the fact that the central character is too thoroughly unpleasant. That's sometimes all well and good, especially when you expect a predictable bit of redemption and some lessons learned in the third act, but this is a film that doesn't really rectify anything that way. It tries to make it look that way, but it doesn't. So you have someone who has, for the most part, acted like an asshat to many people around her, and she avoids any punishment that feels proportionate to her actions.

Director Alex Hardcastle has a pretty easy job, keeping Wilson as the focus while things move from one scene utilising a pop hit and some nostalgia to the next scene . . . often utilising a pop hit and some nostalgia. The fact that it all ends with the kind of sing-and-dancealong moment usually shoehorned in at the end of an animated family flick maybe indicates how much he underestimates anyone choosing to view this. The problems may have come from the script, but Hardcastle just seeming to go along with everything really compounds them.

Wilson is Wilson. This isn't a good role for her, but she has moments where she gets to deliver her usual schtick, which can lead to an occasional chuckle. Thankfully, the supporting cast are much better, with Holland once again stealing the show (she was also great in Happiest Season) and Richardson very sweet and funny as the friend who has long held a candle for Stephanie. Zoë Chao is the high school nemesis who has grown up and starts off by pretending that the past is left in the past (spoiler - it's not), Justin Hartley is very funny as Blaine, her husband who was once dating Stephanie, and Chris Parnell plays a typically wonderful movie dad. Other good turns come from Avantika and Joshua Colley, students who befriend Stephanie when she rejoins high school, and Jade Bender, playing the daughter of the old high school nemesis who is manipulated by her mother into competing with someone she doesn't want to compete with.

I really disliked the first third of this, the middle section was a bit better, and I can't say that I completely hated the third act while everything was playing out. Thinking about it more though, as the terrible musical sequence was playing out, I started to resent giving it my time. I feel bad for contributing to whatever viewing figures are collected for these streaming releases, and I hope others don't make my mistake. Although it's not irredeemably awful, this is bad. I hope those who still managed to make the most of their roles are rewarded by some better movie options in their near future. And I hope that the director and writers seriously consider their approach to the medium before their next project.

4/10

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Saturday, 14 May 2022

Shudder Saturday: The Sadness (2021)

Okay, first of all, The Sadness may, for all intents and purposes, play out like a zombie movie, but it's not really a zombie movie. I don't really care, however, if anyone wants to label it as such. I'm still holding my position on that hill for 28 Days Later. But the characters who are "zombiefied" in The Sadness still seem to have will and intelligence, it's just that they are absolutely uninhibited by societal norms and morality, and their overriding urge is to indulge in every sadistic and depraved thought that they can imagine.

A stunning feature debut from writer-director Rob Jabbaz, and (as many others have already said) the closest we'll probably ever come to a filmed adaptation of Richard Laymond's One Rainy Night, The Sadness is a simple tale of two separated lovers (Jim, played by Berant Zhu, and Kat, played by Regina Lei) trying to survive and reunite with one another as the population around them becomes infected by a plague that spreads madness and death. Jim needs to avoid crowds of deadly strangers as he makes his way from one location to the next. Kat, on the other hand, finds herself targeted by a businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang) while she tries to help a wounded woman named Molly (Ying-Ru Chen).

From a very quick start to a very tense finale, this is a film that doesn't let up for a moment. Any peace that characters find is fragile, and viewers know it is likely to be shattered within minutes. The opening scenes show the madness infecting people almost instantly, leading to various assaults and acts of self-harm/suicide, a pattern of behaviour that becomes the norm for the ever-increasing horde of the infected.

Jabbaz doesn't dive deeply into the backstories of the lead characters. He's smart enough to just show that they are in a loving relationship, and being apart from one another during such a dangerous time means that their main aim is to get back together and find somewhere safe to stay. He's also smart to make one villain, The Businessman, stand out from the others, of course, in a little trick that is often used in zombie/infected movies. The fact that The Businessman is SO determined to get to his potential victims, and can occasionally take a moment to verbalise what he wants to do to them, is an easy way to keep things more focused and intense than they might have been if the film just showed Kat and Molly trying to avoid one crowd after another.

Zhu is good in his role, and viewers stick with him for approximately the first quarter of the movie, but it's Lei who excels in what turns out to be the lead role. Although blindsided by the turn of events, and not looking as if she may last long in such a situation, her character keeps her wits about her, constantly trying to get the right people to help while she calculates the odds of survival, and Lei handles herself very well in the role, even as she is being soaked by more and more sprayed blood. Chen is also very good, hampered by an eye injury early on, and she is able to strike a nice balance with her character by making her understandably upset and in pain without having her ever become an irritation. Wang, that determined and depraved businessman, is an excellent main baddie, emanating pure evil throughout. Even his first scene, before he is infected, show someone with a core that isn't exactly overflowing with goodness and positivity, and Wang, like everyone else, seems to enjoy himself more as things get wilder and wilder.

Full of amazing, and wince-inducing, special effects (Logan Sprangers is credited there) and make-up work (Azzurro Kuo) throughout, and with a couple of scenes that will test the stomachs of even the hardiest horror film fans, The Sadness is an entertaining and jaw-dropping cinematic orgy of violence. From the sound design to the sets, from the decisions about what is shown and what isn't, it's a near-perfect modern horror. I look forward to anything Jabbaz decides to do next, and I hope he has been inundated with a variety of offers since this was released.

9/10

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Friday, 13 May 2022

Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th (2000)

I am not going to say that Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th (a title that will be referred to from now on, if at all, as SIYKWIDLFT13) is any kind of classic, but I still think it is the better of the two main horror movie parodies that ended up being released in the year 2000. Give me this over Scary Movie any day. If both Anna Faris and Regina Hall could have ended up in this film then we would have had the best of both worlds.

The plot, as slight as it is, mixes Scream with  I Know What You Did Last Summer, with the main characters being drawn from both. There's a new kid, Dawson (Harley Cross), there's desperate-to-lose-his-virginity Boner (Danny Strong), there's the beauty queen type, Barbara (Julie Benz), a slab of beef named . . . Slab O'Beef (Simon Rex), and a potential final girl in the shape of Martina (Majandra Delfino). Once it becomes known that there's a killer on the loose, you also have reporter Hagitha Utslay (Tiffani Thiessen) on the scene, and a security guard named Doughy (Tom Arnold) keeps trying to do his bit to ensure nobody else dies on his watch. It has to be said, however, that he fails spectacularly.

There aren't many other projects written by either Sue Bailey or Joe Nelms, which isn't really any kind of great blow to cinema, but they do a decent job here. The gags are silly, they're obvious, and they're often downright juvenile, but the same can be said of numerous, more successful, parodies from this time. There's certainly nothing here that feels as bad as the kind of stuff we would all have to suffer from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and it's hard not to laugh as so many scenes are crammed with amusing lines, sight gags, and subtle details underpinning the more obvious material. Like the best movie parodies, although it's not quite on the same level, this rewards repeat viewings. There's more to take in than just whatever is happening front and centre.

Director John Blanchard, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a body of work that includes a lot of comedy sketch shows (SCTV, The Kids In The Hall, MadTV, The Martin Short Show, and quite a few more) and he conveys a constant sense of being eager to please viewers. While some of the gags that don’t work REALLY don’t work, the scattershot approach, another trait common to parodies, provides many more hits than misses. Even a third act selection of “Pop Ups”, now a relic from a bygone era of MTV, provides some solid laughs.

Arnold is pretty good in his role, and works well alongside Thiessen, who is also well-suited to her character. Rex and Benz both deliver some of the best overt comedy with their characters, while Cross and Delfino make for enjoyable enough “leads” (it’s very much an ensemble cast though, any one of the seven main characters could be considered a lead). The weakest of the bunch is Strong, stuck with a character who is defined only by his constant, and frustrating, horniness. There are some familiar faces in supporting roles, including Artie Lange, Kim Greist, Shirley Jones, and Coolio, and the only major mis-step comes from the occasional use of someone just thrown onscreen to reference a horror movie character (I’m looking at you, Chucky).

I am not going to try to convince anyone that this is a misunderstood masterpiece. There is plenty here that many viewers will find unfunny. The soundtrack has some misguided attempts to emulate generic songs from the teen slasher sub-genre. I cannot help still finding it funny though. I liked it when I first saw it, I like it just as much today. It IS better than Scary Movie, and I would be delighted if I started to find more people agreeing with me.

7/10

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Thursday, 12 May 2022

The House Of The Dead (1978)

The only theatrical feature film directed by Sharron Miller, who has since built up a body of work made up of TV shows (and at least one TV movie), The House Of The Dead is a horror anthology that suffers in comparison to other horror anthology movies, but it's actually far from the worst of them. 

John Ericson plays Talmudge, a man who we see leaving a lover to head home to his wife. There's a heavy rainstorm though, and that stops him from getting back to his hotel. He ends up receiving shelter from a mortician (Ivor Francis), who decides to show him some recent “clients” and relates the tales of their untimely ends. A grumpy teacher (Judith Novgrod) is terrorised. A prolific killer (Burr DeBenning) likes to film all of his exploits, which means the second tale displays footage seized from his home/lair. A pair of detectives (played by Charles Aidman and Bernard Fox) engage in a deadly battle of wits. Finally, a man named Cantwell (Richard Gates) ends up having his life completely changed once he falls into a lift shaft.

Writer David O’Malley (who also wrote both The Boogens and the wonderful Fatal Instinct) tries to deliver a number of tales that feel relatively fresh, especially when compared to many other anthology horror tales. Although not successful, in terms of the scares and entertainment factor, it’s interesting enough (once it gets the weakest first tale out of the way). A better cast would have helped, and a bit more inventiveness and energy from Miller’s direction.

Ericson and Francis are fine in their roles, going through the motions in a framing segment that is winding towards a predictable ending, but nobody else is really worth mentioning. Maybe DeBenning, who at least delivers a cold and unflinching portrayal of a psychopath who tries to put people at ease before going in for the kill, but will also do whatever it takes to get the job done once suspicions have been aroused. Novgrod is very forgettable, Aidman and Fox at least have a bit of fun sparring with one another, and Gates is stuck with a story that requires him to deliver a near-parodic interpretation of someone who finds that their position in society has just been radically changed.

So the cast isn’t the greatest, the material isn’t the strongest, and nothing here is unmissable, but I still think someone better at the helm could have made this into a film that is more fondly remembered today. Although it clocks in at just under the 80-minute mark, it feels slightly overlong. There isn’t one single moment that doesn’t look like it could have been lifted from something like Tales Of The Unexpected (a great TV show, but one that always absolutely felt like TV, as many shows did before television became more and more cinematic). Even one truly great scare or gore gag  would have helped, but there are none to be found here.

Yet I somehow liked this. O’Malley tries to bolt some modern sensibilities on to the format in a way that at least feels interesting and is trying not to be lazy. It’s just a shame that his writing couldn’t be lifted up by anyone else working on the film. 

6/10

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