Sunday, 30 April 2023

Netflix And Chill: Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996)

The graboids return in this fun sequel to the brilliant creature feature that was the first movie. Fred Ward and Michael Gross are also back, with the latter being the only main player, to my knowledge, to star in every movie in the franchise, to date. 

Earl Bassett (Ward) hasn't gone on to any great success after the events of the first movie. That looks set to change, however, when he's hired by a Mexican oil company that finds itself with a major graboid problem. Earl ends up working with a young man, Grady (Chris Gartin), who is determined to help both of them earn as much money as possible. These graboids can make them a tidy sum, and there's even more available if they can catch one or two alive. Knowing how helpful he can be, Earl calls in Burt Gummer (Gross), and the hunting begins in earnest. But these graboids aren't exactly the same as the last creatures that Earl and Burt encountered. They're about to witness a further evolution of the creatures, and that may put them in even greater danger.

Co-written by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson (who both worked on writing the first film with that film's director, Ron Underwood), this is a fun time for those who were firm fans of the first film. It's not a complete retread, but it stays close enough to the winning formula. You get dry humour, a fun juxtaposition of the fantastical and the standard Joe/Joan Public dealing with it, and decent special effects throughout (although some CGI in the second half shows up the limitations of the budget). Wilson also takes on the directing duties this time around, and he benefits from the camaraderie between the two returning stars.

While Ward retains his usual charm, and works well enough with Gartin, his character really perks up again when onscreen with the character played by Gross. The two men are very reluctant heroes, and as likely to mess things up as they are to succeed, and Gross once again positions himself perfectly to steal some scenes and become the linchpin of the entire franchise. Gartin is perfectly fine, and Helen Shaver does her best to overcome some of the weakest writing, playing a geologist named Kate who has a secret in her past that would be laughed offscreen from anything that didn't have the charm or goofy sweetness of a Tremors movie. There are a smattering of other characters here and there, but the focus remains on our central quartet for the majority of the runtime. And the creatures, of course. 

It's not as good as the first film, which set a very high bar, and there are other films in the series that are better, but this is an enjoyable sequel that gives a glimpse of how easily the franchise could move beyond the boundaries of Perfection without losing sight of what made the first movie so beloved by the fanbase it developed. Having said that, the next two movies in the series return the action to that desert town, but things are different enough in each instalment that I stand by what I just said.

6/10

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Saturday, 29 April 2023

Shudder Saturday: From Black (2023)

It's almost impossible to discuss From Black without mentioning the main film it feels so similar to, A Dark Song. You can throw a stone at any horror convention and hit one of the many people who love A Dark Song, but I'm not one of them. I liked it, there were moments in it that I liked a lot, but there was something in the way the material was executed that stopped me from loving it. From Black, on the other hand, felt much more satisfying.

Anna Camp plays Cora, a recovering addict struggling to deal with the loss of her young son. All evidence points towards him having been snatched/killed, sadly, but Cora becomes torn between wanting to hold on to hope and wanting to have closure. She's eventually offered a potential opportunity from a man named Abel (John Ales), a way to find out what happened to her son, and maybe even to see him again. She'll have to put all of her trust in Abel, no matter what happens around them, but he knows more about the difficulty of the process than she does. Is he trying to give Cora a gift, or pass along a curse?

The fictional feature directorial debut of Thomas Marchese, who also co-wrote the screenplay with first-timer Jessub Flower, From Black is another one of many impressive recent debuts that mark someone out as being worth keeping an eye on. The script manages to avoid feeling overwhelmingly grim and bleak, despite being completely wrapped in a shroud of grief and a hazy atmosphere of Faustian futility (a notion that this particular proposed tranasction will only ever end badly), and Marchese delivers some nice visuals, thanks to cinematographer Duncan Cole, to accompany the central themes, whether they are snippets of languid nightmares or blood-soaked consequences of trying to dabble in some serious supernatural shenanigans. You also get a nicely suitable score from Luigi Janssen.

Cast-wise, this is a case of quality over quantity, with the film generally staying focused on four main characters. Camp is excellent in the main role, believable whether she's shone in her drug-addicted scenes, in her grief, or having started to fight back for the chance to see her son again. Ales is equally good, although his role is often just the facilitator, and deliverer of exposition, and Jennifer LaFleur portrays a surprisingly patient and open-minded local cop. Last, but not least, is Travis Hammer in the role of Wyatt, the ex-partner of Cora who never managed to escape the hold of addiction. Wyatt may seem like an unnecessary character, but he's one vital component of something that has been constructed with an admirable amount of care and consideration.

With a runtime of 100 minutes, some people may think this is slightly overlong. I thought it was perfectly paced. It's very much focused on Cora and her journey, but it's equally about what you can find within yourself when grief shatters your life and settles in to where your happiness may have once resided. There are reservoirs of strength to draw from, but they can be almost impossible to see beyond the veil of darkness and tears, and many can struggle to have even one moment of clarity.

I highly recommend From Black, although I guess that those who loved A Dark Song more than I did may ultimately like this a bit less, especially if making the inevitable comparisons between the two. This is the better film though, in my opinion, and I hope it finds an appreciative audience.

8/10

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Friday, 28 April 2023

See How They Run (2022)

While you may not know the names of director Tom George or writer Mark Chappell, See How They Run is a film otherwise overflowing with familiarity, from the cast to the central play, "The Mousetrap", that is the focus of a murder investigation. There's nothing new here, but it's all done with a delightfully warm and affectionate approach to the standards of the whodunnit.

Everything starts with the murder of a sleazy and obnoxious director (Adrien Brody), and it soon becomes apparent that there are a large number of suspects, all of them involved with that hit play called The Mousetrap. Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) is put on the case, forced to work alongside the young Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), and the two could not be more different in their approach to the whole thing. The Inspector is trying to discern various facts as he continually pieces together a mental puzzle being crafted in his mind, while Constable Stalker is starstruck by everyone she meets, but also attempts to write absolutely everything down in a small notebook she assumes will eventually contain enough evidence to point to the killer. Working together, they might just solve the murder, but that would require them to be able to tolerate one another for the duration of the investigation.

I really enjoyed See How They Run. I can see why many might view it as something too insubstantial, or even a bit too smug (considering a number of cast members are portraying real people who were involved with The Mousetrap), but it hit a sweet spot for me that some other recent works in this sub-genre managed to miss. Although the script is clever and witty, it  ever feels as if it is pointing to itself and demanding brownie points for doing such a good job, and the direction lets every main scene play out without underlining every gag or grinding to a halt in order to nudge and wink at viewers. This might all sound ridiculous, but I could mention different movies that have been guilty of making these mistakes, and it really gets in the way when you’re just hoping to be amused and entertained.

Everything is helped by the fact that the cast all pitch their performances perfectly. Rockwell and Ronan are a fantastic pairing, one being cynical and just wanting to make time for drinking alcohol and the other wide-eyed and quite naive at times, but also smart and brave when not being overwhelmed by the celebrity-studded situation. Brody has fun with his screentime (limited screentime, obviously), and there are too many other enjoyable turns to highlight just one or two. Reece Shearsmith, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo, Shirley Henderson (an inspired choice to play Agatha Christie), Charlie Cooper, Tim Key, and Harris Dickinson (getting to play Richard Attenborough) are all brilliant, and many of them too preoccupied with their own lives and careers to spend too much time properly caring about a murderer possibly still being among them.

There’s a delightful score from Daniel Pemberton, nice period detail throughout (I am not sure if it is all entirely accurate, but it definitely feels crafted with care), and a mix of gags that should please both fans of The Mousetrap and those just wanting to enjoy a film without having to “do any homework” (as I have yet to see The Mousetrap, I found myself in the latter camp). The more I think about it, the less I find to fault.

I hope others enjoy this as much as I did. And, yes, a small part of me hopes they can figure out a way to use these two leads in another theatre-based murder mystery. Maybe Arsenic And Old Lace could provide the same amount of fun.

8/10

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Thursday, 27 April 2023

Funny Man (1994)

1994 wasn’t exactly a great time for the slasher movie, although I am saying that with the knowledge that someone might immediately inform me of one or two great titles I have simply forgotten about while figuring out the best way to open this review. Funny Man isn’t just a slasher movie though. It’s a British slasher movie. And it’s a British slasher movie that gives viewers a new slasher “icon” in the shape of the titular character, a killer who looks like a demonic jester and has the patter of an old-fashioned working club comic.

Christopher Lee plays a character who loses a house to Max Taylor (Benny Young) in a game of cards. Don’t get excited by the appearance of Lee though. His screentime totals up to about a minute or so, which makes it clear that the film-makers had the star for about half a day. Anyway, the Taylor family move into the house and soon find themselves in the middle of some major strangeness. They are unaware of the Funny Man (played by Tim James), but he is always ready to have fun with anyone who enters his territory. Thankfully, more people are due to arrive, in the shape of Max’s brother (Johnny, played by Matthew Devitt) and a motley mix of individuals accompanying him on his journey, which means more deaths can be planned.

Amazing as it might seem, this isn’t the only feature film from writer-director Simon Sprackling. It is his first film though, and suffers from the flaws that many directorial debuts can have. The 93-minute runtime drags in places, there’s misplaced confidence in the central idea (although there are moments when the oddness of the lead character actually works in a way that is both amusing and horrifying), and the acting style throughout is majorly over the top, almost pantomime at times.

I don’t want to spend much time being too harsh on the cast. Most of them do what is asked of them, whether it’s pretending to be a Scooby Doo character (Thelma Fudd, played by Rhona Cameron, someone I used to enjoy for her stand up comedy), being a pretty useless human psychic (Pauline Black), or getting themselves lured in by the least convincing “pop up” strip club ever (Chris Walker). The majority of the film rests on the shoulders of James, who really strives to embody a mix of Jim Bowen and Freddy Krueger (or maybe the Leprechaun), and it IS fun to watch him move from delivering his patter to viewers, breaking the fourth wall a number of times, to acting bored and bemused by the stupidity of his victims. He cannot do enough to save the film entirely, but fair play on him for doing as good a job as he does.

There’s an admirable attempt here to do something quite unique, something very British and very surreal at times, but it sadly doesn’t work. There should have been some more background or details throughout, a bigger world and story for the Funny Man, and perhaps an even quicker move into the more bonkers atmosphere. You do get some good gore gags though, and it’s a hard one to forget.

Oh, and there’s now extra horror added to the third act when you see the Funny Man dressed up in a way that is meant to emulate Jimmy Savile. I bet Sprackling didn’t realise just how terrifying that one gag would become.

3/10

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Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Prime Time: The Misfits (2021)

The continuing disappointment of mediocrity from director Renny Harlin continues with this film, a comedy crime caper that takes a pretty good cast and spends too much time not making the most of their talents. Some people can overcome the flimsy script, Pierce Brosnan having the lead role is a big plus, but it’s a shame that the overriding feeling once the end credits roll is that you’ve just watched something quite lazy and carelessly thrown together.

The title almost tells you everything you need to know. A group of criminals are put together for a big job. They have various skills, and they are happy to be called The Misfits. The target is a man named Schultz (Tim Roth), someone who has made his fortune by building prisons, but has used one such building to house a secret stash of gold. How? Why? Those questions don’t matter. You just need to know that this heist somehow seems overly complicated and ridiculously simple at the same time.

Harlin directs competently enough, this is a light-hearted caper that he can just have some fun with, ensuring that his cast always looks good and there are shots of expensive lifestyle accessories showing the rich pickings around our “heroes”, from lovely watches to lovely supercars. It’s the script that provides all the problems, too preoccupied with banter and wit to actually remember that there should be at least a small bit of tension here and there. It’s no surprise to find that the script was co-written by someone who has previously delivered mainly comedic fare - Robert Henny - and someone who can do enjoyably stupid or just stupid stupid - Kurt Wimmer.

Brosnan seems to be having a ball in his role though, and that enthusiasm is infectious enough to help make the film a lot more tolerable. As for the others in the team, they’re all likeable enough. There’s Nick Cannon, Jamie Chung, Mike Angelo, and Hermione Corfield (playing the daughter of Brosnan’s character), each playing someone bringing their own particular skillset to the group, and you also get fun supporting turns from Rami Jaber, Qais Qandil, and one or two others who are proving to be a help or hindrance to the main plan. Roth is a standard mark - two steps behind, and with plenty of reasons to make his loss justified and more satisfying - and he does what is asked of him, but sadly never feels as dangerous as he should.

It’s slick and bathed in sunshine, but The Misfits is also absolutely disposable. Which isn’t a crime, it just makes it a film that you should never prioritise ahead of many better viewing options you might have. But for something to watch when you don’t want anything overlong (this clocks in at just over 90 minutes), overly complicated, or overly emotional, this absolutely fits the bill. It’s a simple slice of entertainment, benefiting hugely from the star power of Brosnan.

5/10

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Tuesday, 25 April 2023

Next Exit (2022)

Imagine if there was absolute proof of life after death. Would that change much for you? Would it change much for the world? According to writer-director Mali Elfman’s feature debut, it most certainly would. People would no longer care about consequences, this life is just one phase before the next, and many would want to hasten their death to try and reconnect with loved ones, or maybe just end a life that hasn’t been working out for them. It’s an intriguing, and sobering, idea, and one that is used brilliantly in what is essentially a riff on the standard road trip movie.

Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) are two individuals about to embrace death. They are doing it under the guise of furthering the scientific developments of a doctor (Karen Gillan in a brief cameo) who has started to specialise in just exactly what happens when, and after, we die. Deciding on a car ride instead of a quick flight, Rose and Teddy end up sharing a rental car, which gives them a number of days to find out more about one another, and to reveal what has happened to lead them to their current situation.

If you’re after a full-blooded and straightforward horror movie then this isn’t the movie for you. There are some nicely creepy moments, people realising the times during which they have unexpected company, but it’s a supernatural-tinged emotional drama, more focused on letting viewers spend time with characters that they become more and more invested in. Elfman helps everything along with a great script, with plenty of humour in between the heavier moments, and solid direction.

I don’t want to undersell the value of the cast though, with both Parker and Kohli (particularly Kohli) doing stellar work in the lead roles. The two are a good fit for the characters, but the more important aspect of the film is how well they work together, growing more comfortable and friendlier with one another in a very natural and believable way. As well as Gillan, there are one or two other cameos to enjoy, and excellent little turns from Tim Griffin and Tongayi Chirisa, playing two characters who have a very different relationship with the concept of the afterlife.

I need to stop being surprised by people doing such great work in their first full feature films because it just keeps happening recently, and this is another excellent addition to the growing list of worthwhile debuts marking someone out as a great talent to keep an eye on. Elfman might have been able to get a helping hand from the fact that her father is the fairly well-known Danny Elfman, or maybe not (I am speculating here to try and head off any criticisms from people ready with their knives out), but she easily proves what an impressive new voice she is with this haunting and sweet study of how people can eventually embrace life after having already embraced death.

9/10

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Monday, 24 April 2023

Mubi Monday: That Sinking Feeling (1979)

The first feature from writer-director Bill Forsyth, That Sinking Feeling is a light-hearted crime caper that is full of the dry humour, great observations, and moments of surrealism that fans of Forsyth have appreciated throughout most of his filmography.

Set in a fictional city named Glasgow (which is, of course, just playing itself in the movie, but the insistence that it is a version removed from reality is the first gag in the film), viewers get to meet a group of young men who are all struggling in different ways. Almost all of them have had some dark thoughts, and they cannot see a way to start making a decent future for themselves. Until Ronnie (Robert Buchanan) has the great idea to steal a load of stainless steel sinks. It shouldn’t be the toughest robbery to pull off, and the ill-gotten gains will provide a lifeline to Ronnie and his mates.

While not exactly Ocean’s Eleven, in terms of the sophistication of the robbery and the stakes for those involved, there’s plenty here to admire and enjoy as Robbie leads his gang to what they all hope will be a successful score. They will need to get the timing right, they’ll need a van, and they will need a couple of decoys in the shape of two young men pretending to be cleaning women. This is a robbery planned by people without the money or resources to make everything plain and simple, and the continuous ingenuity, whether ideas seem likely to work or not, has viewers hoping that this motley crew of criminals will make a success of their plan.

Forsyth keeps everything quite nice and simple, and embraces the fact that he is making a film in 1970s Glasgow. The views may not be stunning or cinematic, and there might be what feels like constant rainfall, but that’s how people may think of Glasgow anyway. 

Buchanan is a likeable lead, a “crime boss” with a conscience, and he is surrounded by cast members who are all enjoyably atypical movie leads. Billy Greenless, John Hughes, Drew Burns, Alan Love, Derek Millar, and James Ramsey are all part of the fun, John Gordon Sinclair steals a couple of scenes, and Eddie Burt, playing a driver also named Eddie, provides an absolute highlight of the film in the third act.

Wonderfully witty and warm, this should appeal to anyone who is familiar with Forsyth’s work. It will appeal more to Scottish viewers, and especially those who can remember waiting beside a pay phone to receive a message from a friend, but everyone can enjoy the characters, the dialogue (including some excellent one-liners here and there), and the familiar concept of some underdogs trying to claim just one victory, however relatively small it may seem in the grand scheme of things.

8/10

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Sunday, 23 April 2023

Netflix And Chill: D-Tox AKA Eye See You (2002)

I remember when D-Tox was first released. Some people were appreciative of the fact that Stallone had decided to star in something that was more akin to a slasher movie than his usual action fare. I didn't think that seemed like a good idea though, and I'm sure I remember agreeing with the overall reaction - a bit of a shrug - to something that seemed unlikely to surround a star like Stallone with the usual genre tropes.

Stallone is Jake Malloy, a detective who ends up being stalked by a serial killer. His life is ruined by this mysterious figure, which leads him to a low point in his life, drinking and contemplating eating a bullet from his own gun. His boss gets him checked into a clinic that specialises in helping police and military personnel who have had a hard time of things, to put it mildly, but it's not long until Malloy suspects that the killer has followed him to the facility, which is isolated and surrounded by a lot of snow and ice.

Based on a book, "Jitter Joint", by Howard Swindle, it's not surprising to see that this was the first of only two screenplays, to date, written by Ron L. Brinkerhoff. It's a star vehicle with a cracking ensemble cast that fails to make good use of anyone onscreen. Stallone isn't a good fit for the material, and I will give a huge reward to anyone who can tell me, without using Google or IMDb, all of the main supporting players, and what characters they portray. 

Director Jim Gillespie may have made his name with I Know What You Did Last Summer, a similarly bloodless, but more enjoyable, endeavour, but he's just not up to the task of turning the clich├ęd material here into something more exciting and entertaining. I can see why everyone involved got involved, considering how many times Stallone has worked with familiar material and made something appealing to his sizeable fanbase, but this fails as a cat and mouse movie, and completely fails as a sorta-slasher movie.

As much as I tend to like his performances, Stallone is miscast here. He never feels as if he's doing anything more than picking up a paycheck, and sadly isn't up to the task of making his character as vulnerable and weakened as he needs to be for most of the runtime. I like Charles S. Dutton, who has a couple of decent moments, and Polly Walker works for the poorly-written role she's given (a woman who Malloy connects with at the centre, of course), but the only other people who make any impression are Kris Kristofferson, Robert Patrick, Jeffrey Wright, and Robert Prosky, and all of them stand out thanks to overcoming the horrible script. That may sound all well and good, but this is a film that also has roles for Courtney B. Vance, Stephen Lang, Tom Berenger, Christopher Fulford, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Dina Meyer, and each one of those actors is either horribly wasted or barely even noticeable (aka horribly wasted in a slightly different way).

There’s never enough to care about here, in terms of the characters or the potential thrills, and the end result is a charmless mess that can’t even be saved by star power. Incompetence, or carelessness, behind the camera guarantees constant dullness in front of the camera, both visually and plot-wise, and I would have to warn all but the most die-hard Stallone fans away from this one. Although not a vast improvement, I recommend the similar Whiteout as a better alternative viewing choice.

3/10

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Saturday, 22 April 2023

Shudder Saturday: Cherry Tree (2015)

The last film from director David Keating was Wake Wood, an enjoyable folk horror movie that I, as so often happens, enjoyed more than many other people. It was an enjoyable riff on familiar material, well put together and featuring some quality cast members in the main roles. Reading that Cherry Tree was in a slightly similar vein, and also written by Brendan McCarthy (the co-writer of Wake Wood), I hoped to once again find a film that I enjoyed than many other people. Sadly, that wasn't the case. It came close though.

Naomi Battrick plays Faith, a schoolgirl who gets through every day while carrying the weight of the knowledge that her father, Sean (Sam Hazeldine), will soon die from a terminal disease. An unlikely chance of salvation arrives in the form of Sissy Young (Anna Walton), a witch who makes a deal with Anna. Get pregnant and deliver the newborn to her . . . and Faith's father will live. It's a deal that seems too good to pass up, of course, and Faith agrees, but it's not long until she starts to have concerns about what is going to happen when she hands over the baby. Oh, and as this is a spooky and special kind of pregnancy, it will take Faith weeks, rather than months, to reach full term.

I was going to use this part of the review to mention how Cherry Tree has a good idea at the heart of it. That's not really true though. The more I think about it, the weaker the film seems. It's a very basic idea, a Faustian pact, and it isn't developed in a way that allows you to see any real progression in the characters. The deal is made, two people start to dislike one another, someone tries to call the deal off, the deal cannot be broken, etc.

Keating directs with a lack of any real style, although he manages to insert a few images in the third act that stand out because of how dark and bloody things get (you're always going to find things a bit darker when there's a baby involved in the midst of everything), and McCarthy's script is about as perfunctory as you could get. And let's not even mention the "punchline" at the very end of the film, which is written AND directed in a way that made me fully laugh aloud just as the end credits started to roll. I cannot recall the last time I watched a movie so spectacularly shoot itself in the face at the very last moment, and I admit I was still considering trying to err on the side of generosity up until that scene.

Battrick and Walton aren't too bad in their roles, despite working with a script that forces them to keep a straight face while delivering some utter bilge, but the rest of the cast , from Hazeldine to Elva Trill and Patrick Gibson, playing paper-thin main supporting characters, give performances that are disappointingly flat and unengaging.

While it's made with a certain level of technical competence, and has some moments that show great use of a relatively small budget, there isn't enough done with the central premise. It may only clock in at 85 minutes, but this could have easily been a 20-minute short. It feels less like a full-blooded feature film and more like a Hollyoaks Halloween special for most of the runtime, and, with respect to any Hollyoaks fans who may stumble upon this, that's not something I would consider a good thing.

3/10

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Friday, 21 April 2023

Take Back The Night (2021)

There was an interesting little horror movie released a few years ago, titled After Midnight, that presented viewers with a man who claimed to have been spending a lot of time every evening ensuring that a monster didn't get into his home and attack him. Take Back The Night is, at a very basic level, similar to that film, but it is also so much more, due to the lead character being female and the nature of the attack being even more of a violation.

Directed by Gia Elliot, making her feature directorial debut with a script co-written between herself and her leading lady, Emma Fitzpatrick, this is the story of an artist named Jane who is attacked after a night out. There are no other witnesses, the evidence on her body is somehow inconclusive, and her history of drug misuse and mental health issues lead the police (represented here by a detective played by Jennifer Lafleur) to doubt her recollection of the incident. Not willing to tolerate being questioned on her own behaviour, and not happy about being disbelieved, Jane decides to use social media to spread her story with others, and to empower those who have found themselves in the same position. This puts a target on her back, with some even assuming that it is just another piece of art created to boost her career.

Watching Take Back The Night is a frustrating experience, because the script feels very much like two very different movies. The moments that show how Jane is being treated after her trauma all ring depressingly true, and I am sure that many will angrily recall similar experiences of their own, and it’s an excellent idea to make the central threat so pervasive without it being seen by anyone else. Unfortunately, other scenes don’t work so well. The main supporting characters aren’t as well fleshed out as they could be, a bigger backstory is hinted at that never fully comes to fruition, and the performances are disappointingly inconsistent.

Elliot and Fitzpatrick always remember their main targets though, and they hit a lot of bullseyes when shooting at the culture of misogyny and victim blaming that makes it much more difficult for women to report assaults, and to be believed, than it should be. We live in a world in which many men still think a tiny percentage of false claims, or knowledge of someone’s past behaviour, somehow makes this sympathetic default stance a dangerous proposition, when the verifiable statistics show that isn’t the case, and that the system still makes it painfully difficult for many victims to see any kind of justice. If they can endure the process of dealing with the authorities.

Fitzpatrick is very good in the lead role, playing an imperfect character who is very much aware of the entirety of her journey to this point in her life. She effectively shows how a person can be terrified and damaged at the same time as being admirably strong and outspoken. Lafleur isn’t half as good, sadly, but part of that is to do with her being the stern detective, and at least having that character as another female helps to make them a bit more tolerable as they act in a way that embodies some of the attitudes that victims of assault can face. Angela Gulner is very good, playing the sister of the main character, and her character has a slightly more nuanced journey, despite also not rushing to believe Jane’s traumatic experience. Then we have Sibongile Mlambo, stuck playing an unnecessary extra antagonist who creates more tension for Jane. She is a reporter, apparently offering a sympathetic forum, but perhaps laying a trap, and the film could have worked just as well without her inclusion, especially when the film-makers could have shown some more of the social media side of things, and how one perceived lie can turn a large group of followers into the modern equivalent of torch-wielding villagers.

Overall, the food outweighs the bad here. There are some better films that this could be paired up with, including the excellent Lucky and the aforementioned After Midnight (both featuring Brea Grant in some capacity), but Take Back The Night is an important reminder to those who may be feeling worn down while they try to empower themselves, or even just try to get through daily life in a world sometimes seemingly full of booby-traps, all-too-quiet nighttime city streets, and dead ends.

7/10

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Thursday, 20 April 2023

Return To Horror High (1987)

A bizarre attempt to make a slasher comedy that skirts very close to being enjoyably meta, but never quite makes the final stretch, Return To Horror High could have been a lot of gory fun. There was a chance to fill the cast out with disposable victims, an easy excuse to have gratuitous violence and nudity while commenting on the use of gratuitous violence and nudity (as there’s a film within a film device that I will get to in a minute), and a sharper script could have helped make this into a minor classic. We don’t get a sharper script though. We get something thrown together by Mark Lisson, Dana Escalante, Greg H. Sims, and director Bill Froehlich. The fact that most of these people went on to do very few other feature films, or none at all, isn’t all that surprising, but at least they tried to do something a bit different here.

Crippen High School is infamous for a series of murders that happened there in the early 1980s. A movie is now being made about that horrible time, and the whole thing is being filmed in the actual school where the murders happened. It isn’t long until we see that the killer feels the urge to kill again, with a whole new group of characters to pick off, but it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of what is reality and what is cinematic trickery, as the film we are watching starts jumping between the two in a way that is difficult to keep track of.

I watched this film for two reasons. One, it had been on my radar for many years, due to the presence of a young George Clooney in his film debut. Two, a number of podcasts I enjoy listening to had covered this, and I like to see a movie before it is potentially spoiled for me while others dissect and discuss it. I suspect I now know what the general consensus is on this, it’s bad, but fun, although I am also now really looking forward to hearing what others think of it.

Because it’s bad, but fun. 

Despite not having a stellar cast, a lot of the fun does come from people enjoying themselves onscreen. Clooney aside, he’s there for only a minute or two, you have Alex Rocco being an amusingly sleazy film-maker, Andy Romano as an amusingly nervy school prinicpal/red herring/possible killer, and Lori Lethin as the main actress in the film-within-the-film, given multiple roles that require her to throw on wigs and exaggerate some mannerisms to remind everyone that she’s portraying a number of different characters. It’s as bemusing as it is silly, but Lethin seems to enjoy herself so much that her enthusiasm and glee are infectious whenever she’s onscreen.

It’s a shame that the director and writers don’t manage to do more to improve the style and pace of the film. This is another slasher film from this decade that is plagued with horribly low lighting levels and a lack of proper bloodshed, and it’s always hard to know if those things were the result of clumsy movie-making or an attempt to avoid clashing with censors. There are also some gags that are spoiled by the edit/pacing, particularly a couple of moments at the very end of the film that I think could have been presented in a more impactful way.

Every horror movie fan knows that, while it is viewed as a golden age, the 1980s also gave us a great number of films that were, and still are, absolutely terrible. Return To Horror High isn’t one of those. It’s not great, and particularly disappoints when it comes to the actual moments of horror, but it’s funny and unique enough to be worth your time. Just the once.

5/10

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Wednesday, 19 April 2023

Prime Time: King Solomon's Mines (1985)

If you’re going to make a movie that hopes to cash in on the success of Indiana Jones then you may as well be as blatant as possible about it. King Solomon’s Mines, based on the old adventure stories by H. Rider Haggard (although I couldn’t say how closely the film resembles them), is about as blatant as can be. That doesn’t matter when the stars get to shine. But there are many sequences when things just aren’t as entertaining as they should be.

Richard Chamberlain is rugged adventurer Allan Quatermain, hired by a woman named Jesse (Sharon Stone) to help find her father. The two travel around Africa, being as respectful and culturally sensitive as you might expect (aka not at all), and they end up heading towards the legendary King Solomon’s Mines, hotly pursued by a man named Dogati (John Rhys-Davies) and a German explorer named Colonel Bochner (Herbert Lom).

Directed by veteran J. Lee Thompson, a man with a filmography crammed full of the kind of movies you may have been forced to watch alongside your grandfather on a Sunday afternoon (hey, I love many of them now, despite slightly resenting them back then), King Solomon’s Mines is, in many ways, enjoyable action fare. The script, by Gene Quintano and James R. Silke, neither of whom seem to have specialized experience in this genre, is crude and clumsy, but there are enough set-pieces dotted throughout to guarantee a certain level of fun. It’s just a shame that you can imagine those set-pieces being improved by the main music from the Indians Jones movies. Or even just featuring Indiana Jones in place of Quatermain. That isn’t the big problem here though. The big problem is a lack of any chemistry between the leads, a lack of any decent characterization for anyone, and nothing to really care about. We’re thrown into the plot with a sequence that allows us to assume some of the backstory, the finale is unsatisfying and unbelievable, so it’s really only the middle section that works as well as it should (especially during a fun action sequence set on a train).

Chamberlain is handsome and charming, which is kind of what he brings to almost every role, and Stone is left to look pretty alongside him, sometimes acting more as the damsel in distress and sometimes being a strong and capable asskicker. It could have been a decent role, but the script leaves her as undeveloped as our hero, only interested in putting them in various perilous situations and then developing some kind of love between the two of them that feels even more fantastical than some of the other plot elements. Rhys-Davies and Lom are fun villains, although the former will keep reminding viewers that you could always just switch this off and revisit those Indiana Jones movies. Ken Gampu and June Buthelezi deserve a mention, playing African characters who are generally treated poorly by the script playing up their “primitive ways”.

If you can look past the rear projection work and the stunt double appearances, there’s some genuinely impressive stuff onscreen at times, from that aforementioned train sequence to a face-off between two airplanes in the sky. There is plenty of dynamite thrown around, some booby traps and big beasties, and even some cannibals that want to boil people in a big pot in a way usually only seen in cartoon depictions of cannibalism.

I doubt anyone involved will look back on this as their best work, even the Jerry Goldsmith score is quite forgettable (although not actually bad), but I hope they don’t view it as their worst. It’s very much of the era, and very much a Cannon film, but it certainly tries to stay entertaining from start to finish.

5/10

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Tuesday, 18 April 2023

Raiders Of The Living Dead (1986)

I know I have seen Raiders Of The Living Dead before. I would swear to it on my life. There are some unscary zombies and a teenager with a laser device. I suspect I saw it in some cheap DVD bundle that also featured a number of other low-budget horrors. I remember it being far from great. Having just rewatched it now, for the first time in well over a decade, I can now confidently tell people that it is actually godawful, but in a way that is mildly amusing if you’re in the right frame of mind.

There’s a doctor experimenting on bodies and bringing the dead back to life. A reporter, Morgan Randall (Robert Deveau) is on the case, being helped in his investigation by Shelly Godwin (Donna Asali), a woman who almost runs him over and then, as happens in movieland, starts a tentative relationship with him. Then there’s old Dr. Carstairs (Bob Allen), a man who has given up on trying to fix his laserdisc player. What has that got to do with anything? Well, his grandson (Jonathan, played by Scott Schwartz) is a bit of a tech whizz, and manages to make himself a laser device from the player. Impressing Michelle (Corri Burt) with his inventiveness, little does Jonathan realise that his weapon might end up helping to destroy a number of shambling corpses.

I doubt that I knew much about the background to this movie when I first saw it, but some very cursory research shows that this was yet another cheap cash-in, making use of footage already filmed by Brett Piper and then padding out the runtime with extra scenes that allow Samuel M. Sherman to take credit for the whole thing. This kind of approach can lead to some great results (Spookies remains a firm favourite of mine), but it more often than not leads to a complete mess. Raiders Of The Living Dead is a complete mess.

It feels unfair to spend too much time criticising the level of acting on display, especially when people are working with material that I doubt even the finest thespians in the world could have managed to overcome. Allen isn’t terrible in the grandpa role, and both Schwartz and Burt try to at least stay lively and enthusiastic for the duration of their screentime. Deveau and Asali are, well, they’re arguably asked to portray the most familiar, and therefore least interesting, horror movie characters.

There are no scares, and the lean plot only really kicks in after a completely extraneous opening sequence that fails to draw viewers in, there’s no decent gore, and the overall tone veers between painfully dull and strangely childish. The whole idea of the laser gadget is something that could have been part of some lighthearted teen adventure, but instead it’s in this muddled zombie tale that tries to play itself off as a Scooby-Doo mystery while viewers are already pretty well aware of what is really going on.

Not recommended to anyone, aside from bad movie connoisseurs, this is a slog to get through, visually turgid, and lacking enough minor distractions to make up for the overwhelming number of scenes that make you wish you were watching paint dry. And I hope this review will serve as a reminder to me that I never have to sit through it again.

2/10

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Monday, 17 April 2023

Mubi Monday: How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989)

When writer-director Bruce Robinson reunited with the star of his cult classic, Withnail & I, expectations were obviously high for his sophomore feature. I can imagine. You see, and I think this is important to note here, I was very late to discovering the many pleasures of Withnail & I, which meant that, by the time I was fully integrated into the loyal fanbase, I had pretty much forgotten about this. My hazy memory seems to think it was pretty maligned and dismissed when it was released, but maybe that is just projecting, my teenaged self not yet being interested in more sophisticated and thought-provoking art back then. 

Richard E. Grant plays Bagley, an advertising executive who starts to struggle with a new assignment, all about cream that helps to deal with boils. Bagley becomes so stressed that he develops a boil of his own, one that starts to talk and cause him no amount of insecurity and embarrassment, although maybe it all stems from his new-found realisation of the evils of his work. Bagley’s wife, Julia (Rachel Ward), becomes worried, but perhaps seeing her husband so vulnerable and frightened allows her to see someone who actually still knows how to feel things.

Not a film made for people who are at all wary of the concept, Bruce Robinson has made something that is a scathing attack on the world of advertising and also a comedy that skewers the notion of dinner table conversations that so often tiptoe around real problems in favour of light and inoffensive chit chat. There is no sugar coating around the bitter pill here, although Grant being as wonderful as ever definitely helps, but it’s fairly easy to be onside with something that has the central message of “advertising executives are heartless bastards who want to keep the world full of people buying stuff they don’t need”. That message hasn’t really changed in the decades since this was released, which makes this film, as crazy as it is, a surprisingly evergreen one. Similar premises have been done before, and since, but nothing has shown the ugliness and discomfort of a developing conscience in such a literal fashion.

Grant is used well here, allowed a number of moments that make use of his unsubtle and flamboyant style. Whether being cynical and heartless or weak and bullied, he is constantly watchable and entertaining, and the man can deliver a sneering insult better than any other living British actor I can think of. Ward has to convey her suffering, but also shows that she is used to being with someone she knows will throw away politeness and acceptable social graces in favour of making a strong point, and she does a very good job, particularly when you consider how easily she could have been as unpleasant as her husband. Richard Wilson has a small role, playing Grant’s boss, Jacqueline Tong is fun as a friend who is often on the receiving end of an unnecessarily angry tirade, and Tony Slattery appears often enough for viewers to say “ooooh look, it’s Tony Slattery”.

Did I enjoy How To Get Ahead In Advertising? I’m not sure that I did, and I can certainly see why it didn’t find an immediate audience when it was first released. Robinson is determined in his refusal to make anything light or optimistic, even ending the whole thing with a masterful sequence that is as wholly depressing as it is quite glorious. I loved what was being attempted though, and admire the commitment of those involved who decided not to go for any easy options. 

This is a sharp, smart, bleak, and horrifying, black comedy. It’s not fun, and at times seems to be deliberately encouraging viewers to give up on it, but it’s worth your time. And it’s certainly a unique piece of work.

7/10

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Sunday, 16 April 2023

Netflix And Chill: Project Power (2020)

Although I liked the look of Project Power when it first came out, I never had it too high on my list of prioritized viewings. Despite a twist on the idea, it was basically another superhero movie, and we have certainly had more than our fair share of those throughout the last decade. Still, I was always going to get to it eventually. Today was the day. 

There’s a new drug on the street. Once you activate and swallow it, you can gain incredible power, but just for five minutes. Everyone can have a different reaction though. Some may become impervious to physical damage, some may burst into flames, some can become a human chameleon. There are also some people who just immediately explode. Like any drug, not every experience is guaranteed to end well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a New Orleans cop trying to fight back against those using the drug, and he does this by occasionally taking it himself (rendering him pretty invulnerable for five minutes). His supplier is Robin (Dominique Fishback), a young woman doing whatever it takes to get the money needed to help her sick mother. Robin is eventually targeted by Art (Jamie Foxx), an ex-soldier who claims that he is working his way up the supply chain to find his daughter. Whether working together, or working against one another, these three people will end up trying to fight against some villains that have no qualms about powering themselves up for a fight.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who have had a varied filmography for years now, from Catfish to a couple of Paranormal Activity movies, from the fun of the Australian Psycho short to Nerve), this is fairly entertaining and predictable fare that actually manages to make good use of the gimmick at the heart of it. Writer Mattson Tomlin doesn’t necessarily have the same range of experience as Joost or Schulman, but he has a few projects tucked away in his filmography that feature other interesting ideas he has now been able to refine and mix into something with a bit more widespread appeal. The superpowers are fun to watch, but the action and thrills are all lifted slightly by the relationships that develop between main characters.

Fishback is decent enough in her role, struggling sometimes to hold her own alongside the veteran players, but always likable, and quite believable, while Foxx and Gordon-Levitt both seem to enjoy themselves in different ways. Foxx gets to do his tough act he can do so well, but also shows himself as a man unable to ease his pain or rest until he finds his daughter, while Gordon-Levitt is a typical good cop who is willing to bend the rules in order to get results and keep his city safe, goddammit. Rodrigo Santoro is a suave dealer, Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly, urgh) has a mercifully small role, and is thankfully on fire for most of his screentime, and you get some time for Courtney B. Vance, Andrene Ward-Hammond, and Amy Landecker, as well as various others ready to help or hinder our leads.

While obviously not able to throw around the kind of money that the likes of Marvel and DC invest in their properties, Project Power doesn't feel too cheap. There are some good special effects throughout, and one or two not so good ones, and the whole thing feels refreshingly well-paced and lean when compared to the more bloated and interconnected jigsaw pieces that we've seen in cinemas recently. The earliest scenes are the least interesting, getting everything set up for the plot and characters, but it soon gets going, really settling into the fun action thriller it wants to be when Foxx comes onscreen, his first encounter with a fiery foe proving to be a real highlight.

Will this be a decent enough alternative for those suffering superhero movie fatigue? I doubt it. But, if you have taken a break from the established names and properties, you may just end up enjoying this as much as I did. It's nothing spectacular, but it's a decent enough flick to spend some time with if you like the leads and the sound of the concept.

7/10

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Saturday, 15 April 2023

Shudder Saturday: Kids vs. Aliens (2022)

If you have seen director Jason Eisener's segment in V/H/S/2 (Slumber Party Alien Abduction) then you should already know what to expect from Kids vs. Aliens. I could be polite here, I could be coy, but it's best to get straight to the point. If you have already seen "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" then you've already seen a much better take on this premise than Kids vs. Aliens.

The plot is summed up by the title. Some kids are at home without any adults present, which means a party is happening. Aliens decide to rudely barge into that party, snatching many of the kids and planning to turn them into warped and inhuman creations. Or they might just kill them. Killing them is also very much an option. 

Kids vs. Aliens has Eisener working once more with his long-time collaborator, John Davies, and the two are obviously more interested in trying to make something fun and energetic than trying to make, well, any actual progress in their creative journeys. The end result is a film that unfortunately ends up feeling like a feature debut, from the horrible visuals throughout to the brainless script, from the super-thin characterisations to the super-slim runtime of 75 minutes.

Phoebe Rex, in the role of Samantha, does enough to overcome the weak script, but she's the only one up to the task. Not that the others are terrible. The younger cast members (including Dominic Mariche, Asher Grayson Percival, and Ben Tector) do what is asked of them, but very little asked of them is entertaining or enjoyable. Calem MacDonald stands out as Billy, but that's only because he becomes more and more of a douchebag as the alien horror unfolds.

It's as hard to write a full review of this as it must have been for Eisener and Davies to flesh out their idea into a feature. Yes, there are a few decent practical effects here and there, and the main idea is one that has potential (check out the flawed, but much better, Slash/Back to see a better stab at it), but you'll start to forget any of the infrequent highlights as soon as the end credits roll.

On the plus side, many people can watch Kids vs. Aliens and realise that, with the right phone camera and creativity, they can make their own movie, and probably make something better than this. You don't need a big budget or big names. You just need the right ideas, a script that doesn't feel half-assed, and a healthy dose of inventiveness. These are things notably missing from this movie.

3/10

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Friday, 14 April 2023

Shazam! Fury Of The Gods (2023)

Try as I might, I could not muster up any enthusiasm for Shazam! Fury Of The Gods. The trailer was perfectly fine, the cast seemed decent enough, and I had enjoyed the first movie. There was just nothing making me feel like it was unmissable on the big screen. Then I had a long weekend to enjoy and some time to spend at the local cinema. So I figured maybe I was wrong to be so hesitant.

I was right.

This isn’t a terrible film. It just lacks any weight, and has been released at an odd time in this current phase of DC movies. We know that there is going to be an attempt to reboot a number of properties, which makes it even harder to invest in something that is still trying to play around in a slightly different sandbox, but keeping connections with a larger universe that has just lurched in another direction.

Our hero (Zachary Levi) cannot seem to do much right lately. He and his super-friends, nicknamed the Philadelphia Follies by locals, might save lives, but never in a way that is as polished and successful as other superheroes we could mention. Then some Ancient Greek sisters come along, repair the powerful staff broken at the end of the first film, and start causing havoc, culminating in a third act that brings in some fun creature designs and large-scale destruction.

With director David F. Sandberg returning, as well as writer Henry Gayden (joined by Chris Morgan, who wrote SEVEN of the Fast & Furious movies), and most of the main players reprising their roles, from Levi to Djimon Hounsou, as well as at least one canny cameo, Shazam! Fury Of The Gods could have fared better if released by someone more stable and consistent than DC. I don’t think it would have been viewed as any kind of classic, but both Shazam! movies, much like the goofy big kid at the heart of the picture, just want to please as many people as possible. While the direction and writing are competent, there are moments when it feels as if those involved couldn’t agree on which way to take the film, and the compromise allowed everyone to add their personal preferences.

Levi is fun in the main role, Adam Brody is enjoyable as the hero who wants to enjoy his time in the limelight, and everyone else in the main family unit, whether a child actor or their adult counterpart, does a good job. There are a few too many characters to ensure that everyone gets their big moment, but the film tries hard to share out the treats. Mirren does the kind of thing she can do so well, she has steely willpower, a wry smile, and grace to go along with her villainy, while Lucy Liu has fun moving from a potential threat to main big baddie. Rachel Ziegler does an excellent job in her pivotal role, reminding me that I still need to see her in West Side Story, and she joins a number of characters I would love to see again, if there was ever a third film in this series (which currently looks highly unlikely).

A collapsing bridge sequence is a highlight, the final face-off is great, and the central message here is as sweet and positive as it was in the first film. It’s just a shame that the whole thing feels so horribly chaotic, bringing in elements that feel as if they have been pillaged from Harry Potter and Harryhausen, with varying degrees of success. People lose and regain their powers as if playing a game of tag, the tone sometimes swerves unexpectedly towards moments of real grimness, and the very last scenes will have most viewers just impatiently waiting for what they know should happen before the end credits roll. There’s also the usual extra bits to keep watching for, but they suffer from the same problem we’ve seen before; what is set up to be consequential and impactful now just feels pointless, because the suspicion is that nothing more will come of it.

Arguably hamstrung before it hit cinemas, Shazam! Fury Of The Gods is absolutely okay. It does nothing new, it’s pretty inoffensive, and there’s a big dragon that looks pretty awesome at times. If you feel like you’re in the mood for that then give it a go. There are so many better films you could choose though, and that includes a number of “under-performing” superhero movies.

6/10

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Thursday, 13 April 2023

Two Witches (2021)

A confident feature debut from director Pierre Tsigaridis, benefiting from an interesting script by actress Kristina Klebe and first-timer Maxime Ransom, Two Witches is a real melting pot of everyday worries and supernatural scares. It is also two seemingly separate story strands that end up connecting and intertwining on the way to a final act that should please anyone who is a fan of, well, I won’t namecheck anything that should spoil the fun of the ending.

We start off by meeting Sarah (Belle Adams) and her partner, Simon (Ian Michaels). Sarah is pregnant, the couple are out enjoying a meal, and it quickly becomes clear that Simon is a bit inconsiderate. It also quickly becomes clear that Sarah is being stared at by an elderly woman in the restaurant. Does the woman have a problem with her, or is there something another reason for her staring so much? Sarah and Simon then go to visit their friends, Melissa (Dina Silva) and Dustin (Tim Fox), and the night goes from bad to worse. It’s then time to meet Rachel (Klebe) and her housemate, Masha (Rebekah Kennedy). Those two seem to get on alright, until Masha starts taking personal stories relayed to her by Rachel and passing them off as her on. And Masha suspects she is about to change, possibly inheriting the power of her witchy grandmother when granny passes away.

I wasn’t fully into Two Witches as the first main section played out. The nightmarish atmosphere, snapshots of random blood and viscera, and general confusion about what was really going on left me a bit removed from the events I was watching. Not that I hated it. I just didn’t invest in things while I wasn’t entirely sure of what was going on, or whether or not the people most affected were supposed to be deserving of their ordeal. The very end of that main segment clears things up a bit though, and the second part of the film has no such ambiguity, which helps make everything more entertaining, and it feels more fresh than a film that could have played coy for every minute of the runtime. Ambiguity isn’t a particularly bad thing, and horror movies have often kept viewers on their toes as they bleed in and out of reality and unreality, but Two Witches really steps up a gear when everything is overt and obvious, letting viewers sit and wait for other characters to catch on to the horror of their situation.

The film also steps up a gear as soon as Kennedy appears onscreen. She is the absolute highlight, giving a performance that is as gleeful as it is twisted and dangerous. Klebe works well alongside her, but she is left with the thankless task of being the rational person who just wants to continue having a peaceful and normal life. Silva and Fox are good, both bringing a bit more energy to their roles than Adams and Michaels, and their journey takes them slowly and believably from being fairly open-minded to starting to fear for their lives.

Tsigaridis also worked on the script with Klebe and Rancon, and the three do an excellent job. Despite my own reservations about the first part of the film, I am already looking forward to rewatching this. It’s smartly constructed, the visual style throughout is often gorgeous, and the score from Gioacchino Marincola is a perfect accompaniment to the modern gothic vibe of the whole thing.

I almost enjoyed this enough to attempt writing this review as a reworked version of the song “Two Princes”, by Spin Doctors. Then I realised that I actually enjoyed it enough to NOT do that. But the temptation was always there.

8/10

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Wednesday, 12 April 2023

Prime Time: Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre (2023)

Guy Ritchie has certainly settled into a new groove in recent years. His output has increased, and he seems to enjoy moving between comedy capers, like this one, and darker fare (such as Wrath Of Man and his upcoming film, The Covenant AKA Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant). Working again with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies on the screenplay, Ritchie and his cast probably had a lot of fun making this. It’s a shame that viewers don’t get to enjoy themselves quite as much as those onscreen.

Something has been stolen, and it is due to be sold off to the highest bidder. It’s not important to know exactly what the stolen item is. It’s important to know that it is very dangerous. The person most likely to be brokering that deal is the super-rich and super-dodgy Greg (Hugh Grant). A team is assembled to get close to Greg. That team is made up of action man Orson (Jason Statham), tech whizz Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), and a man who can support both, JJ (Bugzy Malone). Cary Elwes plays Nathan, the man trying to remain in charge of this small team, and problems arise when he realises that they aren’t the only ones assigned to this job. But they are the only ones who come up with the idea of getting close to Greg by introducing him to his favourite actor, Danny (Josh Hartnett).

I am not going to use this review to try and pretend that I didn’t enjoy this film (and to hell with typing out that unnecessarily unwieldy title every time I am referring to it). This is a fun time, thanks largely to the cast obviously having fun in their roles, but it’s an insubstantial and lesser fun time than many other films directed by Ritchie.

Timing is a big part of that, especially when the central idea is so close to the plot of The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent (which had the added bonus of letting Nicolas Cage playing a version of Nicolas Cage), but there’s also a script issue. This is an action comedy that doesn’t quite have enough action or comedy in it, and I cannot imagine how people will react to this if they aren’t already fans of the cast.

Statham is on good form in the lead role, doing what he does well (being charming, cocky, and good at punching people in the face), and both Plaza and Malone work well alongside him, the former getting more of the laughs with her constant playfulness and teasing. Elwes has to roll his eyes often as he tries to keep his team in order, and he is subsequently ordered around by Eddie Marsan, fun in an all-too-small role, while Peter Ferdinando does well as the head of the secondary team. Hartnett has a great time portraying a slightly precious actor, roped into a scheme he would rather know nothing about, and Grant delivers yet another hilarious rogue that seems to be his forte nowadays.

A lot of people will enjoy this. There certainly isn’t much here to hate. It just doesn’t do anything as well as expected though, sadly, with the 114-minute runtime feeling overlong, the soundtrack disappointingly sticking very much in the background, no major set-pieces, and a third act that lacks real tension. Nobody ever feels as if they are ever in proper danger, which means that you never get the sense of the stakes being very high. I don’t regret passing some time with this, especially as I like every main player, but I would rewatch either The Gentlemen or Wrath Of Man ahead of it, and I highly recommend both of those films to anyone who hasn’t seen them yet. The former is in line with the tone of this film, the latter is quite a bit darker and more violent.

6/10

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Tuesday, 11 April 2023

65 (2023)

Scott Beck and Bryan Woods have worked together for a number of years now. They share the directing and writing duties on this sci-fi action movie that pits Adam Driver against a bunch of dinosaurs, and they have to share the blame for such an underwhelming end result. Because 65 isn't very good, and it had the potential to be a lot of fun.

Driver plays Mills, a man who ends up on a space expedition in the hope of earning enough money to cure his daughter (Chloe Coleman) of an illness that has been slowly getting worse for a while now. One asteroid-related incident later, Mills is on a strange planet with a young girl, Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), he cannot understand. The strange planet is actually Earth, but it's the Earth of 65 million years ago. When dinosaurs were at the top of the food chain. Mills and Koa need to make their way to another crashed part of the spaceship if they stand any chance of getting back off the planet. They have limited tools and weaponry to help them, that communication barrier creating another obstacle, and the fact that we can assume they haven't seen even just one of the Jurassic Park movies means they are woefully unprepared for the danger of their environment.

I like Adam Driver. A lot. He's not the best person for the lead role here, but he's not terrible either. Greenblatt holds her own alongside him, and their relationship at the heart of the story is the best thing about the movie. In fact, it's probably the only thing worthwhile about the movie, and the fact that the film-makers at least managed to cast two not-inconsiderable talents in the lead roles is a stroke of luck for them, because nothing else works.

Okay, there's one more plus. This clocks in at around the 90-minute mark. That's a rare treat nowadays. It's just a shame that the runtime feels like a bit more than that, mainly due to the sluggish nature of the film in between the infrequent, and far too brief, set-pieces.

It's as if Beck and Woods had the core idea first ("what if we make a sci-fi movie about a guy fending off aliens . . . but the aliens are dinosaurs . . . and the guy is actually on Earth?") and then didn't know how to really make the most of it. Even the structure of the thing, with viewers being given the set-up during the opening titles, is a misfire. This should have been a fun film that kept viewers entertained, threw around plenty of wild creature design, and then capped everything off at the very end with a sign to indicate "oh, by the way, the adventure you just enjoyed was all taking place on . . . Earth, boooooooom". While not without a handful of decent moments, they are too few and far between. And I defy most people to actually care about the fate of the main characters as things move into the third act.

The visual style is horrible and dull, the special effects suffer in comparison to many superior dinosaur movies we've seen over the past few decades (including the first Jurassic Park movie, which holds up brilliantly to this day), and even the music is immediately forgettable and unable to feel like a good enough fit for the whole experience.

This didn't make me angry enough to want it wiped out by an Extinction Level Event, but I definitely won't be rushing to rewatch it. And I would recommend that most people just give it a miss. It's really not worth your time, and it's certainly not worth the talents of Driver and Greenblatt.

4/10

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Monday, 10 April 2023

Mubi Monday: Wobble Palace (2018)

I wasn't looking forward to the rest of Wobble Palace after getting through the first few minutes. In fact, I had already wondered how I would remain polite and constructive in what I imagined would be a fairly scathing review. The lead male character was awful and nauseating, and the lead female character was someone I judged based on the fact that she'd been in a relationship with that male. Thankfully, I soon realised that those involved with the film knew exactly what they were doing. This is a film populated by, and I cannot think of any better word for them, wankers. Some are better than others, but all of them have succumbed to the multitude of temptations surrounding us in modern life, from easy sex to easy money, from pretentious art to a sustained level of narcissism. 

Eugene Kotlyarenko plays Eugene, the young man who may be nearing the end of his relationship with Jane (Dasha Nekrasova). The two agree to split the time in their home over one weekend, with Eugene having the place to himself on the Saturday and Jane due to have it on the Sunday. All that freedom could be a blessing, but it all depends on what plans Eugene and Jane can fit into their one allotted day, making use of Tinder, friends with benefits, or just people they have been interested in for some time already. It also feels like an optimistic time, offsetting the personal troubles of the lead characters, just before the election of 2016, with Jane particularly pleased at the thought of the USA about to have their first female President.

With Kotlyarenko also in the director's chair here, having developed the story with Nekrasova, it's good to see that he knows how much comedy he can mine from his onscreen persona. Kotlyarenko also helmed the better-known Spree (the film he delivered immediately after this one), and he has a good way of incorporating phone screen activity into his movies without it feeling overly cool or gimmicky. For better or for worse, Kotlyarenko also seems to be very familiar with the type of character that he plays in this movie. That's not to undersell the value of Nekrasova's input, however. She seems equally well-informed when it comes to her character, and the way in which she views the bubble that she lives in. Nekrasova made a bit more of an impact recently with her feature debut, The Scary Of Sixty-First, and it's easy to see the connective tissue between the two films.

Alongside the fun lead performances, support comes in the shape of Paige Elkington (a potential date/photographer), Kim Ye (also a potential date), Caroline Hebert (can you guess?) and Vishwam Velandy (yep, he plays someone that Jane wants to have some sexy fun with). They aren't the only people in the cast, but they are the most memorable. Each character brings out something in our leads, mainly showing up their glaring flaws, and there's fun to be had in watching each main encounter unfold.

I am sure that many people will react to this as I did during the opening 5-10 minutes. But give it a bit more time and I suspect you may be won round. While it is, in many ways, similar to many other lo-fi indie comedy dramas of the past decade or so, Wobble Palace actually has a lot of sharp wit folded into pretty much every scene. There's a level of insight and self-awareness that other films in this arena often lack. I would happily rewatch this any time, and I hope to one day check out some of the earlier work from Kotlyarenko (who has now played a character named Eugene in at least three feature films, with A Wonderful Cloud, from 2015, sounding like a practice run at this material).

8/10

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