Friday, 30 June 2023

Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (2023)

The last Indiana Jones movie with Harrison Ford in the starring role (apparently) and the first Indiana Jones movie to be directed by someone other than Steven Spielberg (it's James Mangold at the helm for this adventure), Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny comes along with the advantage of simply having to be better than Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. I just wanted it to be on the same level as that film, another that I seemed to enjoy more than many other people.

This is a fun time at the cinema, thank goodness, and any tentative fears I may have had were assuaged within the barnstorming, extended, action sequence that opens the film. There has been a theme in recent years in these franchise instalments, something I have no doubt mentioned before, an idea that, in a world that looks to have passed them by and rendered them obsolete, it is the older “dinosaurs” (although that has been literal, as well as metaphorical) with the strength and ability to save us from some new threats. While this film gives us quite a bit of that, and a number of jokes about the age of our central character, it is also a loving send-off to someone who has been part of the pop culture, and part of our lives for over four decades. It reassures him, and audiences, that having time away from adventuring doesn’t mean life stops. It just means that you can realise how much you can help people in other ways. The fact that this messaging is couched in a script that still doles out a good share of very enjoyable dialogue, entertaining action scenes, and nods for the fans to smile at makes it a perfect conclusion to what has been, in my view, an amazingly consistent blockbuster series.

I suppose I should summarize the plot. After that opening sequence, featuring a de-aged Harrison Ford that sometimes looks like the best de-aging I have ever seen, and sometimes looks like a character was photoshopped in from one of the first couple of Uncharted videogame cut-scenes, we get to the main storyline. Dr. Jones is retiring. He is alone, and tired. Visited by his god-daughter (Wombat, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), he ends up dragged into an adventure to find both parts of a fabled device created by Archimedes (it has a different name onscreen, but it’s the titular dial of destiny). This leads to a number of chases as our heroes try to evade the henchmen of a very determined Nazi villain (Dr. Voller, played by Mads Mikkelsen), who we saw being beaten by Indians Jones in part of the opening set-piece.

With no offence intended to him, director James Mangold does a decent job here, and has experience of directing a “hero walking into the sunset movie” with Logan, but I couldn’t help wondering just how well Spielberg might have treated this material. Perhaps due to the age of the star, or perhaps due to the complexity of the stunts, most of the big action beats are slightly over-edited, and there are not enough grin-inducing/fist in the air moments. No truly iconic hero shots, sadly, although some moments come close to giving off that indefinable aura of pure cinema magic (Wombat and Indians looking around a tomb being the best, in terms of that shot composition and lighting combo). Mangold also helped write the script though, alongside David Koepp, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth (I though Waller-Bridge had also been asked to polish some dialogue, but I could be misremembering), and this is where the film excels. Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny is a perfect example of how to blend together a lot of fun and some serious themes (Nazism, obviously, but also regret and gradually losing a sense of purpose, as well as a few other key emotional touchstones). This is the Indiana Jones we have all known and loved for the lifetime of the character, but everyone is very much aware that he’s not immortal, or indeed infallible. His legacy will endure though, both onscreen and off.

Ford is great in the role, which seems like the most redundant thing to say. He has always been perfectly cast as Indiana, and he seems to enjoy embracing the chance to show the true age of the character, particularly when he gives a touching performance in one brief scene that stands head and shoulders above almost any other acting he has delivered in the past decade. Waller-Bridge is a decent foil, an antagonistic equal to our hero, although the character feels like it has been slightly reshaped to make her as essentially Waller-Bridge-ian as can be. And young Ethann Isidore plays Teddy, a boy with excellent pickpocket skills who makes our central pair into an even more plucky and resourceful trio. Mikkelsen is the kind of baddie you want, in line with other greats who have been before him. He’s cold, full of self-belief, and intelligent enough to think one step ahead of the heroes until he eventually realises that he actually hasn’t thought things through as thoroughly as he should have. Boyd Holbrook is a gun-happy henchman, and very good he is too, and Olivier Richters is a man-mountain also doing what he can to help Mikkelsen achieve his main objective. There are small roles for Toby Jones, Antonio Banderas, both doing work that makes you wish they were involved in the adventure for longer, and a couple of people that fans of the series will be delighted to see onscreen, even if only for a minute or two (you may already know who joins in with the fun, but I am not spoiling any potential surprises here).

For those maybe a bit tired and jaded of vapid blockbuster entertainment seemingly designed just to connect other blockbusters together into a money-making blockchain, effectively, then Indiana Jones is here to rescue you. The film reminds us of how much fun a finely-tuned summer movie should be, and it also comes along at just the right time to say “it’s always okay to punch a Nazi”. Fare thee well, Doctor Jones. You may not have always (ever?) kept the spoils of your adventures, but you were festooned in fortune and glory.

8/10

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Thursday, 29 June 2023

The Black Demon (2023)

In the same way that no good can come of trying to overlook safety measures to maintain the operational viability of an oil rig in Baja, which is an idea at the heart of this film, no good can come of actually watching The Black Demon. Its a film that doesn’t know whether it wants to be a standard shark movie, an environmentally-conscious thriller, or a film about a curse, with that curse happening to take the form of a shark, and it ends up failing to be any of those things.

Josh Lucas plays the main character, Paul, who is tasked with visiting the aforementioned oil rig and shutting it down. He takes his family with him, a chance for them to get some sunshine and feel more heat off the threatening glances from some angry locals, and everyone eventually ends up on a rig that is being targeted by a big angry shark. If you watch this and figure out a way to care about any of the characters then please let me know.

Director Adrian Grunberg has done a couple of good movies in the past (starting his career as a feature director with the very enjoyable Get The Gringo AKA How I Spent My Summer Vacation). You wouldn’t know it from watching this. While there is a basic degree of technical competence on display, I guess, Grunberg seems content to work with a weak script that is in dire need of people ready to elevate the material. I was unsurprised to find that this was the feature writing debut of Boise Esquerra, working from a story idea by Carlos Cisco. Esquerra seems unsure of what to do, throwing in a number of different plot elements that sit uncomfortably alongside each other like family members who despise one another respectfully attending a funeral service together. There are glances, some shuffling, but no outbursts. The whole thing just feels awkward though, and everyone is relieved when it’s over.

The cast doesn’t help. There are other main people involved, but it mostly rests of the shoulders of Josh Lucas. As much as I don’t mind Lucas, he seems to have built his career on accepting every role handed to him by an agent who hates him. The fact that he cannot do anything to help make this a more bearable film is perhaps a testament to why he has never hit any dizzying heights. He is generally capable, if not overly charismatic, but this is a performance as weak as the script. It’s as if he got to the location and fully realised what film he was making. Fernanda Urrejola plays his wife, she is also not very good (hampered by the script treating her even worse), there are a couple of so-so younger actors as their children, and the only other person I want to namecheck is Julio Cesar Cedillo, the one bright spot in the film, playing a man already on the rig and already well aware of the uncanny abilities of a shark that won’t let people get back to the mainland.

There’s nothing more to say. This has a poor opening sequence, something trying to be tense and atmospheric that fails completely, a dull middle section, full of laughably cliché moments, and a finale that I wanted over and done with as quickly as possible, because I just wanted the thing to end. It makes the mistake of treating the sillier plot elements with seriousness and treating the serious elements with an overdone earnestness that simply doesn’t work. AND the shark is disappointing, not bad enough to be hilarious and not good enough to be impressive and memorable. Others might be more forgiving of this, especially when compared to the hundreds of dire shark movies out there, but this should have been much better than it is. It had the potential to be decent, which makes the disappointing end result all the more infuriating.

3/10

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Wednesday, 28 June 2023

Prime Time: Rocky (1976)

It is interesting to rewatch Rocky for the first time in decades and consider a number of things you might have forgotten. It’s also equally interesting to even contemplate reviewing it in the 21st century. I mean . . . who needs another review of Rocky at this point? Nobody. But here I am anyway. 

The story of a boxer (Rocky Marciano AKA The Italian Stallion, played by Sylvester Stallone) who seems to have missed any shot at glory, Rocky is a boxing film that features a surprisingly small amount of boxing. It’s crucial to the tale, and to the character, but this is just as much a character study as it is a rousing sports movie.

While watching Rocky this time around, I really couldn’t be certain that I had ever actually watched the whole film before. I would have been very young when first checking it out, and it isn’t as simplistic, or as focused on the training and fights, as some of the later movies in the series. It’s now impossible for me to know if I had ever watched the whole thing, however, because Rocky is a massive part of pop culture. You know how Stallone speaks. You know the main theme (music by Bill Conti). You know that a battered and tired Rocky shouts “Adriaaaaaaaaan” when he wants his partner beside him at the end of a fight. These are all things that are locked in to my brain, just as some of the main supporting players are. 

The story of Stallone holding out to get a deal in which he could star in the film he wrote for himself is the stuff of legend nowadays, a modern Hollywood fairytale in sync with the film itself, but can you remember who actually directed this? It was John G. Avildsen (who would also strike big with The Karate Kid, but seems destined to be overshadowed by the iconic characters he placed onscreen in professional fights).

Stallone is excellent in the lead role, although (and it seems weird to say this) it’s strange to see him looking much closer to someone with a normal physique than the super-ripped and muscular form he started to build from the 1980s all the way through to now. He definitely hits the perfect note here though, a fighter in the ring who just wants life outside the ring to be a bit better for himself and everyone he knows. Talia Shire is  very sweet as the super-shy Adrian, while Burt Young is alternately amusing and annoying as her insensitive brother, Paulie. Burgess Meredith is great fun as Mickey, the trainer who dismisses Rocky until he gets his unexpected chance at the big time, and Carl Weathers is brilliant as Apollo Creed, the boxer supplying that chance. Unlike so many other opponents in the series, Apollo isn’t depicted as a big villain, and the series would benefit enormously from this decision. There are also good little moments for Joe Spinell (as a local crime boss who employs Rocky as a debt collector) and Tony Burton (as Apollo’s corner man/assistant).

I realise that I have spent all of this time telling you plenty that you already know. Like myself, most people have either seen this film or know enough about it to feel like they have seen it. There are still some surprises to be savoured though, especially if you haven’t checked this out in years, and the film wins viewers over with little details and sweet moments that lay the foundation for the hugely successful franchise it would become. This isn’t perfect, far from it, and anyone seeking something in line with the more formulaic sports movies that are so often described as “Rocky mixed with [insert sport here]” may be disappointed, but it’s full of heart, and often full of an innocence that you only truly appreciate when you realise that it’s the vital ingredient missing from some of the mis-steps in the later instalments.

Maybe not a knockout, but it still manages to stand upright against the barrage of jabs that may come from a modern critique. 

8/10

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Tuesday, 27 June 2023

Wolf Manor AKA Scream Of The Wolf (2022)

It has certainly been interesting to watch the career of Dominic Brunt, an affable man and a very likeable presence onscreen (arguably STILL most famous for his ongoing role in Emmerdale). He made his love for horror clear quite some time ago, and has since been working hard to deliver the kind of films that I assume he enjoys watching. Sadly, I have yet to see any of his other directorial features. Wolf Manor, while not awful, doesn’t make me want to rush through the rest of his filmography. Now known in most places as Scream Of The Wolf, I will refer to it all through this review as Wolf Manor as that is the much better title for it.

There’s a low-budget British horror movie being made, with the cast and crew trying their best to get all of the footage they need while on location. That location is a house in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place where locals in the nearest pub will warn you not to go out too late at night, and certainly not to stray from the main paths. The reason for their wariness is obvious, and it isn’t long until we start seeing a werewolf on the prowl.

Brunt isn’t too bad behind the camera, despite his relatively limited resources and some lighting levels that are too low, either to hide some of the effects or simply because they thought it would be more intriguing and atmospheric, but he’s hampered by the script. Writers Joel Ferrari and Pete Wild manage to make one character stand out, but spend the rest of their time shoehorning in references and gags for fans of lycanthropic movies, and those who know the pitfalls of low-budget movie-making, to enjoy. That’s all well and good, but it’s no substitute for proper dialogue and plot development. The best thing the film does, arguably, is a post-credit sequence that serves up a homage to the classic werewolf movies better than anything that preceded it. 

The cast are all fine, but few people get to make much of an impression. The notable exception is James Fleet, the star of the film, and the star of the film-within-the-film. Fleet plays an actor who knows that he’s not working with the best material, but still approaches it with what he deems the proper and professional approach. He occasionally needs more time and space than everyone else, but he’s not working on a movie production that can allow him that freedom. Everyone around him just wants him to put his fake vampire fangs in and get the shots in the can. While everyone else does perfectly well in their roles, they all feel like they are there to take their time being terrorised by the werewolf. Which wouldn’t be so bad if there were more memorable moments of werewolf carnage, but many moments are undermined by either the lighting or editing, unfortunately.

Many people will watch this and feel I have been a bit harsh. It’s certainly a film aiming to be FUN, first and foremost, and I applaud that. The relatively short runtime helps. I think it just gets to about 70 minutes before those credits run, and then you have that post-credit sequence to enjoy. There are also a couple of fun kills, and a decent final scene. It’s just a shame that the script couldn’t have been handed to someone else for a bit of an overhaul, with a focus on fleshing out the main characters and making the references less obvious and clunky.

4/10

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Monday, 26 June 2023

Mubi Monday: God's Own Country (2017)

The easiest way to describe God’s Own Country is to label it Brokeback Yorkshire Moors. It is a tale of repression and frustration in a lonely and uncomfortable natural environment, but it’s also something that explores a very British resignation to accepting the status quo, the notion of family ties that keep you firmly rooted in one place, and a small serving of xenophobia.

Josh O’Connor plays Johnny Saxby, a young man who spends his days doing a lot of work on the family farm, where he lives with his stern father (Ian Hart) and his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With very little else to occupy his time, Johnny spends most evenings getting blind drunk at the nearest pub. He sometimes manages to make time for a quick sexual encounter with another man, but the focus is on getting it done quickly before anyone notices. When the farm takes on hired help for a week or so (a Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe, played by Alec Secareanu), Johnny has someone to take his resentment out on, but also someone who can keep him company as they share time together with nobody else nearby. 

Written and directed by Francis Lee, making his feature debut after serving up a few shorts (and having worked as a jobbing actor for a couple of decades before those), God’s Own Country is a slow and deliberate study of someone trying to spend time ignoring their own feelings, despite being on their own most of the time. Soundtracked by animal noises and the near-constant wind blowing over the fields, it is a film highlighting how people can acclimatize to their situation so well that they then struggle to deal with parts of themselves that seem incompatible.

While the cast all do good work (Jones and Hart both doing their usual excellent work, Secareanu holds his own impressively as a relative newcomer on the scene), the star of the show is O’Connor, working hard to show the vulnerability and pain in a character who spends some time being as unpleasant as possible to those around him: lashing out because they’re there, and he feels trapped.

Although it isn’t unrelentingly gloomy, this is a bleak tale that only gives viewers a very occasional sense of hope. That is in line with how the main characters may see their lives, all clouds and fleeting moments of sunshine, but Lee tries hard to reward viewers who sit through so much misery. Whether it’s the saving of a weak newborn animal or the potential repairing of a sorely-damaged family unit, there are scenes here that do just enough to remind us that small acts can be hugely rewarding, and that one small change can make a massive difference to someone who has only ever known a constant timetable they thought they would be enslaved to forever.

Sometimes painful to watch, sometimes frustrating, God’s Own Country is also sometimes (just sometimes) uplifting. And it is always moving and engrossing. Highly recommended.

8/10

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Sunday, 25 June 2023

Netflix And Chill: Extraction 2 (2023)

If you have heard about Extraction 2 then you have heard about the impressive action sequence near the start of the movie that plays out for just over 20 minutes. It's an impressive spectacle, despite containing at least 50 hidden edits (according to director Sam Hargrave in an article published online by Variety just a few days ago), but one impressive spectacle doesn't necessarily make a movie a complete success.

Although we saw him looking quite close to death at the end of the first film, Chris Hemsworth returns in the role of Tyler Rake. As the title may already have made you aware, he is asked to undertake a mission that requires him to extract someone from hostile territory. This time he is trying to save a family, which puts him in the cross-hairs of two very powerful and dangerous brothers (Zurab Radiani, played by Tornike Gogrichiani, and Davit Radiani, played by Tornike Bziava). At least he's being helped by Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) and Yaz Khan (Adam Bessa), but their plans may be scuppered by the scheming of one of the misguided children being extracted (Sandro, played by Andro Japaridze). 

With every main player returning to their role, including Joe Russo at the writing desk, Extraction 2 feels very much like something made by people who enjoyed working together on the first film and wanted to push themselves a bit further this time around. There are more complex sequences, there's a bigger scale to some of the set-pieces, and Hemsworth somehow looks to have added more muscles on to his writhing mass of muscles. It is, in some ways, a bit better than the first film, but it's also inherently more ridiculous and unbelievable, and becomes more and more removed from anything close to reality as it hurtles towards the finish line.

Hemsworth is good enough in the lead role, certainly convincing in the physical side of his performance, and both Farahani and Bessa work well enough alongside him. Nobody is giving their best performance, but this is Extraction 2, a film in which the focus is on the punches and gunshots ahead of any actual characterisation. Both Gogrichiani and Bziava are good villains, although one gets more screentime than the other, and Tinatin Dalakshvili does a good job of being a strong mother finding even more reserves of courage as she and her children are shepherded to what she hopes will be a much safer life for them all. Japaridze is a bit annoying in his role, but does what is asked of him, and his younger sister is portrayed by both Mariami and Marta Kovziashvili (twins who both do just fine in the role). It's also worth mentioning Daniel Bernhardt, a recognisable cinema "heavy" who here plays a . . . cinema "heavy", and plays him well.

This isn't a film you will watch to see commentary on society or human nature (although there is some clunky backstory here that shows why Rake is so determined to successfully complete his mission, and what big mistake he made in his past that he is trying to make up for), but it's a fun time for fans of action. This is the film to watch when you want to see Chris Hemsworth have his arm set on fire and then extinguish the flames with the force of him repeatedly punching other people around him. If that sounds like a treat, and it definitely is, then this is well worth a couple of hours of your time.

7/10

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Saturday, 24 June 2023

Shudder Saturday: Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

Although it may not be the first film that you think of when asked to list some of the best slasher movies from the 1980s, The Slumber Party Massacre is a beloved minor classic of the sub-genre, helped by the fact that it had at least one truly whacky and memorable sequel. It didn't seem like a film dying to be remade, which can be said of many horror movies that have ended up getting remakes, and I only decided to finally give it a watch when I felt as if I had very few other options on my viewing list. I'm glad I finally got around to it. This is a fun remake that takes the essence of the original film, the fact that it was always intended to be a parody, and refreshes it for our more self-aware modern times.

It doesn't take long to get into the action. This film starts with a slumber party massacre. There's one survivor (Trish Deveraux, played by Masali Baduza), but deadly Russ Thorn (Rob van Vuuren) is killed off very early. We then cut to many years later. Trish's daughter, Dana (Hannah Gonera) is heading off for a weekend with her friends. The group includes Maeve (Frances Sholto-Douglas), Alix (Mila Rayne), Breanie (Alex McGregor), and Ashley (Reze-Tiana Wessels). Trish is worried about her daughter, but Trish is a bit more worried than most people about every situation. Understandably. She would worry more if she knew what was really planned. The girls are hoping to replicate the events of decades ago and lure a possibly-not-as-dead-as-he-should-be Thorn back into action. What could possibly go wrong?

Directed by Danishka Esterhazy (who also gave us The Banana Splits Movie just a couple of years before this), what you get here is a smart and fun horror comedy, although the comedy stems more from the use and subversion of tropes, that also delivers some fun gore gags throughout. The smart script, written by Suzanne Kelly, figures out a way to constantly homage the original film while also presenting something that hits the expected beats of a standard slasher film. It's a lot of fun, especially with the plotting allowing for more exciting close encounters with a killer than you might expect from this kind of thing (slasher movies are, after all, often a lot of stalk 'n' slash moments until the final survivors are grouped together and informed enough to start their fight back).

The cast are all easy to like, and they all have a nice and easygoing chemistry with one another. Gonera is a great lead, and the surprise of that opening sequence allows you to worry that she's far from indispensable to the main storyline. Everyone else does good work, with Baduza eventually allowed to show that she's much more than just an "overly-concerned" parent. Van Vuuren has fun as the killer, a load of young men turn up to present themselves as more potential additions to the bodycount, and Jennifer Steyn is entertaining as she appears to fulfil the role of "side-eyeing local".

The big flaw lies in the character development. There isn't really too much going on here. Where the script does so well in the exploration of the tropes and expected story beats, it is sadly unable to make most of the characters truly distinguishable from one another. That may have been a deliberate choice (judging by the small running joke about two different characters named "Guy"), but it leads to the film feeling less involving and satisfying than it otherwise could have been. And with a runtime of just over 80 minutes, although I rarely say this, it feels as if some more time could have been spent just developing our core group members a bit more.

This is fun, I would say it's even a bit better than the original film, but it just stops short of being great. Horror movie fans should definitely check it out, and those who love this series will really enjoy the more direct references to the more iconic moments.

7/10

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Friday, 23 June 2023

Swallow (2019)

The solo directorial feature debut by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who also wrote the screenplay (and spent a few years honing their craft in a number of shorts and one co-directed documentary), Swallow is a strange little gem that presents someone dealing with their internal struggles in a very new and unique way. It may not feel like it has the potential to be great cinema, but every quiet moment bunched up to another to create a sky full of grey clouds ready to deliver an intense thunderstorm.

Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a young woman about to become a first-time parent with her partner, Richie (Austin Stowell). Things aren’t necessarily as perfect as they initially seem, however, and Haley starts to seek solace in eating random things that shouldn’t be eaten, from drawing pins to soil, and a variety of objects in between. She cannot really communicate her compulsion to Richie, nor can she really open up to Richie’s parents (Katherine and Michael, played by Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche). And the more we see, the more we start to root for Hunter to get out of the situation she is in. Because Richie and his family are horrible, selfish, people, willing to betray trust and manipulate Hunter to maintain the facade of a perfect life.

There’s a bit more to the plot than I have described here, something crucial to the psyche of Hunter that provides a vital stage for a tense finale, but I would prefer other people to be as surprised as I was. Swallow, on paper, sounds like a lightweight curio. It is actually a delicate and powerful study of someone struggling to find out who they really are, reconciling their past with their present to pave the way for a future they can look forward to.

Mirabella-Davis has the confidence to let everything unfurl like the petals of a well-tended and beautiful flower, putting his faith in a lead actress who really steps up to the mark and delivers what could well be a career-best performance. He is also helped by a team, from the cinematographer to the set decorator, the composer of the music to the editor, all working perfectly in sync and on board with the vision to be realised.

Having just mentioned how good Bennett is, it is worth repeating, and highlighting, the strength of her central performance. I have seen Bennett in a few other minor roles, but nothing really made her stand out. This film completely changed my view of her, and I look forward to what else she might be a part of in the next few years. Marvel, Rasche, and Stowell are wonderfully easy to start hating as their sense of self-preservation starts to overtake their politeness and insincere attempts to act caring, making it much easier to root for a woman to be allowed to eat whatever strange thing she wants. There’s also a fantastic turn from Denis O’Hare, coming into the film for the last few scenes. O’Hare could have stolen the movie away from everyone else, where it not for the dazzling talent of Bennett.

It will make you squirm for a few different reasons, but you should endure that discomfort to enjoy a film that is so impressive, intriguing, and surprisingly emotional when the main character is allowed to fully explore her complex and confused feelings.

9/10

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Thursday, 22 June 2023

Killer Rack (2015)

Just the other day I was reminded of another film about killer boobs (of course there’s more than one), which meant I had to immediately track it down and give it a watch. So here we are, and Killer Rack is a title that will already have a lot of people rolling their eyes. To hell with them. I know how to have a good time, and Killer Rack is a good time. Sort of.

Jessica Zwolak plays Betty, a young woman who watches her life start to fall down around her because of one thing. Well . . . two things. Her slightly smaller bust size. Her douchebag of a boyfriend is turned off, her boss at work keeps overlooking her in favour of women with larger breasts, and she generally feels unattractive, unsexy, and powerless. So she heads along to Dr. Kate Thulu (Debbie Rochon) and has her breasts enlarged. It isn’t long until Betty is finding her workday easier, enjoying a bit of flirting, and becoming emboldened by the power of her new body shape. But something has an appetite, and it goes to work while Betty is sleeping.

Written by Paul McGinnis and directed by Gregory Lamberson, who have both taken on a number of different roles in their film careers, both behind and in front of the camera. this is very silly stuff indeed. It’s brisk, cheap, and asks the cast to perform their characters in the broadest way possible. And yet, whether intended or not, and I think the central premise indicates an intention, there’s a core of truth here that resonates throughout it, a prevailing attitude that gave us the “my eyes are up here” phrase, and a skewering of how juvenile and easily-fooled men are while they can always be distracted by breasts. And they can almost always be distracted by breasts.

Fair play to Zwolak, taking on a central role that requires her to appear to be deemed “not a properly attractive woman” for the first half of the runtime. She doesn’t stay too quiet and meek while being mistreated by almost everyone around her, but she certainly doesn’t start to assert herself more confidently until after her op. It’s a fun performance, especially when showing the contrast between the stages of her life. Rochon enjoys her cameo, assisted by a typical mad doctor’s assistant (played by Bob Bozek). Michael Thurber is the hugely inappropriate boss, often hilariously oblivious to anything other than breasts, and McGinnis gives himself the role of Tim, the one decent guy in the film. Lloyd Kaufman has a cameo, because of course he does, and Brooke Louise Bellas is given the official “Killer Rack” credit.

While not trying to be too clever or insightful, especially in scenes showing dopey detectives investigating mysterious murders, Killer Rack unexpectedly manages to be schlocky fun that also serves as a pointed commentary on how society wants to label and view women, and how women are treated when they match the labels given to them, and also when they don’t. The title tells you what you are going to get, but there’s a surprising bit of extra depth there, just like . . . actually, no, I am not going to end on a clumsy attempt at a jokey metaphor. That would make this review a bust.

6/10

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Wednesday, 21 June 2023

Prime Time: Sicario 2: Soldado (2019)

It may sound like a cliché to say it, but I really enjoyed Sicario because of the way it showed a very different kind of war, and the cold-blooded and tech-assisted approach to dealing with an enemy who wasn’t cloaked in an easily-identifiable uniform. Working around the rules and diplomacy, pushing everything right to the breaking point, those being depicted weren’t necessarily shown as heroes, but they believed they were working towards a greater good.

As good as that film was, nobody was crying out for a sequel. But here we are. A number of characters return, the main goals are similar, but permission has been granted to go even further than before. There has been another terrorist attacking on US soil, and the President wants to hammer the enemy into the ground.

Written by Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote the first movie), there’s even more shown here to reveal the dangerous game being played by the protagonists, and how disposable they are if things get too uncomfortable for those in power who give approval for their tactics. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is told he can let his main asset “off the leash”, which isn’t good news for anyone viewed as a target by Alejandro (aka the main asset, played by Benicio Del Toro). The plan is to pit Mexican drug warlords against one another, and the way to do that is with a few killings and the kidnapping of someone’s daughter (Isabel, played by Isabela Merced). Nobody wants to hurt the young girl, which is why the kidnap will then lead to her “rescue”, getting the Americans some brownie points while the gang war escalates. In theory.

Director Stefano Sollima is at the helm this time around, replacing Dennis Villeneuve, and his filmography will quickly show why he would seem to be a good fit for this material. Thankfully, the end result here also proves him to be a great choice, because this is a film that I feel easily sits alongside the first one, further developing some of the character arcs in a way that is hugely entertaining, yet also feeling organic and true to the nature of everyone involved. Sheridan’s script does that, Sollima’s direction does that, another excellent score from Hildur Guðnadóttir does that, and everyone else behind the camera works together to present a vision of organised violence, murky political machinations, and a palpable sense of intense heat (in more ways than one).

Brolin and Del Toro are once again excellent in their main roles, with both being determined and single-minded about achieving their desired results. Brolin’s character is more tied to the chain of command, and he nicely balanced his grit with the minimal amount of diplomacy required. Del Toro’s character, on the other hand, is free to act more off his gut instinct, showing that he’s more than just a guided missile in human form, at least until those in charge decide that he shouldn’t. Matthew Modine and Catherine Keener are both people higher up in the chain of command, and both appear in a few scenes to set up the main mission and then balk as the parameters start to move further away from the initial vision. Then there is Merced, billed here as Isabela Moner. Although I have only seen her in a handful of main roles, Merced is an actress I will always have time for. Her performance here is as excellent as anything else she has done, and she would already be a huge star in an ideal world. Keep an eye out for her name in any future movie releases, she is surely destined to soon have numerous projects more deserving of her talent than the dire Transformers film that she ended up in. I should also mention Elijah Rodriguez, who does a decent enough job playing a slightly under-written character who proves to be pivotal to the plot.

If you like violent thrillers then you should like this. If you liked the first movie then you should like this. Like Brolin and Del Toro? Then you should like this. I might like it more than most people, but I hope that at least a few others agree with me.

8/10

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Tuesday, 20 June 2023

Fast X (2023)

I have mentioned it many times before, but I have a strange relationship with the Fast & Furious franchise. I was never a fan, but they became so ubiquitous that I eventually gave in and started to enjoy them. When things for more preposterous, I became less impressed. Then things got even MORE preposterous and I was won around again. I didn’t love the eighth instalment in the main series, but I really liked the ninth, so I wasn’t sure where I would land on this outing.

I hated it.

Linking back to the end of the fifth film, the plot concerns a villain named Dante (Jason Momoa). Dante is out to avenge the death of his father, and he aims to do that by hurting Dom (Vin Diesel) where he will feel it most. His FAMBLY. Of course, he hasn’t counted on Dom being the best at doing everything ever. Urgh.

Written by Justin Lin and Dan Mazeau, and directed by Louis Leterrier, this is a rambling and laughable mess for most of the runtime. The editing is horrible, genuinely feeling at times as if scenes have been randomly chopped up in the wrong places to intersperse with other scenes, ensuring no real flow or building of tension. Even the ridiculous stunts fail to impress, weighed down by CGI that somehow feels worse than what we were given in the first few movies in the series. There’s one fun sequence set in Rome, thanks to some impressive motorbike work, but the rest will have you feeling more exasperated than excited.

Diesel is the least interesting member of the main group, and when he is asked to show emotion on his face it just looks like he’s been filmed trying to empty his bowels, but the rest of the gang are unable to do much better in a number of scenes that feel like nothing but filler. Okay, John Cena is good fun in the scenes he shares with the youngest main cast member (the kid who plays “little Brian”, but watch this and tell me that we couldn’t have done without the sequence featuring a star cameo when Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Sung Kang are all in London. You would be lying. The women generally fare a bit better, with Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, and Brie Larson all having some decent moments, but Jordan’s Brewster suffers from the fact that she doesn’t feel as capable as the rest of the gang, and her involvement just serves as a reminder that Paul Walker’s character is notable by his absence. Scott Eastwood returns as an agent, and an ally, Alan Ritchson is the other agent in pursuit of our heroes, and last, but not least, is Momoa. I can see some people disliking Momoa in this, he is all kinds of anarchic energy wrapped up in some damn fine threads whenever he’s onscreen, but he is the highlight of the film. His energy, his madness (a scene with him conversing with others while applying some nail varnish is THE best moment of the entire movie), his sheer glee as he watched his plan come together, it’s all a welcome change from the moody and stoic attitude of almost everyone else in the cast (hell, even the banter between Gibson and Ludacris is made more sour in this outing). It’s overdone though, and sometimes feels too much like the film-makers relied on Momoa to be a jacked-up Joker in order to make up for all of the weaknesses elsewhere in the film.

The biggest weakness, aside from the technical end result of the film-making seeming hastily put together and shoddy, is a complete lack of consequence. This feels pointless. Main characters seem to be dead, but we have seen main characters “die” before. Diesel won’t let his hero lose, his ego won’t allow it (unless things lead to a finale that can allow him to become a modern Christ figure), and the abrupt ending here, because this is only the first part of the story, feels like a bit of a slap in the face. Calling it an ending is a stretch, considering how the film really just cuts off with no defining moment for either the heroes or the villains.

Of course I will watch the next (final?) instalment in this series. I came this far with it. I won’t be looking forward to it though. Everyone involved needs to do some major repair work to get this tired and broken engine back in order if they want to cross the finish line in first place. A large fanbase will be cheering them on, but it’s all on those behind the wheel (metaphorically speaking . . . but also literally, in this instance).

4/10

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Monday, 19 June 2023

Mubi Monday: Requiem For A Dream (2000)

It might seem glaringly obvious now, but writer-director Darren Aronofsky has never been one to do subtlety. Whatever his movie is about, he damn sure wants to beat you over the head with it. That often works, however, because he picks movies that are filled to the brim with visual tricks and flourishes that help to sugar-coat the bitter pill we are being made to swallow.

Requiem For A Dream may actually be the least subtle film from Aronofsky, which is really saying something, but it is also up there with his very best. A tale of various addictions, and the rise and fall of the central characters, it is a grim endurance test that just, and I do mean just, manages to keep viewers watching through to the end credits.

Jared Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a young junkie who has dreams of making a better life for himself and his girlfriend (Marion, played by Jennifer Connelly). Harry and his friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), just need to stay focused and straight as they transition from users to dealers. But that isn’t easy, especially when all three individuals start to feel the need for drugs at different times. Meanwhile, Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), is addicted to her TV, and one game show in particular. When she receives an invitation to participate on the show, she starts to fret about her appearance, eventually seeking a doctor to prescribe her diet pills that will help her fit into the red dress she plans to wear on TV.

Based on work by Hubert Selby Jr., who then worked with Aronofsky on the screenplay, this is not only a requiem onscreen, but an almost unbearable, hellish, crescendo for most of the second half, culminating in a finale that I don’t think I would have been able to get through on the big screen (although I kind of wish I had been able to see this when it was first released). The structure and dialogue work well enough, but you then have the dizzying visual style AND a propulsive and bone-shaking score from Clint Mansell (assisted by the Kronos Quartet on strings, as well as numerous other musicians helping him to create the audio tapestry).

Leto is quite good in his role here, and he is equalled by both Connelly and Wayans at different times, but the younger cast member are all given the typical shivering junkie material to work with, in many ways. The real standout is Burstyn, giving a vulnerable and frail performance that will break your heart as she slides further and further into her own delusion. It is arguably her best ever performance, and her journey is the toughest to watch (which is astounding, considering what all four characters go through). The other person deserving a mention here is Christopher McDonald, doing a great job of portraying a typically polished and smarmy TV show host, whether actually on the TV screen or wandering through the mind of Burstyn’s character.

Not entirely dire and downbeat, although any moments of lightness or humour are few and far between, Requiem For A Dream is a film that deliberately puts you through the wringer. It may be simplistic, in a number of ways, and it may seem a bit ridiculous as it hurtles towards a dark and twisted climax, but it also shows characters moving back and forth between being functioning addicts and spaced-out zombies better than pretty much any other film I can think of, with the notable exception of a certain Danny Boyle/Irvine Welsh collaboration that helped define the 1990s.

A must-watch, as long as you can handle the content, but I can understand anyone who then decides never to give it a repeat viewing. I own it, but I never think of it as a film to stick on while I have many other options that won’t leave me wanting to scrub my brain and eyes with industrial-strength bleach.

9/10

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Sunday, 18 June 2023

Father's Day (2011)

No Netflix And Chill this week. Why? Because . . . "Sons, lock up your fathers... vengeance arrives on... Father's Day!"

The second film from Astron-6 (a Canadian film production company beloved by genre fans for the shorts and features that they've released since being founded back in 2007), Father's Day is a hilarious blend of ridiculous gore, gratuitous nudity, familiar genre movie tropes, and very dark comedy. There's also a running theme of male rape, shown often enough to make me decide that I should warn viewers who may not have the stomach for such content.

Chris Fuchman (played by Mackenzie Murdock) is a serial killer who specialises in picking fathers as victims. He rapes them and murders them, and he's done this at least ten times. One of those victims was the father of siblings Ahab (Adam Brooks) and Chelsea (Amy Groening), and the former ended up spending a decade in prison after killing the wrong man while looking to exact some revenge. With Fuchmans back doing what he does best, a priest (Father John Sullivan, played by Matthew Kennedy), is tasked with convincing Ahab that he should still work on hunting down the depraved killer. Working together, with some help from Chelsea, as well as Andrew AKA "Twink" (Conor Sweeney), these angry mothers are determined to keep fathers safe.

As well as taking on lead roles, Brooks, Sweeney, and Kennedy share the writing and directing duties with Jeremy Gillespie and Steve Kostanski, which is usually the way with Astron-6 productions. All of them seem to be well-versed in the type of cinema that they're referencing, and sometimes gently mocking, and all of them work well together to deliver a film that feels like one impressively unique and singular vision. The presentation allows for a fictional "TV schedule" framing element, which also allows for a fake trailer to be placed at around the halfway point, but nobody tries to haul the film off down too many side-roads towards self-indulgence. While the first act throws a lot of different elements into the mix, it all comes together and stays relevant to the main plot strand (the main group aiming to hunt down and kill Fuchman).

The acting is intended to be super-cheesy, and it is (Brooks being the best, having a blast in the grizzled, eyepatch-wearing, role that would be portrayed by a Kurt Russell/Clint Eastwood knock-off in the 1980s), the music - courtesy of Gillespie and Paul Joyce - is a perfect fit for the visual style, and the gore gags are jaw-droppingly impressive at times; maybe even a bit too impressive, especially when men end up with their eyes watering as they watch some graphic penis trauma in one main scene.

Father's Day is the kind of distasteful opus that Lloyd Kaufman would be proud of, which makes his involvement here in a producing AND acting capacity no big surprise, but the quality of the special effects and the film-making technique raises this far above what you'd expect from anything being presented by the head honcho at Team Troma. It has some of the crudity and craziness you could find in most Troma movies, but it's very much stamped with the identity and passion of Astron-6.  And while it's more accomplished than the first Astron-6 feature (the enjoyable Manborg), and a lot of people love it, I will always think of it as a stepping stone on the way to the greatness of both The Editor and Psycho Goreman.

8/10

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Saturday, 17 June 2023

Shudder Saturday: Leave (2022)

I wanted to like Leave, I really did,  but this tale of a young woman trying to trace her family roots ended feeling far too mediocre, and also surprisingly predictable. Although technically competent, it's the kind of thing that puts you off wanting to see anything else from either the writer or director.

Alicia von Rittberg plays Hunter, a woman who wants to find out why she was abandoned as a baby. She was left in a graveyard, wrapped in a cloth adorned with satanic symbols. Personally, I wouldn't want to know how that happened to me, but Hunter is different from me. She ends up in Norway, and eventually meets people who may have known her mother. Unfortunately, her mother is no longer around, apparently having been killed by Hunter's father (Kristian, played by Morten Holst). Digging around leads to some secrets being uncovered while people start to become more tense.

I have seen some people complain that this is just a thriller marketed as a horror movie, a criticism I don’t think is fair. But I am going to note here that this is certainly a mild horror movie, and not want to recommend to anyone after major scares or some blood and guts. It is a supernaturally-tinged mystery, and some may enjoy that approach to the material.

Sadly, I didn’t.

If I spent some time referencing the better movies that this called to mind then I would risk spoiling the third act, but let’s just say that we have seen this done many times before in ways that were much more entertaining. The trappings may be slightly different, with the Norwegian setting and some conversations touching on the (in)famous black metal scene over there, but the main plot beats are very familiar.

Writer Thomas Moldestad has given us some good stuff in the past (slasher movie fans will definitely want to check out the Cold Prey movies), and there's nothing in the script that is actually terrible here, but he certainly seems to be cruising on auto-pilot this time around. Director Alex Herron has a background made up of music videos and TV shows that focus on bands, but none of the expected style and flashiness you might expect from a music video director is here. That would usually be considered a good thing, and maybe something that Herron was very consciously trying to avoid, but it might have been a welcome addition here. The story isn't strong enough to carry the film without any standout touches or moments to support it.

Von Rittberg is fine in the lead role, although the fact that she looks quite a bit like Riley Keough was both a plus and distraction for me (maybe it's just me, I kept wondering if it WAS Keough in the main role, and wondering how the film-makers had convinced her to join them). It helps that her character gets to do more than stand around and look shifty (unlike the characters played by Stig R. Amdam, Herman Tømmeraas, and, of course, Holst). Ellen Dorrit Petersen also does well in a small role, and both Ragnhild Gudbrandsen and Maria Alm Norell deserve a mention, as does Clarence Smith (playing the understanding adoptive father of our main character).

Trying to maintain a sense of seriousness throughout, even when things seem to be crying out for some schlocky silliness, Leave will leave you cold and disappointed by the time the end credits roll. I would say it is a distinctly average film, but the fact that it could have been much better means that it feels worse than that. It may work better for people who haven't seen many other films in the same vein, but it won't work for most viewers. It's competent, as I said at the start of this review, but when have you ever been dying to see a film best described as "competent"?

4/10

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Friday, 16 June 2023

The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

I cannot recall the last Herschell Gordon Lewis movie that I watched, but I know it has been a while. I have only seen a few films from the “godfather of gore”, despite having the huge boxset from Arrow Video that I had to make time to order while on holiday in Croatia, but each one has been an experience, in one way or another. The Gore Gore Girls can now be marked off the list, and was certainly . . . an experience.

Amy Farrell plays Nancy Weston, a journalist who is given permission to hire the skilled Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress). A number of go-go girls have been viciously murdered and Gentry could well be the private eye to crack the case. He’s a modern day Sherlock Holmes, with a lot more sexism and unnecessary sneering. As these two try to narrow down a list of suspects, the murderer keeps murdering, which allows Lewis to showcase some of his typically excessive gore moments.

As surprising as it may seem, there were a couple of moments in this film that actually turned my stomach. Lewis may have been working with fairly amateur actors, and he may rarely have managed to acquire a budget larger than my own measly amount of savings, but he could always enhance his gore gags with squelchy sound effects and an unnerving camera that stays focused on the ruination and disfigurement of faces and body parts. It doesn’t always work, but when it does . . . ooft.

The script by Alan J. Dachman (his only film work, as far as I can see) isn’t good, and falls apart spectacularly in a finale that feels as rushed as it is underwhelming. The character of Gentry is almost constantly irritating, and there’s absolutely no chemistry created between the two leads. The only highlights are the gory kills, but they are good enough to at least particularly make up for the failings elsewhere. And people do watch these movies for the gory kills.

Farrell and Kress are, well, they are in line with almost every actor that Lewis has placed in a leading role. Which is a nice way of saying that they’re certainly not up there with the greats. Hedda Lubin has fun as a catty bar waitress named Marlene though, and there’s a small role for Henny Youngman that at least adds one vaguely familiar face (at the time) to the cast.

To try to say any more about this film would be redundant. It isn’t good, not when you judge it by the criteria used to critique standard movies, but it’s one for fans of Herschell Gordon Lewis. And that is about the best you can hope for from a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie.

5/10

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Thursday, 15 June 2023

Cocaine Shark (2023)

Yes, a LOT of films riffing on the title were greenlit as soon as the buzz started growing around Cocaine Bear and, yes, expecting them to be any good would be foolish. As I have said many times before, however, I am rarely mistaken for a genius. I didn't expect greatness Cocaine Shark, but I was hoping that it might be silly fun. Well . . . it sure was silly.

Titus Himmelberger plays an undercover cop named Neil (a character referenced pretty much everywhere else on the internet as Nick, which means either everywhere else is wrong or I missed his real name being mentioned, with Neil perhaps being his undercover alias). He spends most of the movie narrating his tale from a hospital bed, and it’s a tale of super-strong drugs and mutant creatures. There’s a powerful drug baron to put a stop to (Guarisco, played by Ken Van Sant), an attractive woman (Persephone, played by the wife of Titus, although this is also according to what I found on the internet, Natalie Himmelberger), and numerous henchmen to be dealt with. And sharks, although that word is being used in the loosest possible sense.

Director Mark Polonia has developed quite the fanbase throughout his career, leaning further into his ability to craft micro-budget creature features and “mockbusters”, and there were times during this movie that made me smile. The shonky special effects that cost less than that prolific paperback copy of Jaws found in every charity shop, the ridiculous dialogue trying to briefly explain some science, and the neo-noir nonsense had a certain charm. But it’s all part of a movie that grinds you down by doing everything in a way that is surprisingly dull. Writer Bando Glutz only needs to fill about an hour of runtime, in between the opening credits, which are re-used for the closing credits, but he cannot bring the separate story elements together in a way that is as fun or entertaining as they should be.

As for the acting, well, I have seen worse. Although not actually good in his role, Titus Himmelberger tries to stay comfortably within the standard “grizzled tough guy” mould. Natalie does a slightly better job, helped by the fact that she has a look that works well for her role of potential femme fatale. Nobody else is worth mentioning, and, in this instance, I would rather choose to say nothing if I have nothing good to say.

There was a way to make this work. Sharks can often be depicted without showing them front and centre. Just mix in stock footage with people being worried as they watch the surface of the water. Use ominous music to remind everyone of the constant threat. But that would take a bit more effort and creativity, and Polonia seems to prefer getting something made as quickly and cheaply as possible, selling a timely title without worrying about the quality of the movie attached to it. Trust me, I could show you screenshots from this film that would make you think I had just used my bad photoshop skills to create something that would make you think it was from a PSOne game, probably called Fin Commander, but I fear I have already wasted too much of my time, and yours, on this.

It won’t stop me watching other films titled to cash in on Cocaine Bear though. My foolishness actually means I will probably prioritise them over much worthier viewing choices.

2/10

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Wednesday, 14 June 2023

Prime Time: Bats (2021)

If co-directors Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca Matthews ever read this review then they may go through a bit of a rollercoaster ride as I discuss their movie. Because Bats is bad, I cannot dance around that fact, but it is bad in ways that put it ahead of many other low-budget British horror movies released in the last decade or so. I wasn’t going to review it, not wanting to dump on a film that at least tried to do something a bit different, but then I decided that it was only fair to show how much difference it can make to watch something that feels as if those making it were actually making some effort, as opposed to something like Deinfluencer (which I highlighted as a stinker last week).

Things start with some young folk having sexy times in an abandoned house. It isn’t long until they are endangered by a big bat type creature, which is a mutated, humanoid, monster that had been living in the upper areas of the house for some time. The mutation was probably caused by a nearby nuclear plant meltdown, ironic with the house being based in Nosferatu Village (not a joke, that is the name of the place). We then join some other people, a family processing a number of big changes in their lives, as they head to that same house, which is actually their family home.

There are so many decisions made here that seem odd, yet also understandable. The film is apparently set in the mid-1980s, something that isn’t really used in the plot, but perhaps allows the film-makers to be able to avoid things like mobile phones and other useful modern gadgets. It’s also meant to star a bunch of Americans, I think, but the accents veer around in all different directions. I assume this is to help make the movie a bit easier to market, in theory, but all it does is have Americans wonder why their accents are being mangled while Brits wonder, well, why accents are being mangled.

Scott Jeffrey wrote the script, alongside his co-directing duties, and that’s also a mess, as you might have guessed already. But it’s a mess that at least comes close to having some more interesting moments here and there. The film-makers ultimately fumble the execution of the material, but it’s admirable to see them try adding weight to what could have been just a standard, cheap ‘n’ lazy, monster movie.

While I wouldn’t always think to namecheck the makeup department, Stephanie Harrison (assisted by Charlotte Wright and Jamie McGee) does well in trying to bring the vision of the directors to the screen. The main creature might have been more effective if kept in the shadows, but fair play to everyone involved for deciding to show off their work instead. And there’s a surprisingly decent gore gag that shows the painful effects of being the target of the bat’s “vocal weaponry”.

As for the cast, I am not going to list everyone here. Most of them failed to impress me, and I am not writing this to just sling some insults their way, but Megan Purvis is a big plus for the film, and does a great job in the lead role, accent notwithstanding. I have seen Purvis in one or two other movies, and it was her name heading up the cast list here that made me consider this for my viewing schedule this week. People need to start making better use of her talent, because she’s been much better than most of the movies she has starred in over the past few years.

Is Bats good? No. Is it at least schlocky fun? Also no. It’s not necessarily trying to be though, and that is why I ultimately feel more positive about it than I would about any of the hundreds of cheap cash-ins that would have taken this title and gone for the easier options. While it doesn’t really work, Bats tries to be a solid horror with some psychological drama, and commentary on grief and what it takes to move past that. Once the weaker supporting characters are out of the picture, leaving the film to focus mainly on Purvis and a large bat stalking her, it improves immensely. Not enough to be considered a good film, but enough to be considered as something not actually that bad.

4/10

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Tuesday, 13 June 2023

Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts (2023)

Although this is typical blockbuster fare, I realised that I might not have much to say about Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts when I prepared to start writing this review. The plot is what you might refer to as bunkum, there aren’t too many human characters, and certainly no complex journeys of development for them, and it jumps from one CGI-filled set-piece to the next throughout the 127-minute runtime (which actually feels much shorter, considering the bloated runtimes we’ve had from a number of big releases recently).

That’s not to say that this is bad though. It may not require any stamp of individuality from director Steven Calle Jr., and you would be right to be wary after looking at the collected filmographies of the six writers credited with the final screenplay, but this is a film that delivers exactly what people want from it, which is a number of scenes involving big robots fighting one another.

The plot involves some key that has been hidden away on Earth to protect both robots and humans from a massive terror named Unicron. Some bad robots want the key (including Scourge, voiced by Peter Dinklage), and good robots want to make it safe again. The good robots include Optimus Prime (of course, and once again voiced by Peter Cullen), Bumblebee, Mirage (voices by Pete Davidson), and some beast-bots aka maximals named Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) and Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), as well as a few others. Two humans who end up helping the robots are Noah Diaz (played by Anthony Ramos), caught up in the action after trying to steal a very nice car he doesn’t realise is Mirage, and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a history expert working in a museum that houses part of the special key. And it’s 1994, for reasons beyond me. Maybe to help keep any canon chronology in order, maybe just to have some decent tunes on the soundtrack.

There’s a decent amount of fun to be had here, with a good voice cast doing what they have to do in between each CGI-stuffed robot fight, and this should please both fans of the series and newcomers alike. Don’t worry if you get confused at the start of the film. I was confused and I have seen every other instalment in this franchise. It ultimately doesn’t matter. All that matters is remembering who is good and who is bad, and the film makes that pretty clear throughout. Talk about nominative determinism when you have the name Scourge.

Sitting snugly in between the main Transformers movies and Bumblebee, this delivers the spectacle without feeling excessive, over-indulgent, or horribly distracted by the kind of male gaze that Michael Bay had when positioning Megan Fox alongside shiny cars. And you get a decent amount of maximal action, which will come as a relief to those thinking this might be another trailer tease amounting to very little (as happened with the dinobots in a previous instalment). And if you don’t know how it will all end then I suspect you’re completely new to big, brash, mainstream, summer movies.

Ramos is decent enough in his role, the typical good guy who just cannot catch a break after having served his country some years previously, and Fishback works very well alongside him, the two feeling very much like equals up until Ramos has to do the standard heroic move to cap off the third act. Dean Scott Vasquez is sweet, playing the younger brother of the character played by Ramos, and his presence, and the way he looks up to his older sibling, remains a major motivating factor, despite him not being onscreen for very long. There are one or two others, but those three make up the most important humans in the film. As for the voice talent, you cannot really go wrong with Cullen, Dinklage, Perlman, and Yeoh, and Pete Davidson has a brash enthusiasm that matches his robot, so I must say that I enjoyed everyone picked to portray robots in disguise. And Michael Kelly pops up just before the end credits, in a scene that may frustrate and delight viewers in equal measure.

Enjoyable blockbuster fare, good enough to help this franchise stay alive (at the very least), this is also the kind of thing you already know if you want to see or not. If you do, have fun. If you don’t, have different fun with the many other movies out there. 

Look at that. It turns out that I did find plenty to say about it.

7/10

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Monday, 12 June 2023

Mubi Monday: Stranger By The Lake (2013)

A strange and intriguing drama that languidly moves into straightforward thriller territory, moving there like any character in the film who steps into the titular lake before heading for a swim in the deeper waters, Stranger By The Like is a film that works on at least a couple of different levels, both running parallel with one another without one aspect ever upsetting the other.

With the setting just as important as the main characters, as the title may have signified, this is a film set in a popular cruising area. Gay men hope to meet one another, either hook up or indulge in some of their various kinks (one man just likes to look on while he masturbates), and sometimes the thrill is increased by having a close encounter with a sexy stranger. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) eventually has a great time with Michel (Christophe Paou), but that comes after he has witnessed Michel committing an act of, well, assisting someone in their departure from this mortal coil. Things soon heat up, in more ways than one, but it’s obvious that Franck is willing to overlook a lot for the sake of this connection.

The kind of film that creates a sexy atmosphere via a mix of hot temperatures, tanned bodies, and moments of intimacy, it’s worth noting that Stranger By The Lake is also a perfect film to throw on if you want to enrage any pathetic homophobes you may have in your life. There’s a lot of male nudity, some unsimulated (I think) oral sex, and a consistently frank attitude towards pleasure and sex. As much as told through physicality as through dialogue, and there’s no sense of anything being rushed towards a conclusive ending (although it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome).

Writer-director Alain Guiraudie does an excellent job with the material, never shying away from the nature content, but also ensuring that it always feels integral to the unfurling plot. This is a film with a dark heart, but it’s also a film about wanting to be with someone that you know has a dark heart. Is that part of the attraction, or is life too hard sometimes that people need to overlook some major flaws when they feel such a strong attraction to someone they can keep hold of for a while? This is what I felt was running through Stranger By The Lake, and the setting and sexuality of the characters are essential to the way that theme is explored. Because why would you rush to judge someone when you have spent your entire life already being judged by others? And why not overlook a crime when there are still so many places in the world where your own human nature is deemed to be criminal?

Deladonchamps and Paou are both excellent in the main roles, both giving natural and confident performances that show their trust in Guiraudie (who is no stranger to this kind of material). They work very well together, but Deladonchamps also has some enjoyable scenes with other characters around the lake, particularly a man named Henri (played perfectly by Patrick d'Assumçao). Jérôme Chappatte plays the other main character, an Inspector investigating the discovery of a dead body at the lake, and does very well with his small amount of screentime.

With the ambient sounds of the location, the sunshine constantly beating down, and the many moments without dialogue, this is a film that allows viewers to think things over as much as the main characters. If you come away from this with a reaction that is nothing more than “ewwwww, I saw willies” then the fault lies with you, not the film. Anyone mature enough to handle the nudity and sexual content will find a lot to appreciate here, and, while it feels very specifically tied to the sexuality of the leads, it also speaks to a desperate need for closeness and intimacy that almost all of us have experienced, at one time or another.

8/10

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