Friday, 23 March 2018

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

It's been a while since I saw the first cinematic incarnation of this character, played by Dolph Lundgren, but I have more recently enjoyed both the film starring Thomas Jane and the series, with Jon Bernthal in the main role. The latter is the better portrayal of the character, but I still enjoy the film too, as maligned as it often is.

And now I have finally watched Punisher: War Zone, and I have a new favourite. Time will tell whether or not that remains the case but that's how things are for now.

Ray Stevenson plays Frank Castle, and the plot is fairly simple. He's taking out villains and one of them ends up in a nasty accident that leads to him renaming himself Jigsaw (Dominic West). Making a move for more power and money, Jigsaw and his cohorts end up setting themselves up for a confrontation with The Punisher, but our hero may be held back by the police officers who want him cuffed and off the streets.

Directed by Lexi Alexander, I really cannot see why more people don't love this one. Having spoken to fans of the comic, I am led to understand that a number of the onscreen characters are twisted a bit too far from their comic counterparts, and I can understand that being an issue, but the rest of the film is so gloriously entertaining and insanely violent that it would seem to be absolutely perfect for fans of The Punisher.

Written by Matt Holloway, Art Marcum, and Nick Santora, there's a fine blending of the grim and the darkly comedic throughout. It works really well, and is helped by pacing which means you're never too far away from either an action set-piece (some more over the top than others), a fun character moment, or a bit of ultraviolence. This thing barrels along. Stevenson may not get too much dialogue, The Punisher is a man of few words, but that doesn't stop the script from crackling elsewhere with amusing dialogue and entertaining statements of menacing intent.

Perhaps thanks to his relative lack of dialogue, but that may be unfair to say, Stevenson is fantastic in the main role. Seriously, he IS the best version of The Punisher I have seen onscreen. Lundgren was always fun, but also always Lundgren, Jane was okay (points for trying), and Bernthal is fantastic. Stevenson, however, just edges ahead. The size, the moves, the attitude, he's on point. West has a blast as Jigsaw, helped in a number of scenes by his crazy brother, played by Doug Hutchison. Wayne Knight is just fine as Micro, Mark Camacho and Keram Malicki-Sanchez are a decent couple of henchmen, Colin Salmon is fine and upstanding as the cop wanting to arrest Frank Castle, and Dash Mihok is enjoyable as the cop actually helping Frank when he can. Julie Benz is one of the few main actresses, and she does well as the widow of someone caught up in the crossfire between Frank and the gangsters.

I highly recommend this to fans of the character, to action movie fans, and to those who want some comic book fun that is far from family-friendly.


Buy it here.
Americans, buy it here.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Witchcraft 7: Judgement Hour (1995)

I know what you're thinking. Why would I continue to subject myself to the awfulness of this series? And why would I force you all to read reviews of these films? Well, because I said I would see this through to the bitter end, and if I am going to suffer then you can all suffer too.

Will Spanner (this time played by David Byrnes) is once again helping the police to find an evil killer. The police are Garner (John Cragen) and Lutz (Alisa Christensen), the villains are Mr Hassa (Loren Schmalle) and his right hand men, Vontana (Jason Edwards) and Costanza (Eryk Sobesto). And there are lots of women onscreen to bare their breasts in almost every other scene.

This is directed by Michael Paul Girard, who wrote the fourth film in the series, and written by Peter E. Fleming (who also wrote the previous film), based on a story by Jerry Feifer. I would say it's a terrible film, but that pretty much goes unsaid by now. The series is what it is, tenuously connected softcore romps that use an implausible supernatural framework to host some tame sex scenes.

But if you thought any of the previous instalments were bad, you're going to have a horrible time with this one. The acting is atrocious from everyone involved. EVERYONE. The leads are awful, the supporting players are worse, it's almost as if the director told his cast that the person who gave the worst performance would get some huge bonus on payday. As well as those already mentioned, that includes April Breneman (as Keli, the partner of Spanner), Michael Altan, Ashlie Rhey, and Mai-Lis Holmes (who is at least more fun onscreen than anyone else).

The script is as muddled and messy as other Witchcraft movies, but with added vampirism (which allows people the chance to wear amusing false fangs), and even less of an attempt to make the characters more than the most paper-thin walking cliches. The dialogue between the two cops and their superior officer sounds like something that could have been written for an episode of Angie Tribeca.

At least I was able to laugh while the film was on, whether it was at the script, the acting, or the not-so-special effects. Say what you like about this series, each instalment is silly enough to save you from wanting to self-lobotomise before the end credits roll. And that is about the only thing I can say to recommend this, and many of the other instalments.


As Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour is currently unavailable, use this general link instead to do some shopping.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Released in a glorious year that also saw my shining soul gifted to the world, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the film that you already know all about. Initially a stage show, the success of the film started to grow and grow when it became an adored audience participation event.

I have walked by theatres that were putting on a production of the show, admiring all of the audience members in their variety of costumes (wearing everyday clothes to one of the shows would surely leave you sticking out like a sore thumb), and I am aware of the various cues that get the audience involved with the unfolding events on stage/screen. It looks as if every fan has a bloody good time, letting their hair down and just enjoying the company of kindred spirits who are all there for the full experience.

This is why I have watched the movie about three times now, with this being my third viewing. And, I'm sorry for those who are about to be upset with me, I still don't enjoy it.

Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) are a pair of young lovebirds who end up stranded on a dark and stormy night, leading to them asking for help at the home of Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). It's a very special night for the doctor and his friends, and Brad and Janet may wish they had never crossed over his doorstep.

Okay, I wasn't entirely honest when I said that I don't enjoy this movie. There are parts of it that I enjoy. The first 4-5 songs are great. In fact, the film maintains a decent amount of momentum right up until Tim Curry sings the last notes of "Sweet Transvestite". It then dips, before lifting back up again with both "I Can Make You A Man" and "Hot Patootie - Bless My Soul". And then it dips again. And just keeps dipping, slumping further and further down towards a whimper of a finale.

The cast all do well enough, with the three leads all fantastic and nice turns from Richard O' Brien (who wrote the show, and adapted it to the screen with director Jim Sharman), Patricia Quinn, Charles Gray, Nell Campbell, and Meatloaf. Everyone stands in the mighty shadow of Curry, who gives one of his most iconic performances, performing every line with great gusto and a sense that he is savouring the taste of every single syllable.

The big problem here is the material. While it's often said that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical parody tribute to the b-movies that all came before it, I have never found enough here to put it in line with those films. Yes, the silly plot and individual elements here and there will ring a bell to anyone who has watched sci-fi and horror films, particularly from the '50s and '60s, but it's all TOO silly and slapdash to feel like a well-crafted homage. The opening title song and details of the closing sequence aside, there's very little in the main body of the film that feels affectionate or indebted enough to the wealth of source material that O'Brien had to draw on.

Everyone will rush to tell me that I am missing out by not watching this with the intended audience, and it's something I will happily try out one day, but a film should also work as, well, a film. This doesn't. It's not absolutely awful, thanks to a few good songs and that amazing turn from Curry, but I have never thought it as anything great. Which didn't stop me buying it, AND Shock Treatment (an odd sorta-sequel that I will be checking out in the next few weeks, hopefully).

Fans can buy the film here.
American fans can buy it here.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

There's nothing inherently wrong with this all-star version of Murder On The Orient Express, the classic whodunnit from Agatha Christie that has an ending already known to most people even if they haven't read the book yet (a large group that includes myself). It's rather fun, polished, and certainly throws enough stars into the mix to help things along.

Kenneth Branagh directs, and he also lets himself take on the lead role of Poirot, the greatest detective in the world (who isn't named Sherlock Holmes, I guess). Poirot ends up on the titular train, there's a murder, and he tries to figure out who did it. Everyone has a motive, it seems, and Poirot wants to discover the culprit before the train moves on to the next station. Because the train has also been derailed by a small avalanche, ensuring that the characters are unable to flee while the detective gets his little grey cells working on the case.

Working from a script by Michael Green, Murder On The Orient Express is a film both helped and hampered by how familiar and comfortable it all feels. It's easy to enjoy but not so easy to get properly drawn into. The snowy setting, the familiar faces, the family-friendly nature of most of the main scenes, this is something that feels more like a lavish BBC production scheduled for the Christmas holidays than a cinematic experience.

My other main complaint about the film is how the resolution comes about. It all makes sense, from what I can tell, but it would have been better to see a few more links being placed in the chain by Poirot as he started to formulate his main theory. This may be a case of elements from the book that were harder to put on film, or it may be a case of Poirot simply being a character who holds all of his cards close to his chest until he is ready to set them down. My limited knowledge of the character is gathering dust in a small recess of my memory banks, sadly. Either way, and I know it would have been difficult to balance the reveals with the attempt to keep the mystery intact until the end, one or two more pieces of information would have been appreciated as viewers watched Poirot put everything together.

I'm not going to pick apart every performance by the cast. I'll just say that all of them have fun at various points. Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi, and Tom Bateman are the main players, but they all have to work under the long shadow of Branagh, clearly having a ball as Poirot.

If you're unfamiliar with the resolution to the story then be sure to see this before you have it spoiled for you. Also give it a watch if you like most of the main players (and why wouldn't you?). But it's surprisingly disposable and forgettable, especially considering the talent involved. I'll still end up watching the next adventure, however, teased at the end, and I'd even be tempted to watch some less famous mysteries featuring Branagh's take on the main character.


The film is now available to buy here.
Americans may pick it up here.
Get some Agatha Christie ebooks here, for free.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Daddy's Home 2 (2017)

Let me start this review by saying that I enjoyed Daddy's Home. Yes, I know the comedy banter between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg isn't something that many people admit to enjoying (aside from their best work in The Other Guys) but they made me laugh many times in the tale of a sensitive stepfather (Brad, played by Ferrell) being infuriated by the alpha male biological father (Dusty, played by Wahlberg) swanning back into the lives of his children and disrupting their lives.

This sequel finds the extended family living a fairly harmonious life, even if there are still some resentments that hide below the surface. Brad and Dusty take turns with activities, Linda Cardellini (playing Sara, mother to the children, and Brad's partner) seems happy with the situation, and everyone seems settled. Except for the fact that they're not, something that becomes evident when young Megan (Scarlett Estevez) decides to tell people that she hates moving back and forth for Christmas festivities. This leads to one big Christmas being planned, a day with everyone in the same place and the kids not having to move from one family to another. And it's going to be even more special, because Dusty's father (Kurt, played by Mel Gibson) is going to join them. As is Brad's father (Don, played by John Lithgow).

Most of the main players return here, with director Sean Anders also co-writing the script once again (also with John Morris, but no Brian Burns this time around), and it's clear from the early scenes that this is an easy, comfortable, comedy sequel for all involved. You won't find any real depth here, and you won't find anything plausible, but you will get a cast having fun, and a number of amusing moments.

Gibson is there to be an even more toxic male than Wahlberg was in the first film, while Lithgow seems to be, for the most part, even more sensitive than Ferrell's character. This adds plenty of friction, which creates more comedic situations, and then leads to a third act that features both John Cena and plenty of horrible, unearned, attempts at emotional manipulation. All of the male leads get to have lots of fun. Cardellini, on the other hand, is simply left to witness an unfolding sequence of catastrophic events while doing nothing but feel insecure when positioned close to Alessandra Ambrosio (playing Karen, the woman now with Wahlberg's character).

Daddy's Home 2 is a rather weak film, in terms of the art of cinema. It's clumsy, painfully obvious, and suffers even more during the times when it tries to turn Brad into Clark Griswold. It kind of works as a sequel, it fails as a Christmas film (mainly because a lot of the better moments feel as if they have been cribbed from better movies), and it's the worst one yet to pair up Ferrell and Wahlberg.

Oh, I still laughed though. There were quite a few times when I laughed aloud. Hard. For all of its failings, and there are oh so many, it still manages to get the comedy right on many occasions. And that's a good thing for a comedy film. Which is why I still rate this as above average. Fans of Ferrell will find enough to enjoy here. Everyone else should avoid this like a spiked bowl of eggnog.


Daddy's Home 2 can be bought here.
Americanos can buy it here.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden is one of those films that you want to discuss with people as soon as it ends. Which is unfortunate, because the beauty of it, apart from the absolutely gorgeous visuals throughout, comes from watching events unfold, and enjoying every twist and turn. So I'll try not to give too much away here, which may mean a plot summary is briefer than usual.

Basically, a conman (Ha Jung-woo, portraying a character who goes by the name of Count Fujiwara) wants to woo a young woman (Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko is set to eventually marry her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), which will allow him to get his hands on her fortune, because it's known to a few people that he aims to have her declared insane soon after their marriage. And that's where the handmaiden of the title comes in. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a skilled deceiver and thief, hired by the conman to work for, and befriend, Lady Hideko, helping to sway her opinion and convince her that she is falling in love with the Count.

Directed by Park Chan-wook, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-Kyung (based on the novel "Fingersmith", by Sarah Waters), The Handmaiden is every bit as good as you have already heard it is. It's engrossing, the plotting is superb, and it explores various sexual and power dynamics in a way that can become quite graphic without ever feeling tasteless or exploitative.

Separated into three distinct segments, this is a perfect example of how runtime doesn't really matter when the story is strong enough. Running at approximately 144 minutes, in the standard cut (there's also an extended version to check out, and I will), this really flies by as viewers are thrown into the initial situation before getting to know the characters, and then being shown a different perspective on things. I wouldn't say that all of the twists and turns are completely unpredictable, rather they pile up in a way that makes things much more satisfying for viewers. The rug being pulled out from under your feet can be enjoyable cinematically, but it's somehow even more enjoyable to have that rug pulled out and a different one placed under you by a dextrous expert.

As well as the great script, direction, cinematography, and musical score, the performances are no small help in drawing you in and making this a wonderful viewing experience. Tae-ri and Min-hee are the leads, essentially, and play their parts beautifully. Both are 100% believable, even as they run through a variety of motivations and emotions. Jung-woo and Jin-woong also do fantastic work, working well with their relatively single-minded characters. Kim Hae-sook and Moon So-ri have much smaller roles, the former being quite nasty and the latter quite lovely, but both also make an impact with their turns.

I am not sure what is holding me back from giving this a perfect score. I suspect that I have to rewatch it some time and see how well it all holds up, but there's every chance that future viewings will elevate this to absolute modern classic status. Which allows Park Chan-wook to remain one of my absolute favourite directors working today. I have seen about 6 or 7 of his movies, and none of them have been anything less than very good indeed. I'll always be keen to see what he next gives us. In the meantime, maybe I should get ready to watch the extended version of this film.


Buy this lovely edition here.
Americans can buy a disc here.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Cold Hell (2017)

Özge Dogruol (played by Violetta Schurawlow) is a female taxi driver who spends her time putting up with lousy passengers, being an alibi for a lousy friend (Verena Altenberger) who cannot stop cheating on her partner (Robert Palfrader), and letting off steam when she gets a chance to indulge in a bit of Thai boxing. Her life is thrown into turmoil when she witnesses a serial killer standing beside his latest victim. The police don't have enough information to give her any substantial help, although one detective (played by Tobias Moretti) is eventually swayed to help her, just in time for things to go from bad to worse as the killer aims to get rid of Özge.

A fairly simple idea is turned into a bloody fine thriller thanks to the inclusion of imperfect characters that you can care about, some very nasty moments of violence, and a solid foundation of tension that remains even during the comparatively calmer middle section.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky is great with this kind of material, having previously impressed and entertained me with the enjoyable Anatomy. He seems able to make something feel fresh and lively while avoiding the tricks and flourishes that many other directors might throw in there. And that somehow makes more traditional fare feel a bit more unique when compared to the many other films that pick their favourite toys from the same box, as it were. Writer Martin Ambrosch also deserves praise, having given us one of the best female leads in a thriller that I have seen in some time. Özge is many things, but she constantly does what she can to maintain control of her spiralling situation.

Schurawlow is great in the starring role. She seems to get tougher and more resilient as her character is given progressively worse treatment, and her physical work makes everything easy to believe. Moretti is also very good as the detective who grows to really like her. Sammy Sheik plays the killer, and he's effectively menacing while also capably hiding his true nature whenever he needs to blend into a crowd of normal, non-killing, members of the public. And I should mention the lovely turn from Friedrich von Thun, playing the elderly father of Moretti's character.

There are only two main negatives to mention here. One is the fact that this is a film with great depths to the characters but no real depth to the story. Even for a "serial killer" film, although it's more than just that, it doesn't really add any layers to the cat and mouse plot. Not that it really needs to, but some more stuff to chew on would have been appreciated. Secondly, there are one or two plot contrivances that feel a bit too predictable, and one of the final decisions made by Özge is so dumb that it feels out of character, despite being made in a moment of rage.

Those minor quibbles aside, Cold Hell is an excellent thriller that seems to be getting plenty of positive word of mouth already (which is how it came to my attention). I hope that continues as more people discover it.


Available on Shudder, Cold Hell doesn't seem to have any disc release just now.
But browse here and shop to make me rich.
Or visit here for the same result. Cheers.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Phoenix Forgotten is awful. I couldn't contain myself. I couldn't even pretend for one paragraph, or sentence, to like this film. It is like an immediate Full House in a game of awful foound footage movie bingo.

You get the character who just has to keep recording everything, without good enough justification for his habit. You get horrible visuals because it's supposed to have been recorded by an amateur. You get a selection of lead characters that don't have any actual depth. And you get nothing happening until the final 15-20 minutes, which inevitable feature a night-vision sequence and a build up to what is supposed to be something resembling a bit of a finale.

Directed by Justin Barber (this is his feature directorial debut, unsurprisingly), who also co-wrote the script with T. S. Nowlin (who at least also has The Maze Runner movies in his filmography), the format of Phoenix Forgotten is a documentary being made that investigates the disappearance of three young adults. The trio had decided to see what they could find out about an incident involving some mysterious lights in the night sky. They then disappeared, with no bodies ever found.

I could spend longer detailing the failures of this film than the creators seemed to spend on crafting it and making it entertaining from viewers. This is seriously embarrassing at times, often smacking of that lazy attitude that you can sense in the worst found footage films. You know what I mean. The whole "oh, we can knock this out cheap and make a good bundle" attitude.

The best movies in this style can make you uneasy throughout. They can dripfeed interesting details to help viewers create an entire storyline in their head that may or may not play out onscreen. This doesn't do either of those things. It simply has three people getting lost and then shows their situation worsen. Swap the desert area for some thick woods and you have The Blair Witch Project, but only if that was made by lazy incompetents who didn't know how to create superior scares. In fact, one moment here is such a blatant nod to the finale of The Blair Witch Project that I thought I was seeing things. Because why would you reference something that would remind viewers of the inferior nature of your material?

That's the word that may stay in your mind as you watch this film. Why? Why, why, why? So many decisions, from the plotting to the editing and shooting, just don't make sense. I almost made this review nothing more than a list of twenty questions, which would have been an equally valid response to my time being wasted.

Cast-wise, Florence Hartigan is the main documentary "presenter", and the three main subjects are played by Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez, and Justin Matthews. None of them are very good. And I don't mean that they're that bad either. They're just there, unable to overcome the dull and dire script, and also just sometimes being . . . okay, they're sometimes quite bad.

My generous rating below reflects some of the technical aspects, although I still begrudge anything that raises this up from the very bottom of the barrel it belongs. Especially as this production had some weight behind it.

Avoid. There are at least half a dozen better films along the same lines that I can recommend, if you're ever curious. Just ask.


Phoenix Forgotten can be bought here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Paddington 2 (2017)

I try my best not to mix my own politics with film reviews, unless the films are making a strong political statement or something happens that I find so downright loathsome that I just have to say something. And yet here I am with this review of Paddington 2 and it feels as if I should start off with a bit of a statement.

Don't worry, I believe what I am about to say is actually quite bipartisan, but I suppose that really depends on how you're viewing the world around you. Because that world has been getting a bit crappier and crappier for most of the past few weeks, months, and years. Natural disasters, idiots and criminals in positions of authority, tensions between countries with nuclear weapons, business closures and job losses, murders and cowardly terrorist attacks, and the general downsizing of some of my favourite chocolate bars.

Why am I doing my best to make us all a bit depressed? Well, Paddington 2 is an undeniably fun and lovely film, but it's also the perfect kind of film to make you forget about global problems for a while, and I think the timing may be as much a key to its success as the quality of the film itself.

Returning to helm once more, after doing such a great job with the first movie, director Paul King (also co-writing again, this time with Simon Farnaby, who also has a hilarious cameo) crafts another perfect mix of comedy, sweetness, and sheer entertainment.

The plot revolves around a pop-up book. Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wants to save up his money and buy it as a great birthday gift for his Aunt Lucy. Which makes it very unfortunate when the book is stolen. And it's even more unfortunate when Paddington is mistaken for the thief, leaving him to spend some time at her majesty's leisure while the cunning thief (Hugh Grant, clearly having a blast) uses the book to decipher a code that he hopes will lead to a heap of treasure. Prison life leads Paddington to meet Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), and an unlikely friendship develops. But is that enough to keep our little bear in good spirits while people outside the prison walls try to prove his innocence? Or will a prison break be necessary?

Watching Paddington 2, and enjoying it SO much, got me thinking about both of the Paddington films. They both have the same strengths. First of all, the cast. Most people return here to the roles that they had in the first film, and the cast includes Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Tom Conti, and many, many more. Some scenes are a veritable who's who of British talent. Second, this is how you update a cute character who came to prominence in what might be labelled more innocent times. Paddington Bear isn't the type of youngster who has grown up with Twitter and Facebook, he doesn't have a smartphone in his pocket, and a lot of his values are as naive as they are admirable. But keeping him that way, almost a wide-eyed innocent often wrong-footed by the world around him, makes him a great character at the heart of these stories. And the fact that he never doubts himself, the fact that he always treats everyone the same way, makes it easier to accept those reciprocating his kindness and selflessness in a way that somehow doesn't feel too schmaltzy and annoying.

There are other reasons for the films being so successful, of course. The production design, the visuals, the CGI, the music, the pacing, every aspect of the film feels like it has been given due care and consideration. The script balances out the jokes with the emotional content, nicely weighting things on one end or the other through alternating scenes, and both major elements work. And I think I already mentioned Hugh Grant. He may be portraying a very different kind of villain from the character played by Nicole Kidman in the first film, but that doesn't make him less of a threat. He's the type that you want to boo and hiss at, even while laughing at his vanity and showiness (he plays a hammy actor who hasn't starred in a hit for quite some time - at least those costumes he has will help him in a variety of different disguises).

I haven't taken the time to rattle through the entire cast and sing their praises because this is an ensemble piece that brings the best out of everyone, whether they're onscreen for ten seconds or one hundred minutes. You don't view Hawkins, Bonneville, and co. as the supporting cast. You view them as the Browns. You don't spend the film contemplating how good Whishaw is in his voice role, you just accept that he's Paddington. And so on.

There's not much more I can say about it. I don't agree with some who think this sequel is superior to the first movie, but I couldn't say that it's inferior either. I rate both the same, and recommend picking up a nice double-bill immediately if you've somehow avoided either film until now. Buy the films, clear your schedules, make yourself a nice plate of marmalade sandwiches, and then sit down and press play. You'll thank me for it.


You can buy Paddington 2 here.
Americans can get it here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland does great work in the sci-fi genre, and some feel that he is particularly good when it comes to the movies that he has so far directed (mainly, well, Ex Machina and this). His films are smart, visually arresting, and packed with intriguing ideas. It's just a shame that this film seems a bit overstuffed and unsure of exactly what is being said.

Natalie Portman plays a biologist, Lena, who ends up on a dangerous exploratory mission when she is trying to discover what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), on his last military mission. She accompanies four other women through an area surrounded by "the shimmer", an unknown phenomenon that seems to mark the growing boundary of an environment fatal to almost all who enter. Everyone knows the risk, but they are all hoping to at least discover some answers before their time is up.

Based on the first book in a series by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation is definitely something you can see easily appealing to Garland. It's a sci-fi tale, much like Ex Machina, in which the characters are constantly trying to wind their way through areas of murky morality. What constitutes life, and what gives others the right to assert themselves as the unassailable final step in evolution? Because the shimmer causes pain and damage, yet also creates new life, often in a surprisingly rapid manner.

The material is boosted by the cast, with Portman joined by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Isaac appearing largely in flashback scenes. All of the characters are carrying their own baggage (otherwise why go on such a mission?) and the performances match the flawed personalities.

The problems with the film don't lie with the cast, they lie with the script. Sadly. Garland seems to have been won over by the potential of the ideas here, so much so that he tries to overstuff the film, losing focus during times when he should be building a much clearer picture. The structure highlights this, with scenes that are flashbacks stuck on to other flashback scenes, and a lot of moments that don't feel like anything more than unnecessary filler.

To sum up then, Annihilation is a solid sci-fi film with a very capable cast, and one or two memorable moments, that doesn't ever become a completely satisfying work. Which was perhaps the aim of Garland, considering the core premise.


You cannot buy Annihilation at the moment, but feel free to pick up any of the other, superior, films from Alex Garland.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman returns to play T'Challa (aka Black Panther), after making a great impression in Captain America: Civil War, and even the most casual film fan cannot help but notice that this film has made quite an impact, even when considered alongside the rest of the Marvel filmography. It's been the kind of success story that leads to one hyperbolic review after another, and then the inevitable contrary opinions. It's been called the best Marvel movie ever. It's been singled out as something having huge social and cultural importance. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between the extremes.

I'm not going to go into every plot beat here. Suffice to say, T'Challa is about to become King of his land, Wakanda, and he also has to consider how he wants to lead. Should Wakanda remain hidden away from the rest of the world, or should all be revealed in an attempt to start helping those less fortunate? There's also a fun villain to be dealt with (Andy Serkis), some extremely badass women (Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright), and someone who may just want to force Wakanda to change, whether the people want to or not (this last figure is played by Michael B. Jordan). All of these players do fantastic work, with Gurira and Jordan being standouts. Boseman is a solid lead, but not half as charismatic as many of those around him, nothing to be ashamed of when the cast also includes the wonderful Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, and David Oyelowo, among others.

First of all, Black Panther is a solid Marvel movie. It's not great though, and it's certainly not the best of the lot, at least not in terms of simple entertainment value and superhero antics. The action beats are, for the most part, a bit understated, and this is a more thoughtful look at how best to use superpowers (be they physical or societal).

Director Ryan Coogler continues his hot streak, also teaming up with Joe Robert Cole to work on the script here, and his decisions transform what could easily have been a generic superhero film, with a different cultural flavour, into something that somehow remains focused throughout on both the superficial fun and also the issues that will encourage dialogue long after the end credits have rolled.

While I have already mentioned the notion of how power can be used, there's more to Black Panther than just that. Perhaps it's almost inevitable, given the natural resources that Wakanda has (it contains a huge amount of vibranium, apparently), that viewers are given comments on colonialism, both subtle and not-so-subtle. There's also the obvious element of representation and equality running throughout the whole thing, themes explored within the film that bleed beyond the edges of every frame and emanate out towards every viewer, for better or worse (in the case of idiots who view it as an antagonistic assault on their fragile egos).

While not the perfect modern classic that some might want it to be, the fact that Black Panther so expertly blends blockbuster beats with a relevance and social conscience for an audience demographic who rarely see representation on this level is well worth celebrating. I think that it IS an important film in the here and now, and I think it has been long overdue. But, most of all, I think that it's a good film. And that, as silly and shallow as it may sound, comes before everything else, and then allows everything else to work as well as it clearly has.


Black Panther is available to order here.
And there's a different, kind of American-flavoured, link here.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Witchcraft 666: The Devil's Mistress (1994)

Remember that bit in The Wedding Singer when Adam Sandler performs a song that was written partially before and partially after he'd had his heart broken? He cries out "somebody kill me, please", or something like that. Many of the lines are just a primal scream for love and a way to end his situation. I mention it here because it also sums up how I am currently feeling about my foolish attempt to work through the Witchcraft movie series.

This is the sixth film. I have, if I remember correctly, about another ten to go. Ten. And it's clear that they've already delivered any decent ideas and storylines within the first few films. Summarising the plot of this one is about as pointless as walking around town in my underpants, picking up leaves and throwing them into my one item of clothing, scalding myself with hot water, and offering a fresh cuppa to everyone who walks by me.

It's now the turn of Jerry Spicer to play Will Spanner, the legal eagle with a background that has already involved more corpses and magical shenanigans than both Murder, She Wrote and The Dresden Files. Spanner is approached by a couple of cops to help them find a serial killer who seems to be choosing his targets based on some specific requirements. And you get a number of softcore sexy sequences in which men slobber over boobs. That's about all I can tell you.

Director Julie Davis also co-wrote the film with Peter E. Fleming, which I imagine involved the two of them discussing how much the plot really had to make sense in between the shots of naked breasts (spoiler . . . the answer is not much). As for the technical side of things, Davis surely just asked the sound guys to try keeping the microphones out of shot, asked the lighting guys to always be ready to focus on the naked breasts, and somehow managed to convince her cast not to burst out laughing as they uttered some ridiculous dialogue (although the script is on a par with other instalments in the series).

Spicer has no charisma in the lead role, Kurt Alan and John E. Holiday do a bit better as the cops who ask for his help, Craig Stepp and Bryan Nutter are quite dire in very different ways, and Debra Beatty, Shannon McLeod, Stephania Swinney, and Jenny Bransford are all game enough to take on their thankless roles as a step towards something, anything, better down the line.

You will be able to get through this if you like seeing boobs, but that really is the only plus point to this film. And, no matter how shallow you may think yourself, gratuitous nudity alone isn't really a good enough subsitute for decent acting, decent plotting, and a decent movie experience.


The DVD costs a fortune, so buy Haxan instead.
Americans can get it on Criterion here.

Nothing to do with this film, but still the sexiest witch ever . . . Samantha!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Errementari: The Blacksmith And The Devil (2017)

There are many times when I am happy that I don't ever sit in the dark of a cinema with a pen and torch, taking notes and distracting everyone else around me with my small beacon of bad manners. I like to just sit back and take in every aspect of a movie, and I generally make a mental note of elements that I can then flesh out later, during my writing of reviews. But there are rare occasions when I am not so happy about my lack of notes, and this is one of them.

I THINK I have enough of the characters and cast names nailed down, but I welcome any corrections from others who have seen the film.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me get to the main review. Errementari: The Blacksmith And The Devil is based on an old folk tale, and if you're as unaware of it as I was then just know that it's something that runs along the lines of a Faustian pact. A blacksmith, Patxi (Kandido Uranga), spends his life shut up in his intimidating home, avoiding interactions with the local villagers. This situation looks set to change when an official type of gent comes to the village and claims that he is seeking a large amount of gold that is hidden somewhere in the area. It must be hidden at Patxi's home, which leads to a party heading out there to force their way inside. Meanwhile, a little girl named Usue (Uma Bracaglia) has already infiltrated the home of the blacksmith and discovered that he is keeping a small boy imprisoned in a cage. Moments later, the blacksmith is dealing with Usue, a demon named Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy), and that crowd trying to get inside his home. He's also due to be taken to Hell at some point, an idea that appeals to Usue, as she knows her mother is supposed to be residing there after committing suicide.

I'm just about as happy with that summary as I can be, despite how clumsy it might seem. I don't want to spoil any potential surprises for viewers, and there are definitely some fun twists and turns in the second half of the film that utilise interesting ideas about dealing with demons, as well as what happens to those who go to Hell.

Director Paul Urkijo Alijo, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Asier Guerricaechevarria, may not get things perfect, the film has some notable pacing issues when it comes to the third act, but he's definitely someone to keep an eye on, having already cut his teeth on some genre-soaked short films. There are a number of very impressive practical effects on display here, with Sartael and some other demonic forms presented in a way that I haven't seen so impressively rendered since the iconic performance by Tim Curry in Legend, and the production value throughout is of the highest quality.

Deftly balancing the fantastical elements with some comedy and a huge helping of heart, this is a great example of how to present a classic tale to modern audiences without having to patronise viewers or compromise the material. The cast all do their best to sell the characters and events - Uranga is more a man of action than words, Bracaglia is innocent and adaptable to the strange situation, and Sagardoy is a delightful mix of evil and pathetic - and every one of the supporting players manages to do equally good work.

You also get a lovely score, plenty of fiery scenes shot in a way that make you feel the heat emanating off the screen, a punchline to pretty much every set up, and some imagery in the last few scenes that blend technical wizardry with a nice economical approach to capably raise the material to the level of the outright mythological.


Not sure when this will get a wider release, in the meantime you can buy Faust, if you like.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Primal Rage (2018)

Primal Rage is a near-textbook example of how to take a decent idea, and a smattering of fun moments, and fumble it in numerous ways that leaves you with a disappointing end result. It's not awful. It just ends up throwing in too many elements that drags it down.

Things start off well. The two lead characters are quickly established as Ashley (Casey Gagliardi) picks up her partner (Max, played by Andrew Joseph Montgomery) after an unfortunate stint in prison. While driving through some quieter areas of the countryside, they hit a wounded man. That's not good, especially as Max was drinking a beer while in the passenger seat. Things go from bad to worse, leading to both of them stuck in the woods. And they're not alone. There's a group of gun-toting locals hunting there. And something else.

I was happy with the opening section of Primal Rage. I liked the leads, I liked the small character details in the script, and I thought I was in for a tight, economical horror that was going to make good use of a sasquatch. Then things started to go downhill.

There's a story strand involving a local Sheriff (Eloy Casados) and his deputy (Justin Rain) that starts off interesting but then takes far too long to get to the main point, in time for the grand finale. There's a strange mix of comedy and menace with those gun-toting locals, undermining what could have been some straightforward moments of tension. And there are the initial appearances of the sasquatch, (unintentionally?) comedic as it pops up in various places like a crappy wood-dwelling stalker.

Director Pactrick Magee, who also co-wrote the film with Jay Lee, makes very good use of his budget. There are fine practical effects on display here, from the kills to the main creature to an ancient-looking witch, the cast all do well, and the shooting style usually manages to keep up with the action without ever being too frenetic or choppy.

The biggest problem, and I feel bad for having to point it out, is that the script has one or two ideas too many. There are two very different potential movies here, they just happen to be meshed together into the one feature. Primal Rage is a film that would work best as a fairly short, brisk, fun creature feature that takes time to build characters up before killing them off in some impressively splattery moments. It's a shame that Magee didn't see that when he turned his 80-90 minute movie into something that feels far too overlong at 106 minutes.


Here is a better, similar, film for you to buy
Americans can buy it here.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Cold Skin (2017)

It's been quite a year for waterlogged inter-species fantasy/horror movie relationships. We've recently had the gloriousness of The Shape Of Water. I have heard good things about Blue My Mind. And here we have Cold Skin, the latest film from the talented Xavier Gens.

A man (David Oakes) arrives at a remote island to take on a role made vacant by the death of his predecessor. Once the ship he arrived on sails away, he is left with only one man for company (Gruner, played by Ray Stevenson). But Gruner stays in his lighthouse, with good reason. Because the island is invaded at night by aquatic creatures that seem to want to hurt/kill/eat the two human inhabitants.

Working best during the first third, Cold Skin is part siege film, part creature feature, and part psychodrama looking at human nature when in a perilous situation not a million miles away from The Divide (also by Gens). There are moments of impressive tension and a couple of nice revelations that, while not entirely surprising, start to paint an interesting picture. Things then settle down a bit, moving further away from the simple genre pleasures to show viewers the mindsets of the two men, and also the involvement of a third party (played by Aura Garrido). I also enjoyed all of this section but it seems obvious that not everyone drawn into the start of the film will be kept enthralled by how the rest of it plays out.

Gens directs the hell out of the material, and the film gets top marks for the visual style throughout, which is gorgeous, and also the very impressive sound mix. The script, by Jesus Olmo and Eron Sheean, based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol, is good, but not great. It works best when crafting tension, be it on a small scale between the two human islanders or showing swarming invaders at night trying to get closer and closer to their prey, and then suffers slightly when trying to explore the impact of the loneliness and the strain on our leads.

Acting-wise, Oakes and Stevenson both do good work, and Garrido deserves praise on a par with other talented performers that we often find hidden under hefty prosthetics. The film doesn't reallly give us anyone else to spend time with, crowds of night-time visitors notwithstanding, but nobody does anything you can complain about.

Those seeking a straightforward horror movie will end up disappointed. I know that I had to recalibrate my own expectations when I realised that I wasn't going to be getting quite the Lovecraftian standard I somehow thought it was going to be. Is it better for moving further away from that field and looking at things with a very different perspective? I'm not sure, but I suspect it's ultimately more interesting. And we'll still always have Dagon.


You can order the disc here.
American friends may want to order the book here.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Ravenous AKA Les Affames (2017)

It seems that every month we horror fans find ourselves discussing the state of various subgenres, and it seems that a lot of those conversations involve the exaggerated deaths of most. Be it the vampire film, the found footage film, or the zombie movie. And it's the zombie movie that, perhaps more than any of the others, keeps being incorrectly labelled as dead just before something comes along to give us an enjoyable, fresh take on the subgenre. Which is quite fitting.

The Ravenous AKA Les Affames is another zombie movie, and another one that tries to give viewers something a bit different. It's not entirely successful, mainly because the characters are much better realised than a couple of the more interesting ideas, but it gets points for trying, and certainly holds at least one or two moments good enough to make it worth seeking out, if you're a horror movie fan.

These zombies are more attracted to sound than anything else, which sets them into attack mode when they're not standing around strange pyres that they have been building out of various objects (one is made up of chairs, we see a smaller one made up of children's toys/bikes). The main people trying to avoid the zombies are Bonin (Marc-Andre Grondin), Tania (Monia Chokri), and a young girl named Zoe (Charlotte St-Martin). Bonin makes bad jokes to help deal with the situation, Tania tries her best to become the kind of person who can handle themselves well enough in this horrific scenario, and Zoe is young enough to be scared, but also possibly not as scared as she would be if she could really envision the whole big picture. There are other people who end up banding together and doing their best to fend off zombie attacks, but these three individuals, and whether or not they can survive until the end credits roll, are the heart of the story.

Writer-director Robin Aubert does well, for the most part. His strength lies with the characters he has created, all portrayed well by a strong cast, but I was also impressed by the two stranger elements of this particular zombie outbreak portrayal. Seeing them attracted by sound made for a few enjoyably tense sequences, and those pyres . . . well, I have an idea about those based on a final image, which may be completely incorrect, but I appreciate having that to mull over.

Unfortunately, Aubert mishandles some of the execution of his material. For all of the impressive moments, amateur errors end up hampering some other scenes, including one that should have been an impressive sequence of sustained tension but ends up being a muddled mess, due to poor shot choice, clumsy editing, and misjudged lighting levels. These mis-steps would be easier to forgive in a debut feature, but this isn't a debut feature (although I can appreciate that Aubert would still be dealing with various obstacles and restraints).

Overall, this is a subtle and impressively thought-provoking zombie film. It also has one laugh out loud moment so perfectly judged, despite the signposting, that I almost bumped my rating up another point for that moment alone. Maybe not one that will be revisited much, or even remembered after a year or two, I would still recommend this to more patient horror fans who don't mind films that aim a bit further than their reach allows.


It's not available to buy anywhere yet, but THIS set is.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Attack Of The Bat Monsters (1999)

It's fair to say that your heart doesn't exactly soar when you hear that you're about to watch a film that has effectively languished in some limbo zone for almost two decades. Thankfully, I had already heard some good word of mouth about Attack Of The Bat Monsters so I was expecting to have fun. I ended up having a LOT of fun.

The plot revolves around a film-maker named Francis Gordon (Fred Ballard), based in no small part on Roger Corman. Having just wrapped one movie, he realises that they have almost everything in place to squeeze in one more filming schedule. As long as they can get a script written and the whole thing shot in three days. It might just be possible, mainly thanks to his hard-working assistant, Chuck (Michael Dalmon).

Transitioning between black and white shots of the film within the film and standard colour footage of the action happening on the other side of the camera, Attack Of The Bat Monsters succeeds for two main reasons. One, the actual Bat Monster film is spot on when you think of the numerous cheap films made this way that come to mind (many are referenced, with a few outright namechecked). It feels amusing while never feeling deliberately overdone, strangely enough, unlike some of the more forced homages/parodies we have previously seen, such as the films from Larry Blamire. Second, and maybe more importantly, the script and performances wring every gag out of this kind of hectic, and often perilous, production schedule. While this will appeal especially to film fans, every viewer can laugh at the standard moves shown to a wannabe scream queen (e.g. once you have hurt yourself then you have to take two pained steps before any fall), enjoy the passion of the creature creator, and have a good laugh when a group of female dancers end up using the wrong kind of tape when they have to cover up their nipples.

Written and directed by Kelly Greene, and restored with great care by Mark Rance, this mixes in a lot of familiar tropes (the faded star who can no longer be as picky with the jobs he chooses, the writer starting off with a script that he thinks will retain some loftier ideas among the monster madness, etc) and memorable characters. Francis Gordon will do anything to get his film in the can, Chuck is the worn out and frustrated facilitator of that, Beverly (Casie Waller) is the main scream queen, and I REALLY wish I could remember the name of the actor who plays the aforementioned creature creator, because his comedic turn is a highlight, even compared to the many other great moments here.

As well as the comedy, however, there are a few moments that carry a surprising punch. Whether showing the demands placed on an actress for the film to appeal in different territories or serving as a reminder of how genuinely full of blood, sweat, and tears some of these all-too-often-dismissed film actually are. You may not consider every aspect while chuckling away, but after the end credits have rolled you may well look back on a number of cheap 'n' cheerful films you have enjoyed in a slightly different light.

Check this out if it plays anywhere near you, and I hope it eventually gets a decent release here in the UK. I know I'll be picking it up when I can. I just cross my fingers that it somehow comes with a complete cut of the actual Bat Monster movie, and maybe even the tease for a sequel.


If you liked this then you may want to pick up this R1 Roger Corman Collection.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Wanderers: The Quest Of The Demon Hunter (2017)

Like many others in the film industry, actor Armand Assante has now begun to star in a lot of films made in non-American locations that can, shall we say, get some better production value for the low budgets, and pad out a cheap supporting cast around one or two bigger names. That can lead to something as painfully awful as Diamond Cartel (a film so badly overdubbed that they even somehow made the late, great Peter O'Toole sound like Dick Van Dyke in his famous accent-mangling Mary Poppins role). But it can also lead to something as fun as this, a noisy mess of a film that succeeds because of an admirable attempt to mix some interesting ideas in with a succession of entertainingly silly sequences.

Assante plays Louis, a legendary demon hunter who is hired by Robert (Lior Ashkenazi) to investigate a notorious haunted house in Transylvania. Tha haunting part isn't all that hard to deal with, but a local evil spirit, Mara (Oana Marcu), proves to be a tougher challenge.

The first thing to note about this film is that when I say Assante is playing a legendary demon hunter I should specify that he is playing the role as if he was channelling Matthew McConaughey channelling mid-90s Pacino while giving his best impression of the character played by James Woods in Vampires. Sometimes that makes his lines of dialogue almost unintelligible, true, but it also pretty much guarantees that viewers will have fun every time he's onscreen.

The rest of the cast can't, and don't, come close to him but they all join in with the fun. Ashkenazi, Raluca Aprodu, Bae Jung-hwa, and Ho Jae Sun are part of the main group, Brank Djuric has a habit of popping up at just the right time, to amusing effect, and Marcu is genuinely superb as the main nemesis of Louis.

Director Dragos Buliga could have trimmed things here and there, removing some of the fat from the script by Octav Gheorghe, but the padding is understandable when you continually get the feeling that everyone involved was simply having a LOT of fun. Fun with the characters, fun with the ideas that were being explored, and fun just making a film that, for better or worse, is nothing like the majority of other supernatural fantasy movies you could end up watching.

Will most people enjoy this as much as I did? I'm not sure, although I doubt it. It has a certain cheesiness that forces you to choose, almost from the first scenes, whether or not you want to give it your time. I went along with it all, and am glad I did. I'm not sure that I would rush to rewatch it, but I'm damn sure that I would invest more time in a sequel.


Monday, 5 March 2018

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017)

Colin Farrell plays a surgeon named Steven Murphy. He seems to have the perfect life. A lovely wife (Anna, played by Nicole Kidman), a teenage daughter (Kim, played by Raffey Cassidy), and a younger son (Bob, played by Sunny Suljic). He also has a rather strange friendship with a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), and it's this relationship that starts to change things in his life, leading to a disturbing and thought-provoking third act.

Directed by Yorgo Lanthimos, who also co-wrote with his regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is yet another brilliant slice of cerebral oddness from the Greek provocateur. It's even more potentially divisive than his last film, the absolutely brilliant The Lobster, and a number of stylistic choices may aggravate viewers who aren't drawn in by the macabre central ideas that come to the fore as the narrative unfolds.

Farrell gives another fantastic performance (if he decides to work with Lanthimos every other year then I'll be very happy with that), as does everyone else involved, but the speaking style is very strange and almost as if these people are struggling to weigh up the impact of every word they speak, even in the most innocuous of sentences. Kidman, Cassidy, and Suljic all seem a bit more passive, although that's not necessarily the case as you see everyone struggle with the main choice forced upon them, and Keoghan is a wonderful mix of childishness and quiet intensity. Fans of Alicia Silverstone might be surprised by her small role, but I was just happy to see her in a film again, having not seen her in anything for many years (has she been in much lately?).

Less immediately appealing than his previous movie, Lanthimos consistently fills this film with characters who interact in a way that very rarely allows for any actual warmth and humanity. The behaviour is matched by the environment and shooting style, with the situation demanding a fair share of hospital shots, for example, and a detached and clinical camera. What we are shown, and how we are shown it, makes the experience much more voyeuristic and discomforting than many other movies from the past year.

If you have seen some of the previous films from Lanthimos then you will know, to a degree, what to expect here, although that doesn't mean that you will be guaranteed to like it. It has less dark humour than many of his other features, which makes it slightly less entertaining but no less intelligent and interesting. I recommend it to everyone, and I'll be just as happy to hear from the people who hated it as I will be to hear from those who share my own opinion.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Florida Project (2017)

The latest film from Sean Baker, directing once again from a script co-written with Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project is another chance to spend time with some American citizens that aren't often represented in the movies, and certainly don't get to be the lead characters.

The slight premise allows viewers to see what life is like for Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), as they spend their days in a Florida motel. Halley doesn't have much money, which really irks her when she wants to maintain a decent stock of cigarettes and drugs, and Moonee is often left to her own devices, getting up to all kinds of mischief without the fear of parental disapproval. And you also get Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the motel manager trying to run a business and look after some of his more troublesome guests (of which Halley is one).

There is a lot here that I can praise, not least of which is the fact that Baker consistently does a great job of representing the unrepresented. There are also very good performances from all involved. Vinaite and Prince work well together, with both impressively natural in their acting styles, Dafoe gives the kind of great, quieter, performance that I can't recall having seen from him in some time (although I may be forgetting some obvious recent examples), and there are also decent turns from Mela Murder, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik, and Edward Pagan, as well as anyone else who manages to grab a few moments of screentime.

The film also often looks gorgeous, really emphasising the juxtaposition of these lives being wasted under beautiful blue skies and a stones throw away from Walt Disney World. Viewers are shown squalid lives in an environment that most have only seen during a happy holiday season.

My main problem with The Florida Project ends up being the main characters themselves. Dafoe is superb, and arguably one of the nicest people you could have in a film like this. Unfortunately, Vinaite and Prince are portraying two of the most irritating people I have had to endure in a movie for some time. It's my own personal annoyance, and something that others may be able to overlook. There's no doubt that the people shown in this film are in a bad situation, but there's also no doubt that they seem to have given up on themselves and have decided to use their bad situation to excuse behaviour and attitudes that negatively impact on others around them. And it's that aspect of their personalities that rubs me the wrong way.

Many will disagree with me. They will say that the point of the film is to shine a spotlight on these people that we would usually avoid or ignore. I get that, which is why I appreciate the film more than I otherwise would. But I also get that people can be dealt a bad hand and drag themselves out of bed every day to face the world and reject the labels and stereotypes given to them by the rest of society. Those people won't always succeed, they may even never catch the break that they are working so hard for, but their story would, for me, make for a much better movie than this.

The Florida Project is better than Tangerine, and Baker and Bergoch also deserve a lot of praise for giving you such irritating characters and making you care even slightly by the time the surprisingly emotional final moments play out, but it's not a film I'll be rushing to revisit, or add to my own collection. I admired it, I appreciated it, but I'd never choose to watch it again.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Lodgers (2017)

Bryan O'Malley can do atmosphere. He proved that with the enjoyable Let Us Prey. And he proves it again with The Lodgers, a film literally dripping with wet and gloomy atmosphere in a number of memorable scenes. He's helped himself this time around by also casting a better selection of actors for the main roles. Sadly, this time around sees him hampered by a weak script and some strange choices made that allow the film to simultaneously feel as if it is revealing secrets and moving forward while at the same time not really showing us anything or going anywhere.

The plot revolves around twins named Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner), living in their family home in Ireland. It's one of those big houses in the middle of nowhere, of course, and Rachel and Edward have to abide by rules set out in a very simple rhyme. Those rules include not letting others into the house, staying together, and being in bed by midnight. Yes, as you can maybe guess, those rules end up being broken, leading the pair into danger.

With nice turns from Vega and Milner in the lead roles, the latter having to be almost permanently morose throughout, and solid supporting work from the likes of Eugene Simon, Moe Dunford, and David Bradley, The Lodgers is a horror film that has had obvious care taken with almost every aspect. It's a brooding mood movie, more akin to something like Crimson Peak than, for example, The Quiet Ones, and not just because of the period setting. This is old-fashioned gothic melodrama, something that was closely bubbling under the surface of Let Us Prey, and that seems to be what O'Malley prefers in his horror (no bad thing).

Unfortunately, all of the good work from the actors, and all of the atmosphere, is undone by a weak script from David Turpin. It looks to be a first feature from him, which makes sense. Turpin is so caught up in the moodiness and vague sense of creepiness here and there that he forgets to underpin the events with anything more tangible, even as he takes the time to create friction between our two main characters and the locals (with Dunford woefully underused as a potential threat, more's the pity).

And yet . . . The Lodgers isn't BAD. It's not a film trying to be overly pretentious, or even trying to peek out from below genre robes and show that it's not really a horror at all. It's just a decent tale undermined by some weak writing, which bodes well for the day that O'Malley finally matches up his talent with a talented cast and the right script for him. He keeps doing good work, and I know that he's creeping closer to giving us something great.


The Lodgers was supposed to be the second film on the opening night of FrightFest in Glasgow, but The Beast From The East put an end to that. It is, however, already available on US iTunes, for those who wish to check it out.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Ghost Stories (2017)

Ghost Stories is a live stage experience, written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, that I am saddened to have never experienced. It was supposed to be quite terrifying, and I do enjoy being scared witless. Thankfully, although I have no idea how closely this adaptation sticks to the source material, I now have this film version to help contribute to my underwear laundry bill.

Having heard Nyman discuss the long road from stage to screen for this project, it seemed clear to me that the story was one full of classic horror movie genre tropes that everyone knew couldn't just be transferred back from the stage. What was intense and terrifying in a live production would just feel hokey and cliched when placed onscreen. Thankfully, that didn't stop them working hard until we ended up with this, a film that feels both very traditional and yet also, somehow, fresh and lively.

Nyman stars as Professor Goodman, a debunker of supernatural phenomena who is asked to investigate three cases that are believed to offer absolute proof of another world around us. Those three cases involve Paul Whitehouse as a night watchman encountering spookiness in an abandoned building, Alex Lawther as a teenager who regrets the choice of route on his late-night drive home, and Martin Freeman as a businessman who claims to have felt an evil presence in his own home while his pregnant partner was hospitalised.

Yes, essentially a portmanteau film (once the prime stomping ground of Amicus back in the heyday of British horror cinema), Ghost Stories manages to break the problems often associated with those films - a weak link here and there, pacing issues, building and sustaining tension - by weaving details, some subtle and some more obvious, throughout each tale, as well as the material bookending the film.

I always tell people, if I am forced to choose, that my favourite type of horror movie is a zombie movie. Put a zombie in it and I will watch it. Which means I have watched a LOT of awful zombie movies. But the only type of horror movie to really affect me is a good ghost film, and Ghost Stories is certainly a good ghost film. After a fairly light start to the proceedings, the atmosphere starts to build, and the frights start happening, in a way that reminded me of that classic horror story all about the house where nobody had ever survived the night. You know the one? It's a creepy little tale that builds to something quite intense, and this is the cinematic equivalent of that, although there are a multitude of other influences and nods, from The Turn Of The Screw to The Signal-Man.

But for anyone wondering if this would be TOO literary or stagey, or sedate, fear not. There are plenty of jump scares, some very sudden and some coming along as the required pay off to sequences of sustained tension unlike any I can think of in modern horror cinema. There are also some images that will, to use the technical term, freak you the fuck out. And the dread, don't forget the dread. It's the atmosphere of dread that makes the film almost unbearable at times though, seeping through almost every frame once things get going and never letting viewers relax, despite the very occasional moments of humour that provide a fleeting respite.

The writing and direction from Dyson and Nyman is fantastic, which you would expect from the two men who would surely have been so close to this material for many years already, but the performers also deserve praise. Nyman has always been a great presence onscreen, and turns in yet another great performance, but Whitehouse gives the kind of everyman performance necessary to drag viewers swiftly into the first fully-fledged segment of terror, young Lawther adds another great turn to his impressive roster of credits, and Freeman manages to twist his usual perceived happy-go-lucky demeanour into something, well, rather different.

A brilliant, heady brew of the classic and the modern, Ghost Stories is to be applauded for the way it gives fans what they want, even if they didn't realise what they wanted. It's smart, it's steeped in the history of the genre, it's bloody audacious at times (in ways that some might balk at), it freely mixes stylistic touches in whatever way best serves the narrative, it keeps drawing together the main connective tissue on the way to "the grand finale", and it's one of the scariest films I have watched in years.

Highly recommended, and I'll be very impressed if we see a better horror movie this year.


Ghost Stories is probably a while away from shiny disc form, but keep your eyes peeled for it when it gets a wider release (in cinemas and then in stores).

Thursday, 1 March 2018

When We First Met (2018)

Noah (Adam Devine) falls in love with Avery (Alexandra Daddario), but  has to resign himself to the fact that although they had a great first date together, it ended with a hug and nothing else happened between them. She then met, and fell in love with, the perfect Ethan (Robbie Amell). It's been three years since that fateful time, and Avery and Ethan are getting engaged, which leads Noah to get horribly drunk and then encounter a magical photobooth that he once used with Avery, which takes him back to his first time meeting her. Can he change the outcome, and will he like what happens?

Having seen many people mention that this is a romcom riff on Groundhog Day, I can tell you that it's not. Not really. It's a romcom riff on The Butterfly Effect. There's a difference between the two. And that difference is big when it comes to how the film plays out, because When We First Met could have been a lot better than it is, and a lot funnier, if it was hewing closer to the former than the latter.

The cast don't help. As much as I like Devine, I don't think of him as the best choice for a rom-com lead, although he doesn't do too bad here. Daddario is also fine, but she's the sort of actress I can always imagine being bumped for any number of better actresses. Amell does well with his fairly limited role, and Shelley Hennig is decent enough as Carrie, Avery's roommate. It's just a shame that her character is twisted to put together a third act that doesn't feel in line with the rest of the film. Andrew Bachelor fairs a bit better, playing Noah's best friend, Max.

The script by John Whittington doesn't have much going for it beyond the potential fun of the central premise, which is squandered at almost every opportunity. This could have crammed in so many fun failures as Noah tried to change his life. We instead just get a few specific scenarios as Noah is rushed to his big life lesson. Director Ari Sandel doesn't do anything to improve upon the script, relying on the talents of his leads, which again makes it easier to reach the conclusion that there were probably better options than Devine and Daddario to put in the lead roles.

Despite the problems, When We First Met isn't actually a bad film. It's just an average film. There aren't enough laughs, you don't REALLY care that much about the characters, the time travel is fun but not used as well as it should be, and it's passable entertainment when it could have been something much more enjoyable.


As this is another Netflix film, you can avoid a link of me pimping out sales links here.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Death Of Stalin (2017)

People living under Josef Stalin didn't have an easy time of things, to put it mildly. He was a dictator who ruled with fear, forcing citizens to adore him and cater to his every whim. Anyone who opposed him, or his views, could end up on a list, spirited away in the middle of the night to be imprisoned and/or executed. His death led to a vacuum that needed filling immediately, while also giving everyone a chance to rewrite the recent narrative to play up their positive aspects in his regime while trying to downplay the negatives. And it's this turbulence, this almost farcical warping of the facts, that is looked at in a comedy that WILL make you laugh aloud without shying away from some of the nastier elements (e.g. some men are spared a bullet in the head as a change of order is delivered mid-way along the line, the difference between life and death being nothing more than a political tactic).

Based on a graphic novel, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it's easy to see why this material appealed to director Armando Iannucci (a sharp comedic commentator, arrguably best known nowadays for popping the bubble of British politics with The Thick Of It). Iannucci knows how hilarious it can be to observe the hoops that politicians will jump through to serve themselves while also trying to cling on to their elected positions. And he knows that those moments should all be weighed against just how the general public are affected. The scenario shown in The Death Of Stalin may be a bit extreme, but it's undeniable that politicians make life-affecting decisions every single day, sometimes with seemingly very little thought to the consequences.

Bringing all of these points to the screen, playing up the absurdity of certain moments while showing sudden threats and death, Iannucci has banded together with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows to adapt the screenplay by Nury. That's a talented pool of people right there, and their dialogue is handed over to a hugely talented cast.

Simon Russell Beale may not be on the main poster but he's the main character, Lavrenti Beria, the right hand man to Stalin and the one who has to do the most scheming to try changing his perceived image. He was the man who handed out the "death lists". Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is the other main figure trying to get himself into a better position, with Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) being the man stuck in the middle, replacing Stalin for the time being, despite not having any real thoughts of his own about the best way to move forward. Othe rmain figures include Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin's children (played by Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend).

You may have noticed that none of the actors above are Russian. I can't think of anyone who is. Certainly not Paddy Considine, Paul Whitehouse, Tom Brooke, Paul Chahidi, or any of the other supporting players are either. Olga Kurylenko is the closest, I guess, originating from Ukraine, and there are a few people in much smaller roles who seem native to the country, but that's about it. Which is fine. Iannucci has gone for the best actors, not the best Russian actors, and he hasn't made anyone put on dodgy accents that might make them sound silly. I assume, considering the reaction to the film from certain people in Russia who have commented on the content of it, that this may have been a film difficult to populate with an all-Russian cast. Nobody living there would want to fear a major backlash over their involvement here, which makes the approach from Iannucci sensible, and ultimately beneficial when it comes to the selling of the film.

Nobody puts in a bad performance and it's genuinely hard to pick a standout. I was going to praise the wonderful no-nonsense machismo of Isaacs (his appearance just over the halfway mark also standing out as a way to help the pacing of the film). Then I was going to praise Palin for tapping back into some of his golden comedic ability, especially considering he has been on both sides of such a dictatorial regime now. But Tambor made me laugh a hell of a lot, Buscemi was entertainingly determined to turn things around and not be kept on the back foot, and Beale was a great mix of weaselly charm and Machiavellian scheming at all times.

Darker than you might expect, or just as dark as it should be, The Death Of Stalin is a fantastic comedy aimed at adults, allowing Iannucci to once again chop off the heads of the arrogantly powerful with a gleaming sword of brilliant comedy. And one or two gags about a man wearing a corset.


Buy it here.
The graphic novel is available here.