Friday, 25 May 2018

There's Always Tomorrow (1955)

Although the treatment of the material shows the restraint and sensitive handling dictated by the era in which it was made, this Douglas Sirk movie is yet another timeless classic that focuses on love and infatuation, and shows how these things can be damaged or nurtured, depending on the circumstances.

Fred MacMurray plays Clifford Groves, a toymaker who is blessed with a lovely wife (Joan Bennett) and children who seem to be turning into fine young adults. Clifford is content, and his family are in that happy space which leads to them taking a lot of their situation for granted. Things start to change when Clifford reconnects with a childhood friend, Norma Miller Vale (Barbara Stanwyck), and it looks like our leading man could be heading down a slippery slope towards temptation, and the ruination of his marriage.

I don't care who you are, or how consistently blissful you have been in the main relationship of your life, There's Always Tomorrow resonates just as much today as it must have when first released back in the mid-1950s.

Sirk directs with his usual capable touch, working from a screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld (better known for TV fare that tends to focus on thrills and/or action), which was developed from a story by Ursula Parrot (previously made into a movie in 1934). Considering how effective the film is at showing how easily cracks can start to spread through a contented family household, I'd be interested to read the source material. There's no doubt that everyone involved does their part to sell the film but it's so full of little moments of truth that I have to assume the novel reads even better.

MacMurray is wonderful in a role that allows him to play a relatively average guy. He's not made out to be devastatingly handsome, nor is he shown to be any kind of ladies man. He's just quite a sweet, hard-working, man who takes umbrage at people casting aspersions on his friendship with a woman before starting to consider the other roads his life could take. Stanwyck is also very good, also not being sold as a beautiful seductress. Her appeal is based on her obvious affection for her friend, and a lifestyle that's a step or two removed from the everyday "humdrum" family life. William Reynolds and Gigi  Perreau play the older children who start to suspect the behaviour of their father, and Joan Bennett does a marvellous job in what could easily have been a thankless role. She's a loving, caring wife who just isn't always to schedule things in a way that gives her more time with her husband.

Unlike so many other films that have wandered through similar territory, there are no villains here, no easy moments for viewers to point to and really declare "aha, that is the cause". No, what you get here is a steady build up of sadness, perceived neglect, and a questioning of love: how much effort does it take, is chemistry any real alternative to a full life made together, and does finally considering loss make it easier to appreciate what you have? Things many of us go through at least once during a serious relationship.


This is NOT in this lovely set. But buy that set anyway.
Americans may wish to try out this disc, but there's a better UK version available here.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Written On The Wind (1956)

Another Douglas Sirk movie must mean another selection of simmering tensions and moments of heated drama, and that's exactly what you get with Written On The Wind.

The plot sees Rock Hudson and Robert Stack playing two good friends, Mitch and Kyle. Mitch is a decent and dependable guy, Robert . . . not so much. But Robert has the money, and has been used to passing blame along to his friend as he has encountered various problems over the years. Both men find themselves smitten with a young woman named Lucy (Lauren Bacall), and things really start to become problematic when she opts to marry Robert. Meanwhile, Robert's sister (Marylee, played by Dorothy Malone) despairs as she finds herself constantly spurned by Mitch.

First of all, Written On The Wind is a very good film. I have now seen about half a dozen Douglas Sirk movies and not had a bad experience yet. This ticks a lot of the same boxes as both Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. Yet it doesn't QUITE work as well as those films, mainly because it feels a bit more forced in the way that all of the characters are moved into place.

The script by George Zuckerman is fine, particularly when it comes to highlighting the damaging behaviours of some of the main characters while staying on just the right side of tastefulness (obviously essential for the box office prospects when it was first released). With a bit of harsh editing and streamlining it would be easy to imagine this as a very simple chamber piece but Zuckerman, and Sirk, try to open things up a bit to take in more of the local environment, and also the past lives of all involved.

I have to say that, until very recently, I was as unfamiliar with Hudson as I was with Sirk. Whether he was always such a dependable lead or whether Sirk brought out the best in him, he delivers yet another winning performance. Stack gets to deliver more histrionics than anyone else in the cast, which he does well, although it can be very hard to keep a straight face if you know him best (as I do) from his superb comedic turn in Airplane! Malone is both sweet and potentially dangerous, in a way that is obvious in almost every scene she has. The only weak link is Bacall, who doesn't do a bad job but just never really feels like the desirable, amazing, woman that she is obviously supposed to be, at least in the eyes of her male co-stars.

It's well-paced, with a portentous atmosphere throughout that makes the whole thing feel as if thunderstorm clouds are literally gathering over the heads of the leads, and fans of Sirk won't be disappointed. It just doesn't rank up there with his best, but that's more a comment on the consistent greatness of his filmography than any condemnation of this work.


This is, once again, an easy choice for shoppers.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Fall (2006)

There's a good idea at the heart of The Fall, but it's not an original one. In fact, it's an idea that has been done many times over, including in the 1981 film, Yo Ho Ho, that it's based on. It's all about the power of stories, the ability of fantasy to help us cope with our reality, and you would assume that director Tarsem Singh is just the right person to deal with that material. It turns out that he isn't.

The basic tale concerns a depressed hospital patient, a bed-bound stuntman (Roy, played by Lee Pace), who ends up whiling away some hours telling a fantastical tale - featuring warriors, bandits, and revenge - to a young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). As the two patients bond, Roy tries to trick his new friend into helping him with a planned suicide attempt, which leads to tension that bleeds into the story being told.

You cannot fault The Fall for the visuals, unsurprisingly enough. This thing looks consistently gorgeous when delving into the realm of the fantasy tale. It even looks fine when in the more drab reality that is framing the fantasy. It's just a shame that the script undermines all of that good work.

Written by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis, and Singh, the screenplay for The Fall veers between the disappointingly underdone and the borderline tedious, which is something I never thought I would experience with these ideas and this director at the helm. It feels as if he indulged his own excesses while writing the screenplay and then held back when it came to visualising everything, sadly, and the end result is much the worse for it.

Pace is decent enough in the lead role, and that's all the more impressive considering the fact that most of his scenes have him working opposite a child actress who is quite terrible for most of her screentime. I won't go on, mainly because I don't want to be accused of being unduly harsh, but let's just say that I spent a lot of time wishing that someone, anyone, else was in that central role. The rest of the cast are given very little to do, with Justine Waddell particularly wasted in her role, and it's almost saddening to watch them try their best when actually allowed.

It's impossible to watch this and not think of how things would have been handled by someone like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or any other director able to put their own stamp on unique visions. And that's why I end this review by encouraging fans of Tarsem Singh to revisit, and reappraise, The Cell instead. It's the much better option.


You can buy the film here.
Americans can buy it here.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Deadpool 2 (2018)

It's a running joke with people who know enough of my general movie opinions that I tend to be Mr 7/10. I can't really deny this, and yet I don't see anything too wrong with it either. Because, despite trying to see every movie that I can fit into my busy schedule, I will always tend to a) prioritise movies I think I am going to enjoy, and b) look for the good in any film I am watching. What the hell does this have to do with Deadpool 2, you may be wondering, apart from the obvious foreshadowing of exactly what my rating might be. Well, I rated the first Deadpool movie a 7/10 and felt the need to mention it here. It is, in a number of ways, a better film than this sequel, but it also had enough drawbacks to knock it down a few points. Not least among them was the fact that I'd seen the best sequence of the film in a rough version that was used to get the project support and traction, which it very much did.

Basically, you will know a lot of people who rate Deadpool higher than I did, but don't think that I disliked it. I laughed quite a lot. And I laughed quite a lot while watching Deadpool 2 (the biggest laughs involving some brilliant cameos and a mid-credit sequence that may well be the best superhero sting yet). It's a very good sequel . . . but it also has enough drawbacks to knock it down a few points.

Assuming you know the merc with the mouth, what's the story this time around? Well, DP (Ryan Reynolds again, of course) ends up trying to protect a young lad named Russell (Julian Dennison) from a time-travelling badass named Cable (Josh Brolin). There are still only a few X-Men allowed to join our (anti-)hero, budget allowing, but it's obvious that the success of the first film has made it possible to have even more fun this time around.

A lot of the main names return, with the notable exception of director Tim Miller, and that shows in the final product. This is a film that tells an interestingly different story from the first movie while maintaining a consistent tone and style, a "same but different" approach that is exemplified by the hilarious opening credit sequence. David Leitch is no stranger to the character, having directed the wonderful short film "No Good Deed" that showed Deadpool taking far too long to change costume while his help was needed, and he seems comfortable directing what we all know is essentially the chance for Ryan Reynolds to act like a kid in a candy store. If the kid was foul-mouthed and fast-talking and the candy store was full of dismembered limbs, drugs, and objects that could be used as improvised sex toys.

It goes without saying that Reynolds is superb again in the lead role, bagging all the best lines from the script (which he had a hand in, alongside Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick). Dennison gives another fantastic performance that has a number of nods to his previous star turn (in Hunt For The Wilderpeople) and Josh Brolin gives a "supervillain" performance that only comes second to the other main antagonist that he has portrayed recently. Karan Soni returns as taxi-driving Dopinder, Morena Baccarin is the love of Deadpool's life, Brianna Hildebrand still isn't allowed to smile much as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, and T. J. Miller manages to bag some of the better lines not being kept for Reynolds. Zazie Beetz is very enjoyable as a newcomer, Domino, with luck as her superpower, Eddie Marsan is enjoyably horrid, and there are some other people I won't mention because spoiler-free is the way to be.

You get the witty dialogue, another lively soundtrack, and some excellent action set-pieces, but it's interesting that Deadpool 2 falters when it slows things right down and attempts to show some proper emotional depth. It's interesting because it doesn't need to do that. There are some moments that work, judged perfectly between the comedic and the dark and the potentially cheesy, and some that really don't (the finale features a couple of them), but the fact is that the movie was doing a bloody good job before it started to show just how hard it was trying. Throughout most of the runtime, Deadpool 2 is an interesting look at personal responsibility and consequences, whether the actions are good or bad. It looks at cycles of violence and how the abused may damage themselves as they set out to damage their abusers, and there are times when it effortlessly does this better than any of the other superhero movies we have had over the past couple of decades (with the exception of Logan perhaps, ironically enough). But it doesn't do it in a way that interferes with the action or comedy . . . unlike some of the other emotional beats that are crammed in there.

Deadpool 2 - go along for the laughs, stay for the sheer entertainment, and leave while thinking about what they managed to slide inside you while you weren't even noticing (oo-er). Things may not feel as fresh this time around, inevitably, and there's a lack of REAL villainy, but I'm already looking forward to a third film. And everyone should try to see this one before some idiot blurts out some of the best gags.

Can you guess my rating?


Get it, when available, here.
Americans will be able to get it here.
Seriously, if you use either of those links, even to buy other stuff on Amazon, I get the pennies. Give me the pennies. All the pennies.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)

The action, the characters, the humour . . . how do you even begin to write a review of arguably the greatest, and most famous, Western ever made? Probably very, very badly. And it would certainly be superflous, compared to the many essays and tributes and articles already devoted to this masterpiece. But anyone who knows me already knows that I never let that stop me from adding my own witterings to the pile.

Clint Eastwood is the good, Lee Van Cleef is the bad, and Eli Wallach is tagged as ugly in this epic tale of bounty hunting, treachery, and a quest for a buried fortune. And that's all you need to know.

Although downright zippy compared to many other films from director Sergio Leone, this is another grandiose affair that allows the director plenty of moments to stretch out certain shots and scenes to almost unbearable degrees. It runs for just under 150 minutes, and if you're not grinning for at least 140 of them then I don't even know how to speak your language, because this is as rewarding and wonderful as cinema gets. It may not be sci-fi but you still feel transported to another world. It's live-action that sometimes feels wonderfully cartoonish. You get comedy, thrills, action, and some wonderful lines of dialogue alongside the standard Leone style of telling so much through actions and reactions. I tend not to mention the writers as much when reviewing Leone movies, because of how much is said without really being said, but the script here

Eastwood does some of his best work, as does the brilliant Wallach, while Lee Van Cleef seems to enjoy sinking his teeth into a role that is much more dastardly than his previous appearance in the trilogy. The supporting cast is bigger than in any of the previous films, but that doesn't mean there are many other central characters. This is all about our lead trio, even if we do also manage to get a fine, fleeting, turn from Luigi Pistilli.

And what would the lead performances and all of these gorgeous visuals be without an accompanying score from Ennio Morricone? They would still be gorgeous, no doubt, but Morricone's iconic music (can music be iconic? I am going to say yes) brings everything together with a score that is nigh on perfect. It doesn't matter how many times you hear it, "The Ecstasy Of Gold" should rightfully give you goosebumps, and that's only one section of a score that never puts a foot wrong.

For the artistry of it, and the themes explored, I only slightly prefer Once Upon A Time In The West, but I wouldn't argue with anyone who picks this as their favourite Western of all time. It is a classic, and a fitting swansong to one of the greatest cinematic trilogies ever made (and, yes, that even includes The Mighty Ducks).


I recommend buying this set.
Americans might want to try out this set.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

Clint Eastwood returns as a man with no name (who is, this time around, named Monco and is apparently not the same character from the first movie) and finds himself grudgingly teaming up with Lee Van Cleef as the pair of them, both bounty hunters, try to capture an infamous baddie and his unruly gang. The motive is money but there is more to it than that for Van Cleef's character and all will be revealed before a finale that will, inevitably, feature bullets under a boiling sun.

In the second instalment of the highly regarded "Dollars" trilogy we get all the same kind of fun we received the first time around plus a major bonus in the shape of Lee Van Cleef. The interplay between him and Eastwood provides a much more satisfying dynamic than we had the first time around. And the "hat duel" scene is both brilliantly entertaining and absolutely perfect in establishing the moral compass of both characters.

Also featuring another great score from Ennio Morricone, this is yet another treat for Sergio Leone fans, although most fans have surely seen the trilogy numerous times by now.

Where things fall down ever so slightly is in the pacing and the characterisation. The movie packs a fair bit in but somehow still feels like it's dragging in a few places, cramming more in than is needed and lacking that energetic economy that suffused the first movie. It also sacrifices any drama/tension for entertainment and, while this isn't always a bad thing here, it makes for a negative point as Eastwood and Van Cleef never seem in any real danger, especially during a finale that features some strange decisions by the main villain (Gian Maria Volonte, also returning, and also playing a different character than the one he played in the first film).  It's also fair to say that the lead characters are so thinly sketched that it requires some real effort on the viewer's part to continue to identify with them, archetypes of the "Old West" as they pretend to be, but that's how Leone works. He shows the essence of a man by how he shoots, how he reacts under duress, and what code of conduct he decides to live by.

Still, nobody really does lively, entertaining, sun-scorched, cheroot-chewing Westerns like Leone and this is another classic for many fans of the genre.

Can you guess what instalment I am going to attempt to write about tomorrow?


I recommend buying this set.
Americans might want to try out this set.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

A Fistful Of Dollars (1964)

In a tale familiar even to those who have not already seen this classic movie (based, as it is, on Yojimbo, which itself was based on previous material which has since been recycled and revamped in so many different incarnations that it's almost impossible to keep track . . . . . . if ONLY there was some kind of website to make things easier . . . hmmmmm), Clint Eastwood stars as the famous Man With No Name (although a couple of the characters call him Joe, and he is listed here as such) who rides into town and begins clearing up a big mess by making a bigger mess. he does this with great ingenuity and balls of steel, putting himself in between two warring families and playing one off against the other while pretending that his loyalties are beyond question.

Everything is present and correct here that would go on to be improved upon and made completely iconic in Sergio Leone's future movies: the camera moving in for those close-ups of the eyes, the dusky damsel in distress, the gruff and economic speech from Clint, the sharp-shooting and moments of intermittent brutality. From the very beginning, with some lively animation and the first sounds of the wonderful Ennio Morricone score, you just know that you're in for a treat.

Clint is quintessentially Clint in a role that (alongside Dirty Harry) firmly established an iconic image for him. He may not have everything perfected yet (there's still a freshness to him and a slight hamminess in his laid-back manner) but he gets it almost spot-on and, of course, would just get better and better with the trilogy. The rest of the cast? Well, I would be lying if I said they were all memorable and how much I adored each performance but they all do a very good job at playing, essentially, ducks ready to be shot in a barrel. The friendly barman and eager coffin-maker are definite highlights but nobody really disappoints, despite maybe not searing themselves onto your psyche.

With a grandiose landscape just hovering by the edge of every framed moment, this starting point for (arguably?) the greatest Western trilogy ever made actually impresses all the more thanks to its ability to overcome any limitations with a smart, economical approach. It's clear in the scripting, in the moments of action and in the general details that the resources were definitely limited but that in no way detracts from the fun to be had while Clint smokes cheroots and cleans up the town.

The only real negative points here are, as already mentioned, Clint's growth into the role, the mixture of baddies (some are great, some aren't), and a child who appears just enough to annoy in the first half of the movie and who wouldn't seem out of place wailing amidst any Manga cartoon. Which marks this movie down from perfection. Which, ironically, kind of makes it better while you tag along for the ride.


I recommend buying this set.
Americans might want to try out this set.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Gholam (2017)

Director Mitra Tabrizian, who also came up with the original idea and developed the script with writer Cyrus Massoudi, has crafted an impressive debut feature here, giving viewers a film that is part character study, part look at how people choose to embrace or reject their past and culture while making a new life in the UK, and part look at certain elements of PTSD.

Shahab Hosseini plays Gholam. There are other people who come in and out of his life but this is very much Gholam's story, and very much Hosseini's film. He works hard for little reward, seemingly content to pay some kind of self-imposed penance when it becomes clear that he could be making his situation more comfortable. He doesn't like to accept gifts that are offered to him, and they are offered often (in terms of free food/drink anyway), and he spends a lot of his time quietly observing the people around him, seeing the good in some people and the very bad in others.

As trite as it may sound, this is a film in which nothing seems to be happening while so much is said. Gholam is an interesting, and not unlikable, character, and seeing what he goes through on a daily basis is a fascinating snapshot, at times I am sure quite representative of what many people have gone through after giving themselves a fresh start here in Britain.

Hosseini is superb in the role. His inability to accept gifts or favours always comes across as an issue of pride rather than ingratitude, and his quiet way of observing and weighing up every situation is a constant, essential, part of who he is, encouraging viewers to also look closer at everyone around him. Tracie Bennett, Nasser Memarzia, Amerjit Deu, and Armin Karima also deserve to be mentioned, playing the main people who come in and out of Gholam's life in major or minor ways, and the actors playing some of the more loathsome characters should receive due credit for their performances.

It's perhaps not as clean or satisfying as some film fans might like but not every film is best presented in that way. This certainly benefits from the style. Everything is laid out from the opening scenes, and only the most optimistic viewer would expect everything to pan out nice and neatly.

Tabrizian is a name to keep an eye on, this is a film you should seek out, and I'll be looking forward to whatever she does next, as well as hopefully working through the extensive filmography of Shahab Hosseini.


There doesn't seem to be any disc release for Gholam yet so just treat yourself to a free trial at MUBI for now.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018)

I have just finished watching Deep Blue Sea 2 and I am already struggling to write this review, mainly because I have immediately forgotten everything that happened. That is not a comment that reflects my memory, even if I do have my occasional moments of forgetting where I placed my headphones that are still lodged at my ears. No, it's a comment on just how absolutely forgettable this film is. It's also quite dire, but just not in any memorable way.

You may disagree with me, I cannot even recall the general consensus at this point, but Deep Blue Sea was/is an excellent shark movie. It was Renny Harlin before he went off the boil, and he had a hell of a run, it was a decent enough cast, and it had that great idea of sharks coming in to an indoor environment.

Which makes this sequel, really just an inferior retread, all the more disappointing. They even directly lift a number of moments from the first film, all of them done far less effectively.

Danielle Savre plays Misty Calhoun, a shark expert taken along with some other people to a base in the middle of the sea that is doing some important science stuff with sharks. The experiments are continuing thanks to an amoral rich guy named Carl Durant (Michael Beach) and it's not long until things go wrong, prompting the rich guy to become more and more outright evil as he attempts to save face, and his own skin.

Director Darin Scott already has a number of features under his belt, a number of them TV movies, but you wouldn't know it from this amateurish effort. Okay, to be fair, there's a very basic degree of competence here, overshadowed by the weak script (by Erik Patterson, Hans Rodionoff, and Jessica Scott - who all clearly just watched the first film and then set out to make it worse, and cheaper), but it's nowhere near the level that it should be. I'm used to watching cheap shark films with dodgy CGI, and I have been spoiled recently with some great shark films that have excellent effects in them. This sits somewhere in the middle. Some of the FX work is decent enough but too many moments just feel rushed and lacking, especially when being displayed in the scenes that should be highlights.

I started this review by mentioning how forgettable the film is and that is emphasised by the cast, none of whom make any impression whatsoever, good or bad. Savre is left adrift, no pun intended, while Beach is given a character so one-note that you're just waiting for him to meet his obvious fate. As for everyone else? Nope. I couldn't even pick them out of a line-up right now. Which might work in their favour when they move on to future projects.

When an entire movie manages to be more wooden and boring than the performance from Saffron Burrows in Deep Blue Sea then you know that's not a good thing. This is definitely one to avoid.


Available on various streaming services, here is the DVD for American shark fans.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Utilising a lot of the same cast members and the same essence of pure melodrama as Magnificent Obsession, from the previous year, Douglas Sirk delivers yet another wonderful tale of love, pain, and social etiquette with All That Heaven Allows.

Jane Wyman plays Cary Scott, a widow, who ends up falling in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a gardener who doesn't seem to care about the same things as everyone else does. After a tentative start, both prepare to present themselves to Cary's adult children and her upper-class friends. Her children are immediately resentful, worrying about the loss of their family home and how their mother will be viewed. As for Cary's "friends", very few seem pleased with her choice.

Based upon a story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee, Peg Fenwick has crafted a script that easily sells the love between the two leads before starting to pile up the obstacles, and does so with a constant feeling of melancholy as opposed to misery, although that comes through more in the third act, thanks to the more pointed moments. Whatever is happening, be it happier times or despair, it all feels earned, thanks to the script and performances.

Hudson and Wyman are wonderful, and very easy to root for, and there are solid supporting turns from Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Nagel, Gloria Talbott and William Reynolds (as the daughter and son, respectively, of Cary), and Jacqueline deWit, particularly enjoyable as the nosiest and most gossipy member of the local community.

But this is a Sirk film before anything else, aided by gorgeous cinematography from Russell Metty and some more lovely music from Frank Skinner. It allows him to do what he does best, painting his tale with a gorgeous selection of colours and never once worrying about taking things too far in his attempts to wring every ounce of emotion or drama from a scene.

Much like his other films, viewers can easily decide to close themselves off to the pleasures of All That Heaven Allows. The cynical can see the strings being pulled, the film fan will already know how things are going to play out, and there's at least one too many convenient plot points. But to deny yourself the sheer pleasure of a Sirk melodrama is to deny the beauty and vibrancy that he gives to what should really be TV movie fare. And that is your loss.


This is another one available in this lovely set.
Americans have that Criterion edition available.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Once Upon A Time In The West is, for me, the greatest Western of all time. It's better than anything else out there, including the masterful "Dollars" trilogy, also from Sergio Leone (as if you didn't know). It's not without problems, in terms of both pacing and attitudes towards certain characters, but the sheer scope of the film and grandiosity of it all is enough to keep me in love with this film forever.

The simple core of the story is about a Harmonica-playing man (Charles Bronson) who comes to a small town, intent on meeting up with a villain named Frank (Henry Fonda). He gets involved with a recently-widowed woman (Claudia Cardinale) who is of great interest to Frank, and the villainy and treachery of the plot also brings a charismatic criminal ('Cheyenne', played by Jason Robards) into the mix. There's more to it than that, however, and the script takes time to explore the progress of industry changing the types of crimes being committed, viewing the heroes and villains as archetypes on the very brink of extinction, something that can be viewed as good or bad, depending on how romanticised your view is.

Leone often makes me feel hypocritical. There are so many times when I view a movie and complain that a little editing wouldn't have gone amiss. I never think that with Leone movies, and this is the film to really test the patience of viewers who want fists and bullets flying throughout their Westerns. It's slow, to say the least. And I can understand people who find it interminably so. This is a film I urge everyone to see, yet it's not one I could recommend to anyone. Give it your time though, just once, and see how you feel. It's just under three hours in length, and feels longer to many people, but if you end up loving it as I do then you won't be bothered by the runtime at all.

Based on a story by Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, and Leone, the screenplay (co-written by Leone and Sergio Donati) is typically sparse. Which isn't to say that the dialogue is unimportant. Almost every line is essential, revealing something about the speaker, or allowing for some amusingly playful interactions, especially whenever Robards is onscreen. There's so much here to dig into that my small review won't begin to do it all justice.

The score by Ennio Morricone is as wonderful as any of his other works. Each main character has their own "theme", the harmonica tune becomes especially poignant when the backstory is revealed, and things really step up a notch just in time for the finale that viewers are waiting for.

As a side note, this was my first time seeing Once Upon A Time In The West and I HIGHLY recommend the experience. Whether it was seeing a huge steam engine roll into shot or watching a massive side shot of Charles Bronson moving into the screen while the bombastic score signifies the beginning of the end, this was a viewing experience I'll never forget.

Everyone does well in their main roles. This was the film that finally showed me why so many people consider Bronson an iconic star, and he is. Claudia Cardinale is gorgeous and spirited, Robards steals almost every scene he is in, and Fonda is one of the great screen villains, an absolute bastard who viewers want to see get his just desserts from his very first scene. And there are some fun supporting turns from Gabriele Ferzetti, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, and Jack Elam and Woody Strode.

I can see why people have problems with this film. I can see why some will never like it. But cinema is a medium for the moving image and, by god, did Leone say more with visuals alone than almost any other non-silent director I can think of. If I was more academically-minded then this review would be the first in a series of essays exploring all of the choices made. But I am not. I am just a big fan who still gets goosebumps when I bask in the glow of a film that is THIS good.


I have, and love, this disc.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Fun Mom Dinner (2017)

I am trying to figure out why I disliked Fun Mom Dinner so much. It's not that it isn't funny enough for a comedy, although it isn't. It's not that the cast are largely wasted, although they are. And it's certainly not that the whole thing ambles along towards a hugely predictable third act, although it does. I think it is all of these things and more. Mainly, it feels like someone saw the success of Bad Moms and tried to copy that "formula", and they failed.

The plot revolves around four mothers. They are stuck-in-a-rut Emily (Katie Aselton), single oversharer Jamie (Molly Shannon), grumpy Kate (Toni Collette), and a woman who can be relied on to run everything with military precision when need be, named Melanie (Bridget Everett). They all end up on a big night out while their kids are being looked after, drink flows, weed is smoked, and confessions are delivered in ways that allow the women to view each other in a different light. Basically. There are a few sub-plots (one involving two of the hubbies - Adam Scott and Rob Huebel - who are watching the kids, one involving a barman - Adam Levine - who takes a liking to Emily, and one involving a sweet guy played by Paul Rust) but they all feel clumsily inserted, and all continue to serve the lessons being learned about mothers still being women too.

Director Alethea Jones doesn't really do much wrong here, in terms of the technical stuff. The pacing is fine, the camera points in the right direction, and there are a couple of familiar pop hits in the soundtrack (although one of the better songs is used for a godawful karaoke scene). One of the biggest problems that the film has is the cast.

It's not that Aselton is bad, she's just not a very appealing lead. She is far too bland to bother about, as is the character she plays. Collette deserves much better than the material she's given here, as does the usually wonderful Shannon. Everett gets some of the best moments, and she fares the best out of the central quartet, perhaps because I wasn't familiar with her before this. Strangely, the male cast members fare a lot better, with Scott and Huebel a lot of fun, and Levine and Rust both managing to come across as nice guys with different ways of connecting with the women.

Which brings us to the other big problem here. The script. Written by Julie Rudd (and at least her husband, Paul, stops by to steal one scene), there just isn't enough here that works, largely due to the lack of decent laughs. The rest of the problems would be easier to forgive if the film remembered that it was a comedy. Almost every mainstream comedy has the standard chain of events leading to the group bonding, the pop music to either bring joy to the main characters or accompany a fun montage, and a clash of two very different demographics (as in the scene in which these mothers inadvertently crash a teen party). Those things are all fine and enjoyable enough, if done well.

Sure, if you find this available for free then you may want to give it a watch. But I am willing to bet that by the time the end credits roll you just wish that you'd rewatched Bad Moms. Not that this film was ever aiming to be that film, I can imagine someone telling me, . . . but we all know that it was.


Here's a disc available in America, if you really want it.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Week Of (2018)

Okay, first of all, I KNOW a lot of people reading this have already made up their minds about The Week Of. It's a comedy film released on Netflix that stars Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. People will be expecting some wedding shenanigans draped around a plot that feels more like Grown Ups 3. Or they'll be expecting arguments and comedy between Sandler and Rock. Sandler will do a funny voice, he'll do his angry shouty thing, he'll be an average Joe with a ridiculously hot lady in his life and his well-intentioned mishaps will work out well for everyone involved.

Now, hold that thought. Let me run through the very basic plot and we'll come back to this. I promise.

Sandler is Kenny Lustig, the father of a young woman who is about to get married. The young man she is marrying has a rich father (Kirby Cordice, played by Rock) but Sandler wants to assume the usual duties and responsibilities that go with being the father of the bride. Which suits Rock, for the most part, because he's been largely absent from any family duties for a long time. He's a successful surgeon who spends way more time in the company of beautiful women than in the company of his family members. Things start to go wrong, as you may have guessed, and Sandler ends up with pretty much everyone staying in his home on the run up to the big day.

I understand, I do, nothing that I just said in the last paragraph has changed your mind on this one. If anything, I have just reinforced the image of this as a typical Sandler vehicle. And it is a typical Sandler vehicle, in some ways. It's predictable, it allows his flaws to be a positive part of his character, and there are scenes in which he gets shouty and angry.

But in many other ways it's a bit different from the many other Sandler movies we have had throughout the past couple of decades. First of all, the shouty angry moments are behind closed doors, a running joke about Sandler and his wife (played by Rachel Dratch) having brief, big arguments and then coming out to smile at the family and get on with their business. Second, Sandler has a normal-ish family here, and his wife is Rachel Dratch, a pleasant change from him trying to date Drew Barrymore or Jennifer Aniston or any of the other women he has paired himself up with. Third, there are no silly voices and few of the expected gags based around the "oh, boys will be boys" attitude that has permeated almost every other big Sandler comedy. There ARE one or two moments that come close to that (including a stag night sequence) but, overall, this is a film about a dad struggling to make everything perfect for his daughter's big day.

The rest of the cast don't make much of an impression, with the exception of Steve Buscemi, who steals the few scenes that he's in, but the leads are all doing very good work. Dratch and Sandler are a great couple, and very believable together, while Rock has to swan in, be a bit of an ass, and eventually maybe see the error of his ways. Job done.

Director Robert Smigel, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Sandler, does well as the setbacks start to pile up while the wedding day looms ever closer. Minor problems turn into major problems and solutions come and go frequently to ensure that Sandler is never below a very high level of stress. There are even a couple of big laughs, one involving a relative with no legs being taken to the bathroom and one involving Sandler being unable to keep track of the soon-to-be-family members living in his home.

I am going to bravely recommend this film, even to those who tend to hate Sandler. It's not brilliant, it still has him in the lead role (which may be enough to make some viewers unhappy), but both the film and it's star are a lot better than you might expect.


It's on Netflix so, y'know, no wares to be sold here.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Singularity (2017)

There are two ways to view Singularity, funnily enough. On the one hand, it's an uninspired and unoriginal slice of sci-fi that focuses on the development of sophisticated A.I. On the other hand, it's yet another nail in the coffin of John Cusack's film career, an actor who can no longer seem to appear in anything without looking either completely bored or like he's forgotten how to actually do the main thing that has paid his bills for decades.

The actual story is . . . well, it's really dull. Cusack is a powerful CEO who introduces his latest creation to the world, Kronos. Kronos is designed to end all wars and protect the planet from threat, and it then decides that all humans are the biggest threat. Moving forward a number of years, we then journey along with a young man named Andrew (Julian Schaffner) and a young woman named Calia (Jeannine Wacker). Calia is quite wary and wonders about Andrew, but does she have good reason to?

Written and directed by Robert Kouba (from a story he shaped with Sebastian Cepeda), this is a film that feels like the work of a first-timer and, lo and behold, it is. Kouba has a number of shorts to his credit, but no features, from what I can see. He obviously had faith in the idea at the centre of Singularity and it's no surprise that he couldn't really see all of the big mistakes he was making along the way, either because he was too close to the work or because he lost track as one compromise was made after another. What IS surprising is how he convinced enough people to get on board with what must have been, I can only imagine, a flimsy pitch. Because there's nothing much here, despite Kouba attempting to fill the runtime with unnecessary moments to make you think that smart sci-fi is being served up.

I've already mentioned the rigor mortis that has almost completely taken over John Cusack, but that wouldn't be so bad if the leads were better. Let's face it, Cusack isn't given much screentime here and received his pay for a day of work that would allow Kouba to use his name. Unfortunately, the leads aren't all that good either. Wacker is the better of the two, and she tries her hardest with the weak script, but Schaffner is just poor, and there's a supporting role for Carmen Argenziano that doesn't show his skills off in a good light either.

There are a lot of good sci-fi movies out there, many of them from the past decade. Some have a lot of money poured into them, some don't. Scour the shelves of whatever virtual "video store" you use nowadays and pick a few, the chances are that you'll have something better than this one. This is awful, despite a level of technical competence that lifts it from the very bottom of the barrel.


Americans can punish themselves by buying this disc.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Ghosthunters (2016)

Here's the bad news, for some of you anyway. This is another horror movie from The Asylum. It's not bad news for me though. As most people who know me will already know, I have a bit of a soft spot for The Asylum. They have certainly given me some stinkers to endure (and one of their movies was the very first that I gave a deserved 1/10 to) but I tend to find most of their output fairly painless, sometimes easy to laugh at, and sometimes even genuinely entertaining.

Ghosthunters comes close to breaking into the last category. Close, but not close enough. It's all about, as if you couldn't guess, a group of people who spend time in a house trying to hunt some ghosts. One member of the group, Neal (David O'Donnell), has created a device that can capture ghosts and contain their ectoplasm. Another group member, Henry (Stephen Manley), is more motivated than usual as he seeks to free the souls of his murdered wife and daughter.

There are one or two plot twists here that are incredibly silly, and also unnecessary, but Ghosthunters works quite well in a number of scenes. This is The Asylum showing that they can work in similar territory as James Wan and co. and horror fans should be kept relatively entertained by a number of decent, if predictable, scares.

Writer-director Pearry Reginald Teo may not have perfected the art of crafting a good horror script so it's good to know that he at least has a grasp on how to execute the scares, even if they are quite simplistic. They're jump scares that won't make hardened genre veterans jump, which doesn't make them any less enjoyable while the film is trying its hardest.

The cast don't do anything to elevate the script, sadly, and range from the eminently forgettable to the borderline terrible. O'Donnell isn't too bad, nor is Francesca Santoro (playing Amy, another group member), but Manley is a bit too jittery and over the top, and Liz Fenning and Crystal Web feel like their moments could have been combined to make one character.

I still enjoyed this, despite the many mistakes made, but I know that I am often more forgiving than many other viewers. I'd still say that it's worth your time though. A bit of reshuffling of the plot, some tweaking of the script, and perhaps a few more simple scares, and this could have been a genuinely good ghost flick. But then it wouldn't have felt like something from The Asylum, so maybe it's all for the best.


The DVD is available here.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Hide And Go Shriek (1988)

Hide And Go Shriek is a late entry from the golden age of the slasher film. It's so late, in fact, that I don't think you can even place it in the actual years that slasher scholars would use in any study of the peak years for fans of the subgenre. This was released in 1988. 1988. I don't know what audiences made of it at the time, although I don't think it became a firm favourite for anyone, but it's a fun film to revisit nowadays and place alongside many of the older, better films of this kind.

The basic plot involves a bunch of youngsters celebrating their high school graduation by spending the night in a furniture store (the store is owned by the father of one of the main characters). These wild 'n' crazy kids want to play pranks on one another, indulge in some half-hearted hide and seek, and pair off for bouts of sex, of course, but a killer in the store wants to spoil their plans.

Although it comes in at the standard runtime for this kind of fare (90 minutes), Hide And Go Shriek feels overlong and far too drawn out in places, mainly during the opening third of the film. Writer Michael Kelly's script doesn't pace things well, doesn't give us enough unique characters to have fun with (a common enough fault with slasher movies, allowing everyone to be a potential victim without upsetting viewers too much), and there are at least three false scares in the first twenty minutes alone, which I found REALLY annoying.

Director Skip Schoolnik doesn't do anything to help either. The death scenes aren't as bloody or memorable as they could be, with one major sequence as downright irritating as it is predictable, and it's another film in which people try to cover up the low budget with poor editing choices and low lighting levels. That doesn't work. That hardly ever works.

I wish I could highlight a few of the cast members for reasons that don't seem so shallow but I can't. Instead, I have to comment on how annoying Brittain Frye is in the role of Randy, the "whacky" joker of the group, and mention that I liked Annette Sinclair and Donna Baltron because I simply found them the most appealing. Jeff Levine and Scott Kubay do well in their small, but vital, roles.

The first half of Hide And Go Shriek had me thinking that I was going to dismiss the film as one to be avoided. Thankfully, the second half is a bit more interesting. There's a final group, as opposed to a final girl, and motivation for the killer that manages to feel strange and unique without coming across as laughable (despite some overacting in the final reel). And I loved the final shot.


Pick it up on shiny disc here.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Colossus Of Rhodes (1961)

After learning his craft on a variety of film projects through the years, director Sergio Leone made his feature debut with this historical epic, an overlong and overcooked drama that keeps the viewer onside with a likable lead, decent pacing, and some enjoyable action set-pieces. And there's a big statue looming over everything, as you may have guessed, which features in a couple of the best set-pieces.

Rory Calhoun plays Dario, an Athenian war hero who visits the island of Rhodes just in time to see the official ceremony marking the completed construction of the Colossus Of Rhodes, a huge statue that the ruler of Rhodes believes will protect the island and his people. He doesn't realise that there are already enemies in the crowds around him, all of them engaged in a plot that Dario will soon find himself caught up in.

It may be a step removed from the Westerns that would secure his name in the history books of cinema, but The Colossus Of Rhodes is a fun adventure that still manages to hint at what Leone would give us in his future movies. A lot of the stunts seem quite fearless, there are a number of great performances from the supporting players, and the plot essentially revolves around a lot of locals relying on an outsider to save them from lots of ruthless criminals.

It took seven people to craft the screenplay, apparently, and I am not going to list all of their names here but the end result is good enough. There's nothing particularly memorable when it comes to the dialogue, although one or two exchanges are wryly amusing, but it works very well at setting up the characters and showing the developing scheming and treachery. It's just a shame that all of those people couldn't figure out a way to prune the film down to a more reasonable runtime; there's no way this needs to be over two hours long.

I've already mentioned the likability of Calhoun in the lead role, George Rigaud is also very likable as the uncle that he is visiting, Lea Massari is a Rhodesian beauty, and Conrado San Martin, looking not entirely unlike Will Patton after an accident involving too much black hair dye, is an enjoyably slimy villain. Others acting under the shadow of the great statue include Georges Marchal, Mabel Karr, Felix Fernandez, and Roberto Camardiel, to name but a few.

It may be a bit of an anomaly compared to the other movies we got from Sergio Leone, but The Colossus Of Rhodes is a fun time for those who know what they are letting themselves in for.


There's quite an expensive DVD available here.
Americans, or those who can play R1 discs, have a cheaper option here.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

To my knowledge, this is only the second Douglas Sirk film that I have seen, and my first was just last week (All I Desire - wonderful stuff). But it's possibly the film that he is best known for, even if it's only being described by people who keep forgetting what the actual title is.

And here's the description for you. Rock Hudson plays Bob Merrick, a selfish, rich playboy who has his life saved by an unselfish doctor. The doctor dies, which leads to Bob trying to assuage his guilty conscience by offering to pay a large amount to his widow, Helen (Jane Wyman). That's not the way to make amends, of course, and things only go from bad to worse. Bob cannot figure out just how he is supposed to lead a better life, Helen is blinded in an accident, and . . . . well, I won't detail the rest of the plot, despite it being so well known to so many people. Suffice to say, it's absolutely preposterous stuff from start to finish.

It's also quite wonderful. I don't know why this worked for me as well as it did, but it REALLY did. All I can suggest is that perhaps the earnest nature of the performers in every scene made it all so much easier to swallow, coupled with the fact that I wanted to go along on this journey of romance and melodrama.

Based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the script is mainly credited to Robert Blees and Wells Root, and both of them move the narrative forward with great gusto, helped immensely by the obvious charms of Hudson and Wyman, both irresistible screen presences (yes, even when the former is being a selfish asshat during the earlier scenes). And Hudson and Wyman are in turn helped by a supporting cast that includes Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead, Otto Kruger, and more.

Sirk looks after everything with a steady hand, often livening up some of the quieter scenes with his usual eye for beautiful, vibrant colours and working well with the script to carry viewers more gently from one step to the next as the more ridiculous plot elements start to fall into place.

It will be all too easy for viewers to go into this and just hate-watch the whole thing from start to finish. If the content puts you off, you probably won't even appreciate the lovely imagery that crops up, the music, the performances, and all of the other technical expertise on display. I implore you to just give in to the magic of it all. You could end up loving it as much as me.


Pick up this lovely set here.
Americans can get a Criterion edition here.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Downrange (2017)

Director Ryûhei Kitamura has been entertaining horror movie fans for a good few years now, and that's not going to change any time soon, if Downrange is anything to go by. It's an enjoyable, implausible, thriller with some top-notch gore moments that will impress gorehounds and fans of drawn-out tension.

Here's the premise - a group of young adults blow out a tyre during their car journey. They get out to check over the car, find out that the accident wasn't an accident, and then someone gets shot through the face. The bullets keep flying as the stranded travellers quickly realise that they are being picked off by a sniper. 

I can't really say, hand on heart, that Downrange gets everything right. Not by a long shot (no pun intended, but you know I grinned when I thought about typing that out). The script, by Joey O'Bryan and Kitamura, is very slight, in terms of both plotting and characterisation, and that subsequently leaves the cast hanging out to dry.

And the cast all do decidedly okay with the little they're given to work with. I'll namecheck them here; Kelly Connaire (what a wonderful world we live in when people are named after Nicolas Cage movies), Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew, Alexa Yeames, and Jason Tobias. Unfortunately, nobody is given enough material to make them stand out. I didn't dislike any of the individual characters onscreen, but I couldn't tell you right now who was who. 

The upside of such weak characterisation is that Downrange is harder to predict, at times, than it otherwise might have been. Anyone can take a bullet at any time, there aren't even any clues about the motivation or any perceived order of the kills. It's a shame that this level of unpredictability can't last all the way through to the finale.

There are other mis-steps throughout, such as a moment with some local wildlife that doesn't feel like anything more than an extra contrivance shoehorned into a film already based on quite a contrived scenario, but Kitamura manages to keep you distracted for most of the 90-minute runtime. There are just enough potential victims, the pacing is perfect, and that predictable finale still manages to be a lot of fun.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Aj Zombies! (2017)

We've seen it before, and I won't do this film a disservice by naming the most obvious modern horror comedy it seems to resemble, but Aj Zombies! is still a lot of fun, making up for a lack of originality with a core group of fun characters and some solid laughs.

Emilram Cossio stars as Felipe, not one of life's winners. His mother works for the family of Claudia (Anahi de Cardenas), a lovely young woman who barely notices him, and it's when he goes to visit her at her place of work that Felipe and Claudia both realise that there's been an outbreak of zombiefication. They stick together in an attempt to stay alive, soon joined by an oblivious drunk (Miguel Iza) and a security guard (Cesar Ritter).

Adapted from a web series of the same name, although I am unfamiliar with it, director Daniel Martin Rodriguez does very good work with the script by Pablo Carrillo, Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco and Bruno Rosina, a script that touches on some fun ideas without ever hammering you over the head with them. The opening scenes alone show the size of the class/economic divide in Peru, the isolation of individuals who spend their times on their mobile phones, and how the zombie epidemic can easily start to grow before people even realise what is happening.

The pacing is almost perfect, with a few smaller set-pieces intersperesed throughout the character moments and interplay, but gorehounds may be a bit disappointed by the lack of any serious amounts of grue (although there are a couple of decent moments).

It's the leads that help make this more memorable, however, and Iza should be singled out for his constantly hilarious drunkard, either making sure that he has his alcohol to hand or sometimes breaking out into a random musical moment. Ritter provides some big laughs too, and Cossio and De Cardenas both become more rounded and sweet characters in comparison to their new companions, making the journey more satisfying, and tense.

There are now, I believe, approximately 1,053 zombie comedies out there for you to choose from. This is one of the better ones, thanks to the characters, the Peruvian setting, and a finale that feels appropriate while also maintaining the balance of comedy and zombie threat.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Mon Mon Mon Monsters (2017)

Written and directed by Giddens Ko, Mon Mon Mon Monsters is, on the one hand, an enjoyable yarn about some schoolkids who catch themselves a monster. Then again, on the other hand, it's a look at bullying and the cycle that often plays out when someone who is bullied finds a weaker individual to bully in turn. Unfortunately, on the . . . third hand, it's also a film that moves so abruptly between tones and unearned moments which viewers are supposed to care about that it ends up a rather unsatisfying viewing experience.

Deng Yu-kai stars as Lin Shu-wei, a schoolboy who has been bullied and also set up to look as if he stole money that was intended for use by the whole class. He is then given a mild version of "community service" - feeding the elderly - and is made to endure this alongside the group of bullies who have been making his life hell. As they all start to make fun of the elderly, Shu-wei feels as if he may be accepted, and no longer a victim. But it is only a temporary reprieve. Maybe things can become more permanent when the teenagers grab a monster, keeping it tied to a pillar while they come up with various ways to torture and investigate it. But the monster is just a child, and not alone.

There are various aspects of Mon Mon Mon Monsters that I enjoyed. The acting from the largely young cast is all very good (as well as Yu-kai, Bonnie Liang is very good as the one female member of the group of bullies, Carolyn Chen is excellent as an unhelpful teacher, and Kent Tsai is very good as the leader of his little gang, JUST smart and cool and menacing enough to push others into behaving in ways they otherwise might not). The performers bringing the creatures to life are also very good (especially Eugenie Liu as the adult monster). And there are a number of good ideas throughout the script, some mined more effectively than others. I can't even really complain about the direction from Ko. It's generally good, and one or two key sequences tower over the rest of the film, both of them involving the main female characters.

What I have most trouble with, and what drags the film so far down for me, is the rhythm of the film itself and the lack of any main character to truly root for. One small scene, showing a character being absolutely horrible to a disabled shop worker, turned the whole film so mean-spirited, with no obvious redemption coming along quickly enough, that I was then put off for the rest of the runtime. There was also a finale that had no real stakes, because I'd given up caring for any of the characters by that point, and a punchline that felt as fun as it was completely pointless.

It's a shame that Mon Mon Mon Monsters makes such big mis-steps. There's a great idea at the heart of the whole thing, and one or two minor tweaks would have been enough to turn this into something much more enjoyable. Then again, a lot of people have already enjoyed this more than I did so maybe I am just plain wrong. Again.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Trench 11 (2017)

We know that war is hell, of course, which makes it surprising that we don't have even more horror movies set during wartime. There are some, ranging from the flawed brilliance of The Keep to the entertaining lunacy of Frankenstein's Army, and you can include films as varied as Twilight Zone: The Movie, Jacob's Ladder, and Iron Sky, but they remain a very small percentage of the horror genre (not counting the multitude of SS/war torture exploitation flicks), and the truly effective war horrors are even rarer.

I am saying all this because Trench 11 is a horror movie set during wartime, and it happens to be a very good one.

The plot revolves around a plan to explore and destroy the titular trench. It will take a small team, and they will all be relying on the expertise of a tunneler named Berton (Rossif Sutherland), but nobody is prepared for what they find underground; the dangerous results of experiments into biological weaponry by the Germans.

Directed by Leo Scherman, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Booi, this is a very enjoyable mix of subterranean claustrophobia, classic evil German villains (not Nazis, but close enough), and squirmy, squishy, body horror. It manages to be different from all of the films already mentioned above, while also managing to hit one or two familiar beats for this subgenre.

The cast all do a good job, and they ARE given enough moments to show some personality before everything starts to go to hell in a hand grenade, but it always feels like Sutherland's movie, allowing him the biggest share of the screentime as his nervous hero remains determined to get the job done as quickly as possible and then get the hell out of the trench. Matching our lead hero is Robert Stadlober as the main villain. His character, Reiser, is someone who views the chais and pain and death around him as a success. It shows that the biological weapon works even better than they could have dreamed.

Another big plus for the film is that is refreshingly unpretentious. This is not a film that wants to pile multiple layers on and ask us to delve into the dark psyche of shellshocked soldiers. It throws us into a very terrifying environment with the characters, it adds more and more horror around every dark corner or metal door, and it ultimately provides superior entertainment for genre fans.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Knuckleball (2018)

If I start this review of Knuckleball by immediately telling you what I liked most about it then you may be waiting for a "but" coming. But there is no "but" coming. There is more than one "but" coming. All for the sake of me trying to not be predictable, and failing spectacularly.

So let me tell you what I liked about this simple, streamlined thriller from director Michael Peterson (who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Cockle and Jordan Scott). The central concept, and the central cast. A young boy (played by Luca Villacis) is dropped off by his parents to spend some time with his grandfather (Michael Ironside). His grandfather views this as an opportunity to both spend time with the boy and also get some work done on his property, which is as removed from most other houses as you might expect it to be. Certain things happen, the young lad has to keep himself safe from a major threat to his life, and it doesn't look as if anyone is going to be coming along soon to check on the situation.

I have never yet seen a film starring Michael Ironside that left me wishing someone else had been cast instead, so Knuckleball definitely has that going for it. There's also a fantastic performance from young Villacis, surely a name to keep your eyes peeled for in the future, and Munro Chambers has a lot of fun with his role. There aren't many others in the cast, but they all do well enough with their screentime.

The direction is solid, showing a level of confidence and cine-literacy that add to a rewarding viewing experience, but it's the cracks in the script that start to weaken the overall structure, failings that some might view as minor but that developed into big enough faults to spoil my enjoyment of the movie.

First of all, this is a potentially tense thriller that never feels as tense as it should. That's all down to the writing of the young lead (who is shown to be very smart for his age, which makes a pleasant change but also makes it almost impossible to think he'll ever be truly outmaneuvered) and the writing of the main baddie (who is far too dumb).

Second, there are a couple of reveals that seem to have been set up in a way that should surprise viewers. They don't. They just happen, many viewers will shrug as they see something extra about details that already made them suspicious, and the film then moves forward.

These two criticisms may not seem like any big deal, and I am sure there are others who will enjoy Knuckleball more than I did, but they're enough to drag down what could have been a tight and vicious little thriller. Which leaves us with a limp, tame, sketch of what could have been. It's still a decent watch BUT it could have been so much better.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Rabbit (2017)

Writer-director Luke Shanahan makes his feature debut with this enjoyably strange film that at times feels reminiscent of the work of David Cronenberg, at times reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg, and yet still remains an impressively unique vision. I was initially rather unimpressed, sitting there quietly as the end credits rolled, but the more thought I gave it, the more I liked what I had just seen.

Adelaide Clemens plays a young woman named Maude. Maude is a twin to a missing sister, and she returns home after a particularly vivid dream leaves her convinced that she knows the whereabouts of her sibling. She doesn't waste much time in beginning her search, accompanied by her sister's fiance (Alex Russell) and a local cop (Jonny Pasvolsky) who believes that the fiance had a hand in things. They all end up encountering a couple (Nerida, played by Veerle Baetens, and husband Keith, played by Charles Mayer) who may have been among the last people to see Maude's sister alive.

More of a mood piece than anything else, Rabbit is an intriguing film that shows Shanahan to be a dab hand at the slow burn. Things seem to build in intensity without much changing at all, thanks to the scenes showing how everything is wearing Maude's mind down, perhaps to a breaking point.

Clemens is great in her role. Well, she's great in both roles, but one has a lot less screentime than the other. Her performance never edges towards hysterical, but she obviously becomes more and more disturbed and flustered as the situation unfolds around her. Russell and Pasvolsky both do well enough in their roles, supporting Clemens while also providing the required potential suspect/red herring strand, and Baetens and Mayer are quietly unsettling, far too neat and polite to not be hiding something.

While the performances and mood work well throughout, Shanahan falters when it comes to injecting elements to provide viewers with a satisfying third act. There are many decent individual moments, but nothing as powerful or affecting as I was hoping for. It's okay to sit and watch a film that doesn't provide you with all of the answers, and I do, but quite another to sit and watch a film that seems to almost gleefully swerve away from them at the last minute (as it feels here).

Overall, this is well worth your time. Shanahan is a name I will be keeping an eye on for the next few years, especially if he continues to make such canny casting choices and retains his impressive instincts when it comes to marrying up visuals with excellent score choices (the music here is by Michael Darren, who also deserves a mention, and there it is). You may love this film, you may end up hating it, but it's almost impossible to simply dismiss it.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Siembamba AKA The Lullaby (2017)

On the one hand, Siembamba is a solid horror movie that takes the fears of new motherhood and compounds them with nightmarish visions that may or may not have a spectral foot in the real world. On the other hand, inspired by some rather unpleasant moments from South African history, and a lullaby with the most disturbing lyrics you will ever hear, it's a good film that could easily have been turned into something great.

Reine Swart stars as Chloe, the new parent who ends up having to share a house again with her mother, Ruby (played by Thandi Puren). It's obvious that the two have a strained relationship, but both hope to make progress, with their time together and separate consultations with Dr. Timothy Reed (Brandon Auret). Sadly, Chloe is feeling more strain than most new parents, having visions that frighten her and may well lead to her causing harm to her own baby.

Swart and Puren both do great work in their lead roles, and Auret interestingly wavers between professional and creepy with his performance. The only other main character is a young man played by Deànré Reiners, someone who once had a relationship with Swart's character and seems to still have feelings for her now that he sees her back at home.

Director Darrell Roodt has quite the eclectic filmography to browse through, and the past few years have seen him enjoying pairing up with writer Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo (who was also responsible for the script here), but the end result here is very much the end result of a talented director being held back by a script that lacks confidence and focus. There are a number of scares that are very well executed, and things build nicely towards a finale, but the third act never rises up to become as good as it could be. We instead get an entirely predictable reveal and a number of very unsatisfying character developments.

A decent watch for horror fans who can handle their genre films feeling a bit fractured and incomplete, Siembamba shows how important the script can be to a talented group of cast and crew members. All of the blame lies with Prinsloo, so maybe she can give herself some more time on future projects to tweak and hone her work.


Buy stuff here to make me money while you shop.
Americans can buy stuff here.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)

I was, like a lot of people, hesitant (to say the least) when I heard the announcement of a belated sequel to Jumanji. The first film may not be a perfect classic, but it feels that way to many. And updating it to turn it into a videogame? Would it move too far away from the core fun of the first film?

Thankfully, what we have here is a sequel that is easily the equal of the first film, AND it actually follows on in a way that feels surprisingly natural.

The main plot sees four kids ending up in detention together. They find an old videogame called Jumanji, decided to give it a go, and are immediately sucked into the game world. The scared nerd is transformed into a muscular hero (Dwayne Johnson), the "jock" is reduced to a rather weak backpack valet (Kevin Hart), the smart girl becomes a strong and sexy woman who can impressively dance fight (Karen Gillan), and the selfie-obsessed vain girl becomes a chubby male professor/cartographer (Jack Black). There's someone else already stuck in the game (Nick Jonas) and a villain who wants to ensure that Jumanji stays the way it is forever, because he likes it that way (Bobby Cannavale).

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle shows how best to update a concept without dismissing everything that came beforehand (in movie terms anyway, I never did see any of the animated TV show). It feels organic as we move from the setting of the first movie through to the modern day, and the script, developing an idea from Chris McKenna, packs in a great mix of action, comedy, and the obligatory personal growth (although, admittedly, some of those growth moments feel a bit rushed). There are a number of nods to the first film, some more obvious than others, and everything feels as if real care was taken to create something less lazy and cynical than some other belated sequels/remakes/reboots I could mention.

The cast are all superb. Johnson and Hart are two for two now as a winning central pairing, Gillan shows she can still do the comedy along with the kickass action, and Black is enjoyably over the top as a young girl stuck in the body of a middle-aged man. The lone Jonas brother of the cast does just fine, and Cannavale is an enjoyable villain, pitched perfectly to be a proper menace and scary enough for the kids to be thrilled. Although I won't name them here, the younger cast also do well, bookending the film with their real life moments that give us all of the information we need for the journey they go on through Jumanji.

Some viewers may be a bit disappointed that this stays within the game world, as opposed to the game elements crashing into our world, but the many little details and fresh elements make it a wise decision, rather than just completely rehashing the original.


The film can be bought here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Dead By Dawn 2018: Nosferatu (1922)

There are two types of movies that I find very difficult to write reviews for. The first type is the movie that everyone has seen. There are a million reviews out there already, and sometimes even full books about why they have impacted us over the years. The second type is the classic film that I want to write about, but fear my own opinion should be complemeneted by a full selection of facts, figures, academia, and historical context. Nosferatu falls into the second category.

The basic story is all about . . . well, why bother pretending, it's an interpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Instead of that Count being the main figure, however, we have a more rat-like Count Orlok (Max Schrek). Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is the estate agent sent out to close a deal with the Count, and he ends up trapped when Orlock becomes determined to sail overseas and obsess over Hutter's lovely lady, Ellen (Greta Schoder). The rest of the film shows Orlock trying to get his own way, Hutter trying to get home, and Ellen mulling over a plan that might just save everyone in town.

Directed by F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu is a classic, silent, horror film that we are lucky to still have with us today, not least because a lawsuit brought by Bram Stoker's widow ended with a judgement for all known prints and negatives to be destroyed. The script by Henrik Galeen recreates many of the highlights of the Stoker novel and adds one or two impressive new touches (such as the way in which a vampire may be destroyed).

It's always hard to judge certain factors in silent films, with the acting being especially difficult to compare. Suffice to say that Von Wangenheim and Schoder both do fine in their roles, Alexander Granach is a lot of fun in the role of Knock (Hutter's boss who comes under the spell of Orlock and becomes quite the Renfield figure), and Schreck is iconic and unforgettable as the Count himself, helped by the wonderful make-up.

The effects hold up pretty well, there are moments that you've already seen a dozen times even if you've yet to see the whole film (Orlock's shadow creeping up the staircase, for example), and it's safe to say that this remains an influential and entertaining touchstone for the horror genre in cinema.

If you haven't seen it yet then do so ASAP. If you have seen it then remind others that they should check it out.

Note - Nosferatu was screened with accompanying live piano from Forrester Pyke, and I highly recommend seeing it in this way if ever possible. A wonderful experience, and kudos to Mr. Pyke for his talented tinkling of the ivories.


Here's a nice version of the film on disc.