Monday, 19 February 2018

Blue Jay (2016)

Blue Jay is, for the most part, a two-hander of a film that allows stars Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass to show how well they can work together. If you're fans of those two then you should get some enjoyment from this. If you're not . . . well, it's certainly a riskier proposition.

Paulson plays Amanda, and Duplass plays Jim. The two meet in a convenience store, completely by chance, and viewers are quickly made aware of the fact that they used to be in a relationship. Many years may have gone by since they were student sweethearts but that doesn't necessarily mean that all of those feelings, buried for so long, aren't still simmering away just below the surface. The two settle into an easy and comfortable mix of reminiscences, play-acting, and talk about their lives in the here and now.

Blue Jay will certainly strike the right chord with some people. There are moments of honesty and melancholy that will resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship, a surviving one or a broken one. But it has the potential to aggravate others, which is how I reacted to it for most of the middle section. I blame Duplass, who also wrote the film. And when I say that he wrote the film I mean that he came up with a summary and decided to enjoy an extended improv session with Paulson. That could have worked if the conversational tangents didn't feel so obviously affected and downright actorly. Instead of a naturalism in the performances, we instead get the feeling that we are watching two people desperately trying to match one another for the approval of some guests. This is just the same as the two children who set up a curtain in the living room, lift it up to step forward and perform the little play they just wrote, and bask in the glow of proud adults. That's sweet, it's good for the kids, and often good for the adults who may not have other plans on a rainy day in November, but it's not always the best approach to film-making.

Paulson and Duplass aren't bad actors, as anyone who has seen them in other roles will know, and they manage to elevate a few moments here and there, making the whole thing almost worthwhile. There's also a small role for Clu Gulager, and I often enjoy seeing him appear onscreen. It's just a great shame that nobody warned them that a number of their scenes might come across as being a bit smug.

Director Alex Lehmann, making his feature debut, does what is asked of him. Or what he's told to do. There's no escaping the fact that this feels like a product more controlled by the Duplass brothers than anyone else involved, which should have been a big plus. Unfortunately, this is a well-intentioned misfire that serves more as an inspiration to other low-budget film-makers out there than as an actual entertaining movie.

4/10

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


Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Snowman (2017)

I have read one book, so far, by writer Jo Nesbø. It was, I believe, the book that really launched Nesbø to another level of popularity. I loved it. Many people loved it. It was a great thriller, with almost every chapter ending on a cliffhanger. Despite not being the fast reader I used to be in my youth, I tore through the book in no time at all.

A film of the book seemed like a good idea. Having Tomas Alfredson directing it seemed like a very good idea. He had already done such great work recently with two previous theatrical releases that successfully translated written works to the big screen (Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Michael Fassbender in the lead role? Sold.

Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole, a man who spends his time self-medicating with alcohol when he is not being kept busy with murder cases. Having not been kept all that busy for a while now, he finds himself challenged when a killer known as the snowman starts to taunt the police, revealing a pattern of female victims abducted during periods of snowfall.

What you may have already heard about The Snowman is very true. It's a complete mess. Not messy as in "dammit, why does every action sequence directed by Michael Bay need to have 50 edits in every minute of film?" but messy as in a way that makes you wonder where entire sequences have disappeared to. It's so disjointed and unsatisfying that it barely qualifies as an actual movie, feeling more like a montage of snowy noir moments.

Fassbender isn't bad in the main role, and Rebecca Ferguson tries to do her best with the material given to her. The rest of the cast includes Charlotte Gainsbourg (who I tend to dislike in most films anyway), Jonas Karlsson, J. K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Chloe Sevigny, James D'arcy. I could tell you how some of these characters figure in the plot, but there wouldn't be much point. They appear as and when necessary, and disappear just as abruptly.

Writers Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Søren Sveistrup obviously liked the central idea. Who wouldn't? It's unfortunate, then, that they are unable to craft a worthy narrative around some of the story beats and visual motifs. It's almost as if the screenplay was handed over to Alfredson with only a handful of the main scenes written or someone decided to take the final product and edit it into an incomprehensible mess. I've seen many films even worse than this, but few major mainstream releases have been released in such a mind-bogglingly shoddy state.

Maybe best enjoyed by people who have never read the book, although god knows how they would make ANY sense of the plot (despite having read it, I could barely figure out the unfolding storyline), The Snowman is bad, and not the kind of bad that can make your viewing experience a fun one. It's just plain bad.

3/10

I guess you could get the film here.
Or, in America, you can get it here.


Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Shape Of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro has made a career out of trying to convince everyone to view monsters and ghosts the same way that he does. They're just the same as us, but different. In fact, sometimes the very things that make them monstrous or scary are the things that make them a little bit better than your average Joe. The Shape Of Water may very well be his most overt guide to loving monsters yet, taking it quite literally.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a secret research facility. She spends her workdays alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and when at home she sometimes enjoys the company of Giles (Richard Jenkins), an elderly, lonely gay man. There's excitement in the workplace when a bipedal amphibious humanoid specimen (Doug Jones) is brought in, under the watchful eyes of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and Elisa finds herself forming a strong connection with the creature. Some people might be happy to see that development, Strickland isn't one of them.

While it's certainly a very derivative film in many ways (from the obvious "gillman" movies to the tone and visual palate of Jean-Pierre Jeunet), The Shape Of Water takes the familiar and mixes it into something that feels quite unique. I would say that those looking to hammer the film for the range of influences on display aren't considering how well Del Toro has placed everything. Never one to skimp on the detailing of the worlds he wants to let viewers into, the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor from his own story, somehow manages to fill every scene with little touches and thematic strands without having it all feel too busy and overdone.

Dan Laustsen, the Director of Photography, deserves a special mention, because there are a number of scenes here that stand out as some of the most beautiful from last year (and I know I am terrible for not often singling out the DPs in my reviews), and Alexandre Desplat has come up with an appropriately beautiful score to accompany those visuals, with everything coming together to make a film that feels very much like a Del Toro film in content and theme, while moving away from his standard visual palette.

Hawkins gives a wonderful central performance, as does the prosthetically-covered Doug Jones. The two manage to say so much without actually speaking. Spencer and Jenkins both give great supporting turns, and chatter away to Hawkins throughout the film, and Shannon is the villain of the piece that the film requires (allowing him to have a lot of fun with some over the top moments). Michael Stuhlbarg is another good presence, but it's easy to forget the other people involved during the moments that show Hawkins and Jones wordlessly connecting with one another.

The biggest problem with The Shape Of Water stems from the biggest plus point. This feels very much like a film Del Toro has had in his mind for years, something he was just waiting to finally be allowed to do. Now, having been given permission, he loads it up with no small amount of self-indulgence. That is fine when it comes to the detailing and style of the film, but it also means that the runtime feels just a bit too long, there are one or two extra plot points that didn't really need to be in there, and some of the quirkier moments don't work.

Those minor mis-steps, however, are nowhere near irritating enough to detract from the gorgeous and uplifting experience that the film provides. It's not up there with the very best films we've already had from Guillermo del Toro, but it's leagues ahead of many other films that you'll see this year.

8/10

There's a lovely book available here.
Americans can order the film here.


Friday, 16 February 2018

I, Tonya (2017)

I am quite an inactive person. Well, right now I am training to run for a marathon (click and show support here, feel free to share and/or donate), but I am generally not a sporty type. Never have been. I try to do enough to stop my body from seizing up, that's all. I don't even watch any sporting events, certainly not with advance planning. But I do admire those who are physically capable of great sporting feats. And I do recognise that those performing in competitions, and those trying to become good enough to represent their country at the Olympic level, are individuals who have sacrificed a lot in order to get the smallest chance at achieving greatness.

And I think that's really worth bearing in mind when you think of the story of Nancy Kerrigan. This film may be about Tonya Harding but it's Kerrigan who was the victim, an ice skater who could have been irreparably harmed in a vicious attack that was for no other reasons than to let someone else (Harding) slip into their place. If you don't know the full story then I recommend you look into it. I vaguely remember being gobsmacked as I saw the trial unfold.

This film has been made because of that shocking event, and that's really what it's all about. But on the lead up to that event we get to see what a horrible life has been led by Harding (played by Margot Robbie), suffering a lot of grief at the hands of her nasty mother (Allison Janney) before rushing into a turbulent relationship, to put it mildly, with her first husband (Sebastian Stan). Her constant pleasure is ice skating, something she was very talented at, and something that led to her fame and infamy.

Written by Steven Rogers, who has previously given audiences a bundle of tear-jerking dramas, and one Christmas movie, this is a zippy, entertaining biopic that seems to take Harding's own perspective of events over any conflicting views. That's not a terrible thing, especially when the film states at the very start that a lot of the events are being depicted as they were described in different interviews, but it does lead to a number of moments that have had left some viewers feeling rather unhappy with how things are depicted.

Director Craig Gillespie does good work, despite the obvious soundtrack choices and the execution of certain scenes feeling very much like moments lifted from better films in this mould. I'm not going to namecheck the directors that Gillespie seems to be emulating because a) so many other people have already done that, and b) it's obvious to most film fans as soon as things start to play out.

But it's the cast really making this worth your time. Robbie is superb in the lead role, perfectly portraying both rebel and victim. Stan and Janney both do well as the main people in her life who excel at, well, treating her like shit, and Paul Walter Hauser is amusing as someone creating a fantasy life in his mind that eventually turns into something life-altering for everyone involved in The Incident.

Despite being too flattering to Tonya Harding (well, the title is a clue to where it will stand), and despite slipping here and there, this still makes for a decent show. Even if, unlike the main character, it never comes close to landing its own triple axel.

7/10

Fans of the film may enjoy this book.
Over in the USofA you can order the disc here.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Happy Death Day (2017)

Just because everyone else has mentioned it already doesn't mean that I will refrain from using the same words; Happy Death Day is best described as Scream meets Groundhog Day. If that very brief summation of the plot doesn't appeal to you then you're unlikely to enjoy it. But if your face lights up at those words . . . this will work for you.

Jessica Rothe plays a college student named Tree (Tree? who names their child Tree, apart from people who want to spend a lifetime punning about how they decided to branch out?) who wakes up on her birthday, goes about her usual activities, and ends up dying violently at the hands of a murderous madman. She then wakes up again, on her birthday, and starts trying to figure out what is going on, and trying to get through the day without dying. Unfortunately, someone is very very determined to have her dead by the end of the day. And each death leads to a jump back to the start of the day.

Although you could point at Happy Death Day and bemoan the lack of bloodshed and more adult content, that would be nitpicking. This is, after all, a film for teens, and it succeeds brilliantly in that regard.

The script by Scott Lobdell gets everything right. There aren't too many main characters (with most of the action revolving around Tree and the boy she first sees upon waking up every morning, Carter), the main activities throughout the day are obvious pointers of the timeline, and also ready to be changed by the actions of Tree, the deaths are decent enough, and the mystery element - the who and the why - is simple and effective.

Director Christopher Landon shows, once again, that he's a dab hand with the horror genre tropes. This may not be as much fun as his previous outing, Scout's Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, but it's almost an ideal teen horror (with a little bit of comedy) to please most people wanting something for the weekend.

Rothe and Israel Broussard (playing Carter) make for decent leads, despite my not being overly familiar with either of them. They work well together, and Rothe is in almost every scene (due to the nature of the plot device), and there are also decent enough supporting turns from Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, and everyone else involved. Surprisingly, considering how often it happens in these movies, there aren't any seasoned genre stars in cameo roles, as far as I can recall, but the material is strong enough to make any such concessions or winks unnecessary.

I can understand why some horror fans wouldn't want to give any of their time to this. It's fairly safe and inoffensive stuff, in many ways. But that doesn't mean that it isn't worthwhile. While it may not be all that intense, or any kind of splattery gorefest, it's a surprisingly smart and enjoyable twist on standard slasher fare.

7/10

Pick it up here.
And Americans can pick it up here.


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Witchcraft III: The Kiss Of Death (1991)

Here is where I start to doubt the sanity of my plan to make my way through the entire Witchcraft series. The third entry, a step back after the fun of the second, just doesn't instil a great sense of optimism in me for what is yet to come.

The slim plot sees William continuing to get on with his life. He's surprisingly unphased by the events of the second movie, instead choosing to focus on his career as an attorney and the lovely life he might have with his girlfriend, Charlotte. Things only start to come apart when he meets Louis, a cool dude who starts off friendly enough but soon shows his true colours.

Directed by R. L. Tillmans (who is actually Rachel Feldman, apparently), Witchcraft III: The Kiss Of Death is the kind of shoddy incompetence that gives a bad name to films that try to cover up their incompetence with random moments of enjoyable silliness. This has no such moments, there's no reprieve for viewers, apart from the fact that the runtime comes in at just under 90 minutes.

Writer Jerry Daly seems to have been given some notes on the first film, told that the main character has powers he doesn't really want to use, and then left to craft a tale of rivalry and magic that removes most of the fantastical elements in favour of standard soap opera melodramatics you could catch most weekdays on Channel 5.

The cast don't help either. Charles Solomon Jr (billed here as Charles Soloman on the end credits) is playing a man with a dark past and the potential to unleash some dangerous power but you wouldn't know it from his rather monotone performance. Domonic Luciana is ever so slightly better, as Louis, but that's more to do with the fact that villains are usually a bit more interesting than goodies. Lisa Toothman tries hard as Charlotte, caught between the two men as the game starts to be played, and Leana Hall isn't too bad as Roxy. William Lewis Baker livens things up a bit whenever he's onscreen, it's just a shame that his role is such a small one.

It boggles the mind to think of who these films were ever aimed at. There's not enough horror content for horror fans, not enough gratuitous content for those after cheap thrills, not enough care given to the plot for anyone after simple drama, and generally nothing that will appeal to anyone except individual masochistic idiots determined to wade through the entire series. We're not a big demigraphic, but we're bloody tenacious.

3/10

Watch it here.
Or watch it here.


Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight (2018)

Unbeknownst to me, not being a huge comic book guy, DC have been running for some time now with a series known as the Elseworlds stories. This takes familiar heroes and places them in unfamiliar settings/times. Perhaps an alternate universe, perhaps a different time period, perhaps something that feels very similar to what we know but is just a bit of a sidestep to make it all seem fresh.

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight sees Batman prowling the streets of a bygone Gotham. His job is the same, there are familiar characters populating the city, but the biggest public enemy of the time happens to be a dangerous killer who carves up women and goes by the name of Jack. Yes, this is the Batman Vs Jack The Ripper tale that you never knew you wanted, and I must say that it's pretty damn great.

First of all, if you haven't realised by now that the DC animated movie universe is where they have been churning out all of their good stuff then you have a lot of catching up to do. Not all of them are brilliant, but I can't think of any that are truly dire. Second, this is one of their very best, thanks to the premise lending itself well to a perfect blend of the familiar and the reimagined.

Based on the graphic novel by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, writer James Krieg has taken the storyline and embraced the more fun elements that fans will get a kick out of, which helps to balance out the darker aspects of the whole thing (e.g. the actual identity of Jack). The relatively brief runtime, just under 80 minutes, is in line with most of the other DC animated features, and ensures that things move quickly enough, even if it's not crammed full of action sequences. This is definitely a case of quality over quantity, and ain't nothing wrong with that.

Director Sam Liu benefits from some gorgeous visuals and animation, a superior voice cast (Bruce Greenwood is a great Bruce Wayne/Batman, Anthony Head is a fine Alfred, and Jennifer Carpenter delivers a very effective Selina Kyle performance, without excessive purring or wordplay), and the sheer fun factor of the core idea. Some purists may balk at a few of the character changes, but I don't have a problem with them being here, considering we're very much seeing everyone involved in an Elseworld context.

Unless you're one of those purists I just mentioned, Batman: Gotham By Gaslight is guaranteed to entertain you and give you your Bat-fix until the next adventure comes along. The story could have easily been put together with much less care, and one or two of the supporting characters are obviously here without being all that necessary to the plot, but everyone involved actually takes the fine silk of the material and spins it into gold.

9/10

Buy it here, Batfans.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017)

Let me be upfront from the very beginning here, if LEGO did a version of one of the movies I hate most (e.g. Elephant by Gus Van Sant) then I would watch it, I would enjoy it, and it would be something I would buy. I grew up with tubs of mismatched LEGO, I continue to look on eagerly if I see LEGO sets being built by small children I might be able to bump out of the way and hold back while I work with the bricks, and I have been mightily impressed by the almost all of the LEGO movies I have seen so far, both the cinema releases and the smaller titles (they have been doing better DC films than the proper DC moviemakers for a few years now).

I didn't really know what Ninjago was, and I'm still not sure. Basically, it seems to be some kids who turn into ninjas when they need to battle evil. It's also the name of the city in which they live. That city keeps coming under threat from a villain named Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), which keeps Green Ninja (voiced by Dave Franco) and the rest of the good ninja group very busy. Green Ninja is also known as Lloyd, when not hidden in his suit, and Lloyd is actually the son of Garmadon. Uh oh.

Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, The LEGO Ninjago Movie keeps the fun and laughs coming thick and fast throughout, with one or two inventive action sequences doing enough to keep the main characters in peril as they learn some life lessons. Everyone involved in the LEGO movie universe seems to understand the universal appeal of it, and how to make the most of it for that brick-centric visual style and the many brilliant gags. The script here, written by Logan, Fisher, William and Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, and John Whittington, makes the most of the strained father-son relationship at the centre of everything, while also utilising the tropes of martial arts movies (Jackie Chan is a lot of fun as the wise old master).

All of the voice cast do well, although some are immediately more recognisable than others. The leads, obviously, and Kumail Nanjiani and Michael Pena were the ones I already knew, as well as Olivia Munn, (as Koko, Lloyd's mother) but Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, and Zach Woods also lend their voices to some of the main characters, and all are good in their roles.

Once again mixing in some live-action elements with the main animated section of the film, this might not be as good as The LEGO Movie, and might even fall short of the level of fun of The LEGO Batman Movie, but that is just a reminder of how great those two films were. This one is very good, and manages to be very good without any one main identifier (e.g. Benny wanting his spaceship in The LEGO Movie, and, well, Batman in the The LEGO Batman Movie).

I am not sure, as of this moment, what we can expect next from the world of LEGO movies. I am only sure of one thing; If they build it, I will watch.

8/10

Pick up the disc here.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Witchcraft II: The Temptress (1989)

I have to admit it, I was keen to continue my quest through the Witchcraft series after I discovered just how many dubious treats it might have to offer me. Sixteen films, possibly getting worse with each subsequent instalment? That's the kind of challenge I lap up. And here is the first of the many sequels (as you will all have noted from the title).

Directed by Mark Woods (his only feature film as director), and with a script by Jim Hanson and Sal Manna (neither wrote another film), it's no surprise that this is a wonderful mess, following on from the strange first movie with a recipe that adds more death and a bit of nudity.

Charles Solomon Jr plays William Adams, a much older version of the baby we all saw in the first film. William is about to have a very strange episode in his life, to put it mildly, and it will also affect his girlfriend (Mia M. Ruiz), his friend (David Homb, playing a guy named Boomer), and the man and woman who have brought them up for most of his life (John Henry Richardson and Cheryl Janecky). This is all tied to his past, of course, and definitely tied to Dolores (Delia Sheppard), the temptress the title is referring to.

Okay, I had a bit more fun with this than I did with the first film. As mentioned in that review, when something is trying to be a bit cheap 'n' cheerful in the horror genre then a dose of gratuitous nudity and/or violence doesn't harm things. This film knows that, and it adds some of the easy fun that was missing the first time around. It's not enough to make the whole thing into a properly good movie, but it's welcome as additional spice to the main dish.

None of the actors do very well, seemingly chosen more for their low fees than actual acting talent. Solomon Jr is a poor lead, Homb is awful as his buddy, and Sheppard overdoes her performance in a way that is at least amusing and entertaining. Richardson and Janecky do a bit better as the parents, Ruiz tries to do well in her role, and Kirsten Wagner is enjoyable for the small amount of time she is onscreen (it's a shame that her character, Audrey, isn't given more to do).

Look, this is not a film that you should check out if you're wanting a day of quality cinema, or you're checking prioritised titles off your "watchlist". It's one to watch, as I did, when you find out about this series and feel compelled to check them out. You don't need to concentrate on any complicated plot, you don't need to invest yourself emotionally in the events, and you really just need a spare hour and a half, with or without alcohol to enhance the viewing experience.

5/10

You COULD treat yourself here, or watch it on Amazon Prime.
American fans can pick it up here.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage (2017)

Taking a leaf from the later instalments of the Fast & Furious franchise, this third film in the xXx series gives the lead role back to Vin Diesel, as you may have guessed from the title, and surrounds him with a bit of an all-star cast of people who bring various specialist skills to the table.

Xander Cage (Diesel) is asked to help once again when the world is endangered, this time by a group of people who have stolen a device that can control weather satellites. The danger of the situation is made apparent when one such satellite is sent on a crash course to Earth. Reluctant to help "the man", represented this time by Jane Marke (Toni Collette), Cage eventually agrees to do what he does best, on one condition; he gets to pick his team. It's not long until they're facing off against a group of equally talented fighters, but who are the real villains at work?

Directed by D. J. Caruso, xXx: Return Of Xander Cage has three major elements working in its favour. First of all, Caruso himself does well at the helm, working from a fun script by F. Scott Frazier that perfectly blends laughs and enjoyable action set-pieces. I've liked pretty much everything I have seen directed by Caruso, and this keeps his track record consistent for me.

Second, the tone of this is just perfect. The first two xXx movies tried to show that they were working with tongue in cheek, yet it never quite worked, and I think that's because at the heart of each storyline was a hero who wasn't ever really seen to be in on the joke. Diesel, in this instance, has more fun as he gets to play up the legend of his character while bantering with others who share his sense of recklessness, and that works really well.

Third, the cast. Diesel may not be the best thespian around but he knows how to strut around onscreen like someone with such a big ego, even when he's interacting with martial arts stars like Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (who both get some decent onscreen moments, and I was impressed by how much screentime Yen actually got). Collette is fine as the suit in charge, Nina Dobrev is a lot of fun as the tech support worker who gets flustered around our hero, and Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, and Rory McCann are all good additions to the series, either individually or thanks to how they are teamed up with others.

It may have been a high benchmark to exceed, but it's still surprising just how much more entertaining this film is compared to the two that preceded it. It is, in a way, exactly how this series should have been working from the very beginning. If you disliked the other films then still give this one a try. If you enjoyed the other films, albeit to varying degrees, then definitely check this one out. By the time you get past the main opening sequences (one involving Neymar, one involving a daring raid, and one involving Diesel jumping and skating around at breakneck speeds) then you will know what you have let yourself in for, and you will probably already be grinning.

7/10.

The Bluray is available here.
Americans can buy it here.


Friday, 9 February 2018

Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles (2001)

Coming along 13 years after the second film, Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles is almost the very definition of an unnecessary and unwanted sequel. It's not a complete dud, and I laughed on a few occasions, but it's nowhere near as good as the previous films, and it really adds nothing to the characters beyond anything you could have imagined happening after the credits rolled at the end of the second film.

Paul Hogan returns to his most famous role, Mick Dundee, this time travelling to LA with his partner, Sue (Linda Kozlowski, also returning), and their young son (Mike, played by Serge Cockburn). Sue ends up investigating some possible shenanigans, Mick encounters more differences between cultures with the Los Angelean people, and the whole thing winds ever so languidly towards an unexciting finale that it's hard to care about.

It's obvious that this wasn't created as a passion project for those involved. Someone wanted to make some money, and they thought that this brand would be a good way to do that. Except it didn't. Well, it may have made some individuals money but it didn't make much of an impression in the worldwide box office, especially compared to the previous two movies.

Hogan already looks too old to still be up to the antics we see here, Kozlowski is just fine, and young Cockburn is required to do little beyond be the kid with the awesome father. Jere Burns and Jonathan Banks are both wasted in their roles, with neither given enough to do in their main scenes, but Alec Wilson is good fun as Mick's pal, Jacko.

The poor script was written by Matt Berry and Eric Abrams, the two obviously relying on established jokes and goodwill to carry the film along for the majority of the runtime (unless they had some amazing ideas that were mercilessly chopped out), and Simon Wincer is the person responsible for the lacklustre direction.

Not only is this a film that's hard to love or hate, it's one that's hard to muster the energy to write too much about. It's just there. We all know why it was made, we all know that it felt majorly dated as soon as it came out, and we all know that it's one even completist movie collectors won't bother about if they can get the first two films in a cheap and convenient double-pack. Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles? They maybe should have just titled it Dundee III: Croc Of S**t.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Thursday, 8 February 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq (2017)

There are good things in Roman J. Israel, Esq, quite a few good things, not least of which is the lead performance from a superb Denzel Washington. It's just a shame that the film suffers from a real lack of clarity. Does it want to be a character study, or a magnifying glass hovering over some of the biggest flaws in the American justice system, or a look at the slippery slope you can end up on when you make a wrong moral choice even just the one time?

Denzel is the titular character. He's a man who knows the legal system inside out, he has almost total recall of court statistics and numbers, and he's a good man to have on your side if you're ever in trouble. He doesn't appear in court, however, because he does the work behind the scenes while his partner makes the court appearances. That's an ideal situation until his partner has a heart attack, and when Roman turns up to court it doesn't take long to see why he's normally hidden away behind the scenes. He has no filter, which can lead to trouble for himself, and perhaps even his clients.

Trials are expensive. The American system is designed in a way to minimise people actually going to trial. So lawyers will offer plea bargains. Go to trial and risk a sentence of 25-30 years if found guilty, plead without going to trial and we'll give you 5, you can get out in 3 with good behaviour. That kind of thing. Which means, on a lot of occasions, people are too scared to even take a gamble on their RIGHT to a trial, even if they may actually be innocent of the crime.And that's what writer-director Dan Gilroy seems to want to look at here. Then he wanders over to a different area. Then back to the right to trial idea. And then somewhere else. He looks at it, and goes away and comes back to look at it some more, but not as pointedly. It leaves viewers feeling exactly how my wife feels when she sees me hovering around a nice new movie boxset I want to buy, going to other parts of the store before going back to it, making my pleading face until she caves in and says I can buy it. The frustrating thing is that Gilroy doesn't need our permission to commit to his idea, he just thinks that he does. Or he doesn't think he can make a whole movie from it, so he mixes in other ideas that just don't feel as if they belong there.

The great shame is that this confusion, this muddying of the waters, will lead to a lot of people missing one of the better Washington performances in recent years. Despite some of his familiar tics appearing here and there, this is far removed from the usual confident and cocky turns Washington has given us over the past couple of decades. There's also two fantastic supporting performances from Colin Farrell, playing someone who seems like an enemy to Roman but is actually a slick lawyer looking for a chance to improve things somewhat while still working well within the system, and Carmen Ejogo, a young woman who is inspired by Roman, as he is in turn further inspired by her.

In terms of actual dialogue, the script works well. Characters are fleshed out, exchanges are sharp and smart, and interesting ideas are drip fed throughout the main narrative. Again, it's just the meandering lack of focus and structure that undoes a lot of the good work. Viewers don't really get a feel for the time and place, the events take place over three weeks and yet it all feels as if it stretches out for much more than that, and instead of provoking more thought the jumble of elements simply results in a bit of a disinterested shrug.

But those performances make it worth your time. They are THAT good. You also get a very good soundtrack, some cracking songs interspersed by a decent score from James Newton Howard, and at least things move along quickly enough that the 2-hour runtime feels slightly brisker than it otherwise might.

6/10

Americans can buy it here.


Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Arq (2016)

I do like a good bit of time trickery in movies. Time travel and timeloops usually do enough to keep me thinking and entertained throughout, which is why I knew it was only a matter of time (no pun intended) until I gave ARQ a watch.

Robbie Amell and Rachael Taylor play Renton and Hannah, two people who wake up just as their house is being invaded by people. We quickly learn that the invaders are after "scrips", and maybe some food, but Renton suspects that they're after something else, a machine that will benefit a company he doesn't want to get their hands on it. And that same machine ends up causing a time loop, which is very handy when Renton is killed . . . and then wakes up again just as the house is being invaded. Certain things play out the same way while certain other things start to be changed by the actions of the characters. Sometimes they remember how everything plays out, sometimes they don't.

It's a decent enough premise at the heart of the movie, and I would say the same about most films featuring a timeloop, but writer-director Tony Elliott fumbles things when it comes to the bigger picture. Each iteration is freshened up by twists and developments, including just how many people start to remember what has happened to them before, but he throws too much in the mix when trying to complicate the character motivations and also hint at the bigger picture of the world outside the house.

Amell and Taylor are decent enough leads, and they do what they can to carry the film. They can't do enough, however, when weighed down by the vagueness of the script, which only starts to nail down some of the finer details in the second half, and the nondescript nature of most of the supporting cast members. Shaun Benson, Adam Butcher, Gray Powell, and Jacob Neayem do what they're asked to do, which makes it more frustrating that they're not given decent material to work with.

Elliott does well when you consider how he tried to best utilise the budget to match the scope of his vision. It's a shame that he doesn't do as well when keeping the events and characters in order for viewers to keep track of. Not that the film is incoherent. It just doesn't have enough indicators that most films of this type usually use to help viewers track any locked events and any changes.

There's still enough here to make this an enjoyable sci-fi thriller, especially if you like time trickery in your movies as much as I do. It's just a shame that it isn't a bit better, in terms of the characterisations and plotting. Not the worst way to spend 90 minutes but, unlike the main characters, I won't be repeating the experience.

6/10

ARQ doesn't seem to be on disc just now, so enjoy this one instead.
Americans can get the DVD here.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

It has long been the case that if a movie was released with very little marketing and/or no advance screenings for critics then everyone could safely assume that it wasn't going to be very good. A lot of stinkers have been dumped into cinemas this way, making a cash grab before the word starts to spread on just how bad it is. But the times they are a changing, as a popular song will tell you. And that is how so many people ended up spending their time after the recent Super Bowl watching The Cloverfield Paradox. Very few people knew it was being released so soon, and even less expected the trailer from Netflix advertising it as being available to watch right after the game. Well played, Netflix, well played indeed.

Now let's get to the film itself. Tenuously linked to the previous two films, The Cloverfield Paradox shows us an Earth that is limping through a dire energy crisis, which is the perfect time to develop and build a huge space station thingummybob that will head upwards into the stars and fire a big beam down on our planet with probbably no long-lasting negative effects to us or the universe, obviously. The crew are impressively multi-cultural, with Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) being the one we are kept alongside the most, and they take turns at working together and fighting one another when things go wrong and Earth seems to disappear. If they can ever make it back there, and if some strange force will actually let them, becomes the focus of the film, with occasional diversions to show us what is going on back on Earth itself (which you should already be aware of if you've seen the previous two films).

You have a few things working very well here. The cast, for one, are a great mix; as well as Mbatha-Raw, there's Daniel Bruhl, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, David Oyelowo, Chris O'Dowd, and more. The production values are good, with some impressive special effects throughout. And fans of the previous movies will enjoy scouring each scene for small connections and references to other events.

Julius Onah directs well enough, showing especially good instincts when it comes to the scares and surprises, which are just a bit too few and far between. One moment features some squirm-inducing eyeball freakery that perked me right up again just as my interest had started to wane.

The biggest problem lies with the script, written by Oren Uziel. Hampered by a lack of logic, even movie-based logic, and possibly also hampered by having to shoehorn in those Cloverfield connections, the script falls completely flat in between the better set-pieces. Worst of all, it undermines the decent acting on display by making most of the characters very hard to care about. There's also no attempt to give us a decent hint at an explanation for certain events. I don't need everything spelled out for me, most people don't, but that doesn't mean a film can just be made up of various moments thrown together with no real idea of the cause and effect. That way lies anarchy and a lack of satisfaction for viewers.

Everything else makes up for the poor script, but only just (and I have already heard from a LOT of people who disagree with me). The weakest of the series so far, I can still see this being a big, even monster, hit for Netflix, thanks to the (lack of) marketing and the curiosity that fans will have. I just hope that whatever we get next is a bit better.

6/10

Get the previous two movies here.
Or, in America, get them here.


Monday, 5 February 2018

Flatliners (2017)

I am not going to tell you that the original Flatliners was a classic horror movie. It was a fun Joel Schumacher film, utilising a fun premise, decent enough script by Peter Filardi, and a cast of hot young stars of the time. I just never thought it as great as some others. I did like it though.

This remake starts with the same basic idea (medical students get themselves involved in experiments that lead to them dying for some time, which subsequently leads to them bringing something back over from the other side). But we get Niels Arden Oplev directing, and a script by Ben Ripley.

Ellen Page is Courtney, the first medical student to come up with the plan to flatline. She actually wants to do so because she thinks reading the data from the experience, as she does it while her brain activity is recorded,  could help deal with certain medical situations. She's joined by Jamie (James Norton), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons). And eventually, reluctantly, Ray (Diego Luna) gets caught up in the whole mess. Things start getting weird, and death isn't necessarily going to let anyone go without a fight.

When it comes to the actual logic of the way events pan out, Flatliners does a surprisingly good job. It starts off as being about more than people just trying to get their kicks, but eventually shows competition between the leads and the element of thrill-seeking involved. Ripley has done a decent enough job of updating a premise that didn't feel too badly dated to begin with, bringing in an interesting element that removes it slightly from the original (although I won't detail that - no spoilers here). It's just a shame that the new element also ends up proving the undoing of the film during the third act. Things feel a bit tamer than they could have been, even compared to the original film, which wasn't exactly pushing the boundaries of the horror genre. 

Oplev directs competently enough, but only just. The scares are, for the most part, the easiest options, the visuals are quite drab and lacking any sense of foreboding or decent atmosphere, and even the grand finale feels more like a whimper than a bang.

Then we have the cast. I like most of the people involved. Page, Dobrev, and Luna are all good enough for me to watch. I can't recall what else I have seen Norton and Clemons in, if anything, but they seemed just fine in their roles. They aren't, however, the hot stars of today. That doesn't make them bad actors, it just removes some of the spark that this premise had when it was first put in front of viewers. I'd imagine that some of you reading this will have no idea who half of these people are, yet we all STILL know Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland (who cameos here), Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin (okay, you don't remember him individually but you know there's a Baldwin clan), and maybe even the great Oliver Platt.

All of these elements add up to make something that's just a bit . . . disappointing. The tame script, the unspectacular and drab visual style, the star cast that doesn't feel exactly stellar. It makes a good attempt to rework the original material but there are too many mis-steps for it to become something decent (even the score by Nathan Barr is just average, at best).

4/10

UK folks can buy Flatliners here.
If in America you can buy it here.


Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)

Hugo Weaving plays Tick, a drag queen who gets a phone call from his estranged wife (Sarah Chadwick) asking if he can head to Alice Springs and put on a show at her hotel. Figuring that he owes her at least that much, Tick persuades the younger and cattier Felicia (Guy Pearce) to join him, as well as an older transgender woman named Bernadette (Terence Stamp). It's not long until personalities clash, but the trio stick together when entering small towns on their journey and battling against the small-minded attitudes of residents with a selection of fine insults, fun song and dance numbers, and the ability to hold their drink.

Written and directed by Stephen Elliott, Priscilla (truncated for handiness) is one of those feelgood, fun movies that Australia seems to deliver every few years. It's a superb mix of memorable characters, a fun script, and a lively soundtrack punctuating events. I was initially a bit wary of the over the top nature of the performances from the three leads, but felt better when considering that all three aren't just portraying gay men, they're portraying veteran performers.

All three actors do very well, and all three are very different from one another. Weaving is the solid core of the film, in many ways. He's the reason for the whole thing, and he is the one who reveals the most about himself on the journey. Pearce is as brash and catty as needed, often to the point of others turning on him, but he also has a fearlessness that helps the others swallow their reservations and get on with things. Stamp is given, in some ways, the most important role, and he helps to make Bernadette a very real, savvy, tired, woman who is just hoping to take her mind off things after the recent loss of her younger partner. Bill Hunter also does very well, playing a man they meet on their travels who helps to keep the bus in working order (just).

Deftly moving through a range of emotions in each scene, tension can make way for comedy and even the most joyous scenes can have an undercurrent of sadness running through them, Priscilla manages to be thought-provoking, inspirational, and simply entertaining throughout. It serves as a reminder of the problems faced daily by members of the LGBT community and does so by making the three main characters unafraid (okay, maybe they can be a bit nervous) of putting on their best dresses, their best faces, and diving headlong into environments that don't always welcome them with open arms. Which is how more people would like to be. And if you can do that while accompanied by a toe-tapping bit of ABBA, all the better.

8/10

Get yourself a copy of the film here.
Americans can pick it up here.


Saturday, 3 February 2018

Witchcraft (1988)

Witchcraft is a straight-to-video horror title that I would never have felt the need to watch until I discovered one important fact. It started a series that has currently reached instalment number sixteen. SIXTEEN. I'm not sure how easy they are to get a hold of but, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I am going to do my very best to see them all.

Grace (Anat Topol) is about to have a baby. All is going swimmingly with her husband John (Edward Ross AKA Gary Sloan) until they move into his mother's house. That's when the plot really begins to start up. Grace starts having disturbing visions, her favourite priest (Alexander Kirkwood) is adversely affected, and there are generally unsettling goings on that prey on her mind.

Directed by Rob Spera and written by Jody Savin, who haven't done anything else that I have seen (to date), Witchcraft is, to reach for the nearest comparison, a clumsy mix of Rosemary's Baby and The Devonsville Terror. The visions mostly feel plucked from the latter, a scene in which a number of visitors gather round to see the baby highlights the former, especially when Grace is visted by an attractive friend, Linda (Deborah Scott), who is pointedly ogled by at least one of the older visitors.

The acting is about what you would expect from a DTV flick called Witchcraft. Topol and Sloan aren't great, Mary Shelley plays the mother-in-law in a turn clearly influenced by "The Handbook Of How To Portray People Who Are Really Really Suspicious And Probably Evil", Kirkwood is given the obvious selection of affected priest tics to work with, and Scott is a surprising highlight. You also get Lee Kissman as Ellsworth, a man who seems to roam the house missing the days when he was being trained up for the role by his Uncle Lurch.

Despite the limitations of the budget, there's a lot here that's better than it could be. Savin may have written a pretty awful script but that's compensated for by decent enough work on the technical side. Yes, most of the film takes place in the one location, with one or two scene set elsewhere (supposedly set elsewhere, I should say), but the camera moves around okay, the editing doesn't make it into an unwatchable mess, and even the music by Randy Miller isn't too bad.

With a few extra ingredients this could have been a much better film. It tries to play things too seriously when it should have gone all-out and just had more fun. The fact that it resists the impulse to pad out the runtime with gratuitous nudity and gore is admirable, yet it also feels like this is the kind of film that would benefit from such obvious tactics, especially when the few special effects moments on display here are among the more careless and disappointing aspects.

It wasn't a great film but it wasn't too painful to watch. I had a little bit of fun with it. I wonder if I'll feel the same way when watching the sixteenth film in the series.

4/10

Get your copy of the first film here.
Americans can get it here.


Friday, 2 February 2018

Hairspray (2007)

Hairspray (1988) was my mild cinematic introduction to the wonderful world of John Waters. I had heard of him before then, having seen an episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show that had host Jonathan Ross interviewing the great man, but it would be some time before I started to delve deeper into his filmography. To be honest, I still need to see a LOT of his pre-Hairspray films, often forgetting that I haven't seen them because of already being familiar with some of his more (in)famous moments.

Despite Hairspray being quite possibly the tamest film that Waters has ever done, I was still surprised when it was turned into a stage musical. And when that musical version was adapted into a film I was more than just surprised, I was ever-so-slightly outraged. This was also before I was more at ease with the internet. I had less spaces to verbalise my anger and metaphorically stamp my feet about the whole thing. Thank goodness.

Because Hairspray is a lot of fun. Directed by Adam Shankman, it's a film that retains the simple, and wonderful, plot of the original film, adds a selection of decent tunes, and allows a number of stars to have a great time playing larger than life characters.

Nikki Blonsky is Tracy Turnblad, a young girl who dreams about a chance to dance on her favourite local TV dance show, hosted by Corny Collins (James Marsden). That chance comes to her at last, unbelievably, and she starts to do well on the show, which makes her an enemy of Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has been doing her best to ensure that her daughter (Brittany Snow) is the star dancer on the show. Tracy also finds herself in trouble when she becomes active in the growing movement to end racial segregation.

With a tweaked screenplay by Leslie Dixon, and the play by Mark O'Connell and Thomas Meehan to work from, Hairspray works so well because it translates the (I assume) upbeat and fun sense of the live show to the screen with canny casting and vibrant production design throughout that provides 1960s Baltimore as the setting for the proceedings, as well as populating the city with plenty of colourful characters.

And what a cast of characters we get. Blonsky is a sweet lead, and does well with the singing and dancing. Her parents are played by John Travolta (Edna) and Christopher Walken (Wilbur), and both of them have a lot of fun with their characters. Marsden is also having a whale of a time, playing Corny Collins as a sweet and cheesy host with the most, while Snow and Pfeiffer attack their "baddie" roles with great relish. Amanda Bynes, Elija Kelley, Zac Efron, Queen Latifah, and Allison Janney fill out the cast, with all of them given enough good moments to make them worth spending time with.

As unexpected as the origin of this movie is, just be thankful it got made. I still prefer the original, it's a bit sharper and more twisted, but this is a brilliant reworking of the material to appeal to a potentially much wider audience (who might also eventually check out the 1988 film).

8/10

You can buy it here.
Or, in the ol' US of A, buy it here.


Thursday, 1 February 2018

xXx: State Of The Union (2005)

If you ever struggle with your place in the world, stressing out as you consider the fact that your IQ may be working against you, because ignorance is bliss, then you should immediately get your hands on xXx: State Of The Union. It WILL help lower that IQ. It's that dumb.

Lee Tamahori, a man who should stop giving us poor action movies and return to making films like the most excellent Once Were Warriors, is the director, working from a script by Simon Kinberg (who has a slightly better track record, but also gave us Fantastic Four), and it quickly becomes clear that it's a hodge podge of ridiculous action and bad decisions, accompanied by a number of obvious soundtrack choices.

Ice Cube is the new xXx, an ex-military rough guy who gets broken out from jail by Samuel L. Jackson (reprising his role of Agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons) and Michael Roof (reprising the much lesser role of Agent Toby Lee Shavers). This all happens because the xXx facility has been raided, people have been killed, and there's suspicion of a conspiracy that may reach as high as the Secretary Of Defence (Willem Dafoe) and the President Of The United States (Peter Strauss). Can Ice Cube snarl and punch-kick-throw enough people out of the way to complete his new mission?

Let me clarify something before we move forward, I can absolutely switch my brain off to enjoy a movie. Anyone who has met me for more than five minutes already knows that it takes me more effort to sometimes switch my brain ON. But the film still has to meet me halfway. This does not do that. It's even more ridiculous than the first film, which would be okay if a) they nailed the tone and b) could make the most of their budget. They manage neither.

Cube can do tough and mean, but he doesn't ever feel convincing in the full action hero role. Sorry, he just doesn't work here for me. Jackson can do his thing in his sleep, and he's okay, and Roof clearly couldn't believe his luck when he found that his minor tech guy role from the first movie had been beefed up for this instalment. Dafoe is fun, Strauss is bland, Scott Speedman is an agent who may end up helping or hindering Cube, and Xzibit pops up long enough to join in with some vehicular carnage. The main female characters are played by Nona Gaye and Sunny Mabrey, with the latter given a bit more to do than the former.

There are so many moments here to either relish or roll your eyes at, depending on your mood. The jailbreak sequence, for starters, features one of my pet peeves - a vehicle that makes no sound at all until it appears in frame. There are some nice cars on display, lots of stuntmen fall down to make Ice Cube look good, a tank on tank battle quickly becomes far too ridiculous, but ends well, and the finale features a car jumping on to some train tracks, shredding the rubber from the tyres, and still catching up to a . . . bullet train. Admittedly, I was laughing out loud at that point. It was a big mess, but I had already gone along with it all and I knew the end must be near.

Despite the twists and turns that the script takes, the biggest thing working against this movie is that it doesn't have the identity of the first film. As dumb as xXx was, it had the central gimmick (extreme sports legend sent in as a secret agent). This film is just an action movie that seems determined to be the dumbest film of 2005. Tamahori and Kinberg can do much better, as can most of the cast members. I suspect even Roof can do better. And I know that viewers can.

3/10.

Buy two movies here
Or Americans can get just the sequel here.



Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Crocodile Dundee II (1988)

After the success of Crocodile Dundee, it was probably a no-brainer that a sequel would be given the greenlight. And it came along two years later. A lot of the main players return, but the main twist on the material this time around is that the fish out of water main character returns to settle back in his own pond for a while.

Mick Dundee (Paul Hogan) is living happily with his partner, Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski), in New York. He still has his quirks, of course, but he seems nice and settled. But all that changes when Sue's ex-husband photographs a drug cartel killing someone and sends the photographs to Sue. That makes Sue a target, which makes Mick think that she might be safer if they head back to Australia and lay low for a while. The baddies follow, sorely underestimating the fact that Mick is even more of a force to be reckoned with when he's on his home turf.

The fact that this was made so soon after the first film, and has Hogan so easily slipping back into his character, ends up being a big plus for the film. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds comfort and contentment at times, and this is what you will get here if you enjoyed the first film. What you won't get, however, are many laughs. It's a shame that when Paul and Brett Hogan wrote the script for this outing they forgot to keep the laughs going along with the chase/thriller scenario. Not that the whole thing is laugh-free. It's just that most of the jokes are minor ones, and a bit too few and far between.

The direction by John Cornell is exactly the same as his direction on the first film, there are some nice shots of Australia, and he soundtrack has one tune that I enjoy on it - Real Wild Child (Wild One), performed by Iggy Pop.

Hogan and Kozlowski pair up better here than they did in the first film, mainly thanks to the latter not now having to show her being won over by the former's rough charm. John Meillon has good fun reprising his role (Walter), and he gets some more screentime thanks to his character being grabbed by the cartel as someone they think may help them catch Mick. Hechter Ubarry and Juan Fernandez are stereotypical cartel villains, and they feel like a real threat at times, while the rest of the supporting cast doesn't boast too many familiar faces, with the exception of a young-ish Luis Guzman and Charles S. Dutton being involved for all of five minutes.

It's admirable that the film at least tried to do something different with the characters in this instalment. Everyone involved could have easily just transported Mick to another area (the UK, for example) and allowed him to have another bunch of misunderstandings. They didn't. Although it wouldn't stop them returning to that well thirteen years later, when we got Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles.

5/10

Buy a double-bill here.
And Americans can pick it up here.


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Cabin 28 (2017)

"Based on the true life murders which inspired The Strangers" - that is the main blurb written on the front cover of the DVD of Cabin 28. So if you liked The Strangers then you should very well like this film. That's the implication. The reality is that The Strangers was a competent, at times chilling, horror film. This is not. But it has killers entering a house while wearing masks. That's where the points of similarity end.

To be fair, and to start off on a positive note, this film seems to stick to the main points of the unsolved case when it comes to the details that are known. Sue (Terri Dwyer) and members of her family were staying in the cabin when it was invaded by people who viciously murdered them. And that's the good stuff out of the way.

A quick run through the filmography of director Andrew Jones shows that he has a canny knack for helming films that end up trying to cash in on some recognisable horror genre names. He did The Amityville Asylum, he did Poltergeist Activity, and he has just completed his third movie about an evil doll named Robert. All of them either insinuate that they are connected to something they really aren't or state that they are based on a true story (always something that we horror fans take with a pinch of salt anyway).

He's working here from a script by John Klyza, and neither man seems to have a clue of how to build characters or tension. It's hard enough for the film to overcome the issue that it is full of Brits pretending they're all Americans (and if there are any actual Americans in the cast, well, they can't even manage to do their own accents properly), the fact that it fails in that regard while also lacking any competence in the writing, directing, and technical departments just makes the whole thing a real chore to get through.

I can't even feel angry enough to rant about the cast. They don't do a good job, but I suspect that's largely down to the awful script and a director who has assured them that all of their accents are fine and every scene has been nailed down just as he wants it (while he looks at how fare ahead of schedule and under budget they are). Dwyer is especially poor, although she's also given more screentime than some others, but Brendee Green, Derek Nelson, Lee Bane, Gareth Lawrence, Jason Homewood, and Ryan Michaels all give very weak performances.

You might spy this cover, see a low price, and think it can't be that bad. It can. You might think it's at least worth having on your shelf until an evening when you have nothing better available to watch. There's always something better available to watch. You may receive it as a gift from someone who knows you're a horror fan. Unfriend that person, move, and never let them discover your new address. Alternatively, regift it to someone you dislike. You get the picture.

2/10

The disc is available here.
Or, if in America, here.


Monday, 29 January 2018

The Prestige (2006)

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".
The Prestige is another sumptuous Christopher Nolan film in a fine line of sumptuous Christopher Nolan films, co-written by himself and his brother Jonathan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, and arguably more intriguing and intimate than anything else he has directed since he reached the level of success earned by Batman Begins. That's not to say that this is better than any of his other films since then. It's just nice to see him work on something of a smaller scale, something that doesn't need to warp cityscapes or throw you headlong into grand moments seemingly designed to look best in IMAX.

After a stage trick goes horribly wrong, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) find themselves growing more obsessed with each other. Each wants to outdo the other, but Borden seems to have the upper hand when he achieves great success with his "transported man" illusion. Angier grows more and more desperate to learn the secret of the trick, unaware of what it will end up costing both men if he continues on his self-destructive path.

The Prestige is very much constructed like a magic trick, and very much in line with the quote above. But while this could have seemed a bit precious and self-congratulatory, with the Nolans spelling out the structure of the film and trying to trick viewers on the way to the finale, it instead comes over as something that has simply been crafted with great attention to detail and an aim to entertain. The twists in the plot are enjoyable enough, but rewatching the film emphasises just how unimportant they are when it comes to the quality of the tale. You can know how a card trick is done, but that doesn't stop you enjoying it being done by a slick showman who also tells you an entertaining story while he's trying to keep everyone else from figuring out his secrets.

Jackman and Bale are both great, although Bale's accent does occasionally veer a little bit towards parody cockney territory, and they both get their share of excellent moments throughout. Michael Caine is also very good, helping both men out at different times in their lives. Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, and Scarlett Johansson all play women who are adversely affected by the obsessions of these men. They're not given as much to work with, at all, but all do a good enough job, with Hall giving a surprisingly effective and moving performance that sits up there with the best I have seen from her. David Bowie plays Tesla, which allows him to yet again be effortlessly cool in a much smaller role that absolutely works for him, and both Andy Serkis and the magical Ricky Jay do well with their brief amount of screentime, Jay is a cameo you could easily miss.

The music by David Julyan is very good, the production design and composition of every scene is gorgeous, and the editing allows for lots of nice foreshadowing and reveals on the way to . . . The Prestige.

All too often overlooked nowadays, which is understandable considering the impressive body of work that Nolan has built up, The Prestige is definitely worth a watch/rewatch. It's a film for fans of Nolan, for fans of the cast, for fans of magic, and for fans of great film-making.

8/10

Buy the shiny disc here.
Or, in America, buy it here.


Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Post (2017)

Based on real events of the 1970s, The Post shows viewers the battle that the newspapers, and specifically The Washington Post, went through as they attempted to publish extracts from classified documents that revealed damning details of politicians and presidents who led America, step by step, right into the folly that was the Vietnam War.

Lots of people are giving love to The Post, partly because it has a typical level of technical expertise you would expect from director Steven Spielberg and partly because the battle between the press and the White House resonates with a lot of people watching the current events that have given us terms such as "alternative facts" and "fake news". If ever there was a time for this movie then that time is now.

Unfortunately, and let me say I have thought about this long and hard, it really isn't that good a film.

It works as a statement, as a piece of art created specifically to fire a reminding warning shot to those who think that the press is just expected to relay soundbites without questioning people in positions of authority, but it doesn't work as a satisfying cinema experience, for two main reasons.

First, you have the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. It's a strangely messy tangle of different strands, from the investigative journalist who first broke the story to boardroom meetings about The Washington Post moving from private ownership to a company with public shareholders, from the relationships between the various writers and staff to the truncated snippets of the trial that would prove so important for the freedom of the press.

Second, you have the cast. Meryl Streep is as good as ever, playing Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of The Washington Post, and Tom Hanks is also his usual reliable self in the role of Ben Bradlee, editor in chief at the paper, but the rest of the cast is either wasted (Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons) or made up in a way that will take you out of the movie as you figure out who is under the heavy make up (Bruce Greenwood, David Cross, Bradley Whitford). Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts are two other exceptions, both given decent scenes without having to be heavily disguised.

Third, and perhaps most damaging of all, the film feels too busy being smug when it could be spending more time dissecting the core issue. Those who know the tale, or are aware of The Washington Post, should know the outcome, and they should know, considering the time period, what comes next, so that could have been the background to something looking more closely at how the battle built up on both sides of the divide. Replace all of the talk of the stock market with scenes instead showing meetings in the White House laying out their opposition, perhaps even spitballing ideas that they realised they wouldn't be allowed to follow through on, and the whole thing may have felt more intense.

Maybe it's just me. The film has already garnered a lot of love, and I might remain in the minority here. But I still advise people to approach with trepidation. It's a decent story, and there are some great performances, but Spielberg doesn't create the magic you would expect. Very disappointing.

4/10

A disc is available to order here.
Americans can order it here.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Last Flag Flying (2017)

Last Flag Flying is a character piece, and it's a simple and moving one, mainly thanks to the strong turns from the three leads.

It's 2003. Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) enters a bar, has a beer, and then prompts the barman to remember who he is. The barman is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), and he soon realises that Larry is one of his army buddies from his days in the Vietnam war. This meeting isn't accidental. Larry asks Sal to accompany him on a little trip, which is how they end up in a church, listening to a sermon being delivered by Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who was also their army buddy. Larry then asks both men to accompany him on a longer trip. He has to attend the funeral of his son, a soldier shot while on duty over in Iraq.

Although it does nothing spectacular, and many may complain that it feels as if it does nothing at all, I found Last Flag Flying to be a quietly moving and altogether enjoyable viewing experience. The three central characters are very different people, but it's easy to see the bonds that join them together (even if there are times when they themselves can't see them).

Director Richard Linklater allows the leads to grow together organically, estranged friends who recapture their comfort and rhythms as the film plays out. He's helped by a script, co-written between himself and Darryl Ponicsan (from the novel by Ponicsan), that nails the central aspect of each character in their first few scenes before starting to flesh them out. I discovered, after watching the film, that these characters are supposed to be the same characters featured in The Last Detail, but it seems clear that Linklater was more interested in the main themes being explored than delivering a direct sequel to that story (I guess, considering the fact that three characters have had their names changed in this translation to the screen).

The performances are all excellent. Cranston is a bag of crudity and antagonism, and Fishburne is quiet and calm until pushed too far, but the standout is Carell, who impresses from his very first scene through to the affecting finale. J. Quinton Johnson is also very good, playing a young soldier who served with Sheperd's son, Deanna Reed-Foster is enjoyable in her limited screentime, and Yul Vazquez is a Colonel who gets his cool demeanor deliberately ruffled by Cranston's character.

While not a film that will stand out from Linklater's filmography, nor one that may be that celebrated or even remembered in a few years time, this is worth your time. Three actors get to do some damn fine work together, and sometimes that is all it takes to make an enjoyable movie-watching experience.

7/10

You can pick up The Last Detail here, to tide you over until Last Flag Flying is on shiny disc.Region free.