February’s a short month as it is, but nine films over four weeks is a low batting average. One of those was a repeat viewing, two others I reviewed over at Thumped, and I’m writing up one more over the weekend, or perhaps early next week. The rest you can find below. More…
Even accounting for the fact that some were shorter (circa 1 hr) documentaries, that’s still a better than average showing. Mind you, I didn’t write as many full-length reviews as I have in previous years, but it surely indicates I was watching more for my own enjoyment and/or edification. (That also classifies as CPD as far as I’m concerned.) More…
Another few weeks of genre-hopping, thanks to a free month of Shudder that I ended up letting lapse as I couldn’t find much of anything I wanted to watch. So it goes.
But it was also a month that included one of my favourite films of the year. Shame it bypassed cinemas and went straight to Netflix. The new straight to video? I sure hope not.
Obviously Netflix is better than that, but there is a clear sense that it serves serialised ‘prestige’ TV much better than first-run feature films. And I get the feeling even Netflix’s honchos recognise this, going by all the promos I’m seeing for Bright (which isn’t out till the end of this month). More…
October’s viewing was a mixed bag: a handful of cinema trips, one of them a press show (for Brawl in Cell Block 99, as previously linked); a few dips into Netflix and other streaming services; genres all over the place; and one classic rewatch that stands the test of time. More…
Compared to July and August, September was a quiet month for movies watched round these parts. Mind you, two involved trips to the cinema as a paying punter, though one I regret spending those few euros on (see if you can guess which one). More…
I may not have been blogging much here, but I did ramp up my movie-watching over the summer — mostly thanks to my dive into ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series (not all of which I’ve reviewed, mind).
Among the films I watched in July and August is one of the best of the year thus far in War for the Planet of the Apes. And on average the quality has been pretty good, with only a handful of duds to speak of. More…
Despite promising to myself that I would more carefully audit the quality of the films I watch for pleasure/personal edification, I still managed to watch one of the worst things I’ve seen in many a year. Must do better in July. More…
The third entry in the Freddy franchise trades the inventive gore and straight-up weirdness of the original, and the sexuality allegory of the unfairly maligned second effort, for a more fantastic scenario that nevertheless has its queasy moments (the ‘string puppet’ scene near the start, especially). It’s not as well paced as you might remember it (Freddy’s barely in it; I doubt Robert Englund had to wear the makeup for more than a week) and pretty much runs out of steam in the final act, where it’s more a showcase for the technical skills of the special effects artists than a story worth following. Indeed, I forgot about the Harryhausen tribute at the end; I burst out laughing, but not in a bad way.
What a treat this is: a genuinely funny, sweet and touching comedy-drama about a non-traditional family and the unique creature who shakes up their lives. But it arrived before most people cared about such things, and doesn’t fit neatly into the Disney canon, so is unfairly overlooked (even by me, hence why it’s taken me so long to see it).
The first ‘straight’ genre pastiche from the Astron-6 collective, The Void is a film very much in thrall of its influences in lieu of its own worldbuilding: it’s basically Carpenter’s The Thing, Prince of Darkness and a few others crossed with Fulci’s The Beyond, by way of Hellraiser and Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft flicks. What’s more, the awful lighting makes it largely impossible to appreciate the practical effects, which are Empire Pictures weird-veering-on-hokey rather than other-worldly terrifying, so I don’t know why they bothered. I didn’t hate watching it, though.
Yoshitoki Ōima’s slice-of-life manga perhaps naturally loses some of its plot clarity and character development in the translation to the big screen, compressing an 18-month-long story into a two-hour movie and all that. But the spirit is intact, as a disconnected group of teenagers – one of them deaf – try to mend the wounds they inflicted on one another when they were younger and knew no better. Emotionally genuine, and beautifully animated. Very much recommended if you liked Toradora!
I really wanted to like this. I really did. I was even willing to forgive the handful of creaky moments in its first half hour — paper-thin characters, hackneyed set-ups and more — because the pace is so exciting. When the titular giant ape makes his first appearance, it’s at a genuinely unexpected moment, and the chaos is handled beautifully by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer). I was ready for a thrill ride.
But it’s all downhill from there. You see, it’s one thing to reference other movies, to pay visual or thematic homage; that’s something the otherwise narratively impoverished A Cure for Wellness does to its credit. It’s another, however, to simply mash-up the plots of a few different movies and hope that nostalgia will fill the cracks.
So James Mangold finally got to make his R-rated Wolverine. And? Strip away the air of ‘serious film’-ness surrounding this super-anti-hero flick and it’s a fairly ordinary road movie, gussied up by a gritty pomo western style, relatively extreme violence, and uncharacteristic potty-mouth dialogue. All very cute, like when Jackman says ‘fuck off’ in that Avengers cameo. Fanboys can shove it.
Macon Blair’s directorial debut, a blackly comic revenge film, suffers from first-film-itis for much of its running time. Its obvious influences (mostly his old filmmaking pal Jeremy Saulnier, with a smattering of Edgar Wright) get in the way of a story that’s unevenly focused as it is, one minute a me-against-the-world drama, the next a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style cringe comedy. Things improve markedly in the final act, however, with an explosion of violence that brings a film with quirky, flighty tendencies back down to earth hard. David Yow (he of noise rock legends The Jesus Lizard) is a revelation as the primary heel of the piece, and Elijah Wood brings his usual charm as the oddball sidekick, but it’s Melanie Lynskey in the lead who holds it all together, just about, as the woman who decides she can no longer bear to let the bastards get her down.
Unexpectedly decent, this. The postmodern Wes Craven approach is writ large in its first half, and the obvious references pay off in grisly amusement rather than belly-laughs, as they should. It’s also effectively atmospheric, as the tropes start to die off and our main characters succumb to the creeping realisation that there are no rules to this horror movie. If there’s anything really wrong it it, it’s that it suffers from the same problem as that other colossal horror tussle: it’s far too long before the titular characters go one on one.
Fede Alvarez’s reboot of the Sam Raimi horror classic pretends to add depth with a thinly veiled subtext of demonic possession as metaphor for drug addiction, but it’s drowned out amid a witless torrent of wince-inducing gore — and a thoroughly nasty, cynical tone. I walked out on this halfway through when it first hit cinemas, and after catching up on Netflix I see I didn’t miss much.
Olympus Has Fallen comes with a certain charm to its ridiculous premise and theatrical violence. Only a trace of that tongue-in-cheek attitude is present in this cheap and nasty sequel, which takes its jingoism far too seriously. It’s also a film that constantly takes its audience for mugs, and can’t even be bothered to get Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman in the same place on the same day. That’s pathetic.
Here’s a diegetic twist on the found-footage horror where the meta-narrative is more than just a series of links between episodes, as a team of cops race against time to rescue a missing family from a masked assailant, following clues from digital cameras recovered at the crime scene, but uncover a mystery far more messed-up than anyone could have expected. Props to French film prodigy Nathan Ambrosioni (he’s only 17, the bastard!) for a decent attempt at the kind of genre blend that usually separates or scrambles. However, it’s still primarily a found-footage psycho slasher, set in a spooooky abandoned building, in the deep, dark woods — hitting the cliché trifecta — so your mileage may vary.
It takes a good while for this belated sequel to get going, through a messy, meandering first half-hour that feels a lot longer, till all the pieces are in place for a souped-up showdown between our heroes and the nefarious Tall Man, gleefully icky and technically impressive (for its day) special effects and all.
Who the hell called this #Horror when a far better title (Slashtag!) is staring you right in the face? It’s not even really a horror film, anyway, not until the last 20 minutes. Psychological thriller, then? Maybe, at a stretch, when most of it plays as a cyberbullying-themed tweenage drama with some blunt social commentary shoehorned in. First-time director (but long-time actor, fashion industry figure and multimedia artist) Tara Subkoff throws all her influences into the mix here, and it shows. More focus would help, but it’s hardly the worst film ever; these no-star reviews are taking the piss.
That it’s made by one of the ‘stars’ of Troll 2, the ‘worst movie ever made’, is what steers this away from mocking hipster irony to give us a genuinely sweet and decidedly odd where-are-they-now documentary. That it centres on the charming actor-turned-dentist George Hardy as its hero, following his exploits as he drums up support for comedic revival screenings, is more luck than genius, but that’s fine, because Michael Stephenson knows what he’s got here. Not only an insight into the unconventional world of the jobbing actor, and the quirks of the convention circuit, it’s even got a pantomime villain in Claudio Fragasso, director of Troll 2 (it doesn’t even have any trolls in it!) and a man whose inflated ego won’t let him admit he was a purveyor of trash.
You probably wouldn’t expect an Italo-horror cash-in on the 1970s craze for demonic progeny (The Exorcist, The Omen) and young women with supernatural powers (Carrie, The Fury, etc) to have much identity of its own. And especially not when its biggest set pieces betray an obsession with Hitchcock’s The Birds. But The Visitor’s deeply strange story, rooted in a sci-fi interpretation of Abrahamic religious myth, stands apart from the typical rip-offs of the day.
Arrival is definitely a Denis Villeneuve film, and it’s a beautiful one for the most part. The visuals are muted but constantly arresting, a stylistic contrast to the over-sharpened harshness of Sicario. Similarly, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sound design is enveloping yet the drones don’t conjure a sense of claustrophobic unease as much as something bigger than we can comprehend. It’s full of allusions to Kubrick, Malick, Tarkovsky, even Spielberg, not to mention Villeneuve’s own films: the long tunnel shots of Sicario; the arachnoid preoccupations of Enemy. (And for his second film running, a strong female lead; Amy Adams carries the weight of the world on her shoulders here.) However, the last 20 to 30 minutes of the story require a leap of faith that I wasn’t prepared to make, and I don’t believe is earned. In trying to distill complex philosophical questions about language and meaning and self into something parseable in a two-hour movie, it drops the ball right when it matters most.
I get passion for the genre and nostalgia for the era and everything, but mid-80s drive-in-filler slasher Blood Rage is just plain bad. There’s some intelligence behind the kills, and in the occasional non-sequitur weirdness. But overall? What a waste of a good idea.
For the first 45 minutes or so, The Force Awakens promises an exciting new beginning for the Star Wars series. It’s raring to go right from the start, JJ Abrams’ kinetic direction far, far away from George Lucas’ paint-by-numbers set-ups, even aside from the exhilarating action scenes. That shot of the crashed Star Destroyer we’ve all seen from the publicity stills? It looks even more breathtaking on the big screen, one of the best visual moments in modern cinema. And the new characters – desert planet scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), hot-shot X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), defecting stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), even the droid BB-8 – feel right at home in the universe the original trilogy established. When Han Solo and Chewbacca show up, as we know they will from the ubiquitous marketing campaign, it represents a passing of the torch more than anything else.
I’ve watched (or tried to watch) the first Star Wars movie a few times now. The last time I think I saw it all the way through was the 1997 theatrical re-release, with George Lucas’ added splodges of digital imagery. The version I’ve just watched (ahead of seeing The Force Awakens later this week) was the Blu-ray remaster, with much improved colour timing and CGI texturing, but the digital elements still look out of place, like intentionally shitty Photoshop.
And the story itself retains its flaws, with the exciting opening scenes giving way to the plodding, superfluous droid double-act on Tatooine that lost my attention so many times over as a child. Lucas was never that good on plot, let’s be honest. It’s not till bratty Luke and Old Ben meet Han and Chewy that the pacing improves and the action kicks up notch by notch, and from then on it’s as fine a space romp as I remember.
Such a shame that Lucas never improved on the promise the second half shows, letting his tutor Irvin Kershner helm the subsequent, superior The Empire Strikes Back. Why Lucas never directed another film till the execrable Star Wars prequel trilogy more than 20 years later is anyone’s guess; mine is that he hated directing,
Beyond the Black Rainbow could be a good deal shorter; the final half-hour really tries the patience. It’s also a little too much in thrall of its influences (David Cronenberg’s films and Ken Russell’s Altered States for the most part, but also Carpenter, Argento, maybe even Boards of Canada and the video game Bioshock?) to stand on its own as a mindbending psycho-horror. But Panos Cosmatos’ debut feature at least steals from the best, while the villainous Michael Rogers steals this very picture with his malevolent presence.
Seijun Suzuki’s Yakuza classic epitomises ’60s cool with its bold colours and fashions, picturesque framing and brisk editing, but it’s so much more than that. What other thriller could embrace comedic farce or even the musical without losing its edge?
Thirty-seven years on and John Carpenter’s original still maintains its power to scare. Much of that is in its economy, from the austerity of the villain’s backstory (we don’t need to know Michael Myers is anything other than a unique brand of psychopath with preternatural abilities) to the brief running time (90 minutes is more than enough to do all it needs to do) to the distinct lack of gore (it’s not about gruesome set pieces; the horror – even visually – is mostly liminal). It’s in Carpenter’s holistic vision for the piece, with unusual shots and staging for the time, and that pioneering electronic soundtrack. And of course it’s also in Jamie Lee Curtis, she of quality Hollywood lineage, being a cut above the average scream queen, and with whose terror it’s all too easy to empathise. Quite simply one of the best ever.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is the very definition of style over substance. This giallo en français certainly looks the part as it descends into madness both figurative and literal, hitting cues similar to the far superior Berberian Sound Studio (that film’s director Peter Strickland is listed in the credits for audio contributions) with its repeated motifs of mirrors, eyes, lenses, knife blades, bared flesh and the like. But the sonic shenanigans and visual trickery grow tiresome before long with so little behind the bluster to discover, or want to discover. The result is little more than a showreel, albeit an admittedly impressive one, that’s desperately in search of a mystery.
The Last Witch Hunter is the kind of film with lots of flaws if you look too close but c’mon, it’s Vin Diesel, chill!
Sure, the story makes up its mythology on the fly and it’s too self-serious for its own good and it’s about 15 minutes too long and Michael Caine is basically Alfred with a dog collar, etc etc – most everything else you’d be right to point out. But you have to realise: this film is literally Vin Diesel LARPing his own Dungeons & Dragons character from his youth.
Director Breck Eisner (son of the Disney guy, and helm of 2010’s decent remake of The Crazies) serves as a competent DM for the world’s least likely mega-nerd to live out his adolescent fantasies, with fellow Hollywood geek Elijah Wood and an uncanny Rose Leslie along for the ride, and the results are fairly entertaining if you’re attuned to its silliness.
I’m not quite sure what Eli Roth was trying to achieve with The Green Inferno. Is it a faithful tribute to the cannibal flicks of the late 1970s, with their colonial-tinged exploitation crossed with the mixed emotions and morality of their protagonists? Or simply a crowdpleaser for gorehounds, with a deliberately hate-able cast for whom we’re just counting down the minutes till they’re slaughtered by the film’s ‘real’ heroes?
Inept sub-student-movie nonsense, with a ridiculous twist and a payoff that hardly makes up for its extremely tasteless misogyny. It’s not transgressive, it’s just fucking awful. What the fuck happened to you, Lucky McKee?
Robert Zemeckis’ cornball cheese-fest mostly makes a mockery of the true-life story that also inspired the superlative 2008 documentary Man On Wire.
In essence, he Forrest Gumps the tale of Philippe Petit’s illegal wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and his godawful ‘wee wee’ French accent) narrating the story as a series of flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks) laden with oversaturated colours, vaselined lenses and a score so sickly sweet my ears got a toothache.
Some have hailed the climactic wire walk scene as worth the effort, and admittedly it’s the most effective use of 3D in some time (both in that section and throughout). But over-reliance on CGI, much of it poorly done (I’ve seen video games with more convincingly human character models), leaves an indelible trace of artificiality that broke my suspension of disbelief.
Moreover, despite the title, it’s not even a celebration of Petit’s daring stunt as much as it is a florid tribute to the Twin Towers, just shy of flashing ‘9/11’ on the screen every few minutes to make sure you’ve got it. Ripping from a real tragedy to imbue your sentimental schlock with emotional resonance? That’s some cheap huckster bullshit right there.
Theories abound about this Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, made concurrently with Prisoners and ultimately the better of the two. It’s a very different beast, of course; Prisoners is a glum, violent mystery with a dodgy sense of morality, whereas Enemy is pretty much Cronenberg homage.
The plot, concerning a wet towel of a college lecturer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who discovers his doppelgänger is a jobbing actor – or is it the other way round? – is straight out of the Cronenberg wheelhouse. The setting is Toronto, ostensibly, but the presentation is as a Ballard-esque modernist nightmare; a brutalist, very Cronenbergian un-place.
And in general there are nods to the great Canadian’s work throughout: the strange fluidity of identity (Dead Ringers), the heart-stopping shock of a car wreck (Crash), the mind-bending visions of impossible creatures (Naked Lunch), even the casting (the magnetic Sarah Gadon is a Cronenberg regular at this stage).
That Villeneuve can bring these all together in a package that feels wholly its own, and not a mere pastiche of those influences, is a credit to him as a filmmaker. That he chooses to end the film on such an uncomfortable, head-spinning note, and that it feel like it works, makes that doubly so.
Dark Summer bears the hallmarks of a short blown up to feature length without developing the story to fit the extra minutes. So we spend far too long meandering through dialogue-free scenes that evaporate the atmosphere – as Keir Gilchrist’s (a suspicious lookalike for Alphas’ Ryan Cartwright) house-arrested cyberstalker finds himself being tormented by the subject of his obsession, possibly from beyond the grave – towards a twist climax that’s less effective than it would have been had it come after, say, half an hour. It also would have been better served employing the less-is-more dictum, as the overt supernatural elements in the middle section detract from its less showy, and more appropriate, ending.
It’s not really a movie that survives repeat viewing – the killer’s all but carrying a sign saying ‘I am the killer’, only rendered invisible the first time round by audience adherence to genre conventions – but Scream never gets boring, that’s for sure. More…
You may have heard the story before – Kevin Smith’s infamous anecdote about Jon Peters and the spider – so much of this fairly amateurish documentary might feel like repetition, as it’s basically an extended riff on the same ‘so crazy it has to be true’ Hollywood tale. But where it lacks in professionalism, it makes up for it in its enthusiasm for the subject, and its inclusion of some revelatory behind-the-scenes footage that show the real promise of what might have been had Nic Cage indeed got to wear the Big S on the silver screen. More…
I’m not really a James Bond fan (though I’ve seen A View to a Kill more times that I can remember) so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I never got round to seeing the Daniel Craig era Bonds. Till now, that is. Here’s my take on Casino Royale:
The first Bond of the Daniel Craig era is supposed to be ‘the gritty one’ but apart from a short sharp shock in the intro, and That Torture Scene near the end, it’s largely cheesy as fuck. Less cheesy than the silly Brosnan flicks, sure, but hardly the rebooted, ‘serious’ James Bond it’s purported to be. Still, it’s pretty entertaining, though it doesn’t half go on; two-and-a-half hours is far too long for a film of this ilk.
Seriously, screw the internet pile-on – there’s really a lot to like about the Fantastic Four reboot. Josh Trank’s film (from a screenplay by him, Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) adds a more ‘rational’ twist, in terms of internal logic, to the FF’s inherently silly origin story, eschewing the already dated campiness of the noughties films (so that it’s more tonally consistent with its sibling X-Men franchise) and borrowing liberally from Cronenberg’s The Fly in its fable of ambition gone awry.
Another documentary double bill. First up, Sarah Kelly’s fly-on-the-wall/in-the-ointment making-of doc Full Tilt Boogie:
One of those ‘things didn’t turn out the way they expected’ documentaries, whereby a pretty simple behind-the-scenes hangout with the cast and crew (mostly crew) of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn gets complicated by union troubles, bad weather, shitty food, and even the odd fire.
I have to admit I was disappointed to learn the Charlie Lyne responsible for this visual essay – or dissertation, really – exploring the tropes of the high school/teen movie since the mid 1990s is actually male. Blame the gender ambiguity of the name, or the choice of presentation (narration provided by Fairuza Balk), or my own expectation that we were finally getting to hear what a woman has to say about film in a film. I guess that’s still a picture that needs to be made. It doesn’t diminish the work here, however, though it’s better appreciated as a personal reading of the material at hand rather than a prescriptive definition of the genre, if it’s even a genre.
Others have referenced John Carpenter, in both mood and score, in this striking, creeping, brooding psychological (and vaguely psychosexual) horror, where young people’s actions are turned against them by forces unknowable, but not in the slasher-type way you might expect from that description. Personally, though, what stood out for me were the manifold allusions to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, not in its main plot or elevator pitch but those unsettling incidental touches that make Wes Craven’s film so memorable. Fear and terror are one thing; the constant nagging anxiety that there’s something that wants to get you, and you don’t know how to stop it, that’s very different, and it’s a palpable feeling that David Robert Mitchell’s film evokes quite powerfully here.
Richard Stanley, some of his cast and many of his crew lament the disintegration of what could have been the Hardware and Dust Devil director’s Peter-Jackson-level Hollywood calling card. Alas, it happened the way it happened: Stanley disappeared into relative obscurity while his fellow Southern Hemisphere horror auteur got to do The Frighteners, survived a few years of boardroom politicking to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the rest is history. But something tells me Stanley wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Quite the curio, this: the original Godzilla, repackaged for American audiences with the addition of Raymond ‘Ironside’ Burr as a reporter recounting the destruction for newspaper readers back home.
The conceit is a smart one for the presumably tiny budget they had to work with: rather than dub the Japanese cast or add subtitled, they just have Burr do a voiceover. (There’s even a scene where he leans into one of his native hosts to confess his Japanese is a bit rusty and he needs a translation. I like that.)
Here’s a couple of ‘Netflix roulette’ viewings, starting with Limitless
I still don’t know what people see in Bradley Cooper. His charisma void undermines what’s already a fairly uninspired action thriller, one with Dick-ish pretensions but too capitalist to go all the way. That director Neil Burger would go on to helm the first instalment of the Divergent franchise is apropos, in hindsight.