Lists  Reviews  Images  Update feed
MoviesTV ShowsMusicBooksGamesDVDs/Blu-RayPeopleArt & DesignPlacesWeb TV & PodcastsToys & CollectiblesComic Book SeriesBeautyAnimals   View more categories »
Listal logo
All reviews - Movies (1473) - TV Shows (36) - DVDs (2)

The "Empire Strikes Back" of this new trilogy

Posted : 3 months ago on 15 December 2017 04:41 (A review of Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi)

Despite its critical and commercial success, certain vocal armchair critics felt that 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens played things too "safe," and merely rehashed 1977's Star Wars. Answering to that criticism is writer-director Rian Johnson's Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, which takes this new trilogy in fresh and bold directions, defying the smug expectations of those who assumed they were just in for a remake of The Empire Strikes Back. In addition, whereas The Force Awakens was a fast-paced, escapist blockbuster, Johnson slams on the brakes to deal with story development and drama, opting for epic storytelling over constant thrills, and requiring patience. Indeed, The Force Awakens was more purely enjoyable, but this follow-up is the superior movie. Exquisitely polished, appropriately rousing and emotionally rich, The Last Jedi is another stalwart Star Wars adventure which proves that there is still plenty of life left in this long-running film series.

The location of the Resistance base has been exposed, prompting General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to evacuate as the First Order closes in under the leadership of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). But the Resistance fleet cannot escape the First Order and are critically short on fuel, not to mention their starfighter fleet has been obliterated. Unsure of their leadership, Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) go rogue in an attempt to save what's left of the dwindling Resistance forces. To this end, Finn teams up with maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the tracking system of the First Order's main Star Destroyer. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Chewbacca have tracked down Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who now lives like a hermit on the isolated planet of Ahch-To, the location of the First Jedi Temple. Rey begs Luke to leave his self-imposed exile and join the fight against the First Order, but he's haunted by his past failures. Even though Luke reluctantly agrees to teach Rey the ways of the Jedi, he fears that she will be seduced by the Dark Side, much like his nephew Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver).

Picking up immediately after The Force Awakens, the narrative of The Last Jedi is unexpected, and its ultimate trajectory and plot surprises cannot be spoiled. Happily, aside from sharing a few tiny surface details, this is truly the furthest thing possible from a remake of The Empire Strikes Back. (It's satisfying to see how confidently Johnson shuts down those who have spent the last two years arrogantly assuming they have "figured out" this new trilogy.) Johnson's vision is dark, and he unearths astonishing depth and thematic density to create a more adult motion picture, which is a welcome surprise given that this is a Disney production. Whereas George Lucas built the original Star Wars trilogy around concepts such as Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, Luke is now fully aware that happy endings never last, and that becoming a legend is not necessarily a good thing. The characters here debate the merits of holding onto the past, not to mention the Jedi religion and its hubris is brutally deconstructed. One of the movie's most powerful scenes involves the surprise return of an old character, who has much wisdom to impart. Other themes also crop up throughout The Last Jedi, including the business of war, as arms dealers sell to both sides of the conflict to earn their riches. The self-reflection is certainly welcome for a franchise that has just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The Last Jedi is certainly long, clocking in at 150 minutes which is the most substantial runtime of the saga to date, and it does feel its length. This particular story doesn't exactly lend itself to a tidy three-act structure, and therefore what amounts to Act 2 feels incredibly beefy and is a bit too overcomplicated for its own good. Johnson also has a proclivity for defying expectations to surprise the audience, often stubbornly refusing to let the heroes win, but he pulls these types of tricks a bit too much, sacrificing a degree of narrative stability in the process. Working in the picture's favour, however, is a pronounced sense of humour amid the armrest-clenching action sequences, suffusing the material with some much-needed humanity and levity. There is even a dialogue exchange in the opening minutes of the film, played for laughs, that's unlike anything we have previously witnessed in the franchise's history. Plus, in the casino on Canto Bight, a drunk space-leprechaun mistakes BB-8 for a slot machine. For all of the hoo-ha about the Porgs - small seabird-esque creatures which inhabit the planet of Ahch-To - their presence is insignificant, and they don't immediately irritate in the same way as the Ewoks from 1983's Return of the Jedi.

In terms of tone, The Last Jedi is closer to something like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and in many ways feels more like a proper war film than 2016's Rogue One. There are certain chaotic sequences in which the Resistance frantically scramble to survive, with a pervading sense of utter hopelessness, that we simply don't see in major motion pictures very often. When Johnson does cut loose to deliver the type of thrilling action that Star Wars fans yearn, he does not disappoint. Lightsaber skirmishes visibly take influence from samurai pictures, while large-scale battles evoke classic war movies. The jaw-dropping extended conflict to close out the second act would be an exceptional climax in any other movie, but Johnson has even more up his sleeve for the actual climax, which packs a real punch. Furthermore, Crait's distinctive red and white landscape makes the finale's striking visuals look like something from an art-house film. This is Johnson's biggest movie to date in terms of scope and budget, but it appears that his previous directorial endeavours properly prepared him for the world of Star Wars.

For a movie of such a large budget (and considering that it spent the best part of 18 months in post-production), it's disheartening that some of the digital effects are sloppy (particularly the crystal critters on Crait and the space horse stampede on Canto Bight), and a certain returning character in a surprise cameo looks slightly off. Outside of these slight imperfections, however, The Last Jedi is visually stunning, with rock-solid photography courtesy of Johnson's regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Brick, Looper), who predominantly captured the action with a combination of 35mm and 65mm film stock to generate an aesthetic reminiscent of the original trilogy. It looks as if practical model ships were photographed as opposed to wall-to-wall CGI, as the realism and immediacy of the outer space battles is magnificent. It's also a joy to behold real sets and locations. Meanwhile, the motion capture techniques used to bring Snoke to life are better than ever, looking astonishingly intricate and tangible. Perfectly complementing the visuals is the score by series veteran John Williams. His reliably majestic compositions actually have more presence than The Force Awakens, and recognisable beats from the original trilogy are incorporated during certain moments. Williams' work is simply invaluable.

Nobody back in 1977 could have predicted that Hamill would be capable of such a performance here, as he disappears into the role and submits the best acting work of his career. It's a treat to see Hamill taking a bigger role this time around, while Fisher is likewise a more significant presence, which is a huge deal since this is the last time we will see Princess Leia. (Outside of the odd occasional Rogue One moment, if any of the spinoffs go that way.) Fisher endows her performance with authority, gravitas, wisdom and warmth, and seeing her play this iconic character just once more is both poignant and bittersweet. Fisher's daughter Billie Lourd is also given a beefier role as an officer in the Resistance, and she's a delight, not to mention it's wonderful to see her acting alongside her mother. Out of the newcomers, Laura Dern is a notably brilliant addition as Vice Admiral Holdo, and Benicio Del Toro carves out a particularly memorable character. Meanwhile, after making such a positive impression in The Force Awakens, Ridley continues to impress, and is given the chance to really flex her acting muscles and show us what she's made of. It's a extraordinary performance, and of course she maintains her innate charisma throughout, making her easy to latch onto. Driver also has the chance to find more depth, and he's consistently excellent, portraying a layered, conflicted antagonist. Isaac shines yet again in his role as Poe (his dress now looking a bit similar to Han Solo), showing the same type of spunk and boyish charm exhibited by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, Tran is less successful as Rose - she lacks spark and charisma. At least Boyega places forth another terrific performance, proving yet again that he was an ideal pick for the role of Finn. Long-time fans should be wary that outside of Luke and Leia, the veteran characters do not have a great deal to do - in particular, R2-D2 is barely glimpsed.

More than just a brainless fireworks reel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi emerges as one of the year's most intelligent and compelling blockbusters, with Johnson extracting superlative performances across the board and pushing the boundaries of the Star Wars franchise. It’s a compelling and often entertaining feature, the best in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it does refuse to provide answers to all the burning questions that you may have (particularly in regards to the origins of Snoke, and Rey's lineage), and there are imperfections, but The Last Jedi gets far more right than wrong, setting the stage for what has the potential to be one hell of a closing chapter. Johnson also eschews pure fan service as he finds his bold new vision, and as a result your mileage with the finished movie may vary depending on your willingness to watch it with an open mind. It is worth noting that, like its immediate predecessor, The Last Jedi not only stands up to repeat viewings but actually improves a second time around.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

Despite intermittent pleasures, it's too ho-hum

Posted : 3 months ago on 13 December 2017 04:14 (A review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)

2017's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is probably the best instalment in this particular franchise since its initial entry, 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl, but that's still damning with faint praise. Indeed, this fourth sequel is still studiously mediocre and in need of more editorial discipline (not to mention better screenwriting), but at least it provides intermittent charms, and won't leave you wanting to run screaming from the cinema. Nevertheless, with lengthy six-year break since the last sequel (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), it's disheartening that this is apparently the best that Disney could come up with. Even with a pair of new directors, Dead Men Tell No Tales (a subtitle not to be confused with 2006's Dead Man's Chest) lacks ambition and novelty, emerging as yet another lacklustre entry into the tired fourteen-year-old series.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the adult son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), has grown up to become a sailor in the British Royal Navy, but is determined to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Learning that the Trident of Poseidon holds the power to break any curse, Henry seeks to recruit Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to help him in his quest, and also meets Carina (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who knows where the Trident might be. To complicate matters, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew are freed from their Devil's Triangle prison, and begin hunting for Jack who was responsible for taking away their corporeal freedom. In addition, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) sets off to find the Trident of Poseidon for himself, while a British Royal Navy officer, Lt. John Scarfield (David Wenham), is also interested in the treasure.

The primary drawback of Dead Men Tell No Tales is that it feels flat overall, lacking a certain spark to truly bring it to life. The screenplay is replete with nonstop exposition, and endeavours to work through too many different subplots and tangents, with no less than six different parties seeking the Trident for themselves, taking away focus and prohibiting any sort of enlivening momentum. Exposition lacks snap, dialogue is largely humdrum, and the script is too cluttered and over-complicated, as if screenwriter Jeff Nathanson was operating on autopilot. It appears that those involved in this fifth Pirates of the Caribbean picture have lost sight of what made The Curse of the Black Pearl such a hit in the first place - it was an exciting, high-adventure swashbuckler with a hint of the supernatural, whereas Dead Men Tell No Tales meanders all over the place. Ultimately, the finished movie feels more like a workprint waiting for a tighter edit. And that's especially concerning given that this is the shortest instalment in the franchise to date.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (2012's Kon-Tiki) do what they can with the material, but the problems primarily stem from Nathanson's script which could have done with a few rewrites. Salazar and his undead crew have a longstanding grudge against Jack, of course, and they're only freed from the Devil's Triangle (right after Henry encounters them, coincidentally) because Jack gives up his magic compass, which is surely the flimsiest plot impetus in recent memory. Meanwhile, there's no justification for Barbossa's return other than to add another party to an already crowded narrative, and some of the cheap slapstick moments and silly jokes might honestly make you feel as if you're watching a dumb spoof like The Pirate Movie or Carry on Columbus, rather than an expensive blockbuster. Characterisations are strictly one-dimensional outside of the primary characters - of course all of the Royal Navy officers are snobby, and absolutely refuse to listen to Henry. Not to mention, the screenplay just rehashes several elements from previous Pirates of the Caribbean movies - Salazar and his undead pirates mirrors Barbossa's skeletal crew from the first movie, Salazar himself feels like a dull retread of Davy Jones, and the romantic angle between Henry and Carina is just reminiscent of Will and Elizabeth's relationship.

Despite predominantly filming in Queensland, Australia to save on production costs, Dead Men Tell No Tales was still reportedly produced for a staggering $230 million sum, a sizeable chunk of which was allocated to Depp. (At least the budget is less than the eye-watering $410 million price-tag of On Stranger Tides.) Digital effects are difficult to fault and visuals are frequently spectacular, with cinematographer Paul Cameron making terrific use of the beautiful Australian locations, and with sumptuous sets and costumes bringing this world to life. Plus, it's undeniably rousing to hear the franchise's recognisable soundtrack beats during the major set-pieces. (Despite a new composer, the score feels mostly recycled from the previous films.) Nevertheless, even though Disney brought in a couple of Norwegian directors who had the potential to create something truly daring, Dead Men Tell No Tales is content to colour inside the lines. The only real spark of inventiveness is a sequence involving zombie sharks that ultimately feels like it's over before it even begins.

With the return of Bloom, Rush and even Keira Knightley, it appears that the makers of Dead Men Tell No Tales were trying their hardest to bring back established fans of this franchise, but it doesn't add up to much. Depp, who was so endearingly offbeat in the original movie (he was even nominated for an Oscar), appears to be simply going through the motions yet again for the sake of a generous paycheque. The shtick has simply gotten old. Mercifully, the two completely forgettable young faces from On Stranger Tides are no more, but their replacements - Thwaites and Scodelario - are nothing to write home about. Scodelario (such a standout in TV's Skins) admittedly has spunk and charm, but the romantic angle is dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Rush happily chews the scenery as usual, but Bardem is the meatiest addition to the cast, sinking his teeth into this ghoulish role. Bardem is a reliably focused thespian, and he's the most sinister villain of the franchise so far, but it's a shame that most of his screen-time is wasted on exposition and minor threats while Sparrow engages in buffoonery around him. Nevertheless, Bardem manages to keep the material at least marginally compelling, which is welcome. And for eagle-eyed viewers, Paul McCartney makes a brief cameo, though the moment feels both contrived and unnecessary.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales actually works, it is certainly fun, but the enterprise is too bloated on the whole, not to mention overloaded with CGI. Despite competent production values, it's all a bit ho-hum. Everything comes to a head for a climax that's exhausting rather than exhilarating, failing to replicate the raw thrills of the 2003 movie which started it all. Even though Dead Men Tell No Tales runs a mere 129 minutes, which is short for this franchise, it feels much longer, and it doesn't linger in the memory - you'll forget all about it in a matter of days, if not hours. It's just another rehash of the same Pirates of the Caribbean ingredients we've seen before. And unfortunately, as long as these movies make money, Disney will continue to churn them out regardless of whether or not we want them.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

Has its charms, but too hit-and-miss

Posted : 3 months, 1 week ago on 8 December 2017 07:28 (A review of Attack Force Z)

Falling under the "Ozploitation" banner, 1981's Attack Force Z is a low-budget war movie that at once endeavours to be a proper historical document and a Roger Corman-esque action flick. Engineered by Ozploitation luminary Tim Burstall (Alvin Purple, Eliza Fraser), this Australian production is based on the exploits of a real-life team of elite commandos known as the Z Special Unit, or the Z Force, which operated during World War II and consisted of Australian, British and New Zealander soldiers. It's a concept with serious potential, especially given other "men on a mission" movies like The Dirty Dozen and Inglorious Basterds, but this particular story cannot do justice to the concept. It's not entirely unappealing, as it's entertaining up to a certain point and at least it never feels distractingly cheap, but it's not memorable or remarkable either.

In the South Pacific, five Z Men - Cpt. Paul Kelly (Mel Gibson), Lt. Jan Veitch (John Phillip Law), Sgt. Danny Costello (Sam Neill) Able Seaman Sparrer Bird (Chris Haywood), and Sub Lt. Ted King (John Waters) - are dispatched by submarine in canoes near an island settled by the Chinese but occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Their objective is to locate the wreckage of a downed Allied plane and find the survivors before silently slipping out unseen. But the mission is complicated when Veitch becomes separated from the group following a contact with enemy troops, and falls for beautiful Chinese girl Chien Hua (Sylvia Chang). In addition, the Japanese soldiers begin to close in as the Z Men endeavour to complete their assignment and make their escape.

The screenplay by veteran TV writer Roger Marshall (The Professionals, Lovejoy) is based on a real-life WWII mission known as Project Opossum, though any statements of this ilk must be taken with a grain of salt since a degree of artistic license is always taken. The big drawback of Attack Force Z is its narrative, which is markedly banal and uninvolving. Pacing is uneven and storytelling is slipshod, which makes it tough to follow the proceedings, let alone get invested in them. In addition, there is no time to develop the soldiers prior to their mission, and though they look distinct enough to be told apart, names never stick as a consequence. Meanwhile, the love story between Veitch and Chien is dead weight, pure and simple, and appears to have been included in an attempt to widen the picture's appeal. But is this sort of thing really necessary in a violent war film? And it almost goes without saying, but Attack Force Z is painfully one-dimensional as well - the Z Men are all tough and heroic; the Chinese are brave and spiritual; and the Japanese soldiers are outright evil.

To Burstall's credit, the opening action sequence is assembled with genuine skill, observing the unit as they stealthily move through the jungle before being attacked by a hidden machine gun nest. However, the remainder of the flick is more comfortable with a cheesy Ozploitation vibe, closer to a Chuck Norris flick than a serious war picture. Nevertheless, when Attack Force Z is locked in action mode, it definitely has its pleasures, and there's a certain charm to seeing this type of visceral old-fashioned filmmaking with blood squibs and blank-firing weapons, and no computer-generated imagery to be seen. Considering that Burstall was a last-minute replacement after the firing of original director Phillip Noyce, and had not previously helmed an action-based movie, he acquits himself admirably. The climax is especially fun, pitting the Japanese soldiers against both the Z Men and the Chinese resistance fighters. It's all handsomely shot by veteran cinematographer Hung-Chung Lin on location in Taiwan, and there's sufficient punch to the editing by David Stiven (Mad Max 2) during the shootouts, though the accompanying score by Eric Jupp is overzealous and chintzy.

Ultimately, outside of its established cult audience from the VHS era, Attack Force Z will only be remembered for the presence of Gibson and Neill. Gibson was still starting out as an actor at this point in his career, and he looks extraordinarily youthful here. His performance is nothing to write home about, but nor is he dreadful. Neill is also acceptable without being outstanding, and it's commendable that not all of the central characters make it out alive, which reinforces the harshness of war. On that note, there is a palpable anti-war message to the material, but it's not as effective as it might have been in defter hands - perhaps Noyce had a stronger vision for the project. Although Attack Force Z comes to life in fits and starts, particularly during the impactful action sequences, it's too hit-and-miss, even given its brisk 93-minute runtime. The same producers went on to make another film about the Z Special Unit in 1983 entitled The Highest Honor, which has since fallen into obscurity.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

A stripped-down supernatural ghost story

Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks ago on 1 December 2017 03:29 (A review of Unfriended)

A unique micro-budget horror movie from executive producer Jason Blum, 2015's Unfriended essentially plays out like a big-screen Creepypasta, and it's an intriguing extension of the well-worn "found-footage" subgenre. Rather than "lost" film reels or digital video discovered on SD cards, almost every frame of Unfriended occurs on the screen of the main character's MacBook Pro, across a number of apps and websites. The narrative unfolds in real time from this unique point of view, which may sound like a boring concept, but it's more effective than it had any right to be. Unsettling and chilling, and made all the more unnerving by its uncanny sense of vérité realism, Unfriended is a stripped-down supernatural ghost story that's imaginatively guided by director Levan Gabriadze.

It has been one year since high school student Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide as a result of online bullying in the wake of an embarrassing video being posted online. Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) settles in to flirt with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) over Skype, but the conversation is soon interrupted by the appearance of classmates Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Jess (Renee Olstead) and Adam (Will Peltz), while Val (Courtney Halverson) is also invited to the group chat. However, a mysterious Skype user is also present, and Blaire begins to receive unnerving messages from Laura's Facebook account. Although everybody assumes that it's all just an elaborate prank, they come to realise that their online chat is being manipulated by an all-knowing phantom entity claiming to be Laura herself, who thrusts them into deadly games of truth-telling that threatens to tear the group apart. If anybody hangs up or tells a lie, they die.

With a screenplay credited to first-timer Nelson Greaves, Unfriended presents a potent snapshot of contemporary life, portraying the pressures of social media and how sites like Facebook and YouTube can be used to destroy lives. Teens who hide behind the anonymity of a computer screen can be exceedingly callous, unable to consider the gravity or consequences of their online actions, and cyber bullying has led to several well-documented suicides in real life. Thus, Unfriended functions as both a cautionary document as well as intense horror movie, and its messages are undeniably timely, giving it a bit of gravitas beyond the chills. Messages sent between the characters serve to provide exposition and enhance the story, while Blaire carries out online investigation as well. Mitch provides links that underscore the importance of ignoring messages from deceased persons, but the warning comes too late.

Every frame of Unfriended feels authentic, with the movie being performed in prolonged single takes by the ensemble, while a genuine computer screen is shown from start to finish. (Multiple different takes, and therefore different versions of the movie, were shot, and therefore a fair bit of footage from the trailers is not in the finished movie.) It may seem like a minor victory for a movie to convincingly portray a computer, but Hollywood motion pictures seldom get it right, often showing ludicrous, fantastical computer interfaces which don't ring true. Unfriended, on the other hand, has its foot firmly planted in the real world, with poor internet speeds and typing errors, amplifying the sense of horror. There is even a hint of black humour, with Laura at one stage causing Blaire's laptop to become overloaded with pop-ups advertising "live cams." The actors are all newcomers, with no famous faces to distract from the story, again giving the movie more realism. But despite a cast of newcomers, performances are uniformly believable, conveying fear and hysteria with ease. 

On balance, however, Unfriended is not perfect. Particularly egregious is the character of Ken, who's a lazy stereotype; he's overweight, sexless, a pothead, and a total whiz with computers. Furthermore, perhaps the electronic menace could be at least slowed down by switching off the power, if not entirely thwarted? Not every piece of the puzzle works, but Unfriended benefits from a snappy pace (it runs a brisk 80 minutes), delivering ample scares along the way. It's riveting more often than not, and it's never boring. The movie will undoubtedly be polarising depending on your expectations and your tolerance for the found footage subgenre (it refuses to answer any questions, leaving plenty of mystery), but it nevertheless worked for this reviewer.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

A slick, goofy heist flick

Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks ago on 28 November 2017 11:40 (A review of Logan Lucky)

After the 2013 theatrical release of Side Effects and the HBO telemovie Behind the Candelabra, director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from motion pictures, but that inevitably was not to last. Returning after what amounted to a self-imposed four-year hiatus (during which he directed all twenty episodes of the TV show The Knick), Soderbergh tackles a heist movie in the same vein as his 2001 Ocean's Eleven remake, switching out the opulence of Las Vegas for the backroads of rural America. Logan Lucky is both uproarious and heartfelt; the filmmaker clearly has a ball suffusing the material with his trademark directorial idiosyncrasies, and the end result is highly entertaining. Even though Logan Lucky does initially seem rather slight considering that this is Soderbergh's big return to cinema, there are in fact deeper layers to unearth, with sly satire underneath the movie's goofy exterior.

A down-on-his-luck labourer, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is abruptly laid off from his job filling sinkholes beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jimmy and his amputee brother Clyde (Adam Driver) have never had much luck, which they attribute to a longstanding family curse. With a daughter to support and his feisty ex-wife (Katie Holmes) planning to move away with her new partner, Jimmy hastily seeks a big score, and hatches a scheme to pull off a heist at the Speedway during a popular NASCAR event using the pneumatic tube cash delivery system. For the heist, Jimmy recruits his sibling, along with explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is in the final few months of a prison sentence and insists upon bringing in his two dim-witted brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). With the crew assembled - including Jimmy and Clyde's sister Mellie (Riley Keough) - they set about gaining access to the Speedway's bowels during the major Coca-Cola 600 racing event.

Logan Lucky finds Soderbergh in familiar territory, and the screenplay feels so well-suited to his filmmaking sensibilities that it's no surprise he came out of "retirement" to direct it himself. (Reportedly, he was initially given the script only to recommend a suitable director, but enjoyed the material too much.) In addition to the obvious Ocean's Eleven parallels (a newscaster even refers to the heist as "Ocean's 7-Eleven"), the more working class aspect of the story brings back memories of 2012's Magic Mike. Logan Lucky benefits from smart scripting, shaping a wholly credible heist that's peppered with clever details, and there's more going on than what meets the eye. Soderbergh's recognisable brand of storytelling is on full display - it's deliberately-paced and laid-back, with a bone-dry sense of humour and split-second comedic timing. And as with most the director's notable output, there are deeper themes at play. Logan Lucky does succeed as a slick, light-hearted caper, but Soderbergh appears to be presenting a somewhat uncomfortable evaluation of the age-old American Dream.

With the story unfolding in the wilds of West Virginia, there are amusingly exaggerated accents all around and the inanity of some of the characters is playfully exploited for laughs. Indeed, this is actually one of Soderbergh's most accessible and flat-out entertaining motion pictures to date, whilst retaining plenty of artistic value along the way. The soundtrack is permeated with enjoyable songs (John Denver's 1971 hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads" plays a major part in the story), and the comedic set-pieces hit hard. A certain scene involving Joe's improvised explosive device at the Speedway manages to be nail-biting and funny in equal measure, but even more uproarious is an ongoing prison standoff between the warden (Dwight Yoakam) and the convicts, who are trying to obfuscate the absence of Joe and Clyde. As Warden Burns stubbornly refuses to tell the outside world about his situation, the inmates only request to be given access to George R.R. Martin's final "Game of Thrones" novels, refusing to believe that they are not finished yet and the TV show has progressed beyond the source. Logan Lucky is a good-looking motion picture to boot, elegantly shot by Soderbergh who serves as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), and the technical presentation is top-flight. The only real shortcoming is that the movie fails to make any significant emotional impact, even though it tries with a subplot involving Jimmy and his daughter. Nevertheless, there is undeniable heart, and Soderbergh's style never exactly lends itself to emotion anyway.

Ultimately, it's the game ensemble cast of recognisable performers which bolsters the material above the ordinary - everybody is fully committed to the absurdity. Tatum and Driver mostly play it straight, though they have their quirks and amusing moments, but it's Craig who steals the spotlight in his first notable non-James Bond big-screen performance since 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Sporting bleached blonde hair and many tattoos, Craig is wacky as all hell. It's not even a flattering role for the current 007, making it all the more commendable that he chose to do it, and in the process remind us all about his considerable acting talents. Elsewhere, Yoakam is a total hoot as Warden Burns, while Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane effortlessly scores several laughs playing a conceited NASCAR sponsor. Even Katherine Waterston makes an appearance as one of Jimmy's former high school classmates, and Marvel fans will also spot Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Civil War) in the minor role of a successful NASCAR driver.

The summer movie season has become synonymous with expensive action blockbusters, many of which are now sequels or reboots, but Logan Lucky is an original breath of fresh air constructed with intelligence and sophistication, so of course it failed to do much business at the box office. Admittedly, the story does superfluously extend beyond the heist for a lengthy epilogue that doesn't feel altogether necessary and should be tighter, but the movie comes together well enough as a whole nevertheless. Putting aside any shortcomings, it's indeed a joy to behold the undiluted vision of a true auteur here, making this a must-see for anybody who appreciates Soderbergh's cinematic oeuvre. In short, Logan Lucky is an unexpected delight, even if it's not for all tastes.


1 comments, Reply to this entry

A bitter disappointment

Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 22 November 2017 06:03 (A review of Batman and Harley Quinn)

Designed to feel like a natural extension of the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, and part of the DC Animated Universe at large, 2017's Batman and Harley Quinn should be something of a can't-miss prospect, but instead it's another total letdown that deserves to fade into obscurity. It's evident that Batman and Harley Quinn was devised to ride on the coattails of the success of Suicide Squad, which served to give the character of Harley Quinn newfound popularity. Alas, the result is too campy and tonally inconsistent, lacking in proper mystery and suspense. It may have its charms, particularly in the visual style, but Batman and Harley Quinn comes up short in terms of action and contains too many ill-advised scenes worthy of scorn.

When Poison Ivy (Paget Brewster) and Jason Woodrue/The Floronic Man (Kevin Michael Richardson) rob S.T.AR. Labs, they steal information about Swamp Thing's creation and take a scientist hostage to replicate the formula. Investigating the crime scene, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing/Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) fear that the pair plan to devise a biological weapon to transform all life on Earth into plant hybrids. With the fate of humankind at stake, the Dynamic Duo reluctantly seek out Ivy's former partner in crime, Harley Quinn (Melissa Raunch), for assistance. Although Harley has made an effort to go straight and leave behind her former life, she agrees to help find Ivy and Woodrue before the duo can execute their devastating plan.

The teleplay is credited to animation veterans James Krieg and Bruce Timm, the latter of whom was one of the key masterminds behind Batman: The Animated Series and should be capable of a lot better. It's somewhat surprising and frankly disappointing that Harley Quinn creator Paul Dini was not involved in the production in any capacity, especially given his considerable ties to The Animated Series and his iconic Harley-centric stories. At least the Caped Crusader is given the chance to use his superlative detective skills here, but make no mistake: this is the Harley Quinn show. The plot exists to support Harley's full-blown zaniness as Batman and Nightwing serve as the straight men to her antics. There's an extended fart joke in the Batmobile that's atrociously undignified for everybody involved and feels utterly juvenile. This type of humour has admittedly been seen in some of the comics, but Harley is more effective when dealt with maturely (see "Mad Love"). Even worse, there's an awkward sequence in which Harley seduces Nightwing which only brings back uncomfortable memories of that sex scene in 2016's Batman: The Killing Joke. Meanwhile, there is not one but two out-of-place musical interludes, during which Batman is even seen tapping his fingers. Admittedly, the songs themselves are catchy enough, but all of this material is painfully self-indulgent, slowing down the pace of the story and taking away any sense of urgency.

Visually, Batman and Harley Quinn harkens back to the style of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, bringing back the old-fashioned character designs, though of course it all looks more noticeably digital as opposed to hand-drawn. The animation is impressively stylish and fluid, and it is genuinely exciting to see the likes of Batman, Nightwing and Harley presented in the bygone style of The Animated Series for the first time in a number of years. The original score (credited to three composers with longstanding ties to DC animation) is admittedly effective as well, with a light-hearted central theme that suits the material.

Ultimately, one of the biggest issues of Batman and Harley Quinn is that of tone. Director Sam Liu has overseen a number of darker DC animated movies, including Batman: Year One and Batman: The Killing Joke, but the script aims for screwball comedy, even evoking the 1960s iteration of Batman. It feels like Liu was not on the same page as the screenwriters, and therefore a number of infantile scenes are mixed with dark, violent set-pieces, such as the admittedly thrilling climax. When Batman and Harley Quinn is locked in action mode, it does work more often than not, showing what the movie had the potential to be. The ending, though, is a total letdown - the movie ends abruptly, and the final shot is intended to be cute, but just comes across as out-of-place and corny beyond all belief. Did the writers just lost sight of who these characters are?

The primary attraction of Batman and Harley Quinn is, naturally, the presence of Conroy and Lester, who slip back into their respective roles once again with absolute ease. Even though they can only do so much with the sloppy material, they undeniably commit to the characters. On the other hand, Raunch - who's best known for her role of Bernadette in the long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory - is a foolish choice for Harley. Trying her hardest to replicate the distinctive voice of Arleen Sorkin from Batman: The Animated Series, Raunch's performance is distracting - she's screechy and uncharismatic (you can hear too much Bernadette in her voice, as well), which is a real letdown in a movie which brings back Conroy and Lester.

Batman and Harley Quinn is actually the thirtieth motion picture produced as part of the long-running DC Universe Animated Original Movie franchise which kicked off in 2007. (It's worth pointing out that the two Adam West-starring animated features are not considered part of this series.) It's perhaps wise that the movie is more standalone, emerging as separate from the main continuity of the franchise, making it feel more like a one-shot comic. Nevertheless, there's just no getting around the movie's shortcomings, making it a bitter disappointment considering the talent and potential, enjoyable though it may occasionally be. For those that choose to stick around, there's an extended scene at the end of the credits involving Harley that's somewhat amusing.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

A studious waste of talent and potential

Posted : 3 months, 4 weeks ago on 19 November 2017 03:05 (A review of The House)

On the surface, 2017's The House ostensibly had all the right ingredients to become an instant dark comedy classic. But despite the presence of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, plus a colourful supporting cast of recognisable names and a promising comedic plot, The House falls flat for the most part - it comes up dangerously short in terms of laughs, and feels much longer than its comparatively scant 88-minute running time. Making his directorial debut, Andrew Jay Cohen (who also co-wrote the script) is unable to achieve an agreeable rhythm as the movie meanders from one undisciplined scene to the next, never quite coming together in the end. Even the ordinarily reliable actors are powerless here, struggling to come up with any witty, well-timed jokes. It's certainly telling that even though these types of comedies are usually critic-proof, The House tanked at the box office without a trace, grossing a pathetic $34 million worldwide against its modest $40 million budget.

With Alex (Ryan Simpkins) graduating high school and looking to attend a prestigious college, her parents Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) count on the local council's scholarship to pay for her tuition. However, even though Alex is chosen as the recipient for the scholarship, crooked city councillor Bob Schaeffer (Nick Kroll) axes the program to use the funds elsewhere. With no way to pay for Alex's tuition by themselves, Scott and Kate turn to their depressed pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), who has a crippling gambling problem. After suffering bad luck in Las Vegas, the trio choose to open their own illegal underground casino in Frank's house to raise the required funds to put Alex through college. But of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as expected - Scott and Kate bear witness to some insane behaviour, and strange goings-on around town pique the curiosity of local police officer Chandler (Rob Huebel).

Despite a screenplay credited to Brendan O'Brien and Cohen (who scripted Bad Neighbours), it's apparent that the actors were relied upon to deliver all of the laughs through improvisation, as not much wit is on display here. Unfortunately, The House also falls victim to a common fault in contemporary comedy: it's over-plotted. The prospect of starting an illegal underground casino should have been sufficient to see the movie through, but the narrative is further complicated by a corrupt councilman embezzling funds and having an affair with the town treasurer (Allison Tolman), while Officer Chandler is unsure where his loyalties should lie. And honestly, the whole thing puts a damper on the sense of fun. Another conflict is introduced involving gangsters (led by Jeremy Renner) that has comedic potential, but it's dealt with in a few short scenes, after which the focus returns to Bob's corruption. Meanwhile, the movie skips over the actual construction of the casino and doesn't explore how the casino manages to attract such a large clientele so quickly. There is even a half-hearted attempt at emotion at the very end that just comes across as forced and unearned.

It may be understandable that Cohen relied so heavily on the talented actors to create all of the laughs, given that Ferrell and Poehler are joined by the likes of Kroll, Mantzoukas and Renner among a number of others, but it's too transparently improvisational and the material is way too hit-and-miss. Indeed, you can actually see the actors trying their hardest to come up with something funny at every turn, which takes you out of the movie and spoils the comedic timing. You can certainly sense Cohen's directorial inexperience throughout The House. It doesn't help that the movie's cinematographic style is so excessively basic and vanilla, in need of more style and personality. Put simply, it doesn't look overly cinematic, though the original score by Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau (Anchorman 2) is admittedly agreeable and effective. Young Simpkins is about the only performer on-screen who isn't actually in on the joke, serving as the straight man to the insanity unfolding around her. Gags may land here and there (though that's subjective, of course), but nothing is overly memorable and there are no meaty belly-laughs. You'll be hard-pressed to recall any funny moments - or anything about the movie at all - mere minutes after viewing it.

The House was actually shot in late 2015/early 2016 before going through almost 18 months of post-production, which is frankly mindboggling for a simple comedy like this. Evidently, the filmmakers had a tough time finding the movie in the edit, and the final result speaks for itself. Even the bloopers during the end credits fail to provide much in the way of laughs. Still, for all of its shortcomings and flaws, at least The House isn't obnoxiously terrible or offensive. To be sure, it's not funny enough and pacing should be tauter, but it still has its entertaining moments and highlights, intermittent though they may be, and at least it's not a pointlessly neutered PG-13 comedy. The actors all appear to be giving it their all, but it's hard to shake the feeling that The House should be a hell of a lot better considering the talent involved.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

An entertaining ride, if nothing else

Posted : 4 months ago on 18 November 2017 01:06 (A review of Justice League)

Spoiler Warning: It is difficult to fully discuss and evaluate Justice League without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers, at least while the movie is a new release. A spoiler warning is therefore in effect.

The good news is that 2017's Justice League is not the downright disaster that many of us were anticipating, given the considerable behind-the-scenes reshuffling and the slipshod quality of its immediate predecessor, 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is a bit of a mess, the narrative is too simplistic, and it's not a home run by any stretch, but it's also not altogether unappealing either, as Zack Snyder - and Joss Whedon - avoid the gloomy self-seriousness which has thus far characterised the DC Extended Universe. The action sequences are rousing, and there are enough goosebump-inducing moments of pure big-screen coolness that audiences will expect to see within an expensive blockbuster entitled Justice League. But what's missing is all the connective tissue - the movie plays out like a highlight reel, with the bare minimum of explication and character beats. Forget about any sort of thematic undercurrents or emotional resonance; fast-paced spectacle is the order of the day.

With Superman (Henry Cavill) now dead, the Earth has become vulnerable to diabolical forces. A god-like being known as Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) rises in the aftermath, planning to use three powerful Mother Boxes to rule the universe, aided by an army of vicious Parademons. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) seeks to amass a team of heroes to defend the world, with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) warning him of the potentially devastating effects of Steppenwolf's plan. Using all available information at his disposal, Wayne tracks down Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), hoping to unite them and prevent Steppenwolf from eradicating humankind. But even their combined superpowers may not be enough, prompting the newly-formed Justice League to explore the potential to bring Superman into the fight before it's too late.

Even though Snyder is the sole credited director on the project, The Avengers helmer Whedon was recruited to oversee extensive rewrites and reshoots late into post-production, and received a co-writer credit for his efforts. Evidently, Whedon's job was to lighten the tone, bringing a more pronounced sense of humour to the production whilst retaining Snyder's proclivity for brutal, explosive action sequences. Previous DCEU movies have been criticised for lack of humour, with Batman v Superman in particular emerging as dour beyond belief, and Justice League endeavours to course-correct the franchise, with jokes and laughs scattered throughout. Though certain moments do work (such as an amusing aside during which Aquaman sits on the Lasso of Truth), other gags just come across as forced (see the awkward joking around after the climactic action sequence). Indeed, don't expect Whedon's best work, especially given that he didn't have a great deal of time to hone the best possible script. In addition, Justice League is completely hollow, with nothing in the way of poignant emotion. There is a contrived aside in which a family get the spotlight and are rescued during the climax, but it feels too perfunctory and makes no impact.

It's evident that Warner Bros. only really cared about two things whilst trying to salvage Justice League in the editing room: keeping it at two hours in length (narrative coherence be damned), and carving out at least a workable movie that's jam-packed with colourful action scenes. It's also evident that Justice League was initially intended to be more in line with Batman v Superman from a tonal standpoint before the studio got Whedon involved. (It's not hard to see why Whedon probably didn't want a directorial credit on the finished movie.) A new trailer was seemingly released every couple of hours, and therefore a lot of footage seen in the marketing materials did not make it to the finished movie. Indeed, it appears that Warner Bros. chose to deliberately excise any plot details that may have initially existed to set up future storylines - case in point: it seems that Steppenwolf's plan could be a precursor to something more significant, like Darkseid who was initially rumoured to be part of the movie and was ostensibly set up in Dawn of Justice, but the storyline as it is seems deliberately standalone in case the studio nominates a different direction in the future. (The post-credits scene does imply another direction entirely.) Hell, Justice League doesn't even provide any payoff to the time-travelling Flash, or to Batman's nightmares from Batman v Superman.

Despite being hidden in the majority of the marketing materials, of course Superman makes his return here, but the Man of Steel's resurrection is one of the biggest missed opportunities of the movie. Rather than taking a page from the "Death of Superman" arc (which would make sense, given that he fought Doomsday in Dawn of Justice), Justice League finds the heroes using the Mother Box's powers to bring Superman back from the dead, and the resultant action set-piece of a confused Kal-El running amok is seriously awkward. In addition, the subplot feels too throwaway when it should be more significant, further demonstrating that squeezing so much material into one two-hour movie was a bad idea. It would have been more interesting to see Superman don the iconic black suit and battle the rest of the Justice League for real. Maybe this was actually explored in an earlier cut, and perhaps there was more to this subplot before the studio took a hatchet to the movie to keep it under two hours sans credits. Whatever the case, it feels like Justice League is rushing through plot points in order for the franchise at large to move on. The film was initially intended to be split into two parts, and there's certainly enough material for two motion pictures to cover.

When Justice League gets into an agreeable groove, it works like gangbusters, providing plenty of lively action as the superheroes throw down against Steppenwolf and his Parademons. If nothing else, Justice League gets the characters right for the most part (more on that later), with perhaps the most definitive big-screen portrayal of the Caped Crusader to date (the costumes are dead on). Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones), the movie is actually presented in an expanded 1.85:1 aspect ratio, meaning that there's more to absorb in every frame of the movie. However, the cartoonish CGI is admittedly squiffy from time to time, lacking in tangibility. The digital removal of Cavill's moustache looks amateurish at best, while the digitally-created Steppenwolf often resembles something from a video-game cut-scene. Some sequences are enormously impressive, to be sure, but there's no consistency, which can probably be attributed to the reshoots and the rushed schedule to meet the longstanding, predetermined release date. For a major motion picture this expensive (a staggering $300 million before promotional costs, reportedly), it's disheartening to behold such sloppiness. On a more positive note, bringing in composer Danny Elfman (to replace Junkie XL) proves to be one of the most welcome creative decisions of the entire production, as his score is more on the playful side as opposed to downright serious. Elfman even incorporates some notes from his 1989 Batman theme to nice effect.

Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have been properly introduced in the DCEU at this point, but Justice League is tasked with introducing Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash to the franchise (their previous tiny cameos don't count), giving the movie plenty of baggage to work through. There's just no getting around the fact that these heroes deserved their own solo flicks prior to Justice League, just as the standalone Wonder Woman should have been released prior to Batman v Superman. As for the thespians themselves, it's...mostly good news. Affleck continues to impress as this older interpretation of Batman, and Gadot is still a charismatic treat. It's certainly a real thrill to see Gadot back in action as Wonder Woman so soon after the release of her solo feature. However, Miller is a terrible Flash, playing the hero as a whiny, irritating, weightless Millennial stereotype, while Fisher doesn't have much screen presence, though that could likely be attributed to the lack of a meaty introduction. Momoa is fine, some cheesy dialogue aside, and Cavill is welcomely more upbeat here as Superman. Hinds does what he can with the material, but Steppenwolf is still a bit of a dud villain. Nevertheless, it is commendable that Snyder and co. elected to use a villain who hasn't previously featured in a live-action movie.

When Justice League works, it really works, providing breathtaking visual delights throughout, ensuring that the target audience will walk away happy. It's an entertaining ride, if nothing else. But since we don't yet know all of the primary characters intimately enough, the film is not as gratifying as it could have been. In addition, the movie is undeniably pared-down to the bare essentials - basically, anything that isn't a joke, a character striking a dramatic pose for marketing materials, or a big action scene...didn't make it to the final cut. Extended cuts have become somewhat customary for the DCEU, as both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad received beefed-up editions on home video, and it would certainly be intriguing to see what could be done with Justice League with more story development and character interaction. Even more promising, though, is the prospect of a sequel, with (hopefully) a more carefully-written screenplay and a better fleshed-out team.


3 comments, Reply to this entry

A spine-tingling modern horror movie

Posted : 4 months ago on 15 November 2017 04:35 (A review of Annabelle: Creation)

2017's Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to a prequel that wasn't any good in the first place, and the very idea of this particular movie seems like the worst kind of Saw or Paranormal Activity-esque money-grab, with Warner Bros. trying to build their own Conjuring cinematic universe. And yet, in spite of all the baggage, Creation is a damn good little horror movie, exceeding all reasonable expectations. The ace in the hole here is director David F. Sandberg, late of 2016's Lights Out, who again demonstrates his deft hand with spine-tingling horror, guiding the movie above the ordinary. Indeed, even though Creation was penned by returning scribe Gary Dauberman, it's Sandberg's compelling direction, smooth pacing, and hair-raising use of sound and imagery which catapults this one to unexpected success. It's worth watching, especially given that decent modern horror flicks are so few and far between.

Twelve years after toymaker Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) lose their daughter Bee (Samara Lee) in a tragic car accident, the grieving parents choose to provide shelter for a group of young, orphaned girls. Overseen by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), the girls quickly take to the sizeable farmhouse property, playing games and enjoying the outdoors. The youngest of the children, Linda (Lulu Wilson) and the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman), mostly stick together, praying that they will someday be adopted by a good family together. Bee's bedroom is off-limits and remains locked at all times, but Janice simply can't help herself one night when she finds a key that opens the door. However, Janice's actions unwittingly release something evil living within one of Samuel's dolls, and the occupants of the house are subsequently terrorised by dark forces, plunging them all into a sinister nightmare.

Although the first Annabelle was intended to reveal the origins of the creepy doll seen in 2013's The Conjuring, Creation goes back in time even further, showing how it was manufactured and how a demonic spirit came to possess it. And to the credit of screenwriter Dauberman, the concept makes sense and the narrative manages to neatly tie into its 2014 predecessor, for better or for worse. It's a standard set-up filled with genre clichés, to be sure, and it mostly amounts to an excuse for a string of scary set-pieces, but the execution is a cut above the norm. After all, if any of the characters do silly things, it's easier to overlook it and forgive them because they're just kids. But above all, Dauberman and Sandberg evidently understand that the purpose of this type of movie is to cram as many taut set-pieces as possible into the 110-minute runtime while ensuring that the primary characters are compelling enough for us to care about, even if they're not fully three-dimensional. Sandberg really milks all the scary stuff for all that it's worth, and there are even some commendably unexpected plot turns. However, there is a clumsy-as-hell scene to tease the next Conjuring spin-off, The Nun, which feels awkwardly shoehorned-in. (It's actually surprising that Warner Bros. didn't choose to retroactively connect Lights Out to the Conjuring universe, really.)

Sandberg established his strong horror credentials with the bone-chilling Lights Out, which was actually produced by The Conjuring architect James Wan. It's easy to see why Wan and the studio felt comfortable handing Creation to the newcomer, who's a wise replacement for Annabelle helmer John R. Leonetti. Without the burden of any PG-13 constraints, Sandberg is free to use all the tools at his disposal to create an unnerving and sinister movie, and he doesn't use the R rating as an excuse to go all-out with mindless gore. The director makes wise use of every square inch of the Mullins' vast farmhouse, where evil can strike from above or below at any given time, and even the most predictable of moments (of course Janice's stair lift will malfunction at the most inopportune time) are still effective and riveting. All hell breaks loose in the final act, but Sandberg can still build dread with stillness, initially taking things slowly - the mere presence of the Annabelle doll in the background, or the littlest sound effect is enough to send chills down your spine. Creation may have jump scares, but it's not entirely built around them, making the picture feel old-fashioned in all the right ways, even though Sandberg doesn't exactly colour outside the lines. Less successful, however, are certain digitally-enhanced moments which are too obvious and phoney, but at least these scenes are few and far between. With Sandberg reportedly set to helm the DC movie Shazam that Warner Bros. still claims to be making, let's hope that he still has a few more solid horrors up his sleeve for the future.

Backed by a modest $15 million budget, Annabelle: Creation is slick and stylish, with its 1950s setting adding to the creepiness of the material. Sandberg and director of photography Maxime Alexandre (The Hills Have Eyes) eschew needless shaky-cam, relying on a routine of dynamic but smooth handheld compositions to heighten the sense of immediacy. Further chills are provided by the hair-raising original score courtesy of Benjamin Wallfisch (Lights Out), which thankfully doesn't feel too overbearing. Furthermore, it's tricky to locate good child actors, but Bateman and Wilson manage to carry the story extraordinarily well, which is no small feat. Both girls are thoroughly sympathetic and exhibit terrific chemistry, making them believable as best friends. The two are also able to navigate a range of complex emotions, and, miraculously, they aren't at all grating. Also of note is Sigman, who emanates real warmth as Sister Charlotte, while LaPaglia and Otto are effective in their relatively small but nevertheless pivotal roles.

With Annabelle: Creation, there is promise that these Conjuring spin-offs will have more worth than 2014's Annabelle initially implied - in the right hands, these minor side projects can deliver the type of chilling, nail-biting horror delights that genre fans crave. In addition, with 2016's Ouija: Origin of Evil and now Annabelle: Creation, a bizarre trend seems to be appearing wherein prequels to subpar horror movies are all-round superior and more worthwhile. (Coincidentally, the movies also share young Lulu Wilson.) The movie isn't at all revolutionary, and it won't exactly get under your skin or stay with you for days after viewing, but it's competently-constructed and doesn't take its audience for fools. At least there's one Annabelle movie that approaches the quality of Wan's original Conjuring.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

Endearing schlock

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 November 2017 03:23 (A review of Cat's Eye)

Celebrated horror author Stephen King has written many novels that have been adapted for the big screen, but he has also penned over two-hundred short stories, a number of which have been compiled into book collections. Following in the shadow of the horror anthology Creepshow, 1985's Cat's Eye is a 94-minute collection of three Stephen King short stories - the first two of which were previously published in the "Night Shift" collection, while the third is an original tale written by King directly for the big screen. The stories all involve different characters, but are linked by the appearance of a special tabby cat, while Drew Barrymore also appears in multiple roles throughout. Directed by Lewis Teague, Cat's Eye may not be especially scary or creepy, but it does have its tense moments and the stories are backed by creative concepts.

In New York City, Dick Morrison (James Woods) is desperate to quit smoking, and signs up to a smoking prevention course overseen by the unscrupulous Vinny Donatti (Alan King). But the company employs unconventional methods to help clients kick their smoking habit, including intimidation and torture. Donatti's associates begin spying on Morrison around the clock, and one little slip-up will be met with dire consequences. A tomcat is being held by Quitters Inc., and once it escapes, it rides the Staten Island Ferry across to Atlantic City where he's taken in by crime boss Cressner (Kenneth McMillan). Cressner orders the kidnapping of former tennis pro Johnny Norris (Robert Hays), who's involved with Cressner's wife and plans to leave town with her. Cressner blackmails Norris, forcing him to walk around the narrow ledge of his high-rise penthouse apartment in exchange for his freedom. If Norris refuses, he will be arrested for the drugs that have been planted in his car. The tabby cat manages to escape again, hopping aboard a freight train to North Carolina where he's adopted by young Amanda (Barrymore), who affectionately names him "General." While Amanda is instantly enamoured with the stray cat, her mother (Patricia Kalember) is more reluctant. However, a nasty troll lives in Amanda's wall that's intent on stealing her breath as she sleeps, and General could be the only one able to protect her.

With King having written the screenplay for Cat's Eye, there are several references to his other works - both the Saint Bernard dog from Cujo and the car from Christine are given cameos, while The Dead Zone plays on television at one point, and a character is seen reading the novel Pet Sematary. As previously stated, the picture is not as frightening as King's reputation might suggest - it's certainly less bloody than the likes of Creepshow or the 1983 movie adaptation of Cujo, which was also directed by Teague. All the segments feel more like Twilight Zone stories, really. Since this is an anthology and each tale only runs for roughly half an hour each, the movie is kept fresh and interesting throughout, and there's no filler in each of the segments. To be sure, it's more rewarding to see a feature-length story with more room to breathe, and with sufficient time for the characters to become rich and three-dimensional, but Cat's Eye is still entertaining all the same, even if it doesn't reach the dizzying heights of King's best motion pictures.

Those expecting white-knuckle horror are going to be disappointed, but the second story - "The Ledge" - is noticeably intense. The extended sequence of Norris outside on the narrow ledge is armrest-clenching at times, though it's still not exactly "horror." Meanwhile, the first segment - "Quitters Inc." - introduces themes of paranoia to nice effect, and the final story - "General" - plays out more along the lines of Gremlins. Indeed, "General" is an overly silly horror romp, but the final showdown between the troll and the cat is both exciting and fun. Admittedly, not all of the special effects shots throughout Cat's Eye stand up to contemporary scrutiny, with some noticeably shoddy blue-screen and compositing effects, but for the most part the illusion holds up well enough. The movie also features an idiosyncratically cheesy '80s synth score courtesy of Alan Silvestri (Predator, Back to the Future), which definitely dates the movie to a certain degree, enjoyable though it may be.

On its own terms, Cat's Eye is a fun enough cult curiosity, especially given King's involvement and the selection of actors filling out the ensemble. Woods submits a particularly solid performance, while Barrymore is just right as an endearing little girl. Hell, even the central tabby cat is convincing - in fact, the cat's near-misses with several cars beg the question about animal protection standards for 1980s filmmaking. Cat's Eye is not must-see by any stretch, and I wish it was scarier, but it's endearing schlock nevertheless.


0 comments, Reply to this entry

Insert image

drop image here
(or click)
or enter URL:
 link image?  square?

Insert video

Format block