Since making the first Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer has made the disappointing Gangster Squad (2013) and then last year’s Venom (much maligned by the critics but popular at the box office) and the original screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have given us the two hilarious Deadpool movies. On this one they’re also joined by Sly Stallone’s Expendables co-writer, Dave Callaham and the result is pretty entertaining even if it doesn’t manage to kick the franchise up a notch. Part of the problem for a movie like this is that the first time around, most of the fun was in the chase as our four characters buddied up and betrayed each other with relentless monotony. To get us back to that, they need to ‘break up the band’ in order to create the circumstances where we want them to get back together again. It mostly works, although the Wichita storyline is much more compelling and engaging than what happens with Little Rock.
There’re also the inevitable new characters to liven things up. Zoey Deutch’s Madison is a cliched daffy blonde who (for me at least) grates in her early scenes but manages to grow on you (a bit) as the story develops while Avan Jogia’s Berkley is a mostly bland and functional character that really only exists to enable the Little Rock storyline to play out. Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch pop up about halfway through as Albuquerque and Flagstaff, doppelgangers to Tallahassee and Columbus. They’re essentially a sight gag (and a pretty funny one at that) and Fleischer keeps them around just long enough to maximise the laughs before they overstay their welcome. But it feels like there was the potential to get more than just laughs from these two mirror images in the way their reflections might open up a bit of self-examination from the two main male characters. In the end, only Wichita comes close to this, but its potential is let go before it really gets anywhere.
The real winner in the new batch of characters, though, is Nevada (Rosario Dawson) who more than earns her place in the story as an equal to our quartet of heroes. She’s tough and funny and no-nonsense and sexy enough to pull the rug out from underneath Tallahassee’s masculine bravado. Her arrival in the story saves Harrelson’s character from just spinning his wheels in the rut of who he was in the first movie and she’d be a welcome addition to the little band if they were ever to reunite again.
And it’s not only new humans that we get in this sequel, there are also new zombies. The zombie hoard has evolved into three distinct groups – ‘Homers’ (the dumb ones that act like Homer Simpson), ‘Hawkings’ (the smart ones that can work things out like Stephen Hawking) and the ‘Bolts’ (a new breed of fast and powerful zombies named after Usain Bolt). It’s a good idea that is funny when its used to good effect but isn’t used nearly enough to make the most of what could have been a fresh narrative direction.
In the end, it’s business as usual in this second outing but, as was the case in 2009, business is good. There’s a lot of really funny gags to keep us laughing (the leaning tower of Pisa gag is hilarious), the clever intrusions of the graphics spelling out Columbus’ rules as they becomes relevant to the story are back, there’s even a very clever Bill Murray reference or two that echo one of the funniest moments in the first movie (keep your eyes peeled for the Garfield 3 rubbish bin in the mall scene).
And, of course, there’s plenty of gory zombie deaths to satisfy our bloodlust as Tallahassee endeavours to achieve his goal of ‘zombie death of the year’ (complete with cutaways to his main competitors as the writers come up with inventive and gruesome ways to dispose of the undead). In some ways, the zombies are sort of the McGuffin of these films in that they’re not really the main game; they’re the backdrop to the perils and interactions of our heroes and the development of their relationships. And speaking of our heroes, all four actors slip back into these roles with an ease the belies the years that have passed. Only Breslin is noticeably older and that becomes of feature of her character (“I’d really like for you to stop calling me little girl!”). But it’s this comfort and familiarity that prevents the film from really offering us anything new. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but once we’ve laughed at all the gags and enjoyed revisiting the four main characters and even gotten to know and like the new ones, there not really much new under the sun. It all feels a little bit safe and samey and the third act feels like it’s been forced into the narrative rather than being allowed to evolve as a natural consequence of the story. Still, I had a good time and I wasn’t sorry I saw it and I’ll certainly go and see a third movie if they make one. I just hope it happens before 2029. The way things are going in the world, we could be in the real zombie apocalypse by then.
Fisherman’s Friends exclusively performs traditional sea shanties, which I had assumed would become tiresome, but they give the film a distinct and charming voice - much like the group. The songs are often performed a cappella or with minimal instrumentation, allowing the powerful harmonies to shine. In fact, the vocals are a blend of real-life group members and the actors portraying them. There’s some creative liberty taken regarding just how well-known these songs are, for instance, one scene depicts several dozen Londoners easily recalling every verse of ‘(What Shall We Do With The) Drunken Sailor’. Yet this occurs late in the film, after viewers have already seen that these songs are intended to unite people and be sung together. Besides, the cast have so much fun you’ll enjoy the musical moments regardless of whether you know the words.
Similarly, I found the performances and humour made it easy to look past the story’s clichés, especially the romantic subplot between Danny and Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), the woman who runs his B&B. The pair’s arc is obvious from their first encounter, in which she calls him a tosser for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Following Danny’s earnest attempts to record a demo for the group, Alwyn begins to open up and realise their similarities. It’s as simple as it sounds but works thanks to the palpable chemistry between Mays and Middleton, who trade teasing barbs which perfectly capture the feeling of talking to a crush. Yes, it’s another fish-out-of-water trope, and FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS is all the better for embracing it.
James Purefoy is another standout as Jim, the de facto group leader and Alwyn’s father (because of course). Purefoy is essentially playing the same grizzled mentor role James Coburn perfected in Snow Dogs, constantly stating his distaste for Danny’s outside influence while warming up to him. For instance, Jim invites Danny out for a nightcap only to abruptly leave once the latter tries to start a conversation. I’m a big fan of Snow Dogs, but felt FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS improved on this character archetype by making Jim’s development less subtle. He’s surprisingly quick to accept Danny’s plans for the group and is even willing to travel outside Port Isaac to impress label executives. As a result, Purefoy is utterly charming despite looking so pissed off for much of the film.
However, the writers can’t help but undo the main characters’ development in the film's final 15-minutes, which leaves FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS treading water. Without spoiling too much, a subplot that previously seemed inconsequential is awkwardly pushed into focus and sees the villagers, including Danny’s new friends and girlfriend, turn on him. It’s as if someone decided the film needed to be longer and needed to put off the inevitable happy ending for a little longer. After suspending my disbelief for most of the runtime, this was the first time the story felt contrived to me. Thankfully, it still ends exactly as you’d expect and can’t sour the film’s overall impression. Whether you’re looking for a breezy and fun comedy, a biopic, or a stunning and unique soundtrack, I thoroughly recommend FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS.
Directed by Brett Leonard (Virtuosity, Hideaway) the movie told the story of a simple lawnmower man named Jobe (Jeff Fahey), who had the IQ of a 6-year old and came to the attention of a neighbouring scientist, Dr Lawrence Angelo (a post Remington Steel and pre Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan). Using Jobe as a lab rat Angelo experimented with a combination of drugs and state-of-the-art virtual reality to alter Jobe's intelligence, and as this is not a review for that film, I will cut to the chase by saying that he was turned into an evil mastermind who roamed cyber space in search of world domination. The film performed moderately on home entertainment but was mostly known for its association with Stephen King, who successfully sued the producers to have his name removed from the poster (his story of the same name bore no similarity).
Four years later, from out of nowhere, Lawnmower Man 2 arrived in cinemas with the subtitle “Beyond Cyberspace” and tanked heavily. Its theatrical run was limited and it found its way to home video with little to no fanfare. The subtitle was changed to “Jobe's War” and the VHS art featured images from the previous film. Critical and viewer reactions were savage and the movie fell into obscurity.
What a travesty, because in retrospect Lawnmower Man 2 is superior to Lawnmower Man in almost every way, and while the significance of the first movie's depiction of virtual reality is irrefutable, the sequel's narrative is arguably better, as well as its projection of a future society being somewhat accurate.
The only return player was Austin O'Brien who made his debut in the original movie and went on to star in a string of hits including Last Action Hero, Prehysteria, My Girl 2 and Apollo 13. Veteran character actor Matt Frewer (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Stand) replaced Fahey as Jobe, while Brosnan's character was written out entirely and substituted with Dr Benjamin Trace (Patrick Bergin), the inventor of virtual reality himself.
When watching the movie 23-years after its release, the first peculiarity about Lawnmower Man 2 is the all-new futuristic cyber-punk setting. With a delicious production design best likened to the Mars-scape of Total Recall, we are expected to believe that the world has evolved in a very short space of time, and with O'Brien's character looking only a few years older, viewers are forced to suspend that disbelief, which is fine given that the new setting is a lot more appealing.
Following the conclusion of the first movie Jobe is now under the control of a multinational corporation and is the mastermind of a new virtual reality called Virtual Light. VL is a highly ambitious online universe, which – with the power of the Kyron Chip – will supersede the real world entirely. Jobe intends to access every cyber port in the world, triggering an armageddon and forcing mankind to retreat into his new world. The only thing in Jobe's way is one single encryption, which only Dr Trace can unlock, and with the help of Peter (O'Brien) and his computer geek friends, Trace enters Virtual Light and goes head to head with Jobe.
Lawnmower Man 2 was a simpler, more palatable story than the previous, and boasted a stronger visceral appeal with a production design that's bigger than such a sequel deserves. Director Farhad Mann (Return to Two Moon Junction) stepped in and took control with a clear mind of how to expand Leonard's universe. Despite being locked out of the editing process due to the studio's insistence on appealing to a specific teenage audience, Farhad relished the genre with a gleeful eye and a comic-book sensibility. His cyber-punk cityscape was wonderfully conceived, using the studio sound stage to his advantage, and the online components of the story were told with minimal digital animation in comparison to the first movie. The obvious budget restrains meant that the virtual world resembled the real world, which was sold to us as being a VR so real that we cannot distinguish the difference. This budgetary concession, in turn, played to the story's advantage and made the narrative palpable.
The casting of Matt Frewer was a small stroke of genius given his role as Max Headroom, the iconic digital TV host who dominated 1980s pop culture. He took over from Fahey and delivered a different performance that was tailored towards his own style and comical sensibilities. And while Fahey's original turn was more malevolent and sinister, Frewer's delivery was a lot more fun. Bergin was also good and he, seemingly, understood the nature of the material. Embracing the tropes and offering a lighter performance than Bronson's, he gave Lawnmower Man 2 a warranted, albeit notoriously direct-to-video, calibre of star power.
How the hell is a release like Lawnmower Man 2 better than its predecessor, and why the hell hasn't it garnered a cult following after all these years? With its predictions of future technology including cell-phones and face-time, as well as a device that's incredibly called an Eye-Phone, it is a movie begging for a loyal fanbase. Do yourself a favour and track this one down. Give it your reconsideration and watch it with or without the first movie. It's one hell of a good time.
The synopsis is not easy to articulate, nor is the film itself, as it revolves around Dalia (Saara Lamberg), a woman rescued from a pagan apocalyptic cult on the night of a sacrificial ritual, leaving her two sisters behind. Several years later, overwrought with guilt, she sets about finding the cult and, in turn, her sisters. Her inquisition leads her to a mysterious and infamous black metal musician, Moloch (Albert Goikhman), who lives burrowed beneath a dense forrest, hours from civilisation. His cryptic and imperious rhetoric sends Dalia on a hellish descent in to depravity and madness, as her world becomes a grotesque regression of ritual, death and depravity.
I'll be honest and state for the record that I was baffled by CULT GIRLS. I am uncertain what it was about, and I don't understand what Bakaitis is trying to say. And I'm not sure that it matters, because at the end of the day he has projected a gothic tapestry on the screen that provides ample food for thought and an all immersive atmosphere. He presents his story with layers of shade and relishes the various depths of darkness he's able to submerge the audience in. Like a bastard child of Eraserhead and Häxan, his visceral expression is more important than whatever narrative he's telling.
The content is often confronting and while not quite as explicit as Jonas Åkerlund's recent Lords of Chaos, CULT GIRLS occupies the same sphere. With a deep goth sensibility the film plays out like an extended music video, and polarises the audience with its ambiguity. Some will relish its rich textures and sense of style, while others will reject the incoherent narrative. Lamberg gives a captivating turn as Dalia, playing amongst the atmosphere with her own mysterious sense of elusiveness and mystique. Goikhman gleefully assumes his reaper-like rockstar persona with relish and delivers an uncharacteristically sombre performance. Additional players include Jane Badler as the high witch, Dean Kirkright as Dalia's companion and Whitney Duff as the Fire Pagan. It is an ensemble of familiar local faces and all are good.
Even now as I write this review and attempt to comprehend its underlying themes and messages, I struggle to arrive at a comprehensive conclusion. I hesitate to compare the film to Argento's Three Mothers Trilogy, because CULT GIRLS is nowhere near that calibre of artistry, but I think there's a reasonable semblance. Mark Bakaitis is a unique artisan with an unmistakable mind for imagery, and where his new film struggles to form a comprehensive narrative, it compensates with style and expression. It may or may not resonate with people right now, but perhaps it will – to its advantage – garner a niche and loyal following in the years to come.
What does IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS offer that hasn't already been said? Virtually nothing. It counts down the decade, year by year, looking at some of the most provocative and influential titles of the time. A bunch of talking heads discuss their involvement with specific titles, while others recollect their own experiences as young viewers. It is essentially the same old format that we've seen so many times, only this one runs at a whopping 4 HOUR running time.
Retrospective horror documentaries peaked with 2000's The American Nightmare as far as I'm concerned, and few have contributed beyond what that film had to say. Mark Hartley's Not Quite Hollywood and Andrew Monument's Nightmares in Red, White and Blue are two examples of films that did, indeed, reach beyond the common knowledge of most fans, however most other docos have simply retraced the same steps.
Before passionate genre fans come at me, it must be said that I am not referring to film-specific documentaries, of which there are countless beauties. I am a staunch advocate of those, however when it comes to so-called “comprehensive” genre-broad entries, they have become little more than gratuitous fan-service, offering what I can best liken to as mass-audience-jerk-circles.
IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS produces a good amount of talking head subjects to help its narrative, however they've not been chosen wisely. Those who are welcome include the likes of Brian Yuzna, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Caroline Williams, and Mick Garris amongst others. Credit must also be given to director David A Weiner for bringing fresh faces to the table with the likes of Fangoria editor-in-chief Phil Nobile Jr, Ryan Turek from the Blumhouse stables, Heather Wixon of The Daily Dead and Fright Rags founder Ben Scrivens. Their participation helps to break up the monotony of the arduous running time, albeit only slightly. Others who have not been selected thoughtfully are Ken Sagoes (actor, Elm Street 3 & 4), Diana Prince (actress, Bunnyman Vengeance) and James A Jenisse (Dead Meat webseries), with the former two offering little to no insight and limited knowledge and the latter being an overly theatrical, ego-driven, try-hard flog. His voice permeates the majority of the film and is mostly in audible contrast from all other participants, and Weiner lacks the co-ordination and rhythm to edit his screen time effectively. The camera, all too often, lingers beyond the final statements of many players, leading to awkward moments before cutting to subsequent guests.
Looking beyond the negatives there are still plenty of positives to take away from IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS. For one, it was crowd funded and credit should always be given to those who workout outside of the formal funding bodies. Secondly, it is an impassioned exercise, which celebrates a mutual love for its subject. Even though it is clunky and poorly constructed, it attempts to delve as deep as possible (something that Weiner would have achieved with more success had he not focused on the multiple sequels of franchises, or referenced the same titles at multiple points throughout the film). And finally, the fact that it is destined to be a much easier watch on home-entertainment, as opposed to a marathon theatrical sitting, can only bode in its favour. With the benefit of stop and pause, this documentary would be a tolerable exercise.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS is a blatant fan-service, which offers nothing that hasn't already been said. Its target audience will already know the stories being recollected and will not be taking away anything new from its narrative. In turn, with its 4-hour running time I cannot imagine new audiences taking to it in a hurry either.
In the truest larrikin style another film titled WILLS AND BURKE: THE UNTOLD STORY was made concurrently and told an alternative and comedic version of the story. It was released just one week before the historical drama and was met with a mediocre response, both critically and financially. Yet, as with so many Australian films of that era, it would later gain a cult following and become something of a comedy gem (to some).
Adhering to the same storyline and overall structure of the other film, WILLS AND BURKE countered each marker-point with ridicule. From puerile sight gags to clever situational jokes, the film threw as much comedy at the wall in hope that some of it sticks. Some did and some didn't, but for every misfired quip there is a backup of wonderful witticisms not far behind, finessing the film into a satire ahead of its time.
It must be said that WILLS AND BURKE is a time capsule and holds no footing with today's social standards. It is an outrageous and fiercely satirical lampoon that shuns political correctness and will be considered insensitive and racist by most people today. Of course it was also racist then, however its sharp wit and social derision eluded most viewers at the time, who misunderstood its true nature and failed to recognise that the white man was, in fact, the butt of all jokes. The same can be said for today's audiences, whom I can only speculate might misinterpret the humour and identify victims of bigotry.
It is true that various ethnic groups and cultures were stereotyped and ridiculed - from indigenous people to Indians and Arabs – but it is also true that the payoff for such behaviour was the white men's ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. Legendary actor Garry McDonald (Norman Gunston) played Burke as a bumbling nincompoop, whose lack of education and experience lead to a calamity of mishaps. As their party passes by ancient indigenous drawings, he condemns people for vandalism and disrespecting the land, calling for a clean-up crew to restore the rock's beauty. And where one aboriginal man's body-paint is (hilariously) that of a necktie, the joke is – again – on the white man as a family of natives casually collect fish from a waterhole while a white guy sits for hours at the end of a fishing line.
The cast included an alumni of Australian heavy-weights including Kim Gyngell (Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Heaven Tonight), Chris Hayward (Razorback), Peter Collingwood (Picnic At Hanging Rock), John Hardy (Mad Max), Mark Little (Neighbours) and a young Nicole Kidman. They wore their comedic hats with pride and were never afraid to make fools of themselves. One sequence has Kidman wearing a moustache as she pretends to piss at a gentleman's urinal. Another moment has Collingwood stripping naked and throwing all of his belongings (including his false teeth) to a non-existent crowd who he thinks adore him. It is all very silly, yet all rather topical of the time.
With WILLS AND BURKE receiving a recent DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment, the film might earn its overdue credit for being a legitimate comedy classic. The best way to describe its style would be to compare it to Mel Brooks and Monty Python. Throw in a tipple of Young Einstein and a hint of Zucker Brother lunacy and you might get the picture. It's a slow burn comedy, for sure, but it's also one that deserves more attention.
It’s a shame, because many of the horror elements of this movie are strong and some of the comic-horror is genuinely funny. But the rest of it just feels dated and uncomfortable.
It starts off well enough, on Halloween (of course) in 1976 when two local cops from the hilariously named town of Gooberville are locked in a gun battle with a bunch of marauding dolls in (you guessed it) the old abandoned doll factory. But before too long (less than two minutes, in fact) we’ve had a condom joke, an ‘I had sex with your girlfriend’ joke made to a dying buddy before we meet wide-eyed, jive-talkin’ clichéd African-American character of Darius Grumley (Boo Gay in an afro wig) who has a supernatural book with which he can exert some power over the terrifying dolls, keeping the town safe from them.
Jump to present-day Halloween and we meet our seven heroes - Mark (Justin Herman) and his girlfriend Kay (Nicole Elliot), Blake (Will Allday) and his date for the night, Erika (Jade Warren), lothario in a devil costume, Derek (Eric C Schneider), comic relief Miguel (Marc Penarubia) and Alison (Tracy Collins) who has somehow found Darius’ supernatural book (seems her mother is a Wiccan and had it in the closet). After a round of sex banter, scoring girls out of ten and the odd genital joke, Kay’s ex-boyfriend, a nasty piece of work named Ian (Nasir Vilanueva) turns up and the gang decide to ditch the party and head down to the old doll factory to see if Alison’s spooky book is any good at conjuring up ghosts. Of course, they inadvertently re-animate the sleeping dolls and all hell breaks loose. For a little while we get some gory and funny evil doll action as some of our more expendable heroes meet gruesome and bloody ends, but then the comic-horror that’s been slowly building is undercut by a gear shift to more sex jokes with Erica and Blake and the return of the somewhat older (but still jive-talkin’) Darius Grumley who the surviving heroes enlist to help defeat the dolls.
And it’s these dolls that are the real stars of this production. Hats off to Jeffrey Birney for coming up with a doll design that is simultaneously comic and hideous. And there are hoards of them, which just amplifies the humour they bring, not to mention their stilted way of moving around (reminiscent of the Zuni fetish doll in the best chapter of Dan Curtis’ 1975 made-for-TV horror classic Trilogy of Terror). Plus, they have funny voices and increasingly inventive and gory ways of dispatching their victims. This is where the film is at its best. Somewhere along the way, we discover that the dolls are the creation of the sinister Doll Factory owner, Yegor (played with relish by Breaking Bad alumnus Patrick Sane) who went mad in the 1950’s and killed his whole family. The climax of the film centres around a final face-off with Yegor which, for a time, moves us away from the undergraduate humour of the sex gags and back into some half decent horror tropes.
Given the sensitivities of the post-Weinstein/Trump era, it’s hard to tell whether the sexist and racist humour of this movie would have felt less jarring in 2014 when it was made, but I suspect in any 21st century timeframe those elements, in addition to being unfunny, simply serve to eclipse the potential of the promising comic-horror movie that is hiding in there somewhere.
2019 | DIR: ANG LEE | STARRING: WILL SMITH, MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD, BENEDICT WONG, CLIVE OWEN | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
Since Scott's passing in 2012 many names have been attached to the project including Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) and Curtis Hanson (8 Mile) and finally the film arrives, delivered to the screen with absolute ambition by Academy Award winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi) who has carried on the tradition of spreading the screen with all style and no substance.
Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, a middle-aged government assassin with unrivalled skill who has his heart set on retirement. The CIA's idea of retirement is a lot more permanent, however, and they commission the only human capable of out-gunning Brogan... his 20-something year clone. Aligning himself with a female assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a former colleague (Benedict Wong) Brogan hop-scotches around the world to uncover the truth about his junior counterpart while avoiding endless assassination attempts. And thus is the crux of Gemini Man, a 90's inspired action movie that is the equivalent of The 6th Day, Looper and Replicant... pureed.
As advertised, the glaring point of difference with Gemini Man is Ang Lee's obsession with advancing cinema into the future, and following his ambitious - yet jarring – drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, he has picked up where he left off by further exploring the capabilities of higher frame rates. Shot at 120 frames per second (regular films are typically 24 fps) the effect on the viewer is an extremely high clarity that gives the impression of watching reality unfold before your eyes (essentially as though the screen were a stage with the actors present). The downside to this resolution is commonly known as “The Soap Opera Effect”, which often occurs on hi-def televisions when the motion-smoothing function is active. True to that moniker Gemini Man looks more like Days of Our Lives with it's lack of Hollywood veneer and the uncomfortable sense of voyeurism that comes with the high frame rate.
The frustrating facet of Lee's new craft is that his ambition abandons the audience. He's so focused on technological advancement that he's oblivious to how it translates. I applaud his tenaciousness and dedication to cinema, however I am certainly not onboard with it. If this is his vision for the future then I'm out! Gemini Man is a jarring experience that looks more aesthetically aligned with a behind-the-scenes documentary than it does a feature film. The story is generic, featuring lacklustre performances and an uninspired production design, offering only a handful of genuinely exhilarating moments to pad the space. This is a galaxy away from his former glories of Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and even HULK.
As for the elephant in the room, the film also boasts a supposedly photo-realistic computer-generated Will Smith Jr. As opposed to ageing Smith backwards with computer trickery they've chosen to recreate him entirely from scratch, much like Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were posthumously rendered in Rogue One. We are supposed to ogle at the mastery and celebrate their achievement, and yet this strange animation only serves to offer more discomfort to an already dissociative experience. There is no masking the imitation and Smith Jr adorns the screen like a humanoid with robotic expressions and unearthly dexterity.
Had Gemini Man made it to the screen as intended in the late 90s, the effect would have been achieved with a combination of split-screen, digital augmentation and prosthetics. It would have hit cinemas without much fanfare and, in turn, found its audience on home video. It would be a movie we remember with guilty fondness - like Demolition Man or Face Off – and we'd regale those days when practical effects reigned supreme. As it is, the movie has arrived 20-years too late and serves little more purpose than being Ang Lee's play toy.
Comic books are revisionary and some of the most beloved characters have undergone multiple back-stories. JOKER picks up the aesthetic of Nolen's world of the Dark Knight and winds the story back to the early 1980s to tell a new origin story of Batman's most villainous foe. It is also the first time that an adaptation has been created independently of the source material, with director Todd Philips new entry being an original script with no relation to the comics at all (aside from a few loose references).
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a mentally disturbed man whose view of the world is composed from the lack of humanity surrounding him. A life-long loner, he endures daily hardships. His mother is incapacitated and reliant on him, while others abuse his mild-mannered demeanour. He is ridiculed and beaten-up and finds himself in a perpetual state of despair and depression. He tells his inattentive psychologist that he has never been happy for a single day in his entire life. And so is the foundation for the new Joker's origin story, which is apologetically entrenched in nostalgia for the early films of Martin Scorsese.
JOKER is not without its flaws, of which there are many, and it's slow and meandering story will certainly test the patience of many unsuspecting viewers. If, however, you invest in Arthur's descent into madness you will walk away numbed by the film's dank and relentless pursuit of darkness. Phoenix serves up a stellar performance, which isn't the “best” portrayal by any means, but definitely aligns itself with Heath Ledger's interpretation. The Scorsese influences are less than subtle with Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy being major beacons for Philips' direction, a fact which he never skirts (observant viewers will see the references). Phoenix's turn is often clunky and uneven, feeling forced at times, and yet there is no escaping the effectiveness of his Travis Bickle-inspired spiral. It's uncomfortable to watch his character be proverbially spat-upon at every turn, and his madness is the stuff of nightmares. His emotional investment in Arthur is laudable and signifies a performance worthy of accolade.
Philips' steps into the drama-dome with unexpected ease and bares no resemblance to the director who gave us Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover Trilogy. He has recaptured the Scorsese atmosphere effectively and depicts Gotham City as the grimy and scum-riddled New York of old. The film looks amazing and maintains its textural quality throughout. The supporting cast includes Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz and Robert DeNiro who all give run-of-the-mill – albeit well measured - performances. DeNiro's presence feels tokenistic, as though Philips was fulfilling his Scorsese fantasy, however it's neither distracting or detracting.
Some major flaws of JOKER include heavy-handed plot-driving devices, most of which cannot be revealed without spoilers and glaring references to previous films (look out for Travis Bickle's military jacket and a very familiar ride in the backseat of a cop car). The amount of fan-service is gluttonous and does create a disconnection from the story, however, once you recognise a few nods, it's easy to glaze over the rest.
JOKER is a nasty, depraved and violent journey into the darkest recesses of the human mind. It occupies the same space as some lesser-known films like Tony (2009) Who's Watching Oliver (2018) and Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla (2013) and never offers the viewer a glimpse of light. Nor should it. This is the human Joker as opposed to the comic-book Joker and he is a product of the current political climate, serving as a cautionary marker for those who don't look out for others.
The film’s greatest success is its all-star cast, who I felt often elevated a lazy script (more on that below). Veteran Jarmusch collaborators Bill Murray and Adam Driver take the lead as small-town cops doing their best to deal with the zombie outbreak. As a result, the pair share almost all their scenes and develop a surprisingly organic rapport. Driver commits to the role of the overeager Ronnie, immediately assuming the dead have risen at the first sign of gore, while Murray plays it straight and imbues his Chief Cliff with a calm indifference; in one scene, he literally states that he is past retirement age as if to complete the trope. Most viewers will have seen this dynamic before, but Murray’s charm and Driver’s ability to immerse himself ensure the cliché doesn’t feel unwelcome.
Ronnie and Cliff patrol the modest middle America town of Centerville, a setting which is thinly sketched in order to focus on its quirky residents. These include a forest-dwelling hermit (Tom Waits), and a Scottish mortician with some badass katana skills (Tilda Swinton, of course). Even minor roles such as the racist farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi) have some great one-liners and complete our picture of Centerville, making us want to spend more time there. However, the sheer number of characters is excessive given Jarmusch’s tendency to deemphasise story. In lieu of a traditional plot and subplot/s, THE DEAD DON’T DIE cuts between several groups of people who exchange silly small talk, or ominous remarks about how strange things have been recently. While there’s no inherent problem with this, the extended zombie attack sequence comprising the film’s second half means that some characters are simply forgotten about. For instance, the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center (sic) and its inmates eventually disappear and aren’t mentioned afterwards.
Though I won’t spoil the cause of the zombie outbreak, suffice it to say that none of the characters or even Centerville itself are directly involved. Subsequently, placing most of the scenes with zombies in them towards the end of the film removes any semblance of build-up. The actors’ delivery and expressions perfectly convey the humour in Jarmusch’s dialogue, but the rest of the script feels like it’s spinning its wheels in anticipation for the end. This is most clearly seen in the juvie scenes I mentioned above, as well as Selena Gomez being given nothing to do whenever she’s on screen.
Furthermore, THE DEAD DON’T DIE feels annoyingly smug at times, particularly during the countless mentions of its theme song of the same name by Sturgill Simpson. As someone who’s not a big country music fan, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the song when it first played over the opening credits. Yet Jarmusch insists on shattering the fourth wall throughout the film to draw attention to it, in some cases ruining an otherwise fine joke. For instance, the song plays on the radio as Ronnie and Cliff are driving and the latter wonders why it sounds so familiar, only for Driver to look into the camera and say, “because it’s the theme song”. Somehow this isn’t even the most frustrating fourth wall break in the film, as Murray and Driver later discuss “Jim” and the script at length. There’s a time and place for this technique, in fact, Ronnie’s Star Wars keychain is a perfect example. Ultimately though, I just wanted the film to get on with it.
Despite the cast’s best efforts, I simply don’t think this was the right use for the characters and setting. The zombies are an awkward afterthought, yet paradoxically take up so much time that any deeper satire of small-town America is left unfinished. Although Jim Jarmusch has never made universally accessible films, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is definitely only for diehard fans.
What is surprising though, is how cleverly these stories are stitched together within a frame that makes a very good fist of weaving them into an overall, fluid narrative that rarely feels like a contrived or forced spine upon which to hang the tales. That might be due to the influence of Oscar winning horror and supernatural writer/director Guillermo del Toro who gets a story credit along with Saw franchise alumni members Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Add to that, a screenplay by Hotel Transylvania (2012) and The Lego Movie (2014) writers Dan and Kevin Hageman and you’ve got a great stew of talents stirring in the scary stuff with the funny stuff.
The story this team comes up with is a bit of a classic teen trope-fest about a bunch of kids in a small town in 1968. Aspiring writer, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) reluctantly agrees to join her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) for what might be their last Hallowe’en tick or treat. Along the way, they encounter Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) who’s on a date with school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). The kids play a prank on Tommy which backfires and he chases them into the local drive-in (check out George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead up on the screen). Here they meet Ramón (Michael Garza), a secretive, out-of-town kid just passing through. Before long all of them end up at the local haunted house where we learn the tale of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) whose family locked her away in the basement where she spent her time writing scary stories. And, of course, Stella finds Sarah’s book and brings the legend back to life. Suddenly, a new batch of scary stories are writing themselves (in blood!) and each one’s climax involves the death of a teenager. It’s these stories, the ones Sarah’s ghost is writing in the book, that are taken from Alvin Schwarz’s first collection.
Setting the story in 1968 gives us more than just an excuse for a great visual look, thanks to Production Designer David Brisbin. It takes us back to a time where there was less paranoia about teenagers running loose around town as well as a time before mobile phones, allowing for a tasty combination of freedom and isolation that helps build the suspense and tension. But it also allows us to watch the progress of Richard Nixon’s ascension to the Whitehouse (on television screens in the background of several scenes)... it’s a reminder that bad things really are happening in this world and not all of them are imaginary.
Director André Øvredal - Trollhunter (2010) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) –steers a confident course through these stories of a vengeful scarecrow, a dismembered corpse, the VERY unsettling pale lady and more. At the same time he keeps his eye on the ball with the overarching story so that one never suffers at the hands of the other. More importantly, this isn’t cheap horror. Yes there are a few soundtrack assisted jump-scares, but for the most part this film manages to get our skin crawling and our spines tingling by being super-creepy rather than gory and terrifying. The result is much more satisfying than that average schlock-horror flick. Øvredal is helped by a great cast of young actors who hold their own in a world where, thanks to works like IT parts 1 and 2 and Stranger Things seasons 1 to3, we’re oversupplied by bands of nostalgic teenagers battling supernatural forces. The popularity of those that came before could well have cruelled the pitch for this newcomer, but (for me, at least) there’s a freshness and a likability to Stella, Auggie, Chuck and Ramón that was compelling from start to finish.
Projects like this are a big ask. When you’re working with source material that is well-known and much loved by its readership, there’s a lot of pressure not to screw up the representations of characters that have lived in millions of imaginations for a long, long time. Simultaneously, the producers want to attract new audiences who come fresh to the cinema with no expectations of how the stories or the characters will be rendered. Marvel and DC both know this, as do the makers of the Goosebumps movies. It’s the latter two-movie franchise that this film most aligns with and, on balance, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK delivers us a better, more satisfying and more entertaining result.
My one disappointment is that artist Stephen Gammell’s excellent original artwork for the Alvin Schwartz stories doesn’t get a credit, even though his images for creatures like Harold the Scarecrow, the Jangly Man, the Pale Lady and others are so faithfully recreated here. Actually, on the subject of giving credit where credit is due, it was my teenage son who pointed this out to me. In his opinion, the stories are only as powerful as they are because of Gammell’s illustrations, and when the scary characters appear on the screen, it’s clear that the filmmakers agree.
At the end of this movie, there’s a nice little coda that not only leaves the door open for a sequel, it begs for one. Often I find these commercial on-selling strategies detract from the enjoyment of the movie at exactly the moment where they want to send me out feeling good about it. That’s not the case here. I can’t wait for the next one. And with two more volumes of scary stories to plunder, why wouldn’t you plan for a franchise?
Perhaps the greatest advantage for writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie is that Payne’s life prior to finding fame is inherently fascinating. The youngest of ten children raised by a widowed father (Sam Neill), Michelle grew up surrounded by horses and quickly developed a keen love for them. Simultaneously, the Payne clan are all shown to be devoted fans of racing; their kitchen even has a whiteboard listing everyone’s scheduled events, including track, horse and placing. While these early scenes are charming, I was pleasantly surprised by the script’s brisk pace which gives each moment the right amount of focus. For instance, seeing a young Michelle (Summer North) watch the Melbourne Cup on TV at school is a sweet display of her passion, but rightly isn’t lingered on as a significant event.
RIDE LIKE A GIRL really hits its stride in the second act as Michelle reaches the end of high school. Having watched seven siblings embark on careers as jockeys with varying levels of success, the youngest Payne wants nothing more than to begin her own. Teresa Palmer takes over the role of Michelle from here onwards and is simply brilliant, capturing the palpable frustration of being told she’s not ready and receiving often contradictory advice. When Michelle later moves to Melbourne, neither Palmer nor the script idealise the struggles faced by female jockeys looking for their start. The film takes lengths to show just how little confidence trainers have in women’s abilities, even when they come from well-known racing families. In fact, one trainer openly offers Michelle work in exchange for sex. While this is (hopefully) a composite character, the anger and devastation on Palmer’s face affirm the unfortunate relatability of institutional chauvinism.
Alongside Palmer, Sam Neill is a standout as the laconic Paddy Payne. In my opinion, Neill is an actor who often appears to simply be playing himself rather than fully immersing into a role. I don’t mean this as an insult, merely a comment on how easily his offscreen charisma is transplanted into a film. His turn as Paddy is no exception, exuding warmth and affection even during arguments with his children. However, when a horrific injury sees Michelle hospitalised and comatose, Neill also reaches impressive emotional depths. Paddy’s regret at their strained relationship, fear of losing a child and cautious optimism during her recovery are heart-wrenchingly clear. Similarly, Palmer’s convincing portrayal of the physical and emotional toll of the accident make these scenes utterly compelling yet hard to watch.
Thankfully, the presence of Stevie Payne offers some moments of levity. Given how often Stevie appeared in the real-life coverage of Michelle’s victory, it’s fitting that he’s also such a central figure here. The less obvious choice is to have Payne play himself, which could’ve come across as stunt casting in the hands of a less capable actor. From his first moments onscreen Stevie feels like a natural choice, often providing the film’s biggest laughs with excellent comedic timing and a laidback attitude. He also inadvertently leads Michelle to Prince of Penzance, the horse she would ultimately ride in the Cup.
Although the character-driven moments in RIDE LIKE A GIRL are where it shines, the horse racing sequences deserve to be singled out for their incredible camerawork. Indeed, the sheer level of choreography required for these to work is likely on par with an action film, and just as entertaining. Director Rachel Griffiths shows a clear consideration for which angles to focus on, shifting frequently from behind the horses’ legs, to a camera on the back of a horse looking back at riders, to anxious spectators. There’s even footage from the actual 2015 Melbourne Cup broadcast seamlessly woven into the film during its climactic final race!
Considering how much I loved about this film, my one issue with it feels relatively minor. Nevertheless, I always relish the chance to complain about how restrictive the biopic genre can be. Most egregiously, Griffiths and the writers evidently couldn’t decide which cliché opening they wanted to use: a montage of footage featuring the real-life subject, or a time jump to quickly preview the emotional climax. As a result, we get both a selection of Payne family home videos, and a brief scene of Palmer as Payne at the starting gates of the Melbourne Cup. This is not only uninspired, but abrupt and confusing. After all, most people who watch RIDE LIKE A GIRL will already know how it ends. It’s a testament to the film, and Michelle Payne herself that the story preceding it is so engaging and triumphant.
Often the most basic premises make for the best films and AD ASTRA is a glaring example. Taking a generic rescue-mission narrative the film explores its science-fiction drama with a rare casualness, treating its fiction as though it were fact. The near future as depicted is sincere and familiar, allowing the story to unfold as though we can imagine it within our lifetime.
As Pitt's character journeys from one point to another the audience is treated to a visceral wonder, with his marker-points including a colonised war-stricken version of the Moon, an industrialised Mars and far-reaching space stations. It is a perpetual unravelling of wonderment that is cemented by director James Gray's nonchalant approach to the story. He has invested meticulous attention to detail so that the audience can let the environments wash over them. In fact I would go so far as to consider him a master craftsman.
Gray's previous film was the criminally under-appreciated The Lost City of Z and other films of his include The Immigrant, We Own The Night and The Yards. These titles attest to his level-headed and carefully considered approach to cinema, with AD ASTRA being his most accomplished film to date.
Pitt is excellent in what is essentially a one-man-show. He occupies every frame of the film and carries it with ease. His apathetic demeanour may suggest a phoned in performance to some, whereas others will recognise the level of depth and sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as his long-lost father and occupies most of his screen time in a series of video diaries, giving clues to his whereabouts. Donald Sutherland also features – albeit briefly – as a former astronaut and colleague accompanying Pitt on the mission (yes, yes, Jones and Sutherland... Space Cowboys... we were all thinking it).
With an awe-inspiring and mind-blowing production design, married with incredible special effects, AD ASTRA soars far beyond most of its contemporaries. The drama and mystery drives the film to spectacular heights and serves as a reminder of what Christopher Nolan's Interstellar SHOULD have been. There is no pretentious parable or metaphorical fantasy closing this film, nor is there any sign of the director's ego. Instead we are taken to the edge of the known solar system to witness the fragilities of the human mind. Isolation and depravation underline this narrative and with the exception of a slightly sentimental finale, AD ASTRA reaches for the stars and snatches them from the sky.
See the film in the biggest screen possible and let the film take its sweet time. There is no rush here and the more leisurely it meanders, the more absorbing it becomes.
The second thing you'll probably be aware of when it comes to Carnahan and his Instagram-blogging, is that War Party's latest feature, EL CHICANO, just dropped and he's really excited about it. Like REALLY excited about it.
Should we be so excited? Yes. And no. Set in the heart of the LA drug cartel wars it sees suave and charismatic detective Diego Hernandez (Raul Castillo) investigating the latest drug war mass-murder in a warehouse. The more he digs into the case the more truth he uncovers about the death of his wayward twin brother (also played by Castillo). Compound Hernandez's newfound concerns with a new partner he doesn't like and the legend of the 'ghetto grim reaper' the titular El Chicano, a Hispanic superhero vigilante figure, and you have all the ingredients you need to make a dementedly violent, pseudo-superhero gang warfare feature.
Based on a muscular script that Carnahan co-scribed with EL CHICANO's debut feature director Ben Bray, this is the kind of territory Carnahan does really well in. Well, most of the time. For every NARC that Carnahan pens, there's a PRIDE AND GLORY that ever-so-slightly misses the mark. And for every THE GREY there's a DEATH WISH that just scrapes through.
EL CHICANO is essentially a super-hero origin story with a thundering motorbike instead of a Batmobile and hoodie replacing a cowl, which is fine but we really miss Carnahan's original streak. Like that french behemoth Luc Besson, Carnahan seems to keep all his best scripts for himself and dishes the rest out to others.
It's a sturdy enough film, for sure. It's fast, head-smackingly violent, has a relatively efficient script and it does hold a couple of surprises up it's sleeve (one of the most entertaining being George Lopez ditching the yucks and playing a serious role as the police captain). Add to that director Bray's (very) slick visuals and you have all the ingredients for an entertaining diversion.
Arriving with anticipation Muschietti's new adaptation was a relatively faithful retelling of King's original story, and with the setting brought forward by 30-years it cashed in on the popular wave of 80's nostalgia. It served as the first chapter – The Losers Club – and told the story of seven young teenagers who were terrorised by an evil entity in the guise of a carnival clown. Aside from a few glaring liberties the film adhered to the original novel and proved to be a compelling coming-of-age drama married with suspense and horror.
IT: CHAPTER TWO picks up 27 years later, just like the second half of King's novel and the TV movie, and reunites the Losers Club as adults. Their memories of their childhood are vague and as the entity resumes its feeding on innocent children, recollections of their trauma return with it. Maintaining the same level of production value and overall aesthetic, this second-part successfully binds itself to the previous film. Sadly, the praise ends there because this concluding instalment serves as a bloated, nonsensical and ridiculously gratuitous exercise in ignorance, arrogance and disrespect.
The movie opens with a particularly horrific moment lifted directly from King's book, whereby a gay man is brutally bashed and thrown from a bridge. In today's progressive society this moment might sound relevant in a social-commentary sense, and yet it has no purpose. As originally written by King, this incident provided context and an ongoing narrative, which wove its way through the course of the first act, however on film it happens for no apparent reason and context be damned. From this moment on nothing about IT: CHAPTER TWO feels right. There is no cohesion or fluency, and with the entire film weaving in and out of flashback sequences it hits the screen like a stale funnel cake.
It must be said that the ensemble cast is very good, with Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader leading their troupe of consummate players. The likeness to their younger counterparts is uncanny and credit must be given to the casting department for providing the film its only clear moment of integrity, for the calibre of talent amongst this cast is wasted and trod upon by the convoluted script, lack of vision and the hideous abundance of computer generated imagery.
Mainstream horror has changed over the years and has come to a point where filmmakers either don't understand what scares people OR audiences think that non-stop action amounts to terror. Either way there is a genuine lack of horror in this instalment, and whatever tropes returning director Andy Muschietti chose to exploit, he misses the mark on just about every one of them.
The working title for Chapter Two was “Pennywise” and it makes sense that the studio dropped that moniker considering how little time he's represented on screen. I personally never found this new depiction of King's evil clown to be scary, and the more monstrous they made him, the less terrifying he was (for my money the truly scary clowns are those without exaggeration). And so you can imagine how fatigued I became when the little screen time Pennywise had in this film was smeared with CGI thicker than Vaseline... there's so much stupid computer contortion and manipulation at play here that everyone forgot about suspense.
As mentioned earlier the achilles heel of the 1990 adaptation was the poorly executed finale, yet fans will attest to the rest of that film. It was this one major blemish which gave us reason to be excited about an all new adaptation, because with all of the advancements in technology filmmakers finally had the means to recreate King's ambitious confrontation. I'm sorry to report that they failed. They failed on an epic scale. They failed monumentally. They failed conceptually. They failed practically. They failed visual effectively. The finale of IT: CHAPTER TWO is what I would call a hot mess... or more bluntly, a cluster fuck! And the worst part? The dialogue blatantly notes McAvoy's author character being unable to write a good ending. Talk about a self-referential wank. Oy Vay!
I hated this film!!! And I hate that it sucks so much that there's absolutely no reason to revisit the first chapter. Thank God we have the 1986 novel to turn to in times of need, and thankfully Tommy Lee Wallace's telemovie is 95% good and far superior. Now lets not try this again... IT is not a story suitable for the screen...