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December 28, 2018

Review: Bird Box

Director: Susanne Bier

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson

Run Time: 124 mins

Since arriving on Netflix, last Friday “Bird Box” has received mixed reviews. Which may have been the case no matter what but you wonder how much that has been influenced by the movie coming out in the same as “A Quiet Place” as this is essentially “A Blind Place” (mixed with a dash of “The Mist”). To be fair though the film is based on a 2014 novel and would have been in production at a similar time.

The comparison does it little favours as it lacks the nerve-shredding tension of that film. However, the same level of the tension would have been difficult to create here given the story structure here that interweaves two different time periods. In one of these Malorie (Sandra Bullock) attempts a treacherous river journey with her two children. We also flashback-and-forth to five years earlier where the unseen force that drives most of society to commit suicide first struck. Here is another key advantage “A Quiet Place” has as there is a tangible threat. The unseen deadly force in this movie being something that is much easier to make threatening in a novel than it is cinematically. Director Bier does, however, do an excellent job of making this invisible force seem ominous when it does strike. Bullock’s performance as Malorie also grounds the stories reality.

Malorie is by far the most rounded character and is given a genuine psychological depth. Many of the other characters we are introduced when the event first happens not so much. As Malorie finds herself stuck in a house with other survivors many of whom barely register. From the ones that do most are clichéd from the wide-eyed innocent Olympia (Danielle Macdonald) to the wearily stereotypical black comic relief character Charlie (Lil Rel Howery) to the asshole in every post-apocalyptic group Douglas (John Malkovich). There is however great fun to be had watching Malkovich play the asshole.

Not all the characters are poorly drawn though. Despite a short amount of screen time, Sarah Paulson makes an impression as Malorie’s sister Jessica, and it is a shame there relationship could not be further explored. Trevante Rhodes also impresses as Malorie’s love interest, Tom. Yes, the character is probably a tad too much on the saintly side, but the relationship between Tom and Malorie is the most convincing in the film and is quite touching as well.

There may be plenty of flaws in characterisation, and the plot logic is oft-times screwy, but there is also plenty to admire here. The premise is interesting, the whole thing is beautifully shot, and the story is never less than engaging.  Also, Malorie’s journey down the river with her two children is rung not just for all the suspense it is worth but for every emotion too. It would take a hard heart not to be moved by it by the time the story reaches its conclusion.

Overall: While not as great as you feel it could have been “Bird Box” still hits many of the right post-apocalyptic notes as well as providing some truly heartbreaking moments.

6/10

December 23, 2018

Review: The House that Jack Built

Director: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough

Run Time: 152 mins

It would be an understatement to say that Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy. Having carved a reputation for himself as one of European cinema’s enfant terrible dating back to his debut feature “Breaking the Waves.” This film may, however, be his most controversial work to date. Certainly, that is the impression you would get give its reception at Cannes where there was said to be several walkouts. That said reactions at film festivals do tend to be exaggerated.

Given what people may have heard you would be forgiven for thinking the work it is a splatterfest, it’s not. However, this is a profoundly nasty tale which includes moments of animal abuse (it should be stated not real animal abuse), child murder and torture amongst its many unpleasantries.

 “The House that Jack Built” centres on serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon) who we follow over 12 years in the 70s and 80s. The framing device for the movie is Jack recounts five randomly chosen incidents of murder to Verge (Bruno Ganz). During these dialogues, Jack also frequently goes off on tangents about art, poetry and particularly architecture. These dialogues with Verge can be engaging but also shows Von Trier at his most pretentious. They become particularly grating when they smugly point out plot flaws as if Von Trier wants to pre-empt criticism of some of the more grossly unrealistic moments.

Like many films in Von Trier filmography, there is an autobiographical element. In that, you can frequently interpret Jack’s dialogues with Verge as Von Trier’s conversation with his critics particularly in the frequent accusation of his movies being misogynistic. The misogynistic tag has seemed unfair at times, particularly in connection with “Antichrist,” but you would be hard-pressed to defend this movie against such accusations. Granted you can show acts of misogyny on screen without being misogynistic but the way the film, at times, indulges Jack’s narrative voice and the fact most of the female victims don’t even get a name makes for uncomfortable viewing.

There would be those who would say it is not supposed to be comfortable viewing, and they would be right.  However, there seems to be a lot of intentional button-pushing here that has little value beyond trying to shock and offend. The zenith of which occurs in a particularly disturbing scene where Jack hunts a woman (played Sofie Gråbøl) and her two children. These overt attempts to shock will work on some as it did at Cannes, but many will merely find it tiresome. Much like the adolescent nihilism that pervades proceedings with the film repeatedly making the same points about what a cruel and indifferent universe we live in.

Possibly the most annoying thing about the movie is it is not all terrible. Von Trier is still a great filmmaker, and there is some striking imagery in the film especially in its finale. There are also some excellent moments of dry black comedy, and Matt Dillon delivers a brilliantly oddball performance. Pity that so much else here is such a slog.

Overall: A fitfully engaging work from one of cinema’s most notable agent provocateurs but ultimately one that provides little beyond its desire to shock.

5/10

December 14, 2018

Review: Leprechaun Returns

Director: Steven Kostanski

Starring: Taylor Spreitler, Linden Porco, Pepi Sonuga, Sai Bennett, Emily Reid

Run Time: 86mins

Remarkably this is the eighth entry in the Leprechaun franchise. Remarkable not necessarily for the number of entries but as the Leprechaun franchise has never been as well-loved as some of horror’s other iconic franchises and not only that it is one of the most critically reviled franchises in horror. To give you an idea of how much no fewer than four entries have a 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

As you might surmise expectations for this newest chapter are suitably low especially as this is a made for Scyfy production. This latest instalment is also the second feature in the franchise not to feature Warwick Davis, the other being the god-awful “Leprechaun: Origins” which featured former WWE star Hornswoggle in the role and was the most recent entry until now. Not that this movie has anything to do with that one. In fact, following the route of this year’s Halloween, this feature ignores all the sequels in the franchise and leads on directly from the original. Taking place 25 years after the events of the first film (which came out in 1993).

The plot here centres on Lila (Taylor Spreitler) who is the daughter of the original films heroine Tory Reding (Who was played by a Pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston). She is returning to the house of the original at Devil’s Lake which is now an Eco-House run by a sorority. Unsurprisingly there is no return from Aniston, it is explained her character has passed away, but there is a fun cameo appearance Mark Holton who reprises his role as Ozzie from the original. The rest of the characters are your usual slasher fare. There is some effort to make Lila’s sorority sisters intelligent as they are all academic high-flyers instead of the bimbo characters associated with the sub-genre. However, as soon as the killing starts they end up being just as silly and two-dimensional as your standard slasher character.

On the plus side little time is wasted before the Leprechaun is brought back to life and the killing begins. Here is where the films strength lies as there is plenty of amusing gory moments. Also while some may complain at Warwick Davis’s aforementioned absence, Linden Porco acquits himself well as the eponymous villain. Granted some of his rhyming post-kill one-liners grate but overall Porco delivers a fun performance equal parts mischievous and malicious. Spreitler’s also provides a good foil for them, and their interactions are amongst the film’s most entertaining.

Not everything works some of the jokes clunk, most of the action is textbook slasher stuff, and the acting is the variable, but director Kostanski (The Void, Astron 6) keeps it all going at breezy pace and delivers some good kills in what is one of the better Leprechaun outings.

Overall: “Leprechaun Returns” might not be great but it is a solid enough reboot that is better than anyone had the right to expect.

5.5/10


December 7, 2018

Review – Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil

Director: Paul Urkijo Alijo

Starring: Kandido Uranga, Uma Bracaglia, Eneko Sagardoy

Run Time: 98mins

Paul Urikjo Alijo’s debut feature, Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil, actually debuted at Sitges last year. The film then toured the horror/fantasy festival circuit to plenty of acclaim before it landed on Netflix. It is a matter of thorny debate how good streaming services are for films like this and the detrimental effects of the likes of Netflix on the festival circuit. It would be accurate to say though that being on the streaming giant gives a chance for movies such as Erremantari to be seen by more people which is a good thing as this is a little gem of a film that deserved to be seen by a wider audience.

The story takes places in a small Spanish village in the 1840s where an investigator (Ortzi Acosta) arrives to investigate the disappearance of some gold that was stolen during the First Carlist War. His chief suspect being Patxi (Kandido Uranga) a hermit blacksmith who the rest of the village appear to fear. The investigation is beside the point though as this fable-like tale focuses on Patxi and a deal he made with a demon Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy). Not that this is a spoiler as we are told of the blacksmith’s demonic pact in the beautifully animated prologue. The other main focus is Usue (Uma Bracaglia) a rebellious little girl whose mother killed herself.

Given this is a Spanish fantasy-horror seen mainly from a child’s point of view it is hard to escape the Del Toro comparisons. This story even touches a bit on the same themes of grief, loss, and oppression (state & religious) as the likes of “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” However, it does so in a more heavy handed, broad brush strokes manner. Which is not to say it does not tell its story as well as it remains entertaining throughout. The film is unusual as well as it is Basque language films which is a rarity (there is an English dub but many have noted this make it seem silly and you are better sticking with the original language with subs).

Tonally the piece is curious as it starts as a brooding Gothic fairy tale but becomes more comical as the plot unfolds particularly after the introduction of Sartael. This tonal shift is not a bad thing necessarily as Sagardoy chews the screen with maximum glee (as the demon who looks not dissimilar to Tim Curry’s Satan in “Legend”). They say the devil gets all the best lines and that is certainly true here. You can’t help but feel though that film is strongest in its opening half when the focus is on the more human stories on Patxi and Usue. Both of whom are played superbly by Uranga and Bracaglia respectively and form the beating heart of the film. Concerning the other characters, much of the rest of village though is your stereotypical torch-wielding yokels that generally populate fairy tales.

The film does end on a high though with a hell set finale which is beautifully staged and impressively done particularly given its budget level.

Overall: Despite the tonal inconsistencies and clichéd elements this is a thoroughly entertaining fantasy-horror tale told with real brio and complete with visual imagination and a trio of enjoyable performances from Uranga, Bracaglia and Sagardoy.

6.5/10