Category Archives: Movie Reviews

NETFLIX UK FILM REVIEW: ‘EXTINCTION’

Everything is not what it seems in Netflix’s surprising, though-provoking sci-fi actioner.

On the back of the woeful Cloverfield Paradox and the disappointing How It Ends, Netflix latest sci-fi commission at least has the distinction of being watchable. It’s no masterpiece, though. The plot is smart, in a sort of sub-Philip K Dick short story sort of way: in an unspecified near(ish) future family man Peter (Michael Peña, excellent) is beset by nightmares of an imminent alien invasion that – when a murderous attack fleet descends from the sky – he comes to believe are, in fact, prophetic visions. The truth is more complex (and pleasingly clever) with a series of great reveals at and after the midpoint.

Before that, this is more of a straight-forward action flick, as enemy foot-soldiers go door-to-door in Peter’s apartment block, gunning down everyone they see. It’s brilliantly done and the tension is palpable as Peter, his wife (Lizzy Caplan) and two adorable kids (Amelia Crouch, Erica Tremblay) battle their way from the block down into the city’s tunnels and, they hope, to sanctuary with Peter’s boss David (Mike Colter). But on their tail is an apparently vengeful soldier, intent on recovering the gun Peter stole from him during an early altercation.

To fully discuss Extinction would require a mahoosive spoiler, but suffice to say everything is not quite what it seems on the surface. Anyone thinking this is just another War of the Worlds re-run will be surprised at the destination the movie takes us to. It’s deftly plotted and all the jigsaw pieces slot into place come the closing few minutes, with an ending that’s morally complex and thought-provoking. It’s all done and dusted in 95 minutes, which would normally be a big plus point. Here, though, you’re left feeling they could have given us a little more breathing space to digest the twists and turns; instead, in hurrying to its conclusion, it snaps the audience away from the story just as they’re getting their heads around it.

This is a far cry from truly masterful sci-fi chamber pieces such as Ex Machina or Moon, but there’s lots to recommend, not least the cast and the visual effects.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘DEAD NIGHT’

For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

A favourite of the horror festival circuit this last year, Dead Night is an entry into the much-crowded sub-genre of splatter-gore. Very 80s in tone, it delivers its palpably nasty sequences with glee, providing chuckles along with some very effective jump scares.

The plot is corny, of course: a wholesome family unit – Dad recovering from cancer – head out to a remote cabin in the woods, built on a spot renowned for healing. Suffice to say, not a lot of healing takes place. The set up for the ‘bad stuff’ is unnecessarily complicated, beginning with a prologue taking place in 1961, which, with a gruesome murder and a horrific scene of demonic childbirth, sets the pleasingly nasty tone – it’s hard to achieve an R-certificate these days, but Dead Night gets there in its opening minute. From 1961, we fast-forward to 2015 and meet mom Casey Pollack (Brea Grant, best known as Daphne in TV’s Heroes; excellent) as she drives her husband James (AJ Bowen), two teen kids Jessica (Sophie Dalah) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman). Accompanying them is Jessica’s buddy, shy Becky (Elise Luthman).

From this very standard set-up, Dead Night does try something different structurally. We’re suddenly shown a TV, flickering out in a clearing in the woods, that’s playing TV show Inside Crime – a documentary detailing the butchering “three years ago” of the Pollacks by notorious “axe mom” Casey. While it apparently lets us know early on that nobody makes it out alive, nothing is quite as straightforward as that – especially when a woman named Leslie Bison turns up at the cabin.

Played with trademark élan and menacing camp by horror legend Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, You’re Next amongst many others), Bison first appears as a prospective candidate for senate in 2018 during an ad after Inside Crime, but we then see how she infiltrates the Pollacks’ cabin and unleashes hell. It’s all very silly, and becomes increasingly ridiculous – and less frightening – as it progresses. It does deliver some fantastic scares and lashings of gore and 80s-style body-horror, all achieved with impressive old school, in-camera effects – heads crack apart, zombie-things shuffle along with broken limbs and weird blobby-spiky things bury into people’s necks. In short: it’s nuts. For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD’

Using restored and colourised footage, this soldiers’ eye view of The Great War is astonishing and moving.

Dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the British Army 1910-1919, Peter Jackson’s documentary is both an astounding piece of filmmaking and a moving tribute to the millions of men who fought on all sides during World War I.

The film begins in straightforward manner, with the voices of veterans overlaid on familiar grainy, black-and-white footage of the period. We hear of the outbreak of hostilities, the clamour to join up, and the comradely holiday-camp feel of basic training. It’s absorbing and fascinating, and, at first, one doesn’t quite notice the tone change: panic creeps into the veterans’ narration and, suddenly, as the fear hits – this is “deadly warfare” – the image on screen enlarges and the scene of troops marching through muddy fields becomes saturated with colour.

This double-whammy – the breathtaking images coupled with the emotional impact of hearing real men recount their experiences – continues throughout. It makes They Shall Not Grow Old one of the most important and effective wartime documentaries ever made.

Jackson’s team of CGI wizards – taking time off from rendering Gollum or King Kong – have performed miracles here. For anyone whose expectations of colourised black-and-white stem from unhappy experiments on Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin movies, it’s suffice to say that this is several thousand times more sophisticated. The colours here are as lush, varied and detailed as they would be in real life. In addition, the frame-rate has been slowed down, so we’re treated to WW1 soldiers moving as they would have done at the time, not in the jerky, speeded-up fashion seen in news reels.

As well as some 3D effects being used on the images to breathe even more life into them, the coup de grace is Jackson’s decision to add sound too. As with the moving images, the attention to detail employed on the soundtrack is jaw-dropping. Not only have the foley artists excelled themselves – every boot-step, neighing horse, rumbling tank-track or exploding shell sounds as though it was recorded along with the pictures – but we hear the men speak too. Making the audacious but genius decision to use lip-readers, Jackson gives voice through actors to men who have been silent for a century. The result is to bring to life small exchanges that would have previously been unnoticed. There are dozens of contenders but one stand-out sequence sees a smiling Tommy ask a German POW: “Want yer ‘at back?” It’s a tiny moment, but one full of humanity and warmth in the midst of such horror. What’s more, it’s not just a dramatic reconstruction – a hundred years ago this happened, exactly as we see it.

As the film progresses through the war, we’re drawn inevitably to the horrific maelstrom of all-out battle. We’ve seen these sequences before – soldiers gassed, troops stumbling over the top, trenches filled with the dead and the dying, tanks rolling over shell holes – but rendered here with sound and colour is like seeing them anew. Most of all, the sight – and now sound – of shell bursts, so close to whoever is holding the camera, is truly shocking.

As we commemorate a century since the Armistice, this brilliant film is essential viewing. It’s a respectful memorial to the men who served and died, yes, but most of all, it’s a reminder that they lived and breathed and laughed and cried. Just like us.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

SHUDDER UK MOVIE REVIEW: ‘THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW’

Scary, unsettling, eerie and moving, this haunted house chiller is a slow-burning treat.

Indie director Andy Mitton delivers a fresh take on a well-worn genre with this haunted house chiller. Initially, his tautly written screenplay presents us with an emotionally icy world, as middle-aged Simon (Alex Draper) takes his estranged 12-year-old son, Finn (Charlie Tacker), out to his newly acquired fixer-upper – a rambling and downright spooky manse in the middle of rural Vermont. He tells Finn he intends to do it up so he can “flip it” – sell it on at a profit – but in reality, he wants to create a dream home, so he and Finn’s mother (Arija Bareikis) can get back together. Suffice to say, none of this is going to happen.

As they soon discover from a neighbour (Greg Naughton), the house already belongs to someone else – the titular witch, Lydia (Carol Stanzione), who died in her rocking chair some years before, gazing unnervingly out over the desolate landscape. Worse still, as Simon and Finn begin repairing the house, Lydia’s spirit seems to grow stronger. As it dawns on them that the ghost is both real and malevolent, Simon faces the prospect of either giving up his dream and his investment, or repairing a house while under attack.

While the creeping realisation of the truth is brilliantly handled – Simon and Finn’s response is that of real people, not characters in a scary movie – where The Witch in the Window really excels is its emotional core. The scenario is expertly tied to the underlying theme of fatherhood and family, with the relationship between Simon and Finn evolving from frosty exchanges (“I was hoping to get you on the good side of 12,” says Simon, as it becomes apparent Finn is already a moody teen) to a genuine warmth. By the time we reach the shocking midpoint – which will scare the bejeezus out of everyone – Simon and Finn are two characters for whom we’re desperately rooting. It’s this that places The Witch in the Window very much in the same company as recent intelligent chillers such as The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

The cast are quietly fantastic too, bringing Mitton’s well-drawn characters to three-dimensional life. While Draper is the heart and soul of the piece (the film was apparently written with him in mind), a special mention should go to child actor Tacker who displays a great range here; if there’s any justice, he should have a great career ahead of him.

As should director Mitton. With a number of well-regarded movies already behind him, The Witch in the Window is his best yet. As well as drawing first-rate performances from his small cast, his pacing is masterful. And, as a set piece in chilling suspense, a scene in which our hero is inexorably drawn down an almost endless corridor towards the chair facing the window is one of the most accomplished sequences in the genre for many a year.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

TRANSFORMERS

Director Michael Bay
Cast Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight, John Turturro

“I’m hear to make sure it’s LOUD!” booms Michael Bay, introducing the London press screening of Transformers. Boy, does he get his wish. From the opening sequence – a robot attack on US troops in the Middle East – the Dolby thunders through the auditorium at brain-meltingly high volume. And did it improve our viewing experience? Hard to say because, even though this reviewer (and others around him) was forced to jam fingers in ears during the louder moments, the film’s problems would be apparent even if you were profoundly deaf. It is, in short, unwatchable trash.

Bay is famous for knuckle-headed movies but Transformers makes Armageddon look like Solaris. There’s a scene in Bay’s last effort, 2005‘s The Island, that sums up his approach to filmmaking – he has a mildly interesting sub-Logan’s Run sci-fi plot but, as soon as he can, he gets our heroes onto the expressway and starts throwing huge dumb-bells at them from the back of a lorry. Transformers is that scene writ large.

You don’t expect much in the way of subtly from a movie about warring giant mechanoids but this plumbs depths of dumbness Hollywood hasn’t visited since Tomb Raider. The filmmakers’ first mistake was to take it too seriously; there’s far too much po-faced pseudo science and portentous witterings about ancient civilisations – all to explain why alien robots should make the implausible decision to disguise themselves as motor vehicles (all, this time round, designed by General Motors).

Not that the film is totally devoid of humour. Coen Bros. favourite John Turturro provides decent comic relief as an officious government operative (“They’re NBTs – non-biological extra-terrestrials. Try and keep up with the acronyms.”) and there are a few lines from the robots themselves that raise a titter (“The boy’s pheromone levels suggest he wants to mate with the female”).

The plot is, of course, utter bilge, centring on the two robotic sects need to capture the mythical cube called the AllSpark. The clue to its whereabouts are etched on the glass of a pair of spectacles belonging to teenager Sam Witwicky (LeBeouf), who inherited them from his great-grandfather. When he auctions them on eBay, robots good and evil come calling. The AllSpark, by the way, turns out to have been found by the US government (they built the Hoover Dam specifically to hide it, apparently) so the map’s importance becomes irrelevant.

But you don’t watch a Michael Bay flick for story, character development or emotional resonance – he’s all about action. For all his duds (Pearl Harbor, The Island) he’s made some fantastic popcorn chompers; The Rock (1996) is a classic of the genre and even received an Oscar nomination (for Best Sound, which must have pleased sonic-obsessive Bay no end). But Transformers even fails as an action movie.

Though it begins well, with doughty US soldiers attacked by an unknown foe from beneath the dunes, it degenerates as soon as the robots have revealed themselves. The CGI might be state-of-the-art but the cuts are so fast and the narrative so jumbled that it’s impossible to get a handle on what exactly is happening, and to whom. Come the final battle, complete with collapsing skyscrapers and a risible homage to King Kong, audiences are liable to be in a state of utter bewilderment.

Verdict

Die-hard fans of the toys or the animated TV series will get an initial thrill from seeing their heroes on the big screen but even they won’t be able to escape the niggling feeling that this is a disappointing load of old poop – The Phantom Menace for the Transformers generation.

This review first appeared on the FilmFour website in 2007.

CATCH AND RELEASE

Starring Jennifer Garner, Timothy Olyphant, Sam Jaeger, Kevin Smith, Juliette Lewis
Director Susannah Grant

Following the sudden death of her fiancé a woman finds herself sharing a house with his three fishing buddies. Together they face up to their loss and find a way to get on with their lives.

As a screenwriter, Susannah Grant specialises in stories about harassed women overcoming insurmountable odds. While clunkingly predictable, they usually have a spark of something special and, more often than not, an A-list star pulling out all the stops (Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Toni Collette in In Her Shoes). Unfortunately, not only is Catch And Release Grant’s weakest script in years, but its leading lady, Jennifer Garner, appears to have undergone charisma-bypass surgery for the role. Worse still, this is Grant’s directorial debut – on the basis of this she’d do better to remain chained to her laptop.

Garner plays Gray, a woman whom we first meet at the funeral of her fiancé, Grady (the fact that they have such laughably similar names is just the first of many missteps by Grant). While Gray’s looking wistful and fighting back tears, we get to meet Grady’s fishing buddies, and what a bunch of twats they are. Although, supposedly, they’re meant to come across as lovably flawed blokes. There’s wet, moping lovelorn Dennis (Jaeger) who just can’t seem to get a girl – is he gay or does he harbour a darker secret? And fat stoner Sam, who’s basically The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy made flesh – that is, he’s played by Kevin Smith, who probably spent his entire time on set marvelling that he was in the midst of a worse romantic dramedy than his own Jersey Girl. His performance, too, proves that he’s as bad an actor as he always insists he is on his blog; one can’t help but wonder how much better Grant’s first choice, Smith’s buddy Jason Lee, would have been as comic-relief slacker (Lee turned it down to voice Syndrome in The Incredibles).

Last, but not least, of Grady’s friends, is Fritz (Olyphant, currently being awesome as Sheriff Bullock on HBO’s Deadwood), a handsome philanderer. Though Gray, hiding behind a shower curtain, is forced to listen to him having a swifter-than-swift bunk up with a one of the funeral’s caterers, it’s not long before she falls in love with him. This transition is helped by a series of revelations that paint her dead lover in a less than favourable light (including the revelation that he’d been conducting an affair with a trashy masseuse – Juliette Lewis – in LA) and the fact that Fritz’s womanising clears up quicker than flu in a Lemsip ad.

So, yes, all hideously straightforward, with a tortuous plot that relies on the sort of accidental over-hearing usually reserved for sitcoms. In the plus column, there’s really nothing positive to say which just leaves the obligatory fishing-related witticism: if this film ended up on the end of your hook, it would turn out to be an old boot.

Verdict

Dreary, lacklustre and featuring a sleep-walking cast, this is easily the worst film Grant’s ever been involved in. To see one of her better scripts translated to the screen, you’d do better to check out the brilliant kids’ film, Charlotte’s Web.

This review was first published on the FilmFour website in 2006.

BARNYARD

Starring Kevin James, Courteney Cox, Sam Elliott, Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, Andie MacDowell, David Koechner, Jeffrey Garcia
Director Steve Oedekerk

On a farm somewhere in the Midwestern United States run, somewhat implausibly, by a vegan, the happy-go-lucky animals are protected from the ravages of the coyotes by dairy cow, Ben. When Ben is killed in action, his feckless son, Otis, is forced to grow up and take on his father’s responsibility.

Parents in anyway worried about their children losing touch with the natural world should not let their kids see this film. OK, so we’ve had anthropomorphic animals ever since the earliest civilisations but, typically, it takes the Americans to bring us to a new low: male cattle, with udders.

Honestly, it really is quite disturbing. The film opens with a straight lift from cartoonist Gary Larson, in which all the animals jump onto two legs as soon as the farmer is out of sight. The focus shifts to a cow, sporting a prodigious and pendulous udder, who turns out to be called Otis. This gender confusion continues throughout the movie, with girl cows being differentiated, not by physiological differences, but by their girly eyelashes and the colourful bows they have on their heads. None of the other male animals are treated in this way – Otis’ pig sidekick, for instance, doesn’t sport six nipples.

Of course, it’s just a kids’ film, but any child with a cursory knowledge of the natural world will what to know what’s up with the udders. It doesn’t help either, that, beyond the troubling gender issues, Barnyard is a pretty dull film. Its wisecracking animals, extreme sports references, mild toilet humour and obligatory hip hop sequence have all been seen before. Unlike some other animated movies (such as the recent Hoodwinked and Over The Hedge), there’s little here for accompanying adults, leaving them to wonder how they’re going to explain bovine lesbianism to their children.

That this is such a lacklustre movie is surprising considering writer-director Oedekerk’s track record. Whether as producer, director, writer, stand-up comic or animator, he’s been involved in some of the most successful Hollywood projects of recent years. 2001’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, which he wrote and produced, was Oscar nominated and he enjoys a cult following for his Thumb movies, spoofs that star thumbs with computer animated faces and have titles such as Thumbtanic, Thumb Wars and Frankenthumb.

That he’s dropped, ahem, an udder, this time round is not likely to caus him sleepless nights. Not only is Barnyard doing brisk business stateside ($75 million and climbing), but Oedekerk is currently developing a TV series for Nickelodeon. We havben’t seen the last of those scary, transgender bulls.

Verdict

Even without the udder problem, this is definitely one to leave the kids alone with. But at least there’s not too much singing.

This review was first published on the FilmFour website in 2006.

ALIEN AUTOPSY

Starring Declan Donnelly, Ant McPartlin, Bill Pullman, Harry Dean Stanton, Omid Djalili, Jimmy Carr, Morwenna Banks
Director Jonny Campbell.

Based (incredibly loosely, one suspects) on the true story of British scallies Santilli and Shoefield, played by, as Bill Nighy appropriately refers to them in Love, Actually, “Ant or Dec”. When Santilli’s quest for Elvis memorabilia takes him and his friend to Cleveland, Ohio, he’s approached by an old-timer known as Harvey (a reference to James Stewart’s imaginary rabbit?) played by grumpy-but-loveable Harry Dean Stanton. He shows Santilli a film we’re told (but never shown) depicts the autopsy of an alien, said to have been recovered from the legendary Roswell crash-site in 1947.

Santilli brokers a deal for $ 30,000 between Harvey and a UFO-obsessed gangster, Laszlo, and brings the film home. Unfortunately, the celluloid, exposed to the elements, has “eaten itself” and is now blank. Fearing retribution from Laszlo, Santilli and Shoefield recruit their bumbling friends and, somehow, create a fake good enough to save their necks. This success inspires them to take the con further and, as in real life, their home-made film ends up being watched by billions of TV viewers around the world.

The premise might be clever-clever but the execution is distinctly average. It’s better when dealing with the Santilli and Shoefield and their fellow hoaxers (especially kebab-shop owner turned tortured auteur Djalili) and Ant or Dec are actually pretty good – all those years on Byker Grove must have paid off.

There’s an awful lot that doesn’t work, though. Part of the film is, rather pointlessly, told by our heroes in the present day, interviewed by a documentary filmmaker played by Bill Pullman. This device occasionally intrudes on the narrative, giving us talking-head interviews with CIA operatives and the like, none of which gel with the rest of the film. And, when the hoax escalates, the film collapses under its own ambition (not to mention budget) – we’re never convinced that Santilli and Shoefield are engaged in multi-million dollar negotiations with the world’s TV reps – and the whole thing ends with a disappointing whimper. It is good, though, to see genuine footage from some of the many documentaries put together by the world’s TV networks, one presented by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes, looking very beardy.

Verdict

A distinct made-for-TV vibe is elevated by a good British cast and some funny moments. ‘Ant or Dec’ are amiable enough and could carve themselves a movie career, but only if they move on to stronger projects than this. Fluffy fun, but nothing particularly – sorry – out of this world.

This review was first published on the FilmFour website in 2006.

CONTAINER

Director Lukas Moodysson    Cast Jena Malone, Peter Lorentzon, Mariha Aberg

More the sort of experimental film you’d expect to find projected in an art gallery, Moodysson’s latest is his strangest yet. A 90 minute monchrome montage, during which time we see an overweight man sitting around in his pants, or licking things, or cellotaping a plastic fetus to his head. Occasionally a beautiful woman will appear and lounge around. Sometimes she licks things, too. All the while, Jena Malone delivers what we take to be the interior monologue of the man, an autistic “girl in a boy’s body” who monotonously lists his hobbies as “celebrities, collecting things, dead porn stars, the Second World War, nuclear disasters…” Funny, nightmarish and beautiful, it’s a film so powerful that you emerge blinking into the light wondering if somebody hasn’t sprinkled special mushrooms in your popcorn.

First published in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.

EIGHT BELOW

Director Frank Marshall
Cast Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood, Moon Bloodgood, Jason Biggs, Gerard Plunkett

This child-oriented film is Paul Walker’s best movie by miles, although he’s still upstaged by a team of huskies. “Inspired by a true story”, it centres around Jerry (Walker), a guide at an Antarctic base who lives for his sledge-pulling mutts. After a disastrous expedition with a meteor-hunting scientist (Plunkett) lands him in hospital, Jerry wakes to learn that, because of a storm, the base has been evacuated and his beloved dogs abandoned.

The first half of the movie, Jerry and the doc’s trek, is genuinely thrilling. When the narrative shifts to Jerry’s moping, inter-cut with the huskies’ fight for survival, it exchanges grittiness for schmaltz, relying on increasingly cute and anthropomorphic doggies.

That said, for a Disney movie, it’s surprisingly brutal. Not all the dogs make it out alive and there’s one shock moment, involving a leopard seal and a killer whale carcass, that will have kids and adults jumping out of their seats.

This review first appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.