Wednesday, 9 December 2015

THE GIFT



Directed by Joel Edgerton, Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton. Mystery Thriller, US, 2015, 108mins, Cert 15.

Released in the UK on Digital HD on 30th November and Blu-ray & DVD on 7th December by Lionsgate Home Entertainment. 


“...it’s amazing how an idea can take a hold – and really bring a person down”.


Writer, producer and actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is a stylish and unsettling rift on the traditional home invasion thriller.


High-flying corporate ladder climber Simon (Jason Bateman) and his designer wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to a new neighbourhood where a chance encounter with one of Simon’s old high school acquaintances ‘Gordo’ (Joel Edgerton) sets in motion a sinister chain of events.


It starts out like your average 80’s/90’s home invasion scenario. Well-to-do yuppie couple move into a modern house with wall-to-wall glass windows, you know, the kind ideal for a creepy peeping tom to peep in on you or to just pop up unexpectedly for a lazy jump-scare. But director Joel Edgerton’s Gordo’s initial visits to their home result in the delivery of gifts rather than threats – red wine, Koi carp (red herring?). His further attempts to ingratiate himself into their lives seem to unnerve Simon more than Robyn – who recalls they used to call ‘Gordo’ the ‘Weirdo’ at high school – and so it seems with increasingly good reason. 


But just when you think you can see where this film is going, it peels off its surface layer to reveal a far darker insidious core. It manages to sustain it’s measured tone of unease throughout its generous running time, thanks in no small way to Jason Bateman’s steely precise performance (boy has he come a long way since TEEN WOLF TOO). Rebecca Hall is equally effective in supplementing the mounting uncomfortableness and director Edgerton wisely underplays his character, holding back from showing us ‘Gordo’s’ full poker hand until the last 10 minutes.


An assured debut then, restrained without once resorting to the grandstanding Grand Guignol histrionics of say FATAL ATTRACTION for example. It’s less an out and out psycho thriller but rather more an exploration of the psychological trauma and long-term effects of bullying. It also reads as a cautionary tale which espouses the theory that karma will eventually catch up with you – and a warning that you should always be wary of ‘strangers’ bearing gifts.


Extras: Making of featurettes, deleted scenes, alternative ending (Blu-ray exclusive).

***(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

Friday, 4 December 2015

THE GOONIES



Directed by Richard Donner, Starring: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman. Adventure/comedy, US, 1985, 114mins, Cert 12.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray in a 30th Anniversary Collectors Edition on 9th November 2015 by Warner Home Video.


I have to confess I’d never seen THE GOONIES in its entirety prior to watching this 30th Anniversary Blu-ray. Originally released in UK cinemas in November 1985, I would have been 17 years old, and you wouldn’t have caught me dead watching a ‘PG’ rated ‘kids’ film back then. Besides, I’d watched co-star Corey Feldman (‘Mouth’) defeat Jason Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER the year before, not to mention Joe Dante’s GREMLINS, and just a month prior to THE GOONIES I’d seen him again in the opening sequence from FRIDAY THE 13th: A NEW BEGINNING. So no, I didn’t see it then, and somehow I’d managed to avoid it until now. But better late than never – right?


This nearly all boys-own romp (with Martha Plimpton and Kerry Green) for buried treasure in booby trap laden caves boasted a ridiculous embarrassment of riches behind the camera as well as those aboard old One-Eye Willie’s pirate ship the ‘Inferno’.  Based on a story by Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus, who had penned GREMLINS prior to this sea shanty gig, delivered a jaunty screenplay for Richard (THE OMEN, SUPERMAN) Donner to try his best to marshal his precocious live-wire cast to. In addition to an extraordinary line-up of young talent, Donner also had on board veteran stalwart character actress Anne Ramsey as the Ma Baker-like ‘Mama Fratelli’ along with her bumbling sons played by opera singing gangster Robert Davi and toupeed Joe Pantoliano.


The story has a pleasantly old-fashioned feel to it (and I don’t just mean the 80’s nostalgia it inevitably invokes). Despite its liberal sprinkling of PG-rated swear words and references, it’s essentially a noisy throwback to the swashbuckling Errol Flynn pirate adventures of old, encrusted with in-jokes and references to keep an audience on its toes. It stands the test of time because when you watch it today, you just know that no major studio would commission such talent and invest such resources into making this kind of film anymore. Now it’s seemingly all comic-book super-heroes, that is until December, when the impending STAR WARS tsunami crashes upon the box-office and threatens to drown it for the foreseeable future.


But I can safely say none of those franchises will be able to boast anything as comparatively memorable as the ‘truffle-shuffle’, performed by Jeff Cohen’s jell-belly character ‘Chunk’. Nor for that matter, deformed wobbly-eared ‘Sloth’ (played under layers of latex and animatronics by the late John Matuszak) and his affectionately iconic cry: “Hey you guys!”

There’s an inevitable INDIANA JONES-like vibe in some of the underground sequences given not only the story’s originator, but also the presence of TEMPLE OF DOOM’s ‘Short Round’ Jonathan Ke Quan (this time playing a ‘James Bond’ gadget creator called ‘Data’). Interestingly, Columbus’ script later reveals Data’s father as also being an inventor, echoing the Randall Peltzer character from his previous GREMLINS screenplay. (There’s also a direct reference to GREMLINS when Chunk calls the police).


It’s a shame that the Burman Studios’ octopus creation sequence was cut from the film’s finale. Regardless of whether it would have worked on screen (you can judge for yourself as it’s one of the deleted scenes on the disc) there’s definitely something underwhelming and lacklustre about the ending – although it does admittedly boast a seriously impressive physical pirate ship set.

But overall director Donner manages to deliver an infectious frenetic tale of skulduggery and truffle-shuffling which can more than hold its own against today’s post-converted 3D cash-cows.


Extras: Commentary with director and selected cast members (with hidden video treasures), Making of featurette, deleted scenes, Cyndi Lauper video, storyboard cards, Empire 20th anniversary insert, and souvenir magazine.


****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

Monday, 23 November 2015

SHARKNADO 3: OH HELL NO!

Directed by Anthony C. Ferrante, Starring: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, David Hasselhoff. Horror Sci-Fi, US, 2015, 89mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and digital download on 23rd November 2015 by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

‘OH HELL NO!’ Never has a movie title seemed more apt. Clearly meant as an up-front apology, the makers are obviously recognising the inevitable reaction to SHARKNADO 3 as they serve up yet another humourless meteorological smorgasbor(e)d of cartoonish CG shark splatter.

With ominous storm clouds once again gathering overhead, Finley Allen "Fin" Shepard (Ian Ziering) attends an awards ceremony at the Whitehouse in recognition of his previous heroics in Los Angeles and New York. But sure enough, no sooner has Fin accepted his ‘Order of the Golden Chainsaw’ award, then the heavens open up and sharks rain down on Washington DC. The president and Finn stand fighting shoulder to shoulder in a scene resembling the dynamics of the arcade game ‘House of the Dead’ (albeit with less convincing graphics here) as this latest sharknado turns the Capitol Building into a (Great) White House. Meanwhile, down in Florida, Fin’s heavily pregnant wife April (Tara Reid), their daughter Claudia and April’s mother (Bo Derek) are at Universal Studies Orlando, where the ‘Twister’ attraction is about to become a whole lot scarier. With multiple sharknados merging (sharkicane!) it’s a race against time to prevent a cataclysmic cyclone of carcharodon carcharias (and loads of other species of sharks that I don’t know the Latin names for).

How dispiriting it must be for SFX companies commissioned to work on a film like SHARKNADO 3. Hi guys, we need you to deliver a barrage of intentionally sub-par visual shots of random shark species flapping unconvincingly through stormy skies. Then we need lots of shots of sharks landing with repetitively telegraphed precision on victims turning them into human piñatas bursting with point and click CG blood? Gee thanks – we’ll get right on it – this’ll look great on our CVs!

The trouble with a franchise that strains so intentionally to be knowingly rubbish and self-aware is that having set the ambition bar so low to begin with – by the time it gets to SHARKNADO 3, the bar is practically scraping the floor (or barrel). So instead you end up spending most of the film’s running time counting up the number of celebrity cameos you can spot – and feeling slightly cheated if they don’t end up as shark-bait (e.g. Jedward).

To be fair, Ian (Beverley Hills, 90210) Ziering throws himself into his heroic Jonah-like role as Fin with more straight-up commitment than the film frankly deserves. Tara Reid on the other hand appears to ‘act’ in a near-comatose state of tranquilized disengagement. This is however understandable given the fact that the sole raison d'être for her character here is to deliver (both literally and metaphorically) a tired double-whammy punch line finale. David ‘The Hoff’ Hasselhoff - having already previously survived another toothsome fishy peril in PIRANHA 3DD - somehow manages against all odds to retain a modicum of dignity as Fin’s estranged father and former NASA colonel.

The MOONRAKER(ish) finale sets up the only reasonably successful tongue-in-cheek moments in the whole film. If you thought Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY was scientifically dubious, SHARKNADO 3’s dénouement makes Sandra Bullock’s predicament look like an Open University documentary - and PIRANHA 3DD a discarded segment from BBC One’s ‘The Blue Planet’.   

Following its premiere on the Syfy Channel, a Twitter campaign was launched for fans of the series to vote on the fate of Tara Reid’s character for SHARKNADO 4 (confirmed). The options were either: #AprilLives or #AprilDies. Given the choice, I’d have typed: #SharknadoDies.
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

THE HALLOW



Directed by Colin Hardy, Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton. Horror, Ireland, 2015, 97mins, Cert 15.

In cinemas from Friday 13th November 2015.

“This isn’t London. Things here go bump in the night”

Upping sticks (pun intended) from London, tree-surgeon (Joseph Mawle) relocates with his wife (Bojana Novakovic) and baby to a remote Irish mill house in order to carry out an assessment on the surrounding woods. Dismissing the warnings of the locals to stay away, he discovers a sinister fungus growing in the woodland, but he and his family are also about to discover there’s something else residing in the woods.
Music video director Colin Hardy’s feature debut is a love-letter to his childhood special effects heroes Stan Winston, Dick Smith, Ray Harryhausen: and to monsters. It’s a minimalist, familiar, and underwritten set-up: married couple, baby (and pet dog) move to an isolated location surrounded by spooky wood. But creature-feature fanboy Hardy’s heart lies with the “faeries, banshees, baby-stealers” that the forest belongs to, and it’s obvious that’s where his creative focus lies.

Tree scraper Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle, think David Thewlis-lite), isn’t an especially sympathetic character. The script frequently requires him to demonstrate exasperating obstinacy and complacency for his family’s safety. He refuses to talk to local farmer Colm (Michael McElhatton), who is unnerving wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic), and dismisses his well-intentioned warnings until it’s too late. He brings a highly contagious parasitic fungus into the family home; takes his eyes off the road to reach for a fallen toy when driving with his infant in the car; convinces no one but himself that he can defend his family in STRAW DOGS style from a supernatural home invasion; and is prepared to leave his child in a cupboard whilst the aforementioned fungus is spreading its viscous black spiky gloop throughout the house! 

But enough of the humans, what about the monsters? Director Hardy constructs a gradually incremental reveal – pulling off a brilliant early sequence using mainly sound to convey the threat as dad is locked in the car boot with his child strapped into the car seat vulnerable to the encroaching menace clawing away at the vehicle. Their first appearances are teasingly glimpsed by Adam’s camera flash briefly illuminating the source of the rustling in the bushes. Deploying a combination of largely practical FX - prosthetics, performers and animatronics – and adding some light touch post-production CG enhancement, the end results on screen have a pleasingly old-school feel to them. Think a sort of cross between the Berserkers from NIGHTBREED and 'Groot' from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – but there are many films and creatures referenced. John Carpenter’s THE THING is clearly an inspiration – and whilst he’s not name-checked in the credits, given the prominent on-screen threat to eyes, I’d say Lucio Fulci must be in director Hardy’s DNA somewhere too. There’s also a terrific set-piece featuring wife Clare fighting to prevent a baby-stealing creature breaking through the loft trapdoor which conjures up a similar encounter with a one-armed hero named Ash and a fruit cellar...

The combining of olde worlde folklore with the science of a Cordyceps Parasitic Fungi aka ‘zombie fungus’ (which rather alarmingly is a real thing – I Googled it) is an interesting premise but it doesn’t gel together all that well. The same can be said for the body-horror element, which deflects the attention away from the creatures onto our tree-expert, who quite frankly isn’t remotely as interesting as what’s lurking in the woods. This shift away from the monsters threatens complete derailement – but luckily the focus gets back on track to bring things to a reasonably satisfying conclusion as sunlight bursts through the trees.

I would have liked a bit more back story concerning the mythology of the inhabitants featured in THE HALLOW (which was originally titled: THE WOODS). And all the characters, especially wife Clare, could have benefitted from some more depth than the minimalist sketches provided for them (she doesn’t like to leave draining the pasta for too long). But perhaps the absence of any detailed origins was all part of director Colin Hardy’s grand design to keep us wanting more? The way the seemingly innocuous tracking shot behind the end credits suddenly zooms in on a suggestion for the story’s expansion certainly sets up the possibility of a sequel. But Hardy himself may now have to pass on revisiting THE HALLOW as he’s currently flying high helming the reboot of THE CROW. If so, then at least he’s nurtured a decent creature-feature which has helped him to lay down future roots to branch out into whichever genre path he chooses (and that’s more than enough tree puns for now).
***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts 

Monday, 9 November 2015

FURY: THE TALES OF RONAN PIERCE


Directed by Kevin McCarthy, Starring: Michael McCarthy, Jordan Elizabeth, Wade Gallagher. Thriller, US, 2014, 91mins, Cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray & DVD on 9th November 2015 by Monster Pictures.

A vigilante cop seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter and the kidnapping of his ex-wife sets about exacting brutal justice on those responsible. Cutting a bloody swathe through an underground network of human traffickers, drug dealers, and organ harvesters, can he get to his ex-wife in time to save her?

This dispiritingly tedious attempt to recreate the neo-noir sensibility of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriquez’s SIN CITY flatlines right from the off with its jaundiced visual palette, its unremittingly grim misogyny, and its anti-hero’s rasping voiceover of inane cobblers.
It’s some achievement to make a film so packed with sordid incident, yet at the same time so dull as to render it almost unwatchable. Where to begin? Let’s start with the lead Michael McCarthy as rogue law enforcer Ronan Pierce. Grunting and screaming through one violent set-piece after another, he lacks any real onscreen presence to engage the viewer, and instead remains just as eminently unlikeable as the endless parade of scumbags he leaves slaughtered in his wake. Kane Hodder’s fleeting onscreen time is largely taken up with him relaxing in a strip club ogling pole-dancers (hardly worthy of second-billing on the DVD artwork). Jordan Elizabeth fares better as an initial damsel-in-distress circus clown (yes really) who turns out to be only too eager to torture an overpowered assailant with a pair of rusty pliers (albeit off-screen, in a rare moment of coyness on the part of the lead actor’s brother, director Kevin McCarthy). Actually, I would have much preferred a film centred on Jordan’s character, but that would presumably deviate too much from the film’s unerring machismo aesthetic where female characters are only either chained up or stripped.

Visually, the murky cinematography, filtered through a bleached yellow cataract hue, often renders detail indiscernible. Unfortunately though, the cartoonish speeded up driving scenes are all too visible (and risible) and as a stylistic flourish just fall flat. 

Is there anything at all to recommend this film? Well, you do get to see a man bludgeoned to death by a large fish – admittedly this is not nearly as entertainingly audacious as the piscine violence meted out in Spanish short FIST OF JESUS – but FURY doesn’t offer up much to reel you in.

*(out of 5*)

Paul Worts 

(Review originally published on FRIGHTFEST website.)