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#639 - Black Mass
Scott Cooper, 2015



Based on the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger, a career criminal operating out of South Boston who agrees to co-operate with an FBI agent towards mutually beneficial goals.

Two major factors threatened to doom Black Mass for me before I got around to watching it. The most prominent factor was the fact that Johnny Depp had spent much of the last decade of his career devolving into a parody of himself, whether through his multiple lucrative appearances as Captain Jack Sparrow, his collaborations with fellow walking punchline Tim Burton, or quite simply his choice of roles that emphasised quirk over quality. Prior to Black Mass, the most recent Depp role I'd seen was his extended cameo as an Inspector Clouseau-like detective in Kevin Smith's Tusk. His broadly comical gurning was enough to make me think that, yes, this might just be the worst part of a movie where a man is surgically altered into a constantly-screaming half-human/half-walrus abomination. The other factor was the fact that I'd seen three other true-crime films where Depp played the lead and I honestly disliked all three of them. Undercover-cop tale Donnie Brasco was somewhat tolerable, but Dillinger biopic Public Enemies was a major disappointment and the less said about the drug-dealing drama of Blow, the better. At least Black Mass looked intriguing in its first teaser, which featured a near-unrecognisable Depp turning a casual dinner-table discussion about family recipes into a coldly menacing and suspenseful monologue. Of course, the question remained as to whether or not the rest of the film could live up to this hype...

Black Mass is based on the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp), a notorious gangster who dominated the South Boston area while preparing to make inroads in different parts of the United States so as to consolidate his criminal empire. His success is due not just to his reputation as an intimidating underworld figure but also to his willingness to co-operate with FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) in providing information that'll allow the FBI to crack down on Bulger's rivals while leaving Bulger himself free to operate within certain constraints (which he naturally ignores). From there, the film becomes a series of problems that either Bulger or Connolly have to solve, whether it's unreliable criminal associates (such as Peter Sarsgaard's drugged-up wild-card) or official threats to Connolly's left-field plan (as represented by various colleagues played by Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll). Meanwhile, Bulger has to contend with various personal issues, whether it's his difficult relationship with the mother (Dakota Johnson) of his son or the problems that his criminal activities pose for his senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch).

To be fair, Depp does deserve at least some of the accolades he's earned for committing to a somewhat challenging role. A fair bit of the credit has to go to the make-up artists responsible for burying the distinctive-looking Depp under icy blue contact lenses and straw-like hair that is both slicked-back and receding. As other Depp roles can attest, make-up only goes so far and Depp is at least capable of delivering the goods from underneath his uncanny appearance. Even something as simple as watching Bulger do crunches during his downtime is made believable by the combination of competent make-up work and Depp's physical intensity. The rest of the cast assembles a collection of recognisable faces to pull off the story, though their capacity for doing so is pretty relative. As the film's deuteragonist, Edgerton arguably has a more difficult job than Depp as he plays the morally-conflicted straight-man Connolly, who is torn between his dedication to upholding the law and an admittedly immature concept of street-based loyalty that he thinks exists within the world of organised crime. For all his strengths, Edgerton doesn't sell that kind of conflict well from underneath an extremely nasal American accent (nor does Cumberbatch, whose own role is similar in terms of conflicting loyalties between both his office and his black-sheep brother). Being a true-crime movie, you don't get a lot of variations in terms of characterisation, with the actors doing their best to infuse fairly basic characters with any small degree of notability. Actors like Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane get somewhat thankless roles as Bulger's associates Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi respectively, while Stoll stands out as an incredibly flat character if only because his right-minded attorney isintroduced late in the film with no other characteristics other than his refusal to indulge Connolly's friendly compromise with Bulger.

While there is admittedly so much you can do when it comes to basing a film off a true story, Black Mass does go about it in a rather pedestrian manner. Much of the film is told in retrospect as various associates of Bulger's give testimony about his activities to an investigator. While this is theoretically a sound manner in which to frame the actual narrative (especially considering its shifting around from year to year), it does suck the tension out of some sequences in ways that the dramatic effect can't adequately compensate for (with the exception being one sequence in which Bulger and Flemmi must deal with a potential loose end). Pacing things out by jumping between separate eras doesn't quite work, nor does the attempt to cover so many different yet formative experiences in Bulger's life (such as his son falling prey to severe illness). The structuring of such a narrative tends to be defined by instances of violence or threats of such, whether it's Bulger personally disposing of disagreeable individuals or trying to figure out technically appropriate ways of avoiding conflict. Even moments that serve to humanise Bulger or Connolly are shrugged off in order to continue to the next sequence of visceral retribution or sterile bureaucracy respectively. This inability to frame the course of events in a satisfactory manner extends all the way into the denouement, where the revelations of what happened to all the films' major players lands with a dull thud more so than a sharp bang.

Though it may look like a tour-de-force crime drama set to re-establish Depp's status as a serious actor, Black Mass does fall apart due to its indulgence of far too many of the usual biopic trappings. In attempting to convey many of the smaller details of the story (especially on Connolly's side of the situation), it does veer into genuinely dull territory. The technical execution is straightforward but largely uninteresting, with the odd spot of decent camerawork or semi-solid soundtrack choice doing little to leave a generally favourable impression. The incredibly stolid progression through the narrative is salvaged somewhat by the performances; at the very least, I could suspend my disbelief and see Whitey Bulger stalk the screen with steely-eyed menace instead of Johnny Depp. Unfortunately, the problem with having such a distinctive character in the film is that every other character can't help but look bland in comparison and one must try to figure out whether that's intentional or simply a design flaw. As such, Black Mass is tolerable enough for the most part but it's still surprisingly empty and by-the-numbers underneath its chilly surface.

__________________
I really just want you all angry and confused the whole time.



Great review of Black Mass, Iro!

Our opinions look to be very similar and I mostly agree with many of the flaws you point out, which I also noticed. I'm a little more fond of the soundtrack, even for its predictability, than you are and I thought the visuals/technical work was pretty solid, but ultimately didn't do nothing new or too interesting.

But yeah, I'm currently finishing up the english version of my review (finished the danish one yesterday). I hope to post it later today, but if not, then tomorrow.

I also got to get around your Star Wars prequel reviews, but man you are just shooting those reviews out so fast I can't keep up.



Welcome to the human race...
#640 - Scream
Wes Craven, 1996



A small town is shocked when a masked villain who is obsessed with horror movies starts to commit seemingly random murders.

It's a familiar cry, that of "I was born in the wrong generation". I feel like that's an accurate summary of my attitude towards Scream, a film that was intended to turn the tiresome slasher film formula on its head by not only deconstructing the staleness of the genre's conventions but also by rebuilding said formula for a newer and more jaded generation. To this end, Scream does indulge both its self-awareness and capacity for suspense through its opening sequence, in which a bubbly teenager (Drew Barrymore) is made to defend herself against the threat of a murderous villain by answering said villain's questions about horror-movie trivia. The attention soon shifts to one of her classmates (Neve Campbell) as she contends with the threat herself even as she has to deal with a prior trauma and the adolescent pressures put upon her by her boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich). Between the sensationalist murders popping up around town, Campbell's own attempts to avoid scrutiny from a gawking public, and the arrival of an opportunistic current-affairs reporter (Courteney Cox), there's obviously a lot going on as the local populace deal with the threat in various ways, even if that does extend to dressing as the villain for laughs or holding massive house-parties.

While Scream isn't really the first film to deconstruct horror-movie logic, it's arguably the most notable example of such a film. Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that it goes after the low-hanging fruit that is the slasher sub-genre, which has always been about the cheap thrills associated with seeing photogenic co-eds be hacked apart by a vindictive person in a mask. The characters featured in this film might not always know the exact details of every slasher movie, but they are familiar enough with the conventions to the point where one of the characters outlines the "rules" which every such film supposedly obeys. The rigidity of the rules and conventions guides the development of not just the overarching narrative but also the direction of various sequences, such as Campbell wryly remarking on the stupidity of horror-movie heroines before being forced into making the exact same mistakes when she herself is attacked by the villain. It's the kind of humour that comes across as clever more so than funny, and it's very easy to get tired of cleverness, especially when it's exemplified by Jamie Kennedy's film buff who will literally stop a film in order to explain horror movie rules to a semi-interested audience. This isn't enough to stop the film feeling like it's got to throw in some self-awareness to justify its willingness to follow what is otherwise a relatively standard slasher narrative.

On its own terms, Scream doesn't really hold up on a repeat viewing. In my experience, films that are as predicated upon the reveal of the villain's true identity as this one is tend to be a bit underwhelming a second time around. Sure, there's the odd line or action that stands out but it doesn't do so in a way that significantly supplants the core narrative. It's still a decent enough plot as Campbell must deal not only with her past trauma but also with the various threats against her, whether it's the actual killer or the other townspeople's various hurtful reactions to her crisis. The cast is peppered with performances of varying quality, with Kennedy and Matthew Lillard providing the main sources of comic relief (with the latter's zaniness compensating for the former's geeky snark) while other characters play some fairly rote roles (such as Rose McGowan as Campbell's fiercely loyal best friend). Between that and Craven's technical competence (which is definitely on show during the film's bloody finale), the film is still very much watchable but it's not scary and not that funny either. While I would say that it doesn't really need to be scary to be an effective parody of horror's faults, it definitely doesn't feel like said parody has aged all that well.




28 days...6 hours...42 minutes...12 seconds
Boo-urns.

I won't go into detail why I love this film, I feel like my thoughts HERE clearly state my opinions.
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"A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it's the only weapon we have."

Suspect's Reviews



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#641 - Man of Tai Chi
Keanu Reeves, 2013



A talented but impoverished student of Tai Chi is encouraged to engage in underground fights for the money needed to save his temple.

After decades of starring in popular action movies such as Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix, Keanu Reeves made the not-altogether-unreasonable decision to direct his own. Having had to learn extensive amounts of martial arts for his role in the Matrix series, Reeves' film ended up being a Hong Kong-based martial arts film starring one of his Matrix collaborators, Tiger Hu Chen. Chen plays the last student of the martial art of Tai Chi; when he's not learning from his master at the centuries-old temple, he's supporting himself and his family by working a dead-end delivery job and entering into martial-arts competitions. This latter activity draws the attention of a shadowy businessman (played by Reeves himself), who then approaches Chen with a simple proposal; engage in fights with random opponents in a small room for money. Though Chen is naturally suspicious of the whole affair, he becomes desperate enough when it turns out that a real estate company wants to redevelop the land on which his temple is located and he must do what it takes to save who and what he cares about, even if he is in danger of losing himself in the process...

Man of Tai Chi is a theoretically sound proposition with a plot that adapts the sensibilities of your typical Bruce Lee vehicle for the Information Age and is seemingly custom-built to excuse fight scene after fight scene as Chen either fights in official competitions or as part of Reeves' clandestine operation. It also builds off a decent theme where Chen's willingness to fight for what he believes in tragically threatens to undermine his whole struggle on a number of levels. Chen is a capable enough fighter and a serviceable actor, while Reeves seems ready and willing to mock his image as an incredibly wooden action star (one of the film's most memorable scenes is a brief shot where Reeves stares into the camera before unleashing a very sudden shriek of rage). Filming the action also takes a somewhat old-school approach with just enough fluidity and cutting to add a sense of immersion without being shaken and slashed into barely-comprehensible messes like certain other action films have tended to do in recent years. Even the addition of an extraneous sub-plot involving a pair of detectives (Simon Yam and Karen Mok) trying to investigate Reeves doesn't feel like padding. Basically, there's a lot of things that Man of Tai Chi seems to be doing right.

Despite these apparent strengths, I actually found Man of Tai Chi to be a very underwhelming piece of work. Though the premise allows for Chen to go up against a variety of enemies with their own distinctive styles, even the careful camerawork and choreography (by legendary Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, no less) don't provide enough raw excitement to feel especially entertaining. The premise may allow for constant fight scenes to take place, but it can easily have a numbing effect that can cause one's interest to wane. The breaks in which the film tries to develop its plot aren't completely without merit, but they still have the potential to drag the film down as much as give weight to its conflict (which does have shades of Bruce Lee films where the main character is torn between material wealth and loyalty to that which he holds dear, but if The Big Boss is any indication then that's not enough to automatically make a film work). As such, Man of Tai Chi felt like a bit of a slog when all is said and done. I'd still recommend it to people with a strong interest in martial arts films as it's still pretty clear that Reeves cares about delivering the goods and someone with a more vested interest might find more of worth here than I did. Still, there's only so many concessions you can make for a film that teases a fight between Chen and The Raid's Iko Uwais only to cop out on it for story reasons.




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Boo-urns.

I won't go into detail why I love this film, I feel like my thoughts HERE clearly state my opinions.
Duly noted, I'll be sure to give it a read.



28 days...6 hours...42 minutes...12 seconds
I like Keanu Reeves, but his age is finally showing in this film. He is too slow to be fighting those guys. Decent directorial effort from him though.



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#642 - Breaker Morant
Bruce Beresford, 1980



During the Boer War, a group of Australian army officers are put on trial for war crimes.

Breaker Morant has a reputation for being one of the classics of Australian cinema and not without obvious reason. Based on actual events, it follows the titular Morant (Edward Woodward), an officer in the Australian army who leads a regiment during the Boer War, a war that broke out in South Africa between the British Empire and the Dutch-origin occupants of the region. The film sees Morant and his fellow officers being put on trial for war crimes involving the unlawful execution of enemies in the line of duty. As such, much of the film's events are told in flashback as they are recounted by various witnesses during the trial. Though the case against Morant is strong, this does nothing to deter his defence attorney (Jack Thompson) from giving a spirited counter-argument. In addition to Woodward and Thompson, the film assembles a fairly talented and recognisable collection of Australian actors to deliver this tale that includes Bryan Brown, Charles "Bud" Tingwell, John Waters, and Ray Meagher.

The courtroom setting does mean that actors frequently get to deliver impassioned performances full of grand-standing monologues and intense cross-examining dialogues. The scenes that actually take place out on the battlefield do tend to capture the visceral nature of war, not just through riflemen shooting it out but also through scenes such as Morant's attempts to deal with the prisoners in ways that he knows are justifiable under the established codes of wartime conduct (even as they still result in him being put on trial). In addition to juggling its displaced narratives with competence, the film also bears things out with some crisp photography that is admittedly rather utilitarian in its depiction of military garrisons or drab-looking wilderness, though one wonders if that is by design. While Breaker Morant definitely has enough of the hallmarks of a compelling wartime legal drama, that's not enough to really make it stand out as an immediately classic film to me. It definitely has some indelible scenes (that ending, which I knew about ahead of time, is very well-done) and some good performances that give its characters enough depth, but I can't help but feel like it doesn't really click with me. I'll undoubtedly give it another chance at some point but right now it just feels...okay to me.




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#643 - The Secret World of Arrietty
Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010



A family of "borrowers" - tiny human-like creatures living inside the walls of a house - find their existence threatened by the arrival of a sickly but kind young boy.

Studio Ghibli built its reputation off the back of Hayao Miyazaki's various cinematic adventures full of wonder and majesty, which means it's more than a little easy to overlook any Ghibli films that were helmed by different directors. Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies definitely earned a name for itself with its tragic tale of two Japanese children trying to survive the effects of World War II, but otherwise it's easy to watch the studio's non-Miyazaki films and find them wanting in comparison to most of the master's own output. I'm not so sure - after all, I did like The Cat Returns and When Marnie Was There quite a lot, so I figure that the studio's output doesn't suffer greatly without their most renowned creative type running the show. The Secret World of Arrietty challenges that notion because its central plot lacks a lot of the innovation that one has come to associate with the name Ghibli (even though Miyazaki is credited with co-writing the screenplay instead of directing). This probably has something to do with the fact that it was adapted from the English children's novel The Borrowers, which had already seen several book-to-screen adaptations before Ghibli's take on it (which is notably the only adaptation to not use the title).

The plot focuses on the concept of "borrowers", who are similar to humans in every way except that they happen to be only a few inches tall. The film follows three such borrowers as they go around their everyday lives. Everyday life for them involves residing in a small dollhouse-like dwelling built within the foundations of a normal-sized house and sneaking into the house proper at night in order to acquire any supplies that they need. The family consists of a father who goes out borrowing when the family needs supplies, a mother who takes care of their dwelling, and their daughter (the Arrietty of the title), who has just reached the age where she can join her father on his borrowing trips. However, it is around this time that a sick young boy named Shô comes from the city to live with his grandmother, who just so happens to live in the very same house as the borrowers. Shô slowly learns about the existence of the borrowers, though his interest in them is a benevolent one borne of kindness, curiosity, and loneliness. Though Shô seems like a nice boy, the borrowers understandably treat him as a liability and must figure out how to deal with the looming threat of discovery, especially when the house's nosy old housekeeper presents a much more obvious threat as she plans to capture the borrowers.

The Secret World of Arrietty is undermined a bit by how much it sticks to conventional storytelling. The most notable example of this is in how the film provides a straightforward antagonist in the form of the housekeeper, whose actions are basic and her motives are a bit muddled. Fortunately, the film is not dependent on the standard hero-versus-villain conflict in order to generate interest. It gets so many other things right, such as Arrietty's wonder at experiencing the various thrills associated with borrowing missions or her quandary that arises from Shô not only spotting her but trying to innocuously reach out to her. Between the tightly-focused world-building and the earnest emotional core at the heart of the story, The Secret World of Arrietty is still a worthwhile addition to Ghibli's repertoire even if it doesn't reach "instant classic" status. It infuses its fairly simple and familiar narrative with some colourful and elaborate visuals that definitely make it worth checking out regardless of your experience with Ghibli. It may not be the best that Ghibli has to offer, but it is certainly accessible and holds up well on its own merits.




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#644 - Baraka
Ron Fricke, 1992



A documentary dedicated to depicting the details of various different countries and cultures spread across the world.

I first remember being introduced to Baraka in a film class a few years ago. A clip was screened of the sequence that intercut time-lapse footage of people in train stations with footage of chicks moving along a long and painful-looking factory line before eventually winding up as battery hens. Even if I had managed to see the whole film before that, I imagine that such a sequence would still prove an extremely indelible image even for a film that seems custom-designed to provide nothing but indelible imagery for its brief running time. Baraka is an ambitious work of ethnographic cinema by Fricke, who had worked as the cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio's already-ambitious art-house documentary Koyaanisqatsi. It is very much like Reggio's film in that it is less concerned with conventions like plot or characters and instead seeks to deliver a film that can be considered no less than a sumptuous audio-visual experience. It does so by traveling around the world to dozens of different countries and filming a variety of people, creatures, and objects on striking 70mm stock.

I'm not sure if Baraka is really the kind of film that can be done justice with a proper review. The shooting on 70mm is evident in just about every frame, even the ones where time-lapse photography is being employed. It tends to be concerned with lingering shots of nature more so than the rapid movement of urban culture, which is definitely interesting as it jumps across continents in search of cultures to depict. In addition to the crisp photography on display, the soundtrack that features various different international artists also deserves some credit for managing to introduce subtle innovations while still staying fundamentally consistent. If you have no qualms about watching a ninety-minute nature documentary interspersed with the occasional sequence about cities and whatnot, then this is most definitely recommended. Even if you do have such qualms about whether or not you'd enjoy such a film, then give it a try anyway as it proves to be more captivating than you might expect a film with no plot of characters to be.




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#645 - The Big Country
William Wyler, 1958



An affluent sea captain from Baltimore travels west to visit his girlfriend in her hometown only to find himself in the middle of a conflict between two feuding ranchers.

Epic Western melodrama The Big Country certainly lives up to the scale implied by its title as it follows an urbane sea captain (Gregory Peck) as he travels out west to be with his girlfriend (Carroll Baker), who he met while she was visiting his hometown of Baltimore. While in her western hometown, he encounters the local schoolteacher (Jean Simmons) before being attacked by a handful of brothers (featuring Chuck Connors as the eldest and most vicious). Peck soon learns the reality of the situation; that his girlfriend's father (Charles Bickford) is a land baron who is constantly doing battle with another land baron (Burl Ives) over who gets the rights to access the large body of water on a tract of land that just so happens to belong to Simmons. Other factors threaten to complicate things, whether it's the fact that Ives is the father of Connors and his ilk also complicates matters severely or the rivalry that develops between Peck and the brutish foreman (Charlton Heston) for Bickford's estate.

i]The Big Country[/i] is ultimately pretty standard fare as far as bombastic Hollywood epics go.This much is clear in the way that it handles the various relationships between the principal characters, relying on the actors' talents to save them more so than any particularly smart writing. Peck proves a solid lead for the film to build around, with his deep but smooth delivery carrying a fundamentally stubborn character who still manages to be charming when he needs to be. Simmons is a major player in this instance as she starts off the film in a way that pretty much guarantees she'll figure into the film's greater plot, whether she's fending off advances from Connors' love-to-hate bully or expressing her concerns about her vital role in a turf war between two patriarchs (and she has good chemistry with Peck to boot, especially in the scene where they trade disturbing anecdotes). Bickford and Ives manage to embody two very different sides of the film's main conflicts as the fairly posh yet morally inscrutable military man and his slovenly yet weirdly honourable rival respectively. It's very easy to see how Ives won an Oscar for his turn as the man who is ostensibly set up as the villain of the piece, but it's to the film's credit that he does amply deliver a depth that only becomes deeper with each passing scene. Even though the plot ultimately leaves Baker to flounder, she at least gets in some decent moments, especially when she's put in contact with Heston, who can communicate volumes through his steely blue eyes and can play a violent bastard as well as anyone.

When you watch a film as long as The Big Country, you might have to question whether or not it needs to be as long as it does, and in this film's case I question it quite seriously. Despite the clearly epic scale on display as it fills its frames with grassy countrysides or stony canyons, it's easy to wonder whether or not some of the more extraneous scenes could've been redone or even cut completely. There are plenty of good moments peppered throughout, such as Peck's inevitable brawl with Heston or his attempts to tame a particularly unruly horse. Ives steals pretty much every scene he's in right from his introduction that sees him crash Bickford's party and only gets better as it heads towards its rather engrossing third act. The Big Country thus ends up being a fairly decent example of a grand-standing Hollywood period piece, but its considerable length ends up undermining strengths such as a solid acting ensemble or its collection of well-done stand-alone scenes.




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#646 - The Chronicles of Riddick
David Twohy, 2004



Five years after barely escaping from a dangerous alien planet, a wanted criminal earns the unwanted attention of a death cult while searching for his fellow survivors.

In my review of Pitch Black, I noted that, while I didn't think Pitch Black itself was particularly great, I would have been interested to see how later films would have developed the mythology of this particular universe. Well, you know what they say, "Be careful what you wish for", etc. The Chronicles of Riddick takes place five years after the events of Pitch Black, with Riddick (Vin Diesel) starting the film trying to evade some bounty hunters before eventually making his way to a different planet in search of his fellow survivors from the previous film. After finding one, he becomes intent on finding the other, even though various factors threaten to complicate matters such as said other survivor being trapped in one of the worst known prison-planets or the presence of a militant death cult that seeks to oppress any possible opposition through either death or indoctrination. Here is where The Chronicles of Riddick differs greatly from Pitch Black in that it abandons its predecessor's fairly tight focus on alien horror in favour of providing a somewhat ridiculous-looking space-opera that briefly delves into prison drama during its narrative's progression.

The space-opera elements are what threaten to sink The Chronicles of Riddick, whether it's Judi Dench's ultimately inconsequential appearance as an enigmatic mystic or the various ornate warrior-like elements that come to define the army of fanatical antagonists. Things don't get much better even when the film returns to the grim sci-fi elements of Pitch Black by having Riddick spend a large chunk of time on a prison planet with a decidedly lax approach to the scientific realities of a planet with lethal rays of sunlight. Even the inevitable reveal of what happened to his fellow survivor lacks any serious resonance within the context of this narrative except to serve as one of two very tenuous connections to the original film, though this can be credited to the unfortunate combination of sub-par acting and bland writing. The upgraded budget does seem promising but it results in a neutered product as it trades in the dark and bloody thrills of its predecessor for a film that tries to go for some very straightforward action instead, emphasising rapid close-quarters fighting with the odd chase or spaceship scene thrown in for good measure. Even point-of-view tricks such as Riddick's distinctive night-vision eyes or the enemies that see in Predator-like infrared don't make much positive difference. The flashy and elaborate art direction is a good idea in theory but it goes too far in trying to differentiate itself from its utilitarian predecessor and somehow ends up being blander. As a result, The Chronicles of Riddick ultimately ends up being a very passable excuse for a film that is offered the chance to expand its universe in an interesting manner yet its attempt to do so ends up being a fundamentally hollow experience that is reliant on genre clichés and lacks excitement or intrigue. Despite this film's considerable shortcomings, I still hold out some hope for follow-up Riddick, but we'll see if that film manages to make up for the tiresome space-fantasy that's on display here.




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#647 - Cabin Fever
Eli Roth, 2002



Five college-aged friends plan to spend a week on holiday at a remote cabin in the woods only to have their trip ruined by a run-in with a flesh-eating virus.

Maybe it's because I haven't been all that invested in modern horror in general, but I have somehow managed to avoid watching any movies that have been directed by Eli Roth (provided you don't count Thanksgiving, his brief mock-trailer contribution to Grindhouse). I figured that I'd focus on his break-through feature Cabin Fever because its premise at least had the potential to prove more interesting than seeing people get flat-out tortured as they did in his most notorious film, Hostel. As such, it ends up being the kind of film that would naturally be taken down a peg by Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods almost a decade later (despite having its own comical bent, though it's not an effective one). It follows five friends as they plan on taking a week-long vacation to a cabin in the woods, which naturally leads to them encountering some very antagonistic locals. Unfortunately, it turns out that their week away coincides with a backwoods hermit getting infected with some sort of flesh-eating virus, which causes some serious problems when said hermit shows up on the cabin's doorstep desperately begging for help. Things only get worse from there...

I'll grant Cabin Fever at least one concession; at least it introduces an element of unease through the fact that the main enemy here is not an unbelievably supernatural threat so much as a very plausible threat in the form of an unknown virus that just comes out of nowhere, especially when it ends up being spread through the area's water supply. At the very least, I've had at least a couple of moments since watching this film where I've regarded glasses of water with suspicion, which has to count for something. The effects needed to convey the virus's gory effects on people are serviceable (but I expect nothing less from the KNB group), though any shock value the gore causes does start to wear off eventually. Of course, the film still feels that the virus alone is not enough of a threat and has to throw in some dangerous locals in order to provide another threat. Obliviously racist shopkeepers, rabid children, violent neighbours, and difficult law enforcement figures abound, though their presence is a bit of a double-edged sword in that they not only indicate that the virus itself isn't enough of a threat to sustain the film but they also tend to prove distracting at times; the most prominent example is the comic-relief police deputy who seems more interested in chasing cheap thrills than actually doing any police work and the fact that he gets his own jazzy Twin Peaks-style leitmotif (composed by Angelo Badalamenti himself, no less!) comes across as awfully jarring and not in a good way.

I'm not such a big fan of the trend of horror films trying to introduce main characters who are so reprehensible that their gradually being picked off by the film's threat ultimately proves to be cathartic more so than frightening. I'll grant that the logic is sound - since you're definitely going to see the characters in a horror movie suffer, they might as well be bad people that arguably deserve whatever horrible fates befall them. Of course, the flip-side is that making them too irritating can make the non-horror bits difficult to tolerate and thus lower your opinion of the film as a whole. Cabin Fever is pretty unapologetic in its use of such characters that fit into such easily recognisable stereotypes, such as having both female characters fit into the classic molds of both virginal final girl and easy-going obvious victim. The male characters don't fare much better with not one but two characters fitting into the obnoxious alpha-male stereotype (engaging in beer-swilling, pranks, and wildlife-shooting to boot), though I give the film some credit for at least painting its ostensible nice-guy protagonist as being just as subtly pathetic and predatory in his attempts to win over the final girl.

Cabin Fever at least avoids the usual jump-scares for the most part but it doesn't really provide much beyond that. There's a certain degree of inevitability to the virus's infection rate, though it does cause its own plot holes as to how much of the tainted water each main character ends up consuming or being exposed to over the course of the film. The gory nature of the virus's effects once again makes me question whether or not repulsion is an adequate substitute for fear. Horror is a genre that's built on being unpleasant, but I feel like certain types of unpleasant threaten to make the film difficult (if not impossible) to enjoy in any capacity. Aside from that, the film's attempt to provide another variation on the conflict between rural savagery and urban superiority is only marginally effective, whereas attempts to wring some dark humour out of the situation fall flat for the most part and thus become one more reason why I don't feel like I can honestly like the film. I feel like any attempt to praise Cabin Fever ends up coming across as a grudging concession more so than a genuine compliment, and said good qualities are minor enough that I don't feel like they can adequately compensate for the rest of the movie's shortcomings. It's pretty telling that I was originally considering giving this one-and-a-half popcorn boxes but even then I couldn't help but feel like I was somehow overrating it.




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#648 - The Last House on the Left
Dennis Iliadis, 2009



Two teenage girls end up becoming victims of a family of vicious criminals.

It's quite the person who looks at a film like Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring and decides to make a more directly graphic and exploitative version of that, then it's yet another person who decides that said version could use its own remake. Such is the case with The Last House on the Left, which takes Wes Craven's 1972 cinematic debut and presumably decides to update it so as to match up with the sensibilities of a modern horror-movie audience. I saw Craven's version several years ago and remember liking it at the time, though I'm not entirely sure I'd extend it such favour these days. As such, it falls to the remake to suffer my ire. It follows the same basic plot about a teenage girl (Sara Paxton) and her overprotective parents (Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn) going on holiday to their vacation home located in - where else? - the woods. Despite her parents' well-meaning objections, she opts to hang out with her friend (Martha MacIsaac). However, their rebellious venture takes a turn for a worse when MacIsaac's plan to smoke weed with a hoodie-wearing loner (Spencer Treat Clark) is disrupted by the arrival of his incredibly deranged and violent family, which consists of his father (Garret Dillahunt), mother (Riki Lindhome), and uncle (Aaron Paul), all of whom have just come from busting Dillahunt out of police custody. From there the two girls are tormented by this extremely dysfunctional family before things take an extremely troublesome turn...

It's been long enough that I've forgotten a lot of what happened in Craven's version, though the tone stuck out because of its nature as a low-rent '70s horror. This extended to a humourous element that did stick out like a sore thumb, especially when the film cut away from its more tense and horrific scenes to a broadly comical sub-plot involving a hapless sheriff and deputy. There's no such respite in Iliadis' version, which is at once a benefit and a hindrance in this case. The plot is simple, which made sense when Bergman was using it as a backbone for another one of his films examining themes such as the human condition and the complexities of morality and religion; in the context of a straight horror, there's not much examination of anything that hasn't already served as the basis for many horror movies before it. There's the usual implicit demonisation of drug use and youthful irresponsibility in the first half; meanwhile, the second half is built on a very literal example of class warfare that probably doesn't bear spoiling if you're not familiar with this film or its aforementioned predecessors. As such, the first half becomes a rather unpleasant chore to put up with as the villains put the film's heroines through a fairly graphic ordeal (complete with the odd escape attempt). As a result, the film doesn't really become worth watching until its back half, where the family are forced to take refuge from a rainstorm and unwittingly initiate a dangerous game with the owners of the home they visit.

There are a couple of interesting tweaks in this version of The Last House on the Left, especially in how it plays things extremely seriously; there's no diverting to wacky sheriff shenanigans whatsoever, while the violence on display isn't comically gruesome (with the possible exception of the film's final scene, which does undermine all that's come before it in its grossly excessive execution). Having some recognisable career actors thrown into the mix rather than a bunch of unknowns does at least guarantee some decent performances, especially from the incredibly versatile Dillahunt (though it's difficult to watch Paul and think of him as anyone but Jesse Pinkman even in this particularly nasty role). Unfortunately, while the dedication evident in this film's approach is somewhat respectable, it's ultimately wasted in this context. The film obviously isn't aiming for the same lofty artistry that defined The Virgin Spring, but its attempt to provide a more serious reiteration of Craven's pulpy shocker is compromised a bit too frequently for its own good. I'm willing to consider the possibility that Craven's film wasn't that good to begin with and that Iliadis' feature was especially doomed as a result, but even on its own merits it's an erratic excuse for a thriller that can't escape its exploitative origins no matter how hard it tries (and that's assuming it even is trying).




#647 - Cabin Fever
Eli Roth, 2002



Not a fan of this either
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#649 - Johnny Guitar
Nicholas Ray, 1954



A guitar-wielding cowboy rides into a frontier settlement where his old flame, who has managed to build her own saloon, is being hassled by a cattle baron and an heiress.

Having already seen Nicholas Ray's somewhat left-field takes on the film noir and teen movie genres with In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause respectively, I was of course expecting him to do something appropriately off-kilter with the Western in 1954's Johnny Guitar. At its most basic, it follows the tried-and-true Western formula of a lone rider (here the eponymous character played by Sterling Hayden) riding into a tense situation. He's been employed to work as a guitar player at a saloon at the request of its no-nonsense owner (Joan Crawford) because she just so happens to have had a prior relationship with Hayden. Crawford has managed to carve out a fairly successful living for herself, but she still faces considerable opposition from a local heiress (Mercedes McCambridge) and a cattle rancher (Ward Bond). Throw in a gang of outlaws, the leader of whom (Scott Brady) is fixated on his erstwhile lover Crawford while also apparently indifferent to McCambridge's apparent affection for him (which also fuels her hatred of Crawford, but I'll come back to that), and you have a complicated enough situation to sustain a feature film, and that's before Hayden demonstrates how fast he is with a gun...

On a superficial level, Johnny Guitar ticks all the boxes for being a solid Western. Characters cover the spectrum of morality and motivations without resorting to bland heroics or villainy; they are developed through some extremely melodramatic turns of phrase and countenances that make the film seem overly artificial even by the standards of your average Hollywood Western. This is not a strike against the film as there's a craft to the diction that makes it catch the ear in most of the right ways. The characterisation is also surprisingly solid as it builds around a web of complex romances. It's all too easy to interpret a suppressed lesbian subtext between McCambridge and Crawford (especially considering how the former's interest in Brady has to be mentioned by the characters rather than be immediately evident, though this can also be justified by her being an extremely uptight and conflicted puritan). In any case, McCambridge turns her bloody-minded hatred of Crawford into the core of her character and makes for one of the most love-to-hate characters I've seen in a while. The relationship between Crawford and Hayden, meanwhile, is only just given the slightest of justifications but it still works just fine as the two swap verbose declarations of their feelings that are questionable in their sincerity but are still fun to watch. Other characters are given just enough definition to keep the film going, whether it's Ernest Borgnine as Brady's brutish sidekick who develops his own bitter rivalry with Hayden or Ben Cooper as the youthful member of Brady's gang who has his own complicated attitude towards Crawford.

Johnny Guitar may not be all that great in its own right but it deserves acknowledgement for providing a decent enough variation on what could have been yet another generic 1950s Western. The relatively bizarre subversions that are put into place in regards to both plot and characterisation definitely make it stand out, though it's arguably a bit too long and drawn-out for its own good. Even though I felt like I might have fallen asleep during the film's second half (which is admittedly where the action picks up as buildings are destroyed, people are lynched, and tense shoot-outs unfold), I would put that down to just being tired rather than anything seriously wrong with this film. In short, Johnny Guitar may look just like every other Western that was being churned out to feed an expectant demand during the 1950s, but it manages to be anything but that as it weaves a tale of complex relationships and morally difficult conflicts. Definitely worth checking out if you're looking for a Western that's different to all the others in just about all the ways that count.




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#650 - Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin, 1936



An impoverished factory worker gets into a series of misadventures.

Classic Charlie Chaplin - you can't really write reviews about his films in 2015. Modern Times arguably has the strongest claim to being his best film, but that doesn't necessarily make it so. It sees Chaplin as an ordinary factory worker who tirelessly toils away on an assembly line. From there, he gets into a series of misadventures at the factory that leads to him getting fired and bouncing around between a variety of jobs, homes, and even prison (which he becomes so used to that he co-operates with the personnel and even tries to get himself arrested again after his release). He also ends up crossing with paths with a young woman (Paulette Goddard) who has to resort to petty crime in order to take care of her impoverished family. That's basically all the plot that this movie has as it progresses through a series of tragicomic segments until it decides to just end. Given its comedic nature, I can understand that plot is not the most important aspect. That's where Modern Times falls prey to the same problem I've had with the other Chaplin films I've watched - I just don't find it that funny.

That's not to say that Modern Times isn't completely devoid of mirth because there's clearly a cleverness to the proceedings that helps the film stay somewhat fresh even now. A lot of that has to do with how many of the sequences are derived from Chaplin's concerns with the state of the nation in the time of the Great Depression and even now feel sadly relevant. Something like Chaplin's character being institutionalised by his time in prison is played for laughs, but considering how hard things are on the outside with unemployment and whatnot, it seems somewhat plausible that going to prison isn't something to be avoided at all costs but actually sounds like a valid way to survive such a screwed-up world. There's also a satirical bent to a lot of the sequences even if they don't elicit much in the way of actual chuckles. The most obvious instance would be an early scene where an inventor creates an automated feeding machine designed to make workers more efficient by making them eat faster and waste less time on lunch; this obviously gets played for laughs when Chaplin is strapped into the machine and it naturally starts going haywire. Of course, not every gag in the film requires some sort of analytical subtext to pay off and are sometimes just nothing more than Chaplin and Goddard trying to find a moment of joy amidst their difficult existences (most memorably in a scene where they try on roller-skates in a department store where there's a conspicuous absence of guard-rails...).

Arriving after the advent of talking pictures, Modern Times does attempt to balance speech with silence but it doesn't exactly work. The film initially seems to rely on speech when it comes to having the factory boss address workers or in having a recording that describes the feeding-machine to the factory boss, but it all but abandons that conceit as the film wears on and it starts relying on title cards like a regular silent film. The gags are pretty sporadic in terms of quality, with a lot of the usual slapstick that does veer into surreal territory at times, especially when it involves factory machinery (including one gag where Chaplin falls into a conveyor belt and travels through a cross-section of the machine) - and, this being a silent comedy, there's also a fantasy sequence or two. The emotions on display may be broad, but they admittedly work as the unlikely bond that forms between Chaplin and Goddard over the course of the film still carries some genuine emotional weight. Between the solid emotional core and the cleverness of the writing, Modern Times may not prove to be a laugh riot and it does have moments that don't really work (such as that whole sequence where Chaplin and Goddard must work in an upscale club/restaurant) but it's a fairly dependable little film. I do have to wonder if the reason Chaplin's films are considered great is because there's nothing about them that is obviously great - they're just these films about this funny-looking little fella getting into mishaps without ever losing heart. That heart is a vital component that guarantees a certain dependability to Chaplin's films that adequately compensates for any shortcomings.




#646 - The Chronicles of Riddick
David Twohy, 2004



Five years after barely escaping from a dangerous alien planet, a wanted criminal earns the unwanted attention of a death cult while searching for his fellow survivors.

In my review of Pitch Black, I noted that, while I didn't think Pitch Black itself was particularly great, I would have been interested to see how later films would have developed the mythology of this particular universe. Well, you know what they say, "Be careful what you wish for", etc. The Chronicles of Riddick takes place five years after the events of Pitch Black, with Riddick (Vin Diesel) starting the film trying to evade some bounty hunters before eventually making his way to a different planet in search of his fellow survivors from the previous film. After finding one, he becomes intent on finding the other, even though various factors threaten to complicate matters such as said other survivor being trapped in one of the worst known prison-planets or the presence of a militant death cult that seeks to oppress any possible opposition through either death or indoctrination. Here is where The Chronicles of Riddick differs greatly from Pitch Black in that it abandons its predecessor's fairly tight focus on alien horror in favour of providing a somewhat ridiculous-looking space-opera that briefly delves into prison drama during its narrative's progression.

The space-opera elements are what threaten to sink The Chronicles of Riddick, whether it's Judi Dench's ultimately inconsequential appearance as an enigmatic mystic or the various ornate warrior-like elements that come to define the army of fanatical antagonists. Things don't get much better even when the film returns to the grim sci-fi elements of Pitch Black by having Riddick spend a large chunk of time on a prison planet with a decidedly lax approach to the scientific realities of a planet with lethal rays of sunlight. Even the inevitable reveal of what happened to his fellow survivor lacks any serious resonance within the context of this narrative except to serve as one of two very tenuous connections to the original film, though this can be credited to the unfortunate combination of sub-par acting and bland writing. The upgraded budget does seem promising but it results in a neutered product as it trades in the dark and bloody thrills of its predecessor for a film that tries to go for some very straightforward action instead, emphasising rapid close-quarters fighting with the odd chase or spaceship scene thrown in for good measure. Even point-of-view tricks such as Riddick's distinctive night-vision eyes or the enemies that see in Predator-like infrared don't make much positive difference. The flashy and elaborate art direction is a good idea in theory but it goes too far in trying to differentiate itself from its utilitarian predecessor and somehow ends up being blander. As a result, The Chronicles of Riddick ultimately ends up being a very passable excuse for a film that is offered the chance to expand its universe in an interesting manner yet its attempt to do so ends up being a fundamentally hollow experience that is reliant on genre clichés and lacks excitement or intrigue. Despite this film's considerable shortcomings, I still hold out some hope for follow-up Riddick, but we'll see if that film manages to make up for the tiresome space-fantasy that's on display here.

This movie is a bit like Dune for me.
I right pile of ****e but I can watch it.

Dune is not so much of a right pile of ****e.
Love it.