Crimson Peak

Title: Crimson Peak
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Released: 2015
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver

Plot: Nearing the end of the 18th century, aspiring author Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) meets a struggling inventor by the name of Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston). Quickly falling in love the pair move into Sharpe’s dilapidating mansion he shares with his sister Lucille (Chastain). Once there, Edith slowly realizes that not everything is what it seems and decides to dig deeper, in spite of the growing dangers.

Review: A gothic love story drapped in ghost story and mystery elements which ultimatly ended up being a wretched bore of a movie to get through.

Perhaps my distrain for the film can be linked to my lack of love for costume drama, an opinion I have always felt had alot to do with being a Brit and hence raised in a climate were this was our main dramatic output (alongside tepid crime dramas) so hence lacking any kind of astetic charm which is no doubt the reason I couldn’t get into Penny Dreadful either whose setting which I’m still conviced a large portion of the world still believe London to be like. More so when every mention of Britain on podcasts seems to be accompanied by either a posh or cockney accent.

Crimson Peak on the other hand see’s Del Toro attempting to tap into the classic Hammer Horror vibe, while channeling the likes of The House on Haunted Hill and The Shinning and certainly in terms of visuals and location he achives this goal as the film is unquestionably stunning if perhaps detracted from in some scenes by cheap CGI turning the snow read to enable the manor grounds to live up to thier name sake.

Plot wise the film frustratingly can never seem to make up it’s mind as to what it wants to be as Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring writer and heiress Edith is charmed away from the much more intresting setting of 1887 Boston to England by Tom Hiddleston’s Baronet (along with his unhinged sister Lucille in tow) were they return to their delapedated mansion which like it’s owners has it’s own share of secrets aswell as red ghosts to serve unheeded warnings and several rooms whose inclusion seems to be more down to Del Toro liking the visuals he can conjuour with thier presence such as the large tanks of melted blood red clay than any kind of justification for thier exsistance in the mansion.

The film continually bounces tonly around as it swerves from psychological abuse to suspenseful thriller all which just left me wishing it would decide what it wanted to be and just stick with it, more so when the trailer was selling the film as a ghost story which it really is in the vaguest sense as yes there are Ghosts but they arn’t the focus here.

Certainly the film could have been worse with Emma Watson originally cast to star possibly because of her being an English actor with some marquee presence or perhaps just being cheap who knows but we can be atleast thankful for this small mercy. But sure if your a fan of 18th century costuming or the classic Hammer movies that Del Toro clearly adores you might get somthing out of this but for myself it just left me cold.

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!

Title: Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Released: 2017

Plot: Documentary film maker Morgan Spurlock sets his sights once again on the fast food industry to find out if anything has really changed while exploring the cut-throat world of chicken farming as he sets out to open his own fast food restaurant.

Review: After his now legendry month long McDonald’s binge charted in the original documentary which became a breakout hit for Spurlock with his $65,000 documentary earning him $22 million aswell as making serious waves within the fast food industry including the removal of the super size option from McDonald’s menu. Now thirteen years later he’s back at it to see what has really changed in the fast food industry.

Originally set to released by Youtube Red only for the streaming giant to drop the film when Spurlock publically admitted previous instances of Sexual harassment and misconduct leaving it in distribution limbo finally being picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films last year though meaning that it’s release is likely to have flown under the radar of most fans of the original. For those who can look past the scandal will find Spurlock once more on his usual form as he blends quick fire facts with wisecracks reminiscent of the pre-Fahrenheit 9/11 Michael Moore as he once again puts himself front and centre only this time with less of a human guinea pig approach as this time he sets out to open his own fried chicken fast food restaurant.

Putting himself front and centre again and approaching the material with his distinctive blend of humour and hard hitting facts reminiscent of a pre-Fahrenheit 9/11 Michael Moore and certainly here it once more makes the facts alittle easier to stomach especially when early on it’s clear that while the super size might be missing and the menus might be featuring more salads and seemingly healthy options there is an equal amount of shady tactics being employed aswell from wordplay such as replacing fried with crispy to corruption within the supply chains identified as “Big Chicken”.

The real focus this time round sees Spurlock forgoing another round of playing human guinea pig to instead set up his own chicken farm teaming up with a father-son farming duo who are equally as dissatisfied of the practices being carried out by the corporate heads of their industry. So now armed with a coop of cute lil chicks things however soon head south when Spurlock loses several of his flock though accidently standing on them while breeding practices to make them mature quicker are soon revealled much like the suprising lack of space a chicken needs to be given to be classed as “Free range”. Spurlock though isn’t interested in demonising the farming practices or the farmers trying to make a living in this cut throat industry especially when the corporations are quick to crack down on farmers trying to rock the boat. Instead the focus here is more on the corporations on the top and the guidelines for how food is classified.

Ultimately the end goal for Spurlock is opening “Holy Chicken!” his own pop up fast food restaurant situated in an abandoned Wendy’s were he serves up chicken burgers made from the chickens he raised while the walls expose the facts he’s gathered while perhaps they make his diners pause for thought, it’s nothing that seemingly is causing any of them to reconsider their dining choices.

While lacking the shock factor of the original film, here Spurlock still manages to find plenty of food for thought even if you get the feeling that it won’t bring forth the same sweeping changes that followed in the wake of the original films release but it’s an entertaining and informative watch non the less.

Contagion

Title: Contagion
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Released: 2011
Starring: Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould

Plot: When a new deadly virus is discovered the race is on to find a cure, while others attempt to deal with the fallout.

Review: 2011 was a suprisingly exciting year for cinema releases and not only with independent films but also with mainstream cinema aswell, the strength of which we haven’t really seen since the last great year for cinema way back in 1999.

Originally released as a block of films by Steven Soderbergh while he was considering retiring as a director to concentrate on painting. Here though he explores the idea of a killer virus outbreak and how different groups handle the situation, while at the same time making some bold directing choices, to make it far from a predictable film.

Opening on day 2 of the epidemic, as business woman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from her latest trip to Hong Kong, suffering flu like symptoms which only get worse as she suddenly dies, followed soon after by her son a few days later, meanwhile her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) seems strangely immune to the disease. Meanwhile doctors at the U.S Center for Disease Control battle to indentify the virus and find a cure, as the contagion spreads to millions world wide and societal order begins to breakdown, as panic and confusion begin to take over, thanks in no part to web blogger and conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law).

Contagion might not be dealing with the most original plots, as there have been plenty of Virus outbreak movies in the past, the most memorable of these being Outbreak with its cute disease spreading monkey and while any writing class will tell you that there is no original ideas left, what Soderbergh does here is prove that there is certainly stil unique ways of handling the same story, as here he skips all the usual thriller clichés (car chases, power crazed generals imposing martial law etc) which have plagued nearly all the viral thrillers which came before it and instead focusing in an almost documentary style as he examines how a virus outbreak of such a huge scale would be dealt with, while also exploring the outbreak from as many angles as possible, from the doctors trying to combat a virus which continues to mutate, while also switching the focus throughout the film to the Matt Damon’s family man having to deal with having lost his wife and son to the virus and now struggling to protect his daughter, as social order crumbles around them. Both of these plot threads are certainly strong enough to run on their own and by making them intertwined only adds to their power. The third plot thread is more of a supporting story and comes via Jude Law’s sleazy blogger, who is blog sparks panic and hysteria amongst the public, as he continually fuels the rumour machine, taking on a prophet like status amongst his followers for being the first to break the news of the virus, while soon blurring the lines between fact and fiction to further his own causes, criticising pharmaceutical companies from getting rich off the sick, yet seemingly more than happy to pocket cash to promote a placebo cure, as he wanders the deserted streets in his biohazard suit, almost like the ruler of a kingdom of ghosts.

Soderbergh has assembled a fantastic cast of big named actors who all pull out some great performances, while Bryan Cranston puts in another great performance as the military representative, while holding his own with the more establish members of the cast with his scenes with Lawrence Fishburne, being amongst my favourites especially as the lines between personal and professional duties get blurred in the chaos. Still star power frequently proves not to be a guarantee that an actors will be making it to the end credits, as Soderbergh on several occasions catches the audience off guard by removing one of his big named stars without warning, almost as if to show that virus don’t care who their victims are, all the while as the tension is slowly cranked up as the situation continues to get worse, which sees Soderbergh not only bombarding the viewer with imagery of deserted streets and mass graves, but also the scenes of soldiers wrapping the bodies of the dead infected in plastic and grumbling on having long since run out of body bags, while Mitch watching his neighbours house being violently looted is equally chilling to watch.

What is most scary here though is how the virus is passed, which in this case is via the slightest contact with either someone infected with the virus or anything which they have touched, as the early days of the outbreak closely examine the chain of who infected who and how they each became infected, scenes which will no doubt leave you examining your own hygiene routine a lot more closely than you probably did before.

Avoiding sensationalism and concentrating on the facts, Soderbergh has crafted not only a thoughtful but also engaging film, which not only informs but draws scary comparisons to recent outbreaks and just how bad an epidemic can get if left unchecked and while Soderbergh leaves the source of his virus largely open bar giving the viewer a brief snapshot of events which lead up to the first day of the outbreak as the film closes, which might leave some viewers with a few grumbles about not having a clearly defined source, but outside of that it provides a fascinating look at virus control and immunisation with out any of the usual clichés, just don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking at your daily interactions that bit more closely.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Title: Mary and the Witch’s Flower
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Released: 2017
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ruby Barnhill, Jim Broadbent, Ewan Bremner, Louis George Serkis

Plot: Moving to the countryside with her Great-aunt, Mary soon stumble across an old broom, a mysterious cat and a powerful flower which soon leads her to discover Endor college, a school for witches hidden in the clouds.

Review: The first feature film to be produced by Studio Ponoc, founded by former Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura the mere connection of which meaning that there was a certain level of expectation going into the film, especially when Ghibli’s whimsical style appeared to have been carried across. What we end up with though is an experience much like going to a Wimpy (or whatever your local knock off burger chain is). Sure what your getting is the same hamburger and fries as your getting at Mcdonald’s but at the same time something is different that you can’t quite put your finger on.

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who previously directed the forgettable Secret World of Arrietty which also made him the youngest director to direct a theatrical release for Studio Ghibli while his follow up When Marnie Was There earned him an Oscar nod for best Animated feature at the 2015 Academy Awards. However he is far from a name which jumps out at you when thinking of anime directors and outside of the importance of the film for the studio it hardly does anything to change that here.

Based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart which I’ve never read but if this film is anything to go off it feels like a lot of the story’s potential is squandered on a middling storyline with Mary able to use witch powers using the berries of the fly-by-night plant which is soon pushed aside for a mad scientist style plot as the experiments of Endor University principal Madam Mumblechook (Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Broadbent). Further frustration is added by the fact that these characters are all surface detail and lack any real depth or threat to their character the later which the film is certainly lacking in.

Mary as a heroine certainly has a lot potential and is thankfully an enjoyable character to be around as she combines a curious nature with a feisty attitude that made me want to see further adventures with her which if it happened I perhaps could be more forgiving of their film as it becomes more of an introduction for this character. Of course the Ghibli connection seems to run over to her character especially as she flies around on a broomstick, has to undertake random cleaning tasks and headstrong all thing all traits that we have seen the company work into their female character time and time again.

Mary has already become the company mascot in the way that Totoro has for Ghibli though it’s hard to tell if the similarities between their logo style as a dig at Tonebayashi’s former studio or more of a nod to the past. Needless to say it’s not the only thing to have been carried across with the film utilising a similar animated style though at times it feels it lacks the depth that the Ghibli movies offer while other scenes such as the dining hall sequence really show them able to hold their own.

What we get here is not quite the breakout hit that the fledgling studio wanted while the similarities to their former bosses make it too hard to not draw comparisons when they really should be trying to establish themselves as the alternative than the diet version. What we are left with though is a passible enough experience but hardly a memorable one.

Uncut Gems

Title: Uncut Gems
Director: Josh and Benny Safdie
Released: 2019
Starring: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams

Plot: High end jewelry store owner Howard Ratner (Sandler) who operates his store in New York’s Diamond District dealing with celebrity clients while at the time fueling a gambling habit was his lives his life constantly avoiding his creditors while banking everything on a series of ever more high risk bets as he pursues that one big pay day. However when he acquires a rare black opal he soon finds himself in an ever escalating situation that even a hustler like him won’t be able to walk away from.

Review: While at the most recent Oscars there was certainly a lot of discussion regarding what many felt was the snubbing of Greta Gerwig for a Best Director nomination. At the same time there could be equally as much frustration being felt that Adam Sandler hadn’t been recognized for this film which see him breaking away from his usual diversive comedies for his first serious role since 2002’s Punch Drunk Love.

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie whose previous film Good Time proved to be their breakout hit which enabled them to not only secure funding for this film but also caught the attention of Sandler who they had in mind while writing the film. Opening with a Fight Club-esque journey through the compounds of the opal which will soon cause Howard so many of his problems before the journey blends into a colonoscopy which is how we are introduced to Howard though whether the footage is of Sandler’s colon we cannot confirm.One thing we can confirm though and that Howard is kind of a scumbag.

While the Safdie’s might prefer to view him as more a lovable rouge, Howard is a difficult character to follow especially with his high risk and self-centred worldview and yet much like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant we still for some reason want to see him succeed but not before the brothers have put us through the kind of grimy ringer that’s usually reserved for Abel Ferrara’s films who it would seem is certainly amongst their influences when it comes to crafting this world were nobody is exactly a shining example of humanity while the dialogue is thrown at the audience with little space to breathe and punctuated with enough f**ks and c**ksuckers to cement its place as the 3rd most profanity heavy film ever.

Resting heavily on a shark like mentality of always keeping the film moving the audience is never given a chance to ever settle or compose thier thoughts on whats happening especially when Howard is stumbling from one problem to the next, usually adding to them through his own actions and general belief that everything is going to work itself out with the next bet or when he gets his opal back for which the cross city search to reclaim takes up a large portion of the film. Needless this is not the kind of film you watch if you looking for a relaxing time as somehow the Safdie’s manage to project the permantly stressed nature of Howard onto their audience making this certainly one of the more stressful viewing experiences I’ve had of late.

Ultimatly this is an engaging if grim experience and while it might not have left me rushing out to see the rest of the Safdie’s filmography and certainly I didn’t get the same Oscar vibes as some people did but it’s at least great to see Sandler trying something other than another throwaway comedy plus who doesn’t want to see a blinged out Ferbie?

City On Fire (1979)

Title: City On Fire
Director: Alvin Rakoff
Released: 1979
Starring: Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelly Winters, Leslie Nielsen, James Franciscus, Ava Gardener, Henry Fonda, Jonathan Welsh

Plot: A disgrunted worked at the city oil refinery sabotages the plant, leading the city to be soon engulfed in a fire which threatens to consume the city

Review: Not to be confused with the Ringo Lam movie of the same name which would inspire Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs instead what we have here is a much more literal interpretation of the title as Director Alvin Rakoff who is probably best known for Death Ship teams up with exploitation cinema Jack Hill for this disaster flick released at the height of the Canadian Tax shelter years while at the same time arriving at the tail end of the disaster movie trend as audience were looking more for screwball comedies like Meatballs than celebrity packed disaster flicks.

Set in an unnamed city were the mayor has allowed an oil refinery to be built in the middle of the city and with the water reserves running low it’s really not the best time for a disgruntled employee to sabotage the place and flood the surrounding area with gasoline after he gets passed on for a foreman position. Needless to say it’s not long before a welding crew and a stray spark set the city ablaze.

Shot on one of the largest sets to be built in Canada to that point costing $400,000 while using 45,000 gallons of fuel to set it ablaze. The Oil refinery meanwhile was owned by Shell who gave permission for the site to be used for filming believing that it would help warn of the dangers of building refineries near cities.

When it comes to the spectacle the film really has it’s moments with the exploding refinery featuring some great stunt work from high falls through to full body burns with Rakoff working his budget by including stock fire fighting footage which I have the feeling he didn’t check too closely as here in this American city we have random footage of British firefighters spliced in amongst the footage. However the film soon contains the action to the street outside the city hospital were the cast are soon amassed making this less city on fire and more…..well street on fire. We do also get a kind of prelude fire when a bunch of youths sneaking smokes in their treehouse manage to spark a fire with a stray cigarette and soon have the nearby housing complex set ablaze though it should be noted that none of the firefighters in the film seem to ever manage anything other than ineffectively pointing hoses at the fire while seemingly only making the situation worse seeing how none of the fires ever get put out.

While things start off with a bang the film far too soon starts to meander in a quagmire of tedious drama with the Mayor being secretly involved with the wealthy socialite Diana who also attacts the attention of the womanising Dr. Whitman not to mention the same disgrunted worker who sparked the fire to begin with and who over the course of the film embarks on a random series of attempts to get her attention. At the same time whenever the film needs to cut away from the hospital we cut to fire chief Risley who spends a lot of the time pushing model fire trucks around a map of the city and generally shouting a lot. All of these character are paper thin and really only stand out if at all because of whose playing them with Nielsen really a stand out here despite this being one of his non-comedic performances.

While the film certainly has it’s moments it can’t help but be hindered by the quagmire of tedious human drama and forgettable characters who rather than adding to the situation only end up taking away from the film, especially as everyone is brought together at the same location. As such it’s a passible distraction at best that’s worth watching for the stunt performances and disaster elements but little else.

Love On Delivery

Title: Love On Delivery
Director: Stephen Chow, Lee Lik-Chi
Released: 1994
Starring: Stephen Chow, Christy Chung, Ng Man Tat, Phillip Chan, Joe Cheng, Lam Kwok-Bun

Plot: When delivery boy Ang Ho-Kam (Chow) fall for Lily (Chung) at the local sports centre he finds himself having to compete with Judo master Black Bear for her affection, leading him to undertake a training regime under the guidance of convenience shop owner Tat (Ng Man Tat) who convinces him that he can teach him Ang Kung Fu to face off against black bear.

Review: The second film to be directed by Stephen Chow though even at this early point in his directing career he has already established his quick fire and heavily slapstick comedic style while the plot itself is pretty similar to many of his other films this one is unquestionably a lot of fun as he attempts to turn himself from being a cowardly delivery boy into a martial arts master with the help of a questionable mentor who operates his dojo out of the back of his convenience store.

What follows is a series of increasingly questionable training montages as the Chow’s Ang never seems to realise just how much Tat is ripping him off with these supposed training sessions which surprisingly turn out to work as he flukes his way initially into a victory against the oafish Judo Master Black Bear which itself would have been fine as the film but instead it really only serves to set up a new love rival for Ang to face off against with karate master Tuen Shui Lau (Lam Kwok-Bun) claiming that his victory was them which is only the harder to dispute when Ang can only fight while wearing a Garfield mask. As with the majority of Chow’s films the introduction of this second rival ultimatly only serves to setup the final tournament showdown between them which is always a favourite way for Chow to resolve any kind of conflict in his films and here it’s certainly no different.

The love story between Ang and Lily is pretty charming especially with Ang being exploited or beaten up by pretty much everyone around him in particular his friends at the restaurant he works at were its used as part of a ruse to avoid giving refunds to complaining customers as the group desend into over the top beat downs on Ang and even though he enters into the final televised battle with little to no chance of actually winning it only makes you root all the harder for him to succeed. Throw into the mix random bursts of over the top comedy such as riot police randomly being used to deal with a bunch of concert goers or the horde or wannabe lotharios who attempt to swarm Lily in a variety of Garfield masks as they all want to claim they are the real hero.

Sure this might not be the most deeply plotted of films but it certainly moves at the quick pace with the jokes coming quick and fast ensuring that more hit and they miss while Chow works in fun parodies of Kung fu heroes and even the Terminator as even at this early stage he marks himself out as a comedic director to watch.

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