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The Bye Bye Man (2017)
A travesty of horror that is scary to watch for all the wrong reasons
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
In the late 1960s, a man mysteriously murders all those closest to him after he finds that they have merely uttered the name of a murderous entity. In the present day, several millennials move into this house, which is just off campus, and begin to experience mysterious events that freak them out. They too become aware of the existence of 'the Bye Bye Man', and learn if they even think or say his name, they will be inviting death upon themselves (gee, at least with the Candyman it was five times. And even then you had to look in a mirror...)
The Bye Bye Man wasn't even the Say Hello Man, appearing out of nowhere in theatres in early January before saying 'bye bye'...almost immediately. And after watching this execrable dreck, it's not hard to see why. It's a January film all over, one to usher out without much fuss in the early part of the year while everyone's still recovering, that sadly invaded my eyes and my senses, even after it had been on DVD for a while. It's just a typical low rent effort, with slightly glossier production values and cover design, that made it to theatres while a tonne of similar Z grade trash was released straight to DVD.
It starts quite intriguingly, however the promising opening fails to tie in coherently with what transpires on screen, which just descends into a load of meaningless guff. No connection is established between the man committing the murders in the house and the kids moving in, other than the whole 'saying or thinking the Bye Bye Man' thing, which they could have done anywhere. At no point is it ever scary or thrilling in any way, and at any rate, all of these youngsters are typically unlikeable, a load of SJW types, the sort who wear t-shirts of bands that were around before they were born (in this case, Joy Division...not even an American band!) and look like an everyday triviality would frighten them half to death, never mind a supernatural monster.
I really don't think a horror franchise is going to be established with this one, unless it's an endless stream of straight to DVD non-events, which is really what this monstrosity should be defined as. *
Gerald's Game (2017)
Impressive adaptation of King novel released 25 years ago
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) are a married couple who decide to make a weekend getaway to connect with each other on a more intimate and physical level. To further ensure this, Gerald brings along two pairs of handcuffs, which he intends to and does use on Jessie on the bed. Initially comfortable going along with it, Jessie becomes despondent just as Gerald gets aroused. But when he suffers a fatal heart attack, Jessie finds herself stranded, tied to the bed with seemingly no way out, at the mercy of external forces, including the sinister 'Moonlight Man' (Carel Struycker), that threaten to tear her apart.
A Stephen King adaptation is always more likely to appeal to me if I've read the book, or the short story excerpt, before hand. Although it's almost certain to be nowhere near as good, there's just something more intriguing and compelling to want to see someone else's interpretation of the novel you have read and had your own conjuring of, to see how closely it matches the presentation that has made it to the screen. Gerald's Game was written by King twenty five years ago in 1992. I read it in about 2001, over fifteen years ago, and at the time would have been dying to see a film version of it. But all the same, in the present day, this has emerged and I still was excited to see it. And, thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan's film is no disappointment.
The perversely inspired and intriguing concept, that really could only have come from King's twistedly brilliant mind, has as much effect on screen as it does in the novel, and Flanagan creates a wonderfully isolated, eerie atmosphere that suits the mood perfectly. In Jessie's predicament, loud, brash jump scares that permeate so much of what passes for modern horror, are redundant, and so wisely the emphasis is on the psychological, as Jessie lies helpless and goes insane, driven mad by hallucinations of Gerald speaking from beyond the grave, and of herself, as her repressed childhood traumas come to the surface and take effect. Inspired casting also does a great job of keeping things on the level, and all the main cast (who are pretty much all of it!) fit their roles fine and perform perfectly.
It's a pleasingly faithful version of King's novel, which I can still remember all these years later, and while I wasn't as excited to see it as I was then, it's no bad thing to wait for something so masterful. ****
George Michael: Freedom (2017)
Illiuminating, soulful expose of tortured genius
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning
George Michael was born in the 1960s to Greek immigrants, in London, and in the early 1980s, formed one pop pairing that wasn't terribly successful, before forming Wham!, which enjoyed phenomenal success that resonates until this day, whilst also enjoying a solo career of his own. But while becoming a worldwide superstar, in his private life, he was battling his own personal demons, including his repressed homosexuality, his unease with the limelight, through to the death of his partner and battle with his record company. Made in the few months leading up to his death, this documentary lifts the lid on his life in a way nothing else probably has before.
In a year where a superstar a minute seemed to pop off this mortal coil, the news of George Michael's death on none other than Christmas Day last year was like the final cherry on top of a particularly poisonous cake. So many cultural icons just snuffed out like candles, but no others seem to have left us with anything quite as revealing and intimate as this. As we learn, George was a guy who had to do everything on his terms, who had to be controlling the direction his life was taking, and so in this documentary, we learn in his own time, about the impact his personal and professional life took on him personally.
What emerges is a portrait of a young guy, thrust into the pit of fame, but he was no manufactured teen heart throb, a mature young adult, wise beyond his years, who allegedly wrote Careless Whisper, one of the most stirring and beautiful ballads of all time, on the back of a bus when he was just 17. It's interesting to wonder how a man of such tender years could have the emotional understanding and intelligence to write such material, but as we learn, he always felt more comfortable as a writer than a performer or celebrity.
The numerous musical talents who provide commentary never at all feel like unsavoury arse kissers, but give off a vibe of genuine admirers, whose musical style was genuinely influenced by George, possibly more than anyone else. You don't know what you've got till it's gone, I guess, and this revealing documentary certainly doesn't let you get away without knowing what exactly a one and only George was. ****
A Cure for Wellness (2016)
A muddled, confusing and mostly unengaging ride
Cocky junior employee Lockhart (Dane DaHann) is rumbled trying to embezzle money from the top boardroom executives of the company he works for. In order to save himself from exposure and an undoubted prison sentence, he agrees to their demands and travels to a remote spa in the Swiss Alps to try and track down the CEO of the company who appears to have lost his mind. During his investigation, he encounters the enigmatic Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who appears to be conducting a series of experiments on a group of subjects. Before long, Lockhart finds himself in a desperate battle of survival against the nefarious goings on at the remote location.
In this cinematic day and age, we're living in a time where the more outlandish and far fetched something is, the more it seems to be embraced and develops a cult status. Films along these lines are accepted into the mainstream much more readily now, and one such example would be this foray into the weird from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski. It's much darker material and operates on much broader boundaries than the family friendly POTC stuff, but it's still a big bundled, misguided effort that requires a lot of sticking power.
Verbinski uses the Swiss backdrop to great effect, creating an uneasy sense of agoraphobia with the shots of the swirling castle walls and all the surroundings, achieving an impressively Gothic look. Visually, it's all very well done, but the mystery of the missing exec and the reasons behind his disappearance are never compelling or stirring enough to keep your attention and, even if they were, at nearly two and a half hours, the film is just way overlong and over-ambitious, trying to cram too much in and being even more disconcerting as a result. Cast wise, Isaacs has presence as the grimly mysterious doctor, but the rest are pretty disposable in disposable roles.
There are undoubtable echoes of Shutter Island in the proceedings, a film that managed to maintain a far more unsettling sense of creepiness and isolation. Midway through, it curtails straight from psychological thriller to horror, showing its true colours as a film but managing not a jot more of an effect. **
A surprsing and satisfying experience
Roman Mclynk (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who's looking forward to spending Christmas with his family. He travels to the airport to pick them up, only to find himself ushered into a private waiting room where he's told they've all been killed in an in air collision. Meanwhile, Jake (Scott McNairy), the air traffic controller on duty during the tragedy, is publicly vilified and suspended from his job. As these two inextricably linked men struggle to deal with their trauma, they are placed on a collision course with devastating consequences.
Following on from 2015's slow, tender zombie drama Maggie, here Arnold Schwarzenegger appears in another more independent, cheap looking effort, which adds to the sense of eeriness and isolation it's trying to convey. Twenty or thirty years ago, the plot to Aftermath would have been the standard, go to formula for an Arnie movie, where he would have strapped on an uzi and gone looking for the killer of his family, most likely a Columbian drug lord or former adversary with a grudge. But in his later years, it's simply a fallible, everyday human being who's made a terrible mistake, and he himself is an average man whose life has been plunged into turmoil.
The main reason Arnie's managed to endure over the years is his attachment to established franchises, in particular one established franchise, and his appearance in the pretty certain Terminator 6 is fairly set in stone (if the little plastic model of him in those bizarre PPI deadline ads isn't enough for you!) In the meantime, he seems keen to showcase his development as an actor, handling more sensitive, mature material such as this. It's tough to accept him, but it's certainly encouraging, and this is an admirable examination of guilt, loss and grief.
You're only left to wonder what he'll try his hand at next. ****
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Lacks the all round magic and charm of the animated film
Belle (Emma Watson) is a young woman who lives in a stiflingly boring little town in France, with a pretty pre-determined future ahead of her. When her eccentric father Maurice (Kevin Kline) goes missing, she tracks him down to an ancient castle, where he's been taken captive by the resident Beast (Dan Stevens), who's been living under a curse imposed by a conjuror who wants him to discover the beauty within himself, and will only be free of it when someone loves him for who he is. He makes Belle take the place of her father, and this sets them both on a course of discovery and magic.
It seems to be a current trend for animated Disney classics to be getting live action, what with this and the recent Jungle Book adaptation, and since everything else seems to be getting remade, why not jump on the bandwagon? There is some undeniable potential in a LA version of the animated 1991 Disney film, and Bill Condon has not done a terrible job of doing so, just one that is quite notably devoid of the charm and joy of the original, and can never quite sweep you along with the same sense of wonder.
An all star cast, comprised of a load of hot, young talent in the main roles and a load of seasoned, accomplished actors in the supporting roles, add to the veneer and sleekness of it all, and aesthetically it's all very nice. The special effects, costume designs and production values are all marvellous, and combine to create a visually splendorous experience that sets the senses on fire, if nothing else. In spite of this, though, it all just feels like a tepid, watered down version of the original, a definite case of more is less.
The stench of wasted potential is hard to blot out. **
Free Fire (2016)
A thriller more hit and miss than all the bullets flying about in it
In 1970s Boston, a group of IRA members meet in an abandoned warehouse to broker an arms deal. The dealers, in the shape of the colourful Vernon (Sharlito Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay) arrive and the deal looks set to go ahead, until a personal dispute between two outside members triggers an all out shootout that spirals out of control and threatens to leave them all dead.
After the visually illuminating but aesthetically alienating High Rise left his followers divided, writer/director Ben Wheatley has shown an unexpected affection for Tarantino with this off-kilter crime thriller, shot in one long, continuous take in the same location, driven only by atmosphere and dialogue. An all star cast, including Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlito Copley and Wheatley favourite Michael Smiley drive it all along, even if all their characters collectively have nothing to define them between themselves.
While the screenplay is jazzy and smooth enough, and the attention to 70s style and fashion fairly spot on, somehow it just never reaches a QT level of sophistication, and the script is never really interesting enough to completely hold your attention until the end. All the frenetic shooting, or 'free fire', is not enough on its own to satisfy all but the most undemanding of viewers. It's fun, but in the hands of someone else, it may well have been more fun.
This is a strange choice of project for Wheatley to take up in his ever increasingly bizarre project range, and the end result is simply something very hit and miss that just scrapes by. ***
Slightly undelivering, but still commendable drama
Chiron is a young kid, who grows up alone, bullied by the other kids, and with a crack addicted, neglectful mother in the shape of Paula (Naomie Harris.) Without a father figure in his life, he finds himself falling under the wing of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who tries to give him a stable path to follow. His only other companion is Kevin, a kid from school, with whom he first begins to discover his feelings of homosexuality. Years later, when they reunite as adults after a testing falling out as kids, this experience will have a profound impact on their lives once again.
In a world where the struggle for equality still seems to be raging, and creeping into as many diverse, unexpected areas as you can imagine, this year the Oscars got a taste of the pressure to acknowledge minority performers, which even a slip up with the auto-card couldn't undo. Although La La Land was received much more broadly, and had much more of a cultural impact among the masses, the Academy decided nonetheless the gong for Best Picture must go to this coming of age tale set in the black community, from writer Barry Jenkins, also making his feature length directorial debut.
While LGBT rights are one of the main things the diversity crowd strive to push, it would still appear to be a taboo matter among the African American community, and Jenkins has certainly taken a brave step in making a film which highlights this matter to such a wide audience. He's managed to tell this young to old tale probably in a far more condensed way than many non-minority writer/directors would, and as such has maybe missed out on some extra potential his script may have possessed, leaving you with a film that perhaps doesn't hit the mark as much as it could have.
You can see where it's going, but it's still a commendable enough effort, with a host of young and old black performers commanding their roles respectively. It's no black Brokeback Mountain, just an off-beat, distinctive film all of its own. ***
'Cynical, exploitative voyeurism of human misery
As the cost of living is rising and real terms wage increases are proving non-existent, more people around the country are sliding into debt than ever before, and many debts are being left to escalate to the point where it's referred to the High Court. One such HC enforcement group goes by the name of dcbl, which this programme follows the exploits of, as they travel the country, enforcing writs and encountering hostility from many of the debtors.
In this sad, unfortunate world, quality, well written, worthwhile television of the sort that was the norm as recently as two decades ago, has all but evaporated, and the craze for this generation's lazy, easily pleased crowd is the none stop splurge of 'reality TV.' Channel 5 (that, forebodingly, came around two decades ago!) is the main purveyor of this endless stream of cheap, easily made, tackily slapped together pile of programmes that clutter the schedules, and of which Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away (the titles are always similarly lazy and unimaginative!) is one of the more popular examples. But what is even more unsavoury about the existence of these programmes, is the sleazy, voyeuristic thrill we are encouraged to derive from those in desperate, life shattering situations, losing everything and falling into despair, but who are happy to have their personal business broadcast to the public without their faces being blurred, which the generation before would have regarded as nobody else's business, which further shows how far we've fallen as a culture!
While some of the debtors don't have a problem with facing the scorn of society, none of the featured baliffs do, and so we learn of them, their names, and are left to examine the moral ambiguity of them as people, of which some fall far short! A man called Paul Bohill is the most charismatic and surprising of the bunch, still tackling problem debtors and putting himself in potentially volatile situations despite being in his seventies now, but with his age he undoubtedly applies a more calm, reasoned approach to things, along with his frequent partner, the similarly aged Steve Pinner. They are undoubtedly the most shining of the group, but there's also the likes of Brian O' Shaughnessy, who seems to get tangled up with serial killers off screen but, most shockingly of all, the now cancer ridden Delroy Anglin, a former Met police commander who was involved in a scandal involving stolen drugs!
Regardless of whether many of the debtors command sympathy or not, and have only themselves to blame, this is nonetheless still cruel, exploitative television, that invites us to voyeur at people when they're at their lowest and caked in misery, and a shattering indictment of what we as a society now demand as our entertainment. *
The TV film that established Loach as a force to be reckoned with
Reg (Ray Brooks) and Cathy (Carol White) are young and in love, and eventually get married and have children. Reg has a good job, and all is going swimmingly, until he has an accident at work and his bosses refuse to pay him compensation. Unable to keep up with payments after the death of their landlady, they find themselves forced out of their home, and down into a never-ending spiral of increasingly unsuitable, uninhabitable temporary accommodation and bureaucracy that drives them apart and leaves Cathy in despair.
Last year, after announcing his retirement after making his last film (2014's Jimmy's Hall) Ken Loach surprised everyone and, as if to prove why celebrities should never use the word retirement, at the age of eighty made the incredibly well received I, Daniel Blake. But it also marked fifty years since his arguably most ground breaking, heavily impacting work premiered on TV, in the shape of this low scale production, that shone a light on the dire state of homelessness at the time, and actually brought about the formation of the charity Shelter, as well as significant changes in the law. Truly a testament to the power of film at its strongest...
It's ostensibly a drama, grounded in the cold, gritty reality of life, but depicting the bleak chain of events as it does, in its own way, it ends up playing out like an archetypal horror film, with the lead protagonists trapped in a chain of events forged by external forces that threaten to destroy them and everything they hold dear. The monster chasing them is the unrelenting, stony faced bureaucracy and prejudice of society and institutions, from which survival seems impossible. Loach further achieves this effect with the style he employs in the film, with the black and white frame that was still fairly typical at the time, and the various, opposing voice-overs, including the lead characters, that add to the eerie, isolating feel of it all.
A young pretender at the time it was made, Loach set his standard with this short, unsettling piece. His job is not to make entertaining films, or to make us happy, but to inform and provoke change with gritty, social realism. As he reminds us before the film finishes, everything that we've just seen really happened over the then last six months in Britain, so it's not like he doesn't do his homework. Regardless of your political persuasion, his sincerity to highlight what many more powerful people paper over is always to his credit. *****