Film Review: Baywatch

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 23/05/17.

3-stars1

Based on a famously cheesy, and similarly ridiculous, long-running TV show of the same name, it’s worth lowering your expectations for Baywatch straight off the bat.

And even if you had no expectations to begin with, it’s still somehow worth lowering them further: this is about as brainless as summer movies get. Half gross-out farce, half stupendously silly buddy cop actioner, guaranteed to righteously offend anyone with even half-an-ounce of intellectualism to their film tastes. Everyone else though, is guaranteed a whale of a time.

It’s been a long time since someone made a blockbuster that’s this aggressively stupid without a giant herd of animated alien robots to fall back on, but at the very, very least, both director Seth Gordon and the cast of Baywatch are fully aware of what they’re getting themselves into. For a movie that literally starts with the pulsating biceps of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, princess-carrying a helpless injured surfer to safety with a gigantic flashing title-card sparking over a tidal wave behind him, it very much sticks to its often overwhelming tone almost all the way through.

In fact, if anything, the near god-level worship of Johnson and the rest of the film’s ongoing self-awareness can actually get a little too much at times; like Gordon and co. are so insistent that they’re in on the joke that it comes off feeling far too desperate overall. The trick to the cheesy TV remakes that came before it (that very much set the trend that Baywatch has since followed) was a careful balance of the new and old, the self-aware and the general straight-up comedy; and with all its constant self-abuse and poorly shoe-horned fan-service/cameos, Gordon’s film feels like C-grade Jump Street at best.

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Despite all of these scripting issues though (and a paper thin drug-running plot that, let’s face it, very few people were expecting to be inventive/intelligible anyway), there’s no denying that there’s still plenty of fun to be had with the film’s cast. Even when Johnson’s not around to rattle off insult after insult, or flex his ridiculous body in the direction of yet another 80s-style one-liner, his newbie teammates more than make up the difference. Efron is still a delight as the same preppy cool kid he’s grown up mastering (and could seemingly play in his sleep), Rohrbach and Bass are an unlikely but cute pairing, and the fierce (but also sadly, totally underused) Hadera and Daddario kick plenty of bottom in all the right places.

Unlike the appeal of the original TV show, there’s certainly much more of an attempt to balance out the levels of objectification here too. It’s still not quite in balance, and much of Gordon and his team’s attempts to downplay the levels of male gazing on display come down to simply just taking the piss out of the fact that they’re doing it, which certainly doesn’t make it alright. But at the same time, there is a conceited effort to throw some light on the male anatomy here too (the only real nudity is male), and ultimately anyone expecting a buttoned-up, fleshless approach from a big-budget movie adaptation of Baywatch, aimed at a largely young audience, is frankly insane.

It’s not quite the summer movie event of the year, or really even Johnson or Efron’s best, but between the pair’s winning comedic chemistry, plenty of killer one-liners and an (at times, excessively) fun tone, there’s just enough to enjoy here to make Baywatch worth a watch. But if you find yourself drowning in the cheap cheesiness of it all, don’t expect any two-handed plot twists or burly action set-pieces to come swimming along to save the day; this one’s as dumb as a dolphin, and proud of it.

Baywatch is out in UK cinemas now. 

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Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

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Originally published on Cultastic on 22/05/17.

2-stars

We were promised zombie sharks. There were very few zombie sharks.

Depending on where in the world you live, this latest in a long line of hugely expensive movies, seemingly created for the sole purpose of showcasing Johnny Depp’s incredible ability to wear a revolving wardrobe of different costumes, but still essentially deliver the same boring performance, has a totally different title. The American (and in many ways, “official”) naming is the quietly menacing Dead Men Tell No Tales, an old-timey motto spoken by a borderline-heinous number of actual cast members throughout the film. Some other territories get the decidedly plain Pirates of the Caribbean 5, and everyone else is stuck with the headscratchingly awful Salazar’s Revenge.

So who, I hear you ask, is this mysterious Salazar? Why is he swearing revenge, and who, might we add, is he swearing revenge on? Why are Europeans apparently incapable of understanding a simple, inoffensive phrase that is spoken throughout the film anyway? The collective answer to all of the above pretty perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with this latest Pirates effort.

It’s jumbled, over-stuffed, at times barely-sensical, and ultimately feels like it’s yet another made-by-committee affair. Each and every creative decision has been calculated through some bizarre market-lead algorithm designed to do little more than sell toys and rocket it closer and closer to that all-important billion-dollar mark.

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You’d never guess that the film in question is, for example, directed by critically acclaimed Norwegian adventurer pair Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Or that it features one of the acting world’s finest living performers, Javier Bardem, still at the very tip top of his game. Not to mention one of the industry’s brightest young heroines Kaya Scodelario totally nailing her first big commercial break, despite fighting toe-to-toe throughout with some of the most screen-hungry talent Hollywood has to offer.

You’d never guess, because so much of the film is so utterly buried in stodgy storytelling, cheap jokes and totally uninspired action set-pieces, that it’s genuinely difficult to cherry-pick the few exceptions from the otherwise screamingly average movie Disney have delivered here.

In fact, so much of Salazar’s Revenge is spent trying to make the Pirates franchise relevant again that anything and everything that’s even remotely unique about it as a whole is lost in a hail of awful, awful, awful Captain Jack sketches. Sketches that essentially amount to little more than Johnny Depp marching around in full pirate regalia, drunkenly pointing to things and grinning at his own lame, poor-taste jokes. A character that was once a novelty has quickly become the series’ apparent only selling point, despite being a totally worn-out and now, largely unfunny, property in himself. And whilst Disney have seemingly tried to widen the cast list with yet another forcibly romantic boy-girl pairing, it’s of course Jack that still ends up with 95% of the screen-time, despite having very little overall purpose.

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But ultimately, this is nothing new. We could rant about the overpriced and under-thought studio summer blockbusters until the cows come home; there’s so many now it’s not even a surprise when yet another once-promising franchise like Pirates seemingly tanks itself all over again. The important take away here is that this could very, very easily be a totally different story.

There’s so much genuine ingenuity at play here under the surface: from Bardem’s deliciously spitting villain, to yes, those god-damn beautiful flesh-eating zombie sharks, that Salazar’s Revenge could’ve 100% been the series’ grand-return to originality and quality. Finally a bad guy to rival Bill Nighy’s legendary Davy Jones, and enough underlying neat ideas to keep audiences guessing for a change. So why bury it all under a metric tonne of pointlessly familiar, overly-pandering bullshit and suffocate the creativity?

Salazar’s Revenge isn’t broadly offensive, it’s just very uninspiring to watch and offers absolutely no new spark for an otherwise totally decrepit billion-dollar franchise. Well, either that or it’s great and we’re just bitter because there’s barely any zombie sharks in it. You decide.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is out in the UK this Friday.

Film Review: Immigration Game

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 03/05/17 and on Cultastic on 04/05/17.

3-stars1

It’s no secret that free-for-all Battle Royale-style horror movies are all the rage at the moment.

From Kinji Fukasaku’s cult original, through its sequel, three Purge movies (plus its upcoming TV adaptation) and even the young-adult-aimed answer/blockbuster waste of time The Hunger Games, the base formula for Krystof Zlatnik’s low-rent thriller is nothing even remotely new. And whilst he does dress it up somewhat with some eye-gougingly current political subtext, the reality is, we’ve seen it all before, and done a whole lot better than this.

Immigration Game has a lot going for it: a confident, likeable lead, a relatively clever (if a little on-the-nose) update of a tried-and-tested formula. Zlatnik finds some neat ways of stretching every penny with a few unconventional filming methods, that leak all the way back into the very plotting itself (reality TV finally, at long last, has its uses). The major problem here is just that it really can’t compete in scale, very obviously replicating elements of those that came before it, but with a much cheaper and less impressive approach.

Zlatnik certainly has a penchant for violence, and the fight sequences, although largely uninspired in their choreography, come off as gritty and brutal enough, building well and ending with a real and genuinely fierce gut-punch of a finale. But rather frustratingly, it’s only when the leads are throwing punches and dodging pipe wrenches that they’re actually even the tiniest bit convincing; a problem not necessarily with the acting talent, but instead with Zlatnik’s own writing.

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Landwehr’s lead Joe is easy enough to get on with, but his supporting cast don’t seem to have nearly enough to do, reduced to pattering about, repeating the same lines and motivations over and over until the very end of the final act.

Which, when it comes, really hits like a freight train. Immigration Game certainly has its sweet moments, and definitely has the capacity to be both triumphant and hopeful in equal measure. It’s based around a very real problem, not just in Germany, but the world over too, and early on, there’s just enough teased to make the politics work without the film becoming too preachy. But as the action-heavy plot kicks into gear, so much of this is lost that, by the frankly twisted ending, it’s not about immigration anymore at all.

The way in which Zlatnik eventually ties everything together isn’t exactly flawed on a narrative level, it’s just exceedingly pessimistic for a film that started out on such a different note. He doesn’t quite deliver what you’d expect given both the title and the overall set-up, tossing a lot of the bigger ideas around throughout and dropping all but the least convincing one at the final hurdle.

Fans of the more extreme and darker side of horror will likely find a lot to get excited about here, even if its only really got one foot in the genre to begin with. Immigration Game doesn’t quite go in the direction you’d expect, and while that can be in many ways commended, it’s also incredibly jarring to sit through, and ultimately very divisive in the long run.

It’s certainly a lot more than just a cheap Euro-themed take on The Purge; there is some real personality here and there. But between an unwarranted, nasty ending, and its director’s apparent inability to settle on a consistent theme, it doesn’t stand out quite as much as it could.

Immigration Game was screened as part of SCI-FI LONDON 2017. 

Film Review: Domain

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Originally published on Flickering Myth on 30/04/17 and on Cultastic on 02/05/17.

4-stars

Low-rent sci-fi can usually go one of two ways: smart and subtle, pinned to a manageable concept, or washed out by cheap, schlocky special effects. Luckily, bare-bones single-location thriller Domain opts for the former, running off a clever (if not entirely original) plot, with a fresh set of characters and a thoroughly involving central idea.

Rather than wasting his limited resources on another unnecessarily loud outbreak thriller about people hunting for food and murdering each other in desperation, director Nathaniel Atcheson has opted for something a little more close to home: humanity’s innate desire to be social. And for the most part, it opens up plenty of exciting new doors.

The entire film moves almost entirely through conversation, driving narrative with the interactions the core seven share either directly, or behind each others’ backs. It’s a post-apocalyptic world we haven’t quite seen before, but one which is no doubt a lot more likely than some of the more expansive ideas that have hit mainstream media. Survival for once, isn’t about food, or water, or finding protection from renegade cannibals or forest-dwelling monsters; in Domain the only way the characters can live on and remain in anyway hopeful, is by communicating.

But, as sturdy as said backbone is, it’s obviously not enough to power an entire film alone. Conversation needs direction, and much of Atcheson’s words surround mystery; not, as you might expect, the mystery of the brazenly retro-futuristic, non-government support agency who built the bunkers in question though. Nor the mystery of the very thing that put them underground in the first place: an outbreak of an entirely fictional type of flu that goes oddly uncontested.

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Atcheson builds his own riddles that, although have some grounding in the post-apocalyptic setting (particularly in the tell-all final act), are for the most part, instead a reflection of the relationships between the main group.

And this is where the majority of Domain’s main creativity comes from, letting the quietly ingenious production design slink into the background rather than tell the core story. Everything from the layout of the bunkers to their 70s-esque off-brown colouring has very clearly been carefully planned and helps to mirror the isolation of the plot’s main tension a great deal. But Atcheson is clever not to ever dwell on the setting alone.

We start several years down the line, in the middle of the film’s inciting incident; there’s little in the way of world set-up, and even less in terms of character introductions. Atcheson leaves us to simply fit the pieces together ourselves and while it’s certainly a risk (one that very few bigger, studio movies take), here it works wonderfully, helping the world of Domain and its inhabitants themselves feel very much lived-in.

There are certainly some bumps along the way though. Clear favouritism among the characters’ shared screen-time means one or two barely get past being one-dimensional plot devices, and the reveal-driven finale that ties all of their thoughts and fears together, is little more than a jerry-rigged exposition dump.

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Eagled-eyed (and eared) film fans will likely guess the ending quick enough, and certain character motivations aren’t quite as subtle as Atcheson seems to think, but for a single-location thriller, Domain never teeters towards boring, and above-all, there’s a very understated sense of scope here. Even after the last twist is dealt, Domain leaves plenty of moral questions ticking and always leads with some sense of hope at every corner.

Far from the usually bleak survival dramas that pad out a great deal of the outbreak genre, Atcheson’s film is just different enough to be involving, with a script that holds back just enough to remain thrilling, and that never lets its tiny budget effect the core drama.

As far as low-rent, high-concept sci-fi goes, Domain is about as well-balanced as it comes, fighting past some obvious set-backs to drive home a small, yet refreshing take on post-apocalyptic survival.

Domain was screened as part of SCI-FI-LONDON 2017. 

Film Review: The Transfiguration

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Originally published on Cultastic on 18/04/17. 

5-stars

Michael O’Shea’s stunningly original debut is a rallying cry to low-budget genre devotees everywhere: a clever, understated and socially aware horror strung together on a nothing budget, to maximum effect.

The Transfiguration takes roughly 90% of its classic horror callbacks and direct on-screen references from vampire movies, and at the heart of its own central drama, it kind of is one. A troubled young outcast, at the very fringes of wider society, cast aside by a inescapable thirst for blood. Sound familiar? And yet, Michael O’Shea’s winning new take is something wholly and unfathomably different in almost every sense of the word.

Probably the single, most killer twist of the lot is that O’Shea’s lead isn’t some cape-wearing 19th-century aristocrat; or a black duffle-coat-laden day-walker; or a red-eyed, sparkly skinned emo kid that can run really fast. There’s no fancy Victorian imagery, no wooden stakes or cloves of garlic; Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a struggling inner-city kid, who obsesses over vampire movies, and soon finds himself gradually turning into one, more in the mental sense than the physical.

Through a blossoming romance with fellow orphan Sophie (Chloe Levine), he starts to uncover the boundaries between the harsh realities of the outside world, and his own self-built fantasy, opening up into much more of a morality play than an out-and-out horror. O’Shea questions the real-world implications of the vampire lore we’ve all grown up understanding, unravelling, above all else, what it means to take a life for real.

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And aside from a slightly heavy-handed (but entirely witty) takedown of the film’s most obvious relation – Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – The Transfiguration is so beautifully built and signposted throughout, you’d be hard-pushed to notice any of its mainline doctrine. O’Shea knits in everything from genuine social and human drama, to seriously riveting moral discussion without any sense of sugar-coating or even so much as a feeling that we are ever being preached to.

Ruffin is about as understated as leads come, just as desperate to curl into the background of the movie as he is to tell Milo’s story, shunning sentimentality for something far, far more difficult: real, earnest and delicately strung emotion. It’s much less a hero’s journey as it is a carefully sculpted portrait of a young person at odds with their place in not just society but in the world itself too. And in caving in the walls of hard-nosed genre, and combining it with our own everyday reality, O’Shea makes The Transfiguration as much a commentary on fanaticism as fantasy itself.

It’s a hard movie to sell; too deep and patient for a balls-out genre crowd, but likewise too dark and grounded in the horror world to be taken purely on dramatic merit; The Transfiguration has an unquestionably bizarre mixture of influences and on paper, really shouldn’t work. But in packing his own sensitive script and direction with not just soulful performances but a real thirst for understanding the very inner-workings of something as ingrained as vampire lore, O’Shea delivers one of the most fascinating and conversation-worthy debuts of the year, hands down.

The Transfiguration is out in UK cinemas from Friday.

Film Review: The Belko Experiment

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Originally published on Cultastic on 10/04/17.

4-stars

James Gunn teams up with Wolf Creek legend Greg McLean to dive back into his ultra-dark love of genre, and deliver this sensationally bloody ode to office life.

Originally written nearly ten years ago and shelved for what almost bordered on eternity, it seems strange that one of Gunn’s most vicious projects to date is finally seeing the light of day now.

True, the Troma poster-boy turned franchise king is more popular than ever thanks to Marvel’s hugely profitable band of a-holes (and a second Guardians of the Galaxy movie is just weeks away), but to dance from directing a family-friendly worldwide phenomenon to writing and producing one of the most violent movies we’ve ever seen is a huge leap. Gunn being Gunn, it works though. Just about.

And despite handing over directing duties to the even more darkly-minded McLean, this still feels like a James Gunn project through and through, blending the usual excessive gore with plenty of pitch-black laughs.

Pitched as somewhere between Battle Royale meets Office Space, and one of those deeply psychotic social experiments from the 60s and 70s, The Belko Experiment envisions an office environment where everyone from human resources to security and maintenance is pitted against each other in a no-holds-barred battle to the death.

A mysterious voice informs the employees of a secluded office block in rural Columbia that if thirty people aren’t dead within a few hours, they’ll all be forced to bite the proverbial bullet. And of course, madness and violence ensues.

A who’s who of B-list talent are soon taking shots at each other, dividing off into gangs based on moral inclination and/or thirst for blood, and one thing becomes overwhelmingly clear very early on: McLean and Gunn really aren’t dicking around here. Belko is seriously, seriously violent, and not just in a flippantly goretastic, slasher movie type way either; with both morality and reality taking centre stage here, every death hurts.

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Whether it’s a likeable simpleton being chopped down one act too soon, or an execution-style line-up that’s just a little too real to stomach, this is about as dark as either filmmaker has really been in years, or maybe ever. Even regular gore-fiends and horror-hounds might find this one a little too hard to process in places, and whilst the underlying social commentary is subtle enough and adds a neat little extra dimension to the bloodletting overall, it makes it a whole lot harder to stick through too.

On the brighter side, Gunn packs the picture with plenty of his regular alumni who all find plenty of room to shine. Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn are surprisingly sweet, whilst newbies John Gallagher Jr. and Tony Goldwyn really hold down the good versus evil divide beautifully. Melonie Diaz is clever enough, even if she does end up as the brunt of the film’s longest running joke, and Scrubs star John C. McGinley throws a totally transformative and welcome burst of (fully psychotic) energy into the ring to no doubt much fan applause.

Gunn’s script is terrifically structured, and inventive enough when it needs to be, and the characters themselves really pop off the screen well. Otherwise McLean basically lets the cameras roll and the cast do their thing; the only major roadblock he really finds himself up against quite regularly is Belko’s seemingly limited budget.

Reused hallways, a spot of dodgy CG, and a thoroughly uninspired finale don’t quite make it out alive, despite the actual action itself holding up well. It’s really just a matter of McLean covering his tracks here, and he doesn’t always quite manage it.

On the whole though it must be said that The Belko Experiment is a huge punt in the right direction for genre cinema in 2017. Violent, well-rooted and very occasionally nasty, it’s both thoughtful and crowd-pleasing in equal measure, and offers up one of the year’s most unforgiving body-counts, guaranteed.

The Belko Experiment hits UK cinemas on 21st April.

Film Review: Stake Land 2

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Originally published on Cultastic on 02/04/17 and on Flickering Myth on 03/04/17.

3-stars1

A surprise late-in-the-game sequel to a runaway cult hit, Stake Land 2, or to use it’s slightly more badass original title, The Stakelander, is about as odd as follow-up properties come.

Whilst the original was in many ways riding on the vampire wave of the late 00’s/early 10’s (and bringing some much appreciated apocalyptic darkness to the proceedings along with it), this much lower-rent, straight-to-DVD affair comes at a time where the vamp craze is all but dead in the water. And it really shows.

That’s not to call Stake Land 2 a mistake at all; it’s an entertaining 80 minutes that happily plays around with, and in many ways expands, the mythos of the original brilliantly. It’s just very, very clear throughout that the main source of horror for the series isn’t quite as relevant as it once was. The vampires themselves – much more 30 Days of Night than Twilight or even Dracula; like a very bloody cross between an Uruk-hai and a particularly toothy zombie – really struggle to ever really hold up as threatening. And whilst directors Berk and Olsen realise this fairly quickly, finding a neat little villainous stand-in to take their place for the majority, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this series has already very much stalled, a mere one sequel in.

The directing duo, who already made a low-key, yet surprisingly thoughtful dent in the horror market with their bare-bones thriller Body a few years back, certainly do everything they can to claw back whatever’s left though. Picking up from a now seasoned genre vet like Jim Mickle can never be easy, particularly when said follow-up very quickly gets shafted into becoming a Syfy TV original, but Berk and Olsen add not only a great deal of emotionally-driven depth to the world of Stake Land, but also a healthy amount of the original’s cleverly cheap visuals too.

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Settings might often feel a little too sparse, and the characters themselves a little underrepresented in the wardrobe department, but to think that this effort would’ve most likely been made for even less than its predecessor’s measly $600,000 budget, there’s a real sense of stretching ever dollar here. Whilst Mickle’s original was a road movie through and through, packed with numerous vamps of different designs, Berk and Olsen settle into what’s much more of a siege, and explain away the lack of monstrous variation with a clever little story nod that doubles up in the world-building department too.

That’s not forgetting that simply just seeing Paolo and Damici share the screen once again is a pleasant little bonus in itself. Back on script-duties once more, Damici feels a lot less a part of things as he did before, and the pair’s on-screen father/son bromance is certainly a little rusty, but again the plot-driven developments that made them this way are more than worth the sacrifice. Paolo alone is in a very different place to where he was six years ago, and playing into that – really owning the ominous time-gap – really works in the film’s favour overall. Certain supporting characters don’t quite earn the time they’re given, but the fact that there’s no longer a more devoted focus on the duo does make sense in the grand scheme of things.

It all really comes down to just how much of an effect the original had on you. Existing fans of the series will without doubt find a lot to love here, even if the neat additions and side thoughts don’t ultimately make for a more substantive picture over all. Those not totally won over by Mickle’s first Stake Land though really won’t find much to shout about with this follow-up. It’s far from a by-the-numbers retread, and Berk and Olsen really try to inject as much originality as possible wherever they can, but the ultimate fate of this cheap sequel is that it’s simply a surprise that it even exists.

Stake Land 2 is out in the UK on DVD from Monday.