Monday, January 25, 2016

What I Watched - January 17-23 2016


Crimson Peak (2015) AVI
 - I managed to avoid most of the hype about this Guillermo del Toro-directed gothic horror so didn't have any expectations going in, other than what comes with having del Toro's name attached (which means it is usually excellent). While I didn't flat out love this movie, I did enjoy it and I have to give kudos to Guillermo for producing something as close to the old Corman/Price Poe movies as we've seen in decades.
The house in this movie is one of the greatest settings for a haunted house movie - the leaves falling through the busted roof make for some beautiful, haunting scenes. Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain stand out in the acting department. In the end the ghosts in this movie actually play little part in proceedings, making this more of a dark, gothic period mystery than an out-and-out horror movie. Worth seeing for the visuals alone though.

The Kingdom, season 1 (1994) DVD
- I have owned this Danish series on DVD for years but have only now gotten around to watching it. I have heard a lot of good things said about it, but unfortunately I found that it didn't live up to the hype for me. The man behind this series (which influenced Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital series, which I also haven't seen) is Lars von Trier. I've seen exactly one of his movies, Antichrist, which I found to be beautifully shot and weirdly trippy, but mostly nonsensical. I was expecting something along those lines with this four-part first season, but instead it's a fairly straight forward narrative about a hospital with ghosts.
What made it hard for me to really take to it was the fact it felt like a Danish version of ER with a ghostly sub-plot. It's more about relationships between doctors, nurses and patients than it is the supernatural. I have season 2 on DVD and will give that a watch at some point, hopefully it gets better.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2015) Netflix
-  If you're a fan of baseball like me you'll enjoy this Netflix original documentary about Bing Russell (Kurt's dad) who brought an independent minor league team to Portland in the 1970s, snubbing his nose at the game's establishment and doing things his own way with a ragtag bunch of MLB castoffs. Even if you don't like baseball, this is masterfully told (Kurt himself regales about his late dad) and will appeal to any fans of the underdog.

Wake in Fright (1971) Netflix
- Quirkly little Australian movie about an English teacher who gets marooned in a small Outback town and has to deal with the hard-drinking, hard-living locals. Top acting performances (including by the always-great Donald Pleasance, naturally playing a drunk) and desolate scenery make this an intense tale of how civilised man can give in to his basest instincts when presented with the opportunity. Don't go in expecting a horror movie or exploitation though, it's a drama first and foremost.

Central Park Five (2012) Netflix
- After recently digesting the infamous Making a Murderer series, I stumbled upon this similar documentary about five young black and hispanic men wrongly imprisoned for the rape and attempted murder of a jogger in New York's Central Park in the 1980s. This is another fascinating watch, and all it does it increase my unease about police confessions.

Call Me Lucky (2015) AVI
- A correspondent on a popular website I frequent named this their top documentary for 2015, so I downloaded it, not knowing anything about it. The synopsis let me know it was about a "cutting edge" comedian who I'd never heard of, Barry Crimmins. It starts off that way, telling Crimmins' life story and how he got into comedy, then how he alienated crowds with his political rantings. But then the doco takes an unexpected turn into much darker territory - I won't spoil it, but it makes for some unpleasant viewing. I take my hat off to Crimmins for talking about it, and it's important that conversations are developed about this subject, but it made this hard to enjoy.

Detroit 9000 (1973) Netflix
- On the surface this seems like a run-of-the-mill 70s blaxploitation b-movie, but while it features a lot of the tropes of that sub-genre (jive-talking pimps, crooked politicians, street thugs etc) it's more of a police action thriller. Unlike a lot of the blaxploitation movies, this one doesn't make all the white characters bad guys (the two main cops are one black, one white), and has a black politician as the main villain. Veteran actor Alex Rocco is great as the hard-boiled white cop, although his voice is so distinctive that every time he talked it made me think of his voice work on The Simpsons as Roger Meyers jr. As you would expect from a 70s cop flick, proceedings lead up to a lengthy car chase, which is pretty damn good. An enjoyable time-waster.

Zathura (2005) Netflix
- I let my five-year-old son choose a movie for the family to watch for the night. As we'd just seen Jumanji he chose the "sequel", Zathura (it's not really a sequel, but is based on a book by the same author and the plot is similarly about a magic board game). While enjoyable, this one doesn't measure up to Jumanji. The CGI is better (given the time that had passed between movies) but that's about it. This one gets mentioned as "Jumanji in space without Robin Williams" and that about sums it up.

Ex Machina (2015) AVI
- Another movie that got a lot of love on people's Best of 2015 lists. It tackles the subject of AI (artificial intelligence) in androids, by telling the tale of a young man who works for the biggest search engine in the world (Bluebook - clearly a stand in for Google). He wins a raffle and gets to fly to the remote home of the company owner, where he discovers that his boss has made the ultimate android. His job is to test her and find out if she can pass off as a human. But naturally he falls in love with this "girl" and finds out that his boss isn't being completely truthful. I'm not going to give away anymore of the plot, but this is a fantastic scifi thriller which is beautifully shot and full of excellent acting performances. It could almost pass off for a prequel to Blade Runner in a way. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I Watched - January 10-16 2016


Rush (1983) Youtube
 - From the long production line of Mad Max-inspired Italian post-apocalyptic B-movies comes this one, directed by Tonino Ricci and starring Bruno Minniti. The early going - our hero is caught by the bad guys and put into a futuristic prison camp - is pretty dire, but once he escapes the camp and takes to the forest things really pick up in an unintentionally-hilarious way.
Rush seems to have some kind of magic power, because no matter how close the bad guys are and how unprotected our hero is (like sitting on a tractor or hanging in mid-air) they can't seem to shoot him. None of the numerous stunts make a lick of sense - somehow he manages to jump over a truck roadblock on a motorbike without any kind of ramp - and the plot is full of holes - supposedly in this future world plants can't grow yet most of the later action takes part in a fully-wooded forest. Even the climactic fight is awesomely dumb, because the main bad guy's stunt double doesn't look anything like him! This is definitely a bad movie, but the cheesiness of the second half makes it good fun.

He Never Died (2015) AVI
- My interest in this movie started when I saw the poster - Henry Rollins with a pair of wings on his back, looking like a deshevelled fallen angel. I was expecting something along the lines of Prophecy or Legion, but it turned out to be very different, in a good way. To talk too much about the plot would be to give too much away, but this is a fantastic film, a mix of dark comedy and violent crime thriller. Rollins is superb as the grumpy immortal who is jaded to the world but forced to take action when things go bad.

Making a Murderer (2015) Netflix
- After hearing this Netflix-original documentary mentioned over and over on social media, I decided to check out the first episode to see what all the fuss was about. I was instantly hooked and watched all 10 episodes in a few days. It's definitely a well-crafted doco that asks real questions about the legal system and the pressure on police to get a prosecution at all costs, even if the evidence points elsewhere. A must-see!

Big Sky (2015) Netflix
- This is one of those movies where the premise outweighs the execution. The idea of a girl suffering from agoraphobia having to survive while being attacked in the wide-open desert is an interesting one, and while it's handled competently there's just nothing to really make this movie stand apart from any other average drama/thriller. The storyline meanders along predictably, needing a stand-out climax to save it, but sadly it never comes.

Anomalisa (2015) AVI
- I kept seeing this oddly-named movie mentioned on internet critics' top 10 of 2015 lists. After sitting down to watch it, I can honestly say I have to agree with the critics, this is one of the best of last year. It has a beautiful and enchanting animation style that's like a dreamy variation on clamation and a great story of love and loss and being numb to the world. Anyone who has suffered depression at any point in their life will be able to relate to the main character. The gimmick of having every other character looking and sounding virtually identical is a bit hard to get used to at first, but by the end of the movie it all makes sense. This movie will have you thinking about it for days afterwards.

Valhalla Rising (2009) Netflix
- Director Nicolas Winding Refn is a love-him or hate-him kind of guy. I know people who think his movies are pretentious and boring. I'm not one of them. Drive is one of my favourite movies of all time, I really like Bronson and while Only God Forgives was a tad disappointing, I didn't hate it.
This earlier effort by the Danish director will do nothing to appease his haters, drawing from the same stylistic pool as Drive and Only God Forgives - a silent anti-hero, long periods of meloncholic silence interspersed with bursts of extreme violence, and beautiful establishing shots.
Mads Mikkelsen (TV's Hannibal) is intense as the silent One-Eye, a mute warrior who escapes slavery in 1000AD and joins up with Christians heading on a crusade to the Middle East. But they end up somewhere else entirely - could it be hell? If you like Winding Refn movies you'll enjoy this.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What I Watched - January 3-9 2016


Woundings (1998) DVD
 - I can usually find something good about just about any movie, no matter how bad it is. But this one left me disappointed AND pissed off. Disappointed because the concept (alternate universe Britain where soldiers are fighting for a Falklands-like island) could have been good; pissed off because it was so bad and wasted a fairly good cast.
The story is just downright sloppy and doesn't make sense. The acting is ridiculous, like everyone was trying to play their characters as mentally-challenged. Usually-great actors like Guy Pearce and Ray Winston are awful in this - Winston tries to be quirky but comes off as silly, Pearce mumbles his way through his lines.
The music is terrible, alternating between thumping techno music and the keyboard noodling of a three-year-old. One scene involving a dance for soldiers and their prospective girls feels like something out of a Dr Who episode, but it's only a fleeting moment. It's a shame the whole movie couldn't have been like it. Avoid at all costs.

Carnivale, Season 2 (2005) DVD
- After finishing off season 1 in a day it didn't take long to get into season 2 and get it finished as well, that's how addicting this show is. If anything season 2 was better, as the characters were established and more actually happened. The entire season headed towards the inevitable showdown between Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), while answering other mysteries (who and where is Hack Scudder, who is Management etc) and taking in sub-plots involving all of the carnival folk. My favourite characters are Jonesy and Stumpy, the former for his no-nonsense attitude and the latter for his comic relief.
The season reached a somewhat-satisfying conclusion while also setting up future seasons that never came to be. It's a great shame, because this is one of the finest TV shows I've ever seen. If internet streaming is allowing shows like The X-Files to get new life years later, why not Carnivale? Come on Netflix!

The Lost Tribe (1983) DVD
- During the recent Boxing Day Sales (our version of America's Black Friday, held the day after Christmas) I picked up a bunch of quite-obscure New Zealand films for dirt cheap, this being one of them. A thriller set in remote jungle, it tells the story of a missing anthropologist and the search for him, headed by his wife and twin brother. As the name suggests, there might be a lost tribe lurking in the woods, ready to consign them to the same fate as their lost loved one.
A lot of 1980s NZ films have a certain charm to them that's hard to put a finger on, and this one definitely feels that way. Aside from that it's just a solid little thriller with some nice atmosphere and a satisfying climax.

Trial Run (1984) DVD
- Another Boxing Day pick up, this one and I have something of a history together. Unlike The Lost Tribe, I was actually familiar with this New Zealand film before going into it. However, I had never actually seen it. Let me explain... this showed on NZ TV in 1984 when I was 9 years old and the teaser ads for it terrified me. In particular a scene involving "something" outside a kitchen window and the growling, animal noise it made. I'll never forget it. Of course I didn't watch the movie, but the night that is showed on TV, my mum watched it and I could hear the movie from my bedroom. In some ways that was worse than actually watching it, because my imagination ran wild.
So, 30-plus years later, is it as terrifying as my memory tells me? Well, no, of course not. In fact, it's hardly scary at all. It's a psychological thriller about a woman staying in a remote location to study wildlife, while also training for a marathon. The locals start acting weird, she hears things at night, strange things happen... and there's a twist at the end that no-one would probably see coming, because it doesn't make a lot of sense. It's hard to recommend this one to anyone who doesn't have nostalgic reasons for giving it a watch.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What I Watched - December 27 2015-January 2 2016


Obviously it's a busy time of year with Christmas celebrations and then New Year's Eve (Happy New Year readers!), so the movie-watching output wasn't great, but I did manage to fit in a few, while also knocking off a couple of seasons of TV during this week.

CBGB (2013) Netflix
- I've said it before that I do love a good music documentary, and that's what I thought I was sitting down to here. It turns out this is actually a dramatic film retelling the story of how Hilly Krystal started up the famous (and infamous) NYC punk club CBGB. I didn't know too much about this story before watching this (didn't know for instance that the club was originally started as a country music venue, hence the name was short for Country Blue Grass Blues). The story is fascinating and the cast is stellar - the superb Alan Rickman plays Krystal, with main supporting roles for Donal Logue, Freddy Rodriguez and Ashley Greene and cameos by everyone from Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki to Harry Potter's Rupert Grint and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins (who does a pretty good job of playing Iggy Pop). If you count yourself as even a passing fan of punk or underground music, this is a must-see.

Tale of Two Thieves (2014) Netflix
- This is a fascinating documentary about the UK's infamous 1963 Great Train Robbery. While most people think of Ronnie Biggs when they think of that crime, this doco paints a different picture courtesy of one of the other robbers, Gordon Goody. Goody, this film asserts, was the real mastermind behind the robbery. Still alive and living in Spain, Goody is interviewed extensively and gives a lot of insight into his life before, during and after "the job". A sub-plot has the doco's producers trying to identify the mysterious "Ulsterman" who was the inside man on the crime. Even if you know the Great Train Robbery's story well (it's been featured in countless movies) this is worth watching for the new information it brings to light.

Pod (2015) Netflix
-  I remember seeing the trailer to this at some point months ago and thinking it looked pretty good. Then I forgot all about it until it showed up on Netflix. The plot has an estranged brother and sister visiting their other sibling, a brother with history of mental problems. He's gone off the grid at the family holiday home. When they find him they discover that he is paranoid about aliens and claims to have one of them trapped in the basement. Does he, or has he gone off his rocker? I won't say anymore than that about the plot. This one has a few effective scares and some good suspense, but it's also a very "shouty" movie. The siblings spend most of the movie arguing, yelling and fighting, which really grates the nerves after a while. Unfortunately the unlikeable characters and all that damn squabbling makes it hard to recommend this movie.

The Red Road, Season 2 (2015) Netflix
- The first season of this mini-series (six hour-long episodes per season) - about a cop and a criminal whose lives intertwine while living on a Native American reservation - really took me by surprise. I hadn't heard any hype about it before it showed up on Netflix, despite it featuring Jason Momoa (Aquaman in the upcoming DC movies) and my fellow Kiwi, Martin Henderson, in the lead roles. I liked the first season but it felt like it finished right when it was gaining momentum. This second season was much better, but again it was too short. And now I discover that the show has been cancelled without any resolution to the storyline. Knowing that, I wouldn't recommend watching it, because it'll be a frustrating experience. Which is a shame because it's a good show. Not great, but good.

Carnivale, Season 1 (2003) DVD
- I have quite a few seasons of TV on DVD that have been on my "to watch" list for the longest time, and this one's probably been there the longest. A rainy New Years day, recovering from over-indulging the night before, provided the perfect opportunity to blob out and finally give this a watch. Twelve hours later and the 12 one-hour episodes of season 1 were done and dusted (pun intended - if you've seen the show you get it). What a great show! The best way I can describe it is like taking American Horror Story: Freakshow's setting and mixing it with the religious themes of movies like Prophecy and Legion. Top performances from the likes of Michael J Anderson (the creepy dwarf from Twin Peaks), Nick Stahl (Sin City), Clea Duvall (The Faculty), genre favorite Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog) and the always-sinister Clancy Brown (Highlander, Pet Sematary 2). I can't believe I took so long to finally watch this! I'm already into the second (and final) season and loving it.