Archive for the ‘ Reviews ’ Category

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300: Rise of an Empire (2014), directed by Noam Murro

Need for Speed (2014), directed by Scott Waugh

Well devoted readers, I haven’t been doing many written reviews of wide release movies lately and for that I apologize. I’ve been film festivalling. I’ve been podcasting. I’ve been Oscaring. I’ve been doing real work (lame). Now it’s time to get back to basics. I’m talking Double-Shot.

I was not a fan of the original 300 when it came out in 2006. I haven’t seen it since so I can offer no take on whether it would have grown on me or not, but I remember at the time finding it ugly, cruel and depressing.

The sequel is perhaps no less cruel and is assuredly some form of war porn, even if of the Greek variety, with its fascination with slow motion blood splattering and decapitations, all highlighted in hero-worship tales of battlefield glory.

It’s a zany, intense film which never lets up in its trudging march through battle and death. In many ways it is as dismal as the first film, but I must admit I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

It’s not a great film, by any means, but there are things within it which are great and made it worth watching.

Eva Green has been getting a lot of attention for her role in the film, as Artemisia, the naval commander of the Persian army. Green is easily the best thing in the movie, as the tough, vengeful war commander. It’s a meaty role, with Green strutting about topside, fire in her eyes, ordering failed commanders to their deaths, balancing her thirst for revenge and power with her public role as puppet leader of the kingdom.

Okay. I’ll talk about it now. There is a sex scene in the movie which has been all the talk. I haven’t read much of the talk, but I know it’s out there. I’ll weigh in by saying it has to be one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ll tell you why: it is a crucial, defining moment of the film.

The coitus is between her and the leader of the Greek army, Themistocles (who I thought throughout the movie was named The Mistocles). She invites him to talk truce, they end up, er, doing more than talking it out.

One reason I like the scene is power dynamics. I don’t think women playing tough roles is the only or the best way to encourage feminism in film, but it’s hard to deny the play with gender roles in this scene. Artemisia is both dominating and submissive, she initiates the tryst, she controls much of it, and she ends it before it can, er, climax.

Themistocles leaves her presence looking like he’s witnessed a car crash he can’t quite make sense of.

It’s unlike anything one typically sees in a mainstream movie. Beyond that, I liked how it worked so well to define both characters and to act as a microcosm of the entire struggle the film is about, including the thirst for power, the desire to dominate, the violence of it.

Unfortunately one great set piece does not a great film make. The rest of the movie is occasionally riveting, often spectacular to look at, but also numbingly garish and overblown. It’s turned up to 11 the entire way, and that’s a hard level to sustain.

It also lost some of its feminist points with the rapey bits, including a lingered on pair of 3D breasts early in the film as two shadowy enemies drag a topless woman away, with the eventual result heavily implied. Another lingering shot shows Artemisia watch her family get murdered and presumably her mother get raped. Unnecessary. We got the point in the first few frames, no need to linger, especially in a film which celebrates every other act of violence it portrays.

Overall I was impressed by much in 300: Rise of an Empire and it made me appreciate how much more Eva Green we need on our screens, but it still left me feeling the way the first film had: that I had just witnessed something rather rotten ugly, despite how good it looks. It celebrates violence in a intentional way even slasher movies would have a hard time pulling off. It’s grand, beautiful and heroic, in the way war is portrayed to young men and women to convince them to join up.

Sure it’s mostly irrelevant because it pertains to ancient wars with little resemblance to today’s conflicts, but still, something about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Need for Speed, on the other hand, left me with drool in my mouth as I enjoyed a quick nap during it’s ludicrous running time and pathetic attempts at drama.

Mean? Maybe. But here’s the thing, I went in with so very little in the way of expectations, and even those were not met.

I love car chase movies. I love ’70s carsploitation, any film related to racing and even the Fast and Furious franchise. I came in to the cinema already a believer. But Need for Speed has to be the flimsiest, most pathetically put together car movie ever. I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of it.

The film is based on the video games, early versions of which I was a big fan of as a child. But the movie is painfully full of itself and takes no joy at all in its own ridiculousness, leaving the entire affair a dreary mess.

It’s a story about an elite illegal car race featuring some of the fastest cars in the world. It’s also a revenge tale, about a driver seeking vengeance for the death of a friend. All of this is played straight faced, with brooding music, sweeping statements about life and the “high art” of racing, slow-motion fires of hell explosions and men revelling in brotherly love.

All of it, as poorly written and carried out as it is, comes of as pathetically serious and unintentionally ludicrous.

One thing I found interesting was how much collateral damage feels different in a movie versus the video game. In the game it’s no big deal, in fact it’s fun, to run regular cars off the road, take out police cars and cause general mayhem. In the movie it felt terribly wrong.

For one thing, nobody dies in the games and the cars even barely get damaged, no matter what you put them through, so there are no consequences. It is a fantasy world with no resemblance to the real one.

In the movie people clearly are able to die and the crashes are real: glass shattering, metal scraping real. Every time these characters cause two regular Joes to smash into each other at highway speeds it’s jarring and unsettling. At least for me it was.

The worst part is when one of the characters hits a homeless person’s shopping cart filled with their belongings, an incident which is played for laughs not once, but twice in the film. I get this is a movie, and a movie designed for perhaps jockish gear heads, but are we not past the point yet where terrorizing homeless people is no longer funny? As I read somewhere else, in car chase movies you hit fruit carts, not homeless people’s carts, otherwise it just comes off as cruel.

All this nitpicking is maybe indicative of a larger problem: Need for Speed doesn’t know what it’s fighting for.

Even in the classic 1970s car movies, the wanton destruction of human life is not taken flippantly. The heroes of those movies are driving for the common man, kicking against a system which is hurtful for all. And the movies themselves have a tragic understanding that these characters are ultimately doomed, they will not be the ones to move society forward. They are cool for their rebellion, but they ultimately suffer for their isolation.

I love Super Soul in Vanishing Point as he cheers on Kowalski, a man who has had enough and refuses to be a part of the system which has let him down. He calls Kowalski “the last American hero.” But Kowalski can’t survive for the system to move forward. He must die in a fiery explosion.

Why is Michael Keaton’s modern Super Soul, the Internet broadcasting Monarch, so much less effective? I could have done without his character entirely. Is it because we no longer feel that distrust of authority? We no longer cheer for those who push against conformity?

The thing is neither Monarch nor Aaron Paul’s Tobey, the film’s defacto Kowalski, are fighting against the system; they’re a part of it. Monarch is a rich man-child who puts on the main race of the movie, little more than a wingnut version of John Cleese’s character in Rat Race.

And Tobey’s quest for revenge is hard to take seriously when he is putting so many ordinary people at risk for his own personal vendetta. I don’t see Tobey stopping to see if any of the drivers in the crashes he causes are OK, as Kowalski did. I don’t see him thinking twice about running anyone off the road, figure of authority or otherwise, to get what he wants. I don’t see him fighting a system. Instead we see him buying into that system, winning the film’s finale race in the very multimillion dollar car which killed his friend. His eventual elevation to the ranks of the very assholes who tried to kill and humiliate him is celebrated. Kowalski would have never crossed that finish line.

Tobey is no hero, no figure of rebellion. He is hard to root for. And the film doesn’t understand this, which makes it impossible to enjoy. I haven’t even written about the chase scenes here, which frankly should be all that matter. But the film is such a bore no amount of vehicular stuntwork can save it.

300: Rise of an Empire and Need for Speed are in cinemas now.

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Well folks, as they say in the business, that’s a wrap.

The Victoria Film Festival came to a close for its 20th year of operation this Sunday, and out of Victoria’s cinemas stumbled a zombie-like hoard of bleary eyed movie fanatics in desperate need of sleep, fresh air and food prepared in ways aside from popped.

I know. I was among them.

I have to say, in all honesty, this was a fantastic year for the festival. There were amazing guests, an impressive number and variety of films of mostly high quality and a general ambiance of real cinematic love. I had a great time.

And so did others, it seems, with a truly impressive number of sold out screenings and a general hubbub in the air around the whole thing. The Odeon was alive with lineups of folks from all walks of life talking about the last film they saw and waiting to see the next.

Wonderful.

In total I saw 19 movies, which could be seen as bragging if it also wasn’t kind of sad.

I’m not going to get into all of the films I saw since the first weekend but I would like to point out a few notables.

Out of the final batch of films I saw, I have a couple of favourites.

The first is a film I loved for the simple pleasure of it. We tend to see a lot of heavy material during a film festival, so it was a welcome respite to merely laugh my way through a lovely little Irish film called The Stag.

The Stag is about just what you think it would be about: a stag. Five Irishmen head into the woods and hills for a weekend hiking trip to celebrate the upcoming marriage of one of the group. Everything is set to go splendidly until something goes wrong: The bride’s brother, named The Machine, shows up. Nothing will be the same.

Again, the film is a simple, light comedy, but genuinely funny and, at times, sweet, and wonderful proof that a movie can be progressive, reasonably clean, and still be a riot.

Another favourite of the festival was the last film I saw, Vic and Flo Saw a Bear. This is a weird one, no question, which starts off as your typical indie family drama, full of natural scenery and stifled conversations, but ends up veering wildly off into areas touching on horror and revenge exploitation.

I had to shake my head as I left the cinema and heard a group of about eight older folks complaining about what a terrible movie they had just seen. They hated it. They were reveling in their mutual hatred. But their main criticism seemed to be “well THAT was different.” Which, and forgive me if I’m way off, sounds like a good thing to me, especially at a film festival.

It made me angry to see them all tearing “one” on their voting ballots, because we don’t want to discourage the festival from bringing in demented little films like this.

It’s very uniqueness is what made the film so enjoyable, and, again, especially in the middle of a film festival, where it’s not hard to fill your boots with straight laced indie dramas, even if some of them are excellent. Vic and Flo doesn’t go for that though. It goes midnight movie on us, delighting one (perhaps twisted) half of the audience while obviously alienating the other.

I was a firm member of the former group, and for those who think they would be too, Vic and Flo Saw a Bear is a film to look out for.

That’s not to saw a “weird” movie can’t go too far.

I had A Field in England pegged as one of my more anticipated films of the festival, a decision I regret now having seen it. In retrospect I should have seen this coming, as I based my anticipation on the only other film I have seen from director Ben Wheatley, Kill List, a movie with a lot of interesting things going on in it but which ultimately left me frustrated as a viewer.

But I saw a lot of potential in Wheatley as a director, based on his visual prowess, and hoped his output would improve with time.

Sadly, I was more than disappointed. A Field in England is a shallow mess of a film with very little to say it seems and with little point other than to broadcast psychedelic, albeit masterfully edited, sequences of utter visceral vomit. It has all the subtlety of a laser light show.

I knew as soon as the main characters started taking magic mushrooms, initiating a drug trip sequence, this was not the film for me. While I admire much of what Wheatley achieves visually, he offers little to back it up as being anything beyond purely self-indulgent directorial flourishes.

And it just got worse. Story and characters are minimal, and the films seems to have no particular point to make, that I could decipher. Just trippy visuals and drug sequences. And lots of violence and bodily functions.

I did enjoy much of the dialogue, written by Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump.

Look, I love a highly visual film with a strong directorial presence, but only when it’s for a purpose beyond merely indulging in what the director deems as looking cool. What are his viewers supposed to get out of this? It seems to me Wheatley isn’t overly concerned.

Ultimately it’s a personal thing. If I identified with Wheatley’s style, I would probably like his films a lot more. If Nicolas Winding Refn, another highly visual director, made it I would probably find a lot more to like in the movie because I appreciate his style (although Only God Forgives was unforgivably self-indulgent as well). You could even argue that I didn’t like A Field in England for the same reason the old folks didn’t like Vic and Flo Saw a Bear. It was too different.

But I don’t buy that. I like different, if it’s for a good reason, if it has something interesting to say or do. Endless drug trip sequences couldn’t be more redundant. Drugs are weird. Got it.

Obviously, I simply don’t connect with Wheatley as a filmmaker. I find him pessimistic and his movies ugly and pointless.

My other big disappointment of the festival was the documentary Nicky’s Family, about an Englishman who helped to save hundreds of Czech children from the scourge of the Nazis at the outbreak of the Second World War.

What was so frustrating about the film is how such a great story is ruined by truly heavy handed and embarrassingly amateurish filmmaking. I mean really, the movie looked like a Canadian Heritage Moment, or some educational VHS doc we would have watched in elementary school in the early ’90s.

Sepia-toned reenactments, archival footage “enhanced” with sound effects, off-topic meanderings into subjects only remotely related to the subject and a shocking lack of depth from the subject himself, do not make for a good doc.

There’s really no point in going into the ins and outs of what worked or didn’t work in the film, because really the whole thing was flawed from the start. Truly disappointing.

I also wanted to mention who much I ended up enjoying Tide Lines, from local Victoria director Andrew Naysmith, along with Arwen Hunter. This is a doc which works and which manages to find its voice even with a limited budget and some technical challenges, in contrast to Nicky’s Family.

What separates Tide Lines from the environmental documentary genre, which I generally dislike, is it’s just as much about the people as it is the issue. Equally important to the filmmakers is the personal relationships and personalities of the three men who head out to sail the world, surf and investigate the impact plastic use is having on beaches.

That they thought to included the parents and girlfriends of the main subjects really works to the film’s advantage as it draws us in as human beings, not just as concerned citizens worried about environmental degradation. And when you connect on that level, your film is going to work on multiple levels. Tide Lines achieves this and is all the richer for it.

On the whole I had one heck of a good time at the festival, watching some amazing films from around the world and spending time with people who love movies. See you all there next year.

Find me on Twitter @CineFileBlog

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Well after a fabulous, and fabulously busy, opening weekend, the Victoria Film Festival is in full swing as it heads through its 10-day schedule of local and international films, documentaries and narratives, shorts and longs, guest speakers and art installations.

So far it has been a blast.

I’ve managed to catch 10 movies in the first four days of the festival, along with three speaker series presentations and one gala party featuring absinthe. My friends and family are wondering where I am and I’ve forgotten what they look like, but it’s a film festival, you know?

I present here some brief impressions of some of the films I have seen.

The first film I saw is probably thus far my favourite of the festival. I missed the gala screening of the Alan Partridge movie purely because I knew I had to see the one and only screening of Ari Folman’s new film, The Congress.

Folman is the director behind the 2008 animated memoir Waltz With Bashir, which was one hell of a film. He’s back with a part-life action, part-animated, all-captivating dive into the deep end.

This is one of those movies where I wasn’t immediately sure of what I had seen, but I knew it had been something incredible. It’s a movie which really comes with its own cinematic language, nothing in my background of film studies really felt applicable to helping me approach this movie. Which is exciting.

I was asked by someone who hadn’t seen The Congress what it was about. This is not an easy question. It’s about an actress named Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, who, in the twilight of her mostly-failed career, is convinced to sign away, well, herself, as an actor and an image.

She is scanned so the studio can use the young Robin Wright, without the need for the real Robin Wright, in movies for all time. It is her final role.

But that really isn’t what the film is about. It’s also about family, about choices, about age, reality, corporatism, love, totalitarianism, entertainment and technology. At least I think it is. That’s what I got out of it, anyone else may have walked away with a completely different impression.

And that’s the beauty of this film. It’s wildly ambitious in scope, but also comes off as a deeply personal project and one which is, despite its lofty ideas, emotionally available. I didn’t always understand why I was so emotionally involved, but I was, undoubtably.

With beautiful animation, great performances (particularly from Wright and, in one scene in particular, Harvey Keitel) and stunning scope, The Congress is one to watch out for as it is rolled out this year.

Next up was Sarah Prefers to Run, from Quebecois director Chloé Robichaud, a real grounded movie (literally about feet hitting the ground) to follow The Congress with.

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) is a high school track star, who gets accepted to McGill and moves to Montreal to continue her track career. She has little money so agrees to marry her friend and roommate Antoine (Jean-Sebastien Courchesne) to increase bursary eligibility. The arrangement leads to complications as Sarah explores her sexuality and faces a health concern.

It’s a compelling film primarily thanks to the performance of Desmarais, who is stunningly beautiful but manages to pull off a painfully believable portrayal of a shy, uncertain girl who is only sure of one thing: she likes to run.

Unfortunately, as with most things, life gets in the way of this simple desire and by the end of the film we have no idea of what is going to happen to Sarah.

The film is a great character study but I found the end puzzling. After what has so far been a straight-faced film the tone turns shockingly dissonant and fractured, leaving a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth as the credits role. It’s not that the ending is bad in and of itself, it’s just nothing in the film has led to its tone, it feels out of place and dishonest to what has preceded it.

But it’s a small grievance I had with what was otherwise a captivating film, with the highlight being the performance from Desmarais.

After a fascinating speaker series with Atom Egoyan where he spoke of his childhood in Victoria, the beginnings of his obsession with secret lives and a rare screening of parts of his unreleased 2004 documentary on his trip with his wife to her homeland of Lebanon (which were fantastic and Egoyan should release the film), we were treated to a screening of his newest film Devil’s Knot.

The film, about the West Memphis Three murder, is, as Egoyan explained, a look at truth and tragedy and their fickle nature. The title is in reference to a knot which the more you pick at it, the tighter it gets, with suggested similarity to this case, which remains mostly unsolved.

The problem with Devil’s Knot, and unfortunately there is one, perhaps lies in approach. Egoyan shows an intense commitment to the facts of the case, which I admired, with an attention to detail and a procedural approach to the investigation and subsequent trial. What was missing for me was an emotional connection, perhaps corrupted by the film’s choice to treat the movie as an ensemble piece, with no real protagonist through which to enter this world.

Colin Firth is about the closest we come to this, as an investigator working for the defence, but his performance is also cold and calculating and while I understood his obsession, I never became invested with him as a person. Perhaps he wasn’t a cinematic enough character for me, I’m not sure, but something about the performance and the portrayal kept me at a distance.

Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the murdered boys is also meant to establish an emotional connection, and while Witherspoon does her best, she is perhaps asked to do too much with too little, particularly in regards to screen time.

The material has been the subject of four previous documentaries, none of which I have seen. Egoyan said this film is for people like me. Honestly, I walked away feeling I would have got more, or the same thing, out of seeing the docs. It’s a fascinating case and the film often captures that, but in the end it felt more like a calculated exercise in investigative filmmaking, which didn’t make for a good movie.

Our Man in Tehran has the opposite intentions of Devil’s Knot, in that it is a documentary hoping to clear up some of the inaccuracies present in a fictionalized, highly entertaining movie about the Iran hostage crisis.

The film was in the works before Argo, but the filmmakers all but said outright in their speaker series presentation that Argo’s failures were their gains.

The film’s title refers to Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the crisis, whose role in helping Americans attempting to escape the country after their embassy had been taken over is largely glossed over in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning take on the subject.

I was not a huge fan of Argo, partly because I found it entertaining but vapid, and even more so when I realized just how much of it was complete nonsense, historically speaking. Our Man in Tehran is proof that often the true story is the greater one, with the diplomatic and political wheelings and dealings of the crisis just as captivating as a made-up runway chase scene.

As someone born after the crisis, with little knowledge of it beyond ArgoOur Man in Tehran proved to be essential viewing. I learned about the events, felt privy to a compelling look at the roles and rules of diplomacy and came to understand the importance of the crisis to Canada’s international role, to the changing face of warfare and revolution and to the role of journalism, and film itself, in history.

Our Man in Tehran is a straight-laced, clear-headed look at an important event, expertly made and effectively presented. Much better than Argo, let’s put it that way.

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy couldn’t be more different from his first English-language feature and USA breakthrough film Prisoners, which will be a good thing for some, and a baffling disappointment for others. A bizarre little movie, Enemy is a claustrophobic, menacing film which constantly blurs the line between reality, dream and nightmare.

On its surface it’s about a man who discovers his exact doppelgänger in a movie and becomes obsessed with contacting him. But it’s also about identity, sex and spiders. It’s a dark, brooding film, but keeps its pace tight and manages to be fascinating while perplexing. I can’t say I loved it, but it has stuck with me and I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching it.

First time English director Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is a stark narrative feature about misfit youth who get involved in the world of illegal scrap metal dealing. The linear narrative film is full of rich performances and has a devastating outcome, leaving the overall impression of having seen something important to the discussion of the current state of England, the shortcomings of the education system and the importance of family and friendship.

Richie Mehta’s Siddharth is another look at family and hardship in tough economic conditions, but despite the tragedy of its story, is as much about the kindness of community and the human will to keep going.

It’s an emotional film, following a father attempting to find his abducted son in India, but appropriately so. As Mehta, who is attending the festival, explained to me, it is a true story and a real issue in India, where abduction of children is common.

But Mehta wasn’t out to merely capture misery, and the more powerful aspects of the film are found in the kindness of strangers, a wonderful ensemble of characters who help the father on his quest. So many movies would have presented obstacle after obstacle, with menace and indifference at all corners, but Mehta sees the good in people. His film is all the more powerful for it.

Finally, Stranger By the Lake, my Number 1 pick for the festival, proved to be one heck of a movie, though I don’t believe my praise would equal the fever pitch of the European critics.

This homoerotic tale is heavy on the sex and nudity, and also on the intrigue and violence surrounding the investigation into a murder at a popular lakeside cruising spot in France. The entire film is confined to the one location and it plays out as a theatrical Agatha Christie-type thriller, only we know whodunnit and we’ve also seen his penis.

As much an important film to normalize actual gay sex, as opposed to the eunuch type homosexual characters we commonly see on TV and in Hollywood movies, Stranger By the Lake is pornographic in content, if not intent. It’s akin to 9 Songs (2004) in its graphic detail, but, unlike the Winterbottom film, is also affective as pure narrative.

I enjoyed the commitment to the setting, the exploration of the borders of the beach and woods, the connections found and lost of the characters which inhabit the various areas. Sex, love and the desperate longing for connection motivate these characters, influencing them to commit or ignore horrible acts. It’s a boiled down microcosm of human interaction.

It’s not a political film but a personal one, where the homosexuality of the characters is treated as commonplace as the heterosexuality of characters in most movies, helping our connection to the characters be as fellow humans, with the usual flaws and fascinations.

Compelling, erotic and entertaining, Stranger By the Lake will likely be marginalized due to its graphic content, but those who have the chance to see it, should.

So there we are, a far-too-long check in. The festival continues, and so to will my coverage, until Feb. 16. Visit VictoriaFilmFestival.com for showtimes and ticket information. Follow @CineFileBlog on Twitter for ongoing coverage. Hope to see you there.

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That Awkward Moment (2014), directed by Tom Gormican

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), directed by Kenneth Branagh

It’s been a lot of Academy Award catch up lately, along with prep for the Victoria Film Festival, so new release Hollywood movies have somewhat fallen by the wayside for me lately.

So time to catch-up.

January/February is typically a pretty lean time for new flicks, studios have stopped the flow of Oscar contenders and have yet to ramp up into Summer Movie Season mode. That being said, I find there are often gems released this time of year, slightly strange movies studios didn’t really know what to do with.

Not diamonds in the rough, necessarily, but maybe, like, topaz? Or tanzanite?

Unfortunately That Awkward Moment does not fall into this category, unless a movie about emotionally-disabled dude-bros trying to navigate the ins and outs of their unnecessarily complicated lives is your thing.

Bringing hope to the film was the casting of some of todays most promising young actors, including Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Friday Night Lights) and Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Sundance-darling Whiplash). Oh and Zac Efron, who is trying desperately to be taken seriously but still hasn’t proven his worth to me beyond a pretty face.

Alas this does not help the film, which is so very, very flawed

What am I supposed to get out of this? I guess it’s a story about how young men need to mature in order to move forward in life and discover the rewards of a meaningful relationship.

But let’s be honest, only d-bags need to “learn” this.

And that might be judgemental, but honestly, who are these late-20s people who have seemingly zero idea of how a relationship works or how to connect with women as, I don’t know, human beings?

Which brings us to the women in the film. I get this is a film about guys geared towards men, but why do the women have to be so underdeveloped? Daniel (Teller) falls for his friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), a character who is never really introduced, appears to have no backstory, career or life outside of her interactions with Daniel, and does nothing but be cool by liking his emotionally-shallow banter.

And she’s the best of the bunch.

Vera (Jessica Lewis), Mikey’s (Jordan) ex-wife is portrayed as nothing less than awful for cheating on Mikey and then even more awful for not wanting to get back together with him. We are offered little insight into why she feels this way.

And then there’s Jason’s (Efron) sort-of-girlfriend, Ellie, who clearly has no self-respect as she, for the second time, gets back together with him, even though he’s clearly a selfish, pathetic user of people.

My favourite part is the scene in which he realizes he has been selfish and goes to win her back. How? By crashing her book event, interrupting it, and potentially embarrassing her publicly. Because surely her event is trivial and unimportant compared to the feelie feels Jason must tell Ellie RIGHT NOW before they fade and he instead gets hungry or something and forgets.

Skipping her father’s funeral, an unforgivable act in anyone’s book, isn’t bad enough apparently, he has to once again disrupt her life even though she has clearly asked him to stay away.

This only works in the movies, folks. In real life this behaviour would be reprehensible.

And I get that it’s only a movie, and it does have some genuinely funny moments, but ultimately I would have even preferred some dumb dude comedy like The Hangover over a faux-serious mess like this. That Awkward Moment thinks it’s a modern, relevant take on love and young men and is perhaps as self-centred as its pathetic characters. I simply could not have cared less.

More up my alley was the latest Tom Clancy incarnation Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a return to the character previously played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck.

Shadow Recruit is part spy thriller, part action flick, all pretty ridiculous but a lot of fun nonetheless. It’s nothing amazing, but it manages to be a solid action film in an era where more-is-better reigns supreme.

Listen, does the plot make much sense? No. I mean, it sort of does, but I’m sure someone with only the most basic knowledge of international economics could find gaping holes. But do I care? Not really. At least it’s confined to a couple of locations and a finale which really only involves a mid-level explosion, in movie terms.

Even Clancy’s novels are not exactly known for their realism (see this Vulture article) and that never stopped me from soaking them up like a sponge around age 12 (and yes I was a weird child).

While my reception to this film was perhaps less…porous, I still mindlessly enjoyed the heck out of it. The action is tight, reasonably well shot (mid-level shaky cam usage) and not too outrageous, keeping in the spirit of the material. Chris Pine (Star Trek) makes for a decent Ryan, not quite as average-man as Harrison Ford, but certainly less smarmy than his Captain Kirk.

And Kenneth Branagh plays a delightfully smarmy Russian baddie, which I fully approve of. I long for the simple days of the Cold War, when you had a ready, go-to villain. No fuss, no bother.

So there we go, I feel I am slightly more in the loop on new releases. Here’s to the film festival not letting that last.

That Awkward Moment and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are in cinemas now.

I, Frankenstein

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I, Frankenstein (2014), directed Stuart Beattie

When most people think of Frankenstein they picture a lumbering, enormous green monster with bolts coming out of his neck.

Few realize the original monster could speak rather well and enjoyed spending time in the woods reading the Bible and Paradise Lost.

Fewer still ever realized he is a super fit martial arts master named Adam. Who knew?

Well I didn’t. Turns out he’s pretty handy with a pair of metal sticks or something.

Following in the footsteps of the new wave of revisionist historical and literature-based movies (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Hansel & Gretel: With Hunters), I, Frankenstein: Demon Hunter updates the tale of Modern Prometheus, sort of picking up where Mary Shelley’s novel left off, but throwing in demons and God-powered gargoyles into the mix.

And I do mean throwing.

The biggest problem with this, let’s face it, terrible, terrible movie is how slapped together it feels. I could be on board with a Frankenstein 2 type of movie, picking up where the book left off, bringing the monster to modern times and having him engaged in a battle with scientists out to capture him or something. It doesn’t have to be uber-serious for me to like it either. Unlike the book, Frankenstein movies are traditionally nothing if not fun

This film seems to set something like that up and then just says ‘Oh, by the way, there are demons and gargoyles now and they’ve been at war for centuries and it has something to do with God. Deal with it.” This element is explained in about 3.5 seconds, around the three minute mark of the movie and you just have to swallow it and move on.

But why would you want to? There’s simply no reason to. Listen, with a movie like this, with a ludicrous plot, zero character development and a devotion to action set pieces completely devoid of reasonable context, the least a film can do is have a bit of fun. And that’s ultimately what makes I, Frankenstein a bad movie.

It could have been so bad it’s good, but the entire ridiculous affair takes itself so seriously, without anything even remotely resembling humour, it makes it impossible to enjoy. With straight faced lines about gargoyle queens and demonic warfare, all spoken with the drama turned up to 11 by a gravelly, Batman-voiced Aaron Eckhart, the movie is all too intent on being taken seriously.

And that’s simply impossible, so what’s left?

Mid-movie I decided in order to get through it I would have to follow some sort of “if you don’t have anything nice to say” type approach and look for something worthwhile in this mess of a movie.

Here’s what I came up with:

It has great use of colour. Some of the special effects are pretty spectacular, mainly because of the use of colour. The set piece with the dead bodies is kind of cool.

And with that the well of kindness ran dry. Back to shaking my head and laughing, not with the movie, but at it.

Also feeling jittery from the constantly driving, building score which never actually gets anywhere but makes you feel as though you want to run from the theatre to get away from it. Dum-dum-dum dum-dum-dum dum-dum-dum.

And that’s about all there is to say. I, Frankenstein is one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time. Although I already want to see Eckhart’s rooftop finale again. Someone on Twitter the other day was talking about movie titles as the last line of the movie. This has one of the best.

I, Frankenstein is in cinemas now. I beg you not to see it. You’re better than that.

Lone Survivor

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Lone Survivor (2014), directed by Peter Berg

What exactly is the point of Lone Survivor? What are we supposed to take away from it?

This is the question I could not stop mulling over as I left a screening of the new Peter Berg film shocked and shaken, feeling slightly lost and downtrodden.

I certainly hadn’t enjoyed it, I knew that much. There is much in the film to be admired, from the incredible landscapes and cinematography, to Berg’s opening montage from real footage of Navy SEAL training, to the attention to detail and the obvious intention to portrait events as accurately as possible.

The score, from Texan instrumental band Explosions in the Sky, was impressively emotive, reminding me of the best of their work with Berg on his movie and TV series Friday Night Lights, one of my all-time favourites. Berg’s usual flourishes were also enjoyable, he’s one of the few working directors who seems to be able to use handheld camera work effectively.

But none of this helped me to overcome the feeling I was watching something I really didn’t want to watch, for any reason, entertainment, enrichment or otherwise.

The problem with the film is in its focus. It’s essentially two hours of the hell these guys went through. I get the intention to make us realize the hardships and brutal deaths by rubbing our noses in it, but it’s gruelling to watch and in the end does little to make us care more about these characters as people.

There seemed to be a lost opportunity to show the audience who these men, these names on the page, really were, beyond some perfunctory photos of wives back home and some macho boys-being-boys camaraderie before heading out on mission.

The impressive opening montage gave us a brief sense of how these individuals are shaped into a band of brothers and the film could have been better served by much more along this vein, rather than bullet after bullet thwacking through arms and torsos.

Without the character building film played like an episode of Friday Night Lights with only football. And football was never what made that show great.

For another comparison, the film feels like a Passion of the Christ for military worshippers. It’s exhausting watching the soldiers shoot Afghani after Afghani, get shot themselves, fall down cliffs, take shrapnel and, for all but the titular hero, die. Much like Passion, we are expected to feel more for these characters by understanding the pain they experienced.

Maybe it’s because I knew nothing about these events before seeing the movie, but I found the film had the opposite effect. It was hard to watch. I didn’t want to watch anymore. I covered my eyes at one point. And all because I knew so very little about these guys, beyond a couple were married and one was getting married and Ben Foster’s eyes are like glacial lakes I get lost in every closeup he has.

It was sad seeing what happened to them, of course, and it made me shake my head at the pointlessness of war. And that’s fine if it was the point of the movie, but in this case the point seemed to be the characters, the real men who fought and died, and the approach worked against the intent.

It was honestly numbing, an outcome I doubt Berg had in mind. It’s so intense and overwhelming I found it very hard to stay engaged. My mind had to retreat. And I’m not sorry for it, because I never felt the intent was worth the hardship, as it is in a film such as 12 Years a Slave, or something similarly difficult to watch.

I will say I’m glad Berg gave the Afghanis who helped save the US soldier the credit they deserve. So much of the film is an angry Arab people shooting gallery (which is accurate, so it’s OK? I’m not sure), that it was a welcoming relief to see other Arab characters played with humanism and compassion.

Thinking and writing about it now I am still conflicted, because it is so well made and Berg is great at what he does. I appreciate the dedication with which the film was made. But I didn’t enjoy watching it, I don’t feel I am richer for the experience and I have no desire to ever see it again. That’s not a great outcome.

Lone Survivor is in cinemas now.

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Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by the Coen Brothers

The end of the year always ends up being a bit of time for catch-up for me. It’s kind of a strange system really, because the expected time period for a best of the year list always coincides with the release of most of the films likely to be on said list.

So it can be a bit of a scramble. And one you can never really win, because so many of the films other critics, who live in bigger cities with more limited releases and press screenings, list as their favourites films won’t even open to the general public until January.

Sad.

Regardless, I do my best and it always ends up I see a few late-in-the-game list-changers. These two may just prove to be them.

Of all the quiet quirky indie directors finding critical success right now (Jason Reitman, Noah Baumbach) I would likely count Alexander Payne as my favourite. About Schmidt is an underrated gem and a revisit of The Descendants this year once again proved its worth to me.

While I find the style of some of his peers rather cold and detached, I believe Payne uses his somewhat aloof style for good rather than hipster. A love for his characters shines through in his films, even as he presents them in a rather straightforward, un-sentimental way.

Nebraska is up there with his best. It’s funny, touching, interesting, full of great characters, all the things you want out of a quiet indie. In both setting and character it’s a sparse film, its black-and-white cinematography saying so much with so little, much like its main character.

Bruce Dern has been largely forgotten in the world of cinema until this comeback of sorts. Dern has been around forever it seems and had memorable roles in Coming Home and The King of Marvin Gardens in the ‘70s. I know him best as The Detective in Walter Hill’s The Driver, where Dern plays the hell out of a know-it-all cop who doesn’t know much at all.

Anyway, he’s a great actor, with an expressive high gravelly voice and a gaze which can burn through film. In Nebraska he’s an absolute delight to watch. Never sure of just how “with it” Woody is, Dern speaks little but expresses much through intonation, body language, a look. a grunt. Dern, as he often does, makes sure to have some fun with the role.

The tale itself is a road trip, a father/son story, a loving satire of small town American living and more. Never condescending, Payne handles his yokel characters with a Stephen Leacock-level of love and bafflement. This spirit is infectious for a viewer.

Another quiet, infectious film is the Coen Brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a film I admire more every time I think about it.

It’s the tale of a folk singer in the Greenwich Village scene in the ‘60s, before Dylan blew up and folk became mainstream. Davis is a singer devoted to artistic purity but suffering its economic side effects, sleeping on couches and bumming cigarettes.

This is the Coen Brothers in their best mode, as far as I’m concerned, with its closest relative being A Serious Man, another film I admire more as time goes by. Both films surround a character trying to do their best but running into the roadblocks of the world and their own personalities and limitations.

If anything Llewyn Davis is the serious man. There is a sombre tone to the proceedings, driven home by its subdued colours and tear-jerking soundtrack. We are meant to feel sorry for Davis, but we are also asked to understand him, whether we agree with his approach or not.

So many movies in this vein try to raise unworthy characters to sainthood (Frances Ha, Greenberg…Like all the Baumbach jabs I’m getting in these reviews?), whereas the Coens presents Davis as a contradictory man, allowing nuance to be the entire point.

With Davis, an opinion of the character is never shoved down the viewer’s throat and I don’t believe we’re ever asked to love him more than we want. He is in many ways unloveable, which, to me, makes him, and the film, even more endearing. Maybe I’m weird.

It’s also a warm and typically funny movie from the Coens. Few directors have such a lovingly baffled view of the world and, much like Payne in Nebraska, they find joy in pointing out and celebrating the odd intricacies and foibles of humans and society, while recognizing the absurdities. It’s satire to a degree, but with much more patience.

Inside Llewyn Davis is amongst the Coen Bros’ best and among the year’s best too. But that’s a subject for my next post… Tune in around this time next week.

Both Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis are in cinemas now.

American Hustle

Out of the Furnace (2013), directed by Scott Cooper

American Hustle (2013), directed by David O. Russell

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Double-Shot Review (or a review at all, really. My apologies.) but I’ve recently been inspired by a couple of films featuring the occasionally-great Welsh actor Christian Bale (Reign of Fire).

They’re two films which really have a lot to say about what it means to be American, so I find it ironic having a Welshman in there, but maybe that’s just me.

Out of the Furnace is the type of film I find extremely frustrating to watch because all the elements are there for what could be a really whiz-bang, gritty revenge film, as the trailer made it seem like it would be, but it all simply goes to waste.

First you have a great cast of rough and tumble character actors with some meaty roles. Just tell me you have a film starring Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard and Woody Harrelson in which a steel mill and illegal boxing figures heavily and I’ll gladly wait in line opening night.

Which brings me to the subject matter. Some people, David Edelstein for one, don’t have the same affinity for dark movies about small-town violence bathed in Southern gothic themes as I do. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a mill town, maybe it’s because I watched Five Easy Pieces too many times as a teenager, I don’t know. All I know is you give some actors a Southern accent, throw them a few guns and tell them to argue about meth and, again, waiting in line.

Some call it “poverty porn.” It may be. There’s certainly nothing truly glamorous about welfare and substance abuse. But isn’t all cinema exploitation? At least most of these style of films genuinely want you to care about their characters.

But I digress.

My point is that even with all of these ducks in a row, Out of the Furnace still manages to be an absolute bore.

It’s got a good setup, with Bale’s brother (Affleck) back from Iraq and getting mixed
up in the wrong crowd as he deals with some mid-level PTSD. You know he’s going to get in trouble and Bale’s going to have to bail (eh?) him out. We know the main baddy, played by Woody Harrelson, is a psychopath from the prologue, and the movie poster tells us Bale is going to be holding a rifle at some point, so it seems all good.

And then the movie starts in with this rambling, meaningless cross-scene of Bale hunting and Affleck boxing, and Bale going to jail for no apparent reason in terms of plot arch, and then when you think the movie is finally getting to the climactic violence it puts on the brakes and heads for home, and then when it does hit its peak it involves a lot of walking and talking in a field etc.

I get that the director is trying for something more here but, son, when you have the elements in place and the eye for a gritty 1970s-style revenge film, you go for it. The Deer Hunter is an obvious inspiration here, but The Deer Hunter this film is not, and a lot of people even look back on that nearly-forgotten film as a rambling mess. (I love it, for the record.)

Get the brother killed, put a rifle in Bale’s hands and let’s go get us some meth heads. Because even with the moody ramblings, that’s exactly what this movie still ends up doing. So why not have some fun with it?

Far less frustrating is American Hustle, which in terms of setup and execution is the complete opposite of Out of the Furnace. With Furnace we have a film with a few strong basic elements which it stretches out and completely fumbles. With Hustle we have a film with so many elements in play only a truly impressive directorial touch manages to spin them into a solid, legible and highly entertaining movie.

This partially-true (“Some of this is true” reads the screen before the film) take on the Abscam bust on the late-1970s is a dense film. It has, ostensibly, four main characters, a notably complicated conman plot, fast dialogue, complicated personalities and at any time seemingly dozens of things going on all at once.

And yet Russell manages to make it all work.

What he’s doing here is going for the Scorsese approach. (We’ll see who does it better when The Wolf of Wall Street comes out on Christmas.) While watching American Hustle kind of made me miss the magnificent cohesion Scorsese manages in an incredibly complicated film like GoodFellas, Russell almost hits that same swirling high.

Like Scorsese, Russell brings out all the tricks: swooping camera movements, an attention to detail for the period of the film, gaudy costumes, rockin’ soundtrack, quick cuts, fast talking. He’s good with them too and American Hustle captures that wonderful combination of dizzying and captivating.

While GoodFellas was clearly about the temptation and ultimate trappings of a life of crime to a low-level nobody, American Hustle is pretty much about just a bunch of absolute morons, let’s be honest.

Which may be the point in and of itself. The film seems to be asking who isn’t a conman? We get actual conman Irving, played by Bale, but we also get the FBI, politicians, the mafia and regular ole people, with everyone lying to everyone else, not to mention themselves.

I don’t know if any of it comes together for any sort of profound point, but it is a scathing peek at the pathetic trappings of modern America.

More than it is important though, American Hustle is entertaining. It’s shockingly funny and full of wonderfully energetic performances, particularly from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, reunited with Russell after Silver Linings Playbook. The film races along with an invigorating pace. It has a kick ass soundtrack.

And so, so much side-boob, if you go in for that sort of thing. I know that sound juvenile, but just watch the film. It’s all I heard anyone talking about after it let out.

It falls into a few traps, including some painfully unnecessary narration and occasional meandering, but in general American Hustle is, like all movies, a great con. I doubt it will crack my Best of 2013 list, but it wouldn’t be far behind.

Sorry I didn’t really have much so say about Bale, despite the lede. I get distracted. You know, side-boob.

Out of the Furnace and American Hustle are in cinemas now.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), directed by Francis Lawrence

For all the contact I’ve had with The Hunger Games and how much it seems I liked the first movie, going by my review, I have a hard time getting excited about it. Maybe it’s because I’m getting tired of hearing it. Maybe it’s because I only thought the books were pretty good and not much more in the first place. Whatever it is, I wasn’t exactly shaking in anticipation to see Catching Fire.

Which might piss some people off, seeing as I ended up getting to see it before the damn thing even opened. Sorry, Hungerers. Or is it Hunghards? That just sounds wrong. Someone work on this and get back to me.

So, Catching Fire, part two of the saga. Here we go.

Not much has changed since the first go round, despite Katniss and Peeta pulling off a surprise underdog win at the Coke-a-Cola Presents the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Sure, they have nicer homes and are less likely to starve, but just outside the gates of their drab new subdivision is the same old drab mining town with people in drab clothes, moving about like worn out old drab coal miners.

It’s like England, basically. Right?

People have been talking about how hard it is to pull off a good middle series of a trilogy, but I’m not sure that’s true. For that argument is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Iron Man 2 and Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (very disappointing). On the other hand you have The Empire Strikes Back, The Bourne Supremacy and Police Academy 2: The First Assignment.

By my count it’s about 50/50.

Well worry no longer folks because Catching Fire officially belongs in the latter category. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say it’s better than the first film. GASP. I know.

The main difference surely must be the change in directors. While Gary Ross brought some pedigree to the job (it’s a Seabiscuit joke), his initial outing turned out rather mediocre, without much in the way of deep emotions or even tense excitement. And he insisted on a near constant use of that damn shaky cam technique that’s all the rage right now.

Francise Lawrence isn’t exactly God’s gift to Hollywood (although I did rather like I Am Legend) he seems to be a good fit here, with a skilled sense of pace and production. He also seems to own a good tripod, which probably got him the job.

Catching Fire is a tough cookie because in some ways it’s kind of more of the same from the first film, and that does slow it down a tad. But the fact it does the first film better than the first film did makes it worth your while. Just like Rocky 2 (howzat?), I enjoyed watching how these character’s are functioning after the fame of the games and Katniss’ struggle with wanting to run away but finding herself the up and coming leader of a revolution.

Jennifer Lawrence handles Katniss really well in this sequel, and I really think it’s in this film she fully inhabits the role. There’s a bit more to grip on to here, with this inner struggle becoming even more tearing and a lovely amount of conflict with a great number of people. Everyone wants a piece of Katniss and she doesn’t know who to go with.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also added to the mix, at his mischievous mumbling best. I liked him, and he helped an old indie film fan like myself find an entrance point into this tween world.

Despite my enjoyment of this film, I still think the series as a whole is slight. I still groan at the thought of having the third book broken up into two movies spread out over two years. While I see the appeal, I have the unfortunate vantage point of experience. I grew up with other distopian futures (Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Death Race 2000) and already know the dangers of fictional totalitarian rule.

This isn’t to say I’m above it all. I’m not. I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire. But I’m not losing my head over it. For those who are though, this should hit the spot.

May the odds forever be in your flavour. I like chocolate peanut butter.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens today in cinemas.

Halloween II

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Halloween II (1981), directed by Rick Rosenthal

Halloween II is kind of an oddball movie, because it has every right to be good, but manages to be absolutely, unequivocally dull.

I say it’s odd because there are not too many sequels which pick up exactly where the original film ended. Halloween II goes so far as to even back track a tad, and then continue on with the exact same Oct. 31 night in Haddonfield we have already become familiar with.

So, being a more-than-direct sequel from the first movie, it seems to have much potential, seeing as the first is one of the best slasher films ever made.

Yet it’s sort of mind bogglingly boring.

I have a few ideas as to why.

First off, the obvious: John Carpenter didn’t direct it. He wrote it, along with Debra Hill, just like the first film, but said he wasn’t interested in directing the same movie twice. Fair enough.

While he still has a hand in the film, Halloween II is really a testament to the talent Carpenter has behind the camera. Some of the best moments in Halloween come from the little flares Carpenter’s style adds to the movie: holding the shot of Myers watching Laurie walk down the street for an intentionally long time; his use of light, especially in the closet scene; his use of foreground.

While Rosenthal takes some cues from Carpenter, notably the 1st person Myers shots, his film just doesn’t have the flair, the attention to detail, the atmosphere of its predecessor. It feels rushed and perfunctory. The obvious joy Carpenter lavished on his original is not there.

Another reason it didn’t work for me is it doesn’t have the buildup which is so essential to a good horror film. While the original Halloween is a slasher, it’s also just a great suspense movie, precisely because of the buildup to the violence and mayhem of the last half hour.

The sequel kicks off in high gear and never really lets up. It does slow down and the build up to the ultimate pay off in the hospital, which is perhaps the best part of the movie, but by that time any chance of setting us up to knock us down is long past. We have seen The Shape, we know what he’s capable of, all we can do at that point is wait for him to do it some more.

There are other obvious reasons, such as the old Jaws/Alien argument of what you can’t see is scarier than what you can. Also the added blood and gore does make the sequel more of a classic slasher than the first film, and while I love a good slasher, the atmosphere of the Halloween films lends itself better to suspense than pure bloodletting.

Another thing, knowing Myers is indestructible really takes away from his scariness, or at least from the movie’s ability to get you worked up over whether or not the hero is going to be able to take this guy out. And also maybe it’s just me. The idea of a normal old human being as an emotionless killer of pure evil hits deeper than when you start throwing occult stuff into the mix.

Okay, that being said, what works? Well, some of the slasher moments are great set pieces on their own. When Myers puts his arm around the woman in the sauna, oh man. And the end explosion and its lead up with Loomis and Laurie trying to get out of the room as it fills with ether and oxygen is pretty epic.

But beyond that, I couldn’t help but find myself getting bored.

The first Halloween, which I rewatched last night, is a classic horror film, one of the greatest, because all of the elements work just right. It has a great, senseless, frightening villain, it has a perfect buildup, the quintessential music, the right balance of suspense and violence, and a few of those gasp-inducing moments to take the whole affair to the next level.

Halloween II never even has the chance to find that balance, so it’s not entirely to blame for its inferiority. Nonetheless, even as a standalone film, it’s a bore which gets bogged down in its own desire to be violent and non-stop.

Maybe if you marathoned the two films the second part would work better. But I doubt it.

So that’s it for another year of Horror Pledge. Boy will my girlfriend be happy. She can’t watch horror movies, so I’ve been holed up by myself for this. I didn’t get a chance to write about them all (I also watched Bubba Ho Tep, Slumber Party Massacre, Jennifer’s Body and the new Carrie), but I did find a couple of gems, namely The Burning and Candyman.

Until next October folks, stay spooky!

Halloween II is available on home video.