Lights Out (2016)

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Eerie in places, down to most part it being a movie using a neat premise and a fear most people can identify and/or have been through. So, being scared of the dark and it’s terrors sat in a dark cinema makes for great harmony. Luckily no monsters stalked the screen letting me take in a so-so paranormal flick.

Young lad Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is getting little to no sleep and is concerned with his mum Sophie’s (Maria Bello) ‘friend’. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), the older sister begins caring for Martin as she looks into who this shadowy Diana is. It becomes clear that the sinister presence acts in the dark unable to function in the light, perhaps the only saviour they have as Diana attacks the family.

Based on a 2013 short bearing the same name, also directed by David F. Sandberg, this as mentioned utilises on a simple phobia a lot of folk have – being afraid of the dark. From that point alone this movie is onto a winner, it just has to ensure it keeps that unnerving feeling alive and for the larger percentage it does so.

Sandberg knows just how to present his horror movie monster; Diana is tall, glaring eyes and spindly fingers but apart from that we rarely see much more which is great for us as the audience to build up apprehension and imagination of how bad she can be. The moments themselves where she appears and disappears as lights flick on and off are never tiresome, in fact they keep the movie stylish, inventive enough and hair-raising.

The only sour factors of the movie is surprisingly the threat never heightens. I never felt scared for any of the characters, not even Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret, who is introduced and written in a good way. The story isn’t thin but the fear for the figures involves is. Which is why there’s hardly any death in this movie because everyone seems to cope with the evil of Diana’s dingy destruction. She should be able to win easily though, I mean she can control the lights so why is she having such a hard time?

Cliche and convenience of handy black light aside, the plot is engaging enough to see you through the very short hour and twenty minute film. Rebecca and Bret have a nice thought out relationship with time even for a convincing living arrangement conversation near the beginning, Martin is the typical scared kid but wants to fight back in the way of looking after his mother and Sophie is on a slippery slope of nerves, depression and her narrative comes to a perfectly dark conclusion.

Teresa Palmer pulls a dramatic and brilliant performance out of the bag of horror tricks. She’s strong willed but not too strong that it’s ridiculous and her chemistry with Alexander DiPersia is grand. Maria Bello acts very off, shaky and emotional which of course works very well for her character’s state of mind. Gabriel Bateman is an okay child actor, some of his scowls feeling overly forced but on the whole he’s a believable presence.

Another addition to the horror genre of silly jump scares where the music/sound provides the bolt upright moment but a mildly nerve-rattling and effective trip into the dark nonetheless.

6/10

The Lobster (2015)

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Oh yes! Finally I’ve seen this film and it is just as weird yet beautifully affecting as I expected it might have been. It may not be to everyone’s taste but the premise is unique, the execution is special and different, altogether leaving a product not like most others which is rare and welcome thing.

David (Colin Farrell) is taken to a hotel for singletons. Here he and others have 45 days to find love or be turned into an animal of their choosing. If they find someone they’re moved into double suites and yachts if not there is the chance of gaining more time by hunting Loners in the woods. David struggles but finds himself with a leader (Lea Seydoux) and tries forming a relationship with a fellow short sighted person (Rachel Weisz).

I love the idea for starters, it instantly helps make this film stand apart. Just the blase way that the matter is talked about from the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) delivers the notion of what can happen and sets up the absurd nature of the world we’re stepping into. The characters are very one-note in the way they speak yet never dull or paper thin, they have characteristics and backgrounds which are just manifested through awkward conversations. This is one example of the strange humour that runs through the film.

Yorgos Lanthimos co-writes and directs this and like the similarly strange ‘Dogtooth’ there’s a haunting wonder to be seen but an unshakeable threat presented. This one isn’t as severe of course but it’s still got the same social commentary involved, this time around the nature of being alone or not. That pressure of connection is even felt during a trip to a shopping centre where people are questioned for being by themselves. Lanthimos ensures there’s a great originality to his work and you cannot help but get hooked.

There’s darkness in places involving the fate of a dog, a biscuit woman and the very ending itself is squeamish for me at least…it’s also well placed and leaves us on a sombre yet necessary point. Visual splendour can be found in the shots of the outside world, the plot of becoming animals is seen numerous times as we see either flamingos or a camel wandering in the forest.

This movie does have a bleakness to it but it works, you somehow stay on side with the incredibly worrying David, perhaps being the only one given a name helps that connectivity somewhat. The entire product is set up well, the hotel first act, the foresty second and the less agreeable third act still works in the overall arc of David’s quest for love. The only reason I mention the last act in that way is because it begins slightly losing sharpness and lulls a little too.

Farrell is great as David, the way he seems forever shifting and unsure of what’s going on, he says the dialogue really well helping present his character as the awkward man he is, an example is as he tries cleverly exchanging pleasantries with John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man. Rachel Weisz gives an interesting and comedic narration until we finally meet her and I love the weird unspoken communication she and Farrell create together. Lea Seydoux gets an authoritative role yet doesn’t heighten her power, still feeling as reservedly odd like the others. Ben Whishaw provides a solid limp and shows a good amount of humour in his awkward speeches, similarly felt with Jessica Barden who efficiently talks about washing out blood in a hurried yet knowledgeably funny way.

The whole movie has a dead-pan quality and backed by a fantastic willing cast, the writing of Lanthimos lands with an effectively bizarre, beautiful and interesting smack.

7.5/10

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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I don’t want to write about this movie, it had some promising moments, a few nice laughs but by the end of it all, everything has moped along to such a dreary and try-hard artsy encompassing view of the world, that it’s actually the opposite and rather a soulless and absurd product.

Coming home with a pet dog is Danny (Tracy Letts) who hopes the sausage dog will help their son’s progress. After a granola induced accident, Wiener-Dog is taken to the vets where veterinarian Dawn (Greta Gerwig) smuggles him away. She goes on a trip with Brandon (Kieran Culkin) and soon the pooch is into story number 3 with film school teacher Dave (Danny DeVito) before finding himself with the elderly Nana (Ellen Burstyn) who gets a visit from her granddaughter.

So, to start with the positives, of which there are just a small amount. Story #1 with the family trio has some funny points, for example the mother making up numerous stories about dogs, pregnancies and cremation to her son. Um…I guess the odd intermission starring the pup strolling in front of backdrops whilst music plays was quite strangely funny. Story #3 starts with a hope of the most interest, a New York based film school, comments on students, screenwriting and the industry are scripted well but then it’s over with a dog wearing a yellow dress and something else…which I won’t spoil for you if you do happen to waste your time seeing it.

What this movie and director Todd Solondz does frequently is take something either brimming with humour or life important and drag it out to an inch of it’s life so it’s neither funny or affirming anymore. Either that or he twists it so much with a weirdly wired black sense of comedy that you question what this movie is even trying to do or say. A case in point comes after Miss Wiener-Dog gets explosive diarrhoea which is amusing at the start but then a long tracking shot over pools of the liquid swiftly loses that initial comedic spark.

Another reason, for me at least why this film didn’t sit well is because there’s no connection. Aside from the first 2 stories, the characters don’t feel in any strong way linked. Solondz is probably making a statement that they’re connected by loss, despair or some other dejected emotion but we just skip from one short movie tale to another thanks to the dog and that’s that. Also, after watching the whole feature, there feels like there’s been absolutely zero point to any of what’s happened. It’s eccentric yet empty and the conclusion of the dog’s journey is cause of great and distasteful alarm.

Danny DeVito plays the grumbling professor well, his long time placement as a teacher wearing on his face as he hopes to get a new screenplay green-lit but knowing it’s never likely to happen is always felt as DeVito shuffles through his portion. Greta Gerwig gladly brings an element of sunshine into the world of the movie but is still quite muted on a random trip she takes with the similarly shuffling and muted Kieran Culkin. Ellen Burstyn and Zosia Mamet share a scene that has a more emotional and awkward family aura about it but by this point I felt void of interest like the movie feels void of direction.

I can safely say this is a film I will hopefully forget and never recommend but for fans of Todd Solondz’s work then this may be a movie you’ll enjoy, if that’s the word to use…which it isn’t.

4.5/10

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

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I fully expected this movie to follow in the bad leagues of the other Efron starring movies that have been released in 2016. Gladly ‘Bad Neighbours 2’ and ‘Dirty Grandpa’ this is not, of course there’s still some crass goings on and a general dumb vibe but the movie made me laugh more than a few times and a shining piece of heart does almost come through too.

Multiple family event offenders of ruin, Dave (Zac Efron) and Mike Stangle (Adam DeVine) are told by parents and little sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard) they need to clean up their partying ways and invite nice girls to Jeanie’s wedding to prevent any disasters on her big day. After posting an online ad, the brothers are inundated with responses which include self absorbed bad girls Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) who pretend to be smart ladies to gain a vacation to Hawaii for the wedding.

This is definitely one of those comedy movies where you can tell a lot of the lines are ad-libbed but thankfully it works here. The moments where dialogue feels less scripted helps give it a fresher humour. It helps that the film is in capable hands from the cast who have done and know comedy, leading them down a confident track of coming up with well timed quips, the funny outtakes in the credits is a great example of the many choices of lines the director had on his plate to work with.

A long but admittedly brilliant exchange of whispered words and one sided sexual arousal in a hotel hallway is a stand out scene, this is down to the chemistry between Plaza and DeVine. I believe the main reason this wedding comedy movie hits better than anticipated is because of the chemistry within the cast. There’s a frankly odd yet amusing massage scene, the sibling rivalry comes to a great head and fireworks literally explode after an ill-thought through song and dance performance.

Some smuttier scenes don’t land as well though, a steam room encounter to gain Rihanna tickets is slightly off, a moment where characters take ecstasy isn’t as funny as it may have been and amongst a hell of a lot of cursing is the obvious amount of sexual referencing and frat boy humour you get with this type of American movie. It’s nowhere near as childish and vulgar as ‘Dirty Grandpa’ and it’s certainly not as horribly rude either, in fact the wedding genre is a hugely bankable one and this film fits into the fold nicely with elements of love and big day jitters stopping the whole thing being boobs and bad language.

It’s the cast that save the day, the script has some funny enough ideas but they’re elevated by a capable set of actors that charm the pants/knickers off this feature. Adam DeVine pretty much steals the show, his level of gurning and shrieking amounting to a huge percentage of the laughs. Aubrey Plaza plays the dirty mean girl well, but showcases a hilarious switch when portraying a perfect educated teacher with glasses and a chewed pencil to boot. Anna Kendrick has an element of damaged jilted behaviour and is rude in places but she’s ultimately the sweet good girl and her chemistry with the nicer bro Zac Efron is believable. He must have a signed Hollywood agreement now to take off his shirt in every release, but topless-ness aside he is good bouncing off energetic DeVine and clawing back dignity after his two recent turkeys.

Nothing here rocks the boat or breaks the mould but it’s a funny addition to the comedy wedding line up and thanks to a brilliant cast, the teen humour gets a boneheaded yet fun ride.

6/10

Nerve (2016)

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This blue-y purple-y filled adrenaline shot of breaking rules and playing high stakes is a giddy watch, not always brilliant but satisfying and fun enough to never get bored or restless.

Single and unadventurous Venus aka Vee (Emma Roberts) is having a hard time with a university application and a boy she likes. Vee’s friend Sydney (Emily Meade) however is daring and popular online thanks to a reality mobile game that challenges players to dares for cash prizes. Vee steps up and joins the game and after joining with stranger and fellow player Ian (Dave Franco), the dares get bigger and ‘Nerve’ becomes dangerous.

Directed by Henry Jost and Ariel Schulman, co-workers from Catfish and Paranormal Activity, means it’s safe to say that this neon coloured movie has a degree of surveillance horror to it. Nothing jump scary or other-worldly but definitely alarmingly voyeuristic and technologically tense. I believe it’s not even that tense either, some places are but why I say it’s tense is because of the worrying reliance on phones and trying to keep up with the crowd that’s so real and is played upon in the film.

Like the trailer, the first two thirds are energetic, slightly funny and thrilling before subverting into a murkier horror-esque vibe. For me, that’s what annoyed me about the trailer but at least with the movie itself, the last act even with it’s quick ridding of fellow players from failing or bailing, doesn’t stride too far into the horror zone I thought it would. It’s rather interesting to be honest as we see the true side of the game come into effect. In fact, that previously mentioned energy does wonders for a film that is admittedly quite adolescent and flawed.

The notion of the game itself is quite cool but becomes a teeny bit messy in places as the movie takes us on a journey in how easily Vee jumps up the viewers ratings. Also, the intro says keep the game secret yet everyone seems to know about it and the last scene features a stadium filled with people which surely officials or cops would have seen going on. That’s just me maybe but it did bug me at times, even if the bright blue sharpness they gift New York is a welcome buzz. Oh and the use of the dark web, an obvious shoot-out scenario and teen boppy romance is a little cliche but hey, there’s fun visual flair throughout the film for distractions to that!

Emma Roberts is perfect for this role, though she can do catty very well, it’s nice to see her as the shy girl and watch her blossom into a ‘Venus’ flytrap of thrill-seeking potential. She brings a whole load of charisma to the part and it ignites well with Dave Franco; who is also fun yet mysterious as the knowledgeable and brave guy to fit into the puzzle. Emily Meade plays a wild child, loose of inhibitions and confident with looks, she’s the perfect opposite to Roberts’ Vee and gets a fun role with an element of bitchiness, fear and friendship to cycle through.

The Big Apple is the best possible place for this wild, tech filled game of dare. Roberts and Franco fill it with confidence and though there are problems and the ending is sub-par, the rest is so fun that you nearly don’t care.

7/10

The Shallows (2016)

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Once again, it’s time to not go into the water. Move aside Bruce from ‘Jaws’ because this big guy seems to be peeved and stalking shallow waters making life difficult for a holidaying Texan. The threat keeps at a unnerving high for the most part if not sadly dissipating during the last act.

Medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) is travelling to a secret beach where her mother once sat pregnant with her. She’s there to surf but soon the water becomes a dangerous place as a blood-thirsty great white shark circles the shallows. There’s only a buoy or mass of rocks for Nancy to survive on and the waiting game grows worryingly tense.

After glimpsing a Spielberg like opening that establishes the setting and menace to come, we meet young American Nancy who had hoped to spend a beach day with her friend but now gets some alone time after the mate bails. She’s a fine enough character, enough in the sense that you like her and do root for her which is all a survival thriller film can ask for.

Jaume Collet-Serra uses his mix of horror and thriller directing background well to give this movie enough suspense and bone-rattling unease as we sit waiting for the inevitable beast to strike. Sharks get a bad rep, none truly seek killing humans as a sport so we know this predator is bad news when it actively hunts down surfers for food and that means poor central lady Nancy is on the menu. Collet-Serra ensures that the majority of the film has a taut feel and the stunning location captured by Flavio Labiano ends up becoming sun drenched yet scary.

It’s an interesting watch, just for the fact alone of watching this capable woman suffer yet attempt to stay strong and smart in a situation most, if not all of us would fail in. That adrenaline of survival is always an entertaining watch because it makes us ask “what if?”, what if I ended up in that problematic scenario and that’s the power of good cinema, to immerse the audience which this film does well.

It’s a gimmick and been done in other ways before, but I quite liked the use of social media pics and video call communication appearing on the screen, like visual bites helping the movie look a little glossy and different before the watery kick of danger sets in. The other characters however small are also interesting enough in how they advance or break apart the hope of Nancy’s survival. Oh and I can’t do this review without mentioning the awesome and somewhat cute sidekick of the summer: Steven Seagull.

On the weaker end of the scale, the final act is messed up by an over use of CGI, from glowing jelly-fish which somehow appear just to help Nancy against the shark, and the shark itself gets seen to much. Like the curse of fake looking Bruce from the classic 1975 feature, this villain becomes an almost laughable vision as it attacks more and more. Also, the end in how stuff is resolved feels way less than solid than everything that came before.

Blake Lively aka piece of meat on some rocks is brilliant in this. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything else so this has made me hope to see her in other projects because as a near solo movie she carries off the plot greatly. The emotion and weakening progression is truly felt as she makes Nancy scrape and bleed through the ringer.

Begins well and has a meaty, tense middle but a lot of lucky moments and a weak ending gives the film a general popcorn, silly feel which is not a bad thing, just I felt the film could have been grittier and better.

6/10

Ruby Sparks (2012)

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Movies about writing always interest me, so maybe I’m biased in saying this is a wonderful, warm and greatly interesting romantic/drama/comedy, but I’ve said it anyway because it’s true. There’s a lovely dose of heart, charm and quirky comedy to satisfy audiences, even if romance isn’t usually your bag…like it isn’t mine.

Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote a hugely successful novel when he was younger but now he struggles to type anything, has no love-life and visits a therapist. An exercise gets him visualising his perfect female who he begins writing about, strangely one day, this girl Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) steps into his home and is real. Calvin now has an apparently perfect relationship but can his creation always be that way?

There’s such joy to be had during this film, I found myself smiling along frequently as I watched the odd yet sparkling pairing deal with their lives. The romance is never sickly sweet and it’s dealt with in a clever and wholly charming way, that’s of course helped by the genuine partnership between Paul and Zoe. From the moment the made up girl comes into the real world, the movie has fun playing with ideas of what this could to do him, her and the people around them.

Zoe Kazan writes such a fantastic screenplay that truly gets into the head space of a writer, that lonely frustrating world and their fixations on characters. So, knowing what we know about Calvin, seeing Ruby manifest makes for a weird yet creative idea that is handled very well. It’s not just comedy in seeing them have fun and watch him play God at times, in fact the darker side of how she’s even there gets used and is quite upsetting as we see the miserable side of the relationship.

A sequence at a typewriter and Ruby facing Calvin is one of the stronger moments, an exploration of power and utilises on the whole writing to life idea in an engaging if not touching manner that may threaten everything. On the weaker side, the pacing is sporadic at times and a brief detour to a hippy-esque commune home feels a bit detached but even the vaguely expected ending isn’t bad, in fact it’s left as we don’t know how things will go on from there so I liked that sweet ambiguity. Oh, and also major points just for the name Ruby Sparks which is a great name for a character.

Dano provides that neurotic sense of unease and lovable worry that we all come to know when watching writer types on screen now! He provides a devastating set of self-indulgence as he thinks about the relationship for him and not both of them, which is played well by the actor. Kazan plays the unknowing dream gal in a sunshine way, her big eyes and infectious smile ensuring she’s someone we love just as much as Calvin does. When Kazan then begins displaying other sadder and confused emotions, it’s mildly comedic but then brilliantly emotional. Chris Messina plays a good character too, the necessary middle man with a guide to help his brother but also play around with what can be done to Ruby.

This is a film I adore, a flirty and dream-like notion that is played cleverly and acted superbly. The line between happiness and heartbreak is never thinner but never better from the writing to the performances. Bliss sparks to life.

8/10