Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Saint (2017) (TV) Review


With the FBI hot on his heels international thief Simon Templar goes about helping a man get his kidnapped daughter back.


Sadly this incarnation of Leslie Charteris The Saint has all the trappings of feeling like a TV pilot made in the 90s despite being made in 2013 (with extra shots filmed in 2015) and left on the shelf until 2017. Even though directed by Hollywood director Simon West (Expendables 2, The Mechanic) it's a shame The Saint wasn't given the same film treatment that was given to The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015) or the budget of the poorly received 1997 film.

For fans Ian Ogilvy returns in a main role but not as Templar and also former Templar Roger Moore cameos. We also have reworked snippets of Edwin Astley's theme pop up. The cast is full of talented movie actors including Eliza Dushku, James Remar and Thomas Kretschmann. With some action littered throughout there's also interestingly flashbacks (an origin-like story of sorts) of Simons youth. With some good one liners Adam Rayner has a good stab at the main role Simon Templar. Rayner has the voice, look and suaveness especially after he loses his beard in the first act but like the whole production feels constrained.

As a TV film or pilot, even with some good actors and talent on board with a budget that appears to be less than an episode of 1980's Miami Vice West just can't pull the rabbit out of the hat. In a TV sea with Lethal Weapon, West World, White Collar to name a few it's watchable but feels clunky when compared to the slickness of TV shows in recent years and lacks the nostalgic charm given its present day setting.

It's a pity that makers didn't make it stand out by placing it in the 1960s original or 70s Return of the Saint time period akin to a Life on Mars or the aforementioned Man from U.N.C.L.E film.

Monday, 17 July 2017

George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017)



In 1968, George A. Romero and co-writer John Russo made a black and white film on a small budget, it became one of the most successful independent films of all-time. It was Night of the Living Dead.

I won't dig up old stories about copyright woes, remakes or go through his career and the like, there are plenty of documentaries, books and websites about his zombie films before zombie films (became let's just say) mainstream, he revolutionised horror creating a whole sub genre of horror. Yes, Romero did make other films and TV shows, but Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead had a personal and lasting impact on me.  Also without Romero there would be no 28 Days Later, Return of the Living Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie Land, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z and certainly no Walking Dead to name a few, heck there'd be no zombie genre. His influence is so wide, it's amazing how much money, flashy big-budget films and shows have been made off his back. 

I digress, so big George - filmmaker, writer and editor, his touch stretched over to the UK in form of a tubed TV and touched a young Esmonde. I don't recall the specific years, a late night showing of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, then at some point Day of the Dead on a VHS. I was hooked to his gore-filled and satirical horrors. He inspired an epidemic of imitators (myself included). In 2010 my own novel Dead Pulse was published (based my 2007 erroneously published short) and without Romero, this tribute pulp would never have existed. While George was busy with his adoring fans I remember talking to his wife Suzanne, she kindly took a copy to give to George, I didn't want to give it to him directly, because I didn't want him to get the impression that I wished him read it (I'd be embarrassed if he ever did, maybe he used it as tinder on a cold Canadian night) but I gave it to her to give to him at a later time out of respect because I wanted him to know what an influence he'd had on my writing and film-making work. "It's debatably not my best one," I'd said. We shared a laugh and had a conversation, Suzanne was every bit as pleasant as George himself saying that he'd be touched and she was every bit sincerer.

People say something like - 'avoid meeting your heroes, you may be disappointed', I've met two of mine and on both occasions they have been everything I hoped, both are now sadly no longer with us. George is one of them. Two years ago I got to spend sometime with George and basically thank him, I can truly say that and I was not disappointed, as well as a great talent he was a kind and gentle giant, full of humour, modest to the core and a down to earth gentleman. My thoughts are with his wife and family.

He a left behind a terrific legacy to be enjoyed. He will be missed.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Madam in Black (2017) aka Svarta Madam Review

The spirit of a witch reeks havoc on two siblings and their partners when she is summoned to their cottage. 

As the genre is close to my heart I couldn't pass an opportunity to view Sweden's filmmaker Jarno Lee Vinsencius latest offering Svarta Madam. Opening with a creepy exposition card harking back to the good old days of horror we're treated to glimpse of a 1633 burning at the stake. Moving forward to 1995 oozing atmosphere as two children, Emma and Alex, go about summoning a spirit (unavoidably echoing Bernard Rose's Candy Man and the Bloody Mary legend) it then jumps to 22 years later at a birthday dinner where the siblings are reunited with their grandmother's mirror. Director, writer Vinsencius packs every frame of The Madame in Black with a flavour of eerie ambiance. With a few jump scares courteous of an injection of effective sound design and music he then amps up the horror suspense with creaky floor boards, disembodied whispers and shrieks in the dark.

As the body count increases even with severed fingers, dreams within dreams, the script rings true, adding some much needed credibility to the underdog genre. It contains all the creepy staples of a good horror, even floating camera work in a forest reminiscent of Evil Dead but like the recent Spanish horror revival this is also fittingly played straight with an on location backdrop enhanced with naturalist lighting. The cast are on fine form, as with Vinsencius' Darkness Falls this offering benefits from some strong performances courtesy of Ida Gyllenstan and the notable Demis Tzivis. 

The moonlit night is seemingly CGI free and the makeup effects by Ellinor Rosander are used sparingly. When Madame in Black appears it encompasses all the best of practical horrors, a simple effective shrouded figure (also played by Rosander) channelling Exorcist III. But where Vinsencius excels is in his cinematography, creating a cinematic feel, even throwing in some aerial shots that put DTV horror and some bigger budget films with longer running times to shame. It's clear that Vinsencius gives 110% to his craft and there's no wonder why this Swedish chiller has won handfuls of awards. 

This is a must see short horror film, watch with the sound up and the lights off.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Drive (2011) Review

Drive Movie Poster*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Driver is a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. Thing go awry when a new acquaintance is drawn into one last job.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn offers a stylish, moody film with substance based on James Sallis novel. Drive has subtlety and great acting performances to match, it's a simply must see crime drama. Hossein Amini dialogue carries weight, with a few twists and turns, the locations ooze atmosphere and the music and Cliff Martinez score add to the nighttime atmospherics.

Ryan Gosling's Driver with an icy exterior, who later warms up to his neighbour and her son shines throughout in amongst the likes of affable motormouth Shannon (Bryan Cranston), hard man Nino (excellent Ron Perlman), Oscar Isaac's Standard Gabriel and Albert Brooks' surprisingly dangerous character Bernie Rose.

It's not a fast and furious action film, it's more of a smouldering poignant gangster movie with moments of calm and graphic violence. It echoes films like Heat, Taxi Driver with some To Live and Die in L.A. Refn's direction is on point, performances by the ensemble cast, visuals and stunt sequences are excellent and grounded aided by some slick editing from Mat Newman.

Gosling is outstanding, Drive is an essential neo-noir crime film, highly recommend.

Once Upon a Time in Venice (2017) Review

Once Upon a Time in Venice Movie PosterAn ex-Los Angeles detective turned PI seeks out the ruthless gang that stole his dog.

Director, writer Mark Cullen's entertaining beach bum action caper which sees Bruce Willis as Steve Ford return to centre stage instead of small cameos. Thankfully Willis isn't just there to just pick up a pay cheque, its very much his own film, and he's as cheeky and charming as ever.

The on location feel captures the heat of Venice Beach and Cullen offers plenty of colourful locale visuals. The characters are all quirky and larger than life including humorous Jason Momoa as mumbling gangster Spider and Steve's heartfelt troubled friend Dave (excellent John Goodman). Things get more and more outlandish as Steve tries to solve a number of weird cases. Sadly, Famke Janssen is wasted as Katey Ford.

With echoes of the recent The Nice Guys (2016) there's a few shoot outs and double crosses with hints of watered down Tarantino thrown in for good measure, Cullen like the moments of comedy set these up with perfect timing thanks to some effective staging and Matt Deizel fine editing.

Overall, while not Willis' best it's an almost return to likes of Last Boy Scout form rather than Die Hard, still it's good fun and worth a viewing.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) Review

Transformers: The Last Knight Movie Poster*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Autobots and Decepticons are still at war and the key to saving our future lies buried in the hidden history of Transformers on Earth.

The expensive state-of-the-art special effects and Mark Wahlberg is mostly what keeps the fifth installment of the franchise watchable, aside for the nods to the original series (ship crashed on a hill, Frank Welker's voice, the episode "A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur's Court" to name a few) very little remains what many of the 1984 viewers fell in love with.

Director Michael Bay's staple eye candy and stereotype battle of the sexes aside, although some human characters return including Josh Duhamel, Nicola Peltz (voice cameo), John Turturro and an unrecognisable Stanley Tucci as Merlin, not even Anthony Hopkins can raise this above mediocre.

The Last Knight is packed with pointless expletives, the usual flash editing, big fights, eye rolling comedy and a compulsory loud soundtrack to accompany the on screen shenanigans. The tone is inconsistent as it goes from one setup and continent to the next. It's crowded with new characters and set pieces including underwater submarine chases, medieval battles, D-Day WWII like battles to outlandish colliding planets with jets, three headed dragon Transformers, swords, a staff and a butler - everything is thrown in.

There's a niggling feeling that the Transformers franchise needs to go back to some design basics and charm of the original series even with harking back to the knights of King Arthur in the plot. Yes, sadly some classic G1 Transformers are missing or not resurrected and new robots are thrown in just to sell more toys. However, where there is an improvement, is that here we have more interaction and characterisation from Transformers robots themselves.

Entertaining at times, watchable, slick leave your brain at the door robot action film, but unnecessarily messy and desperately needs to go back to the source material.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Review

John Wick 2 Movie PosterAfter returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, double crossed John Wick discovers that a large bounty has been put on his head and must fight for survival.

Director Chad Stahelski's John Wick 2 is everything a sequel should be, it doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. It's a near perfect high octane sequel, same lead cast - check, great action - check, more visual style and pulse pounding music – check. While the amount of close combat shootings does get tiresome there's enough story building by writer Derek Kolstad who expands the hit man's world and rules to entertain. However, neither Kolstad or Stahelski bog the pace down with unnecessary exposition.

Stahelski's second outing is gorier with a significantly higher body count and even though the fight scenes may not be a slick as it predecessor, it does what it says on the tin. Stahelski's offering benefits from a filmed on location feel which grounds the outlandish action, this is rounded off by a fitting soundtrack and score as Keanu Reeves' Wick battles his way through New York and Rome.

Well executed, pure action entertainment all the way, recommend.

Wonder Woman (2017) Review

Wonder Woman Movie Poster Diana leaves her paradise Island magically hidden from the rest of the world to fight alongside men in a war to end all wars.

Directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is a pleasing film in a sea of other superhero flicks. What it gets right is a good mix of action and narrative helped by the back drop of The Great War/World War I. While arguably it lags in the final act, mainly due to the seeming obligatory big boss final battle showdown it for the most part swiftly moves along. Part new origin story on the island of Themyscira, home to the Amazons, you see the character honing her powers and becoming Wonder Woman. Later when she helps a spy (Chris Pine) and they journey to Europe circa 1913, she's finds that she is a fish out of water in her new surroundings in searching for the god of war.

Allan Heinberg's screenplay has a few twists and plays with the sexiest elements of the period. Nevertheless, it slightly sells itself out at times with all the tropes of a love story with at times Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman playing second fiddle to Pine's American spy pilot. Thankfully these are few and far between, but it's still an unnecessary dynamic.

There's a top cast full of familiar faces including David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright with the sets and costumes being Oscar worthy. This incarnation supersedes Wonder Woman 1967's pilot, Lynda Carter's TV pop icon version complete with memorable theme and Adrianne Palicki's failed pilot. Gadot may not be everyone's idea of what Diana Prince/Wonder Woman should look like, however, she is great in the role carrying the naive innocence having been on a hidden island almost all of her life with the power and presence that we saw glimpses of in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). There's also some present day scenes that fit nicely with Zack Snyder's outing and Justice League (2017). With plenty fight scenes the new Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL Wonder Woman theme kicks in fittingly and Rupert Gregson-Williams' score captures the atmosphere of the respective settings.

Overall, Wonder Woman is probably one of the most rounded entertaining super hero movies out there with its war themes ironically just as relevant today.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Twin Peaks Season 3 (2017)

Twin Peaks Movie PosterThe David Lynch and Mark Frost revival brings back the show without the restrictions of network television as a single 18-hour movie split into chunks and (I'm currently 4 episodes in) all end with a different band performance. Yes, composer Angelo Badalamenti has returned and the nostalgic Twin Peaks theme is intact with a slightly different credit sequence, the mill replaced with the Red Room's curtains.

Doppelganger Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), must return to the Black Lodge in order for the real FBI agent Dale Cooper to be freed from his 25 year slumber. But things are completed with a third Cooper (also MacLachlan) throw into the mix. While all of this is going on, other events are transpiring in New York guarded building where a mysterious large glass box has sprung to life and killed its watcher. In South Dakota, a severed head and a headless body have been found and all the various narrative threads have yet to come together in any fully coherent matter.

Off the top of my head the majority of the cast return, those actors who have since passed on even show up as manipulated archive footage, notably Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis) floating head, David Bowie's Philip Jeffries' character is mentioned. Who knows who else will turn up. Some have passed on since filming the latest series and are acknowledged in the credits including the posthumous appearance of Catherine Coulson's The Log Lady and Miguel Ferrer, who played Albert Rosenfeld. Those who don't return have simply fallen out with Lynch and their reasons are well documented in the press.

Lynch has created something just as fascinating as the various directed predecessor and what is most striking is that quirky tone of the old series is recreated without merely forcefully copying it (as the recent X-files tried too hard to do). Lynch is on form here and it's just as weird as ever. The mix of crime thriller with elements of surrealism, odd humour, soap opera outlandish off beat acting and supernatural horror is as effective as ever. If you're left flummoxed - that's the fun, because you're probably meant to be.

Twin Peaks helped shape much of the modern television landscape and this latest addition is great looking with surprises, thrills and chills - season 3 is an artsy must see.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017) Review

Alien: Covenant Movie Poster*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On the far side of the galaxy the colony spaceship USCSS Covenant takes a detour and discovers horrors on an uncharted planet.

Opening with a flashback of David being activated by Peter Weyland we are treated to an Alien-style title sequence. After a shocking neutrino burst opening we are then introduced to the characters brought abruptly out of hyper-sleep by Walter a synthetic model. Soon the crew land on a planet and after a series of hostile events meet David, a survivor of the Prometheus mission. David and Walter (Michael Fassbender in dual roles) are put centre stage. To Ridley Scott's special effects team credit the androids are exceptional and you never question the illusion of the two characters being on screen at once.

Whereas Prometheus felt somewhat innovative and charted a different direction to the Alien series if you are a fan be warned, Covenant takes a step back with the Engineers and Shaw's story thread ending abruptly. Aside from Guy Pearce's Weyland's cameo, ties from Prometheus are broken and even Noomi Rapace's Shaw who appeared in Covenant's promotions is substantially cut in the final film. This is in place of a standard three act Alien affair, without the suspense of Alien but all the brashness of Aliens, still director Scott's moody, thoughtful style shines here. Naturally the aesthetics, cinematography, production design are of Scott's high standards and Covenant moves at breakneck speed, from ship, to planet, back to ship à la Alien format borrowing also from Aliens and his own Prometheus and even a line from Blade Runner. In addition, Jed Kurzel's soundtrack takes all the best cues from Jerry Goldsmith's 1979 Alien score and hones a reminiscent hybrid of sorts.

Lead Katherine Waterston's Daniels (terrible hair cut aside), does her best with what she's given. James Franco appears briefly and like Rapace his part aside from body and video footage is left promo material hell. Waterston offers enough emotion to keep Franco's Branson spirit alive throughout and you buy into her loss. Logical straight talking Callie Hernandez's Upworth is notable along with Billy Crudup's to the book Oram and Demián Bichir's tough solider Lope is memorable. Fassbender's dual performance is excellent. However, he unjustly steals the show and his position of prominence takes away what made (certainly David) so interesting as a secondary character in Covenant's predecessor.

The various looking aliens on display are highly aggressive from the outset. The Alien effects are first rate and the introduction to a H. R. Giger style creepy white Neomorph alien (born from spores that grow inside you into a Neomorph Bloodburster) gives Pan's Labyrinth chills. Nevertheless, there's not enough suspense or stalking from the aliens, but plenty of running around. It felt like too many CGI beast shots and not enough practical effects. However, when the Neomorph stood upright in front of David it was quite impressive. When the traditional albeit upgraded version of the Alien turns up it's a joy. There's a missed opportunity to face off the old Xenomorphs Alien with the new Neomorph. Or even solely focus on the Neomorph as there is some interesting communication between David and the Aliens that is never fully explored. There's also the thread that David may or may not have gone stir crazy due to his humanistic characterisations.(Incidentally, the novelisation through various passages and additional dialogue fill in the blanks, e.g. why they leave the landing ship without helmets, what happens to the other Neomorph, Shaw’s cross necklace and many more, it's a shame these moments were either not filmed or cut.)

When things go pear shaped there's plenty of blood and gore, the alien eggs, Chestburster and Facehuggers are finely tuned for screen, Scott also throws in fighting androids and Aliens-like shoot outs - there's plenty to like about Covenant. Waterston along with Danny McBride's pilot Tennessee look comfortable going head to head with the pesky Alien, even if it all feels somewhat rehashed and rushed. However, die-hard Alien fan's will have to buy into facehugger embryos (?!), David creating eggs and incubation times. This is topped of by handful of writers who offer a frustrating ending which teases another follow up.

Overall, Scott plays it safe and delivers a sci-fi horror with a typical series of action setups that is basically there to appease action fans rather than create suspense which was the originals finest quality.