Housebound

2014 | dir: Gerard Johnstone | 109 m

After seeing Housebound brought up briefly in a discussion thread, I headed immediately into the movie with entirely way too much expectation. As it stands, anything I've seen out of New Zealand in this horror/comedy genre has been top notch, so it seems like the film was destined to disappoint, which is entirely on me. Housebound is pretty simple in premise, but in practice is a nicely layered film. We follow Kylie Bucknell facing house arrest and serving that time at her mother's house which, conveniently enough, is haunted. Kylie is a difficult character to like at the beginning, and her path seems practically predestined from the beginning, which led me to believe the film would lean heavily into the comedic horror of the genre classification tags. As it is, the first half the film succeeds in being pretty creepy, but also such a slow moving film that I found myself checking the runtime and wondering to myself what I've gotten myself into. There are jump scares that felt out of place to my expectations, and more in line with a traditional fright feature, but felt out of place with a cast of amusingly idiosyncratic characters. Resisting the urge to start browsing my phone, I persevered and was rewarded with a wild theatrical third act that disarranged my previous expectations with some clever chaos, plot twists and ultimately a satisfying finish for our criminal friend. It's a testament to heading into a film with expectations in check, something that I failed to do for Housebound and regret: I'm able to look back and properly appreciate the cast of characters, some truly good humour and some incredible suspense with frightening scenes that bests many genre films. 

3.5 / 5

Crawl

2019 | dir: Alexandre Aja | 88 m

I probably wouldn’t have sought out Crawl if it wasn’t for a couple of things; the first one being that it’s produced by the beloved Sam Raimi and directed by the intriguing Alexandre Aja, who has some decent films under his belt, including Horns and Mirrors (which I remember watching nearly a decade ago and being legit nervous to look in the mirrors of my apartment when I got home). The second, more prominent reason for Crawl to float to the top of my watchlist was just how many damn alligator movies that I’ve been watching with my friends lately. It started innocently enough with a couple of Australian pictures (and yes, they were crocodiles there and my inexperienced Canadian-reptile brain doesn’t know much of the difference) then into a couple of North American releases aptly named “Alligator” and unoriginally, “Alligator 2.” They were tremendously fun films – maybe it was the foreign feel of a giant lizard roaming about: I’ve seen enough movies about bears to know to be on the lookout for them here in my native country, but alligators are so far removed from what I would expect walking in the woods, or, in the case of some of these, finding in my basement. 

This movie checked all the boxes of the horrors of man-eating alligators that I know about, which is mostly that they will bite your limbs and once they got you, perform their patented Death Roll, which will either drown you or use centrifugal force to rip your limbs off (which may not be scientifically accurate but this is fact in my mind). Moving along at a brisk eighty eight minutes, Crawl goes further and checks off the prerequisites for some apex predator horror, including some effective jump scares, adequate gore and a healthy dose of on screen deaths that never feels excessive. I wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going: having seen the first bit of Sharknado years ago (falling asleep from heat stroke midway through and never seeing the reason to finish it off) I kind of assumed we would be going location to location within Florida as we try to run away from The alligator, but what Aja did here was more traditional and effective. We follow a woman trying to find her father as a hurricane approaches, then promptly getting stuck in the basement of their house, trapped by injuries and really pissed off gators. I’m glad there were so many of them, although I can’t comment on their behaviour, or if they would treat hurricane conditions with such ferocious glee, but it worked for this film.

The generated establishing shots of the hurricane and town feel a bit off right from the beginning, and it’s no surprise to find out the film wasn’t even shot ‘on location’ in Florida, but in the far off lands of Serbia. With most of the film taking place in tight quarters and obviously a water-logged set, I left with a sense of efficient budgetry: where they may skimp on those shots earlier are made up with some decent looking gators, although I may be too used to the mid-80s animatronic alligators from the past few months, so anything looks great now. I’m not convinced though that’s it: I was sufficiently pulled into the action on-screen and invested in the simple narrative to take much heed to technical details, or bother myself with analysing plot and character choices. Crawl got the job done, and did it well. We may take a little break from alligator movies for a bit and further explore the wild boar horror that we saw a few weeks ago in 1984’s Razorback. I remain hopeful Raimi and Aja can thrill us some more with further wild animal thrillers.  

Rating: 3 / 5

Homefront

2013 | dir: Gary Fleder | 100 m

I didn’t even see Franco’s glaring mug at the bottom of the poster for Homefront: seeing his name in the opening credits brought a chortled laugh, but then the names kept coming. Winona Ryder. Kate Bosworth. Clancy Brown. Frank Grillo! Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone! What madness have I draped myself into, this quiet, cold Sunday January evening. With the popcorn sufficiently covered in seasoning and a cold soda on the end table, I continued my journey into the neglected, unwatched films of my digital movie collection. After coming off a series of decent films on, the previous week, including The Elephant Man, Comet, and Joe, I approached Homefront with some hesitation; indeed, I’m not a BIG Statham fan and by that, I should say I don’t go out of my way to watch his films but I don’t shy away either when they’re on (I haven’t see all the Crank movies or Transporter films). 

As I was prepared to bury myself in my phone for the duration of the movie, I found that I couldn’t take my eyes away throughout the runtime of Homefront. The story was predictable, but adequate and absolutely average in every way; there’s nothing that offended my non-critic palate. In fact, I found that Stallone’s characters served the plots devices in exactly the way they should be: they pissed me off when they should, they do stupid things because they are stupid people, and Statham’s character is an over-the-top superhero agent that can avoid bullets and serious injury in only the way action movies of the 80s could adhere. Never does a moment materialize throughout the film that would have you feeling tension, especially when it comes to the safety of the hero himself, and his daughter proves early in the film that she’s no slouch either. She’s a badass kid that doesn’t back down, but does fall victim to the plot later on – what movie of this caliber could do without a shot of a boat speeding down a calm river, after all.

Why did I get this film in the first place? It’s a question I find myself pondering as I look through my movie collection from time to time; maybe I read a quick review that made it sound good. Maybe I needed Stallone’s script in my life. Maybe I just needed a straightforward action film. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I had it and finally gave the movie the time it deserved. It doesn’t run very long and has a pretty decent pace; the action is satisfying, from the bone breaking moments to the barrage of gunfire later on. Maybe it’s time to finish off The Expendables trilogy. 

Rating: 2.5 / 5

The Descent: Part Two

2009 | dir: Jon Harris | 94 m

Any sequel to The Descent was going to have a hard time, so expectations going into this were fairly low. Indeed, I didn't even know this movie existed; I had seen The Descent at home long after release and it became an instant classic and put away as a film too scary to watch again. Not necessarily because the horror of the creatures, but moreso the claustrophobic passages and situations the women find themselves in. I shudder just thinking about it. But, as I get older and a tiny bit more brave I found myself needing to revisit the original before tackling the sequel, and I'm happy to report that I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Depending on which version of The Descent (having different endings) you saw/remember, Part Two will begun with some confusion, but this is easily remedied with a quick web query. Unfortunately the bewilderment doesn't stop there: Sarah - our protagonist and sole survivor of the first - is found two days after the events of the first and is immediately brought into the hospital. The local sheriff is suspicious as Sarah is covered in blood that's not her own, and wants answers. We're then waking her up (the doctor just ordered rest) and bringing her BACK into the cave system she just escaped from (of course she's lost some of her memory or maybe she would put up a bit of a fight). The movie nearly lost me when the two police officers go down into the cave with her and the search and rescue team: these cops have no real (established) training in the underground, and are completely out of their element. With this absurdity in line, we're pretty much treated to exactly what you were expecting. The element of suspense is gone because you - the viewer - know exactly what's down in the depths. The claustrophobia of the first movie is all but erased with well-lit underground caverns and a focus on more action than claustrophobic scares. While all the characters seemed to act appropriately in the original, the characters here are one-dimensional and exaggerated in their ridiculous motives (yes again I point out the sheriff, who in a life threatening situation can't see the dangers around him and insist on hindering everyone). 

So the film may have lost me within the first twenty minutes, yet I couldn't help but feel entertained and go along with the ride on the remainder of the film. We certainly get more action, but we don't really get to expand on the lore around these underground carnivores. Part Two gives us another controversial ending, and I was too lazy (and I didn't care enough) to see if maybe there would be another alternate take. At this point it probably doesn't matter: after ten years we've yet to see a Part Three, but I wouldn't be opposed to one. As far as horror franchises go we've been through much worse.

Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Innocents

1961 | dir: Jack Clayton | 100 m

After accepting that The Haunting didn't sit well with me, I was expecting some more classic horror disappointment, but from start to finish, I found The Innocents creepy, fascinating and incredible. Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a woman who has been charged with the niece and nephew of a wealthy man, all the while caring for his estate in the country (with the help of a crew of grounds and house keepers). Of course, things immediately go sideways as she suspects to see and hear things in and around the house itself as her paranoia increases. The return of the nephew kicks things into gear as he seems to behave a bit odd, unlike a child his age; maybe it's just his personality, right? The film is full of beautiful composition, the black and white imagery is quite striking and atmosphere is perfect. Kerr plays the part wonderfully and as her paranoia increases your own skepticism grows in tandem. Every scene where the nephew, Miles, appears in, is stolen by Martin Stephens; this kid really shines and his interactions with Miss Giddens are entrancing. There are some really chilling parts here, including the kiss scene, where I could feel my soul slowly rising up from my seat, mouthing "w...t...f..." and applauding the film later on when it turns proves itself instrumental to the story and not being some strange byproduct of a different time. There are no real mistakes here as every element of each frame is carefully placed.

The Innocents has really stuck with me; an entire month later and it's still in my head. Expect this one to jump into some favourites lists later on.

Rating: 4 / 5

The Changeling

1980 | dir: Peter Medak | 103 m

Hopefully you don't mind a little context for this. I've tasked myself over the past few months to follow along with The Evolution of Horror podcast series as they take on the various genres of horror; first was slashers, and now we're onto 'ghosts' and as a result, I've been watching a decent number of older ghost-related movies (as evidenced by a few quick entries on this very site). There's been one problem though: I've found my mind wandering and quickly becoming bored with many of these films; I felt especially bad for The Haunting, which is highly spoken of but I could barely sit through it without checking my phone and yes, even excusing myself from the room brush my teeth during one particular scene. So I was nervous to continue on this trend, less I don't give these movies the respect they deserve - although honestly some of them may not: nobody is saying they all have to be good. My friend suggested turning my phone off while the movie is on, so I took it a step further: I let my battery drain to under 10% - and those who know me will realize how scandalous this is - and put it in another room while it was charging.

So either a) this strategy worked, or b) The Changeling actually engaged me. 

The first half of The Changeling had me sufficiently spooked, with some fairly typical haunted occurrences happening to George C Scott's character, John Russell, in his newly leased, comically large and gothic semi-abandoned mansion. What really gets me here is now nonplussed Scott is in his reactions to these obviously supernatural happenings, although to be fair - in a home this size - you could believe one of the staff stuck around after their shift and decided to mess about by turning on the fourth-floor bathroom's tub, and the rest may be sleep-derived hallucinations. At no point is it inferred that John may be losing sleep to these things; instead, he explores casually and encourages what could be a spirit by inviting the best known seance folks in to reach out to what he suspects is the spirit of a child. The scene itself is quite engaging and I was on the edge of my seat. 

As we reach the halfway point of the film, it takes a bit of a turn into a more traditional mystery: we've established the place is haunted, and John is motivated to uncover the mystery of just why its haunted. Maybe in this universe it's a more common occurrence or he's just emotionally turned to dust from having lost his family in a tragic incident years previous, but he seems to accept that yes, there are ghosts and yes, that kind of confirms an afterlife. It seems like a tremendous wasted opportunity that he doesn't approach any angles to maybe reach out to his daughter, or find any way to communicate with her. Instead, he focuses on helping the house's boy, and begins piecing together the mystery that shall eventually uncover the titular changeling itself. The film reaches a crescendo for me when John convinces a stranger to cut a giant hole in their child's bedroom (with the help of the child seeing a ghost there themselves) in order to uncover a long-buried well that might contain some human remains. The rest blazes a quick trail to the ultimately satisfying conclusion to this ghost story.

And I can conclude that at no point during this movie was I tempted to jump into the other room to grab my phone: The Changeling was too engaging to miss.

 

Rating: 3 / 5

Knives Out

2019 | dir: Rian Johnson | 130 m

Tightly woven from start to finish, Knives Out served as a nice departure from regular theatre trips with some incredibly acting and smart dialogue. The "whodunnit" genre is not one I typically venture into; a few years ago I took in Murder on the Orient Express and left with a fairly bland take on the forgettable film, and this was my concern with Knives Out. But, seeing the trailers skew generally into more comedy and quirkiness, I found myself venturing out to tackle the genre again. I did not leave disappointed. There's an incredible cast of acting going on here, and Rian Johnson's writing is on point from beginning to end. There's something relaxing about watching a movie you know is specifically trying to fool you: I don't have to worry about who did it, because I'm going to be treated to a lovely scene at the end unraveling the mystery. With that in mind, you can focus on the other aspects of the film, and in the case here, everything is quite sharp.

Rating: 4 / 5

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

1969 | dir: George Roy Hill | 111 m

I felt really bad about not enjoying this film when I put it on the other night; it's like one of these films that I'm supposed to like but after watching it, I'm compelled to not give it a rating and take on the task of re-watching it a year from now when I'm in a better frame of mind. Everything about the film was good, but I just couldn't get into the movie in the way I know I should. Being in the right frame of mind is not typically an issue for me but in this case it was overbearing, and as such I couldn't give the movie a fair shake. I would reiterate though: everything was good. Paul Newman and Robert Redford crackle on screen as this criminal duo who spend so little time doing "bad things" and more time on the run and trying to go straight that you can't help but feel empathy for them (and question how they were really ruling the west as the title scrawl would lead you to believe). But it's their laissaz faire approach to crime that sets the film apart from others in the genre and upends your expectations. While the pair spend an inordinate amount of runtime fleeing from their pursuers you can't help but wonder why they don't stand their ground and fight if they are as good as the movie tells you they are, before you quickly realize these guys aren't your stereotypical machismo western dudes but smart characters of quirkiness and depth. They are compelling to watch on screen and reason enough to enjoy the film and let it stand above others.

Rating: 3 / 5

Ford v Ferrari

2019 | dir: James Mangold | 152 m

For someone who doesn't particularly follow sports, let alone auto racing, it seems absurd that I would get so excited for upcoming films about the sport; alas, I can't help myself. Maybe it's a deep-rooted unfulfilled love for going fast. Could be the mixture of smell of gasoline and burning rubber and the roar of engines around a track. Or most likely, it's watching these athletes excel at their passion as they race toward their dreams. It's easy to get caught up in the drama and high speed adventure afforded to us by these types of films, and they are appropriately at home on the big screen of a local theatre where the camera angles and sound systems bring an immersion to the experience that often goes unparalleled at home. Ford v Ferrari delivers on the visceral front but is keen in taking its time to deliver us a compelling story of (somewhat exaggerated for the big screen) true events about people coming together to accomplish something extraordinary. It's a solid turnout for everyone involved and although the runtime is long, I never felt like the movie was dragging on as I found myself invested from start to finish. The story beats are almost too familiar but the sum of all the parts produces a better sports film as it focuses less on the technical details and more on the characters, their passions and relationships. An overall excellent film and one not to be missed on the big screen, but should also be enjoyable again down the road.

Rating: 4 / 5