The ABCs of Death 2 Review

Still from ABCs of Death 2 1

After the disappointment that was V/H/S: Viral, I was very much hesitant about delving back into The ABCs of Death. The first anthology film failed to leave much of an impression on me given how most of the directors chose deaths that were either too childish (F for Fart) or too esoteric (V for Vagitus). But part of me was much more hopeful given the quantity of shorts. With 26 different entries, the odds are quite in your favor for a film that plays more like a festival than an anthology. This time I lucked out with a hand of more high cards than duds.

The format remains unchanged. 26 directors/directing groups were each given a letter of the alphabet to direct a short around involving death in some way. Outside of a limited running time, the directors were given free range to create whatever they wanted without interference from either producers or standards. The shorts could be as gruesome or as disturbing as the directors wanted them to be, meaning that if a director received “T” he could easily make it about a toilet. Thankfully, this time around, the directors show much more creativity in crafting their horror-themed segments (along with a significant reduction in the use of scat).

There’s a sufficiently higher amount of comedy in the mix that’s not all juvenile, simple or random. The show starts off strong with “A is for Amatuer” by E.L. Katz. It’s a darkly comedic take on a hitman assassinating from a ventilation duct. But when the seemingly first-time killer makes his way through the vents, they’re filthy tunnels of dust, bugs and loose nails. It’s strangely hilarious watching him kill himself in such a space due to his own stupidity and the climax is just too good to spoil. Animation director Bill Plympton lends his talents with warping faces to “H is for Head Games.” A man and a woman fight with each other as facial features turn into destructive weapons. It’s classic Plympton and just makes me want to dig out all his old shorts. Fans of those old action figure commercials of the 1980’s need to check out “W is for Wish” in which a child’s fantasy for mystical adventure goes horribly awry.

Then there are the uniquely surreal that spark with visual brilliance and subtle writing. “J is for Jesus” takes a twisted approach towards the martyrdom of homosexuals in the name of religion. “K is for Knell” features probably my favorite shot of the entire film. A black liquid causes people to go on a murder spree in an apartment building, witnessed from afar by a woman in her own complex. Watching the multiple murders transpire in each apartment is a very creepy sight especially when they all finish their job to stare directly at the female character spying from her window. And “D is for Deloused” is a very weird bit of stop-motion animation echoing the otherworldliness from the music videos of Tool.

Some of the shorts are surprisingly well-shot with some visually appealing cinematography. “F is for Falling” makes great use of the desert location, favoring slow-motion effectively to display a chain of events that lead to an accidental death. “N is for Nexus” whips around many different perspectives for the eventual convergence of characters that leads to a deadly crash on Halloween. “S is for Split” performs a beautiful dance of overlapping action in the style of 24 with a surprising twist.

Despite some surprisingly engaging pieces, there are a handful of them that are far too base and more deadly in how they beat you over the head with the message. “T is for Torture Porn” doesn’t quite go in the direction I expected, but it’s still rather simple in the way it stages a woman getting revenge on sexist pornographers with tentacle sex. “U is for Utopia” savages you senselessly with how an uniformed society extinguishes the smallest of divergence. And “X is for Xylophone” never surprises past the first shot that you can easily guess the ending within the first few seconds.

Still from ABCs of Death 2 2The ABCs of Death 2 is a bit of a gamble with its 26 varying shorts, but it plays out wonderfully with far more hits than misses. The directors venture all over the map for varying degrees of horror that mostly hit the sweet spot by never overstaying their welcome. Many are insanely gruesome with the gore and blood, but rarely does the experience become monotonous with its subject. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, needless to say, as there are a few scenarios which are barf-bag worthy just by their descriptions. But the iron stomachs will be served up a tasty platter of gritty delights. I had my doubts after the lesser predecessor, but now I’m feeling lucky for The ABCs of Death 3 to see what the next batch of directors can come up with.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Grandmaster Review

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Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster is a martial arts picture that wants to get lost in its own beauty and emotion. It paces out the mesmerizing moments of action so the story can whiz by in the fast lane. You can do your best to track how it zips from decade to decade with interconnecting texts of expositions, but it’s far less engaging than the well-choreographed fights. Much in the same style of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, it entrances the viewer with more fancy footwork and pretty words than flowing dialogue. It’s that rare breed of action film where you don’t mind the favoring of punches over plot.

Based on the life of the Wing Chun grandmaster, we follow Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) from 1930 to 1950 in a changing China. Told in a non-linear fashion, the film jumps around in time where it becomes tricky to differentiate flashbacks from present events (maybe it’s all flashbacks for all I know). Take the first scene for example where Ip Man recalls a time when he was fighting waves of martial artists in the rainy streets. After some impressive moves and a victory over his attackers, he then reflects all the way back to when he was first inducted with his fighting style at the age of seven. Then he bumps up his memory to the point of his marriage to Cheung Wing-sing. Blink and you’ll miss most of these moments as it briskly zooms to the next fight scene as fast as Tony’s punches.

The good news is that your eye is given plenty of time to react to the martial arts which is well-worth the time the film takes to slow down for these moments. The opening fight in the heavy rain makes great use of multiple camera angles and slow motion that allows you to take in the detail of every move. Ip Man, dressed in his dapper suit and fedora, flows through the bad guys with ease. He bends arms, sweeps legs and pushes with such force that men go flying backwards in gloriously exaggerated (but not over the top) stunt work. It’s a fantastic way to begin the film and perfectly sets the tone.

Unlike the simpler martial arts pictures, The Grandmaster favors poetry in motion as opposed to pulse-pounding blows. When Ip Man meets with the northern Wudang Boxing grandmaster, they have more of a philosophical debate as the northern master challenges him to the old snatch-this-from-my-hand test. Winning once again, the northern master’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) does not accept Ip Man’s triumph. She challenges him to a test of defeating her in combat without breaking any piece of furniture within a lavish enclosure. The two trade fists and palms as they swing and sweep around the interior. Their battle takes them up the stairs, on the stairs and over the stairs as they fling each cross multiple floors. It’s a wondrous dance of martial arts amid some brilliant lighting and set decoration.

As the two part ways from their fight with Ip Man the winner, they undergo much heartbreak in an ever-changing world. With the Japanese invasion and threat of poverty, they lose loved ones and their will to continue on with martial arts. Ip Man loses his children and is forced to seek work in Hong Kong. Gong Er’s father is forsaken by his elders and she seeks vengeance by shirking marriage, children and teaching. The movie more or less becomes her’s for the third act as Gong Er fights her way back into the dignity of her house, eventually reuniting with Ip Man for a romance that simply did not have time to blossom. The two have an impressive on screen premise you almost feel cheated that nothing came of their relationship, but that’s just like a biopic for you.

Still from The Grandmaster 2The Grandmaster may bob and weave too wildly with its flashbacks and time periods, but it has the moves of a truly artistic martial arts epic. It takes a far more beautiful route towards relaying the unique life of Ip Man as a touching tribute to martial arts rather than a more character-driven period piece. It may sound like a cheap method, but it seems strangely fitting in how it wants to say so much more than just about the man himself. Where it falters in writing, it more than makes up for in the direction which gives a stylish drama coating to a commercial product. It’s a film where I didn’t mind so much about where the plot was at in the fights or callbacks. What’s up on the screen is an entertaining action picture oozing with beauty and elegance.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Reclaim Review

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Films like this are difficult to accurately rate. On the one hand, Reclaim keeps you entertained throughout its run, but on the other hand, its story fell short of what it could have been.

The film follows an American couple who have been unable to become parents. Desperate to both have a child and make a positive difference in the world, they travel to Puerto Rico to adopt a young Haitian girl. But things quickly take a turn for the worse when she suddenly disappears, and the young couple discover they have been duped by a massive underground scam. Determined to expose the scam and save all three of their lives, they will be forced to do what they never knew they were capable of.

I have given this film a rating of three out of five stars, and the reasons are as follows:

The story was interesting and unique; something I had never seen before. It contained plot twists that made you want to keep watching, and, despite the filmic dramatics, you still knew that it was based on real life events. The story was at times rather lack lustre, and the film would not have had half the impact if it wasn’t for the use of course language.

This cast are not what you would call A-listers, but I was pleasantly surprised with their performances. John Cusack did an excellent job at playing the ‘bad guy’. Over the last few years he has worked hard to ‘reclaim’ his former film glory, and though he isn’t there yet, he still manages to make some good films. It was also refreshing to see Ryan Phillippe back on film – looking like he hasn’t aged a bit! – and he did a good job.

In more technical terms, the film was visually interesting. Lithe camera movements kept you apart of the action, and the dialogue wasn’t overly cliche or static.

It is quite obvious that this film focused on fraud, and the horrific world of child trafficking. However, Reclaim didn’t delve into the subject as thoroughly as it could have; so it kind of missed its mark.

It was surprising to see how many negative reviews this film received. This was from critics and audience members alike. I wouldn’t say they were particularly incorrect in their statements, but there were some redeeming qualities I think they overlooked.

Still from Reclaim 2The film’s language and violent contents makes it unacceptable for children, but it runs for a good length (an hour and a half) so most audience members shouldn’t be too bored with the plot. It doesn’t come as much of a shock that it has mostly been released as a straight-to-DVD film, but that doesn’t mean it should be shelved away. Have a watch, and decide for yourself.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Good People Review

Still from Good People 1

If you find some money in the wall of your recently deceased neighbor’s apartment, do you inform the police? If you answered yes, you are vastly more intelligent than the protagonists of Good People. If you answered no, you’ve probably never seen a get-the-hidden-money crime movie as I’m sure the characters in this movie have never seen. The poor couple in this story make the idiotic mistake of keeping the money, hoping that everything will work out as if it was karma that they deserved such fortune. If only life and the movies were that simple and sweet.

The script makes some earnest attempts to convince the audience that these two made the right choice. Down-on-his-luck Tom (James Franco) is desperately low on funds as he attempts to renovate a new home for a family life with his wife Anna (Kate Hudson). Anna is hopeful, but Tom not so much as he attempts to hide an eviction notice. So the discovery of hidden cash seems to be the easy answer to their problems. It might be a more believable resolution if the film didn’t open with a brutal mob shootout. The couple at least proceed slowly with their stupidity as they wait a few days before until the cop or mobsters come knocking. After that point, they decide only to spend the money on fixing the eviction and their new home.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the mobsters come calling right after they’ve spent a few. Now being assaulted by stereotypical goons who seem to repeat “where is the money” ad nauseum, their only hope is a detective who doesn’t play by the rules. Detective Halden (Tom Wilkinson) is soon on to their little scheme and agrees to cut them a get-out-of-jail-free card if they can help him take down the bad guys. As you might expect, he’s doing it all of the books since he’s spit on by the higher-ups. He’s got an axe to grind with these drug dealers after his daughter died to an overdose.

To keep things at least a little bit interesting, there are two gangs after the money. The first contact is the more business oriented gangster Khan (Omar Sy). He offers Tom a choice of picking a side in a battle he doesn’t know he’s apart of. The competition with Khan is the more brutish Witkowski who is more about breaking bones than negotiating. There is a money drop scheduled so that Witkowski can get his money and Halden can nail his suspects, but that would be far too simple of a conclusion so random shots fired are thrown in.

In a somewhat surprise moment of goofiness, the final showdown takes place at Tom’s housing project where he stages a trap in the style of Home Alone 2. Witkowski and his partner in crime venture into the old house where they face such traps as nail gun shots through the floor and pitfalls with spikes. Yes, they actually pull the old spike trap that was somehow perfectly positioned for the bad guys to fall into, despite the rather large area of the spikes. Tom is just fortunate that when the intruders enter, they force him to the side rather than directly forward where he would’ve fell through the floor to his death. Everything just sort of ridiculously works out in this scenario as the killers manage to fall for every trap and even create some new ones accidentally.

Still from Good People 2There’s something rather admirable about how a film like Good People goes from zero to zany so quickly and with little reason. Shot in a dreary blue London, the somber tone reverts from paced out character development into crazy let’s-fight-the-mobsters action territory. The illogical progression it accomplishes is just mind-blowing. Tom was once a struggling contractor and now he’s a master of the craftsman house of horrors. Anna was once a fearful wife, but now she apparently has the strength and smarts to kick the bad guys down stairs. At the very least, they come as more welcomed ludicrous surprises given how everything else in the picture is action cliche basics. Tom and Anna may be good people in their intentions, but their brains are miles away along with any genuine thrill in this ridiculous mess of a picture.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Pyramid Review

Still from The Pyramid 1

In a move to find more locations to trap found-footage victims inside, The Pyramid is so lazy it doesn’t even bother coming up with a better title. They couldn’t bother with something along the lines of Dark Sands or Paranormal Tomb. It’s just The Pyramid. What about future documentaries on the subject matter that want to use the title? They’ll now have to share it with a cliche and forgettable survival horror picture that tries oh-so-hard to turn the ancient relics into a spooky trap factory.

As you might expect from such a title in the horror genre, the story follows some archeologists into a pyramid to learn its secrets. But rather than avoid all the structure’s pitfalls and deadly traps Indiana Jones style, the team of bland characters succumb to the tomb’s curse. They’re all expendable characters without a lead hero to ground any of them. There’s the technological genius and the old fashioned archeologist who scoffs at the new wave. A pushy reporter and snide cameraman follow them to keep the found-footage format at least until the filmmakers get bored and want different angles. And there’s another technology geek thrown in because there needs to be one more duck for the chopping block.

They at least make the smart decision to initially send in a wheeled robot with a camera. But that’s one flash of brilliance among many poor choices. They still decide to venture inside even after being told to evacuate for the political unrest in nearby Cairo and after a toxic expulsion from the opened tomb. With all the massive warnings short of a giant “Keep Out” sign, it’s not even the least bit surprising when they find themselves lost and trapped in the darkness of the pyramid. The usual batch of Egyptian traps are sprung on the dopey bunch. Floors crumble, spiked pitfalls appear, rocks descend from the ceiling and sand fills enclosed spaces. It’s slightly refreshing to see such classic devices of the adventure genre played up for more of a horror angle. Funny how the lack of a wisecracking adventurer turns these deadly devices into more of a grim film.

From that angle, The Pyramid could’ve been a mildly entertaining take on the curse of ancient Egyptian relics. But then the cats show up. In the most laughable moment of computer graphics in the movie, feral cats scurry around in the darkness to occasionally bite and attack. Of all the scenes where there is too much darkness to discern what is going on, the cats appear quite clearly which does not bode well for the B-movie budget. One of the characters falls on a spike and a horde of cats attack her. Rather than swat them away, the victim merely lies there screaming as the cats take forever to gnaw off pieces of flesh from her arms, legs and neck. If the other characters didn’t eventually fight them off, one of them might have coughed a hairball in her mouth. Where are all these cats getting food from for all these years of being sealed away? Perhaps the ancient Egyptians stocked the pyramid pantries with plenty of Meow Mix.

It couldn’t just be a subtle curse for a tomb though; something has to be inside orchestrating the demise of the human intruders. That something is Anubis and, yes, he too appears less out of the shadows than he should otherwise be shot. He’s a slight step up from the feral cats, but still just as forgettable of a design. There’s a little bit of mythology applied to the manner in which he slays his victims by consuming their souls, but he’s little more than just another monster who roars and destroys. What if Anubis was actually more intelligent or could be defeated with some clever use of the mythological rules? Something like that could actually bring a twinge of creativity and poignancy to an otherwise routine exercise in horror. But, no, it seems much simpler to shoot him with guns and kick him down shafts.

Still from The Pyramid 2The Pyramid is a brittle foundation of frights that never wants to surprise or reinvent a genre that is experiencing a fall from grace. What could’ve been a unique take on cursed tombs instead favors the bare-bones minimum to quickly dart to the kills as quickly as possible. That is if you can actually see the kills amid a production that is mostly shot in darkness too black to make out half the time. Such enclosed spaces do not make for great films when going for a natural lighting look. Perhaps the true curse of the pyramids is that they make for terrible found-footage films. For the viewer, it will be the curse of losing 89 minutes of your life to a film that does not scare or thrill. Heed my warning, movie explorers.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Contracted Review

Still from Contracted 1

If you listen closely to Contracted, you can hear the faint whispers of a message. Wedged in between its decent attempt at body horror is a voice that is so loud it becomes indecipherable. Is it a gruesome satire of sexually transmitted diseases or a sinister love-letter for lesbianism? Is it saying something about a stuck-up generation or is it merely dancing in the relatable shadows of dramatic youth? Or is it just plain awful writing for some gory money shots? Whatever the intent, it’s just poorly executed in a story that gives little reason to care about who is sleeping with who or who is killing who.

I just wasn’t too sure what to make of Samantha since so little of her character is revealed. She appears as little more than an average 20-something stood up by her female ex at a party. Her present friend at the party encourages her to drink until she’s drunk. After reluctantly taking some shots, a tipsy Samantha converses with a man who easily woos the influenced woman to his car for a rape. She awakes the next morning with a wicked hangover at her mother’s home where she regrets living. Every conversation seems to be a battle even when her mom is genuinely trying to care for her. So she naturally won’t want to talk about being raped the previous night or the gushing tsunami of blood spewing from her genitals. It’s probably just a big period, she figures. She later fills the toilet at work with another big batch of dark red. It’s probably just cramps, she brushes off.

It isn’t until she fears for her chances of getting back with her ex Nikki does she even consider going to the doctor. The doc merely writes off as an infection as Samantha’s condition continues to eat away at her body. Hair falls out, teeth pop out and fingernails slowly peel away. The disease must be doing something to her brain as well since she seems more concerned with her social status than her own health. Her mother displays great concern fearing she may be on drugs to which Samantha hisses back with her “I’m a lesbian, mom, deal with it” offense. She seems to have contracted that portion from Nikki who is twice as snarky and hostile with her thick English accent and punk body accessories. Nikki is clearly bored and uninterested in Samantha, but she strings her along until the climactic and expected call-out scene.

Nikki’s words ring all too true seeing as how Samantha is not a likable character. I only care for her in the sense that I don’t want any human being to bleed out their butt and puke teeth out of their mouth. Outside of that, there’s hardly a reason to care about what happens to her. I guess you could root for her as a rebelling young lesbian, but rebelling against what? There are certainly people who don’t like her, but most don’t seem to harbor any deeply resenting hatred. Samantha’s religious mother appears more concerned about her health than being gay. The only person who seems to be pure evil towards her is Nikki and, sure enough, she’s the one character Sam gravitates towards. Samantha is a stereotype who associates with other stereotypes, hoping she can reach the same level of absurdity.

Still from Contracted 2So what exactly are you supposed to take away from a film such as Contracted? Through its vague script, you could draw plenty of conclusions about safe sex and sexual identity. You could even trace its themes to both feminism and misogyny the way it brings a ferocity to Samantha, but still punishes her body for being raped. The finale spoke more comically to me seeing as how the zombie apocalypse comes at the hands of a stuck-up lesbian who was too mad at the world to deal with her rape-acquired STD. It’s about all the emotion I can muster for a film that’s as confused and mixed up as the protagonist.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya Review

Still from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 1

If you can see this film in your language, I encourage you to watch it. It has pretty much everything you could want in a film, and it should be fine for all ages. Here is why I think it’s worth the watch.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya begins with a bamboo cutter, who discovers a tiny nymph within a bamboo stick. The nymph – Kaguya – grows rapidly, and life is far from simple. Becoming noticed and desired by an array of suitors who risk their lives in the hope of winning her heart, will she find love and happiness, or is there a much darker end ahead of her?

The story of this film is inspired by the ancient Japanese folktale ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’. Its tale is beautiful and complex in character development. Though obviously only a tale and not the story of how humans came to be here, we can still learn from it. We must look outside ourselves in order to see the big picture, and discover how the world is not just the terrible stories written in newspapers.

Talking just about the English dub cast, I am surprised this film hasn’t been advertised more. The very talented voice actors include: Chloe Grace Moretz (as the title role), Darren Criss, James Caan, Lucy Liu, and many more. Everyone made their character come to life, and you were able to forget who the voices were behind the drawings.

It is amazing how much movement and emotion could be created by seemingly-simple drawings. The ‘camera movements’ were expertly done, and I hope to see more work like this in the future by all different countries.

Taking in mind that this is both an adaptation of an ancient folktale, and a translation that could have lost some of its shine in the process, it is still an amazing story.

Still from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 2It saddens me to read the criticisms of the choice of artistic expression in this film. Its animation is different to what is usually seen, but I find it to be breathtaking. My favourite parts are the emotional and action scenes, where the drawings become so much rougher and scribbled. You can almost feel the weight of the pen on the paper. It is probably the only art style that would have worked with this kind of story, and definitely made it succeed.

It is not surprisingly at all to see how well-received this film has been. Both critics and audiences alike have been enthralled with the story and art, and this is refreshing to see. It has been nominated – and won – numerous awards so far, and I would like to see it appreciated alongside animation films from Disney and Pixar.

Running for just over two hours, it might be a bit too long for younger audiences to fully enjoy, but it’s one to remember for when they’re older. I enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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V/H/S: Viral Review

Still from V/H/S: Viral 1

I had such high hopes for the V/H/S franchise. It stumbled a bit with the first film, but found a firm footing with V/H/S 2. I dug the creative use of camera techniques and charms of the VHS format. It was an anthology series that gave a much needed boost to the tired genre of found-footage films. But V/H/S: Viral doesn’t seem to have faith in its own platform, shirking all its appeal and coherence in the name of appearing more relevant. It’s as if some young hot-shot producer came on to this series and planned to reimagine it from the ground up. VHS? Get with the times, grandpa. It’s all about internet streaming now and you have to get down with that if you want to appeal to a younger demographic.

The previous films featured bookend segments of a desolate house stocked with creepy VHS tapes that cause the viewers to breakout with insanity upon pushing play. It was simple and strange enough to provide a great setup for each piece. The third film does away with the house of recordings and goes for one of the most confusing methods of upgrading from tapes to streaming. Instead of quietly discovering each vignette, we are treated to a loud and manic adventure as a young man runs around screaming for his girlfriend in the crazy night streets. Cars run over pedestrians, Mexican gangs go bonkers with violence and everybody seems to be obsessed with capturing these events on their smart phones. There’s a message about social media in modern society somewhere in this mess, but it’s drowned out by all the madness of shaking cameras and random action.

The segments themselves have a similar dip in quality despite a talented roster of directors (Nacho Vigalondo, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson, Aaron Scott Moorhead). “Dante the Great” is told in a mostly documentary format of a mad magician who comes into possession of a special cloak. Through the magic of ho-hum computer graphics, the cloak allows one to teleport themselves, reach for rabbits from other locations (yeah, he’s still using that old trick) and achieve all sorts of dark magic. He bestows some of his secret tricks on his female assistant, which essentially amounts to making the camera cut away and cut back to reveal something that wasn’t there before. But the cloak is hungry and requires human flesh to keep operating. Dante throws the dark batch of cloth on his unsuspecting victims which brings about a rather silly image of a woman being violently attacked by a blanket. The climactic fight is little more than an effects showcase of Dante tugging for control of the cloak with his apprentice, running up walls and launching fireballs. It feels the most out-of-place of all these shorts as if it belongs in a different movie.

“Parallel Monsters” offers up the most intriguing if not outlandish concept of the bunch. As a cross between The Twilight Zone and Tales From The Crypt, a basement inventor creates a portal into a parallel universe. Upon opening this entrance, he is greeted by an alternate universe version of himself that has just completed the same task. They ask questions about each other and laugh about how similar they are. They naturally swap lives to get a taste of what’s on the other side, but we already know something is going to be majorly off. It turns rather gruesome fairly quick and the grand twist isn’t revealed until he bursts out into the streets to witness the sinister formation to this society. It’s not a terrible entry with some decent effects including rather disgusting depictions of demonic genitals. But, just as with Nacho Vigalondo’s other horror efforts, it still feels held back.

“Bonestorm” is the most aimless of all the shorts. A group of skating teenagers venture into Mexico for some head-cam footage of their stunts, but end up attracting some creepy cult members. This short at least maintains the head-mounted camera concept, but that’s about all it has to offer. The entire piece features the teens running around a concrete area with waves of cult figures threatening their lives. The kids start shooting them with guns, whacking them with skateboards and beating them with their own swords. This feels less like a horror segment and more of a video game obsessed teenager’s wet dream. With the first person perspective of killing people who just won’t die, it seems like footage better suited for a video game than an anthology.

Still from V/H/S: Viral 2I desperately want this horror franchise to take off, but V/H/S: Viral takes a massive nosedive in its attempts to appear more modern and say something about our culture. What could’ve been something telling and horrifically satirical is lost to the muck of shaky cams and lackluster effects (the CGI car smashing into a cop just screams amateur). Why even bother to pursue this viral video angle when it offers much less to play with in comparison to the VHS format? It’s almost insulting the way the film tries to randomly insert “adjust tracking” screens and tape degradation as if to stay somewhat true to the previous movies. I’m hoping that another batch of directors can repair the damage done as it’d hate to see V/H/S fall in line with the mundane sleepwalkers of the found-footage genre. This series and its directors are far better than what is present in V/H/S: Viral. Please be kind and rewind this series back to its former glory.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death Review

Still from The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death 1

One of biggest hurdles for a haunted house film is keeping the people inside the house. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes the ghosts lock the guests in and sometimes there just plain isn’t a reason. The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death at least offers up one of the most viable excuses: the London blitz. That’s reason enough to stay inside with the creepy ghosts that want to torture mortals with jump scares and possession-driven suicide. It’s one of the few smart choices in yet another silly run through the haunted house genre.

There’s at least an attempt to be more of a period piece with this sequel set 40 years after the first film. The plucky school teacher Eve and her snobby headmistress Jean escort their young students to an old country manor. The house is decent enough for survival when the bombers come a-bombing, but perfect for ghosts to haunt. The walls and ceilings are dilapidated with dull colors in a dreary setting that always makes the house appear dark no matter the time of day. There are plenty of dirty rooms and cracks in the walls for all sorts of spooky spirits to seclude and fester. The resident ghost is a mother who lost her child during birth and is now taking it out on Eve and her class (specifically because of Eve giving up her child).

All the parts are there to assemble a moody and frightful experience with plenty of themes to play with. For the first half of the film, it even builds itself properly. The war setting is neatly dressed for the period with depictions of bombings and old fashioned costumes. There is ample reason given to stay in the house and even a soldier pilot to converse with. The hauntings start slow enough with creeks in the walls, rocking chairs moving on their own and the eventual origin vision of the ghost mommy losing her child. These are all fairly standard, but presented well enough.

But then the killings start and children are once again a target. The children end up being picked off one by one from the angry spirit. The vengeful spirit takes aim through causing the kids to hang themselves, suffocate and collapse dead on the beach. The film never lingers on these deaths too long to make sure the film is still worthy of a PG-13 rating. I’m a bit torn on the choice in victims. It seems rather cheap to place children in danger, but there is something slightly admirable about actually going through with child murders. There are just too many children placed in this scenario that you’d think by horror movie logic that nobody would even die in this film since kids are mostly off-limits. But there are only three adults present so it seems like the writers were forced into a corner on this one.

Despite some okay scares with jumps and noises in the darkness, the entire third act is little more than Eve running around trying to save Edward from the ghost. She dashes across fields and into the house where her dialogue is downgraded to one-word questioning and calling of names. By this point you’re at least partially grateful for some more action after long stretches of exposition. There’s even a nice change of setting as when the group migrates to a faux airfield designed to bait bombers, using the bunker as shelter.

Still from The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death 2The Woman in Black 2 is such a disappointment for how effectively it establishes its horror, only to turn on autopilot when it feels that it has reached an acceptable height. Just thinking about how much wasted potential it had is infuriating. There were plenty of angles to explore from the pains of losing children to the conflicting emotions of being thrown into this situation from war. Even just hearing the children talk some more about how disturbed they are that they are dying would have been an interesting addition given how caustic they appear on the subject. With a strange lack of focus, it’s hard to care for such a well-designed vehicle of terror when it has nowhere interesting to go. Such a shame that a worthy production will be lost in the bin of lackluster horror sequels when there was clearly more here than its predecessor.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day Review

Still from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 1

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (what a title) achieves a level of zaniness with relatable characters for a family film that strangely works much better than I thought. Based on the popular children’s book by Judith Viorst, it’s the tale of the unlucky soon-to-be 12-year-old Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) who seems to be perpetually having day after day of things going wrong. Gum is caught in his hair, classmates Photoshop him onto female pictures and he even manages to set the science classroom on fire by accident. This is a stark contrast to the rest of his family who seem to be on top of the world. But the tables are turned when Alexander’s birthday starts going right while the rest of his family has a day that goes horribly wrong. They’ve contracted Alexander’s bad luck after years of immunity via the old magical birthday wish.

This setup is a golden ticket for the writers and directors to throw Alexander’s family into a series of absurd accidents. While it does go for the big laughs, they rarely go outside the realm of reality. Just about every bad thing that happens to them feels as though it could happen. The family wakes up too late and scurries around the house in a frantic panic. The car battery dies after a light was left on all night. The teenage daughter awakens sick on the day of her big play. The teenage son cheers in triumph at landing a date for the prom, but accidentally ends up smashing a trophy case in the process. These are all very plausible moments and never seem too contrived to be disengaging for the older audience. They also build from one incident to the another so that there’s a certain method to the madness.

But what’s most admirable about a film like this is how likable all the characters appear. They do not exist as an a-typical family of bowling pins for the rolling thunder of hilarity. Right from the start, they are established as a uniquely modern, but still grounded family unit. Steve Carell plays the stay-at-home dad who takes care of the new baby while seeking a new job. He is not depressed or bitter about his wife being the breadwinner and relishes his time for baby yoga (which is apparently a thing). He even manages to keep his cool when he ends up bringing his infant child along to an interview he lands at a video game company. Despite his son smearing a marker all over his face and the unease of an older man being interviewed by younger developers, Carell has a remarkable calm to dealing with the situation.

Every character of the family reacts similarly to their problems. They grow frustrated with the increasing pains that hinder their day, but never seem to fully transform into Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I rather enjoyed the resolution to the family solving their problems by banding together and thinking through their tough situations. The script narrowly avoids the silly out of having Alexander undo his wish (the tactic that Liar Liar resorted to). He admits his wish, but his dad claims that the wish had nothing to do with any of this and that it was just an off day. Alexander makes a very mature decision to accept that his bad luck isn’t just fate and that he is in control of his own life. How could you not root for this family to succeed over such comical pitfalls?

Despite some reasonable and human reactions, most of these comical disasters tend to venture just a tad too far down the silly slope. This reaches an inevitable requirement for seemingly all modern family movies: funny animals. The final hurdle for the family to cross comes in the form of an Australian petting zoo setup at their house in which the animals escape. Steve Carell corners a kangaroo that promptly kicks him back in some of the most blatant computer graphics for a stunt. Other moments go slightly over-the-top in kicking the family down a hole. The destruction of the family car during a failed driver’s test goes slightly overboard with a crash and a flung-off car door which stops just short of the collected family to witness. And the failed publication of Alexander’s mom (Jennifer Garner) just feels too simple as her potty book replaces jump with dump (which causes a bigger outrage at a reading than one would assume).

One annoying trait that’s maintained for these types of family films is how nearly every secondary character seems to be out to get our protagonists. A suggestive driving teacher seems determined to make her students fail. A snippy teacher seems more concerned with making snarky references than teaching a class. A bitter female book partner with thick glasses explodes all over the mom trying to make it into the big leagues. These felt like characters that are trying way too hard to inject an extra layer of comedy into a film that already has enough going for it.

Still from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 2Director Miguel Arteta brings a surprising amount of personality to a film that could’ve been just another throwaway children’s book adaptation for a rainy afternoon. He saves a rather simple premises and paints over the tired area with some effective characters and comedy that doesn’t pander or wain. Certain parts don’t stick to the wall quite so well, but there’s a zippy enough pace to keep a certain flow. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day may not be a family classic (or even an easy-to-remember title), but it’s a comedy more genuine for kids and adults from a format that’s usually pretty by-the-numbers.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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