Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007)

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Far better than the painfully generic original. Wrong Turn 2presses harder on the knowing humour, ugly inbreds and has a fun “reality TV” format within that leads to some fun bloodshed. There’s also Henry Rollings going full Rambo on the cannibal clan which is a million times better than anything in most silly slasher films. I also enjoy the nod to Evil Dead 2 in the title sequence. This aint Evil Dead 2 but you can tell the filmmakers were aspiring to that level. The best thing about this though? You don’t even need to see the first one to enjoy it. Skip straight to the sequel for maximum enjoyment.

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Rocky V (1990)

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I go back and forth on Rocky V. When I first saw it as a kid, I hated it. Then I rewatched it in my late teens and actually found it to be surprisingly complex and emotional, especially in comparison to Rocky IV which is less a progression of the Rocky saga than a purely visual and adrenalin fuelled extravaganza of 80s filmmaking trends.

There’s definitely a sense that Stallone really had a story to tell with this one though. Released almost five years after its predecessor, Rocky V is clearly an attempt to bring things to a conclusion by taking the character back to his roots. Gone are the huge mansions, comic book villains and lavish backdrops of the last few sequels. Instead we’re back on the mean streets of Philadelphia as the Italian Stallion finds himself broke and unable to fight due to a medical issue. This series has always been a character study at its core but it quickly sidelined that focus in favour of excess as the sequels became increasingly bombastic. While all that stuff is undoubtedly entertaining, the soul of the original film was being gradually diminished as a result. So, Stallone’s decision to strip away all the glam and money, courtesy of a pretty silly and contrived Paulie fuck-up, makes sense in theory but is ultimately a bit misjudged in execution.

The director of the original Rocky, John G. Avildsen, returns here to add an extra layer of things coming full circle. Maybe Stallone wanted to focus more on his performance, or maybe he was just too busy being one of the biggest movie stars in the world to direct this too. Who knows? The crux of the film is Rocky’s relationship with his son, which is a nice attempt to broaden the focus from just Rocky and Adrian and take into account the bigger family as well as crystallising the “Fathers and sons” theme which runs throughout the series into something literal. Then of-course there’s the surrogate son of Tommy Gunn, the young boxing upstart who’s trying to be the next Rocky Balboa.

I like the idea of all this stuff; Rocky vs. his bank balance, going back to having nothing, dealing with the embarrassment as well as seeing all the familiar tropes spun on their head (I especially enjoyed seeing a climactic fight where Rocky isn’t taking part but actually watching it at home on a TV – a nice spin on the ending of Rocky II). But somehow it all ends up feeling a bit like an episode of a soap opera past its prime.

Stallone was never the most subtle, nuanced storyteller, instead preferring to tackle his themes and ideas head on rather them burying them under metaphor or facial expressions – an approach well suited to these films and the audience they’re catering for might I add. So here, when things get especially dramatic, they come across as heavy handed and inelegant. The big problem is Tommy Morrison who might have the physical requirements of a sassy boxing prodigy but is rather hammy in the acting department. He’s more memorable for his mullet rather than his character and I never really invest in his relationship with Rocky, therefore meaning a lot of the film’s backbone is broken.

However, much of the stuff Stallone was trying to do here he would later nail sixteen years later in Rocky Balboa. Given the added distance and consideration, there is far more story to tell, especially with a Rocky beyond his physical prime and with added years on his face. Plus, the young boxer/old mentor thing Stallone attempted with Tommy Gunn is handled so much more effectively in Creed: a film written and directed by a filmmaker who shares the same dynamic with Stallone that Adonis does with Balboa, and it heightens everything. The heart of these movies has always been Talia Shire though and her absence in later films, while crucial, is definitely felt. Even here, five films deep she glows in every scene she appears and centres the emotional core where everything else fails.

While my opinion on Rocky V has wavered more into the negative side after this rewatch, I still enjoy spending time with these characters and despite it being mostly a creative misfire, released at a point where the Balboa saga was definitely feeling tired, its shortcomings paved the way for subsequent, better entries that more than make up for it. Without this, we may never have had Rocky Balboa and Creed. Rocky V gave Stallone something to prove, and like all underdogs worthy of a title shot, prove it he did.

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Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

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A pretty beefy 80s slasher flick, at least as far as running time is concerned. At 110 minutes it’s certainly one of the longest hack and slash movies I’ve seen but it paces itself out nicely for the most part. Often seen as a sister film to My Bloody Valentine as both are Canadian productions made by the same team, Happy Birthday to Me isn’t as distinctive or unique as its relative but does have some fun selling points of its own.

Directed by J. Lee Thomspon (Cape Fear, Guns of the Navarone), the film feels more prestigious than most films of this ilk and is told on a bigger canvas which accommodates much of the supporting players and locations. It doesn’t feel throwaway like a lot of slasher movies do. When you sit down to watch Happy Birthday to Me, you’re definitely settling in for something substantial. The presence of actors like Glenn Ford and Frances Hyland adds a bit of semi-cinema royalty to the proceedings too which offsets the young ensemble of unknowns. There are some fun kills (look at that kebab on the poster) and the reveal of the killer is so surprisingly illogical and dumb that it’s actually kind of brilliant.

It strictly adheres to the traditional slasher format though and the extended length isn’t the best fit for something so familiar. There’s a mid-section sag that could have been tightened up but the film’s “final girl”, played by Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House on the Prairie fame, is likeable and unusual enough to sustain the audience’s attention. The final scene is a doozy so it all goes out on a gruesome high accompanied by a creepy end-credits lullaby. There are a bunch of scenes in here that have definitely been burnt into my mind, and considering the company it keeps is so cluttered – I’ve seen hundreds of these damn slashers at this point – that’s definitely worth something. A lower-tier classic of the era which feels every bit of its 1981 release date, but is all the better for it.

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Wrong Turn (2003)

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A generic, derivative and, worst of all, boring backwoods slasher film. It sorta feels weird to see a studio-polished riff on horror concepts that were born on the fringes of mainstream cinema. When Wes Craven tackled inbred mutants in The Hills Have Eyes, it felt like you were seeing something disgusting, taboo and exciting being smuggled into the horror landscape. Here, it just feels like a product. Maybe if this was made super-cheap by a passionate bunch of amateurs, I’d be more forgiving. But with actual money and resources behind it, the short-comings are harder to swallow.

Stan Winston’s make-up effects, which by all means and purposes should be the star in a film like this, are completely undone by the flat, overlit cinematography. Any vaguely inventive kills are also hampered by completely unconvincing CGI enhancements. There’s even an utterly ridiculous – and not in the charming sense of the word – last-act battle atop some trees that feels like something out of a Tarzan movie. Might as well have called the movie Jungle Smackdown rather than Wrong Turn. Though, creatively, there are many of those too.

The only real redeeming quality of the movie, which notches it up to “fine” rather than plain old “bad”, is Eliza Dushku. She’s an actress who always gets a pass from me for some reason, and her take on horror heroine is characteristically sassy and strong. She’s way more interesting than the utterly transparent Desmond Harrington who, bizarrely, is anchored as the film’s hero. Ash Williams he aint. Once Dushku is demoted to damsel in distress in the last act and Harrington has to save her, the results are not only non-sensical but infuriating.

To be honest, I only watched Wrong Turn because I heard vaguely good things about its sequel and wanted to be upto speed. To pluck up the energy to watch another of these movies is going to be strenuous to say the least. I can’t believe it became a six-movie-strong franchise.

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Personal Shopper (2016)

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The first GREAT movie of 2017. Totally unpredictable, genre-fluid and formally daring, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopperwas not at all the movie I expected, but it turned out to be exactly the one I needed. On paper, this movie just shouldn’t work. But as a living, breathing piece of CINEMA, it feels vital. All the narrative leaps, dead-ends, loops and misdirections had my head spinning. The thrill of having no idea where a film is going to go because the rules it’s playing by are constantly malleable is almost unbeatable. That being said, Personal Shopper isn’t a rollercoaster ride, the film slowly unfurls and remains grounded by a concrete emotional core embodied by Kristen Stewart.

This might be Stewart’s best performance yet and is an essential showcase for her. A bite of the lip, a hunch of the shoulder, a holding of breath; Stewart holds herself like no other actress working and makes choices that both puzzle and fascinate me. She never goes for the obvious beat, always downplays what would conventionally be over-played and as a sheer acting presence, she is intoxicating. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. And much of Personal Shopper‘s allure comes from seeing Stewart embody this person and witnessing Assayas study her.

This is only my second Assayas movie (after Clouds of Sils Maria which Stewart is also terrific in) but it has given me a massive kick to check out more of his work. I like how Personal Shopper feels like a film of its day. It doesn’t try to pretend iPhones and technology doesn’t exist, and accepts all the social awkwardness and insular instincts of the millennial generation rather than damning them. He somehow made a film where a good twenty minutes is dedicated to Stewart sending text messages and it never feels flat or anti-cinematic. His complete disregard for boxes and confines is also thrilling. Assayas isn’t bound by genre rules or even narrative groundworks and seems to follow his characters into whatever genre or plot-turn they demand of him. It’s exciting to see films made this way, films which evade description and are best experienced rather than discussed. I don’t see them often, but when I do I know to cherish them. I only hesitate to give this a full five stars because I’m unsure how it will fare upon rewatch when the unknowing on a scene-by-scene basis is dispelled, but I have a feeling spending another two hours with Stewart’s performance will more than make up for it. Personal Shopper terrified, bemused and moved me in equal measure. SEE THIS FILM.

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Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1995)

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For a straight-to-video sequel, Darkman II has pretty good production value. Despite arriving five years after its predecessor, it certainly feels like a legit continuation of Sam Raimi’s original Darkman rather than a loosely connected cash-in (and I repeat, five years, there must have been some demand due to home video sales). Larry Drake even returns as arch-villain Durant (of the title, duh) to lend a hefty bit of continuity which smooths over the absence of Raimi, Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand from the original somewhat. Darkman himself is played here by future Mummy Arnold Vosloo and he aint bad. To be honest though, given that the character is mostly hidden beneath burn make-up and bandages, you could cast Mel Gibson in the role and nobody would notice. Director Bradford May tries to bridge the gap by doing his best Raimi impression too but, as well all know, there can be only one Sam Raimi.

Where Darkman II really fails is in its story. As more or less a direct retread of the first film, just with a lower budget and none of the goofy humour, there’s just not a lot to get your teeth stuck into. The original Darkman is no classic, but there is something to be enjoyed from seeing a comic-book character conceived purely for the screen. As the origin story for the character, Raimi’s film got all the mileage he needed for a 90 minute romp. Without a rich, layered and convoluted comic-book history and rogues gallery to cull from though, the character feels immediately hollow and silly as soon as you try to stretch two movies out of him instead of just one. Maybe if the filmmakers tried to expand on Raimi’s groundwork rather than just repeat it, this sequel would have more going for it. As it stands though, it just feels like a sequel without purpose.

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Southbound (2015)

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The thing I appreciate about Southbound, the latest in a long line of recent anthology horror films, is the group effort by all the filmmakers involved to create an elaborate and consistent mythology. There’s a world built in this movie, a world that has its own rules and history. It’s brought to life with some sub-par CGI, sure, but it gives the film’s episodic structure a fascinating backdrop. All five stories feel of a piece and intersect in ways that amount to one complete picture as opposed to a handful of loosely connected stand-alone shorts (like, say, in V/H/S). The connective tissue is totally natural to all the stories as well (hey hey Larry Fessenden as a gravelly DJ) which is rare.

Subsequently, the transition from one story to the next is very smooth and, while varied in scope and style, all the stories compliment one another. With each chapter you learn something new about the strange netherworld of Southbound. Sure the concept isn’t anything groundbreaking but it is presented in an off-hand, casual way that ensures the “why?” of everything doesn’t overshadow the “what?”. You don’t mind the weird floating skeletal creatures even though they’re never explicitly explained, just because having something so boldly imagined and designed (as in, obviously a creation, not that the design itself is bold) is refreshing in this sort done-to-death format.

The film balances imagery and ideas of both horror and dark fantasy which is quite ambitious for this sort of film. As with most anthology horrors though, only certain segments really stick in the imagination (Siren and The Accident were highlights for me) meaning your attention does drift here and there. It depends on what chills your blood, but for me Southbound wasn’t especially scary either which is a problem but, like I said, it has enough ambition elsewhere to make up for it. An ultimately average film, but there’s a lot of effort put into this thing which I respect and admire. As far as horror anthologies go, you could do much worse.

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