Monday, 6 July 2020

Review: Inmate #1 - The Rise Of Danny Trejo

This post originally appeared at SetTheTape.com


Inmate #1:
The Rise Of Danny Trejo

Cert: 15 / 108 mins / Dir. Brett Harvey / Trailer

Danny Trejo is, somehow, something of an enigma. Instantly recognisable and with a catalogue spanning over three hundred films, he’s become a near-ubiquitous screen presence over the last three decades. Fans of genre cinema will recognise him from Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, yet he’s also appeared in the family action Spy Kids series, the 2009 buddy-com Fanboys and Laurie Collyer’s addiction-drama Sherrybaby. Some viewers may just know him as That Guy From The Old El Paso Adverts.

Yet for the diversity of his portfolio, the characters played by Danny rarely stray too far from his stock-in-trade: grizzled Mexican hard-men for whom intimidation and violence are a way of life. This is a role which is perfect for him as a performer, and usually works perfectly wherever it’s deployed. It’s common knowledge the actor has a chequered past, but Trejo can’t be too ‘challenging to work with’, or he surely wouldn’t be as busy as he is.

MYSTERY


Doing his very best to unravel this mystery is writer/director Brett Harvey with his fourth feature, Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo. The 108-minute film charts the life of its subject through carefully paced interviews with the man himself, his children Danny Jr, Danielle and Gilbert, sister Dyhan and a swathe of friends and colleagues including Robert Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez and Cheech Marin.

With interwoven clips from five separate, intimate conversations, Brett Harvey has unparalleled access to Trejo and the range of archival family photographs on display demonstrates the seriousness of commitment from both parties. Inmate #1 is beautifully shot and meticulously assembled in both its interviews and interstitial framing (Harvey is also the director of photography here), with a warmth and calm which ultimately reflects where Trejo has found himself.

SEX


Danny’s misdemeanours and ensuing prison-time started early and formed a long period of his life; this is reflected in them occupying the first half of the film. The second skims over the highlights of Trejo’s screen career (understandable, given its breadth). Both are handled with equal care and reverence.

In fact, the highly polished presentation of the opening minutes sends the subliminal yet unmistakable message that there will be no unpleasant surprises here. No matter how grim the charted history becomes, there’s the feeling that this is the approved version of events if not quite a sanitised one.

Danny isn’t proud of his past but he’s very upfront about his mistakes, and this works to his credit. Inmate #1 doesn't glorify or excuse his transgressions, but neither does it challenge the viewer’s preconceptions over someone it’s already assured them is A Great Guy. Even in his more candid confessions, Danny seems to be playing the part of Danny Trejo™. He no longer has the need to prove himself, and the anecdotes and reminiscences feel very well-honed.

FLORENCE


Brett Harvey is to be commended for the project he’s assembled, although it’s more a cinematic biography than a documentary proper. The storytelling (broad and intricate) comes from its star rather than its director and feels slightly unsatisfying given the actual drama contained within. A detached, objective approach would have made for a more interesting film, but much of its texture would be missing without Danny’s insight.

At the core of his rehabilitation is Trejo’s desire to help people. From his post-prison role as a drug counsellor after completing the 12-Step program, to the community work he still undertakes in his hometown of Pacoima, Los Angeles, to the talks he regularly gives in schools, colleges and prisons, the actor focuses on making the world a better place. Not in an effort to atone for old sins, more because it’s just the right thing to do. This is the aspect of Inmate #1 which shines most brightly, where Trejo’s commentary is the most valuable asset. Whether this should take almost two hours to convey is another matter.

At the end of Inmate #1, the viewer knows more facts about the actor although his enigma remains intact, which feels entirely intentional. Because ultimately, Danny Trejo is an executive producer of this film about Danny Trejo*1, and it shows...



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Difficult to say. I always flounder when reviewing and comparing documentaries, and as noted this isn't really a documentary anyway.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Let's not go there, right now.
Literally.
.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is, but probably just as a rental rather than a keeper.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I'd be surprised if that were the case.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Entirely possible.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Danny Trejo's in this (no, really), and he was in the underrated Fanboys with Billy Dee 'Lando' Williams, Jaime 'Aurra Sing' King, Carrie 'Leia' Fisher, Kevin 'voice of First Order Stormtrooper' Smith, Ray 'Maul' Park and Peter 'Chewbacca' Mayhew.
It's a good flick, you should watch it. Thank me later.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Yeah, you're right, the film's IMDB page doesn't say that Danny Trejo is an exec-producer. But the film itself does:



And yeah, since his son Gilbert Trejo is listed there, I'll accept that the Danny mentioned could well be Danny Trejo Jr. But then, since the film later introduces that son as "Danny Trejo Jr", you'd think an exec-producer credit would do likewise to dispel any ambiguity. Besides, Gilbert isn't listed as exec-producer at IMDB either, so what the fuck is even going on at that page?
[ BACK ]

DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Review: Eurovision Song Contest - The Story Of Fire Saga



Eurovision Song Contest:
The Story Of Fire Saga

Cert: TBC / 123 mins / Dir. David Dobkin / Trailer

We live in interesting times of course*1, and the movie distribution business is in something of a state of flux. Cinema releases are being either delayed or hurried forward to VOD, while streaming platforms find their original content presented to a larger audience than probably imagined during each title's production. Sticking its head above the parapet is David (Wedding Crashers) Dobkin's Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga, a comedy co-written by Andrew (Saturday Night Live) Steele.

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams star as Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir. A pair of aspiring, if flawed, musicians from a small fishing community in Iceland, they enter the famed eponymous competition and find themselves at previously unimagined heights when a terrible accident befalls the other competitors. Pierce Brosnan plays Ferrell's gruff father Erick, Dan Stevens appears as the wolfishly flamboyant Russian entrant Alexander Lemtov, with supporting roles from Melissanthi Mahut, Demi Lovato and even Graham Norton, as well as a swathe of cameo appearances from Eurovision stars of recent years.

KITSCH


Let's keep this brief. What should be an kitsch, undemanding, underdog comedy quickly becomes a tactless, lumbering farce played out by a cast who resort to yelling louder the more unfunny the dialogue becomes; a series of badly improvised sketches edited together by someone who spent half of the story-meetings asleep*2. Fans of dodgy accents, dodgy wigs and levels of innuendo that a five year old would find a bit too on-the-nose will find much to enjoy.

The rest of us, meanwhile, have our endurance tested with an 85-minute straight-to-video movie which runs, somehow, at just over two gruelling hours. From a story point of view, this is that episode of Father Ted meets Spinal Tap, but with the charm and wit of neither. In fact, you could just watch those two back to back and save yourself 16 minutes.

SWIFT


As is always the case, I deliberately haven't read much in the way of reaction to this movie prior to watching. But I have heard that the more a viewer enjoys actual Eurovision, the more they'll get out of this. Now I'm not particularly a fan of the annual song competition myself, but I don't dislike it anywhere near as much as I roundly despised The Story Of Fire Saga. Mrs Blackout, however, is a huge fan, and she also struggled with the film. This isn't terrible because of its subject matter; it's terrible because it's just sloppily made.

It isn't a celebration of Eurovision, it's not even a celebration of its own cast. Dan Stevens and Rachel McAdams are better than this. Will Ferrell is not. Because of course he co-wrote it. In fact, this is the mortifying, bellowing, mid-life crisis equivalent of Ben Stiller skateboarding past a volcano*3, like we're getting a glimpse into Will's psyche and it's even more laboured and self-indulgently cack handed than anyone could have imagined. Well now that's out in the world and it can't be denied or un-seen. More's the pity.

Credit where it's due, David Dobkin has delivered precisely what Netflix ordered; a music-based comedy which is perfect for people who like neither music nor comedy.

Will Ferrell is the new Adam Sandler. Fuck this movie.



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
I have no clue. Seriously.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Let's not go there, right now. Literally..


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Nope.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Nope.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Nope.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Nope.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Uncredited Naboo Holy Man turned Jedi Knight is in this.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…*4


*1 It has of course been more than a little quiet round Blackout Towers of late. Since the cinema closed its doors, it's not so much that I've had nothing to watch, more that I've found myself with an absolute dearth of concentration with which to analyse and properly enjoy new content. Working-from-home has meant I haven't suddenly discovered a new burst of downtime (quite the opposite, if anything), and my main source of therapy from the raging trashfire which is 2020 has come in the form of the vintage TV review podcast which I've recorded with my partner in audiophonic crime. And which you should definitely listen to.

But as I look towards my local opening its doors at the end of the month (which is still subject to change of course), I figure I'd better try and get back in the swing of things. So here we are, and what a way to begin... [ BACK ]

*2 And bonus minus-points for the sheer number of conversation scenes where we cut to an angle with the camera behind the actor who's still speaking, while their jaw resolutely fails to move because this was an extended reaction-shot dropped into the edit at the last minute after what one can only assume was "extensive ADR work to try and beef up what passes for a script".
[ BACK ]

*3 And bear in mind I say this as a man in his forties who's currently growing his hair long. [ BACK ]

*4 Because of course I don't "do" zero points, on account of the filmmakers at least having finished a product and got it out there, however dreadful the end result is. And that's sort of a shame as the Eurovision setting would have been perfect for a "nul points" gag, but that would have meant me making a new card-insert just for this review and quite frankly The Story Of Fire Saga isn't worth the effort. Besides, as much as I loathe this, it's still nowhere near as hateful as C.H.i.P.s, and that got 1/7.
[ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Review: Empathy Inc.


This post originally appeared at SetTheTape.com



Empathy Inc.
Cert: CERT / 15 mins / Dir. Yedidya Gorsetman / Trailer

If you could walk a mile in someone else's shoes, would you be a better person once you were back in your own? That's the question posed at the top of Yedidya Gorsetman's Empathy Inc., the sci-fi thriller originally made in 2017, given a US theatrical release in 2019 and now landing in the UK on Blu-ray and digital platforms from Arrow Films.

After losing his cushy Silicon Valley job when a project fails its testing phase, crestfallen tech entrepreneur Joel (Zack Robidas) moves with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) to her parents suburban home. Eager to restore his reputation, Joel stumbles across an old contact Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), who is the PR-front for a new startup with tech-whizz Lester (Jay Klaitz).

The eponymous Empathy Inc. has developed Extreme Virtual Reality - XVR - a combination of digital and pharmaceutical technology which drops its subject into a startlingly realistic simulation of someone else's life. Joel tries it once and is utterly convinced of the product. He then inveigles his way into his in-law's savings for a cool million dollars, soon seeing handsome returns on the investment. But despite Joel's excitement, Nicolaus and Lester remain more tight-lipped than ever over the project's actual mechanics. To make matters worse Joel starts to experience gaps in his own memory, and an already tense home-life is further soured when it appears that the investment has been lost. But the truth of the matter is more incredible than any of them could have guessed, as Joel and Jessica are about to find out...

TIPPING


Director Yedidya Gorsetman and writer Mark Leidner collaborated on 2014's Jammed (as well as 2019's Same Boat), and there's a reassuring coherence throughout Empathy Inc. as a potentially convoluted story is laid out clearly without tipping over into spoon-feeding. Full credit goes to the players for keeping pace with the creative vision for an escalating pantomime of paranoia, which still manages to emotionally convince in the heights of its ridiculousness.

The film is presented in high-contrast monotone which, for what is clearly a very low budget movie, lends a definitive veneer of class which would probably otherwise be missing. Considering its narrative roots in computer science, this is a deliciously lo-fi sci-fi flick. Some of the props are purposely held together with duct-tape, while other aspects are kept artfully off-screen. Like any good conjuring trick we don't see how the magic works, it's enough to know that it does. Gorsetman relies on the imagination of the audience and the acting skills of the cast, a gambit which pays off surprisingly well. While this doesn't necessarily feel 'stagey', Empathy Inc. is analogue enough to the point where it would work equally well onstage as a live production, as evidenced by its neat framing device.

MATCH


And yet... at its heights, Empathy Inc. evokes the spirits of The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and the seminal Primer. All of which feels like a healthy stylistic pedigree until one realises that those well-dissected works surfaced over a decade and a half ago. The themes explored here are as relevant as ever - as is the methodology - but their delivery in the format of a feature film already seems dated.

The script is clinical in some areas and vague in others; important plot setups are skirted over in the first act even though they're referred to later, and the full potential of the XVR product isn't fully explored. With not quite enough detail to fill out the run-time, this has the feeling of a short prose story which would have been better adapted to an hour-long televisual format.

As a seed for thought, Empathy Inc. has a lot going for it; that's just probably not quite enough.

VANTAGE


The Blu-ray edition comes with a commentary track from director Yedidya Gorsetman and writer Mark Leidner, as well as trailers, a behind the scenes reel and deleted scenes. These weren't available on our review-copy but if the film itself is to go by they should make for an intriguing accompaniment to the movie.

Empathy Inc. feels far from outstanding, yet it's a solid achievement and has a sense of its own identity (somewhat ironically) which many mainstream tech-thrillers lack. As a stepping-stone to greater things for its creators, this is perhaps one to appreciate rather than outright enjoy...



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Think of a more accessible Primer.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
You're unlikely to get the chance outside of the convention-circuit, but it'd be interesting to watch on a big screen.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
This is, with the best will in the world, a streamer.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I can't make that call.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's possible.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This stars Zack Robidas, who was in the 'Worst Behaviour' episode of Marvel's The Defenders with Jessica 'Pava' Henwick and Rosario 'Rumoured to Be The Upcoming Live-Action Ahsoka Tano' Dawson.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…




DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Batch Review: The Isolation Tapes, Part I



All work and no play makes Ian Blackout a dull boy. Ian Blackout is arguably a dull boy to begin with of course (to which regular readers of this blog will attest), but still. In the middle of March 2020, cinemas in the UK finally (and rightly) closed their doors in the face of a burgeoning global pandemic; no more details of that are required in this missive, I'm sure.

Of course for a blog which exists almost solely to review the movies its proprietor has watched at the cinema, this is the equivalent of backing it into a garage, putting it up on blocks, removing the wheels and waiting for the dust to gather. World of Blackout reviews some films at home, but not many. I like the structure of the theatrical experience. If I preferred doing it in my living room, that's what the blog would be to begin with. But I digress.

Now I was (and am) lucky enough to have a job which, for the most part, can be performed from home. It's far from ideal, but it is possible. But since it takes longer from the kitchen table, and since the remainder of the activities have to be performed from the office while it's deserted at weekends, this has resulted in far less free time than I'd have had normally. Woe is me, I know. Not complaining, that's just how it is.

Anyway, the knock-on effect of this is that my 'to-watch list' has barely budged at all over the last month, as even when I find myself at a loose end and craving escapist distraction, I don't have the concentration or enthusiasm to appreciate it properly anyway.

With this in mind, I've taken to watching entries on the macabre-pile (quickly developing a Lovecraft theme, some of which I've seen before, many of which I haven't) and committing to nothing more than micro-reviews on the blog's social media platforms. And there still aren't many of these, but I present them here in a round-up form as a means of completion and continuity. And let's face it, to have something to post this month.

World Of Blackout will return in earnest as soon as the cinemas do*1...



IN FABRIC (2019)
Cert: 15 / 119 mins / Dir. Peter Strickland

Boy, I wish I'd enjoyed this more. In Fabric makes me realise how spoiled we've been with the works of Gatiss, Shearsmith, Pemberton and Dyson. There are seeds of absolute brilliance, but they're left untended in a sprawling, unsatisfying story that looks darkly beautiful but feels like it's been written by someone who doesn't know how it should end...





IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
Cert: 18 / 91 mins / Dir. John Carpenter

I've watched In The Mouth Of Madness before. I don't remember it being great, but I certainly remember it being better. The film's heart is in the right place and I won't fault the ambition, but Carpenter is a very literal director, so concerned here with heavy-handed tropes that he can't tell (or doesn't care) when his cast veer between under- and over-acting. Check out the Twitter-thread for the full, visually-assisted, list of gripes...





COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2020)
Cert: 15 / 108 mins / Dir. Richard Stanley

Owing as much to Raimi and Cronenberg as Lovecraft, Color Out Of Space is cheap trash masquerading as ponderous invasion-horror. Contains Cage-heavy notes of Mom And Dad and Mandy, both of which are more fun and more focused. Reproducing the eponymous, indefinable, indescribably alien hue was always going to be tricky in a visual medium where questions have to be answered. Anyway, turns out it was fuchsia...





THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)
Cert: 18 / 86 mins / Dir. Daniel Haller

Yes, if you can't be outright scary or even macabre, aim for 'camp as a row of tents' instead. There's more of The Love God? than Lovecraft about this, but it's good kitsch fun if you're in the right mood. The cinematography, production design, direction and haphazard continuity of The Dunwich Horror just makes me want to watch The Love Witch and Garth Marenghi again, which suggests I enjoyed this film for precisely the wrong reasons...





THE DUNWICH HORROR (2009)
Cert: N/A / 89 mins / Dir. Leigh Scott

If 2009's iteration of The Dunwich Horror was a no-budget fan film or someone's A-Level project, it'd be more than acceptable. But y'know. It wasn't, it wasn't and it isn't. You might think it would be inherently wrong to retool Lovecraft with Indy-style relic hunting, and you'd be absolutely right. But props to Dean Stockwell for delivering his lines here with a straight face and absolutely no shame...





DAGON (2001)
Cert: 18 / 98 mins / Dir. Stuart Gordon

It's a surprisingly nasty little horror which moves at a cracking pace with great tension and solid effects-work, but a cast running the full gamut of acting styles from 'Ikea' to 'enthusiastic am-dram'. A zombie-flick by any other name, Dagon works far better than many others on its shelf. Not stylish enough to be one of the all-time greats, but since when did students of #HPLovecraft worry about being cool?





THE CALL OF CTHULHU (2005)
Cert: N/A / 45 mins / Dir. Andrew Leman

Utterly Glorious. Clears the hurdle of 'filming the un-filmable' by embracing an era of cinema when visual economy was king, shining with unconditional love for its subject while retaining an air of arch fun. One of the purest examples in recent times of art existing in commercial form, but purely for the sake of art. The Call Of Cthulhu is an analogue passion-project for a digital age...





THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS (2011)
Cert: N/A / 103 mins / Dir. Sean Branney

If this recent season has illustrated anything, it's that Lovecraft works best in cinema when he's not so much adapted as transcribed and embellished. The style of The Whisperer In Darkness may be of the 1930s, but paranoia is timeless. The film probably looks more 'clean' than it should, but is meticulous in its joy for film noir and early sci-fi. What's more, it's also a fantastic movie in its own right, keen to savour every last frame of uncanny dread...






*1 Although given the re-opening will be by necessity somewhat staggered and that the global release market is currently in a state of utter upheaval and re-scheduling, I dread to think a) what new content there will be to watch, b) what sanitised, crowd-pleasing, back-catalogue filler will be shown alongside it, and c) what the level of etiquette will be amongst patrons who didn't know how to behave in a public space before being cooped up with a minimum of physical human contact for weeks on end.

It'll either be really quiet in the cinemas, or ridiculously busy. One of those is ideal for me, the other is ideal for the businesses themselves. C'est la vie. Things will even out in the long-run, I have no doubt, but prepare for more complaining from the heights of Blackout Towers until it does. Which I imagine you already were, anyway... [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.