Welcome to the latest chapter in our series, as The Snooty Ushers trawl through the cast expanse of Netflix. Braving the unknown… discovering the hidden gems… risking the dire and the dreadful… all so you don’t have to.
1. Starter For 10 (Tom Vaughan, 2006)
Set in 1985, Starter For 10 is the story of Essex boy Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), a University Challenge fan who goes off to Bristol University and gets the chance to be on the show. The team is led by Patrick Watts (Benedict Cumberbatch) and also includes the beautiful Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve), whom Brian immediately falls for. Among the other characters on campus are Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall) who Brain meets at a typically naff “Vicars and Tarts” party and greets with a decidedly uncool “That’s a Jewish name”.
Like History Boys and Driving Lessons from my previous Negotiating Netflix (click here to check that one out) this is a very British, coming of age story. It also has a soundtrack full of 80s classics.
As you can tell, the cast for this is absolutely stellar. Benedict Cumberbatch and James McAvoy have gone on to huge Hollywood success, Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall aren’t doing too badly either. History Boys stars Dominic Cooper and James Corden play Brian’s childhood friends who he worries about leaving behind, and Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan have a memorable turn as Alice’s parents.
Of course, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve were both in Star Trek: Into Darkness and it’s fun to imagine them on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster talking about the film they made based at Bristol University. Also, Mark Gatiss plays Bamber Gascoigne, the host of University Challenge, which gives this little piece of awesome for Sherlock fans:
The fact that Tom Vaughan went to Hollywood and ended up making dreck like What Happens in Vegas and So Undercover is a shame. This seems like it should have been a launching pad for him as well. This is a fun, funny film, and a definite recommendation.
And I just have to include this trailer to show one of the reasons why this isn’t better known. Of course there is a love triangle in the film, but to use that as the main selling point of the movie (charming and likable as the three actors are) is a misstep.
2. Mars Needs Moms! (Simon Wells, 2011)
Mars Needs Moms! is one of the biggest box office flops of all time costing over $150 million and making less than $40 million. However, it’s unfair to condemn a film without seeing it, so I thought I would give it a go. I enjoyed big chunks of the equally financially disastrous John Carter, so would there be anything in this?
The basic story of Mars Needs Moms is that Martians cannot raise their children properly, and so have to build nanny bots, which they then fill with the discipline of mothers from Earth. Milo (Seth Green) sees his mother (Joan Cusack) being abducted and stows away on the spaceship, makes it to Mars, and tries to rescue his mother.
I have no problem admitting I enjoy some kid’s entertainment a bit more than I should, although I’m not on Dave’s level (click here to read the article on his transformation to Disney collector). And if this hits enough sci fi buttons like Planet 51, this could still be enjoyable.
And there are parts of it that are enjoyable. There’s a comedy sidekick Gribble who is mostly quite annoying, but his 80s references (he’s been stuck on Mars for 20 years) are amusing. And there a couple of (rather jarringly) dark moments. Gribble faces an actual firing squad, with a charred outline on the wall behind him, and Gribble also witnesses his mother being vapourized.
But there are so many problems with the film. The first of them is the animation style…in fact no, the very first issue is with the title. Not only is it annoyingly American, it also comes across as needless manipulative. We all take our mothers for granted! This seems to be trying to play on that guilt.
Ok, so onto the animation style. This film was shot using motion capture, a point that the film makers felt compelled to explain during the closing credits by showing clips of the process. A great technical feat for sure, but it doesn’t look good enough on the screen, and that has to be the most important thing! A straight up animation would have worked so much better for the film. There is the “uncanny valley” effect in the faces (the similar Polar Express and Christmas Carol had the same issues but just about got away with it) but even worse is the movement of the characters. Seth Green and Joan Cusack obviously put a lot of work into the film, but the opening scene with them looks so poor, like a cut scene from a decade old game. The postures are so stiff, it’s almost laughable that it was allowed on screen. Later scenes on Mars are fine, which makes the opening scenes even stranger.
And my final problem, even in a kid’s film, the plot doesn’t really hold up. A one line explanation (raising children wasted too much time and wasn’t efficient) towards the end isn’t enough, especially when the Martians actually spend all of their time tracking and selecting mothers. But then, even if it’s silly, the system in place seems to work, but is thrown out in the final scene and replaced by a chaos which would almost certain bring about the end of the society. Oh, and Gribble ends up going back to Mars with a hippie speaking Martian, with the strong implication of a romantic relationship between the two.
Now, obviously the target audience would not care about any of this and be happy to overlook any plot holes and enjoy the ride. But the box office would suggest that didn’t happen either. Thumbs down – there’s very little here for the adults to enjoy, and there are plenty of better things to watch for the kids on Netflix.
3. Leprechaun Origins (Zach Lipovsky, 2014)
Four American tourists on holiday on Ireland decide to go to look at some of the oldest Celtic artifacts at a place called the Stones of the Gods. While staying in a cabin they are attacked in the night, and have to survive… the Leprechaun.
This is a darker, “more traditional horror” reboot of the Warwick Davis franchise, made by WWE Studios and starring Dylan Postl (Hornswoggle) as the Leprechaun. And it is rubbish. Really rubbish.
There are so many problems with this film. Firstly, I don’t understand why it had to be called Leprechaun, or have any links to that series. The Leprechaun in this film doesn’t speak, absolutely removing the “so bad it’s good” humour of the originals. Instead, this Leprechaun is a rabid beast, more reminiscent of the creatures from The Descent than anything.
Not that you can tell. Delaying showing your monster is part of every horror movie, but this is done so lazily it’s infuriating. Keep the monster in the shadows, out of sight, that’s all fine. But the characters see the creature clearly within the first 15 minutes of the film, and time and again are face to face with it. But the director deliberately obscures the audience’s view with quick cuts and shaky cam. If this was selling a frenzied attack, again, that’s all fine. But no. The director obviously doesn’t have any confidence in the design of the monster, so even when the characters are being chased out in the open by the leprechaun, we don’t get to see it properly.
Not that we care about the characters either. The actors playing the Irish actors are really bad, their accent wavering throughout. And the American tourists are some of the blandest characters set to film, apparently one about to qualify as a doctor and another considering studying History (that’s why they are in Ireland) at Berkeley (because you can just choose not to go to one of the most prestigious universities on a whim). But the other couple? They are presented as a group of friends, but they don’t have anything in common, they act like just 2 random couples.
I’ll have to wrap this up because Leprechaun Origin doesn’t deserve this many words written about it. The kills are so unoriginal, there are scenes and shots lifted wholesale from other films. The music is bad, at times sounding like an electric keyboard. The camera work, as I’ve mentioned, is bad. The acting is bad. The script is bad. Even the credits are bad (12 minutes long and intercut with some random shots of farming equipment).
One of the first lines of dialogue is a Deliverance reference, which is a strange thing to do, as it reminds the audience of a far, far, far better movie. This is a bland, boring, generic film. The worst film I’ve seen in a long time. Thumbs down, minus 5 stars, avoid at all costs.
(Leprechaun Origin was so bad it actually set this column back about a week. I had to cleanse my palate with The Wicker Man – read my Christopher Lee article here – and This Is Spinal Tap. I just couldn’t face another trip into Netflix without preparing myself! And it was this next film that gave me the motivation to finish this piece, so if I overrate it, it’s because I’m coming from such a low ebb)
4. Russell Madness (Robert Vince, 2015)
In Portland, a young dog Russell in a pet shop sees the rest of his litter adopted one by one, leaving him alone. At the same time, the Ferraro family inherits an old, run down wrestling hall from their Grandfather, with the proviso that if they can turn a profit within a year, the building is theirs to sell.
As you can probably guess, Russell joins up with the family, finds a home and the wrestling hall becomes a success. Russell becomes a wrestling superstar, being coached by the Grandfather’s “partner” Hunk – a talking monkey (voiced by Will Sasso) – and helps the family fight off the dastardly machinations of big time promoter Mick Vaughn (John Ratzenberger).
All in all, a pretty entertaining family film. I’d give it a recommendation simply based on that. The story line is sweet but not too much so, the child actors aren’t especially annoying (always a bonus) and the legendary Fred Willard is on form as a commentator for the wrestling, getting in some great lines (“looks like we’ve got some time to kill, so…what have you been up to for the last 25 years?”)
However, if you have any interest in wrestling at all, and can deal with watching a kid’s film, you HAVE to watch this film. The more you know about independent wrestling, the more you will enjoy it. Someone involved with the script is a huge wrestling fan, with plenty of insider jokes. For example, WUF owner Mick Vaughn is a facsimile of Vince McMahon, that much is obvious. However, the scene when he offers to buy out the elder Ferraro (like McMahon did in the 80s when taking WWF from regional promotion to having nationwide scope), and later when he talks about how the shows are more entertainment based than wrestling now, shows there is more going on with script than anything you would ever except in a family film. John Hennigan (John Morrison from WWE, currently Johnny Mundo in Lucha Underground) plays Helix “The Hammer” Munroe the champion of WUF, and plays up the Shamen of Sexy character better than he ever managed on TV in WWE. If you were a fan of him in The Dirt Shirt but disappointed that he never got to translate it to the big stage – here he does. And finally, to me, the Ferraro Wrestling Arena looks a lot like The Hammerstein Ballroom, doesn’t it?
Ignore the reviews saying how silly the premise is. It’s based on pro wrestling. Enjoy it.
5. The Phantom (Simon Wincer, 1996)
There was a time when comic book films weren’t a guarantee of hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and extensive franchises. Personally I always group the The Phantom with Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon. Dick Tracy was a stylized film based on a very stylized comic strip, and Flash Gordon tried to capture the Saturday morning feel of the 1930s film serials. So how does The Phantom compare?
We start with a boy watching his sea captain father being killed by pirates and swimming ashore to an island to be nursed back to health by the island tribesmen. He becomes the Phantom and vows to destroy “piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice”. His son becomes the Phatom on his death, followed by his son, and so on. This leads to the Phantom being apparently immortal and becoming known as “The Ghost Who Walks”.
In 1938, we meet the 21st Phantom (a muscular Billy Zane) dealing with some mercenaries on his home island of Bengalla trying to steal a skull. The mercenary Quill (James Remarr) escapes to New York, causing the Phantom to to travel to New York to stop a plot by Xander Drax (Treat Williams) with the help of his old college flame Diana Palmer (Kirsty Swanson).
This seems like a strange movie to be released in 1996. The next year Billy Zane was in a little film called Titanic. This was the year after GoldenEye had relaunched the Bond franchise, Mission Impossible and Independence Day showed what action movies could do. So this feels like a film released at the wrong time. Doing a bit of research and finding out that The Rock was released on the same day day definitely makes me feel that way.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Like Thor or Captain America if this film was released now it would be a change of pace from other superhero films, being neither dark and brooding or having to juggle and protect long term story lines. It is a fun, light film, with enough action to whip through the 100 minute running time. Watch this as a throw back, don’t expect a classic, and this is a definite recommendation
And that’s it for this edition. Three good films, one bad film, and one terrible film. I hope to be Negotiating Netflix again soon. Until then, thanks for reading!
See you next time.