Category Archives: DVDs & Rentals

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DVD Review: Prisoner Of War

Scratching at the surface, rather than being the hard-hitting expose it clearly wants to be, Prisoner Of War offers a different slant on the recent chaos in Iraq.

Set for the bulk of its running time in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the film looks to shed some light on the less-than-gentle antics of the American prison guards stationed there, using real-life incidents from 2003 as a backdrop.

The film follows young soldier Jack Farmer (writer-director-star Luke Moran), shipped out to the Middle East for what is supposedly a brief tour of duty.

Eager to gain as much experience as he can, Farmer volunteers for extra shifts at the prison, and before you know it he is striking up a friendship of sorts with captive Ghazi (Omid Abtahi), who stands accused of killing 18 people with a makeshift bomb.

But as evidence of US torture comes to light, and the promised leave of absence becomes instead an extra six months duty, can Farmer remain the affable, somewhat wide-eyed innocent he starts out?

That is the question Moran poses, and it is an interesting one, with the film asking as much about the effect on the US forces themselves, as the punishments they meted out.

Indeed, with the guards holed up in cells of their own (albeit without locks) and chalking off their remaining days, Prisoner Of War makes the case that for many of the troops, Abu Ghraib was just as much a prison as for those held there.

Where the film falls down though is that Moran never really gets under the skin of what went on – very little is shown in the way of torture, nor do we ever really get into the mindset of those responsible, which really dilutes the impact of the film as a whole.

I’m not saying for a second that I wanted endless scenes of brutality filling the screen, but for a film that aims to shed light on the nastiness the Americans got up to, seeing some of that nastiness would have helped.

Performances are pretty strong – Moran is just fine as the affable, easy-going soldier slowly seeing his morals eroded, while there is solid support from Abtahi as the prisoner who may know more than he is letting on.

We also get bookend scenes back in the States, which offers up Jon Heard as Jack’s father and the always cute Sara Paxton as the soldier’s girl.

Pacing wise the film is sluggish at times – never boring, but drifting when it should be punching you in the gut.

In fact, at times the film could easily be a stage play, with an obvious low-budget, limited sets and a small cast.

That is no bad thing though, with Moran offering up an adult, interesting tale with a sting in the tail – just don’t expect too much.

Prisoner Of War is available to buy via:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/prisoner-of-war-2014/id905466961

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DVD Review: Transcendence

Rock ‘n’ Roll genius scientist Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), the world’s foremost researcher in Artificial Intelligence is bringing sexy back to science and is ON THE VERGE OF A DISCOVERY THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT! He must be a genius; he has tousled hair, glasses and a sweater vest. Unfortunately his controversial experiments have made him as infamous as he is famous and he’s targeted by a terrorist group of 21st century Luddite anti-technology extremists.

Surviving their initial assassination attempt only to find himself fatally poisoned by a radioactive bullet, Will, with the aid of wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend and fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany) downloads his consciousness into a computer before expiring. But is the Will reboot, Will 2.0, really Will?

Sceptical scientist Morgan Freeman and suspicious Fed Cillian Murphy have their doubts and, when Will takes control of the stock market, buys himself a town in the desert and starts curing the world’s sick, disabled and dying with nanobots, building himself an army of nano-enhanced zombies and splaffing around his grey goo, they join forces with arch-Luddite Kate Mara to pull the digitised Will’s plug, byting off more than they can chew as the near omnipotent computer program fights back…

Where’s Wally? With Transcendence’s less-than-stellar performance at the US box office begging questions about Johnny Depp’s validity as a movie star capable of opening a film (Answer: he can’t. None of his films have ever made bank apart from the ones where he’s a trustafarian pirate. Check the stats.) and the film itself asking some pretty big questions about what it means to be human, about how our society treats its sick and disabled, about the dangers of rapidly evolving technology, it’s intrusion into our personal lives, the impending singularity, about hubris, about love, about grief, does God exist and if not do we have the right to create Him (or Her), the biggest question Transcendence fails to ask is just where is novice director, and Christopher Nolan’s favourite cinematographer, Wally Pfister? So suffused is the film with Nolan’s DNA, borrowing his sombre, sober style and his stock supporting cast (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy) there’s little evidence of Pfister, Transcendence feeling almost like a reverent homage to a mentor, an approximation of Nolan’s work assembled from constituent parts (think Gus Van Sant’s faithful but bland Psycho remake), much as protagonist/antagonist Will is reconstructed in the ether. Like the dilemma faced by it’s characters however, Transcendence’s biggest problem is that just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a duck. Aptly, there’s something just a little mechanical about it.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t ambitious (it is; very) or that it isn’t enjoyable; it’s a sleek, intelligent slice of sci-fi that, with the exception of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, feels more Philip K. Dick-esque than any actual adaptations of Dick’s work (yes geekboys, wonderful as Blade Runner is, even it doesn’t really engage with old Horselover Fat’s ideas and preoccupations on anything but a surface level), cherry-picking ideas and beats from Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers (most obviously Prey), from sci-fi classics like 2001, The Matrix and Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed, as well as forgotten gems like The Forbin Project and cult favourites like Max Headroom, defying and confounding expectations right up until the moment it turns into any other Summer popcorn studio pap in it’s disappointing final act with the army bringing in tanks to fight Depp’s zombie army and dark, clouds of nanobots that move like mesmerising starlings through to a fudged final twist.

The performances for the most part are good with the luminous Hall wonderful as the grieving widow, driven half-mad by loss, single-mindedly attempting to keep her husband alive as more than just a memory, her eyes bright with wounded insanity, while Mara, Murphy and Freeman are reliably dependable though Bettany is rather wasted as the computer genius best bud whose sole role is really just to explain proceedings to the audience, much as Donald Sutherland tended to do in films of the ‘90s, and would certainly have made a more interesting, more sympathetic Will than Depp. The film’s weakest link, as with most of the films he chooses to sleepwalk through, is Johnny Depp playing the ghost in the machine as if he’s an opium-addled Professor Brian Cox but with better hair, hipster Harry Potter specs and an Elvis mumble rather than an excitable Manc nasal whine and the enthusiasm of a puppy in a room full of unhumped legs. There’s little chemistry between Depp and Hall but that may actually work in the film’s favour, Depp’s Will being something of a cold fish growing increasingly possessive over his wife. And frankly, casting the bland, tedious Depp as a genius scientist who single-handedly takes over the Internet and brings the world to its collective knees is, well, about as plausible as the decision to cast teenager-stalker James Franco in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes as a genius scientist who accidentally destroys Mankind by creating both a race of super monkeys and a deadly virus. I don’t care how many times Judd Apatow tells us James Franco was reading The Iliad on the set of Pineapple Express or how many dead, gun-nut writers Depp used to hang out with, if we’re being honest, neither one really strikes you as big readers, do they?

While Transcendence almost inevitably recycles Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with its mad scientist meddles with Nature and develops God complex plot, though Will’s God complex is tangible in that’s a Bond villain-ish underground complex, Transcendence is at it’s best in its quieter moments as the creepy Depp, remote and cold while alive, becomes a controlling, abusive presence in Hall’s life, monitoring her every move, watching her sleep, her life bracketed by his ever-present image staring out at her from computer screens, the obsessive stalker flipside of Spike Jonze’s Her, a cyber Sleeping With The Enemy.

As dire a warning of the future as Transcendence may be however with its omnipotent, sentient, control freak computer program regulating and invading every aspect of our lives, it doesn’t address our own culpability. Knowledge is power and every day we willingly surrender more and more information online to faceless government bureaucrats and viral marketers. We already live in a virtual world; we shop online, work online, date online. Who needs Johnny Depp as a virtual reality Jesus when we have Mumsnet and Dishface Cameron policing the Internet for us, telling us what we can and can’t look at. The scary reality is it’s not the ghost of dead genius virtually dabbling in our lives but a cabal of old Etonians and Amazon. Now, where did I leave my radioactive bullets?

Ambitious and thought provoking without ever really engaging emotionally, Transcendence should be commended for being a tent-pole studio flick that at least credits its audience with the same degree of intelligence as the film itself.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

Hypnotisoren i regi av Lasse Hallstrom

DVD Review: The Hypnotist

As a huge fan of husband-and-wife team Lars Kepler’s astonishingly good debut novel, I was excited to see how it would translate to screen.

Unfortunately, the film had a lot to live up to, being touted by many (including FrightFest when it screened at the festival last year), as the new Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The novel stands tall next to its Scandinavian sister. However, the film only suffers in comparison, the mousey librarian next to its wild, punky sibling.

The film opens in a similar vein to the book. CID’s Detective Inspector Joona Linna (Tobias Zilliacus) is called to two crime scenes – the murder of a teacher in a sports hall, and the annihilation of a little girl and her mother, the brother left comatose after a vicious stabbing (Jonatan Bökman). The murders are related as the teacher is the father of the murdered child.

At the hospital, anxious to solve the murder for the sake of the surviving boy, Det Insp Linna begs trauma expert, and disgraced hypnotist, the fantastically monikered Erik Bark (Mikael Persbrandt), to try to break through the coma to uncover what the boy has witnessed.

Meanwhile, Linna discovers the boy has a sister who is still alive but off the radar and, believing she is set for slaughter, he sets off to search for her and uncover the seeming vendetta against the family.

Bark has his own problems to contend with; chronic insomnia, a suspicious wife (Lena Olin) who wants a break from the relationship, a haemophiliac son (Oscar Pettersson) who’s affected by his parents’ problematic marriage.

And the focus is almost exclusively on the Bark family. For example, there is a nicely executed scene straight from the book where a hooded figure emerges from the shadows and steals away the son after drugging the mother. Bark Senior has already unwittingly aided him by taking sleeping tablets, rendering him out cold. The film follows the hunt for the missing boy.

There were a few complex, even controversial, plotlines in the novel which unfortunately director Lasse Hallstrom wasn’t brave enough to tackle, such as the legacy of child abuse, which is a central tenet of the book. It is only touched upon in the film with the questioning of one of Erik’s former patients, Evert Braun.

As Hallstrom has a reputation for making sentimental films (Chocolat, Safe Haven, Dear John), maybe he found the grittiness and controversy too far a departure from his usual oeuvre. This can be backed up by the fact he seems to have culled the enigmatic and complex Linna down from his starring role in the book to a mere side man, in favour of the titular hypnotist and his family, focusing more on their emotional problems and family issues. This is a shame (especially as I was hopeful there would be more sequels featuring Linna, just like the books) and especially as such a lot of the story has been culled with him. No more a Dirty Harry type, he has been castrated into a mere PC Plod.

The film’s drab traditional, stereotypical bleached Swedish noir imagery is lit in practically every scene with shots of light smearing through the shadowy soft focus; from the opening sun just breaking through the clouds over a stark city landscape, and later sunbeams reminiscent of spotlights aiding a police search, through to fairy lights, and the traditional Swedish Christmas candelabra.

What does this leitmotif mean? The light of hope shining through the dark, dirty murders, the truth emerging from lies, awareness versus catatonia – or just the light at the end of a dull tunnel..? Like the murkiness of the imagery, the leitmotif seems rather obscure as well, obfuscated by the plot twists that have been prematurely strangled, aborted in their prime.

As the last third has been slashed to pieces, and the thrilling finale re-envisaged and also truncated, the ending rushes up to you after a rather slow middle, and is over before you know it.

So much of the book’s interwoven plots and background are edited, as well as many supporting characters. In fact, the only real viciousness, apart from the brief, frenzied scenes of murder, is the culling of the script and Linna’s character.

However, I still think the film has enough to sustain it and I’d almost recommend you only watch it if you haven’t read the book. Though it’s hard to warm to the movie version of Linna (who is confusingly similar looking to Bark), the kid is cinematically endowed with Swedish blond cuteness and you do develop a relationship with the family, and care what happens to them.

There are also problems with the subtitling, like it has been rushed out without being checked, which is unlikely as it has been over a year since its Swedish theatrical release.

The Swedish title is Hypnotisoren and, seeing as there were so many spelling errors in the subtitles, I’m rather surprised Hypnotisnoren didn’t appear in large letters across the screen. It would have been more appropriate, given the circumstances.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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DVD Review: Killing Season

I don’t know about you, but, for me, seeing the names Robert De Niro and John Travolta pop up in a straight-to-DVD release is a bit of a surprise (OK, maybe not Travolta so much – but you get the point…).

But then you sit down to watch the damn thing and the whole ‘avoiding a cinema release’ saga suddenly makes sense.

For this is Killing Season, a bizarre action flick that sees the two stars squaring off against each other in a bloody battle for survival in the American wilderness.

De Niro plays Ben Ford, a now-retired soldier who back in the day was part of a peacekeeping force during the Yugoslavian crisis.

Pre-credits, Ford is shown supposedly gunning down Travolta’s Emil Kovac in cold blood, execution style, after finding Kovac and his Serbian goons running a Nazi-esque concentration camp (complete with rotting corpses stacked in train carriages).

Wouldn’t you know though, Kovac does not actually die, instead hiring investigators years later to track down Ford (who has now retired to an isolated log cabin) so that he can travel to the States and gain his revenge.

And that is it as far as plot goes with, aside from a laboured sub-plot involving Ford’s son Chris (Milo Ventimiglia) and his newborn son, the film’s entire running time taken up with plenty of chat and chase from the two heavyweights.

So what exactly goes wrong?

Well, Travolta for starters, with the actor showcasing one of the worst beard/ludicrous accent combos ever to make it on screen.

You just cannot take anything he does seriously, which is a huge stumbling block for a film that quite clearly takes itself oh-so seriously.

If the film was aiming for a Swordfish/Face-Off campness then fine – but it most definitely isn’t.

De Niro on the other hand pretty much drifts through his part, although he is expected to go through a lot of physical stuff considering his years.

The action sequences are actually not that bad (gaining an extra star), although they are lost amid a sea of clichés that any seasoned viewer will spot a mile off.

And, to top the whole package off, director Mark Steven Johnson then decides to round things off with a saccharine-sweet ending that really slaps you round the face and renders the whole thing almost pointless.

I’ve defended Johnson in the past, having fended off many a naysayer for his handling of Daredevil back in the day.

But there is little I can do with Killing Season, and if the film going straight-to-DVD means less people actually see it, then all the better.

 

VERDICT: [rating=2]

 

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DVD Review: The Quiet Ones

Few things fill me with quite so much terror as the legend “Based on a true story…” before a horror film.

It’s like an icy hand squeezing my bowels, dread gnawing at my entrails and not in a good way.

I know that the film I’m about to watch will, like a Conservative Culture Secretary of State’s expenses claim, have only the sketchiest relation to reality and probably be a lot less exciting. The plot will be hackneyed, illogical, the acting dodgy, the drama largely invented, the conclusion dissatisfying. For every film like The Girl Next Door or Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer that genuinely disturbs there’s a From Hell (Johnny Depp as a crime-fighting, Ripper-hunting relation of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the Chimineree Sweep), a Borderland or The Entity. Though Borderland is worth watching just for tubby hobbit Sean Astin’s turn as a cheerfully sweaty American ex-pat member of a human sacrificing, Mexican voodoo death cult. And who among us has never idly fantasised about hacking to death a character from Boy Meets World.

Capitalising on the goodwill earned from 2010’s Let The Right One In remake, Let Me In, and 2011’s vastly underrated Wake Wood, as well as the global success of 2012’s The Woman In Black, Hammer Films latest retro horror, The Quiet Ones, is a stylish little chiller that draws loosely on 1972’s infamous Philip Experiment, which saw Toronto-based academics try to manufacture psychic phenomena in an attempt to prove poltergeists are an unconscious product of the human mind.

Relocating the action to 1974 Oxford University, charismatic, unorthodox psychology professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) recruits young cameraman Brian (Snow White And The Huntsman and Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin) from the university’s AV department to help him document a controversial experiment he’s working on.

Coupland believes that ghosts and paranormal activity are merely psychic manifestations of emotional and mental trauma and that this “negative brain energy” can be forcibly induced, harvested and destroyed, curing the patient of their illness in the process. Which is why he and his favourite students Krissi (Erin Richards of Open Grave) and Harry (Vampire Academy’s Rory Fleck-Byrne) have the profoundly psychologically disturbed Jane (Olivia Cooke) locked in a makeshift cell and subjecting her to Guantanamo levels of torture and sleep deprivation, blasting Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at her 24/7.

The orphaned victim of childhood trauma, Jane believes she is possessed by the malevolent Evey, a spirit with a penchant for pyromania who lives in the fire-blackened plastic doll she takes everywhere. Drawn to the vulnerable young woman, the shy, naive Brian agrees to help and, when the team loses the support and funding of the university, relocates with them to an isolated country house where Coupland’s interest in Jane proves less and less purely scientific. As the attraction between Brian and Jane grows, Evey becomes increasingly destructive, her attacks reaching beyond the confines of the experiment into the team’s everyday lives, demonic writing appearing on the fragile Jane’s body. Despite Coupland’s insistence on rationality, that Evey is all in Jane’s mind, it soon becomes apparent that there may be a simpler, darker, supernatural explanation…

Remarkably understated and subtle right up until the moment about two thirds in when it spirals like a wounded Spitfire into its shrill hysterical final act, The Quiet Ones is an enjoyably predictable, tense, atmospheric, slow-burning little shocker with a resolutely old-fashioned feel to it, it’s nostalgic ‘70s setting recalling Hammer’s heyday and fond childhood memories (for me, at any rate) of its Hammer House Of Horror TV series particularly in Erin Richards’ conceited bell-bottom and hot pants clad research assistant Krissi who manages to be sympathetic while completely unlikable.

It doesn’t do anything particularly new or fresh but director John Pogue (who previously helmed the nowhere near as bad as you think it’s gonna be Quarantine 2) is smart enough to know he doesn’t have to, building a cloying, insidious atmosphere of dread that unnerves and primes his audience. Disappointingly though he can’t resist mixing in a little overly familiar found footage (via Brian’s ever present camera) with the more traditional action and scares forcing the viewer to suspend a certain amount of disbelief.

It is 1974 after all. Where is Brian getting his film developed so quickly? How is he shooting sync sound without any evidence of a mic or recorder? How is he lighting any of this? Who cares? We’re watching a movie where Jared Harris’ louche, slightly mad scientist imprisons a mad girl in an attic and forces her to listen to Glam Rock in order to manufacture a ghost. How Brian gets his footage is really of secondary concern. You either go with it or you don’t although the pseudo-documentary footage does have a nicely authentic 16mm look and texture, all scratchy frames and lens flare, a welcome antidote to the usual homemade gonzo porn video aesthetic of most found footage flicks while the percussive, booming soundtrack echoes Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting.

In the role that Christopher Lee might have played in the ‘70s, Jared Harris is clearly having a ball as the arrogant academic and ladies man, infecting his students with his messianic zeal while Erin Richards brings a frosty nip to her underwritten eye candy role. The boys fare less well however, Fleck-Byrne particularly unmemorable as a disposable erection while Sam Claflin is called upon to do little other than moon after the film’s female protagonist as he does in every role he ever has (Snow White And The Huntsman, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and it’s upcoming sequel Mockinjay). The film belongs however to the phenomenal Olivia Cooke of Bates Motel and The Tenant Of Crickley Hall who brings a melancholy vulnerability to her role, her large-eyed, doll-like fragility undercut with demonic fury and white-hot madness. It’s an electric, barnstorming, 5-star performance in a solid 3-star film.

Creepy and subtle, The Quiet Ones is a satisfying, intense little chiller.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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DVD Review: The Raid 2

I’ve never really believed in the old idiom of “too much of a good thing,” being bad for you. Cullen Skink is a wonderful, wonderful thing and I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On a hot New Orleans night there’s little as refreshing as sipping a sweet Espresso Martini. The sunset splashing the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek blood-red is an awe-inspiring, unforgettable sight. And there just isn’t enough lesbian clown porn in the world.

However, even the most adoring, die-hard fan of the brutally simplistic, pulse-pounding shot of adrenaline straight to the heart that was Gareth Evans’ The Raid, will find it hard to justify the TWO AND A HALF HOURS of leeringly gratuitous, bloody, masturbatory mayhem that is his follow-up The Raid 2: Berandal. Some times too much is simply too much.

Picking up almost immediately where the original film left off, The Raid 2 throws its human ping pong ball hero Rama (Iko Uwais) straight into a dangerous undercover mission to infiltrate the crime cartel that rules Jakarta and get the goods on the crooked cops on its payroll. After cosying up to crime lord Bangun’s (Tio Pakusadewo) hot-tempered, Fredo-like son Uco (Arifin Putra) in stir and saving his life in a brutal prison yard brawl, upon his release Rama is in like Flynn and goes to work for the family, earning their trust and proving himself indispensable by beating seven shades out of drug dealing scumbag pornographers.

Bungun’s cartel is locked in an uneasy truce with a Japanese crime family, led by Goto (Ken ‘ichi Endo), who’ve maintained a relative peace for over a decade. But rising mobster Bejo (Alex Abbad) is nibbling away at their territories, stirring up trouble and whispering in the ambitious Uco’s ear in the hopes of starting a war on the streets, taking over both families’ empires. And Bejo is the man who murdered Rama’s brother…

Bigger, bloodier and more brutal than the first film, The Raid 2 is also pretty boring. The first movie was truly a movie, a propulsive engine constantly in motion, putting you on the edge of your seat from the first scenes of rookie cop Rama preparing for his first mission before almost immediately throwing its nimble hero into one extended, relentless, visceral fight scene that unfolds pretty much in real time as Rama battles to survive. A dazzling piece of balletic, ballistic cinematic mayhem, the temptation for writer/director Gareth Evans must have been to simply repeat The Raid’s winning formula for this sequel, to simply have the same shit happen to the same guy twice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t and there lies The Raid 2’s biggest problem. In the opening scene Evans’ bad guy Bejo delivers a speech about the dangers of hubris and ambition to a man he’s about to murder while standing by a freshly dug grave. By the end of the film Evans fills enough graves to people a cemetery but never quite reconciles his own ambitions to make a serious crime film with his instincts to serve up a chop-socky epic. And no chop-socky epic needs to be two and a half hours long!

The Raid 2 is flabby, baggy, lumbers when it needs to dance. The story is nothing special, Evans relying on that staple of crime flicks, the undercover cop plot, familiar to audiences from TV shows like Starsky And Hutch through to movies like Infernal Affairs and The Departed but he and leading man Uwais don’t have any fun with it, Rama never once being tempted by the siren song of the criminal life in the way Sonny Crockett was every other week on Miami Vice or that he feels the tiniest guilt or conflict about befriending and betraying the gangsters. Even after spending two years in prison winning the trust of his gangster buddy, Rama’s no fun, ignoring the advances of the karaoke hookers Uco tries to foist on him, Uwais, a charismatic but deeply limited actor, simply suffering through the needlessly convoluted scenes involving plot and dialogue until the next ‘cool’ fight scene where he can kick someone’s colon out of their nose.

And there lies another of The Raid 2’s problems; it’s aimed squarely at fanboy geeks who want nothing more than the next ‘cool’ fight scene. Bones are pulverised, eyes gouged, flesh rent as the characters beat each other with fists and feet, baseball bats and mops, slice and stab each other, empty machine guns into yielding bodies, splatter skulls with shotguns and hammers. Never has excessive, gratuitous violence been quite this tedious. Evans resurrects fan favourite Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog in the first film) for a couple of scenes, albeit as a different character – machete-wielding homeless assassin Prakoso – purely because fans will find it ‘cool’. A character is hacked to death in the snow (in tropical Jakarta where it never snows!) because it looks ‘cool’ and is probably what geek poster boy Tarantino would do while Quentin’s shadow also hangs heavy over instant fan favourite cardboard characters Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man.

Po-faced and humourless, The Raid 2 is cynical, sadistic, just a little too in love with its visceral, fetishised violence, shot through with a nasty streak of misogyny. There are only five female characters in the film. One is Rama’s compliant wife who is in two scenes and meekly accepts his two-year absence. Three are sex workers, the two aforementioned karaoke hookers and a strap-on sporting porn star who anally rapes a male hitchhiker before being machine gunned, collateral damage in a strongarm deal gone bad, while the fifth woman is Hammer Girl, a deaf-mute assassin, denied a voice as well as anything approaching character. The fact that two die badly and Evans barely pauses in his mayhem to acknowledge their deaths leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Or maybe it’s all that blood that’s being sprayed around.

The film is beautifully shot but poorly paced, only springing into life when Uwais springs into action, the brawls inventive but ultimately monotonous, each visceral fight scene going on just that little bit too long; like a bad marriage they start out exhilarating before outstaying their welcome, becoming routine, boring, a slog, the relentless head bashing and body crunching exhausting and dispiriting. Life is apparently cheap in Jakarta, one massacre committed for just five grand, though whether that’s Indonesian rupiah or US dollars is never quite clear. Five grand isn’t much to die for but in rupiah it’s only 25 pence.

Perhaps the film’s best moment however isn’t its bruising, frequent fight scenes but one of its quieter. Alone in his cell at night, Rama trains by punching the outline of an opponent he’s chalked on the wall, his fists beating a tattoo, a flurry of blows hammering the plaster away from the brick. It’s a thoughtful, introspective beat among the wall-to-wall beatings.

But nothing I’ve said in this review really matters. If you loved The Raid, chances are you’ll probably like The Raid 2. But it’s a much harder film to love. And no chop-socky film needs to be two and a half hours long!

 

VERDICT: [rating=2]

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DVD Review: Way Of The Wicked

I’ll be brutally honest – when an unexpected review disc pops up on your desk, purporting to be a supernatural horror-thriller starring the unlikely team-up of Vinnie Jones and Christian Slater, expectations are very low.

And that is exactly where Way Of The Wicked belongs – a film that does very little outlandishly wrong, but offers absolutely zilch in the way of originality or thrills either.

Jones plays John Elliott, a cop father recovering from the shock of his wife dying in a car accident.

John has a teenage daughter, Heather (Emily Tennant), who makes matters worse for the family when she gets mixed up with surly school companion Robbie (Jake Croker), who five years earlier was involved in the mysterious death of a classmate.

Naturally father is not that impressed by his daughter’s dalliance with the school’s mystery boy, a feeling that is only exacerbated when Father Henry (Slater) arrives, babbling about demons and the like and convinced that Robbie is a very, very bad person.

But with Robbie all too aware of the people on his tail, just who will come out on top in this battle of wills?

That’s about it plot-wise, with Way Of The Wicked being a mish-mash of much, much better films, with the likes of Carrie, The Omen etc all receiving a nod.

In fact, director Kevin Carraway doesn’t even bother to hide these homages, with Jones at one point barking at Father Henry ‘You’re saying he’s one of those ‘Omen’ kids?’

Jones labours through emotional scenes but provides a decent anchor, while Slater’s screen time probably adds up to little more than five minutes, despite his billing.

Tennant emerges with some credit, while Croker has little to do other than stare moodily or angrily at people.

Plainly shot on the cheap (one scene early on clearly features a stand-in masquerading as Slater’s character), the film fails to deliver on the effects front – one splashy death by farm machinery doing little to entertain.

As stated at the outset, Way Of The Wicked is not a particularly bad film, and I happily sat through the 90-minute running time without my finger once hovering over the ‘stop’ button.

But any horror-savvy viewer will have seen this story played out many, many times before – with a lot better quality.

 

VERDICT: [rating=2]

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DVD Review: Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari

Okay. ‘Das Cabinet Des…’ no, let’s say it properly – ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is one of my favourite films. It is generally always listed among the top four German silents, along with ‘Nosferatu’, ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Der Golem’ and, as far as I’m concerned, only ‘Nosferatu’ narrowly edges it out of the top slot. Thanks to its fairytale mix of grand guignol, modern detective story (although not really) and psychological thriller (which is also pushing that descriptor a bit), ‘Caligari’ always seems to me to be the freshest of that bunch, with a different statement to make every time you watch it. ‘Caligari’ is a masterpiece and should be part of everybody’s movie-watching experience, at least once in their lifetime.

Do I really have to tell you the plot? That’s tough without giving away spoilers but I’ll try.

A fair is taking place in the crooked little German town of Holstenwall (and when I say crooked, I’m not kidding. ‘Caligari’ is all about surrealistic imagery, jagged set design and claustrophobic zigzagging repetition – in mountain pathways, on rooftops, down staircases. German Expressionism was all about the abstract, a denial of naturalism in both performance and architecture so that the audience could focus without distraction on the societal and political themes of the story being told. ‘Caligari’ is not only (as Roger Ebert said) “the first true horror film” it is also cinematic German Expressionism at its finest and most uncompromising. Oooh, that sounded intelligent. Let’s get back to the fair before I ruin it by saying something stupid…)

One of the exhibits is the somnambulist Cesare who, once awoken from his apparently endless twenty-year sleep by the sinister showman Dr. Caligari, grimly predicts the futures of people in the audience. Cesare is pale-skinned, whip-thin and dressed all-in-black like a skeletal ballet dancer with a Beatles-era moptop, e.g. probably not the go-to guy for ‘what’s happening to me tomorrow?’-type life-advice and, not surprisingly, when one of our heroes asks Cesare how long he’s got left to live the answer’s not a good one. That same question and answer also, you won’t be surprised to learn, results in cutting down the rest of that character’s screen-time quite considerably. When he is murdered during the night our other hero, rather than taking advantage of the situation by hitting on the rather flimsy will-o-the-wispy girl he and his newly-dead friend both confessed to loving on their way back from the fair, decides to investigate. He’s certain that the malevolent Dr. Caligari and his kebab-skewer-slim somnambulist are behind the murders (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the night before the fair one of the town officials was killed too) but how does he prove it?

And that’s as much as I’m telling you. There are twists and turns, mostly of the jagged zig-zag variety, a brilliant moment involving Cesare and a sleeping maiden which James Whale obviously ripped off when he directed ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), flashes of design genius that Tim Burton would jump all over when he made ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) and a story-in-a-story that was allegedly imposed on director Robert Wiene by the German censors, who wanted to show that if you trust in the State and the wisdom of the Fatherland it all works out well in the end.

Want to know something else?

While we were watching the film my wife mentioned how much Caligari looked like The Penguin from ‘Batman’ (especially the Danny DeVito version – see? Tim Burton again?) and I haven’t checked but I think she’s onto something, especially considering that ‘Batman’ creator Bob Kane was apparently inspired by Conrad Veidt’s appearance in another early-German film called ‘The Man who Laughs’ (1928) and Conrad Veidt plays the somnambulist Cesare.

What did Bob Kane do with his Conrad Veidt inspiration? He created The Joker.

If I really wanted to push my luck, I would also add that The Joker was played in the ‘Batman’ TV series by Cesar Romero (Cesar = how someone who can’t spell might spell Cesare) but now I’m just being ridiculous.

Bottom line: ‘Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari’ is still, almost a century after its creation, a mesmerising and vitally important work of art.

If you have the chance to see it during its limited theatrical release, go. We have too few opportunities to watch classic films like these on the big screen and when one comes along we should take full advantage of it.

The restoration is very fine indeed. The image, sharper than ever. The musical score (the production notes which accompanied the screener don’t mention if it’s been especially commissioned for this release) is the best I’ve heard for a film of this era and enhances the visuals perfectly. The intertitles are short, sharp and easy to read and don’t intrude on the flow of the action and it’s wonderful, after having watched so many other different ‘versions’ of this film, to finally see ‘Caligari’ tinted as it should be with blue-green for the night scenes, blue and orange for the ‘story within story’ sequences and pink and orange for the remainder. A lot of very hard work has been done here, and the love and care should be applauded.

As for the DVD / Blu-ray presentation, I unfortunately cannot comment. Unlike most Eureka! Screeners, ‘Caligari’ arrived on a very basic DVD-R with an annoying timecode in the top left-hand corner of the screen but excellent video and audio to make up for it. There is no indication whether there will be any extra features or commentaries included on the sell-through discs (although Eureka! are usually very impressive in that respect, so my hopes are high they might come up with something special) and I’m assuming that the few pages of photocopied notes I received about the restoration will no doubt be included in the packaging).

Having said that – whether there are extras or not – this is by far-and-away the best (okay, I’ll say the title properly) ‘Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari’ has ever looked, and comes extremely highly recommended.

 

VERDICT: [rating=5]

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DVD Review: Almost Human

Ever had that feeling where you really, really wanted to love a film, but could only end up giving it a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘meh’?

That’s how I feel about Almost Human, a flick clearly made by genre fans for genre fans, with plenty of gore thrown in along the way.

But the truth is, while I was never bored, I was never truly excited either, and simply kept ticking off the list of filmic references along the way.

To be fair, the director Joe Begos happily rattles off the likes of Halloween, The Terminator and Xtro as influences himself in the Q&A bonus feature, and I’d probably throw in stuff like The Thing and The Hidden as well.

Almost Human wastes little time in getting started, with Seth Hampton (Graham Skipper) speeding to his friend Mark’s house, seemingly being chased by a strange blue light – or so he says.

Naturally Mark (Josh Ethier) thinks his pal has been on the whacky-baccy, but, sure enough, the light appears over the house, swallowing up Mark in the process.

Even though Mark’s girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) is there at the time and sees what happens, for some reason Seth comes under suspicion for his friend’s disappearance, leaving him to become a bit of a recluse and shut himself off from the world.

 

All that changes though two years later, when more strange blue lights in the same area herald the return of Mark – naked and looking the worse for wear no less.

But, with a string of bloody murders hastily under his belt, it becomes pretty clear that the Mark that has returned is a very different beast to the Mark of old, and that Seth and Jen must unite to save the day…..

As stated at the outset, there are plenty of reasons to like Almost Human – there is impressive gore aplenty, the story rattles along at quite a pace, and there is a nice ‘old school’ vibe (the film is set in 1987 at first).

Added to that is the fact that Begos shows off some skills with the camera, with a number of well-handled set-pieces and inventive camerawork.

But on the downside the acting is pretty poor, the dialogue ropy and the grime of ‘I’ve seen all this before’ is pretty difficult to wash off.

Films that borrow heavily on previous flicks are no bad thing, and that is the case again here, but that lack of originality is what plonks Almost Human in the so-so, rather than must-watch, category.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

 

haunter

DVD Review: Haunter

The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre, from its earliest years in silent cinema with the likes of Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), through Jack Clayton’s masterpiece The Innocents (1961) and Robert Wise’s definitive haunted house picture, The Haunting (1963); all the way to contemporary interpretations such as Alejandro Amenabar’s international hit The Others (2001). However, for all these highlight moments, the haunted house sub-genre is one that often falls into familiar patterns that can be traced all the way back to those silent days. Trust the director of the cult classic Cube (1997), Vincenzo Natali, to bring fresh ideas and vitality to the sub-genre with Haunter, a very different kind of horror picture.

Haunter tells the tale of Lisa and her family. The audience is introduced to them on the eve of Lisa’s 16th birthday; they are just a normal 1980s family living a suburban lifestyle, playing board games, eating meatloaf and watching Murder She Wrote together before bed. Only something is very wrong…the family has been living this day over and over again on an endless cycle, asleep to this fact, apart from Lisa, who is the only one aware of this infinite loop. However, as she investigates her predicament, uncovering many of the house’s secrets, she makes contact with a girl from another time…and draws the attention of a sinister pale man, who holds the key to her fate, and the fate of another in danger.

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Immediately, the concept of time travel, the supernatural and shock horror combined is a potent cocktail; one that, before viewing the film, might be treated with trepidation for risk of the narrative becoming too convoluted. However, the narrative beautifully weaves the layers of depth within the film as it progresses. Opening with a groundhog day-style repetition of the day, that emphasizes Lisa’s frustration by repeating the same mundane details in an accelerated montage, the film lingers just long enough before twisting into something darker and more challenging, intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, for a film with such complex ideas, the driving force is the emotional, rather than the psychological, exploring family relationships, fear of losing the family, teenage frustration and the connection between people through objects of emotional value. In this sense, Haunter can be understood as a raw melodrama, intensified by emotional extremes and a twisted horror sensibility. A combination that makes Haunter a tender and, at times, moving experience, one that works in perfect harmony with the creeping horror Natali creates, hanging on the edges of every frame, unleashed in waves against the audience’s nervous system.

Compared to the sharp and science fiction horrors of Cube and Splice, Haunter’s soft period style seems like the work of an entirely different filmmaker. Yet, once you look closely at the film, Natali’s fingerprints are all over it, in terms of the subtle details and textures of the world he has created. Natali takes time and care to establish the pattern of this single tragic day, every image holding importance and revealing the family dynamic. However, once the mystery intensifies and secrets begin to rise to the surface, Natali unleashes his creative talents to craft a gothic poem that transcends time and enters a dream space. A classical fairytale thrust into a modern context, Natali’s imagery (the secret basement door, the doll’s house, the leering incinerator) and aesthetic virtuosity is perhaps his most complete achievement; in particular, one crucial time jump into the distant past is reflected by a complete change in visual style, reflecting the hand cranked eeriness of early cinema, jittering and jarring in a brutal fashion that perfectly illustrates the inventiveness and timeless style of Haunter.

Abigail Breslin takes the challenge of playing the very heart of the film in her stride, with a performance beyond her years. As Lisa, she has to balance the innocence and curiosity of a child, the angst of a teenager trying to find herself, the strength and will of an adult, and the weariness of a lost soul. Somehow she manages to bring all these elements together to create a sympathetic and believable heroine, who the audience is able to connect to and feed off of her emotional resonance. Alongside Breslin, the film is dominated by Stephen McHattie as the ghoulish Pale Man, the force at the dark heart of the film’s mystery. As soon as he enters the film, the combination of McHattie’s physicality and knowing dialogue, Natali’s deliberate framing and focus upon the details of his cracked, gaunt face, and Breslin selling the sense of sudden fear and the physical reaction he has upon her, crafts an introduction that establishes his power and threat; one that only increases as the film builds and grows darker and darker. One of the film’s highlights is the sheer chemistry and continuing battle between The Pale Man and Lisa. It is a compelling duel of wills, one that is genuinely unsettling at times. Like all good villains, he makes the audience even more emotionally invested and engaged with the hero.

Haunter is a bold horror melodrama that feels fresh and yet timeless in its stylization. Rich in atmosphere, finessed visual textures and a cast that deliver emotional and honest performance, led by a career best performance from Abigail Breslin, Haunter will not be for all tastes, but it is an interesting blend for those looking for a nuanced and reflective horror experience.

 

VERDICT: [rating=4]

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DVD Review: Under The Skin

A decade on from Birth, his flawed but interesting follow-up to the rabid, brilliant Sexy Beast, director Jonathan Glazer’s new film, Under The Skin, may already be the most wilfully obtuse, peculiar, essential film of the year.

A chilly, far from faithful adaptation of Michel Faber’s macabre and savage first novel, Glazer ditches the big political themes and overt horror of the book (the ethics and morality of industrial factory farming, the ravages of environmental decay), boiling Under The Skin down to it’s barest essentials – an alien woman hunts the highways and byways of Scotland, enticing unwary men into her battered van, kidnapping and harvesting them for food, aided and abetted by mysterious, leather-clad motorcyclists who clean up after her, watch over her – in favour of a more intimate and abstract portrait of humanity, identity and gender politics, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as his nameless Girl Who Fell To Earth, Glazer’s masterstroke.

Hypnotic and disorientating, the film opens with Johansson’s literal self-creation; abstract imagery resolving into the formation of the eye’s iris, a cacophony of noise and aural gibbering resolving into human speech as her character learns to speak, Mica Levi’s discordant, oppressive score throbbing and disturbing, jangling the nerves, unsettling. Newborn, she enters the world, descending an escalator from the heavens into a Glasgow shopping centre, wanders the streets, anonymous in black wig and chavtastic wardrobe, flirting and tempting men to their doom like a Primark siren, and it’s in these scenes that Under The Skin works best, Glazer deploying hidden cameras to follow Johansson’s exploration of the city, to capture the real reactions of the men (mostly non-professional actors) she seduces before despatching them in stunningly realised sequences of haunting, eerie abstraction. Lather, rinse, repeat; there’s always a fresh victim eager to enter her van (she is Scarlett Johansson after all – who wouldn’t?). Unlike Faber’s source novel, the exact purpose of her mission is never overtly stated (in the book, human flesh is considered a delicacy by her society), it’s merely suggested but increased contact with humanity is slowly changing her, causing her to evolve, to develop, feel compassion, empathy, curiosity, Glazer losing focus as Johansson’s character rebels, strikes off on her own, exploring and experiencing both this alien world and the limits of her own body.

An unearthly goddess in reality, it makes perfect sense for Glazer to cast SodaStream’s best ambassador as his predatory extra-terrestrial abroad; what could be more alien, more perverse, than rendering unrecognisable one of Hollywood’s sexiest, most recognisable actresses and plonking her down in Glasgow, a world equally as alien to most of the film’s probable audience. We see, experience, this mysterious world through her, share her perspective, and Johansson’s still, almost passive, placidity fascinates, exuding an unknowable, ethereal quality.

There’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking here, Glazer borrows heavily from Kubrick and Matthew Barney to serve up a tale that melds Species and Starman, filtering it through Nic Roeg’s imagination to produce a cool stew that’s a visual and sonic banquet, but it’s refreshing, exciting, to see a film this deliberately opaque, practically daring the audience to stop watching even as it mesmerises. A haunting, beautiful, immersive experience, Under The Skin truly gets under your skin.

 

VERDICT: [rating=5]

Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson

DVD Review: Non-Stop

Liam Neeson’s career of late has been a bit of an enigma to me.

Here is a man who once gave such thoughtful and understated performances in the likes of Schindlers List, Kinsey and Michael Collins, but ever since Taken (2008) he has carved out a career for himself as Ireland’s answer to Bruce Willis – often playing the role of a hard man with family problems, hellbent on finding people and routinely killing them.

Not that I’m complaining – Taken was a lot of fun (though the less said about Taken 2 the better) and other films such as Unknown and The Grey have proved that Neeson has the screen presence to consistently carry a movie in the action/thriller genre.

Non-Stop continues that trend and finds Neeson in the shoes of Bill Marks, a US Air Marshall with a clouded and miserable past, caught in the middle of a perilous cat and mouse game mid-flight above the Atlantic.

After receiving a text message on a secure network, an anonymous individual informs him that unless $150 million is transferred to a secret account, someone will be killed on the plane every 20 minutes.

Haunted by previous failures in his life and with various characters keeling over, Bill soon finds himself being framed for the hijacking the plane, with his well documented drinking problem not working in his favour (I did wonder if this was a nod to Airplane).

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, in his second collaboration with Liam Neeson (the first being Unknown), handles the pacing pretty deftly and leaves the audience constantly guessing who the real culprit is and whether minor details are significant in the grander scheme of things.

In a post 911 world, Non-Stop makes no shame in playing on the fears that some individuals have of others and the claustrophobic setting on an airplane adds to the tension.

There is also a fair bit of dry humour thrown in, meaning that the proceedings is not too serious all of the time. Having said that, I can’t help but feel a little more humour would’ve been welcome.

The cinematography can be a bit on the wonky side at times, with handheld camera shots in abundance but for the most part the turbulence doesn’t stop the enjoyment of the film.

While the proceedings are swiftly moving along, the film sadly forgets to develop its supporting characters and with talent such as Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong’o, Nate Parker and Scott McNairy, this is a bit of a missed opportunity. Which is a shame, as we all know that Julianne Moore is a great actress, and Downtown Abbey’s Michelle Dockery and 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o both make a lasting if all too brief impression.

That being said, Liam Neeson once again nails the role of the hard man with little patience and a short temper (even if he is becoming a little typecast), and carries the film through to the end.

The film lets itself down as it nears the end and suffers from one too many plot twists, with some requiring a certain suspension of disbelief. As the story approaches its third act, it closely wanders into self-parody with things becoming all a bit absurd.

Ultimately, Non-Stop is non-stop entertaining nonsense.

Not to be taken too seriously, it is neither ground-breaking nor the dullfest it could’ve been. With the mixture of action and intrigue, there is more than enough here to keep the average cinema goer entertained.

Just don’t go expecting a first class trip.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

maude-and-harold

Harold and Maude

What can I tell you about ‘Harold and Maude’, the tremendous 1971 ‘odd couple’ comedy directed by counter-culture genius Hal Ashby from a darkly hilarious but also exuberantly joyful screenplay by Colin Higgins which stars an alarmingly baby-faced Bud Cort as a gloomy suicide-obsessed twenty year old who falls in love with octogenarian firecracker Ruth Gordon, almost-fresh from receiving her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1968’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’?

And how can I tell you it without using any more ridiculously long you’ll-run-out-of-breath-before-you-reach-the-end-of-this-but-somehow-I’m-too-excited-to-use-full-stops paragraphs?

Well, to be honest I’m not sure I can.

‘Harold and Maude’ has always been my go-to film whenever the dark clouds gather and the world feels a little too heavy to cope with. Since I first saw it on TV more years ago than I’d even admit under torture I’ve considered it to be a beautiful, brilliant, quirkily heart-warming and orgiastically life-affirming masterpiece. (Yep, I said ‘orgiastically’, as in (according to Webster’s College Dictionary 2010) “tending to arouse or excite unrestrained emotion.”) Okay, so the very first time I watched the film it did kind of blindside me – I can remember that, at first glance and despite Ruth Gordon’s awesomeness, the burgeoning romance between Maude and her young suitor did make me feel a little queasy (Bud Cort’s pale-faced Buster Keaton expressions didn’t help) and some of the blackest comedy (specifically a couple of Harold’s messiest mock suicide attempts) is so black that light wouldn’t shine through the celluloid even if you held those frames up to the sun – but despite my reservations I still knew it was a film unlike any I’d seen before, edgy and smart and incredibly special, and luckily I’d recorded it on our clunky top-loading VCR (remember those? Add wheels and pedals and it would double as a go-kart) so the next day I sat down to watch ‘Harold and Maude’ again, this time prepared for the jarring shifts in tone and the often schizophrenic interplay of outrageous comedy, scalpel-sharp satire and sneaks-up-on-you emotion that was to come, and I fell completely and forever in love.

The only reason I’m boring you with that anecdote is because, over the years, I’ve met one or two people who had a similar original reaction to the movie but for whatever reason never went back to it again and that’s their loss. Please don’t make it yours. If you’re new to ‘Harold and Maude’ and aren’t entirely sure about it on first viewing (which is a very rare occurrence, honest) give it a second chance and you’ll be hooked. If you’re not hooked, check your pulse because you’re probably dead. If you’re dead, watch ‘Harold and Maude’ again and let its unashamed joyousness bring you back to life.

And now, just incase you think I’ve put my foot down a little too hard on the ‘this movie’s too incredible to be believed’ accelerator, rush out and take a look at Eureka’s revelatory new blu-ray of the film and you’ll understand why orgiastic unrestrained emotion is what I’m feeling (as well as unrestrained lack of full-stops and over-reliance upon commas, hyphens and brackets). ‘Harold and Maude’, which has always been a wickedly enjoyable diamond in the drab Hollywood rough, has never been given the respect it deserves on home video.

Thanks to Eureka, that’s all changed. Finally we can appreciate and rejoice in what a gorgeous-to-look-at-and-listen-to celebration-of-being-alive ‘Harold and Maude’ really is. Eureka has polished this diamond to a high shine, revealing colours and details I’ve never noticed before, highlighting some achingly perfect cinematography and rendering the film as fresh and vibrant as the daisy Maude refers to during one of the film’s most famous scenes:

“You see Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are ‘this’ [indicating the perfect white flower she holds in her hand] yet allow themselves to be treated as ‘that’… [as we pull back to reveal that the field of daisies has disappeared and Harold and Maude are now sitting among row upon row of white gravestones in a military cemetery]

The print looks and sounds sensational. This is the first time I have ever truly been able to appreciate the beauty of Hal Ashby’s work on this film – moments like the sunlight on the surface of the swimming pool (as Harold’s mother calmly begins her morning laps while Harold performs another faux-suicide, floating face down and fully-clothed in the sparkling blue water) the ‘Monet-like’ shot of Harold and Maude’s reflections in a lake, the golden light that peeps between their silhouettes as they watch the descending sun… Eureka’s presentation is wonderful. The soundtrack – which is offered in both original mono or as a stereo mix – is equally fabulous whichever incarnation you choose.

Personally I prefer the original mono because… well, it’s the original mono and I’m one of those tightly-sphinctered film anoraks who doesn’t like the director’s original vision being messed with… (yeah, I know, I really need to get out more)… but, whichever version you select, the audio is clear and pin-drop faultless.

Cat Stevens’ iconic score (although with the exception of a couple of songs, most of it was patchworked together from his earlier albums) has never sounded this good. If you’re not humming ‘If you want to sing out…’ by the end of the film, that’s yet another indicator that you might be dead.

In addition, the disc contains a hugely informative commentary track featuring Hal Ashby’s biographer Nick Dawson and ‘Harold and Maude’ producer Charles B. Mulvehill which is packed with fascinating and sometimes alarming trivia (apparently Elton John was briefly considered for the part of Harold… I’ve had nightmares ever since I heard that, Harold wearing funky glasses singing ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is a bullet the filmmakers were lucky to miss) and also includes an exclusive video discussion of the film by critic David Cairns who gives us another unique perspective on the movie, its initial reception, and its subsequent critical rediscovery.

The good folks at Eureka have also included a richly illustrated 40 page booklet with new writing on the film and many other treasures including rare stills, an archival interview with Hal Ashby and a hugely enjoyable 1971 profile of Ruth Gordon. They absolutely don’t make actresses like her anymore.

All I missed was the addition of a trailer, especially since it is referred to during the commentary and apparently includes a moment that was cut from the finished film, but that’s really just unnecessary nit-picking and I’m embarrassed I even mentioned it so let’s forget I said anything. In my opinion, Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ is the most consistently reliable showcase for classic films in the UK and yet again they have raised the bar – ‘Harold and Maude’ is a high-definition triumph and thanks to this blu-ray I now have a bigger crush on Ruth Gordon than ever.
That’s what I can tell you about ‘Harold and Maude’. Which in retrospect is far more than anyone, even me, needed to know.

Don’t miss Eureka’s outstanding new blu-ray presentation.
If you need me, I’ll be sitting on the cliff practicing my banjo…

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DVD Review: The Monuments Men

In the darkest days of World War Two, as the war rages and the invading Allies battle the retreating Germans to liberate Europe, a crack team of unlikely heroes – middle aged art historians, museum curators, architects and artists – are recruited to save Western civilisation’s greatest treasures both from the Nazis, who have plundered the museums and art galleries of Europe and the looted homes of its Jews, and from their own forces who care little for the historical buildings they’re bombing and shelling.  With their numbers dwindling and the war drawing to a close, the team, dubbed the ‘Monuments Men’ find themselves in a race against time to find Hitler’s secret art hoard before the Nazis destroy it or the Russians claim it for themselves.

Given the deluge of negative reviews flooding out on the film’s cinema release, you’d be forgiven for expecting Gorgeous George’s latest directorial effort, The Monuments Men, to be a turkey of Battlefield Earth proportions so, while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it’s rather pleasing to report that it’s really not that bad.  Despite it being yet another film where the Yanks win the war single-handed and about as accurate as the infamous U-571, The Monuments Men is an entertaining, refreshingly earnest and old-fashioned, Boys Own tale of derring do with a fantastic ensemble cast, a WW2 caper movie that celebrates ordinary heroism.  They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

It’s not without its faults however.  The script is uneven and the film lurches wildly from comedy to drama to sentimentality and back again, never really finding a consistent tone, a problem not helped by the mawkish and overbearing score which telegraphs exactly how you’re supposed to feel from moment to moment.  Seriously George, re-cut the film with the upbeat training music from The Wild Geese and you’ve instantly got a more engaging film.  While much of the ensemble cast acquit themselves well, director/producer/writer`Clooney shouldn’t perhaps have hired actor Clooney; there’s a sense that Gorgeous George is spreading himself a little too thin.  There’s also a sense that he’s trying to cram too much into a 2 hour film and, despite some impassioned scenes more or less delivered straight to camera that underline the importance of art vs. the value of human life, the film feels a little dumbed down; for a bunch of art historians our heroes never really talk art, there’s none of the argument and debate you’d expect from a bunch of middle aged, middle class intellectuals, Clooney, perhaps mindful of his Middle America audience, preferring instead to have his cast indulge in sub-Oceans 11 blokey banter.

The story is fascinating and the film is at its best when the cast are together having fun and bouncing off one another but Clooney splits them up too soon, pairing them off and sending them on different missions while poor Matt Damon has to spend much of his screentime Platonically wooing brittle French secretary Cate Blanchett (doing her best “A dingo took my baby,” Meryl Streep impersonation) who conveniently kept detailed, colour-coded notes of where the dastardly Krauts stashed the art they trousered.  Goodman reunites with his The Artist co-star Jean Dujardin and their easy chemistry is a delight while Bill Murray does some of his best work in years, his scenes with Bob Balaban almost making you wish for a sequel where their characters go off and tour the art galleries of Europe together, bickering and sniping at each other.

And that perhaps is The Monuments Men’s biggest problem – the cast are obviously having a much better time than you.  While it’s not the unmitigated disaster you’ve been led to believe, it doesn’t live up to the promise of its cast and creative team, never achieving the significance that Clooney’s obviously striving for but it’s a mostly fun, irony-free romp that at least engages with the concept that art and culture are vital to the well-being of a nation, that it’s worth sacrificing everything, even our lives, to preserve them and that it’s the duty of civilised nations to protect them, a refreshing sentiment when art and culture are under threat not just in war zones like Syria or Iraq but here at home where Dishface and his lizard cronies believe that art is a frivolous indulgence.  The true war in The Monuments Men is one of ideology and its one that still needs to be fought.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

 

 

 

 

 

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DVD Review: Lone Survivor

The war film genre is one that has been altered and complicated in modern cinema by the aftermath of 9/11. With the political climate intensified, sensitivity and unbiased attitude is essential to the effectiveness of modern war films. Lone Survivor is a film that attempts to take the pure intense war action picture of the past (particularly the 1980s) and bring it into the modern context.

Following the true story of Marcus Lutrell and his team, whose surveillance mission deep in enemy territory goes tragically wrong and leads to a fight for their lives which reveals the power of heroism and sacrifice in the middle of war. The result is a technically adept and extremely physical depiction of Modern Warfare; however it is one that ultimately suffers due to an intense and misguided political agenda and a style that is too heavily engrossed in the sensationalism of Generation Call of Duty, at the detriment of the narrative and structure of the film.

From a performance standpoint, the film is a mixed bag. The standouts are unquestionably Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch; both actors are compelling and believable in their emotionally vulnerable realizations of macho soldiers brought face to face with the ultimate cost of war. Unfortunately, the quality of Foster and Kitsch outshines that of Mark Wahlberg in the lead role of Marcus Lutrell. He is too stiff and unbelievable; where the other performer’s personality and dialogue is delivered with a sense of naturalism and conviction…Lutrell is played too straight, without joy, emphasized in every line delivery that just feels incredibly forced and played for the message, rather than the truth of the man.

Peter Berg’s direction is technically assured, capturing the crucial balance between the vast scope of war and the brutal reality at its core. However, Berg provides his detractors with an abundance of ammunition against him, for his perceived (well, certainly a lot more concrete after Lone Survivor) ‘military porn’ style that treats weapons of war as fetish objects and idealizes the U.S. Army/Navy without any true political bias. Particularly chilling is the reminiscent nature of the firefight that dominates the film, to Quentin Tarantino’s film within a film, Nation’s Pride, a parody of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi Propaganda whose precise, visually driven nature and mythologizing of the Nazi soldier is still a source of debate in cinematic culture. Berg’s own precise, visually affective style combined with a depiction of the American Soldiers whose self-sacrifice and resolve is depicted almost saintly (in contrast to a one-dimensional view of the Taliban soldiers, more suited to Team America than a serious war piece) leaves an eerie effect, one that certainly damages the film.

While the film is unquestionably far too propaganda driven and sentimental, it is an unbelievable story that deserves to be told and presented to the wider world. But the fact this film, about an act of incredible bravery and humanity in the face of the aggression of war, is manipulated into a piece of generic ‘war porn’ leaves a bad taste in the mouth, one that undermines the complete piece.

The physicality of the film is outstanding. Visually, Berg captures the textures of the environment with intense verisimilitude, and in particular, the physical sense of damage and disorientation caused by warfare, utilizing both exceptional physical effects and nerve shredding sound design to affect the audience with the same sensations of disorientating chaos that these soldiers are thrust into directly into. The physical make up effects are stunning in their detail; Seeing these soldier’s bodies increasingly shred by bullets, shrapnel and the brutal damage of the mountain terrain itself is crucial to the verisimilitude and truth of the film. In particular, you can’t help but feel that Ben Foster is empowered by the reality of his wounds, as he channels the pain and expresses it with awe-inspiring grit. If anything comes out of this film, it should undoubtedly be affective power of real physical effects over CGI.

Ultimately, Lone Survivor feels imbalanced and, most damaging of all, deceptive (particularly when compared to Kathryn Bigelow’s superior Zero Dark Thirty, it appears extremely sluggish and politically unrefined) for it’s fixation on the idea of American honor over a realistic picture that balanced both sides fairly. Lone Survivor manages to capture the shock and awe with a rare gusto; but a deeply propaganda-driven narrative and the lack of a compelling lead, deflects the killer blow necessary and leaves the film as messy and flawed as the operation the film is based on.

 

VERDICT: [rating=2]

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DVD Review: RoboCop

It’s hard to think of any other movie in recent years, that has been on the receiving end of such hate before even a single frame had been shot.

robocop-imax-2Ever since it was announced that Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop was set for a modern remake, fans everywhere have been vocal in their displeasure at such a notion.

While I can appreciate their concerns, I also remember Robocop 2 and admittedly, after subjecting myself to around 30 minutes of it, I decided not to bother with the rest of Robocop 3.

Thing is, I genuinely believe that remakes are not a bad thing. They are not a sign that Hollywood is running out of ideas.

If we’re gonna go down that road, then it could be argued that Hollywood actually ran out of ideas a long time ago. I recall my dad telling me my granddad’s reaction to the first remake of The Bounty. He believed the silent version was better because they really had to act in that one.

So with the likes of The Departed, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing and Zack Snyders take on the seminal Dawn of the Dead, I approached RoboCop with an open mind.

From the offset, it is clear that the social commentary that was so prevalent in the original film has been replaced with political debate. Where as 1987’s Robocop provided satire on the perils of capitalism, privatisation and corruption, the 2014 version focuses on the morality of using drones, both domestically and foreign war zones.

Samuel L. Jackson’s news presenter, Patrick “Pat” Novak kicks the proceedings off, with a report on drones being used in a war zone.

In a presentation not too far removed from the likes of Fox News, Pat argues that the US needs drones on it’s streets and that he is dead against the Dreyfuss Act, a law backed up by public opinion, preventing the use of OmniCorp’s products within the United States law enforcement.

With the Dreyfuss Act in place, OmniCorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars asks his marketing team to create a new law enforcement product by combining man and machine, a product that will win over public opinion.

Joel Kinnaman plays Alex Murphy, the doomed officer who ultimately ends up as RoboCop. Considering the weight on his shoulders with this role, it’s quite a commendable performance that ranges from confident, conflicted, angry and when required, robotically soulless.

The stand out performance in the film is without a doubt Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton, the conflicted and compromised scientist who is tasked by Keaton’s Raymond Sellars with creating RoboCop. Initially presented as a good man, Norton is solely interested in improving the lives of amputees and as OmniCorp’s best scientist Sellars recruits Norton into the RoboCop program by dangling the carrot of infinite funding.

As Sellars makes demands for RoboCop to become more efficient, we see Alex Murphy slowly lose his emotions and gradually become more of a machine. It’s an interesting take on the story, that raises questions about the inhumanity of it all.

During all this, we see the effects of this on Murphy’s family, with his wife portrayed valiantly by Abie Cornish. Where Verhoeven’s film shied away from such matters, this version faces the subject full on. At times it does stray a bit too close to the old Hollywood cliches and while this presents a new angle to the story, it does drag on a little bit in places.

Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel also offer solid support as Liz Kline and Tom Pope, the cold hearted duo who provide Sellars with PR and marketing advice.

Much has been said about the films 12A rating, with fears that the film had been watered down in an effort to attract the younger viewer. While the remake may lack the colossal and bloody punch that Verhoeven’s Robocop had in 1987, Padilha’s effort certainly makes up for it in drama and emotion.

And unlike the likes of Taken 2 and the recent Die Hards, I never found myself thinking “oh, that’s been cut there”. So ultimately, the lower age rating is not detrimental to the film.

The film is not all ernest, which is probably for the best. Jackie Earle Haley offers some minor comic relief as Rick Mattox – an OmniCorp military tactician that openly mocks Alex Murphy at every given opportunity and it’s clear that the filmmakers had a lot of fun choosing the tracks to accompany certain scenes (any film that features Focus by Hocus Pocus during a shoot out gets a nod in my book).

Visually, the film stands up well too. There are a few moments where the CGI looks a little shoddy, but for the most part it’s pretty convincing. The ED-209′s look every bit as menacing as they did back in 1987 and it’s nice to hear that the sound artists have retained that trademark roar.

What is interesting to see in this updated take is how RoboCop moves around when in combat. He is faster, leaner and precise, so it’s a great joy to watch him take out a warehouse of drones.

Unfortunately, the third act feels a little rushed and it all sadly stumbles into “generic action film mode”, with a few melodramatic performances to boot.

But the 90 previous minutes serve as an intelligent take on the established and much loved character, raising questions about science, morality and politics.

At the end of the day, Jose Padilha’s RoboCop is an admirable effort – while far from the perfect film, it makes a worthy attempt to set itself aside from its initial inspiration. After all, what is the point in doing a remake if you’re not going to change things a little.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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DVD Review: Blood Widow

Keen to escape the city, young couple Laurie (Danielle Lilley) and Hugh (Brandon Kyle Peters) buy a weekend fixer-upper in the country. For Laurie it’s a refuge from the pressures of the urban rat race and a sign that they’re taking their relationship to the next level but for Hugh it’s a place to unwind and party hearty with his bros, throwing a raucous party against Laurie’s wishes on their first night in the property. Unfortunately, in the abandoned boarding school for girls next door (which looks more like a small derelict farmhouse than a boarding school!) lurks the Blood Widow, an abused former student who went on a bloody rampage and now hides from the world in the dilapidated building. And she’s not happy when Laurie and Hugh’s friends come a-trespassing…

In his essay contribution to the 2006 book On Writing Horror, author Jack Ketchum brilliantly articulates why most slasher movies just don’t work for me: “People can be zany and unpredictable sometimes but they pretty much go by the book. So you don’t just waltz your second female lead into a darkened room in a spooky old house with a candle and no weapon saying, “Larry? Larry?” because you figure it’s time to off her. You arm her to the teeth and she turns on every damn light in the joint.” Blood Widow is full of characters of such forehead-slapping retardation, and I use the word ‘character’ in the loosest sense, they don’t even have the brains to pack candles. Just because you’ve hit the killer once in the face and they’re lying there inert doesn’t mean you should drop your axe/knife/cudgel and get within grabbing distance, you bloody idiot. Have you never seen a slasher movie?

Filled with chucklesome dialogue I genuinely am unsure was intentionally funny or not – perhaps my favourite being: “Hey Kenneth, let’s go check out that creepy house over there!” – Blood Widow is yet another shoestring budget, formulaic slasher movie with an almost passively tranquil, mute, masked killer offing a bunch of obnoxious fleshbags who rather than having names may as well have been called hippy victim, slutty victim, douchebag victim, alpha male victim, cowardly victim and Final Girl. And that’s pretty much the order of creative and splattery dispatch.

The performances across the board are pretty stilted and it’s hard to tell how old these characters are meant to be; the main guys are fresh-faced, callow youths barely out of their teens while the main gals all look like pornstars sliding past 30. The kills, if you like that sort of thing (and be honest, if you’re watching Blood Widow, that’s what you’re watching it for), are refreshingly old school gory; we’ve got decapitations, disembowelments, limbs being lopped off, a hippy being finished off with her own statue of Buddha and the sort of gleefully nasty, leering, use of a cat o’ nine tails that wouldn’t feel out of place in a lesbian concentration camp guard movie though there’s a practically non-existent T&A count. At one point, while searching the spooky abandoned house/school for a missing friend, heroine Laurie comments: “God, I hope she’s not naked in here…” Chance would be a fine thing. Come on fellas, if you’re going to deliver a barefaced throwback to the ‘70s and ‘80s, the least you can do is show us some flesh! You’re not making The Tree Of Life here!

Despite the relative rarity of the film’s mute masked killer being female, there is however quite a nasty, scopophilic stripe of misogyny running through the film with Lilley’s heroine essentially a whiny shrew given to uttering lines like “I wanted to move forward in our relationship,” with the sort of conviction you’d normally expect from a Xenu-botherer before soaking up a spectacular amount of punishment including being flogged with the aforementioned cat o’ nine tails and taking a bloody, prolonged beating with an axe-handle that suggests either director Buckhalt either really didn’t like her or really doesn’t like women.

The film is perhaps best summed up by its own dialogue when the arty hippy ditz (Kelly Kilgore) remarks to douchebag photographer (Jose Miguel Vasquez): “It’s so cool you still shoot on film. Digital has no soul.”

Blood Widow was shot using the digital Red One Camera.

For slasher fans only.

 

VERDICT: [rating=2]

 

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DVD Review: After

Here’s the thing.

It’s great to love a movie so much that you write a rave review and hope against hope you’ll inspire other people to go see it.

And then there are the movies that you don’t love, that might even make you a little bit angry but they offend something so deep inside you that you still really want to write about them because you want to ask the question ‘why did the film makers think anyone ever wanted to see a (insert expletive here) piece of (insert expletive here) like this EVER get made?’

Call it the bipolar scale of film reviewing.

But then we come to ‘After’ and, as a reviewer, I’m in the place I really don’t like. The no-man’s land of having absolutely no opinion about a film other than to say that now I know what slipping into a coma feels like.

Actually, in retrospect, that might have been director Ryan Smith’s intention because (I don’t think it’s a spoiler, it’s revealed pretty early on in the movie) one of the two main characters discovers she’s actually in a coma while, in some alternate reality, she’s wandering around her inexplicably deserted town wandering what’s going on.

So if inducing a coma upon his audience was Ryan Smith’s aim, so that we could better appreciate what his annoyingly bland central characters are experiencing… congratulations. It’s mission accomplished.

Ana (Karolina Wydra) and Freddy (Steven Strait) are strangers who meet each other on an otherwise empty bus as they head through the night towards their hometown. She’s a nurse. He’s a comic book artist. She doesn’t want to talk to him. He won’t get the message. He draws a picture of her and manages to make her even more uncomfortable. But then he makes some charmless (that’s what I thought anyway) comment that for-no-apparent-reason makes her smile and manages to briefly break the tension. And then there’s a massive crash followed by darkness.

Ana wakes up at home. She drives through her empty town and arrives at the hospital where she works, which is also mysteriously devoid of people. She returns home and hears loud music belting out of the house further down the street. Someone else must be here! She goes to the house and finds Freddy, who’s turned up the music so high because he can’t stand the silence.

Together, they investigate what’s going on and discover a gigantic black cloud rolling in towards the town, surrounding the town on all sides, swallowing up all means of escape.

And inside the cloud something evil and monstrous lies in wait: a hideous beast that’s about to make a tragedy in Ana’s past a lot clearer, and pay Freddy back for a guilt he’s kept buried since childhood.

Okay.

You know those really bad television miniseries they adapt from Stephen King novels? The ones about small town life, where we take forever finding out about the unsuspecting ordinary folk whose destinies are about to be turned upside down by the evil that slowly shuffles up to engulf them?

And you know how, more often than not, the only way they’ll eventually be able to confront and destroy that evil is to face up to the sins of their past?

Oh yeah, and while we’re on the subject of Stephen King, do you remember a little novella he knocked out back in 1980 called ‘The Mist’?

Forget the novella. Frank Darabont wrote and directed a pretty good movie version of it back in 2007.

‘After’ is all the above, with the notable exception that instead of assorted townsfolk, most of the time we’re in the sole company of two of the most irritatingly whiny and ineffectual protagonists I’ve seen in a long time.  And there are also moments when it feels like a really bad children’s film.

It runs for ninety minutes, but it seemed like a lot longer. You know what the ending’s going to be pretty much as soon as it starts. The beast (and I’m trying really hard to say something positive here) looks pretty well conceived in long shots but completely falls apart in the final ‘confrontation’, when we get to see it up close in all its not-too-spectacular glory.

Critics with better survival instincts than me left within the first Act to spend some more useful and creative time at the bar.

I was one of those who sat through this turgidly paced, Stephen King-plagiarising, soap opera-dialogued mess hoping it would improve and knowing it couldn’t.

And if you still decide to see it because you’re one of those people who gets turned on watching paint dry, make sure you hang in until after the end credits have rolled.

Yep, ‘After’ even has a smug little tag scene stapled on at the end. It truly is the creature that refuses to die.

In fact, it’s so bad I can’t even have a proper opinion about it except to say… ho-hum…

‘After’. Ho-hum.

That’s my review.

Thank you for listening.

 

VERDICT: [rating=1]

"Jack Ryan" Filming In New York City - September 2, 2012

DVD Review: Jack Ryan – Shadow Recruit

After an absence of 12 years, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is back, with another hot young Hollywood star, a Brit playing a villain and the trials and tribulations of American/Russian relations on the line. The resulting film tries to balance the serious modern espionage of the Bourne Trilogy, with the high octane, audience friendly thrills of the Mission: Impossible series. However, in trying to mine the ground between the two, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a fundamentally compromised affair that is too light, ineffective and creatively bankrupt.

Chris Pine does well considering the limited nature of this interpretation of Jack Ryan, channeling the balance between homegrown Americana and defiant challenge to authority, but overall it is extremely disappointing to see Jack Ryan portrayed in such an ineffectual manner. The reality of the character has always been this hero’s trademark, but there is no grit or a sense of inner reserve (other than a tacked on, forced moment during a prologue recovery sequence). Perhaps the element that most damages the resonance of this interpretation is the reality that Chris Pine is far too polished to be the diamond in the rough; the decision to make Ryan into an inexperienced, youthful patriot is a critical misstep. An equally foolish decision was to retcon the origins of Jack Ryan’s heroism alongside the horror of 9/11. In a film concerned with tensions between U.S.A. and Russia, it relies on post 9/11 concerns and imagery, in particular the fear of terrorism and the vulnerability of modern urban society, to the point where the interesting elements of financial terrorism take a backseat to the tired ‘bomb in New York City’ trope by the film’s disappointing climax.

Even worse that the tepid action and the lack of identity, is the film’s romantic sub plot. Simply put…it is horrific. Keira Knightley’s role as the future Mrs. Ryan is a nightmare to behold; a collection of pouts and sour glances that coalesce into a perfect storm of emptiness and awkwardness. Her behavior at times is almost something out of a horror film as she desperately seeks the truth her boyfriend hides from her. It is more Single White Female than anything that should ever constitute a realistic honest relationship. Pine and Knightley have absolutely zero chemistry, making every forced moment of romance genuinely excruciating to watch, and impossible to empathize with.

The visual style is sharp and stylish, without being particularly distinctive. Cool, metallic tones dominate the aesthetic; but nothing lurks behind the sleek sheen. It is an artifice, nothing more. This is particularly evident during the action sequences of the film, which are handled without clarity; a mess of quick edits and bland shots without content that blur into visual redundancy. This is a film that looks good…but feels unoriginal, empty of vitality and identity.

This is the crippling flaw that undermines everything the film ultimately is: All gloss, nothing genuine. The casting of Chris Pine and Keira Knightley, the visual style, the story, the cultural commentary, the relationships…nothing rings true, everything feels safe and staid. This is a modern American spy thriller as paint by numbers; everything is coloured within the lines…but as a result, it is a work without true artistic identity or the brushstrokes of ingenuity.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a resounding disappointment; this could have been so much more than the hollow, formulaic waste it has become. This is a film devastated by its lack of ambition, other than to simply reflect other far superior spy thrillers. All gloss, nothing genuine…this is an imitation without heart, sincerity, thought or creative expression. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is nothing more than its title foolishly exclaims…a shadow.

 

VERDICT: [rating=1]

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DVD Review: Willow Creek

Another day, another found footage movie. Ever since The Blair Witch Project became The Most Successful Horror Film Ever MadeÔ every horror movie director with no money and fewer ideas seems to have tried their hand at the faux-documentary, sending some unlucky, unknown actors into the woods or a crumbling mental hospital/prison to get lost, get panicky and swear in the dark while being menaced by an unseen monster/ghost/vampire/witch/serial killer.

 

The latest film from writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America, World’s Greatest Dad), Willow Creek, is no exception, sending a couple of young city slickers, Kelly and Jim (Aimee Pierson and Bryce Johnson) into the deep dark woods in search of the mythical Bigfoot, a fabled apelike creature that haunts the forests and mountains of the USA’s Pacific Northwest.

 

Jim is a Bigfoot nut, a true believer who’s intent on finding proof of the Sasquatch’s existence by retracing the steps of monster hunters Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin whose infamous amateur film of a hairy apelike creature (or possibly just a man in an ape costume…) sauntering through the woods caught the public’s imagination back in 1967. With his sceptical actress girlfriend Kelly in tow, Jim sets out to capture the beast on film, interviewing some of the area’s locals before venturing into the woods. But as night falls and their camp comes under attack by an unseen presence, the couple realise they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

 

With the possible exception of computer animated Barbie movies and Zach Braff, there is no trend in current cinema I hate more than the found footage genre so it’s something of a disappointment that Goldthwait, a genuinely fearless and anarchic stand-up comedian and actor (most people still only remember him as the squeaky-voiced nutbag Zed in the Police Academy movies) who’s carved out a second career as one of the USA’s most bitingly satirical filmmakers, has chosen to follow the sly, bitterly acidic God Bless America with this rather ordinary found footage flick which for the first half dissects and celebrates an American legend before settling for the customary things going bump in the night we expect of the genre. But while it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, Goldthwait delivers a tense, atmospheric little chiller that’s shaggy head and shoulders above most of the genre.

 

For a change our protagonists aren’t the usual hipster twats we actively want to see bad things happen to, Johnson and Pierson make for an effective, believable and, above all, likable couple. We still want to see bad things happen to them (it’s a found footage after all, that’s why we’re here) but at least we feel guilty about it, and the film builds a nice sense of foreboding through their interactions with the local townspeople (believably played by authentic local townspeople) before they venture into the woods and get lost, Goldthwait amping up the scares (or the boredom depending on your viewpoint) with a bravura 18-minute static shot that sees the couple inside their tent becoming increasingly unnerved by the weird, nocturnal sounds of the forest; moans, growls, howls, screams, breathing and wood knocking while a shot where a camera (and, by default, it’s operator) is dragged through the undergrowth is far scarier than any cheaply made monster leaping out at you.

 

While the ending is a cop out as liable to induce laughter as it is terror, Goldthwait’s touch is light and assured, showing a real gift for horror as he builds tension, the film owing as much to The Legend Of Boggy Creek as it does the Blair Witch, treating the Bigfoot legend with the warm affection of an enthusiast. Smart, funny and scary, if completely predictable, Willow Creek lacks the joyful transgression of Bobcat’s earlier films but delivers a tense, effective little slice of terror.

 

VERDICT: [rating=3]

 

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DVD Review: Paranormal Activity – The Marked Ones

After the disappointment of Paranormal Activity 4 I was hoping they wouldn’t ruin the franchise with anymore sequels or prequels. However, I couldn’t resist dipping my toes into the uncanny and eerie world once again. I guess that would mean that this franchise is my ultimate guilty pleasure right?

Whilst it’s the fifth Paranormal Activity film to be released, this one is set as a Latino spin-off from the established series. Written and directed by series regular Christopher Landon, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones appears to be an entirely new story – that is until the spooky occurrences begin to unfold.

Whilst I’ve previously told fellow horror fans that they could watch the films despite having not seen all of the instalments, I would retract that statement when it comes to The Marked Ones. Now, paranormal activity is a little complex, we’re five films in and it appears all of the victims are intrinsically linked – even despite this instalment’s spin off into Latino territories. I guess this poses the question – what do you audiences want from a good old fashioned horror flick?

Whilst there are some good scare and shock factors here, the franchise has lost its original creepiness from the 2007 debut. The shadows, night shots and creeping feeling of dread as the situation was worsening, paired with dark shots, bumps in the night and empty scenes added a realistic element which support the otherwise lacklustre found footage element. Don’t get me wrong, found footage is great for the horror genre, but only when it’s done right. Instead this poses the same old found footage question – why and how are they filming all of this? Furthermore, the sense of dread is entirely lacking – instead you get about an hour of the mundane paired with “oh no, I’m being possessed” to the crash bang of the final scenes.

Landon has taken the idea of the first born son being the prize for possession so to speak and added in some reasoning for the witch coven which we have seen in the previous films 3 and 4. Already confused?

Anyways, a young California Latino named Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is designated for possession by the same malevolent demon who previously claimed Kristi and Katie.

This expands the ‘Paranormal Activity’ universe quite a bit, in a sometimes entertaining way. However the focus of the witches, the idea that this has happened to another boy in the same town and sheer lack of worry / shock of the other characters make it at times frustrating, as well as a little comical.

And so it goes for 84 minutes with a few jumps, although these are only the kinds of jumps which work in a cinema – watch on a small screen and you’ll be yawning at the film and willing your own possession in the comfort of your own home. The story becomes more complex and involves a coven of bloodthirsty witches [a vague reference has been made to these spooky sisters before but there’s no real reasoning] and the confusing possession of first-born male children – which begs the question, why was Katie possessed in the first Paranormal Activity if that pesky demon is after a boy?

The franchise, which appeared to be losing its grip in the fourth movie, perhaps needs to put this demon to bed before it wreaks havoc in any other countries… or cinemas and homes for that matter. I put my hands up and admit this franchise is my guilty pleasure, but I’m failing to find the appeal anymore.

VERDICT: [rating=2]