Saturday, 31 October 2009

FILM: Gamer

Neveldine/Taylor strike back with their post-Crank offering of virtual-reality/evil media conglomerate/wronged death row inmate/future deathsport/mega-bucks TV show pick'n'mix plot strands that in many ways feels like Neil Marshall's Doomsday in its attempt to hark back to a certain breed of action film, but tries to do far too much all at once.

As you'd expect from the Crank boys, it looks quite spectacular (deliberately dodgy green-screening notwithstanding) and it's edited to within an inch of it's life and feels like the screen is going to overload at certain points (sometimes it does). But as you might also expect, there are plenty of absurdist tangents, surreal gags and major boobage. In a sense, it's too bizarre and peculiar to satisfy the Michael Bay crowd, but too mean-spirited and base to be fully enjoyed as a dumb but fun 'splosions flick. However, there is still much to be thankful for and its constant efforts to attach such a weird shooting style and sense of humour to what is a pretty pedestrian plot is commendable.

And if there's anything that keeps it afloat, it's the cast, though not so much in terms of their acting ability (Gerard Butler seems to just channel Russell Crowe in Gladiator and add nothing else), though Michael C. Hall is a highly entertaining and quirky super-villain, as you might expect from playing Dexter. Rather that the entire supporting cast is populated by a multitude of known faces, some in blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameos, many of them Pathology and Crank alumni (see if you can spot Efren Ramirez and Troma's Lloyd Kaufman). The highlight of these is undoubtedly Milo Ventimiglia, who in about a minute of screen time as the charmingly-monikered Rick Rape, demonstrates a gleefully sick side that you would never see in an episode of Heroes.

While it's hard to champion Gamer in quite the same unabashed fashion as Cranks One and Two, if you weren't put off by exploding breast implants in Neveldine/Taylor's last cinematic endeavour, you might be able to stomach Gamer, and, dare I say it, enjoy it.


FILM: Carnival of Souls

Organist Mary survives a car accident in which her friends are killed and moves to Utah soon after to take up a residency at a church. However, she is stalked by a ghoulish figure who vanishes just as quickly as he appears. An abandoned carnival just outside of town seems to hold the answers.

Reportedly an influence on both George A Romero (the ghouls themselves are clear precursors to Romero's zombies) and David Lynch (from its dreamy sequences to its supporting cast of oddballs, including the dotty Mrs Thomas and sleazebag Mr Linden), Carnival of Souls may seem a little pedestrian compared to what followed and its themes have been explored again and again, but for the time, its an undeniably absorbing work. It's creepy when it needs to be, with some eye-catching make-up and inventive sound design, but also has a dark comic streak and some quirky, often snappy, dialogue. Overall, it's always entertaining and Candace Hilligoss is superb in the leading role.


FILM: The Keep

Michael Mann's "lost" film, based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson, is famous for it's Tangerine Dream score and generally little seen thanks to a lack of a DVD release, rare print screenings (of which I attended at the BFI upon which this review is based) and it being a critical and commercial flop on release in 1983. Yet, I have always harboured a fascination in seeing it thanks to the look from stills I'd seen, the cast and the intruiging plot.

A bunch of Nazis take up base in the titular keep embedded in the mountainside of a Romanian village, only to find something possibly more evil than them lurking inside. It's kind of like the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark stretched out for 90 minutes, but not at all actually when you come to think of it.

Many of the film's problems can be attributed to its current state. While the print was unavoidably scratchy and the sound often dire, it's the hackjob at the edit stage that makes much of the film incomprehensible. That's not to say there aren't poor choices elsewhere (the bizarre yankee accents of the Romanians, Alberta Watson's mega-80's hair, some very forced and clunky dialogue), but with the original cut apparently 3 hours long, it does feel like you're skimming through a book rather than absorbing it. The film frequently turns two pages at once, leading to muddy character motivations, sketchy background information and bizarre jumps and developments. I don't need all the answers from a film, but the way The Keep flowed, it seemed like they skipped the questions too. In fact, supposed hero Scott Glenn is largely superfluous to the whole film seemingly only present for a little impromptu soft-focus fornication, with the kind of double quick courting that'd make James Bond nervous, and ultimately to defeat the big bad at the end.

There is still an interesting film buried beneath. Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen (unconventional accent aside) are as solid as you'd expect, the Keep itself is awe-inspiring (care of production designer John Box, a talk on whom was given prior to the screening) and the visual effects and prosphetics are great too. And the film as a whole does have a weird atmosphere that leaves an unshakeable impression. But ultimately, it's too muddled to be more than a cult curio. A remastered re-edited DVD release would be most welcome though.


Wednesday, 21 October 2009

FILM: The Road

A London Film Festival Gala screening (i.e. free water and choccy bar - which I felt so guilty about eating while the characters on screen starve, I didn't consume until the following day) followed by a Q+A with the film-makers and Viggo Mortensen.

John Hillcoat's (The Proposition) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's (No Country For Old Men) novel is a faithful one indeed, honouring the book's bluntness and frankness to create a very honest (one would imagine) depiction of a non-descript apocalyptic American wasteland and a father and son's journey across it. It's certainly more flashback-reliant than the original source material, but never to the extent that questions are unnecessarily answered or the overall mood is diluted.

If you've read the book, you'll know what to expect - perhaps to the film's detriment in that the impact is somewhat lessened. Either I've been too desensitised or just knew the tone of the book so well that I was not as shocked or upset as I might have been going in cold. But it's still hard not to be impressed with just how matter-of-fact yet beautifully told the story is. I had imagined a bleaker, more ash-ridden world, but this imagining of the world of the novel still manages to be both grounded in reality and often awe-inspiring, using real post-Katrina landscapes to create a sense of a land bereft of humanity, both in its physical and metaphysical forms.

Mortensen is every bit as believable, intense and watchable as in his work with Cronenberg and Kodi Smit-McPhee (soon to appear in the American version of Let The Right One In) is pretty much perfect, exactly how you'd expect a child to behave in such an impossible situation while never falling into the trap of acting 'beyond their years' - so much so that a day after the screening, I saw families with little kids in big coats and woolly hats and I got a little emotional, feeling a sudden paternal urge to protect them from the apocalypse! Add to that an impeccable supporting cast populated by well-known faces in bit-part roles (a near un-recognisable Robert Duvall may have less screen time than Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love, but I wouldn't be surprised if he got a supporting nom come Oscar time).

If you can imagine a cross somewhere between the end of The Mist and the start of Wall-E, then The Road is close to that. Though its setting and content is ostensibly bleak, there is a beauty and a purpose to it that transcends the darkness to make for a strangely uplifting and poignant piece of work.

The Road is released in the UK on January 8th 2010.


Sunday, 4 October 2009

FILM: Antichrist

Sooooo, Antichrist then.

First things first, I liked it. Incredible cinematography, startling imagery and powerful performances.

However, get past the art-house trappings and watch it as a particularly gruesome but high-end video nasty, and you'll find it a more rewarding experience than if you were trying to look for the profound despite its pretentions. The dialogue and themes explored (of man versus woman, mankind versus nature) are hardly original and the Biblical references clunky, but wouldn't feel as such in a more conventional 'terror picture'. There are elements of The Evil Dead, The Shining and a whole bunch of weirdy horror classics - though some of the more extreme moments are more reminscient of assorted works by Eli Roth and Takashi Miike - but there are still plenty of things in Antichrist I never thought I'd see in a film (and a few I wouldn't really choose to see again) though it clearly announces its intentions with a slo-mo penetration shot about half a minute in.

Is it mysoginistic? Peeeeerrrobably...when the whole film rests on one man and one woman and that one woman makes grand sweeping claims blaming all evil on womankind, it's not easy arguing otherwise. But I'd say that Antichrist, being that it is steeped in horror lore, is simply honouring the grand tradition of the female being the vessel for the supernatural (and furthermore, tying in with the Mother Nature concept) and just taking it to its natural extreme. But by being so extreme, it does veer dangerously close to (and occassionally tips over into) downright silliness; some of it is so unbelievably shocking, nervous giggles ensued. I did spend the credits laughing out loud with the two friends I saw it with because when faced with a pretty unpleasant situation, you can't take it seriously lest you become a gargantuan sourpuss.

Chances are you won't know if you wanted to watch it or not until after seeing it, but likewise, if you're contemplating seeing it, I think you already know what you're letting yourself in for. I would say the 'graphic violence' is by no means as bad as I thought it would be, but I'm a sick puppy, so don't take that as me giving you the all clear. And it's moral standpoint is dubious at best. But there's definitely something unshakeably fascinating about Antichrist, be it the film itself, that Lars von Trier actually decided to make it in the first place, or just its very existence. The world is not a better place because of Antichrist, but nor has it brought about armageddon.


FILM: Moon

While it contains themes, ideas, design, even dialogue, reminiscient of past sci-fi classics, Moon never feels rehashed or unimaginative, creating a mood and atmosphere all of its own and deserves a place alongside the masterpieces it harks back to. This is in large part to both Duncan Jones economical direction, wringing everything out of its meagre budget (with some gorgeous modelwork and miniatures), and Sam Rockwell.

For what is essentially a one-man show, you'd need a pretty decent lead to keep the audience engaged and sympathetic, and few actors are quite as adept at being affable, pitiful, serious, goofy, charming, intense, and pretty much any other facet of a character as Rockwell. Would an Oscar nomination be too much to ask? British comedy nerds will also get a kick out of small appearances from Sunshine alumnus Benedict Wong and Dr Sanchez himself Matt Berry, and Kevin Spacey's smilie-tastic robot assistant Gerty is pitch-perfect.

Story-wise, not all ideas are fully fleshed out or followed through, though in most cases this is not necessarily a problem, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Indeed, my only major quibble came with a last-minute piece of exposition that actually did more to confuse, diminish and befuddle than satisfy. But for the most part this is efficient and believable story-telling. Mysterious, gripping, hilarious, achingly sad, yet strangely uplifting, Moon is a lovely piece of work.


Saturday, 3 October 2009


After the double-whammy of Ratatouille and Wall-E, I had high hopes for Up, particularly as I'd read very little about the plot beyond the initial set-up (sort of like Gran Torino meets Indiana Jones in a surreal road-trip), but while it has some good gags and thrilling action set-pieces (maybe not best for those with vertigo), I feel it didn't quite gel together so well.

The plot itself stems from an absurd flight of fancy and so seemingly does the rest of the film. For what is essentially a 'road movie' (an often enjoyable but lazy sub-genre used as an excuse to string together disparate side characters and vignettes), despite the odd dips into the surreal, it was too conventional and predictable, sacrificing believable character development for sentimentality, and relying a little too much on whimsy and cuteness. Without the admittedly funny but obvious supporting animal companions, there'd be even less to it. It didn't manage to balance the fun and enjoyment with the emotional heart-string tugging of previous Pixar efforts and, as such, didn't hold my attention quite like, dare I say it, Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda, even though I understand they're trying to achieve entirely different things. Maybe a bad example.

I liked Up for the most part, and it's still an impressive piece of work (plus the 3D is not used in a gimmicky fashion, relying on creating depth rather than jumping out of the screen, though it's still non-essential). And with Pixar comes a certain quality guarantee that it won't rely on celebrity voiceovers, pop culture references and toilet humour. But it's overall a bit of a disappointment.

Oh, and the short beforehand was not one of the better ones either. Not quite Boundin' awful (though it has some horrible character designs too), but desperately twee.