Friday, 30 September 2011

Way Of The Morris (Tim Plester, Rob Curry, 2011) DVD Review

"A mythic world where the life of the grandfather belongs to fable in the eyes of the grandson..."

It's often said that films hold up a mirror to our lives, possessing the ability to reflect the ordinary and imbue it with greater meaning. This is especially true of the documentary format, which acts like a time capsule, chronicling a place and time which ceases to be in its recorded form even a second after its capture through a camera's lens. One of my favorite documentaries of recent years is Gideon Koppel's Sleep Furiously (2008), an elegiac hymn to the landscape of Trefeurig, a small and sadly dwindling agricultural town in Ceredigion, Wales. Koppel's film, described by IMDB as "a poetic and profound journey into a world of endings and beginnings; a world of stuffed owls, sheep and fire", looks to a mythic world where the life of a grandfather belongs to fable in the eyes of the grandson. Way Of The Morris, a beautiful new documentary from actor-turned-director Tim Plester, evoked many of the same qualities for me, yet somehow retains an identity all of its own. It's about Morris dancing, an English tradition which for many is a source of embarrassment, and something to be ashamed of. This is an important film, for it holds up a mirror to a part of our culture which we have foolishly sought to erase. In fact, it should be celebrated.

The film begins with an earthy animation - almost like a cave painting come to life - which relays the story of the old red fox who "danced the world into being", rhythmically ploughing the fields for their first harvest ("The first barley and the first wheat"). The next scene propels us forward in time, yet still locates us in the past. Old Super 8 footage reveals Plester as a boy, playing with his grandfather in the hills of Adderbury, his home town, accompanied by a voiceover from the director. His articulation of memory is unusually poetic, personifying the intimate through thoughtful verse. For example, he recalls those days with his grandfather through the lens of the Super 8, "unfolding gently at 18 frames per second, and accompanied by the wearing flicker flicker of the camera's in-built motor." His attention to detail is quite fascinating; the way his mind collects every detail to ultimately paint a living illustration (much like the opening with the fox). His subdued vocals inform much of the films tone, perfectly complementing Adrian Corker's gorgeous original score, a twinkling folk rhapsody which calls to mind Morris On, the classic rock album which brought Morris to the masses in the early 1970's.

DoP Richard Mitchell shoots the landscape as if it belonged to one of Aesop's tales, imbuing the dewey fields and old-world architecture with a mythic quality which again recalls Sleep Furiously. The opening tableaus are among the most beautiful I've seen all year, and they reminded me of several little villages I've come across in my time - places off the map which hold centuries of history. I can relate to Adderbury somewhat, as my home town of Alcester has unearthed many Roman remains. There's also a great ease to the camerawork, which is uncommon for the documentary format, as it so often prods and probes into the lives of its subjects. Those documentaries would be about secrets and tragedies; the image it reflects is a worrying one. Way Of The Morris presents a heartwarming reflection, and that ease comes from Plester's intimacy with the locals. They're his people - his family, friends and neighbors.

But most impressive is the way Plester merges several story arcs into the 64-minute running time (actually, it barely qualifies as a feature). The main story is about Adderbury and its locals, but two thirds into the film the Morris men take a journey to Pozières in Northern France, to visit the Somme, or more specifically the graves erected for those who lost their lives in its savage battle. Only one Adderbury man returned from its bloodthirsty grasp, and his shadow looms large over the contemporary way of life. Indeed, there's probably not a local who doesn't know his name. The sequence at the Somme is deeply moving, and really helps solidify that sense of community - it's about honour and remembrance. Plester doesn't sentimentalize, he observes. There's so much truth in the singing of an Adderbury tune at the foot of the memorial that it catches the viewer off-guard. It's quite beautiful.

I watched Way Of The Morris on a distinctly chilly English evening, accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate and some shortbread biscuits. The experience was akin to eating Cornish ice cream or enjoying a pint of Somerset cider; there's something warming about how homegrown it feels. I'm not embarrassed to admit this. It was an absolute delight.

The Disc/Extras
It's a shame this one hasn't been made available on Blu-Ray, because Mitchell's photography is incredibly striking and captures a unique landscape which the cinema has never seen before. The extras are surprisingly wealthy too, comprising a series of trailers, an SXSW interview (via The Guardian) and two commentaries. The first is an interesting filmmakers commentary from Curry, Plester and Rob Young, detailing the origins and production of the project. The second is from the Morris men themselves, which feels a lot like wandering into a quaint English town and eavesdropping on the locals as they wile away the hours at the local tavern. Wonderful.

Way Of The Morris was released on DVD on October 3rd. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Our Beloved Month Of August (Miguel Gomes, 2008) DVD Review

It's the world that we live in... Our Beloved Month Of August (2008)

It pains me to admit this but, outside of a few Costa's (O Sangue, 1989, is mystifyingly beautiful) and a scattering of de Oliveira's (Belle toujours, 2006) my exposure to Portuguese cinema has been fairly limited. Indeed, I'll be the first to admit that my review of Our Beloved Month Of August, the second feature from critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes, won't be the best available, because I'm unfamiliar with the language, themes and rhythms of Portuguese cinema. Distributors just don't seem confident with it having a UK audience. I hope this fact will be rectified by the time Gomes' third feature - apparently influenced by Murnau's under-appreciated TABU (1931) - is ready to hit our shores.

Impossible to comprehend by way of one genre, aesthetic or idea, Our Beloved Month Of August marries faux-documentary with self-conscious fiction, often blurring the line between where one begins and the other ends, if in fact they stop and start at all. The first hour is an ethnographic portrait of Portugal, awash with the spirit and sounds of summer; the camera observes, sporadically slipping into scripted events. The next 80 minutes unfurl the romantic relationship between teenage cousins Tânia (Sónia Bandeira) and Hélder (Fábio Oliveira), who play together in a local band. Upon first glance these would appear like different films which have been edited together by accident, yet they coalesce perfectly. A retelling of the production history offers possible insight into this phenomenon. Gomes had been forced to abandon a project which was due to shoot in Argnail in the summer of 2006. Disheartened, he nonetheless traveled to Argnail with a downsized crew, armed with a plentiful supply of 16mm film stock. He captured the essence of summer through his lens and, with funding secured in the meantime, returned to Argnail the following summer to work a narrative into the existing footage. I'm not sure what I believe. This is the truth which Gomes claims is behind his latest, but the film is slippery enough to make me doubt the sincerity of the tale. There's a definite hint of the New Wave within its structure, and I can imagine another critic-turned director, Jean-Luc Godard, recognizing a bit of himself in this deceptively beautiful work.

An example of that deception. Early in the film we are privy to a conversation between Gomes (playing himself) and his producer (fictional, played by the actor who later appears as Tânia's father). The producer is flicking through a script the size of a door wedge. "Where are these people?" he asks, referring to its characters. Gomes says that he's waiting for funding. Give me the money and I'll give you these people. That's his promise. Fact re-told through fiction. This is surely the first film in history to dissect its own story before proceeding to tell it. That this film also ends with an in-film dialogue between the director and his sound recordist is even more odd, adding further mystery. They discuss "phantom sounds", but of course the cinema is a medium of such things. Apparently music has been finding its way into the recorded sound, when in reality no music was present. What does this mean? I have no idea, but music is such a huge part of the film that it surely means something. Toward the end of the film there is an observed conversation between two actors. They discuss their roles. This scene is obviously staged in the same way as the emerging romance, and yet here one gets the impression of the filmmaker going for documentary, or something separate from but still part of the fiction.

Godard once said of Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), "Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished, because this film is really the world in an hour and a half." The same could be said of Our Beloved Month Of August, a beguiling work of facto-fiction in which every frame is a new adventure. I later learn that the film was a box office success in Portugal. Suddenly emigration seems like such a good idea.

The Disc/Extras
The first striking aspect of Our Beloved Month Of August is the cover art - a purple vortex of swirling planets foregrounding an introspective young woman. It's a unique and compelling image which wouldn't look out of place in a gallery. The film itself looks wonderful. Of course, it was only shot five years ago, but this new director-approved transfer is outstanding.
As usual with Second Run there's an exemplary booklet to accompany the main picture, this time authored by Sight & Sound deputy editor Kieron Corless. It's a perfect blend of film diary and academic assessment, detailing Corless' relationship with Portuguese cinema, particularly that of Gomes, and then contextualization and theory of the work. It's an easy and enjoyable read, conceived with passion and fascination in equal measure.
The main extra on the disc (alongside the original trailer) is Gomes' 2006 short Canticle Of All Creatures (Cântico das Criaturas), which is absolutely stunning. It's impossible to say exactly what the film is about. It opens with a troubadour singing 'Song Of Brother Sun', composed by St. Francis of Assisi in 1224. We're then transported to 1212 where St. Francis' awakes in the Umbrian woods, unaware of his senses and calling. A Nun helps to recollect his memory while the animals of the world fight for his attentions. Godard's quote acutely reviews this film too. It's literally life, life across centuries and species, condensed into twenty thrilling minutes. Essential.

Our Beloved Month Of August is released on DVD on September 26th, courtesy of Second Run.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec (Luc Besson, 2010) Blu-Ray Mini-Review

"A dinosaur you say?"... The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010)

Based upon Jacques Tardi's Franco-Belgian 70's comic strip, Luc Besson's The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec is an eye-popping mélange of anachronistic pop-culture riffs, pyrotechnic action sequences, wickedly dry humour, elegant attire and towering architecture, taking the viewer on an energetic romp through 20th Century Paris. Its rip-roaring pace beats out even Besson's (shockingly underrated) sci-fi spectacular The Fifth Element (1997), but retains that film's sense of gleeful anarchy, use of cross-cutting story arcs and reflexive mythologies. The jazzy Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin, ex-Canal+ weathergirl) is also one of Besson's classic heroines, confidently ranking alongside Leon's (1994) Mathilda (Natalie Portman) and Joan Of Arc's (1999), well, Joan Of Arc (Milla Jovovich). In reductionist terms she's like Indiana Jones spliced with Amélie, a rousing adventurer with a twinkle in her eye, capable of love but prone to fanciful capers in Peru and Egypt.

It's Paris, 1911, and Blanc-Sec has recently procured the mummified remains of an ancient doctor, whom she plans to be revived by Prof. Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian) in order to save her dying sister, who's become little more than a vegetable after a freak tennis accident. Meanwhile a pterodactyl soars high above Paris, tracked by Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche) and big game hunter Justin de Saint-Hubert (Jean-Paul Rove). Throw in some mystery, romance and old-fashioned tomb raiding (an unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric plays Blanc-Sec's nemesis Dieuleveult) and you have Besson's finest film in years. The director is clearly relishing the chance to play with his actors here, dressing them up in extravagant costume, silly facial hair and striking eyeliner. The game cast are all clearly having a blast too. The witty screenplay takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the action, and certainly anyone able to suspend their disbelief will have a whale of a time with the various hijinks of Tardi's world.

There are some problems. The CGI never convinces, the tone is wildly uneven and the film is overall little more than a flimsy fancy, but Besson's latest has an undeniable charm that swept me up and never let me down. I'm sure he's hoping for a franchise, and I know I'll be first in line for Adèle Blanc-Sec Part Deux.

The Disc/Extras
The Blu-Ray transfer is terrific, really accentuating Besson's fizzy aesthetic, concocted with regular DP Thierry Arbogast. The extras are pretty solid too, comprising a 29-minute 'Making Of' doc (genuinely revealing), extended interviews with Besson and the primary cast (Bourgoin, Amalric, Rove), an In Studio feature for the recording of the soundtrack, and the original theatrical trailer. Top notch.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Blood Runs Cold (Sonny Laguna, 2011) DVD Review

What?! I was just out chopping wood! Honestly! ... Blood Runs Cold (2011)

Let's be honest: most low-budget slashers can be forgiven their cinematic sins for one good decapitation scene. Swedish limb-lopper Blood Runs Cold may commit several offenses - its screenplay is crammed with cringe-inducing dialogue spouted by two-dimensional characters, most of whom you'll actually want to die - but if our critic-o-meter is set on a sin-to-decapitation ratio, Laguna's film might be a close call...

The setup is simple: Winona (Hanna Oldenberg) is an emerging artist from the city looking for a break from her stressful lifestyle. She's lent a supposedly luxurious abode by her manager but it turns out to be a decrepit dump, leaky and creaky, and dimly lit in the tradition of classic haunted house horror. After hearing odd sounds in the attic Winona decides to visit a local bar, where she bumps into ex-boyfriend Richard (Patrick Saxe), who's out with obnoxious, foul-mouthed colleague Carl (Andreas Rylander, doing his worst Quentin Tarantino impression) and his saintly girlfriend Liz (Elin Hugoson), who should be awarded the medal of valour for putting up with him. They all go back to Winona's for some drinks and decide to sleep over when a storm sets in. But sunrise will herald a surprise far worse than electric bills through the mailbox...

Blood Runs Cold clocks in at a lean 74 minutes, and at least half of that time is dedicated to fleshing out character history and establishing location. The screenplay is a Thanksgiving turkey, however, and what really drives the movie is its music. Samir El Alaoui has crafted a derivative but highly functional score, beautifully informing the re-emerging relationship between Winona and Richard, and later building tension before the blunt, brutal executions. The killer itself (himself?) is an sub-supernatural figure (following genre tradition established by Carpenter's Halloween, 1978), but the film misses a trick in never giving it (him?) a backstory. Heck, even Freddy Krueger had ground rules, despite every subsequent sequel re-writing them. We just never really fear the killer here, because he amounts to no more than a faceless plot device.

After a night of needlessly gratuitous cross-cut sex, morning arrives and the killer stirs. Richard and co. are disappointingly hacked to pieces within ten minutes of sunrise, quickly resulting in a bland last girl standing scenario. There's some pretty nice tension building, especially through the use of light (I suspect the darkness was digitally deepened in the editing suite) but what really counts here is the splatter, and for the most part it's very well executed (forgive the pun). Richard's head is the one decapitated, and gloriously so, shooting off like a rocket and leaving a syrupy blood spurt in its wake.

Winona wakes up, comes downstairs and is met by a large, dark bloodstain on the floor. Credibility takes a hit with her laughably underplayed reaction - instead of calling the police or investigating she begins to clean up the stain as if it were spilt milk. Is she in no way concerned for the safety of the three people now missing from her house?! It's an absurd fault in the screenplay but to her credit Oldenberg plays it well. She's actually really good in the film, fulfilling the scream queen role but also attempting to add depth to her character. In some scenes she succeeds, but the screenplay largely cramps her efforts.

The cat-and-mouse antics quickly become tiresome despite some impressive camerawork (one door panning reveal is hugely effective) and there's a little too much coincidence in Winona's eventual victory. Would there really be a machine gun lying there? Bloodied and bruised she escapes into the cold, tears streaming down her fear-stricken cheeks. Cut to black. Cue end credits. It seems that Laguna was so concerned with building up to the horror that he forgot how to craft a decent payoff. This is one for hardcore horror fans only - those who appreciate certain codes and conventions and get a genre kick out of "he's behind you!" cliché's and idiotic character decisions. Maybe you've seen every 80's slasher there is, and have devised your own drinking game around their tropes. Employ said game here and you'll be alright. I suspect that with a bigger budget and a bit more nerve Laguna might have a pretty solid feature in him somewhere down the line...

The Disc/Extras
Laguna shot on a Canon 7D SLR (switched to movie mode) so all things considered this is a pretty great transfer; clean and highly watchable. The digital age really does herald great things for independent filmmakers. The sole disc extra is a brilliant 9-minute 'Making Of' documentary which avoids the usual gratuitous backslapping and actually shows the cast and crew at work - set designers, light technicians and even the stunt artists. We follow the production chronologically (clearly everything was logged and filed) and get an insight into the day-to-day process. It's quite revealing, and really made me appreciate the hard work that goes into making a movie without the backing of a studio, or any kind of financial security. It's a vanilla disc, but the taste is sweet.

Blood Runs Cold slashes its way onto DVD on October 3rd.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) Review

Gary Oldman delivers the performance of his career in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Peculiarly lacking in punctuation, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the latest adaptation of John le Carré's classic Cold War thriller, a tale of espionage and intrigue in 70's London. The plot, or as much of it as is possible to summarize, concerns George Smiley (Gary Oldman), an ex-MI6 agent brought back on the job to source out a Soviet agent working within 'The Circus' - the top branch of England's secret service. The mole is one of four men - Tinker (Percy Alleline, played by Toby Jones), Tailor (Bill Haydon, played by Colin Firth), Soldier (Roy Bland, played by Ciarán Hinds) or Poor Man (Toby Esterhase, played by David Dencik), each of whom holds loyalties to another, and none of which are clearcut. In fact, these are not so much men as bacteria; homunculi; clandestine shadows. Their sweat has met midair with the pungent smoke which wisps from the crown of their cigarettes, forming a fogged and damp atmosphere. This atmosphere is defined by shades of brown and grey, captured brilliantly by DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema. This is a world we recognize. And it is one we fear.

The real creative masterstroke was in hiring Alfredson as director. His obsessive attention to detail was evident from period romance Let The Right One In (2008), and le Carré's world of sleuths and snitches has allowed the auteur to expand and deepen his palette. This isn't the first time a foreigner has lensed London and caught an underlying truth - consider Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (1970), shot in Kensington and Soho respectively. What the director brings to the table is a uniquely European sensibility - a cold climate of unease which permeates every frame, all of which unfurl at seemingly half speed. The film is shot almost entirely in close-up, especially effective in a scene where Smiley recalls his sole meeting with Soviet counterpart Karla. A lesser director would have visualized this memory with a flashback, but the weathered face of an aging spy informs enough. Alfredson employs long-focus lenses to intensify every frame, foregrounding characters who would otherwise blend into the environment. This allows the audience a feeling of being the voyeur, as Oldman has stated the director was himself. "It was as if he was eavesdropping, like a Peeping Tom, which is what you sort of want for a spy film." Indeed it is. One imagines Alfredson watching the dailies in a darkened room, door locked, dust dancing in the air.

Oldman's performance - curled of lip, uncomfortably still and vocalized in a throaty whisper - is a career best, and rightly touted for awards consideration. Many reviews have noted a line from le Carré's source, "by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth." Smiley hides beneath layers of clothing which disguise his true form, peering out at the world from behind black-rimmed spectacles. It's disquieting. Oldman plays him as an almost literal spook. Sadly his appraisal has led to the rest of this uniformly terrific cast being largely ignored. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV's current Sherlock) is particularly good as the glassy eyed, implicitly gay Peter Guillam, Smiley's confidant and right hand man. His portrayal is mannered and multi-layered, often suggesting important character information through blink-and-you'll-miss-them gestures. Tom Hardy is also excellent as the suave Ricki Tarr, who truly throws a spanner in the works. He's a softly-spoken romantic, but do we trust him? It's perhaps unfair to single out any actor - I haven't even mentioned the excellent Firth, fresh from Oscar glory - but these performances stood out to me as equals to Oldman's Smiley.

A final note: see it twice. le Carré's novel is one of the most complex in contemporary literature, and the 1979 BBC adaptation fleshed out its pages with a 290-minute running time. Alfredson's film condenses the narrative perfectly, producing a meticulous slow-burn thriller which will tie your brain in knots. But even those who are lost from minute one will understand the significance of a final glance between friends, part of a thread-tying montage which ends the film, set to the crooning sounds of Julio Iglesias' La Mer. Alfredson intentionally overblows the moment, completely aware of its neatness and conformity. The thing is, for once it's the logical conclusion. Might as well go out in style....

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, 2010) Review

"That ain't no bear..." The found footage sub-genre reaches Norway in Troll Hunter (2010)

Editing has always been a big problem for the faux-documentary format. Suspension of disbelief is essential in buying into the handheld technique, but it's never quite made sense to me why scientists and spectral investigators need to watch scenes of squabbling couples to further their paranormal/alien research. I'll say one thing: it's a good job they've been taught the conventions of narrative cinema, because their work has produced some major box office draws. Troll Hunter makes an interesting attempt to acknowledge this inherent genre flaw, stating in its opening title card that the film has been cut by Filmkameratene A/S, a Norwegian production company (who are, fittingly, the company behind Troll Hunter). This way it makes sense that the footage follows narrative convention, and that we're watching it in a cinema rather than, say, Area 51. Am I being pedantic? Maybe. Yet it's always bothered me.

But from that opening title card I knew not to worry about Troll Hunter - Øvredal's film knows exactly what it's doing. It's sure-footed in a way too few movies are, and its vision of a mythic Norwegian landscape is beautifully realised. Its mise-en-scène, if such a term isn't too academic for a movie with a troll farting scene, is impeccable, and designed to shush the found footage naysayers such as myself. The single fault might lie in the action sequences, which follow definite character logic. Naturally our protagonists' first instincts are to run from the trolls, but that also means that perspective shifts away from the action and all we're left with is shaky-cam footage of their woodland escape route. This is probably a reflection of budget more than anything, but it can be a little dispiriting that every set-piece anti-climaxes in an off-camera event, signaled through roars, screams and explosions. That can be effective, largely because of the excellent sound design, but the trolls are so impressively designed that we want to see more of them.

Formidable mammals with a calcium deficiency, these monsters are terrifying and yet strangely sympathetic. We learn of a massacre in the 1970's intended to wipe out the troll community - mothers and newborn babies included. At one point a veterinarian discusses how much pain trolls experience in the calcification process (this can be trigged by an overexposure to ultraviolet light), and the scene carries an odd poignancy. They're only trying to build a way of life, it seems, but have been shuffled away and imprisoned by humans. It helps that the trolls have been realised with incredible CGI, and carry genuine weight. Many pixellated beasties feel entirely separate from the in-camera action, which of course they literally are, but the desired effect is opposite - the audience must register them as an authentic threat, existing before the characters eyes. Øvredal, on an absurdly shoestring budget, has somehow sidestepped this problem and created wholly believable creatures. Because the trolls have a tangible reality we are able to feel for and react to them. They're proof (if proof were ever needed) that a film doesn't need to cost $200,000,000 to entertain. With the clarity of 2D and an intelligent screenplay Troll Hunter has confirmed itself as one of the year's most entertaining films, and it will inevitably gather a cult following. For once that's a fact we can celebrate...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011) Review

Love lies bleeding... Antonio Banderas sculpts an image of beauty in The Skin I Live In (2011)

Given the incredible potential of the close-up, it's perhaps unsurprising that cinema has developed an obsession with faces. Ever since Kim Novak in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) the silver screen has been compelled by their textured form and inherent mystery. Consider George Franju's terrifying Eyes Without A Face (1960), in which Pierre Brasseur plays a desperate plastic surgeon who kidnaps young girls to transplant their faces onto his disfigured daughter (Edith Scob). Four years later and The Face Of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) told the story of businessman Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadi), who takes to wearing a lifelike mask after suffering severe burns. Exploring issues of identity and infidelity, the film would later influence Alejandro Amenábar's Abre los ojos (1997), remade in 2001 as Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe). Somewhere within all of these stories lies the spirit of Mary Shelley, whose sensational 1818 novel 'Frankenstein' (adapted by James Whale for Universal in 1931) told the ultimate story of ill-fated creation; biology giving birth to horror. Ambition burned within Dr. Frankenstein, as it does within all men of science. Now Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar turns his hand to body (more specifically: face) horror, and his own scientist Legrad (Antonio Banderas) joins the ranks of cinema's greatest madmen. Shame then, that the film around him just isn't up to scratch...

The first twenty minutes of Almodóvar's latest - his bleakest since 1986's Matador, which opened on a scene of Troma-induced masturbation - are extraordinary, and zero in on a house of horrors that would not seem out of place in the pantheon of Hammer. Perhaps if I told you that a scarred rapist dressed as a tiger was not the oddest thing about these opening minutes you would begin to grasp the obscurity of the scenario, based upon Thierry Jonquet's 2003 novel 'Tarantula' (which, for the sake of spoilers, I would advise skipping before seeing the film). The tiger's name is Zeca (Roberto Álamo) and the object of his twisted desire is Vera (Elena Anaya), who sits, cross-legged in a state of zen-like calm, with the poised beauty of an ornate egg. He observes her on a TV screen, linked to the CCTV cameras which survey her blank room; finely decorated, but lacking identity. We don't know who she is. All we know is that she belongs (I use that word specifically) to Legrad, who is dabbling in the realm of transgenesis, specifically in the splicing of pig and human cells. It's clear that he has issues, but only through a series of flashbacks will we discover the dark roots of his scientific endeavors...

That said, it's at the point where we dissolve into Legrad's memories (flashbacks are a trite plot device) that the film loses focus, and these scenes, which take up a majority of the running time, prove significantly less interesting than the potential story ignited by Zeca's arrival. The time looping structure piles twist upon twist with ever increasing extravagance, but somehow I was able to predict the finale in less than an hour. This isn't because I'm a particularly perceptive or intelligent viewer, but because of the DNA Almodóvar's film shares with cinema of the past, including, somewhat, his own Bad Education (2002; think about the way that film conceals and subsequently reveals its characters' identities). The Skin I Live In is so specific in its design (the mise-en-scène is impeccable) that you quickly get a feel for the world these characters inhabit, and Almodóvar's blatant nodding toward other films (Cronenberg is another footnote) work much like a built-in read-aloud synopsis, constantly running about 30 minutes ahead of the main feature. He couldn't have made the twists more obvious if they were literally signposted, and they're executed with a smugness I'd never have ascribed to the director.

It's odd that I should draw comparison with Bad Education too, because that film suffers from largely the same problem. In both films I admired the craft but was left emotionally cold, and at a distance from the onscreen action. Legrad's controlled psychological complexity paired with Vera's stockholm-inflected victimization should make for an emotional rollercoaster, but their interplay never raises a pulse. It's also interesting, given the director's feminist background, that The Skin I Live In is shot from a predominantly male point of view - it's about the male gaze, male sexuality, male domination and most importantly man's obsession with power. This makes it unique in Almodóvar's filmography, but also confirms it as the weakest link. With its precise camerawork, Herrmann-esque score, vibrant colour scheme and committed performances The Skin I Live In could have been a great film. It has all the vital organs of a masterpiece, except, it would seem, a heart.

E-Film News: Blood Runs Cold

A snowy retreat turns into a fight for survival in Swedish horror Blood Runs Cold (2011)

You'd think that beautiful twenty-somethings would have learned to stop visiting dark, creaky houses in the middle of the night by now, but as a horror fan I'm glad they haven't. In fact, they're at it again in Blood Runs Cold, a new Swedish slasher in the classic mould of Carpenter's Halloween (1978). The last blood-soaked Swedish export to reach UK shores was Tomas Alfredson's Let The Right One In (2008), a beautiful coming-of-age vampire movie, but this looks like more of a full-on limb-lopping affair, and y'know what? I can't wait. According to the press notes, the story goes like this...

Following a busy year of relative success in the record business, Winona heads back to her tiny hometown in the remote outskirts of Stockholm to stay at a house her manager has rented where she can relax alone and hopefully find inspiration to write some new songs. As a snowstorm brews and night begins to fall, she manages to find the house but is disappointed to discover it's not the luxurious retreat she was expecting.
Shortly after settling in, Winona becomes unsettled by the creepy creaking sounds of the old house and decides to head to a bar in town for refreshments and some company. There, she bumps into a former boyfriend and a couple he knows and invites them back to the house for a few drinks. At the end of the night, with everyone either too drunk or too tired to drive home, they decide to crash until morning. But as the four friends prepare to sleep, an unknown presence stirs within the house, one that has been watching and waiting for the moment to strike.

What's obvious from the trailer (viewable below) is that director Sonny Laguna is pulling no punches. The trailer indicates a healthy blend of dread-filled atmosphere and bloody axe murders, and both seem to come at a pretty unrelenting pace! Indeed, at a brief 80 minutes this looks to be a return to the classic slasher formula, but with added (frost)bite for good measure. Shot on a shoestring $5,000 budget, Laguna is clearly realising a passion project here, and he seems to have pulled off a rip-roaring success. The film is available to buy on DVD from October 3rd, and I should have a review coming for you soon. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

VHS Quest #12. The Legend Of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985)

Hit me with your best shot... The Legend Of Billie Jean (1985)

"ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA!" roared Al Pacino to the protesting mobs in Sidney Lumet's sweltering heist drama Dog Day Afternoon (1975), perfectly encapsulating the reactionary social conscience of 70's cinema. The silver screen took up arms in these turbulent times, raising a big V sign to the establishment, taken to mean "fuck you, and thanks for nothing." But the 1980's - largely defined by cheesy romance, big hair and epic choruses - saw America settle down and give rise to its youth. MTV was launched in 1981, and computers entered the home shortly afterward. Not only did somebody care about what teenagers had to say, but they were actually helping them to say it (case-in-point: John Hughes). In 1983 Cyndi Lauper released her hit single 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun'. Just like the boys, they did, but liberty took a hit in 1985 when international superstar Rock Hudson died of AIDS (many teen dramas would later deal with the repercussions). This was also the year that The Legend Of Billie Jean - a cynically engineered kids vs. adults flick tailor-made for the Generation X crowd - hit cinemas. Like so many others, Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater; future Supergirl) was idealistic and hopeful of life. Some jerk broke her brother Binx's (Christian Slater) scooter. All she wanted was the $608 owed in damages, but instead she got the adventure of a lifetime...

Actually, that last statement is a little misleading, and my reductionist history of two decades hardly provides sufficient context, but this is a review, not an essay, and I simply think it's important to get a feel for the time Billie Jean came from. Let's expand the plot. Binx's scooter is stolen by local asswipe Hubie (Barry Tubb), who appears to have never matured past fifth grade, where he was likely that bully who always took your lunch money. The strong-headed (and bleach blonde) Binx fights to reclaim his scooter, but comes home bloodied and bruised with the vehicle in matching condition. The next day Billie Jean takes a bill for $608 to Hubie's father, Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford), who instead insists on raping her over weekly installments starting at $50. Turns out the apple doesn't rot too far from the tree. Naturally she fights back and Binx shoots the scumbag in the shoulder ("he said it wasn't loaded!"). They become outlaws and yada, yada, yada - you can pretty much pick it up from here. It's worth mentioning though that two of Billie and Binx's friends tag along for the ride; Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and Putter (Yeardly Smith, voice of Lisa Simpson), seemingly for the purpose of rationale and comic relief respectively.

All you really need to know about Robbins' film is that its title originates from the Michael Jackson single (simply Billie Jean) which in 1983 made MTV an overnight sensation. Seeing as this movie is nothing but a fusion of popular song and wardrobe selections from the channel's heyday, involving a plotline where the kids successfully rebel and all adults are either cops or perverts, it's no wonder that the film fell flat on its ass at the box office. The Legend Of Billie Jean is Exhibit A in the case of what happens when studio execs try to get down with the kids, and its reputation as nothing but an advert for MTV withstands - but y'know what? I kinda liked it anyway...

Because for all of its flaws - and boy, you'll need two hands to count 'em - Billie Jean is actually a really fun little flick, and its naivety proves quite charming. The screenplay develops Billie and Binx into believably rounded characters, and although it also takes certain liberties for the sake of entertainment - the cringing sight of Binx in drag pops to mind - they're generally quite consistent too. You buy Billie as the pretty, vulnerable Texan gal, but you also buy her as a determined and confident young woman who has been forced by society to grow into tougher skin. The zipper jacket, arm band and cropped hair are a little superficial, but Slater (a terrific actress) make a real effort to dig deeper, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I was behind her all the way. It's her performance which the film really relies on, and thankfully she's up to the task. It's also interesting to see Keith Gordon pop up here, playing a bored rich kid who offers himself as a hostage to get closer to Billie. Gordon was actually a pretty solid actor during this time, having appeared in killer car flick Christine (Carpenter, 1983) the year before. But he's most notable for his underrated directing career, so let me take this opportunity to point again toward Waking The Dead (2000), one of my all-time favorite films.

The great thing about Billie Jean is that even the scenes which don't work are entertaining, such as when a neighborhood of kids recruit Billie to save one of their friends who is being beaten by his father. "You're really her" he says, suddenly cowering in fear. It's a false note, but what's important is that the filmmakers have their heart in the right place; it's about empowerment. There's another awkward moment where a bystander turns his hand to bounty hunting, resulting in a car chase which ends with Putter getting her first period. "When do I get a diaphragm?" she asks, as the audience retreats into a place of deep discomfort. But again, there's a real sincerity to that scene, and kudos to the filmmakers for trying it out - they're really attempting to connect with that younger audience, and their failure is an incredibly respectful one. The film ultimately ends on a moral charge, and that's disappointing, but it's certainly so much better than most would have you believe. In fact, Pat Benatar, who wrote the theme song 'Invincible', often refers to this as the worst film ever made. A critic she is not.

In retrospect we can clearly pinpoint what went wrong with Billie Jean, and it's simply that trends were changing at a faster rate than the studios could keep up with. 1985's other big draw was Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis), in which a geeky college kid travels time and gets the girl. MTV struck gold with that one too when Huey Lewis And The News' 'The Power Of Love' became a hit off the back of the film's popularity. But a later song from their discography better defines the MTV crowd: Hip To Be Square. Indeed, Generation X just weren't the rebellious type. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the time of the nerd. A time when Michael Anthony Hall could be a star. Now he'd be the comic relief in a film where perfectly formed furnishings like Taylor Lautner would play the lead and get the girl. For shame.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997) Blu-Ray Mini-Review

Yeah, I think we'd better run... Casper Van Dien stars in Starship Troopers (1997)

Wickedly blending class politics, militarist satire and bloody bug-splattering action, Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi spectacular has gained a true cult following over the years, now regarded by some as the last great science-fiction film of our time. It's easily watched as a high-calorie slice of B-grade monster movie pie, but Starship Troopers actually works on multiple levels, and makes several interesting comments on the perception of war...

Consider it. The 'enemy' bugs are never defined characteristically, and the film keeps us ignorant to their origins and intentions. It seems clear in this futuristic world, where humanity has pioneered combat-equipped spacecraft and a military unit to boot, that we ignited the conflict. The Federation have the ability to mobilize and colonize, and my guess is that one day they discovered a primitive species which knew nothing of technology, and so sought to defend themselves. I propose that we started this war, yet the film is definitively one-sided in who its heroes are. The bugs are a (literally) faceless enemy, representing nothing but a threat on white middle-class life in a clean, fascist utopia. Free of litter, upward built, filled with smart, genetically beautiful people - this is a world that works, and I shudder to consider the secrets it has brushed under a governmental carpet to thrive in the way that it has. There's a good chance that we're the bad guys.

The film is loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers (originally published as a magazine serial under the title Starship Soldier), but pays little attention to its story or politics. Verhoeven has his eye turned to America, perfectly embodied by Casper Van Dien's patriotic chisel-jawed hero Rico. But the screenplay is also smart enough to create convincing human relationships, and despite some cornball lines and clichéd situations the love triangles and competitive camaraderie work well; they build up characters we care about, and whose fates bring weight to the action. Speaking of action - it's some of the best ever filmed. Mixing of state-of-the-art CGI with practical models, the film still looks absolutely breathtaking, and the siege set-piece (you'll never forget it) makes incredible use of space, employing impeccable mise-en-scène to get a geographical sense of the action, and gauge the intensity of the threat. It's action on an epic scale; bloody and exciting.

So, it turns out that Starship Troopers is worthy of its weighty reputation. Before tonight's viewing I hadn't seen the film since my adolescent Channel 5 years, when the satire flew right over my bug-eyed head. Now I see it for what it is: pure jingoistic camp, locked n' loaded and with tongue firmly in cheek. And boy, do I love it.

The Disc/Extras
Incredible image and sound; I'm constantly blown away by the clarity of Blu-Ray, and Starship Troopers is one of my best experiences to date. The special effects were first-class for their time, but what's remarkable is how well they stand next to some of today's blockbusters. I was forced to consider a few I'd seen this year - On Stranger Tides (Marshall, 2011) and Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011) for example - and Verhoeven's film looks better than all of them. Extras include scene specific commentary, a short Making Of doc, the original theatrical trailer and screen tests from Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards. A little vanilla, but solid enough.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968) Blu-Ray Review

Men born for dying... Charles Bronson (left) and Henry Fonda (right) in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

"The rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that
a person takes just before dying. 'Once Upon A Time In The West' was, from start
to finish, a dance of death."
- Sergio Leone.

Once Upon A Time In The West opens on a moment of fleeting serenity, disrupted suddenly by an amplified soundscape of fear. Were it not for the appearance of three men (Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Al Mulock) these deafening sounds would not even be audible. The slow dripping of copper water, beating at the rim of a hat. The incessant buzzing of a hungry fly, attracted to the leader's stubble. The slow cracking of a pair of knuckles, soon to be clenched around the helve and trigger of a gun. It is the impatience and anxiety of these men which draw attention to the most ordinary of sounds, now suspended in the dense atmosphere. Composer Ennio Morricone had originally devised an orchestral score for this sequence, but the irritation of a creaky old mill builds a sense of dread impossible to recreate through music. Rasp. Buzz. Crack. And then, two hours behind schedule, a train rolls into its station, carrying with it a passenger known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). This branding is typically literal of the Western genre, naming a character after the audience's sole identification with their person. Why, we ask ourselves, does Leone linger upon this ambiguous figure? Harmonica stares intensely, unmoved by the chance of death. "He not only plays", says Cheyenne (Jason Robards), later in the film. "He can shoot too." This much is also proven by the opening, as a simmering blister of animosity erupts into a gust of quick-cut violence, leaving the three assailants stone cold on the station floor (most bodies in the film are observed in aftermath). Woody Strode was once a staple of John Ford's Westerns. It would seem deliberate that Leone kills him in the opening minutes...

This scene also introduces key motifs which Leone will repeat throughout the film - not just the amplification of sound, but also the juxtaposition of extreme close-ups with magnificent landscape shots, such as the crane shot which first establishes the town of Flagstone. The second scene is structurally similar to the first, as Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) awaits the arrival of his new bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale). A great feast has been prepared for this occasion, and the family are united in celebration. Characters once again inhabit a silent landscape, where even the smallest of sounds arouse an audible echo. It soon becomes clear that they are not alone, and after another flurry of violence (the camera sweeps past the action with something approaching carelessness) we are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), hired gun of disabled railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), whose very name suggests death. The camera at first focuses on Fonda's intoxicatingly blue eyes, ordinarily associated with kindness and heroism. His duster coat dances in the wind. Brett and Maureen (Simonetta Santaniello) lie bleeding as little Timmy (Enzo Santaniello) stares down the barrel of a revolver. Morricone's score has now kicked in, playing Frank's main theme (a distorted guitar later to be homaged by Hans Zimmer in John Woo's US films). We know what's going to happen, not only because Frank represents an unambiguous evil, but also because this entire scene has continued the established structure of the first. Frank fires a round, and Fonda's screen image was forever changed.

It would be easy for me to essay the rest of the film in this fashion, but I don't wish to delay your viewing any further. It's a truly extraordinary work, impeccably structured and designed, and for my money remains the greatest Western ever made. It approaches the West (not yet defined, for Flagstone is a town under construction) romantically, especially in the way it references classics such as High Noon (Zinnermann, 1952) and Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954), which Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci specifically worked into their treatment. Morricone composed the entire score before filming began so that Leone could play it on location, and choreograph his camera around its rhythms. Consequently the film has an incredible poetry, often operatic in tone, and yet Leone doesn't rush toward the crescendo. He allows his characters to, as hinted by the quote which opens this review, dance their way to the inevitable. Both Harmonica and Frank have the chance to kill each other before their final duel ("I didn't let them kill him, and that's not the same thing"), but they understand that their day will come. These men were born for dying. It's this ritualistic pattern which Leone creates, wherein the fates of his characters are already decided, which lends the film a feeling of mourning. It mourns for the West itself, looking to the unreachable expanses of its landscape, its rocky foundations and frontier towns. And it also looks to the lone rangers, with vengance burning behind their eyes. It looks at their faces. Each one is perfectly composed, boxed into a frame which could resemble a coffin. Peckinpah would bring brutality to the West with The Wild Bunch (1969) the following year, but what he would miss is the pause for feeling; for the moment a man realizes that he's drawing his last breath, and accepts that this fate was likely brought about by his own actions. Violence begets violence. Never was this more true than in Once Upon A Time In The West...

The Disc/Extras
It'll come as no surprise to learn that Leone's masterpiece looks stunning on Blu-Ray. The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is crystal clear, perfectly enhancing the effect of those amplifications; Frank's theme will also thunder around your living room, stirring the darkest regions of your soul. The image has also been digitally remastered, but fans will be pleased to know that despite technical tinkering the film has lost none of its authenticity, and retains that dust-swept earthiness which creates such an unsettled atmosphere.
The extras have been directly ported from the 2003 Special Edition DVD, but they're pretty expansive and I suspect that any additional materials would only have covered old ground. The commentary, which includes filmmakers John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox and Bernardo Bertolucci, star Claudia Cardinale, and film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, is absolutely fascinating. Each has something of interest to say on a specific chapter or scene in the film, and the track perfectly balances information on the production history, theoretical context (pinpointing Leone's references in the Western genre), shot-by-shot analysis, and friendly anecdotes, most of which are fresh (or at least were at the time of recording). It's truly captivating, and undoubtedly one of the finest commentaries I've ever heard.
Elsewhere there are three documentaries, 'An Opera Of Violence', 'The Wages Of Sin' and 'Something To Do With Death', which all cover similar ground to the commentary, but are still highly watchable.
The original theatrical trailer is a given, but the package is rounded off by a production stills gallery (Bronson's steely gaze consumes most frames, as does the beautiful Cardinale), and also a gallery of then-and-now shots from key locations in the film. This is perhaps nothing more than a nostalgic slideshow, but fans will be interested to see how little some of the environments have changed; indeed, the McBain house still stands in almost perfect condition. There's also a short doc on railroads, which details their history and place in the cinema. A fun little feature, and it finishes off an essential package.

Once Upon A Time In The West rides onto Blu-Ray on September 5th.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010) Review

Touching from a distance... the world of Attenberg (2010) proves a cold, disquieting place...

In 2005 Greek writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari formed Haos, the Athens-based production office which in 2009 birthed Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos), an incendiary drama about language, politics and planets; human or otherwise. Attenberg is Tsangari's second feature as director, and it (sort of) tells the story of 23-year-old Marina (Ariane Labed), who seems to have been raised in hermetic isolation by her architect father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis). He looks upon the contemporary world with fear and disdain, referring to the twentieth century as "overrated." The landscape Marina now finds herself in feels somewhat like a blown-up scale model; the vision of a listless industrial town not yet fully realised, but still housing a form of life. Into Marina's life comes Bella (Evangelia Randou), a sexually advanced girl of similar age. In the opening scene they kiss with tongues. "It feels like a slug" declares a repelled Marina. Also in-tune with Dogtooth, Attenberg's aesthetic is distanced - almost sterilized - and shot through with a cold, indifferent lens. Blank and undefined spaces expand beyond the characters, appearing almost alien in nature. Lanthimos' film subtly revealed a company named KEOPE, who specialize in construction, housing and land development. Perhaps these worlds are connected? Perhaps the factory estates depicted in each film are in fact the same? Work doesn't seem to be moving very fast, which suggests a reflection on Greece's current economic climate.

I'm sorry to keep making comparison with Dogtooth (I know Tsangari doesn't like it) but there are so many ways in which the worlds feel connected that they're impossible to take apart. For example: an affectation toward and mispronunciation of language, disturbingly un-erotic sexual experimentation, a borderline incestuous father/daughter relationship, and finally a comment on species (Spyros at one point uses the phrase "we mammals", seemingly understanding humans and animals to be as one). Both films come from Haos. They share Thimios Bakatakis as cinematographer, and the engineer with whom Marina falls into bed with is played by Lanthimos. She doesn't love him, and I suspect she wouldn't know how to. It's possible that Marina is autistic, but nothing so specific is acknowledged in the screenplay. It seems certain that she has some kind of learning disability, and lives by instinct rather than intelligence. It also seems possible that she could have come from a home like the one in Dogtooth, where children are trained like dogs. Overall the film struck an odd note with me, somewhere between fascination and tedium. I'll say this: it's entirely inaccessible, but wholly compelling, and one of the most strikingly confident visions the cinema has produced in years.

The truth is, I don't really know what to think of Attenberg yet. I'm sure I like it more for having seen Dogtooth, and much of my fascination with Tsangari's film has arisen out of comparison with that one. I realize now how much I appreciate the precision of Lanthimos' vision, and the fact that his film never leaves Father's house (save for some obscured driving scenes and distanced shots of the factory). I think Attenberg's scope sometimes allows it to lose focus, and that its structure probably shouldn't allow for the amount of meandering Tsangari indulges in. I question her sincerity. But I think she has big plans for Haos, and even if it doesn't now, Attenberg will make sense in time. That time will be marked by vast colourless spaces, extending for miles beyond characters who are unshackled from the scholarly, sexual and moral principles of Earth. It's a New Wave alright, and I can't wait to see it develop...

The Shortlist: Best Movie Titles

The full list can be read at MultiMediaMouth: Best Movie Titles

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Final Destination 5 (Steven Quale, 2011) Review

Yeah, I think we'd better run... disaster strikes again in Final Destination 5 (2011)

You can say one thing for Death: he doesn't hang around. It's not even 24 hours after a group of twenty-something co-workers (all impossibly attractive and sporting splatter-proof hair) have survived a tragic bridge collapse, and the Grim Reaper is already devising increasingly imaginative ways to bump them off. The group (assorted clichés) were going on a team building holiday, but halfway across the bridge Sam (Nicholas D'Agosto) has a premonition that they're all going to die. Yada, yada, yada - we've all been here before, and the price of your (3D) ticket will include some exposition of its own. Don't let that put you off though. After all, Death doesn't hang around...

I've always been a fan of the Final Destination franchise, and Part 5 mostly lived up to my weighty expectations. The formula itself is faultless: a fatal accident occurs, our protagonists escape and Death's ground rules for resettling the balance are established. Quale's shorthand is effective and from here the film slots tongue firmly into cheek, ramps up the suspense and lets rip with all manner of viscid executions. It's a wild ride with a wicked vein of dark humour, but most refreshing in this entry is the fact that everyone's game for a little self awareness. Jacqueline MacInnes Wood is incredibly beautiful as Olivia, the token hottie, but she's burdened by a pair of glasses. Because of this she's self conscious, and decides upon laser eye surgery. A lesser director would have exploited the actresses looks and the character's vacuity, such as the way cheerleaders were toasted at a tanning salon in FD3 (Wong, 2006), but he instead plays upon her human aspect - her insecurity. Olivia is a bitchy character but we sympathize with her, and the fear ratchets up when she's left alone with an eye exposed to major heat. Unable to move she begins screaming, and the camera closes in on her juicy orb. It's a deeply squirm-inducing scene, and I must admit to having felt quite uncomfortable. But then the film makes its fatal error...

I kid you not: every death is an anti-climax. Olivia's sequence inexplicably ends with her falling out of a window, and similarly womanizer Isaac (P.J. Byrne) gets squashed by a Buddha after several more interesting possibilities are abandoned. The first death belongs to gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe), and Quale's setup is masterful. He establishes so many red herrings - a pin, water dripping near an exposed wire, a creaky exercise pole - that the audience is never sure where to look, and he protracts the sequence to unbearable lengths in order to elicit genuine tension. Several intakes of sharp breath later and the scene had ended. I won't reveal how, but it's unfathomably disappointing. There's real intelligence in the way Quale realizes his death traps, so it's a shame that he doesn't know how follow them through to a satisfying climax.

3D is perfunctory for most studio releases these days, but FD5 plays the technology for its strength: thrusting limbs into your lap. Flesh For Frankenstein (Morrissey, 1973) was the first film to realize 3D's true capabilities, employing the gimmick for slithering entrails and gloopy prosthetics. Even earlier than that were a series of sex films which used the pokey illusion to enhance the fleapit experience. It should speak volumes that the most successful 3D film of all time (financially speaking) is 1969's The Stewardesses (Silliman Jr.), a high-flying softcore sensation which promoted "leggy lovelies" as its unique selling point. Here a character is impaled onto a yacht and the 3D's emphasis on her still-beating heart provided one of several solid jump scares. The opening bridge collapse (specifically choreographed around the limitations of the technology) is a stunning sequence only improved by the way 3D utilizes space. Even the opening credits are a barrage of shattering glass, nails and knives, all set to a pumping score by Brian Tyler. There are no pretensions here - no talk of immersive worlds or supposed depth. It's all about that core concept: limbs in your lap.

The final scene links us back around to the original Final Destination (Wong, 2000) in an interesting but questionable way. It makes sense within the narrative framework of FD5, but poses difficulties for the chronology of the following four movies, and the new trilogy which will happen should Quale's film be a box office success. It's an ill-conceived concept, but I still can't wait for Part 6...