Saturday, 28 January 2012

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) DVD Review

Ryan Gosling plays The Driver in Nic Refn's Melville-esque Drive (2011)...

Warning! This review contains spoilers.

If you'd told me 12 months ago that the coolest, glossiest neo-noir of the 21st Century would be directed by Nic Refn, helmer of TV's Marple: Nemesis (2007), and star The Notebook's (Cassavetes, 2004) breakout heartthrob Ryan Gosling, then I'd have probably laughed you out of the room. But here we are, 12 months down the line, and Drive has emerged as exactly that - a red-hot, neon-lit B-movie recalling Sergio Leone, Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann. In the interest of fairness, Refn's TV Marple movie isn't the most representative of his canon, which he has carved out in bold, claret-red strokes, focusing on brutish portrayals of mythic machismo, from the charming titular psychopath of 2008's Bronson to the mute warrior of his arthouse norseploitation epic Valhalla Rising (2009). And Gosling has long since established his trademark line in quiet introspection, following his wounded turn in the Oscar-nominated Half Nelson (Boden, Fleck, 2006). The actor hand-picked Refn after Neill Marshall left the project (at this point it was still a Hugh Jackman vehicle) and his choice seems to have paid off - the pair are currently shooting boxing drama Only God Forgives in Thailand, and even have a Logan's Run (Anderson, 1976) remake in the pipeline.

Truth be told, there's absolutely no reason for you to be reading this review. After a barnstorming Cannes debut Drive went on to become the most critically acclaimed film of 2011, and with the DVD/Blu-Ray due out on Monday I'm one of the last people in the world to be singing its praises. I'm late to the party, I know, but hopefully you'll accommodate my heady rambling and find something to enjoy in this piece. Fellow late-comers, you're on the wrong webpage. I'd recommend Amazon, and the fastest shipping option possible. So, for those uninitiated, the plot goes like this: Driver (Ryan Gosling) is an enigmatic Hollywood stuntman, part-time mechanic at Shannon's (Bryan Cranston) repair store, and all-round lonely soul. His retro satin jacket (embellished with a striking yellow scorpion, very Kenneth Anger) reminds us of Eastwood's iconic poncho in Leone's Man With No Name trilogy, and his incisive blue eyes recall Delon in Le samouraï (Melville, 1967). Driver lives next door to the beautiful Irene (Carey Mulligan), a sweet single mother whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is currently serving jail time. The pair fall for each other, but naturally Standard's re-arrival throws a spanner in the works, not only romantically, but because he owes protection money to the ruthless Cook (James Biberi), who threatens the family's safety. One double-cross later and Driver is out to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him...

Gosling's performance has been widely celebrated, although an observation I'm frequently surprised by is that he doesn't emote, with commentators once again drawing comparison with Delon's Costello. But it's interesting, that for such a bloody, brutal film (Refn sought advice from French provoc(auteur) Gaspar Noé for the notorious elevator scene), what I really took away from the story was its overwhelming emotional scope and deeply felt relationships. Indeed, for my money this is the most romantic film of 2011 - a film which lifted my heart before sending electro-charged pulses through it, resulting in one of the great sensory experiences the cinema has ever produced. What many seem to be forgetting is that silence is an important mode of communication, expressing that which exists inside, burning, and with it Gosling informs us of so much feeling; his reluctance, desire and fear. This is a man so ready for love, but somehow denied from it. His sign-off line to Irene is telling of his entire character; "Just getting to be around you was the best thing that ever happened to me." I found Driver to be a deeply complicated character, and his fate (although predictable) moved me in ways that I hadn't expected. He was a movie hero that I actually wanted to end up with the girl, because they deserve each other, and he had fought valiantly for her safety. Drive may be a violent film, but to my mind it is also an honest portrayal of enduring love. In fact, I'm reminded of Tarantino's True Romance (Scott, 1993) defense, in which he stated that just because the movie has blood and guns and swearing, that doesn't mean the title is ironic... "This is True Romance."

Cliff Martinez's fluxing synth score just oozes sex, with tracks like 'Bride Of Deluxe' creating the sense of a city constantly in motion, alive and writhing, and all moving to the same beat. Elsewhere 'Kick Your Teeth' and 'Skull Crushing' get under the skin of Driver's dangerous side, with the latter track exposing what Gosling called his "werewolf" moment. But there are softer tracks too - 'He Had A Good Time' is an impossibly beautiful cut, feeding into the fairytale nature of the film, with 'Where's The Deluxe Version?' building on that idea and morphing into something from Grimm's fable-fucking universe. The sound design is impeccable throughout, with College & Electric Youth's 'A Real Hero' (perhaps the best 80's track the 80's never made) proving crucial at two junctures; Driver and Irene's radiant, Malick-like first date, and the haunting finale, which hasn't stopped echoing through my mind. DP Newton Thomas Sigel finds the perfect visual tone to complement Martinez's music, with shades of purple and white proving especially effective; the early sweeping shots of L.A. declare it as a vibrant 24/7 utopia, but we also see its darker underbelly in the interiors of Driver's life - his car and apartment. This is a sugar-coated, bone-crunching love letter to style, and as an excersise in the stuff it's damn near perfect.

Of course, Drive is first and foremost an action movie, but I'd have to go all the way back to Melville to find one so finely measured, so aware of time, space and continuity - one which bottles up its emotions until they burst into lashings of wincing ultra-violence (well, that's less like Melville). In fact, it is during the set-pieces that Refn slows his film down to a crawl, allowing the audience to breathe in every beat of the action. For example, there's a scene where Driver and Blanche (Christina Hendricks) are ambushed in their motel room, which many filmmakers would have played out in a quick-cut exchange of blades and shotgun lead, but here we are left to examine every fleeting strain of cerebral matter, and study the face of our protagonist - chilled and exhilarated by the brute force of his executions. Even the film's biggest car chase culminates in a slow-mo shot from the backseat, focusing on Blanche's reaction as the pursuing vehicle kisses the curb in an almighty smashup. But it's because of Refn's emphasis of the violence and his protracted study of its consequence that we come to greater understand Driver's motivation. Indeed, the film is as barbaric as it is beautiful, and has instantly shot into my 2011 Top 10. I'm late to the party, sure, but that doesn't mean I can't have fun...

The Disc/Extras
Fantastic presentation, with the sound especially complemented by a 5.1 surround system. I'm going to recommend the Blu-Ray though, as Sigel's gorgeous photography deserves the highest resolution possible. Extras are a little underwhelming, however, with a 40-minute Refn Q&A being the highlight. Outside of that we're on strictly vanilla gallery/trailer duties, so I'm holding out for the upcoming Special Edition.

Drive revs onto DVD/Blu-Ray on January 30th.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977) Blu-Ray Review

William Devane is out for vengeance in Rolling Thunder (1977)...

In 1976 Paul Schrader authored Taxi Driver, cinema's great coming home story about 'Nam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who returns from duty to an atrophying city, where life-size rats in pimp masks are selling underage girls to yuppie degenerates. New York had become the capital of decadence - a sleaze pit where the best men are those who'll turn a blind eye to the corruption. In 1977 Schrader (along with co-writer Heywood Gould) re-imagined this concept for the exploitation crowd, but Rolling Thunder is much more than just a straightforward revenger. In fact, the film is an effectively slow-burn thriller, arguably deeper than Taxi Driver, and its odd sense of melancholia struck me as unusual and refreshing. The central plot follows ex-soldier Charles Rane (William Devane), who returns from service only to discover that his wife has taken up with another man. He appears completely unruffled by the news, but beneath his placid eyes we understand that Rane suppresses a simmering rage, and flashbacks to a P.O.W. camp suggest that the full reality of war has not yet caught up with him. Devane skillfully embodies the mindset of a shellshocked man, not yet ready to re-enter the world but suddenly lumbered with the responsibility of a child and the wife who didn't wait.

There's a particularly disturbing scene where Rane instructs his wife's lover, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), to reenact the torture methods used by Vietnamese soldiers, demanding to be tied up and have his arms wrenched from their sockets. It's almost as if the man is punishing himself for his wife's adultery, but the darker implication is that he might miss the pain ("You learn to love the rope.") Rane's war buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) is an equally compelling presence. A sad, silent man, he appears completely detached from the friends and family he has returned to, and in his hangdog eyes I see nothing but suffering. There's only so long that these men can remain buttoned up. After 40-odd minutes of character development the revenge plot kicks into gear, initiated when a ragtag group of thugs ransack Rane's home in search of his war treasures. They pin the man down and beat him, but the violence doesn't provoke any reaction. The action here is especially impactful for its clumsy choreography and leaning toward naturalism - there's no background music to the scene, and the punches aren't amplified in post-production (most exploitation movies employ the same *thwack* of Bruce Lee's kung-fu cartoons). Actually, the scene is oddly un-cinematic. It just hurts, plain and simple.

Naturally Rane's family are slaughtered, but he survives with a bullet in the gut and his right arm mangled by the garbage disposal unit. This is where the film reveals its exploitation sensibility, with achingly cool shots of Rane wearing shades and sharpening his claw - or using it to load the 6-inch revolver strapped to his chest. Along with cute waitress Linda (Linda Haynes, who reminds me of a young Charlize Theron), Rane begins to track down the goons who killed his little boy, becoming increasingly violent as he falls deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of revenge. The film does lose some of its focus here, as the plot begins to demand a certain degree of continuity which is just absent from the screenplay - such as how Rane manages to track his targets to such specific locations. There are plenty of interrogation scenes, but Schrader and director John Flynn are more concerned with the psychological implication of the journey, rather than making any sense of it. Eventually Rane tracks down the gang's head honcho, Texan (James Best, from TV's Dukes Of Hazard), to an out-of-town whorehouse, and what follows is one of the best gunfights in 70's cinema.

It's especially interesting to observe Vohden here, who Rane recruits to help wreak his vengeance. In the film's final act we see him actively turned on by the violence, suddenly instilled with a purpose outside of chopping potatoes and fixing up the house. Even when we see him with a hooker there's not the slightest sign of a pulse - fighting is all he knows now, and his willingness to be consumed by it, to kill or be killed, is upsetting and disturbing. The final blowout is effectively lean and bloody, unleashing an energy that Flynn has been carefully building over the previous half hour. The slick camerawork and economic editing really plant us into the middle of the gunfight, and it's incredibly entertaining to watch the carnage unfold. Flynn wisely keeps his camera trained on the actors, ensuring that we feel the emotional beat behind each gunshot. This is what separates Rolling Thunder from its contemporaries - that acute sense of character, exploration of psychology and complete refusal to answer the complex questions their actions present. This was a film which engaged me on a much more personal level than expected, and its payoff was all the more rewarding for that fact.

The Disc/Extras
The Blu-Ray is pretty solid, and although there appears to be some permanent damage to the print, which occasionally displays grain and dirt specks, the picture itself is clean enough to remain watchable and ensure that this is the best quality version of Rolling Thunder on the market - in fact, the grain actually complements the film's exploitation feel. The extras are slim but fun, with an original TV spot, theatrical trailer (plus Eli Roth commentary, taken from Trailers From Hell) and Linda Haynes interview rounding out the package. It's a solid effort, and well worth picking up.

Rolling Thunder rides onto Blu-Ray on January 30th.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011) Review

"A miraculous kind of 'orse." Jeremy Irvine stars in War Horse (2011)...

The blogosphere is alive with the sound of captiousness, and the duck-shooting bandwagon have turned their fire toward Hollywood's great sentimentalist, Steven Spielberg. From what I can gather it sounds like most reviewers would have preferred War Horse, the story of naive farmhand Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his equine pal Joey (erm... horses), if it had been directed by the great Bavarian nihilist Werner Herzog. Imagine it. From the Narracott farm Joey would have become disenchanted by man's futile, wreckless ambitions to overthrow each other, retreated into poetic reverie, traveled France by rickety rowboat in search of existential fulfillment and then been left to decompose upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness. Kinski would have played the horse, naturally.

For anyone decrying the emotional authenticity of War Horse, first consider the story of Cher Ami, a carrier pidgeon who on October 3rd, 1918, saved the lives of a 600-man battalion pinned down behind enemy lines. This bird, carrying the message of their location and a plea for rescue, was their only hope, and so off it soared into skies of smog and lead hail. He was shot down by German troops twice, but still managed to reach the command post with a bullet lodged in his breast, clipped feet and a missing eye. The message was intact, and Cher Ami was declared a hero. The final act of Spielberg's handsomely mounted epic may feel cloying to some, but I ask you this: if a pidgeon can muster enough courage to save the lives of hundreds of stranded soldiers, and against such overpowering odds, why can't an ol' Devon boy be reunited with his steed? It's not as if Spielberg has deceived us - the methods of his emotional string pulling are laid bare in the opening credits, with his camera sweeping over impossibly beautiful rural scenery and John Williams' score crescendoing into a heart-stirring chorus. It's a bit like going into a Hitchcock film and complaining when the murder plot kicks in.

Adapted from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel, also translated into a 2007 stage play, War Horse is in fact Spielberg's homage to the grandest tradition of Hollywood filmmaking, nodding most notably toward John Ford, Victor Fleming and David Lean. It's an unashamedly romantic film, shot on 35mm and coloured like a pastel painting (which isn't to suggest that its battle scenes don't pack heft; they're devastating). The absence of superimposed landscapes, sickly digital luster and CGI set-pieces make for a refreshingly old-fashioned moviegoing experience, and one which allows for the moment where Emily Watson's knitting dissolves into a shot of the freshly ploughed Narracott field. Devon has rarely looked so beautiful as here, boasting greens so ripe you could bite into them and an orange sunset which, reflected in the county's winding lakes, is delicate enough to swim in. Janusz Kaminski's lighting is impeccable, and I wouldn't be surprised if he steals out the Oscar from under Emmanuel Lubezki's (Tree Of Life) nose at this year's ceremony.

It's true that the moral lines of Spielberg's films are often too black and white, and David Thewlis' clammy, tweed-cut landlord is perhaps too theatrical a villain for even the grandiose War Horse, but the actor acquits himself well nonetheless. In fact, the sterling cast (mostly British) all get their moment to shine. During the film's Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966) stages, where Joey moves from hand to hand and changes the lives of all that he meets, we are treated to great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, David Kross, Niels Arestrup and Toby Kebbell. Kebbell shares a fantastic scene with Hinnerk Schönemann, playing soldiers from opposing trenches who briefly cease-fire to save Joey, ensnared by barbed wire in the middle of no man's land. It is during this scene that Spielberg exposes the true waste of war - these men have much in common, both appearing amicable and good-hearted, and their conversation is awkwardly human. I wonder if they made it home, but consider that they probably didn't.

War Horse doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of war, but neither is it ashamed to find a flicker of light in the dark. WWI was as dirty and barbaric a war as any in history, and that fact isn't lost for Spielberg's decision to celebrate the human spirit it endeavored to dissolve. The much-discussed cavalry charge might not focus on bloodshed or mutilation, but the camera's slow panning out to reveal dozens of corpses - horse and human alike - littered across the battlefield is truly haunting. In one scene the director frames the execution of two teenage deserters from behind the passing sail of a windmill, but we still understand the mercilessness with which this act was undertaken. The Somme scenes also carry an authentic bleakness, even if we all know they won't claim the life of our protagonists. Closing over a bloodied tangerine sky, War Horse strikes exactly the right emotional note, as Williams' gorgeous suite - often recalling Pink Floyd's When The Tigers Broke Free - plays over Albert's return home. The haters will hate, and blog about it they shall, but for me this is Spielberg's finest film in years. Oh, and he nails the bothersome goose gag twice.

War Horse is in cinemas now.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Le Silence De La Mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949) Blu-Ray Review

Howard Vernon stars in Melville's wartime drama Le Silence De La Mer (1949)...

Of all the great films about WWII, there have been very few to account and atone for the Nazi's systematic destruction of paintings, artifacts and literature, and consider the impact of their wipeout on contemporary society. German Officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), who is billeted to the home of an elderly gentleman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), is a sensitive man, well spoken and cultured, and Melville - adapting the acclaimed Resistance novel by Vercors - grants him a stage on which to voice opinions on war, occupation and literature - including a stodgy parallel between his adoration of the petite ingénue niece and Beaumont's classic fairytale Beauty And The Beast. Set in 1941, the film begins as a simple three-hander, shot in carefully composed 1.37:1 tableaus which all adopt the exact same arrangement - uncle and niece sat at directly opposing right angles and Ebrennac patrolling the living room's center. It is here that the officer celebrates France's great writers - Balzac, Descartes, Gautier - and later laments the Nazi's widespread pilfering (and in many cases burning) of their works. In a startling moment of humanity Ebrennac gazes at the shelf of thick, leather-strapped books and cries, "They will extinguish the light!" It's a compelling moral position for the film to underline, but Melville engages with it far too late - instead building his dramatic focus around the trio's enforced living arrangements.

Don't get me wrong - Melville's direction is smooth and confident, and DP Henri Decaë accentuates the darkness beautifully, drawing us deep into the shadowy world of Le Silence. Ebrennac is introduced in an almost literal sea of black, with Vernon's oily eyes and eagle-like nose barely visible through the rippling mass. It's an image of confounding terror, and one which I imagine the actor - who went on to star in dozens of sleazy z-grade horrors for Jesus Franco - placed at the top of his CV. Technically the film is a masterclass in structure and form, but an exhaustive and heavy-handed voiceover means that for the first 45 minutes Melville is hitting a dramatic dead-end. The way Ebrennac knocks before entering the room but never waits for a reply, paces the floor and then warms himself by the fire - these are all events we can perceive by sight, and yet the uncle narrates each one as it literally unfurls onscreen. Rather than suggestion, everything in the voiceover acts as a description, and soon I began to question its purpose. Melville is celebrated for allowing the audience space to interpret motivation and feeling in his films - and in the case of existential capers like Bob le Flambeur (1956), rightly so - but here everything is signposted, and every emotional beat uncomfortably dictated.

The biggest problem with Le Silence is that I was never engaged by its story or characters, and by the time Ebrennac reveals his true colours - interesting colours, too - the film just comes to an end. Right as my interest was piqued, ...FIN. Vernon has one of the most compelling faces in all of cinema, and his turn here is fantastic, but too often the actor is lumbered with dull monologues and plain-faced exposition, and in one scene, where the uncle's narration paints him as appearing "like a ghost", Melville tritely imagines his spectral shadow creeping up the wall. The actor's skeletal figure is far more effective when captured in wide shots, which allow the full crane of his body to command the frame. Ultimately, as promising as this debut is, the story of its making is far more interesting and significant. Melville didn't hold a union card when it came to filming so, using snippets of unwanted stock, he shot the picture in 27 non-consecutive days, spread over approximately 18 months. Actually, all things considered, it's a remarkable achievement that Le Silence was ever completed. Maybe for that fact, and when noting its influence on the nouvelle vague brats, it should be celebrated, flaws and all...

The Disc/Extras
Le Silence De La Mer was first released by Masters Of Cinema in 2007, but this Dual Format Edition contains an all-new Blu-Ray disc with remastered image and sound, plus a 43-minute documentary entitled Melville Out Of The Shadows, featuring interviews with Denitza Bantcheva, Volker Schlondorff and Nicole Stéphane (among others). Tech specs are top-notch. The 4:3 ratio and Decaë's photography are well served in this beautiful transfer, in which the shadows are utterly captivating. The sound mix is also good, although considering that the most prominent sound in the film is the ticking of a clock, your 5.1 system won't be tested too much. Alongside the Blu-Ray exclusive documentary there's a brilliant discussion of the film by Ginette Vincendeau, who exuberantly whisks us through the film's fascinating production history. It's slightly disappointing that the best extra is a direct DVD port, but the documentary does throw up some worthwhile trivia. To round off the package there's the original theatrical trailer and a 56-page booklet, which includes an interview between Melville and Rui Nogueira. Unfortunately the booklet was not included with my screener.

Le Silence De La Mer is released on a Dual Format Edition (Blu-Ray/DVD) on January 23rd.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011) Review

They'll let me go if I never direct again. Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus (2011)...

After several hours of intense brain-racking, note scribbling and screenshot browsing, I've come up with something good to say about Coriolanus, and it's this: Gerard Butler doesn't suck quite as hard as usual. Don't get me wrong, he blows more than a 24/7 brothel, but that's a considerable improvement when we consider efforts like The Ugly Truth (Luketic, 2009), which reaches levels of such excremental awfulness as to become a legitimate environmental concern. But that a not-quite-suicidally-bad Butler is the best thing about Ralph Fiennes directorial debut, a Balkans-set adaptation of Shakespeare's long-forgotten political epic, shouldn't really be taken as a note of recommendation. Allow me to elaborate...

A place calling itself Rome... is the turbulent backdrop for Coriolanus, a story of exile and revenge in which lauded soldier Caius Martius (Fiennes) is framed as an enemy of the people, outlawed, and forced to become an ally to his sworn enemy, the brooding Aufidius (Butler). That's a rather sweeping summary, and I should highlight that it is Martius' running for consul (despite his loathing of the "commoners") which allows slimy politicians Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) to brainwash the people into revolt. Eventually the ex-solider rebrands himself Coriolanus and, joined with Aufidius, plans an assault on Rome. Also worth mentioning is Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), Martius' authoritative mother, who with full-blooded gristle acts as the film's most commanding force, fighting for her son until the very moment she must surrender herself to her knees, begging for his return.

Introducing Shakespeare's most talkative text by way of a firefight, John Logan's screenplay denies the audience any immediate form of character association, instead suggesting allegiance and motive through briefly-glimpsed news tableaus. Too quickly our (anti)hero is established as a dog of war - fierce and proud, primal and bloodied - and since no effort is made to investigate his personal relationships (Jessica Chastain, as Martius' wife Virgilia, is woefully underused), we're left with the hollow shell of a once complex character. The real problem here is Logan's loyalty to the source (Shakespeare's language is kept intact, save for one or two contemporary blemishes), as the Bard's iambic pentameter is broken down into bite-size exposition, hurrying through the poetry to guarantee a bum-friendly running time. But the narrative setups still feel protracted by the language, which works at direct odds with the accelerated action sequences.

The opening skirmish is a numbing sensory blowout, with Fiennes' employing hurried pans, quick-zooms and heightened sound design to immerse us into the 'reality' of conflict. But his second-rate vérité style - conceived alongside Hurt Locker DP Barry Ackroyd - is completely disorienting, falling somewhere between Green Zone (Greengrass, 2010) and Infinity Ward's Call Of Duty franchise. Nicolas Gaster's jagged editing is partly to blame for the geographical displacement, but Fiennes frequently (and inexplicably) obscures the action in close-up, never allowing us room to breathe or gain perspective with the opposing sides. I ask you this: if we can't place characters in a firefight, and gauge their distance from the enemy, how can the filmmaker possibly create tension? The battle climaxes as our rivals come stubble-to-stubble, wresting their way through a window and tussling for control of the blade that will slit the other's throat. But the brawl has no dramatic weight, for no drama has been established.

From the frontlines of war Logan launches us into political rallies, courtrooms and news stations, but the shaky-cam aesthetic is retained for dialogue scenes which require static observation. Most speeches are framed in long takes, but these feel like such anomalies because Fiennes never establishes a rhythm for us to settle into. The same charge can be leveled against the film's smorgasbord of performances, none of which hit the right - or at least a consistent - tone. Fiennes and Redgrave are completely stage-bound, expressing every emotion in sweeping physical gestures and locked jawlines, bellowing their lines straight into the auditorium's heart. Juxtaposed against a performance like Chastain's, who finds a naturalistic tempo to aid the film's grounded realism, they just come off as hammy. Everyone tries their hardest, but the problem once again comes down to scripting - the Bard's language just feels awkward, with bold declarations such as "He is the devil!" coming off as laughably overwrought for the present-tense setting.

The worst offender is Fiennes himself, who has brought his Coriolanus straight from the Almeida boards. Gnarled veins, spittle-streaked fangs and his fearsomely furrowed brow converge into an expression of pure animosity at the film's climax, where the actor seems intent on destabilizing gravity. "BOY!" he wheezily regurgitates toward Aufidius, confusing him for the Boy Wizard. It's a depressing state of affairs that in this scene Butler is the commanding presence, engaging for his quietness and steely eyes. The more I think about it though, his performance is less a good quality of Coriolanus, and rather a marginally less shit one.

Coriolanus is in cinemas now.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

VHS Quest #15. Blood Freak (Brad F. Grinter, Steve Hawkes, 1972)

"It's like Ed Wood imagining Big Bird's tripped-out LSD kill-spree."

"'Blood Freak' is an absolutely insane anti-drug, Christian splatter film...
Narrated by a chain smoker who has a coughing fit, don't miss this film -
You'll wonder if it's you or the cast who are on drugs."

Perhaps the ultimate example of what-were-they-thinking filmmaking, Grinter & Hawkes abysmal poultry slasher Blood Freak is without doubt one of the weirdest horror films I've ever seen. Herschell (played by co-writer/director Hawkes) is a thirty-something 'Nam veteran drifting through the concrete jungle when he comes across a nubile bible-thumper named Angel (Heather Hughes), whose car has just broken down. Being the nice guy that he is, Herschell invites her onto his hog (the opening credits recall Easy Rider, Hopper, 1959, although dipped in blood) and rides her home. Home, as it turns out, has become a none-more-70's opium den for Angel's sister Ann (Dana Cullivan), a free-spirited hippie who quickly develops the horn for our hunky protagonist (a cross between Bill Bixby and Tommy Wiseau). The appropriately-monikered Angel bemoans her sister's lifestyle, delivering the sort of po-faced propaganda speeches that would make even Triumph Of The Will (Riefenstahl, 1935) blush; "You know your body is the temple of the holy spirit, you shouldn't defile it." Herschell is informed by his companion that drugs are, like, way bad man, and he should totally avoid them. Naturally he abstinates, brushing off a floozy blonde siren who attempts to draw him into a one night stand. "You're just a dumb bastard who doesn't know where it's at", she declares. At this point, we're inclined to agree.

Before long Ann has fallen head-over-heels for Herschell, who is recruited into a Bible study group by Angel. One of its members invites him to work on the local turkey plantation, which is currently conducing some possibly illegal and certainly unexplainable experiments on processed meat. After a discussion with the plantation's head boffins (who may be the worst actors I've ever seen onscreen) Herschell takes the job, and heads back home, where he finds Ann waiting for him in a skimpy bikini. This is where the film's anti-drug stance becomes somewhat dubious, and ripe for scrutiny (not that the aforementioned opium den is presented negatively; everyone's having a blast). After carefully instructing Herschell how to properly inhale weed, Ann takes a few puffs and then all too easily lures the beefcake into bed. Amorality is everywhere, the film seems to be suggesting, but giving into it will get you laid. After some discreet rumpy-pumpy (seemingly for not wanting to offend the church, although why they'd be okay with female slaughter is beyond me), Herschell gets back to work and enjoys a turkey eating montage. Seriously. And it's not long before the combination of marijuana and, well... whatever was in the turkey, have disastrous side effects. Our hero collapses in a cold sweat, suffers a seizure and wakes up hours later looking like this...

Credit to Ann here, because she takes the news of her boyfriend's chemical transformation rather well, monologuing about how their children might turn out (presumably this is a statement about not getting high during pregnancy, but I can't be sure). It's almost as if nobody in this film is human, with the religious characters holding conversations which sound more like public service announcements, and the drug users adhering to the cliché of being either A) far-out dudes who just wanna hang out, or B) greedy, scum-sucking rapists. That our half-man/half-turkey protagonist is the most relatable character should tell you everything. Anyhow, we're now experiencing the negative consequences of smoking pot, apparently, although where Grinter & Hawkes take the character next is decidedly non-Christian. Yep, you guessed it. He spies on young women, waits for them to shoot up, kidnaps them, slits their throats and then drinks the blood. The incompetence with which these sequences are carried out is astonishing - it's like Ed Wood imagining Big Bird's tripped-out LSD kill-spree. There's no rhythm to the murders, and more importantly no reason. Is the message here that we could all become psychotic misogynists after a few joints? This would seem to be supported by Grinter, who intermittently turns up as unreliable narrator. The fact that he looks like an out-of-work porn actor does nothing to affect his position as the film's moral compass.

Of course, it turns out that this has all been a bad trip, and Herschell had been hallucinating the whole time. Subtlety is not the film's forte. The screenplay is astonishingly misjudged, the acting extraterrestrial, the sound design ear-numbing, and the unfocused camerawork makes most of today's shaky-cam spectacles look like the work of Béla Tarr. It's an anti-drugs film which shows characters having a great time while high, partying to their hearts content, forging relationships, and the one negative side-effect turns out to be a bad dream. How does it portray its pro-faith stance? By shoving its Christian characters off-screen, and for the brief time that they're on it having them deliver lectures to a mocking crowd of potheads. It's a film so incompetent that it actually becomes brilliant - there's not a single shot in it that works to the intended effect, but there's not a dull one either. Despite it all, Blood Freak comes highly recommended. Gobble Gobble.

The full VHS Quest lineup can be viewed here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Game On #8. The Fifth Element

"Does this gun go with these stripes?" The Fifth Element (1997)...

Adapted from Luc Besson's $90 million sci-fi extravaganza, this week's Game On travels to the farthest reaches of the galaxy for a whirl on what Gamespot critic Lauren Fielder branded as "... the worst game I've ever played." Ouch! Not that this series has established a pattern of success for tie-ins, but can The Fifth Element really be that bad?! Let's find out...

Inspired by the illustrations of Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element opened to a bewildered Cannes crowd on May 7th, 1997, winning unified critical acclaim for its stylish imagining of New York City, 2257. Moebius creator Giraud received the sole credit for 'design', but Mézières - who felt his iconic '71 strip 'L'Empire des Mille Planète' had been shamelessly plagiarized by Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) - was the primary creative force behind the film's towering sets, which were built at London's Pinewood Studios. The Parisian artist had every right to be mad at the film industry, and no doubt he envisioned The Fifth Element as his score-settler - the opportunity to create a unique futureworld which would rival Lucas' megabucks franchise. Mézières' lavish interiors - beautifully captured by DP Thierry Arbogast - are the undoubtable highlight of Besson's high-octane spectacle, and they ought to have earned him an Oscar nomination (it remains unknown why he was discredited). The film boasts fantastic performances by Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman - the latter draped in a gushing haute couture cape, appearing like he just stumbled out of a 23rd Century Ramrod - but the real standout is Milla Jovovich, an actress with enviable screen presence whose dedicated turn here is a career best. By the end of shooting she could hold entire conversations in the Divine Language, and the naturalism with which she speaks it convinces us that it's her native tongue. Featuring costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier and an echoing soundscape courtesy of Eric Serra, The Fifth Element is an astonishing sci-fi fit for exhibition in the Louvre. So, will it have to dust this tie-in under the proverbial rug?

The cover art for Kalisto Entertainment's PS1 tie-in, The Fifth Element...

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by this title. Sure, it's not going to bring home any awards for innovation, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it past a rental, but The Fifth Element is nowhere close to being the worst game ever made. As far as movie tie-ins go it's actually pretty good, albeit heavily reliant on formula. Each mission is preceded by a cut-scene to inform us of the plot point we'll be following, and Kalisto have taken the cop-out route here by using film footage rather than building their own cutscenes (this even pissed me off as a kid). Anyhow, the game's 20 missions loosely chart the main arc of Besson's source, obviously taking liberty with sub-plots in order to expand and deepen the gameplay experience. You'll start the game as Korben (looking at the blob of pixels on display I can't be sure that the rights to Willis' features were secured), and your objective is to blast through a nuclear research facility in search of Leeloo. The graphics are immediately unfriendly, with blocky, one-tone exteriors only unfurling inch by inch before you, making it particularly hard to anticipate jumps and enemies. The non-analogue controls mean that your lack of anticipation is married with jerky character control, and if it weren't for the deeply linear structure this might have become infuriating. Actually, a cooperative camera means that you won't die as often as initially expected.

The game also establishes a pretty furious pace in its opening mission, rushing us from rocky rooftops to the facility's labyrinthe networks (protected by laser barriers and hazmat-wearing goons) within minutes. The game's most damning issue becomes apparent early on - Korben's aim feature, or lack of one thereof. Credit to Lauren Fielder here, because this might be the worst targeting system I've ever seen. You'll have to get within centimeters of an enemy to become effective, and the lack of an on-screen reticule means that you'll even struggle to land a hit at close range. Holding ten flimsy rounds, your basic pistol appears to be half filled with duds, because the enemies take an absolute age to die, even when you're standing on top of them. Of course, the close-quarters proximity also opens you up to attack, and Korben's health (shields are practically useless) will drain after three successful strikes. Did I mention that Zorg's thugs can shoot through walls? Just as well too, because their A.I. is shockingly bad, even for a PS1 title. To the game's credit, the level structure is precisely measured and quite spacious, so you can use the R1/L1 buttons to dodge all major attacks, and you'll soon slip into a pretty fun rhythm. The gameplay style is very similar to that of Roswell Conspiracies, but the environments are much brighter and cleaner here, and allow for less glitching.

You should be able to clock each mission in about 15 minutes, and there's plenty of variety to ensure that they never become a chore. The two playable characters control in markedly different ways, with Leeloo's movement feeling much lighter and more responsive - she runs faster, climbs ceilings and can use effective melee attacks to take down enemies (the second mission introduces police bots, by far the game's most annoying opponent). I was pleased to learn that checkpoints are frequently activated throughout the game, and enemies won't respawn once you've dispatched them in the initial run, so navigating your way to the end-goal is never dull. Add into this a healthy number of lives, atmospheric music and plenty of explosions (still not sure about the Carnage-like aliens), and you've got an effective little tie-in, perfect for whiling away a few hours. The only trick they missed was not including Zorg's ZF-1 (top picture), which includes rapid-fire rounds, rockets, net, flamethrower and ice options. Come to think of it, can you imagine that kind of weaponry in a multiplayer mode...

Game On will now be a fortnightly feature, and the next entry will be PS1 Disney tie-in, The Emperor's New Groove...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) Review

Simon Baker stars in the gripping financial drama Margin Call (2011)...

Shot over an incredible 17 days, J.C. Chandor's Margin Call is the first fictionalized account of 2008's global financial meltdown, and it makes an essential bedfellow with Oscar-winning recession doc Inside Job (Ferguson, 2010). The story (written by Chandor between job interviews) operates over a 36-hour period, beginning with the morning that 80% of an unnamed investment firm's workforce are laid off. Among them is Eric (Stanley Tucci), a senior analyst who accepts the news of his departure with admirable poise. Upon leaving the building Eric slips a USB drive into the hands of Peter (Zachary Quinto), a junior analyst who scans its inventory and establishes the formula for economic collapse. Supervisor Will (Paul Bettany) and floor manager Sam (Kevin Spacey) are soon on task, and we are reassured by how efficiently this information makes its way up the ladder. Within hours the company's CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), has been helicoptered in, but it becomes apparent that his position has been earned through a combination of loyalty and luck. What were we expecting? Tuld's job is to manage. There's no requirement that he understand the business.

Irons, whose gaunt features put me in mind of his Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988) role, clearly relishes the part of this executive Nosferatu, whose maxim is simple: Be first, be smarter, or cheat. A juicy monologue about the systematic demolishing and rebuilding of the financial infrastructure (which actually makes sense) is a treat for his tongue and our ears, and its complete lack of sentiment stings. Like The Social Network (Fincher, 2010) before it, this is a film about men sitting in rooms arguing about business, but becomes compelling in how it's about that. Chandor understands that the cold, glass interiors of this crumbling firm are like a suffocating corral for its workers, but also reflects on the people outside - those who see into this carnivorous world, oblivious to the implication of each mouse click. Our fate was hidden in plain sight, these transparent walls suggest, as the nightmare unravels across an open-plan space in which nobody can hide. Chandor's claustrophobic camerawork and low-level lighting evoke a suitably bleak atmosphere, and when the sun finally breaks over that iconic New York skyline we begin to understand the picture from both sides - from the position of the traders whose job it was to sell millions of units of worthless stock, to the thousands of blue collar families who were counted amongst the collateral.

Chandor manages with ease the impressive feat of having his cast hurl through monologues of intricate accounting jargon, but allowing us to comprehend it by the weight of their performances. The night is not charted by a timeline, but as the actors sweat more profusely, add two tempered springs to every precisely judged step, loosen the workaday nooses around their neck and add a "fuck" to the end of each sentence, we grasp that morning is edging ever-nearer. Quinto, Bettany and Spacey are the central trio, and their masterful turns allow us a human portal into the financial sharkpool. But Chandor doesn't exactly ask us to sympathize. Will is the film's most complex subject. On the surface he appears a greedy, throat-cutting go-getter, but deep down he possesses a structured moral code and acute sense of loyalty. Outside of the office block he appears affable and good-humored, revealing human interests and hobbies. We are given plenty of reasons to hate him, but this is a man who has worked for his wealth and makes no bones about how he's spent it (cars and hookers). Perhaps the reason I engaged with Will is for his complete lack of pretension and no-shit attitude, which are equally compelling and repulsive qualities. I suspect that the Will Emerson's of this world were not fired in 2008, but promoted, and for that fact we know that the same mistakes will be made twice. In that sense Margin Call might be looked back on as a sort of present-tense horror.

Margin Call is out in cinemas now.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Big Picture (Eric Lartigau, 2010) DVD Review

Paul (Romain Duris) forges a new life in The Big Picture (2010)...

In 1989, French critic Raphaël Bassan essayed for La Revue du Cinéma the emerging Cinéma du look, a trend identifiable by its punky stylization of the inner-city, slick mise-en-scène and principal themes of sexuality and crime. Over the past few years French cinema has witnessed the beginnings of another movement, including Tell No One (Canet, 2006) and Anything For Her (Cavayé, 2008), which actively resists the garish indulgence of Carax and Besson, and The Big Picture - adapted from a 1997 novel by Douglas Kennedy - is perhaps the defining picture of this current wave. Echoing Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) in its tale of forged identity and foreign paranoia, the film's languid pacing, hazy location work and steely male protagonist all suggest a more intimate, realist brand of crime cinema. Shame nobody remembered to make it interesting...

Literally translated from the French L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie as The Man Who Wanted To Live His Life, Lartigau's latest boasts a recognizably trashy crime plot about an ordinary man required to cover up the murder of his wife's lover, but spins it out like an existential puzzle. Paul Exben (Romain Duris) lives a outwardly idyllic life, working at one of Paris's most exclusive law firms. Ruggedly handsome, he's the kind of go-getter who likely surfed into an office job straight out of college, but the rug is pulled from Paul's feet when he learns that his wife is having an affair with a local photographer, Greg (Eric Ruf). A violent tussle leads to a splintered bottle becoming wedged in Greg's neck, and so our protagonist must clean up the crime scene and remove all evidence. Assuming the man's identity, Paul then fakes his own death and sets sail for Montenegro, where he plans to become a professional photographer...

The film's ace card is Duris, whose commanding jawline and enigmatic eyes reveal layers of unwritten character - his face appears like a fractured mosaic, twitching with a hundred different secrets. The actor's entire presence - the way he visibly processes and evaluates information, or inches through a gallery with clammy agitation - is one of the most compelling in modern cinema, and here he turns airport fiction into an acting masterclass. The character is meant to be a cipher; an enigmatic shell into which the audience can project themselves, asking, what would I do? But Duris lends him even greater depth, realising that the one-dimensional screenplay - which, as the old cliché goes, has more holes than a swiss cheese - can't sustain our interest over the protracted 114-minute running time.

Indeed, there's very little else to recommend about The Big Picture. DP Laurent Dailland makes great use of natural light, subtly diluting the palette whenever Paul's anxieties flare him up like a halogen lamp; his eyes like giveaway embers. Evgueni Galperine also deserves mention for his appropriately downbeat score, which does a fine job of underlining (but never informing) the action. And what kind of critic would I be without mentioning the supporting turns by Catherine Deneuve and Niels Arestrup (an undervalued treasure), who engage despite coasting through the flimsy material? The former is lumbered with a comically misjudged cancer reveal, which reminded me of this classic scene from The Room (Wiseau, 2003), but she walks away with pride intact. Branka Katic is wonderful as Paul's new editor/lover, but her character remains terminally underdeveloped, meaning that every time the charming actress appears onscreen is a missed opportunity.

Lartigau may have been wiser to halve the middle third and build on the fascinatingly offbeat ending, but his directorial instincts always feel off. We're left to wonder where Paul will go from this point, and each option is more interesting than the story which has come before. My advice? Revisit The Talented Mr. Ripley (Minghella, 1999). It's held up brilliantly.

The Disc/Extras
Artificial Eye are renowned for treating their releases with the upmost care, so the image and sound are both well presented here, and the extras extensive. There's a 50-minute Making Of, which allows us an insight into just how fun the moviemaking process can be, albeit a difficult one. It highlights the frequent mundanity of on-set life, but Duris and Lartigau make amusing narrators. There are also two interviews and a theatrical trailer, rounding out the package nicely.

The Big Picture is out on DVD/Blu-Ray now.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) Review

Michael Fassbender stars in the provocative sex addiction drama Shame (2011)

The most important thing to consider while watching Shame, Steve McQueen's soaring follow-up to 2008's Hunger, is that its portrayal of addiction is not exclusive to sex. It's about sex, yes, but Brandon's (Michael Fassbender) unmitigated exploration of unquenchable desire would also be recognizable to alcohol and substance abusers; those who have felt a craving bleed from their veins, pulse through their being and demand, despite better judgement, that they meet that fix. As Glenn Kenny notes in his fantastic AV Club piece 'Shame and snickering', "the trashing of the porn stash could just as well have been emptying a vial into a toilet, or a bottle of Scotch, expensive or not, down the sink." He's spot-on. This is a film about one kind of addiction, but it speaks for them all. So many of Shame's critics have complained about the fact that McQueen, along with co-writer Abi Morgan and star Michael Fassbender, have found nothing new to say about sex addiction, don't arrive at a satisfying conclusion and fail to present a message to their audience. But how could they? Addiction is such an intimate disease, spreading through and devouring its victims' insides. Rather than lecture we must see it through the prism of a man (understand that I specify "man" because Brandon is the lead in Shame; women can be addicts too, but McQueen and Morgan have stated that their one-on-one research unearthed that a vast majority of addicts - or those willing to be interviewed - were males).

Shame doesn't present a reason for Brandon's addiction. He's an intelligent thirty-something Manhattanite, holding down an office job which demands that he sit, isolated, encased in glass. His is a 24/7 life, defined by the stench of morning coffee, rising smog, greying skies and neon traffic signs, honking cars and insipid elevator music. The glass is not, as some have suggested, a metaphor for his addiction. It is the reality of modern life. It's true that an over-reliance on technology could have fed into Brandon's weaknesses, and allowed sex to become his vice, but such ideas are never explicitly stated by the screenplay. The arrival of Brandon's loose-cannon sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) holds deeper, darker implications. Several of their scenes bristle with an uncomfortable sexual energy, particularly when Sissy crawls into her brother's bed in the dead of night, snuggling up to him for comfort. He flies into a rage, but we wonder what could have provoked that reaction. Something in their past? More likely that he's ashamed of the impulse which has just consumed him. After all, she's completely unattainable; the one woman he can't fuck. Interestingly, at a Q&A conducted at the Curzon Mayfair this Tuesday, McQueen and Morgan seemed totally open to this idea, even if they didn't validate it.

The fact is, we don't need to be told a reason. Look hard enough and you'll find your own. The genius of McQueen's film is that it allows the audience freedom to explore these peoples lives, never dictating their inner thoughts or histories. When Brandon goes on a date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) the conversation slips into a recognizably awkward rhythm, allowing Brandon to open up about previously ambiguous facets of his life; specifically his past relationships. Later in the film he takes her to a hotel for sex, but is unable to carry through with the act. Much debate has been focused around this scene as well, which is the saddest in the whole film. Brandon has reached a point in his addiction where sex is entirely empty and unfulfilling, and just something he has to do to satisfy an uncontrollable impulse. But I got the sense that he really cared for Marianne as a person, and therefore actively chooses not to have sex with her, for that has long ceased to be an outlet of positive energy; passion or love. Sex is his vice, and I think Brandon consciously decides to not drag Marianne into something painful and cyclic. This would explain the next scene's outright descent into hell, wherein he drifts from a bruising bar encounter through the neon-lit gay underground, leading up to that devastating threesome where, in a moment of ecstatic anguish, he breaks the fourth wall. McQueen's employment of soft focuses lenses somehow allows the scene a dystopic quality - the sensual act suddenly adopting a fevered harshness.

Fassbender's magnetic performance is the film's ace card (surely he's the only serious contender for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards?), but Mulligan also excels as the vivacious, free-spirited Sissy. My second viewing of Shame revealed many conflicting layers masked by her confident exterior, which I now believe to be an even more depressing façade than Brandon's. And her fate is anything but clearcut, as I had previously imagined; that warbling rendition of 'New York, New York' is basically like a suicide note. I knew the song was about loneliness, but here it straddles the bleak/beautiful line in compelling and mysterious ways. The film isn't quite perfect (the ending is too neat, but still far more ambiguous than some claim), but Shame remains as emotionally ravaging as it did on my first viewing, when I was ready to crown it the best film of 2011's LFF. One thing's for sure: the bar for 2012 has been set extraordinarily high.

Shame is released into UK cinemas on January 13th.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Abduction (John Singleton, 2011) Blu-Ray Review

"Don't worry, I think it's almost over." Taylor Lautner and Lily Collins in Abduction...

My PS3 loathed Abduction. Honestly, it did. After using the film's closing credits to wipe away the tears and recompose myself into a presentable human state, I eagerly pressed the eject button on my console, an action which resulted in a loud jarring noise and the disc being spat - nay, upchucked - onto my tabletop. Bad wiring, I wondered? Nope. It just flat-out fucking hated this loud, nonsensical action/thriller from John Singleton, the hackpiece extraordinaire who interrupted his 6-year vacation to take Abduction's helm. His return to the cinema is a disastrous compendium of action movie clichés, given the ultimate scrubbing down by Matt Brunson's brilliant CLC review; "You look at the screen mainly because it beats staring at the auditorium walls." This is gonna be fun...

Remember Agent Cody Banks (Zwart, 2003)? Well this is basically that, but boasting extraordinary pretensions of launching a Jason Bourne style franchise for its abtastic leading man, Twilight's Taylor Lautner. The material - penned by rockstar Shawn Christensen - is obviously designed to fashion a bona-fide action hero out of the tween audience's lupine idol, and for him - if not the rest of us - the part is a dream come true. Clearly imagining himself as the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lautner (whose mastery of the English language about equals The Governator's) throws himself into the role of Nathan, an introverted high-schooler who doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin. It's for this reason that he makes regular visits to a curiously unhelpful shrink (Sigourney Weaver) and can't talk to the plot-handy girl next door (Lily Collins). After being beaten senseless by his father (Jason Isaacs) in an impromptu boxing bout, he's soon surfing the net and unearthing shattering secrets about his life - basically that he's adopted, and the people living downstairs are undercover CIA operatives. One (improbably huge) explosion later and our hero is on the run, dragging his porcelain doll of a love interest closely behind.

The screenplay could win a Golden Globe if it were a little more self-aware, delivering first-rate honkers like this exchange, arriving after our leads share a particularly dispassionate kiss; "Wow, that was so much better than middle school." "That's because I know what I'm doing now." Fact is, nobody has any clue what they're doing in this ear-splitting lobotomy of a movie, in which Michael Nyqvist plays a non-specific Euro villain on the warpath to find some encrypted codes. Why? What do they reveal? The biggest problem here is that Singleton has taken a cockamamie plot - which could actually work as B-grade fluff in the hands of, say, John McTiernan - and imagined himself making something akin to one of Pakula's paranoid parables, marked by plodding conspiracy theories and enigmatic phone calls from gravel-throated spies (Dermot Mulroney, classing up a thankless cameo). The moody lighting, low-level shot structure, quick-zooms and surveillance fetishization are all elements of a classic 70's thriller, but paired along with the turgid rock score, rapid-fire editing, 12A certificate and GQ-friendly stars, we're left with a hodgepodge flip-book of two incompatible decades.

Singleton has experience within the action genre, having previously helmed 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) and Four Brothers (2005), but his set-pieces here lack any feeling or vitality; choreographed around a toned, flexible 19-year-old, they should have some degree of élan, but they instead feel stodgy and forced. Lautner's babyfaced features certainly don't sell him as a nails-hard action hero, but his buff torso also ensures that we never buy him as the ordinary teenage schlub, meaning that this may be the first star vehicle in history to fail for the casting of its star. The guy can't act, plain and simple, but he also seems to be struggling with the concept of dialogue - each flapping of the mouth is a monumental stretch for this brawny thespian, and he walks around the various locations with a constant look of surprise. Remember the "oooh, claw" aliens in the Toy Story films? That's his reaction to everything. Collins is equally implausible, contractually obliged to be stagnant and pretty, but not once indicate that she could be a genuine human being. The screenplay underserves her, yes, but the actress couldn't emote to save her life, and we never believe in her peril.

Even those expecting a stripped-down Friday night thriller will be disappointed. If you have to see it, do so with friends, and after 10 beers. You'll need to self-flagellate for a week to rinse yourself of the vapid machinations of this dull, aggressively stupid thriller, which is one of the worst in recent years.

The Disc/Extras
Image and sound are fine, and the extras are suitably underwhelming, comprising a trilogy of dull featurettes and a decent gag reel entitled Pulled Punches, which could have also been the film's title.

Abduction is released onto DVD/Blu-Ray on February 13th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

VHS Quest #14. Alone In The Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)

Jack Sholder's Alone In The Dark (1982), released by Rank Video...

Combustible parakeets aside, Jack Sholder has long been one of horror cinema's most underrated auteurs, a fact most recently underlined by the B-classic Arachnid (2001), a brilliant mutant-spider-runs-wild flick from Yuzna's Fantastic Factory. His cult alien thriller The Hidden (1987) has been growing in stature for years now, and recently I've experienced a lot of love for this, his debut feature. Not to be confused with Uwe Boll's godawful namesake, Alone In The Dark was falsely advertised as a Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) style slasher upon its release, probably in the hope that it would secure a hit for New Line Cinema (this was the distributor's first production credit). Now resigned to the VHS dungeon, Alone In The Dark is a film I've been desperate to see since I picked up the Rank Video release, and not least for its stunning cast (Martin Landau, Jack Palance, Donald Pleasance). So, how'd it do?

Regardless of whether or not it's true, there's a funny story surrounding Alone In The Dark which bears repeating here. During one scene in the film our protagonists drop by a punk club headlining a band called The Sick Fucks, who are basically there to remind us that it's the early 80's. Years later one of the band members ran into Palance on the streets of New York, introducing himself to the actor as one of the Sick Fucks. "We were all sick fucks in that movie", was his alleged reply. The problem with Sholder's film - which actually builds to an effective climax - is that we never actually feel any sickness or danger, or get the impression that the inmates on Haven's Third Floor (oooh, ominous!) could do any more than gurn you to death. The lineup includes a pyromanic bible-basher (Landau), paranoid ex-solider (Palance), "400-pound child molester" (Erlan Van Lidth) and a homicidal nut nicknamed The Bleeder, who refuses to expose his face to anyone. The inmates fail to create a sense of genuine unease, largely due to the actor's hammy performances - Landau, among my favorite screen actors, is particularly ineffective here, delivering a rubber-faced performance to match Jim Carrey's famed Pet Detective. The film also insults the audience's intelligence by asking us to believe that these inmates would be kept together in one room, unsupervised, with a single (unarmed) guard patrolling the hallways. Who's running this place?!

Did I also mention that this high security quarter is entirely dependent on electricity to lockdown? Of course, the power plant conks out and our lunatics are allowed to run wild on the streets, convinced that their new psychiatrist Dr. Potter (Dwight "Howling Mad Murdock" Schultz) has offed the old one, Dr. Merton (Larry Pine). I guess nobody had the foresight to build more rooms, or install a backup system should there ever be a blackout.

For the first hour Alone In The Dark amounts to no more than a checklist of various horror clichés, ignoring its best ideas (Potter's sister, played by Lee Taylor-Allan, has recently been discharged from an asylum for undisclosed reasons) for yet another cheap jump-scare, employing shadows and creaky soundscapes to unnerve the audience. Things really get interesting after Fatty breaks into the Potter's home and tries to knife a frisky babysitter through the mattress (I'm sure this is replicated on a rubber dinghy in Amsterdamned, 1988) - a scenario which quickly segues into a full-on house siege.

The cinema of John Carpenter once again becomes a footnote, as the final third of Alone In The Dark is essentially Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) relocated to the suburbs. The Bleeder finally reveals his identity here, and Potter's sister begins to slip back into her psychotic state, resulting in the film's best scare (credit here to the brilliant effects artist Tom Savini). Sholder tightens his grip around the plot's central thread, darkening the palette and focusing his camera on the beads of sweat pouring down the actor's faces. Perspective shots are well employed here, and the film actually perks up into an effectively claustrophobic thriller. I'll leave you to discover the rest, as VHS Quest doesn't concern itself with spoilers, but I will make a note about the ending. All I'll say is that it ends in a club, on a whisper and the distortion of punk music. Sholder's camera closes in on two faces and then cuts to black. It's one of the most fascinating non sequiturs in horror history; gloomy, enigmatic and deeply confusing. Suffice to say, I rewound the tape and watched it again. You ask why I love Jack Sholder? It's for moments like that, which no other filmmaker would even think of. Utterly bizarre, and I promise you that it won't be the last time I rewind that tape...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

A Lonely Place To Die (Julian Gilbey, 2011) DVD Review

The fight for survival begins in A Lonely Place To Die (2011)...

If for no other reason, check out writer/director Julian Gilbey's A Lonely Place To Die for its cracking opening set-piece. Swooping over the Glen Etive peaks, an eagle's P.O.V. establishes three mountaineers isolated in the landscape; Alison (Melissa George), Ed (Ed Speleers) and Rob (Alec Newman). This predator, circling with the mist above, prefigures the mercenaries who will soon be hunting our protagonists through the dense woodland. Ascending up the carnivorous face of Buachaille Etive Mòr, the scene is established like the prelude to a murder, with the amplified clicking and clacking of each piece of equipment - belay, quickdraw, hex - signaling imminent danger, recalling the protracted *shink* of a killer sharpening his blade. Eventually the close-ups become unbearable, and Gilbey lets loose with a gut-punching vertical slip that convincingly imitates your standard mountaineering picture. It's not long, however, until this abrasive group hear a cry for help echoing through the trees, which leads them to a little girl (Anna, played by Holly Boyd) imprisoned underground...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Following the beautiful credits sequence (Scottish folk rhapsody unfurling over shots of the highland) our protagonists make their way to the hideaway home of climbing pals Jenny (Kate Magowan) and Alex (Garry Sweeney). After several rounds of beer and poker they retire to sleep, and a classic horror movie setup gives way to morning, where a more terrifying prospect awaits: Anna. In classic B-movie tradition it's quickly established that Anna is a valuable commodity, being hunted by several parties, and our heroes will become the collateral if they don't act quickly. This delectable setup is given a further twist by the fact that Anna is Russian, and cannot communicate with her rescuers. Alison and Rob decide (unwisely) to scout ahead, rappelling down the appropriately monikered Devil's Drop in order to alert the police.

Over the next thirty minutes Gilbey takes particular pleasure in wrong-footing his audience, especially in a scene with two assassins. These camouflaged roughnecks seem to be scoping out Ed, Jenny and Alex, who are rushing with Anna toward a safer location. Gilbey denies us their perspective; the clichéd down-rifle shot is never employed here, so tension is raised. Soon, however, two leather-jawed gentleman interrupt the killers - one has their throat slit, the other forced into suicide. It turns out that these men are the assassins - the previous suspects were just hunting deer. Soon our characters meet back up, pursued by the snipers whose employer might well be the enigmatic Darko (Karel Roden). The film delights in its own mystery, twisting and turning as Gilbey draws us into yet another action sequence. What's great about the set-pieces here is that they all have a different flavour - one finds our characters descending down the rapids, another fleeing through the woods, and finally fist-fighting in a burning house. Each of them are marked by dynamic camerawork and throbbing sound design which, especially when amplified through 5.1 speakers, really pinned me to my seat.

As suggested by that last paragraph, the film eventually escapes the confines of its initial setting, moving from the woods to a local village, which just happens to be celebrating some kind of pagan underworld festival (the roads are blocked by fire-breathers and tribal belly dancers). Despite moving to a bigger location the film retains its intimacy, keeping up-close on its characters faces during the action. Fireworks mask gunshots as one of the snipers stages an attack on a police station, but the quick-cut sequence is tightly contained. Even when the action spills onto the streets (several innocents are blasted away here, which is perhaps unnecessary) Gilbey keeps the camera trailing behind his protagonists, with the horror inflections delivered by the festival adding yet another flavor to the film's considerable palette. Even in its sillier moments our interest is sustained by the brilliant lead performance, delivered by one of genre cinema's most interesting newcomers - Melissa George. The standout in 2009's Triangle (Christopher Smith), George delivers a compelling turn here; she's the human anchor which lends the action meaning. A Lonely Place To Die doesn't reinvent the wheel, but as stripped-down, low-budget thrillers go, it's one of the most interesting in recent memory. It has a cool 70's vibe, which counts for a lot, but more than that it's just an exciting ride. Seek it out.

The Disc/Extras
Unfortunately I can't speak for the Blu-Ray quality, but the DVD boasts fantastic image and sound - Michael Richard Plowman's score really pulses and booms through the action sequences, and I'm sure that even my neighbors could feel the tension. Extras are also hugely impressive, with a 70-minute Making Of documentary being one of the best I've ever seen. Methodically chronicling the process from pre to post production, this insightful, funny doc clearly demonstrates the effort and passion which is required to make a movie, and should be an essential watch for low-budget filmmakers. It's easy to see why the movie ended up being this good, because the amount of work put in by everyone is just inspiring. Also on the disc there's a smaller, but equally impressive feature called 'The Challenge Of The Alps', showcasing some stunning 1st person climbing footage. An audio commentary only adds to Gilbey's clear enthusiasm for the project, and the package is rounded off by the original UK theatrical trailer.