Friday, 30 August 2013

BANSHEE CHAPTER

CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS

In truth, I was all set to walk on this film after an absolutely appalling opening 20 minutes that set up absolutely nothing except a 3D effect that was entirely unnecessary and made no sense within the plot. But I'm glad I stuck with it because after that first reel, heavily indebted to the tiresome tropes of the damnable found footage technique (including the inevitable unanswered question as to how we, the audience, were ever able to see this footage), it came together quite nicely into an agreeable conspiracy horror in the vein of The X-Files with some interesting wrinkles.

Banshee Chapter (I must have missed the significance of the title - there are no banshees in the film) kicks off in found mode with a student ingesting, on camera, a hallucinogenic drug that was supposedly used years ago by the US military during their now-abandoned MK-Ultra mind control experiments. When he and his cameraman disappear (he was of course recording everything), his girlfriend attempts to track him down, aided only by the counterculture novelist who may have supplied the drug in the first place....

If it weren't for the 3D this would be a neat little SF thriller with a perfectly decent story, nicely put together. But the stereo effect is distracting and unnecessary (even if it's genuine 3D rather than a conversion), especially when it's been applied to mobile phone cameras, TV news clips, police interview footage and UMatic videotapes from the 1970s. In 2D it would probably be much better, but it just looks wrong to have the date stamps floating off the picture and 3D imagery clearly coming off a cameraphone that's only got one lens.

Admittedly this is a minor detail that won't apply for most people who watch the flat DVD release on their flat televisions but hey, that was the way they screened it at Frightfest. It doesn't impact on the plot or the characters. But it does make you wonder why they went to the trouble of replicating an obvious untruth, and it makes you wonder why they thought an audience would cheerfully overlook it. It hobbles their film and it gets in the way of the ideas, scares and suspense which were certainly strong enough to work without silly gimmicks.

**

THE PARANORMAL DIARIES: CLOPHILL

CONTAINS BRIEF SPOILERS AND BRIEF EVERYTHING

I don't want to waste too much time on this because there's frankly little that I haven't moaned about so many times before. It's yet another found footage semi-documentary in which people repeatedly clump around the undergrowth at a spooky location in the small hours of the morning, viewing and filming everything through a night-vision camcorder. It looks cheap and ugly, it's mostly massively boring with a few jump scares, and it does nothing with the found footage technique except drag them out again to show just how lame they really are.

In all truth I wouldn't have bothered with The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill were it not for the coincidence of local interest: I live just eight miles from there and the stories of black magic rites, satanic ceremonies and desecration of graves at the redundant and derelict village church in the 1960s are a part of the area's folk history. Some filmmakers and local paranormalists decided to spend several nights up there filming and recording in the hope of finding ghosts at the exact spots where spectral figures are alleged to have been seen; and we get to sit through their home movies.

The green glowy-eyes Night Mode on a digital camera would make the biscuit aisle in Waitrose look like a portal to Hell, and the fuzz of lo-def video darkness can throw up any number of vague shadows that could be pretty much anything if you squint hard enough. But found has a visual aesthetic that suggests immediacy and reality (because it's on a handheld camcorder like the one you shot all those birthday parties and days at the beach on) rather than any directorial style and flair: there's a difference between making a film and just pointing a Handycam at stuff. There's doubtless a proper movie to made about Clophill Church, and it would be nice to see it someday. This isn't it.

*

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

ODD THOMAS

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS AND SNIFFLES FROM OTHER PEOPLE

There used to be an aphorism, apparently, that there were three levels of CGI. Firstly, what the film actually needs; secondly, as much as the computers can possibly provide; and thirdly, what Stephen Sommers wants. Which probably has a grain of truth in it: the first two Mummy films, Van Helsing and the first G.I. Joe are all CGI-laden romps where any sense of human drama and character are buried under a thousand tons of whizzy effects. That's not to say they're not enjoyable films - I think G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is one of the great underrated fantasy action romps of the last few years - but they're not the place to go for emotion. And then he goes and spoils it all with this adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel that comes with a punch-to-the-guts ending that reduced most of the gore-hardened FrightFest audience to blubbering schoolgirls. How the hell did that happen?

Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin) has a gift: he sees dead people, and he's made it his mission in life to bring their killers to justice when he can. But then a stranger turns up in town, and he's accompanied by bodachs: translucent demons (which no-one but Odd can see) that feast on imminent fear and tragedy. It becomes apparent there's some kind of terrifying plot to cause death and disaster on a vast scale, and only Odd can stop it....

It's a lot of fun with wit and charm, and it builds to a terrific action climax with bodachs by the thousand and the clock ticking. What pushes it into the five-star bracket is the genuinely unexpected, tragic but absolutely perfect ending that had pretty much everyone (else) in Empire 1 snuffling and pretending they'd got something in their eye. Not just unexpected in the context of the film (I haven't read the book) but unexpected in its effect, and the fact that it's written and directed by the man who made a film as incoherently senseless as Van Helsing. I really do hope the legal wrangles get sorted out quickly and the film can be properly released because it's absolutely fantastic, a close second favourite of FrightFest 2013 (so very narrowly beaten by The Last Days) and easily one of the best films of the year so far.

*****

THE DYATLOV PASS INCIDENT

CONTAINS SOME SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS

Frustration is the key here. On one level I don't really want to waste any more time with it than is strictly necessary, but it exemplifies a boneheaded stupidity in the production process that really needs to be stamped on, stamped on hard, and stamped on several times. If you've got a spectacular mountain location, a twisty story with jumps and scares and solid SF ideas, and a young and photogenic cast, then it makes sense to hire Renny Harlin. He did Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, The Long Kiss Goodnight: he knows how to do action, horror and spectacle. However, it makes no sense at all to hire Renny Harlin and then make him direct the film in the exciting and innovative found footage format so it looks like it was shot by your mum.

A bunch of pretty but dumb students journey to Russia in order to make a documentary about The Dyatlov Pass Incident, a mystery from the late 1950s when a group of nine mountain hikers died in unexplained circumstances. Retracing the steps of the ill-fated trek, they encounter warnings not to go up there, footprints in the snow that lead nowhere, the usual strange noises, before finding an ancient army bunker. Will they be dumb enough to open the door and go inside when the military show up and start shooting? Of course they will....

What they find is actually pretty interesting and ties the story up very nicely with a couple of mind-bending twists, explaining discrepancies in the accounts of the 1950s incident along the way. This would have made a really terrific little film - if they'd actually made a film of it. Instead they've made a video diary in the wobblicam Blair Witch mode which kills the drama dead on the screen and makes no sense on a narrative level (why are all these cameras recording in 2.35 widescreen? Who edited the disparate footage together, and where did they get the footage from in the first place?). Making the film look ugly, jittery and full of long static shots doesn't make it look real and it doesn't make it more scary, it just makes it look like your cinematographer and editor haven't got a clue what they're doing. It looks shoddy and it looks unprofessional, and what could have been a great little horror film is killed by the idiotic and misguided desire for an aesthetic of reality. Once more: make a film, stop pretending you haven't.

**

Whatever:

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

JAWS 2

CONTAINS ~~~~~~~/\~~~~~ SPOILERS

The first thing you need to know about this sequel is that it isn't Jaws. The second, and indeed the only other thing you need to know, is that it's not an absolutely terrible film that betrays, cheapens and degrades the first one. In some regards it's actually better, while in other regards (sadly, the most crucial ones) it just doesn't match up. How could it? Jaws is a classic, obviously, and Jaws 2's minor strengths don't make up for its minor weaknesses.

The plot is boneheadedly stupid: another shark pitches up off the Amity coast and starts eating the locals: Brody (Roy Scheider) is more and more convinced it's a shark as the evidence and the corpses pile up, and the mysteriously re-elected Mayor (Murray Hamilton) won't believe him because they don't want to jeopardise a huge property development scheme. Meanwhile a bunch of idiot kids (including the Brody boys) have gone out boating in the exact same stretch of water where it's been feeding....

It's great to have Scheider, Hamilton, Lorraine Gary and a couple of familiar islander faces returning. There's little worse than a sequel that doesn't bother with any of the established characters except in injokey cameos (or throwaway dialogue to explain why they're not in the new film) and simply remakes the original movie on the next beach south. It's also great to have John Williams back composing the music, which I've always maintained is a better, bigger and more enjoyable score than Jaws. The familiar Jaws motif is still there, but there's a greater exuberance in the music for the open water sequences, which all take place in dazzling daylight rather than the murky darkness of night.

And the shark effects themselves look fine: to be honest they're probably better than in the original (the one that eats Robert Shaw at the end always looked particularly ropey). But, for a movie that's mostly set in the bottomless ocean, there's no depth to anything or anyone. It's like they've stripped out all the character quirks and personality: there's no backstory or individuality to anyone (the kids are all teenagers anyway and they're a fairly bland group of largely indistinguishable hunks, nerds and love interests). So what's left actually has some of the feel of Jaws - the cast, the soundtrack - and some of the feel of a Jaws ripoff like Tentacles - the romping silliness, the lack of any depth. It's an odd mix, and it doesn't entirely work, though there are undeniably some pleasures to be had.

**

Munchie munchie:

Sunday, 18 August 2013

STOLEN

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Nicolas Cage is one of those actors who's had several opportunities to do "proper" acting in his career, but for some reason has settled for template action thriller nonsense and frequently seems to have no interest in whether the films are any good or not. It wouldn't have taken the world's most gifted clairvoyant to have predicted that remaking The Wicker Man was a thoroughly stupid idea, and while Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance was watchable enough (certainly more than the first one, anyway), it was never anything more than that and quite clearly never had any hope of being anything more than that. Routine thrillers like Justice and Trespass, granted only a fleeting cinema release before heading for their natural home on the Blockbusters bargain shelf, have taken over from explosive A-list action movies like Con Air and Face/Off in the Cageography, and these days he doesn't even bother to reward us with one of his endlessly rewatchable bug-eyed shouty freakout scenes.

Stolen is an entirely formulaic, entirely generic and very silly thriller with plenty of efficiently mounted chases, fights and shootings to satisfy the knuckleheaded action fan demographic while not filling it with blood and swearing: it's a 12 certificate, but at that level it's a lot less dodgy a proposition than, say, A Good Day To Die Hard. Career criminal Nic Cage comes out of prison after a long sentence for armed robbery, and immediately both the FBI and his ex-colleagues want to know where the missing $10 million was hidden. One of the gang even abducts Cage's teenage daughter, and won't believes him when he claims to have burnt the cash before arrest to avoid a longer jail term...

It is monumentally daft but perfectly entertaining fun, well enough staged by Simon West (of The Expendables 2) and enjoyably violent in places, with a decent supporting cast (Malin Akerman, Danny Huston, Josh Lucas) and Nic Cage doing his standard Nic Cage routine, despite the pullquote on the front of the DVD box claiming it's "Cage's finest performance in almost a decade". Certainly it's a far better bet than Trespass or Justice, and it's easily worth the rental fee for a Friday night, but the plot ultimately demands that Cage commit another huge-scale robbery in a matter of hours to make up the perceived debt and it's frankly unbelievable at that point. Worth a watch, but don't go in expecting another Con Air.

***

Hahaha:

Saturday, 17 August 2013

DANCE OF THE DEAD

CONTAINS...2...3... SOME...2...3... SPOILERS...2...3...

Horror comedy has always been a fiendishly difficult balancing act to pull off. Too much easy comedy and you dilute the horror content, too much horror and the comedy seems out of place. As a lover of zombie movies I tend to like them played straight and nasty rather than comedic knockabout: I'll take Return Of The Living Dead III over Return Of The Living Dead any day. But the wonderful Shaun Of The Dead trod that line almost perfectly, and this high-school undead teen farce has an additional wonderful sweetness and charm to it that makes it almost impossible to dislike.

If Shaun Of The Dead was a "romzomcom", then Dance Of The Dead is a "romzompromcom": a romantic zombie comedy set on Prom Night. When the dead start coming back to life thanks to the town's nuclear power plant belching forth its reanimatory fumes, it's ultimately down to the sci-fi geeks, rejects and weirdos who couldn't, or wouldn't, attend the big dance. It's the heavy metal rebels, UFO enthusiasts and violent hooligans who, together with the disturbingly gun-obsessed sports coach, end up outside trying to take down the undead hordes while the cool kids, sports jocks and cheerleaders are trapped inside the school: a limitless supply of fresh meat for the zombies....

Okay: as a horror movie nerd I'm probably more likely to empathise with the awkward sci-fi outcasts than the usual dweeby nerds, but mercifully they're not routinely picked on and humiliated for the first half hour as a cheap and frankly boring way of engaging audience sympathies. Everyone is generally likeable (those few who aren't end up as zombs fairly swiftly) and there's an immaculately constructed Star Wars injoke which raised the movie to the point where I'd still have loved it even if they'd just spent the next half hour kicking puppies in front of trains. And even though it doesn't skimp on the jokes, it still delivers on the splattery gore front, though it's done with enough wit and warmth to get away with a 15 certificate.

It's a shame Dance Of The Dead isn't better known: it's funny and gruesome at the same time, and in a world heaving with rubbish zombie comedies it's genuinely a thrill to find one that manages the genre mix so neatly. I thoroughly enjoyed it when it played Frightfest back in 2008 and it's still terrific today: daft zombie knockabout it may be, but it's rarely done this well.

****

The Dead Can Dance:

Friday, 16 August 2013

SPRING BREAKERS

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A CONFESSION

Let's get one thing out of the way first: I've never seen a Harmony Korine film until now. So I've no idea whether Julien Donkey-Boy, Gummo and Trash Humpers are in any way similar to this sleazy, garish and magnificently shot crime drama/thriller. It'd be great if they were, but I suspect they're not. This is a genuine cross between art and exploitation that basically comes across like a Girls Gone Wild video as directed by Michael Mann: a combination of empty, depressing reality and the hedonistic fantasy excesses of meaningless, eternal partying, but photographed like it's Manhunter or Heat.

Four girls (led by Vanesa Hudgens and Selena Gomez) escape from their miserable college campus for the Spring Break holidays and run away to "find themselves" on the dazzling sunlit beaches for an indefinite period of wild partying. Having stolen a car and robbed a diner to pay for their adventure, it's not long before the dream palls and they're arrested and jailed (still in their bikinis) for narcotics offences. The dream, and the group, collapses when they're bailed out by Alien (an unrecognisable James Franco), a dreadlocked silver-toothed gangster who seeks to seduce the girls into his equally empty, equally meaningless but considerably more lucrative (his catchphrase is "Look at all my s***!") criminal lifestyle....

Spring Breakers is absolutely fantastic to look at, especially on BluRay: the scorching dayglo of the endless beach parties and beer-fuelled horseplay on the beaches, the mesmerising sunsets or the wonderfully lit night scenes. It's arguable as to whether the lack of any characters worth giving more than a wet hoot about is important in a film showcasing nothing but wild excess. To be honest, I was probably happier watching the girls having a good time than seeing them face up to the consequences of their phenomenally stupid actions (although the car theft and armed robberies are never mentioned afterwards), or to see everything turn sour and serious with actual bullets flying and lives taken, while the voiceover loops an earlier scene of one of the girls burbling about how they've found out who they really are.

Nevertheless, for the fabulous photography and the endless parade of bikini beach babes (despite the 18 certificate, the film never goes beyond comfortable softcore nudity; that's more for the drug use and the weapons grade swearing), it's a surprisingly light and enjoyable movie, until it all goes Scarface in the final half hour. I did like it far more than I expected to, though I would have liked to have cared more about the characters beyond a slight sense of relief when one of the girls decides she's had enough. But I'm still glad I never had Spring Break at my school. I'd have hated it.

***

Look at all my s***!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

PASSION

CONTAINS SOME SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS

Any new film by Brian De Palma is to be welcomed. A new suspense thriller by Brian De Palma is to be seized upon with joy. The very prospect of the director of Sisters, Obsession, The Fury, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, Raising Cain and Femme Fatale, returning to his trademarked twisty psychological thriller stamping grounds raises expectations to perhaps unreasonable levels, but the dull wet thud with which this finally hits the screen indicates not that it's a terrible film - it isn't - but that it isn't another glorious Hitchcockian pastiche which, deep down, is what we all really wanted from it.

Passion is actually De Palma's first official remake since Scarface in 1983 and, while that film obviously looks, sounds and feels nothing like the 1932 version, this follows so many of the beats of 2010's Love Crime that it's probably a disadvantage to have seen it. The initially close working relationship between top advertising executive Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) starts to fracture when Christine steals the credit for Isabelle's ideas. Following public humiliation and personal betrayals, it's hardly surprising when Christine is brutally murdered and Isabelle is the obvious suspect - but did she do it? All the evidence points to her, from an incriminating email to her sudden pill-popping which seems to have affected everything from her memory to her inability to sleep....

It may seem unfair to look at a film predominantly in the light of another film, but it is a remake and if they didn't want comparisons then they should have made something original. And the differences between Passion and Love Crime are where most of the flaws lie. Most serious is the loss of any age gap between the two women - Kristin Scott Thomas is nearly 20 years older than Ludivine Sagnier while McAdams and Rapace are pretty much the same age - either makes you think that Christine is surely too young to have reached such a high position or Isabelle is too old to be a mere assistant, and more crucially it allows the erotic undercurrent to be ramped up too much. (The gender swap of Isabelle's own assistant allows the lesbianism to be made far more blatant, but to no great end.) Little plot alterations don't matter too much - here Isabelle's alibi is that she went to the ballet, not the cinema - but shaving two decades off the age of one of the main characters, turning her from a mature woman unwilling to be overtaken by youngsters into a fairly generic high-powered office icebitch (I could have done without her dropping the C-bomb as well), robs Christine of most of her depth.

What's really surprising is that for much of the time it doesn't really feel like a Brian De Palma film, and it's only in the closing sequence (which isn't in Love Crime, incidentally) that memories of Dressed To Kill's thrillingly overblown coda come flooding back: a connection explicitly underlined by Pino Donaggio's score rehashing the sound and mood of that earlier masterpiece. Granted, it's a vintage De Palma setpiece, brilliantly shot and cut (and including a shot straight out of Argento's Tenebrae), but it comes far too late and seems strangely at odds with the rest of the movie. The split-screen sequence - another De Palma favourite - also doesn't add very much this time out as one of the screens stays on the ballet. It's a crying shame as the only clear improvement on Love Crime is having a Pino Donaggio soundtrack rather than unmemorable ambient noodlings - and even then it's not hugely in evidence until that end sequence which doesn't even need to be there, as it robs Passion of the subtler, tidier and more satisfying conclusion of the original. For the most part, surprisingly, the ghost of Hitchcock hangs more over Love Crime than Brian De Palma's restaging.

Maybe it would have helped if I hadn't seen Love Crime a few months ago, so I wouldn't have known just how high Passion needed to aim. But on both levels - as a remake of an existing movie and as Un Film De Brian De Palma - it doesn't spark and it doesn't catch fire until that tacked-on finale when he finally gets his finger out and overdirects like he's supposed to. There are some terrific moments, and the story is certainly strong enough to survive the tinkering, but ultimately it disappoints. Certainly not without interest, though: just not enough.

***

Compare And Contrast:

Saturday, 3 August 2013

HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SURPRISE

The most surprising thing is not that I've got some faintly fond memories of this eighth instalment of the Halloween franchise (seventh in the Michael Myers Chronicles if we quite rightly ignore Halloween III: Season Of The Witch) as a formulaic, deeply average but efficient throwback slasher movie. No: the really astonishing thing, some eleven years on from its inclusion at FrightFest 2002, is just how staggeringly terrible it actually is. Despite having a returning director (Rick Rosenthal, from Halloween II), that iconic John Carpenter theme music and even a cameo from Jamie Lee Curtis, it's stuffed with instantly hateful characters and arrant stupidity, never comes within screaming distance of being even mildly scary and ends up headslappingly boring even at a mere 85 minutes.

Six photogenic halfwits are signed up (by Tyra Banks and Coolio) to star in an internet reality show in which they clump about in Michael Myers' old house, finding planted clues to why he became a homicidal maniac. But wouldn't you just know it: Myers has been living there in the basement the whole time (having finally achieved his life's sole purpose and offed his sister Laurie in the opening reel) and wastes not a second in despatching the intruders, all of whom are wearing little cameras to broadcast the whole idiotic debacle to an audience of people who want to spend Halloween night on the internet watching a bunch of imbeciles stumble around a spooky house.

Halloween was never my favourite franchise: one decent original, a semi-decent sequel and that was about it, yet they eked it out to eight instalments and a worthless reboot. I was always more inclined to Team Jason, though even they lost the plot after six episodes (and their reboot is awful as well). But Halloween Resurrection is rubbish: it never makes you jump, the characters continually do stupid things (whether it's playing lame pranks on one another, making out in the spooky basement, or simply not walking out of the front door at the first sign of real danger) and the final sting that He's Still Not Dead! almost feels like a contractual obligation and contains no more impact than including the hair stylist's name in the closing credits. Back in 2002 I thought it was a tolerable retro teenkill movie that scraped a third star; now it's lucky to get even one.

*

THE TOWER

이야기의 세부 사항이 포함되어 (CONTAINS DETAILS OF THE STORY)

This is a wildly enjoyable South Korean throwback to the great disaster movies of the 1970s: an opening buildup showcasing the massive but doomed edifice, alternating enough character material to make you care about the right people (without spending so much time on them that the film starts to drag) with telling details of the mayhem to come. In this instance The Tower is a gleeful, effects-heavy rehash of The Towering Inferno, the best of Irwin Allen's all-star disaster spectaculars, with a dash of Die Hard thrown in - and in the main it's enormous fun, with only some presumably deliberate but still uncomfortable echoes of September 11 leaving a sour taste.

It's Christmas Eve at Tower Sky: an absurdly luxurious and very expensive residential development in Seoul consisting of two soaring skyscrapers linked by a Sky Bridge - a glass and steel walkway around the 70th floor that you instantly know is going to be the scene of a (literally cracking) suspense sequence later on. They've spared no expense for the fabulous party for the very best (richest) people - to the extent of dropping fake snow from helicopters. But there's an updraught, and one of the choppers crashes into the side of the 63rd floor, starting a fire. The sprinklers won't work - the pipes were rerouted to the exterior of the building to make room for shops, and so have frozen solid - and there isn't enough ventilation; the handful of selected survivors then have to navigate the various obstacles (collapsing floors, the crumbling Sky Bridge, a window cleaner's gondola hanging outside) to get to safety. Meanwhile the fire crews are fighting a near-hopeless battle against the inferno, and the structural buckling means the building is liable to topple against its neighbour, sending them both crashing into the centre of the city....

The characters are sketched in quickly enough for you to decide on whether you want them to survive or not: the shy widower in charge, his cute little daughter, the restaurant manager he has an unrequited crush on, the legendary fire chief who won't take the day off, the rookie firefighter who's joined the station that morning, the fire commissioner who wants the important (rich) people evacuated before the workers and peasantry. The hapless comedy chef (whose antics are wisely toned down in the second half), the snobbish woman who won't clean up after her dog and berates the staff for pointing this out, the development's owner who brings the firewalls down to try and save the building when there are still people trapped inside.

If it's sometimes tempting to mentally recast the Hollywood remake while watching the original, the drawback here is that the film is so reminiscent of The Towering Inferno, even down to blowing the water tanks (twice, albeit for completely different reasons) and following a handful of soaked and singed survivors from one calamity to another in the best tradition of Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and even the hilariously dreadful When Time Ran Out. Rather more problematic is the 9/11 imagery - a helicopter crashes into the side of one of the two towers, vast clouds of dust billow through the streets as the tower collapses. I don't know when these things stop being "too soon", but it's surprising to see such shots in what's obviously a big-budget commercial movie.

With over 1700 computer-generated shots in the film (at least according to the IMDb) and a ratio of mayhem and destruction to soap opera character drama that's weighted heavily in favour of the visual spectacle, The Tower ends up as mostly terrific fun if a touch on the long side at just under two hours (although that's still forty minutes shorter than The Towering Inferno). Well worth seeing.

****

McQueen / Newman?