Friday, 29 May 2015



The Dead Lands is an odd film indeed: a Maori-language combination of rites of passage drama and brutal action thriller set in an unspecified distant past, with a leavening of supernatural horror and topped off with an 80s style synthesiser soundtrack of the Giorgio Moroder or Tangerine Dream ilk that surprisingly doesn't sound out of place. But it's a mixture of elements that works very well (barring a little confusion I had in the early stages) and it's a pity that it's probably not going to be widely seen as it deserves.

It initially seems to be a simple diplomatic meeting between tribes to visit and pay respect to their ancestors' graves. This suddenly turns to threats of war amid accusations of desecration, and the visiting tribe's leader Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) demands justice. But it's merely a pretext to wipe out the tribe completely - except the chief's young and callow son Hongi (James Rolleston) inadvertently escapes the carnage and vows revenge. The journey to track the killers takes Hongi into The Dead Lands, an empty wasteland supposedly inhabited by a terrifying demon, but actually an old warrior king (Lawrence Makoare) with whom Hongi teams up...

At its heart, The Dead Lands is actually a pretty conventional revenge thriller in terms of its plotting (the idea of the tribe's sole survivor taking revenge for his family's massacre is the starting point for Conan The Barbarian) but it scores highly in the setting: the wild and untouched New Zealand of tribal times. The warriors (whose displays of fury and aggression feature the kind of tongue waving and wild gesticulation that we now know primarily from the All Blacks' rugby haka) are actually genuinely scary guys, and the well-staged fight scenes are bloody, visceral and vicious, using weapons which look like sharpened bones, but they're never sadistic and nasty for the sake of it: they're part of the film's natural world. (Incidentally, since this is an issue that sadly keeps coming up these days when talking about movies, there isn't very much in the way of female characters in The Dead Lands, but again, it doesn't feel wrong for the film's world.)

Much is made throughout of reverence for one's ancestors; everything is done primarily with the idea of honouring and respecting previous generations (the villains' motivations are primarily to do with burial rites) and that includes breaking the cycle of violence and retaliation at the end. With its ancient setting and unfamiliar language, the film does bring to mind Mel Gibson's bonkers Apocalypto - and the Maori language is apparently spoken by far fewer people than that film's supposedly obscure Maya dialect - and this is a much better film. It's also reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn's marvellous Valhalla Rising and The Dead Lands is certainly on that level. I enjoyed it, and I would have liked to have seen it get a wider release.


Friday, 22 May 2015



And yet another remake of a classic horror film (or an exploitable commercial property with a high audience recognition quotient that can be adequately monetised in the marketplace) trundles into town. In fact it's less of a remake than a tribute act, not so much a variation on the familiar theme as simply playing that theme again, with not enough changes for it to stand as a work in its own right. The end result is, perversely, a film that probably works better if you haven't seen the original, in which case it really shouldn't feel the need to adhere so close to it. Though some moments are replicated closely (such as the youngest child being sucked into the interdimensional portal thing) it's not shot for shot: this isn't a restaging like Van Sant's Psycho or Jamie Blanks' Long Weekend, and it's twenty minutes shorter than Tobe Hooper's film, but it doesn't bring anything particularly new to the table except arranging things slightly differently.

Most of the familiar motifs are still there: the tree, the clown doll, the TV set, the closet, the rope, "they're here" and "this house is clean". The Bowens (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie De Witt and their three kids move into a nice suburban house and almost immediately spooky stuff starts to happen. It's all initially dismissed as nonsense or normal childhood behaviour, until the youngest child Madison (Kennedi Clements) is taken and they have to call in a team of paranormal researchers to rescue her and cleanse the house of whatever evil presence has taken root there...

Generally, I rather liked this new Poltergeist. The film appears to have been deliberately crafted to look like an eighties movie with enough lens flare to be noticeable but not so much as to be actively annoying, and edited together without dizzyingly rapid cutting, and the scraping strings score is decent enough though it's nowhere near Jerry Goldsmith's thundering music for the earlier version (both scores include a music box-style lullaby in places). It's also nice to see Jared Harris continuing to carve out a career in horror and fantasy movies (after The Quiet Ones, John Carpenter's The Ward and even one of the Resident Evil sequels), though in this instance he is taking the role of the unforgettable Zelda Rubinstein which is perhaps impossible to top so he wisely doesn't try. I didn't see it in 3D but there didn't seem to be any moments that cried out for the extra dimension effect and the flat version works perfectly well.

As a template haunted house movie that periodically yells Boo! in your ear, it does the job of making you throw your popcorn in the air and grab your date's arm perfectly well. It doesn't do very much that the original Poltergeist didn't do, and it doesn't really do anything that more recent hits like Insidious and The Conjuring didn't so either, but what it does is certainly effective enough: I jumped and covered my eyes exactly like you're supposed to, exactly like it wants you to. It's a decent enough multiplex jolt machine, but rather than make me want to watch it again, it's made me want to get the original on DVD. (The end credits acknowledge the original but only credit the story and screenplay; Tobe Hooper gets an injoke nod as the name of the local high school.)




It's inevitable that any successful formula will be [1] ripped off and [2] parodied, invariably without much in the way of glory. There have always been spoofs and the Wayans certainly didn't invent chortling horror knockabout with Scary Movie. Twenty years earlier we were getting lame comedy versions of the horror genre: Student Bodies, Saturday The 14th, and this attempt to do for campus slashers what Airplane! did for disaster movies. It doesn't work, unsurprisingly: it's not as good as the first Scary Movie or the first ten minutes of Scary Movie 2, but it's certainly down there in the slough of unfunniness of Scary Movie 3 onwards. It's not that there aren't any jokes - there certainly are, by the score, but hardly any of them raise anything more than a knowing smirk.

Wacko tries to replicate Airplane!'s trick of hiring proper actors to play everything straight-faced and seriously rather than getting comedians to mug and gurn: they've got Joe Don Baker, Stella Stevens and the mighty George Kennedy (who of course would later follow Leslie Nielsen into the Naked Gun series). On the thirteenth anniversary of the infamous Lawnmower Killings, the maniac escapes from the local mental hospital and looks set to start another rampage at the Halloween Pumpkin Prom at Alfred Hitchcock High School, Angry cop Joe Don Baker (who hasn't slept in thirteen years) is out to stop him; Stevens and Kennedy are the parents of the most likely target, the sister of one of the victims thirteen years ago....

It's really not very good: I know I don't have much of a sense of humour but even so I was surprised how much I didn't laugh. It's not that I didn't see and understand the jokes, I just didn't find them funny enough. There are meaningless nods to The Exorcist, Psycho and The Omen, which are more like acknowledgements of those films' existence than actual gags, frequent use of the Alfred Hitchcock TV theme music (Funeral March Of A Marionette), Andrew Dice Clay basically playing The Fonz, middle-aged Kennedy perving over his nubile daughter. and a plot that doesn't actually make any sense though it probably doesn't matter. It's not actively offensive in terms of bad taste, but that's literally all it's got going for it.


Sunday, 17 May 2015



Coming out of this film, there was only one word that immediately summed up my primary reaction. It's not a word I use very often about films, but the entirety of the English lexicon has no other conjunction of two syllables that fully do justice to what I'd watched. Mad Max: Fury Road is awesome. Literally awesome. Not metaphorically awesome, not awesome in a "cool!" or "wicked!" sense, but genuinely awesome, genuinely inspiring a feeling of awe. Two hours of full-on, copper-bottomed, all-stops-out, balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, death-or-glory, brain-annihilating superawesomeness that redefines and reinvents the very idea of action cinema. This isn't just what cinema was invented for, it's what your eyes were invented for.

It's unclear where Fury Road falls in the timeline of the previous three films: it's all set in the future anyway so it could well take place two days after Beyond Thunderdome. Max Rockatansky (now played by Tom Hardy) is still wandering the wastelands of the Australian deserts seeking redemption and a vestige of humanity: he's captured by the whooping War Boys and taken to the Citadel to be used as a blood bank to keep the soldiers going. Meanwhile, close-cropped one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals a War Rig - an enormous tanker full of precious gasoline to head for her childhood home, "The Green Place", where there might be a better future. But she's also taken the wives of the Citadel's tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and he wants them back...

That's pretty much it for plot. Mad Max: Fury Road runs for two hours and if you took out the fights, chases and action sequences you would have maybe twenty minutes left. Such a high ratio of action to talk would normally be unthinkable, but George Miller is clearly not interested in following any established formula. And that ratio would be intolerable if the ninety-plus minutes of action were not of the highest calibre - but they are. They're clear, distinct, and show the whole picture rather than jagged close-ups from shaking cameras, yet at the same time they're right in the thick of the action and not standing back observing from a distance. Brilliantly structured and put together, Fury Road's chases are monumental set-pieces of mayhem and crashes and explosions that go on for reels at a time without a pause for breath or reflection, yet Miller makes sure at all times that we know exactly where each vehicle is and who's in it. (Props also for doing most of it with actual real vehicles smashing into each other and not relying on CGI except as a cleanup tool.) A director like Michael Bay would have micro-edited these sequences into an incoherent frenzy of near-subliminal nonsense. Or think back to the pre-credits chase of Quantum Of Solace where the action is cut together so fast that's impossible on first viewing to even tell which car James Bond is driving!

If that's not enough....the film looks absolutely gorgeous. Miller and DP John Seale have rendered everything in scorchingly bright colours, transforming the endless desert (actually Namibia) into a surreal, storm-strewn alien hellscape. Junkie XL's music score isn't up there with the originals' scores by Brian (Not That One) May or even Maurice Jarre, but competes with all the engines and clanging metal through sheer volume and wins through by actually being more musically interesting than expected. Design is fantastic, whether the wild costumes or the heavily customised vehicles such as a family saloon converted to run on caterpillar tracks (one of the cars definitely recalls the spiky VW from The Cars That Ate Paris). Some have whined pathetically about how Max almost seems reduced to a supporting character in his own movie, as the focus is at most split equally between Max and badass kickass Furiosa and they don't want to see Man playing second banana to mere Woman, but they're Cro-Magnon peabrains.

But at the heart of Mad Mad: Fury Road is a vision of a future world gone absolutely insane where mankind has devolved beyond barbarism to screaming, howling madness, and that world is brilliantly realised. If cinema is a drug then this is a pure unfiltered hit injected straight into the brain: a magnificent, delirious blast of screaming and explosions that just keeps going. I want to see it again. I need to see it again. It is awesome.


Monday, 11 May 2015



There are two reasons why this fantastically bloody zombie film is getting a release right now: firstly it's really good, and secondly because it's Australian and the new Mad Max movie is coming up the following week. There is definitely the hint of vintage Ozsploitation in here, with the backroads settings and the eccentric supporting characters (if someone like Bruce Spence had turned up you wouldn't be surprised), but there's also a very modern quota of full-on gore that is very happy shooting the living dead in the face and quite clearly has no interest in wimping out for a family-friendly rating. And the mix works pretty well.

Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead's zompocalypse starts with shooting stars (in Revelations, Wormwood is a falling star that turns a third of the Earth's waters bitter) that transform the majority of the population into undead flesh-eating ghouls. Having had to kill his wife and child after they turned, family man Barry (Jay Gallagher) heads off to find his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), teaming up with a couple of other survivors en route. But Brooke has been captured by a mad scientist (Berynn Schwerdt, playing not just "horror movie mad scientist" but hilariously bonkers as well) experimenting with zombie blood....

It's a lot of fun and moves at a good pace, wasting no time and cutting straight to the bloody action. More pleasingly, it doesn't just do the standard post-Romero zombie routine but adds a few new wrinkles to the formula, such as using the zombs' breath as an alternative fuel supply since the apocalypse has somehow rendered gasoline nonflammable, or the surprising results of the maniac's grisly experiments. Maybe it's a pity that it settles towards the end for one of those dumb male machismo showdowns as two blokes slug it out to apparently prove who's the more manly - frankly I'm more interested in the armies of the undead than an entirely unnecessary fight.

But there's no real question that Wyrmwood delivers on the splatter front, and that's really what I want from a zombie film. If I'm in the mood for subtlety and understatement I'll look elsewhere. In addition it's actually funny (more than many comedies) in that quirky Australian way, such as the first aid box having nothing in it except a couple of beers. Shot at weekends over a period of four years (which inevitably brings to mind Peter Jackson's Bad Taste), you'd expect it to be rough and ramshackle but in fact it's efficiently put together and certainly doesn't look like a spare-time effort. It's a terrific Friday night romp and I enjoyed it far more than any zombie movie I've seen in the last few years. There are apparently plans for a Wyrmwood 2, but sadly not until 2017.


Monday, 4 May 2015



And still they come: yet another cheap found footage horror movie. It's hardly surprising that yet another movie centred on the foolhardy misadventures of a clueless documentary film crew proves no better than the last dozen camcorder atrocities. What is frustrating about this particular example is that there are a couple of moments when it's obvious it could have been so much better if they'd actually made it as a proper film rather than opting for the same tiresome schtick that doesn't work and doesn't make sense.

To be honest I spent the early section of the film thinking it was a spoof: a documentary crew pitch up in France to make a centenary TV programme about The Somme. They claim to have won a BAFTA for a show about alien spacecraft over Hadrian's Wall (when it's painfully obvious they couldn't even get nominated for doing the washing up), and they're led by a serious historian constantly being urged to emphasise the more ghoulish elements of The Somme at the expense of historical fact. That would actually the basis for a decent little comedy about the shallow state of factual TV in 2015 which honestly would have been a lot more interesting. Instead we get the crew fleeing an unexplained attack by undead soldiers, before discovering a corpse with a mysterious occult amulet inside it....

There's scarcely any point in whining on again about the by now entirely redundant format; the bag of tricks was empty about three days after The Blair Witch Project came out but that hasn't stopped hundreds of people trying desperately to emulate the faux-verite style, surely more on the grounds of cheapness than any sincere belief that it makes the films any more effective or interesting. It clearly isn't going to run out of steam any time soon, and I'm now starting to feel like those critics a generation ago constantly complaining about yet another cheap teen slasher movie every couple of weeks. More damaging than any of that is a sense of grotesque bad taste in using the bloody slaughter of the Somme, a battle in which a million men died violent and arguably pointless deaths, as a basis for a cheap zombie entertainment which doesn't even make any sense - the zombs are seen shambling around before our heroes dig up the occult amulet.

But what's particularly frustrating is that while World War Dead: Rise Of The Fallen mostly plays everything by the found footage rule book (incredibly annoying bickering, night vision, running in terror with the camera still on, yada yada yada), there are two scenes which do make you wish this was a proper film. One scene when the survivors hole up in a supply room, and a desperate (but inevitably badly framed) escape bid illuminated by a distress flare, these moments are strikingly lit and boast the kind of bright colour you don't expect in first-person videos. But two decent visual touches don't make up for the dullness; you've seen it all before and there's nothing new on offer.


Friday, 1 May 2015



Technically, given that all the characters are aware of the presence of the camera, this qualifies as yet another found-footage film, and I'm fed up with banging on about their inadequacies almost as much as I'm fed up with the films themselves. Happily, this is at least trying to add a few wrinkles and to do something slightly different with the well-worn idea, and that is to be applauded even if it doesn't entirely come off and it can't make the endless bickering of its cast of just six (one of whom is unseen except for video clips) even remotely sympathetic.

Unfriended takes place in one unbroken Skype conversation of around eighty minutes (all done in a single take through their webcams) as seen on the laptop of one of the five friends chatting online, on the anniversary of the suicide of one of their number, Laura (Heather Sossaman). But somehow there's someone else lurking uninvited in the cyberchat: initially they think it's either a computer glitch or a tasteless prank, but as it posts Facebook notifications and links to YouTube videos, something more sinister and supernatural is slowly revealed....

Rather than depicting the online space as a physical, theatrical space (as in Hideo Nakata's Chatroom, or even the Tron films), Unfriended focuses entirely on one computer screen throughout as Blaire (Shelley Hennig) tabs between Google, Skype, Spotify playlists and private messages. This isn't a new idea - you can go back to 2002's The Collingswood Story, which also took place entrely online - but it does bring to mind Nacho Vigalondo's wonderful Open Windows from last year, a film which felt like an extended Brian De Palma split-screen sequence. And frankly Unfriended just isn't in that league. More damagingly, it's hard to rack up any sympathy for these shallow, selfish individuals, even before their dark and vicious secrets are slowly uncovered: indeed, with the shocking revelations of their behaviour, and their involvement in the online bullying and humiliation of Laura that led to her death in the first place. there is the sense that these idiots are getting what's coming to them in the form of righteous justice.

Perhaps because of my low expectations given my dislike for the genre, I ended up almost pleasantly surprised by Unfriended. The narrative is well constructed with the twists and reveals dropped in at just the right moments and the film makes good use of recognisable online brands (Spotify and so on) rather than generic, similar-looking alternatives that don't actually infringe the copyright. Watchable enough, but I really wouldn't want to see this kind of film too often.




Confession: I'm not really a fan of Gareth Edwards' original Monsters from 2010. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but a film called Monsters really should have its monsters front and centre, and not bimbling about in the background of a noodly indie romantic road movie.

The monsters of Monsters: Dark Continent feature much more than they did first time out, but the gnomic, beard-stroking question of "who are the real monsters?" still stands. Are they the American military, seeking to rid the Earth (or at least the Middle East but not, despite the title, Africa) of the extraterrestrial creatures with massive air strikes? Are they the locals, perhaps understandably pushed to insurgency after having their schools and villages flattened in the attacks? Or are they the aliens themselves, who don't actually pose a conscious, deliberate threat to anyone - all the film's casualties are human on human?

If the first Monsters was a quirky odd couple romance with occasional glimpses of Lovecraftian beasts lumbering around in the distance, then this is a sweary modern war movie like Jarhead or Lone Survivor, with the actual monster material saved for the second half. Which is just as well, because the first hour of partying, shouting and gunfire is almost intolerable (and uncomfortably loud: I had to spend some of the action scenes with my fingers over my ears, and I wasn't in an IMAX or even a particularly large multiplex auditorium), and the extended action sequences are all shot in that fast shutter shakycam style that goes back to the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Things do, however, pick up after a rescue mission behind enemy lines has gone disastrously wrong, when the surviving troops are sheltered by nomads, and they see another part of the aliens' life cycle (in the same way that the first film saw them "mating").

Monsters: Dark Continent has received some pretty stinky reviews, but personally I liked it a bit more than that. At 123 minutes it takes far too long to get going, but those later sequences devoted to the aliens do have a visual beauty to them which is very much at odds with the gritty, grisly combat footage, and I could have quite happily had a reel more of the slightly hippy-trippy lightshow at the expense of the early character material, centred as it is around people I don't really care very much about. The creature effects are superbly well done, and you do get a decent look at them this time out, which is great because they're much more interesting than the petty squabbling humans. It's a bit of a hokey message, though - if we tried understanding our enemies rather than just killing them, whoever or whatever they might be, then maybe the world might be a better place - and the film takes too long on the killing front and not enough on the understanding. It's not terrible, but it's a slog to the good stuff.