Friday, 17 March 2017

The Love Witch (2016)

The Love Witch is not just an intoxicating homage to both 1970s sexually charged exploitation films, and the dreamlike psychological thrillers of the Giallo genre, or Vertigo era Hitchcock. Beneath the lush colours, nudity and violence, writer / director Anna Biller has also crafted a thought provoking exploration of female identity.

Elaine (a breakthrough performance by Samantha Robinson) is a beautiful, self-absorbed witch who breezes into a Californian town to find a new husband to replace her previous murdered one. Her search leads to men falling at her feet - and then falling down dead. As Griff, the police officer investigating the deaths gets closer to the truth, will he be next to fall under her spell?

The heady intoxicating world in which all this takes place looks like a mix of classic Hollywood Technicolor and a perfect pastiche of the rich colours (and hairy characters) of sixties and seventies European exploitation cinema. This is all complemented by the sort of soundtrack of lush strings and female solo voice often found in those sorts of films.

Writer/director/editor/producer Anna Biller has Wes Anderson levels of detail in creating her completely self-contained cinematic universe, which, like Anderson's, feels both real and completely imagined. When late in the film, one character pulls out a mobile phone, the effect is jarring, making you wonder if the whole thing is set in contemporary times after all, albeit completely re-imagined in Elaine's mind. 

The story is pulpy, melodramatic and absurd but works better for taking place within this slightly artificial environment. The acting style ranges from (deliberately) am-dram to understated, all of which seems inexplicably chilling, as artificial and persuasive as a nightmare.

Beneath the masses of style is substance too, in the examination of some of the stereotypical roles men and ascribe to themselves and each other. Elaine in particular seems to have swallowed the idea of presenting herself as a sex object for men to take care of. This buys her some power over them, but when they crave an emotional connection, she seems to find the cognitive dissonance between fantasy and reality too much to take.

THE LOVE WITCH Trailer (Romantic Comedy, 2016) by hotmovietrailer

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982)

What it lacks in originality and coherence, 1990: The Bronx Warriors more than makes up for in energy, glorious cheese, and a pulsing soundtrack.

Like many of the film's contemporaries, there is much in common with other successful genre films, in this case Mad Max 2, The Warriors and especially Escape From New York.

The year is 1990 and the US government has given up trying to police the Bronx, instead sealing the area off and leaving it to the gangs and criminals still there. Meanwhile, Anne, the teenage heiress to a giant arms manufacturing corporation is having some moral questions about her upcoming inheritance, so she runs away to the Bronx to join a biker gang. But the Corporation isn't about to let her go that easily, so enter ruthless, psychopathic mercenary Hammer (played by Vic Morrow), who has orders to get her back by any means necessary.

Although the premise and characters may sound like a none too subtle imitation of Escape from New York, it is not quite as straightforward as that. Carpenter's film paints Snake Pliskin as an anti-authoritarian nihilist, while Hammer is simply a gun for hire, who, by the end, turns into a pantomime villain. Genre stalwarts Fred Williamson and Christopher Connelly (The Atlantis Interceptors) take on the Isaac Hayes and Ernest Borgnine roles as Ogre the gangster and Hot Dog the cabby, the former being more of a Robin Hood figure than an outright villain. Meanwhile the biker gangs are actually the easiest to cheer for, coming across as the little Davids taking on the Goliath that is the Corporation.

Some clever shooting and editing helps cover up the limited resources available to the filmmakers, and there are some nice goofy touches such as the supposedly menacing gang on roller skates (no match for guys on bikes) or the drum solo on the soundtrack that, as the camera pulls back reveals an actual drummer playing away in the middle of some wasteland for reasons best known to himself.

The script has a few head scratching moments but also an energy that stops it from ever getting dull. Essential trash viewing.

1990 The Bronx Warriors b-movie CHEESE 1984 VHS... by uros-mrkonjic

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Hand (1960)

The Hand has a grisly premise and a seedy atmosphere but the film loses its way with a talky confused script, uninteresting characters, and poor acting.

Starting in 1940s Burma, the story sees three captured British soldiers being interrogated by the Japanese. When two of them each have a hand chopped off, the third agrees to talk. Cut to 1960s London and a policeman makes a gruesome discovery - a tramp who is missing a hand - is there a link back to the events in the Far East?

The majority of the film is taken up with the police investigation involving Inspector Munyard and his sidekick Sergeant Foster, two solid, characterless, permanently smoking detectives. The investigation mostly consists of the two of them talking, going to places, talking some more, and then smoking, which does not make for gripping cinema. It is not helped by the poorly written script, which feels like a great central premise that nobody knew how to write a pay-off for. The fractured, hard to follow storyline feels like certain key expositional scenes were either not written, not filmed, or cut out.

Having said that there is, for the time it was released, occasional brutal (if off screen) violence, and some surprisingly coarse language. The Hand also has a rather pleasing ambience of Trad Jazz, fog and Brylcream, so if those things appeal, come for the story, stay for the atmosphere.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD (2014)

Long before dark and moody superheroes were all the rage, 2000AD was presenting a bleak, funny and subversive take on the comic genre. Future Shock does an excellent job of gathering together many of the names who created and nurtured the magazine, and presenting their funny, astounding and, at times, contradictory stories of how it all happened.

We see the rise both artistically and commercially, as it strikes a chord with 70s readers through strips such as Strontium Dog, Halo Jones, and the legendary Judge Dredd. We also get the lows in the 90s when a dip in the quality of the writing, coupled with poor management and jaw-droppingly stupid marketing ("Women just don't get 2000AD") nearly saw the comic fold.

Watching the parade of faces, it's astonishing to think what a school of talent 2000AD has been, from the early days of Alan Grant, Alan Moore (absent in person, but instantly recognisable in photographs) and mainstay Pat Mills, through to the 80s and 90s eras of the likes of Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.

The main thing the documentary achieves is placing 2000AD into a historical and cultural context. The original group of writers and artists all say how the grim world of 1970s England, with strikes, food shortages and riots, along with the angry energy of punk, all fed into their stark vision of the future. In turn a generation of writers, film-makers and musicians have all had their lives and imaginations shaped by the comic. This ranges from modern writers such as Lauren Beukes, to musicians like Scott Ian from Anthrax (who wrote I am the Law about Judge Dredd) to filmmakers like Alex Garland (who wrote and produced the second and far superior Judge Dredd film) and Richard Stanley, whose 1990 film Hardware borrowed so liberally from a 2000AD strip called SHOK! that the lawyers had to get involved.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Prevenge (2017)

Shot in 11 days while writer / director Alice Lowe was herself heavily pregnant, Prevenge is a bold and taboo busting piece of work that subverts many of the patronising stereotypes society still has around pregnancy, while still being a dark and funny thriller.

Lowe plays Ruth, a woman heavily pregnant and hell bent on revenge on the people who she blames for the loss of the father of her child. Both her script and performance manage the tricky balancing act of making Ruth sympathetic enough to be interesting, without ever condoning her actions, although the focus is never on whether or not she is going to be brought to justice.

The episodic structure and fast pace of the story means we are introduced to her victims just minutes before they are dispatched. It is a credit to the likes of Kate Dickie as a heartless job interviewer and Tom Davis as a hilariously sleazy DJ that they make a real impression and flesh out what could have been in other hands, rather two dimensional roles.

Prevenge is also very funny, although in a jet black way and many of the laughs comes from the voice in Ruth's head that commands her to kill, a voice she attributes to her unborn child.

As a writer, Lowe has a great ear for dialogue, capturing the sometimes banal feel of modern life and the condescending advice dished out by experts, both qualified and self-appointed. As a director, I'm looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Vinyan (2008)

Vinyan is frustrating, with a harrowing and believable performance by Emmanuelle Beart wasted in a film where writer and director Fabrice du Welz hints at things but seems unable or unwilling to commit to them

The story centres around Paul (Rufus Sewell) and Janet Belhmer (Beart), a European couple living and working in Thailand, trying to get over the loss of their young son Joshua in a tsunami. After Janet becomes convinced Joshua is in a video of orphans in Burma, the pair head out there to investigate, along the way getting mixed up with con men, Triads, and other assorted local characters, all the time slipping further and further into madness.

Beart gives an intense performance, very convincing as a woman suffering every parent’s worst nightmare and being unable to cope with the loss. The only real problem with this is that she starts as already disturbed and has nowhere to go with the character. Sewell just does his best to keep up, playing as a man watching his dream life turning into a nightmare.

As with his previous film, Calvaire, Fabrice du Welz is long on stylish visuals and short on strong gripping narrative that makes a lot of sense. From the opening sequence set underwater, with just a few bubbles going past the camera (foreshadowing the tragedy that strikes of Joshua), to the dingy neon lit underworld of Thai bars and clubs, to the menacing Burmese jungles, the film always looks great.

The problem lies with the script, which is all over the place. It hints at many things, but never properly develops any of them, and the lack of character development makes the denouement somewhat puzzling. The film's title refers to the belief that when someone's death is particularly horrible their spirit becomes lost and confused, and they become Vinyan. Obviously, we are meant to link this to the death of Joshua, but then nothing further happens with this idea.

The trailer for Vinyan may have led you to think that this is a straight horror film, and the subject matter and spooky atmosphere suggests Don't Look Now, although it has none of that film's emotional impact.

The jungle setting and gory scenes also hint at another horror connection, that of the gut munching likes of Cannibal Holocaust or more recent efforts like The Green Inferno. Like many of those, in Vinyan, there is very much an "us and them" feel, the civilised white people versus the savages, with the latter never being humanised, and nearly always being shown as a dangerous swarm of insects.

Ultimately Vinyan feels like a film that could have been either a haunting meditation on loss, a disturbing horror film or even just a simple gore fest, but the lack of focus means it is none of these.

Vinyan - Bande-annonce (VOST) by Ecranlarge

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt is well known for the astonishing car chase, rightly hailed as one of the best in cinema history, but there is more to this film than just one sequence. As well an action film and detective story, Bullitt is a character study of one man and how his survival tactics for dealing with the harsh realities of his job may have cost him his humanity.

Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a San Francisco cop who gets the job of being bodyguard to Johnny Ross, a mafia witness, due to testify at a high-profile hearing organised by publicity-hungry politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Unfortunately for him, said witness gets gunned down and later dies in hospital. While Chalmers is determined to make Bullitt pay, the detective starts to see that there is much more to this case than meets the eye.

Steve McQueen was one of those actors who were best playing a variation on their public persona, and Bullitt is no exception. Here he is cool, unflappable, and utterly unintimidated by anyone, from Senator to crook. But he is also something of an anomaly, also unable to fit in with anybody else's world, whether it's the power obsessed world of Chalmers, the buttoned-down world of his colleagues and superiors, or the sensitive arty world of his artist girlfriend. Instead, he has become emotionally disconnected, hardened and oblivious to the violent messy reality of his daily life. This is a survival tool, but one that may have cost him his soul. McQueen is in the vast majority of scenes, but his charisma is such that he never becomes boring to watch, and the focus on his character makes Bullitt more than just the standard clich├ęd maverick cop.

Obviously, that makes it difficult for the cast to make an impression, but Robert Vaughn acquits himself admirably as the oily, seemingly unstoppable Chalmers, switching from friendly to menacing in the blink of an eye, and the opposite of Bullitt in every respect, as perfectly summed up in Bullitt's famous retort, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine".

The chase itself is of course the highlight of the action, breathtakingly filmed with plenty of shots inside the cars, which help put the viewer right into the heart of the action. But it is the editing, which won Frank P Keller an Oscar, that makes it a classic. The actual filming took place over a five-week period, which Keller flawlessly distils to an adrenalin filled ten minutes.

Bullitt was the first American film for English director Peter Yates, and here he deftly blends detached stylish cool with fast paced editing, and gritty (and at times gory) documentary style realism. When combined with the quality script and riveting performances from the leads, the result is an exciting and unforgettable classic that rewards repeated viewings.