Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Card Player (Il cartaio) 2004

What if no higher force such as God or Karma has its hand on the tiller of the ship of life, and our existence may be snuffed out by something as random as the turn of a card? The thought is not a comforting one, and it is this idea that is at the heart of Dario Argento's The Card Player. However, a messy and rather silly script coupled with too few of the director's trademark stylistic flourishes, leaves us with a failed attempt by the one-time master of the Giallo genre to reinvent himself for the cyber age.

Someone is kidnapping women in Rome and forcing the police to play internet poker for the lives of his victims, all the time showing their fate in gruesome close-up via a webcam. A detective, whose father was a gambling addict, teams up with a forensic scientist and a card shark to catch him. However, is the killer a lot closer to home than they realise?

Dario Argento is in one respect very much like Woody Allen, who having made his breakthrough in the 60s, and his bona fide classics in the 70s is subsequently seeing everything new he produces compared to this earlier body of work, understandably, perhaps, given the impact that work had.

The Card Player contains some familiar tropes from Argento's previous films, such as a black gloved killer, women in peril, cod Freudian pop psychology, some odd camera angles, plot twists that are slightly too convenient, and forcing people to voyeuristically watch murder, but it also represents an attempt to give the Giallo genre a 21st century spin. Consequently, rather than using the more familiar character of the amateur detective usually seen in Argento's murder mysteries, large sections of the film follow the "police procedural" style seen in TV shows such as the CSI franchise, with the focus on forensic examinations of the crime scene and the corpses.

In addition, the elaborate, highly stylised, murder scenes have been jettisoned in favour of webcam footage of the victims being tortured and killed, which feels more reminiscent of the "torture porn" genre. While there is certainly nothing wrong with trying something new with a genre, in this case, the end result is a little unsatisfactory. With his landmark early films, Argento took an existing genre, the murder mystery, and injected it with his own brand of twisted sex and violence, as well as a distinctive cinematic style, but here it feels like a clone of modern cop shows with a few diluted elements of his own style.

The sad decline in the filmmaking standards is paralleled in the musical score, with Argento stalwart Claudio Simonetti leaving behind bombastic or creepy Prog-Rock, and instead plumping for a pounding, nervy electronic score. Thematically the hi-tech approach ties in the subject matter, but apart from sounding a little tinny and weak at times, it is so generic it could have been written by anybody.

The actors do their best with the characters they are given, but neither John Brennan (played by Liam Cunningham) or Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) are in the slightest bit original (he is burnt out, she is a female detective in a macho world) or fleshed out. Meanwhile, their boss the Police Commissioner shouts a lot, initially refuses to negotiate with the killer, and is reluctant to bring in any outside help.

This timid, disappointing, and dull film makes you long for the Argento of old, who was not afraid to take chances, and whose outrageous, and, at times, out of control films, truly felt like the stuff of nightmares.

Juan of the Dead (2011)

The zombie film is a virus that has truly gone global, and joining recent efforts from the likes of Spain (REC) and Africa (The Dead) is Juan of the Dead, the first one ever to be made in Cuba. The basic plot may sound a little familiar, but with a combination of some creative and brilliantly executed set pieces, and a jet black sense of humour it is a fresh, funny and surprisingly poignant addition to the genre.

Juan is a 40-something layabout, whose days consist of petty crime, fishing, and swigging rum, aided and abetted by his best friend Lazaro. But when a mysterious virus sweeps across Cuba, turning the residents into flesh eating zombies, Juan must turn into a hero, and lead his friends and estranged daughter to safety - and make a few pesos at the same time.

The most obvious influence for this film is, not surprisingly given the name, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead.  Both films have as main characters a lazy but well meaning man and his slob friend; both have a plot that revolves around a zombie apocalypse in their home town; and both are blessed with a director who can deftly blend laughs, shocks and gore - but there the similarities end. Juan is much more of an anti-hero than Shaun, as illustrated by his response to the zombie outbreak: after a lifetime of hustling, his first thought is "How can I profit from this?". The answer - his own Ghostbusters style zombie-killing service, Juan of the Dead (with it's refreshingly direct motto: "We kill your beloved ones"), and he and his friends take to the streets of Havana, armed to the teeth with clubs, machetes and throwing stars.

Despite being extremely gory, "Juan of the Dead" is primarily a comedy, with the humour coming from a mix of sources. Firstly the crude, scatological banter between the characters, particularly between Juan and Lazaro. Secondly, the gore itself, which comes from Monty Python style sight gags, juxtaposing blood and guts with comic situations, and, in some cases, taking aspects of Zombie mythology, (for example, having to damage their brains in order to properly kill them) to their logical extreme, such as in an hilarious descent in a lift with the dismembered top half of an elderly neighbour.  Thirdly there are some pointed digs at the Cuban government, a regime not usually noted for taking constructive criticism from it's citizens. The powers-that-be are shown as being unable to deal with the zombie outbreak, and their only answer is to use the state-run TV news to blame the deaths on "American dissidents" and blithely proclaim that everything is okay. In addition, the film-makers do not paint a very flattering picture of Havana itself, with the air of inertia and decay shown in every aspect of both the city and people before the zombies make an appearance.

Interestingly, the script does not get bogged down in explaining a great deal of zombie mythology, which maybe a sign that the undead are a large enough presence in popular culture that sufficient numbers of people are familiar with the rules of the genre. In addition, just like George Romero's classic Zombie trilogy (and more recent efforts like "Shaun...") hardly any time is spent discussing what is causing the zombie outbreak, the focus being pretty much entirely on the characters and their fight for survival in the here and now. Everyone manages to get themselves into increasingly hair-raising and ingenious scrapes, and out of them in similarly ingenious manners, and even if some of them seem a little too convenient in retrospect, at the time it's such an exhilarating ride, you barely notice. Within that, there is still space for a certain amount of characterisation, as Juan tries to make amends for the way he abandoned his now grown up daughter, and is faced with a horrible choice regarding Lazaro. Touches like this mean that, while the people on screen are by no means fully rounded three dimensional characters, they are still people that you grow to like, and, despite their flaws, to care about, making the final scene more touching than might otherwise be expected. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Released in the same year that the Hydrogen Bomb was unveiled, the George Pal produced When Worlds Collide harks back to an age when science had finally found a potential way to realise the fiery apocalyptic visions that had long been a part of Christian mythology. Unfortunately, while the story may move at a breakneck pace, the script gets weighed down with turgid melodrama and flat characterisation, while the special effects look cheap and unconvincing.
A group of scientists find that Earth has just eight months until obliteration by a stray star called Bellus. There is no hope for the planet, but there may be a chance for humanity to survive, by building a rocket ship to fly to a planet orbiting the star. Dr Cole Hendron assembles a team that includes his daughter Joyce, her fiancĂ© Dr Tony Drake, and pilot David Randall.  However, with the clock ticking, the world's governments refusing to help, and the technology untested, will mankind's only hope make it to the new world?
Compared to other George Pal films such as Destination Moon, and War of the Worlds, the effects are disappointing, with some rather obvious miniatures and enough stock footage to make me think the budget was not exactly huge. The low point is the finale, where the survivors take their first steps onto their brave new world, a matte painting so cheap and badly drawn it looks like they are stepping out Song of the South style into a Disney cartoon.
The science of the film is way off (Earth would have been destroyed from the heat long before being hit by a star), but to linger on this is unfair, as it is, after all a film of Science FICTION. The science is just a McGuffin to establish the stakes of inevitable total annihilation, and set a timeframe to emphasise the urgency.
The real problem lies with the dull, two-dimensional characters, and their, at times, odd behaviour. The love triangle between Joyce, her dashing doctor fiancé and David Randall, never rises above mawkish soap opera, and sometimes feels as though it is as important to the characters as the impending destruction of the planet. There are also some questionable lapses in morality, in particular from Dr Hendron, who fixes the lottery for the 40 places on the ship so that not only his daughter and future son-in-law can get on board, but also a little orphan boy and a puppy dog. Weirder still, not one person raises any objections.
In fact, right up until the final moments, everyone is unbelievably civilised - and nobody ever stops to question the true horror of the complete destruction of billions of people and thousands of years of progress, culture and civilisation. Only once does a character allow their mask to slip, when we see David Randall in a nightclub looking at a dollar bill, and, realising that he cannot take it with him, decides to light a cigarette with it. It is a small subtle gesture, but one that shows he realises that every aspect of life that people know is about to be changed forever.
The only character to make any kind of impact is wheel-chair bound misanthropic millionaire Sydney Stanton who bankrolls the whole escape project. However, this is not done out of altruism - he is buying a seat on the only ride to survival. He is a selfish man with nothing but contempt for anyone but himself, and although the character rarely rises above pantomime villain, at least he provokes some sort of emotional reaction from the viewer, unlike the bland, emotionally repressed good guys.

Although made at the start of the Cold War, when Duck and Cover films and the Rise of the Eastern Bloc would have been on people’s minds, When Worlds Collide does not have the political symbolism of other 1950s Sci-Fi Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Red Planet Mars. The real underlying theme is the mix of science and religion but we get muddled messages about this. In case you have not picked up the parallels with the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, it is repeatedly pointed out to you in a rather heavy-handed fashion. There is a quote from The Book of Genesis in the opening scene, a craft is built from scratch to take the chosen few to safety, and the livestock the refugees take with them are led in to the ship two by two. Meanwhile, a stern voice-over tells us that people are flocking back to church as the end approaches. However, this groundswell of faith does not do any of them any good, and it is only science that provides any hope of escape and survival.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

From Deconstructing Cinema - A Clockwork Orange

With an unflinching mix of sex, brutal and stylised violence, themes of government mind control, and a charismatic anti-hero lead character, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has long been a magnet for commendation, criticism and controversy.

Read the full article HERE

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

From the Archives: Witchfinder General (1968)

When “British”, “Horror” and “1960's” pop into most people’s heads, the next word is usually “Hammer”, but there were a few others plying their trade at that time. Companies such as London-based Tigon Films churned out a wide range of cheap and cheerful material from horror to soft-core porn to art house drama. Although most of Tigon's output has now sunk into obscurity, they did come up with one bona-fide classic – Witchfinder General. Despite a modest budget of less than £100,000, and a 24-year-old director with only two previous films to his name, it is a well-made, well-acted, very British work of surprising depth and uncompromising brutality, but with some unexpected links to a very American genre of film.

Read the whole review at here

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Beast Must Die (1974)

For a while in the 60s and 70s, British film company Amicus tried to be a serious rival to Hammer. However, their films are mostly a mix of borrowed genres and ideas that never really grow into anything original, The Beast Must Die being a perfect example of this, mixing up werewolves, Agatha Christie mystery thrillers, William Castle gimmicks and Blaxploitation without really succeeding at any of them.

Eccentric millionaire and hunter Tom Newcliffe invites to his mansion a motley group of people, consisting of a disgraced ex-diplomat, a pianist and his pupil-turned-girlfriend, a medical student who has done jail time for cannibalism, and a leading authority on lycanthropy. There is a sinister reason for the gathering however, as Newcliffe suspects one of them is a werewolf, and must be killed.

This EC comic books-style premise is ridiculous but with the right script, it could have worked as a bit of campy, escapist fun. However, after the adrenaline-charged opening scenes of Newcliffe putting his brand new high-tech security systems through their paces, the tension rapidly dies down and never really comes back. This subplot is never properly incorporated into the main story, which itself is peppered with predictable plot twists that are telegraphed long before they occur and dialogue that veers between banality, and tedious exposition.

Despite being the main element driving the story, the werewolf itself is talked about a lot but rarely seen - and when it is, it turns out, rather than being a person in hairy make-up, to be played by a large angry dog. Amicus previously used this trick in Dr Terrors House of Horrors, for budgetary reasons, and, presumably, this is why it is employed here.

Cast wise, the standout is an understated turn from Peter Cushing as the werewolf expert who has to explain everything, a role which gives him the opportunity as an actor to do his usual trick of maintaining his dignity while spouting absolute rubbish. Also worth a mention is Charles Gray, perhaps better known for playing Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, and Mocata in The Devil Rides Out, as he manages to bring some gravitas to his role, even though he gets to do little other than look pissed off and play chess.

There are two components in the Beast Must Die, one added before shooting and one after, that seem underdeveloped, and jar noticeably with the tone of the rest of the film, and it is no surprise that they were forced in at the behest of the producers.

Firstly, there are the Blaxploitation trappings. Bahaman born Calvin Lockhart was apparently a last minute replacement for original choice Robert Quarry, as producer Milton Subotsky wanted to cash in on the contemporary craze for the likes of Shaft and Coffy. While he certainly has a physical presence (and looks very cool in his Black leather outfit), his performance is so hammy and over the top it becomes tiresome to watch. In addition, we get a full-on Isaac Hayes style Wah-Wah guitar and brass-heavy musical score. While this works for the action packed opening sequence, it does little to help the suspense or horror elements, and, lacking much dynamic range, soon becomes another wearisome element in the film.

Secondly, there is the "Werewolf Break", added against the director's wishes, where an over-the-top Commentary runs through the suspects and the action stops for 30 seconds, counted down by an on screen clock. The viewers are invited to guess which character is the lycanthrope. 

While it certainly is a memorable scene, and does provide a hook for the trailer and marketing campaign (“See it! Solve it! But don’t tell!” was the poster tagline), the whole, concept feels shoehorned in, as no attempt is made during the film to provide serious clues for the viewer to follow, and when the culprit is revealed, it feels both arbitrary and anticlimactic.

So what we are left with is a Werewolf film with very little Werewolf in it, a suspense film with no suspense, a whodunit that feels more like “who cares whodunit”, and a Blaxploitation film that does nothing to exploit any of the Black characters.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968)

If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death, is a competent, enjoyable, but highly derivative Spaghetti Western.

Gianni Garko plays the title character, pretty much a clone of Clint Eastwood's Man with no Name from his work with Sergio Leone, complete with a face full of stubble and a cool, indifferent attitude towards his adversaries.

The plot is also reminiscent of Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" with Sartana playing two rival gangs off against each other to get his hands on a box of stolen gold, and as well as borrowing for story ideas and characters, director Gianfranco Parolini also lifts many of Leone's visual ideas, in particular, juxtaposing extreme close-ups with lengthy long shots.

However, none of this ever tops it's source material, lacking Leone's knack for over-the-top grandeur and sadism, and it fails to create something new from the basic Spaghetti Western blueprint, such as the grimy weirdness of Sergio Corbucci's "Django".

Even Klaus Kinski, although charismatic as ever in his role as a hired killer, fails to completely light up the screen, coming across as a little restrained and not as much fun to watch as normal.