Thursday, 17 August 2017

K-Shop (2016)

A modern take on the Sweeney Todd story, K-Shop has some good ideas but these get buried in a script that fails to make the main character convincing.

Salah (Ziad Abaza) is a Turkish-British student, about to graduate with a politics degree. With nothing left to do but fine tune his dissertation, he comes to help his ailing father Zaki (Nayef Rashed) who runs a late-night kebab place in an English seaside town. He is horrified at the way the drunks abuse Zaki, abuse that turns tragic when Zaki dies at the hands of one of them, leaving Salah in charge of the shop. From there, he launches a one-man vigilante operation against his customers, and, being a businessman, finds a way to dispose of the evidence and cut down on his overheads.

The film certainly paints a bleak view of England, a land of binge drinking, vomiting, fancy dress stag nights, and sinister nightclub owning reality TV stars. The biggest influence, consciously or not, seems to be the Death Wish series and their subsequent rip-offs, where the filmmakers are not subtle about telling us about whom we should be cheering for and who we should be booing. The characterisation for the latter doesn't really go beyond being us being shown somebody saying something awful, such as call centre workers boasting about ripping off elderly vulnerable customers, or a drunk man helping himself to food and referring to Zaki as Saddam, and the character arc of Salah going from bookish student to cold blooded killer is not believable in the slightest.

Nevertheless the anger of Salah, coupled with a dark sense of humour and some outré gore compensate enough to make the film worth a watch for the misanthropic.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Godzilla is arguably Japan's most internationally well-known cinematic icon, and Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) is an attempt to bring him into a 21st century world of mobile phones and CGI. The film is certainly entertaining, but suffers from odd pacing and a lack of the title character for long stretches.

The plot largely follows the standard template for a Godzilla film, particularly the 1954 original, starting with mysterious scenes of death and destruction, which are eventually linked to the title character, followed by his increasingly devastating rampages and futile attempts by the military to stop him. There are some modern updates as this time, rather than American nuclear testing it is dumped nuclear waste that brings the beast to life, and, of course, when the public see Godzilla for the first time, they all reach for their phones to start filming him.

The original is a fascinating study of national identity in post-World War Two Japan. Shin Godzilla retains this more serious tone, but brings it up to date with the scenes of destruction and the bureaucratic impotence of the national government recalling the recent real-life horrors of Fukushima, although, endless scenes of inter-governmental bickering do not always make for scintillating viewing. The pacing feels inconsistent with a gripping and thrill packed opening 30 minutes followed by a stodgy, talky and hour or so, which is also largely monster free, while Godzilla recharges his nuclear batteries.

Purists may also balk at the amount of CGI used, with the traditional man in a rubber suit replaced by a man in a motion-capture suit, and some of the scenes of destruction look a little more slick and digital than the traditional miniature model sets.

Nevertheless, it's always good to see Godzilla back on the big screen, and when the mayhem and destruction happens it's easy to forget the flaws and focus on what is so good about these sorts of films.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

International Guerillas (1990)

The central premise of International Guerrillas is astonishing but the end result is insane and so hilariously botched that it is impossible to be offended. Just as importantly, even with a running time not far off three hours, there is rarely a dull moment.

Mustafa, a disillusioned Pakistani police officer and his two small-time crook brothers, put aside their differences in the face of an even greater menace than crime, namely Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. When their younger sister is killed by the police at an anti-Rushdie demonstration, the trio decide to avenge her and Islam's honour by hunting down and killing Rushdie, helped by a female police officer.

Rushdie, however, is not just a novelist, but also the head of a vast criminal empire, dedicated to two things; firstly building a global chain of casinos, nightclubs and brothels, and secondly wiping out Islam.

Perhaps the overriding lesson of this film is that terrorism is best left to competent professionals rather than enthusiastic amateurs, as it soon becomes apparent that the International Guerrillas are useless. Time after time they botch the job, and constantly have to be bailed out, either by the female police officer, or, at the climax, flying copies of the Koran. And hats off to whoever had the bright idea of them all busting into one of Rushdie's sin palaces dressed in Batman costumes, which, granted, is a step up from their usual disguise of embarrassingly obviously fake beards.

 Rushdie is portrayed as a James Bond style supervillain, with a mega fortress / disco in the Philippines, a Jewish head of security, and an assistant who can tell if people are Muslim just by looking at them. This is a man who is as vicious as he is decadent, as at one point, he threatens to torture to the heroes' mother by forcing her to listen to a talking book of The Satanic Verses.

Throw in rubbish car chases, endless gun battles, repeated crash-zooms, some excruciatingly unfunny comedy and the inevitable song and dance numbers and the whole daft thing rattles along at a good energetic pace, even with a running time of over 160 minutes.

The only place the fun stops and the film becomes genuinely unnerving is when the guerrillas mouth another piece of spittle flecked rhetoric, similar to the sort of hateful bile spouted by Islamist extremists nowadays. Talk of mutilating Rushdie's face until even Satan won't recognise him jars with the goofy tone elsewhere.

Ironically, the real life Rushdie proved to be much more tolerant of the film, as well as living up to his free speech, anti-censorship credentials.  After the BBFC threatened to block the UK release of the film, on the grounds that the film libelled the author, Rushdie personally intervened to persuade them otherwise.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Ghoul (2016)

Far from the lurid horror the name might suggest, The Ghoul is a complex, quirky, and paranoid, low budget British thriller with horror overtones, in the vein of co-star Alice Lowe's Prevenge and executive producer Ben Wheatley's Kill List.

I'm reluctant to say too much about the plot as part of the joy of the film is the unpredictable twists and turns it takes. It starts with homicide detective Chris (Tom Meeten) being brought in to investigate a bizarre murder in London where the victims have appeared to keep walking even when shot full of bullets. If that sounds in any way conventional or predictable, then rest assured, the story soon takes a leftfield swerve, and goes on to continually pull the rug from under the viewer, while all the time maintaining a paranoid internal logic that stops the film descending into irritating incoherent chaos.

The excellent cast is a massive asset. Tom Meeten is best known as comedy actor, having previously collaborated with Lowe, as well as appearing in TV shows such as Peep Show and Saxondale. Here, however he plays it totally straight and convincing, even when the audience starts to doubt what they are seeing. Geoffrey McGovern also deserves a mention as Chris's eccentric and sinister therapist, giving him a brilliant and necessary mix of charisma and menace.

Making his feature debut, writer and director Gareth Tunley does an excellent job of getting maximum results from minimum resources and making the surreal elements blend well with the urban grittiness, and druggy bedsit lifestyle of Chris's undercover alter ego. This thought provoking film stays in your mind long after the end credits, and is one that I suspect would reward repeat viewings.

Friday, 21 July 2017

It Comes At Night (2017)

Maybe there is something in the air, but there seems to be no shortage apocalyptic films and TV shows. The trailer for It Comes At Night seems to be selling it as a cross between The Shining and 28 Days Later, but in reality, it is a low key, claustrophobic and highly disturbing look at ordinary people crumbling under extraordinary circumstances.

As a deadly and highly contagious disease has lays waste to the outside world, Paul, his wife Sarah, and their teenage son Travis lock themselves away in their country home. When a stranger breaks into the house, they grudgingly let him and his wife and new born baby stay with them. But have they let also in something more than just the people?

The three leads are thoroughly convincing, both individually and as a family, with Joel Edgerton giving Paul a grim, ruthlessly practical intensity. Kelvin Harrison Jr. excels as Travis, a teenager having to grow up fast and having to see things nobody should have to see.

Director Trey Edward Shults builds an oppressive world, and slowly ramps up the paranoia and tension. Much of the action takes place in the family home, but even when they venture further afield the forest they live in becomes an overbearing oppressive place, where we rarely see the sky or much of the world beyond the woods. In fact, few clues are given to the cause or nature of the outbreak, and the only backstory we get about Paul and his family comes from brief shots of family photos on the walls of their home, a throwback to happier days. That so much is left unexplained does not hinder the film as the focus is on the here and now, rather than how they or the wider world got to where they are.

Brian McOmber's soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment, an unsettling mix of synths, strings, and relentless percussion, which blends well with the heightened sound design.

If anything, It Comes At Night might be a victim of its own success, at least when it comes to recommending it. There is no let up from the grim fight for survival, and even as the characters trying to keep and air of normality and civilisation, there is a feeling that this is only staving off the inevitable, and the thought of the teenager and the baby having to grow up in this world is tragic. This is an intense and brilliantly executed piece of work, but don't expect to come through it feeling good about the world.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Now Voyager (1942)

Now Voyager appeared as part of the first wave of Hollywood's brief love affair with psychoanalysis, along with the likes of Hitchcock's Spellbound. This Freudian undertone sets it apart from standard Hollywood romantic melodramas, and the plot of a person forced to repress their true personality by an overbearing family figure seems to have struck a chord with gay film fans, amongst whom it has a fanbase to this day.

Bette Davis plays Boston heiress Charlotte Vale, a neurotic mess, largely due to her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). After coming under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jasquith (Claude Rains), Charlotte reinvents herself, going from frumpy introvert to glamorous woman about town. While on a cruise she meets and fall in love with a married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid). How will her mother react to the newly independent Charlotte? And can she ever find happiness with Jerry?

Drama is based around conflict and there is no shortage of that in this film, with Charlotte clashing with her mother, Charlotte's sister clashing with her mother, her mother clashing with Dr Jasquith, and Charlotte clashing with her feelings for Jerry. What makes the drama seem so fresh is the liberal attitude of Jasquith. He is more interested in Charlotte being happy, rather than have her conform to the stuffy morality of her background, or, indeed, of the wider society of the day, something that makes the appeal to the film's gay fanbase obvious. In addition, the script goes against the grain of contemporary romantic films by not going for an obvious path to true love, and seeming to accept that relationships are often complicated and happiness not always conventional.

There is plenty of fun to be had watching Bette Davis playing against type as the monobrowed dowdy Charlotte we see at the beginning of the film, emerging from her chrysalis into the polar opposite, glamorous, adventurous, and fun loving, not giving a damn for the stifling world of upper middle class Boston and the sense of duty and obligation that comes with it.

Film and psychoanalysis are the around the same age, as the Lumiere brothers started screenings of moving pictures in 1895, the same year that Freud published Studies in Hysteria, his first foray into what would become psychoanalysis. If anything it is the depiction of psychoanalysis itself, or at least the Hollywood version of Freud's work that dates Now Voyager. It portrays the mystery of the human psyche as being like a whodunnit, one that can be unravelled with the aid of the right clues, an approach that now seems a little unsophisticated.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Gonks Go Beat (1965)

Knocked out cheaply and quickly to cash in the youth culture and music of the day, Gonks Go Beat is by turn astonishing, excruciating and deathly dull.

In the not too distant future, Earth is split into two opposing factions, Hip, hairy, and cool Beat Land versus neat, tidy, crooner loving Ballad Isle. Every year they have a musical competition to decide who is best, with the judge being the subtly named Mr. A&R (Frank Thornton). Meanwhile the galactic overlords who rule over everything have for some reason decided to put an end to the squabbling, so send their worst agent, the ever bungling Wilco Roger (Kenneth Connor) to sort the situation out and bring the two sides together.

Having first about this many years ago, I was hoping for an unhinged lost classic, with a rip roaring sixties soundtrack, shoddy sets, a baffling plot, and genuine talents such as Connor, Thornton and Terry Scott degrading themselves, but the reality is a curate's egg. The songs play like promo videos, and music wise, Beat Land wins hands down, with the likes of Lulu, the Graham Bond Organisation (with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), leaving Ballad Isle with some insipid, coma inducing tripe.

The story is baffling, the characters unengaging, and the comedy is painful to watch, and having seen some of the things Connor and Scott appeared in, I know they can make the corniest of gags work, but this is beyond even their talents.

I was hoping for a British version of Plan 9 From Outer Space, at least in terms of jaw dropping weirdness, but it lacks the truly deranged vision and energy of Ed Wood's work, and what should be a brain rotting piece of fun soon becomes a slog. If you're a fan of 60s Beat / Blues music, it is worth a watch, but it has little to recommend for anyone else.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Rear Window (1954)

One of Hitchcock greatest films, Rear Window is an ode to voyeurism that effortlessly combines mystery, wit, and romance, and has some interesting things to say about both the movies and moviegoers. Hitchcock is at the height of his powers, and his complete control of the film means there is not a wasted scene or line.

James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, a globe-trotting, thrill-seeking news photographer whose last assignment left him with a broken leg. Apart from visits from his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), he is forced to spend the summer cooped up in his apartment, passing the time by taking an interest in the lives of his neighbours in the courtyard opposite. There is the beautiful ballet dancer, the newly married couple, Miss Lonely Hearts, a composer struggling with writer's block - and a salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his bedridden wife. When the wife mysteriously disappears, Jeffries begins to think there is something sinister going on.

The whole story takes place in one room, something Hitchcock had attempted before with the flawed but interesting Rope, but here there are two important differences. Firstly, while Rope was set in real time, Rear Window takes place over a week or so, giving more time to introduce the characters and build up the storyline. Secondly, in Rear Window, the location is used to provide a portal into a much larger world.

The window itself becomes a metaphor for the screen that we watch the film on. What he is seeing is just like a movie. The characters and story form, he gets gripped by this, but at tense heart stopping moments, he is almost always as powerless to intervene as we are, and like us, is reduced to the role of passive voyeur.

The theme even extends beyond the on screen characters, to take in our viewing of the relationship between the two leads. There is great chemistry between the leads, and several times Hitchcock shoots passionate scenes between Stewart and Kelly in such an extreme close manner that we begin to feel like voyeurs.

However, in a further twist, Jeffries goes beyond the role of passive voyeur, when he tries to intervene in the plot of the unfolding story. After antagonising his chief suspect, said suspect performs the equivalent of the movie monster coming out of the cinema screen and into his real life, threatening him physically.

Hitchcock's genius is to set all this within a tense, witty suspense thriller with two gorgeous likeable and charismatic stars, and a great supporting cast, particularly the sinister Burr, and Thelma Ritter as Jeffries' droll nurse Stella, whose disapproving attitude towards the sleuthing soon morphs into morbid fascination.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Night Caller (1965)

After a meteorite crashes into the English countryside, scientist Jack Costain (John Saxon) and his team set out to investigate. They discover it is actually an alien device from one of Jupiter's moons used to transfer matter to Earth. But what is the connection between the visitor from outer space, a mystery man placing ads in the back pages of bikini magazines and the disappearance of anyone who answers them.

At times this feels like two different films thrown together lurching between Quatermass style extra terrestrial mystery and sleazy Soho-based whodunnit. What should have been either a creepy atmospheric chiller or a campy piece of fun is sunk by the script, which is both confusing and relentlessly talky, and the finished product is teeth-grindingly dull.

John Saxon does his best, heroically managing to sustain an English accent for the duration, and there is some fun to be had watching for cameos from Warren Mitchell as a father of a missing girl, Aubrey Morris as a squalid bookstore owner, and Ballard Berkeley, best known as the Major in Fawlty Towers.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941)

Tarzan's Secret Treasure is the fifth in the MGM series of films starring the Olympic Gold medal winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the definitive depiction of the vine swinger. It has all the expected elements to be expected, both positive and negative, as well as some surprisingly physical love scenes, and an approach to racial themes that is not as straightforward as it may first appear.

Tarzan is enjoying a life of splendid isolation in the African jungle, with wife Jane, adopted son Boy, a pet chimp called Cheetah, and a menagerie of all creatures great and small. An expedition team arrives on the hunt for a lost tribe, but when Boy inadvertently reveals the presence of gold, two of the party get greedy and kidnap Boy and Jane.

The film moves at an unhurried pace to begin with and we get plenty of scenes showing the home life of the Tarzans, as well as some comedy relief bickering among the non-human inhabitants that would not pass animal welfare regulations today.

After about twenty minutes the actual plot kicks in when the expedition team appear, rescuing Boy from a crowd of angry natives. Head villain Medford is played in suitably oily fashion by Tom Conway, (the brother of George Sanders, from whom he took over the role of debonair detective The Falcon), while Barry Fitzgerald as his dogsbody O'Doul is such as broad Irish stereotype that his main purpose seems to be to distract from the stereotyping of the Africans. Also, look fast for a cameo from Johnny Eck of Freaks fame, here in full costume, playing a bizarre looking jungle bird.

The pace picks up once Tarzan leaps to the rescue, and from then on, the action doesn't let up, thanks largely to the astonishing physical presence of Weissmuller, particularly when he is in or under the water.

The first and most striking thing that occurred to me while watching this film was how, on one level, the Tarzan clan is very much you average nuclear family, with Dad going out to work (gather food) while Mom stays at home to cook, clean, and raise the child.

But the Tarzan family is also a little more unconventional than that. The love scene between Tarzan and Jane is surprisingly sensual and physical for the time, with little separating the husband and wife (who presumably did not marry in a Christian church) other than a skimpy dress and a loincloth. The depiction of the Africans as backwards, superstitious, and communicating in a gibberish language is unflattering, if standard for the time, but I think sufficient time has gone past that we can recognise it as no more realistic than the depiction of Indians in Western films. Moreover, the focus is on Tarzan, a man who has turned his back on his own society and culture, and refuses to integrate with those of the country he now calls home, putting him more in line with the ideals of the pioneer spirit. Lastly, don't forget, this is an idyllic situation that he has made, learning to live alongside the natives, and things only go wrong in this world when white people turn up.

Tarzan's Secret Treasure Trailer by trailerapi

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Over a decade after his nightmarish original director Tobe Hooper returned to make a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This time however, instead of a minuscule budget and a skeleton cast and crew, Hooper had the big bucks of Cannon films behind him, something that proved to be a mixed blessing.

When radio DJ Vanita 'Stretch' Brock accidentally captures on tape the Chainsaw murder of two obnoxious callers, she seeks out the help of former Texas Marshall 'Lefty' Enright (a post rehab Dennis Hopper). Enright is on a vigilante quest to track down the cannibal family from the first film, who he blames for the murder of his nephew.

This film is definitely a curate's egg. On one hand, the script has some interesting ideas about family and social status, and there is a great darkly comic turn from Jim Siedow as Drayton the cook (reprising his role from the first film), whose award-winning chilli has some rather unsavoury ingredients.

On the other hand, much of the film feels like an empty, noisy, overblown derivative 80s slasher, the comedy is strained and the horror isn't that scary. The first film was as ground-breaking stylistically as it was with subject matter, but here Hooper follows where he used to lead, although I suppose this may have been down to demands from the money men at Cannon films. It feels like there is a good movie buried in there somewhere and from what I've read Cannon cut out a lot of the class war satire.

My recent viewing was my first watch in about 20 years and back then it was still banned in the UK. So, the thrill of watching something legendary (with Dennis Hopper in) on a third generation dub of a Japanese laser-disc perhaps made me gloss over the flaws. Watching a digitally remastered copy on TV, the context is more mundane, and the flaws more obvious.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - Trailer by bulldog_mini

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm is a delirious mix of gore and laughs shot through with the claustrophobic lack of logic of a child's dream. Topped with a Goblin-esque synth based soundtrack, the end result is pitched somewhere between American suburban horror and baffling Euro weirdness, and is a unique and original effort in both subject matter and execution.

Still reeling from the death of his parents, Jody is a troubled teen who is being raised by his older brother in a small Oregon town. While spying on the local funeral home he begins to get suspicious of what is going on there, particularly the hooded dwarves who keep attacking him, and the mysterious Tall Man (played by the brilliantly chilling Angus Scrimm), who can lift a full coffin as though it were a surf board. Who is he and what are his plans for the funeral home residents? And will Jody end up joining them?

Phantasm is chaotic and not always entirely coherent, with some scenes seemingly cutting short or baring no relation to what has gone on before or since. Some of this may be down to time and money, as writer/director Don Coscarelli shot the film at weekends for a few hundred thousand dollars. But this lack of logic often works well, giving the feel of a child trapped in a nightmare, which contributes to the tension. With all the normal rules suspended, anything could happen, and you genuinely don't know what will crop up next.

This sense of being in a child's dream is heightened by the fact that Jody doesn't seem to go to school and during the course of the film gets to do the sorts of things that an adolescent boy would fantasise about, such as shoot guns, drive fast cars, and drink beer. The dream feeling is further enhanced by frequent scenes of characters being chased, something that Jungian therapists consider both common to the human experience and symbolic of someone avoiding confronting some painful emotion or feeling.

Phantasm has more than enough blood for the average gore hound, especially in scenes involving the iconic flying sphere. However, much of the horror comes from the discomfort and unpleasantness of the thought of the remains of the dead, especially those of loved ones being violated and exploited.

Monday, 17 April 2017

An Eastern Westerner (1920)

An Eastern Westerner is a breezy, no nonsense Harold Lloyd comedy, that makes up for a lack of big belly laughs with the charm, upbeat persona, and energy of its star

Lloyd plays a spoiled young New Yorker, living the high life at his increasingly frustrated parent's expense. After one party too many, they decide to send the boy to a relative’s ranch out west in the town of Piute Pass ("It's considered bad form to shoot the same man twice on the same day."), where he falls foul of every cowboy cliché and trope you can think of.

The plot is flimsy, and the gags take precedence, as often the case with short silent films of this era. Although he did not have the vaudeville background of Keaton or Chaplin, Lloyd was still incredibly agile and athletic, as showcased here with some hair-raising stunts and great chase sequences (even if one does involve a disconcertingly Klan-like hooded gang).

Obviously, it looks a little crude and underdeveloped compared to his later, more assured works such as Safety Last, An Eastern Westerner is still well worth a look, both for the laughs and to compare it to the later films and see how people like Lloyd helped shape the medium.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Get Out (2017)

Horror and satire seem to make for a potent mix and Get Out is the latest entry in this sub-genre, joining the likes of The Stepford Wives and They Live. With genuine scares and a relevant social message, the film is a pitch perfect mix of excruciating satire and nerve shredding horror

Chris Washington (a star-making turn from British actor Daniel Kaluuya) is a young black man getting ready to visit the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage at the upmarket country estate where they live. But no matter how friendly and welcoming everyone is, there is no denying something weird is going on. Why do the family's black housekeeper and grounds keeper, Walter and Georgina, seem so passive and mindless? What is going on with Mrs Armitage's hypnosis techniques? And why is one of the Armitage's guests warning Chris to "Get Out"?

This is a remarkably assured début from writer director Jordan Peele, who manages to get the balance between shocks and satire right, so that one does not overwhelm the other, and makes the shocks and satire genuinely shocking and funny respectively. The script is a master-class in discipline and structure, with hardly a wasted scene or line, clever set-ups that all pay off, and some great lines ("I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could"). Peele also throws in plenty of horror tropes that genre fans will instantly recognise, but does not rely on them to plug gaps in the story.

The cast is also uniformly excellent, led by Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, trying to retain his cool and dignity in the face of increasingly weird and uncomfortable events. As the Armitage parents, Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford combine a welcoming charm with an unnerving forcefulness and underlying menace, and Caleb Landry Jones is memorably obnoxious as Rose's brother Jeremy.

Race is always in the news, but recent events have made this film feel even more relevant. However, what makes Get Out so different and successful is the unexpected way the topic is tackled. There are some scenes of Chris falling foul of authority figures, but the main focus of this theme is elsewhere. Equally hurtful is the patronising privileged condescension from the white liberals at the Armitage house. Despite their friendly attempts to ingratiate themselves, for them, black people are judged purely in terms of how useful they are.

Get Out Trailer 02.24.2017 by CineManiaTV

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 clichéd 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.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Django (1966)

Despite being fifty years old, Django remains a brutal and disconcerting entry in the spaghetti western sub-genre.

Across a bleak muddy landscape, a lone figure in a Union Army uniform drags a coffin behind him. The man is Django, a former soldier with a secret from his past and a secret in his coffin. These secrets will soon drag him into the paths of a prostitute named Maria, a racist confederate ex-soldier and his hood wearing henchmen, and an excitable gang of Mexican revolutionaries.

All Westerns are slightly surreal and somewhat stylised, especially with the excess or lack of blood, given the amount of bullets fired, but Spaghetti Westerns, the uniquely European appropriation of a uniquely American genre are even more so. Whereas the US versions may celebrate or explore both the light and dark sides of the modern history of the country, the continental equivalents are shorn of that cultural context, and seem to take place in a strange alien world, but the world of Django goes a step further.

The bleak, isolated muddy town looks like a post-apocalyptic war zone, a place where human life has lost all value, where unlucky men are used as sporting prey, the unlucky women used for pleasure, and the "lucky" women get to feel like "real" women and be loved by a man.

The script is offbeat, unpredictable, and shocking. Plot wise, barely more than half an hour and the big twist about the contents of the coffin is revealed, turning the focus of the story elsewhere, with the links between Django and the other characters becoming apparent.

Clearly modelled on the two criminal sides of A Fistful of Dollars, the two gangs in Django are both equally despicable, but director Sergio Corbucci takes things a disturbing step further. The confederate gang dress in in red Ku Klux Klan style hoods, and treat their Mexican prisoners like animals, to be hunted for sport.

Django himself is no angel, repaying the hospitality of Nathaniel the saloon owner by shooting up the bar to demonstrate a weapon to the Mexicans, then later cajoling Nathaniel into driving him to a massacre. It's a testament to Franco Nero that he can make a character like that likeable enough to keep us rooting for him.

What makes Django so compelling is the extremity of so many of the elements, even by the standards of the Spaghetti Western. The dialogue veers between the cringingly cheesy (“I felt like I was a real woman. Someone to protect, and to be loved), and the portentous (“His time hasn't come yet”). The violence is still shocking today, the tone being set in the opening scene of Maria being mercilessly whipped by the Mexicans, after which we get everything from an ear that gets cut off and fed to its owner, to the comical, almost sexual pleasure General Rodríguez takes from watching Django having his hands crushed. Not surprisingly the film suffered with the censors, especially in the UK, with the BBFC refusing a certificate for the film until 1993.

There are also two things in Django that are surprising for this sort of film. Firstly is a modicum of character development. As the end theme music swells, Django walks off into the distance, but in the foreground we see that he has left his gun behind, which throughout the film has been the main way for Django to define himself as a man. Secondly, as he walks off, he has Maria with him, signifying another change in how he defines himself, this time with the love of a good woman. Both of these thing point to a changed man, and a happy ending of sorts, for an audacious and forgettable classic.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

To Rome With Love (2012)

As enjoyable as it is inconsequential, To Rome With Love could perhaps have done with a second draft of the script, but Woody Allen turns out a pleasant and enjoyable piece of fluff.

The script cuts between four unconnected stories; an office worker who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no discernible reason; an architecture student who finds himself attracted to his girlfriend's actress friend; a young couple whose honeymoon turns into a farce involving a burglar and a prostitute; and an American Opera director who thinks he may have found his next big star - although there is one small but potentially serious catch.

The script has some of the problems that Woody Allen films all seem to have to some extent nowadays. The characters are two dimensional, and half of them are the standard issue American middle class liberal intellectuals, while the script feels under thought out and overwritten at times. However, with the stories being so slight, Allen is probably right not to try and stretch any of them further than he does.

The segments do all have differing styles, from farce to surreal comedy to more standard Allen territory of neurotic white men worrying about relationships, the contrast helping to keep things fresh. The best story is the one starring Allen himself as an Opera director visiting his daughter and her fiancée in Rome. The fiancée's father has the sort of tenor voice that should be on the stage - but he seems to have trouble performing outside of the privacy of his shower. The payoff to this takes the film into the kind of magical realism that Allen touches on every now and then, and as long as you can buy into it, it is hilarious.

As usual Allen seems to be able to scare up A-List celebrities at will, with regulars such Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz and Judy Davis, as well as Jesse Eisenberg trying out his Woody Allen impression.

The film looks great too, with Allen taking great care to show Rome off in a very flattering light.