Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Sucker Punch

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 109 mins
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish
Genre: Action/Fantasy
Country: USA

When Christopher Nolan opted out of directing the Superman reboot in order to give his full attention to his final installment in the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight Rises, there was a lot of fans of the DC comic that felt as if ‘The Man of Steel’ had taken his latest and most serious blow before even one can of film stock had been used.  The fact that Zack Snyder was selected to replace Nolan both as director and writer, adapting Nolan’s screenplay, is a sign of just how valuable his stock is in Hollywood.  Snyder has a very distinctive visual palette that he has used to create strikingly sumptuous films and his latest offering is no exception.

Browning as Baby Doll
Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) world is shattered when her wealthy mother dies, making matters worse when her abusive stepfather discovers he has been completely removed from his late wife’s will he takes matters into his own hands putting in motion a chain of events that results in Baby Doll accidentally killing her little sister.  Institutionalized in the corrupt Lennox House, Baby Doll has just five days until the doctor, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, The Town) arrives to lobotomize her triggering her quest for freedom.

The film starts extremely promisingly, visually it’s what you have come to expect from Snyder, the fluidity of camera and use of CGI to create a world that is at the same time new and old.  Several of the smaller scenes in the film will be drown out by the enormous set pieces but deserve special mention for their understanding and execution of classic cinematic technique.  The track to Baby Doll’s eye as she watches her stepfather enter her little sister’s room, focusing on the reflection of him in her eye before passing through that illusion and into the room with him is wonderfully done, one can’t help but think that’s what Hitchcock had in mind all those years before.  Likewise the conversation in front of their mirrors between Sweet Pea (Cornish), Blondie (Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) plays brilliantly with reflection and perception in a way that is so wonderfully subtle and restraint but at the same time showy and in keeping with the lavish visuals that have been on offer.

High School Graduate
Emily Browning carries the film rather well.  She is, in all realities, a confident and accomplished performer that carries the narrative and shoulders the responsibility and is always believable in the extremely physical role of Baby Doll.  Carla Gugino (as Dr. Gorski) brings to the screen a wealth of acting experience for the young ladies around her to play off portraying a wonderfully conflicted woman who’s allowed your youth, morals and life to be sucked away in a world that has no room for sympathy.  Special mention to Vanessa Hudgens, who understandably, may have been considered to weakest link in the acting chain having graduated from the Disney world of High School Musical and in the process has developed both a sensual and a dark side that Sucker Punch hints towards and the promising future it should bring with it, comparisons are due to come with Mila Kunis.  Likewise the rest of the cast all perform solidly, especially Cornish (Sweet Pea) even though narratively speaking there’s very little to do. 

The soundtrack, like the visuals, is extremely rich with emotive covers of popular rock and pop tracks used to convey the psychological world of Baby Doll and even allows some time for Emily Browning to showcase her vocal talents.  Several of the set pieces in the fantasy reality are absolutely astounding, almost shocking how good they are.  The map quest in the trenches of World War 2 against the steam powered resurrected Nazis is the highest of high points, a cross between Female Agents, Hellboy and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy is an adrenaline fuelled, hyper charged, wonderfully absurd and original action film and is the film that most people will end up wanting to watch.  It ends all too quickly leaving the audience and film somewhat flat which is never honestly recovers from.

There are a lot of problems with Sucker Punch, more problems unfortunately than the striking visual plate can make up for.  The film supposedly exists on three plains of reality, it tells the story of an abused girl in a corrupt system but it doesn’t.  It also tells the allegorical story of “dancers” in a specialist establishment but it doesn’t, it doesn’t seem to know what story it’s telling.  The reality of the film is an interesting film in itself, available for cinematography of the grotesque but is quickly discarded for  the sub-reality of the burlesque.  As the film progresses the fantasy sequences take on greater importance and the sub-reality is marginalized leaving all the narrative and subtext to take place twice removed.  The film suffers from a lack of grounding in this respect as at no point is there a reference to the genuine plight of the girls.  It’s difficult to interact with a film that refuses to let you into it’s inner narrative workings as a lot of the time you will find yourself wondering why you should actually bother to care.  The lack of any real world grounding also weakens any possible allegorical reading or significance that might be born out of quests against Nazi, Orks, Dragons or Robots leaving you to simply skim across the superficial and enjoy the ride.  Only you can’t enjoy the ride as you’ve no real reason to believe you should be on the ride and it’s a ride for ridings sake which is pointless.

It’s quite fitting that Zack Snyder is so closely linked to Christopher Nolan as Sucker Punch is not unlike Nolan’s latest masterpiece Inception in that both films exist on multiple levels of reality and switch between them during the course of telling their stories.  Where Inception excels is, unfortunately, where Sucker Punch staggers and falls time and time again.  Sucker Punch is at best unbalanced and worse lacking in narrative, structure or direction.  The execution of the tri-existence narrative is heavy handed and bias towards the fantasy realm leaving the audience cold and the film little more than a compilation mash up of greatest hits.  Like a sucker punch to the face the visuals of the film will leave you reeling but it won’t last long.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Red Dawn's Revolving Door Of Baddies

Every once and a while the 'Yes Men' culture of Hollywood does something that is either hysterical or costly.  Take the studio executive pitching the idea that the boat doesn't sink at the end of Titanic to leave it open for sequels, pointing out the idiocy of this statement is something that could leave your 401K stunted and the maid wondering why Mr. Steve is around the house more these days.

On other occasions it can be expensive when those nodding heads double check before speaking their mind.  Take the 2011 remake of Red Dawn for example.  This is a movie that a lot of people are looking forward to, most likely because the original was better on paper that it was in execution.  Yes yes I know "Wolverines!" and all that but the 80's invasion flick suffered from a limited budget that made the whole scenario seem more like a lovers tiff rather than a war.  Updating a film like Red Dawn comes with some inherent problems.  Russia is no longer at odds with the United States, granted in recent years there's been something of a resurgence with deep cover spies and the like but nothing in comparison to the height of the cold war and even at that the Russian Federation is nowhere near as powerful as the old Soviet Union.  So what do you do with an invasion film that doesn't have an invader?  It didn't take a long of time to answer the question of who's the biggest "threat" to the United States?  Quick answer solves all the problems and the film, starring Chris Hemsworth and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is re-written with China as evil protagonist.  China is considered by many to be a threat to the U.S, and in a way it is but, an economic threat due to it's growth.  In actuality China has lent the U.S Government billions of dollars and wouldn't be likely to initiate a war on its Super Power rival.  The only issue with this realisation is that nobody spoke up about the one crucial flaw in the film until after principle photography had wrapped.

Class of 2011
Now the studio is in the process of removing all references to China at great cost, and more likely annoyance to director/editor/ADR technician and replacing the red of China with that of North Korea.  Kim Jong Il's anti-American stance fits in perfectly with the ideology of the film but the concept is not without serious problems.  North Korea have waged war on America over the past ten years but it's a war on their economy; flooding the country with counterfeit currency in an effort to weaken confidence in the U.S dollar and disrupt the economic strength of the U.S.A.  This is a tactic that the Secret Service have stated to be working for the N.K regime as on several occasions even the Treasury's experts have been unable to tell the difference.  The reason they have not actually waged war against their western enemy is two fold.  

Stop worrying and love the war
1. They do not have the military infrastructure to consider this to be a serious option and 
2. Even if they did, the fear of being wiped off the face of the planet is probably a strong deterrent. 

Whether there's going to be any twists or turns in the proceedings is anyone's guess.  Ideas of military backing from ex-Soviet Generals made obsolete by the end of the Cold War or Islamic involvement is not beyond the realm of possibility. One thing is for certain, if Red Dawn 2011 is to be anything more than a badly thought out rehash of a poorly executed 1980's teen action flick there's going to be a lot of time, money and planning pumped into it.  Almost as much as you might require to invade a country.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Rise of a New Narrative Order

Too small a role for Ray?
It's pretty much a given that every musician wants to be an actor and vice versa, decades of bad crooning and wooden acting makes this argument a mute point however in recent years there's been a sub-migration from the silver screen that's threatening to undermine if not ruin cinema.  In 1999 David Chase had his first choice for his new HBO show turn down the role because he was a "film actor" and wasn't looking to work in television, that actor was Ray Liotta and the role was quickly filled by James Gandolfini.  86 episodes over 6 years and 8 years later what we, as an audience had, was a portrayal of a hugely complex and realistic gangster but most importantly human being.  The Sopranos was so rich with detail that on many occasions Chase would be approached by wise guys wanting to know who told him about this or that.  Two years later Kiefer Sutherland lived through the first of his 8 really long days as CTU agent Jack Bauer and in doing so created a character with such depth in emotion, loss and achievement that fans of 24 could share a look with special agent and know the inner workings of his head.

Living with loss the Bauer way.
12 years on from the television revolution and the amount of film actors that have made the leap to the small screen has grown at a rate that's faster than those making the "big move" to the film industry ala George Clooney post E.R.  James Caan, Sylvester Stallone, Steve Buscemi, Don Cheadle, Carl Weathers, Al Pacino and of course Sarah Jessica Parker.  These are actors who at their best with a good script are often unrivalled and have all ventured into the work of serial dramas or mini series' creating some of the complicated and emotive characters of their careers.  The reasons for this quality of characterisation is obvious when you think about it.  Character development in cinema can only go so far, you typically have 2-3 hours to tell your story and develop the relationship between audience and characters is something that needs to be immediate in a lot of narrative cinema.  Oz is the perfect example of TV's luxury when it comes to the gradual development of rich, even contradictory, characters.  Each episode of the hit prison drama would focus on fleshing out elements of it's ensemble  cast, whether it be the rest for their incarceration, their family, their dreams, fears etc. by the time the show aired it's series finale most of the audience knew Beecher, Schillenger and O'Reilly better than they know some of their relatives and any character on cinema.  If you consider the character of Jack Bauer and compare the information you know about him and the levels of complexity to his character you have witnessed and compare that to James Bond, who has been around longer but has had less screen time and less narrative reflecting the sides of his personality and it's blatantly obvious that as a medium for rich characters and even to attract character actors film simply can't compete.

The family Soprano versus Corleone, both are Italian American in origin, both are heavily invested in organisation crime but if you were tasked to go to make dinner conversation with which one would you be able to pass the night away with?  "and how's Meadow?...Oh yes it was a real shock to hear about Christopher"...point taken?

Private Ryan or Pacific Lite?
Film has always had the spending power that television can't match but even that is changing.  24 never had issue with spending the money to make the show rival anything on film, by the end of the shows run it was one of the reasons Fox looked at when cancelling the show.  The Pacific is another perfect example of how television has stopped thinking small and isn't afraid to bring the huge production value narratives directly into your living room.  With the second World War painstakingly brought back to the screen The Pacific stands strong alongside titles like Saving Private Ryan, Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers and matches film in every field with the exception of character development (which it surpasses).  On top of that you have to add the gaming medium, something which Hollywood has adapted from over the years with almost zero success is threatening to surpass it's older cousin.

The problem with plumbers
Gaming has always been something of a niche, something that when you talked of great stories and interesting character most people would roll their eyes and say something vaguely insulting and to be fair you probably deserved it, Super Mario Bros was an entertaining game but had nothing in it in the way of narrative or character and the film didn't even have the bonus of being enjoyable.  All that has changed, in fact the weakest games on the market these days are those that are based on movies.  A sure sign that the balance of quality and power is on the shift.

GTA's bests Michael Mann's Vice
Rockstar Games has been at forefront of this charge.  Having revamped the Grand Theft Auto franchise with the 3rd instalment they managed to do with the 4th what David Chase had failed to do (lure Ray Liotta away from film) and in the 5th featured Dennis Hopper, who had tasted life outside of film as Victor Drazen in 24.  Since then there has been a steady stream of games that threaten to lap cinema as a form of narrative storytelling and audience interaction.  Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy in the U.S) delivered a template for the future of gaming, pitched as the first interactive film to delivered a complicated narrative, a noir-esque  mystery and rich characterisation let alone the games "cinematography" which was excellent.  Since then we've had Condemned about an FBI agent tracking a serial killer, Heavy Rain from the makers of Fahrenheit, Red Dead Redemption and Dead Rising which is essentially an interactive version of Dawn of the Dead and better than the 2004 remake of the George A. Romero film.  It even has a more compelling and interesting story than the source material.

You work the case your way
The best of gaming is still to come and in a matter of months we could be in the position where we can state that gaming is being to make better "movies" than the film industry.  L.A Noire, set for release in late May 2011, a 1940's film noir set against a similar background to Brian DePalma's Black Dahlia with multiple possible narratives throughout the course of the investigation, a full cast of screen actors including their likenesses and a storyline so rich that it could comfortably sit alongside L.A Confidential in your DVD shelves and would make you ponder which one you like most.  

Aaron Staton might be the perfect quantifiable measurement for the quality of all three mediums.  In film he has been case in such poor contributions as The Nanny Diaries and August Rush yet on television he is one of the ensemble cast members of the award winning and critically acclaimed AMC period drama Mad Men and in the world of gaming is the lead actor and detective in charge of the manhunt in the above mentioned L.A Noire.  Cinema will never be killed off, it's too great at it's best to ever be completely obliterated but you can no longer roll your eyes and claim that TV's the idiot box and gaming is for nerds.  Perhaps this will be the competition that film needs to up it's game and maybe even put Tony Soprano and Jack Bauer on the big screen.

Friday, 25 March 2011

RED - Retired & Extremely Dangerous

UK DVD release date: 14th Feb ‘11
Certificate: 12
Running time: 111 minutes
Director: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren
Genre: Action
UK distributor: Entertainment One
Format : DVD, Blu Ray

Comic book adaptations usually have an entire legend from which to pluck.  Years and hundreds of different writers and illustrators that allows the film makers to borrow and adapt in order to make their film and yet stay faithful to the source.  For those who read Red by Warren Ellis it would have come as a pleasant surprise that this three issue story has made it on to the big screen, but is Red more OAP than VIP?

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is seeing out his days in suburban Cleveland having retired from "wet work" with the Central Intelligence Agency.  Not he spends him time calling the pensions hotline in order to engage Sarah (Mary Louise Parker) in conversation furthering the only relationship Moses has been ever able to sustain.  That is until a black ops team turn up at his door with the task of eliminating him.  Quickly dispatching of the youngsters Frank sets out to rescue Sarah before she comes to any harm and get to the bottom of who wants him dead.

Leading the hunt for Frank, Sarah and more is William Cooper, played by Karl Urban (The Bourne Supremacy) an ambitious young high flyer at the CIA who’s got a job and will carry it out.  The film begins extremely promisingly, Schwentke is more than happy to play it for the small moments and happy little laughs.  The sight of Bruce Willis reading trashy romance novels recommended by his telephone sweetheart is matched moments later by him killed four members of an elite black ops unit without even ruffling his pjs.  Similarly when he reaches Sarah’s house the fact that he’s vaccumed because it was a little messy hints to the world in which Frank resides, one of putting in the hours to see the day in.  Willis is very good in these kind of films, having spent decades at the top of the action genre his masculine persona is never in question which frees him up to play a little softer at times, for laughs, forever safe in the knowledge that he could kill you as quick as play checkers with you.  It’s a slower pace for Bruce, one with hints of complexity in the character.  Several early moments during the budding relationship between Frank and Sarah had echoes of the unhinged pairing of him and Madeline Stowe in Twelve Monkeys which is credit to the acting, or more to it, reacting of Mary Louise Parker.  Parker, at least in the early moments of the film, manages to create unease in the viewer that Frank might actually be kidnapping her, which is no mean feet considering the audience has been privy to the goings on in Cleveland.

The supporting cast, Freeman, Malkovich and Mirren are all given equal billing but make no mistake this is very much Willis’ story, all perform somewhere between well and wonderful.  Which is something of an annoyance given the calibre of the casting.  Freeman is under used and largely two dimensional only given moments in order to attempt to express a lifetime as we want to see what makes the man retired and extremely dangerous.  Frustratingly, he’s never really given his moment unlike Malkovich, who is brilliant and brilliantly psychotic.  Malkovich (as Marvin) is excellent, it’s clear to all viewing that his character is the most interesting and more enjoyable and he relishes every moment of the cuddly yet completely insane, most likely undiagnosed PTSD, Boggs who though retired still has that killer instinct if not social skills.  Mirren (Victoria) does what’s required of her, again many small moments are played out rather well with thanks to her.  The first encounter at her home sees almost a royal dining location paired with a automatic weapon and the sight of The Queen brandishing it is enough to crack a smile on the hardest of faces but frustratingly falls short of being a performance of her standard.  Like the headliners, the rest of the cast are solid.  Urban like many G-Men pursuers before him holds his on own screen with his prey, including an excellent fight sequence in Langley between him and Willis that was a little bit Bourne peppered with the physicality of John McLean (Die Hard) and always played with a bit of wit and joy.  Likewise Richard Dreyfuss gives his best evil Dick Chaney impression which is always excellent and Brian Cox pulls a cold war Russian spook out of somewhere to play to sterotype which is greatly appreciated as the film is built on broad strokes.

Much to young to feel this damn old
Red is not without it’s problems, though the direction is strong.  There are several truly wonderful sequences and moments of stylisation that are a joy to behold but the film suffers from the one thing it did really enjoyably from the get go.  At the beginning of the film Red played on the small moments of retired life and though the sound effects get louder the pace never seems to quicken from the octagenarian lifestyle of Joe Matheson (Freeman), happy to plod along relying on the charisma of the blinding star power.  That coupled with a rather run of the mill storyline that never threatens to deviate from it’s pre-set path and you have problems.  Such is the road trodden that you could comfortably begin watching at any point of the film and not feel that you’ve missed out on anything largely crucial.  The biggest problem with Red is shockingly Bruce Willis.  Red should work because it’s a group of retired assassins fighting for their lives, it brought to mind Space Cowboys with Donald Sutherland, James Garner and co. over the hill and up in space doing what they were once good at.  Willis is simply not old enough for the role, it’s been no time at all since Die Hard 4.0 in which he was still very much a functioning detective and placed alongside the others looks something of the odd one out and though really enjoyable is safe in the role as it's a role, like the narrative, is well trodden to him.

Fans of the comic book should like it, there’s a lot there to like about Red as it’s an easy watch with some enjoyable action set pieces and John Malkovich is worth the price of the DVD alone.  Saying that, once viewed you’ll probably leave Red off at the DVD retirement home and forget to come visit for a while.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Free Film Tickets Giveway!!

A Horrifying Giveaway

To celebrate the UK/Irish premiere of The Whisperer in Darkness playing as part of the Belfast Film Festival 2011 I’ve got 5 pairs of tickets to give away for the Friday night chapter of the Horror Weekend at the Festival.  How do you enter this giveaway for free film tickets?  Simply comment on this blog with an excellent movie quote and five will be selected at random.

The Whisperer in Darkness is the second outing for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society for adapting his works.  The first being the acclaimed short The Call of Cthulhu brought the society to a greater audience.  Don’t miss the chance to see this beautifully stylish, lovingly adapted film for the first time in Belfast with an introduction from the director Sean Branney.

For those of you who are either too far away or the unlucky ones who end up having to pay the mighty sum of £4.50 to see it here’s an interview with the Branney courtesty of

In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society released The Call of Cthulhu, a 47-minute adaptation of the classic Lovecraft tale of cosmic horror. Shot in a mock-1920s style, dubbed ‘Mythoscope’, the film was extremely well-received by fans and was subsequently shown at a number of film festivals, including Slamdance 2006. The Society’s next major project is an adaptation of another Lovecraft story, The Whisperer in Darkness, which should be released late 2010 or early 2011.
Below is a transcript of an email interview that I conducted with Sean Branney, the co-producer of both films:
FAN FILM FOLLIES (through John Walliss): Looking at the trailer for Whisperer in Darkness, you’ve gone for a different look and era of filmmaking than you used in The Call of Cthulhu. Why is this?

SEAN BRANNEY: We felt that because Lovecraft’s stories were grounded in the 20s and 30s, shooting them in a style reflective of that era was a good approach. After making The Call of Cthulhu, we were interested in producing a feature length talkie. We realized The Whisperer in Darkness was a good candidate. It was written in 1931, the same year that Dracula and Frankenstein came to the screen and synch sound became the new standard. The bold visual style of the classic horror films of the early 1930s inspired our approach to the photography. On the technical side, we moved from a rather low-end camera which we used for The Call of Cthulhu to a very high-end HD camera for Whisperer. It creates an image that is drastically better than we could create in our previous movie. And, of course, the addition of recorded dialogue fundamentally changes the set of tools we use to tell the story.

FFF:After The Call of Cthulhu, what drew you to making another film, and why this particular story?

SB: The Call of Cthulhu wildly exceeded our expectations. When we made it, we made it just because we wanted to. We hoped someday we’d make our investment back and we hoped someone, somewhere would want to watch it. We discovered that there were a lot of people out there eager to see this kind of film and we thought it would be fun to make another. We chose Whisperer because the story itself has a lot of dramatic potential in it and it’s structure lent itself to cinematic storytelling. That said, we felt in order to make it into a feature film, we were going to have to flesh out some of the elements of the story. Whisperer is one of Lovecraft’s great stories, a favorite of many readers and we thought it could be an equally pleasing movie.

FFF: What are the particular challenges of bringing HP Lovecraft to the screen?

SB: Lovecraft’s stories are often not dramatic in their nature. The story of The Whisperer in Darkness, for example, consists in large measure of two fellows writing letters back and forth. A purely literal adaptation might come across and dry and static on screen. But, of course in adapting is writing, it’s also easy to move so far away from his source material that the resulting film bears little resemblance to the story being adapted. His stories often tend to eschew characters and relationships in favor of cosmic themes and atmospheres. While that can be very effective in a short story, movie goers are accustomed to interesting characters who engage with other characters in relationships. So, it becomes a challenge to present a Lovecraftian protagonist in a manner that’s keeping with the source material, but which will entertain and engage an audience.

FFF: Producing a fanfilm takes a great deal of time, effort and money, what do you think it is that inspires fans such as yourself to do this?

SB: We’re inspired to try and make great movies. We don’t really look at ourselves as fans – we’re filmmakers who are not just doing some job for hire but are working on a project that we’re personally invested in. Nearly everyone who works on our films are highly qualified professionals. People work with us for very modest compensation because they believe in the projects that we’re trying to bring to the screen. Like most filmmakers, our goal is to tell our audiences a story that they’ll enjoy. I suspect that’s the driving motivation behind most filmmakers who create their own projects. We’re fortunate that we’ve found a commercial market for our films and we’re able to make our living from our very small production company.

FFF: Fanfilms have been around for years, but have achieved a degree of prominence in recent years (with, say, the media interest in The Hunt for Gollum). Why do you think this is and what do you think the future holds for fanfilms?

SB: Independent producers are now able to produce sophisticated movies that tell stories in a manner that used to be outside the reach of multi-million dollar productions. Some small producers have made some films that have really resonated with audiences and left people realizing that big budget, heavily marketed films are not the be-all and end-all of entertainment. I think these types of projects will only serve to excite new filmmakers who will find ways to bring exciting, imaginative entertainment to the wide variety of screen sizes currently available.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Exploiting Exploitation

Now available at HMV
As a fan of exploitation cinema and the works of Jesus Franco, Jack Hill, Umberto Lenzi and Russ Meyer I should be thrilled by the fact that this genre has come full circle and is very much accessible.  No longer do you have to trade titles like Strip For Your Killer, Mountain of the Cannibal God and Gator Bait with other cinephiles in pubs and workplaces.  These films have become available through Shameless distribution and are even stocked on Amazon and in HMV, a world away from the 76th street cinemas in New York City were they lived and were viewed by small yet enthusiastic audiences.

Get ready for More Snakes on
Another Plane
This accessibility has come at a price though.  Hollywood is rarely behind the trend when it comes to either what audiences want or more particularly what audiences are told they want.  The Saw franchise arrived on the scene and opened the avenue for exploitation cinema to return, only for them to lose track of their origins and become the polar opposite of what made it successful in the first place.  David R. Ellis was either crazy, stupid or genius enough to bring Snakes on a Plane to the fanatical internet audience the film had courted throughout production and do so with the spirit of those exploitation titles before it, dubbed creature features as they deal largely with scary animals.  Snakes openly embraced the concept of being a cinematic guilty pleasure and they even went back to the writing room to dumb the script down some more to give it a badly written exploitation feel.  A year later saw Grindhouse, the combined efforts of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and though Death Proof was desperately poor Rodriguez' Planet Terror managed to capture the joy of film making usually found in the low to no budget cinema offerings.  The joy of making movies for the sake of making movies, which is difficult to capture with lavish amounts of finance.  Since then we've seen Machete, another Rodriguez title which featured as a fake trailer and came to life only to be better as a two minute trailer, Season of the Witch and Drive Angry 3D both starring Nicolas Cage.  Cage seems to be attempting to single handedly bring back  the drive-in B-Movie and not just in his usual courtship of currency over craft.  Since winning his Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, Cage has gone from one large pay cheque small script to another and with the exception of Adaptation and perhaps two other titles has been little more than present on screen.  Now he seems to be actively seeking out the worst projects possibility with Drive Angry being a new low.

En route to screens new you soon are offerings like Faster starring Dwayne Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton which features a lot of the critical elements of exploitation cinema in guns, cars, violence and ladies in little to no clothing.  It would be quite easy to imagine Jack Hill's signature on this title as it's a pure copy of exploitation, but with a Hollywood budget and carefully crafted marketing strategy.  Add to that the release of Hobo with a Shotgun later in the year which sees Rutger Hauer starring as the Hobo in possession of a shotgun and you have exactly what it says on the tin.  Like Snakes on a Plane from five years ago or Werewolves on Wheels from forty years back it promises to be a fun and honest offering of a classic exploitation narrative.

The only issue with this, and before I'd like to quantify how much I'm looking forward to watching both Faster and Hobo, is it all seems to be in contradiction to everything that exploitation cinema stands for.  Exploitation cinema was made almost locally, every film felt like it belonged to the people who were viewing it.  The grindhouse cinemas in New York would have a completely different feel in programming than that of a similar cinema in Los Angeles and that in turn different to those in Chicago.  Like the residents of Comber would gather to star in and watch the latest offerings from Roy and Noel Spence, those in the streets of L.A would be thrilled by the latest early offerings from Rudy Ray Moore or Jack Hill.  These films would not need marketing, which is a good thing as they could never afford them, the audience would be drawn to them either because of opportunity through screening times, locale and thematic trends.

Robbie in The Switchblade Sisters
The modern Hollywood wave of exploitation cinema has the money, resources and talents to achieve the goals in effects and narrative but strive to intentionally fail.  The one quality of exploitation cinema that shines through in all the films regardless of genre is it's spirit.  The films strive to achieve something that clearly they can not afford to achieve but in failing manage to transcend their shortcomings and become something greater than what it aimed for.  They are love for cinema in its purest form, so the Hollywood exploitation movement is a difficult one to accept.  It's goal is to dumb down, to achieve less and ultimately to exploit the audience.

I will watch Hollywood's exploitation offerings and will, for the most part, enjoy them but they will most likely never find their way into my heart in the way that The Switchblade Sisters or Torso did.  Robby Lee, I love the fact that in your head you're an excellent actress and not dumbing down for profit.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Hollywoodn't - The Remakes You'll Never See

Recent years have seen hundreds of international titles remade for the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  Here's a list of films that Hollywood probably wouldn't touch with Mel Gibson's...but if they interesting would that be?!

Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Fuck Me Tim!
Pedro Almodovar's blunt tool of a sex comedy is a pretty difficult title to place on the side of a bus but if they decided to remake Almodovar could direct and casting Tom Cruise would mean
1. You'd probably do good box office
2. You'd only have to change one word in the title.

Gayn*ggers From Outer Space
E.T's with a mission to liberate men from the oppressive nature of women to create an all gay society.  Spielberg's direction but where do you start casting without getting hit with libel cases?

Battle Royale
There's been talk for years of a big studio remake but one school massacre after another makes this difficult viewing for America.  However throw in Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning and you could get a crowd crying out to see blood spilt.

Claire's Knee
Eric Rohmer's memoirs of a dirty old man is difficult viewing at moments as it is but could you really have Billy Bob Thornton lusting after a 12 year old girl?

Koji Shiraishi's film is little more than torture porn and one of the more difficult viewings with a crowd of strangers you could have.  Steve Buscemi and two of the young starlings for cutting up.

The Gestapo's Last Orgy
There's literally no way this film would ever get remade.  Even at the time, in the genre it lived in it was considered to be "too much" so having it in multiplexes across the U.SofA?  Not likely, though Meryl Streep and Max Von Sydow would be an interesting pairing.

Slaughtered Vomit Dolls
The only difference between this film and a bucket of sick is the bucket.  A film lacking in any real redeeming features though a potential career kick start for Lindsay Lohan?  She probably would.

A Serbian Film
There's just too much in this film that would need to be cut leaving only the trailer.  Think about it though, Nick Nolte, Julianne Moore and cameos from Ron Jeremy and his posse.

Salo : 120 Days of Sodom
This would probably be a bitter sweet film for those in the "hell fire and brimstone" bible belt but some scenes would probably be a little more than they're willing to cope with on a daily basis.  Award nominations for both Olsen Twins?  Too much?

Behind Convent Walls
It's like Sister Act but heavier on the masturbation.  Whoopi Goldberg gets back in the habit.

We've already had a film with a killer vagina that likes to bite things so one that simply talks is a possibility.  If John Travolta and Kirsty Alley got involved it could be the reboot the Look Who's Talking franchise needs.

Feel free to add your own and between us with some careful internet rumours and fan power we could actually get one of them made!  Imagine The Devil's Experiment starring Paris Hilton, who wouldn't watch that?!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Best of the Fest - The Belfast Film Festival

Tentacles, Killer Tyres, Giant Fish & Screwball picks for the 11th Belfast Film Festival

The Belfast Film Festival enters it's eleventh year of programming in a city in deep financial trouble and still without it's own film industry, a real sign of how far behind we are in comparison to the rest of Europe.  However this has never stopped the BFF from delivering the best that all corners of the world have to offer.  The first Film Festival I was fortunate to work was the 3rd Festival in 2003 and since then I've had a love for the sheer diversity of taste that the BFF have managed to deliver to the Blockbuster bloated cinema population of the city.  Here's 11 picks for the 11th year of the BFF.

01. Small Town Murder Songs
Peter Stormare (Fargo) as a small town cop with a dark past that refuses to stay buried after a local murder disrupts the peace.  Many festivals have picked this film as a real stand out so unsurprisingly it's first out of the blocks in the Best of the Fest.  Friday April 1st 9:15PM @Queen's Film Theatre.

02. The Whisperer in Darkness
Director Sean Branney will be present to introduce the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's wonderful follow up to The Call of Cthulhu.  Once again shot in the cinematic style of the time this is a beautifully rich adaptation and a must see for horror fans.  Friday April 1st 7:00PM @Belfast Waterfront.

03. Sound of Noise
A heist movie with a difference.  I was fortunate to see the trailer for this.  I don't want to give away anything other than to say think Michael Mann mixed with Michel Gondry.  Mon April 4th 7:00PM @Queen's Film Theatre.

04. We Were Here
A decade on and Weissman & Webber return for a follow up.  The first documentary to take a look at the impact and affects of the Aids epidemic. Friday April 1st 9:00PM @BFF Beanbag Cinema.

05. Twisted Cornea
Lawrence Jordan on the big screen?!  Beautifully surreal and striking, say no more!  Sun 3rd April 7:00PM @BFF Beanbag Cinema.

06. Biosuite : Emotional Response Cinema
Watch a Cronenberg film in SARC under laboratory conditions in this brilliant idea of a screening.  As exciting and original as it is a treat for the city. Cinema with a 360 degree screen and amazing sound!  Sun 10th - Tues 12th April 7:30PM @Sonic Arts Research Centre.

07. Mega Piranha
Giant piranha escape from their habitat in the Amazon and eat their way through all things sea dwelling en route to Florida.  The film itself is terrible but the screening on the Lagan Boat tour of the city makes it one of the more memorable nights out you'll have.  Mon 11th April 9:30PM All Aboard! The Lagan Boat.

08. Balls of Fire
Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck creating one of the greatest exploits into the screwball comedy that we're ever likely to see.  Mon 4th April 8:00PM @Strand Cinema.

09. Simple Simon
Simon's got Aspergers, Sam's been dumped so Simon goes about finding love for his friend.  Another example of how Scandinavian cinema can be so good.  Thu 7th April 7:00PM @Moviehouse Dublin Road.

10. Stake Land
Some bias is sneaking in now as I booked this film for the Festival but had to move venue due to technical specifications.  The country is dead, America is lost to the Vampire.  It's I Am Legend mixed with Dawn of the Dead but with Dracula.  Jim Mickle's vampire apocalypse will leave you scared of the dark!  Excellent.  Wed 6th April 9:00PM @Queen's Film Theatre.

11. Rubber
Saved arguably the best for last.  Quentin Dupieux's visionary take on the carploitation genre with the aid of a killer tyre on the loose is nothing short of brilliant.  I have been tracking this film for the Movie Bar for a while now and though glad it's showing in Belfast wish it could have been us.  Sun 3rd April 9:00PM @Queen's Film Theatre.

It's nice to be able to say it was extremely difficult to narrow down the entire programme to 11 choices.  There is so much in the programme that if I were to delete this post and start again I could come up with multiple versions of this list with different combinations at each attempt.  You won't be able to see everything you like.  Like all good Festivals the second you sit down to dissect the brochure you inevitably run into one scheduling conflict after another.  See as much as you can, ingest as much celluloid dreams as you can until the point were overdosing on narrative becomes a serious threat but if you're only allowed out once a month then you could do a lot worse than to pick from the above list.

The full Festival Programme can be downloaded as a PDF.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Serbian Film

UK DVD release date: 3rd Jan 2011
Certificate: 18
Running time: 104 Mins
Director: Srdjan Spasojevic
Starring: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic
Genre: Thriller/Mystery
UK distributor:  Revolver
Format: DVD / Blu Ray
Country: Serbia

Most reviews have the potential of swaying a readers decision as to watch or not but the truth is all reviews on A Serbian Film are pointless.  You’re either inquisitive enough or you’re not.  The controversy over A Serbian Film has been raging since the world premiere and is refusing to go away, the recent charges levied against Angel Sala for screening the film in Barcelona is testament to that.  Add the fact that the film is arriving on U.S shores, there’s little sign of the debate settling.  So what’s it all about?

Milo (Srdjan Todorovic) is one of Serbia’s top porn stars, though not retired.  Faced with a life of looking back at past glories Milo is tempted back into the game for one last film.  The job in question is an experimental “art house” film to be directed by the genius or mad director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic).  Though initially reluctant Milo eventually gets involved in the project and wakes days later with no recollection of what he’s done and where.

In a lot of ways A Serbian Film walks a fine line between a film noir mystery on par with The Big Sleep and a heist movie like The Hot Rock, a retired (insert occupation) gets brought in from the cold for one last (insert goal), and at it’s best does create to both genres.  Todorovic plays the role well, from the outset you could be forgiven for wondering how you could warm to the lead as after all the controversy of the film is born out of his story arch but you do.  Even in the most graphically disturbing moments of recollection of retrieved footage of the lost two days you can’t help but like Milo, which is a true testament to Todorovic’s acting abilities and Spasojevic & Aleksandar Radivojevic’s screenplay as his humanity shines through.  Sergej Trifunovic (as Vukmir) is dependently over the top in the role of director and unfortunately tips over the “troubled genius vs. psychopathic mad man” balance. If he'd maintained the balance though it could have been extremely playful.  The remainder of the cast all provide surprisingly strong performances in a project that’s clearly close to all involved with special mention to Jelena Gavrilovic (Marija) and Katarina Zutic (Lejla) who highlight the two worlds in which Milo exists wonderfully and truly flesh out a social dynamic that allows the audience to identify with those involved.

The film itself is a visually accomplished and polished affair that manages to blend several difference styles of cinematography beautifully without leaving disjointing transitions between domestic working class Serbia, affluent Serbia and the underworld of Milo’s profession.  Some of the stylists of the porn shoot are interesting, a world somewhere between high value valley pics and a darkly menacing horror movie with an edge cut from Alice in Wonderland.  The biggest issue in these scenes is the score.  This might sound odd, but given a lot of the content but structurally it’s a valid point.  The heavy handedness of the score is there to accompany and even heighten the audience’s reaction to the scenes unfolding.  This manipulative use of audio is a big favourite of those not so scary teen horror films and is cheap and unnecessary in a film that visually can and will leave you a little different from before you watch it.  It’s the sort of score you would expect from a Norwegian metal band or low budget goth friendly indie film and jars in ways that could not have been intended by the director.

A lot of reviews out there will liken this film to titles like Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, The Gateway Meat or Grotesque but this is rather insulting to A Serbian Film.  Yes they are all difficult films to watch but unlike these films ASF strives to be something greater than simply a film of controversy.  Grotesque is little more than an hour and ten minutes of torture porn and a vile copy of Flowers of Flesh and Blood which caused a lot of controversy itself when it was released.  A Serbian Film sets its stall out as dramatization of the recent history of a tortured and scarred nation.  Having dove deeper for the sake of reviewing the more you read into the history and the transcripts of the atrocities in former Yugoslavia the more you see that it holds up.  Reports of friends turning on one another, butchering and raping one another just to stay alive is shocking and should be documented for future generations to remember.  Spasojevic’s film works on that level and is a true victory if it makes people remember the crimes of Milosovic and his regime.  Perhaps had the film been a documentary or a sanitized piece of fiction like Schindler’s List or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas there wouldn’t be so many people with issues to the film.  Their protests are welcome but misplaced, where was their outcry when these events were happening?  Their issues are with censorship-which is a completely different conversation and one that I never hope they win.

The first viewing of this film had me sure that it wasn’t very good and as a film it’s not really, some of the most brutal moments in the film are shocking but the quality of the production value never really let’s you feel how disgustingly brutal it is in the same way you feel it with the Japanese Guinea Pig films of two decades earlier.  The story is strong with regards to characterization but narratively is tired and predictable throughout which could work in the way that it works in film noir but isn’t intelligent enough for that and ultimately levels you disregarding the narrative and living for the set pieces of the drug fuelled porno shoot. Whether it’s the machete doggy sequence of the oral choking or even the *spoiler* new born scene that the BBFC and Spanish legal system have had the biggest issue with, they all seem more than the sum of their parts.

This review, like all the others, will not change your mind as to whether or not you’ll view it and nor should it.  Personally everyone should be made to watch A Serbian Film as it might lead to more people being outraged when these events are taking place rather than when they’re being dramatized but that’s just one opinion.  Ultimately ASF is an excellent example of what mankind is willing to do to one another and the immorality of conscious thought and should be seen as a representation of the recent history of Serbia in a time when rebuilding and recovering is on the increase but as a narrative piece of cinema there’s too many well trodden themes and arcs for it to be truly engaging.  This might sound shocking but you’ve seen it all before…at least narratively!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Dracula and the Modern Man-pire

The problem with modern fangs

The vampire is a timeless monster, ever since Stoker’s novel and the first adaptation of it in Nosferatu the world has been obsessed with the idea of the vampire and the immortality that comes with it. Recently the vampire genre, though it’s never really gone away, has had something of a resurgence in the shape of the “modern manpire”. The immortal beast has other things on his mind these days and is no longer simply about necks, blood, avoiding daylight and the best location for a pine box. In True Blood there’s a hierarchy, most of the mythology about vampires is little more than vamp propaganda and complicated love lives not to mention business interests and a spokesperson for their civil rights. Their fixation seems to be more on sexual intercourse than the advancement of their species through siring and the consumption of blood or at least those we’re lead to care about, Bill Compton being a fine example.

The Twilight saga takes the disinterest in blood a step further with the Cullen “family”, a group of vampires who pose as parents and children with little interest in human blood, preferring to hunt animals and even then out of necessity rather than instinct. Edward’s primary obsession is getting Bella into a wedding dress and down the isle to swap their ‘I do’s’ and the rest of the family…well their personal relationships could rival that of Brookside, for anyone old enough to remember it. All reference to the physical and primitive needs is washed away and replaced with a monster you could actually bring home to your parents and it wouldn’t even have to be at night as the Cullen’s just seem to sparkle during the day rather than combust or turn to ash. The Vampire Diaries is no different with feuding brothers, long term relationships and complicated social lives is closer to 90210 than it is to Dracula.

This has become a startling trend in the genre though it’s not recent, even in Dracula Lugosi’s interest was in Jonathan’s beloved and not Jonathan as the drinking of blood, the consumption of human life is so closely linked to the sexual that it could have been construed almost as deviancy to lust after a member of the same sex…even if it’s a different species. The end goal was always the same though, whether it was Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, or Salma Hayek to drink them dry. The sexuality of the vampire is at best bait for those humans obsessed with the aesthetic and physical.
Many of the modern vampires don't even possess the physical transformation when they release their instinctive killing side. Historically the vampire was an unattractive creature that had some sort of magical allure of was physically attractive in passive form but once aroused physically changed in and around the face. With the Universal Pictures horror era that changed as the vampire became attractive with Lugosi, and in Britain in the Hammer horror franchise the vampires were sexually alluring but ultimately extremely deadly.  The active vampire mode changed again with the most recognised alteration of the last generation was the sloping of the brow, tightening of the forehead, deadening of the eyes and elongation of the teeth made popular in Hollywood in the 80’s with The Lost Boys, reinforced in From Dusk til Dawn and perfected by Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then Angel. Now those sort of changes are reserved for “the bad vampires” (like there’s another kind).

It seems ironic that in an industry where so many film and television characters are little more than two dimensional broad strokes that Hollywood is intent on fleshing out a character type that is at it’s best when they are two dimensional. The vampire should be in the same category as the crocodile. The crocodile has not changed in over two hundred million years, it has evoked to the point where it has reached perfection, we would call it ‘Self Actualisation’. Whatever it’s called; the crocodile is the perfect killing machine. It can last for hours without breathing or moving as it watches its prey and when it strikes it moves with speed, fluidity…grace even and makes small work of those lower down the food chain that it. That is what the vampire is. For vampires to exist they would have to have been around for years upon years, to have witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, outlasted the black death and will have seen mankind wage war on itself time and time again. They have learned to blend in with the general population, exist at night while it’s prey sleeps and, as most legends portray, can glamour the weak minded human beings into obeying their will. The pursuit of blood and the pleasure it’s consumption brings is the vampires equivalent to sex. Basic human needs no longer concern then as they are no longer basic humans, they are the perfect killing machine and at the top of the chain. Modern vampires preoccupation with their nightclubs (True Blood), love lives (True Blood, Twilight & The Vampire Diaries) or civil rights (True Blood) is little more than Hollywood’s effort to give story arches.  To humanise the inhuman, make the antagonist a protagonist and in doing so is striping the vampire of the most interesting aspects of what a vampire is.  2010 even saw the release of the innocent vampire, the child beast of Let Me In (the English language remake of Let the Right One In) has reinforced the beauty of the twenty-first century vampire.

In most cultures, over the years, age is something to strive towards as it brings with it respect, wisdom and the promise of a community than will take care of you until you are ready to pass on into whatever lies beyond this life. The secular world is changing that and with more and more people attempting to cling on to their youth through cosmetic surgery the idea of immortality and the connotations with it has changed from something to be feared, something dark, living in the shadows of existence to something to strive towards.

The vampire has been put on the endangered species list thanks to the modern life and the pursuit of lasting beautiful and youth. Jim Mickle looks to change that. Stake Land brings the vampire back to the screen in it’s most beautifully grotesque form and places the beast in the shadows again. A creature to be feared, a force to be reckoned with and a monster that would strike fear into the manpires of Edward Cullen and Bill Compton. For the sake of the vampire mythology Hollywood must accept that these creatures do not belong to the drama, they are supernatural two dimensional killing machines . They belong in the dark corners of your room, under your bed and feeding indiscriminately on man, woman and child alike. They are perfect just the way they are, so let’s just leave them that way and remember not to invite anyone into our homes with a widows peak or a Romanian accent.

Jim Mickle’s Stake Land is playing as part of the 2011 Belfast Film Festival.

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