Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Mad Max

Title: Mad Max
Director: George Miller
Released: 1979
Starring: Mel Gibson, Steve Bisley, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Time Burns, Geoff Parry, Roger Ward, Vincent Gill

Plot: Set in the near future were with the Earth’s oil supplied nearly exhausted, society has begun to fall apart. Meanwhile Main Force Patrol (MFP) officer Max (Gibson) soon finds himself the target of a vengeful motorcycle gang lead by the Toecutter (Keays Byrne) after he accidently kills one of their members

Review: One of the key Ozploitation movies of the Australian New Wave era and a film which despite its limited budget would not only spawn two sequels (with the third “Fury Road” as of the time of writing currently in production), it would also go on to set the benchmark for car smash movies. This is only further justified when you look at what is possibly one of the greatest opening sequences ever rivalled perhaps only by “Narc”, as we are mere minutes into the film, before we are straight into the opening car chase, featuring a caravan being decimated, cars flipped and even a rocket car, all shot with a heavy dose of car porn as Director Millar ensures that the whole sequence is shot at break neck speed.

Inspired by a strange yet effective combination of the post apocalyptic cult classic “A Boy And His Dog” (Sadly he choose not to also use a talking dog), the 1973 fuel shortages in Australia, were motorists were frequently resorting to violence to fill their fuel tanks, aswell as what Millar was seeing while working as an Emergency Room doctor and from these sources he crafts a world of violence and chaos, one he would continue to build on with the sequels to create a truly original vision of a post-apocalyptic Australia. However it is not a world without hope which in this film comes from the skeleton crew of MFP officers still trying to maintain law and order, despite the local populace becoming increasingly more wild and violent, while the courts have all but collapsed meaning that they frequently struggle to make their arrests stick, with the crumbling halls of justice sign essentially capturing their current state. Meanwhile Millar truly captures a society on the edge of implosion.

Within this world Miller undoubtedly crafts some truly memorable characters, a trait he also carried over to the sequels, with fleshed out characterisation which extends well beyond the main characters and carried right through to even the most minor characters so that it feels like a living world that the film exists within. As the big evil of the film Keays-Byrne makes for a suitable intimidating villain as the Toecutter, a role he reportedly based on Genghis Khan which is a pretty suitable model considering the nomadic styling his gang and while he might not be anywhere as psychotic as the villains who followed, as he prefers to have his gang carry out his dirty work, while using his towering size to intimidate those he encounters, aswell as to keep his gang in line.

Despite the challenges and horrors Max faces on a daily basis, he refuses to give in as he continues to try and fight the good fight, finding solace from the horrors he sees from his loving wife and child who provide him the rock he needs, something which is only emphesised by him becoming the titular Mad Max after they are viciously killed by bikers in a truly hunting sequence and one which I found affecting me more while rewatching it for this review, possibly because of being a father myself, something I was on the previous times I had watched this film. It is a role embodied by the fresh faced Gibson, with this film launching him into superstar status, despite originally only attending the auditions for the film to support his close friend Steve Bisley who here appears similarly as Max’s best friend Goose. Ironically it would be the battered appearance he turned up to the audition in as a result of the previous nights bar brawl that would land him the part, with one of the casting agents advising him to come back as “We need freaks”. Gibson despite his inexperience perfectly manages to potray the two sides to Max, especially in his transformation from loving family man to ice cold avenger.

The violence here despite the films legacy is largely retrained and more implied with Miller preferring to give the viewer bursts of intense violence, which can be slightly disappointing after such a strong opening that the film on first viewing can feel like one drawn out chase movie, as Max and his family try to escape from Toecutter and his men, who are quick to spurn themselves into a whirlwind of violence and rape (Both male and female with bisexual / homosexual villains one of the more random  reoccurring themes of the series). While future instalments would amp up the violence, this film instead is more a study of revenge and what happens when a man reaches his breaking point, with Max’s revenge being especially blunt as he utilises both his trademark black pursuit special but also a sawn off shotgun as his tools of revenge, while memorably forcing one gang member to choose between sawing through a chain or his ankle to avoid being blown up in a scene which would also provide the inspiration for “Saw”. Needless to say this is world were only those willing to fight or give in to more primal instincts survive, aswell as one were the intimidating MFP Captain is called FiFi (Ward)

While it is my least favourite of the trilogy, it is a film which benefits from a repeat viewing or atleast some prior warning over what to expect, especially when comparing to the sequels, which are very much a different beast in comparison, but as an origin story it is still solid on its own merits and a films which certainly has lost nothing in the years since its release.

Sunday, 28 July 2013


Title: Savages
Director: Oliver Stone
Released: 2012
Starring: Aarron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Benico Del Toro

Plot:Ben(Taylor-Johnson)and Chon (Kitsch) are best buddies and pot growers. Ben is a UCLA graduate while Chon is a former Navy SEAL, making them an effective combination of brains and braun, while bizarrely sharing a hippie girlfriend, named O (Lively). With their focus being on running their business with none of the usual violence associated with the drugs trade DEA Agent Dennis (Travolta), allows the boys to get away with their set-up on account of nobody getting hurt. However Elena (Hayek) who heads up a Mexican drug cartel decides she wants a piece of the peaceful action. But when the boys refuse the offer, Elena kidnaps O. But the boys won’t take that lying down as they take matters into their own hands.

Review: When it comes to naming legendary directors, Oliver Stone’s name is certain to be amongst them. especially when you look at his directorial body of work which includes such classic movies such as Salvador, Wall Street aswell as his Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Born on the Forth of July, Heaven and Earth). However this is not to say that he has not made a few less than legendary directing choices such as the overblown historical biopic “Alexander”. Still after his last film the fantastic and long awaited “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps” it looked like he might be back on track…..then of course I saw this movie.

Originally brought to my attention when compiling my 2012 films to look out for over at "Diamonds In Da Sky", this film seemingly has set out to reinvent the drug dealer movie and our general perception of drug dealers as being slimy and psychotic cokeheads, by instead giving us Ben and Chon, who are anything but your typical dealers, as they run their business largely violence free, outside of the occasional persuasive visit from Chon. However in his attempts to truly shatter the mould and portray these two as just two fun loving guys who happen to sell copious amounts of pot, director Stone manages to make the first to many blunders throughout this film as he paints the peace loving new ager Ben as what Jesus could possibly have been like had he sold pot on the side and even he would have a hard time keeping up with Ben, especially when painted with such holier than thou tones, with pretentious scenes such as him being shown travelling the world helping third world villages on the back of his drug profits. Meanwhile the only time we see him selling pot, it is only to those with terminal illnesses, because of course it’s all about helping people and not about making the pile of cash which bought their luxury condo, things which are pretty much glossed over throughout.

Thrown into the mix we have their stoner girlfriend O, whose over written dialogue, provides the narrative throughout, while occasionally throwing out such pretentious lines like

“Just because I'm telling you this story... doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it”

Which would have been better, had it not been used awhole lot better back in 99 in "American Beauty", while loosely fleshing out their characters with the occasional burst of information, such as how they met her and how they started their enterprise, yet never properly explaining how their open relationship came to be, besides describing their sex life, which by the end of the film was possibly the only thing we really knew about these characters outside of the minimal amount of characterisation they are given. I mean how did this relationship come to be and why does she hold such power over them both? Questions which are for some reason never answered much like how they can have such a jealously free relationship. This also extends to the villains who are just as equally sketched out, with a handful of interesting facts such as Drug baroness Elena’s turbulent relationship with her daughter, supposedly meaning to cover for how little we really know about these characters outside of their various actions.

Such poor attention to the smaller details, means that while we encounter several great characters, only for them to largely end up coming off shallow and no doubt would have even failed to spark even the base amount of interest, especially with the bad guys which essentially only work because of the fun performances by Hayek and Benico Del Toro who seems to be having the most fun of all the cast as the sleazy cartel underboss Lado, who I couldn’t but feel was fleshed out by improvisation by Del Toro, especially during scenes such as the hit he carries out on another dealer, were as he interrogates him he tosses away anything which could be used against him as a potential weapon.
The other main flaw here is certainly with the bloated two hour run time, which seems to have been a luxury only afforded because of the weight which Stone’s name carries and while it might be an eventful film, it still felt that there was a lot which could have been trimmed out of the film to make for a tighter run time. Equally frustrating is that we get one ending which would have been a bold choice and almost redeeming, only for it to be scrapped and replaced with what could probably be best described as the Scooby Doo ending as I half expected Elena to be shouting “I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky kids!”.

The film however does look really nice, with Stone once again harnessing his visual side to maximum potential and this especially comes into play during the handful of action scenes we get, even though the trailer would have you believe it to be more action packed than the pulp thriller we do get. Still even viewed like this it is hard to even recommend it as mindless trash to waste a few hours with, especially with being so bloated it more often than not left me with too much time to question such minor things, like why everyone is pretty much dressed in every sex scene the film has and what modern films have against gratuitous nudity, especially in such seemingly free thinking times?? Still any film which leaves my mind to wonder as much as that is one to be approached with caution.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Elwood's Essentials #6: Garden State

Title: Garden State
Director: Zach Braff
Released: 2004
Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, Armando Riesco, Jackie Hoffman, Method Man, Alex Burns, Jim Parsons, Michael Weston

Plot: Andrew (Braff) is currently working as a semi-successful actor in LA, while largely numb to his surroundings thanks to a life lived on mood stabilisers and antidepressants thanks to a childhood diagnosis by his psychologist father (Holm). Now returning to his hometown of New Jersey to attend his mothers funeral he decides to take a break from his meds and see what life is like off them, while at the same time meeting pathological liar Sam (Portman), who soon joins Andrew as he tries to discover a life without meds

(What no trailer? Blame the studio for not allowing the UK Streaming rights)
Review:  Released at the height of Braff's popularity while he was still appearing in “Scrubs”, it is actually a pretty surprising film, seeing how it’s an indie comedy dealing with its lead character taking a break from his life lived on prescription drugs, which is far from the sort of fodder that we have come to expect from directorial debuts being made by well known actors, something which always gets the alarm bells ringing, much less when they open to lead characters being caught in the turmoil of a plane falling out of the sky, while they stare directly into the camera, seemingly numb to the chaos erupting around him. Somehow Braff not only manages to make it work, but also manages to tell a touching story without feeling the need to go all preachy on the subject of prescription drugs and the state of our medicated nation.

Braff while better known for his comedy talents, actually gets to show a more serious side to his acting abilities while he still manages to include numerous humorous moments throughout, but this is largely from natural humour than aiming for laugh out loud funny. Equally Braff has a great ear for dialogue as he drives the film with Andrew interactions with friends from his hometown, rather than visual flair even though it is equally hard to deny that it still a stunningly shot film without noticeably trying, with shots like Andrew riding around on his Motorcycle with sidecar or having leg humped by a seeing eye dog becoming instantly memorable.

Equally memorable are the various characters Andrew encounters, such as former best friend Mark (Sarsgaard) who now works as a grave digger, while also running a number of side-line businesses from desert storm trading cards and exploiting the the refund policy of the local supermarket through to selling the Jewellery of the same people he’s burying. Equally prominent is the character of Sam, who not only comes with her own set of issues being a pathological liar, but she is equally a life loving free spirit and much more than just a quirky love intrest, especially considering how downplayed any feelings they have for each other are downplayed until close the end were Braff finally relents, but until then both of the characters clearly feel something for each other, its just neither no how to express it, no doubt at the result of people viewing them for their issues rather than the person behind them.  Portman is notably great in this role as she not only gives one of her strongest performances in years but also brings such a carefree sense of fun to the character, that is hard to not like her infectious enthusiasm or even her more childlike moments such as the one seem during a bathtub confessional she holds with Andrew, when a lesser actress might have overplayed them or made them overly smaltzy.

With the cast on awhole Braff really hit pay dirt with, seeing how upon the films release none (with perhaps the exception of Portman) were especially well known and have since gone onto bigger and better things, which pretty amusing to see so many well-known actors appearing in what is essentially a very low budget film. Infact it was only during the re-watching of this film for this review that I noticed Jim Parson’s (Sheldon from The Big Bang Therory) cameo as a Klingon speaking knight. This luck also carried over to the soundtrack, which Braff not only compiled but also used it to introduce the world to “The Shins” who supply the more memorable parts of the soundtrack including my personal favourite “New Slang”.

In a perfect world Zach Braff would be noted amongst the greats of indie cinema but it has taken him almost ten years to follow this film up with his kickstarter funded “Wish I Was Here” which is due to be released next year were it will finally answer if this film was just a lucky fluke. This is not to say that he hasn’t been directing in the meantime, seeing how he has notched up several episodes of “Scrubs” aswell as music videos for the likes of Gavin DeGraw and Joshua Radin but what I really want to see is more feature work from him, but until then it remains an interesting curiosity on his C.V and one I would love to see him build on, while hopfully capturing the charm of this debut.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Ring of Steel

Title: Ring of Steel
Director: David Frost
Released: 1994
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Carol Alt, Robert Chapin, Darlene Vogel, Gary Kasper, Jim Pirri, Don Stark, Henry Brown, Mark Arnott, Carlos Lauchu, Greg Wrangler, Axel Muench

Plot: Champion fencer Alex (Chapin) suddenly find himself blackballed from the fencing community after accidently killing an opponent during a tournament final. Now with his life in turmoil he is given a chance by a mysterious stranger (Baker) to use his fencing skills by taking part in underground swordfights.

Review: I don’t think I’ve had as random a viewing experience as I did watching this film since I first saw “Xtro 2: The Second Encounter”, as only then did I find myself watching a film which spectacularly fails in certain areas, only to then excel so well in others that it bizarrely manages to balance things out. Does this make for a good film? Maybe not but it does certainly make for an interesting watch to say the least.

Scripted by leading man Chapin, while being later lightened up by director Frost after the studio felt that Chapin’s script was too dark, while after seeing the film now makes it a script I would not love to read, especially after seeing how generally generic the final film turned out to be much like so many tournament martial arts movies, with the sole difference here that the focus is on swordplay rather than hand to hand combat / fighting styles. Something not overly surprising when you consider Chapin’s background (much like most of the cast) is in stage combat and swordplay role with his IMDB profile listing both “Army of Darkness” and “Hook” in his extensive list of credits, which more recently has seen him focusing more on his work in visual effects, aswell as working on his web based vampire series “The Hunted”.

As a lead Chapin is likeable enough, while certainly processing some of the most impressive swordplay skills of any of the actors here, as certainly highlighted during a playful duel between himself and Brian (Pirri), which not only pays homage to “The Court Jester” but has a great sense of fun, as the two trade sarcastic barbs while seemingly playing a game of one upmanship to see who can come up with the most flamboyant move. It is however the swordplay scenes which cover for his shortcomings as an actor, seeing how he approaches the role with a playful attitude but never seeming to be able to transfer his Errol Flynn wit from his duels to any of his other scenes when he doesn’t happen to be in a duel with another character.

The plot is pretty standard affair and none to dissimilar to the old school video game “Barbarian” (sadly without a little guy who kicks the decapitated losers head off screen) with Alex having to fight his way through the ranks to a showdown with the current champion Jack (Kasper), a meathead who seems to be taking fashion tips from “Dog the Bounty Hunter” judging on his dodgy looking mullet, which even for the early 90’s is still not a good luck. Jack for the most part makes for a half decent big evil, even if he is never quite the intimidating force that the film would like you to think he is, much like it can never truly decide who the bad guys are supposed to be seeing how it varied from Baker’s (who is always in great form) unnamed Man in Black, the devious seductress Tanya (Alt) or Jack. Frustratingly none of them other than Jack ever really committing to the position of big evil, let alone having any real kind of plan for Alex outside of forcing him to compete.
Thankfully there is enough action here to keep things ticking over, which is were the real appeal of the film lies, as with most of the cast coming from swordplay backgrounds and most being more known for their stunt work than acting roles and hence ensures that we get to also see a wide range of fighting styles, as Ninja’s, Gladiators and even Alex’s fencing style being used for the entertainment of the crowd, in what could essentially be seen as UFC with weapons! However despite what the title and trailer would have you believe the titular “Ring of Steel” is less of a bloodsport than the film would like you to believe it is, especially considering how there is only one death which actually occurs in a match, with the other matches featured throughout all being fought until one fighter yields to the other, something it is hard to tell if it was the result of script changes or of this was actually intentional. Meanwhile despite Alex being supposedly forced to compete in order to free his girlfriend Elena (Vogel), who is meanwhile being held hostage yet from the amount of fun and buzz he gets from competing it is hard to say he really cares either way if she ever gets set free or not, again something which appears to have been carried over from the original script which saw Alex not being able to recognise her in the original ending after he gets drawn too deep into this world he now finds himself thrust into.

Still randomness is something that film has in spades; even outside of the main plot we are still treated to scenes such as the cosplayer dressed as a barbarian who stumbles into the training session for new fighters, only to soon find himself on the wrong side of a brutal beatdown. However it doesn’t end there, as we also get possibly one of the most bizarre taunts ever, when Alex and Brian decide to taunt Jack by sending a chicken out to the ring a scene which I’ve yet to make any sense of even now as I sit here writing this review, much like the random sex scene less than 15 minutes into the film, which felt unneeded let alone misplaced appearing when it does.

True this is a film with some serious flaws and while it might linger around the ass end of okay, it is still a highly watchable film, whose swordplay angle helps to mix things up to stop it being yet another tournament movie and while the film optimistically hints at a sequel, I can’t say it is something I’m exactly in a rush to see happen anytime soon.

Sunday, 7 July 2013


Title: Antiviral
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Released: 2012
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcom McDowell, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, James Cade, Lara Jean Chorostecki

Plot: Syd March (Jones) is an employee at the Lucas clinic selling injections of live viruses harvested from sick celebrities to their obsessed fans. Syd unknown to his employers also has a sideline supplying illegal samples of these viruses to piracy groups, smuggling them from the clinic in his own body. However when he becomes infected with the disease that kills super sensation Hannah Geist (Gadon), Syd must unravel the mystery surrounding her death before he suffers the same fate.

Review: It’s always going to be difficult for the offspring of a famous director when they decide to follow in their parents footsteps and throw their hat into the directorial ring. Meanwhile the more cynical critics eagerly await the first opportunity to draw comparisons between their work and that of their more established parent, while often covering for their stalled attempts at breaking into directing by sneering that the sole reason they are able to make their film is due to their parents legacy. It’s an attitude I try to avoid when faced with these circumstances….well except when its the likes of the intolerable Peaches Geldof.

Thankfully safe to say he has made an intriguing debut to say the least, while one which at the same time seems equally at home amongst the familiar themes of his father, especially seeing how the two seem to share a love for the themes of infection and mutation, which have served his father so well over the course of his career and it is something very key to this film which fully embraces them with the same warped fascination Cronenberg snr. does. Equally at the same time he has also found  certainly unique way of exploring society’s on going obsession with celebrity as the Lucas company deals on a warped version of these celebrity obsessions, were obsessed fans can for a price be infected with the same diseases as their idols. Still it would seem it is not enough to just peddle these celebrity diseases, seeing how the company employees have turned their trade in disease and infection into what could almost be seen as an art form, as especially seen during a scene in which Syd is shown advising one client one the best location to receive a shot of a celebrity herpes to replicate contracting said disease through a kiss.

Set in what could only be perceived as being the near future, seeing how Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in doing anything to assign a particular date to things, mixing things up frequently by combining shots of the sterile white minimalist offices of the Lucas clinic with essentially the flipside which in this case is the downtown traders who deal in celebrity steaks in an environment much like a butchers shop, only here dealing in manufactured celebrity flesh than any of the more traditional sources, something which trader Avid (Pringue) assures Syd that it’s not quite cannibalism – But they’ll get there soon enough. Despite playing both sides of the celebrity disease trade, Syd is still a low level player on either side, but given a chance to take a sample from his employer’s biggest client Hannah Geist he soon finds himself in a situation he is far from equipped to deal with, especially when Geist suddenly dies. This of course is a situation only made worst by the fact that Syd intentionally infects himself with the diseases he is smuggling, leading him not only a desperate quest to find out what exactly she was infected with, but also caught up in a game of industrial espionage, as both sides try to claim the virus he is carrying.

Bizarrely considering this is his main plotline, things are played surprisingly straightforward and at times perhaps alittle more underplayed than I would have liked, especially when he only occasionally throws in a surprise twist to maintain the audiences interest, with more of his focus seemingly on the more surreal moments of the film which includes a random biomechanical transformation seemingly coming out of nowhere while the tone he has chosen here is decidedly icy throughout while he is at the same time clearly striving to carve out his own film making identity still manages to draw comparisons to the later films of his father. However throughout Cronenberg is keen to not take things to far into the fantastic realm, while allowing himself a brief fantastical moment, by giving his virus’s a blurred face as part of a copy protection system, due to diseases being viewed as highly guarded intellectual property.

While the subject matter might present every opportunity for gooey visuals, things are surprisingly kept fairly restrained and with none of the grotesque and warped flesh which made his father’s work so memorable. Despite this what gore we do get is effectively used with Cronenberg’s sterile whites only appearing more effective when used as the background from the frequent splashes of crimson blood, while the main focus is clearly with the slowly deteriorating condition of Syd. Still by showing this restraint he does keep the focus with the plot, rather than distracting the audience with imaginative visuals.

The real strength of the film though comes from the casting of Jones, who might at first sight might seem like the cheaper alternative to casting Michael Pritt, with whom he shares a strikingly similar resemblance to. Still despite Jones not having the same star power, especially with his most memorable role to date being as Banshee in “X Men: First Class”, yet despite this he fully embodies the role of Syd, taking on an almost vampire like persona with his pasty white skin and social awkwardness, never smiling and with his sole focus on life being with the sale of his biological wares, rather than anything resembling a life outside of his trade, especially when the closest we see that he has to a friend being with underground trader Avid.

Elsewhere Cronenberg has managed to assembled an equally strong supporting cast, which includes Malcom McDowell (who seems to be trying to currently beat Nicolas Cage for sheer workload) in a brief but none the less effective appearance. Though with Cronenberg putting such focus on Syd, most supporting characters do tend to get overshadowed, especially with Jones giving such a fascinating performance which makes me eager to see what he does next especially with his career at this point only just beginning.

I guess my main issue with this film  is that essentially nothing really happens and while it might be all very pretty to look at with the ideas well handled it still makes a testing watch for the less open minded movie goer and even with Cronenberg trimming six minutes off the original run time it can still at times be a an infuriating watch. Nevertheless it is still a fascinating debut and one which shows him keen to establish his own style even if his choice to work with such similar subject matter to his father makes him open to comparison still, while leaving me curious to see how he follows it up.
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