Monday, 26 August 2013

Final Girl Film Club: A Bay of Blood aka. Twitch of the Death Nerve

Title: A Bay of Blood aka. Twitch of the Death Nerve
Director: Mario Bava
Released: 1971
Starring: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Camaso, Anna Maria Rosati, Chris Avram, Leopoldo Trieste, Laura Betti, Brigitte Skay, Isa Miranda, Paola Montenero, Guido Boccaccini, Roberto Bonanni, Giovanni Nuvoletti

Plot: When the elderly Countess Federica (Miranda) is murdered by her husband (Nuvoletti), things take an unusual turn when he too is murdered by an unseen assailant before being dumped into the bay by the estate. What follows is an all out murder spree as both relatives and friends conspire to claim the bay for themselves.

Review: Despite being a key figure in both the giallo film genre aswell as in the creation of  modern slasher movies, director Bava is still a director largely unknown to most casual horror fans, despite his influence being frequently seen in the likes of “Alien”, “Prometheus” aswell as “Pitch Black” from which comparisons to Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires” can be drawn, while the influence of this film can clearly be seen as a big influence for “Friday the 13th Part 2” which even cheekily lifted two of the films murder scenes.  Needless to say this film was my first taste of Bava’s work, largely thanks to the “Final Girl Film Club” run by the multi-talented Stacie Ponder over at “Final Girl” who choose this as her August film club pick. As such it was really the push I needed, especially as I have never been the biggest fan of the giallo genre, yet at the same time I was keen to actually see some of Bava’s work to possibly understand why a man whose films have frequently been so influential is still so under the radar.

Over the years since its release the film has appeared under a variety of titles including bizarrely “Last House On The Left - Part 2” despite being released a year before Wes Craven’s original film. The constant name changes mainly being due to the film under performing at the cinema under one title, only to be re-released under another even though nothing about the film had actually changed. These name changes also saw the film being banned twice in the UK, the first under its more popular title “A Bay of Blood” before later being banned for video under the title “Blood Bath”. As a result of all these names changes the film now hold a record for more alternative titles than any other film released, with the majority of the titles going for cheap shock fitting of the exploitation nature of the film, which frequently feels like a string of gruesome murder scenes strung together by only the loosest of plots.

The favourite of Bava’s movies, its influence on the slasher genre is clear with its dense woodland setting and its largely stalk and slash approach to the killing of its young cast, is only something that would replicated time and time again over the years which followed its release. Meanwhile Bava also picking up cinematography duties here really makes the most of his minimal budget, reportly using a child’s wagon for the tracking shot and even making his shooting location of  producer Giuseppe Zaccariello beach house seem like a dense forest through camera tricks when there was reportedly only a few scattered trees on the location. Bava meanwhile shooting the film as quickly as possible before the limited production money ran out, which may also explain why the film feels like confused mess in places, none so much when we randomly have a bunch of partying teens stumble into the film, whose only purpose seems to be for them to be killed off, especially with no real further mention of them in the rest of the film, outside of a brief discovery scene of their assorted bodies.

The plot is at times a baffling mess, as the various members slowly reveal their own plots for claiming the bay. However due to the sheer number of plots flying around it can be confusing to keep up with who is who, let alone who they are plotting with. Meanwhile the none standard scenes of the partying teens seem to be part of a different movie altogether, especially when they have no real effect on the main plot, outside of adding to the body count and adding a little titillation to the proceedings.

Needless to say the real focus here seems to be on the murders themselves, with the film not only racking up a decent body count, with each new twist or betrayal amongst the family, all of which are voyeuristically realised by acclaimed special effects legend Carlo Rambaldi, who here really goes to town to produce some effective kills, as throats are bloodily slit, heads decapitated and even a spear is run through a two teens while having sex in a scene which as I mentioned earlier would be lifted for “Friday the 13th Part 2, alongside the machete to the face. Bava shooting these scenes with an unflinching eye, often lingering the camera on the aftermath for a few seconds afterward, to fully appreciate his killers handiwork, while these death scenes are frequently accompanied by frenzied tribal drumming as the soundtrack works itself into a frenzy of excitement, as it attempts to replicate the psyche of the killer, while interesting forgoing the more traditional crescendro we are used to seeing accompanied these scenes, instead cutting of the music dead when the death blow is struck, leaving the audience to view the aftermath in errie silence a style similar to the climatic chase motorbike chase in “Electra Glide In Blue”, which saw its slow motion crashes shot in the same way. While the gore today might have lost some its effectiveness thanks to the occasionally dated looking effects, with its decapitation being bettered by “Friday the 13th” making it hard to imagine that this is the same film which horror legend Christopher Lee walked out of during its premier, having been curious to see Bavas’ latest film having worked previous with him on “The Whip and the Body”. This however is not to say that it doesn’t still have its effective moments such as a brutal harpoon impalement and a chilling strangulation were each grunt and gasp seems to be amplified.

Ultimately I can’t say that this was an overly memorable viewing experience, though at the same time it is hard to deny its influence on the slasher genre especially when its gore frequently gets so creative, while its’ surprising and certainly original ending makes it almost worth the preceding 80+ mins and making it more of a curiosity of horror historians and genre fans than a must see.

Monday, 19 August 2013

End of Watch

Title: End of Watch
Director: David Ayer
Released: 2012
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera
Plot: Two police officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña)find themselves marked for death by the members of a local cartel after they confiscate a cache of money and firearms during a routine traffic stop.

Review: Honestly when I was going into this film I can’t say that I was exactly looking forward to it, especially when it didn’t seem to be exactly bringing anything new to the table with its police procedural setting, much less the fact that it is yet another found footage movie, a genre notoriously difficult to pull off let alone do well. Needless to say that within the opening five minutes I was left astounded by this film.

Written and directed by David Ayer who has had something of a mixed bag of a career as both a writer and director, having previous written the Oscar winning “Training Day”, “Dark Blue” and the star making Vin Diesel vehicle “The Fast and the Furious”, while as a director his most noteworthy film to date was the sadly overlooked “Harsh Times”, something he seems to be trying to correct with this latest offering which grabs hold of it’s audience and refuses to let them go as it takes them through a rollercoaster 109 minutes.

Shot completely on a mixture of handheld and chest mounted cameras aswell as additional shots from the police cruiser video and ariel shots from choppers, Ayer has here managed to build a fully immersive world in which to set his story and somehow has managed to achieve the impossible by actually making the format work to heighten the experience, rather than proving a continual distraction to the viewer as they have to contend with shaky camera and out of focus action shots, all pitfalls which Ayer manages to avoid with his choice of shooting method even going as far as to actually give us a valid reason as to why they are still filming, which in the case of the two officers at the centre of this story is as simple as Brian using the footage for his film making project something while the use of chest camera provides a much more steadier image than has been previous seen in found footage movies to date, while also giving us the thrill of getting first person shooter style shots during shoot outs as firearms are discharged, while the opening chase sequence shot entirely on the cruiser camera, makes for an equally thrilling ride.

Set in South Central LA, it is hard not to draw comparisons between this film and the TV series “Southland” with who it shares the same stomping ground with and certainly a similar style, as the two young officers find themselves continually having to deal with the worst scum he city has to offer, while at the same time walking their own line when it comes to dealing with upholding their law in their district, something especially highlighted by Zavala getting involved in a brawl with one suspect while being cheered on by an enthusiastic Taylor, actions which are surprisingly never called into question especially with Zavala and Taylor filming all of their actions, but then why at the same time are cartel members videotaping their own illegal activities? Ultimately it would seem that these moment are more for the benefit of the audience on terms of building setting rather than setting up key plot points.

Zavala and Taylor are much more than just partners as their partnership sees them more as brothers, than just close friends, for as much as they pick on each others flaws, they genuinely seem to care about each other, even to the point were they have death pacts so that they will look after each other’s wives should they die in the line of duty and it’s a bond which seems to help them survive so many of the horrors they see over course of each patrol they complete, with each shift only seemingly to bring with a whole new set of shocks for them to deal with, especially when even a routine welfare check on an elderly woman uncovers a mass grave of dismembered corpses, especially as he stranglehold of the cartel over he local community only seems to grow ever more stronger, despite the efforts of the police to stem its tide. Still there is no main plot line to the film or main bad guy to foil as Ayer instead sets the flm’s rythem to the day to day routine of police work, as Zavala and Taylor frequently find themselves walking  a tightrope between bordom and bursts of adrenaline fuelled action, never quite sure what the streets will hold for them, as they try to make it to the tituar end of watch.

In terms of casting it is flawless with Gyllenhaal in particular reminding us that he is still capable of the same exciting performances he gave back when made “Donnie Darko” something that I have been waiting along time to see again, especially with his work in the mainstream  lacking any of his earlier energy. Peña meanwhile proves to be equally watchable as he finally gets a more meatier role than he has previously been offered to date, while the real life research the two actors undertook in preparing for their roles which saw them completing twelve hour ride alongs three times a week with members of the Greater Los Angeles area law enforcement agencies, the first of which unexpectingly leading to Gyllenhaal witnessing a murder during the first of these ride alongs and something which seems to have benefit to both of the actors, as they convincingly portray their roles as officers on the beat, while the random conversations such as Zavala reeling off his shopping list of energy drinks he is carrying or questionable relationship advice only adding  to the realism.

Once more Ayer has crafted more than your typical cop movie, while finally writing at the same level again that he was when he gave us "Training Day", as here he continues his ongoing obsession with law enforcement and those they oppose, while demonstrating once more that while the officers might belong to the brotherhood of blue, its one made up of many different shades. Easily one of the best films of the year while once more marking Ayer as name to watch.

Thursday, 15 August 2013


Title: Super
Director: James Gunn
Released: 2010
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker

Plot: Frank (Wilson) is a downtrodden short-order cook, whose wife Sarah (Tyler) has just left him for drug dealer Jacques (Bacon). Sinking into a deep depression he suffers a vision were he is touched by the hand of god, while being advised by the Holy Avenger (Fillion) a Christian public-access TV show superhero to become his own superhero. Now transformed into Crimson Bolt he sets out to clean up the city of crime.

Review: I think the announcement that Director James Gunn had been chosen as the director of “Guardians of the Galaxy” as part of Marvel Studios Phase two, I can safely say I was almost as surprised as when Peter Jackson was announced as the director of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The main reason for this surprise was that both came from a horror background, with Jackson especially notorious for the bad taste splatter of his early films, before moving onto more mainstream but none the less dark fare like the fantastic “Heavenly Creatures”. Gunn’s career path while perhaps not so dark as Jackson’s is still one containing its own amount of splatter, having started off working for Troma and making his directorial debut with the gooey “Sliver” for which this film would be its follow up, while the rest of his career to date has been very much horror influenced. So with this in mind I was curious to see how this would shape his vision of a superhero movie, especially after previously playing with the superhero genre with “The Specials”. Watching this film though only really begs the question again as to what the Marvel exec’s were thinking when they gave Gunn the “Guardians of the Galaxy” gig, especially considering the pitch black vein of humour which runs throughout this film, as Gunn gives us his truly unique take on costume vigilantes.

Bizarrely released at the same time of the more recognised and lighter “Kick-Ass” aswell as the little seen “Defendor” in what seemed to be a mini craze for the subject of costume vigilanties. Gunn here has chosen to take a much more risqué route, seeing how Frank is far from the most instantly likable character, having been so downtrodden for so long we first meet him at essentially his lowest point, especially when he can only think of two happy moments in his life. The first being the day he married Sarah and the other being when he directed a police officer to catch a purse snatcher, both of which he immortalises in childlike drawing and stuck on the otherwise bare walls of his apartment. Needless to say this sort of character is the perfect fit for Wilson who has spent the best part of his career playing such social outcasts, with Wilson’s performance as Frank seemingly building on his role as Arthur on “Six Feet Under”.

Much like his costume vigilante contempories, Frank has no super powers to speak off and after a failed attempt at busting a drug dealer, soon controversially arms himself with a pipe wrench, which soon has him marked on the police radar for all the wrong reasons, especially when his superhero antics usually end up putting the criminals in the intensive care unit. Still this doesn’t deter him, especially as he is so convinced of his mission, seeming sent from god himself in a scene were he is not so much touched by god but rather scalped and poked in the brain by god in a scene I can’t help but feel was inspired by the Channard Cenobite from “Hellraiser 2”, in a scene which only further marks out Gunn’s love of the horror genre.

While previous entries in the costume vigilant genre (if that’s what this can be classed as?) have focused on the wannabe superhero and their journey to being a true hero, “Super” instead seems to be about one man setting out on the path of trying to make a difference, while slowly becoming more unhinged as his journey progresses, here seen from the comical first attempts at busting crime by lurking around empty alleyways through to him finally stocking up on firepower and explosives for his suicidal final assault on Jacques stronghold. Also unlike the other films Frank gets (if unwillingly) a sidekick in the form of the hyperactive and foul mouthed comic book store clerk Libby, who starts off first as his comic book guru, helping Frank find the identity of the Crimson Bolt by studying comic book hero and soon joins Frank on patrol as his sidekick Boltie. It’s an unusual approach and one which really sinks or swims depending on if you get Gunn’s warped sense of humour. Still it is really a tribute to the cast (all who worked to scale) who commit to their roles so fully that the film works so well with Page especially unhinged and a far cry from her usual roles, while Bacon once again shows his usual fearlessness as he harnesses his inner sleazebag, to make Jacques a truly disgusting individual even to the point where he disgusts even his own henchmen with his actions.

What was most surprising here though was the gore quota, which is in many ways is unsurprising when you consider the amount of Pipe wrench clubbing being dished out to drug dealers right through to people cutting in line. So while cracked skulls are mainly the order of the day, while Gunn also finds a number of opportunities to surprise the audience with these sporadic moments of gore, which frequently come without warning and often creating a double punch thanks to the already frequently out there nature of the material. Needless to say like with the rest of the film Gunn is none the less creative with his splatter with Frank’s visions / Brain poke certainly proving memorable, much like the finale were deaths are shown in slow motion complete with crudely drawn Batman esq pow bubbles.  

Managing shock at the same time it amuses, Gunn walks a tricky tightrope and one which won’t work for everyone. Still there is enough originality here to make for an interesting trip at the least, especially as it will no doubt leave you wondering what the hell you’ve just watched.

Sunday, 11 August 2013


Title: Bernie
Director: Richard Linklater
Released: 2011
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Mathew McConaughey

Plot:  Shot in a documentary style, the film tells Bernie’s story in particular the friendship he struck up with the wealthy and recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) who was widely dispised by the other townsfolk, due to her frequently cold and unpleasant nature, with the film especially focusing on the events leading up to Bernie shooting her several times from behind. A crime only made all the more bizarre by the fact that he was so popular with the local townsfolk that despite him openly confessing to her murder, they still rallied to his defence.

Review: For anyone not already convinced that Jack Black is a master of disguise, especially with most associating him with his now trademark classic rock infused whirlwind style of acting, often forgetting that he was also the pilot in “Waterworld”, the lead bad guy in “The Neverending Story 3” or the annoying white Rasta in “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”, before finally making getting his breakout role in “High Fidelity” which essentially typecast him for every film which followed. Still occasionally he has shown us that he is still more than a one trick pony with films like “King Kong” and “Nacho Libre”, both showcasing different sides to him and one we refreshingly get to see again here, as he adopts a camp southern twang to play small town mortician Bernie Tiede.

A strange tale to say the least but one only made the stranger by the fact that it is a story based on true events, with director Richard Linklater using the 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth who also helped to write the screenplay with Linklater, a director who has always had an affection for oddball characters. An obsession first started with his indie debut “Slacker” and one which has continued throughout his career, with Bernie being truly his kind of character.

Opening with Bernie addressing a class of student morticians through the tricks of his trade, from super gluing eyes shut, to the use of the correct amount of blush, all while highlighting each of these actions with a dash of dark humour as he throws out such great pearls of wisdom like

“We must always be on guard for the mischievous lip drift. Even the slightest hint of teeth can be disastrous. You cannot have grief tragically becoming a comedy.”

It is a scene which perfectly introduces his character and whose instant likability makes it easy to see why he was so popular amongst the townsfolk and this is even before the film moves into the largely talk head filled meat of the film, which highlights many of his good deeds within the community, aswell as the skill he handles his trade with, making the recently deceased sound better in life than they were in death including the town drunk who comes off sounding like a socialite thanks to Bernie. It is this likability which is key to the film working or failing seeing how the film essentially rests on you wanting a self-confessed murderer getting away with it. Thankfully it is something which is effortlessly portrayed by Black, who judging by the credits footage of Black in conversation with the real life Bernie Tiede the similarities between the two are the remarkable, though sadly the footage is shown without sound meaning that we never get to discover who much of a sound-alike he is aswell.

While this is essentially Black’s movie, he still receives strong support from MacLaine who is truly odious with her continuous taunting and gradually increasing mental torture she inflicts on Bernie with her nagging, possessiveness and generally acid tonged putdowns, making it none too hard to root for her demise. Equally on form is Mathew McConaughey as the D.A. Danny Buck Davidson, who’s Rottweiler like obsession with the case, is only made all the more memorable by his performance that manages to skilfully juggle moments of drama and comedy together, especially as he is frequently confounded by the views of the townsfolk who are frequently quick to leap to the defence of Bernie, even though he is openly confessed to murder and making no attempt to rally the townsfolk to his cause.

Linklater making the decision to shoot the film in a documentary style is certainly an interesting, yet certainly effective one, with the talking heads element this provides frequently giving the film many of its more memorable moments as the townsfolks give their thoughts on Bernie and the case, with the southern drawl certainly adding a quaint edge to it, while the fact that many of the townsfolk are playing themselves only continues to add to the already surreal nature of the case. Frustratingly though Linklater never really makes any attempts to understand why they are so devoted to defending him? Is it because of Bernie's charitable nature or is it more down to how he started handing out mrs Nugent's money as risk free loans to them all. Infact the only real counterargument we get to Bernie's list of good deeds is via McConaughey's Danny Buck seeming voice of reason, even though it is one we particularly don't want to listen to even though we know he is ultimately right. Equally frustrating is the lack of real insight into why Bernie is like he is, especially seeing how his acts despite seemingly being money motivated still continue today while he is incarcerated.

For one reason of another this film has only just now made it over to the UK, despite being released stateside last year, though it remains to be seen exactly what sort of wide release the film will get, with my current thoughts being that it will likely be turning up direct to DVD, but it’s still one of the most fascinating performances from Black that I have seen in a while and one which captures this truly unique story.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Only God Forgives

Title: Only God Forgives
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Released: 2012
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Tom Burke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Plot: Julian (Gosling) runs a Thai boxing club as a front for his family’s drug business, alongside his brother Billy (Burke). When his brother is killed by the vengeful father of an underage prostitute he murdered. Now with his mother’s (Scott Thomas) sudden arrival, Julian now finds himself dispatched on a mission of vengeance, one which will soon see him on a collision course with Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) the “Angel of Vengeance”.
Review: Director Refn recently told the LA Film festival

“Drive was like getting the best cocaine and doing it all night long. But Only God Forgives is like doing acid. Not the kind where you sit in a chair and see things – the kind of good acid where you become the chair.”

It’s an interesting comparison and one which is probably best used to explain this film, as this eagerly awaited follow up to the critically acclaimed and Oscar overlooked “Drive” is like its predecessor anything but a straightforward film. Still what could you really expect when the film is also dedicated to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist film maker and midnight movie favourite who equally seems to be a key influence at play here, as Refn plays with revenge movie conventions to craft a truly surreal movie and one which is no doubt going to lead to another round of cinema walkouts which I saw with “Drive”, when the average movie goer realises that the film they have come to see is nothing like the film sold in the trailer, much less the ones drawn in by the prospect of once more seeing a rough and ready Ryan Gosling.

Julian much like Driver in “Drive” is a man of few words, detached from society outside of his crew and the voyeuristic sessions he spends with prostitute Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), though their relationship never progresses beyond this, despite Refn frequently hinting at deeper feelings between these two characters, such an invitation to an ultimately ill-fated diner with his mother or from the way she watches him during his confrontation with Chang. These are ultimately passing moments which never progress any further as Refn refuses once again to give into convention. Julian’s general nature though can be credited largely to his mother, who sweeps into his life like a whirlwind of spite and foul language, demanding revenge for her lost son from Julian while frequently humiliating him at any given opportunity, especially when drawing comparisons between him and his brother with her praise for Billy frequently verging on incestuous as she even at one point even comments on the size of Billy’s cock. It is a volatile performance which Scott Thomas gives here aswell one which keeps frequently has been compared to that of Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast", though I would personally say it would be a more noteworthy comparison if I could remember anything else she had been in.

The real draw here though is Pansringarm who like Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” pretty much steals the film away, with his zen like performance of Chang who frequently dishes out his own brand of sword welding vigilante justice, which seems him skipping over the paper work and court system and instead hacking off limbs as he more than lives up to his title as the angel of vengeance, ruling he city unopposed and only putting his unrelenting mission of justice on hold to engage in Karaoke sessions, usually watched with transfixed gazes from his officers.

Reuniting his “Drive” production team, Refn moves the action from grime of LA to the Neon lit sleaze of Bangkok to create a film which while comparable to his previous film is at the same time a very different beast altogether and one which seems to be splitting critics in a way I’ve not since the Richard Kelly’s much discussed “Southland Tales”. Meanwhile its untraditional plotting means it is also a film requiring patience and an open mind, especially when it frequently seems like a disconnected series of vigilantes, even more so when they often seem so detached and self enclosed from each other. The end result is unquestionably dizzying and at time surreal, while one which left me wondering how the hell I was going to review this movie.

The other main issue here is that Refn has chosen to tell his story with a collection of such un-redeeming individuals, that it can be at times be hard to stomach the story we are being sold, especially when it essentially a tale of bad people doing very bad things to each other and more often than not anyone who happens to stumble into their world, while collateral damage frequently seems to be at a premium. For the more established fans of Refn’s work this will no doubt bring back memories of his earlier films such as his “Pusher” trilogy which equally featured its own share of morally questionable characters and like this film chooses not to paint everything in clear cut black and white but rather varying shades of grey.

Like “Drive” violence is never far from these character, however unlike “Drive” which restrained its violent impulses until its final reels, here the violence is spread out while slowly escalating as the film progresses to the showdown between Julian and Chang. This however is not Hollywood violence as Refn instead aims for realistic violence, as Julian is left bloody and bruised after his confrontation with Chang, so much so that it the once good looks of Gosling are reduced to a bloody and bruised mess. Elsewhere a spectacularly failed hit on Chang, only further racks up the collateral damage total, as bullets shred bodies shot in slow motion, as Chang sits with his men completely unfazed by the carnage erupting around him.

This really won’t be a movie which appeals to everyone, but then Refn has continually been a director operating on the fringes of popularity. Still despite the subject matter being often hard to stomach, here he continues to show himself still an exciting film maker aswell as one clearly still playing by his own rules.  Even now looking back at this film several days later it is a film I still find myself still trying to work out, while if like “Southland Tales” it will stand up to repeated viewings is something yet to be seen.
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