Friday, 30 January 2015

The Master Touch

Title: The Master Touch
Director: Michele Lupo
Released: 1972
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Giuliano Gemma, Florinda Bolkan, Wolfgang Preiss, Reinhard Kolldehoff, Romano Puppo, Bruno Corazzri

Plot: Steve Wallace (Douglas) a master safe cracker has just been released from prison, but its not long before he is drawn back into old habits with the prospect of one final heist, which he plans to pull off with circus trapeze artist Marco (Gemma).

Review: Also known as “A Man To Respect” this film marks my first venture into the world of the Italian eurocrime which for one reason or another alluded me until now. Bizarrely it would be my boss of all people who gave me this film along with a bunch of other films from the genre with the recommendation of watching this one first. More so when it was one of the first films to kick of the genre. It would also form part of the classier period for these films before they descended into their ultra-violent later years. 
Opening with Wallace being escorted from prison by Detective Hoffman (Kolldehoff) he is barely out of the car before he is picked up by the goons of his former employer mob boss Miller (Preiss) who despite being responsible for landing Wallace in prison in the first place now has another bank that he wants him plan a heist for. While initially keen to refuse especially considering how the last heist he did for Miller went. But when faced with the prospect of trying to break the seemingly unbreakable security system “Big Ben” he finds himself unable to refuse.

At the same time Wallace is keen to go straight and make a new life for himself with his girlfriend Anna (Bolkan) who seems remarkably understanding that he’s embarking on another heist after having spent the last 18 month waiting for him to get out of prison from the last one. Truth be told Bolkan isn’t exactly the greatest actor and seems to specialise in looking sultry than anything too heavy acting wise only ever showing any real emotion at the end when the film builds up to the inevitable betrayal.

In many ways similar to the superior and much later “Oceans Eleven” remake only minus the other nine members. Still like Danny Ocean, Wallace is also a calm headed crook who works by his own honour code, which soon sees him taking Marco as an apprentice of sorts as he sets out to teach him the skills of his trade as we see through the various scenes of Wallace trying to teach him the finer points of safe cracking. It has to be noted though that compared to other heist movies it is a strangely small crew which consists solely of Wallace and Marco who despite initially being brought on it would seem for his circus training it ultimately makes zero difference when it comes to the actual heist and seems to have been included so that director Lupo could include a bunch of trapeze sequences in the lead up to one of several standout brawls we get here.

The action sequences here are really worth giving this film a watch if anything as Lupo shows that he knows how to craft a riveting action sequence as we get a series of brawls between Marco and Miller’s head goon (Puppo) which seem to stem from Marco beeping his car horn at him during their initial encounter. From here we get a brawl around and inside a car, aswell as the ultimate bar brawl which soon leads to a thrilling car chase as the two men engage on a destruction derby through the streets of Hamburg. This sequence in particular is the real stand out here, especially when its easily up there with the likes of “Bullet” and “The French Connection” while the fact that their cars are continually getting more and more banged up the longer the chase goes on with Lupo seemingly constantly trying to find ever more inventive directions in which to take the action.
My issue with this film apart from the surprisingly tension free heist is the sheer lack of character development, let alone any attempts to make us care for any of these characters. Not that many are particularly likable to begin with and Wallace is only not a complete failure as a lead thanks to the charm of Douglas, but when you have characters who are supposed to working together going off on their own paths with the minimal amount of interaction with each other, it only makes it the harder to really give much of a damn about the heist they are trying to pull off.
A flawed film but certainly enough to see to raise my curiosity to what else the eurocrime genre might have to offer, while the film on its own merits has enough to make for a fairly entertaining watch if only for the set pieces, while Douglas’ presence certainly brings a level of class to proceedings even if he’s pretty much slumming it here and seriously in need of a more developed role. At best I would say to give this a curiosity watch at best.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015


Title: Diva
Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix
Released: 1981
Starring: Frederic Andrei, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Roland Bertin, Richard Bohringer, Gerard Darmon, Chantal Deruaz, Jacques Fabbri, Patrick Floersheim, Thuy An Luu, Dominique Pinon, Dominique Besnehard

Plot: Jules (Andrei) is a postman obsessed with the opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Fernandez) who refuses to allow her performances to be recorded, something Jules has secretly done while attending one of her performances. It’s also a recording which soon sees Jules on the run from Taiwanese gangsters who wish to claim the tape. Things only get worse when another tape containing the incriminating testimony which would expose a high ranking police officer as a racket boss is dropped into his postbag which a pair of dirty cops will do anything to get back.

Review: One of the first French films to break away from the realist trend which had dominated the 1970s, the film forming a new movement known as “Cinema du Look” which favoured style over substance and spectacle over narrative. While Beineix might have been the first to pioneer this new style of film making he would soon be joined by the likes of Leos Carax and Luc Besson who is probably the best known example with his early films such as “Subway” and “Nikita”. Unquestionably because of this style of film making it's an immersive viewing experience with as Beineix manages to not give us one film but two all wrapped up in one package as he gives us what is essentially a very satisfying art film, only to then throw in a crime flick as a tasty bonus. It’s a balance act that somehow he manages to pull off without ever sacrificing the effectiveness of one half or without the whole thing becoming overly confusing even if it does close in places especially when during the more artsy sequences.

The character of Jules while something of an oddball seeing how he’s the kind of guy who brings professional recording equipment to Hawkins concert, while only adding to already established obsession with the singer by stealing her dress after somehow managing to get backstage. He does eventually return the dress to Hawkins who despite initially being initially angry with him soon embarks on a romance of sorts with Jules. This of course being instead of the more logical choice which would have been to unleash a can of mace on him. No doubt this would have been the more realistic outcome of this situation, not that Beineix ever seems to be aiming for anything close to realism here of course.

Once he finds himself on the run from the various parties looking for the claim either of the two recordings in his possession and a situation which leads him to seek shelter with the bohemian artist Serge (Bohringer) and his cute French-Vietnamese muse Alba (Luu). This pair also have their own quirks with Serge spending most of his time either smoking in the bath of putting together huge jigsaw puzzles and generally not doing anything remotely artistic, all while his muse rollerskates around their open plan apartment. These kinds of scenes frequently appear over the course of the film, bringing with them little in terms of plot fulfilment yet their visual arresting nature makes them hard to besmirch.

Unquestionably the art direction of the film is superb with Beineix having an eye for detail, from the open plan apartments of Jules and Serge which resemble art installations more than actual homes. At the same time the smaller details such as the huge headphones the characters use, or Serge cutting onions while wearing a snorkel only heighten the experience, more so when Beineix never chooses to explain any of these moments nor draw attention to them by having characters comment on them.

The thriller aspects of the film revolving around the more incriminating of the two tapes are played fairly tight throughout with Beineix even managing to work in a fun chase sequence which sees Jules trying to escape the corrupt cops on his moped on a chase which not only takes him through the subway system of Paris, but onto a subway train as well. The whole scene seemingly being designed to constantly find ever more inventive places to take the chase as Jules rides down steps and through busy platforms while never once stepping of the bike.

Were the film does slip up slightly is with warehouse finale which despite having some tense moments, does become unintentionally comedic when bad guys are essentially being dispatched by turning the lights off and having them stumble into an elevator shaft. However when you consider some of the things that you have been willing to accept up to this point, it hardly seems like much of a stretch to accept this aswell.

True this film might not be for everyone but at the same time it’s not so out there that it’s inaccessible to those outside of the art house crowd as while its certainly surreal in places it’s never to the point where you’re unsure what exactly is supposed to be happening. Its colourful characters including Dominique Pinon as a dirty cop, who hates seemingly everything ensuring that, the film is anything but boring. At the same time for those who enjoyed the likes of Sofia Coppola “Lost In Translation” or more recently Spike Jonze “Her” which seemingly were modelled on the ideals of the “Cinema du Look” making this a more than fitting companion piece aswell as a fitting entry point into this fascinating era of French cinema.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Elwood's Essentials #10 - Magnolia

Title: Magnolia
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Released: 1999
Starring: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters

Plot: Nine interlinked stories play out over the course of twenty hours in the San Fernando Valley.

Review: Clocking in at just over three hours epic would certainly be the easiest way to describe Director Anderson’s follow up the critically acclaimed “Boogie Nights” which honestly is just one of those films I just didn’t get. Still on the back of its success he was given the opportunity to make any film he wanted with the head of New Line Cinema at the time Michael De Luca signing off on the film without even hearing a plot pitch, while showing so much faith in the director that even giving Anderson rights to the final cut. While it might from the end result seem like Anderson may have been taking the piss slightly considering its length, he had originally wanted to shoot something small and quick only for the script to keep growing as kept thinking of actors he wanted to write for.

Thankfully having been afforded such a generous runtime we truly get to know the mixed and varied inhabitants of Anderson’s vision of LA who include
  • Police officer Jim Kurring (Reilly)
  • Jimmy Gator (Hall) - Host of the long running game show “What Do Kids Know?” and his estranged daughter Claudia (Walters)
  • Child quiz prodigy Stanley (Blackman)
  • The grown up former child quiz prodigy Donnie (Macy)
  • The terminally ill TV producer Earl Partridge (Partridge), his trophy wife Linda (Moore) and his nurse Phil (Hoffman)
  • Pick up artist Frank Mackey (Cruise)
So what ties all these characters together? The simple answer is coincidence as established by the opening monologue which presents us with three cases of coincidence before moving onto the bigger (let alone more complex) example which is the film itself.....this is of course all before it memorably rains frogs!

Each of these characters get their time to shine while the links they all share slowly revel themselves be it through family bloodlines or just through chance encounter. By the end of the day a line can be drawn between them all while its simply staggering how Anderson manages to piece it all together and more interestingly is that no element of his plotting ever feels like a forced connection. Even without the connections between the characters this is still a fascinating film to watch for the stories on their own thanks to some pitch perfect casting.

As a result of such great casting which sees him reuniting with several members of his "Boogie Nights" cast, each of the cast truly embody their characters creating as an result a truly immersive experience as switch between these characters as their stories slowly develop from the Jim’s bumbling attempts at being a good cop only to frequently fail when not seemingly pretending he is on “Cops”. Elsewhere we get the almost the almost identical fates of Stanley and Donnie who both are blessed and cursed with being child genius’s and whose life stories might share more similarities than we first expect, as Donnie’s parents blew his prize money, while for the present day child genius Stanley it would seem that his father has equally similar plans for the potential prize money Stanley is set to win on the show. The plot threads involving this game show interestingly coming from experience gained by Anderson when he worked as an assistant on “Quiz Kid Challenge” while making me how much was actually based on what happened during this time.

Needless to say the standout here is Cruise playing essentially the kind of guy you would expect Tom Cruise to be much like Fight Club’s Tyler Durdan to be what Brad Pitt is like (only perhaps alittle less psycho) so of course it makes perfect sense to have him playing the sexist pussy hound, who has built his life philosophies around sport lays and being the alpha male. Ideals we see him peddling through his self-help groups with all the passion and conviction of a televangelist. The downside to his performance here through is that it does tend to overpower the film and will no doubt be the one character that most people remember from the film, especially when we get to see here Cruise clearly firing on all cylinders.

An emotional roller-coaster here Anderson manages to juggle sudden changes in mood and tone, as he crafts here a film which is frequently brutal in its tone as it manages to be humorous such Jims’ flustered attempts to ask out the terminally neurotic Claudia, let alone the incredibly surreal coffee shop date they ultimately go on or Phil ordering adult magazine over the phone in his attempts to track down his employer’s estranged son Frank. At the same time he is never afraid to counter these moments with something more powerful like Donnie’s drunken breakdown and appeals for love from a clearly uninterested bar tender or Stanley having his request to use the bathroom constantly ignored so that he is left to wet himself on live television.

At the same time the soundtrack provided by Aimee Mann perfectly suits the tone of the film, with Anderson bringing it to the forefront or pushing it to the background as required so that it’s never being used to establish any false sense of tone or mood, though at the same time including the surreal use of “Wise Up” which features the characters simultaneously singing along to the track in a scene seemingly homage by Richard Kelly’s use of “Mad World” in “Donnie Darko”.

While Paul Thomas Anderson might not on the top of my list of favourite director (I know shame on me), let alone the kind of director whose films are usually accompanied by a lot of deep thinking regarding their themes and ideas, here he gives us a film which even when watched without over analysing each scene it remains an immersive experience even with its weighty run time this is undeniably truly masterful film making which even those of who didn’t get his other films can still appreciate.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

See No Evil 2

Title: See No Evil 2
Director: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
Released: 2014
Starring: Glen “Kane” Jacobs, Danielle Harris, Katherine Isabelle, Chelan Simmons, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Greyston Holt, Lee Majdoub, Michael Eklund.

Plot: Following on directly from the events of the first film the bodies of Jacob Goodnight (Jacobs) and his victims are transported to the city morgue, were Amy (Harris), Seth (Eriksen) and their boss Holden (Eklund) are currently working the graveyard shift. At the same time Amy’s friends have planned to throw her a surprise party at work unaware that a recently revived Jacob Goodnight will soon be crashing the party.

Review: The sequel to the second and arguably best film to currently have been produced by WWE Studios even though “The Marine” to date has managed to spawn three sequels, something which only raises the question as to why it’s taken until now for the studio to commit to producing a sequel. Unquestionably though it would seem that the Soska’s rise through the Horror ranks has been nothing short of meteoric especially on the back of breakout hit “American Mary” now serving as their calling card as they continue to produce horror films in their own distinctive style and despite this being the first film they’ve made which they didn’t write its an originality that here once more shines through.

It would of course be kind of fitting that after almost two decades of playing the wrestling boogyman for the WWE as the big red machine Kane that he would be given his own horror franchise and a Jason Voorhees style character to call his own. Sadly this seem that it wouldn’t happen after the first film hardly set the world on fire, though the reasons why I’m still not sure off. Thankfully the Twins got the gig to give him a second shot and despite not working from their own script but rather one devised by first time writers Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby, the twins still manage to bring a lot of their style to the film and even kick the character of Jacob Goodnight up several notches from his original appearance to become a much more rounded slasher than we got in the first film.  

The cast here is comprised of largely indie and unknowns, though we do get not one but two scream queens with both Danielle Harris and Katherine Isabelle who once again shines under the direction of the Soska's even if she is this time on supporting cast duties, as she one again leaves you hoping that she continues to be regular player for them, especially considering how she remains cruelly underappreciated as an actress, despite her recent appearances on “Hannibal”. Elsewhere Michael Eklund continues his streak of WWE films by appearing here let alone giving me something lighter to compete with his psyche scaring performance in “The Divide”.

While it could be considered that Jacobs is playing essentially his wrestling persona only in a different wrapper, thankfully this not the case as Jacobs once again nails the role providing moments of intimidation alongside a Jason style abused and mother dominated psyche, highlighted here largely through flashback sequences which only highlight the screwed up homelife his character had, while at the same time filling in the reasons behind his modus operandi. The character also gets something of a facelift or atleast gets a cool looking Perspex mask aswell as a whole new toybox of surgical implements to unleash bloody carnage with, although it was nice to see that him still bring out the trademark hook and chain which again he uses with surprising accuracy as we get to see with one of early kills here. The only thing that did bug me about the character is that we are never quite sure if he’s supposed to be a zombie seeing how he dies at the start of the film or if he’s just tougher than old leather (and trust me he takes one hell of a battering) and somehow able to control his heartbeat which perhaps unintentionally felt like a throwback to Poppy Z. Brite’s serial killers in love novel “Exquisite Corpse”.

The kills all shine for their originality as various surgical implements are put to good use while one kill in particular which I will resist the urge to spoil truly caught me by surprise, even more for how out of nowhere it came, while being added to thanks to some well-timed slow-mo footage. At the same time the morgue setting makes for an interesting change of pace while at the same time providing easy access to the implements that Jacob Goodnight is soon putting to good use with the scene in which he opens a cupboard to revel rows of shiny surgical tools and implements being unquestionably one of my favourites of the whole movie.

While the film is unquestionably in the traditional slasher mould, the Soska’s are not afraid of tweaking the format so that just when you think you have the film figured out they change the rules, ensuring that your kept guessing as to how this one will end right up to the end. At the same time there is an unquestionably strong female element that they bring to the film as female characters are as empowered and strong as the male characters with one of the key examples coming in the form of the sexual aggressive Tamara (Isabelle) who when not engaging in acts which verge on necrophilia, is forcing her boyfriend to go down on her, reversing the roles and empowering the more traditional slasher role for the slutty girl.

True the film has isn’t without its flaws with scenes of the leads mobiles being put into a safe, before the only character who seemingly knows the combination is killed off is never brought up again despite seemingly being setup as an element of peril, but potentially this could finally be the film to kickstart “See No Evil” as a series for WWE Studios to rival their seemingly endless line of sequels for “The Marine” they are currently churning out and more so if they entrust it to the Soska’s to build upon what they established here. In the meantime we can at least look forward to their next project with the studio with the prison movie “Vendetta” which will see them working with another WWE giant “The Big Show” let alone their currently in development adaptation of the comic book “Painkiller Jane” which if this film is anything to go off, we should be very excited for.

Thursday, 15 January 2015


Title: Angel-A
Director: Luc Besson
Released: 2005
Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen, Gilbert Melki, Serge Riaboukine

Plot: Andre (Debbouze) a small time ex-convict who seemingly owes money to everyone in Paris. Now faced with the deadline of midnight to payback powerful crime boss Franck (Melki). However a chance encounter with the beautiful Angel-A (Rasmussen), who might just be the solution to his problems while maybe hiding her own share of secrets. 

Review: Besson’s first film in six years following the ho-hum reception which greeted “Joan of Arc” which let’s not forget gave him an opportunity to atleast burn his ex-wife on the stake. Still for his return to directing it’s clear her that he decided to base this film around the things he loves. It would seem also looking at this film that those loves would be Paris, models and powerful women, three things which are very much in play here.

Debbouze probably best known for his appearance in “Amelie” as the downtrodden grocers assistant Lucien and while he takes on a lead role here it sees him essentially playing the same role again, only this time as a con-artist whose debts currently make him on the receiving end of much unwanted attention from a number of members of the Paris underworld. Its following being dangled off the Eiffel Tower by Franck’s henchmen that Andre decides to thrown himself of a bridge into the Seine, keeping with Besson’s alternative sightseeing trip. Here though we are introduced to Angel-A who Lucien puts his own suicide plans on hold to rescue her in turn gaining a guardian angel, a name which might be more true than it sounds

Shot completely in black and white, the first time Besson has used this style since his debut film “The Last Battle” the film in many ways feels like a return to basics after the large scale productions which preceded it and in many ways by striping the film down to such basic elements it only further helps highlight Besson’s skills as a director without the flashy art direction distracting things. It is also a playful modern fable which he crafts here about guardian angels. Angel-A of course being more of a literal Angel it would seem or so she would have you believe with Besson teasing it out until the end to revel if she is a literal angel or just a metaphorical one.

The contrasting appearances (let alone world outlooks) of Angel-A and Andre make them a fascinating double act, with Andre constantly in a state of panic and despair while Angel-A is much more of the free spirit who embraces life and constantly tries to get Andre to see the world the way she does. Angel-A also has a rather unique approach to helping Andre to resolve his issues as she frequently whores herself out to raise funds to pay back his debts, which is made considerably less shocking when we learn later what she was doing during these sessions while equally showing some impressive fighting skills when confronted by one group of heavies looking to collect from Andre, making her the exactly the sort of female character that Besson likes to populate his films with. Still when not turning tricks or beating up heavies Angel-A also finds time to play therapist to Andre as together they try to get to the route of his issues, which it would seem go a lot deeper than the surface issues would have you believe.

Once again the joy of this film is in the dialogue between Angel-A and Andre something that has always been a strong point of Besson’s films as memorably seen with the likes of “Nikita” and “Leon” and again here it is the case as even scenes such as Angel-A declaring her love of croissants are shot with such playful curiosity and fun that the film never suffers from being boring even in the moments when it decides to slow things down between madcap sequences. Equally Paris makes for a stunning backdrop to the film, with Besson it seems aiming to shoot in only the most beautiful or engaging surroundings as he combines scenes of old and new Paris to powerful effect while making the film seem like one big love letter to the city he adores.

While the film is strong for the most part Besson does however kind of let things slip by the finale which for some tastes might come off a little saturnine, but when the journey is so much fun and seeing how these two characters grow together its easy to overlook such things even more so when this is classic Besson rather than his Hollywood style we’ve become more used to in recent years.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Dead Hooker In A Trunk

Title: Dead Hooker In A Trunk
Director: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
Released: 2009
Starring: Rikki Gagne, Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska, C.J. Wallis, Loyd Bateman, Farley M. Gagne, Tasha Moth, Carlos Gallardo, John Tench

Plot: Four friends The badass (Sylvia Soska), her sister the geek (Jen Soska) and their friends the junkie (Gagne) and the goody two shoes (Walis) find their world thrown into chaos when they discover the body of a dead hooker (Moth) in their trunk. Soon their plans to dispose of the body suffer further complications when they soon find themselves targeted by chainsaw welding triads, a cowboy pimp and a brutal serial killer as it seems that the troubles for the group are only just beginning.

Review: While the Soska sisters might now be best known for “American Mary” and their most recent film “See No Evil 2” but this rough and ready debut still makes for an intriguing watch, let alone another reminder of what a pair of hungry film makers can produce even with the most limited of resources. Infact had it not been for their less than stellar film school withdrawing their funding for their final short film then the twins might not have set out to make their own project, which it would seem is as much a fuck you to their former film school as it is their embodiment of the love for genre cinema.

Shot on a budget of $2500, with half the budget being used for effects the girls really faced an uphill struggle from the beginning for anyone whose attempted to venture into the world of film making will tell you that it can easily turn into an expensive venture. Still with a copy of Robert Rodriguez’s “Rebel without a Film Crew” to guide them they managed against all odds to get the film made. True the results might be grimy in quality let alone in content but it’s hard to deny that the film has that spark of raw talent that was only further highlighted once the Twins were given a proper budget for the films which followed, while they pay tribute to Rodriguez’s influence by casting the star of his debut “El Mariachi” Carlos Gallardo who here makes a fun cameo as God.

An eclectic mixture of characters make up the group followed here with each living up to their name, while the fun is seeing how this grisly misadventure changes them over the course of the film, which thanks to the sisters and their love of gruesome effects ensures that it’s both a physical as well as mental change. Each of these characters tend to live by their namesake which frustratingly is largely as far things mainly go in terms of characterisation with Sylvia handling most of the heavy lifting in terms of acting, especially when it comes to the action scenes were her character truly lives up to her name and something made only the more impressive when you consider that the girls here do all their own stunt work….alongside writing, directing producing and acting in the film. This multi-tasking due to budget limitation would equally stretch to Walis who was handling a large amount of the technical aspects of the film only to be brought in for the role of the goody two shoes after the original actor dropped out after the first two days of filming, leading to hasty re-writes and a sex change for Walis’s character who’d originally been female aswell and which I can’t help would have added to what I assume started as a throwback to the girl gang films of the 70’s.

The plotting feels much like the characterisation largely minimalistic as set pieces are strung together with the minimal amount of plot development, which does leave the film at time feeling like it is floundering over what way to take the plot next. However the strength of the set pieces such as a brutal triad attack and badass’s brawl with a cowboy pimp (complete with lasso and horse) do go a large away to covering for such flaws as when the film works it’s a lot of fun and only makes you wish that the sisters had a larger shooting budget. Still what it might lack in plot direction it certainly makes up for in inventiveness as geek loses an eye leading her to create a makeshift gaffa tape patch to cover the now empty socket while junkie loses an arm both injuries which would be serious to any regular character but here seems to be more of an inconvenience to these girls. There is also an attempt at working in a romance angle between goody two shoes and geek but for the most part it came of kind of flat, due to no real chemistry between Jen and Walis combined with it being pushed to the background in favour of another gory sequence.

While the budget might have been limited, the gore effects are still pretty effective not to mention ambitious as seen with the chainsaw attack sequence let alone the disembowelled drug dealer whose insides are being gleefully teased by a triad. Needless to say when it comes to gore the twins don’t like to hold back as surfaces and characters faces are frequently covered in huge gushes of blood and gore, while such sequences are shot with such high energy and gleeful voyeurism that perhaps at times it does feel perhaps alittle OTT.

True this might be a zero budget film, but unlike so many debuts from aspiring those aspiring film makers who shun film school and pumps their fees into their debut film, this film has an element of polish to it, while managing to sidestep the usual pitfalls which tend to befall these films and while it might not be perfect it’s nice to see how they used the film as a learning experience for their superior “American Mary. At the same time its neo-grindhouse charm makes this a fun movie to watch with like-minded friends and an open non-judgemental mind set.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Phantom of the Paradise

Title: Phantom of the Paradise
Director: Brian De Palma
Released: 1974
Starring: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, George Memmoli, Archie Hahn, Rod Serling

Plot: Winslow Leach (Finley) is a mild mannered composer / singer whose music is stolen by the record producer Swan (Williams), which he plans to use to open his new concert hall “The Paradise”. However while attempting to destroy the record he is left horribly disfigured which leads to him turning himself into the Phantom while also nurturing an obsession with the singer Phoenix (Harper) who is the only one he will allow to perform his songs.

Review: When it comes to established directors such as De Palma, there is a tendency to enter into their films with a sense of expectancy. However here with this early film he pulls the rug from under our feet by giving us a flamboyant rock opera adaptation of the Broadway classic, which honestly is the last thing I expected going into this film with nothing but a recommendation to watch it. Surprisingly upon its original release this was a commercial failure with the exception of Canada (well Winnipeg, Manitoba to be exact) who for some reason much like Germany and David Hasselhoff really took to this film which unlike Hasselhoff’s musical career is actually rather good.

Seemingly not content to rework the classic “Phantom of the Opera” story into a 70’s disco setting let alone working in a rock opera soundtrack, De Palma also works in elements of “Faust” with elements of Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontilldo” to add additional colour to what is already a barmy plotted film to begin with. For a start you only need look at Winslow’s journey to becoming he Phantom largely at the hands of Swan’s doing, which not only sees him being beaten up, framed and sent to prison (funded by Swan no less) were he has his teeth replaced with shiny metallic ones and if that wasn’t bad enough he also gets his head caught in an industrial press before being shot by a security guard….and you thought that “Darkman” went through a lot.

As the Phantom, Winslow is at first unable to speak thanks to his face being melted on one side and his vocal cords being destroyed as the result of his accident and soon leads him to making a deal with Swan, who through the use of an electronic voice box is able to restore his voice while at the same time giving him access to his futuristic looking recording studio to record his cantata. Surprisingly this isn’t just another cool looking set but rather an actual studio dubbed TONTO and which was used on several albums by the electronica duo “T.O.N.T.O.’s Expanding Head Band” (or so IMDB informs me at least).

At the same time Paul Williams is fantastic as the Phil Spector esc Swan while pulling double duties as he handles the singing duties for Winslow aswell. In possession of a devil like cunning, let alone the ability to twist any deal he makes so it plays in his favour, he’s not content to only take Winslow’s music but also changes it seemingly based on his own whims, first trying to give it to his in house band “The Juicy Fruits” before finally setting on the flamboyant and egotistical singer Beef (Graham). At the same time despite being responsible for Windslow’s disfigurement he shows little remorse and even though he hires him to write the cantata which he plans to open his concert hall with. It is of course a highly destructive yet fascinating relationship that they share with Swan keeping Winslow hopped up on pills to keep him working on the cantata with the ultimate bastard moment coming when he attempts to brick Windslow inside the studio and this is before he seduces Phoenix using promises of stardom knowing full well how infatuated Windslow is with her, even going as far to rub salt in the wound by filming his anguish as he watches them together through the skylight.

Windslow though manages to cause Swan his own share of problems in return as he takes great offence to anyone performing his songs other than Phoenix who he deems the only one worth of such an honour. As such he’s not beyond killing anyone he deems not worthy in a variety of highly theatrical ways including a hammy looking Bomb that couldn’t look faker if it had the words “BOMB” on the side. The real highlight is the death by the lightning bolt sign which in any other film would seem out of place but here it strangely works.

The soundtrack for the film is incredible to say the least with perhaps the exception of some of Beef’s screaming attempts at singing and makes the film a worthy companion piece to the likes of “Streets of Fire” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” even more than its own sequel which wasn’t exactly a hard film to beat as anyone who has actually dared to watch “Shock Treatment” will attest to and which interesting Jessica Harper would go on to appear in. Still there are some great fantastical moments during these musical moments, such as “Somebody Super Like You” which sees a trio of skeleton make up wearing singers performing mock vivisection before sewing the assorted body parts together to create their Frankenstein creation which in this case is Beef.

A film brimming with interesting and fun ideas and despite the fact it bombed on its initial release it still clearly highlights a talent in the making, especially as he would follow it up with his breakthrough hit "Carrie". Fuelled by a frenzied energy this is a lot of fun and only makes me wish that I'd watched it sooner.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Raid 2: Berandal

Title: The Raid 2: Berandal
Director: Gareth Evans
Released: 2014
Starring: Iwo Uwais, Arifin Putra, Tio Pakusadewo, Oka Antara, Alex Abbad, Cecep Arif Rahman, Julie Estelle, Very Tri Yulisman, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kenichi Endo, Kazuki Kitamura, Yayan Ruhian, Cok Simbara

Plot: Picking up the story several hours after the end of the first film, Rama (Uwais) meets with Bunawar (Simbara) the head of an anti-corruption task force who tasks Rama with going undercover to expose those at the top of the Jakarta criminal underworld, following the murder of his brother by self-made gangster Bejo (Abbad).

Review: While the threats of an American remake of the original film continues unabated, much like those which surround a remake of “Battle Royale” the original film remains even now a high benchmark for martial arts movies / action movies on the whole, let alone for Evans himself to try and top which arguably is exactly what he has done here with this ambitious sequel.

Expanding on the world he introduced us with in the first film, here he broadens the scope of the film to this time take in the whole of the Jakarta underworld as Rama’s story this time is just one of many in play in this gangland saga as Rama soon finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the two crime families. The Jakarta crime family run by Bangun (Pakusadewo) and whose hot-headed son Uco (Putra) Rama is tasked with befriending as an entry point into the underworld he’s been tasked with investigating. On the opposite side we have Boss Goto (Endo) who heads up the local Yakuza faction who in turn mix things up and like so many aspects gives us something else that audiences haven’t seen before. Originally envisioned as the first film in the series only for budget issues to force Evans to scale down the production to the claustrophobic corridors of the original while he put this script to one side, reworking it slightly when this film was given the green light, which in a strange twist of fate only seems to be for the better as this works a lot better as the middle film of a proposed trilogy than the first.

While the scope of the film and not to mention numerous plot threads in play can at times feel slightly overwhelming, Evans manages to bring it all together for the finale while the films generous run time helps each of the characters to be developed beyond being just cut out villains, though some of the more colourful henchmen such and the dual claw hammer welding Hammer Girl and the baseball bat welding Baseball Bat Man are given just surface colour to highlight their relationship with the majority of their appearances here being to highlight their particular and unquestionably brutal techniques. While this might not be a huge issue, it did however when it came to the Hobo hitman Prakoso played here by returning fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian who also memorably played “Mad Dog” in the first film and here gives the polar opposite of that character with his dishevelled clothes and beard he carries out hits for Bangun with deadly efficiently with his machete, while we see that he only does this work for his son who currently lives with his ex-wife a background teased by Evans in a scene showing the frosty relationship he has with his wife, who refuses him access to their son while belittling his appearance no doubt the result of any money he makes being given to his son. Even though he is a minor character he’s still one I would have liked to have seen more of.

This time we get to see more of Rama’s homelife to add to what we saw in the introduction of the last film, here used to emphasis the stress and loneliness that Rama has to fight while maintaining his cover, especially when he is originally promised that he will only be under for a couple of months which soon turns into a couple of years. Needless to say Uwais is more than capable of taking us on this emotional journey, rather than your usual action hero who care more about the action elements than selling the drama, something which was a concern with this film being more drama heavy than the first, but Uwais again gives a great performance so that we truly believe that he is gone through hell when we see his broken expression at the end of the film, not that it takes awhole lot of selling when you look at what he has to go through in the finale.

He action scenes are unquestionably once more the selling point for the film as Evans sets out to not only top what he did with the first film especially combined with such inventive and impressive camerawork, clearly aiming to ensure with each action sequence that he is giving us something that we haven’t seen before. This time not only increasing the spectacle of the fight scenes, which are noticeably one of the areas to increase in scale, while Evans also turns his hand to crafting several thrilling vehicle based sequences including a jaw dropping car chase involving multiple vehicles and a heated brawl taking place while this happens. As I mentioned earlier in this review fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian returns to give us yet another brutal demonstration of Silat, with Evans recently going on record to state that he is the only choreography he will work with and consider that somehow he has managed to craft scenes more brutal than the first film, as limbs are frequently broken or snapped. The scale of the fight scenes is also increased so that the majority of the battles are large scale affairs with the prison yard brawl featuring around 30 fighters is a dizzying piece of choreography while only added to when the whole thing seems to have been shot in one take.

The downside here though is that in upping the ante and trying to beat the already brutal bar set by the first film, there is often the feeling that things are being taken further than I felt comfortable watching especially when some sequences verge on raw sadism with the frenzied knife fight between Rama and “The Assassin” (Rahman) which I can only really describe as watching human dog fighting. Perhaps because unlike the insanely violent “Riki-Oh: Story of Ricky” this film is aiming for an element of realism which perhaps in turn makes it only seem the more brutal. However when you look at the fact that one character is using dual hammers and another a baseball bat, I guess there is no way to make their fights any less brutal.

While the film suffers due to its brutality levels there is no denying what Evans has achieved here as this is a film that the genre fans as well as fans of the first will no doubt adore, even if it is a different beast in many ways to the first film. With Evans looking to make a third and final film in the trilogy I'm now especially interested to see the direction he takes, more so when the bar has undoubtedly been raised yet again with this film.
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