Sunday, 28 February 2016

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Title: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director:  Seth Gordon
Released: 2007
Plot: Documentary following the battle between reigning champion Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe for the high score on "Donkey Kong".

Review: It is a well established fact that to be the best at something, that it requires sacrifice and the men who the focus of this documentary are no stranger to sacrifice with many giving up hundreds of hours of their life, as well as time with their friends and family, with many clearly looking like their have also sacrificed several other things such as taking showers and the generally any form of human contact…..ladies and gentlemen please allow me to welcome you to the world of competitive classic video gaming!

At the centre of this documentary is the rivalry between two champion gamers and their battle to hold the world record score on “Donkey Kong”. On one side we have self proclaimed “Sauce King” of Florida Billy Mitchell, the current reigning champion whose score of 874,300 has remained unbeaten since he first set it back in the 80’s and who has on the back of this celebrity for this score build a successful line of homemade sauces. Now stepping up to the challenge we have high school science teacher Steve Wiebe and manages to beat Billy’s high score with a new record of 1,006,600 points unwittingly sparking a rivalry between the two men as they now battle to be the King of Kong.

Inspired by a Time Magazine article featuring the top players of the early 80’s and their scores on 12 of the top arcade games at the time, which included such classic games as Missile Command, Pac Man and the all important Donkey Kong, games which were never designed to be beaten and unlike games today required piles of quarters and countless hours of practice to master, as these were games without the  unlimited lives and replays of modern games, especially as many never even had ending screens, but rather “Kill Screens” instead were the game either appears as random computer code or even more randomly just kills your character. When director Seth Gordon set out to make this documentary he had originally intended to make it about the holders of these top scores, only to disregard the idea when he met Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, to men who play “Donkey Kong” at the highest level, knowing that he had found his story.

The two men at the heart of the documentary are almost polar opposites to each other with Steve Wiebe shown as the everyman who after being laid off from what should have been a lifelong career at Boeing had set himself a goal of beating the top “Donkey Kong” score after randomly stumbling across “Twin Galaxies” website which is recognised as the official scorekeepers for Classic Video Game High scores. Wiebe here is shown as a figure of continuous misfortune with friends noting several occasions in the past where he has come up short, from his childhood as a Star Baseball pitcher who failed to pitch at the State Championships due to injury and a talent drummer in an early grunge band who failed to get any recognition with every accomplishment his has had always taken from him at the key moment.

Billy Mitchell on the other hand is shown as unashamedly arrogant and cocky without an ounce of self doubt, as he continually peddles his own personal life philosophies and willing to do anything he can to retain his championship title, while frequently coming across like a bad villain from an 80’s action movie, which is ironic seeing how this is a documentary about video games from the same period and while it could be argued that this persona is the result of how the film is edited, despite Gordon going on record to say that Mitchell was “so much worse than we painted him out to be,” and that he only included scenes necessary to tell the story as well as stating that the film would have been much darker if he hadn’t, which is only made more believable when fellow documentary film maker Morgan Spurlock, caught up with Mitchell several years after the films release for a follow up interview for the “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die” countdown were the film charted at #41. In this interview Mitchell almost seemed to not really care what he did as long as he was able to retain his legacy, while frequently seeming aloof during the interview especially when he was questioned about various parts of the documentary.

Mainly following Wiebe as he sets about beating the score only to soon find himself battling more than Mitchell and his score, as he finds his own score under scrutiny from members of the “Twin Galaxies” officials board, which Mitchell is more baffling a member of, while also being the realm of Chief Referee Robert Mruczek and Mitchells self styled protégé Brian Kuh who are both unscrupulous in theirs bids to discredit Wiebe’s scores, even at one point breaking into Wiebe’s garage to examine his “Donkey Kong” machine. Still despite this opposition Wiebe continues to fight to get his scores recognised, while trying to arrange a live battle against Mitchell to find out who truly is the champion.

Although it’s a documentary about Classic Video Games and their more obsessed fans, the documentary still also has a lot of heart and manages to rise way about what could have been a clip show of your stereotypical nerdy gamers, but here they are shown on the same level as Olympian athletes as Gordon attempts to understand what it is about these games and more importantly the World Record Donkey Kong score, a battle which has all the feeling of a heavy weight title fight at these two titans battle to claim the top spot. Aswell as this main title fight we also get to meet a lot of interesting characters from the Classic Video Game scene, such the world’s oldest video game player Doris Self and “Twin Galaxies” founder Walter Day who frequently finds himself in the crossfire throughout the film especially as the battle lines are drawn. We also get to meet the equally colourful Roy Shildt a self styled fitness guru and pickup artist who high score on “Missile Command” has frequently brought him into conflict with several of the “Twin Galaxies” officials in particular Billy Mitchell, with Shildt’s scenes in the film being amongst my favourites, much like one gamer taking his frustration out on his car. Shildt’s scenes are also especially interesting as he frequently provides the sole counter argument to how “Twin Galaxies” is run.

Since the films release the record has since been broken again by Plastic surgeon Dr. Hank Chein with a record score of 1,090,400 points, while “Twin Galaxies” have continued to hold Video Game contests including their Iron Man contest to see if any game could be played for 100 hours straight, a challenge which remained unbeaten despite gamer James Vollandt playing “Joust” for 67½ hours frequently using dangerous techniques to stay awake including blasting himself in the face with Freon and all subject matter which would make for a great follow up documentary, even though Director Gordon seems currently set on making the follow up as a feature film focusing on how the documentary changed their lives and how the rivalry has continued, which personally I would love to see, but for now it’s fun to get lost in the nostalgia this film provides, while being one of the most surprisingly entertaining documentaries ever made.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

This is 40

Title: This Is 40
Director:  Judd Apatow
Released: 2012
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, Chris O’Dowd, Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Graham Parker, Albert Brooks, Charlyne Yi, Lena Dunham

Plot: Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) are both on the verge of turning 40 and both struggling to deal with what it means to each of them, while at the same time trying to handle the fact their businesses are falling apart, their kids are nuts and everything is threatening to fall apart.

Review: As the sequel / spin off to “Knocked Up” at first this seems like an unusual movie to follow on the surprise success of the film which still remains a better guide for preparing first time fathers than any of supposed guides on the subject with its message of your screw up but your find yourself in the end.  Still clearly feeling that Alison and Ben’s story had been told and perhaps also due to the fact that he had cast his own wife and daughters as Debbie and her daughters Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow) which I have to imagine is cheaper than to pay for either Seth Rogan or Katherine Heigl to come back for a sequel so now the focus is switched to Pete and Debbie.

While “Knocked Up” dealt with impending parenthood, this film chooses to deal with the pressures of parenthood and generally getting older with Pete struggling to deal with the fact that his life is essentially no more sorted despite as his record label is struggling while his father pesters him for handouts. Debbie meanwhile is just struggling to deal with the fact that she is getting older, seeing her impending 40th birthday as a sign that she has become an old lady and can therefore no longer be the hip woman she feels she still is while equally worried that her surprise pregnancy might prove to the breaking point for her and Pete’s relationship.

Despite seeming like their relationship was generally solid in “Knocked Up” they continue to work well as characters here even if Apatow is essentially creating a bunch of issues for these characters for the purpose of this film and yet it still works thanks largely to the natural chemistry between Rudd and Mann both actors who thrive when given natural comedy to work with, rather than humour which has to be setup. At the same time as both characters have their own separate worlds which enables them to function both together and apart while unquestionably being one of the main reason this film runs a lot longer than it really needs to as Apatow attempts to juggle multiple plot threads such as their attempts to deal with equally useless employees at their businesses or the pressures that each of them are facing with their 40th approaching.

Thankfully these numerous subplots are largely as fun as the intractions between Pete and Debbie, with Debbie trying to find out who is stealing money from her boutique which lets face it any excuse to include Charlyne Yi in your film is always going to be a welcome one, while she is probably one of the more random characters to be carried across at the same time, with her character having been just one of Ben’s stoner friends in “Knocked Up”  and here is thankfully none the less more random. On the other hand Megan Fox turns up as essentially the token hot chick Desi making this really just another paycheck for her, especially when the hardest thing her character has to do is put up with the skin crawling pick up routine of Jason Segal’s personal trainer, a character whose I was less than thrilled about seeing return here, much like whenever I see Segal’s name associated with anything and here its none the less of a car crash of Segal thinking he’s either more charming / funny than he is.

An enjoyable experience much like its predecessor the run time is unquestionably ambitious and meaning that it might outstay its welcome for some, but at the same time it has a good energy and amongst the first world problems, pop culture refrences and aging generation x observations it still feels a lot more fresh than a lot of the comedies of late and a story I would like to see a part 3 for even if it’s unclear were the story can go from here more so when he’s already addressed getting older with this film, but I’d be interested to see as and when he gets around to continuing this story.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Indie Game: The Movie

Title: Indie Game: The Movie
Director:  James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot
Released: 2012
Plot: Documentary following the development of the independent video games Super Meat Boy, Fez and Braid as their creator’s battle to bring them to market.

Review: Its fitting really for a documentary which celebrates the independent spirit of its creators that this film would be funded through Kickstarter while also whittled down from over 300 hours of footage with the end result playing like a past, present and future of the development process as well as the Indie game market at the time while for those not familiar with indie games it also provides a fitting entry point into this sub-section of gaming whose popularity only continues to grow through channels like “Steam” and “Xbox Marketplace” which enable the developers to forgo the traditional instore route of distribution.

Representing the past section “Braid” represents one of the breakout games alongside the likes of “Fat Princess” and “Castle Crashers” which drew gamers attention to the independent scene as a place where creators are free to tell the stories they want, while also getting to experiment with new ideas which “Braid” creator Jonathan Blow chose to do by allowing players to rewind the game as a way of solving puzzles, an evolution from the rewind power seen in the newer “Prince of Persia” games and as we see here tweaked slightly by Blow. As an designer Blow seems the most withdrawn of the creators showcased here, with “Braid” he informs us being used as a place to put his “deepest flaws and vulnerabilities”  while relishing the journey from experimentation to discovery as we see the game journey from its simple beginnings to its finished game. It’s hard to tell if how we see Blow in the film is the real him or his more disillusioned self-seeing how he gets frustrated with players not getting the message he was trying to portray in the game and launching him into a campaign of responses on either reviews or forums were the game is being discussed as he attempts to explain the game to audience. Blow as a result comes off perhaps a little more pretentious than he perhaps would like to be seen and perhaps why his time is more limited than the other creators.

Certainly on the lighter side are the creators of “Super Meat Boy” Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes also known as “Team Meat” who are shown battling to finish the game in time to be part of the Xbox promotion “Game Feast”. There game a fiendish platform game in which its titular hero is a block of meat who battles through each level to save his girlfriend made of bandages from the top hat wearing fetus in a jar scientist Dr. Fetus. and which as we see though many of the cut scenes from the game equally serves as a platform for them to cram in as many nerdy references as possible. A pair of contradicting souls McMillen is certainly the most light hearted of the pair with Refenes frequently shown to be struggling to deal with the pressures and demands required to deliver the game on time. At the same its their segments of the film which are also the most enjoyable, perhaps due to their laid back nature let alone the issues they tackle being due to the game rather than the outside influences that Johnathan Blow and Phil Fish are shown to be dealing with.

Ironically the future section of the film is the game which has been in development the longest having first been announced at the “Independent Games Festival” back in 2008 turning its creator Phil Fish into a celebrity of the indie video game world, but as the film catches up with Fish he is seemingly still no closer to finishing the game, even confessing to having rebuilt the game four times already. Despite this Fish comes off as another enthusiastic creator and who like Blow can’t see himself working for a major label instead preferring the freedom the indie market allows as emphasised by the game which he refers to as being a “Stop and smell the flowers” kind of game, especially with it featuring none of the usual requirements for mainstream games such as boss fights etc. Now massively over due Fish has to deal with an onslaught of hate from gamers frustrated by the continually delays of the game, which even by the end of the film is yet to be finished with Fish aiming hopfully for a 2012 release.

While the film has a strong focus on the development of the games, it’s equally as interesting when looking at the effects that these games have on their creators social lives with their relationships and certainly in the case of Refenes his health. Their dedication to finishing their games only becoming all the more commendable when you realise what they are willing to sacrifice just to get their games finished while perhaps at the same time making you wonder if such risks are worth it?

While the documentary spends a lot of time going into the mechanics of each of the three games featured, there is also numerous segments were the creators get to explain why they made the game the way they did, as seen with Edmund McMillen’s explanation of how he teaches the player the controls for “Super Meat Boy” in the game. Equally interesting is getting to see where they draw their inspiration from with McMillen finding a way to communicate with people through games with his previous game “Aether” being highlighted as an outlet for channelling the feelings from his childhood, such as his fear of being abandoned and loneliness.  Phil Fish meanwhile links his love of programing back to his early video game experiments with his father which are also shown here with their delightful simplicity.

A fascinating documentary and to certainly rank next to “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” for its unabashed love of its subject material, while for gamers who havn’t discovered these games previously perhaps providing the inspiration to wander off the well beaten track of mainstream gaming.

Friday, 19 February 2016


Title: Dolls
Director:  Stuart Gordon
Released: 1987
Starring: Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy, Carrie Lorraine, Guy Rolfe, Hilary Mason, Bunty Bailey, Cassie Stuart, Stephen Lee

Plot: Traveling with her father (Williams) and arrogant stepmother Rosemary (Gordon), Judy (Lorraine) finds herself stranded by a thunderstorm and forced to take shelter in a mansion owned by the elderly toymakers Gabriel (Rolfe) and Hilary (Mason) Hartwicke. Judy’s family are also soon they are also joined by the mild-mannered Ralph (Lee) and the two punk hitchhikers (Bunty Bailey and Cassie Stuart) he picked up only for these guest to soon find themselves being targeted by the very alive doll collection.

Review: This is a film which I’ve been wanting to see since watching the documentary on Stuart Gordon’s career which came as one of the bonus features for his “Masters of Horror” episode “Dreams In The Witch-House” and it was the footage of a giant sized teddy bear turning into a were bear and slashing Ian Patrick Williams across the face that I knew I wanted to see this film….as I’ve said many times before sometimes it takes just one shot. What I wasn’t expecting though was for Gordon to give what could easily have been the film’s climax in the first fifteen minutes for the film’s opening!

Okay so it’s a dream sequence, but its such a cool idea and like so many aspects of the film done so well that you don’t mind Gordon throwing in a scene which seemingly could have just been him going off on a whim or perhaps just having a cool idea he couldn’t work into the film any other way. Never the less it’s a great opening if one which perhaps makes for the film to find a way to follow it up, especially seeing how he teases out the killer dolls for a at least another thirty minutes after this scene instead choosing to focus on the mish-mash of characters he throws together in the mansion and who Gabriel and Hilary seemingly have no problem giving a place to stay for the night while at the same time being one of the creepiest on screen couples ever!

For the most part the group we have are all largely and perhaps intentionally unlikable from Judy’s father and Stepmother who she seems to be more of an inconvenience to, especially when at one point they are making plans to dump Judy on her mother so they can run away and enjoy their youth. A strange statement for either of them to be saying when they are so clearly middle aged but this is the plan they are going with anyway. Challenging them for the title of most odious couple though are our British punk hitchhikers Isabel and Enid who are some unknown reason are hanging around in the countryside and speak with nerve shredding cockney accents  because seemingly Gordon assumes that how all British people speak.

On the other side of things the supposedly good people are limited to Judy who seems to only have one setting seeing how she responds to pretty much every situation the same way. Ralph mean while is much more likable and provides many of the films comedic moments thanks to Stephen Lee being allowed to improvise some of his parts. Needless to say the good people are also the ones who like dolls, with Ralph lamenting his father forcing him to give up his toys when he was younger.  

One of the strengths of the film is really in the set design with the Hartwicke’s mansion being a suitably gothic and creepy setting, while also one which doesn’t give away the game too early on, with the expected shelves of dolls being hidden away behind closed doors rather than having them watching on from every wall like we have seen in similar films such as “The Doll Master”. Even when we get the first kill Gordon a director hardly known for subtly here shows great restraint as he keeps the attackers off screen, teasing us instead with the sounds of their shrill little voices as they set about bashing Isabel’s head into a wall.

Thankfully when we do get to see the killer dolls it’s not the disappointment that I had been expecting with stage hands essentially bouncing the dolls about to make them appear as it they are moving as now seen with the later entries in the “Puppet Master” series. Instead we get wonderfully stop motion animated Dolls who are generally creepy to watch attack people and it’s during the attack scenes that we get so many of the films highlights with the dolls setting upon their victims with tiny knifes and even the occasional hacksaw as we see with Rosemary’s death who also for some explained reason also randomly throws herself out of a window in a scene in which it appears she is jumping over a line of dolls only to then suddenly throw herself through the window.

While not super heavy on gore what we get in terms of gore and deaths is more makes this a satisfying watch with Gordon attempting to add more gore scenes in post production he soon realised that they didn’t suit the tone of the film and cut them all out which I’d say was the right mood tonely for the film and certainly it doesn’t feel like anything has been lost by the removal of these. More so when we still have a lot of fun treats including a death by doll firing squad and one character being turned into a Mr. Punch doll which ensures that this film is more than memorable enough without bathing everything in crimson.

Of course the mystery of the living dolls is pretty straight forward and only further helped by everything in this world being so clear cut especially when it comes to whose good and whose bad with Gabriel and Hillary turning those deemed as bad into living dolls under their control. Laughably neither Ralph nor Judy discover this secret as they are instead convinced it was all a dream and encouraged to go on with their lives via a letter supposedly left for them by the now missing members of their party.

This film is another fun entry on Gordon’s film making C.V. and while it’s not near the likes of “Re-Animator” it’s still a noteworthy entry and one of the few films he has made that I would truly have loved to see a sequel to, which seems unlikely to happen especially when Gordon axed his previous attempt to give this film a sequel during pre-production. Still for fans of killer doll movies this is unquestionably one of the better entries in the genre.

*Written as part of “The Shortening” blogathon at “The Deadly Dollhouse of Horror Nonsense

Friday, 12 February 2016


Title: Girl House
Director: Trevor Matthews
Released: 2014
Starring: Ali Corbrin, Adam DiMarco, Slaine, Alyson Bath, Elysia Rotaru, Chasty Ballesteros, Alice Hunter, Wesley MacInnes, Erin Agostino, Nicole Arianna Fox, Zuleyka Silver, James Thomas

Plot: In need of money to pay for her college tuition Kylie (Corbrin) agrees to be a cam girl for “GirlHouse” a site which streams from a Big Brother style mansion. Things take a murderous turn however when the girls find themselves being targeted by obsessed fan Loverboy (Slaine)

Review: The debut film from director Trevor Matthews, who here attempts to update the sorority house slashers of the 80’s by giving it a dose of porno chic which would be great if this wasn’t at the same time another vanilla horror movie and in doing so essentially shoots its concept in the foot from the beginning despite seemingly aiming to give us a sexed up version of “Halloween Resurrection”.

Opening to our killer Loverboy as a pudgy child being taunted into showing his penis to a couple of girls who soon drive him into his first murderous rage by making fun of him with him getting his revenge on one of the girls coming soon after. For a first murder its surprisingly well thought out with Loverboy (we never do find out his real name) first knocking the ring leader off her bike and then making it look like she accidently fall off the bridge. Flash forward several years later and Loverboy has only gotten worse with his insecurities and arguably more pudgy than he was as a child, while working as an IT technician obsessed with cam girls in particular the girls of “GirlHouse” while hanging out in his basement with his real life sex doll. Its an interesting attempt to explain why our killer is the way he is and also helps justify the catalyst for his murderous rampage when he believes the girls are also mocking him.

Our lead girl Kylie is unsurprisingly the homely girl who cares only about helping her mother (I love the fact that she appears to have been adopted by Asian parents) pay the bills and fund her studies and see’s being a Cam girl as the way to do it. Now no doubt you’ve been drawn in by the who Cam girl angle expecting this to be an onslaught of boobs and softcore sex but outside of a couple of the cast this movie is surprisingly light on both with the setting essentially being more of a hook here to what is a pretty generic slasher movie and for the first hour nothing really happens apart from some slap and tickle teasing for the audience and Kylie getting involved with the harmless Ben (DiMarco) who of course only now notices Kylie now she’s a cam girl despite claiming of being enamoured with her as a child, it still comes off as an unbelievable relationship especially when he is shown as more of the friend than a boyfriend let alone the fact he has no qualms about her making money as a cam girl. A fact made only the more suprising when the film opens up to that famous quote from Ted Bundy on death row, were he blamed pornography as the trigger for his crimes, you’d expect to see him trying to save her from this life. That being said the film can never seem to decide where it stands on this issue, seeing how it glorifies the lifestyle of the girls working on the site, yet seems to be implying that Loverboy’s actions are the result of his cam girl obsessions and not because he is a just a wackjob who  had his penis laughed at as a child.

The cast are all passible enough while largely forgotable as they seem mainly to have been cast on their looks and ability to fill a criteria (blonde, lesbian Asian) than anything deeper while their characters are essentially so shallow they all end up being interchangeable slasher fodder anyway. True Corbin makes for a likable female lead if here comes off perhaps too vanilla for such a role (surprising considering her extended nude scene in “American Reunion), making her playing a cam girl as believable as Piper Perabo playing sex siren Violet in “Coyote Ugly”. Yes she is happy to take her clothes off and flash some side boob or her ass but there is never any real heat or sexiness to these scenes that you would expect from someone trying to make a living from this field.

Once we get to final half hour we finally get the promised rampage of Loverboy, the reasons for which are unclear as he shows Kylie a picture of himself and receives some nice complements from her, only for the same picture to show up on the girl’s pin board with the mocking tagline “Stud of the Year” attached to it. It’s hard to believe that Kylie did this and all the other girls speak kindly of him when his name is brought up making it only beg the question further as to who posted this? Needless to say when Loverboy see’s this he hacks the “GirlHouse” system before heading off to engage in a whole different kind of hacking. Why he chooses to use the head of his sex doll as a mask (complete with Cher fright wig) as disguise is equally unclear.

While the plot might feel like a reworking of “Halloween Resurrection” when it comes to the kills we get here you can’t help but feel that Matthews is in some way trying to remake “The Toolbox Murders” a theory only seemingly further reinforced by some of the posters which show Loverboy with a similar balaclava favouring style. Still the kills that Loverboy pulls off all revolve around what he can pull out of his toolbox it seems, with a couple of kills mixing things up as he uses things the girls have in their rooms. Interestingly though when it comes to the girls he seems more eager to maim or disfigure them than to kill them outright, with one of the girls being slashed up before being left disfigured a situation she surprisingly chooses to resolve by suffocating herself to death in a throwback to David Fincher’s pride murder in “Se7en”.

While the kills are for the most part original enough to hold your interest the characters lack the depth for you to really feel attached to any of the girls or anything that's really happening with the kills like the later "Friday the 13th" films being more of a draw here, but seeing how you have an hour of plodding plotting to get though first and despite the softcore nudity and occasional sex scene its way too drawn out to the film finding its stride to make it rewatchable even as a throwaway slasher though by the same reasons no doubt making this the new favourite of teenage boys everywhere.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Elwood's Essentials #14 - Donnie Darko

Title: Donnie Darko
Director:  Richard Kelly
Released: 2001
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Holmes Osborne, Daveigh Chase, James Dubal, Beth Grant, Seth Rogen, Patience Cleveland, Jolene Purdy

Plot: Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) a complex teenager prones to bouts of sleep walking finds himself being given a prophetic warning by a mysterious figure called Frank in a demonic bunny costume that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

Review: Unquestionably a key film in my personal film education as this is one of those films where I can still remember everything about that screening while at the same time putting it in a very exclusive club. More so few films have inspired these kinds of memories while Richard Kelly is still the only director to have two films like this. At the same time by the time this film had finished after that original screening I wanted to rush out and instantly discuss it with someone while perhaps knowing back then that this film was hardly the easiest premise to sell people on. Still originally destined for a direct to video release it was saved by Drew Barrymore’s production company “Flower Films” who enabled the film to have a theatrical release. However despite the film now having a large cult following it was initially a flop in the states only to find its audience in the UK much like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”. 

Despite being his debut film Kelly directs this film with a truely unique vision for the story he wants to tell while at the same time finding a perfect leading man for his psychologically complex hero in Jake Gyllenhaal who like his sister Maggie here appearing as Donnie’s sister Elizabeth was still an unknown at this point and through this film managed to finally find his breakout role. Infact looking at the cast while many have gone on to more mainstream roles at this point Patrick Swayze was probably the best known name on the cast, alongside Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore but despite this there is really no member of the cast who doesn’t deliver on their characters

Donnie meanwhile is far from your traditional type of hero, which I guess is only fitting as this is anything but a traditional type of story. Here though Donnie is seen as having various issues in his life which his parents are attempting to resolve by sending him to counselling while at school he is seen as something of an oddball, not popular enough to be one of the cool kids yet not so unhip to be at the bottom of the social order which is no doubt one of the many reasons this film spoke to me back on that original screening. Throughout the film the closest Donnie gets to a friend are his two bumbling sidekick-of-sorts Ronald and Sean but the person who has the closest bond to him is his girlfriend Gretchen (Malone) who herself comes with her own set of issues having moved to town with her mother to escape her violent stepfather.

While Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship is a key part of the film it somehow never overshadows the main meat of the story which see’s Donnie exploring the principles and theories of time travel as he tries to figure out the mystery of Frank and the increasingly strange visions he finds himself beginning to suffer especially when his initial meeting with Frank saves him from being crushed under a stray jet engine which mysteriously crashes through his bedroom ceiling. At the same time though Kelly knows when to use Donnie and Gretchen’s relationship and when to push it to the background as he crafts a truly believable relationship between their characters while ensuring because of this groundwork that he lays that the final twist is suitably devastating.

While Donnie’s journey is one which is as gripping as it confusing, its one which is only made the more enjoyable by the catalogue of interesting characters he encounters over the course of the film from his effortless cool English teacher (Barrymore) whose class on Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” frequently seems to overshadow so many events of the film. Equally memorable is Patrick Swayze’s motivational speaker Jim Cunningham whose life philosophy based around life’s issues being categorised as being a result of love or fear is memorably torn apart by Donnie in the school assembly from hell.  Each of these supporting characters bringing their own small element to the story while never feeling like they are being included as a way to tie the story together.

The other key aspect of the film is unquestionably the soundtrack with the opening bike ride to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” perfectly setting the tone of the film, while at the same time now ensuring that its nigh impossible to think of anything else when you hear the song in much the same that “Stuck In The Middle” will thanks to Tarantino always bring back memories of “Reservoir Dogs” ear slicing sequence. Elsewhere Kelly manages equal success with his use of Tear for Fears “Head over Heels” and The Church’s “Under The Milky Way” while Gary Jules stripped down version of Tears for Fears “Mad World” hauntingly frames the final montage.

Unquestionably this is a truly unique debut film not only with its premise but also for its genre hoping antics as Kelly sees no issue in combining elements of time travel, surreal imagery and comedy alongside pop culture musing such as how a Smurf orgy would play out and somehow he manages to make it work. Yes this is certainly a strange and at time confusing journey which we are taken on, but at the same time it is an engrossing film and one which only continues to reward with repeat viewings.  At the same time the success of the film would see the film being given a director’s cut which ultimately serves to provide what I felt to be a dumbed down version of the film as additional footage only served to explain away more of the mystery which made the film so memorable to begin with, while Kelly changing out music for his original choices ironically fail to have the same impact as his original choices.

As important a film now as it was when it was released this film really has lost nothing despite being ever more of a cult favourite especially with pages of theories available online as we continue to try and figure out what exactly its all about (try pausing the film on Grandma Death's diary pages) while a misguided attempt to continue the story with "S. Darko" only further highlight just how key Richard Kelly was to making this world work, while his follow up "Southland Tales" continues to divide audiences even now. The real mystery though is why Kelly has still been unable to get his forth film made, especially when the likes of Eli Roth and M.Night Shyamalan can seemingly find funding for any half baked idea they can attach a hook to, making us only the more hungry to see where Kelly takes us next when he does return.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Death Race 2

Title: Death Race 2
Director:  Roel Reine
Released: 2011
Starring: Luke Goss, Fred Koehler, Taint Phoenix, Robin Shou, Lauren Cohan, Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, Sean Bean

Plot: Set before the events of the original film as getaway driver Carl “Luke” Lucas (Goss) is sent to Terminal Island after a failed bank robbery. Here the Weyland Corporation currently run their televised gladiatorial fights known as “Death Match”. However with the audience waning a new event is needed and that event is “Death Race”

Review: A direct to DVD prequel to the surprisingly good Paul W.S. Anderson remake, who this time returns only to take on producing and scripting duties, while the directing reigns are handed over to Direct to DVD regular and favourite of WWE Studios Roel Reine.

With Jason Statham clearly not interested in returning here instead we get a prequel with direct to DVD regular Luke Goss taking over the leading man duties as he once more wheels out his bargain bin Statham act. At the same time its films like this which only serve to make me question what exactly Guillermo del Toro did to get such a great performance out of him in “Blade 2” and “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” two films which are continually used to hock these lesser films and give the illusion of someone of some star power being involved. Here though it is a pretty charm free experience as we get a lot of gruff machismo as he essentially plays the same character that Statham did in the first film. Just one of the many moments of déjà vu which run through this film to say the least.

Joining Goss we see fellow Direct to DVD regular Danny Trejo who shows up as Luke’s mechanic Goldberg the only Mexican Jew. Tanit Phoenix meanwhile gets to provide the titillation as Luke’s navigator / love intrest and who like her character like all the female characters here has been drafted in solely for the purpose of providing sex appeal, more so when she shares zero chemistry with Goss. Ving Rhames and Sean Bean meanwhile continue their journey to direct to DVD fame with Bean putting in a fun villainous turn as Luke’s former crime boss employer. Only two member of cast return from the first film being Fred Koehler who appears once more as Lists the compulsive data collector while Robin Shou also returns as the Triad gangster 14K though sadly is once more given far too little to do.

Clearly aiming to fill in the gaps in the franchise history as we return to Terminal Island where currently they run gladiatorial battles to the death between the prisoners. The battles taking place in an arena filled with the same kind of pressure pads that we have in the races to release weapons. This in itself isn’t a bad idea to provide a gateway into the creation of the races, what is a bad idea is to spend half the film focused on these fights scenes especially when you’re selling the film under the “Death Race” header in a move that left me kind of confused to say the least. This wouldn’t have been a major problem if the fights had been shot with any kind of style or featured capable fighters both of which the film is lacking and further hindered by these scenes being largely shot with quick cuts and shaky camerawork which makes them hard to follow and this is before we watch Luke and the films main villain Big Bill (Oparei) engage in a flame thrower fight which might sound awesome but when you see the weedy flames these things produce, there is never any sense that either of them is in any kind of danger.

Once the film finally remembers that it’s supposed to be about you know a “Death Race” we get even more fighting as there are too many inmates for the vehicles they have. When it comes to the race segments for some reason they choose to just recycle the same vehicles from the first film only with different drivers and considering that all but two of these vehicles are destroyed by the end of the film, you have to question why they rolled out the same vehicles for the race in the first film especially when they are supposed to be using vehicles being broken down by the prison.

Unlike the first film the race scenes here pale in comparison thanks largely due to some clumsy direction and the shots of the drivers frequently appearing like they sitting in stationary cars. This however is not to say that the film is without its own standout moments, as the races manage to pull out a few surprises but when they are shot with such rapid cuts with none of the lingering shots or fancy car work of the first film you can’t help but assume that your just watching race footage cut out of the first film rather than anything specifically shot for the film. Why these scenes are so poor is something of mystery especially when we have the scenes of Luke’s getaway driving during the bank heist which are enjoyable enough, even if Reine has a strange obsession with shooting things in slow motion even if they don’t need to be perhaps in an attempt to raise the film about its budget limitations.

Hampered by questionable action scenes and a plodding script let alone one of the most boring and pointless sex scenes ever which does little for the audience unless they wanted to see the bare ass of Luke Goss which is put on full display here. The film does atleast try to fill in some of the blanks left by the first film, such as why all the navigators are female and how the races were created while the ending clearly has been done to set up the events of the first film, something which is essentially undone by the third film which is something of a shame when it perfectly explains how Frankenstein came to be.

Essentially the sequel you’d expect it to be especially considering the release type, its only the made the more frustrating when the film constantly hints at a better film lurking underneath that could have made this a more memorable sequel had the direction been tighter and the action scenes more traditionally shot as such this is really worth giving a miss or for the completists only.
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