Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review - Red State ( 2011 - Kevin Smith)

I hadn't heard anything about this but I saw it advertised and saw the words 'Kevin Smith' and 'horror'. I really liked Smith's run on Daredevil where he killed off Karen Page, so a horror film by him can't be all bad. 

The 'horror' tag is a bit of a red-herring, because what starts off as a standard issue horror opener - three randy teenage lads get the offer of a foursome, drink some dodgy pop with the lovely lady, fall unconscious and wake up in the hands of an extreme right-wing church cult/sect thing - gradually morphs into something different and, in truth, more interesting. It is very hard to genrelise it. Which is good. 

As expected, the script is witty and clever. When the leader of the church, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) starts to preach and quote the scriptures you can clearly see the logical links that can be made if you believe in the bible to the letter and carefully choose which parts to quote. It all seems so rational. Don't get worried about me. I did say 'if'. (The last time I set foot in a church, I had third degree burns within milliseconds and I had to be driven off by my dad, who just so happens to look a bit like Gregory Peck.) Anyway, I can't quite recall there being a passage in the bible that relates to killing gay men through the use of a gun, shrink wrap and a gimp ball. Cooper's lesson seems to fall apart at that point.

Initially, I was a bit sceptical when John Goodman made an appearance as an agent type. The first sections contains unknowns (to me anyway) so it was jarring when in steps a big-name star. You expect him to be funny and he is. But the humour is very understated and he can actually play quite emotional scenes. He really grew on me during the course of the film.

You can never tell where Red State is going next. Is it a straight horror? A comedy? A siege drama? Is it a comment on extreme religious views? Or on the way that the US Government deals with 'undesirables'? It's a bit of everything. A veritable pick 'n' mix feast of filmic goodness. I can't say that I'd want to see it again, part of the fun is not knowing what to expect, but it's definitely worth watching once.

If you like this you could also try:
(Being such a broad mix of genres, there's nothing really like it, that I can think of. Just watch it and enjoy.)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Review - The Treasure Hunter (2009 - Yen-Ping Chu)

I thought for a while that I'd found a hidden gem in The Treasure Hunter. Everything starts off so well. Fighters erupt from under the sand, proceed to batter each other and then plunge back into the dunes. Exciting stuff. Not long after that you are treated to what can only be described as 'Bandage Man'. A man with bandages (obviously) that he uses to attack our plucky hero, Qiao Fei (Jay Chou) in glorious slow motion. It may all seem a tad strange, and the CG effects aren't the best, but I cut it some slack because of the level of creativity on show.

Then the middle section saunters in. Oh dear. Everything grinds to a halt as romance descends. Okay, Lan Ting (Chilling Lin) is fairly gorgeous, but do we really need so many scenes of them wittering on about liking each other? I can't really remember what else happens. Suffice to say that random dullness abounds. The only respite you get are the antics of the gormless henchmen who manage to raise a few smiles on occasion.

Fortunately, things pick up again for the finale in the lost city which borrows heavily from the Tomb Raider games and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But The Treasure Hunter never quite reaches the giddy peak of 'Bandage Man' again. A shame.

It's hard to say anything about the story because everything is so random (that word seems to keep cropping up). Characters appear. Fight a bit. Do something strange. Then vanish. You're never quite sure why. 'Bandage Man' is quality, but he's only in it for five minutes and in that time you never get to know who he is, what his allegiances are, or why he's covered in attack bandages.

I really wanted to like this film after the initial burst of action. Sadly it was not to be. It only cost me a couple of quid though and it's definitely worth that. Just don't set your expectations too high. Except for 'Bandage Man'. He's great.

If you like this you could also try:
Armour of God, Operation Condor.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Review - Beyond Remedy (2009 - Dir. Gerhard Hroß)

Do some filmmakers actually title their films to make it easy for reviewers? (Another prime example is the low quality Atrocious.) Why not just call your film, Less Pleasurable Than Intimate Fun With A Rotary Hand Whisk? It would certainly save me the bother of a) watching it, b) reviewing it and c) binning it.

A group of phobia-suffering medical students go to a hospital where they are treated with some fairly extreme techniques. There are some fairly strange phobias too: one sufferer is afraid of mirrors (he's not a vampire though, just ugly), but the strangest is a surgeon who's afraid of scalpels; that's like a baker who's afraid of baps. To make matters worse a chain-mail wearing surgeon-killer is on the loose (I'm making this sound far more interesting than it is).

You might have guessed that Beyond Remedy is not a good film. In actual fact, every aspect of the film is really, really bad. The acting from the whole cast is sub-porn. I half expected a moustachioed plumber to arrive in the middle of a scene and remove his huge tool from a tidy box. But the acting is worse than that. It pains me to say it, but it is sub-Mary's dad from Eastenders. (For overseas readers, Eastenders is a British soap, full of bad actors, the worst offender being Mary's Dad whose lines mainly consisted of saying, "Oh, Mary love." He appeared in the first years of the soap and his acting set the zero-level that every other actor can be measured against.)

(Mary's Dad: sadly he doesn't make an appearance in Beyond Remedy)

You don't normally notice editing in a film, generally because it's done well. Beyond Remedy is a lesson in how to break the rules of editing, but not in a good way. The highlight is a shot of our heroine jumping from a ledge, fifteen feet above the ground.  Cut instantly to her landing softly in a fella's arms. To be fair to the editor, this could be the director's fault; if you only get the footage of her jumping from a foot off the ground there's not much you can do with it.  

Everything else is the film is poor: the lighting, the droning music, the virtually silent sound effects and the comedy prosthetics work. I bet the caterers even served up hummus sarnies. I'm not going to rant any longer. Just be glad you haven't had to sit through this shambles. It only gets a 1/10 because at least they've had a go and it's not an irritating film, unlike our 0/10 offerings. At least I only paid a quid for it.

If you like this you could also try:
Oh, I really can't be bothered. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Feature - My Christmas List

At this time of year I start writing my Christmas list for Satan (let's face facts, the only thing Santa would bring me is a turd from a dog who's suffering with a dose of bubble poo, wrapped in Frank Bough's mustard and brown y-fronts. Satan it is then.)

As everyone knows, the true meaning of Christmas is playing with your freshly acquired games for stupid amounts of time, while drinking and eating a bumper crop of festive goods. I got to thinking that if I could get 25 games for Christmas, what would they be? (Plus, this gives me an opportunity to write a sad list.) The games can be taken from any time period, on any console or gaming system. I'll try to get clips of all the games, but I doubt I'll be able to get some of the more obscure offerings. Anyway, let's take a break from films and have a look at some premium top-drawer gaming action.

25. Starmaster (1982 - Atari 2600) 
This gets in there because it's the first game I ever owned. When you died, it played the death march. Which is cool.

24. Rebel Planet (1986 - C64)
Top quality text adventure. Listened to the Redskins' 'Neither Washington Nor Moscow' while playing this.

23. Quedex (1987 - C64)
Ten sad little ball rolling challenges that kept me playing for ages. 

(Skip to 3:20 for gaming action, or for retro thrills, sit through the loading screen)

22. Winter Games (1986 - C64)
Quality ice skating action in this one, that led to the Father of evlkeith having his last name changed to Dean due to some of his tricky manoeuvres.

21. Creatures 2 (1990 - C64)
Possibly the pinnacle of C64 graphics. To increase the number of colours onscreen, they rapidly switched the sprites between two colours to blend them together and create a new shade. Crafty. I bet Infinity Ward don't have to do that.

20. Spy vs Spy 2 (1985 - C64)
It was top fun, to set a trap and then watch your chum walk straight into it. Much cackling was brought forth.

19. Typhoon (aka A-JAX) (1987 - Arcade)
Many coins were pumped into this in the arcade. I love shooters, both of the vertical and horizontal types, but this one was even better because you also went vertically downwards towards an aircraft carrier. Destroying it gave you a lovely explosion and sent you rocketing upwards into the stratosphere. A great gaming moment.

18. Ridge Racer Revolution (1995 - PS1)
This game perfectly hit the feeling of being right on the edge of control. One slight nudge in the wrong direction and you drifted into oblivion. Adrenaline rush ahoy.

17. Braid (2008 - Xbox 360)
This puzzler severely played with the time control mechanic from 'Prince of Persia: Sands of Time'. Days were spent mulling over a particularly tricky problem. The solution normally hit me when I wasn't even thinking about it and they always seemed really obvious. The mark of a great puzzle game.

16. Gradius V (2004 - PS2)
A side-scrolling shooter developed by Treasure. Enough said.

15. Final Fantasy VII (1997 - PS1)
I must have spent well over sixty hours playing through this. Twice. Not been that impressed with the Final Fantasy games since though.

14. Limbo (2010 - Xbox 360)
Another great puzzler, but this time in black and white. Plus it's got a completely creepy spider attack. Short and the last third is not quite as visually arresting, but a great game nonetheless.

13. Uridium (1986 - C64)
How great was it to turn your ship on its side to slip through tiny gaps whilst shooting at stuff (simultaneously messing yourself)? Pretty darn great.

12. Alien Breed (1991 - Amiga)
The best Aliens game (unofficially of course)? Certainly a homage, but when you're legging it from aliens, the screen flashing red and a lady issuing warnings you couldn't care less. The sequels were great too (except Alien Breed 3D maybe).

11. Beast Busters (1989 - Arcade)
This has the honour of being the only arcade game I've completed on one credit. That says less about my skill and more about the amount of time I spent in the bar where it was situated.

10. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (2008 - Xbox 360)
Perfect zone game. You don't quite know how you're avoiding the enemies, but somehow you brain is hardwired into the controller and you dance around them. Great stuff. I'll just have one more go. Just one more...

9. Half-Life 2 (including subsequent episodes) (2004 - Xbox 360)
The only FPS in my list, but what a cracking game. Bit of a shocker to actually find characters who you care about in a game.

8. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004 - Gamecube)
I loved how this game was broken down into different chapters, each offering a different style of gameplay.

7. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998 - N64)
Got. To. Collect. Everything. (I still find myself whistling the ocarina tunes at times.)

6. Super Monkey Ball (2001 - Gamecube)
I can't remember which level it was but there was one massive difficulty spike that took me days to get past. Quality buzz when I nailed it though.

5. Bayonetta (2009 - Xbox 360)
A naked lady with a hair costume (?), guns connected to her hands and feet and a knack of lamping angelic bad guys: what could be better? Takes a lot of patience to master, but when you do, you appreciate how great this game really is. Bonkers. But great.

4. Rez (2002 - PS2)
Basically 'Space Harrier', but you can change the soundscape by shooting stuff. Turn it up loud to fully appreciate. 

3. Frequency (2001 - PS2)
An abstract music game, and yet it feels far closer to actually playing music than 'Guitar Hero'. Another zone game.

2. Shadow of the Colossus (2005 - PS2)
The only game to make you feel really really bad about killing the enemies. It had some similarities to 'Ico' but was so much more than your average sequel.

1. Ico (2001 - PS2)
Easily my favourite game ever. So atmospheric and you get a character that you really care about in Yorda. The music is stunning and who would have thought that one of the best gaming moments is running along an empty beach for two minutes. (You'd have to play it to know what I mean.) A perfect game.

So there you have it. There's bound to be some games that you can't believe I've missed out and some games in the list that you hate, but with such choice available, everyone can be happy. My Christmas list will actually involve numbers 1 and 2 because I'm going to get a PS3 just to play them in sparkly HD. (Plus there's the small matter of 'The Last Guardian' on the horizon.)

Normal film review service will now resume.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Review - Buried (2010 - Dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

This is a high concept film (helpfully, the concept keeps the budget nice and cheap). The whole idea is: 'Let's take a bloke, slap him in a box, bury him and stick a camera in there for 95 minutes.' It's taken me a while to get round to watching it, but I knew I would have to at some point.

Ryan Reynolds (who must have taken up most of the budget) plays Paul Conroy, a trucker working in Iraq. He gets hijacked by insurgents and held to ransom. Luckily, he has a handy little man bag in the box with him, full of useful trinkets: a phone, a lighter, a torch, alcohol, tablets of some description and some of those green glowy stick things.

Just as mobile phones seem to have scuppered horror films to a certain degree, with writers coming up with comedy ways of making the phones inoperable, lost or left behind, this film wouldn't have worked without their invention. It would have been fairly tedious to watch someone getting giddy in a box for the running time, so it was fairly necessary to let him talk to the outside world. He contacts relatives, the company he works for and the U.S. government to try to get out of his predicament. If Reynolds had been useless, Buried would have followed suit. But, as luck would have it, he's surprisingly good. Half an hour in an MRI scanner was enough for me, I don't know how he coped being in that box for however many days. He deserves a big Ginsters for being such a trooper.

Like another high concept film, Cube, the director makes it visually interesting for the viewer using different light sources. Hence the contents of his bag. Even within the confines of a box, we are still treated to some cracking images. The final scenes of sand pouring in are particularly effective (and harrowing) but my favourite shot is when the camera is looking down on Conroy and then slowly pulls up. I know it's not realistic, but it accurately conveys his isolation.

Starting this film, my thoughts were that it had to stick to the plan: you couldn't have any shots of the outside world. It would also have to have a satisfying ending. Buried scores on both points, so I came away happy. Films of this type surely have a ceiling of how good they can be and this is about as good as it gets.


If you like this you could also try:
Cube, Frozen, Devil.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Review - Ice Cold in Alex (1958 - Dir. J. Lee Thompson)

The first thing that hits you about Ice Cold in Alex is the music. I think that a slight bit of cheeky tributing has been done by John Williams when composing the Star Wars score. Just have a listen to the trailer at the end of the review and you'll hear what I mean. Dirty little homager.

Anyway, on with the film. I know this wouldn't have been obscure at the time, but I'd never heard of it until a colleague at work told me to give it a look (along with the quality This Happy Breed). Captain Anson (Sir John Mills) is given the unenviable task of driving two nurses to Alexandria. Doddle. He's setting off from Tobruk though. Okay, still not too bad. Nazis are lurking about around every sand dune shooting at them, they have to cross mine fields and quicksand, and they're driving an old clapped-out ambulance with limited supplies of water and food. Ah. Rather you than me, mate.

Anson is ably assisted by Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews), a very affable sort of fellow, the kind of bloke you'd like to have a pint with, get him to fix your car and then have a game of darts with him. Also along for the ride is the slightly more unsavoury Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), a South African hitchhiker with a bag full of gin that Anson, being a big alcoholic, covets like his neighbour's ox. 

The story is very linear. It's basically a road trip without any side quests. Just keep going until you get to Alexandria. This means that you can disengage your brain (quite easy for me) and enjoy the ride. Even if it is on a bumpy ambulance. You get to fully appreciate the four leads and the numerous scrapes they get themselves into, including a beautifully lit run-in with the aforementioned quicksand. (One of my major fears, surely one of everyone's major fears?)

Bear in mind that this was made in 1958 and you can let it off for having slightly dubious gender politics. Sister Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) is told at one point to stop worrying about her make up and get pushing the ambulance. I won't spoil one of the top calamities of the film but have a guess who's responsible. The fellas soon put her in charge of the bags, metaphorically speaking, and sort the problem out in a very stoic British kind of way. Then they get her to make sandwiches and butter the malt loaf while they have a game of cricket. And while they all go down the pub for pints and back slapping, she does the washing up. Er, maybe not. I think that scene was cut out of this version.

(Image not taken from the film - funnily enough.)

All in all a quality Sunday afternoon kind of film. Gently paced for the majority of the time, with a smattering of excitement and tension along the way. Granted, there's a completely unnecessary (and preposterous) romantic entanglement but you can forgive this minor slip, due to the film's uncomplicated, clear storytelling. (It's also quite funny that the best beer in the whole of the Middle East turns out to be Carlsberg. They may as well have made it Strike lager for the local Happy Shopper equivalent.)

If you like this you could also try:
This Happy Breed, Since You Went Away.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Review - Screamers (1995 - Dir. Christian Duguay)

I got this as a freebie with Screamers: The Hunting, the 2009 sequel. Plus, I got it from Poundland. Two films for a pound: you can't go wrong. Okay, if it was The Sound of Music and Grease for a pound, that would be spectacularly bad. But it wasn't. So we're fine. Phew.

Screamers is pretty much Tremors, but without the humour or charismatic leads. Peter Weller (Robocop) is top of the billing and that explains the lack of comedy. As discussed previously in the Buckaroo Banzai review, Weller suffers from a rare condition known as 'Chronic Stiff Face' which prevents him from showing any emotion or revealing a glimmer of personality. This role doesn't suit him too badly: as a military kind of guy, he can almost get away with bland-facing it through the film.

On a mining planet, in the not too distant future, a war is waging between the Alliance and the New Economic Bloc (America and Russia in other words). Crafty scientists from the Alliance have developed a new type of weapon that burrows under the ground, pops out and severs important appendages with its in-built circular saw. Mmm, nifty. A message is delivered to Joe Hendriksson (Weller) informing him that peace talks will be taking place at the NEB base. So, off he trots with Ace Jefferson (Andrew Lauer) in tow.

Screamers plays out like a template for the new Battlestar Galactica series. The screamers are referred to as 'toasters' and, as they discover that there are screamer upgrades that can resemble humans, a familiar sense of paranoia creeps in. It won't be a surprise to find out that there are some 'shock' revelations and that people get killed who don't turn out to be screamers.  It's a shame watching it now as it felt quite fresh when it first came out.

I love static matte paintings (watch The Thing for some stunners) and their use in Screamers for enhancing locations is effective. I also love stop-motion animation; even though it's a bit jerky, you know it actually uses real-world objects. The screamer walking across the desk is a treat, with its whirring blade. The sequel will probably have CGI screamers, I'm guessing. What about using stop-motion and using a computer to smooth it all out? That would look cool.

If you have seen this before, it's probably not as good as you remember it. If you haven't, it's definitely worth a look for a quid. (Maybe buy it with the sequel: how bad can it be? Plus it works out cheaper.) If you can't be bothered, watch Tremors instead.

If you like this you could also try:
Tremors, Death Machine, Fortress, Hardware, Runaway.