Saturday, 29 September 2012

Review - In My Father's Den (2004 - Dir. Brad McGann)

It takes something special for me to watch a film after I've had my tea in one sitting. The usual scenario is I watch the first ten minutes, nod off, and wake at half past two in the morning on the settee not knowing where I am. Even the Champions League final couldn't keep me awake and the only bits I saw were the kick off and Didier Drogba's final penalty. I had a lovely kip in between though. All this goes to show the quality and entertainment value of In My Father's Den to be able to keep a warm, full bellied Doccortex awake for two of the hours of darkness.

This is a subtle and moody tale set in smalltown New Zealand and you're never quite sure where it's going. Is it human drama? Is it a psychological thriller? You're never quite sure until the end, and even then the boundaries are blurred. The whole experience is a veritable jigsaw of clues, snippets of information and flashbacks, and it's a joy to attempt to piece them together to arrive at some kind of understanding of what's going on. And I hate jigsaws.

The excellent Matthew Macfadyen (Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers) plays a world renowned war reporter returning to his home town for the first time in many years. He's obviously disturbed and clearly has issues with his family, but it's intriguing as to why he finds his father's funeral so difficult. The true picture unfolds almost in slow motion as we get to know the characters in a depth and detail rarely seen outside of the aforementioned Poliakoff's work. Macfadyen is excellent as the dour journalist on a quest of self discovery in his rural homeland and is generally smouldering, aggressive and always smoking. The supporting cast are equally impressive with Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings) suitably distant, and previously unknown Emily Barclay, as natural as pure New Zealand wool.

The film is a visual feast with a variety of shots of the awe inspiring landscapes, but is in no way an epic production with a limited colour palette that places the film somewhere on the colour spectrum between sepia and water colour and lends the events the look of an ancient, washed out Australian sitcom from the seventies. This makes the film a much more intimate affair with the rich browns of the den itself providing a dark and mysterious feel to proceedings in the secret room.
All in all, it's an intelligent and enjoyable film that would sit comfortably in the cinema or as a TV mini-series. If you enjoy detailed characterisation and a slow burning plot development this is one to watch. Definitely recommended.

If you like this you could also try:
Perfect Strangers, Shooting the Past.

Review - Mrs. Miniver (1942 - Dir. William Wyler)

I was initially a little disappointed by this. This Happy Breed tells a similar story but from a working class point of view. Mrs. Miniver is all silly posh hats, flowers shows and the Lady of the Manor. All very middle/upper class and to me this felt less real.

As time went on and the film unfolded I began to see that regardless of class, the people alive during World War II all lived through similar situations and emotions. My heart was warmed slightly by this revelation. (It's now at 0.01 degrees above absolute zero. Toasty.)

Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) is the mum in your average middle class family of the time. She has a husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) and three children. One of the children Vin (Richard Ney) has just come back from Oxford University and has plenty of ideas about the world. They also have a cook and a nanny, so Mrs. Miniver was free to play 'Black Ops II' all day against her buddies in the Women's Institute.

The film doesn't kick off until about forty minutes in when the inevitable war starts. This should have created a pretty dull first section. Instead we get to know all of the characters and two sub-plots are introduced to keep our attention: Vin's blossoming relationship with the granddaughter of the Lady of the Manor, Carol (Teresa Wright) and the peculiarly interesting tale of the rose competition at the local flower show. By the time the war begins in earnest we are fully invested in these characters, forty minutes well spent.

When the war starts, Vin joins the RAF as a fighter pilot and Clem dodges about in his little boat at Dunkirk. We get to see life from the person-left-behind's point of view (in a similar way to Since You Went Away). There is a brilliant scene of life in an air raid shelter that is cleverly recreated through the use of sound effects and some big burly blokes shaking the set. Not that you get to see the large rotund fellows, that's all part of movie magic.

It is clear from the start that this could be a tear jerker, but the writing is so good the tears (admittedly more a tear in my eye rather than full blown histrionics) come from unexpected places. One emotional moment is from the climax of the flower show. (I never thought I would think those words, never mind write them.) I won't spoil the other scene.

Although, Mrs. Miniver won me over I still prefer This Happy Breed, but it is a solid film. One of the character's arcs is particularly pleasing and appealed to my sense of fairness. Again, I won't spoil the moment for you. Also it has one of the most rousing church services I've ever heard. (That's something else I thought I'd never write.) Definitely recommended.

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

Monday, 24 September 2012

Review - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954 - Dir. Stanley Donen)

Imagine the scene: seven ginger brothers, all mountain men, descend from their solitary house to invade a local town and kidnap some lovely ladies in their chariot. They drive them back to their house covered in blankets. The mountain men have a right laugh. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is from the ginger version of Wrong Turn, but no, it's from the next instalment in our musical season, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Image not from film - funnily enough.

It's Oregon in the 1850s and big burly beard-ridden ginger fellow Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) wants a wife. He visits a local town, has a little sing, and chooses the lady for him, Milly (Jane Powell). Amazingly she agrees to marry him. What she doesn't know is that she will have to cook and clean for him and his six other beardy ginger brothers. Lucky woman.

Milly sets up an impromptu romance and dance school. She teaches the brothers how to behave and give it some on the dance floor, with some strikingly effective high knee manouevres. Her school works so well, in such a short length of time, that the fellas are virtually professional dancers/gymnasts by the time they come into contact with their first ladies. 

And so we come to the famous 'log dancing' scene. A veritable smorgasbord of comedy dance moves performed whilst balancing on logs. I'll admit it, it's the only reason why this film is included in the season. These scene is so ingrained in our family's consciousness that when it comes round to the inevitable games of charades, this film can be guessed in two seconds by miming dancing on a log. 

I sat and watched the scene thinking how great it will be when they get on to the logs. It's brilliant. But it never happens. It's more the 'plank dancing' scene. Still, it's really funny but the flatness of a plank is no match for the visual splendour of a cylindrical log. Maybe someone could do a George Lucas on it and CGI some logs in there to match my memory. 

Everything after this peak falls a bit flat and the film never recovers. As you may be aware I don't have a particular fondness for musicals so there's not really that much for me. The aforementioned kidnapping is the best part of the latter half. Sadly the 'log dancing' scene isn't available on YouTube or I would have put it on for you and saved you the bother of watching the rest of it.

The use of grainy old film allows the film-makers to get away with some old school trickery: rear projection, large sets with painted backdrops and models. It is also one of the most colourful films, especially when our ginger hillbillies go into town in their beautiful coloured shirts. It all adds to make some very pleasing visuals.

The trailer is great with some premium quality titling but not a whiff of the 'log dancing' scene. I'll leave the final comment to mother of evlkeith who came round to watch it with me (it's her favourite film): 'Very light-hearted and relaxing.'

If you like this you could also try:
I don't know of any other films that specialise in 'log dancing'. If you do let, me know.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Review - Ong-bak (2003 - Dir. Prachya Pinkaew)

Tired of seeing preposterous fight sequences where performers leap through the air and boot people from fifty feet away, all due to wire-work or CGI? Ong-bak could be just the thing you need to buck you up. Admittedly there is a small amount of CGI, but it's used more for a flame effect in our hero's eyes and a flipped coin spinning slowly close to the screen. Plus there's also a little wire-work. But it's only used on the stunt performers because they couldn't match the athleticism of Tony Jaa.

Ah, Tony Jaa. Is he going to be the next in line in fighting superstars, following on from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Mark Dacascos? (Okay, maybe the last one's a stretch but I think he's great.) Tony Jaa comes across as a more brutal version of Jackie Chan with a penchant for jumping really high in the air and then coming down elbow first on the top of some poor unfortunate's head. Supposedly, Ong-bak is a bit violent for Jackie and a bad example for children. I don't know about children, but I performed this move on the postie today when he didn't bring my Hepburns CDs. Luckily, he saw the funny side of his fractured skull. Literally.

Let's face facts, it's all about the fights and stunts. Are they any good? The short answer: yes. The longer answer: it's pretty amazing the feats that Tony Jaa can perform. Whether it's leaping from tree branch to tree branch, diving through a hoop of barbed wire with his hands touching his feet or kicking the turds out of someone whilst his legs are on fire, he constantly amazed me. Something that The Raid missed badly was variation in the fights. Ong-bak doesn't suffer from this problem. Even fight includes a different element so boredom is never an issue. The final scene tops everything that came before which could have been a potential problem.

There are some supporting characters who add some humour to the proceedings. There's George (AKA Humlae and Dirty Balls) who is a bit of a dodgy swindling character always trying to make money out of Ting's (Tony Jaa) fighting skills. His partner in crime is Muay Lek who is okay for the most part, until she starts crying and wailing. She was still at school when she filmed this and had no prior experience. I suppose I might grudgingly let her off.

Every hero needs a worthy villain to overcome. Bad guy duties fall to a David Lynch-esque character who has a wheelchair and talks with a microphone held to his neck. He is fairly harsh and certainly knows how to deal with a martial arts expert. There didn't seem to be any real threat to Ting for a long time, he sees off anyone he comes into contact with, so it was very welcome when a drug-fuelled nutter who can't feel any pain enters the fray. You finally feel that Ting is in danger.

Do you really need to know the plot? Okay. The head of a sacred statue gets thieved from Ting's village. He has to get it back. Job done.

After seeing this I'm looking forward to the two sequels. I love Jackie Chan older films and this is similar, but is different enough to feel fresh and worthy of your time. 

If you like this you could also try:
Police Story, Armour of God, Drive, Crying Freeman.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Review - Split Second (1992 - Tony Maylam)

I love the Wikipedia entry for Split Second. Reception - The movie gained a lot of criticism. Box Office - The movie was not a box office success. Perfect obscurendure fodder then.

And it's pretty good fun. Stone (Rutger Hauer) is a hard-nosed cop whose partner was, funnily enough, killed by a serial killer. He's paired up with Oxford graduate and serial killer expert Detective Dick Durkin (Neil Duncan). Funnily enough they don't get on. Worryingly, the serial killer likes eating the victims' hearts, has a rather larger mouth-span and a lederhosen fetish. Okay, maybe the last one's made up but who knows what kind of deviant practices these murderers get up to in their 'me' time.

Yep, it's all a bit cliched but the cast make up for it by not taking the material too seriously. One scene where Durkin sees the serial killer and subsequently feels the need for some larger guns is memorable, as is the interplay between Stone and Durkin as they discuss the case in a fairly frenzied fashion whilst cigar sharing and being followed by the bemused, but brilliantly named, police chief Thrasher (Alun Armstrong). The comic timing is spot on and the two leads ham it up like no-one's business. The only cast member to let the side down is Pete Postlethwaite who doesn't convince in the slightest as an antagonistic cop. I don't know what it is about him but I've never liked him in anything. (It was a treat to see the inclusion of one cast member though: The Shend from the popular music combo The Very Things.)

The creature is sensibly kept in the dark for most of the running time and only properly seen in the end sequence. Designed and built by Stephen Norrington (Blade), it is clearly derivative of the Giger designed Alien but then, so are most screen monsters post 1979. It's pretty effective as it charges about and flashes past the screen.

I'm not sure whether Split Second had a troubled production but the end sequence is credited to director Ian Sharp. The section fits in nicely and I wouldn't have realised if it wasn't for his credit. Maybe the producers/studio weren't happy with the original ending and had a bit of a tiff with Tony Maylam. If you know anything about what happened let us know.

So, for a film that was criticised and didn't make back its budget, it's surprisingly good. Go into it expecting Rutger Hauer in prime pork scratchings mode and you'll probably have a laugh. It's worth it for the smoke filled cinematography so beloved of the era and the conversations between the two cops about Durkin's sex-life.

If you like this you could also try:
Monolith, Dark Angel, Crossworlds.

Review - Inherit the Wind (1960 - Dir. Stanley Kramer)

Based on the 1925 "monkey trial", not the one in Darlington which actually involved a real monkey but the one in Tennessee where teacher John T. Scopes was put on trial for teaching Darwinism. The real-life story has been fictionalised with events changed and new characters added to pep it up a smidge.

Bertram Cates is a school teacher who tells his class that humans are descendants of apes. The Christian fundamentalist townsfolk are not best pleased and bang him in the slammer. The case is prosecuted by the renowned Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) a failed presidential candidate and an expert on all things pertaining to the Bible. He's a bit of a guy and has some majorly crowd-pleasing witty quips up his sleeve. In fact he comes across more like Bob Monkhouse. If he'd been an attorney. Spencer Tracy plays Henry Drummond, Cates' defence lawyer. There is a certain level of antagonism between these two courtroom heavyweights so the stage is set for an interesting bout of legal fisticuffs.

The acting is fantastic throughout. Both leads perform admirably, but I was pleasantly surprised by Gene Kelly, playing an incredibly cynical newspaper reporter, who shows that he has more to offer than just fancy footwork. The other bonus cast member is Noah Beery (Rockford's dad in 'The Rockford Files'). His appearance was greeted with a little cheer in the evlkeith household. Sadly, he doesn't get much screen-time.

Most of the film is set in the courtroom that is more like the court of Judge Nutmeg at times (you expect 'The Wheel of Justice' to make at appearance at the climax), but it ventures out into the town on occasions. The scenes of Rev. Brown preaching are particularly worrying, especially the way he talks to his daughter, and the town quickly begins to resemble an angry mob. They perform a charming ditty that goes something like this: "We'll hang Bertram Cates from a sour apple tree... We'll hang Henry Drummond from a sour apple tree, Glory Glory Hallelujah! Our God is marching on." Harsh. They could have made themselves slight less unhinged by making it a sweet apple tree.

Inherit the Wind states the case for both sides of the argument but it seems to lean towards Darwinism in the way it portrays the fundamentalist population. Henry Drummond doesn't make a case for Darwin though, he fights for the right for Cates to think. As you'd expect, there is a moment where Drummond really ruffles Brady's feathers, and although satisfying, it's not up there with a similar moment in Anatomy of a Murder.

So it's a brilliantly acted, well-made film that prompts thought about this thorny issue. It didn't change my mind but I definitely revisited my opinions. Not bad for less than a fiver. Plus you can crack loads of gags about 'inheriting the wind'. Which is always a bonus.

If you like this you could also try:
12 Angry Men, Anatomy of a Murder.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Review - Alien Agent (2007 - Dir. Jesse V. Johnson)

Mark Dacascos must be able to knock this kind of film out in his sleep. Go straight to DVD. Do not pass GO. Do not collect £200.

Rykker (Dacascos) is the titular agent, hunting down some of his fellow naughty aliens who are intent on thieving the planet for themselves. Billy Zane unwittingly becomes their leader due to some body snatching tomfoolery. One of life's great questions is: how does someone with a total lack of personality manage to get so much work in films? It baffles me. (A similar question should be asked about the brothers, Vernon and Peter Kay.) Zane is his usual personality bypass self in this film and is the weak link.

It all starts quite promisingly with a Matrix style leap off a bridge followed by a car chase and a pretty cool explosion. Then, that's your lot. I wonder if they ploughed loads of cash into the first twenty minutes, just to sell the film, and then just butt-cheeked off the rest of the film. It certainly seems that way.

Easily the best thing about Alien Agent is the relationship between Rykker and waitress Julie (Emma Lahana). They provide most of, if not all, the humour in the film. Together they make the latter half watchable, despite Zane's best attempts to render it otherwise. Dacascos gets to chin and lamp some pesky aliens, but it's not the best fight direction I've ever seen. He's way more capable. Didn't they know they had a naughty-bottom mum poker on their hands (watch the fight scenes in Drive and Brotherhood of the Wolf for the true Dacascos experience).

To be honest, there is some mild entertainment to be had here. As with most films of this ilk, go into it expecting it to be really bad and you'll be mildly surprised (unlike Captain America, where they should have been able to make it half decent, but it comes out distinctly underwhelming). If it's on telly and you've got nothing better to do, (like clipping your bum hair, for example) it's worth a watch.


If you like this you could also try:
Scorcher, Crying Freeman, Drive, Sanctuary.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Review - The Chaser (2008 - Dir. Hong-jin Na)

I've had to watch this a few times because I wasn't all that keen at the start, but I had a feeling it might grow on me. Luckily, I was right and my repeated viewings have been rewarded.

Sadly not about whisky, The Chaser is a jaunty little thriller. Joong-Ho (Yun-seok Kim) is an ex-detective. Now he's a pimp. An inspired choice there by his career advisor. His lovely ladies are going missing, he presumes sold, and he is trying to track them down. But soon he falls into the murky world of a serial killer. He finds the killer quickly. Now he has to find his last victim, Mi-jin Kim (Yeong-hie Seo) who is possibly still alive. Intriguing...

There is a rather large coincidence in The Chaser that put me off when I first watched it. Then I saw that it is based on a real-life story of a serial killer from Korea. Whether it all happened exactly like this is doubtable but tragic coincidences happen in real-life so it gave new meaning to the scene in the film, and made it more powerful.

There are some more powerful moments in the film. One of the deaths films is particularly brutal as the killer uses a hammer to bludgeon his victim. Blood spatters in glorious slow-motion and the scene is shot with excellent use of depth of field. Upsetting yet beautiful at the same time. The other moment, again shot in slow-motion, is of some premium quality believable acting of anguish from Yun-seok Kim. The music adds to the scene producing one of my favourite film moments in quite a while.

One of the things that felt strange to me was the inconsistent tone: on the one hand we have a serial killer who likes to hammer and chisel ladies' heads, on the other we have bumbling ineffectual cops who appear to have stumbled in from Police Story or worse still Police Academy 7. They fall asleep in their cars when they're on duty, they're not very good at keeping their prisoners locked up and they are more concerned about a poop-thrower than a serial killer. I'm still not entirely sure that the mixture of comedy and brutal prostitute killings works. I can't see it becoming a new sub-genre.

The film is gorgeously shot throughout with the lighting showing off the seedier, dirtier side of the locations. It's probably worth watching for that alone. Not a total triumph but  finding a half decent film in a 3 for £5 offer is always a treat. The rumour that it's going to be remade is probably an indication that it's better to watch the original version. Are there any remakes of World films that are better than the original? (Oh, and the trailer doesn't do it any justice.)

If you like this you could also try:
Lady Vengeance, Shuttle, Police Story.