Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review - Julien Donkey-Boy (1999 - Dir. Harmony Korine)

Good grief, this is hard work! It’s arty, cinematic poetry representing the perceived viewpoint of the schizophrenic Julien that is simultaneously disturbing, harrowing and annoying. I’ve had to systematically watch it in twenty minute chunks with gritted teeth to struggle through it. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s quite possibly the least enjoyable piece of cinema I have experienced.

Film aficionados will revel in the imagery, the representation of dysfunctional America and the oh so jerky, grainy camera work. However, I found myself asking what is the point of being so deep and meaningful when the end result is such a tortuous episode for the viewer? A portrayal of life for those suffering with schizophrenia sounds both laudable and interesting, but Julien Donkey-Boy is neither. As far as a genre classification goes, this is beyond Gritty, below Grimy and descends into an new area altogether; Grubby.

All the characters barring Julien’s pregnant sister (Chloe Sevigny), are represented extremely negatively. Julien himself (Ewen Bremner) is not only abused by his family, but his actions are often at best, unclear and at worst, disturbingly ambiguous. His wrestling brother (Evan Neumann) is abusive, gormless and shallow, and then we come to Dad…

Julien’s former military father is played by, who else but the legendary Werner Herzog! He literally left me speechless as he squirts his son with a cold hose pipe, makes Julien punch himself ‘because his face is so stupid’ and breaks his daughter’s harp while calling her a slut (gasp). We’re in near-nun killing territory here! (You can't kill nuns - evlkeith) And all spoken in that lovely kind voice he uses to interview people so sensitively in the likes of Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss. It’s a terrible world.

Add to this some aggressive-on-the-ear albino rapping, the fact that every shot and/or scene lasts about twice as long as it optimally should, and the most depraved act of cigarette smoking ever witnessed, and you’ve got yourself a gruelling ninety minutes of non-entertainment ahead of you. 1 point for the sister, 1 point for the smoker and 1 point for Werner, just for being himself, means a very generous score of…

If you like this you could also try:
Gummo, Mister Lonely, The Idiots.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Review - Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979 - Dir. Lucio Fulci)

George A. Romero started the zombie ball rolling and he deserves a rather large salute. But I think it was an Italian director who perfected the zombie film with his run of four titles from 1979 to 1981. I'm talking about Lucio Fulci, of course and we'll start with his first masterpiece Zombie Flesh Eaters.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) is investigating the mysterious disappearance of her dad. She joins forces with reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch). They set sail for the island of Matoul with Auretta Gay and Fulci regular Al Cliver, and become embroiled in some voodoo hi-jinx.

You may be smirking at the island's name, Matoul. And so was Dardano Sacchetti, the screenwriter. There are so many double entendres I began to lose count. Throw in a scene where Auretta Gay goes snorkelling in just her skimpy pants and it could virtually be Carry On Zombie.

Shark vs Zombie. Sounds cool. But stupid. It sounds more like an idea from Sharktopus and the Living Dead. And yet it is one of the most stunning scenes in the whole of the zombie genre. (It looks really good on Blu-ray.) The way that the zombie's hair moves in the water as he backs off preparing for the shark's attack is... beautiful.  Strange, but I can't think of a better word. If this was done now, the shark would obviously be CGI and would look rubbish. Fulci didn't have access to CGI so he just filmed a real shark with its trainer, who just so happened to be in a zombie costume. This is one of those scenes that I could happily watch whenever.

Another scene that I could watch whenever is the iconic splinter in the eyeball. For years, I'd only seen this in a heavily cut version. Then another version came out where you actually saw the eyeball pierced. Finally, common sense prevailed and we all got the chance to look at a piece of splintered wood being rammed into someone's eye. Okay, the special effect head doesn't exactly look perfect but when that final bit of eyeball gets pushed out at the end I can't help wincing. 

Fulci's zombie films rely on their atmosphere and he created it here by having sand blowing around everywhere on the island. It almost replaces fog as my favourite atmosphere generator. A shot in the final act of the film where zombie shamble out of the trees in glorious widescreen is again... beautiful. I would hold up this shot in a court of law as evidence for the case against running zombies.

The acting perfectly fits the tone of the film. Ian McCulloch looks like he's having a right laugh and makes a likeable lead. His face when he views four zombies eating a buffet is an absolute picture. Tisa Farrow seems to be there in body but not necessarily in spirit, although this doesn't seem out of place with all of the shocks she has to endure. It would have been interesting if Catriona MacColl had played the lead though...

For me this film has the perfect zombie effects. I don't know about you but if I was faced by an overly-designed and overly-professional zombie, as is often seen now in big-budget zombie-a-thons, I might be a tad nervous. Put one of the dirty, crusty maggot-ridden zombies from this film in front of me and I might need to change my Tena Gentleman. They look so... dead. Great stuff.

Out of Fulci's four top zombie films this has to be the comedy. It really is quite a light-hearted affair. The only thing that I really think it misses is another standout gore scene in the final third. All in all though, this is a film that is way better than its title would lead you to believe.

If you like this you could also try:
Zombie Holocaust, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Review - Nightwatch (1994 - Dir. Ole Bornedal)

Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is busy studying for his law degree. To make ends meet he gets himself a nice little job as a night watchman in a morgue. Bar work may be a bit more lively, but each to their own. His brief training consists of the old night watchman showing him the ropes. He has to visit each room and take a key, that is chained to the wall, and insert it into his little machine to prove that he has done the rounds. To get to the key in the morgue, he has to walk past rows of cadavers. Bar work still seems like the better option to me, but let's give it a chance. Finally he is shown a large red light in his office. This is the emergency alarm. Above each bed in the morgue is a pull cord. If one of the bodies just so happens to wake up, the startled person can pull the cord, and the red light starts to pulse, accompanied by a loud siren. Er, no... don't think this job suits, it's the Lamb and Flag for me.

I don't normally give much of a plot synopsis because I think films are better when you go into them cold. But here, the set-up is so mind-numbingly scary I had to share it. And the film lives up to its premise. It is really terrifying. On the first viewing. Repeated viewings lessen the impact dramatically so savour the first time if you do decide to give it a whirl.

Initially it seems as though it's going to fall foul of having very irritating main characters. Martin and his mate Jens dare each other to do stupid challenges (one particular challenge involving a prostitute). These stunts generally involve harming their relationships with their girlfriends. Not very endearing. But it's a testament to how the director has handled the actors' natural abilities that they come across as real people, who despite their faults are actually quite likeable. When they are in danger, you care about them, rather than wanting them to die. This makes Nightwatch pretty tense stuff.

Nightwatch was remade in 1997 by the same director, but starring Ewan McGregor and Patricia Arquette. I've never seen it but I haven't heard good things about it. A large part of the atmosphere is due to it being set in a different country and also, some of the references would be very out of place. For example, a story is told about Hans Christian Andersen as the characters look at a statue of him that I can't see happening in the American version. (The story confirms what I thought of Hans Christian Andersen based on that most important historical document, the 1952 musical.) 

Nightwatch is well acted, well made and well scary. It would probably get a nine out of ten for the first viewing, but taking repeat viewings into account...

If you like this you could also try:
The Chaser, Switchblade Romance, Shuttle.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Review - Mutant (1984 - Dir. John 'Bud' Cardos)

This is a film that was an ever present at the legendary Creepy's Video Emporium. And I never actually saw it. I watched virtually everything else Creepy had to offer but not this. It never really appealed. Maybe I sensed its severe lack of blood. That doesn't explain why I rented Teen Wolf though.

Like so many horror films, Mutant starts with some young whippersnappers - brothers Josh (Wings Hauser) and Mike (Lee Montgomery) - driving down a road and surprisingly they have a near miss. With some hillbillies. Who bear a grudge.

But Mutant doesn't veer into Wrong Turn territory. It becomes (amazingly enough seeing as though it's part of the Year of the Dead Season) a zombie film. Admittedly they are comedy zombies, complete with pale faces, dark eyes and outstretched arms. The comedy zombie (would that be a comebie or a combie?) arms are justified by their need for some kind of biologically scientific component of blood which they take from their victims using tiny little slits in their hands. Hence the outstretched arms, you see. There is also a worrying steaming excretion that pours forth from their hands that looks like what can only be described as nose dirt that has been percolated in Satan's bottom. 

Wings (father of Cole Hauser from The Cave for anyone mildly interested) is a strange choice for a leading man. The romantic scene between him and 'way out of his league' Jody Medford is completely preposterous and cringeworthy. Surely, even in the eighties ladies didn't fall for fellas with huge Hasselhof haircuts. Now if he had a moustache maybe I could have understood it.

Mutant is all fairly entertaining. It has a relatively slow build up but when the combies come the pace picks up. None of the cast take it seriously and it's a good job. But there's no outright winking at the viewer, which again, is a good job. In a similar manner to other films of this time period and ilk it doesn't try to do anything fancy. It's just fun. Not gory in the slightest but fun nonetheless.

If you like this you could also try:
Dead Heat, Monolith, C.H.U.D.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Review - Tenebrae (1982 - Dir. Dario Argento)

Film three in our season of all things Argento is Tenebrae, a return to the giallo genre after his dalliance with the supernatural in Suspiria (review coming soon). When I had my first Dario obsession in the early nineties, I was more enamoured by his fantasy supernatural offerings. But now I tend to lean more toward his gialli.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a popular crime writer whose most recent novel Tenebrae inspires a killer to go and do killings. Neal gets together a Scooby gang consisting of his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and plucky golf jumper wearing freak Gianni (Christian Borromeo) to help him solve the case. The police become involved when Neal begins to gets threatening letters from the killer. Black leather murdering gloves, a knife, a razor and an axe all feature prominently from there on in. Excellent.

At some point in the not too distant past, I had a minor rant about nobody being interested in finding out who the killer is in a giallo, and that the mystery is only there to provide some lovely murders. Which is fine by me. But here, the identity of the killer is pretty intriguing. There are some blatant red-herrings, but the possible list of candidates is high. Until they all get slaughtered. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen it, but there is a moment in the final third when something a little on the unbelievable side happens, and the old spidey-sense is definitely tingling. Although on watching the film a second time, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious due to some recurring themes and images, one of which is directly linked to the killer. It's cleverly done though and rewards repeat viewings.

Along with a nifty mystery there are some (obviously stylish) gruesome murders that build in intensity. The first half seems pretty tame by today's standards but things soon get going and the red stuff flows. Or sprays. Everywhere. There are a fair few iconic images in Tenebrae but surely the most well known is of a lady being slashed as the camera looks through a large hole in her shirt. Logic goes out of the window to enable this legendary shot. The lady in question is rather nervous - there is a killer on the loose after all - and she senses that someone is lurking about in her house. So she changes her top. If ever someone breaks into my house in the middle of the night and starts stalking me with a slashing razor, I'm going to try that tactic. It works on the basis that the murderer won't want to get blood on your freshly washed and ironed shirt. This may work if the killer was my mum, but apart from that...

Tenebrae has a look that you don't get now. The film stock used produces a rich feel to the colour, even when the colours are pale and muted. You may expect that the cinematography would involve lots of shadow and dark recesses, it is a giallo after all. But no. The electricity meter must have run out numerous times during the making of this. Even exterior night scenes are brightly lit. There is nowhere to hide. It all adds up to a gorgeous looking film.

North by Northwest may have sprung to mind, a thriller where the hero is chased in broad daylight. And this isn't the only link between that film and Tenebrae. Neal's agent, Bulmer (John Saxon) is waiting for a meeting out in a public square. The scene plays out, without dialogue, as Bulmer watches the people's lives around him. It is shot in a Hitchcock style: the character looks at something, we see that something, then we see the character's reaction to it. But in a twist on the cornfield scene from North by Northwest, people surround Bulmer. Eventually, he turns out to be just as alone as Roger Thornhill. A great scene.

Dario wrote this film to goad his critics who thought that if he can make these horrific films then he must be a sadistic misogynist murdering paedo. The character of Peter Neal could easily be substituted for Dario himself. Although initially Argento's great plan doesn't seem to have worked - the killer goes for attractive ladies after all - but as the plot develops, his dastardly plan is revealed. As a viewer, I'm not sure why I enjoy horror films, (something discussed in Karl Kaefer's Danse Macabre post) but it's something that I should ponder on. I just know that I'm not a murderer. And I doubt Dario is either. 

Is Tenebrae as good as Deep Red then? Not quite. But that is down to personal taste. IDeep RedI love the dark sequences in the old house, where David Hemmings chips away at the plaster. The cinematography in Tenebrae actually works against it and comes across as cold. Which fits the tone but not my need for atmosphere. Still, it's a great film that improves like a fine wine. Or, if beer is your preferred beverage, a fine bottle of Timothy Taylor's. Now I've finished writing this lovely review, let me just go and shut the dungeon door before a passerby hears that scream.

If you like this you could also try:
Deep Red, Don't Torture a Duckling, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Friday, 9 August 2013

Review - Castle of the Living Dead (1964 - Dir. Warren Kiefer, Luciano Ricci)

Apologies for this one. This is supposed to be a zombie season. And with a title like Castle of the Living Dead - yep, that's the Living Dead - you'll hopefully excuse me for thinking that this film may actually contain some living dead action. Nope, they lied. A more accurate title would be Castle of a living bloke that just so happens to contain some dead people too

Given that, it's still a pretty enjoyable affair. A troupe of entertainers get invited to a creepy old castle to perform for Count Drago (Christopher Lee), and his glamourous assistant Sandro (Mirko Valentin). You'd think that as soon as they saw Christopher Lee in a castle with a disturbed looking butler type, that they'd leg it sharpish. Do people never learn? But for dramatic purposes they stay and soon enough people start dying. Hooray.

I thought that the dodgy butler was called Sandra for about half of the film which make me chuckle. But there are many more laughs to be had. Most of which are not intentional. I think I've ranted before about people suspending their belief and giving old special effects a chance, such as stop-motion animation. But here the effects are so poor, my belief was most definitely unsuspended. Here's an example: a cat is given some poison that causes it to instantly stop in a rigid fashion. Now, I'd have thought that a stuffed cat type prop would have been the order of the day. The camera could have moved round the cat and it would have been fairly convincing. They actually achieve this effect by freeze framing the film. And the cat's not even in focus. It looks shocking. 

What the film does well is atmosphere. There is something about old horror films that seems more horrifying than more contemporary examples. The period setting maybe helps, recalling the only interesting history lessons that I can remember: the ones about executions and people being hanged, drawn and quartered. As I was watching, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General sprang to mind. Interestingly, this was written by a certain Michael Reeves, the director of the latter film. Due to the atmosphere, I found one scene involving a hanging quite unpleasant and more disturbing than Jason hacking off some fellow's protuberance. 

Lee and Valentin make a fantastic evil double act. Valentin especially lurks around looking as though he wants to do very morally dubious things with his victims. He's got a premium quality evil laugh too. The other characters all pale into insignificance next to these two. Donald Sutherland makes an appearance but gets very little screen time. Not enough to make an impact. (He still gets his face on the DVD cover though, I can't think why...)

Christopher Lee explains the title during the course of the film, and despite the fact that there aren't any literal members of the living dead, I can see where he's coming from. Enough, to let them off and include this in our Year of the Dead. It's nowhere near as good as the two films mentioned previously but it's a passable way to spend an hour and a half. A good late night film.

If you like this you could also try:
The Plague of the Zombies, Witchfinder General, The Haunting (1963)

Monday, 5 August 2013

Review - Manderlay (2005 - Dir. Lars Von Trier)

I wasn't aware there was a sequel to Dogville. But when I started to watch Manderlay - another film by Lars Von Trier - I thought that the style felt very similar. Ah, but there's no Nicole Kidman, can't be a sequel. So I checked it out and found that Grace, played by Kidman in Dogville, is played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Manderlay is indeed a sequel. Ooh.

Surely the aspect that will have split viewers of Dogville has to be the style. If you couldn't get into that film due to the visuals, then don't bother with Manderlay. But I really liked the style and would recommend it, with one proviso: I love theatre. The music and sets are virtually non-existent. Characters knock on imaginary doors to the accompaniment of a five year old banging on a wood block in true school play style. Rooms are marked out by lines on the floor. As with minimalist theatre, the imagination has to be accessed and used frequently. I realised at many times during the film that I was seeing things that weren't there. For example, when some crops were harvested from a field, I saw those crops in all of their splendour lit by a stunning sunset. But I never did. All the actors are doing is pretending, like in lunchtime TV programme Let's Pretend. The great thing about this is that everyone will watch this film differently. A bit like reading a book.

The theatre style makes the film very intimate. The characters appear to be in the same room as the viewer. And unlike the majority of theatre, the screen is filled with a multitude of top world-class actory types: Willem Dafoe, Danny Glover and Lauren Bacall to name a few (let's face facts, the best you get at Doncaster Civic Theatre is Christopher Biggins). So this is theatre of the highest order.

But of course it isn't theatre. It's a film. And it does a few things that theatre can't: the space that the actors perform in is huge, jump cuts are used frequently and the camera can whizz up into the air way above the action. It also shows things that happen in different locations at the same time and flashbacks are occasionally employed. 

So Manderlay uses film and theatre as its palette. But what about the story? Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) arrives at cotton plantation Manderlay, driven by her gangster father (Willem Dafoe). There she finds slavery still in full swing despite the abolishment seventy year ago. Grace, with a contingent of her father's gangster chums, is left to sort things out and free the slaves. 

Manderlay deals with the theme of whether slaves were ready for freedom and more importantly whether America was ready to treat them as equals. Wilhelm (Danny Glover) isn't really convinced that the USA will be ready for them in a hundred year's time (that would work out to be roughly 2030). And although things have moved on, with the first black president in power, I can see his point (the KKK is still in operation after all). Not that the UK is much better in the tolerance of other cultures stakes, with the rise of right wing extremists, such as the BNP and EDL. When the final credits appear over a photo montage, it's up to you to make up your own mind.

If you fancy a night at the theatre, with a thought provoking story, but you really can't be bothered to get tarted up - maybe donning a cummerbund in the process - and leave the comfort of your home, this could be right up your street.

If you like this you could also try:
Dogville, Mississippi Burning.