Friday, 27 September 2013

Review - Rec (2007 - Dir. Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza)

I'm not the biggest fan of found footage horror films. With most of them, it seems to be a way of making a very cheap film quickly (and making me gip very quickly). Added to that is the way that they always have to justify having the camera there all the time. It normally boils down to the camera operator being really irritating or they're showing the truth of a situation, with the utmost of journalistic integrity (in other words they want some juicy footage so they can make loads of cash). There are so many bad examples, but here are a few that I really didn't like: Diary of the Dead, Atrocious and Troll Hunter.

Diary of the Dead - Low quality

But when they're done well - and a large part of that is probably down to quality writing - they can be pretty scary. Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project spring to mind (despite suffering from the justification issue) along with the film that I will finally get around to reviewing: Rec.

The rather attractive Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) is filming an episode of her multi award winning, ratings sensation, While You're Asleep. Sounds great. She follows some firefighters around for an evening to see what they get up to. When the alarm sounds she doesn't even get the chance to slide down the pole, due to the stroppy camera bloke whinging about not being able to get down it and still hold on to his camera. I'd have said, "See you down there sucker!" and slid down in true Ghostbusters style. Back to the plot: they arrive at a house where a pensioner is trapped in her apartment. After they've forced entry, the old lady in question is found, swaying around a bit. Then she turns rather disagreeable and helps herself to a prime piece of cop neck. The firefighter then whips out his hose and sprays her down. (Maybe the last part possibly might not actually occur in the film, but I couldn't resist another chance to include a double entendre.)

The success of Rec hinges on whether it delivers the scares. So how does it do? It does okay. In Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli knew the terrifying potential of stairs. Here, the directors use a long corridor to similar effect. It's somehow much scarier to have someone haring at you down a long corridor than just across a room. They will have built up a lot more momentum and it also allows more time for thinking about the carnage they're going to cause on impact. So it's the threat of something happening in the corridor that makes it so tense. The ending ramps up the tension as the camera switches to another stalwart of found footage films, the night-vision mode. At least here, it all gets very creepy due to some excellent zombie design. 

Rec doesn't look like it's been shot quickly. There are some long takes used that are well-acted and must have taken ages to rehearse. The effects are nicely done too. They're not overly designed and look pretty grimy and dirty. All in all it's a professionally made product.

There is an American remake that I had a quick flick through on YouTube and it looks virtually identical (at least in the shots that I looked at), but they called it Quarantine instead. I wonder how many people have been caught out watching it thinking it's a different film and then realising that it's just Rec. I think I've ranted before about pointless remakes and people shying away from subtitles and world cinema so I won't bother mentioning it in this review. 

Rec is not quite as scary as I'd have liked. It's not the first time I've seen it but I can't remember it being any jumpier on my initial viewing. I enjoyed it though and I wouldn't mind seeing the sequels (although I have been warned against this - maybe one day I'll get round to them). 

If you like this you could also try:
Paranormal Activity, Lake Mungo.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Review - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964 - Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The title gives a big clue to the tone of this film. I'm not that big a Kubrick fan and this hasn't done much to change my opinion. Full Metal Jacket is a classic and The Shining is enjoyable enough. Apart from that, I'm not too bothered. I can see how good his films are technically, the compositions, the transitions and all that business, but I don't find them that enjoyable or fun.

Dr. Strangelove (can I stick with an abbreviated title, please?) tries to be fun. And succeeds at times. Some of the lines had me chuckling away like a baboon that's just seen a You've Been Framed clip of a gibbon falling into a liquidiser. My favourite quote, by the President of America, has something to do with a war room and fighting. Other attempts at humour fall suspiciously flat. The titular Dr. Strangelove in particular was really tiresome with his barely restrained nazi leanings.

As you may know, or have guessed from the title, Dr. Strangelove is about nuclear war. Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper (looking at the photo above, does he remind you of anyone else?) decides it's about time to teach those naughty commies a lesson and so, without Presidential authorisation, makes a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia. The planes make a bee line for their targets and prepare themselves for mass slaughter. One pilot even dons a cowboy hat. The President is miffed about the state of affairs and takes advice from his advisors and military (in the form of George C. Scott) who react in a typical militaristic fashion.

Having the eighties as the playground for my teenage years meant that the threat of nuclear war was all too real for me. Threads and When the Wind Blows didn't help matters and neither did the video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Two Tribes' that was initially shown in all it's glory on late night Channel 4 (preceded by the brilliantly seedy- but sadly not available on YouTube - 'Relax' video). All of these jolly songs and films led me to think that a crispy death was imminent. But strangely, I'd much rather watch any of these again rather than Dr. Strangelove despite their depressing nature.

It's partly down to Peter Sellers. Like Kubrick, I've never seen the fascination with Sellers. Here he plays three characters. And he's basically showing off (in true Doccortex fashion, any display of real talent is classed as "showing off"). Admittedly there's only Dr Strangelove who's irritating but I spent a fair portion of the film thinking about Sellers' acting skills and wondering whether he'd pop up as another character. Grudgingly, I would say that's he's pretty handy as an actor and maybe a comedy is the best place to play multiple roles. It still brought me out of the film though.

Whether you enjoy Dr Strangelove - or love it, as many people do - comes down to whether you like the humour or not. For me, it was a bit hit and miss, but I'll leave you with a quote: a character is talking about how he was tortured by the Japanese in WWII and thinks that they did it just for laughs, but he finishes with, "Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras."

If you like this you could also try:
Kind Hearts and Coronets, Threads, When the Wind Blows, The Mouse that Roared.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Review - Cockneys vs Zombies (2012 - Dir. Matthias Hoene)

I wasn't going to review this originally, as you'll have seen from my Letterboxd feature, but I've been pressured into writing one by King Uke (I'm not 100% convinced, but I'm beginning to suspect that he's not a real King). So here we go...

Two brothers decide to commit a bank robbery to raise some cash to stop their granddad's home from being demolished by some unscrupulous property developers. They get a gang of their top mates to help them out including their cousin, Katy (Michelle Ryan). As generally happens, a zombie outbreak occurs causing minor disruption for the bank robbers and the residents of the old people's home. 

Despite being pretty watchable this film sums up a lot of things that I don't like about most modern zombie films:

1. Characters that I don't care about. Now this applies to most horror films too so zombie films aren't on their own in this respect. There was one character in this that I warmed too and that was Emma (Georgia King) who gets taken as a hostage in the bank robbery. The rest of the bunch are so average that I wasn't bothered whether they lived or died. And hearing Michelle Ryan giving it some top swearing action just made me think, "Ooh, you were in Eastenders, and now you're in a feature film and having a good old swear to prove that you've moved on." The big problem being that I thought this every time she swore. Not good for keeping me in the film.

2. Nondescript stories. I wasn't interested in the bank robbery strand in the slightest. Again, it was so average - and I've seen it done so much better - that I switched off. As for the pensioners... how great could that have been? Pensioners vs Zombies. Make it like the episode of One Foot in the Grave when Meldrew discovers abuse in an old people's home and deliver a mixture of comedy and hard-hitting drama. Give the idea more respect than it really deserves. It would be brilliant. But there's no subtlety here. Obvious jokes and pensioners pretending to be Rambo are the order of the day.

3. CGI blood. This is why I didn't want to write this review. I'm sick of writing about CGI blood, never mind seeing it. What's the problem with squirting some fake blood about the place? CGI is great for machines and other items made out of resistant materials. But for people, animals, water and, most importantly, blood, it's pretty useless. I know that these films are R&D for finally perfecting these effects but can't they do it in private and just show us when they've cracked it. I'd be a lot happier. Right, I'll shut up now.

4. Dull zombies. I'll illustrate this point with screen shots. Imagine you're in a perfectly dark room tied to a chair. Then you hear a groan and a shuffling noise. A light flickers on to reveal a zombie in the room with you. Despite knowing that they're actors, which of these would make you mess your little pants and which would make you nonplussed:

5. No atmosphere. Zombies are surely one of the most atmospheric monsters. Vampires? Too romantic. Werewolves? Too hairy. Frankenstein? Too big a forehead. But  zombies with all of their decayed crustiness are perfect for lurking about in the mist, darkness or water and slowly coming into view, revealing a single sickly specimen or an enormous horde. Not many recent films utilise this (The Dead, despite not being that great story-wise, did manage some atmospheric shots) and they're missing out on an important strength of zombies. On reflection, the screen shot below shows that they at least tried, but in the film it passed me by completely. 

6. Mentioning Shaun of the Dead on the front cover.

So there you have it. It's not that it's really bad. It's more that it's bland and oh-so-average. Plus being a thick northerner I could have done with subtitles at points for all of the Cockney banter. Here's a quote for the poster to perfectly sum it up: "Cockneys vs Zombies is alright for watching while you eat your tea." 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Review - Wolf Creek (2005 - Dir. Greg Mclean)

I saw this a while ago and I wasn't that impressed, probably due to an abrupt ending. But I enjoyed Rogue by the same director and decided to give Wolf Creek another chance.

I'm glad I did. Mclean's love of the Australian landscape comes across strongly as it did in Rogue. There are many examples of beautiful photography in both films which is maybe not something that you'd expect from the killer crocodile and serial killer genres. Spotting this link between the films helped me to watch this pretty gruelling offering with fresh eyes.

Three backpackers head out to Wolf Creek for a laugh. It's out in the middle of nowhere and they travel there in a dodgy clapped out old banger. Things start going wrong almost immediately with their watches stopping and their car packing up. They don't even need to bother checking to see if they can get a signal on their phones.

Eventually things go wrong and in true horror film style they don't help themselves much. They make a fair few stupid decisions, some of which can be excused, and one in particular that can't. Rather than trying to leg it from an insane serial killer, the ladies decide to hang off a cliff and hope that he doesn't see them. And then proceed to knock some loose soil down into the abyss causing a rather conspicuous noise. So she tries the hold on by one hand and make the shush gesture with the other hand manoeuvre. That'll sort it. 

Two out of the three backpackers being non-irritating is not a bad ratio. Both Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi make their characters empathetic and believable (well, most of the time, but the cliff incident is the script's fault, and not down to their acting abilities). It is quite upsetting when things take a distinct downward turn for them. Nathan Philips meanwhile plays a very irritating character who I wanted to die from very early on. Evidence? He makes a comedy Captain's log video that drives me to extreme violence and even some mild swearing. Fortunately, he calms down with the arrival of another character and he actually manages to pull it round (something he didn't manage in the terrible Dying Breed).

I won't say too much about the killer apart from the fact that he's great. Really well acted and incredibly disturbing. Two scenes stick in my mind, one with each of the female backpackers, and to say that he's brutal and chilling is an understatement.

The ending still feels quite abrupt, but this is probably due to the fact that it's based on true events. It's not quite as bad when it's expected. All in all, I've warmed to Wolf Creek. It's probably due to the photography and the way that the director has tried to play with some of the horror cliches to provide new scares. I've just seen too that Wolf Creek 2 is on its way, again by the same director. Might be worth a look...

If you like this you could try:
The Hills Have Eyes (either version), Rogue.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Feature - Letterboxd

You may have noticed the little Letterboxd logo on the right hand side. It's a bit like Facebook but way better because it's all based around films. I'm busy putting all of the old obscurendure review on there - albeit without the pretty screen shots and other extras - because there are some interesting ways that Letterboxd can sort films, for example, by their review scores.

Something else that I'll be doing is posting mini-reviews for some films that don't warrant a full review. There will also be any mainstream films on there that I've had a look at. So far I've done reviews of Star Trek, Cockneys vs Zombies and The Kovak Box that you won't see in the pages of obscurendure. Plus, I've already posted a list of my ten all time favourite anime films for your delectation.

If you're not already a member of Letterboxd, it's well worth it. I've already got quite a few recommendations for films that look just like my - and maybe your - cup of tea. That's all for now, but I'll post on here (irregularly) to update you on any other mini-reviews I do.


Friday, 13 September 2013

Review - The House by the Cemetery (1981 - Dir. Lucio Fulci)

This is a nice Friday the 13th treat for you. It's the final film in the loose trilogy containing City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. It is a trilogy in the sense that they share similarly disjointed narratives, although The House by the Cemetery has the most conventional storyline of the three. Fulci actually spends a fair part of the film building tension after an initial gruesome death (Daniela Doria bites the dust yet again). Don't worry though. There are still a fair few of the usual protracted death scenes.

Lucy Boyle (the excellent Catriona MacColl who appears in all three films in the trilogy) and her husband Dr Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco - The New York Ripper) move into the titular house (idiots) so that Norm can look into some of one of his ex-colleagues disturbing findings. The fact that his ex-colleague committed suicide makes you wonder about the motives of Normie. Also, his shifty glances at the babysitter, (Ania Pieroni - Inferno) shown in trademark Fulci close-up, makes you ponder on his fidelity. Throw into the mix the way he constantly tries to give Lucy tablets and you have some major chin-strokery. Is he a crafty skullduggerer or the perfect husband and father? Oh, yeah, and Dr Freudstein lives in their cellar too.

Dr Freudstein!?! Who he? The name suggest someone who wants to bring their mother back to life by grave-robbing body parts, sewing them to his Mammy's body, patching her into the mains and then having a cheeky wriggle with her. Probably not that far from the truth either. Freudy (a silent Giovanni De Nava - The Beyond) is one of the scariest on-screen creations in any film. He is a zombie. He has a slightly insectoid face. And when you cut him, what can only be described as maggot enriched excrement oozes out of the wound. Put it this way: you wouldn't want him marrying your only daughter. 

The gore is great, but what stops this film from getting a higher rating is that it feels as though the film is cut, even when I know it is definitely an uncut version. The drawn out death of the estate agent Laura Gittleson is enjoyably excessive but Fulci actually cut out some effects work that he wasn't happy with. Her face in one part of the scene is fairly normal looking, albeit covered in blood. In the very next shot we see that something nasty has happened to one side of her face. But we don't get to see what. Gutted. The other scene that feels cut is a death where someone has their face dragged down a set of stairs - I've never been convinced that this would kill, it looks more like it would cause a minor graze, soon sorted with Savlon - then at the bottom of the stairs you see a pool of blood forming around the recently deceased's head.  I don't know whether anything was removed but it certainly feels like it. Gutted.

Quite a few people don't like a particular scene where Lucy walks in on the babysitter cleaning a load of blood off the floor... and doesn't comment on it. Business as usual in the Boyle house. I actually quite like it. Fair enough it makes no sense and I can't really justify its inclusion, but it feels right in the overall atmosphere of the film. A little quirk that the film would be poorer without.

Crikey, I've already written loads and I haven't even touched upon one important aspect of the film: Bob. And his voice. An infant voiced by an American adult. Terrible. 

I am being picky. This is a great film. A classic, even. It is fairly tense and scary, and it has a fairly upsetting ending when you consider the implications. Highly recommended. (Also, the trailer is one of the top trailers ever. Just listen to the voiceover guy. I'll never be able to say 'The House by the Cemetery' in a normal way again.)

If you like this you could also try:
Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, Tenebrae, Suspiria.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Review - The Flight of the Phoenix (1965 - Dir. Robert Aldrich)

Everything is going swimmingly, apart from the fact that a plane piloted by Frank Towns (James Stewart) and co-piloted by Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) has hit a sand storm and both engines have stopped. The tension has been built up slowly to maximise the impact of the crash. But then we are treated to a bizarre Are You Being Served style credits  sequence. The characters all get a beautiful mid-grimace freeze frame - just as they about to be smacked in the face by some hurtling loose luggage - accompanied by the actor's name. This completely kills any excitement but is pretty funny. Besides it's what happens after the crash that leaves them stranded in the desert, that is the source of the real drama.

In virtually all air crashes someone has to die and this is no exception. But lets take a closer look at a couple of people who bite the bullet. One of them is seen reading an adult specialist magazine in an earlier scene. The dirty little pervert has to die. As for the next villain, thoroughly deserving of his grizzly death, his crime was to play music of an ethnic nature. Good job Doccortex doesn't fly too often.

Another character refers to the aforementioned music in a slightly more racist way. In fact, he refers to most things in a slightly racist way. But it's only the one character who's a racist so it must just be part of his character, although he doesn't get any comeuppance or have a change of heart to complete a character arc. He's just a big racist. The film doesn't do itself any favours either by including a German plane designer, Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger), who is rather efficient at his job, to say the least. In its defence it was made in 1965. (Chorlton and the Wheelies was made in 1976 and is also pretty racist, so we'll give it a break.)

Let's get the last negative out of the way: Borgnine. Not the attractive Borg lady from Voyager but Ernest Borgnine (decide which is better using the handy photos below). Overacting is his speciality and his performance here is exemplary. But this isn't too much of a problem. (Watch the film to find out the reason why.)

Despite being fairly studio bound the heat of the desert and the danger of their predicament is all too apparent. One scene deals very intelligently with the obvious idea of walking back to civilisation. It's something that I'd probably think I'd give a go but this shows just how stupid the idea is. They come up with a craftier plan: make a new plane out of the wreckage and fly out of there. Not stupid at all. Regardless, they crack on and work through the night and kip in the day. Slightly better plan.

I doubt that it's much of a spoiler to say that they manage to build an aircraft. My big problem with it though is that the passengers don't have lovely seats to sit on, they have to hold on to a metal pole welded on to the top of the wing. Surely Health and Safety would have something to say about that. Couldn't they have made some kind of harness or at least a little seatbelt. (NB Alton Towers: Air would be a lot safer if it had a little seatbelt too, like Nemesis. Sort it out.)

Flight of the Phoenix is all about the drama between the three main characters. Stewart is great, as always, in the role of the not-so-heroic Frank Towns. He is such a flawed hero that he's almost not a hero at all. Yet you're with him every step of the way. Dorfmann is a right little show off and, as Towns points out, is always right. Hardy Kruger is spot on in this role, making every line believable. Richard Attenborough is stuck in the middle of these two. When all three of them come together at a major plot revelation it must be one of my favourite scenes in any film. It's drawn out for so long but all three actors sell it completely. Some of the expressions on Stewart and Attenborough's faces are priceless.

It's quite a long film but worth watching for a Spanish Doctor who looks a bit like Shatner. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

If you like this you could also try:
Flight of the Phoenix (2004), Ice Cold in Alex, Anatomy of a Murder.