Friday, 29 March 2013

Review - The Return of the Living Dead (1985 - Dir. Dan O'Bannon)

Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews) work in a medical supplies store run by Burt (Clu Galager). Very early on we discover that the events depicted in Night of the Living Dead were based on a true story. Containers of the very gas that caused the outbreak have mistakenly been sent to their store. You can probably guess what happens next - the title kind of gives it away - and the film lives up to expectations. A group of punks also become involved as well as Ernie (Don Calfa) who works at the local crematorium. Things all get a little out of hand...

Running zombies had been seen before (Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City for instance) but The Return of the Living Dead probably did more to popularise the concept. The zombies in TROTLD are still recognisably zombies though - Tarman is a cracking piece of design and effects work - the line between zombies and vampires hasn't become blurred yet (thankfully we haven't had any sparkly zombies). To see what I mean have a look at the trailers for The Horde (zombies) and Prowl (vampires). Surely if a body has been in the ground for a few years it would have suffered severe muscular atrophy, so running zombies just seem daft (as opposed to shambling zombies: they make perfect sense.)

This came off the back of An American Werewolf in London so audiences were prepared to accept horror comedies. TROTLD manages that tricky trick of managing to meld the genres satisfactorily. The beginning of the film probably contains the funniest moments. A scene where Burt, Frank and Freddy try to dispose of a recently animated corpse is pure quality. Also, the sound effect accompanying the battering of a split dog with a crutch makes me chuckle every time I hear it. But, there are also some horrific moments: a young lady being eaten alive by a group of zombies, brains being happily munched on and a two characters locked in a attic whilst a zombie attempts to break though from below.

There is yet more that this film can do. There are at least two scenes that are actually quite emotional: one suggested by premium actor James Karen is one of the most memorable in the film. 

Much has been said about Dan O'Bannon's abilities as a director and his treatment of cast and crew but he definitely knew what he was doing when he wrote the screenplay (it's amazing how many lines have been absorbed by popular culture) and the finished film shows that he could balance all of the different elements. He can't be all that bad as a director.

Linnea Quigley. Naked. Dance. What more needs to be said? Except maybe the decision to Barbiefy her with a specially made prosthetic piece to cover her delicates. It looks a bit on the weird side.

TROTLD has gone on to spawn four sequels: Part II is basically a remake of the original but with more comedy and less quality, Part 3 is well worth a watch (review coming soon). I haven't seen the fourth or fifth instalments yet but the fact that I can't even get them on region 2 DVD probably tells me all I need to know. I will get round to watching them one day, for the sake of being a completist.

If you've never seen TROTLD give it a watch. It's one of those rare low-budget eighties films that still stands up today. Fans of Special Features will also love the recent reissue: a two hour documentary is included on the making of the film plus many other featurettes. One of the best packages I've seen in a long while. (You can stop your childish chuckling now.)

(Average rating for the season so far = 6.2)

If you like this you could also try:
Braindead, Juan of the Dead, Evil Dead II.

Book Review - The Breach - Patrick Lee

F. Paul Wilson (author of the excellent The Keep and The Tomb) recommended this on Twitter. If F likes it, it's got to be great.

And it is. It's a strange book to review because any discussion of the plot would contain far too many spoilers. Which would spoil it. I can tell you about the inciting incident that sets the ball rolling. Travis Chase is an ex-con, fresh out of the pokey, who embarks on a hiking trip into the Alaskan wilds. Very quickly he stumbles across something that shouldn't be there. And that's all I'm going to say. (It's not the titular breach either.)

This book must have taken a long, long time to plan. It is fairly complicated and is a bit of a test for the old grey matter. I'm not completely sure that I've got my head around all of the implications yet. There are so many unexpected twists and turns that it leaves you with a post-waltzer chucking-up type of feeling. It will be interesting to read it again knowing how everything fits together and hopefully being able to follow the logic. The one downside of all this twisty turniness is that many of the chapters end with a suitably twisty turny sentence, designed to keep the reader turning pages even at two o'clock in the morning (this happened to me a few times). It does get a bit tiresome after a while, but only a smidge.

If there's a problem in a story where an item is required to solve it, then the author has to make sure that that item is introduced earlier on in the book. 'The Breach' has many of these items, sometimes used in an obvious fashion, sometimes used in the most surprising of ways. Again, the planning must have been immense. Some items come perilously close to being a deux ex machina, but the central conceit craftily allows the author to include them.

I really enjoyed 'The Breach' and I highly recommend it, but I don't think that it will ever enter into the upper echelons of my top books. As with films, I love atmosphere. It has some in the opening chapters but quickly loses it as the plot moves away from Alaska. The characters are likeable but never really venture out of the second division. 'The Breach' is all about the plot. And the plot is premium quality. There are two more Travis Chase books in the series which F describes as 'insane'. Sounds good to me. Like I said at the start: if F likes it, it's got to be great. 


Monday, 25 March 2013

Review - Leon (1994 - Dir. Luc Besson)

I’d seen this before many years ago and had unreasonably high expectations for it’s hitman with a heart charms. Sadly, it never quite lived up to the memory and sits in the sad netherworld of average-ness. Having said that it’s a clever, engaging and well-made film. So what exactly are the issues with Besson’s premium assassination based drama?

1.    Natalie Portman.
I’ve got to admit this is a personal issue with Portman, but she just ruins the film for me (Don't disrespect the Portman. She's great - evlkeith). On the face of it she’s attractive, well cast, and for one so young, a precocious talent. In reality you just get the sense that she knows how good she is and gives off the feeling that she’s a smug show off (for 'smug show off' read 'talented' - evlkeith). An attitude she transmits in all her films.

2.    Characterisation
Apart from the two leads, all the characters are essentially stereotypes. This is especially true of Gary Oldman’s villain and Danny Aiello’s mafia boss. This is not always a bad thing, but in this case it gives the film a cartoony and shallow feel. At times, it's as if you're watching Matilda by Roald Dahl and Miss Trunchbull will appear and pummel Leon to death before he can shoot anyone.

3.  It's uncomfortable viewing
Although the film treads a fine line with it's portrayal of the relationship between Leon and Matilda, it never steps over it. It plays the whole thing with a straight bat which is no bad thing, but the whole thing is still uncomfortable viewing the first time you watch the film.

To summarise: it's an average, shallow and uncomfortable viewing experience. Throw that show off Natalie Portman into the equation and it pushes the film's score somewhat below average. I'm beginning to doubt the rationale behind a Besson season (Me too. What were you thinking? - evlkeith)


(Despite the fairly duff review the average rating for the season has soared to a massive 3/10. Things are on the up for Mr Besson.)

If you like this you could also try:
Nikita, Ronin, Fargo.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Review - The Dead (2010 - Dir. Howard J. Ford, Jonathan Ford)

I was quite looking forward to this one. Most of the films in the Year of the Dead season are ones that I've already seen (probably many times) but this was fresh meat. And it was shot in Africa which adds a whole new flavour to the zombie nosh-a-thon. 

Air Force engineer Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) crash lands in war-torn Africa and instantly encounters some overly-friendly locals who look a little bit worse for wear. He legs it sharpish and teams up with Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei) who is searching for his son after his village had been trashed by those naughty shamblers. They embark on a road trip through a zombie infested landscape, but sadly they don't blare out any loud pop music from their car. Or wear snakeskin jackets. You can't have everything I suppose.

The zombie infected landscape is one of my main problems with The Dead. Africa is a pretty big place. And zombies tend to converge on villages and towns. So why are there zombies all over the place. Wherever they drive, there they are within about two seconds. The undead freaks are so nicely spread out, that it's as if they've co-ordinated a huge game of British Bulldog to try and catch our two heroes. It's okay at the start for building tension, but it wears really thin by the end and becomes a joke.

The main draw for this film are the stunning vistas. When the camera pulls back to show the landscape in all its glory it's pretty impressive stuff. These shots are the high points of the film. It makes a refreshing change to see zombies in a different location, rather than the usual towns and cities. 

The location actually gives the production a feeling of having a higher budget than it has. But again as time goes on the budget becomes more and more apparent. The script begins to feel like an unconnected series of zombie related incidents. One of the main offenders, where a zombie appears on a rock above Murphy, could have been trimmed to give a leaner running time. The acting isn't the greatest but it doesn't completely wreck the film. Poor acting (and dubbing) actually adds to the appeal of the older offerings in this sub-genre but in a new film, it doesn't have the same appeal

The special effects are pretty nifty with most being done in camera. They are generally convincing, but there is only really one stand-out moment and that's the first zombie that is seen, who happens to have a really gammy twisted leg. Apart from that I can't remember any other effects, and I only watched it last night. Nothing too memorable then.

So, all in all, it's not bad enough to be really disappointing but there are way better zombie experiences to be had if you delve into the annals of film history. I will delve away in future posts...

(Average rating for the season so far = 6)

If you like this you could also try:
Juan of the Dead, Rec.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Review - The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970 - Dir. Dario Argento)

This is Dario's first film as a director and it hints at the things to come in his later work (including the glorious murdering gloves). Not yet fully formed but the visual flourishes are already present, as opposed to the total lack of gore. Blood, yes. Gore, no. 

Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses an attempted murder and is unable to help as he is trapped in between two glass sliding doors. The police arrive, let him out and give him a mild grilling. They soon lose interest in him as a suspect and he is left to his own devices, becoming an amateur detective trying to track down the killer. He is plagued by the fact that he's sure he saw something that night that just doesn't seem right...

If you've seen Deep Red you will recognise that last sentence. It's exactly the same idea but here it is a feels like a bit of a cheat. In Deep Red you can go back and actually see the clue that the character missed. Here, you can't. It is cleverly staged but not as satisfying as his later film.

At the time The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was very well received and opened the floodgates for other Italian gialli. This is the first time I've seen it and I can understand why it did well and has been influential. But I think it pales in comparison to Deep Red. For me, it's missing the unnerving atmosphere and the engaging characters. Plus, despite being cut a fair bit back in the day, it is incredibly tame now. The entertainment value hinges on the mystery, the clues and the quirky supporting characters. 

Because it's Dario you know there are going to be some great set pieces and yep, there are. The initial attempted murder is a standout sequence, as is a scene where the killer hires a hitman (?) to take out Sam. The chase takes us through a bus station and then into the streets of Rome. It has a pretty good punchline too.

Having spawned many imitators, such as Lizard in a Woman's Skin, this is a film that lovers of gialli should watch. Prepare yourself for a lack of gore and it's a well made thriller. But if you're new to this sub-genre give Deep Red a go instead first.

If you liked this you could also try:
Deep Red, Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Review - Day of the Dead (1985 - Dir. George A. Romero)

So we come to the last in the Living Dead Trilogy (before Land of the Dead came along) of Night, Dawn and Day.
This is a very different beast to the other two films. Originally written to be more of an epic, Romero had to scale things back to bring it in on a budget of $3m. Most of the action happens in an underground bunker and is fairly bleak.

After the social commentaries of the first two films, Day of the Dead deals with how three different groups deal with the zombies. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is a scientist from Team White Coat, working as part of a team to find a cure to the zombie threat. Supporting them (yeah, right) in their task are the military, led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) - head of Team Fascist - and a laid back chopper pilot John (Terry Alexander) - Team Cool's leader. Okay, they don't have team names, but you get the idea.

By far the most entertaining group is Team Fascist. Rhodes is suitably deranged and is generally a big racist. He is one of the top screen villains and delivers many legendary lines (if you don't know any of his pearlers, I'll let you discover them for yourself) but a far more grubby, disturbing character comes in the form of Rickles (the sadly deceased Ralph Marrero). He is one of the most unpleasant characters ever committed to screen. It's a shame he doesn't get more lines.

Now I know that loads of people love Bub, the cheeky little domesticated zombie, and yes, it is impressive acting by  Howard Sherman, but I'm just not that keen. The way I see it is that if you make zombies more human, able to use tools, talk etc., then they become progressively less scary (as Land of the Dead proved, but that's another review). You may as well have a completely human mob. Actually they are pretty frightening.

After the strong black leads in Night and Dawn, it is interesting to see Romero take a different approach. John is so separate from the rest of the group initially and willing to fight that he's quite a hard character to like. Eventually, he comes into his own in the final descent through Bavaesque caverns and shows his true hero qualities. His survival scheme is also probably the best idea that any of the characters have in the whole film. 

Day of the Dead seems to be where the zombie effects changed from Tom Savini slapping on grey make-up as quick as he could to a professionally run team applying proper prosthetics. The effects still hold up fairly well today, although some of the animatronics look like they are controlled by a puppeteer of Rod Hull's skill. Eyebrows waggles and mouths gape, giving away the effect far too easily.

So the big question: which is better Dawn or Day? It's all down to personal choice of course but my vote goes to Dawn. I think that Day is just as much a comic book as Dawn, it's just that the former is more of an adult graphic novel (a comic in other words). I've never been entirely convinced by Richard Liberty's performance as Logan. He borders on overacting at so many points. Despite any gripes it's still a great film. I wonder how Land of the Dead will fare in the next review...

(Average rating for the season so far = 6.1 )

If you like this you could also try:
Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Two Evil Eyes.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Review - The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010 - Dir. Luc Besson)

The world of early Twentieth Century Paris. A quirky comic book adaptation with a feisty heroine, old school adventure and pterodactyls. What's not to like? Well, virtually everything really.

It all sounds like a great idea, but Besson somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with this half-hearted attempt at humorous, mainstream blockbuster. The paper thin plot surrounds the search for a cure for Adele's sick sister. She encounters Indiana Jones style archaeology, reanimated mummies and a computer generated pterodactyl on the way, but the whole thing plays out like a tribute band's interpretation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even the main villain looks exactly like the little German fellow in Spielberg's epic.

It's not a terrible film, it's just dull and not funny. However if you like badly rendered computer generated animals then the pterodactyl is up there with the all time classics. It's more convincing than the deer in the Ring 2, but so much worse than the big cats in I am Legend. It blatantly can't act either and I have my doubts whether it was constructed around the French version of Andy Serkis. In reality it was probably knocked up on Bamzooki.

The main problem in the film centres around the casting of Louise Bourgoin as our heroine. Admittedly she's attractive but doesn't provide any of the quirks or feistiness that the character needs. Clearly she's not French, but I'm sure Zooey Deschanel would have jumped at the chance. Only the hapless sister, (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre) resplendent with knitting needle stuck in head, comes out of this caper with any credit at all.

It's a disappointing execution of a promising idea and to be honest it was a struggle to sit through all of it. Probably best avoided in favour of watching Bamzooki instead for more realistic creatures.


(Average rating for the season so far = 2)

If you like this you could also try:
Angel-A, The City of Lost Children.