Monday, 29 April 2013

Review - The Island at the Top of the World (1974 - Dir. Robert Stevenson)

If you're a lover of matte shots then pop along to NZPete's blog where he tirelessly showcases the best in matte paintings. That's where I saw a shot from this film that prompted me to give it a watch. Yes, it's a Disney film, but it must be relatively obscure because I'd never heard of it.

Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden in top quality eyebrow raising form) is an explorer trying to find his son. He gets news that his son was investigating a mysterious island somewhere in the arctic, a place where whales go to die. So Sir Anthony gets his team together, including archeologist Prof. Ivarsson (David Hartman), comedy French Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin) and fake Inuk, Oomiak (Mako). (Couldn't they have got that guy out of Atanarjuat, he might have even done a few scenes haring around as nature intended. Then maybe Agneta Eckemyr would have joined in too with all of the naked frolicking. Ahem. Need to remember that this is a Disney film.)

Strangely the film that this strongly brings to mind is The Evil Dead. I'd better explain. Sam Raimi threw so many filming techniques at The Evil Dead to get his vision across. The Island at the Top of the World does the same thing: matte shots, rear projection, green screen and miniatures all feature, flitting between techniques from shot to shot. It all gives it a homemade hand-crafted feel that I can't help liking.

The mattes by Alan Maley are pretty impressive. They give the sets and landscapes a lavish feel that would have cost a fortune to actual build. Here are a few examples for your delectation:

(For a comprehensive discussion on the effects in this film head to NZPete's. I don't have the space, or for that matter the knowledge to cover them properly. But they're great.)

The miniature shots of the Hyperion, their airship, are occasionally stunning but sometimes a bit wobbly and Monty Pythonesque. Both are fun so it's not really a problem. (As for the killer whales...) My favourite shots are of the Hyperion navigating through mountains in the fog and remind me of an episode of Thunderbirds where Thunderbird 2 was flying through a similar landscape. Brilliantly atmospheric shots.

The story does its job in getting us from one beautiful location to another. It also gives the lead actors a chance to wear some beautiful sweaters. For a Disney film they were pretty brave to have a fair few of the actors not speaking English and not subtitling them. At times they rattle on for ages but it's all clear what's happening due to body language and context. It's mildly amusing to make up your own translations too. Have a go if you feel that way inclined.

The Island at the Top of the World is a nostalgic trip into a land jam-packed with old-school special effects. The music caps off the nostalgic feel. (As with A Bay of Blood, I could sit and listen to the music on the DVD menu for ages.) Perfect rainy day fodder, but fun nonetheless. Way better than the low budget sequel The Island Round the back of the Happy Shopper in Greasbrough too.

If you like this you could also try:
The Land That Time Forgot, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Island at the Center of the World.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Review - Braindead (1992 - Dir. Peter Jackson)

It was a rainy day in Hull, 1992. (I know that it was a rainy day because it always rains in Hull.) I walked past an old disused boarded up shop. And there pasted to the decaying wood was a poster. The tagline read (something along the lines of): A romantic comedy about a boy, a girl and their power tools. I'd already seen Bad Taste, Jackson's first film, so I was completely sold on this idea. 

Later on, I saw shots from the film and was salivating at the prospect. I couldn't really believe that this would enter UK cinemas in an uncut form. Surely not.

But it arrived. And it was uncut. So I went to see it three times at the local cinema. Again, I was convinced that it would never make it to video (at the time) in all its uncut glory.

But amazingly it did. The censors got the joke, which has baffled me for a long time. Since then, censorship laws have calmed down greatly, even Silent Hill got a 15 certificate despite some seriously nasty razor wire action.

Anyway, on to the film. There is enough evidence in Braindead to show that Peter Jackson would go on to bigger and better (?) things. The storytelling still impresses and it cracks along at a fair old pace. In a similar fashion to Evil Dead 2, there is not a moment of boredom in the whole film. (The same can't be said of some of his later films. I like The Lord of the Rings trilogy but they're not the paciest of films.)

Lionel (Timothy Balme) lives with his domineering mum, Vera (Elizabeth Moody) who strongly dislikes his "experienced" girlfriend Paquita (Diana Peñalver). Enter a small diseased vicious-looking monkey whose bite leads to death, followed by undeath and a fun time is pretty much guaranteed.

Like Evil Dead 2, Braindead is still funny now. There are a few duff notes, such as the zombie sex which all feels a bit obvious, but there are many chuckles to be had. The highlight has got to be Lionel taking a zombie baby for a walk in the local park. It all descends into Bottom type mayhem. Great stuff. Adding to the humour are the tonnes of quotable lines:
Paquita - "Your mother ate my dog!"
Lionel - "Not all of it."
This is just one of many.

The reason why Braindead still holds a special place in my heart is the sheer quantity of blood and gore. One scene involves our hero, zombies and a petrol-driven lawnmower. It lasts for ages and is possibly the biggest and messiest bloodbath committed to film. If anyone knows of a bigger one let me know. I'd love to see it.

The effects are pretty nifty, even now. There are some many great effects it seems unfair to single any out. But life's not fair, so here goes: A ribcage is ripped out of a poor fellow's chest, a woman gets a lit lightbulb slammed into her head, a zombie walks around on its hands despite having no legs, and a headless corpse has its head replaced by something altogether more amusing.

Technical issues let the film down slightly. The DVD version I saw was in the 4:3 ratio, which seems bizarre. There is also a reliance on close ups of characters' faces shot with a wide angle lens. It all makes it look a bit cheap, in a bad way. 

Despite not being quite as good as my rose-coloured spectacles led me to believe, it is still a good film. Peter Jackson talked of going back and shooting another low-budget splatter film a while ago. The Hobbit or splatter filled goodness? I know which I'd plump for...

If you like this you could also try:
The Return of the Living Dead, Bad Taste.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Review - Dark City (1998 - Dir. Alex Proyas)

I was trying to decide on a suitably great film to celebrate our second birthday and I remembered a reference to Dark City on Karl Kaefer's blog Xsmarkthespot. I also thought back to the first time I saw the film, at the Showcase Cinema in Peterborough, and how I was really impressed by it and in particular one moment of subwoofer pleasantness (I'll come back to that later). There were some imperfections, such as an introductory narration that told you that "the butler did it", but that's all been sorted out in the Director's Cut, which I'll review here.

Now the film plays as it was intended, as a mystery. A mister (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bath, and due to being in the water for a good long while, he suffers from severe prune feet. In top quality noir thriller style he has no memory. As he starts to piece together the clues he begins to suspect that me may have previously partaken in a spot of murdering. But who are these shady figures that seem to be lurking around... The clues all fall into place over the course of the film and everything is revealed (well almost).

Dark City is visually stunning, even now. The lighting used would have suited a black and white film with deep dark shadows and harsh highlights. In fact, I dodged about with the colour setting on my telly and watched it in monochromatic-o-vision. For the most part, it still looked great, and better than the colour version at points. So good that I found it a little disconcerting when I switched back to colour. (Similarly The Mist is brilliant in black and white but that was purposely shot that way.)

The gorgeous Jennifer Connelly - soon to be seen in an upcoming season - plays the man's wife and she participates in my favourite moment of the film. Yep, it's the subwoofer moment. She sings a version of 'Sway' accompanied by some  gravel voiced blues guys. The double bass sounds so deep and powerful. I've never quite got it to sound the same as the first time I heard it in that Peterborough cinema but it's still pretty impressive. Play it loud.

Music plays a large part in the proceedings with a large proportion of the film scored. It propels the viewer through the film towards the final climax, paralleling the main character's plight as he tries to unravel the mystery despite being constantly pursued.

Patrick Tatopoulos is one of my favourite designers having worked on Silent Hill, I, Robot and The Cave (okay, maybe The Cave is not the best example). But I think that he was at the top of his game for Dark City. The titular city is indeed dark, and gloomy, and murky, and possibly a bit stinky. The buildings are taken from a number of different time periods and places making it hard to pin down exactly where the city originates from. The city's underworld - in a nifty reversal of Metropolis - is possibly his best work. See for yourself in this explanatory screen shot.

One of the themes the film deals with is where the human soul resides. Is it in memories? If I were to be given the memories of a dancer would my viewpoint on dancers change instantly. Or would I still hate them. The thought of me suddenly appearing as a professional over-acter on 'Stricly Come Dancing' almost gives me an aneurysm so hopefully if someone does changes my memories I'll still be me.

I've tried hard to not give away any of the plot because if you haven't seen this it is well worth your while. The Director's Cut takes away the film-beginner stabilisers and lets you discover the film for yourself without being treated like an idiot. It has a  satisfying ending and the only downside for me is the inclusion of William Hurt who despite being okay in this, never totally convinces me. A worthy film for a birthday celebration.

If you like this you could also try:
Blade Runner, Metropolis, Somewhere in the Night.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Feature - Zombie Checklist

Today is obscurendure's second birthday. So as part of the celebrations I decided to knock up a lovely list. I love lists.

We're already 18 films into our Year of the Dead season and it's time for a Zombie Checklist. Here's a tip for budding filmmakers: put all of these features into a zombie film and you're on to a winner.

  • Slow-moving zombies. These films are all about an atmosphere of dread and inevitability. Keep them slow.
  • A character has to walk up to one of their zombified loved ones, thinking that they're okay, and promptly get munched.
  • Zombie arms burst through a window or boarded up area, preferably grabbing someone by the hair.

  • A scene of light relief where zombies do something from their old life, e.g. try to make a nice cup of tea.
  • No explanation of where the zombies came from. Don't even bother trying to justify it. I really don't care. In no way shape or form, say that it's an infection (Boyle, we're looking at you).
  • The filmmakers have to admit that they've made a zombie film (Boyle, we're looking at you, again).
  • Proper editing where you can tell what's happening in the gore scenes (Boyle, I'm getting sick of looking at you).
  • One of the main characters has to be bitten. The other characters then hang around waiting for them to turn. Then they blow them away with a shotgun.

  • A scene of zombies rising from their graves is a surprisingly rare treat. If it's in the fog, all the better.
  • Someone commits suicide rather than becoming a zombie.
  • Characters make a pact to kill each other if they get bitten.
  • A scene of a wide open area, ideally including a famous landmark, filled with zombies all lurching around a bit.
  • Protracted gore sequences, naturally.

  • The original actors should all speak in different languages and then be dubbed into English.
  • The zombies tear someone in half and their guts spill out all over the shop.
  • Al Cliver plays a supporting role.

  • Zero tolerance for dancing (or for that matter singing) zombies.
  • Zero tolerance for talking zombies.
  • Zero tolerance for zombies that shoot guns, drive cars or bake cakes. (Zombies swimming underwater is allowable though. In fact, it's encouraged.)

  • Great atmospheric music - definitely no screamo/shouty type stuff. Screamo/shouty is great as music goes, but for a zombie film it's far too obvious. And dull.
  • There should be an appearance, even if it's only in the background, of a zombie tuna.
  • A bleak ending where everyone dies.

I'm sure that you'll agree that by sticking to these simple rules anyone could make a brilliant zombie film. At the moment, I can't think of a film that hits every bullet point. But if anyone manages it, I'd like some royalties. Please thank you.


Saturday, 20 April 2013

Review - Juan of the Dead (2011 - Dir. Alejandro Brugués)

Juan lives in Cuba. And zombies attack. This is a comedy zombie outing and a fair few of the jokes come from the setting. When the zombies first appear, they are labelled as 'dissidents' paid by the American government. Which raises a smile. As does Juan's plan to actually make money from the zombie outbreak.

Some of the comedy doesn't quite work. One character faints at the sight of blood. One character faints at the sight of blood. One character faints at the sight... You get the idea. Their solution to his problem is funnier than him constantly fainting. There is a joke towards the end of the film, between Juan and his best buddy Lazaro, that is funny, but it takes so long to tell it and it slows the film down so much, (at a time when a little pace needs injecting) that there was possibly a good case for the director to 'murder his darling' and delete this scene.

Juan of the Dead is obviously not that large of budgetness but there are a couple of large zombie hoard scenes that are quite impressive. Seeing el cubana zombi charging about on the rubble strewn Cuban streets is atmospheric. The setting, resplendent in urban decay, adds much to the appeal of the film. As does the main character Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) who understates most of the humour, making it funnier.

The end sequence morphs into a graphic novel style (that's 'comic' for people unashamed to use this dirty word). I was initially disappointed by this but it grew on me and the final shot convinced me. It would have been too cheesy done as live action. (Emmenthal I think...)

This is not a gory film. Not even as gory as Shaun of the Dead. But it doesn't really need to be a flesh-tearing extravaganza, it has found its niche in the territory of gentle political (and occasionally filthy) humour. Entertaining but distinctly average.

(Average score for the season so far = 5.9)

If you like this you could also try:
Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Cold Sweat.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Review - Maniac (2013 - Franck Khalfoun)

This review may be different to other reviews of this remake of Maniac because I haven't actually seen the original. I've always liked the sound of it but never got round to it (The Prowler is another film that I'll watch someday). So I can actually take this version on its own merits and not be comparing it every step of the way. But even so, I'm guessing that the original's better...

Frank (Elijah Wood) is a rather disturbed individual with a hair/scalp fetish. In fact, he likes hair and scalps so much that he collects them, minus the rest of the head and body. The film is primarily shot from Frank's POV with Elijah Wood only being seen in reflective surfaces. Quite an interesting take on the serial killer genre that should put the audience into the mind of the killer. And on this level the film works. Almost.

Elijah Wood again shows his dark side (after his turns in Paris, Je T'aime and Sin City). He looks so shifty and grubby most of the time. But when he later scrubs up and dons a beautiful polo neck he gets even creepier. Who would have thought that the wide eyed little Hobbit would make such a great perverted murderer?

Apart from that I haven't got many positive things to say about Maniac. I'm not convinced that there isn't a hint of misogyny going on here. I can see that Frank is a misogynist and it's fine to have a film about a misogynist (I really liked The Woman that had a similar character at its centre). But why did all of his victims have to be so characterless or unlikeable? The only one of his victims that I actually liked was a ginger lady who he meets in a chat room. She takes him back to her place, immediately strips off and starts to partake in a portion of horatio. I don't think that it's a spoiler to say that she dies soon after. I'm not sure whether she was supposed to be likeable because that title seems to have gone to another character, Anna (Nora Arnezeder). But she's so self-obsessed and shallow that I couldn't have cared less about her. The whole depiction of women left a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth.

If you're a serial killer film then you've got to go toe-to-toe with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and American Psycho (the book). Henry works so well because it gives you a likeable character, in the form of Becky. If you haven't seen Henry  I won't spoil it, but the power of the film comes from Henry's relationship with Becky. As I've mentioned above, there is no Becky equivalent in Maniac. American Psycho is brilliant because it escalates continually over the course of the book. Maniac doesn't. The loop goes roughly along the lines of: find girl, stalk girl, kill girl, remove scalp, add scalp to a mannequin. This then repeats and repeats. There is a slight escalation by the end but by then it's too late. 

There's something else that irks me: there were moments during the killings that made me laugh. The killings in Henry didn't make me laugh. (Conversely, Man Bites Dog made me laugh a lot, and then cleverly pulled the rug out from under me.) Plus there are a couple of jump moments, one that is just a dreaded loud noise. This all adds up to a film that doesn't have the right tone to be a studied insight into the mind of a killer.

Maniac. The film's called Maniac. The title suggests to me, a person who is savage and completely out of control. There is one moment that can be classed as pretty brutal. One stabbing goes on for a fair while, (the only time when I thought that the title was apt) but even that could have gone on longer. I wanted to come out of Maniac thinking that it was really uncomfortable viewing, with some fairly extreme violence. I wanted to feel the need to look away from the screen due to the unrelenting violence. Yes, I was expecting a horror film. Instead, I came out bored. 

The only thing that Maniac adds to the genre is the use of POV shots (one shot involving a car crash is really impressive as is a little nod to the cover of the original film). But that's it really. Elijah Wood comes out of the whole grimy affair quite well and I'd be quite happy to see him in other horror outings. But you might be better off watching the original Maniac instead. I wish I had.

If you like this you could also try:
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, American Psycho (the book), Drive.