Monday, 31 March 2014

Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

This ultimate lo-fi, high-concept horror movie pitches quantum theory, nightmarish alternate history and religious conspiracy and blends them up with zombie movie and siege thriller tropes.  The result is served John Carpenter-style; efficient, witty, smart and scary.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Phone Me If You're Bored (Aidan Smith and his Indulgent Friends, 2014)

Aidan Smith is back, Indulgent Friends in tow, for another slipshod, ramshackle excursion into love, loss and absurdity.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Metal Gear Rising (Platinum Games, 2013)

Once again, Platinum Games have crafted a perfectly-pitched action game that balances challenging mechanics with spectacle and reward.

Clad in the livery of the Metal Gear Solid series, Rising drops the series' trademark stealth in favour of running, jumping, and slicing.  Swords are everywhere, fetishised absurdly. Swords powered with electricity. Swords propelled from their scabbards by rocket power.  Enemy bullets are mere inconveniences to be brushed aside, military hardware a nuisance to be turned into cyborg fuel.  Traditional ninja, samurai and feudal codes of honour are filtered through a bloody spray of sci-fi manga ultra-violence.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

In lesser hands, “the Facebook movie” could have been a disaster. Hollywood and the internet have a less than stellar common history, tending to fall back on technobabble and fancy graphics in place of what is often a less-than glamourous reality.

The story of Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire creator of Facebook defies this convention; neither coming of age movie, nor a nerd-gets-the-girl schmaltz. While Facebook itself may thrive on the trivial and banal, its genesis is presented as anything but.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

Mad Max is a cult road movie fatally crippled by budget and imagination. Set in the near-future, the viewer is told that society is on the verge of collapse, as oil shortages turn biker gangs into killers as legal and judicial systems crumble.

For all its potential, Mad Max seldom achieves its targets. As an exploitation film it's not particularly exploitative, as an action movie it's dull as dirt. It sows the seeds of a fascinating story about the breakdown of society, and while it hits a beat now and then, long stretches are as dull and grey as the film's endless motorways.

Made on a shoestring budget, it has little to recommend it from a visual standpoint. A couple of practical stunts impress, in particular a slow-motion bike crash which understandably created urban myths about the death of the stuntman. And Australia itself is a reliably huge and gorgeous stage to set the action.

Mad Max hits its highest point in the last five minutes, as Max, finally mad, sadistically takes down the last members of the gang that killed his family. But just as it feels like the film proper is finally starting, it's all over. The sequels created their own radical mythology, but as part of a trilogy the first film, under-developed and unrealised, is not what it should have, nor could have been.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)

In cinema the lowest form of scare is undoubtedly the jump scare. It takes an artist to frame a chilling image and a clever writer to come up with a fearsome entity. Any fool with a big stick can make a loud noise.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a film all about loud noises: American family, demonic possession. Bang. Bang. Bang. Some of these moments are mightily effective, but like a rollercoaster work only for that instant.  There's nothing behind them, no meat to chew over, nothing for the unnerved movie-goer to ponder over on the late night walk back home.

Events in the film unfold, faux-documentary style through a combination of handheld video and clips from a closed-circuit security system. The methodical cycling through footage of different rooms fails to live up to the potential of the idea, with only a scattering of "did you see...?" manipulations.

Acting as a wrap-around companion piece to its predecessor, this is ultimately forgettable, but fun with an audience.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Suspiria is a pitch-perfect example of "pure" horror cinema; the near-total disregard of narrative and character in favour of painstakingly setting a specific mood and atmosphere.

The results will frustrate those seeking logic, but offer in its place an unparalleled aesthetic experience; a whirling maelstrom of colour and composition accompanied by a cacophony of sound designed to unsettle and unnerve. It's proof if proof need be that in the right hands, books and films can be very different things indeed.

The story could be written on the back of a beer mat, and involves witches at a German ballet school, but like all Argento films it is little more than a framework to support a series of increasingly outrageous murder scenes, the director's ruthlessly sadistic streak competing directly with his decorative sense of fine detail and beauty.

With Italian prog-rockers Goblin providing the deafening soundtrack, one doesn't so much watch Suspiria as be buffeted around in its turbulent waters. This is unquestionably Argento's masterwork, a unique piece of horror history; gory, stupid and absolutely redoubtably glorious.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

One of the most visually brilliant films ever made. The combined design endeavours of Swiss surrealist H.R Giger, French illustrator Jean Giraud, American designer and illustrator Ron Cobb and British comic and film artist Chris Foss make for a film that can be both breathtakingly beautiful and strikingly nightmarish. 

The cast are strong and the music haunting, but it is the look of ALIEN; the langurous, masterful direction of Ridley Scott and the ideas that the aforementioned visionaries brought to what might otherwise be a fairly standard horror film that propels it into the realms of genius.

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Legendary Vietnam-in-space action horror from director James Cameron, deftly proving that The Terminator was far from a fluke.

Skillfully crafted for less than the catering budget on some of today's mega-budget blockbusters, ALIENS wisely eshews trying to beat Ridley Scott at his own game and instead opts for a slick combination of military fetishm, maternal instincts and classic war movie tropes, delivering one of the most tense, satisfying and rousing genre films ever made.

Endlessly quotable and with first-rate sets, effects and direction, ALIENS (the theatrical cut, avoid the bloated Special Edition) never once puts a foot wrong and shows how to do a sequel that pays loving homage to the original, without recycling, insulting or misunderstanding.

Alien³ (David Fincher, 1992)

Famously wracked with production troubles, Alien3 still manages to astound with a deliberate return to both the gothic trappings of the original film, and an alien creature that is clearly more than just an expendable bug.

Unrepentantly bleak and downbeat from tragic beginning right the way through to the final shot, the film bravely attempts to undo the 'shoot-em-up' tag James Cameron's second film had left the series with, and was critically punished for doing so. Nonetheless it is still a beautiful, graceful film with a black cynical heart beating underneath - a combination that even the most meddling studio couldn't extinguish.

The 2005 Assembly Cut reinstates a further half an hour of black blasted misery, hysteria and murder, returning the film to something vaguely akin to its original form, and is even more starkly compelling than the original.

Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007)

Few directors could take a premise as potentially explosive as a giant robot war on Earth and make it boring, but Michael Bay manages with effort to spare. Overlong, woefully unfunny, and filmed like an advert for a men's razor, Transformers limps along as one-dimensional character cyphers run back and forth, chasing an increasingly ridiculous set of plot devices, while violence sporadically erupts, and is instantly rendered nigh-unwatchable thanks to Bay's dreadful shaky-cam direction.

With a bland, identikit cast that has clearly mistaken shouting for acting it is down to the Transformers themselves to provide the human interest, but apart from the platitude-spouting Optimus Prime and the silent Bumblebee, the rest of the robots look and sound too similar and do too little to be in any way memorable.

This is a terrible film, one which no amount of nostalgia or brainless summer apologism can possibly excuse. And if the rumours are true that it was only ever made because producer Don Murphy failed to get the rights to 'G.I. Joe', a film that never should have been made in the first place.

Transformers: the Movie (Nelson Shin, 1986)

Nostalgia can be a powerful tool, ask any child who grew up on this film and they'll tell you that crying when Optimus Prime died was our generation's 'hiding behind the sofa from the Daleks.'

Like its parent series TFTM is a shameless manipulative exercise in merchandising, killing old characters purely to make space for new ones fresh off the toy lines. With a darker and more cynical tone than the series, it also benefits from the increased budget, its animation far better than the cheapo TV shows and the soundtrack, a combination of wonderfully un-self-conscious power rock and Vince DiCola's industrial, electronic funk providing the perfect backing to this futuristic adventure.

Despite myriad flaws it is still hugely entertaining, flitting breathlessly between deftly-directed action sequences, juvenile humour and even a musical set piece with barely time for the flimsiest exposition. Obviously aimed at pre-teens with millisecond attention spans it's exhausting work; the pace never daring to slow down as galaxies are crossed in minutes while characters appear, die and are transformed into new ones while all the time chasing a series of mechanical macguffins until the final, spectacular showdown.

Were I not a fan of not only Transformers but also sci-fi and anime I doubt I'd give it a second glance, but the non-stop pace, wildly imaginative designs and sickly sanctimonious moral messages make it ideal as both children's film and a wonderful piece of retro-nostalgia.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

David Lynch's ERASERHEAD is a gloriously thick, analogue, black-and-white nightmare vision of marriage and child-raising. It follows the life of Henry, an unassuming, awkward young man who endures a series of surreal, terrifying renditions of family situations; having dinner with his girlfriend's parents, discovering his girl is pregnant and raising the resultant monstrous offspring as their own.

The film mercilessly flits back and forth between reality and fantasy, the outre nature of the characters and their environment making it sometimes difficult to tell one from the other. Rich in hidden meaning and suggestion and with a dark vein of humour running throughout, Eraserhead is a pure, visceral slice of cinema that has to be experienced, or suffered, at least once by every film fan.

Alien Vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004)

Again and again throughout this film director Paul Anderson exposes his miniscule talent and ambition like a demented flasher. If it's not vapid reconstructions of scenes from previous films or desperate attempts at creating 'iconic' images, it's pathetic non-characters and men in suits engaging in poorly-shot gunplay and fisticuffs. With no characters and too tenuous a plot to even notice, when the film's tagline asks the audience to ponder on who will win this battle of sci-fi horror titans, an hour and fifty minutes later the answer turns out to have been 'nobody cares.'

Too scared to play it 100% straight, AvP adopts a mock-ironic, knowing tone, which neuters its effectiveness just as much as the 12A rating, and one comes away from it with a sense of an incredible wasted opportunity. Clearly budget, talent and time were unscalable barriers that none of the cast, crew or studio could ever possibly hope to overcome.

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

Extremely effective, genuinely tense and intelligently constructed serial killer film, elevated way above the norm by Michael Mann's elegant direction, a strong cast, gorgeous photography and a moodily evocative synthesised soundtrack.

Sensibly reigning in the more over-the-top moments of Thomas Harris' original novel, Manhunter is far more than the sum of its parts; managaing to be chilling, haunting, funny and thrilling by turn, succeeding everywhere the increasingly cynical and ridiculous sequels/remakes failed to do.

LIMBO (Playdead Studios, 2010)

LIMBO is an independently-developed XBOX Live platformer; a simply-told monochrome nightmare of perilous jumping and clever physics-based puzzles.

With no real plot or character, LIMBO is minimalist in the extreme. There is no on-screen clutter; no score or power bar. You have no lives to speak of, as liberally-placed checkpoints before and after each event ensure that there is never far to travel after suffering one of the numerous, black-humoured death animations. All you have to do is survive and progress.

Where LIMBO scores highest is with its overwhelming atmosphere. Beginning the game in a dark forest, your child protagonist ventures forth from left to right, avoiding pitfalls as huge trees, arachnids and primitive tribespeople gradually give way to dilapidated cityscapes and eventually a monstrous industrial complex. Every screen is a stark, depressing and beautifully-rendered tableau that adds immensely to the overall experience. LIMBO sounds as good as it looks, with flat blasts of noise and a scattering of effects creating a terrific ambience and contributing to the overwhelming, dreamlike feel.

The second half of the game does lose its way a little; the factory settings swiftly dispel the awesome sense of fear and wonder of the opening forest section, and sometimes death comes a bit too easily. Some of the puzzles are a little too obscure, although there is a genuine feeling of satisfaction when solving one of them .

LIMBO is a gorgeous slice of nightmare ambience, slightly hamstrung by its reliance on trial-and-error gameplay. It's Eraserhead meets Rick Dangerous, short and sweet, funny and disturbing. It's no Super Mario Galaxy, but it's an original spin on a well-worn genre and is well worth taking a look at.

Sherlock (BBC1, July 2010 “A Study in Pink”)

Not content with claiming top dog status at Doctor Who, writer-producer Steven Moffat has turned his talents to a contemporary reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. Transplanted to modern-day London and given a shot in the arm (not of opium, mind) Sherlock sets out to prove that the science of deduction cannot be beaten, whatever the century.

The wonderfully-named Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as the modern-day Holmes, who with just a hint of Jeremy Brett totally captures the frustrated, arrogant and almost autistic genius at the heart of the character. Martin Freeman does a convincing enough job of playing Martin Freeman, the script wisely avoiding the idiot Watson of many of the prior adaptations. Everyone else fits neatly into their pre-set roles, the bumbling Lestrade, the busybody Mrs Hudson and assorted red herrings, victims and obstructions.

But while the characters and setting have been updated fittingly, the episode is filled with great clunking references to smartphones and blogs and GPS navigation that are not only unneeded, but guarantee the series will date appallingly. A lot of the charm of Holmes comes from its turn-of-the-century flavour and vague gothic trappings, and curry houses, office blocks and laptops simply aren’t as evocative or exciting.

With Moffat at the helm and with sometime Who contributor and League of Gentlemen alumni Mark Gatiss both writing and acting, comparisons with the Time Lord are inevitable and in this case deserved. A Study in Pink (a riff on the Doyle novel A Study in Scarlet) feels like an episode of the newest seasons of Doctor Who; the breathless pace, the seemingly-compulsory running around, the self-glorifying exposition and even the awkwardly inserted gay undertones feel at times like a fan fiction cross-over . And it’s hard not to imagine Cumberbatch himself playing either role; Moffatt’s incarnation of the great detective is only a short step and a few regenerations away from the modern-day Doctor himself.

A 2010 Sherlock Holmes could have been a disaster, and while far from perfect, Sherlock reigns in its sensibilities, pays due respect to its source material and manages to be a little funny and a little scary at the same time. Logic dictates we won’t be waiting long for a second season.

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Silence of the Lambs begins the inescapable downward spiral of commercialisation over creativity, with Jonathan Demme's famous 1991 serial killer movie based on the novel of the same name.

Nearly identical to Manhunter/Red Dragon in terms of structure, Silence attempts to distract the viewer from this by unwisely upping the ante of the content with more violence and weirdness, and an even more ludicrous and twisted social misfit killer.

The film also marks the start of the transformation of the character of Hannibal Lector from believable, chilling minor role to the serial killer version of Ronald McDonald; a supernaturally-powered, pun-dispensing omnipotent face-eater. Anthony Hopkins' hissable pantomime version robs the character of any menace or dignity and replaces them with cliched evil genius tics and a parade of funny voices.

And while Jodie Foster is splendid in the role of FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, the one-two punch of the film's crippling similarity to Michael Mann's far superior Manhunter and the cartoonish story and characters doom it from the very start. Even the occasional dip into gothic horror, and a superbly tense final pitch black shootout aren't enough to quite redeem it.

Predator 2 (Stephen Hopkins, 1990)

Textbook 'in the big city' sequel that treads largely the same ground as its predecessor, replacing the trees and bushes with concrete and steel, guerilla soldiers with drug gangs and the lumpy '80s comic-book heroics of the first film with cynicism and satire.

Despite being at times a virtual remake, Predator 2 still manages to entertain thanks to the combined efforts of the constantly-perspiring Danny Glover and the shark-like Gary Busey, and the wise retention of the violence, action, humour and ethnic stereotyping that made the original such a classic.

Decent effects, music and direction help paper over the cracks and just about keep the audience interested as they wait for the characters to discover all the things everybody who saw the first film already knows.

A few good ideas and some welcome expansion of the Predator's culture and technology add to the appeal, but the overall similarity, plus a confused and rambling climax detract from a decent but not spectacular follow-up.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)

Perhaps realising the terminal limitations of the "Die Hard in a ___" formula, brought all the closer to parody by Seagal et al, the third film in the series dispenses with the claustrophobic, cat and mouse of the first films and instead splashes its violent, acerbic paint over a much wider canvas.

Adapted from a script called SIMON SAYS, at one point a Brandon Lee vehicle then later considered as the next LETHAL WEAPON, the film sees John McClane team up with Samuel L Jackson, again playing himself, as a zany mismatched couple attempting to foil the efforts of a grudge-bearing sadistic Euro-terrorist, wrought laughably camp by the constantly vest-clad Jeremy Irons.

A satisfying balance and zinging dialogue between the two leads, plus plenty of clever action and moments of shocking violence keep the interest initially high, although the film fails to sustain it throughout, especially once the villain's plan is revealed as almost an exact retread of the first film's. Like so many action films it also loses focus an hour and a half or so in, failing to keep ahold of the myriad plot threads it has woven, and the seemingly ad-libbed, tacked-on climax is deeply unsatisfying.