Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mum and Dad (2008)

Olga is a young Polish immigrant working as a cleaner in a drab UK airport. She's befriended by Birdie, a fellow cleaner. After she's invited back to Birdie's home, she doesn't quite find the caring family she expected. Mum and Dad both want her to be a part of the family, and aren't keen on letting her go

Mum and Dad (2008) is as much a dark comedy as it is torture porn. There's sibling rivalry, hard-core porn playing while breakfast is served, and the ruler of the roost has his wicked way with a slab of meat.

The real star of Steven Sheil's directorial debut is the father of the eponymous family, played by Perry Benson. He has a pudgy, genial face but his hulking frame is filmed to be creepy and physically intimidating. He mood constantly shifts from one end of the sociopath spectrum to the other, and is easily provoked to acts of extreme violence. Outside the home, however, he's perfectly normal, has a stable job as a baggage handler at the airport, and boasts of long term friendships.

The home is cramped and claustrophobic, but there's enough room to store a range of stolen goods, and the usual torture rooms and creatures in the attic that you expect in a movie like this.

The movie contains the usual horror cliches, and never surprises. It's not outstanding, but watch it for Perry Benson's star turn.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network is a witty, well-paced and intense movie about the lawsuits that surrounded the birth of Facebook. It's not, however, a movie about social networking – the drama revolves around the relationship between the founders, those who considered Facebook intellectual theft, and those who saw the potential of the social networking site.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the intellectually precocious but socially inept computer geek who developed Facebook. It's not-so subtlety implied he appropriated the idea from three members of an exclusive fraternity, who wanted him to build a social networking site solely for students at Harvard University. Zuckerberg gets initial financial backing for Facebook from a fellow student, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). However, Saverin, is gradually eased out of his share by the arrival of Napster founder, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).

Sean Parker is played as a hyperactive narcissist, fond of expensive lunches and listening to the sound of his own voice. He's not a particularly sympathetic character. It's implied that he structured Facebook's venture-capitalist funding to dilute Eduardo's part-ownership of Facebook.

Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg with a single emotionless expression, with only his voice occasionally betraying his exasperation with other people. He has relatively few social skills and is unable to sustain romantic relationships, but is ruthlessly single-minded in his desired direction for Facebook. This alienates those around him, and it never appears that he has any real friends after Facebook took-off, just hangers-on.

The dialogue is witty and clever, and the soundtrack by Trent Reznor is suitably haunting.

I'm not clear how much of the movie is fiction, but its pace and style keeps your attention. But even though I'm not a class-hater, I found it hard to sympathize with any of the characters since the plot revolves about over-privileged Harvard students squabbling over a lawsuit settlement.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Five Breathtaking Action Scenes From Movies

If art is defined as any form of human expression that drives human emotion, then cinematic action is a new art form that deserves recognition in its own right. Cinematic action can transcend the medium and fuse with our reptilian brain to create an experience that simply did not exist a hundred years ago.

This is a list of breathtaking movie action sequences. These scenes can be appreciated in isolation, but only have their full impact in context of the movie when we experience the emotional journey of the characters.

Action scenes that feature CG as the primary focus of the action (think Transformers) do not feature in this list because they have, for me, a limited emotional impact. I'm consciously aware that they're simply not real because the movements on screen do not reflect reality at a fundamental level – CG does not capture the right momentum, weight, and balance of real-life.  I simply do not feel the danger.  In-camera special effects are more real, more impactful, and just more believable than CG.

The Hallway Fight in Inception

The Hallway fight in Inception ranks as one of the most impressive in-camera sequences ever burned to celluloid. When first I saw a few seconds of the scene in a trailer, I was intrigued. However, only after watching the fight scene in-film did I truly appreciate its impact.

Christopher Nolan, in writing and directing Inception, created a novel plot device in which the physical actions experienced by dreaming characters affects their in-dream environment. Within the context of the Hallway scene, a van containing a dreaming Joseph Gordon Levitt tumbles down a bank. In Levitt's dream, he's fighting in a hallway, which also rotates along with the van. In doing so, gravity shifts from wall-to-wall in the hallway, sending the characters tumbling from side-to-side.

This sequence is novel, with a sublime rhythm in the action of the characters, the cutting from one dream level to another, and the thumping of the music.

Instead of CG, Nolan's team built a rotating set in an aircraft hanger in Cardington, England. Given how expensive this must have been, the hallway scene lasts a remarkably restrained forty seconds. Other directors might have been tempted to milk more out of it.

The Elevator Fight in Merantau Warrior

I'm a martial arts freak, and this is the first of two martial arts movies on this list. Merantau features the Indonesian martial art of Silat, and was the debut for the principal character, and the first commercially released film for the director (who, rather unusually, is a tall Welshman).

The most impressive fight takes place in an elevator (or lift, in British parlance).

It's what I consider a martial arts fight grounded in realism – it doesn't feature any obviously unrealistic acrobatics or outrageous moves. Despite taking place in an elevator, each movement is clearly defined, with extended takes, and no jarring edits which make the action difficult to follow.

Compare it to this sequence from the Bourne Ultimatum, one of the finer Hollywood two-man fights. The edits are much more rapid, with camera movement becoming the action, rather than enhancing it.

Read my full review of Merantau here.

The Final Fight in Drunken Master 2

I first watched Drunken Master 2 on a pirated VCD in the late nineties and became obsessed by the final fight. I've spent countless hours watching this sequence, revelling in the imaginative choreography and how movement flows smoothly from one shot to another.

I've written another blog post that dissects the nine-minute sequence in greater detail, so I won't write too much about it now. The fighting is more stylized than the sequence in Merantau, with exaggerated moves and outrageous acrobatics.

The Finale of Last of the Mohicans

What gives the sequence from The Last of the Mohicans its power is the journey of the characters through the movie, and the sacrifices they have made.

Hardly any words are spoken, with the action reaching a climax as the score is at its most sweeping. The accompanying music is called The Promontory Kiss, and is wonderfully epic, fostering a startling contrast with the on-screen trauma and enhancing the emotional loss of the characters.

The Beach Landing in Saving Private Ryan

This was film-making at its most audacious, most challenging. The Omaha beach landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan made war real, brutal, and unfathomably dangerous.

The camera serves to place the viewer in the midst of the battle, and as vulnerable to the German bullets as any of the characters. The washed-out grimy look only enhances the devastating aesthetic of the movie.

Honorable Mention: The Hospital Escape Sequence in Terminator 2

Although I thought Avatar was an indulgent mis-step, James Cameron is a highly-talented director. His success stems from his ability to create engaging characters that pull viewers through their emotional journey. Sarah Connor from the Terminator series reigns supreme as his finest creation.

What I consider the finest action sequence in the while movie stems from the confluence of three plot threads
  • Sarah begins Terminator 2 traumatized and jailed in a mental institution. When she learns that Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has reappeared, Sarah tries to escape so she can protect her son.
  • After being caught by orderlies, the liquid-metal T-1000 makes an appearance, predicting that it will catch her son John Connor saving her from itself.
  • Her son reappears, together his new best friend - the T-800 that Sarah thinks will kill him
The delight of the sequence is in experiencing Sarah's emotional roller-coaster while the action unfolds around her. When the T-800 walks out of the elevator door, the terror in Sarah's face is tangibly real. When her son appears, unfazed by the T-800, Sarah's emotional compass spins rapidly to confusion. Then, just as quickly, she turns into the fearless mother protector.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone (2010) bursts with the kinetic energy and authenticity that the director Paul Greengrass is known for. It mixes facts and fiction by draping a fictional hunt for weapons of mass destruction around the Iraq conflict. This is controversial and bold, but the gamble largely pays off (if you can ignore the sometimes overbearing political bluster).

Matt Damon (staring in his third movie with Greengrass) plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller. Several fruitless raids for WMD in and around Baghdad lead him to believe that the intelligence behind them is flaky. He meets an Iraqi who tips him off about a meeting of senior officials in the recently disbanded Iraqi army. This ignites a spiral of events which reveals secrets about the bureaucratic origin of the war

By placing a damning fictional narrative around the false assumptions for the Iraq war, The Green Zone makes a very political statement. This is further amplified when a sympathetic Iraqi character emotes to Roy Miller, “it is not for you to decide what happens here".

There’s more than a hint of cliché in several of the characters, but the conviction of the actors makes you forget the overbearing characterization.

The movie is filmed with hand-held cameras with quick cuts, typical of Greengrass’s style. It’s not overly distracting, but doesn't add much to the movie (apart from making the action scenes more zingy).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Exam (2009)

Exam (2009) starts with an interesting premise, boasts sharp direction and is often tense, but the meandering script and an unsatisfying conclusion left me disappointed.

Eight ambitious young people are led into a small sterile room to sit an exam with the offer of a lucrative job. An impassive invigilator explains the rules; they are not allowed to communicate with the armed guard standing by the door, spoil their papers, or step outside the room before the 80 minutes are over. When the clock starts, the candidates turn the papers over only to find they are blank. This begins a process of character interplay, which starts at grudging cooperation but gradually descends into violence and paranoia as the candidates attempt to discover what the question actually is.

The pleasure in watching puzzle-driven thrillers is in unwrapping the who, where and why, by connecting small nuggets of information as they are gradually released. However, a significant portion of the movie has little to with the final payoff, and seems entirely like padding.  The movie meanders, with the characters moving from one pointless task to another.

In the absence of a truly clever puzzle-driven script, a movie relies on the protagonists and their interplay. None of the characters are particularly well-drawn, and several fall into convenient stereotypes – the Gambler, the Wide-Boy Narcissist, The Scientist with Logical Explanations, and The Hard-Headed Career Woman.  We do learn more about the characters and their motives for being present at the exam, but again this has little to do with the final payoff.

It's hard not to be disappointed by the finale either.  It involves some sophistry that would be more at home as a  playground trick question, and the final reveal was hard to accept as a motivation for finding the right employee through the preceding selection process.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Heartless (2009)

Heartless (2009) takes place in modern-day London, against a backdrop of gang violence and alienation. Jamie Morgan is a twenty-something photographer who lives in a house estate in London. A large birth mark on his face hsa stopped him developing meaningful relationships with women, while the death of his father has made his relationship with his mother emotionally critical.

After his mother is murdered in front of him, he meets a Mephistophelian character called Papa B, who offers to remove his birthmark in exchange for certain rather gruesome favours. He then he raises the ire of Papa B, who asks him to kill his newly-found girlfriend as compensation.

Heartless is atmospheric, and vibrantly chronicles the fears of modern day city-dwellers; gangs, guns and hoodies are the order of the day. Director Philip Ridley makes London unfriendly and positively dangerous to the outsider, and plays on the fear of hooded teenagers (even casting them as demonic figures).  While hinting at Hellraiser (which itself was inspired by Faust), the director adds his own themes of social isolation and alienation.  The movie also hints at hidden forces that control the spiraling descent of urban life into random, unexpected violence

Jim Sturgass plays Jamie with conviction; he convincingly transforms from a troubled young man afraid of showing his face, to someone brimming with confidence.  An emotionally poignant relationship with his mother is very well played by both actors

A few hokey special effect (including an vaguely unconvincing full body burn suit) made me shrug my shoulders, and a twist concerning the motives of Jamie's girlfriend and nephew are not well integrated into the primary plot.  One element had me vaguely puzzled - a young Indian girl in a Sari who Jamie met through Papa B inexplicably starts calling him Dad.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

The WolfmanThe Wolfman (2010) draws heavily on the grand heritage of the Universal Studio horror movies of the 1920s-40s, and even shares the same ominous studio logo that preceded the films of the era. It drips with kitschy atmosphere and high production values, but unfortunately has few real scares - you shouldn't kid yourself into thinking you're watching a real horror movie.

Lawrence Talbot (Benico del Toro), a stage actor currently performing in Victorian-era London, is approached by his brother's fiancé and asked to return to his father's country estate to investigate his brother's disappearance. Soon after returning, he has a rather unfortunate encounter with a werewolf, and is accused of a spate of recent murders. His father, Sir John Talbot (Antony Hopkins) has to cope with the resulting ire of the local villagers and has his own personal demons to deal with. A major plot twists drips with cliché, and most partially-awake film-goers will pick up on it early on.

Antony Hopkins is a far superior actor than his co-stars; he spits out his dialogue with conviction and articulate grace. The relationship between John Talbot and his son is strained, and Hopkins plays the distant father with believable ease.  The standout scene in the movie takes plan in an asylum, with Hopkins declaring his love for his antagonized son, and at the same time nonchalantly throwing him a straight-razor in case he wants to take the easy way out.

A large part of the movie was filmed on location in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.  The grace and computer-enhanced faded elegance of the location are a beautiful counterpoint to the lushness of the countryside.

The first man-to-wolf transformation scene is superbly directed, with bones cracking and elongating, hair sprouting, and vertebrae distorting under the stress of the change. The special effects are not overblown, but combine with Benico's tortured screams to deliver a viscously creepy moment. It nearly reaches the terrifying heights of the corresponding transformation in another werewolf classic, An American Werewolf in London.

Some of the special effects are, however, inadequate, and pull you out of the film. The computer-generated Wolfman running and leaping through forests and across the rooftops of London moves too fast and is too agile to be believable.

The director Joe Johnston paints the movie with high-budget Gothic gloom. However, I'd be hard pressed to call The Wolfman (2010) a true horror film - it's horror-lite for the movie-going masses. It has none of the escalating build-up and cathartic release of tension of the true horror classics, nor does it offend anyone with any truly edgy material.  There are no risks taken with the plot or the pacing, which given the high budget Hollywood-feel is no real surprise. Watch it for the production values, not the scares.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Nicholas Winding Refn’s introspective Valhala Rising (2009) is occasionally punctuated by unflinching violence, but it’s art house through and through. It’s a visually-spectacular and deliberately-paced character study where the stresses of a brutal journey merge with hypnotic dream sequences to deliver a compelling (but sometimes ponderous) experience

Set in the sparsely populated Scottish Highlands after Christianity has swept through much of Europe, Valhala Rising (2009) starts with a mute and shackled prisoner (later named One-Eye) forced to fight other captives to the death. The Highlands are desolate, with no towns, villages or other signs of civilization. One-Eye escapes, and joins Christian pillagers traveling to the Holy Land to fight the good fight (but with some only motivated by the riches dangled in front of them). A fog-bound journey across the sea to what they think is the Holy Land is psychologically draining and hallucinatory, and the movie reaches a climax when they land and conclude they’re not where they wanted to be.

Much of the movie concentrates on One-Eye’s psychological journey through hypnotic dream sequences – these are sometimes bathed in red and jarring. The music reaches a Nine Inch Nails-like electronic crescendo during some of the more haunting sequences.

Mads Mikellson plays One-Eye with a grinding intensity. He doesn’t speak but is occasionally ignited into action with an axe and his bare hands, breaking necks and disembowelling others with grim efficiency. He is, however, uncharacteristically resolute at the conclusion when he sacrifices himself to save the life of a companion.

Valhalla Rising (2009) reminded me of another recent similarly-paced movie, Van Diemen’s Land (2009), which also features a small group of desperate men travelling across a harsh landscape. Van Diemen’s Land was, however, based on a true story which made it a more grounded experience.

Some may consider Valhalla Rising (2009) pretentious, but the movie doesn’t pretend to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s strictly for those who are willing to experience a film-maker’s interpretation of a traumatic psychological journey. David Lynch-fans need only apply.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Solomon Kane (2009)

The 80s were the gleaming pinnacle of sword and sorcery movies.  We're talking about movie epics like Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaser, Jason and the Argonauts, Krull and Red Sonja.  These were the very essence of pulp, with chiseled (but very solemn) men and beautiful women seeking revenge in fantasy lands of strange creatures, sorcerers of black magick, and swords.  Lots and lots of swords.

As a kid I soaked each and every one of them up.  This is probably the reason why I enjoyed Solomon Kane (2009) as much as I did.  It captures the fantasy vibe of its 80s counterparts and in doing so it held my attention for the full runtime. 

Set in the puritan 1700s, the movie starts with Solomon Kane, driven by an insatiable appetite for material gain, leading a charge into a castle.  After displaying his prowess with two swords and skillfully skewering his opponents, he finds himself  separated from his men, and battling a Servant of Hell.  Seeing his imminent death, he jumps out of a windows and crashes into the sea below.  A year later, still emotionally scarred from the battle, we find him living a monastic life in England, having renounced violence.  After being told by the Abbot to leave, he encounters a family on their way to the New World who show him kindness and warmth. After they're attacked by man-demons and nearly all the family is butchered, he picks up his swords once more to do battle.

Okay - so Solomon's motives are driven by revenge (surprise surprise!), but there are a few twists (including one so obvious and cliche it was telegraphed from half a mile away).

James Purefroy plays the titular character with a grizzled introspection - think Christopher Lambert in Highlander.  He doesn't ham it up, but the performance is by no means subtle. That's probably, however, a function of the script and direction, rather than a limitation of his acting chops.

Purefroy's West Country brogue was unusual simply because it's not the type of accent you associate with action icons (but very apt because Kane grew on his father's estate in Devon)

Much of the movie is set in a rural English landscape, and production design successfully captures an unwelcoming, cold landscape, punctuated by the occasional brutish and ravaged town.  The movie is very grey - don't expect primary colors or cheery Mediterranean pastels. The occasional fire adds a lick of yellow, though

The action largely revolves around hand-to-hand combat, aided by swords and knives, and is relatively entertaining to watch (although as usual quick cuts are the order of the day).  CGI monsters and effects occasionally rear their unbelievable heads, but the movie is at its most successful when Solomon fights against real people (sometimes augmented by prosthetics).

The movie maintains a relatively quick pace, and doesn't lag or get boring. It's entertaining pulp that's a must-see for any fan of the sword and sorcery genre.

SCORE: 3/5

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 (2010) is a sometimes-spirited sequel that again features Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark, the CEO of an advanced weapons manufacturer, and erstwhile but ever-so snarky superhero.  The movie suffers from several unneeded characters and plot threads, and has a flagging middle section which make the entire experience rather underwhelming.

Once again, RDJ plays Stark as a flamboyant, attention-seeking narcissist, and almost every moment with him on screen is scene-chewingly entertaining.  However, Stark is now dying because of the power source that drives the suit. This causes him to ruminate on the time that's rapidly running out for him, and drives him to drink and other self-destructive behavior.

There's a few too many plot threads; these include
  • Ivan Vanko (played with smoldering intensity by Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist whose father was wronged by Stark's father, and who builds powered whips with which he attacks Starks while he races in Monaco (the action highlight of the movie)
  • A rival weapons manufacturer, headed by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who hooks up with Ivan Vanko to build a better Iron Man suit
  • A US Congressional Committee that wants Stark to relinquish his Iron Man suits 
  • The theft of an Iron Man suit so that the US Army can weaponize 
  • An Expo to highlight just how simply wonderful Stark's weapons technology is
  • Stark's dysfunctional relationship with his father
  • Stark's rapidly deteriorating health due to the effects of Iron Man suit's power source, and the search for a less-harmful replacement
  • Stark's alcoholism and self-destructive spiral
  • Stark's growing but still veiled overtures to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his executive assistant. Paltrow is underused has little connection to the primary plot thread and I suspect was only casted because she's great eye candy
  • The Avengers, a mysterious group of superheros, headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who places a soon-uncloaked mole in Stark Industries to keep tabs on Tony Stark
  • ...and a few other
These plot threads should have twisted, knotted and combined into a revelation that drove the finale into an emotional frenzy; however, this doesn't happen, and the multiple plot lines only caused the movie to drag.

Several plot threads were simply unneeded and cause the movie to drag; they should have been removed to give the movie a punchier pace (some, for example, are only present to clearly signpost spin-offs). While I was watching the flagging middle third of the movie, my thoughts drifted to the much more cohesively plotted The Dark Knight, a much better comic book adaptation.

The action scenes are zingy and well directed but are spread a smidgen too thin.  The CG has very high production values (Vanko's attack on Stark at Monaco is visually breathtaking) but since the movie creates few emotional connections with the characters, the action scenes don't have the payoff the should have (again, compare this to the far superior The Dark Knight).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Book of Eli (2010)

The Book of Eli (2010) is another in a long line of post-apocalyptic movies that follows an enigmatic figure as he travels across a desolate wasteland.  The movie emulates the barren style of spaghetti westerns, with Denzel Washington successfully channeling the quiet confidence and menace of Clint Eastwood.

The plot is suitably spartan.  Denzel Washington plays Eli, a man who has journeyed across a post-apocalyptic US for thirty years, on a seemingly God-given mission to safely take a book West to some unknown destination.  Others are desperately looking for a copy of the book, including the self-styled leader of a small town Eli travels through. The leader, played by Gary Oldman, is ambitious and hungry for power - he wants his town to grow, he wants this book for the power it would hold over others.

The production values are impressively high, and the movie successfully visualizes a world that has slowly decayed, with highways torn apart and entire cities crumbled into the dirt.  Obviously made with a higher budget than another recent post-apocalyptic film, The Road (2010), the visual look of movie never misses a beat.

Denzel takes center-stage in a number of impressively stage fights, in which he fends off attackers with knives, guns, and his own fists.  I think at some level I was largely impressed because it was Denzel Washington in these fights - something that I'd never expected from him.  However, on several occasions quick edits and cuts distract from the fluidity of the action scenes (although one relatively long take of Denzel fighting in silhouette form against a bright sun was stunning).

The movie attempts a now-standard Sixth Sense style twist at the end when it reveals a fact that's designed to change your perception of the preceding 100 minutes.  This, however, stretched credibility a bit too far; I didn't feel cheated at the leap of faith required to successfully accept the twist, but more puzzled.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cop Out (2010)

Cop Out (2010) is a buddy cop movie that pays homage to the 80's, even down to the pairing of a white guy with personal issues (Bruce Willis), and a motor-mouthed black guy (Tracy Morgan).  Combine it with an irate chief of  police, cheesy 80s music, and snarky colleagues, and you have some serious nostalgia, quicker than you can say Another 48 Hours.

The crude, and occasionally funny, dialog was probably the highlight of the flick for me, although it does start to wear thin after thirty minutes.  As a side-note, I'm not offended by coarse language, but an encounter with a 10 year old foul-mouthed car thief left a rather sour taste in my mouth (but hey, who am I kidding - I was just as offensive when I was his age).

The plot is perfunctory, and combines Mexican drug dealers, a kidnapped drug lord's daughter, a baseball card, and a wedding.  Nothing is new, or presented in an inventive way.

The movie feels listless; there's no momentum propelling the movie film, nor are the characters particularly endearing (but Willis and Morgan do have some on-screen chemistry, and their interplay is amusing at times.)  Perhaps I'm just used to bigger vehicles for Willis, but the movie just felt too small for him.

If you're a child of the 80s you'll get a few retro-kicks from Cop Out (I certainly did). But if you're not a thirty-something like me, you'll probably want to give this a miss.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pandorum (2009)

I'm a big fan of the sci-fi horror/action genre, and it's not often that aficionados like me are treated to a well-executed example with high production values. Pandorum (2009) is one of the better examples of the genre, although it's not without its flaws.

Never quite reaching its initial promise, Pandorum (2009) draws several elements from other sci-fi movies, most notably the sense of paranoia and doom in Event Horizon (1997) and the isolation of Moon (2009).  The set design is the best part of the experience; it's well realized with superb lighting, and a fantastic sense of scale and grandeur that amplifies the isolation.  The plot has several satisfying twists, but into the cliche of personifying evil in a single person (much like Event Horizon) during the finale.

Two crew members wake up from a hypersleep, with only fragments of their memories remaining.  Bower (Ben Foster) escapes through a service duct to repair a reactor on the other side of the ship, while Payton (Dennis Quaid) remains. At this point, their stories diverge but then collide during the finale.

Bowers has the more interesting journey and encounters a woman who attacks him, only to be scared away by bestial humanoids (looking somewhat like the cave-dwellers in The Descent), armed with knives, clubs and some very pointy teeth.  After they meet again, the woman realizes that Bowers is not a threat and reveals she's a geneticist (although the film asks too much when the fact that she's an expert fighter is glossed over) that woke up several months ago, and has been in survival mode ever since.  She, along with two others they meet, accompany him to the reactor.

Payton, remains behind, and is joined by another crew member.  Both their stories are intertwined and are revealed throughout the film, but conclude in yet another cliche, as if the filmmakers were picking plot points out of a bag.

The action is confusing, filmed with quick cuts and close-ups, making it impossible to make out the flow of the blows and parries; this removes any tension from the fights. Perhaps a better choice would have had the good guys hiding in the shadows, dodging the humanoid beasts, while occasionally glimpsing the mangling of others from afar.  I can't help but this that this would have amplified the tension and despair.

Perhaps I'm being too critical.  I found the movie certainly very entertaining, and as a fan of the under-serviced genre I'm pretty pleased at the relatively high production values. However, as it stands this was an average movie; had the film-makers made a few different decisions with respect to the plot, action and pacing, this would have been a great movie.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From Paris with Love (2010)

From Paris with Love (2010) is a rather drab action flick in which John Travolta plays a top US undercover agent dissecting a drugs gang in Paris. The mystery grows deeper when he and his sidekick, a young spy-wannabe seconded from the US Embassy, uncover a deeper terrorist plot to murder a visiting US dignitary.

John Travolta character is a vaguely entertaining-to-watch bad-ass, but credibility is strained with his outlandish, boorish ways and when he and his sidekick snort cocaine in a crowded lift going up the Eiffel Tower (he manages to stay undercover how?)

The sidekick is pretty-boy bland, and apart from providing one plot twist involving his fiancé, is largely inconsequential (he's largely overshadowed by John Travolta's larger-than-life character).

The shoot-outs and fights are filmed and edited in such a fashion that it's difficult to follow the flow of action in space from one shot to another.  The connecting shots between edits are very sparse, meaning that the viewers are left to interpolate the motion of the protagonists through space, making the action a very "jumpy" experience.  This makes it difficult to appreciate the otherwise (relatively) high production values in the action scenes (compare this to a classic scene in the shoot-out genre, the hospital shoot-out in Hardboiled (1992).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lake Mungo (2008)

Lake Mungo (2008) is a restrained low-budget Australian ghost story, with a sprinkling of creepy moments.  It's filmed largely as a post-haunting interview, with good use of grainy cell-phone and home video footage.

Alice is a high school girl who drowns during a day out with her family.  However, a series of unexplained sightings on video footage and pictures makes her parents believe she's alive.  The plot follows her parents and brother as they investigate the truth. They discover a young girl who in her last few weeks tried to cope with unsettling visions, but was unable to confide in her family

The movie slowly unwinds its way to a genuinely creepy ending, but a plot point concerning her sexual antics goes nowhere and is peripheral to the main events.

The movie struck me as remarkably confident - it slowly reveals plot elements, giving each time to settle in before the next revelation.  I'm sure part of this was due to the limited budget, but this works in the movie's favor; performances and a steady build-up are emphasized instead of fancy effects.

The writer-director Joel Anderson is now remaking the film for Hollywood.  Let's hope he manages to keep the restrained feel of the movie while making the most of the bigger budget.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Merantau (2009)

In much the same way that Ong Bak (2003) heralded the breakthrough of tony Jaa, Merantau (2009) introduces  Iko Uwais.  It's the most impressive martial arts movie I've seen in the last five years, and boasts fluid fight choreography, expertly filmed to highlight its intricacy..

The plot follows Yuda as he leaves his Sumatran village to embark on a traditional rite of passage called Merantau; he must travel far and return a man.  He journeys to Jakarta where he finds a young women being assaulted in an alleyway.  He intervenes, and finds himself in the middle of a human trafficking operation, led by two Europeans.

The sincerity of the acting amplifies the emotional impact of the relatively simple plot.  It's hard to believe that this was Iko's first performance - he seems perfectly at home in front of the camera.  The director, Gareth Evans, must also be complemented for the high production values (although I'd like to discover how a Welshman found himself directing an Indonesian martial arts film).

The fights feature the Indonesian martial art of Silat, and are intricately choreographed and very organic.  There are many long takes and wide shots, and action follows fluidly from one edit to another.

The fights are filmed on a steadicam that organically follows the action.  The camera-shake does not interfere with the fights or make the action difficult to follow, but enhances their chaos.

The most impressive fight takes place in an elevator (or lift, in British parlance). The tight quarters and the speed of the fight made me catch my breath on more than one occasion - it's fast, frenetic and expertly filmed, with every movie clearly defined.  My favorite move is a vicious throw in which the steadicam tracks Yuda down. I literally winced when Yuda hit the floor.

My only complaint is the not entirely subtle use of wires for some stunt-work. This is jarring, given how grounded in reality the other fights are.

I'm not going to spoil the end of the movie, but the final fight is a satisfying face-off against the two European traffickers. Yuda and the two Europeans learn how to counter each other, with Yuda only gaining the upper hand during the final few minutes.

I'm surprised at how satisfying this movie is to watch, given that it's the feature debut for both the director and the main actor.  I'm certainly looking forward to their next collaboration, more so than Tony Jaa's next movie.

Once you've watched the movie, I recommend watching the production blog at the movie's YouTube site; they give a fantastic insight into the fight choreography.

If you enjoy martial arts movies, then you'll want to read my analysis of the finest fight ever filmed and this list of five breathtaking action scenes

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Survival of the Dead (2009)

I'm a fan of Zombie movies, even when they're zombie movies in all but name (think Rec 2). Zombies generally come in two varieties; slow Zombies and fast Zombies.  Fast zombies are scarier, but the slow zombies were caught on celluloid first, most notably by the director of  Survival of the Dead (2009).

George Romero needs little introduction.  Director of the Night of the Living Dead (1968), he was largely responsible for the genre's popularity. Not averse to social commentary, his zombie movies often have distinct political themes - the civil rights movement, consumerism, and the class war. More recently, Diary of the Dead (2007) riffed on the Youtube generation. At the very least, they had a degree of depth, regardless of their other merits (or demerits).

Why is why Survival of the Dead (2009) is disappointing. It feels thin and rather underdeveloped, with just a few gore shots to give it some visceral appeal.

"Nicotine" Crockett heads a team of four heavily armed Guardsmen. They meet Patrick O'Flynn, the patriarch of an Irish family who were banished from an island by the head of the other family on the island, Seamus Muldoon (how these two families got sole dominion of an island a couple of hours off the coast of Delaware is never explained).  Patrick's transgression was to kill zombies; Seamus, out of a sense of religious fervor, wants them "alive" and train them not to eat human meat.

Patrick persuades (through a rather prickly initial meeting) Nicotine Crockett to head back the island on a ferry.  And that's the point at which the film falls apart.  We're forced to sit through an hour of a tiresome plot that goes nowhere very quickly, although some social satire bubbles up to the surface when we see chained up zombies, who were postmen, farmworkers and housewives when alive, repetitively carrying out their previous work tasks.

The zombies on the island are not frightening and they have no real sense of menace, so we can scratch that right out of the appeal equation.  Additionally, the movie appears rather low budget at points with some ineptly filmed gun fights.  Some interesting plot points are obliquely referenced (such as the ability of zombies to learn repetitive tasks from their prior lives), but these are never developed.

Only watch this movie if your OCD stretches to watching every zombie movie released.  All others in need of some zombie-slayin' action, see the far more interesting Rec 2 and its prequel instead.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dancer in the Dark (2000) is manipulative and verges on melodrama.  It's clinically designed to lead you down a well-defined emotional path.  And, for the most part, it works.

Bjork plays Selma, an eastern European immigrant in the US, alone apart from her son who has inherited her failing eyesight.  She's works in a factory to save up enough money to pay for the surgery that will save her son's vision.  Unfortunately, the money is stolen by someone she thinks she can trust, and she's accused of murder. And then things start to get really bad.

Filmed by the director, Lars von Trier, using handheld camera and natural lighting, Dancer has a realistic design aesthetic.  Until, that is, Bjork bursts into song (her character is fascinated by Hollywood musicals).  Dancer in the Dark is a musical, but it's unlike any other musical you've seen.

The songs are impressionistic, reflecting Bjork's recognizable vocalization style.  Some are accompanied by music and are a reflection of Selma's daydreams, while those songs near the end of the movie have no music and are an externalization of her emotions (a coping mechanism for the extreme trauma she finds herself in, perhaps).

The movie is difficult to watch at times, and you feel as if it's deliberately plotted to make you suffer (and yes, that adjective is appropriate) specific emotions. This verges on brazen manipulation, but it never quite feels cheap; this is largely because of the sincerity of Bjork's performance. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment is at the end, when Selma learns that her son will not go blind, but accepts that she will never see him again. Although not an experienced actor, Bjork completely inhabits her character and the emotions Selma feels.

In its entirety, Dancer is an experience that's entirely different to standard Hollywood fare; parts of it shimmer with magic ("I've seen it all" being a particularly memorable song, capturing and enhancing the perfect set of emotions - sorrow and acceptance). I've known a couple of people say that it was traumatic to watch, but ultimately I would rate it as an experience not to be missed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Scum (1979)

Scum (1979) was a British film about life in a borstal - a correctional institute for young males.  It was originally filmed as a BBC TV movie in 1977, but was banned for its repellent atmosphere.  Alan Clarke, the director, remade it two years later with many of the same actors, and released it for the cinema.

Carlin (Ray Winstone) arrives at the borstal after being transfered from another institute for attacking a "screw" (a prison guard). He's immediately shown that his new keepers harbor a grudge when they assault him as soon as he arrives.  The scene is stark, realistically lit, and the violence palpably real.  This atmosphere is maintained throughout the film, as the young offenders are brutalized by each other and their keepers.

The borstal is divided into wings, and further divided into race-based gangs (largely black vs white).  The groups fight against each other for dominance, and negotiate with each other for contraband).  The wardens all report to the head of the institute, a strict Christian who is not afraid of bringing his faith into work.  This leads to an amusing scene in which one of the more peculiar inmates, simply to irk the governor, professes his newly found devotion to Islam

Some of the young offenders are not tough enough to survive in this environment, and are hence the targets of those more able to adapt (which ultimately leads to a horrific rape and subsequent suicide). Others, like Carlin become the "Daddy" - the de facto leader of a wing through savagely beating the previous incumbent. This places him in a position to negotiate with the wardens.

Ray Winstone gives a remarkable performance, full of intensity and loathing.  He's a genuinely scary character, but manages to connect with a few other inmates (in the original BBC film, he embarks on a homosexual relationship with a younger, effeminate man; this plot point was excised from the remake).

Many would be deterred by the brutality of inherent Scum.  Some may see it as a dehumanizing film to watch, and with good reason; certain scenes makes your skin crawl.

It is, ultimately, a rewarding film to watch, if only because it gives you a degree of empathy for least capable to survive in these thankfully long-forgotten institutions.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Descent 2

The Descent was a remarkably tense flick about a group of female cavers who find themselves trapped underground in an unexplored cave system, and at the mercy of humanoid-but-oh-so-bestial cave-dwellers who had a hankering for some lady-meat.  The confident direction by Neil Marshall only introduced the creatures half-way, resulting in a film of two distinct sections (similar to the structure of From Dusk Till Dawn).

Most notable was the slow-burn clausterphobic build-up, half-seen glimpses of the cave-dwellers, before the movie descended into a brutally tense climax.

The UK version of The Descent had a downbeat ending which capped the film perfectly, while the US release had Sarah, one of the female caves, escaping.

The Descent 2, this time helmed by Jon Harris, starts immediately after the events of the first film. Sarah is found, but it appears that one of her fellow cavers, Juno, was a Senator's daughter.  Suffering from amnesia, Sarah accompanies a search party back into the cave system.

This time we know what's waiting in the caves, and we just want the movie to get on with it; that's one of several flaws in the sequel.

The bestial cave-dwellers are more muscular than in the first film, meaning it's harder to accept the outcomes of the various fights.  I recall the scrawnier beasts in the first film just being more "real", more "natural".

There's enough gore to keep genre-fans happy, and an unpleasant moment when Sarah finds herself in a shit-pit (I can find no better way to describe it). The direction is competent, but by its very nature could not imitate the contrasting two-half structure of the first.

The disappointing ending, however, blatantly (and rather cheaply) sets up the premise for a second sequel.

Monday, March 1, 2010


H.P. Lovecraft was an American writer of gothic horror fiction. Born in 1890, he wrote extensively between 1917 and 1935. Many articles already exist on his most common themes and the Cthulhu mythos he created - I'm not going to rehash those. I want write about what is certainly my favorite short story penned by any writer - Nyarlathotep, written in 1920.

Nyarlathotep is a character who has "risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries", and wanders the earth, collecting followers by astonishing them with experiments in strange, other-worldly magic. The followers are led through "hellish moon-glitter of evil snows", and eventually enter a dream-like state in which they glimpse the end of the world.

The story encapsulates nearly everything I find intriguing about H.P. Lovecraft.
  • His prose is poetically polemical, and full of nightmarish visual imagery.
  • The story hints at a much larger mythos than directly addressed.
  • The narrator is an innocent thrust into events he doesn't necessary understand.
The increasingly bizarre events of the story draw the reader down a path of greater confusion, with the story ending in a paragraph rich with apocalyptic imagery.

"Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctifled temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness. And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep."

This ranks as one of my favorite paragraphs of prose I've read. It's confusing, bizarre, and maddening because it makes little practical sense. But at the same time, it's the closest I've come to a nightmare in words (and has a wonderful rhythm when read aloud)

And that's what I love about H.P. Lovecraft in general. I love being scared and awed - they're base human emotions that everyone should experience - and he's one of the few writers that does it for me.

Think of those night-terrors you had as a child - now read some H.P. Lovecraft and experience that as an adult.

The full story can found elsewhere.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rec 2

When I saw Rec (2007) last year, I was more than slightly impressed by the gradually escalating tension, and the horrifying last five minutes.  Set almost entirely in an apartment building in Spain, it started innocuously with a reporter and a cameraman accompanying a few firemen on an emergency call.  A short while later, a resident, afflicted by a psychotic contagion (becoming a fast-moving zombie in everything but name), bites a fireman.  The contagion spreads, and the apartment building is locked down; anyone escaping would be shot. I won't spoil the rest of the film for you, but we're left wondering about the fate of the reporter.

Rec was filmed from the point of view of the cameraman - although I'm not a big fan of Michael Bay-style shaky-cam, it worked well in the movie; it provided a sense of immediacy that amplified the tension.

Rec 2 (2009) picks up a few minutes after the first film.  An armed quasi-military squad (think SWAT) are asked to bodyguard a researcher and another cameraman while he collects a sample of blood from the building.  Of course, things go very bad very quickly.

A rather unexpected diversion in the film introduces three teenagers; they're goofing around with a video camera, when they make a bad decision and find themselves trapped in the apartment. The kids are annoying in a way that only kids shoe-horned into a movie can be (i.e. destined for peril), and serve as a minor plot point..

The end of Rec implied a religious connection to the contagion, and this is further amplified in Rec 2.  The researcher turns out to a be a priest involved in fighting this outbreak of demonic possession.  This gives Rec 2 a certain 1970's old-school feel (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). This may have resonated more in largely catholic Spain, but I had trouble accepting this at several points (especially during the Exorcist-like interrogation of one of the teenagers).

The shaky-cam is shakier, more so in the action scenes and sometimes it's difficult to adequately tell what's happening to who.  It's not overly annoying, though; if the filmmakers wanted viewers confused and disoriented, it worked.  There's certainly some inventiveness - a zombie is dispatched with a firework thrust down its throat, leading to a remarkable scene in a dimly-lit corridor; the shaky-cam highlights the shear anarchy of what we're witnessing.

The slow build-up of the first film is largely discarded, and there's more Zombie-huntin' with guns.  It doesn't have the sparse, linear, plotting of the first film, but chooses to throw in a few curve balls.

The ending implies that the demonic contagion will spread to the outside world, and sets up the premise for Rec 3.  If Rec 3 retains the immediacy and intimacy of its two prequels, I can see it being a success with genre-fans.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Finest Martial Arts Fight Ever Filmed

Drunken Master 2 (1994) contains the finest martial arts fight ever filmed. The beauty is in the athleticism of the participants, the beauty of the choreography, and the care and attention on lavished on the editing, lighting and environment.

I'd like emphasize the editing and framing - action flows smoothly from one shot to another, mostly in full view.  In many martial arts films, editing and framing is used imply action (as opposed to showing it in full frame), in attempt to disguise the fact that the participants are not actually fighting, or that body doubles are taking the place of the protagonists.

My favorite sequence in the fight is when Jackie leads with his right shoulder, swinging his left leg back and into the air... his centre of balance towards his opponent...

...reaches out to strike with his right hand, but is blocked by his opponent's outstretched arms...

...his opponent retracts, leaving Jackie on one leg and tipping over ...

...his opponent swings his right leg out to kick Jackie...

...and forces Jackie back.

The fluidity of this sequence is startling, leaving you wondering how they choreographed the intricate interplay between both protagonists.  Bear in mind that the above sequence is barely half a second in length and is surrounded by equally as exquisite choreography.

Jackie, after drinking industrial alcohol halfway through the fight, also demonstrated a stylized, cinematic version of Drunken Boxing.This was actually a satire of actual drunken boxing (which funnily enough, does not demand that you are drunk, but requires that you sway and totter, followed by suddenly releasing the moment and attacking the enemy) .

This stylized, alcohol-fueled form of fighting, featured aspects from the Eight Immortals school of Drunken Boxing. Myth has it that after being invited to a banquet and getting drunk, the Eight Immortals were attacked and in their inebriated state invented a new form of kung fu.

Here are screengrabs of each of the eight forms (you have to see the filmed fight to truly appreciate them).

1. Lǚ Dòngbīn (呂洞賓), the drunkard with internal strength. Jackie later played him again in The Forbidden Kingdom.

2. Elder Zhang Guo (張果老), the drunkard with the swift double-kicks and deceptive kicking backflips.

3. Lan Caihe (藍采和), the drunkard with the sudden deadly waist attacks.  Note the wide angle "fish eye" effect, effectively framing the movement of Jackie and his opponent.

4. Hé Qióng (何瓊), the drunken woman flaunting her body, distracting her opponent, and then launching into vicious attacks

5. Iron-Crutch Li (李铁拐/李鐵拐), the cripple with the powerful right leg

6. Han Xiang (韓湘子), the drunken flute player with the powerful wrists.  In this section Jackie uses straight-line attacks.

7. Royal Uncle Cao, the drunkard with the a powerful throat lock. In this part of the fight Jackie also slaps the side of his assailant's head, and punches him in the chest, Dim Mak style

8. Zhongli Quan (鐘離權), the drunkard holding a wine cauldron in his arms. The circular motion knocks your opponent to the ground.

This is a picture of Zhongli Quan from Chinese literature (note the cauldron and its congruence to Jackie's hold on his assailant above)

I can't think of many other movies that have a fight sequence as intricate as that in Drunken Master 2.  What's more remarkable is that Jackie was over 40 years old when he filmed this movie. That's testament enough to his dedication to martial arts cinema. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Hyperion Cantos

The Hyperion Cantos are the finest science fiction books I've ever had the privilege to read.  There are four book in the series.

  • Hyperion
  • The Fall of Hyperion
  • Endymion
  • The Rise of Endymion
The joy of the books lie in the wondrous, mysterious universe that Dan Simmons, the author, has created.  It feels internally consistent and logically constructed, and there's a rich density of novel ideas.

The biggest compliment I can give to the books is that for two years after I finished the series, I kept returning to books, re-reading passages that made shivers run down my spine.  The plot twists and turns throughout the books, with all the plot threads explained (to at least some degree) in the final book.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Disturbing French Movies

One of the great qualities of cinema is its ability to disturb, to move you to the dark places in your soul. Some people will not find any value in this, and will actively shun such movies. Others, like myself, enjoyed being scared, being made uncomfortable, and left with sour bile in our gullets.

I like being disturbed. I search out these experiences in movies, and for some psychosocial reason, French directors have started to specialize in some of the more memorable ones.

Here's three that I saw recently over the course of a night.  Next morning, my senses had been bludgeoned into bloody submission, and I spent the whole day sipping hot milk and eating biscuits.

We start the film as a young woman menaces and kills a middle class French family with a shotgun (with bonus ludicrous gibs).  Her friend joins her at the end of the massacre, with the tense middle of the film involves the mother of the family who just won't die.  The final third of the film takes a left turn and becomes a completely different movie - a meditation on pain and suffering, with extreme scenes of brutal torture.


A pregnant woman gets terrorized by a hooded figure. The brutality comes from the violence and terror that's inflicted on not just a woman, but a PREGNANT woman.  Occasional cutaways shows the baby in the womb reacting to its mother's ordeal .  Again, it's a French film.


Again, another French film.  It's told in snippets in reverse. The camera constantly swoops and sways from side to side - it's extremely disorienting (but not in the crappy Michael Bay shaky-cam way). The soundtrack of the movie includes a low rumble that's designed to make you feel nauseous.

The Road

The Road is a grueling experience to watch. It's based upon the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.

Set ten years after a disaster has wiped out most life on the planet, it's the story of a man accompanying his son across a post apocalyptic wasteland. The world has turned to dust and ash, and the color scheme of the film reflects that.  If that isn't gloomy enough, we learn that the boy's mother commits suicide because she can't bear raising a son in that grim environment.

The journey consists of one desperate scrabble for food after another, while dodging bands of cannibals hunting prey. One particularly grim scene involves the discovery of a human farm in a cellar - people kept alive and locked up while limbs are hacked off for food.

Eventually, the man dies, but the son finds some sort of partial salvation.

Requiem For A Dream

This is one of the most powerful movies I have ever had the pleasure of watching (experiencing?). It's the story of four people and the dramatic effect that drug have on them.

The standout performance is by Ellen Bernstein, who plays a mother of a drug addict, who herself becomes addicted to weight loss drugs, and the thought of being on TV. The obsession with a TV gameshow leads her down a path that leads her to mental instability.

The whole of the movie is greater than the sum of its parts. The cinematography, music and performances result in an enthralling experience. Props go to Darren Arrenovsky, for his masterful direction, skillfully using all the tools that cinema has to offer