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.