Monday, 19 February 2018

The Ritual (UK 2017: Dir David Bruckner)

Ah the problems of adapting horror fiction for the big screen. Director David Bruckner's previous genre credits (segments in 2015's Southbound and 2012's V/H/S) demonstrate that he's no stranger to creating an eerie mood in his films, and although The Ritual has plenty of atmosphere, it's arguably less than the sum of its parts.

A group of old friends are planning a boys weekend away, one of the suggestions being a hike along a Swedish hill range. Group leader Luke dismisses the idea, but when the hike proposer dies after being caught up in a bungled shop robbery (Luke is also in the shop, but hides and does nothing when his friend is attacked) they feel duty bound to honour the suggestion as a tribute to their departed friend.

Six months after the incident, with Luke still wracked with guilt, the party embark on the hike. As inexperienced outdoor types, they quickly fall prey to the horrendous weather and difficult terrain, eventually getting lost in a dense forest. But after camping out in an abandoned hut and experiencing a night of sheer terror, they realise that something very big is in the woods and may be stalking them.

I've not read Adam Nevill's book on which The Ritual is based, but I've consumed enough genre fiction to recognise from the structure of the film that Bruckner is probably following the novel fairly closely. And therein lies the problem: although the movie is not overly complex, there are a number of different strands to it which, while they may be visually appealing, don't really add up to much, and probably were more intriguing in print form. And just as the book probably canters towards its monstrous conclusion, so too does the film, in the process moving from the atmospheric and un-guessable to a predictable scenario with a group of guys getting picked off in the woods, accompanied by the ever present thundering score letting the audience know just how scared they should be.

Bruckner also allows us, after playing the old game of tease but don't show, plenty of scenes of the creature. Glimpsed in the trees it's quite something; in plain sight it isn't (have film makers learned nothing from the lessons of the 1957 movie Night of the Demon?).

Castwise the friends are convincing enough as a group of guys whose connection - college in this case - is increasingly tenuous, and their subsequent loss of trust in each other understandable. As Luke Rafe Spall is the natural leader and his guilt hangs over his character very believably - but he deserved a better script. Sadly I lost interest in nearly all the characters in the last half of the movie when they become little more than beast fodder. The other star of the film is the forest itself, with Romania standing in for Sweden. Now on a personal note I once travelled to Romania with my school, and spent quite a lot of time feeling homesick and walking through forests just like the one in the film, with the echoes of teachers' warnings about people you might encounter in them ringing in my ears; so the dense woods and mist laden valleys brought back quite a few memories.

Ultimately The Ritual is a rather disappointing film, which promises a lot but then is unable to sustain our interest. It should have been a creepy, unpredictable flick, but it felt like a squandered opportunity. Shame.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

From the archive - reviews of The Blood Harvest (UK 2016), The Pack (Australia 2015), Survivors (UK 2015) and The Slayers (UK 2015)

A selection of reviews that either didn't make it to 'print' or are no longer available.

The Blood Harvest (UK 2016: Dir George Clarke) - director/writer/producer Clarke’s latest movie is a solid two fingers up to people who don’t think that films shot on DV can be any good. The Blood Harvest is a tense cat and mouse thriller with creative and occasionally stomach churning gore scenes, a solid cast and great use of rural locations. It also looks way better than its estimated £10,000 budget would suggest.

A serial killer is stalking the countryside of County Down in Northern Ireland. Not only does he wear a strange mask while murdering his many victims, but he cuts their Achilles tendons and eats their eyeballs too – using a fork, no less. Chaplin, a cop who has been sacked but is still determined to solve the case, specialises in mythology and thinks that the killings may be the work of a vampire (the truth turns out to be odder than that).

His former partner Hatcher suspects a more prosaic motive, but it’s in his interests to put Chaplin off the scent. Separately the two cops close in on the killer’s (or is it killers plural?) country hideout, where Chaplin learns the strange truth both about the murders and his partner.

I confess to not having seen Clarke’s previous films, but on the basis of The Blood Harvest I’ll be rectifying that as soon as possible. This is a really inventive movie which starts at a breakneck pace with the rather disturbing murder of a young girl, and doesn’t let up even at the jaw dropping denouement. It’s a tightly edited film which builds the tension well, and it’s not a movie that is afraid to be out there. I liked it a lot – highly recommended.

The Pack (Australia 2015: Dir Nick Robertson) - films about dogs who’ve had a rethink on the whole ‘man’s best friend’ concept have been around for a while. Back in 1977 a movie also called The Pack had a load of dogs made angry by being abandoned by their owners. 1982’s superior White Dog dealt with a racist German Shepherd, and of course there was rabid Cujo who gave Dee Wallace a hard time in the 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King book. 2006’s The Breed had a bunch of similarly infected pooches chasing after partying teens and 2014’s White God had more dumped beasts getting annoyed.

The difference between those movies and Nick Robertson’s debut feature The Pack is that the dogs in this film aren’t programmed, necessarily abandoned or infected to the best of our knowledge. There are just a lot of them and they’re aware that they can throw their weight around with a bit of canine organisation.

Carla and Adam Wilson are having a tough time of it having recently moved to their farm in the Australian outback, which doubles as the local vets. Carla’s been treating a lot of stressed dogs recently and Adam is getting fed up with finding butchered sheep on his land; their kids are similarly cheesed off with their new rural existence and the mortgage company are threatening foreclosure. It’s all rather tense. As night falls a power cut plunges the farm into darkness and a pack of wild dogs seize their moment to launch an attack, forcing the Wilson family to fight for their lives.

That’s about it plot wise. Robertson doesn’t spend much time developing the characters of the family members, choosing to devote most of the film’s running time to the canine siege and generating quite a bit of tension in the process. The power cut makes things very Assault on Precinct 13, and he is clever not to show too much of the beasts, largely keeping the threat in shadow. Real trained attack dogs were used for the most of the scenes (the cast were apparently genuinely afraid of them) combined with sparing use of model work and almost unnoticeable CGI.

Apparently attacks of this nature are a growing problem down under, so this movie will probably have an additional frisson for Australian audiences. While I appreciate the assurance of the direction (not bad for a feature first timer) I didn’t really feel much of a threat - the family have guns for crying out loud - but their ethical code initially delays them inflicting any harm, and the dogs rather unrealistically spend a lot of time stalking when they probably would just have gone for throats. However I liked Robertson’s nod to the cinema of nature gone wrong (particularly the Aussie movie The Long Weekend) in his combination of animal sounds and well photographed outback scenery, and the refusal to explain why the dogs acted as they did.

Survivors (UK 2015: Dir Adam Spinks) - Spinks’ first full feature, 2014’s Extinction, was a valiant if overlong attempt to do something different with the found footage genre, featuring a group of explorers travelling deep into the Peruvian jungle (actually a well disguised Welsh countryside) and uncovering a nest of dinosaurs. Two years on and Spinks is back with more found footage action in Survivors, although this movie had actually been made before Extinction, but took nearly two years to see the light of day via a Crowdfunding initiative which helped stump up some of £10,000 budget.

As the title might suggest Survivors tells the story of the aftermath of a viral attack, centred around Kate Meadows, a journalist trying to get to the bottom of a story about human drug testing behind closed doors, and the potential after effects of the trials. This is cleverly cut with scenes clearly set following a viral outbreak, showing that the inevitable has happened. Spinks is much less concerned with showing us scenes of the infected on the rampage than the human cost incurred by those left coping in the wake of the event. Similar to the BBC series of the same name which is surely an influence here, it isn’t long before certain people assume dominance and power, when clearly the population should be uniting (an optimistic politician’s voice is heard on the radio talking about how the country will be able to pull together and recover from the infection, but having seen some of the characters in the movie that looks extremely doubtful).

As in Extinction some of the actors are much better than others (with so much acting talent out there I’m not sure why directors end up casting people who are so terrible at conveying character or emotion) but there is a sadness and fatalism in this movie that I wasn’t expecting. Unleavened by any real action it’s quite a depressing experience, enhanced by Buz Kohan’s sweeping melancholic score.

I’m not sure whether I really liked Survivors but maybe that’s the point. It certainly punches above its low budget origins though - and Spinks is an interesting director who clearly invested a lot of thought into this movie and is well worth watching.

The Slayers (UK 2015: Dir John Williams) - £15,000 in the hands of some movie directors will buy you lunch and maybe half an hour in the editing suite. Given to film maker John Williams it can net you a whole comedy feature film, as this is what The Slayers cost to make – all 1 hour and 40 minutes of it.

Nigel and Job are both members of a cult embracing the soon come arrival of a comet that will wipe out the world. When their Jim Jonesesque leader advocates drinking poison and the congregation duly oblige, Nigel and Job choose life. Faced with two weeks to go until the end of the planet, they make up a bucket list and proceed to tick it off. This list isn’t particularly startling though, including things like ‘going fishing’. However their life of relative hedonism is ruined when they run into a gang of vampires and a crusty vampire hunter.

The Slayers is half The Inbetweeners and half Dumb and Dumber. Nigel and Job are an Abbott and Costello for a new generation, and it took me a long time to appreciate Abbott and Costello. Williams’s film is inventive, fast paced, but…wait for it…not very funny. Sorry John, maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for the pratfalls, goofiness and occasional The Mighty Boosh touches. Sure, I bet it was a lot of fun to make, and the enthusiasm of the cast (who include the director in five different parts, the 2014 winner of Britain’s Strongest Man and ‘troubled’ 2006 Big Brother victor Pete Bennett) shows through. It’s nicely filmed, showing off the Stoke-on-Trent locations well, and the special effects are amazing considering the budget. But at over an hour and a half it very much outstays its welcome, although it does become much more interesting once the vampires show up. Apparently fifteen minutes of the film were trimmed after the first screening, so I’m not sure if I’ve seen the longer version, or it originally ran for nearly two hours (!).

Ultimately whether you go for The Slayers (and I’m sure there’s an audience out there for this) depends on how many people you’re watching it with and in what state you are when you do. I’m sure Williams would be the first to say “Look, we’re not making Kurosawa here!” but I didn’t find Nigel and Job a particularly appealing pair of layabouts, and The Slayers spends an awful lot of time in their company.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Nemesis (USA 1992: Dir Albert Pyun)

The first of the four Nemesis films directed by the Kurosawa trained (really!) Albert Pyun, a director who gives both Fred Olen Ray and Charles Band a run for their money in shoot ‘em quick, don’t-outstay-their-welcome exploitation movies. It was Pyun who gave us the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg back in 1989, and never a director to let a good idea go to waste, he rehashes lots of bits from that movie, plus The Terminator, Robocop, Blade Runner and the Spaghetti Western.

In fact Nemesis was originally designed to be a prequel to Cyborg but along the way this got dropped and the film developed into its own franchise. It was also intended to have a female cop in the lead but this idea also fell by the wayside. 

Nemesis introduces us to Alex (played with an Arnie-esque command of vocal cadence by French kickboxer Olivier Gruner), an already part cyborg cop, who at the beginning of the movie comes off worse after a run in with some human ‘information terrorists’ – they have information, they’re pretty terrible. Rescued by the LAPD he’s re-assembled with considerably less human in him than before and a bomb next to his heart due to detonate in three days. Suitably armed he's set off on his next and possibly final mission in Java, to do something with information and terrorists and stolen security plans and an ex-girlfriend Jared who is also a cyborg, while Farnsworth, the guy who sent him there, has been replaced by a cyborg and now wants to kill Alex  – sorry I couldn’t quite work out the finer details, but I don’t think it really matters.

From the opening shoot out, Nemesis is rather bonkers. I was transported back to the days of watching dodgy martial arts and Chuck Norris movies on VHS, such is the amount of gunfire, spent ammo, explosions and close ups of chiselled faces on display – and that’s just the women. You want to see three cyborgs blast away with heavy duty guns while facing each other over a distance of about fifteen feet – for a long time? Step this way. You want endless chop socky and over the top stunt work while rolling down mountains? Get in line. You want sparkling dialogue? Sorry, different movie.

Effects wise, breathe a sigh of relief – no CGI here. We get cyborgs with breakaway faces that reveal guns, a fantastic eyeball popping scene, and the cheesiest endoskeleton reveal that must have cost around 1/19th of the budget of a similar scene in The Terminator.

Olivier Gruner went on to a career starring in movies with one word titles. As Alex, Gruner wasn’t required to act much, but as a kick boxer he was probably annoyed that the director wanted him to use the gun more than his feet – maybe the insurance didn’t cover it. Other cast members worth noting are Tim Thomerson as mastermind Farnsworth - a veteran of TV whose career had started to slide with roles in films with one word titles and numbers after them – and spunky little Merle Kennedy as Max Impact (yes, I know) who crops up about half way through as a pint size renegade and assists Alex to evade cyborg death by doing lots of running, jumping and swimming.

You'll have to look elsewhere for coverage of Nemesis II - IV. Once is clearly enough for this keyboard slinger.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Warriors (USA 1979: Dir Walter Hill)

Another set of film notes from one of the last FEAST Film Nights screenings back in 2017.

Walter Hill’s The Warriors, based on a 1965 dystopian novel by Sol Yurik, beams in from a pre gentrified, now vanished New York City. The movie fairly accurately reflected the decaying state of the Big Apple in the late 1970s - NYC was at the time fending off bankruptcy, suffering from high unemployment and extended power black outs (prompting widespread looting and crime) as well as playing host to pitched battles between warring ethnic factions, making the clashes between the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story look like a walk in Central Park. The reflection of reality as a future urban nightmare is a key to the movie’s genius.

Hill’s Director’s cut of the movie (the version screened tonight) adds, among other comic book inserts, an awkward short prologue not seen in the original film, which explicitly cites the inspiration for the story as a page from Greek history: the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 B.C. in which an army of soldiers, stranded in enemy territory, attempted to evade the Persian Army and make it back to their coastal home. The Warriors’ modern day updating of the story has the eponymous gang attempting to flee the City and return to their Coney Island base, after being set up to take the rap for the assassination of a gang leader.

With an all New York cast and crew, combining professional actors with kids recruited from the City’s districts and supported by real gang advisors, Hill’s tense, action packed movie uses the interconnecting lines of the New York subway map to track The Warriors as they attempt to ‘escape from New York’. And yes the movie does anticipate John Carpenter’s film of the same name from a couple of years later, but it also borrows from 1970s conspiracy thrillers, Blaxploitation movies and, in the stylised battle scenes, Kurosawa’s samurai films.

The use of a largely black and Hispanic cast caused the movie’s funders to question the film’s commerciality, leading to the production team re-editing the film, adding extra soundtrack elements to create a less realistic, more upbeat feel to the final movie. But there’s no doubting the realism of the environments in which shooting took place, even accepting some of the more over the top elements of the look of the factions, such as the Kiss style make up of the ‘Baseball Furies.’ One story goes that while filming on location in Coney Island the actors playing The Warriors had to remove any trace of their gang identities (achieved through some great embroidery by Brit Rose Clements, who also designed stage outfits for Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton) while at lunch so as not to draw undue attention from the real gangs in the area.

The film’s cinema release proved popular, but a series of tragic gang related shooting and stabbing incidents at screenings in the US nearly saw an end to The Warriors’ distribution life. As a result, Paramount allowed cinema chains the option to cancel future screenings: many took up the offer, and the film lay dormant until its second wind saw the movie released to the (then new) home viewing market, subsequently spawning a comic strip and video game spinoffs.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Tokyo Ghoul (Japan 2017: Dir Kentarô Hagiwara)

The arrival of Tokyo Ghoul, based on the incredibly popular manga of the same name, comes at the end of a six year success story for the franchise. Originally appearing in serial form in the 'Weekly Young Jump' magazine back in 2011, there have been on line spinoffs and TV adaptations, and while the world waits for a planned anime feature of the sequel Tokyo Ghoul:re, we now have a live action version of the original story. Whew!

Director Kentarô Hagiwara, whose directing CV previously comprised shorts and TV work, has the unenviable and not inconsiderable task of taming the multi tentacled beast (pun intended) that is the 'Tokyo Ghoul' franchise, and condensing it to a mere two hours (similar to Adam Wingard's only partly successful movie adaptation of the Death Note manga last year), while aiming to satisfy both established TG fans and those new to the franchise. Like me.

And I'm pleased to write that he's pulled it off: Tokyo Ghoul is that rare thing, an action film with a profound emotional heart. Masataka Kubota plays Ken Kaneki, a bookish student living in Tokyo, a city whose inhabitants are a mix of humans and ghouls (a form of vampire) living side by side. The ghouls are indistinguishable from their human neighbours until their lust for blood and flesh transforms them into something more nasty (including wings and tentacles, named kagune); ghoul murders are monitored, and the culprits obsessively tracked down by the Commission of Counter Ghoul (sic). Kaneki remains oblivious to the ghoul threat, until he is savagely bitten and stabbed by Rize - a seemingly sweet girl who is in fact 'one of them'. His life is only saved by a combination of falling masonry which lands on the murderous Rize, killing her, and valiant doctors who are able to operate on him by replacing some of his organs. The problem is that the organs previously belonged to newly dead Rize; the result being that Kaneki becomes the first human/ghoul hybrid.

Much of the film is devoted to Kaneki's battle with the rising ghoul within him. This has been done on screen many times before of course, but Kubota's performance here is quite heartbreaking, which I wasn't expecting. Scenes of him attempting, and failing, to remain human by eating 'normal' food are incredibly affecting (assisted by genre favourite Don Davis's stirring score). His adoption by Mr Yoshimura - owner of a ghoul friendly cafe who sources the menu from bodies reclaimed from a nearby suicide forest - is touching but merely adds to his dilemma. Rejected for his lack of ghoul purity by cafe worker Tôka (Fumika Shimizu, excellent) who also struggles to reconcile her outer 'normality' with her inner ghoul, he is literally stuck between two worlds. But with the death of a close friend he is forced to choose a side, and fully embrace the ghoul within him.

Tokyo Ghoul's last half hour sets up more traditional superhero antics - the battling ghouls even have masks - but they are well staged and the time taken by director Hagiwara to establish the characters means that the pyrotechnics have context. This isn't an empty franchise movie of the kind currently clogging up the multiplexes - it's a nuanced film, bringing fresh life to admittedly rather hackneyed themes of alienation and otherness, sensitively scripted by Sui Ishida, adapting his own comics. True, for a TG novice like me there were a few plot elements which confused rather than illuminated, but I look forward to future instalments which will hopefully clarify the story further. Or maybe I should just read the comics? Anyway, go see.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Jeepers Creepers 3 (USA 2017: Dir Victor Salva)

I'm not entirely sure I should be writing this. There's an active boycott of Jeepers Creepers 3 by some sections of the film-going community on the basis of the past crimes of its writer/director Victor Salva, and those sections have some pretty harsh words for anyone who crosses the cinematic picket line. Too late, I was one of those 'scabs.'

Few people with an interest in the horror movie will be unaware that Salva was tried and convicted in 1988 after pleading guilty to sexual conduct with one of the 12 year old actors in his film Clownhouse. Salva served 15 months of his three year prison sentence and was paroled in 1992. But the crime didn't stop Salva continuing to make his way in Hollyweird. Jeepers Creepers 1 and 2 were released in 2001 and 2003 respectively, and before those films he got picked up by Disney for the successful 1995 movie Powder (and against which a boycott was organised by the director's victim).

Supposedly talks for a third JC sequel were happening before 2 hit the cinemas, but various obstacles stopped the movie being green lit prior to 2015, when it ran into further problems after The Union of British Columbia Performers (it was due to be shot in Canada) warned prospective cast members away from the production because of Salva's past.

Jeepers Creepers 3 finally saw limited theatrical light of day in September 2017 after filming began and was completed earlier that year, the location having shifted from Canada to Louisiana. It limped out in this country straight to DVD with very little fanfare, dragging its rather shameful tail behind it. So, having set out the reasons for not giving it a go, what's it actually like?

Terrible. JC3 takes places roughly between the end of the first film and the start of the second, but there's no attempt at continuity or logic beyond these broadly linked events (and if you haven't seen 1 and 2 the movie will seem even more pointless). The Creeper, who seems to have morphed from his rather shadowy beginnings in the first installment to a kind of full on masked baddie, spends most of his time travelling around the countryside in his pimped up truck; think a tooled up James Bond car, but with various ludicrous accoutrements that allow him to pick off his victims from a distance.

There's a severed Creeper hand which seems to possess those who touch it (including a noticeably older 1980s regular Meg Foster, her no-spring-chickenness possibly the biggest shock in the film, even under the old age makeup), a subplot which almost unbelievably hints at abuse between a father and daughter, and enough shonky CGI moments to set your teeth on edge.

Because of the very short shooting schedule, my guess is that this was filmed based on a very loose script and almost entirely put together in the editing suite. While a couple of scenes hint at some of the inventiveness of the earlier films (mainly those of The Creeper in flight) this is a painful, desultory experience. And the closing sequence, featuring an actor from JC1 introduced to offer the possibility of a sequel, is a total red herring as the director had already made it very clear that JC3 was to be the final part.

Never say never, you my be thinking. Well I'll say it for you. Never.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Station Agent (USA 2003: Dir Tom McCarthy)


Here's another of the viewing notes from one of the south London FEAST Film Nights screenings (from 2015, hence slight out of datedness).

Finbar McBride is a lonely soul, a dwarf, gently obsessed by trains, who with his friend Henry runs a model shop in Hoboken, New Jersey. When Henry unexpectedly dies, Finbar learns that he has been bequeathed a small abandoned train station building deep in the country. With nothing left for him in Hoboken, the grieving Finbar ups sticks and moves into the rundown and rather pokey railway hut, building a fragile friendship with a variety of characters: happy go lucky Joe who runs an ice cream van, standing in for his ill father; painter Olivia, who has a sorrow of her own; a young girl called Cleo; and Emily the librarian.

The Station Agent was the first film from director and writer Tom McCarthy (who also produces and acts, the show-off). McCarthy is now more famously known for his latest movie, the riveting and powerful Spotlight (2015), which among other accolades won him ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Original Screenplay’ Oscars at the last Academy Awards. It’s tempting to make comparisons between both films – small people against the big bad world, if that doesn’t sound too trite – but in reality The Station Agent is very much a first film, unsure and hesitant, full of uncertain characters mired in their own worlds. This, by the way, is a good thing.

Peter Dinklage, with his sonorous voice and expressive eyes, is now a household name courtesy of the massively popular Game of Thrones TV series. But when The Station Agent was released the film gave the largely unknown actor his first major role. He is absolutely exceptional in this movie. Director of Photography Oliver Bokelberg’s camera spends a lot of time looking at him, as do we the audience. We’re invited to stare at and then move on from Dinklage’s dwarfism. This is because unlike many of the cast’s reactions to his size – shock, screaming, ignoring, staring and in one case taking a photograph – we also spend a lot of time in his company, and understand him first as a human being and second (or maybe third) as a person of small stature. What we never understand is his back story, which contrasts with the lives of Joe and Olivia, who feel comfortable confiding their troubles to Finbar. McBride in truth never invites these confessions – he just wants to live his life and indulge his obsession with trains, ambling among the discarded rolling stock of the New Jersey countryside – and the human cost of any personal interaction is clearly and brilliantly etched on his face.

In a 2003 interview McCarthy drew comparisons between casting a dwarf in a lead role with that of doing the same with a black actor thirty years previously. “Putting the financing together for The Station Agent you had people saying, 'Think about this, people aren't ready to watch a dwarf in the lead role of a movie'. I'd be like 'How do you know that?' A lot of the time I'd be talking to people about the film and, almost as an aside they'd say to me 'I have to say, he's very sexy'. You know, if it was George Clooney, they wouldn't be whispering that to me, they'd just come out and say it. It is almost taboo.”