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Still to come: Epic Fantasy
The 11 O'Clock Show (1998)
Remarkable for the talent it incubated rather than the quality of the show
As a concept, the 11 O'Clock Show had nothing remarkable about it: one of many "sideways looks at the news" shows but intended to have a more adult humour for late-night audiences. It was structured with two or three hosts performing topical gags intercut with sketches from various contributors. The gags for the hosts tended to be mildly amusing (the sort of jokes the host of Have I Got News For You gets to do, only not as good); the real problem were the sketches: often a weak premise would be stretched to breaking point, not just over the course of the sketch, but over a whole series, where the joke would be repeated every episode. The humour also tended fell back on being crude rather than being funny, very much in the vein of the lads-mag humour that had ruled the 90s but was looking tired by this point.
With one exception: Sacha Baron Cohen and his writing partner Dan Mazer got their big break on this show, with Cohen conducting fake interviews in character as Ali G. Sometimes vaguely connected with news stories at the incept, and then expanding to cause confusion on all manner of topics, I don't need to explain how good the writing and improvisation was on these segments, because they're the segments of the 11 O'Clock show that were released to video, repeated in compilations and uploaded to YouTube. It was the show's best segment by default, but also represents some of Cohen and Mazer's best work, more consistent and wittier than the Borat and Bruno characters and far better than the narrative films they ended up working on.
Despite the generally poor quality of the material, there was a lot of budding talent elsewhere on the show who never got to show what they were capable of: Ricky Gervais had a sort of news report sketch he did from behind some portaloos that was pretty bad and Mackenzie Crook was a sometime presenter, sometime sketch artist refining the persona that would eventually be Gareth in The Office. I remember little of Crook's contribution. Other writers and performers included Simon Blackwell, Robin Ince, Jon Holmes, Charlie Brooker, etc.
The show was at its peak quality in the very first series with Fred MacAulay, Brendon Burns and Iain Lee presenting, and went downhill from there, probably more due to a decline in the material than the presenters, though the subsequent team of Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan was weaker despite being more demographically friendly.
The incubated talent may be the 11 O'Clock Show's greatest contribution to the British comedy scene: it gave opportunities and provided networking for a lot of comedy talent who were starting out and had yet to hone their craft.
Some arresting ideas, but a clumsy script
As the film starts off with fluent narration from the monster taken directly form the novel, I thought they were going to be moving away from the monster as a grunting brute to be more like the book, where the monster is highly intelligent and good at learning. Nope, the monster is kept at a low intelligence similar to the 1931 James Whale version, grunting and failing to understand the consequences of his actions. It was this mismatch between the mix of things taken from the novel and the film that killed the film for me. Some arresting ideas and imagery are present, but clumsy scripting that crudely makes most people who meet the monster antagonistic and intolerant, meant this was a failure for me. In particular there's a moustachioed cop antagonist who is a pure narrative device: magically showing up when convenient and who acts in ways that don't make sense except to drive the script forward.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Had much greater potential than it delivers
Hard to exactly nail this one down, because it has a lot of good points, which are obvious, but a some serious deficiencies which are more abstract. The good points are all front and centre from the start: a good cast, headed by the ever-excellent Kurt Russell, an interesting high-concept of "The Searchers meets Hills Have Eyes", and witty dialogue. It's just as the film passes I realised I wasn't enjoying it as much as I would have liked to. A key weak point is an uneventful script. The characters have a long journey to make, so they chat a lot, and it's not unpleasant to hear because the dialogue is good, it's just that not much else of interest occurs. Also there isn't much depth to the film: the characters have simple motivations, and the plot plays out as expected and doesn't have much of a climax. I kept expecting there was going to be a shocking revelation, but nothing ever happened. In a Q&A with the producers, they mentioned that they filmed the first version of the script and how unusual that was, and I think it does show. The best thing about the film is the amazing gruesome violence. That's what I was hoping to see, and towards the end it really delivers the goods.
ABCs of Death 2 (2014)
More of the same. Some gems but still becomes wearying.
It has the same premise as the first one, so if you've seen that you'll know if you're interested or not. For those new to the franchise, it's a showcase of short films from up-and-coming directors, and you get the upside of seeing a variety of work in different styles but the downside of a lack of overall control, where everybody's work has to be included no matter the quality, and too many directors just going for gross-out and shock value. I think I'd rate it about the same as the previous one: it has less really awful shorts but also a few less really good ones. My rankings from best to worst: AZDXMQHUKBVWROFCIJTYELNGSP. About half of those are at least decent, but it does mean that the other half of the film is bad, and it's a much worse ratio than you'd get in a curated short film showcase. I should give a special mention to "A is for Amateur": it's a model for what these shorts can be, playing with expectations by using its letter of the alphabet to misdirect as to what the word is going to be, it's stylish, it's funny, it subverts expectations, and it's actually themed around death. Too many of the other shorts fulfil too few or none of these criteria.
See No Evil 2 (2014)
Disappointing effort that tries but fails to rise above an awful script
Unlike most WWE film efforts that make little impact beyond extracting money from wrestling fans, See No Evil 2 arrives with a lot of baggage attached to it, which inevitably colours reactions to the film.
To begin with it's a sequel to the first See No Evil that's taken eight years to move into production. That film was critically reviled (8% on Rotten Tomatoes), an opinion I happen to agree with, but had some defenders who found it to be braindead fun that delivered a generous helping of gore. See No Evil 2 is also the first script of two British writers with no track record. So far expectations were nil, but it happened to be selected by Jen and Sylvia Soska as their follow-up to American Mary, a film that was divisive but scored big as a cult hit among devoted horror fans, big enough that a few months after it's premiere at Frightfest it was brought back for a sold-out tour around around the country with directors and star in attendance. The energy and personality of the Soskas showed in both the attention to detail in the film and in their tireless promotional efforts. Major strengths of American Mary were both the feminist themes and concerns in the script and Katharine Isabelle's performance in the lead role. With Isabelle cast in See No Evil 2 and the additional casting of Danielle Harris (an actress well-enough liked among horror fans that she's been able to build a career around being a celebrity casting in low-budget horror), hopes for See No Evil 2 were raised.
Unfortunately, for all its pedigree See No Evil 2 itself is uninteresting and often dull and frustrating in parts. A large portion of the blame can be laid on the script, which is full of lazy contrivances, unrealistic actions and illogical occurrences. The killer disappears and reappears wherever the script requires him to be, the morgue seems to go on forever with no way out, all the victims leave their mobile phones upstairs and never attempt to retrieve them, etc. The script is also very poorly paced, with a long period devoted to establishing characters before Jacob Goodnight revives and the chasing starts and then periods where the action abruptly stops for a while.
There has been an attempt to do something different in that though the script adheres as closely as possible to the distilled slasher formula, and all the stock characters are present, the genders of several of them have been switched. This is an interesting idea and fits in with the Soskas' interest in gender roles that were so prominent in American Mary, but the script is so generic anyway that these are just minor points of interest to something extremely formulaic. Many slasher films have played around with the formula to far greater extent. None of the changes address the major structural problems and plot-holes in the script. Really, the whole thing needed to be rewritten from scratch to stand any chance of being good.
With the script being a washout, that leaves acting and cinematography to carry the film. The acting is mediocre, though with the notable exception of Katharine Isabelle's scenery-chewing performance which will either be something you'll love or hate, but is at least more interesting than the surrounding film. Unfortunately, she's not given much to do. Most of the other actors are relatively inoffensive and give bland performances though the film makes the mistake of having Kane do some emotional acting and dialogue.
In terms of cinematography, this one was a comedown given the attention paid to that aspect in American Mary, but it did have some interesting lighting choices: solid bright colours were used for different phases of the film, to heighten the mood. It's a style that was heavily used in eighties horror, both in many American slashers and to a more extreme degree in the Italian giallo where they took a lot of their influence. I presume this was an intentional choice to make See No Evil 2 a throwback to that era. It doesn't really work, in large part because though the compositions and lighting are decent, a lot of it feels very repetitive, and all the corridors and rooms look the same - I wouldn't be surprised to find out they just reused the same two corridors occasionally redressed with those intrusive red exit signs that didn't actually signify an exit. This was a big improvement over the horrible cinematography of the first See No Evil that was all graded with an ugly greenish-brown palette popularised by the Saw films.
The Face of an Angel (2014)
A self-satisfied trivialisation of a murder case
This film takes a real-life murder case and turns it into a version of Spike Jonze's Adaptation, focusing on a screenwriter (Daniel Brühl) and his attempt to adapt the events into the film we're watching. Even setting aside the tastelessness of this, this creates two problems: firstly, focusing on the screenwriter removes the murder case to the status of a background event yet the film tries to have its cake and eat it by having Thomas do an investigation into the truth behind the murder. This aspect is impossible to care about and really half-baked. The investigation goes nowhere and eventually just gets dropped. Secondly it injects an air of self-satisfaction into the proceedings, it's impossible to watch this without feeling that the film is praising itself, with Thomas explaining how he's going to use the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy as a model for the screenplay. And despite being talked up and explained endlessly within the film, the Divine Comedy structure barely comes through at all. Thomas also comes across as unpleasant and hard to sympathise with, yet of course his talent is praised to the sky by the supporting characters, and he has no trouble bedding Kate Beckinsale and Cara Delevigne's characters. Despite all of the things going on the film still manages to be incredibly boring and throws in some dream sequence fake-outs in a very irritating attempt to liven things up.
The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Intriguing oneiric examination of relationships
Describing this film as exploring the sado-masochistic relationship of two lesbian entomologists in Eastern Europe almost makes it sound like a parody of an art-film, and film critics are going to be falling over themselves to show off how many influences they can recognise. It's not too heavy though; the only time it was too blatant was when Strickland recreates Brakhage's Mothlight. A lot of the time it does feel like Strickland is winking at the audience, though he saves the most obvious gags for the credits, often feeling like he's pastiching lesbian fetishism and 70s arcadian European films. On the one hand this is a strength of the film in that it lightens the mood and entertains, but I do feel as though it stopped the film from entirely drawing me in. The core of the film that examines the relationship is romantic, sweet and moving: about growing old and the demands lovers put on each other in a relationship. For a film about S&M it was a lot less explicit than I thought it would be: there's no nudity and the sex is all obscured or off-screen. The metaphorical parallels were less successful: the moths and entomology never truly feel like a successful metaphor or that they sufficiently enhance the story to justify the attention paid to them. It is an interesting and beautiful film and well worth your time.
Song of the Sea (2014)
Beautiful animation but less interesting story
It shares with The Secret of Kells the basic concept of a young boy adventuring into the world of Celtic mythology, though here the backdrop is updated to the modern day. The film benefits from beautiful animation and design, blending simple animation techniques with CGI effects. With most animation being 3D CGI these days this gives a fresh feeling to the film, and continues the distinctive style used in The Secret of Kells. Where the film is less successful is the story: it takes a while to set up the main plot, and the quest narrative throws up encounters that aren't always engaging or particularly logical. It does all come to a reasonably satisfying conclusion and there is decent (though too obvious) use of the trope where the "real-world" events are parralleled by the fantasy narrative.
Stylish, witty and brutal
Reminded me of Crimes and Misdemeanors except the two main characters (one Indonesian and one Japanese) are engaged in a succession of brutal serial killings rather than adultery. It has too many flaws to be a great film, with a few dodgy scenes (especially in the Indonesian half), but after a slow start it succeeds in becoming a stylish, intriguing and witty story with a commentary on the public consumption of violent imagery that is subtly done and never becomes patronising. There is good acting from both leads and the supporting actors and a good helping of the over-the-top brutal violence that the Mo Brothers have been specialising in.
Generic and lacking in every department
Very generic home invasion thriller where people make dumb decisions and run around in the woods while the villains slowly chase them. This is made even worse by having an incredibly annoying little kid as a central character, incompetent villains, unbelievable events and a pointless twist at the end that has no impact on the story. It has an underlying theme about family but it's badly botched and given a pretentious sheen by opening the movie with a Nietzsche quote. Katharine Isabelle is the only bright spark in the movie and even she isn't particularly good here. The guy playing her husband is a charisma-vacuum and they have no chemistry together, and the little kid is a plank of wood who mainly just looks sulky.