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The Descent (2005)
If Marshall doesn't quite reinvent the wheel, he certainly added some nice and shiny tires....
Deceptively simple. If pushed to describe the film in two words. Those would be the two I choose. Horror more so than any other genre, with the possible exception of the western, does not have to work hard to please most fans of the genre. Look at the fan-base behind such franchises such as Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and all but one of the Halloween films. Can anyone argue that these are great films? Good films? Yet there's no denying their imprint as contemporary film iconography. Horror films only have to get one thing right and that's to tap into somebody's adrenaline. Be it through legitimate scares, visceral gore or just simple exploitation, fans of horror can be easily pleased. Which can explain how dreck like Cry-Wolf, Venom, Darkness, They, Darkness Falls, etc continue to be made and more often than not make money. So, surprise, surprise, when a new horror film actually gives us something new.
Neil Marshall's sophomore effort does exactly that. And If Marshall doesn't quite reinvent the wheel, he certainly added some nice and shiny tires. Marshall, if you remember, made his debut with 2002's Dog Soldiers, a competent low-budget amalgam of Aliens and Predator which finds a group of British soldiers trapped in the Scottish Highlands by strange, immobile werewolf suits. While not necessarily an auspicious debut; the special effects were limited, the acting amateurish, there was just enough spark in the writing and direction to peg this director as somebody to watch. Cut to a few years later. If you were one of those who pegged him as somebody to watch, you can now pat yourselves on the back. This is one of the most confident horror films I have seen in years. Every move by the filmmakers seems to be assured and a capitalization of the medium and genre.
Mere minutes into the film and we have our first superbly executed jaw-dropper. Before this however, we meet our daredevil heroines (yes, heroines, the only appearance of the x gene registers as barely a cameo) fighting through the rapids of some nameless white water deathtrap. An extraordinary sequence in it's own right, every splash, pound and crack will put you right in the middle of the action. (On a side note, seeing this film in theaters is the obvious preference but if you don't have 5.1, do what you think you need to do to find somebody that does. The Region 2 release creates a new reference for 5.1 PAL). This sequence lets us know what kind of women we are dealing with. Strong, tough and brutal, always looking for the next challenge. Make no mistake, though, none of these women are what you would classify as 'butch'. No easy stereotypes here. Tough and feminine. Another nod to Marshall's seemingly favorite film. Once this sequence ends, the aforementioned shocker occurs. The friends seem to drift after the travesty. Guilt drives Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) to America and sorrow plunges Sarah (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) into a slightly unhinged stupor. A year passes. Juno tries to assemble the group together for a healing trip. The women reconvene in the Appalachian mountains for a tourist-friendly spelunking trip in which all hell breaks loose and a descent is made both figuratively and literally.
I think the success of this film is in the succinct, economic concept of six women and a truly frightening antagonist. A horror film set in a cave is such an obvious conceit, it's amazing this is the first film to exploit such a unique atmosphere (ignoring last year's abysmal 'The Cave'). Aside from a few cheap scare tactics, the tension mounts slowly, palpable in every frame. David Julyan's deft score (inspired by a few choice Carpenter themes) accentuates every move with an early slight nod to 'Deliverance'. As the women progress deeper into the cave, claustrophobia takes control. As someone who has done some spelunking, it's obvious Marshall has done his homework. Even if you have taken one of those guided tours through well-lit tourist traps, you can feel how oppressive those Earth walls can be .And wouldn't you know it, through the deceit of one of the characters who wanted a more personal bonding experience, they don't find themselves in a tourist attraction but a new system. A cave unmarked by human presence. Yet something is found that might lead a character to believe otherwise. To delve too deeply into the plot would be to spoil surprises, but the level of suspense generated by the film is truly nail-biting.
The use of lighting in this film is masterly, making expert use of the subtle blue glow of a flare, the flickering red and yellows of a kerosene-soaked torch, the lighting seems to be swallowed up into blackness in all the appropriately strategic spots. Even an ingenuis use for the oft-abused night-vision camera is incorporated here. The two leads, Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Jackson Mendoza, are quite good throughout proving equally adept at the melodrama as the action. When a climatic confrontation happens, don't be surprised to find yourself conflicted about where your loyalties might lay. One of the two minor flaws is that some of the supporting gals never quite get the screen time to fully flesh out their characters. An early dialog scene in a cabin gives us a few names and personality traits but nothing that truly stays with us. An issue that might lessen what we invest in these characters and ultimately their fates.
Minor quibbles aside, if you consider yourself a horror fan, you would do well to seek this film out which sadly also continues the trend of having to look outside of America to find something new in the horror genre and, dare I say it?, scary yet poignant. From Miike and the Pang brothers to Gans and Aja to now Marshall, the least we can hope for is to keep these guys out of Hollywood a little while longer.
Bakuto gaijin butai (1971)
Brilliant Fukasaku yakuza picture which clearly inspired....
need I say it?...Tarantino. Kinji Fukasaku in my opinion inspired Tarantino more than any other filmmaker; De Palma, Scorsese, Suzuki among them. The dialog beats, the action beats, even the music seems all vaguely familiar to Tarantino's filmography. Fukasaku is THE yakuza director. While I'm sure most yakuza fans will opt for Seijun Suzuki who came first and who, no doubt, inspired Fukasaku, I compare it to Ford vs. Kurosawa. Ford clearly inspired Kurosawa but Kurosawa took these inspirations and combined them with his own sensibilities to make something truly unique. The same goes for Suzuki and Fukasaku. Watch this and the Yakuza Papers films which are sold together in a great box set and tell me this guy isn't the best. The narrative of Sympathy is not particularly original, it's the age-old small gang vs. big gang which can be seen in this all the way to the recent Miike films. What makes this special is the feeling of the film. The dialog, acting, music, cinematography, style all combine for an unforgettable visceral experience. It's impossible to watch this film and not be drawn in by Koji Tsuruta's performance as the ultimate bad-ass. Fukasaka is also the same man that made the ridiculously entertaining and witty Battle Royale and who died in the middle of Battle Royale II in which his son took over. Home Vision Entertainment did a great job on this DVD and I recommend any yakuza or action fan pick this up immediately.
Bells of Coronado (1950)
Western film-making pioneer William Witney provides us with another fun, swift film starring Rogers and Trigger
A criminally unheard-of William Witney has always been underappreciated by western genre fans. Just as influential as John Ford, if not more so, Witney made some of the best early westerns out there creating the modernized, choreographed Western fight scenes we still see today. Witney kept the landscapes in the back where they belong and focused on the pure joy. This film, The Bells of Coronado, was one of Witney's last collaborations with Roy Rogers and Trigger but it is still worth checking out. A little adventure, a little action, a little music. It's all here. For Western genre fans who have never seen a William Witney film, do yourself a favor and check one out. If you liked this one, also check these early greats: On the Old Spanish Trail and Adventures of Red Ryder. While I'm a big fan of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Sergei Leone and appreciate what each of them has brought to the western genre over the years, Witney is still my favorite Western filmmaker. Because there's just a pure unadulterated joy to his pictures you can't find somewhere else. Pictures with no cynicism, a welcome watch in today's cynical world.
Against All Odds (1984)
An effective neo-noir that gets a little convuluted towards the end
Just recently discovering this on dvd, I'm actually suprised I haven't heard much about it before. A modern film noir that's a very loose remake of "Out of the Past" with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. The film instead focuses on gorgeous, sunny locations like Mexico and the finer locations of L.A. instead of the dark and grungy look that most film noir's follow. Jeff Bridges stars as a pro L.A. football player that gets cut because of a mild injury. Upset because he has some good years left in him, he attempts to sue the team to no avail. Broke and looking for a job, a shady past friend played by James Woods shows up with a job offer: find his girlfriend who split on him and headed to Mexico. This girlfriend also happens to be the daughter of the woman who owns the L.A. pro football team, a ruthless business woman who is primarily interested in real estate and inherited the team from her late husband. When he decides he needs a vacation and the money, he takes Woods up on his offer. After a couple days of useless searching, he finally finds her...and immediately falls in love. The femme fatale is played by Rachel Ward, a hot commodity back then, coming off of The Thornbirds. A spoiled rich princess-type, she eventually succumbs to him and the following scenes are some of the most beautiful sequences put on film. The only commercial movie that has filmed scenes in the gorgeous ancient ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum, these sequences make the film. The sex scene is one of the best I've seen, really putting a passion on the screen without becoming too...late night cinemax. Unfortunately, from here, the film plummets into a convuluted mess trying to deal with issues that seem out of place with the film: The L.A. business elite, gambling, real estate, etc. I think the film is definitely worth a watch for the first two-thirds alone. Also, dvd fans are encouraged to listen to the cast commentary. One of the better commentaries I've heard, there is a lot of great anecdotes from a rare track by Jeff Bridges and James Woods. The two leads really seem to come off as real friends joking and ribbing each other, unlike some of the stuffy professional actor commentaries that are usually the case.