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The Wicker Man (2006)
No, not the bees!
Despite hearing nothing but negative reviews, I had to see this film for myself. So I waited until the backlash had died down a little and went into it with an open mind. Hell, I might even enjoy it, I thought. What followed was to be quite possibly the dullest 2 hours of my life I have ever spent in front of the TV. It was bad. But unfortunately did not fall within the 'so bad it's good' category.
At first it was hard to pinpoint exactly where the problems lie. The film looks gorgeous; there's no faulting the cinematography or mise-en-scene. The storyline is essentially the same as the original, which I enjoyed and continue to enjoy, so what exactly is wrong with this 2006 version? WHY is it so dull? The reasons being the following: a flat, dire performance from Cage, and from everyone else involved (including Burstyn, who appears non-committal and uninterested); a slow, pondering narrative that desperately wants to be taken as thoughtful and philosophical; 'action' set pieces that verge on the ridiculously mundane (bee's anyone?); and, maybe more importantly than anything else - Cage rushing around on a bicycle. How very quaint.
Unfortunately, being a remake, comparisons are going to be drawn. Everything that made the original a brilliant film is missing here - the creepy atmosphere, the performances, the songs, the eroticism (Willow's song being a highlight). But at least it's got the same ending, right? Well, yes and no. It has an ending where the same thing happens but, this being the noughties, a little extra has to be added to make it all more 'disturbing'.
Hobbling? Bees? Okay, maybe a nice pair of additions for some, but Cage's cries of 'No, not the bees!' was the only moment of unintentional entertainment for me in this dull, lifeless mockery of a film.
I don't normally vote a score of 1 for anything, as I usually see some merit in everything I see. Yes, the cinematography was excellent, but it is not enough to save this film from being a relentless 2 hours of drudgery.
Keeping Mum (2005)
A thoroughly unpleasant, pleasant film.
Keeping Mum ticks all the requirements for a British comedy: quirky characters, dark subject matter, token American actor, nice scenery etc etc. It's also quite plodding - the narrative never really 'gets going', but in its slow, gentle approach it gives the characters within the film a chance to breathe and become more 3 dimensional. This is really what the film is about - the murderous housekeeper is merely a macabre subplot to the character studies on display. Okay, this isn't Mike Leigh, but the characters are fully formed and likable in a way which make you care about their lives.
Acting is superb from all involved - Atkinson as the dull, rather naive priest, Scott-Thomas as the sexually frustrated wife taking 'golf lessons' with the sleazy, not quite hateful Swayze as her instructor. But lets not forget Maggie Smith as the adorable psychopath that finds herself in their home and in their hearts and, in turn, our hearts too. She really is a lovable old nutcase!
Beautifully shot and impeccably written, Keeping Mum should be approached with caution: it's not a belly-laugh a minute joke-fest, but a gentle, often amusing character study. With a bit of cold-blooded murder thrown in!
Alien Autopsy (2006)
Not probing enough
At the time of writing, this film has an average rating of 1.5 - making it one of the worst films of all time if you trust the users of IMDb. Okay, it isn't the most amazing film of recent years, but it in no way deserves the low rating given to it by those that can't judge a film objectively.
What hurts this film, rather than it being Ant & Dec's fault, is the slow, episodic nature of the narrative. There's never any real urgency or consistency in the pace of the film, making it all rather plodding and, at times, dull. You really want to feel real danger and suspense but never get past the middle of your seat. In fact, I spent most of the time slouched back in mine. That's the problem - it never fully engages.
On the plus side, Alien Autopsy has a very gentle approach to comedy, with some very subtle jokes that get a chuckle a few beats later than would be expected. Ant & Dec are fine in their roles - at first they're just Ant & Dec, but you soon forget about their presenter persona's and accept them as the characters within the film. It's well shot, the supporting roles are excellent, including Harry Dean Stanton and Bill Pullman, the filming of the autopsy is funny and there are a few scenes of 'action' amongst the lulls.
At the end of the day, Alien Autopsy is merely okay. It's not spectacular but it's not awful either.
Final Destination 3 (2006)
Final Destination 3, as you might have guessed from the posters, starts off with a fatal ride aboard a roller-coaster. The rest of the film, the filmmakers would like you to believe, is a metaphorical roller-coaster of thrills, spills and buckets of shocking gore. Yes, the death sequences are creative. Yes, the gore is top-notch. Yes, the deaths are unrelenting and yes, there's even a bit of nudity thrown into the mix this time to keep the young'uns happy.
But soon the movie's formula becomes even more predictable than Death's formula and we cut from: DRAMA (the lead's having a bit of a hard time of it, don't you know?) to CREATIVE DEATH SCENE (this is what you've paid your pocket money for, right?) to LOOKING AT PHOTOS (deaths are spookily prophesied in a series of pics taken by the lead) to DRAMA (she's still having a sh!t time, this girl) to CREATIVE DEATH SCENE (Ooh! Nasty! Tsk!) to LOOKING AT...etc etc.
While this is only natural for a film dealing with, well...creative death sequences, it soon becomes a little wearing. But hey - I'm just being picky. This is an entertaining film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, gives you a few chills, makes you jump and, occasionally, makes you laugh. A bit like a roller-coaster ride, then.
I've got to admit I wasn't expecting too much when I popped this into the DVD drive, having seen one to many Italian zombie movies of debatable quality. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover a well-shot (the location photography is beautiful), well-scripted and well-acted (yes - well-acted) zombie movie that opts for quality over quantity and a carefully thought-out narrative.
The leads are great to look at and the zombie action is gruesome (though sparse) and creative. Some younger viewers may find the pace a little bit on the slow side, but the character interaction more than passes the time and the eerie atmosphere helps it along.
At points, this is highly reminiscent of NOTLD, complete with a downbeat ending that'll have you screaming at the screen at...ah, you'll find out....
A highly recommended zombie (dare I say it?) masterpiece.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Superior drama, musical, horror, thriller, erotica, mystery...
British horror movies. What is it that these three words project into your mind? The Gothic melodramatics of Hammer? Long, dark coats and flaming torches? Frankenstein? Dracula? Or none of the above? Is the impact of the British horror film so feeble that it doesn't even spark a reaction in your mind? You'd be forgiven as, despite from a few real gems in Hammer's back catalogue, the history of British horror is seeped in watered down, made-to-formula genre movies of very little substance. Of course, great movies were still being made, but one stands the test of time particularly well for its era. That film is The Wicker Man (1973), and its history is as intriguing as the film itself.
Edward Woodward stars as Sgt. Neil Howie, a devout Christian and policeman searching for a missing girl on the Scottish Island of Summerilse. There are many clues suggesting that the girl has been killed as a sacrifice by the pagan cult that inhabits the island, lead by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). But Howie soon discovers that the girl may be held alive somewhere for a forthcoming ritual, and sets out to find her. During his time on the island, Howie encounters all kinds of blasphemous activity performed by the inhabitants who have rejected Christianity in favour of the 'old gods'. He witnesses fertility rituals where naked girls jump through fire, schoolchildren dancing around phallic maypoles, a school teacher lecturing on the importance of fertility and bizarre, masked people wandering the streets. Howie's Christianity (and virginity) is also put at risk by the landlord's daughter (Britt Ekland), who dances and sings naked in a room next to his, enticing him to a point where his faith (and the content of his scrotum) is almost lost.
The narrative of The Wicker Man centralises on the conflict between Christianity and paganism without ever taking sides. This is shown beautifully within the characters of Howie and Lord Summerisle, with Woodward and Lee playing off each other, embodying the films exploration of religious differences through their performances (Lee has said that his performance is the best of his career). The naïve, virginal, honest Howie proves to be no match for the calm, manipulative evil of Summerisle, and Howie's fate seems to be completely in his hands, but for those who have yet to see The Wicker Man, I will write no further of the outcome. If you have never heard of The Wicker Man's ending then you are praised indeed, and should see it before you find out just what is so shocking about it.
Hardy's direction maintains consistency as the film switches between the bizarre, the comic, the erotic and the chilling, whilst also finding time for a few musical sequences (the one in which the landlord's daughter tries to seduce Howie from the room next door is particularly well done). In fact, The Wicker Man seems to switch genres frequently throughout, yet what could easily have been an uneasy mish-mash of genres is instead consistent, poetic, thoughtful and frightening in the hands of Hardy, whose willingness to just let things happen creates a feeling that just anything might. But this insistence to throw everything together may put some people off, as the film is never entirely sure what it wants to be. But those willing to go with the flow will find it a remarkably rewarding experience, and one that is not easy to forget.
The Wicker Man was hardly seen upon its release, mainly due to poor marketing and the distributors difficulty in categorising the film itself (Hardy was known to keep changing his mind about the nature of the film throughout production, telling crew it was now a musical / a thriller / a comedy etc.) Also, a horror film that takes place in bright sunlight instead of dark, shadowy corridors probably confused the poor saps at the distribution company. The film was also heavily cut by distributors who didn't understand what the film was supposed to be about, but now, with a recent release on video and DVD, The Wicker Man is available in its longest form, just as Hardy had envisioned it. But finding the missing footage proved to be an exhaustive and painful exercise, as no one knew of its whereabouts. The footage was eventually found in the vaults of Roger Corman's production company, as he had been sent a print on the film's completion. This print was used to restore the missing footage, but still the only existing negative has never been found and is believed to be buried underneath a motorway somewhere in England. For a more in-depth account of this particular films history, pick up Allan Brown's excellent book 'Inside The Wicker Man'.
Although slightly dated, the theme of conflicting religious beliefs is just as relevant today and the intriguing detective story will keep just about everyone hooked.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
'Cutting Edge' horror
I was 11 years old. I'd given an older kid 50p to borrow his copy of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I took it home and put it in the top-loader. It took me a fair while to press down on that chunky silver 'play' button, recollecting the stories I'd heard about the film. Rumours were flying around the school - the filmmakers had gone mad whilst making the film and killed each other - Leatherface was real - it was a documentary and the killings are all real. Chain Saw was a snuff movie. So, I pressed down the hefty button and braced myself for what was to come, eyes peeled, resisting the need to look away as if I were looking at a traffic accident. When the film was over I felt disturbed. I hadn't witnessed real human killings, I hadn't just seen a snuff movie, but Chain Saw had reached deep down inside of me and planted a seed of unease, I felt cold to my very core but I didn't know why. As the years passed my recollections of the film became more and more distorted. Most notably my memories of the killings within the film - bloody, gore-filled scenes. Blood. Lots of blood.
The reason I have rambled on about these events is that, until re-watching the film, I appeared to share the same memories as those that had seen it around the same time as me. This is a testament to Chain Saw's masterful construction, a film powered by the age-old technique of suggestion. There is hardly a drop of blood shown within the film, yet people will remember it in bucket-loads. In fact, director Tobe Hooper only shows us what is necessary, maybe because of the low budget he was working with (Hooper's later output would suggest this), but it forced creativity from the filmmaker that is sadly lacking in his other work (Poltergeist may be an exception, but Hooper's direction was steered by Spielberg on that one).
Okay, the story: A mini-bus carrying five teenagers drives through Texas. Pre-emptively they drive past a slaughterhouse as cows await their death. The tone, and their fate, is set, and it is only a matter of time before the teenagers will become meat to a local cannibal family. Their ordeal begins when they enter a sinister old house (don't they always?) and start to snoop around. Before you know it one of the teens, who you're expecting to be the lead, is struck over the head with a mallet by Leatherface (Gunar Hansen), an obese retard with a skin mask. As he falls to the floor, his body twitching, Leatherface closes a sliding metal door and finishes the job where we cannot see it. From here on in it's basically a matter of picking off teens one by one with the use of the mallet, a meat hook and, of course, the chain saw.
What is essentially a by-the-numbers plot is raised above par by the style and atmosphere of the film. From bizarre shots of solar flares to the hot, sun soaked imagery of Texas, Chain Saw seems to be sweating horror out of every pore. The locations are macabre beyond belief, in particular a room with hanging animal bones and bone constructed furniture, and the whole film has a hot, musty orange glow about it that almost makes you smell the dead human meat in the cannibal house.
The performances are relatively functionary from the cast, although Marilyn Burns puts in a good turn as the tortured 'final girl', making us feel that her life is truly at risk. Even though all she does is scream and plead for her life, she does so with such energy and realism that it is difficult to watch her. Most disturbing of all is a scene where the grandfather of the family, a man so old he can barely move, is given a hammer to deliver a deathblow to her head. The family holds her over a bucket as the old man raises the hammer to strike her, but he is barely able to hold it, let alone hit her with it.
Chain Saw is full of images that will horrify and disturb, but unlike many other films that do the same, Chain Saw will leave you breathless with its unrelenting assault on the senses; from the images on display to the ear-shattering sound design that allows Leatherface's saw to intrude your living room and slice at your nerves. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those few horror films that will unnerve you to a degree of unrest because it hits home where it hurts. Its savage, raw power and its total lack of reason give the impression you are watching something you shouldn't be. A bit like the traffic accident I mentioned earlier. In fact, you never really have time to think about what you are seeing until after the film has ended, which leaves an indelible image of a skin-masked madman waving a chain saw around his head in anger.
So, if you watched Chain Saw a good few years ago and remember it being a standard slasher flick with lots of gore, revisit it and see just how effective suggestion can be. If you've never seen it - what are you waiting for? This is low-budget film-making at its best and a lot can be gained from repeat viewings. If you can watch it more than once that is
Ringu 0: Bâsudei (2000)
Ring and Ring 2's ability to terrify an audience relied strongly on the fact that the TV you were watching them on was a possible portal for the video-curse and even Sadako herself. Not that anyone would really believe Sadako would come out of your TV, but subconsciously it must have an effect. In Ring 0 - Birthday, there are no cursed videos and no televisions. Instead, '0' takes us back 30 years before the original Ring, to where Sadako is an apprentice for a theatre company. What we quickly learn is that Sadako is not a monstrous psychic-killer that springs from household appliances but a shy, troubled young woman with a secret past. Those familiar with the Ring films will know that Sadako 'killed' a mocking reporter at her mother's para-psychological demonstration after he accused the psychic of being a fraud. The fiancé of this reporter sets about investigating what went on and tracks down Sadako at the theatre, convinced that she is responsible in some way for her fiancé's death.
The theatre troupe has a bad feeling about Sadako, as most of them have been experiencing the same disturbing dream about her, where they see her next to a well, and a certain air of doom has clouded the theatre since her arrival. When the lead actress in the play dies, killed by a younger Sadako (who is more like the ghoul from the first two films - it's confusing, but things are explained later), Sadako is given her role, much to the distress and suspicion of her fellow actors. The appearance of the 'dark' Sadako coincides with a strange noise played from a reel-to-reel tape recorder used by the theatre to play music. This, it seems, is how Sadako's dark power is unleashed, much like the videotape of the originals. But the older Sadako does not initiate any of the terror unleashed, and it is only a matter of time before the troupe accuses her of being a killer, whereas in reality she possesses the power to heal. Questions arise throughout the film, and are frequently answered, like why are two Sadako's, of different ages, walking around in the theatre? Yes, this question is answered, but not here in this review. Ring 0 is much more character based than the two previous films, getting into the head of the tragic Sadako by means of flashbacks and a subtle love story that shows she is a decent, vulnerable human being. At first it is slightly confusing as you are not sure whether you are watching the Sadako that will turn into the deformed, freakish ghoul that crawls out of TV screens to scare people to death. But it is knowing who she ends up to be that gives the film an air of tragedy as this misunderstood and innocent girl is hunted like a beast and forced to become one with her evil side. To say any more about the story would inevitably spoil it so I'll go no further, but for those worried about a lack of an 'evil' Sadako, don't worry. She's there too.
Visually, Ring 0 is a much more lavish, expensive-looking production than its predecessors that relied on dark, gritty camera-work and realistic lighting to enhance the 'normal' and make the story more believable. With '0' the style is more polished, with swooping camera moves and clearer, more stylised lighting. This works, as the film is more layered than Ring, whose visuals suited its single-minded determination to scare you witless. Instead here we have a production just as interested in characterisation and story whilst also being very, very scary in places, which is helped by the excellent photography and set design.
The acting is first rate, especially from Yukie Nakama who gives a subtle performance as Sadako, and everyone else is on form. The only let down is some of the terrible screaming going on here - remember the castle of 'Aaarrrrggggghhhhhh' from Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well, people die whilst omitting these terrible, comedy death-groans that really do steal from the tension and give you a mental picture of Graham Chapman in chain mail. Apart from that, I don't think '0' could be a better film.
Director Norio Tsuruta delivers a consistent, suspenseful shocker with plenty of visual flourishes and interesting ideas. It's easy to think that, in the wrong hands, Sadako could have been turned into a Freddy/Jason-style stalker walking amongst the shadows willing people to death, but instead we have an entertaining character piece with plenty of frights and chills spliced in for good measure.
Ring 0 surprised me. It is a more solid film than the original, more layered and ultimately more rewarding. But what it lacks is the pure, raw fear of the original that made it so memorable, and it wouldn't work without seeing the original first. Better and scarier than 2, quite possibly on a par with the first. And if you thought Sadako couldn't be scarier than when she crawled out of the TV in Ring, sit tight - because Sadako's still got a few tricks up her elongated sleeve, including a finale that will have people of a nervous disposition reaching for the 'off' button on their remote control.
If you're a Ring fan, you've got to see this. If you've never seen them you won't get it. If you've seen them and didn't like them, still give this one a try as it's a completely different experience altogether.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky's follow up to his acclaimed cult hit Pi has often been labelled as a 'drug' movie similar to that of Trainspotting. But Aronofsky would prefer you to call it a film about addiction, as everyone within the film relies on their own type of 'drug', be it television or heroin. The narrative is centred around four characters; Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), Marion Silver (Jennifer Connely) and Tyrone C Love (Marlon Wayans). These characters are all dreamers, they all have a certain place and a state of mind where they'd like to be. Requiem tells of their delusional journey towards obtaining these dreams as their lives fall apart before our eyes, reaching physical and emotional lows that are truly harrowing to watch.
The film takes place at Coney Island, Brooklyn, amongst its abandoned beaches and run-down estates that serve as a perfect backdrop for Requiem's harsh reality, yet also its unflinching surrealism. The characters make their way through this place as it appears to decay a little every time they do, emphasising their mental and physical states with a kind of subtlety that suggests a true genius at play here. In fact, there are so many small changes to the locations, the lighting, the set designs and character's appearances that it is worth re-watching Requiem just to spot them. However, I digress, as Requiem for a Dream's true brilliance comes from the excellent performances on display, most notably from Ellen Burstyn as Jared Leto's mother, Sara Goldfarb. Sara is a widow, who spends her time alone watching TV or meeting up with her knit group. But it is the TV, not her friends that is her true companion, as she sits transfixed, watching Tappy Tibbons (an energetic Christopher McDonald) with an utmost urgency. Sara's downfall begins when she receives a letter inviting her to be on television. Of course she is delighted, it is a dream come true for her, but if she's going to be on TV she has to wear her special red dress that she wore to her son's graduation. Trouble is, Sara no longer fits in her red dress and needs to lose weight. Quickly. Sara goes to the doctors and is prescribed pills to help her lose the pounds, and it is only a matter of time before she does. She takes the pills, watches the TV and dreams of being on it in her red dress, but she is taking speed to help her lose weight and she begins to lose her mind Likewise, Harry, Marion and Tyrone have their own drugs; heroin and love. Unfortunately, the draw of heroin is stronger than the latter and they too descend a downward spiral into addiction and desperation. The parallels between Harry's and his mother's addictions are clearly drawn with the use of snappy editing. Sara picks up the remote, switches the TV on, eats a rice cake, takes her pills; all in a quick succession of beats. The use of heroin is shown in exactly the same way, the flame, the needle, a dilating eyeball etc, all edited with the same punch to exemplify that, although addicted to different things, Harry and his mother are both heading down the same path.
There really is no way out for these characters. There is no happy ending in sight for them, and Aronofsky rightly doesn't give them one. It is hard to categorise Requiem for a Dream, and I have no intention of trying to do so, but this is a film that everyone should see. It is a powerful, unflinching depiction of four people who we really do care about destroying themselves. We care about these people because they are our friends, our girlfriends and our mothers. They are normal people who find themselves in situations that are far too brutal for anyone not to feel for them. Harry and Marion's love is sincere and warm, not melodramatic or schmaltzy Hollywood love, and to see them break apart from each other is truly saddening as you just know that Aronofsky isn't going to give them a chance meeting at rehab to get back together.
Visually, Requiem for a Dream pulls all the stops. The use of split-screen is amazing, especially in an intimate scene between Leto and Connely, as they lay side by side touching each other, yet appear apart. There is time-lapse photography, super-wide fish-eye lenses, brave camera movements and expressionistic lighting, but never does it feel that Aronofsky is using these techniques just to 'show off'. There is meaning behind every stylistic flourish that graces the screen, adding a greater depth to the proceedings and involving the audience in a way that makes for uneasy, yet entertaining, viewing.
Requiem for a Dream is a true work of art. It is ugly, brutal, beautiful and profound without being pretentious. Aronofsky uses effective visual tricks and styles to emphasise emotions and places without resorting to a shallow style-over-substance MTV look, and DoP Matthew Libatique's lighting and camera-work is at once realistic and surreal, and constantly amazing. Between them, they create a world that pulls you in, instantly engaging you with the characters and their lives. Then it pulls you under, showing people we care about going through some of the most saddening, brutal moments of their lives until, by the end, you'll be gasping for breath.
I really cannot recommend Requiem for a Dream enough. It is truly one of the most powerful, astounding films you will ever see, and demands repeated viewing. However, if you like your movies warm and fluffy with a feel-good, happy ending then it may not be the film for you.
Baise Moi is the story of two women, Manu and Nadine (played by porn stars) who hit the road to take out their aggression on unsuspecting men (and sometimes women), in what could be described as Thelma and Louise with hardcore sex scenes. Okay, this could be an appealing combination for many audiences but what really strikes you about Baise Moi is its utter ineptitude and ugliness.
Directed by two women; Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi (based on ex-prostitute Despente's novel), the film does evoke a substantial feel of female rage and bitterness towards men, although having the two leads kill innocents does leave a nasty taste in the mouth and detracts from the film's message. The director's have tried hard to make a shocking and provocative film here, but the use of hardcore acts merely as a distraction from what is trying to be said. Men will see this film because of the sex, not because of any feminist issues that may arise through the narrative. But maybe that's the whole point of Baise Moi - to feed men's weakness for sex whilst simultaneously castrating them with images of mutilation and death. I'm sure Freud would have had a field day with it, but he probably would have had better things to do.
Porn stars Raffaela Anderson and Karen Bach act to the best of their ability, pulling off (excuse the pun) some of the more emotional scenes satisfactorily, but you just can't help thinking that they are just playing at being 'proper' actresses. But it is also this element of amateurism that gives the film a well-needed dose of charm, something it is severely lacking. For all its good intentions and bravery, Baise Moi manages to alienate the viewer with its slap-dash style and repulsive characters whilst also being just brave enough to earn itself a few merit points.
With all the controversy that surrounds it, Baise Moi does indeed live up to its shocking nature. There is a close-up penetration shot during the opening rape scene (cut from UK prints), several blow jobs, a gun being inserted in a man's arse and fired and hardcore sex aplenty, but most shocking of all is the fact that a film so poorly made has been merited as such a classic in some quarters. Okay, so it's 'cutting edge' to incorporate sexual penetration into a mainstream film, but Baise Moi is about as mainstream as your holiday videos, and shot on the same format. Stick with Thelma and Louise - if you also want hardcore sex - go and get some, the two don't mix.