Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Old vs. the New

Given my druthers I would probably opt for older movies to many of the current releases, which will come as no surprise to 'them what know me'. However this is not to say that I don't keep abreast of recent releases -- eventually viewing most of them, and yes there have been a fair number that are more than likeable. Fitting squarely into this category is "(500) Days of Summer" (2009) which is as pleasant a modern fable as one could wish. The first feature film from director Marc Webb, it bodes well for his future career, but the movie works because of the charm and skill of its two leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (always impressive) and Zooey Deschanel. They shine amongst a largely no-name cast, apart from young Chloe Moretz (who would later make a big splash) playing Gordon-Levitt's young sister, blessed with the head of a 40-year old.

At the start the viewer is told that the film is a story of 'boy meets girl' but that it is not a love story; however this is only technically correct insofar as the movie does not give us the usual and expected neat ending. It is however definitely a love story as our hero falls heavily for a kooky co-worker named Summer and the film jumps back and forward in time over their 500 days together to trace the course of their relationship -- a deepening affection in him vs.a mere fun/friendship on her part. The film makes the point that one knows intuitively when warmth becomes love and that this can not be imposed from outside. Even in his make-time job as a greeting-card message writer, Gordon-Levitt's would-be architect eventually realises that one can not rely on other people to express one's deep emotions or to sway one's feelings. Eventually (no spoiler here) when he accepts he has lost his love, he meets a gal called Autumn; one only wonders if Winter and Spring will follow.

As mentioned above, the film clicks because of the likeability of its stars and because it feels 'real' rather than contrived. Possibly there was too much use of pop music for my taste to underline their supposed compatibility, but this is but a minor criticism of what is in fact a very charming film.

In contrast to the above, I have also over the past few days watched two German silents which I had not seen previously. Thank goodness here for the German satellite TV stations, since we are lucky to be offered even one silent a year on British stations nowadays. (Although there was a time, not that long ago, when this was not the case). The two films in question were "The White Hell of Pitz Palu" from 1929, the last and possibly the best of the German cycle of 'mountain' movies. It starred Leni Riefenstahl, later to become Hitler's favourite film-maker, and featured some of the most breathtaking high Alps scenery that one might imagine. The second film "Schlagende Wetter" (which loosely translates as 'Firedamp') was made in 1923 and only survives in patchy form, where stills need substitute for lost footage. However what magnificent footage it is -- a cross between sweet naturalism and emotive expressionism -- as the story culminates with a collapsing mine disaster trapping our mismatched lead players.

While discoveries like these are what keep my movie obsession alive, there is no way that I will stop trying to find latter-day delights to amuse and inspire me.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Hangover (2009)

The exact opposite of a movie that has escaped beneath my radar, like the entry below, is one which has been so hyped up as being funny beyond words, that it comes as something of an anticlimax when finally viewed. The above film from director Todd Phillips was the undoubted sleeper hit and box-office champion of its year and is indeed a fun watch, although I would be a little hard-pressed to explain why this film was received quite as rapturously as it was.

There is little in Phillips' back filmography which includes "Old School", "Road Trip", and "Starsky and Hutch" that suggests that he could churn out anything more than light entertainment, far less such a massive hit. Moreover he cast four little-known actors (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, and Zach Galfianakis) as the four friends celebrating Bartha's stag night in Las Vegas. As things turn out, he has gifted these performers with both an unexpected success and definite career boosts. The movie has certainly created breakout roles for Cooper and Galfianakis in particular and both are now in great demand. The latter plays the socially-gauche brother of Bartha's fiancee, who is begrudgingly invited to join Bartha and his two long-standing best buddies on their night out. They set off in the prospective father-in-law's prized Mercedes, which, one just knows in one's bones, will be a wreck-on-wheels by the film's end.

One has seen amusing bachelor party movies before, but this film's starting point is not the night's shennanigans as they unroll, but rather three of the four awakening in their trashed hotel suite the morning after to discover that the bridegroom-to-be has gone AWOL. None of them can recall anything about the night just past, having been inadvertently drugged by Galfianakis' would-be contribution to the party, and they must reconstruct their sordid adventures. All of the plot points that one had heard of in advance were present and correct: the tiger in the bathroom (stolen from Mike Tyson), the unknown baby in the closet, the stolen cop car, the naked Chinese thug in the boot demanding repayment for eighty thousand dollars worth of gambling chips. Add to these Helms' pussy-whipped dentist who finds himself minus a front tooth and married to a whore (a rather sweet turn from Heather Graham) plus no sign of their missing friend bar his bedroom's mattress on a hotel's turret, and the ingredients are all in place. Can they unravel their picaresque journey through the previous night, find Bartha, and get back to Los Angeles for the wedding in a few hours' time? You bet they can!

While the film was well-constructed, the characters reasonably well fleshed-out, and the catastrophe on catastrophe scenario well-paced, I found the movie consistently amusing and entertaining, rather than laugh-out-loud funny. There was only one (rather bad-taste) joke which actually made me chortle, but it was something of a pleasure to find a modern comedy which was not totally dependent on gross-out humour and a plethora of bodily fluids. All in all it was a very likeable film, if not the laugh-riot I had been led to expect. Needless to say its huge success has ensured that its sequel is now in post-production and I bet that's not something that Phillips foresaw when he directed this first installment. And if his name is not included in the four leads' nightly prayers, it certainly should be.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Although I consider myself pretty au fait with what's going on in the world of films, reading multiple reviews of all the new releases, occasionally a film will pass under my radar. Such is the case with this movie from director Paul Weitz which struck many of the right notes with me. You could ask why a film adaptation of a series of books aimed at 10 to 14 year olds should appeal to this rather more mature viewer, but you could well ask the same question about the Harry Potter franchise, or "The Golden Compass" (2007), or the first of the Narnia movies. Or maybe I just like movies about freaks, since this film was actually something of a mixed bag.

Before watching this film I knew absolutely nothing about its London-born Irish writer Darren Shan, who has in fact penned twelve novels in this particular saga, in a series of four trilogies, of which the first three books form the basis for this adaptation. Apparently Warner Brothers (rather stupidly perhaps) paid a million dollars for the film rights before the first book was published, obviously hoping to spawn another franchise. However since I believe the movie did rather poor business, not even featuring amongst the 100 most profitable films of its year, I would be a little suprised to see a second movie with these characters reach the big screen, although the stage was rather blatantly set up for a number of sequels.

It is the story of two 16-year old best friends: the goody-goody one, actually named Darren Shan, played by one Chris Massoglia rather blandly and the 'bad-boy' played by the more appealing and experienced child actor Josh Hutcherson. Without going into too much detail, they sneak out one evening to attend a travelling freak show where Darren is enchanted by and 'borrows' the talented huge spider controlled by its master, John C. Reilly, whom Hutcherson immediately recognizes as a vampire, vampires being something of an obsession with him. He approaches Reilly to vampirise him, but is refused because he has 'bad' blood, while young Darren ends up as a 'half vampire' in exchange for obtaining the relevant antitoxin after his friend has been bitten by the said spider. So far, so complicated, although the plotline then goes on to encompass the age-old battle between good vampires like Reilly and his weird friend Willem Defoe who do not kill those whose blood they suck and the bad vampires called the vampaneze. None of this really matters a damn although the stage is being set for a final battle, but Reilly is good value in his role of the jaded fangless bloodsucker who takes Darren under his wing and under the protection of the freak show, benevolently run by 'the tall man', Ken Watanabe. Included amongst its attractions are Reilly's current ladyfriend, played by the dishy but heavily bearded Salma Hayak, and a number of other likeable 'freaks', whose 'disabilities' are created by CGI rather than by nature; this is hardly a modern version of Tod Browning's classic "Freaks" from 1932, and can afford to be rather more offhand and jokey about its characters' unusual attributes. There is even a potential love interest for Darren in his new friend 'the monkey girl', whose expressive tail escapes from her clothing when required to assist the action.

If anything the movie is rather too dependent on special effects, some of which are in fact pretty cheesy, but it is by and large an enjoyable romp. I just can't see it going further in delineating the action to come in the would-be vampire wars. It's hardly the new "Twilight" saga and is never likely to find the same popularity, although I found it the more entertaining. I just don't really want to see what happens next. If I were that bothered, I'd read the books, just like my closet 10 to 14 year old would wish me to do.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Liliom (1930)

Have you ever heard Martin Scorsese rave about the director Frank Borzage? For his money the latter is one of the great unsung poets of American cinema, a reputation largely based on his late silents like "7th Heaven" (for which he won the first-ever best director Oscar), "Street Angel", and "Lucky Star". He did go on to make a number of interesting 'talkies' including "The Mortal Storm" and "Strange Cargo", both 1940, and the later "Moonrise" (1948), mixed in with some fairly minor and forgettable productions. The story of the above film, based on the Czech play by Molnar, was also brought to the screen in 1934 by Fritz Lang in a French production with Charles Boyer in the lead, but is best known to most of us as the basis for the classic musical "Carousel". Borzage's version is a fascinating mixture of imaginative screen images marred by a major case of miscasting.

Liliom is the charismatic carousel barker at a funfair and the role is taken by Charles Farrell. Farrell starred with Janet Gaynor in the three aforementioned silents, co-starring with her a total of twelve times between 1927 and 1934, making them one of the great screen couples. However, when he opens his mouth to speak in this film, his weedy and whiny voice undermines his would-be embodiment of a handsome masher, and he nearly ruins what should have been a truly wonderful movie. Contrasting his tones with those of the cultivated H. B. Warner on the celestial train that takes him away from earth after his suicide is like listening to one of the Dead End Kids playing against John Gielgud. This is a great shame since the film itself does indeed show a poetic sensibility with its expressionistic staging of the fairground lights and other earthbound settings, mixed with the highly stylised death-train that transports Liliom's spirit between limbo and hell.

Another strength of this film is Borzage's choice for the female lead, a debut appearance for Rose Hobart. In contrast with the slightly saccharine Gaynor, (always a little wishy-washy even in the great 1937 version of "A Star is Born") the handsome and well-spoken Hobart is an excellent choice for Liliom's lost love Julie, who keeps his fond memory alive for both her and the daughter he has never known, despite his ill-treatment of them in life and on his brief return to earth some ten years later. Hobart went on to a relatively unimpressive screen career, but has been immortalized in Joseph Cornell's avant garde short film from 1936 called simply "Rose Hobart". He cobbled headshots of her from the minor movie "East of Borneo", mixed them with tinting and music, and used all this to project a sweeping range of emotions and feelings. I must confess that I have never actually seen the end result, but it does sound a fascinating memorial for the actress.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Without a Clue (1988)

While I have always liked Michael Caine, I never really realised how subtle and gifted an actor he is until I saw him in"Educating Rita" (1983). Like many of the great screen actors his roles are often riffs on his own persona, but they exhibit shades of personality and a careful approach to his character, not always apparent at first. Of course 'not many people know' (as the joke goes), that he is willing to appear in some pretty crappy films in exchange for the pay cheque proffered. However even in these, he is never less than watchable and is often the film's one saving grace.

Somehow we acquired -- no doubt through a newspaper promotion -- a set of a dozen or so Caine movies on DVD, largely minor British efforts, rather than big budget Hollywood productions, and I occasionally rewatch these in my downtime. Without a doubt some of these fall into the 'crap' category mentioned above, like "Water" from 1985, where Caine plays the British diplomat on a back-of-beyond Caribbean island, with Billy Connolly as a half-breed rebel fighting for its independence, although even this piece of junk has its moments. Then there is the film above which remains an entertaining amusement.

The movie's clever conceit is that Dr. John Watson was the real brains as a detective and that he paid a ham actor to impersonate his creation, Sherlock Holmes. Caine plays the make-believe Holmes, worshipped by the public, but as stupid as two short planks in reality, while Ben Kingsley (who now insists upon being billed as 'Sirbenkingsley') is the power behind the mask. The equally useless Lestrade is portrayed by the (now disgraced but) always amusing American actor Jeffrey Jones. While the cheeky premise grows a little thin as they investigate the theft of the printing plates for the Bank of England's five pound note, the laughs at Caine's general ineptness are frequent and he certainly throws himself (literally in some scenes) into playing the fool. He is not only a little dim, but also a drinker and a would-be womanizer, but he continues to amaze everyone who subscribes to his myth, while poor Dr. Watson is dismissed as his pathetic sidekick. A witty script supports this witty concept and ensures some minor but very pleasant viewing.

As coincidence would have it, immediately after watching "Wedding in Blood" (1973) last night, I learned of the death of its director, Claude Chabrol. I have always expected his films to be just that little more exciting than they often are, especially as he was supposedly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers. His studies of domestic mayhem tend to strike me as somewhat uninvolving, as in last night's selection, which had Michel Piccoli and Stephane Audran (then Chabrol's wife) involved in a torrid love affair and knocking off their inconvenient spouses. However it's always sad losing a creative and prolific talent and the French film world as well as the rest of us can mourn his passing.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Going to the Picture Show

I think that's what people used to call going to the movies in my 'olden days' and it's a usage that suits me just fine to describe the joys of cinema-going. While I watch a number of films most days, only a small proportion of these are seen at their best on a big screen, and my regular film festival marathons apart, I probably don't average more than one cinema attendance per fortnight, if that. So I am pleased to report that I have been to 'picture shows' twice in the last three days with an additional unexpected bonus as well:

The Girl who Played with Fire (2009): Having been more than impressed with the first of the Stieg Larsson trilogy film adapations "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", which premiered here at last summer's FrightFest, I was very keen to see this second entry, which is not so much a sequel but a continuation of the Millennium saga. While it was entertaining, I do not think it was as involving as the first film, probably because of the very limited interaction between the two main characters, Michael Nyqvist's crusading journalist and Noomi Rapace's punk hacker. Both were following leads to find the culprit for three murders, for which she had been set up as the prime suspect, but their paths only joined in the last minutes. Rapace's feisty turn is the main reason to see this movie and the loose plot threads seem to indicate where Part Three is likely to turn. (I have yet to read the novels, so I could be wrong.)

Since the film was apparently cobbled together from two parts of a mini-series first shown on Swedish TV, the movie did not really benefit from its cinema showing and had a definite small-screen feel. Also while Hollywood seems to be dead keen to get going on their remake of Part One (with I believe no improvement likely), I very much doubt that they will go on to remake this entry -- unless of course they can entice Rapace to reprieve her role, a highly unlikely scenario.

Crossways/Jujiro (1928): As a complete change of pace we went to see this Japanese silent at the National Film Theatre. I found it a little disappointing, although still worthwhile viewing. Mind you I could have done without the half-hour 'introduction' by some oriental female which largely involved her reading out the text of her slide show presentation. The director Teinosuke Kinugasa started his career as a female impersonator before it was acceptable for women to take on film roles, but switched to directing in 1922. Some years back I was privileged to view his "Page of Madness" made in 1926, an expressionistic movie without any intertitles which has stayed with me vividly since, and I was hoping that this film would be equally as memorable, especially since it has the distinction of being the first Japanese film released commercially in Europe. Teinosuke went on for a long and illustrious career culminating with the Oscar-winning "Gate of Hell" in 1953.

The film itself is a fairly simple story of a sister and her wayward brother, who is enamoured of a simpering courtesan in the nearby pleasure quarter and who thinks he has killed his love rival. A grotesque elderly man pretending to represent the law and claiming he can prevent her brother's arrest does his best to have his way with her, despite the fact that we the viewer know that there has been no murder. For a silent movie, it is particularly silent with long stretches between the few intertitles, where the characters' expressive silent screen acting comes to the fore in an often impressionistic way. Mixed with rapid cutting and the abstract use of the sets' design elements -- swinging lanterns and spinning balls -- the film is so very different from the stillness of later Japanese films, especially those of dear Mr. Ozu. However these visionary techniques are counter-balanced by equally long stretches of inaction, which marginally detract from the film's strangeness and appeal.

The Surreal House: I didn't even manage to escape my cinema obsession when we visited this stunning exhibition on surrealism at the Barbican's Art Gallery. It was not only much larger than we had anticipated, but it also incorporated a number of old films in its remit. Had I had the time I could have gorged myself on rewatching Keaton's "The Navigator", Tati's "Mon Oncle", the concluding sequence from Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice", and even Godard's "Le Mepris (not a film I particularly like) which uses the surreal Casa Malaparte in Capri as its architectural centrepiece. As it is. I was able to take in several clever Svankmajer shorts including the brilliant "Jabberwocky" which I don't think I've seen previously.

On balance this week's 'picture shows' were time well spent!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Max Mon Amour (1986)

I know I have seen this very peculiar film at least twice previously, but the ins and outs of the bizarre plot have not stayed with me. I could only remember the oddity of svelte housewife Charlotte Rampling being madly in love with an outsize chimpanzee. This emphasis on an obsessive sexual relationship should come as no surprise when one notes that the director was Nagisa Oshima, the man responsible for the classic Japanese sex-fests of "In the Realm of the Senses" and "Empire of Passion". However why and how he ended up directing this French film with both English and French dialogue is something of a mystery.

Set in Paris where her husband Anthony Higgins is a diplomat, Rampling is the mother of a young son who fills in the boredom of her days with an assortment of lovers. Her husband is equally involved in casual flings, but finds his own green-eyed monster when a private detective informs him that his wife has rented a walk-up flat in a seedy district where she spends most of her afternoons, but that there has been no sighting of her probable lover. Higgins descends on the flat, finding her in bed with a sheet-covered companion and prepares to play the usual angry husband scenario. To his horror he uncovers his hairy rival, while his cool wife remains unfazed. And as any sophisticated Parisienne might do, he decides that the best solution is to move Max into his own room in their sprawling flat.

Gradually Max becomes an accepted part of their daily routine, eating with them at the breakfast table and charming their son. Only their maid, a mildly comic turn by Spanish actress Victoria Abril, seems to be allergic to 'monkey fur' and threatens to leave. Meanwhile Higgins is obsessed by what his wife and Max might get up to in private and when his wife is out, he hires a prostitute to entice the animal while he watches; the only problem is that Max doesn't fancy her! Faced with the ultimatum of 'Max or me', Rampling insists that she loves them both and barricades her son and herself in Max's room. Even potential violence doesn't resolve the situation when Max seizes Higgins' gun and the police arrive.

I suppose this film is meant to be some sort of dark comedy on what constitutes sexual attraction or an oblique satire on traditional French bedroom farce. No one can really understand Rampling's need for Max (nor his for her) and their well-meaning friends keep dragging in so-called experts to proffer their unwanted advice. By the end of the film after an early escape by the animal and a subsequent near-pining away in Rampling's absence while visiting her ailing mother, the family settles into their own way of life, affection and acceptance.

The animal seems so realistic that it comes as a surprise to discover that Max is actually a man-in-a-monkey suit, tweaked by special effects artists. Whether it is meant to make it less repugnant to the audience that Rampling is not actually nuzzling a real animal, this subtefuge really doesn't work and one remains none the wiser as to what the glacial Rampling derives from her strange passion.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

FrightFest Part Two

Now that I've lumbered myself with completing my FrightFest overview, I'd better get cracking:

Monsters (2010): The preview of this British movie was being hyped by Alan Jones as the best of the fest, as it were. Sorry, Alan, I don't agree. The scenario involves alien organisms evolving over a large area of Central America and Mexico after the crash of a NASA probe, resulting in huge quarantined tracts. In what is largely a two-hander, an ambitious journalist finds himself blackmailed into escorting his boss's spoiled and engaged daughter back to the U.S. Naturally nearly everything goes wrong for them on their journey and naturally they fall in love. The film was mainly a largely engaging love story with beautiful scenic tableaux and interesting special effects when the mutant aliens were seen. However, it was slow, slow, slow and I had trouble staying awake for the 97 minutes that felt so much longer.

The Pack (2010): I must confess I was quite taken with this French film, but that was more because of its casting than its OTT premise. It seems that the Belgian-born actress Yolande Moreau has become a fixture in so many films that I've seen recently -- most notably the delightful "Micmacs" -- that I find myself saying 'Oh, it's her again' whenever she appears. In this movie she is the tough and coarse proprietress of a run-down truckstop in rural France where our heroine has been lured by the handsome hitchhiker she picked up. Little does she realise that his Mummy Moreau requires a continuous supply of fresh blood to nourish her older dead zombie sons and their fellow miners who sleep under the black soil. Leads Emilie Dequenne and the dishy Benjamin Biolay are joined by French horror favourite Philippe Nahon to create an interesting flick.

Outcast (2010): This Anglo-Irish effort was meant to delve into Celtic legend, but was too firmly rooted in the seedy realities of dingy government housing, as warring brothers seek to find the magical secrets of their tribe. Or something like that... I lost the plot early on and never managed to get back into the swing.

We Are What We Are (2010): This Mexican film was undoubtedly the worst of the main screen's offerings (and there were some pretty feeble inclusions this year). A family of modern-day cannibals find themselves adrift when the father dies and the mother and three grown children are left to fend for themselves. The eldest is technically in charge of finding food, but when he brings back someone he has picked up in a gay club, his brother says that he is not going to eat a faggot! Meanwhile a not very hot-shot cop is on their trail after a nail-polished and beringed whole finger is found during their dead dad's autopsy. Absolutely nothing happens and by the end only the teenaged sister is left to carry on the family's traditions.

Amer (2009): Like "Monsters" above, this Belgian film came with a lot of baggage with claims of its brilliance and throwback style to the classic Italian giallos. All I can tell you is that it was all style, absolutely no substance, and altogether about an hour too long -- which is saying something for a 90 minute film. It followed the same character as a girl, a teenager, and a grown woman, but only the first section had any sense of foreboding and intrigue. Just when it started to be interesting, it cut to our heroine's teenaged years and went straight to nowhere. Even the black-gloved hand and slashing knives of the last section were cruelly empty.

Buried (2010): This slot was intended for "A Serbian Film" which is apparently a stomach-churner in spades. At the last moment the local powers-that-be refused to certificate its showing without massive cuts, and this Hollywood flick starring Ryan Reynolds was the 'surprise film' alternative. Now if you think that any movie, even one starring the likeable Reynolds, can get away with having only a single character buried alive under the Iraqi desert for ninety-odd minutes, think again. I suppose it was meant to be an acting tour-de-force, but I can't think of any modern actor who can hold the screen alone for this length of time. Yet had the movie 'opened-out' it probably would have been no more suspenseful. The whole issue was does he or doesn't he escape. Maybe he should have taken his cue from Uma Thurman's "Kill Bill". Incidentally another film pulled from the original programme, Gregg Araki's "Kaboom", was another one that I would have liked to have seen. He apparently shuddered at the thought of his movie premiering to a 'bunch of geeks'. That's us apparently!

Video Nasties - Moral Panic, Censorship, and Video Tape: This new documentary on Britain's shameful history of film censorship did not really cover much ground not documented previously, with many of the usual talking heads, but it was still interesting to view the history of those films which sparked that early 1980s outrage. I doubt that there were many people in the audience who had not actually seen most of the culprits in their uncut glory; of course a number of the titles only deserved to be banned because they were in fact very bad movies. If the truth be told, much more controversial films are readily available today with our many media sources. We didn't stay for the following Q and A since little remains to be said on this subject.

After Life (2009): This American flick was probably the most mainstream movie of the festival, so it was something of a surprise to find it wedged into the small 'Discovery' cinema. With the main cast consisting of Liam Neeson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Long, a main cinema showing would have been suitable, but far be it from me to understand the politics of film distribution. Neeson is an undertaker who can converse with the newly departed until they are buried and Ricci is the fresh corpse in his mortuary, fighting against the truth of her demise. Long is her would-be fiancee (he doesn't seem to have much luck in this area after "Drag Me to Hell"). Neeson seemed to be trying just a wee bit too hard to be creepy and Long was just a little frenetic, but Ricci, who spent most of the film semi-clothed or less, was the main attraction.

Bedevilled (2010): South Korean film-makers have been responsible for some of the most stunning genre movies of recent years and this is another worthy effort. A slow-burner, we find our worldly heroine leaving Seoul for a visit to the backward island where her grandfather had a home and where she deserted her best friend from childhood. The latter is in an abusive marriage and hard-done-by by all of her husbabd's family where she is treated as a workhorse and sexual object, After the death of her child something snaps and this is where this film becomes interesting as she seeks her bloody revenge. Perhaps there were one too many false endings where the film could have safely finished, but it was still nearly worth its full 115 minutes.

Red White & Blue (2010): This American movie wasn't of tremendous interest nor particularly well-made and was very reminiscent of the small town Texas milieu of Hooper's parochial "Eggshells". We're introduced to a lot of characters, most of them pretty unsavoury, and are meant to care about the fate of the local good-girl-gone-wrong town bicycle. A nearly unrecognizable Noah Taylor befriends her and takes it upon himself to dispatch all those who treated her badly. I for one just didn't care.

The Last Exorcism (2010): This brings us to FrightFest's closing film produced by the big-headed Eli Roth and again a movie that we were told upfront was something spectacular. Sorry again, folks. The evening was over half an hour late starting and was then prefaced by the usual self-promotion from Roth and the film's director. Shot in documentary style, it was meant to be the story of an evangelical minister who has now lost his faith and who wants to expose the fakery of most exorcisms. He visits a family besieged by the evil supposedly being unleashed by the 'possessed' daughter, but finds himself actually having to confront real demons. To be honest, after the first half of this farrago, we were so bored that we walked out, missing what may or may not have been the (I gather) rather unenlightening denouement.

So that's that for another year. Every year I think that this might be my last go at surviving the full programme and that I should just get individual tickets for the more promising films, but who can guess how I'll feel about this horror marathon in a year's time.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

FrightFest 2010 - Part One

It must be an indication of the years taking their toll, but not that long ago I had the mad desire to discuss in greater or lesser detail the many wonders of the FrightFest programme. This year after a marathon of viewing, I find the films forming an amorphous mass in my memory with none of them really vying for pride of place. I therefore think it best to make only the briefest comments on most of them, if only to get some sort of closure on the weekend. As usual, transport considerations stopped our seeing any of the late-night offerings (most of which we shall catch up on through their DVD releases -- the only one I really regret missing was "Dream Home", a Hong Kong gorer in the tradition of "Rikki O"), but we still managed to take in over twenty flicks, which frankly is exhausting. This year we chose a much higher proportion of films from the small 'Discovery' strand, an excellent innovation from last year's Fest, since these on average seemed rather more potentially interesting than yet another low-budget British effort. Yes, I know that the festival organisers believe it is their duty to support the local scene, but one can get rather sated by Danny Dyer gangster flicks or zombie movies made for twenty-nine cents (or the sterling equivalent). Anyhow, here's the summary of your favourite film fanatic:

Hatchet II (2010): As a supposed 'fest-fave', director Adam Green blessed us with the world premiere of his follow-up to his 2006 slasher. Definitely a bright red gorefest with horror icons Tony Todd and Kane Hodder amongst the leads, but not sufficiently different from so many other slasher movies. My feeling: please axe any further sequels.

Primal (2010): Another world premiere for this Australian film which at least had an unusual slant as some of six friends on a field trip find themselves infected by the site's waterhole and undergo some savage Neanderthal regression. The first to mutate was the best-looker of the gals with a horribly strident Aussie voice, so it was actually something of an auditory relief for her to morph into an grunting feral. Like many of these films, we were left with only one survivor, who capped the brutal proceedings with a memorable final one-word ending. See it yourself to find out.

Eggshells (1969): As a tribute to the festival's special guest Tobe Hooper (whose showing of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and Q and A we skipped), the organisers unearthed his little-seen feature debut. Although I was fascinated by this rare opportunity, I'm sorry to report that it was a pretentious and precious student folly, very typical of its era, with little indication of the auteur's potential horror leanings to come.

The Clinic (2009): More Australian visceral horror with pregnant ladies being abducted and having their unborns cut out as part of a profitable babies-for-sale racket, apparently of long standing, since each victim's uniform bore a roman numeral and we were now apparently at over 600 mutilated females. Yeah, yeah!

Finale (2009): This is an overly convoluted American shocker tracing a family at the receiving end of a dark cult's secrecy -- stylish and creepy without being particularly involving.

Wound (2010): A return to genre film-making for New Zealand director David Blyth, whose horror credentials go back to 1984's "Death Warmed Up", not that he has done much of note in the meantime. This one is about a woman abused as a child by her father and the more-than-willing submissive partner of a dominant male, taking the ultimate physical revenge on Daddy and finding herself being haunted by the now grown-up supposedly stillborn daughter that he fathered. None of it made much sense -- so what else is new?

F (2010): F for 'failure' on a school paper evolves into an F for 'F-ing awesome' Brit thriller, finding the staff and pupils of a high-tech school at the after-hours mercy of a group of invading faceless hoodies. The hoodies from hell you may conclude as they reap mindless gory mutilation on those they confront. It just goes to prove that horror can be alive and well, even in the British low-budget sector.

Christopher Roth (2010): Set in Italy but mainly English-speaking, this debut film from cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (here billed as Max Sender) has a world-famous crime writer and his wife having their Umbrian holiday ruined by the local serial killer who mutilates his victims with wild boar horns. Roth wants to broaden his literary output but finds himself immersed once more in the reality of horror amongst the supposedly friendly natives. Interestingly done as his new friends deal with the 'beast in the basement' as it were.

Fanboys (2008): I have absolutely no idea what this jolly confection was doing masquerading itself at FrightFest; still it was something of a welcome break from blood and guts. Four "Star Wars" fanatics, one of whom is terminally ill, can't wait for the new movie to open back in 1998 and decide to travel from Iowa, or wherever, to the Skywalker Ranch to steal a preview copy. Of course they cross a tasty selection of weirdos and trekkies en route in pursuit of their dream.

13 Hours (2010): Yet another UK world premiere, as our heroine returns to the run-down family estate from her high-powered life in L.A. to find her friends and family under attack from a bloodthirsty creature. As most fall prey to this unseen nightmare, dark family secrets are finally revealed to bring the action to its foregone conclusion. This was a reasonably well-done effort with a more than capable cast, but I suspect it will end up like so many films in a horror limbo of limited distribution.

I Spit on Your Grave (2010): It is fashionable nowadays to remake all of the old horror classics, but as one of the original video nasties, the 1979 exploitation shocker on which this film is based is probably amongst the least well-known, even if its title has become engraved in horror history. The hard-to-find uncut original is indeed a shocker, but frankly its retributive violence is not as strong overall as this remake's. If anything the start of this remake is a little too leisurely as our feisty heroine finds herself at the mercy of a bunch of local redneck rapists. She eventually re-emerges from the forest where she was left for dead to take her revenge on the frankly despicable group of chauvinist pigs. The whoops from the audience (most of whom let it be said were male) as she dispatches each of her assailants were encouraging for any potentially militant feminists in the crowd. For once perhaps a remake actually worked, although I still wonder whether it was really necessary.

Good gracious, I'm just over half way through my supposedly brief reactions. So it's time for a break back into the real world with the promise to continue tomorrow, all things being equal.