Wednesday, 31 August 2011

FrightFest 2011 Part One

I know I said I would be back on the blog yesterday, but I was just too weary and bleary-eyed after this latest marathon of horror viewing; I needed the extra day to collect my thoughts.   Of a possible 27 viewing slots, we took in 24 films out of the thirty-odd available.  Over a four and a half day period, I reckon that is pretty good going, especially with all of the added and often unexpected short films, trailers, and sneak-peaks that preceded some of the showings and the Q and As that followed them.  (We skipped most of the latter, prefering to use the downtime, such as it was, for hurried nourishment -- no leisurely meals this year.)

The fest has now been running for twelve years and this is my seventh summary since I started  blogging in 2005, although we were regular attendees before that. Where does the time go?  Don't answer that!   Anyhow, rather than report my reactions chronologically film by film as I have done previously, I shall try to group the features into several categories in the hope of getting through the reviews in two extended blog entries:

The kick-off opener:  "Don't be Afraid of the Dark" came with a lot of baggage in tow since it was produced and co-written by genre fave Guillermo del Toro, who claims that the original 1973 television movie scared him rigid and deserved a big screen resurrection.  If I ever saw the TVM, I certainly don't remember it, so I came without any preconceptions.  What we have is divorced architect Guy Pearce (phoning in his performance) and new squeeze Katie Holmes (in her secondary role as an actress rather than her main role as a celebrity wife) renovating a 19th Century New England mansion in the hope of making a financial killing.  His young daughter -- a fine performance from youngster Bailee Madison -- comes to stay and soon unearths the fearsome miniature, malevolent gremlins that lurk behind the grate in the basement.  These hobgoblins want her for their own, as they claimed the house's previous inhabitants, and are vicious in their pursuit.  While the creatures are very well-done with the CGI tools now available, the movie itself is something of a drag and a little short on shocks and starts.  Only the heightened sound effects manage to contribute to the occasional foreboding.  First-time feature director Troy Nixey tries his best, but I can't help thinking that it would have been a better film if Del Toro had taken over the reins.

3-D horror: Like too many other recent American releases, this technology, now beginning to fade in its audience appeal, has been brought to the horror movie: "Final Destination 5 - 3D" and "Fright Night 3D".  These two movies actually showcase 3D's strengths and pitfalls.  Its use in the fifth 'Final' film has actually revitalised the franchise; the splatter and pointy weapons are displayed with verve and humour.  The set pieces of Death catching up with those who have cheated him are as inventive as usual, but all the more effective with the dangers literally 'coming at you'. The remake of the 1985 classic however would have been no better or worse in the usual two dimensions.  The original featured two timeless performances from Chris Sarandon (given a cameo in this version) and Roddy McDowell, but Colin Farrell as the vampire next door and David Dr. Who Tennant as the would-be vampire killer do not quite cut the mustard, while the young lead Anton Yelchin is only adequate.  His nerdy ex-best friend Christopher Mintz-Plasse, vampirized early in the procedings, is pretty good value.  The movie was too dimly lit in places for the 3-D to be effective.  As for the 're-imagining' itself Farrell's is a far nastier and less charismatic vampire than Sarandon's and all the flashy special effects in the world do not make up for the differences between the two films.

Foreign Horror: One of the treats of FrightFest is the culling of suitable movies from around the world.  There was a dearth this year of entries from the Far East, but there were interesting selections from Norway ("Troll Hunter"), Germany ("Urban Explorers"), Holland ("Saint"), Switzerland " (Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps"), and Israel ("Rabies").  It is particularly interesting that the last two films are the first-ever genre productions from these two countries and that even 'foreign' horror films have never previously found an audience in Israel.  The Norwegian and German movies were passing fair but not great, although the formidable trolls in the first film's 'found footage' were well conceived; the German film started off as English-speaking as some adventurous tourists pay to explore Berlin's underground tunnels, but then moved into German dialogue (and the production company omitted to send a print with subtitles!).  The Dutch movie from Dick Maas, the man behind "The Elevator" and "Amsterdamned", turns the Netherlands Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, into a murderous fiend, a bishop-turned-pirate, who kills adults and abducts children when there is a full moon on his December 5th Saint's Day, aided by his zombiefied Black Peters. Well done gory fun!  The Swiss film was something well out of the ordinary based on folklore.  When lonely mountain men crave female companionship, they can build their ideal woman from a straw broom and some rags. Lo and behold, a desirable beauty appears, but they find that she will take her murderous revenge for the crimes against her kind over the years.  As for the Israeli entry, the story has nothing whatsoever to do with rabies, but rather with the rabid and irrational behaviour that can manifest itself in the most ordinary of folk; most of the ten main protagonists (two yuppie couples, a park ranger and his girlfriend, an incestuous brother and sister, two mismatched cops) meet bloody and unexpected ends, while the local maniac-at-large is not responsible for their deaths and is one of the few characters to walk away from the debacle.

The Israeli film was actually one of the alternatives from the fest's small 'Discovery' screen and proved so popular a selection that a third screening had to be scheduled for the first time ever.  We watched three other movies at this venue for independent cinema and they were a mixed bag, although all had something going for them.  "A Horrible Way to Die" should have been subtitled 'A Horrible Way to Make a Movie';  its director took what was actually a very clever premise of an escaped serial killer's ex-girlfriend trying to build a new life under the witness protection programme and Alcoholics Anonymous, but finding that there are those who actually revere the prowess of her former boyfriend, and weakened the narrative by employing some artsy-fartsy camera shots through fairy lights. "My Sucky Teen Romance" was an accomplished bit of  mayhem comedy written and directed by an 18 year-old Texan gal; while obviously extremely low-budget filmmaking, she successfully captured the yearning and traumas of teenaged infatuation, especially if your crush is on a newbie vampire. "The Caller" was an an interesting American indie set in Puerto Rico of all places (home of dengue fever -- in joke!).  Strongly cast with Rachelle Lefevre, Stephen Moyer, and Luis Guzman, the newly-divorced heroine moves into her new apartment and starts receiving threatening phone calls from someone's past; we gradually discover that it is impossible to work out what constitutes her reality and what is the product of her overstressed imagination.   All well done -- but why Puerto Rico for a largely non-ethnic cast?

Guess what...I've run out of steam.  I had intended to include two compendium movies in today's digest, but will hold these for my second summary, along with three jokey horror movies, and the remaining eight assorted American and British premieres.  In the words of you know who, I'll be back...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kin-Dza-Dza (1987)

Every time I look in despair at what's showing at my local multiplex or what is forthcoming on television -- finding nothing that I am in any particular hurry to view, I need to remind myself that there is a whole world of worthwhile cinema experiences out there.  One just needs to find them. This Russian film is apparently a cult item in its native country, but it is relatively unknown in the West.  I believe discs have previously been available Stateside and clips are available on You-Tube and the like, but this is a supreme instance of a movie that deserves to be better known.

From a popular director Georgi Danelia and starring a quartet of well-known actors (Stanislav Liubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Yevgeni Leonov, and Yuri Yakovlov -- no, me neither!), this is a hugely imaginative and enjoyable sci-fi/comedy romp.  Its 135 minutes running time passes swiftly, despite what appears to the Western eye as cheapjack movie-making.  It is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic fantasy achieved with little recourse to the special effects which dominate our films today.  It is also, if one can picture oneself in the pre-glasnost/perestroika era, a brave satire on communist society of the day; it's a wonder that the movie wasn't banned.

Two strangers on a busy Moscow street try to help a barefoot man who is either lost or drunk and accidently find themselves teleported to the barren planet of Pluk in the Kin-Dza-Dza galaxy.  They are temporarily befriended by two untrustworthy natives in a primitive flying machine, whose sole dialogue consists of two words: Koo and Kyoo (the latter is their expletive).  However the planet is technologically evolved and they can read minds and converse in Russian.  Pluk has become the slum area of the universe; all of its resources have been exhausted -- its rivers have dried up, its terrain is one sandy waste, and its cyberpunk inhabitants live largely in holes in the ground.  A wrecked sailing ship and a totally incongruous skeleton Ferris wheel are the few remaining hints of a once flourishing culture.  The land is moribund and its population faces extinction. 

 While our two mismatched heroes (a family man and a student trying to return a valuable violin to one of his professors) try to find a way home, they are exposed to the rottenest of class systems.  They are of course considered part of the lower caste; they must wear distinguishing nose-rings, must address their so-called superiors from cages, and must bow extravagantly whenever addressing one of the 'masters'.  Only their possession of a box of matches gives them any bargaining cachet. Mysteriously these vitually inexpensive items from our world are treasured in Pluk's strange society, a world without hope or a future. The most its lesser inhabitants can look forward to is to be transformed into plants on an adjacent planet, which is potentially better than being boxed up in a bed of nails should they fall foul of the planet's lazy and inept superiors.  To raise funds in the local currency to ease their journey, the two attempt to serenade the locals with their versions of popular songs and the odd American pop standard., accompanied by the now semi-destroyed and glued together violin.

I think you get the idea.  This is one very weird movie and one that could be recommended to the pickiest of sci-fi fans.  Unfortunately, however, it is not that easy to find, but well worth the search.

It's that time of the year again!  We are off to our FrightFest weekend running this Thursday through Monday, so there will be nothing from me until Tuesday the 30th at the earliest.  However I promise you then a thorough report on what's new and exciting in the realms of horror and fantasy and what to watch out for over the coming months.

Thursday, 18 August 2011


If you scroll down to my 29 July entry, you will find that I was disappointed in my attempt to see Rutger Hauer's "Hobo with a Shotgun" (2011).  So when it eventually reappeared at the Prince Charles, off we went -- to find that it was even more disappointing to actually see this Canadian-made rubbish.  Unfortunately even Hauer's screen charisma is not enough to save this splatterfest.  He plays the hobo of the title who rides the rails into a corrupt and lawless town where even the Chief of Police is a baddie.  The town is run by a sadistic Mr. Big, who with his two amoral sons (looking like overgrown Tom Cruise clones) delights in decaptitating his enemies, amongst other jolly tortures.  Good old Rutger is himself mutilated and especially horrified when the local women (most of whom seem to be prostitutes) are threatened. He grabs a shotgun (with a neverending supply of ammo) to mete out his idea of justice and revenge, becoming some sort of local hero in the process.  All he really wants, mind you, is an electric lawnmower so he can start his own grass-cutting business! The screen runs red with the gore effects, but the film is so amateurishly made with so hopeless a supporting cast that the net result is waste of time.

So once again in the hope of compensation and loftier film-making, I turned to two foreign-language films which have been loitering on my hard-disc.  Both appear to be extremely well-thought of, but I found both to be over-rated disappointments, easy enough to watch but strangely unfulfilling.  Could be it's me!  Anyhow here goes:

Still Walking (2008): This Japanese film received numerous Asian filmfest awards for its director Hirokazu Koreeda and other gongs for some of its ensemble actors, but it was rather slow-going and uninvolving.  The film tells of one day in the life of a family; a surviving son and daughter, together with their respective spouses and offspring, have reluctantly come to visit their elderly parents to commemorate the death of the eldest and favoured son some fifteen years earlier.  Grandpa, a retired doctor, sulks most of the time that no one has followed in his medical footsteps.  Grandma fusses over the food, her children, and her rather noisy grandchildren.  The daughter wants to move her family back to her parents' home to supposedly look after them in their dotage -- a suggestion that fills her mother with despair.  The son is an art restorer who barely scrapes a living and he has married a widow with a young child -- none of which sits well with the elders.  Then the now very fat and gormless young man, whom the beloved dead son drowned whilst saving, arrives to pay his respects, adding to the air of gloom in the household.  It is all very Ozu-y in feel, but not a movie to lighten one's heart and it is too pedestrian an effort to enchant.

Mid-August Lunch (2008):  I was quite looking forward to seeing this Italian film whose supposed charm preceded it.  Written and directed by and starring Gianni Di Gregorio (the screenwriter for the much better "Gomorrah" of the same year), it is not exactly a vanity piece but it is an ever-so-slight confection.  He plays a middle-aged man called Gianni who lives with his aged mother (a grotesque played by 93-year old Valeria DeFranciscus) and who pursues a shiftless hand-to-mouth existence.  His landlord threatens eviction for non-payment of rent unless he agrees to look after his aging mother and aunt over the holiday weekend when everyone wants to leave Rome.  He is then lumbered with another old dear foisted upon him by his doctor.  The film focuses on his attempt to feed and accommodate the various ladies, their gripes, and their interaction.  The raw material was there to create a charming and amusing scenario, but somehow it didn't seem to mesh, and even at a scant 75 minutes, I had a surfeit of their company.  I gather DiGregorio has just released another movie "The Salt of Life" where he plays a different Gianni and again co-stars with the now even older DeFranciscus.  It's had mildly lukewarm reviews, but I won't be queuing up to sample its probably dubious attractions.

I hope to be more positive next time!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Bedroom Window (1987)

Somewhere I accumulated a DVD of this movie which I had not watched again in over twenty years, since from memory there was nothing particularly amazing about it.  Viewing it again was not an unpleasant experience in any way -- in fact it was moderately enjoyable, but it did get me thinking about the transient path of so many acting careers.  It is the story of a love-struck executive having an affair with his hot-shot employer's wife.  On the night the relationship begins, she witnesses a brutal attack in the park opposite his bedroom window and her screams and the sight of her naked body cause the culprit to flee, saving his immediate victim but priming him for another murderous attack soon thereafter.  The mistress has had a good view of the assailant, but is too concerned with her marriage and infidelity to contact the police, so our feckless hero pretends that it was he who had witnessed the outrage and who could identify the perp.  Of course nothing goes as intended and he soon finds himself the main suspect in several related murders.  It is a kind of sub-Hitchcock farrago with its themes of voyeurism and an innocent man on the run, desperate to clear his name as the evidence against him mounts.  The film was the first mainstream feature from writer-director Curtis Hanson, whose career has continued an upward trend, although possibly it peaked with "L.A. Confidential".

The three leads are Steve Guttenberg, Isabelle Huppert as the adulteress, and Elizabeth McGovern as the attackee in the park.  How very different the courses of their respective careers have been. Guttenberg first came to one's attention as part of the ensemble in "Diner" (1982), and went on to headline the first four "Police Academy" movies, the reasonably entertaining "Four Men and a Baby", and the geriatric fantasy "Cocoon".  However his career since the late eighties has gone rapidly downhill and while still in evidence in disposable TV movies, he has done nothing to write home about since.  In the above film, however, while no Cary Grant, he plays a likeable enough romantic leading man trying to become an action hero in fraught circumstances just beyond his control.  It is quite possibly the only role that has stretched his acting chops in his long 'career' and it might even be his best.

French actress Huppert, on the other hand, has had an increasingly illustrious career both in film and on stage, and is the most-nominated actress for France's Cesar award.  She has occasionally dabbled in American movies since her appearance in 1980's "Heaven's Gate".  She had an interesting role in Hal Hartley's "Amateur" (1994) and an incomprehenisble one in "I Heart Huckabees" (2004).  Why she agrees to these overseas roles when she is such a venerated art-house darling in her native country is a very good question, which probably has little to do with financial rewards given the movies in which she has featured.  Oddly enough her role in the film under consideration here was really nothing special and could just as well have been played by a number of American actresses of the day, but nowadays she seems to go from strength to strength.

As for McGovern, she was a fine young leading lady throughout the 1980s, starting with her debut in "Ordinary People" and giving memorable performances in "Ragtime" and "Once Upon a Time in America".  However she is rarely seen on the big screen nowadays, although she is still working, having married a British television producer/director in 1992 and relocated to London, where she has appeared in numberous TV offerings.  She does take an occasional small part in mainstream movies (most recently "Kick-Ass"), but the superstar potential seen in her earliest features has been shelved for the possibly more fulfilling role of wife and mother. In this film her feisty and brave performance complements Guttenberg's, making him look all the better. 

This movie is far from one of the world's greatest contributions to cinema, but it holds up reasonably well these twenty-odd years on.  So why, I ask you, is it being remade for 2012 by Kevin Williamson?  I can't begin to imagine how he plans to revamp this relatively pedestrian thriller or how in the world he thinks he can improve upon it.  Answers on a postcard, please.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Departures (2008)

There has been an official Oscar category for best foreign film since 1956 when the winner was Fellini's "La Strada". Between 1947 and 1955, a foreign language film was selected for an honourary Oscar.  I have seen most of these sixty-odd movies and have copies of quite a few that I particularly liked, although there have been several that were watchable but not 'keepers' in my book, like the soppy "Life Is Beautiful" (1998).  Then there have been a number that have eluded me: "Walls of Malapaga" (1950), "Gate of Hell" (1954), "Black and White in Color" (1976) to name a few.  However while I don't bend over backwards to find showings for all of them, I am always happy to tick off another one from the winners' list.

This recent Japanese winner seems an unlikely choice in a year with crowd-pleasers such as "Waltz with Bashir", but since the eventual winner can only be selected from those Academy members who have actually seen the film, the voting numbers are potentially low.  One reason that it seems a surprise winner is its theme of death -- and the very Japanese way of dealing with it.  Our hero, Masahiro Motoki, (an actor unfamiliar to me) is a cellist in a second-tier symphony orchestra which plays beautifully but which attracts a scant paying audience on its provincial tour.  When the owner disbands the orchestra, Daigo knows he is unlikely to find another musical position and moves back with his young wife to the small town where he was raised and into the house left to him by his recently deceased mother.  He sees an advertisement in the local paper for an inexperienced young man to assist with 'departures'.  Thinking this is some sort of travel agency work, he applies and is immediately hired by the firm's boss who explains that there was a typo in the want-ad and that the work involves the departed.  He reluctantly accepts the position since the money is good, but is ashamed to tell his wife what he is doing, since there seems to be a widespread prejudice against dealing with the deceased -- as if death were contagious.

It is a Japanese custom to wash and prepare the dead body in front of the grieving family, being careful to expose no flesh, as a way of helping them accept their loss.  This is not done by the undertakers but it is a niche market into which Daigo has fallen.  At first the movie appears to be a comedy and is played for occasional laughs, such as the scene when our hapless hero reaches under the shroud of a young female suicide and discovers that 'she' is a 'he' or when he is instructed to play the corpse in a training video.  However it takes a more serious turn as the film progresses.  Having discovered the nature of his work, his ashamed wife leaves him and his friends in town jeer at his occupation.  However when she discovers that she is pregnant, she returns and gradually realises the tenderness and compassion in what he does when a family friend dies.  Finally he prepares the body of the father who deserted his mother when he was six and who has not been in touch over the years, finding a reconciliation with his past that has previously escaped him.  

The movie is very chokey without being depressing, but the subject matter is unlikely to lift the audience in any 'feel-good' way.  Although it is all very tastefully done, it is not a film which would encourage multiple viewings.  I'm glad to have seen it, but once is enough.  The film's director, Yojiro Takita, has had a long career which includes the recent movies "The Yin Yang Master" (2001) -- a fantasy and "When the Last Sword is Drawn" (2003) -- a samurai saga, so this Oscar winner is something of a complete change of pace.  Some might find the film slow and the subject matter a little offputting, but one must acknowledge the genuine sincerity with which this unusual story is told.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Good Intentions

Foiled again!  I had planned to write a learned dissertation on John Huston's 1970 flop, "The Kremlin Letter", which has only now belatedly been released on DVD.  All that I could recall of my television viewing of this movie some many years ago was that George Sanders appeared in drag.  Well, yes he does -- very briefly -- before reverting to a somewhat camp character in what is actually a throwaway role in his penultimate film.  However having seen the film again yesterday, I am at a loss to frame a positive review.  It is a very dense, nearly literal interpretation, of Noel Behn's political Cold War thriller, very hard to follow, understand, or get caught up in.  You might think that with a cast that includes Max von Sydow, Orson Welles, Bibi Andersson, and a bleached blonde Richard Boone, to say nothing about Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, Lila Kedrova, Raf Vallone, Michael MacLiammoir, and nominal leads Patick O'Neal and Barbara Parkins, that the acting alone might redeem this movie.  Unfortunately it doesn't, with few of them given the opportunity to shine.  Perhaps it is one of those films which demands another viewing to start getting into the hopefully involving intrigue, but I can see it being a while before I can face this dense screenplay again.

Something's Gotta Give (2003):  So once again for a change of pace I shall revisit this Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson rom-com.  I would have taken bets that I had reviewed it previously in my old blog -- but can't seem to find it; nevermind, let's look at it afresh.  This confection from writer/director Nancy Meyers, a follow-up to her 2000 breakthrough "What Women Want" and a precursor of 2009's charmer "It's Complicated" is not just a movie for the 'older woman' but more generally a rib-tickler for mature viewers of either sex.  Keaton is a divorced, self-sufficient, and highly thought-of dramatist whose 30-year old daughter, Amanda Peet, turns up with her latest beau, a 63-year old Nicholson -- playing the perennial bachelor well-known for his flings with young women.  When a near heart attack lands him in Keaton's care at her beach house, sparks begin to fly and they end up in bed together. However after a few days' idyll, Nicholson returns to his erstwhile life as a swinger in the Big Apple, and Keaton having found room in her life once again for both sex and love, reacts like a heartbroken teenager at his apparent rejection.  If anything she over-reacts and therefore slightly over-acts.  In the meantime the young heart surgeon played by a relatively mature and non-doofus Keanu Reeves is smitten with Keaton and makes his move, despite the vast difference in their ages.  Without going too far into spoilers (although it doesn't take much nous to guess how things resolve themselves), one actually begins to feel sorry for nice Doctor Keanu and his puppy-like devotion.

Keaton's next Broadway hit is a 'comedy' about the disastrous results of a woman falling for her daughter's boyfriend, killing off the swine at the end of the second act. Nicholson realises that he has become a mockable figure of fun and that his has been a full but unfulfilling life, causing further medical 'episodes'.  His new doctor tells him to avoid stress and to re-evaluate what is really important. Part of the denouement revolves around his seeking out old girlfriends to discover what has gone wrong with his life (a plot device stolen in toto by Jim Jarmusch's 2005 showcase for Bill Murray, "Broken Flowers".)  His growing insight into what really matters is handled both cleverly and skillfully by the actor, even while it plays upon Nicholson's own playboy rep.  Apart from Keaton's brief OTT heartbrokeness, her comic timing remains superb, and there are also some nice turns from Jon Favreau, Paul Michael Glaser, Rachel Ticotin, and Frances McDormand, but the acting honours belong mostly to Nicholson.

One small detail that puzzles me.  When I first saw the film, in the scene where Nicholson inadvertently wanders into Keaton's bedroom and finds her in the nude, the focus of his attention was her unmaintained and bushy lower parts -- a symbolic difference between many older women and the bimbos that he has been dating.  In the version I just watched, this is missing and the emphasis is on her bare breasts -- almost certainly a body double's.  It seems a strange bit of re-editing! But if Spielberg can delete the guns from "E.T.", all sorts of political correctness can abound, most of it for no good purpose.