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Top 10 Charlie Chaplin Films November 13, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1940s, 1950s, Drama, Top 10s, Film reviews, Short Film , add a comment

In my latest Top 10 list I look at Charlie Chaplin’s best films from his early short silent work to the longer feature-length “talkies”.

Charlie Chaplin was not just a silent movie actor, he was an icon of early cinema. Chaplin was a writer, director, performer, producer, as well as composer, and the co-founder of revolutionary studio United Artists.

He learnt his knack for comedy working in travelling vaudeville shows, performing with musicians, magicians, dancers, comedians, and even animals. His live material would be honed directly for the cinema when he started making films for Keystone Studios in the early 1910s. Early two-reel films, which Chaplin wrote and directed such as “The Tramp” and “Easy Street”, showed plenty of potential in the man who had yet to see his thirtieth birthday. His films were based on slapstick routines that were very carefully orchestrated and performed. His unique talent had a richness of character and a rebellious yet caring heart. Read More

I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007) April 7, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007)

Dir. Francis Lawrence; starring Will Smith, Alice Braga

It’s surprising to see such a restrained, mannered big-budget Hollywood film delivered by music video director Francis Lawrence. Lawrence failed to ignite much devotion from casual comic book fans with his muddled adaptation Constantine, so it’s refreshing to see a young director, bred on the quick-fix conventions of recent blockbusters, produce such an interesting, and at times, powerful film.

I Am Legend sees Will Smith’s military scientist Robert Neville stuck in a post-apocalyptic New York City alone when a cancer cure turns the populace into flesh-eating, genetically-mutated zombies. He is entirely alone apart from loyal pet dog Sam. Lawrence mixes some beautifully haunting images of a desolate city with flashbacks of an earlier period when the virus began to spread. In present day, Neville travels by daylight, broadcasting everyday on radio in the hope of finding more survivors. By night, when the mutated humans come out to feed, he works in his fortress-like laboratory desperately trying to find a cure.

The film may be littered with plot holes but this doesn’t detract from Neville’s story. This is indeed a character study of an obsessed but decaying man, dealing with a loss of lives he feels responsible for, and who, imprisoned in the endless expanse of an empty city, begins to mentally and physically breakdown. Although immune to the virus, he is not immune to its destructive affect on the modern, thriving society he can only remember in dreams. Now he only has his work and the dog for company. Finding a cure is as much a delusion as it is a compulsion. It’s the only thing he has left to live for.

Will Smith portrays Neville as a brilliant mind on the brink of insanity. His daily jaunts to the local video store see him talking to the mannequins as if they were real patrons, and he even believes one of them is flirting with him. Seeing this very logical scientist lose all sense of reality is as much tragic as it is heartfelt. When he does finally meet a survivor he can’t deal with them being in his life, in his space. He has become so overwhelmed with a single goal, and so accustomed to a life without interaction with any other human being, he’s almost unwilling to accept he’s not alone.

Lawrence doesn’t confuse the issue with too much exposition. Much of the background story is left unnourished - we don’t know why Neville and his dog are immune to the virus, or why the mutations are harmed by sunlight (apart from it being a generic part of a Vampire’s make-up). Lawrence, on the other hand, forces us to focus on Neville’s adaptation to this new world - the pseudo-caveman with all the mod-con gadgets in the world but no one to share them with. But, the film could have done without the poor execution of special-effects for the mutations themselves. There isn’t the sense of authenticity shown in the likes of 28 Days Later as the zombies in I Am Legend look like something cut and pasted from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy.

While Lawrence resorts to convention at the end, the climax is not without its considerable surprises. As Bob Marley’s Redemption Song plays over the credits, I Am Legend leaves you with a sense of the human spirit, and the strength of that spirit when faced with even the most impossible situation. It’s hardly a perfect film but with Lawrence’s assured direction and Will Smith’s captivating one-man show, I Am Legend deserves an audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Juno (Reitman, USA/Canada, 2007) March 31, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Drama, Film reviews , 1 comment so far

Dir. Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, Eileen Pedde, Rainn[sic] Wilson, Emily Perkins

It’s obvious why Juno has been lavished with praise from critics and filmgoers alike. There’s a brilliant central performance from Ellen Page (who, while looking the sixteen years of her character, is a relative veteran of film and television having being in the business for more than ten years when Juno started shooting), and a terrifically idiosyncratic and perceptive screenplay from debut writer Diablo Cody. Cody’s script is defiantly gendered but that’s part of its charm: an intelligent, witty film of high school pregnancy that seeks to draw light on an under-nourished and important issue from the female perspective. And it works particularly well because Page is so beautifully immersed in the character of Juno – the girl who gets pregnant and decides instead of abortion she will allow a couple who can’t have children adopt her baby.

And that’s the central conceit of the story. Juno is an atypical sixteen year old teenager with her own oddball characteristics. She’s trying to find her own identity (Cody’s script never resorts to the sort cliche that gives the character all the answers by the closing credits) and her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) is trying to find his own too. One evening they decide to have sex and Juno gets pregnant. At first believing abortion is the only option, she gives up on the idea when she realises she can help a couple who cannot have children get their wish. That brings her to the attention of Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), a successful suburban couple who desperately want children but can’t get pregnant. During the pregnancy Juno gets closer to the couple on an individual basis. She sees in Vanessa a love of children and of life, something she herself could not comprehend when contemplating abortion; while Mark is the sort of man Juno can relate to on a personal level, each having a love of music, horror movies, and pop-culture. And inevitably, Juno begins to come round to the idea pregnancy isn’t the life-destroying burden she thought it was.

It’s apparent in the film that no matter how you govern teenage sex, relationships - whether they be between a pair of sixteen year olds losing their virginity or a thirty-something married couple - don’t always work the way you’d like them to. That, in itself, isn’t very profound, but Cody stylishly places it in the same bracket as the vilification of abortion and teenager sex and the inherent hypocrisy in conservative ideology on the subject. The film treats young people with a lot of respect, as it does the single parent, in that because an adult couple may have financial security, they may not have security in their relationship. Juno breaks down those sugar-coated ideals of the perfect American family and lays them bare for a young audience to interpret them as they see fit.

There’s a great dynamic between Juno and Mark in that they appear more compatible as a couple than he and Vanessa. They share the same taste in music and films, and Juno is fascinated by Mark’s job as a songwriter. It’s obvious that Mark sees in Juno the youthful exuberance he once had. He feels the baby may stifle his own creative desires, and the thought of impending responsibility frightens him. Indeed, it’s interesting how Cody sees the man as the most perturbed over the whole adoption, even more so than expectant mother Juno. Director Jason Reitman brilliantly displays Juno and Mark’s relationship, hinting at physical attraction, but above all showing the fragile nature of so-called love and marriage. In a way, it’s the insecurity of security.

But the film works so well because of the performance of Ellen Page. She’s irresistibly good – it’s the sort of standout performance akin to Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite that places a young actor on the proverbial map. Aside from both films being named after their teenager title characters, Juno shares a lot in common with Jared Hess’ high school nerd Napoleon. These characters are ostracized by their peers, and have become disillusioned with the monotony of their lives. And, both films celebrate the idea of the individual over socially acceptable clique. No less importantly, they both also feature fantastic alternative rock soundtracks. Page embodies Juno’s idiosyncrasies as if she had lived the character in a previous life – she’s tenacious, cool, smart and quick-thinking, but she’s also troubled, mindful of her own responsibility but proactive in her mistakes. Page has the look of a young actress but the quality and command of an experienced one.

Juno is a measured, thoughtful, and insightful commentary on modern teenager life, relationships, sex, and pregnancy. Diablo Cody’s brilliant script is funny and tragic, drawing on a very authentic representation of its characters with the sumptuous Juno at its centre. With Ellen Page’s commanding yet beautifully mannered performance, Juno is destined to become one of the most talked about teen comedy-dramas of the decade.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)
Dir. David Cronenberg; starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen

Eastern Promises starts in typical Cronenberg fashion. As a Russian Mafiosi is getting his hair cut in a small salon, a mentally disabled man walks in and starts talking to the hairdresser. The three men are the only people in the salon. The hairdresser asks the man to shave the customer. He hands him the razor blade. Suddenly the man bursts into rage, taking the razor to the customer’s throat and, in true Cronenberg style, slicing it from ear to ear with blood gushing, breathless detail. This is our introduction to the Russian criminal underworld in London.

To read my full review - Click HERE

Stalag 17 (Wilder, USA, 1953) March 26, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1950s, Drama, Film reviews , add a comment

Stalag 17 (Wilder, USA, 1953) Dir. Billy Wilder; starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Sig Ruman, Michael Moore, Peter Baldwin

Stalag 17 arrived only a couple of years after writer-director Billy Wilder saw his social commentary Ace In The Hole receive a muted reception from critics and filmgoers alike. It was a daring project to undertake - the remnants of world war were still very evident in 1953, and the setting for a comedic drama in a German prison camp could easily be misconstrued as insensitive or even naive. But Stalag 17 is neither. Wilder, who was deeply affected by the war (born in what is now Poland, he lived in Berlin for a time before fleeing Germany after the rise of Adolf Hitler. His mother, stepfather, and grandmother were all killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp) sees these American prisoners in a unique and entertaining light - as racketeers and petty mischief’s. They make the best of a bad situation, while their escape attempts and clandestine bureaucracy give them a sense of hope; that they can still contribute to the war effort where their participation in the battle is almost certainly at an end.

What may have become cliche later - with the popular appeal of Steve McQueen-fronted The Great Escape, and the iconic stars of Escape To Victory - Stalag 17 was a fresh-faced, uniquely written, and assuredly directed film about life in a prison-of-war camp. Wilder may overlook some of the darker attributes of Nazi occupation, but the cynicism he portrays through William Holden’s Sefton is a perfect indictment of the human condition when basic liberties are rescinded.

Sefton is the sort of love-hate character that instantly draws your attention and maintains it - some of his actions are repugnant but at the same time you can, perhaps begrudgingly, relate to the motivation. The film begins with the escape attempt of two sergeants. Sefton takes bets on their survival, putting his own money (or cigarettes in this case) on them failing. When the sirens begin to sound and gunshots are heard the fate of the two prisoners is obvious. Sefton wins the bet. Believing there’s a “stoolie” in their ranks, since the German’s always seem to be one step ahead of their plans, Sefton becomes the prime suspect. He is far too complacent when betting against the escape attempt, and his constant trading with the guards for extra privileges is held in contempt by hisfellow inmates because he only benefits himself.

Holden, who actually pleaded with Wilder during principle photography to make Sefton more likeable, was rightly awarded the Oscar for best actor in 1954. Holden didn’t get his way with the character however, seeing Sefton’s selfish ego betray the trust of his fellow prisoners. But Wilder wants you to despise Sefton - whether for his lack of patriotism or his disregard for others - because it’s in this that his character becomes totally captivating. Again, it goes back to the idea that you don’t have to like someone to understand their motivation. When Sefton is beaten up because the rest of the camp believe he’s the bad guy, he’s forced to find the real culprit the only way he knows how: through self preservation. Wilder allows Sefton to achieve vindication but his actions throughout remain conceited and self aware. And that’s the beauty of Stalag 17 - how it takes your conception of conventional morality and asks you to become complicit in its subversion.

But Stalag 17 is more than just a film about Sefton. Wilder combines the talents of an excellent ensemble of actors to create a real sense camaraderie and friendship amongst the inmates. They even have a playful relationship with the guards (where Wilder doesn’t resort to the sort of Spielberg Manichean mentality that sees all German soldiers as uncompromisingly evil purveyors of Hitler’s every whim) and Sig Ruman’s portrayal of Col. Von Scherbach provides some of the films funniest moments. However, Wilder does allow Robert Strauss as prison idiot Stanislas “Animal” Kasava to go over the top with his neurotic shenanigans and obsession with the female inmates of a nearby women’s prison camp. I found Marko the Mailman’s high-pitched “At ease, at ease” statement before every sentence far funnier.

Stalag 17 isn’t Wilder’s best film nor is it his most authentic. But then again sub-par Wilder is better than most. Most importantly, the film is hugely entertaining, funny, and tragic: that perfect blend of attributes Wilder seamlessly finds in every story he points his camera at.

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK/USA, 2008) March 9, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

In Bruges is a curious film from fledgling English director Martin McDonagh. It tells the tale of two contract killers holed up in the historic Belgium city of the film’s title awaiting further orders after a botched assassination. However, interestingly rather than detrimentally, the film plays much like an action movie without any action, as if the more lively aspects of the plot happen before the movie begins and after it finishes. Unsurprisingly, it’s because of this the film is hard to place in a conventional sense. And, ultimately, it’s all the better for it.

Colin Farrell plays Ray, a man who has found his calling under the tutelage of hit-man veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson). The pair check into a Bruges hotel booked for them by boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) after completing a mission in London. McDonagh plays on the generation gap between Ray and Ken: they’re like father and son on holiday together. Ray can’t stand Bruges, it doesn’t offer him any excitement. Ken, on the other hand, loves the preserved city and its historic buildings and picturesque cobbled streets.

But Ken sees something in Ray’s youthful vitality that mirrors his own introduction to the world of contract killing. He also sees the pain and anguish that first got his young student into the game, and which was exacerbated by his accidental killing of a child on his first assignment. McDonagh focuses all his early attention on this parental-like relationship between the two hit-men, providing some lovely moments of endearing humour and poignant sadness.

The film’s pedestrian pace shows its roots in the western genre. In Bruges is very much a thinly-veiled European-based western in the conventional sense: it has the anti-hero characters fighting a cause beneath the law, the one town setting which the hit-men walk into at the beginning of the film, and the final shoot out. But McDonagh never allows the film, even during the almost plot-less first half, to become… [More]

Full review posted HERE

Children of Men (2006, USA/UK, 2006) February 22, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Crime , add a comment

Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak but brilliant film set in a self-destructive future born out of fascist authoritarianism and humanity’s loss of fertility is a damning, uncompromising picture of one possible eventuality. As a picture postcard of what a British National Party-run Britain could be, Cuaron’s film is the perfect antidote to their political and cultural ignorance. The film is deeply affecting, not just in its graphic depiction of violence and a society overrun by narcissism and government indignation, but in its believable view of a future not too distant from our own. Children of Men is a fascinating, original and frightening film that cuts so closely to the bone it actually hurts.

Clive Owen plays Dillon, a working man who has left his activism days behind him. When an old flame (Julianne Moore) arrives with a proposition, he finds himself thrust into a political nightmare. Britain, in the 2020’s is, like every other nation on earth, dying out. Infertility has taken hold. No babies have been born for nearly twenty years and when the youngest man on earth is murdered, the tabloid news has, as you’d expect, nothing better to focus on. Migration has become a thing of the past in the United Kingdom. All non-Brits are holed up in detention camps not unlike Nazi ghettos during World War 2, and random acts of brutality and murder are rife. Dillon is tasked to help a refugee escape the country. What he doesn’t know is that a miracle has occurred - the girl is pregnant. However, after Moore’s character is brutally killed by her own people, Dillon finds himself trying to escape the police who wrongly believe…[MORE]

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain, 2006) February 16, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Sci-fi/Fantasy, War, Foreign Language , add a comment

There’s a simple, innocent beauty amidst Guillermo Del Toro’s harrowing tale of one girl’s desperation to escape during the bloody Spanish Civil War. Set just after the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth sees a pregnant mother and daughter travelling to see the unborn child’s father - a Captain in the oppressive Spanish army - who is based at an outpost to stop advancing revolutionaries. The daughter - Ofelia (Ivana Baguero) - knows that the man who has fathered her half-brother is not interested in either her or her mother. She feels at once betrayed by her mother for bringing her to this awful place and yet their love is unbreakable, and at the same time fearful and untrusting of Captain Vidal. She is given the chance to escape this terrible world when visited by a Faun who tells her she is a Princess from another world. She can return to her kingdom if she completes three magical tasks. [Click HERE for FULL REVIEW]

Vantage Point (Pete Travis, USA, 2008) March 14, 2008

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , 5 comments

Vantage Point Links: Trailer / Imdb

Directed by Pete Travis; screenplay by Berry Levy; starring Dennis Quaid, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Fox, Edgar Ramirez, Bruce McGill, Sigourney Weaver
Dennis Quaid has always been an actor I’ve admired. His emotion is right their in his face – in the jagged contours of rugged skin and eyes that can look straight through you. Since he lost the pretty-boy shine of his 1979 underappreciated classic Breaking Away, and a little later the rightly unappreciated Jaws 3, he’s been one of Hollywood’s most dependable assets. However, often the films themselves haven’t stood up to his understated stature. Indeed, if it wasn’t for his output in 2000 (Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Gregory Hoblit’s Back To The Future-like Frequency) many wouldn’t even know who he is. It’s a shame then, given high expectations from an energetic trailer and promise shown previously by director Pete Travis, that Vantage Point has to shelved under Patriotic Pap with all the other vacuous Hollywood actioners of the past few years.

Essentially, Vantage Point fails because it negates to recognise the inherent criticism of its narrative is also a criticism of itself. We are presented different viewpoints of the same event – beginning, not arbitrarily in a newsroom – evidentially showing that perspective can really affect opinion and knowledge of an event. That in itself isn’t particularly profound, but in terms of the media (especially the U.S networks such as Fox), it’s something worthy of investigation. However, director Pete Travis quickly forgets his opening ten minutes, finding more satisfaction in glossing over a clichéd and particularly convoluted plot with flashbacks to different characters. That’s where we find the route of the problem. Vantage Point may be unique for the first half-hour (it’ll suck you in with its quick pace and fast-editing) but the narrative extravagance wears off. You take the film at a stripped-down, bare-bones level, and it becomes an overblown movie, that is at times confusing and frequently makes little sense.

The plot concerns the American president’s visit to Spain for a public meeting regarding world terrorism. Unfortunately, or should that be ironically, the president gets shot twice from a sniper secreted in one of the nearby buildings. An explosion is heard and then another huge blast destroys the podium where the president was addressing the crowd. The initial pandemonium after the shooting is turned into utter devastation. We see this same sequence played out from several viewpoints – the GNN news team and their cameras (with Sigourney Weaver in charge), the secret agent guarding the president (Dennis Quaid), an onlooker and his video camera (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish police office (Eduardo Noriega), eventually getting to the president himself (William Hurt).

I didn’t have a problem with the repeated narrative but I did have issue with the way it was used. The first half hour is tense and exciting but ultimately unfulfilling. Travis hardly gives us a political thriller with any bite, so the next best thing would be at least a critical evaluation of the all-too powerful U.S. media. Maybe how their anchored news based on bias, political and commercial agendas affects mass audience, told through Hollywood action and suspense. But no, we get red-herrings, the usual patriotism, and the same kind mass audience manipulation seen in the likes of Fox news. When the film reverts back to the beginning for the fourth time you can’t help but will something else to happen, and although each character’s view gives us something new, it’s insignificant. That’s because the film’s biggest twist (twist being far too kind a word) is held back until halfway through when we shift further back in time to the president’s viewpoint.

In terms of twists – yes, it takes you by surprise – but it doesn’t treat the audience with any respect. If you’re going to show different viewpoints starting with your basic U.S. news network team with all their cameras and a reporter complaining of censorship, you’re setting precedence for the rest of the film. That being, given all the perspectives of an event, only then can you formulate a true meaning from it. Getting one perspective may be clouded in judgement, coloured by prejudice, and so on. The film doesn’t simply offer us all angles and allow us to generate opinion, it provides us information in a specific way, allowing plot details to come out and therefore placing the audience in the events as the director wants you to see and hear them. Okay, so aside from the manipulative hand of the director (it’s a film, we expect to go from A to B to C, from the first act to the second to the third), Travis holds back on the perhaps the most important perspective of all - that being the president himself. What we find out essentially – without giving it away – is that, yet again, human life can be easily discarded as long as someone stands in the way of a bullet heading the president’s way. This precarious tone didn’t sit right with me but it certainly wasn’t the only thing from the president’s viewpoint that failed. What you learn in literature is that red-herrings are fun but you shouldn’t hide something from the audience that the characters already know. I’d forgive this if (because we as an audience are inherently sided with the ‘good-guys’ we wouldn’t know what the ‘bad-guys’ know) the film didn’t use this as the most important aspect of the plot and indeed, the whole set-up for the film’s finale. However, it does, and therefore it’s one of the films major downfalls.

Perhaps the most telling reason why Vantage Point cannot be considered anything more than a letdown is the ending. Simply, the finale is too far-fetched. The audience is asked to suspend its disbelief for a film that has prided itself on documentary realism (Travis’ trademark handheld camerawork) and a sort of honest depiction of terrible, possibly real life events. First off, we have to accept that Dennis Quaid’s car can withstand a side-on crash and still manage to travel at speeds in pursuit of his target. We then have to accept that our culprit (I’m going to issue a spoiler warning right here, which will be in effect until the end of the paragraph!), having gone to all the trouble to set the whole assassination up (clearly proving he has little regard for human life), will swerve to miss a little girl standing in the road thus turning his own car over and thwarting his plans. In addition, Quaid’s car just so happens to crash fifty yards away, and in the midst of several smashed vehicles, he heads right for Bad Guy Number 1’s, opens the door and low and behold, case solved.

I think Pete Travis’ film’s ability to masquerade as something more than it really is, is the cause of my distaste. After all, as a piece of Hollywood fluff, it doesn’t do a lot wrong. It’s very quickly paced, doesn’t outstay its welcome with a running time around ninety minutes, and features some great character actors. Although I didn’t feel Forest Whitaker excelled, he’s still a wonderful talent, and there’s some lovely moments between him and a little girl before and after the shooting and explosions take place. Said Taghmaoui is also strong in his role but he doesn’t quite hit the sadistic unease of his Iraqi soldier in Three Kings, and that chilling speech about Michael Jackson’s face. Stand-out, as mentioned, has to be Dennis Quaid who’s like an old west gunslinger that has hung up his boots but come out of retirement for one last showdown. In the right role, which he definitely is here, all the lines on his face speak a thousand words and a hundred stories. In support, Sigourney Weaver plays the controlled TV news director who loses her rag when all hell breaks loose, but it’s a shame she isn’t more prominent.

Vantage Point is like cinematic plastic surgery. Essentially, director Pete Travis has given a face-lift to the convoluted, unoriginal Hollywood action film we’ve seen a hundred times, yet, forgot to patch up the cracks. It’s a calculated film with a cold message that will ultimately leave you unfulfilled.

Rating: 2 out of 5

© Copyright Daniel Stephens 2008

Death Sentence (James Wan, 2007, USA) February 22, 2008

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , 1 comment so far

Directed by James Wan; written by Ian Jeffers; starring Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Garrett Hedlund, Staurt Lafferty, John Goodman


It you want to see a movie that so perfectly encapsulates deux ex machina look no further than James Wan’s Death Sentence. It’s an unoriginal piece of filmmaking that hinges on one of the biggest horror clichés in the book. It’s a shame because director Wan definitely has an eye for action and suspense. Indeed, Death Sentence (about a man driven to revenge after his son is murdered and his family terrorised by a urban gang) might be messy but it’s taut and intriguing when Wan concentrates on his action sequences. It isn’t surprising since this is the writer-director who brought us the brilliant Saw. What is rather discouraging is the fact his blood-splattered revenge movie lacks Saw’s unique ability to stay one step ahead of the discerning horror fan and viewer. The grander scale of Death Sentence seems to limit the effectiveness of Wan’s directorial capabilities proving that bigger budgets and bigger stars hinder the talents of those once forced to utilize the ‘reigned-in’ limitations of low-budget independent cinema. When Wan attempts to be subtle in Death Sentence we find the film digress to colourless melodrama and soap-opera styling.

It’s also a shame that although the film does have a few twists they can’t help the fact it’s all in the wake of better cinematic excursions. As a take on I Spit On Your Grave, Death Sentence doesn’t have the political or socialistic undertones, while it doesn’t hold a candle to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Wan is a long way from creating the characterisation and tone of something like Deliverance, while his film lacks the vitality and overpowering tension of Dead Man’s Shoes. The film also lacks a strong central performance largely because Bacon’s Hume isn’t as well-written as say William Foster who was so brilliantly embodied by Micheal Douglas in Falling Down. Yet, the film begs and borrows from the more assured hands that feed it, and there is no more damaging criticism than the obvious truth – we’ve seen much better many times before.

Perhaps Wan’s main point here is how a man (in this case Kevin Bacon’s Mike Hume) degenerates from a loving father to a bloodied, shaven-headed killer. This is without a doubt the film’s most interesting aspect but it’s also the most poorly handled. It goes back to the beginning of the movie when the murder of his son takes place. They stop for petrol at a filling station because, quite out of the blue, Hume runs out of the stuff just after picking up his son from a hockey match. Immediately, I switched off. I couldn’t believe the film hinged on the most over-used cliché in horror film and literature. This sets precedence the film never gets over. Hume’s degeneration is based solely on unbelievable, poorly executed plot points and fake aesthetics. Are we really to believe shaving your head makes you immune to pain and a marksman with a shotgun? The film’s worst scene comes when – after buying what can only be called ‘a shit-load of guns’ – Bacon uses a how-to manual to learn how to use, fire, load and reload the weapons. He clearly struggles as he drops bullets and can’t load them properly. Suddenly, seconds later, after shaving his head and turning a solemn, bemused facial expression into stone-faced anger, he’s John J. Rambo. It’s the worst way to use a montage sequence and Wan does it clearly believing his audience are pre-schoolers (a fatal mistake since such young children wouldn’t even be allowed into the theatre to watch the movie).

As an action film it’s better than average – at times, taut and engaging. But as a piece of cinema that looks at one man’s destruction and the fall of patriarchal society, it’s soap-opera with Hollywood bells and whistles.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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