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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

Disturbia (D.J. Caruso, 2007, USA) September 26, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 2000s, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense, Romance , add a comment

Dir. D.J. Caruso; screenplay by Christopher B. Landon, Carl Ellsworth; starring Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Morse

If the best thing about Disturbia is how it updates the age-old story of the mysterious next-door neighbour for a 21st century audience groomed on mobile phones, Ipods, and online gaming, we’re clutching at straws. I’m talking about the sort of straws Tom Hanks couldn’t get his hands on in The ‘Burbs (there was no following people around taking pictures on phones, or getting mini-DV footage of the culprit doing nasty deeds). Yet he, and the film, was better for it. Indeed, dress-up any bad movie in all the bells and whistles you can find from jump cuts to scantily-clad young actresses to pop culture references and you’re still left with a bad, uninspired cinematic experience.

Director D. J. Caruso has potted around the film industry as a producer and second unit director on many throwaway Hollywood movies of the past few years. His notable work on the poor sequel to Stakeout and the mildly entertaining Drop Zone provide clues of his inspiration when at the helm, but it’s his own films that give a clear indication why Disturbia is just another notch on his C.V. that fails to succeed. One of the major problems I had with the movie was how it appeared to be two different films pieced together at around the forty minute mark. You can stick half an apple and half an orange together and call it original but what you really have is a rather odd looking fruit salad. When he makes it work in his 2002 thriller The Salton Sea it’s intriguing and entertaining, but when it doesn’t (Taking Lives didn’t know whether it was Seven or a feature episode of The X Files, and likewise Two For The Money tried to be too many things and was let down by a poor third act) it’s an unfortunate but glaring example of a director trying to be better than he is. [Read the full review HERE]
Rating: 1 out of 5

Déjà Vu (Tony Scott, 2006, USA) May 22, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Uncategorized, 2000s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Crime , 7 comments

Dir. Tony Scott; screenplay by Bill Marsilii, Terry Rossio; starring Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Elden Henson, Bruce Greenwood

As the closing credits begin at the end of Déjà Vu, a title appears commemorating the people of New Orleans for their ‘strength and enduring spirit.’ Clearly, the film alludes to those who lost their lives, and the many that tried to save life, after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Yet, the film has more close ties to the unnatural disaster that appeared in New York on the 11th of September 2001, and that eternal question of ‘what if’. What if you could go back in time and stop those planes from taking off? The film shares the sentiments of other time travel movies such as Back To The Future, and more recently, Frequency and Timecop, but at its heart, it’s a quintessential American hero movie. It’s about facing adversity and challenging all the one holds sacred.

After a bomb explodes on a boat in New Orleans, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) begins to investigate, finding some unexplainable ties between himself and one of the female victims. When he learns that she was found dead an hour before the explosion he begins to question the line of enquiry and the FBI invite him to help with their enquiries. He’s introduced to a new piece of technology that allows its viewers to see events as they occurred four and a half days prior. However, they can’t pause or rewind the footage and they can only view events four and a half days before the present day. Therefore, they have to wait until they can watch the footage of the exploding boat. Their job in the mean time is to decide where to look on the boat, and who to look for, as they only get one chance to get it right. But when Carlin realises they can influence the events in the past, stopping the tragedy before it happens becomes his prime objective.

There’s was a moment around the fifty minute mark where I felt the film was being far too complicated for its own good. Scott takes the influences of big brother, CCTV, and government spy satellites one step further from his own 1998 film Enemy Of The State. Here he depicts a way of seeing into the past and uses very specific scientific details to tell us just exactly how it works. However, the threat of total invasion of privacy is quite apparent in Enemy Of The State, the way the government watches the world is believable and based on fact. Déjà Vu bends the rules slightly, taking fact and adding quite a lot of fiction. Certainly when the film really gets going, it’s a roller-coaster of adventurism, explosions, bad guys, and car chases, but Scott never really sets his audience up for the fantasy aspect of his story. Suddenly we are asked to stretch are imagination from a hard-nosed police investigation (with the psychological angle of a cop seemingly breaking down) and a mysterious terrorist threat, to a time-travel fantasy about folding the space-time continuum, Einstein-Rosen bridges, worm holes, Wheeler Boundaries, and EM pulses. When Carlin asks, ‘What if there’s more than physics’, I’m pleading there isn’t. The problem is that it comes out of nowhere, and while it is a twist in the tale, the surprise element is extinguished my confusing science and the attempt to fuse reality with unreality. It’s fundamental storytelling – take for example, Jurassic Park which, setting aside all the marketing campaigns, began by showing us a caged beast attacking game keepers. It set-up what was to come. In Back To The Future, Robert Zemeckis filled the early part of the movie with ‘time’ metaphors, and in Frequency we are introduced to the mystical qualities of the Aurora Borealis and hearing old radio broadcasts. In Déjà Vu, Scott throws in a few red-herrings (the film’s title is a clue, as is Carlin finding a voice recording left by himself, finger prints in a building he never knowingly went to, and a message seemingly addressed to himself) but doesn’t completely set-up the big, time-traveling jolt to the system, and even then, behind all the science, he can’t hide the odd plot hole. While you could argue the plot intricacies make for a more fulfilling second viewing, and in effect, directly set-up what is to come, the film simply does not prepare the viewer for its change of direction. Essentially, I wasn’t ready to suspend my disbelief so suddenly, and it takes some time for everything to position itself back into place.

However, when the movie settles back down, and you take on-board that essentially the film is about influencing events that happened four and half days ago in order to prevent tragedies in the future, there’s enough high-octane thrills to make you forget about any problems you might have with the film’s plot logic. Indeed, while I have reservations about the middle part of the film, the first fifty minutes is intriguing, while the last half hour is thrillingly eventful. A lot of the thanks have to go to Denzel Washington who provides another powerhouse performance, and beautifully grounds the fantastical with a very raw representation of a man desperate to save life.

Déjà Vu might not be as polished as Scott’s Enemy Of The State, or as well-orchestrated as the director’s other collaboration with Washington on Man On Fire, but it’s frequently more enjoyable than Spy Game and Domino. It is at times a little over-complicated with a messy plot but it’s an entertaining action movie that never outstays its welcome.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reeker (Dave Payne, 2005, USA) May 4, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 2000s, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense , add a comment

Dir. Dave Payne; screenplay by Dave Payne; starring Devon Gummersall, Derek Richardson, Tina Illman

Forgive me for paraphrasing but I believe it was Francis Ford Coppola who said in the documentary A Decade Under The Influence that after Jaws and Star Wars the film industry began to take less risks and simply reproduced the stars, the plot lines, and the theme’s of movies that had made a lot of money. There’s nothing profound in his reasoning, the obvious fact was that the industry had to make money and the easiest way possible was always going to become prevalent. However, it is disconcerting when trash like E.T. cash-in Mac and Me and its ilk dominate the market. The Star Wars-inspired The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Enemy Mine, and Battle Beyond the Stars are all enjoyable little movies but the lack of fresh ideas is only detrimental to the medium. You just have to look at how heavily Wes Craven’s Scream influenced the industry with the overbearing number of teen-inspired horror flicks. Did we really need Valentine, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Cherry Falls, and useless remakes of Black Christmas and When A Stranger Calls? I find it hard to say, sad almost, that I enjoyed Cherry Falls immensely, so perhaps I’m helping feed the frenzy, but the others were poor at best.

That brings me to Reeker - a film that might make you think people die from a killer who uses flatulence as his weapon of choice. You’d be wrong, but it’s a rather funny presumption. The film concerns five college students who end up driving down a very lonely, desolate road and run out of petrol at a deserted Motel (stop me if you’ve heard this before). Then as night begins to fall, things start to go bump. People have sex, or at least they try to, and others decide to camp outside in a tent (are you kidding me!). It is amusing how, with all the self-reflexive, post-modern horror films we see today, characters still act like they’ve never seen one. Am I being over-paranoid - even I check to see if an axe-wielding madman is in the back of my car when I’m driving at night. No matter what happens, horror film characters still go wandering alone, say ‘I’ll be right back’, and pretty much ask to get murdered in the most horrific ways possible. Alas, you have to admit that’s part of what makes a horror film so enjoyable, but the great thing about Scream was the way it reversed those conventions and it goes back to originality, something that is all too commonly lacking. And it’s originality that is seriously A.W.O.L. in Reeker which at first glance is influence by The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As you watch the story unfold you see that it is more heavily influence by the recent films Identity and Dead End to the point it’s almost a direct copy. The film basically takes Dead End’s beginning and ending, and attaches it to Identity’s middle. If you’ve seen Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa’s excellent Dead End you’ll recognise Reeker’s stench a mile off, and you’ll have no problem predicting the twist.

Reeker is in many ways the embodiment of what Coppola was talking about when referencing trend changes during the late seventies and eighties. It shows little artistic merit or skill with a script that is nothing more than derivative and direction that lacks any flair. Indeed, director Payne struggles to create tension. His killer is too ambivalent, and the ambiguity at the source of the ‘evil’ is underdeveloped. He looks very much like a man in-at-ease with (comparatively) big-budget, big-studio constraints, and with his back catalogue of rubbish like Alien Avengers II, Alien Terminator, Showgirl Murders, and Addams Family Reunion, you know you’re seeing a film by an under-skilled, awfully average director. He even completely fails to capitalise on an interesting dynamic with one of the characters who is blind. I found it intriguing to have a character which couldn’t see and used his working senses to control his environment. It crossed my mind how the suspense might have an added angle if a character couldn’t see his or her attacker. After all, the likes of Micheal Myers and Jason Voorhees in Halloween and Friday The 13th (well, the second movie onward) didn’t rush on their prey, using slow and controlled methods of capture. But, as victims saw their fate, they tried desperately to escape. Taking away the ability to see seems to me like an interesting set-up, and other directors have exploited disabled characters in the past (see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th: Part II, Friday the 13th: Part V, and Leprechaun) but Payne seems less concerned, simply using the disability as a cheap red-herring as if blind people automatically have something to hide.

If the film had any merits they’d be thrown out in a court of law because it’s all a big con anyway. It’s like sending your car in for a service and getting something back that looks and feels like your car, but is actually an imitation, made from cheap parts, dodgy oil, and wheels that look half on, half off. Even the acting is uninspired. These young actors look desperate for parts and as such took the opportunity to star in this tripe. It all adds up to a nightmare of gigantic proportions, and sadly, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994, UK) April 17, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge; starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Ecclestone, Kerry Fox, Ken Stott, Keith Allen

Shallow Grave, British director Danny Boyle’s debut feature film, is about the disintegration of friendship under the strain of greed. It’s also a bleak social study of three bright but blinded intellectuals who’ve allowed callous opportunism defeat any moral grounding. It’s certainly a daring, hard-edged low-budget thriller that paints a dark, almost dangerous view, of the young, middle-class characters it portrays. But it’s also a very astute investigation of the primal forces that drive human beings. Indeed, the three main characters display the primitive form of Freud’s theory of personality development when they allow their moral judgment to be governed by the pleasure of having lots and lots of money.

Shallow Grave concerns the lives of three friends who live in the same flat, David (Christopher Ecclestone), Kelly (Juliet Miller), and Alex (Ewan McGregor). When they advertise for a new flatmate, the mysterious Hugo arrives and shuts himself in his room. When they try to tempt Hugo out of his slumber they find him lying on his bed dead. Instead of calling the police they search his belongings finding a large suitcase full of money. Putting all decency aside, they chop up the body, mash up his teeth, bury him in a secluded wood, and throw his car over a cliff. Of course, nothing is easy. David, whose job it was to do the chopping of limbs and smashing of jaws, begins to succumb to the madness of the situation as the reality of what he did takes its toll. Meanwhile, Hugo obviously didn’t come by the money through any sort of legitimate way, and some of his old ‘friends’ are closing in on the loot.

You can see where the buoyancy of youth and lack of big-budget constraints helped director Boyle create this very tightly-paced thriller. He shows some lovely directorial flourishes, whether it’s in the way he moves his camera around the flat, or how he lights the burial scenes, you know you are watching a man who is so passionate about his film. That passion is definitely something that comes off the screen, with Boyle having the smug-confidence to show off the film’s concluding twist, not with words, but with a sweeping track beneath the floorboards. You’ve also got to give him credit for presenting us with such obnoxious characters; it’s a definite trait of a director either free of studio shackles or with the determination to demand he do it his own way. He doesn’t take the obvious route in presenting us with people we must care about to feel any emotion in their story, he simply shows us a decision they make which questions any decent fundamental moral standing. In doing this, the audience is drawn into the film through how their own ideals reflect the situation. In other words, it leads back to that age-old tale of finding a twenty pound note and asking yourself: do you keep it, or hand it into the police. In this case the stakes are intensified but the underlying issue remains the same. The beauty of the film is its ability to question the audience’s values by suggesting that everyone, for at least a second, thinks they would take the money and find some way to dispose of the body.

It works so well because as the characters pretensions begin to collapse they become, dare I even say it, endearing. It’s obviously a very dark appeal they possess but as the disdain for their peers starts to crack, and the friendship becomes detracted, there’s a very realistically identifiable paranoia that is easy to relate to given the circumstances. As Alex starts to write his ‘facts that should be known in case of my untimely death’, Kelly’s probable escape to Rio, and David’s continuing internal destruction, we see a fabulous dynamic between these people that were at the beginning of the film, over-critical, over-indulgent, and most certainly over-confident. It’s a rather cynical appreciation of the film as the audience feeds off these undesirable’s murky fall from grace, as they get what they deserve. In effect, it’s like watching the school bully get stoned by all the little kids who’ve had their dinner money stolen from them. By presenting us with characters that were difficult to like at the beginning of the film, we find a more powerful resonance from their disintegration as things begin to go wrong.

The film isn’t perfect however (Boyle would go on to make a better film with Trainspotting two years later), largely because some liberties are taken to keep the pace up. Kelly, Alex, and David make the decision to chop up the body too quickly (Charles Manson might make the decision so quickly but not these intelligent, professional people with everything to lose) which is certainly an indication of Boyle’s intention to get to the second part of the story more quickly. It works in the sense that the tension can be cranked up ten minutes earlier, but perhaps a greater deal of development in this area would have helped. Yet, you can’t take much away from Boyle, his cast, or his production crew (who create a great main location in the flat), as it’s a very mature debut film with excellent central performances. Certainly, you can look at Shallow Grave and Trainspotting - Danny Boyle’s first two feature films – as his greatest achievements.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Bob Clark (1941 – 2007) April 6, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 1970s, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense, Biographies , add a comment

On the 5th of April 2007, writer/director Bob Clark was tragically killed when an unlicensed, drunk driver, smashed head first into his car. Sadly, his 22 year old son, who was travelling with him, also died.

The director was most famous for the irreverent Porky’s films which saw, amongst other things, a group of horny, under-sexed teenagers spying on the girl’s shower rooms. The sudden appearance of a penis through a hole in the wall is what most people remember about the movie.

The director also brought us the holiday classic A Christmas Story, and worked with Dan Aykoryd and Gene Hackman on the action-comedy Loose Cannons. Certainly, Clark came under fire from critics who saw a lack of consistency within his work, and it is saddening he never found the form to surpass his horror masterpiece Black Christmas.

His later career was dominated by children and family entertainment both for television and film. Unfortunately, his new horror film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things had production pushed back from its start date in 2006 to Spring 2007, and will therefore be left incomplete.

Below is my review of Bob Clark’s best film. This was first published by DVD Times in March 2003.

Canada, 1974 – director Bob Clark, unbeknownst to him at the time, waters the seeds planted by Hitchcock’s Psycho, and to a certain degree Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, to which would fruit to bare a new sub-genre in horror cinema. Four years before the supposed fire starter, and most famous film to grace the genre Halloween, Black Christmas began the refining of conventions in laying the groundwork for Carpenter’s film to bloom. True, Halloween was the catalyst to a whole heap of movies which followed in the very late seventies and eighties, but it was Clark’s film that shone at the roots in terms of the generic aesthetics which became so prevalent.

Soon after Carpenter’s student years, he and Bob Clark would have a conversation, that ultimately spawned 1978’s Halloween, in which Carpenter told Clark how much he enjoyed his earlier horror film. According to Clark, Carpenter asked him if he would be willing to make a sequel to Black Christmas, to which Clark replied with an unequivocal ‘no’. However, Clark did divulge to Carpenter how he thought a sequel to Black Christmas would go, plot wise. If it were made, he told him, it would be titled Halloween, and would be based on a serial killer who was caught but then escaped from a mental institution to stalk victims on Halloween night. Clearly, Carpenter took this food for thought on board and with the help of Debra Hill, turned the idea into reality. So in essence, Black Christmas could very well be thought of as the unofficial prequel to Halloween.

The story is quite simple. At a sorority house, the girls are getting ready to go home for Christmas but begin receiving phone calls from a strange caller who won’t give his name. The next day, many girls leave, but one who should have met her father doesn’t turn up, which causes great concern for her safety. When another girl goes missing, the police begin searching the area and find a body nearby. Meanwhile, with only three students left in the sorority house, the phone calls continue, getting more and more menacing each time, but unknown to the remaining members of the house, the caller, and perhaps the killer, is closer to them than their nightmares could ever imagine.

Bob Clark’s career needed a boost, and as he showed with his later comedy Porky’s, he wasn’t someone who would shy away from breaking norms and subverting audience expectation – who would have expected the events of the shower scene, and that hole in the wall that overlooked the girls shower room!? Violent, shocking, and horrific stories were becoming regular pieces of American cinema, and Clark sensing this, grasped the opportunity to direct his first horror picture. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in 1971, Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left in 1972, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in 1973 were proof that the obscure, dangerous films put your name on the map, for better and for worse. His film hardly made the splashes the three prior films made for themselves, but it put his foot in the water, and it was in his small, but significant ripples that would elevate his film beyond just cult status.

Clark begins his film looking through the eyes of the killer, as he examines the house from the outside, and scales the wall to find a way in. The subjective, voyeuristic nature of the point-of-view camerawork beautifully places the audience inside the killer’s mind, as we stalk the house and become the voyeurs too. Clark mixes objective and subjective aesthetics to create scenes of intensity and suspense, not seen on film before, and rarely matched since. Unlike Tobe Hooper’s documentary style voyeurism in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the audience is dared to keep their eyes on the screen, Clark throws the audience no room for a breath of oxygen as he cuts from an objective shot into a point-of-view shot of what the killer sees, as if we are forced to partake in the action of killing itself, and not just in the selfish act of watching someone else’s life being taken. Clark compounds this with brilliant use of sound, deafening the listener with ear haunting rasps and screeches, as if he wants to hurt your senses.

Indeed, the director wants to unsettle the audience rather than give individual viewers incessant shocks, only for viewers to forget about them once they’ve left the theatre, or once they’ve turned off the television. What violence occurs in Black Christmas is largely implied, rather than explicit, and adds to the overall sense of physical emotion in the audience, because the ‘horror’ unsettles you on a personal level with your imagination creating the ‘terror’ implied. One wonderfully created scene has one of the girls being killed juxtaposed with carol singers singing at the door. The Christmas song plays over the violent, loud, blood bath, with images of happy children singing their hearts out combined with jerky, dark glimpses of a knife entering flesh, and a blood soaked hand becoming more and more lifeless with every blow.

Clark uses the phone as an extension of the killer, an extension of the evil, to great effect. Mixing different voices with jagged, undecipherable language, the director is able to create a monster, existing above human capacity through alienating the solid form of a human being into the detached, multi-faceted voice of grotesque, unseen evil. Elsewhere, he owes a debt of gratitude to Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, and Fritz Lang’s brilliantly unnerving, sombre tale M from 1931. The killer moves within the shadows, his/her form largely subliminal, and what we do see of him/her is that of disembodied evil – hands holding a weapon, or an erratic eye, peering through a crack in the door. It also becomes apparent that the film doesn’t just share the voyeuristic nature of the photography with its counterpart The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, incidentally released the same year, it also shares similar themes regarding the real life serial murderer Ed Gein. In Clark’s film, like Hooper’s, the killer has a penchant for ornamental corpses, and here, he/she likes to leave them in the attic in ‘hello death’ posers, culminating in a viscerally, haunting final image that ends the film.

It wouldn’t be surprising if this film were cited as playing a major part in so-called feminist horror films made afterward, like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave, but of course Zarchi’s film could be looked at in a completely opposing way. Nevertheless, unlike the genre’s films to come where the clean, young virgins survive, and the dirty, man-eater’s meet horrible deaths, Black Christmas’ main female cast are largely the only ones for which we have any sympathy. Barb, played superbly by Margot Kidder, rises above any authority put before her. She doesn’t allow, at least visually, the caller to frighten her and in fact tells him/her where to go, and later when talking to the police she plays a little game when asked what her phone number is, telling the inept male cop that the number is Fellatio 20880, to which the cop unknowingly writes down. She has a rather unfeminine personality, she drinks too much, and swears in most of her sentences yet we get the feeling there’s some inner turmoil perhaps down to jealousy of some of the other younger girls and the beautiful, quiet but authoritative Jess, played by Olivia Hussey. Hussey caries the film with her quiet, pondering and wistful looks, grounding the almost unreal events, in real life reality, and in her character Jess, rebels against her boyfriend after she tells him she’s getting an abortion of which he is adamantly against, but she sticks to her guns. And the father of one of the girls who goes missing expresses dismay at the fact she might have been experimenting with drugs, drink and sex saying, ‘I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking…and picking up boys’. The women in the film rebel against the constraints put upon them, and for the most part these restraints are embodied in the male characters, most of which are either inept or out of touch with present day reality.

As for the rest of the performances, well, for the most part they are very good. Keir Dullea, as the insecure, neurotic boyfriend broods around breaking things, shouting and acting like he has the credentials to be the killer, while John Saxon, as usual, is the ultimate professional giving his chief lieutenant a strong backbone, and Doug McGrath offers some comic relief as the inept cop.

Black Christmas is a fantastically, effective horror film, easing its way under your skin and it stands as a major contributor in the creation of a new sub-genre in horror culture. Halloween has a more refined characteristic and is arguably the better film, but Black Christmas inspired it in so many ways you have to give the plaudits to Clark’s film.

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995, USA) March 29, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , add a comment

There’s a sense while watching Michael Mann’s Heat that you’re watching two movies at the same time. The length – at nearly three hours – suggests just as much, but as the story unfolds we are thrust into the lives of two not-too dissimilar men. One, Al Pacino, is a cop driven by his job to stop criminals beating the system while his home life is left in near-tatters. The other, Robert De Niro, is a master criminal who cannot afford the constraints of a wife and child but who, as he nears his ‘retirement’, begins to think about a future that does not involve him being alone. It’s uniquely crafted by Michael Mann near the top of his game, who masterfully weaves a tale that is as much a character study as an action film.

It’s easy to dismiss Heat as an overlong crime thriller that doesn’t have enough action, but you’ve got to give Mann credit for focusing on the characters and not the easy-marketability of car chases and shootouts. The film’s pivotal bank robbery has so much more power because it is the only moment the director ‘lets loose’ as Pacino tracks De Niro and his gang through the city streets with guns blazing. What the film lacks in grandiose thrills it makes up for with near-perfect pacing and that is the main reason why the long running time doesn’t detract.

Reliably, Pacino and De Niro produce powerhouse performances and they are ably supported by the other standouts Val Kilmer and Jon Voight.

Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, UK, 1971) March 22, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense , add a comment

Fantastic Bond and one of Sean Connery’s best. Diamonds Are Forever is off the wall, almost as if the writers supplemented their acid with a few Valium and wrote the whole damn thing while chasing imaginary chickens around their fortified living rooms. Several invincible Blofeld’s, voice-changing devices (that defy any logic), a fabulous leading lady who never wears any clothes, a pair of fruity bad guys who happen to be gay, and a car cassette player and tape that can hold the world to ransom - this is Bond at its finest. Connery is on top form and the film moves along at breakneck speed. Great stuff.

Derailed (Mikael Hafstrom, USA, 2005) September 2, 2006

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

Dir. Mikael Hafstrom; screenplay by Stuart Beattie; starring Vincent Cassel, Jennifer Aniston, Clive Owen

Finally, Jennifer Aniston is in a decent film (although ‘Along Came Polly’ was quite good) where she doesn’t play a ‘Rachel from Friends’ clone. Hafstrom’s Hitchcockian thriller sees Clive Owen becoming embroiled in a dangerous game of deceit after he cheats on his wife. The plot twist can be seen a mile off, but Owen and Cassell offer excellent performances, and Hafstrom keeps the audience on their toes with some well-timed red-herrings.

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