Archive for May, 2008

About Schmidt

2002, US, Directed by Alexander Payne

Colour, Running Time: 120 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, EIV; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DTS

After a lifetime of working hard and leading a respectable, conventional routine we catch up with Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) during the final minutes of his career as he sits there watching the clock count down towards his retirement. A nice big fuss is made with a dinner in his honour, speeches, etc., and Warren eventually wakes up on a new Monday morning not entirely sure what to do with his newfound freedom. A trip back to his old workplace paints a picture that suggests his purpose is served and his presence no longer welcome beyond surface gestures. His sympathy piqued by a television advert, Warren decides to sponsor the life of a third world child, Ndugu, in recognition of some deeper desire to do something worthwhile. In conjunction with this he also begins writing to the child to keep him up to date with what’s happening in his own life, this forming occasional parts of the story’s narrative. His optimistic wife Helen is looking forward to trying out their new motor home but a few weeks later she drops down dead and he’s left pretty much alone. After doing her bit following Helen’s death, their daughter Jeannie all but wants him out of the way until her wedding in a few weeks so when he sets off in his motor home to join up with her early a mid-trip phone call prompts her to emphasise the point that she doesn’t want him around until a couple of days before the wedding. So to kill time he embarks on a spontaneous road trip with the intention of revisiting places from his past, etc., seemingly on a quest to simultaneously eradicate boredom and find out what the point of his life was.

Being sat next to the person you least want to sit next to at a gathering?  I can relate to that...

I often tend to warm to soul-searching kind of scenarios, ideas that force the central character(s) to explore their value to themselves and the world, the meaning of their existence (as well as that around them), who they are, etc. It’s something I can personally relate to and if the story is executed intuitively with talented people it can often result in a profound experience that goes beyond the fantastical confines of film. That’s what I found in About Schmidt. Despite being played by a very well known actor Warren Schmidt the person is thoroughly delineated to a point where he’s exceedingly real in many ways - his mind is visibly ticking away in response to many of the things that are happening around him and the script does not become so patronising as to have him verbalise every single thought. We can imagine what’s going on in his mind and very often empathise with it, or at least those with a tendency towards introspection and acute awareness may be able to. In fact it’s mostly in his spoken letters to Ndugu where we learn what’s going on inside his brain. The situations that he finds himself in often give way to a level of realism that is quietly embarrassing, such is their ability to tap into the nature of that which is fundamentally and contemporarily human, while at other times his encounters approach more of a traditional comedic style that’s not quite over the top enough to ruin it. It’s not, however, quite the straightforward comedy the marketing campaigners would have had you believe, more so a drama mixed with humour cum road movie - this sort of film almost creates its own cinematic category if one is even needed. What I also like is the air of unpredictability. What you very often expect to happen, given the experience of watching hundreds of movies before it, doesn’t - you may expect Warren to realise how much love is worth after his wife’s death, but then he finds out she’s had an affair years before and ends up throwing out her clothes in anger. Or you might expect him to find love in the divorced mother of Jeannie’s new husband, but it doesn’t quite work out like that. The people he comes across during his adventure are colourful and mundane at the same time and may in some cases remind you of some you know. It’s a truly meaningful story that’s ultimately about aging and the reflection of one’s own worth after a lifetime of doing what you’re supposed to, therefore becoming relevant to almost anybody and thus a significantly rewarding experience.

 

An amazing transfer that boasts a natural colour scheme with just about as much detail as standard definition can muster, combined with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks that, whilst not exploited to the full with this kind of material, do their subtle job very nicely. Extras are a tad limited but I like this kind of work to speak to the viewer for itself without the writers/directors/actors having to come along and explain it all for us. By the conclusion of the film, and as could be considered the case with real life, it’s really down the viewer to decide what the point of Schmidt’s existence was.

Posted on 27th May 2008
Under: Other | No Comments »

Doomsday

2008, UK/US, Directed by Neil Marshall

Colour, Running Time: 105 minutes

Review Source: Cinema Screening; Image: 2.35:1 Super 35

Neil Marshall has seemed like a director who might hold the key to a great future for British genre movies since his feature debut (Dog Soldiers) so seeing the pretty exciting trailer for his new futuristic action movie was enough to entice me to visit my local Cineworld for the first time in a couple of months and check out what he‘s been up to since the much respected The Descent. In the near future the outbreak of a devastating virus causes mass chaos in Scotland and, unable to contain it, the authorities are forced to quarantine the entire country with a rapidly erected impenetrable barrier across the site of the old Roman wall. Cure proving to be unavailable the inhabitants of the northern land are left to die or destroyed attempting to escape, though one young girl - Eden Sinclair - is placed with soldiers by her desperate mother and airlifted from the wasteland as it descends into near self-destruction. Eden grows into a talented soldier and rises through the ranks after Scotland has long since been forgotten about but as the rest of Britain succumbs to widespread unemployment while its economy disintegrates (hold on, we are talking about the future here aren’t we?) the virus that afflicted Scotland reappears in London; death and panic once more become a serious problem. The government reveal to the military that they’ve discovered people surviving in Scotland years after everybody was thought dead, this having been revealed by photographs taken with satellite technology. Eden is deployed with a team of scientists/soldiers plus a couple of tanks, their mission to infiltrate Glasgow with the initial intention of finding out how the Scots have survived the virus and bring back the cure that they believe may have been developed by an eminent scientist who operated in the area. What they find is a society that has reverted to tribal mechanics operating through brutality and primordial instinct, creating an aggressive world through which the team must accomplish their mission to save the rest of Britain.

Damn student parties!

What’s immediately apparent with Doomsday is the fact that it will pull no punches when it comes to violence and bloodshed; the opening sequence is almost like something extracted from the middle of 28 Weeks Later, asserting a trend for the rest of the film. Rhona Mitra (as Eden) is an attractive and competent lead but difficult to accept as an army major somehow, feebly shouting out orders that a rookie would be hard pressed to bother following. While Malcolm McDowell iterates a strong opening narrative during the early scenes, when we finally meet him in the flesh it’s clear that his overly melodramatic approach isn’t quite so convincing, and compounds something that becomes apparent as the film unfolds: Neil Marshall’s dialogue just isn’t very good. The action sequences themselves are quite rousing and controlled well by the director but what first appears to be a dark apocalyptic action movie begins spiralling towards a comic book style reminiscent of Transformers or a James Bond film. Now there’s not much wrong with James Bond films but Doomsday seems to be masquerading as something more with its heavy-handed political commentary and extreme violence. After Eden and co. discover an unused Bentley underground the resulting car chase seriously made me begin to think this was some sort of prolonged advertisement for the vehicle, such is the super stylish method with which the sequence was shot - you could have taken a clip from this and easily used it in a commercial break during American Idol or something. Credibility was pretty much shot down the toilet when they discover a clan of people living in a castle, adopting the use of medieval gear and everything, and by this point I’d all but given up - it appears to me that Marshall has fallen into the trap of being ‘cool’ for the sake of it, something that rarely works with anyone with both an age and IQ over 25. Reading some comments from Marshall on the internet after watching the film I realise that he intended this to be a homage in some respects (it can’t help but remind the viewer of things like Escape From New York, No Escape, Mad Max, et al.) so perhaps the abundant clichés (people able to outrun motor vehicles, unarmed women able to defeat heavily armoured warriors, stereotype psychotic bad guys, etc.) shouldn’t be as painful as I found them and perhaps I approached this film with the wrong expectations, but the end result was not satisfactory.

Shoot me now, baby, before I have to sit through any more of this!

I really wanted to like whatever Neil Marshall produced and I may well be guilty of approaching this piece in the wrong frame of mind but if you’re expecting a dark apocalyptic tale you may end up cringing with embarrassment on occasions - I don‘t think it was unfair to expect this either considering the pretty horrific and disturbing nature of the prologue! On the other hand, as the homage it may have been intended to be, it seems a tad pointless to me at the moment.

Posted on 21st May 2008
Under: Science Fiction | 6 Comments »

Horror Rises From The Tomb

1973, Spain, Directed by Carlos Aured

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, BCI/Deimos; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

I first came across this movie as an n’th generation VHS cassette about fifteen years ago and after a couple of viewings pretty much consigned it to the back of my video shelf, though I suppose opinion is never helped when something is cut, cropped and looking worse than Vanessa Warwick’s rear end. So the digital age arrives and matures and BCI/Deimos comes along and releases the definitive version of a film that I had condemned to being crap, but behold, it seems to receive a few good reviews - time to re-evaluate maybe… So around a quarter of a century after its production, how does El Espanto Surge De La Tumba hold up? Hugo, Maurice and friends are chatting away one evening when the subject of a respected medium comes up and they decide to go visit the woman, for a bit of a joke in the case of Hugo in particular. Knowing about the legend of a medieval sorcerer, Hugo’s ancestor Alaric, who was killed for his sins centuries before (which we get to see in the prologue), Hugo facetiously asks the medium at the séance to call forth his spirit, which of course she appears to do. Alaric tells them where his severed head and body are buried hoping that the reintegration of them will bring him back to physical life from the netherworld which he is forced to wander in ethereal limbo. Hugo decides to take his friends on a mission to do just this, all of them heading up the mountains to a decrepit castle where they get the servants (!) to dig up half of the castle grounds looking for the separated body parts. Of course, once the inherently hostile Alaric is recomposed by a hypnotised/possessed Maurice, along with his lover who was also killed centuries ago also, Hugo and his friends are confronted with all manner of evil occurrences which they find themselves unable to control or escape from.

Naschy's missus (lucky bugger!).

It’s difficult to describe something like this as superior film-making from a conventional perspective; Spanish horror exists in a universe of its own, much like the Italian equivalent but different again. While I tend to find these Spanish films very talky there have been one or two classics hiding beneath dirty rocks for those willing to look, notably Satan’s Blood and The Vampire’s Night Orgy for example. Jacinto Molina (AKA Paul Naschy) was sort of the king of Spanish horror if ever there can be considered one but his films have often been variable in quality while his acting ability was limited - put it this way, he‘s no Peter Cushing. Despite this what comes across is his perennial passion for this kind of material, almost compensating for any shortcomings, plus the fact that he wasn’t afraid to throw in copious amounts of gore and nudity to shock or titillate where relevant. Though his work is hardly the epitome of originality, usually being a strange concoction of other people’s ideas (probably a side effect of writing films like El Espanto… in two days), you can almost imagine him considering how a Universal monster movie would have appeared had they injected it with visible bloodshed and female flesh, then making something that approximates that ideal. Sometimes he may be egocentric (playing principal dual roles sometimes: one good and one evil as he does here) and living out his fantasies on screen (he brushes off beautiful women or takes them as he pleases), but he’s a likeable bloke who’s contributed much to exploitation cinema and is loved by many for his persona and work. His usual formula is adopted for El Espanto…, taking elements of witchcraft, vampirism, reincarnation, zombies (the latter resulting in the film’s best sequence) and mixing them together to produce a world where almost anything goes, however it’s not nearly as schizophrenic as it could have ended up. Hugo (Naschy) is, when it comes to the supernatural, a stereotype non-believer who is about to have his fixed perspective twisted way out of shape as the rebirth of his ancestor brings about doom to everything around him. One particular aspect of this film I really like is the setting: driving off into the mountains they’re pretty much isolated from the rest of mankind and almost seem to have entered another sinister dimension where they’re incarcerated. Their car is hijacked and ruined during the trip and they’re forced to buy an old banger from some locals which looks more like a hearse. From there they realise that they’re trapped in/around the castle with limited rations and a growing threat to their lives as terrible things begin happening around them. Hugo is himself the catalyst for all of this, first as he insists on summoning forth his ancestor at the séance, then when he drags his friends on a weekend adventure that will only lead to devastation, though considering Maurice seems to be bowing to the influence of demonic infiltration himself even before the trip, perhaps it isn’t entirely Hugo’s fault after all: Alaric may be exerting some influence beyond the grave or maybe it’s simply uncontrollable fate at work. Referring to the previous comment about female flesh, there are some incredibly beautiful women omnipresent in this movie and this is part of the appeal I’m not especially ashamed to say. Clothed scenes were filmed for less tolerant markets (included as an extra on the BCI/Deimos disc) and are unbelievably boring once you’ve seen the ‘proper’ version. Leading up to a fantastically downbeat climax El Espanto… is slow moving but thriving on its own rules and consequently quite enjoyable, though may work better I suspect once under the influence of some mind-altering substance.

 

There have been a few releases on disc, primarily in the US: Brentwood put out one of their typically messy discs a few years ago, this being followed by Crash Cinema’s SE which compiled several versions of the film; cut, uncut and clothed. The prints used weren’t of a high standard (the uncut version faring the worst) plus the audio tracks were English dubs only, however the fact that Crash had brought together all of this material into one package was commendable and their disc remains relevant. BCI/Deimos have effectively trumped that one with the uncut unclothed version being presented here with a stupendous looking image with options to listen to both the English and Castilian language tracks - a major bonus. There’s also an audio/text commentary, a nice introduction by Naschy himself, some extensive liner notes and one or two other titbits rounding out an amazing package. I must comment on the BCI/Deimos cover designs: I think they’re perceptively conceived and really attractive on the eye. This company have been an exceptional contributor to DVD horror of recent and they can turn the most mediocre of films into collectible material with their attention to perfecting what they release. Considering the film here is an odd but likable entry from the Spanish seventies/eighties era, this DVD is well worth adding to related collections.

Posted on 17th May 2008
Under: Horror | No Comments »

War of the Worlds (2005)

2005, US, Directed by Steven Spielberg

Colour, Running Time: 112 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Paramount, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DTS

The first cinematic adaptation of H.G.Wells’ story is obviously considered to be a minor pinnacle of science fiction but being produced in the fifties it was no doubt time a huge budget remake was on the cards, and who better to take that on than Steven Spielberg… Like the first movie this one brings the action forth to contemporary settings; whereas the novel was set in London after the turn of the twentieth century Spielberg’s film primarily takes place between New York and Boston in the present day. Crane operator Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is hardly the ideal family man: he’s separated from his wife, who now looks after their two children - Robbie and Rachel - with her new lover, he sees his kids at the weekends and generally likes simply looking after himself. A series of inexplicable electrical storms across the country initially arouse excitement in the residents of Ray’s town, until virtually all machinery is rendered useless and congregations begin accumulating in the streets during a period of mass confusion. The pavement beneath the crowds begins cracking open and up rise fearful looking tripods that tower above the buildings - people are running for dear life but most are annihilated under the intense firepower of the machines. Ray manages to grab one of the only cars left working and get his kids out of town but, in what appears to be an organised attack on humanity, the massacre is happening just about everywhere and as the alien machines exterminate everything around them it seems they’re using human waste to turn the landscape into something that might be approximating the nature of their own world.

WOTW

There is a surprisingly brief set up of the principal characters before the action kicks off and, though this may appear to meander at first glance, it is necessary at the very least for contrast against what’s about to happen. The alien attacks are brilliantly illustrated, both from a CGI/technical perspective and cinematically, and it creates some terrifying moments of visual and aural assault - these machines both look and sound menacing. While shaky camerawork is a staple of modern cinema it is controlled and used sparingly here, i.e. when its implementation will have a useful effect. It must be remembered, however, that this is Spielberg behind the cameras and of course we have a couple of children that Ray has to drag along with him on his journey (to get rid of them ironically) - what is it with Spielberg and children? Admittedly they’re not as irritating as those in Jurassic Park, et al., but cynically thinking it does seem like a lazy tool to engage audience sympathy at times. One side effect of this though is an erring towards sentimentality by the film’s conclusion: whilst not exactly overt it can’t seem to help revealing itself when someone who should have died (and almost couldn’t possibly have survived given the circumstances) reappears to almost create a much happier ending than should otherwise have been the case. Aside from the overly long basement interlude with Tim Robbins and some scouting aliens, this is my only real problem with Spielberg’s otherwise pretty powerful latter day foray into science fiction. The story is generally approached with a seriousness that eluded something like Independence Day, a maturity that feeds a surprisingly grim tone throughout. Certainly the aliens themselves are not the only threat to mankind; mankind itself, with its contemporary perception of self-importance and individuality, becomes a threat to frightening degrees. Perhaps the film’s scariest sequence comes not from an alien attack but when Ray and his kids end up slowing amidst a crowd of homeless (in the wake of the war) wanderers only to find himself in the middle of a lynch mob, everyone of whom wants his car and their own selfish means of escaping. This is a pretty accurate reflection of what people are like nowadays I believe. Witness the fuel crisis several years ago: had people gone about their business as usual we wouldn’t have noticed any problem caused by the fuel strikes - the fact that people were jamming their own tanks full with wanton disregard for anybody else caused much more of a fuel shortage than the catalysing strike. This is like holding up a mirror to the audience and therefore works on a couple of levels. The presence of major stars in movies is something that bothers me slightly - it pulls the viewer out of the action and reminds them somewhat unnecessarily that ‘it‘s only a movie‘. Tom Cruise is not always a popularity icon these days given some of his activities outside of cinema, but I do feel he usually manages to pull off his roles quite effectively and this isn’t really an exception. He is a hero here to some extent, but not a superhero, and he possesses a number of character flaws that keep him from being perfect, hence his presence is bearable. Aside from the desire of some to dislike this movie for reasons that aren’t especially justifiable, it has to be recognised that this is a pretty efficient machine cinematically speaking, and the job of creating an immersing, action-packed, sometimes frightening ride through science fiction territory is done with enviable skill.

 

What can be expected from Paramount other than a supreme transfer with wall-shaking sound? The image is not as colourful or bright as you might anticipate but Spielberg went for a darker look indicative of what the title might suggest. I saw this theatrically in 2005 and if memory serves well this DVD is an accurate representation of the film’s original projection. The DTS track has overwhelming impact and your neighbours will know that too if you’re not careful. Rounding out the package are a number of featurette supplied on a second disc. A 100% faithful adaptation of Wells’ novel still evades us (Ray Harryhausen was involved in preparation for such a project a few years prior to George Pal’s 1953 movie) but, dare I say this, War of the Worlds isn’t far off contending for recognition as one of the best sci-fi movies.

Posted on 9th May 2008
Under: Science Fiction | No Comments »

Zombie Creeping Flesh

1980, Italy/Spain, Directed by Bruno Mattei

Colour, Running Time: 96 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Vipco; Video: Letterbox 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

Saving the world’s population in the wake of food shortage must have been something of a political topic back at the beginning of the eighties (I can‘t remember - was too busy playing with Action Man and, er, Cindy…). Not only was it the primary cause of all the mayhem in Alligator but similarly in Zombie Creeping Flesh scientists were trying to rid the world of starvation, instead creating a plague of bloodshed as corpses everywhere began waking and devouring the living following an accident at a scientific plant. Little time is wasted setting up the premise before we’re whisked off to a hold-up outside a building where some crazy ‘terrorists’ have taken siege with hostages captive, high demands, etc. The building is surrounded by police and a S.W.A.T team while music by Goblin pounds through the speakers (hang on, am I watching Dawn of the Dead here?) - following plenty of shooting, a small body-count, and an prophecy uttered by a dying terrorist that his killers will be ‘devoured by his brothers’ or something divinely perceptive like that, we cut to a jungle island where the same S.W.A.T team are now on a mission that even their incredibly intellectual minds can’t comprehend. They meet up with a couple of reporters whose holiday has gone drastically wrong when their friend’s child turns cannibalistic, and gradually team up in a fight they realise is with the walking dead, all making their way towards the very same plant where the world’s demise began not so long ago.

Virus

There’s no denying that Dawn of the Dead’s success was ‘responsible’ for a whole batch of imitations, mainly from Italy, and that Zombie Creeping Flesh is one of those shameless imitations, but actually using the exact same music that Romero used is taking homage a bit far I‘m sure. The result though is something oddly enticing - the music actually grants this film a suspenseful edge, a tangible air of impending doom with the apocalypse closing in around the characters. Those characters are stereotypes through and through, copying the actions of people from other movies to the point of near parody; this really adds to the enjoyment and keeps the viewer smiling sporadically between bouts of the mindless gore that originally got this film banned on video in Britain. While there are some classic lines and phrases throughout - “friggin’ ball breakers” (S.W.A.T team member threatening some zombies), “operation Sweet Death“, “they could be drunk or drugged… or maybe it’s a leper colony” (on first encounter with the undead), the list goes on - it’s mingled with elements that resemble something nastier just beneath the surface: the deterioration of the jungle tribe against their understanding, the shooting of the infected child (again, something pretty much airlifted from Dawn…), plus one character’s descent into madness as the world around him falls apart is effectively realised at one point as he struggles to keep control of his behaviour. Because most of the action takes place on an island of some kind there’s plenty of opportunity to splice in stock footage of jungle life to persuade the viewer that these people really are in the jungle, and Mattei takes this opportunity of course. If it wasn’t for some insanely over the top acting, amusingly derivative characters, and blatant ripping off of Romero’s film it’s possible to consider that on a technical level this movie isn’t actually the worst you‘ve ever seen, but of course those factors obscure anything that may be competent here with their overwhelming presence. As a bloody violent adventure through a world plagued by the walking dead this one is amusing, exciting, and gruesome in equal measures and therefore its aforementioned shortcomings can not only be easily overlooked, they actually work in the film’s favour to some extent. I’m sure, however, that opinions such as these would get me failed on any respectable Film Studies A’ Level course.

 

Known under a phenomenal plethora of titles over the years this was released on DVD in America as Night of the Zombies by Cydonia, in addition to Anchor Bay under its Hell of the Living Dead title (later put out again by Blue Underground). The latter is a superior version compared to the Vipco spinner that we got in the UK, being anamorphically enhanced and containing a nine minute interview, but the Vipco disc isn’t actually that bad relatively speaking. It’s widescreen (though not enhanced), completely uncut and, despite appearing a tad washed out and lacking in contrast, it’s in reasonable shape visually. Be warned: sometimes even genre fans hate this one but having seen this something like ten times myself, I consider it a guaranteed good time and, whilst it’s not really saying anything special, Mattei’s film is for me one of the more enjoyable of its kind produced in the wake of Romero’s 1978 success.

Posted on 3rd May 2008
Under: Horror | 4 Comments »

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 5/5 (16)