Archive for March, 2009

Run

1991, US, Directed by Geoff Burrowes

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Buena Vista; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Surround

Cocky college boy Charlie Farrow seems to know no bounds when it comes to good luck, but he’s blissfully unaware that fate is about to redress the balance somewhat. While helping out one of his side-job bosses he’s offered the overnight task of dropping off someone’s flashy Porsche to Atlantic City, yet another seemingly fortunate occurrence in Charlie’s life as he takes his $200 and speeds down the sunlit highway in style. Then the Porsche conks out (aha, that’s why I opted for a Fiesta instead) and Charlie is forced to have it dropped off at a local garage while he checks out his new and unfamiliar vicinity. Directed to an underground casino by a feisty taxi driver, Charlie doesn’t see any problems in store because he’s already proven himself a dab hand at poker with fellow less fortunate students. So he starts winning quite a stash of cash for himself while flirting with table host Karen Landers, generally having a good time, but one of his opponents is not so happy that some arrogant kid is beating him at his own game and becomes increasingly aggressive throughout the course of the session. In an ensuing struggle the man hits his head and kills himself, everyone standing around in shock (not least Charlie). What’s worse is the dead man is actually the son of the mob boss who owns the casino, and the sudden acknowledgement of negative attention forces Charlie to make a quick escape. With half of the mob after him the lad realises that he can’t even turn to the police, as it seems corruption has infected the force too and even the cops are keen to bring Charlie in to the mob man who has offered $50K for the kid alive.

Preston and Dempsey

I tend to enjoy ‘real bad day’ movies like After Hours, Final Jeopardy and this film - it sort of puts my own measly problems into acceptable perspective while providing general bad luck scenarios that I seem to be able to identify with. After the initial set-up the majority of the remainder of an admittedly fairly thin plot features Charlie (Patrick Dempsey) desperately scrambling to escape the numerous immoral individuals who are out for his blood, despite the fact that he voluntarily did nothing to directly cause the mobster’s son’s death. The targeted chap turns to a number of apparently law-abiding individuals during the chase, some of whom turn out to be untrustworthy themselves or who are simply too scared to help him out, despite his dire circumstances. One of the people he accidentally encounters is Landers (Kelly Preston), the girl who dealt his cards at the poker table. On the surface she appears to be like everyone else in the town; criminal or frightened. At some point Charlie’s charms win her over and she tries to assist him in his plight. The nightmare that grows around him is quite thrilling and the gripping nature of the story is largely attributable to Dempsey’s performance - he portrays sheer confused panic incredibly convincingly, proficiently going from smiley faced student to a man on the brink of desperation. His reactions to the endless bad guys closing in on him are absolutely frantic, and he has ample opportunity to demonstrate incredible agility in the process - the guy is magnificently athletic as he falls and charges about each location in anxious bid to preserve his own life. The second factor that supports the success of the film is its sharp editing and acutely delineated pace. Probably as an extension of this, the conclusion does seem partly rushed, not wrapping up the plot in a manner which would be considered best by most viewers. I don’t think Run is a supremely popular movie but it is something that slipped under the radar, I suspect missing an appropriate target audience in the process. It’s a small piece of work in some respects and fairly undemanding, but it remains consistently exciting and worth the hour and a half investment.

 

I’ve seen Run a couple of times on TV and it’s nice to enjoy how well it’s been presented on DVD, at least visually. Sonically it could have been upgraded with a 5.1 track (only stereo surround here), though with the added bang of a good amplifier it can sound alright. Alas there is nothing else that can be commented on with this skeleton disc, however we should be grateful that a small movie like this is even legitimately available in a widescreen format with such a nice image.

Posted on 29th March 2009
Under: Thriller | No Comments »

Land of the Dead

2005, US, Directed by George A Romero

Colour, Running Time: 93 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Universal; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD 5.1

In the aftermath of an apocalyptic worldwide rising of the dead, groups of human survivors have taken to walling themselves into cities where they’re protected from the ravenous nature of hungry corpses whilst approximating some semblance of a normal life. One such city, dubbed Fiddler’s Green, is considered a desirable residential location but controlled by despotic leader Kaufman - with significant reward to himself he’s manufactured a place where privileged life continues in a materialistic fashion similar to how one might have lived before the change. Having served Kaufman for some time, the rough and ready Cholo believes that his time has come to relinquish the life-threatening daily routine of retrieving supplies from outside the city’s perimeter, putting forward his argument for moving into his own place within the city. Kaufman is not so obliging and basically rejects Cholo’s request for a better life, thus bent on mass destruction Cholo steals a heavily armed truck labelled Dead Reckoning with the intention of blowing Kaufman out of his pristine tower of protection if a sum of several million dollars is not paid up. Kaufman hires good boy Riley to retrieve the truck and put Cholo out of the picture - not especially concerned about Kaufman’s welfare Riley agrees on condition that he can take his friends with a vehicle plus some weapons, and get out of the place for good, heading north where there is less to cause his stress levels to fluctuate. Making use of his friends and a small team of soldiers Riley heads out to reacquire Dead Reckoning thereby eliminating the threat of a missile attack on the more innocent inhabitants of the city. Meanwhile it seems that one of the rotting dead is beginning to think in a constructive fashion, proceeding to lead an army of corpses to attempt infiltration of Fiddler’s Green.

Get off, you're hurting me!

Romero’s fourth film in his long running ‘Dead’ series caused great anticipation for me - the previous entry, Day of the Dead, had been completed twenty years earlier and whilst initially a source of disappointment for many (not helped by the fact that Romero’s ambitions were famously scaled down by lack of financial backing) the film itself eventually became hugely appreciated by some, including myself (though there are still detractors to this day). Day… is one of my favourites of the genre (along with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead of course) for many reasons that can happily be saved for another review on a rainy day. Suffice to say I could barely wait when Land of the Dead was green-lit. The film really has everything going for it: amazingly slick special effects (and extremely gory they are in places), sharp cinematography, a budget that exceeds that of all preceding films in the series combined (i.e. $15 million as opposed to around $5.1 million), some decent actors to choose from, a twenty year gestation period, etc. Admittedly one might lament the absence of Tom Savini (in a special effects capacity at least - he appears in a cheeky onscreen cameo), but I don’t think anybody can realistically complain about the quality of make-up and bloodshed on display here. There’s even a connection to Dawn…’s crew in the employment of Asia Argento’s thespian services (her dad, Dario, helped produce, finance and distribute the 1978 hit). However, there are issues that continue to bug me despite giving the film several viewings over four years. First but not really foremost, the score is utterly generic, with nothing to distinguish it from any other reasonable budget Hollywood movie out there. Okay, Night… was scored with stock music but it was generally memorable and appropriately selected stock music; Dawn… had the might of Goblin behind it to create a soundtrack like nothing before or since, and I even like the less distinctive but highly catchy music created for Day…, a score that perceptively alternates between careful optimism and melancholic hopelessness. Land…‘s composer team of Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil provide little outside of the mundane. The actors themselves do their job but Romero is unable to draw out anything special - John Leguizamo, so frightening under Brian De Palma’s control in Carlito’s Way, is simply functional here, whereas main man Simon Baker as Riley is a pretty boy with no sense of urgency. Even Dennis Hopper rarely rises above apathy as Kaufman. I always felt Romero worked very well with unknown actors from the sixties through to the eighties, eliciting gripping performances on occasions, but perhaps that innate talent has evaporated through age or lack of practice? The script is peppered with unappealing smart-alecky comments from various quarters and evident almost as a prerequisite is the staple social/political commentary that has earned Romero some acknowledgement from mainstream movie reviewers over the years, here summarising tired ideas on class divides and terrorism in a rather heavy handed manner. As a development from Bub (Day…) the creatures here are beginning to display signs of almost evolving in their ability to communicate and employ tools for various purposes. Nice idea (and very well executed in Day…) but the regular paroxysmal cries of Big Daddy in Land… start to get on the nerves a little bit. To be honest the characters littered throughout this film are not that far from plain boring, Riley‘s irritating disfigured winger included. On to more positive notes, as the army of dead crosses the river on their vengeful journey to the city there’s quite a nifty scene where they all emerge silently from the waters, although even this is a regurgitated idea from Zombie Creeping Flesh (itself a rip-off of Dawn of the Dead ironically) or even Carnival of Souls long before it. The climactic attack on Fiddler’s Green is one of the few events in the film to remotely drag the viewer out of their apathetic state, with plenty of gore and a little action, though it’s clear by this point Romero’s edge and cinematic aggression have all but gone and a once great name in the genre is now merely the producer of mediocre (albeit competent) material. Aside from some viewers out there really digging this film, I just can’t get into it and feel disappointed every time.

 

The theatrical version was available on DVD in the US along with an unrated cut featuring a bit more gore plus one or two extra scenes. This latter version made it to UK shores with the good old ‘Director’s Cut’ slogan across the cover - I find it strange that such a term is so frequently used these days as the directors that are being referred to rarely actually edit their films. Regardless, anyone wanting to see the film may as well go for the harder version. It’s also available on an improved Blu-ray Disc. My absence of pleasure watching Land of the Dead has resulted in the fact that it took me a long time to bother getting around to its follow-up of sorts, Diary of the Dead. Romero has also since put the finishing touches on yet another sequel (previously known under the superior title of Island of the Dead, it was eventually retitled Survival of the Dead). As much as I adore the first three films in the series I definitely think it’s time for the man to hang up his oversized specs.

Posted on 17th March 2009
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Curse of the Devil

1973, Spain, Directed by Carlos Aured

Colour, Running Time: 84 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

Following indirectly on from several earlier films Curse of the Devil continues the mythic saga of Waldemar Daninsky. In the middle ages one of Daninsky’s ancestors is cursed by a worshipper of Satan as the love-loving witch is burned at the stake, a curse that is intended to be carried down through the generations until the ‘present day’ where we catch up with the aristocratic Waldemar as he roams the woods shooting at stray wolves. At a local black mass orgy Satan himself makes an appearance, sending one of his females on a mission to infect Waldemar with the werewolf virus by having him bitten with the skull (!) of a wolf, after the woman has made love to him of course. Elsewhere there is a lunatic on the loose, randomly chopping up various people with an axe - as Waldemar gradually begins transforming into a werewolf the homicidal activities of man and beast segue into one another as townspeople speculate whether the perpetrator is human or not.

There's gotta be more to eat around here than this!

Whilst the continuity of the film is slightly uneven in places, events and people jumping around almost to suit the requirements of a chaotic narrative, compensation materialises in the form of a satisfactory supernatural ambience as well as a dose of directorial panache (Aured made a number of good films with Paul Naschy, including Horror Rises From The Tomb). As with the other Daninsky films that I’ve seen (not all of them are easy to locate) Curse of the Devil (or El Retorno de Walpurgis) happily sits within an odd universe all of its own creation, mixing up its own rules and forcing its dazed inhabitants to abide by them. The eventual manner in which the werewolf (played by Paul Naschy as always) is introduced is gradual and non-sensationalist - our first glimpse of him/it is from a distance as he slaughters two villagers, with no clear view of his features. As the mayhem snowballs Waldemar himself (in between love-making sessions with other women) is falling for a woman he saves in the woods, a prerequisite no doubt designed to add to the inherently tragic nature of the character. In fact she plays a greater role than mere love interest, actually becoming pregnant with the child that she ultimately retells the tale to in flashback and becoming instrumental in the werewolf’s fate, as he was in hers. She’s quite a tough soul too - despite being confronted with violent death in the family, discovering a man with his head squashed by a rock, etc., she seems remarkably unperturbed by her exposure to the terrors of the countryside. Despite her apparently unfeeling nature Waldemar becomes involved with her nonetheless, and thus his ultimate destiny is cemented. The werewolf himself is quite an uncanny creation, modelled by Naschy’s own admission on the Lawrence Talbot character of Universal’s The Wolf Man and its sequels. He won’t exactly put the frights up anyone nowadays but his inhuman ghastliness is an acknowledgeable factor that makes him compulsively viewable - these films are pleasingly addictive. The ominous rural locations are a suitable boost to the hostile world, enveloping the characters in a mysterious bubble from which there’s no real escape. Naschy achieved what he set out to do: update Universal’s formula with added sex and gore for a modern audience, and in the process he pretty much kick-started the Spanish horror movie industry that would bring us so many cool films along the way. Curse of the Devil is a surprisingly violent entry in the series considering when it was made, it features sizzling Euro women in various states of undress, Naschy’s doomed werewolf, an alien world, and a mob of angry villagers to boot - just about all the ingredients one needs for a good night in!

 

There are two US DVD releases of this that are worth considering and relatively easy to obtain: Anchor Bay’s disc features a detailed print with an almost sepia colour scheme that seems to aid the otherworldly story, but alas there is only an ugly English dub to listen to. Actually it’s not that bad compared to many I’ve heard but given a choice I’d take the Spanish dub every time. BCI Eclipse’s Spanish genre series (now sadly defunct) put out the same film with a slightly inferior transfer in all respects (in fact after the first batch hit the streets a number of technical corrections were made before a reissue) but with a choice between Spanish or English soundtracks, therefore it’s down to personal requirements which disc would be more suitable. Extras are slim in either case. If you know what to expect from Paul Naschy and in particular his peculiar Waldemar Daninsky werewolf series then Curse of the Devil won’t be a complete surprise, but it’s an appropriately morbid part of the franchise that should please fans.

Posted on 12th March 2009
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Pi

1998, US, Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Black & White, Running Time: 80 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Pathe; Video: Letterbox 1.66:1, Audio: DD Stereo

Living perpetually isolated from society as far as is possible, IT geek Max Cohen has become obsessed with the theoretical relationships between mathematics and physical existence, hypothesising that the former is a language designed to understand the latter and in such there are recognisable, calculable patterns that would permit one to effectively predict complex outcomes or uncover previously incomprehensible details. The implications are as follows: Max’s obsession turns him personally to the stock market in his attempts to analyse his theoretical patterns for the purposes of pre-empting numerical outcomes, though his motivations are strangely lacking in a desire for materialistic acquisition - it seems that his interests lie more so in scientific comprehension than the benefits that could follow the success of his experiments. Simultaneously, and because of Max’s renowned work with numbers, a couple of other organisations have become attracted to Max’s genius as a tool that can help them achieve their own goals - a group of Jewish God-worshippers believe that Max may hold the key to deciphering religious texts that could reveal the true name of God, while other people are aggressively interested in the possibility that Max should be instrumental in enhancing their own obscure business sensibilities. Max is also ill, suffering from extreme migraines periodically that momentarily shut down his consciousness, something that’s only partially controlled by drugs. His grip on what a normal person would have considered to be reality is only briefly prevented from slipping completely by an old professor friend of his, a man who wants to bring perspective to Max’s increasingly self-destructive urge to understand the mechanics of the universe.

City of the crazy hairstyles

This is an incredibly absorbing piece of film from the man that would develop a cult following with the likes of Requiem For A Dream and - possibly less so - The Fountain, projects that have occasionally split opinions thanks to deliberately ambiguous philosophical pretensions. Pi is really where it all began for Aronofsky, a clearly low-budget outing that refused to be restricted in scope by availability of resources. Sean Gullette is just amazing as Max Cohen, here given his break into the world of feature acting by Aronofsky after a couple of other very minor entries on his C.V. His recreation of obsession and pain is gripping, and almost painful to watch as Max dreadfully descends into one of the fits that hit him more and more throughout the story. Max’s virtually unbreakable focus is not helped by the drug-induced pain reduction that might be assisting a hallucinogenic perception of what’s happening around him - several times there are unexplained events that appear to hold some meaning in Max’s search for truth in numbers. The reasons for Max’s genesis as a philosophical mathematician may be hinted at in comments made about his childhood - his mother told him not to do something (stare into the sun) so he did anyway, the damage done to his eyes gradually being superseded by a sense of almost spiritual clarity. His curiosity concerning that which he should not attempt to dissect was piqued and allegedly rewarded. His apartment also drops a hint, I think, about what Max is overlooking in his obsessive search: crawling over the endless heaps of computer equipment and wiring are ants, some of which he occasionally kills. In this I believe there lies a contrast which has come to be ignored or explained away by amateur science: nature supposedly functions in a machine-like fashion, much of which we ape in our creations of machines that do some of our work for us (the computers proliferating throughout Max‘s apartment, for example), however, in our attempts to understand nature we (and Max) forget to acknowledge an element of the unknown that drives things through existence. Chaos? There’s something unpredictable in nature that will forever keep Max on a search with no end due to the inability of the human mind to conceive things outside of its meagre comprehension, and maybe by the film’s cryptic conclusion Max comes to realise this. While not quite as intensely realised as the director‘s later projects, the progressive impact on the viewer spirals almost out of control as the film matures, something that’s become a staple of Aronofsky’s work. Pi is a relentlessly amazing film with smart dialogue, alluring inhabitants, and a story of mind-bending significance that dares you to fully decipher it.

 

Shot largely using black & white reversal materials with a low budget, Pi understandably looks very rough. Contrasts are quite often extreme, grain is omnipresent, and detail is sometimes hard to make out - this is all part of the source though the old DVD transfer permitted macro blocking in places and did not take advantage of an increase in resolution that would have resulted from mastering anamorphically. The pretty cool industrial soundtrack is moderately well served with a stereo track and accompanying this are a couple of commentaries from the director and Gullette. The film is essential viewing and while the DVD could be improved nowadays it’s still the only way to watch it.

Posted on 1st March 2009
Under: Other | No Comments »

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