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    • Burke and Hare [2010] (DVD) / DVD / 86 Readings / 84 Ratings
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      04.01.2011 02:01
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      Roll up

      Burke and Hare - did you know that they're not actually serial killers?

      It's true. The definition of a serial killer requires there to be a motivation of psychological gratification. William Burke and William Hare, being motivated into their famous misdeeds by money, don't fit the bill.

      This black British comedy tells their tale. Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are Irish navvies who'd emigrated to Edinburgh during the early part of the 19th century, when "Auld Reekie" was known as "The Athens of the North". Both are down on their luck, and quite literally as thick as thieves. Hare's wife (Jessica Hynes) runs a lodging house, but when an elderly tenant dies owing money, the end of the couple's rental income spells financial ruin. However, a gap in the market unexpectedly arises. Edinburgh's University, needing cadavers to work and experiment on, reached an agreement with the authorities to have exclusive access to the only corpses deemed fit for dissection, those of executed criminals. This put Dr Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson), a private anatomy expert of Edinburgh Medical College, at a disadvantage when it came to research - there were no subjects for him to experiment on - and thereby put a premium on the price of any dead bodies that could be provided to him.

      Selling the body of the deceased tenant to Dr Knox, Messrs Burke and Hare agree a good price with the esteemed anatomist for any further dead bodies they can provide to him. The demand was there - what to do about the supply?

      One of Hare's other tenants was a sickly chap, probably not long for this world, needlessly hanging on, when there was money to be had. Well, if the apple's not falling from the tree... where's the harm in giving the tree a little shake?

      Before long, moral ambivalence slowly turns into a slippery slope, as business picks up and the cash comes rolling in. Burke's new found wealth attracts admirers, and he becomes enamoured with actress Helen M'Dougal (Isla Fisher) who's putting together an all-female production of Macbeth. Burke's persuaded to fund it, and the moral descent of the protagonist of "The Scottish Play" serves as a neat counterpoint to the downward spiral of his own conduct.

      Although the ending is a matter of historical record, which you are all probably aware of, I'll refrain from going any further for fear of the usual cry of "spoiler" from those who don't know better. With performances from Ronnie Corbett, Bill Bailey and Paul Whitehouse to enjoy as added bonuses, this is a picaresque tale where our sympathies lie entirely with the conspiratorial duo as they justify to themselves their ever worsening conduct. The "supply and demand" line is, of course, trotted out as a moral argument rather than an economic one, in the same way arms dealers and drug pushers do, but there's also the added element of the good work and advances in science made by Dr Knox, which otherwise would not have been possible without their involvement. The connivance of the better classes in these seedy goings-on is given due and proper treatment, and while artistic licence with such tales is expected, the writers and director John Landis deserve credit for weaving their tale with commendable fidelity to historical fact.

      It's a fun watch without being laugh out loud funny - in fact the only belly laugh I recall is at the sight of Hare doing his wife with his crooked top hat still on his head - and I recommend you watch it right through to the end of the credits. The grisly tale is treated with a touch of whimsy, never gets too graphic for the squeamish, and is not at all scary even though it was released over Halloween weekend. I don't know if Edinburgh has tours of the West Point Murders in the same way London does the Jack the Ripper walks, but if they do, I expect that this film will be providing them with a few more paying customers.

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        03.01.2011 04:10
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        Immerse yourself

        DVD box sets seem incredibly daunting when you look at them. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's been bought an entire TV mini-series for Christmas, and thought "I can't justify plonking myself in front of the telly for THAT many hours, when there's so much else to do." And your heart sinks, cos you know you'd have to watch it all in one go, because if you don't, you'll forget the characters and plot if you leave it half way through. Especially if it's dull. And if you'll be seeing your donor again by New Year, you'd best at least make the effort.

        Well, if your nearest and dearest are going to insist on buying you box sets, tell them to get this one from Santa. It couldn't be better - no script, no characters, no plot to discuss. Nothing.

        What each of the Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy consists of, in fact, is a visual tableaux of images set to the musical score of Philip Glass. That's pretty much it, but I won't be doing it justice by just leaving it there.

        "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi Indian word meaning "Life Out Of Balance", and is chanted in basso profundo at the beginning and end of the work. In between, we are presented with sequences of time lapse and slow motion photography, initially concentrating on the forces of nature, such as flowers, waves and clouds, and then moving on to man's imposition of technology and industry on the world, such as the Navajo Generating Station, the explosion of atomic bombs, and the movements of the networks of people and traffic throughout New York City. The viewer is left to their own interpretation of each segment of this trilogy - for what it's worth, Koyaanisqatsi brings home to me how wrapped up in technology mankind has become, and how cut off we are from the natural resources which ultimately keep us alive.

        "Powaqqatsi", the sequel, can mean either "Life In Transition" or "Parasitic Way of Life" in Hopi. This work concentrates on the impact of modern technology on developing or Third World countries, especially in conflict zones. The images on this occasion concentrate more on people, usually those living a traditional way of life, in their work and their worship. For me, there is also a highlighted contrast between urban and rural life, and while there are less visual tricks here, this is to more accurately reflect the reality of the lives of the people shown, and reminds us we all move to the same beat of the chronological drum we call Time.

        "Naqoyqatsi" (not a part of the product description but included by me for the sake of completeness) means in Hopi "Life As War" and has the musical soundtrack again set to accompany the images, but on this occasion, a cello plays a single line running through the whole piece. Much use is again made of archive footage, digitally processed, and again it flashes before us almost subliminally. For me, it describes mankind's transition between a nature-based to a technology-based way of life, to the extent that mankind can no longer function without the technology it has created for itself.

        As you've probably worked out for yourself from my clumsy attempts, Reggio's films are better experienced than described. Whereas Disney's Fantasia was meant to be an animation that complemented the music, Glass's score seems to have been created specifically for the film, or at least created at the same time. The effect is that these hypnotic works should provoke thoughts, ideas, emotions and interpretations in the viewer, and so the reception will be largely subjective. Some who have seen this tell me it is inspiring, some say frightening. It's all in the eye of the beholder, and for those of you interested in psychedelic experiences, it's worth your while knowing there's enough in these works of visual art to enhance whatever trip you may be on. Unlike the Mad-chester music scene, however, you don't need to be on drugs to appreciate Reggio's works, just the time and space to enjoy them.

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        • The Social Network (DVD) / DVD / 59 Readings / 58 Ratings
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          31.12.2010 02:40
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          Programmaz With Attitude

          "Life ain't nothing but bitches and money."

          So quipped Ice Cube of seminal gangsta rap outfit N.W.A., to an outcry from mainstream America, horrified by the band's brutal sexism and cynical world view.

          Make a film carrying essentially the same message, but with white, middle class Harvard graduates as protagonists (with tarted up language to suit), however, and it seems all America will gush with praise at its production.

          "The Social Network" tells the story of Facebook in retrospect, largely via the accounts of litigants in pre-trial depositions. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, and we begin by seeing him on a date with Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). It becomes clear early in the couple's conversation that Zuckerberg's intellect isn't matched by his social skills: he is pedantic, correcting, patronising and off-hand, yet completely unaware of the offence he causes. As Erica walks off in disgust, his question "Is this real?" is an indication of just how detached from the rest of the world his time in front of a screen has made him.

          His rebuff by a woman he considers an intellectual inferior makes him burn with rage, and he flounces off home to spitefully denounce her online. But our Harvard bad boy isn't finished with the female sex yet: using an algorithm borrowed from his friend Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield), he hacks into the sites of other colleges, downloads the online passport photos of the female students, and uses them to create FaceMash, a program that lets the user rate any two photos of the students concerned against each other for attractiveness. There's predictable uproar on the grounds of sexism, and the university authorities place rude boy Zuckerberg on academic probation.

          The furore caused reaches the attention of Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer playing both with Josh Spence as body double) who want to take forward a business idea called Harvard Connection, an invitation-only exclusive social networking site. They explain their idea to Zuckerberg and hire him as programmer. Zuckerberg, however, stalls on the work agreed and instead launches with Severin "Thefacebook", a social networking site for Harvard students, along the lines of the idea explained to him, but also cashing in on his existing notoriety caused by FaceMash. Realising they've been duped, Narendra and the Winklevosses try to seek redress through the university administration, to no avail.

          Tension in Savarin and Zuckerberg's business relationship begins after the pair are introduced to Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who encourages them to change the site name to simply "Facebook" and move the business to California. As the site rises in popularity and the stakes get ever higher, everyone starts angling their snouts towards their own personal piece of the ever-growing pie - where will it all end?

          One of the strengths of the film is that it doesn't try to deliver a sugar-coated rags-to-riches fairy tale of the American Dream, where someone has a vision and pursues it with such enthusiasm that he gets his just desserts by dint of his labour and sweat of his brow. Rather, this biographical tale shows the capitalist rat race for what it truly is: a system in which the middle classes have the head start; whereby virtues such as plain dealing, comradeship and loyalty become despised failings of the weak; and where each of the rats will pounce on and cannibalise any of their own kind who show any signs of such weakness. Consequently, it's fun to watch as long as you're not asked to sympathise with any of these vermin.

          Another strength lies in the acting. Jesse Eisenberg does nerds so well, in the strength of increasingly stiff competition from so many other actors out there, and he creates the wholly credible character of the highly strung programmer. You won't have to have been on the internet long - heck, you wouldn't even need to go outside dooyoo - to know that their are some seriously cranky people tapping away at their keyboards out there, and Eisenberg plays such a social retard to near perfection. The fact that the personification is not quite Zuckerberg seems immaterial - the character he creates stands on its own merits. Justin Timberlake is also surprisingly good too, and we watch with amusement as his Parker weaves his spell over Zuckerberg with lines like "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars!" It seems unnervingly natural for him to be taking the youngster under his wing in the velvet-roped-off area of the expensive nightclub, and ordering the waitress to bring them the most expensive amuses bouches to get things started, before moving on to cocktails and cocaine.

          Director David Fincher seems happy to dangle the carrot of Croesian riches before us like gullible asses without any apparent reflection on who's being whipped with the stick, or who's doing the whipping. Nowhere is the effect on users' privacy examined, and no mention is made of any of the addictive and deleterious effects Facebook has had on its customers' lives. Self-enrichment for its own reward is the only morality on offer. Women, also, come off badly here, portrayed either as shrewish harridans outraged by Zuckerberg's antics, or as glamorous arm decorations at fancy parties, trophies of their go-getting partners - and that's without even mentioning the drunken lesbian exhibitions going on in the campus halls for the benefit of leering, beer-swigging frat boys. This is a world in which women have no meaningful contribution to make.

          But what really got my goat was the appeal to sympathise with Zuckerberg, and the idea that after all the money he's amassed for himself, he's somehow still not happy. It's not even done with any irony, and elicited only a sarcastic"Well, boo hoo" conclusion from me. Again, the truth is a little more complicated than the fiction, but the fact that they tried this sentimental hogwash at all is a baffling misjudgment.

          The film is of course for Facebook users but also for fans of things like The Apprentice or Dragons Den, who think that only people in suits, or those who pretend to their wealth, actually stand for something in this world. Perhaps they're aiming to strike a chord with the so-called "Me" generation, if such a thing exists (the student protests make me think not). For the rest of us, this work will amuse us a little but, like the gangsta rappers, offers a bleak world view.

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          • Machete (DVD) / DVD / 57 Readings / 54 Ratings
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            07.12.2010 05:13
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            ¡Arriba!

            If you ever go to Tijuana, you may notice two important differences between crossing the border from San Diego into Mexico, and then back again. Firstly, immigration control: on the way back you'll encounter some. Secondly, displayed on the Mexican side of the border fence on large white crucifixes are the names of all those who have died trying to illegally cross the border into America. Seeking either asylum or economic betterment, many thousands make the attempt every year. Those who succeed form an underclass derided as "wetbacks", and are forced by their immigration status to take menial cash-in-hand jobs to survive, denied the safeguards of either a minimum wage or union protection. Those who don't face deportation or worse - many of those crucifixes simply bear the words: "No Identificado".

            Machete, played by Danny Trejo, is one of those who made it. Having fallen foul of corrupt law enforcement officials working hand-in-hand with drug cartels in his homeland, he flees to Texas and comes to the attention of local businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey). Booth offers him $150,000 to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (Robert de Niro), a politician who is seeking re-election on an anti-immigration ticket, but whose support is falling in the polls. The Mexican accepts under duress, but soon discovers he's been set up as a patsy: as he sets his sights, one of Booth's own henchmen shoots McLaughlin in the leg, then turns his fire on Machete. Booth's real plan is to shore up support for the racist senator, so that tax dollars will be spent on constructing a more dangerous electrified fence along the border. That way, he will be able to regulate the flow of immigrants entering the United States, and consequently profit by controlling the price of immigrant smuggling and immigrant labour. What better way to secure McLaughlin's re-election than by orchestrating a scenario whereby a no-good wetback has attempted to shoot the very politician trying to shut his kind out?

            Machete escapes the scene of course and the remainder of this action movie revolves around the efforts by both the gangsters and immigration officials to bring him in, and Machete's fight to clear his name and overcome his enemies. But while the subject matter may be a serious one, this is a Robert Rodriguez work in the gloriously over-the-top style of Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn. Bombs, boobs, bullets and blades are the order of the day here, and we can all get on board rooting for the put-upon Mexican underdogs in their battle to free themselves from their industrial and political tyrants. Fixed firmly in Rodriguez's Tex-Mex underworld of outrageous fantasy, we can feel safely reassured that the suspension of disbelief the film requires means that that not even the most easily influenced viewer who'd gone to a cinema seeking a machismo fix could possibly leave concluding that the answer to any of his problems lie down the barrel of a gun.

            Further strengths lie in the cast and acting. As well as those mentioned, we have Cheech Marin playing a priest, a heavyweight Steven Seagal playing a drug lord, Michelle Rodriguez as a revolutionary taco vendor known as Shé, Miami Vice's Don Johnson as a border vigilante, and both Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan in the nip. The lead, Danny Trejo - you may remember him as the knife-wielding assassin in Desperado - makes up in simmering meanness what he lacks in classic Hollywood good looks. While the acting demands would hardly have stretched Antonio Banderas, it has to be said that Trejo smoulders more on screen - nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen more than just the one-dimensional strong silent type to his character than is offered here.

            But this is nit-picking. This outpouring of explosions and gore offered here is enjoyable escapist fun, and judged as such on its own merits, deserves all five stars for its style. It's old school goodies v baddies done tongue in cheek, and is thereby immune from any criticism of being simplistic or passé. Good job too, because it also gets away with some killer one liners that'll leave you laughing out loud - "Machete don't text" indeed - and some babes in bikinis spraying machine gun fire far and wide. Get in the spirit of it rather than deride it for shallowness, I say, and bring on the sequels.

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            • London River (DVD) / DVD / 50 Readings / 49 Ratings
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              09.11.2010 04:04
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              London calling to faraway towns...

              The morning of Thursday 7th July 2005 seemed no different from other London mornings, to begin with. I walked to my office in Bloomsbury as I normally did. On the way, I mulled over the news that London would be hosting the 2012 Olympics, which had been announced only the day before, and thought about it being the topic of a conversation later on. I was late, but it didn't much matter, as I'd cleared the day of meetings to catch up with paperwork. Punctuality wasn't a particular bugbear where I worked anyway, and as I trudged up the stairs to my office on the third floor, I wasn't that surprised to see that no-one else seemed to have arrived. My colleague who shared the room with me was on holiday, and when I pushed the button to start my computer, I decided I'd better look on her desk for the file she'd prepared for me, to do with a case I'd cover for her the next day. I took off my overcoat, and swung my work bag onto the chair of my swivel seat.

              BANG!

              What was that?

              It was loud all right. The window of my office faced onto the back-ends and fire escapes of all sorts of other buildings, and the acoustics made me think that the sound came from the Tottenham Court Road area. Could it have been a lorry going too fast over a speed bump, its cargo jumping and colliding with the metal container? But if it was that, wouldn't there have been a slightly quieter boom following it, like an echo, and the accompanying engine noise? No, it was certainly a different sound to that. As the sirens started up, I sat down and decided to look to see if anyone on the internet chatrooms or messageboards had heard the same.

              They certainly had. What's more, while the official news channels were telling people the Tube had been shut down due to a power surge, people from outside London were posting that their local radio stations had reported explosions in the capital. I decided I wasn't doing a tap of work until I'd got a proper handle on what was going on. Regular news sources seemed remarkably (and suspiciously) silent, but ordinary folk inside and outside London were passing accurate information via messageboards much faster. I went up to the roof of the building to have a look around. The sirens were everywhere, sounding much louder now, and a helicopter was circling round and round behind the British Museum. I returned to my desk, and checked the messageboards again. Someone had posted that phone masts had been deactivated in case the bombs were being set off via mobile phone, as they had been in Madrid. I tried my phone and found it was true. At that point, I decided to pick up the office phone and use the landline to ring my parents and tell them I was okay.

              One mother who didn't receive a phone call that fateful morning was Elisabeth Sommers (played by Brenda Blethyn), a widowed mother living on a farm in the island of Guernsey. Her daughter Jane is studying at a university in the capital, and when news of the terrorist attack breaks, she is naturally anxious. She leaves telephone messages, but as the minutes tick into hours, and the 24 hour news channels reveal more and more grim details, with still no word from Jane, she hurriedly arranges for her brother to look after the farm, and heads to St Peter Port, to catch a ferry to England.

              Arriving in London, Elisabeth gives a taxi driver her daughter's address, and he takes her to Finsbury Park, a place which she has obviously not visited before. She is initially incredulous that Jane could live there, but the landlord, who owns and runs the shop underneath Jane's flat, confirms it, and kindly lets her in so she can wait. Elisabeth's attitude has been cold and mistrustful of the Londoners she has met on this trip so far, and her phone call back to her brother explains why:

              "The place is crawling with Muslims", she cries, "even her landlord's one of them!"

              But Elisabeth is not the only parent in London searching for a missing child. Ousmane (played by the late Sotigui Kouyaté) is an elderly black African who has travelled from France in search of a son he left behind in Mali at the age of only six. While Elisabeth has to deal with the cold bureaucracy of police interviews and form-filling to find her daughter, Ousmane chooses to seek assistance from the local mosque and its young, amateur community workers. Their contacts point him towards a college where his son was learning Arabic; the college provides him with a class photograph.

              Elisabeth sets to work photocopying and fly-posting "Missing Person" leaflets, containing Jane's photograph and a dedicated mobile number. By chance, Ousmane sees the poster and recognises the missing person as a fellow classmate of his son. He calls Elisabeth and, having established a common language in French, they arrange to meet. Showing her the photograph, Ousmane is astonished to see Elisabeth fearfully run away with it, and call the police to arrest him. Questioning reveals him to have nothing to do with the 7/7 bombings, of course, but after his release, it becomes clear that, faced with overstretched and overworked emergency services in a crisis situation, the two of them are on their own in finding out what has happened to their children, and that they will find it in their mutual interest to assist each other in doing so.

              Quietly spoken French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb could have chosen any terrorist attack to set his story around, but chose the July bombings because he wanted Blethyn involved, declaring in interview: "I had to wait a year for her and if I'd have had to wait two years I would."

              In this, his judgement is spot on. Blethyn is well used to playing fallible, fretful mothers, but as Elisabeth Sommers, we see added to the mix a character impelled by desperate circumstances out of her insular life and into a world largely alien to her. It can be all too readily believed that a woman whose only knowledge of ethnic minorities and Muslims comes from newspapers would act in the way that Blethyn portrays, and her stand-offish and mistrustful manner serves as an introduction to the emotions she later feels as each new revelation about her daughter's London life stuns and disturbs her.

              The late Sotigui Kouyaté plays a more restrained role with an artless simplicity, his eyes two dark pools of reflective sadness, vulnerable, yet imbued with the hidden depths that wisdom brings. The connection Ousmane and Elisabeth are forced to make with each other as it becomes apparent that their chidren's fortunes are co-mingled forms the basis of the film and, together with the vivid and accurate portrayal of the London in the days following the attack, is its strongest quality.

              For me, if a director really nails a film's finale, then my fifth star is earned. Unfortunately, I have to say that the finale was a disappointment, and in fact, serves to demerit it a further star. I can understand that a happy, feelgood ending is hardly fitting for the subject matter, but allowing things to simply fizzle out and fade away didn't work for me either.

              Along the way, however, you'll see subtitles for the French, Arabic and Bamanankan conversations that intersperse the film and, indeed, the city of London experience. Brenda Blethyn fans have much to appreciate from her performance here, and I can also recommend the work to anyone who was in London during those days, and also to anyone who enjoys the capital's multicultural vibe. It's a shame for me that the ending turned out so unsatisfactorily, but for the most part, this is an engaging and credible storyline, flecked through with some touches of real beauty.

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              • Waking Life (DVD) / DVD / 53 Readings / 51 Ratings
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                29.10.2010 14:45
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                Is this a dream?

                If I describe the plot of this animated film, let me start by saying it's the least important part of it. "Waking Life" is taken from philosopher George Santayana's maxim: "Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled." It kinda lets you know what you're in for.

                Our young unnamed male protagonist (played by Wiley Wiggins) begins by arriving at a railway station, ringing his buddy from a payphone hoping to get a ride (but leaving an answerphone message instead), and then jumping into a "boat car" when looking for a cab. The captain/driver asks him where he wants to go. Incapable of giving him any coherent answer, the passenger who was already in the car suggests a place for him to jump out. He does so, and the car/boat drives off. Halfway across the street, he stops to pick up a note which says "Look to your right". When he does, he sees that he's about to be run over by a car.

                Or is he? He awakens. Or does he? Throughout the film, our unnamed protagonist encounters people, either directly or at a distance, who engage him in intense philosophical discussion. He realises as he progresses that he cannot in fact wake up, or at least, every time he thinks he wakes up, he's still in a dream.

                So much for the plot. It's actually the meetings he has along the way which make this film worth watching. The whole feel of it is of a university campus in the late 60's or early 70's America, when students seemed to be throwing off the shackles of accepted norms, and dreaming new dreams of how the world should be, or theorising about the very nature of existence. Not all the characters are students or philosophers, by any means, yet there's a very intense feel to the nature of all the discussions, as if everyone in this dreamworld is on a higher plane, either intellectually or artistically.

                What helps the effect of this is the form of animation used, called rotoscoping. I'm not technical wiz on such matters, but the actors and action are largely recorded on digital film, then animation is added via Apple Mac. You may be able to interpret the level of consciousness our protagonist is on by the clarity of the animation, I don't know - certainly, it's one of many discussion points of this somewhat unique movie.

                So there's no bombs, car chases, explosions, boobs or guns, and yes there will be those who find it boring, perhaps even criticising on the basis that the contents are just so much self-indulgent navel gazing. There may be some validity to that. Personally, if I slipped into a dream like this, I'd find it hard to want to wake up. If anything, you should find this to be thought-provoking and perhaps wonder why there haven't been more films like it since. Sometimes, the ideas may come too thick and fast to appreciate at a first viewing, but on the other hand, this is a DVD ideal for scene selection as it's not too hung up on plot. Like Marcus Aurelius's "Meditations", you could dip in and out of it.

                Nevertheless, the 99 minutes running time shouldn't prove too taxing, and it may prompt further reading and investigation into the subjects discussed, provided your head isn't spinning too much.

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                • The Last Exorcism (DVD) / DVD / 35 Readings / 21 Ratings
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                  28.10.2010 05:47
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                  Dollar for the collection bowl on your way out?

                  When the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth, Massachussets, in 1620, they were fleeing the religious persecution of the Old World. Their arrival in America heralded a new beginning in matters of religious faith. No more were Christians to kill and torture each other over differences in belief in this new land. The New World would be one in which each man would be free to live according to his conscience, without interference from the state or the Inquisition over matters of doctrine. A free market, then, was the environment which attracted the Amish, the Quakers and the Baptists among others, who were all at liberty to practice their own forms of worship and to preach for the purpose of gaining other adherents if they could.

                  The vast open spaces of this new continent led to the rapid expansion of settlers and inter-communication of ideas. Here, Christians were beyond the reach of the Papacy, or a state hostile to it, who would decide what was and was not heretical. In place of these closed shop institutions, wandering preachers would often go out to the people, Bible in hand, and seek out their own congregations. If they found favour, a church and a livelihood would be built around them. Consequently, new Christian churches sprang up, and those like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists thrived and continue to this day.

                  Christian faith continues in the spirit of business and commerce today in the United States. It is the age of tele-evangelism, and what may seem weird and wacky to us Europeans, such as snake-handling, is, to Americans, not only in keeping with the original spirit of the early Pilgrim Fathers, for whom religious tolerance was the sine qua non of their voyage to the New World, but also accords with their venture capitalist economic ethos, which underpins their whole society.

                  One unintended consequence of this tradition of free interpretation of Biblical scripture has been, for horror film-makers, a fertile imaginative source for plotlines whereby a convincing minister leads individuals, families or even whole communities astray - hardly a leap in credibility, given the gruesome realities of Jonestown and Waco. But the Reverend Cotton Marcus (played by Patrick Fabian) is no such monster - he's a preacher, a showman, and a capitalist, in the great American tradition. Born into the business, Cotton has taken over much of his father's preaching duties, and not only holds his faithful congregation in the palm of his hand at Sunday service, but goes out of his way to perform numerous exorcisms when called upon to do so, as a lucrative sideline.

                  However, Cotton has reached a point in his life, after his wife gave birth to their first child (a disabled son), where such matters have begun to trouble him. Having read of an attempted exorcism which led to the death of the autistic child being exorcised, he has invited producer/director Iris Reison (Iris Bahr) and cameraman Dave Mosskovitz (Adam Grimes) to firstly film his ordinary ministry, but then to accompany him on a call out to perform an exorcism in backwaters Louisiana.

                  The idea of having a film crew is to perform an expose, a la Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed, into the smoke and mirrors that goes into his work as an exorcist. The gullible dupe who has written to request an exorcism is Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a widowed farmer who lives alone with his teenage children Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and Nell (Ashley Bell). It is the latter who, supposedly possessed by evil spirits, has attacked the family cattle.

                  On arrival at the dirt farm, along a backroad track, the three are met by Caleb, who is immediately hostile to their presence, telling them to go back where they came from, and throwing stones at their 4x4. Persisting, the group meet Louis Sweetzer himself, a God-fearing Christian who distrusts his local preacher sufficiently to want to seek this source of outside help. He conducts everyone to the room of his daughter Nell.

                  In Sweetzer's absence, Cotton shows to camera what's about to happen. With the aid of hidden speakers, which produce growling noises, and a trick crucifix which smoulders at the push of a button, Cotton goes to work with fire and brimstone dramatics aplenty, and convinces the concerned father that he has exorcised the demon Abalam. Additionlly, using cold-reading and warm-reading techniques, Cotton conveys messages he hears from God that are personal to Louis, urging him to live a faithful life, and to refrain from alcohol (a weakness let slip by Caleb in an earlier conversation). And after relieving this dirt poor farmer of an unconscionable amount of his life savings - hey, that's capitalism - he leaves the family in a hopefully healthier state, to retire to his lodgings for the night, job done.

                  Only it's not quite so easy as that. Without warning, Nell suddenly appears in Cotton's motel room in the middle of the night. Realizing he's way out of his depth here, Cotton drives her to hospital in an attempt to get her some professional psychiatric help. Doctors conclude that Nell is suffering from no medical disorders, and so Cotton drives her home, only to find that matters have begun to escalate beyond his control. Louis Sweetzer insists on a further exorcism taking place, and chains Nell up in her room for having slashed Caleb's face open the night before. As they're deciding what to do for best, Caleb slips Cotton a bloodstained note - "Don't leave him alone with her" - and the preacher convinces Louis to take his wounded son to hospital, leaving Nell in his care with the camera crew. Once alone with Nell, however, the documentary makers begin to record and unravel a deeper and more sinister mystery to this exorcism game, which none of them had bargained on.

                  The idea that the horror film develops from a documentary is not a novel one, but here it is given an interesting twist. We are treated to the perspective of the scientific and worldly TV crew trying to explain away the uncanny and unnerving events that unfold before their camera lens, as they speculate about all sorts of psychological conditions that could have caused the manifestations they witness, perhaps involving incest among these hillbilly rednecks, or child cruelty from the strict head of family, or the effects of sexual repression upon an adolescent girl, none of which make much sense in the surrounding pandemonium. We also get to thoroughly enjoy the experience of the religious hustler getting his comeuppance, as he realises he's bitten off more than he can chew - fans of Derren Brown's TV debunking of spiritualists and the like have something quite fun to watch here.

                  There's also much that classic horror fans, like those of the original Exorcist, will appreciate in the antics of Nell Sweetzer. Yet it's the developing mystery, and its ultimate resolution, that keep the film gripping for me. This largely unknown cast produce performances worthy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, especially Patrick Fabian himself, as the slick, roguish reverend, who's not an entirely unsympathetic character, as he strives to do the right thing once matters start to take unexpected turns.

                  There may be plotholes for those who want to see them - most notably for me, how and why the footage actually survives, but that's for you to mull over when you've seen it through - but overall, I think it's quite tight, with some excellent twists. This film may well leave you breathless at the end, and even if it's not as truly scary as hardened horror devotees may wish, it is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining throughout, and an imaginative take on existing genres.

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                  • More +
                    14.10.2010 00:58
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                    Lose yourself

                    Mention the word "art" to anyone, and they may perhaps think of oil paintings, perhaps by Leonardo da Vinci; or they may think of modern art, like Tracy Emin's unmade bed, or some outlandish sculpture meant to please the public, such as The Angel of the North; or if they've been reading the Metro, whatever it is they've been told the Arts Council has wasted money on.

                    Film is an art form of course, but perhaps the poor relation of the others. Maybe its very accessibility to a public who fund it themselves via the private sector leads it to being deliberately overlooked by pseudo-intellectual art critics, eager to preserve the exclusive elitism of their pursuit. Not all film is art, of course: you don't become an artist simply by uploading onto YouTube the Nokia footage taken of your mates' drunken antics. Nonetheless, both "London" and "Robinson In Space" by Patrick Keiller have more than enough about them to qualify as works of art in their own right.

                    In fact, the experience of watching these films is not so much like art as being conducted around an art gallery. Let me explain. The narrator (Paul Scofield), who we never see, and whose name we don't know, describes his friendship with Robinson, who we don't see either, and their travels together. Firstly, the pair travel through our nation's capital in "London" to prepare an academic work Robinson has been assigned, during General Election week in 1992. In the sequel, "Robinson In Space", Robinson has been assigned the task of documenting "the problem of England", and travels with his companion around the country, following the route described in Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year". The same method is adopted for both films: we are shown moving film images from a (usually) static camera of the place where the "action" is taking place, but rather than see what happens, the narrator tells us. For example, we are shown a clip of men working at a dockyard: the narrator tells us about the dockyard, perhaps throwing in facts and figures about the industry, and then stops, allowing us to appreciate the scene and its background noise; or we are shown a stately home, and the narrator tells us its history, and what Robinson thought about it; or we are shown the outside of a pub, and the narrator relates a confrontation the pair have with the landlord.

                    If you've ever been to an art gallery and hired out those headphones that give you a guided tour in English, French, German, Japanese etc.. you may perhaps consider these two films similar to that experience, except with real scenes of ordinary everyday life as it's conducted in this country of ours. Certainly, if you're not into the experience in the first 20 minutes or so, you can stop there, as it won't be changing. But if you persist, you'll find the whole effect quite mesmeric, and charming. It certainly has that relaxing Sunday early evening cakey feel, and it's also something you'll find you can dip into and out of, there being little in the way of plot outside what I've just described. Both the script and its delivery by the narrator are inspired, and the pace of both works effortless and slow.

                    These films will delight people-watchers. In many ways, it's like being able to sit and watch the world go by from the comfort of your living room. They may also be for dreamers, as well as the reflective. In fact, like any trip to an art gallery, you'll probably find your own take on what these film are, and what they are trying to express, and they may even inspire in you artistic ideas of your own.

                    If you do like these works, then there's more good news, as Patrick Keiller is bringing out, in November 2010, a third work, "Robinson In Ruins" to follow the first two, and it'll be bang up to date. The only difference is that Vanessa Redgrave will take the place of narrator, as Paul Scofield died after making the second film. I don't know if the British Film Institute plans on issuing a 3 CD set, so you might want to keep an eye out for that, but I can certainly recommend the first two if you want something a bit different and certainly more cerebral from your film-viewing experience.

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                    • Dirty Filthy Love (DVD) / DVD / 57 Readings / 56 Ratings
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                      24.09.2010 01:51
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                      Don't be embarrassed

                      Never just grab the first porn-looking DVD from the top shelf of Blockbusters and dash to the counter with it. You may be disappointed.

                      Okay, so Dirty Filthy Love might not be what you think it is at first sight. Indeed, the very title may put you off, but don't let it. This is a chance to see top British actor Michael Sheen not impersonating someone else we already know for a change, but playing Mark Furness, an architect whose life is slowly going down the toilet as his Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder slowly takes over.

                      We join Mark as his wife Stevie (Claudie Blakely) harangues him on the phone for being late for a meeting to discuss their forthcoming trial separation. We follow his outbursts on the Tube, and his odd manner of dealing with escalators, all the way to met her. By the time he has arrived, there is no time to discuss anything. Stevie seems resolved to separate.

                      In an effort to regain her, Mark tries to return to work from illness. His discussions with his employers do not go well, serving only to underline how his behaviour is being adversely affected by his conditions. A severance package is proposed.

                      Mark seeks medical help, but a bored GP prescribes only mood pills. By chance, however, he has been sharing a waiting room with Charlotte (Shirley Henderson), another OCD sufferer, who recognises his symptoms and follows him out of the surgery to offer him the chance of joining a self-help group.

                      The group consists of others all with their own obsessive foibles, often including the need to be spotlessly germ-free at all times. Consequently, a trip to a farm is arranged as a form of aversion therapy, and as a group they force themselves (having been relieved of their wet wipes) to hold a handful of earth in their hands for a set time.

                      Mark endures these tortures in the hope of being cured and winning back his wife. However, he becomes attracted by the empathy he has received from Charlotte, and the attraction is more than mutual. Which way should he turn? And retrace his steps? And turn again?

                      If you're the type to nudge your mate and snigger at the Care in the Community dropout who's standing at the window of Greggs shouting at the sandwiches, there's more than enough weirdness of the freak show variety you crave here to have you howling with pitiless laughter from the safety of your bedroom. I think most of us will root for the underdog, though, and have enough awareness of these conditions now to sympathise with Mark's plight. That's not to say that there's no cause for guilt-free humour here. Indeed, all the members of the self help group laugh at each other's obsessions, secure in the knowledge that the rationale behind them is no more logical than their own.

                      Yet this isn't a tragedy either (so the box of Kleenex is wasted anyway). It's actually comedy of the more gentle variety. I didn't laugh out loud, in fact, I spent most of the film admiring the sheer acting talent of Michael Sheen, as it's the first time I've seen him not trying to impersonate someone else. He excellently portrays a man all too aware of his behaviour, and while excruciatingly embarrassed by it, the compulsion seems too hard for him to control. On one level we suffer with him in his decline and fall in terms of his career and relationship, yet in another we celebrate with him in finding his feet with his new social circle. It's a curious watch.

                      So while there's humour here, this isn't what I'd call an outstanding comedy. It also has the unfortunate feel of a made-for-BBC TV Sunday night drama, and Sheen's acting surely deserves a wider audience. Robert Lindsay probably received greater acclaim for his progression into mental breakdown as Michael Murray in Alan Bleasdale's ITV series G.B.H., which is the closest comparison I can think of, albeit the sympathy with the latter character is much lower.

                      The depiction of OCD and Tourette Syndrome is well handled, I felt, though Sheen's sweariness is somewhat stereotyped. The finale works and makes it overall a success, and while there's much that's heartwarming, I wouldn't exactly say I was stitching my sides together.

                      Still, at least Dirty Filthy Love won't have to be returned in a plain brown paper bag.

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                      • Splice (DVD) / DVD / 44 Readings / 43 Ratings
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                        21.09.2010 05:21
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                        Pass me a naan

                        So you look at the film promo, and you think you've got the formula sussed. Mad scientist creates monster. Monster gets out of control. Rampage. Carnage. Blood, guts, special effects. Ends with monster getting killed, hint of sequel to finish. Just add curry, lager, room full of mates, and maybe a spliff or two. Night in sorted.

                        Well, perhaps. Yet in the context of so much predictability, Vincenzo Natali has delivered a horror flick in "Splice" that you may consider surpasses the normal run of the mill 'B' movie fare.

                        Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are a cohabiting couple of young genetic scientists both working for Nucleic Exchange Research & Development - or N.E.R.D. (geddit?) - who have achieved success in their field by splicing the DNA of various anumals to create two new hybrid creatures, named Fred and Ginger, who are capable of producing a groundbreaking medical protein.

                        This is just the start for the ambitious couple, who lobby their employers to sanction further experiments in genetics by including human DNA. Those funding the research, Newstead Pharmaceuticals, aren't so keen. Fearing the adverse publicity that the whole moral argument may stir up, Clive and Elsa are instructed to begin a 5-10 year project cultivating the protein from the existing experimental products, and shelve plans to break any new ground in genetic research.

                        Frustrated by the opposition they face, the couple decide to progress with just a little of their research in secret. They inject one of their creations with human DNA, just to assess whether conception would actually be possible. The result surpasses their wildest dreams, and their creation's subsequent growth, not to mention its semblance of humanity, causes them to reasses their initial plan to destroy it before it comes to term.

                        The childless couple call their baby-animal hybrid Dren - that's N.E.R.D. backwards, geddit? - and Elsa's maternal instinct now begins to kick in, as she absolutely refuses to allow any harm to come to this life they've brought into the world. Dren cannot speak, but she learns to understand speech and many other things incredibly quickly, and grows at an exponential rate, so much so that she cannot be kept secret in a laboratory any longer. The couple covertly move her to Elsa's late mother's farm, and begin to rear her there. But as Dren continues to grow and develop, can she remain a secret much longer?

                        Newstead was the ancestral home of Lord Byron, who shared the Villa Diodati with Mary Shelley on that famous weekend she came up with Frankenstein. If the name of the pharmaceutical company in this film is, perhaps, a tenuous connection to The Modern Prometheus, there is much else that bears comparison. In both, we are presented with a human-created monster that did not ask to come into a world that does not want it, and in both we come to sympathise with their plight. Sure, the horror elements are there in abundance for the fans who expect it: the short sharp shocks, the seamless CGI special effects, and the gore. But woven into the familiar plot are aspects of the moral dimension to man playing God, and a vision of the emotional impact on both creators and created when science marches on alone to explore its brave new world unchecked.

                        In Elsa we see an ambitious woman who initially has to drag Clive to the Tree of Knowledge and force the forbidden fruit down his throat. But it is Clive who, having developed a taste for such fruit, later pushes the moral boundaries into a far darker plot development. Both Brody and Polley lend life and credibility to their role of parent figures, and fully play their parts in developing the emotional tragedy.

                        However it is Dren, ably played in fully-grown form by Delphine Chaneac, who ultimately earns our sympathy on a deeper level than we might have initially expected. As an abomination to be feared, yet also an unspeaking victim, her life and existence are portrayed with a pathos that surpasses any revulsion we may feel for the actions instinct impels her to do.

                        Yes, this has the 'B' movie ingredients, including the cleverly laid foundations for a sequel, but don't expect to find it a total laugh riot. If you and your mates are too drunk by the end of it to debate the moral issues the film raises, so be it. Watch it sober, however, and you'll more clearly appreciate the new sci-fi take on a theme first explored in a gothic novel nearly two centuries old.

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                          09.09.2010 02:07
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                          Don't forget this

                          Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition of the mind suffered by many who have experienced war zones first hand. Symptoms can include poor concentration, disturbed sleep patterns, flashbacks and nightmares. It is a common complaint among military personnel who have had active service. On top of any depression the original experiences have triggered in the sufferer, diagnosis of PTSD can be hindered by the fact that the cause of the trauma may be repressed subconsciously, as a kind of self defence mechanism of the mind, and replaced by in the memory by something else entirely, rendering it difficult for a medical expert to identify the root cause of the problem. Refugee sufferers often find it hard to explain the reasons which led them to flee persecution due to the effects of PTSD, leading to the failure of their asylum claims, and a new wave of heightened anxiety.

                          Ari Folman cannot remember any of the period when, as a 19 year old infantryman with the Israeli Defence Force, he took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He only realises this when his old army buddy tells him that his own entire recollection of the war is being chased by 26 vicious dogs. Perplexed by his inability to remember anything at all, Folman goes on a mission to track down anyone who may have known him at the time, or may have knowledge of the events that he took part in, in order to jog his own memory of what happened.

                          This animated and subtitled film follows director and producer Ari in his first-person quest, as he talks to former comrades, a psychologist and a war reporter about the events which took place. Their own tales and reminisences, often hazy and confused themselves but nonetheless conveyed with admirable art by the animator, slowly help Ari to understand what it is he has forgotten.

                          Anything to do with the conflict in the Middle East is bound to have its controversial element, and this film covers such a sensitive subject in Lebanese history that it was actually banned there. The final scenes, which are not animated, but are historical archive film footage, are the cause of this. It is probably among the most powerful yet harrowing cinema you will ever see, and unlike Folman, you are unlikely to forget it.

                          There will be those unwilling to separate the man from the political context here, and may find it difficult to empathise with Folman as a result, but he has created this film partly to depict the effects of war on the so-called victors, as well as remembering its victims. On that very human level, it works. If it has a fault, in my view, it is in its overall bleakness: there's never once a lightening of mood, an ironical aside, even gallows humour. Perhaps it is inappropriate to expect such given the subject matter, but personally, I think a more varied range of emotions would have benefitted the project overall.

                          I would recommend this film to anyone interested in the Middle East conflict, anyone interested in psychiatry or psychology, anyone who enjoys animation and anyone who appreciates brave film-making generally. It may, however, be a wee while before you watch it a second time.

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                          • Lebanon (DVD) / DVD / 39 Readings / 38 Ratings
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                            06.09.2010 17:06
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                            Let this stab YOUR soul too

                            "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier" Dr Johnson once reckoned. Film director Samuel Maoz obviously takes a different view. His film recounts his time as a conscript in the Israeli army that invaded Lebanon during the 1982 war between the two countries.

                            The viewer sees everything from the inside of an Israeli tank which accompanies a platoon of paratroopers across the border with orders to occupy and pacify a hostile town. Never leaving the tank, we see everything from the point of view of the occupants, in particular the gunner, who looks out on the war zone around him through a special view finder, which he moves up or down, left or right, to the sound of a hydraulic whine - those of you with home cinema surround sound systems will feel your purchase is particularly rewarded by the sound effects here.

                            The four soldiers inside the tank squabble and bicker but generally work together as a team for mutual survival when faced with orders or danger. We experience war through their eyes as they see it: the fearful hesitation that leads to death or injury to comrades; the confusion as the group becomes lost due to misleading orders; the frustration at the tank's constant mechanical problems; the flouting of the Geneva Convention and human rights abuses against civilians. The group are joined at various points by a commanding officer, a Syrian P.O.W. and a Lebanese Phalangist, all of whom have their own influence on the group's behaviour.

                            As the tank becomes further disoriented and mechanical malfunctions multiply after nightfall, we see the group's sense of isolation from commanding top brass become more acute as the chaos unfolds. Together with the claustrophobic sense that the view inside the tank produces, the dark visions of the bombed-out town at night produces such a spooky effect that, after some music starts blaring out from an unknown source, I started to wonder whether the four had actually been killed and condemned to wander a Dantean Circle of Hell eternally in a broken down tank, still striving for directions and communications, as punishment for war crimes committed on earth.

                            It is obviously dificult for many to separate the conflict with the polictics of the Middle East conflict, and for many, sympathy with Israeli soldiers will be impossible. However, this is an anti-war film, and comes across as a very honest first-person account of the way war affects human behaviour. Neither side are caricatured entirely either as heartless persecutors or defenceless victims, which in itself accurately reflects the human condition once extrapolated from the political and religious divide, but of course will in no way appeal to propagandists with an interest in the conflict.

                            I would recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in the Israeli-Palestine conflict; anyone who may be considering a career in the army; anyone who enjoys first person shoot-'em-ups on game consoles; or anyone who enjoys brave film-making.

                            This film caused controversy in Israel due to its subject matter and there were calls at the Toronto Film Festival from Israeli groups to boycott it. But after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival - the first Israeli film to have done so - director Maoz declared: "I dedicate this award to the thousands of people all over the world who, like me, come back from war safe and sound. Apparently they are fine, they work, get married, have children. But inside the memory will remain stabbed in their soul."

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                            • Rec2 (DVD) / DVD / 46 Readings / 46 Ratings
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                              24.08.2010 21:35
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                              Ten miedo. Ten mucho miedo.

                              How many sequels do you ever watch and conclude "Ooh, yes, now THAT was better than the original!" I'm sure such examples are few, and debatable. For the record, I consider Terminator 2 better than its predecessor, and Desperado better than El Mariachi. But that's about it. Generally, if you see a film with II after its name, it's generally an attempt to cash in on whatever original success it had, and is more often than not a disappointment.

                              So how much hope should we hold out for a sequel in the horror genre? Horror sequels have generally an even less glorious history than their counterparts. Nonetheless, our starting point should be the original.

                              [Rec] was released in 2007, and concerned a fly-on-the-wall reality documentary made in Barcelona for Spanish TV called "Mientras Ustedes Duermen" ("While You Sleep"). The reporter follows a fire station crew to a call concerning a woman trapped in a block of flats. The situation turns out to be much more serious than aniticipated. Some form of disease has spread through the building, causing those affected to behave in a beserkly homicidal fashion - think the rage virus in "28 Days Later" - and when the building becomes sealed off with the camera crew, journalist and firefighters inside, the documentary turns into a record of their efforts to survive as the infection spreads to ever greater numbers of residents.

                              The Spanish original was such a success that there was an American re-make called "Quarantine". However, whether you've seen either, neither or both, it doesn't really matter, because [Rec] 2 picks up where the last leaves off, and fills you in at the start with the salient details.

                              The film begins with the Grupo Especial de Operaciones, led by Jefe (literally "Chief", played by Oscar Zafra), preparing their weapons and hazmat equipment en route in the back of a police van to the apartment building, still sealed off with a large thick plastic covering. Jefe's team consists of Larra (Ariel Casas), Martos (Alejandro Casaseca) and Rosso (Pablo Rosso), and after their debriefing, they are introduced to Dr Owen (Jonathan Mellor), described as a Ministry of Health official. With headcams affixed, together they enter the quarantined area in biohazard suits to control the situation, and we follow their recordings of what happens. However Dr Owen (as well as bearing a spooky likeness to Everton manager David Moyes, even to the same bulging-eyed intensity) is not all he seems, and when his secret is revealed, we see that this sequel is taking a brave and novel twist from the original, and one which I consider to be a definite hit.

                              I've said it before and I'll say it again - what you find scary is largely subjective to you. The thing is, telling you why this film suddenly becomes such a nerve-jangler for me would give away the secret which carries much of its impact. I found it to be a breathtaking new direction, and one which I thoroughly approved of, one indication of which was that my overpriced cinema beverage went largely untouched throughout. It had the same dark claustrophobic appeal of the original, but built on it superbly rather than re-hashing what we'd already seen before, and at an MTV attention span-pleasing 85 minutes, the whole short sharp shock effect of it was like being hit with a barrelload of ice cold water full of electric eels.

                              If they'd nailed the finale, perhaps a fifth star would have been merited. As it is, it's been done with a view to expanding the series. That, and the presence of some annoying crybaby teens as part of the cast lets it drop below that fifth star level in my view, but not by much. If you don't speak Spanish and you think a film loses its impact by having subtitles, perhaps you'd be best off waiting for Hollywoods's Quarantine II. Me? I can't wait for the forthcoming [Rec] Génesis and [Rec] Apocalyspe follow-ups to come out to top and tail the other two.

                              Because as sequels go, this franchise bucks the trend.

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                              • Micmacs (DVD) / DVD / 47 Readings / 45 Ratings
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                                09.08.2010 23:14
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                                La vie est belle.

                                The French are proud of their cinema. Fair do's, they invented it. But they've also brought it a long way since the Lumière brothers drew a crowd of 33 to their opening night. The French see their cinema as a form of art, as opposed to the glossy show of Hollywood and its 3D special effects. So important is it that their government gives it special protection, knowing that Francophone cinema is at a disadvantage in the global market in comparison to its more international Anglophone competitors. Canal + has to set aside some of its budget for film-making as part of its broadcast licence, for example.

                                Would a film like "Micmacs à tire-larigot" ever be made and distributed without such support? It would be a shame for us all if it did not. As it is, it's a shame that it will be consigned to the World Cinema section of HMV, Virgin et al along with everything else all subtitled and foreign. Perhaps that reflects the way our country's going: too lazy to learn other languages, we now demand that foreigners speak our own. But I digress.

                                "Non-stop shenanigans", the film's English title, concerns Bazil (Dany Boon), a video rental store clerk who lost his father to a landmine in North Africa. Bazil is hit in the head by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, and nearly dies from the brain injury. By the time he leaves hospital, he has been replaced at the store. Penniless and homeless, Bazil drifts to the streets, living by his wits to scrape a few Euros. One day, he meets Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a pardoned convict, who prevails upon him to join his gang of street misfits.

                                They live in a secret underground salvage yard, and each has a special talent. For example, there's La Mome Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist, Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup) a maths whizz, Petit Pete (Michel Crémadès) who can make automatons, and Remington (Omar Sy), a human cannonball record-holder.

                                Life has thrown them all on the same scrapheap, yet once Bazil has told them what he's up to, their willingness to engage and help out their fellow dropout in getting revenge against the two arms manufacturing companies who have so far ruined his life is uplifting. It's a far-fetched scheme, but we follow it with a sense of curiosity as it slowly reveals itself. The troupe resembles circus performers, each of whom has a special talent that neatly assists Bazil's complicated plan.

                                Such is the ability of this gang to charm and amuse that they are also reminiscent of characters from a comic strip. The plot unfolds to a typically French piano soundtrack, builds to an outrageous denouement, and resolves so satisfyingly it'll leave you with a yearning for cafe au lait with croissants and a pack of Gitanes.

                                This is an easy, feelgood comedy for anyone not put off by subtitles, especially Francophiles, who can appreciate a little art with their humour. If you work for an arms manufacturer, however, perhaps you should also watch this film, as its feelgood message may make you think along the lines the rest of us do:

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                                • The Karate Kid [2010] (DVD) / DVD / 46 Readings / 45 Ratings
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                                  06.08.2010 19:54
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                                  "You have much to learn, Grasshopper."

                                  Who decides what film is a classic? When you see the Mark Kermodes of this world, or just about anyone on that Newsnight Review show, talk about classics, you always get the likes of "Citizen Kane" or the Trois Couleurs trilogy banged on about. But why not kung fu films? Because the Common Joe "gets" it? Becuase the Common Joe likes it?

                                  Who is there who hasn't at least heard of the Karate Kid? The "wax on, wax off", the student-sensei relationship, Daniel-san, Mr Miyagi? Haven't they all passed into our common consciousness and parlance in the same way snippets from Shakespeare have?

                                  The original, I maintain, is a classic, no matter how many sniffy critics scoff at the very idea. And while a remake by definition lacks originality, this new version carries enough warmth and drama to make it largely a success.

                                  Deciding to put a great big stirring spoon into the racial melting pot, the story begins with 12 year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, Will Smith's son) following his widowed mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Beijing, where the car company she works for has transferred her. Dre is initially reluctant to learn Chinese, and feels the culture clash acutely and painfully, when the local bullies beat him up kung fu stylee for speaking to schoolgirl violinist Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), on whom he has developed a crush.

                                  Hiding his bruises, Dre goes to his new school only to find that his tormentors are also pupils there. His attempts at retaliation go awry and, cornered by the gang, he ends up being rescued by the shambling maintenance man from his rental apartments, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who dazzles and thwarts his younger opponents with superior martial arts skill. Learning of the difficulties Dre has got himself into, Mr Han goes with him to the kung fu school that the gang attend, to settle the matter by discussion. The teacher is in no mood to avoid conflict, however, and the pair agree that Dre will fight out his differences with members of the kung fu school by entering the forthcoming tournament.

                                  So far, so familiar. But what makes this remake interesting is the differences. Most obviously, this is about kung fu, and not karate. But also, we're given insights into Chinese culture (though, perhaps wisely, not its politics), the philosophical bases behind kung fu (including some hints at the concept of qi) and new takes on training by repetitive exercise. As the martial art is best conveyed on a one-to-one basis, we share with Dre all the teacher's attention, which includes a visit to a far off temple. You will only see a little martial arts action from Jackie Chan, but his acting more than makes up for that, in particular when the secrets of his own past are revealed.

                                  Chan's understated role leaves the way clear for Jaden Smith to take the limelight, and he does so with aplomb. Whatever you may think about his dad - like he could use a good smack in the mouth - the son won't fail to melt your heart, whether as a brave little soldier or lost little boy. He has charisma beyond his years, completely steals the show and, dare I say it, is a worthy successor to Ralph Macchio. Watching him act his heart out alongside Jackie Chan makes the two hours twenty fly by.

                                  So do we get a Crane Kick finish? Well, that would be telling. Suffice to say, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to come away from this suitably warmed, even if you're fond of the original. I'd particularly recommend this to Dads who've got a contact weekend coming up with kids they don't live with any more. Beneath the surface, there's issues regarding single parents and absent father figures that the film touches on, which may provoke some thoughtful discussion. This gets a full five stars from me, though, because as remakes go, there's sufficient homage to the original with enough novelty to make it both interesting and entertaining. As they used to say in an unrelated TV series:

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