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All reviews - Movies (49)

Vengeance Is Mine review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 13 September 2011 02:26 (A review of Vengeance Is Mine)

This is taken from my initial 2007 review of the Region 2 DVD for chud.com. The original formatting can be found here [Link removed - login to see]

Between October and December of 1963 a serial killer claimed five victims throughout Japan. These crimes would shock a nation and would ultimately inspire the book and subsequent film Vengeance is Mine. Starting with the capture of the killer, Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), the film delves into his family history in an attempt to understand what motivated his crimes.

Vengeance is Mine is a hard film to gauge, part social drama, part thriller, it is impossible to classify exactly what genre it fits into. Certainly there are the tropes of serial killer movies to be found in the film, witnesses are interviewed, murders are committed, and the police pursue their suspect. But Shohei Imamura’s film is far more concerned with its central character and his relation to the world around him. As such despite elements of traditional police procedural thrillers, the film is more character study than anything else.

In the same way that Zodiac uses the central serial killer plot to comment on and delve into periphery characters, Vengeance is Mine uses the serial killer elements to comment on and explore its central character. The actual acts of violence in the film are rarely portrayed dramatically. Of the five victims, you only see three of the killings take place and even those are filmed in a detached, documentary like manner.

Documentary is a keyword when talking about Vengeance is Mine. Shohei Imamura came to direct Vengeance is Mine after working on a number of documentaries. His speciality was in looking at the seedier, less presentable side of modern Japan, a stance he took in direct opposition to Yasujiru Ozu whom Imamura had assisted early on in his career. Imamura had become increasingly uncomfortable with the refined and restrained way that Ozu, perhaps one of the most famous voices in Japanese cinema, presented modern Japan whilst working under him.

The two directors would both explore similar themes, exploring elements of Japan in sociological terms, but would employ different styles. Ozu made immaculate movies whilst Imamura favoured messy films; he found a truth in the disorder whereas Ozu found truth through order. It was after the financial failure of his self funded feature The Profound Desire of the Gods that Imamura moved into making documentaries. The decade spent making documentaries would have a dramatic impact on Vengeance is Mine.

Chud’s own Devin Faraci coined the term neo-factualism during his musings on United 93. Neo-factualism was Devin’s way of describing the method in which a director would stage a work of fiction based on true events with utmost accuracy, but would allow actors to interpret characters as they wished. As such he sacrificed factual truth to create a deeper emotional truth, whilst presenting a reasonable interpretation of what actually transpired. This idea of interpretative performances being used in a factual framework is also used in Vengeance Is Mine and proves to be the films strongest point.

The film is based on the real life exploits of conman and serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. Liberties are of course taken, the most obvious of which is a switch of the killers name to Iwao Enokizu. The film builds upon its true story roots with a style that is documentary like. Pieces of information are relayed in clipped text, the camera is often used in a way that doesn’t bring attention to itself, favouring almost voyeuristic compositions and natural tracking shots above all else. The acts of violence in the film are documented in a calm disassociated way, mimicking the killer in a way but serving more to establish and maintain the documentary tone. It should be noted that the film does break away from its established tone at times (notably the wonderful Bernard Herrman styled score and the truly peculiar ending scene). But these seem to exceptions for palatability more than anything else.

What this disaffection does is allow the film to move away from being a standard police procedural thriller. Vengeance is Mine is far more concerned with examining its central character. In fact the initial sequence of the film, Enokizu being brought to justice in January 1964, would be the climax to a standard thriller. The rest of the film is told via flashback and in doing so it removes the initial tension of the investigatory scenes. One of the most interesting conceits in the film is the way in which it tells the story through lines of thought. The film has no chronological fidelity, flitting between different times and places at will, largely because each flashback is linked into what Enokizu is thinking about. As such each flashback represents a thought process and whilst it is initially hard to get a grip on the nature of the plot it serves to allow the audience a greater insight into Enokizu’s head.

Trying to understand and rationalise Enokizu is the main thrust of the film, and it proves to be an extremely difficult task as the film doesn’t allow itself to provide easy answers. There’s a sense that he’s a bit troubled anyways, and issues with his father seem to exasperate the problem even more so. The first half of the film is devoted to Enokizu’s family life. Stretching from his childhood to a few months before his initial murder the first section of the film sets out to lay the foundations of the man Enokizu will become. In doing so it sets up certain character traits that will become extremely important later on in the film. Chief amongst these is the fraught relationship with his devoutly catholic father and a general disrespect for authority in general.

The second half of the film follows Enokizu as he flees from the police following his initial murders. What’s interesting about this section is that we’re never shown Enokizu’s crimes, details of the frauds are relayed via text but the actual footage shown only details his interactions with the denizens of a seedy hotel he finds himself staying in. The film never allows us to forget about Enokizu’s criminal nature, his third killing isn’t depicted on screen but the aftermath is shown in almost comedic fashion, but it relegates them so that they are merely context for the onscreen action.

There’s never a doubt that Enokizu isn’t a truly horrifying character, but the film separates the character from his crimes in an attempt to try and understand the psyche of the killer. It is hard to pinpoint how successful this is largely due to Ken Ogata who in his breakout role crafts Enokizu into a remarkably fascinating and strangely sympathetic character.

Ogata, who many will known as the titular lead in Paul Schrader’s biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is truly remarkable in the lead role and it becomes hard to distinguish how much work is being done by the film and how much is being done by the actor. Certainly Ogata seems to be the emotional core of Vengeance Is Mine despite how distanced the character is.

The only person who comes close to matching his screen presence is Rentaro Mikuni as Iwao Enokizu’s father Shizuo. The conflict between Iwao and Shizuo defines Vengeance Is Mine and it is because of Mikuni’s stately and conflicted performance that it works so incredibly well. Both men are deeply wounded and the fact comes across differently in both performances, whilst Ogata excels with his dispassionately intense depiction of Iwao, Mikuni counters with a depiction that is just laced with deep seated sadness and regret and the subsequent conflicts between the two are what make the film so outstanding.

Vengeance is Mine is an actor’s film, made with extreme care and precision but defined by two central performances which are just spellbinding. It is an enthralling work, brutal, witty, dark and honest and I’d have no hesitation in calling it a true masterpiece of not just Japanese cinema, but cinema in general. But it is not a film to everyone’s taste and viewed as a simple thriller it is immediately dissatisfying, it is a character study more than anything else, just a character study which involves vicious hammer beatings.

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Until the End of the World review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 13 September 2011 02:00 (A review of Until the End of the World)

This is taken from my 2007 review of the German Extended Edition. Original formatting can be found here; [Link removed - login to see]

1999, the future. A satellite hangs in Earth’s orbit, slowly descending and promising to set off an apocalyptic chain of events. Claire Tourneur (Dommartin) couldn’t care less about the imminent destruction of the world. All she cares about is losing herself in parties following an infidelity by her novelist boyfriend Eugene Fitzpatrick (Neil).

A curious series of serendipities allows her to meet Sam Farber (Hurt), an enigmatic American travelling across Europe on an unknowable mission. Rapt by this stranger and aided by Fitzpatrick and a kind hearted Detective (Vogler), Claire begins a pursuit which will take her across the soon to be extinguished world.

I love the term Curate’s Egg. It’s a lovely little Victorian phrase which perfectly sums up Until The End Of The World with minimum fuss. What’s excellent is that the quaintness of the term makes it even more apt as a descriptor for a film that is at best a dazzling curio and at worst a supreme failure. At its core the film is an oxymoron, Wim Wender’s arthouse sensibilities tied to a film which has the scope of a blockbuster. The results are interesting to say the least; at times it’s grandiose and introverted, old-fashioned and permissive, the merger of antiquated Hollywood ideals with an indie ethos.

Originally released in 1991 as a concise, confusing, and despairingly odd three hour epic, Until The End Of The World never really set box offices alight. A three hour long science fiction odyssey by the director best known for his film about mopey angels in Berlin unsurprisingly failed to capture the public interest. Armed with hours of unused footage Wenders’ started work on his Director’s Cut of the film. Spanning three discs and turning the film into a trilogy of smaller films the Director’s Cut of Until The End Of The World is in some areas a marked improvement. Given that the film is split into three separate instalments I’m going to review each disc as if they were individual parts of a trilogy.

Disc 1

Largely concerned with the pursuit of Sam Farber across a futuristic Europe, Disc 1 seeks to set up the world and characters of Until The End Of The World. The first thing that becomes apparent is that Wender’s vision of the future isn’t routed in a traditional reality. The technology on show is fairly astute, Wender’s vision of the future being fairly conservative in terms of how far science would have advanced. However despite the scientific fidelity, the tone of the film is so removed from reality that it almost becomes a fairytale.

Despite the apocalyptic title and opening narration, Until The End Of The World is a massively optimistic and sweet natured film. It may be disingenuous to attribute this optimistic tone to the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d hate to make that assumption just based on Wender’s nationality, but there is definitely something fuelling the frivolous and happy aspects of the film.

Wim Wenders’ vision of the future is rooted in the cinema of Hollywood’s Golden Age; whilst other similar science fiction films used Noir trappings against their hard edged dystopia Until The End Of The World embraces both the style and sense of fun of Golden Age filmmaking. Despite a more permissive attitude towards sex the film feels like it could easily have been made in the late 40s or 50s.

The film seems to exist in a particularly skewed version of reality, the kind of magical cinematic place where films like Amelie take place. There’s a charming, pleasantness to the whole film which at first is a little hard to get used to. Everyone is so genial and polite and whimsical and fun that the film becomes almost infectiously fun as you watch it. Characters like the Detective Winters are given very little to do, but manage to charm their way into being genuinely likeable characters.

With an antagonist who seems to be there purely for a few comic set pieces, the films entire narrative thrust revolves around Claire’s chase of Farber, a chase facilitated by her doting ex-boyfriend and the wide range of eccentrics she meets along the way.

What Wenders’ brings to the equation as a director is an eye for scenery and an ability to convey the entire feel and tone of a city through a small number of shots. Despite barely stopping for breath in any locale the film still feels like a travelogue at times, Wenders’ cinematic vision making you yearn to visit the locations shown. Indeed it’s when Wenders is content to let the film breathe that it becomes a great piece of cinema. One of the elements that damages the film is Wenders’ eagerness to cram in ‘futuristic’ songs from then contemporary acts into the movie.

Whilst this is sometimes effective, but a lot of the time it’s just galling as the familiarity just threatens to bring reality into a film which works upon pure suspension of disbelief. Certain songs propel the narrative and help the fidelity of the world, but all too often you recognise an artist and it pulls you out of the reality of the film.

There are two elements which really bring down the first part of the trilogy, the first being that in a world of pleasant and charmingly odd people the two lead characters are quite unremittingly vile, self centred and, for lack of a better word, real. Claire is an airy, destructive character, drifting around the world for selfish reasons. Sam Farber isn’t given much characterisation; his enigmatic status ensures this, but his actions are all about his own self perseveration.

Claire’s character flaws are largely to do with Solveig Dommartin’s limitations as an actress. There are other characters in the film that are as bad as Claire, but Dommartin seems incapable of generating the kind of charm and desirability the role needs. Claire as a character needs to be enrapturing, a free spirit who engulfs the worlds of those around her, but she comes across more as a stroppy and insensitive diva, hurting the person closest to her in order to meet the love of her life.

The fact the story is told from the perspective of her jilted lover doesn’t really help endear her to the audience, despite Fitzpatrick’s assertions of Claire’s general loveliness there really is nothing for the audience to base it on.

In essence Disc 1 functions as a travelogue, a way for Wenders’ to explore his new world. Whilst this is all very lovely it does shift Wenders’ focus away from his characters and as such the two leads are never particularly fleshed out, their motivations remain esoteric and nebulous.

Also distracting is the way that the quality of the film seems to change depending on the location, there are noticeably different types of film stock used at different points of the film, the image quality degrading and improving as they move from country to country. It settles down as the film goes on, but it’s yet another element which takes the viewer out of the movie. Throw in some odd audio work (some sections seem to have really poor audio dubbing and synching for some strange reasons) that is often changing and the fidelity of the world is under jeopardy.

Somehow Wenders’ keeps this all together and manages to maintain a charm that subtly smoothes over any technical cracks in the film. The same can unfortunately not be said for Disc 2.

Disc 2

Whereas Disc 1 works as a kind of science fiction fairytale, a charming piece of lovable oddness, Disc 2 tries to bring a darker and sadder tilt to the story and nearly derails the entire movie in doing so.

The second part of Until The End Of The World is ludicrously awful, the jaunty globetrotting of Disc 1 replaced by a bleak stay in America and a trip through the bleakest wastes of Australia.

With Claire having caught up with the now blinded Sam, the plot revolves around the two of them racing against anonymous opposition to complete the last part of Sam’s mission.

An odd thing happens to Claire as well; her character is written as being suddenly obedient. Her chase across the world purely to become subservient to a man she barely knows. The entire film hangs on her quest for a purpose in life, but Disc 2 reveals that this purpose is for her to dote on the love of her life like some 50s housewife.

Disc 2 also has none of the ethereal grace of Disc 1, the dreamlike quality of the first part replaced by a more strikingly realistic take on the world. The fairytale quality subsiding to the point where suspension of disbelief is pushed to breaking point.

In Disc 1 the viewer goes along with ideas and notions because it makes sense in the grander scheme of the film, the foibles of the characters explained away by the dreamy way the film is shot.

Bringing a harsher view of reality into the film, if only for a few scenes, destroys this suspension of disbelief and suddenly ideas which would have worked in Disc 1 become patently ridiculous in Disc 2.

A great example of this happens around halfway through the second disc. Claire gets herself handcuffed to a plane by a bounty hunter. The bounty hunter is promptly captured and tied up. After this Sam and Claire set off in the plane and crash in the middle of the Australian desert. For whatever reason Claire is still handcuffed to the plane door, this is a massive piece of contrivance considering the plane was in the middle of a garage, which surely should have had something which could break the chain of a pair of handcuffs, and the bounty hunter is later shown to have the keys.

This means that we get lots of interesting and iconic shots of Claire walking through the desert whilst still handcuffed to the detached plane door, the call back to Paris/Texas being appreciated. But the shots aren’t earned because there is no logical reason why Claire would still be wearing the handcuffs.

These problems of contrivance plague the second half and start to give the impression that Wenders is rushing through to try and get to the end section. Certainly when Claire gets arrested for nebulous reasons, apparently being nice to children is utterly criminal in San Francisco, you start to lose patience with the film.

And if you have any patience left, then Wenders makes sure to sap it by having an irritating minor character from the 1st Disc become a full blown sidekick in Disc 2. The French Bank Robber becomes easily the most annoying character in the film, his constant prattling and buffoonery becoming so irritating that you start to wish a harsh and painful death upon him. To compound the problem Claire is shown to be greatly amused at all times by the character, which just makes her even less sympathetic to the audience.

The sense of desperate forward momentum is what ruins Disc 2, with Farber’s motivations now in the open it becomes clear that Wenders is more intent on getting to the finale than anything else. Consequently the entire second disc, aside from a few moments here and there, just feels like an afterthought, the only thing holding it together being Sam Neil’s narration.

Disc 3

After chasing halfway across the world, dragging a plane door across a desert and surviving the nuclear apocalypse Claire and Sam finally get to the point of the film. Well actually that’s a lie; the point of the film is broached, inexplicably, in the last ten minutes of Disc 2.

We know that Sam was travelling across the globe to collect images for a machine of his father’s that will let his blind mother see her family, we know that the main reason for his doing this was to impress his dad, and we know that his dad isn’t all that impressed anyways.

As opposed to the continually shifting locales of Disc 1 and 2, Disc 3 is set in and around a laboratory set into an Australian cave system. Following the destruction of a nuclear satellite in orbit, a ragtag band of survivors have trekked across Australia to this installation. This fixed location serves the third disc fantastically well as the focus switches to a more character based perspective.

The main plot of the 3rd Disc is hardly something to get excited about; anyone who’s seen a film about a dedicated scientist ignoring the one he lives whilst he tries to cure their ailment is going to know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s the periphery stuff which initially keeps the film interesting.

Bringing a large chunk of the cast together allows the film to look at the way people deal with the potential apocalypse they’ve survived. Heading back to the sweet nature of the first disc, the film decides that people would deal with this by forming an impromptu band. Thus every ten minutes or so we get a performance from an ever expanding musical group, the didactic pop songs replaced by didactic ‘whatever genre a didgeridoo, harmonica and piano combination belongs to’ songs.

So whilst we have Max Von Sydow making William Hurt act like an angsty teen inside the cave, outside Sam Neil is having the time of his life playing the piano and writing a new novel. It’s a really bizarre tonal discrepancy and makes the stuff inside the cave seem even more flippant, especially when people start to gain moral concerns purely because the script demands that they start worrying about stuff they’ve been doing quite happily for four years.

What’s fascinating about the 3rd Disc is the lack of focus that Wenders shows, and the fact that the film essentially becomes a four act movie. The third act of the movie finishes roughly thirty minutes into the 3rd Disc, but a new narrative suddenly emerges which is completely out of leftfield.

The sudden delve into the recording of dreams and the psychosis that it creates in three of the main characters is as weird as it is unexpected and it’s hard to judge if the entire intent of the film is to get to this moment, or if Wenders is trying to incorporate a tertiary failed idea into a film which is already bloated with ideas. It’s certainly interesting stuff, but it doesn’t gel with the rest of the film and the narrative climax requires viewers to draw upon a deep well of empathy for Claire which just doesn’t exist.

It’s hard to rate Until The End Of The World. The text of my review makes it sound like I hate the movie and that is far from the truth. I have a great deal of time for the film and I think the spirit and charm of the film are enthralling. It’s just that for everything it does right it also does something wrong. The director’s cut helps flesh out events and ideas and gives peripheral characters a lot more to do, but there’s still something innately wrong with the relationship between the lead characters.

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Crossroads review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 12 September 2011 11:26 (A review of Crossroads)

I'm currently working my way through the Walter Hill filmography and next to Streets of Fire this might be my favourite film by Hill.

There's a moment in the second act, when Joe Morton appears in a dream and slowly walks through a set of doors, his body initally dwarfed but then consuming the entire screen, which is nightmarish in a Lynchian way. The set-up of the scene is actually kind of expressionistic, but it's raw and vital and really gives a sense of weight to the final act.

You can tell from any Walter Hill movie that he loves music, I think Hard Times and The Warriors are the only film which didn't at least focus on a band at some point, and he brings a real sense of passion and enthusiasm to the Robert Johnson mythology. The road movie stuff doesn't work quite as well as the Johnson framework, largely because Macchio is a really disengaging lead, but the film is gold whenever Joe Seneca is onscreen and the final music duel is just all kinds of amazing, just so much fun seeing Steve Vai be all kinds of Steve Vai.

It's also interesting how the film sort of juggles three different styles. With the film being fairly non-descript in it's road movie sections and just coming absolutely to life in it's music setpieces. The final fifteen minutes are just kind of amazing looking, just a really great use of colour, space, and people to create atmosphere.

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Crows Zero review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 11 September 2011 07:48 (A review of Crows Zero)

Just absolute madness. Not madness in the Gozu/Visitor Q sense, but madness in how invested Miike is in the story. Essentially the plot is about a bunch of school-kids who want to ‘take over’ their school. The way they take over the school is by instigating massive brawls in the classrooms and playgrounds and gyms. What makes the film work is that Miike treats this like it is ultimate, serious business, with alliances and broken truces, deceptions and ever escalating stakes. It’s essentially a gangster movie set against the backdrop of a school and it’s never anything less than entertaining for the duration of its runtime.

Helping things out are some fantastically nasty looking fight sequences which are all heightened but have an amazing grounded feel to them. This is the sort of film where high-school kids can spin kick and drop kick each other with insane ease, and it’s full of really painful looking beat downs. Lots of broken bones and blood splatter in this. There are also some great moments of Miike lunacy, including bowling with human beings and a running joke about one of the kids getting darts and baseballs smashed into his head. A parallel story involving actual Yakuza interest in the school is perhaps one of the few things that doesn’t work, but leads into the absolutely nutty final brawl. The final sequence is essentially about 170 kids kicking the shit out of each other in the rain and it works stupendously, even when cross-cutting between the fight scene and a weird J-Pop ballad.

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Sun Scarred review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 11 September 2011 06:46 (A review of Sun Scarred)

As much as I love ‘holy fuck, what was that?’ Miike, I often find his calmer, more reflective, films to be his best. Sun Scarred has very few of the transgressive moments that you normally associate with Miike, but it’s bubbling and broiling with ideas.

The movies focuses on a Salaryman called Mr. Katayama who comes to the aid of a person being violently beaten by a juvenile gang. Scaring most of the gang away he ends up in a one on one fight with the gangs leader and ends up beating the shit out of the kid.

From this point onwards Katayama’s life falls apart as the kid, released quickly from custody, murders Katayama’s young daughter and is then enveloped by the protection of the legal system.

The film should be a Death Wish/Death Sentence style revenge thriller, but Miike dials down the violence and only indulges in it in the opening ten and closing ten minutes. The majority of the film is spent with Katayama as he deals with the fallout of his heroism and becomes more embroiled in his need for vengeance.

What Miike does with the film is make us actively route for Katayama to brutally murder some kids. Throughout the film Miike casts a sneering eye at the way the media spins the story and the way the justice system seems to protect children from any wrong doing and as such you’re supposed to be completely invested when Katayama’s desire for vengeance transmogrifies into something physical and visceral. Miike treats the kids as essentially feral and almost nihilistic, kind of indulging in shocking acts of violence because it’s something to do. Meanwhile Miike keeps the story closely hung around Katayama, making us feel bitterly close to his life as it spins out of control. There are a couple of fantastic visual moments in the film, wind-screen wipers scraping blood from a wind as a camera zooms in on Katayama and an entire section shot in black and white as Katayama essentially becomes dead inside, but it’s a surprisingly restrained film from Miike.

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Wes Craven's New Nightmare review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 9 September 2011 11:49 (A review of Wes Craven's New Nightmare)

The thing which always defined Freddy as a villain, to me, was his humanity. Sure it’s a sick, twisted, humanity, but there’s still something innately human about Freddy in the way that Michael Myers and Jason aren’t. They’re monolithic stabbing machines, Freddy is a being of avarice and spite and malice and it always made him far more threatening and far compelling an antagonist.
As such I never took to Wes Craven’s ‘new’ Freddy in the way a lot of Nightmare on Elm Street film fans did. There seems to be a general consensus that New Nightmare is in the upper echelon of Elm Street films and I can kind of understand where that viewpoint comes from. In practical terms New Nightmare probably represents the most artistically sound of all the Elm Street films. It’s well made, well-acted, and most importantly it feels like it is made with a sense of purpose missing from the series since its first outing nearly a decade beforehand. But to me intent doesn’t always equal quality; just because a film has a good idea doesn’t make it a worthwhile endeavour.

The major issue I have with New Nightmare is that in the context of its time it should be something far better. The 90s are something of a roach motel for horror franchises, the big boys check in (Freddy’s Dead, Jason Goes To Hell, Hellraiser: Hell on Earth) but they invariably don’t check out. In fact the only franchise which seems to have a consistent presence throughout the 90s are the Halloween films and even they get something of a proto-reboot towards the end of the decade. What seems to destroy the viability of these films is Wes Craven’s own film Scream. Scream laid waste to the slasher genre as it was. New Nightmare feels, to me at least, like it’s a thematic proving ground for Scream. Scream is arguably one of Craven’s better films (it’s my personal favourite) and the meta elements which are handled so fantastically in that film are tested in New Nightmare.

The problem is while Scream feels vital and fun and manages to combine it’s clever, meta, elements with the trappings of a genuinely great Slasher movie ,New Nightmare feels kind of hopelessly inert. It’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is and it doesn’t really operate all that well as a horror film.
Let’s start with how it works as a horror film. My biggest issue with the film is that as a part of the Elm Street series it doesn’t feel right. Whilst it’s an odd point to dwell on the fact is that Freddy doesn’t do actually kill all that many people. We get two on-screen fatalities, one of which is pretty weak and the other which kind of ruins my favourite bit of the original, and the rest of the time we’re watching what feels like a proto J-Horror film with creepy kids and portents of doom but no real presence from the antagonist. Even the final twenty minutes when Heather finds herself trapped in the reality of the movies and battling ‘Freddy’ in his underground lair feels kind of devoid of menace.

My big issue with the film however is that whilst its concept is interesting it’s handled in a way that feels masturbatory. The idea is that Wes Craven, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp and everybody else who worked on the original Elm Street film has tapped into some ancient, metaphysical, form of evil. This evil exerts power through knowledge of its existence, in the past it chose fairy tales and folk stories and religious texts, now it favours the oeuvre of a so-so filmmaker. What’s fascinating about this concept is that it kind of works in regards to the character of Freddy Kruger, what’s not so fascinating is that anyone we’ve even a vague understanding of social anthropology would have already come across the idea of movies and literature as 20th Century mythology. The other issue is that this subject had been covered two years earlier in the utterly fantastic, and personal favourite film, Candyman. It’s got a very similar idea, about Urban Myth and legend needing to maintain itself by remaining in the public conscious, but it was always willing to take a far more studied and interesting approach to the idea.
A clever idea isn’t enough to sustain a movie and New Nightmare compounds the problem by trying to hard. Wes Craven appearing as himself and apparently authoring the defeat of evil in its most primal state feels arrogant in the same way that M Night Shylaman kind of being Jesus in Lady in the Water does. Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp talking about the new Freddy as being darker and scarier almost ruins the effect of the Freddy redesign, it also doesn’t help that in redesigning Freddy they seem to complicate the design and make some weird aesthetic choices. Kruger with bio-mechanical claws and a trench coat feels like some weird IMAGE comic version of the character and the fact he never seems to be shown with proper lighting makes the truly great makeup job look kind of lousy at times.

Craven chooses to present Freddy in brightly lit rooms or rooms with unhelpful lighting and they just make the new Freddy look odd and plasticky. I’m sure there are people who love the Freddy design, but this is my blog so I get to speak in absolutes.

In general I feel that New Nightmare is kind of dull, not forgettable in the way that Dream Child is, but just kind of plodding and meandering. There is the skeletal structure of a great film, but it’s overlong and doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. On one hand the film accentuates the spookiness of the film series, with Freddy operating as an almost possessive spirit rather than his usual sadistic self, but then ends with an all-out brawl in what can only be described as hell.

I also think the biggest crime in the film is the way in which it restages Tina’s death and SHOWS us just what Freddy is doing to the victim. As I said in part 1 one of the most effective things about the original Nightmare on Elm Street was the fact you weren’t sure what was happening, seeing Trench-Coat Freddy drag a girl by the ankles along the wall just feels like Craven losing sight of what worked in the original.

Where the film works however is in its imagery. Craven crafted possibly the best of the dream sequences in the entire series in the first film by using unreal elements to invade a classroom with horror. New Nightmare works on a visual level because Craven understands the visual disconnect between Freddy Kruger and reality. Having him stood at horizontal angles on the wall, or using his claws to antagonise Heather are when the film works at its best. It’s an evocative, interesting, flawed, pretentious, work which puts it head and shoulders above the Dream Child.

It’s just a shame that the film feels more like Craven taking his ball home than him trying to do something truly creative.

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Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 9 September 2011 08:09 (A review of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare)

Don’t you just love it when a moniker hoists a film with its own petard? It’s easy to be cynical about an entry in a successful horror franchise attempting a sense of finality but in reality this was the film which all but killed The Elm Street movies. Whilst it’s easy to see that this was intentioned to be the last in the main continuity of the Elm Street films you get the feeling that the plan was to spin Freddy into something a little more epic and do some cross-over type stuff in the 90s. The final shot of Jason Goes To Hell in 1993 seemed to suggest that a supernatural tag-team was going to the main event in 90s horror, and yet FREDDY vs. JASON wouldn’t materialise for over a decade after both series had run their course (with the FRIDAY films even attempting their own reboot with JASON X in the meantime). For whatever reason the public lost their taste for these killers and the 90s became something of an extended wake for everyone’s favourite Child Murderer and Avenging Retard.

It’s perhaps easy to see how FREDDY’S DEAD nurtured a distaste for the character of Freddy Kruger, whilst I’m far kinder to it than most people it’s impossible to argue that this was an Elm Street film turned up to 11. The problem is that in doing so the creators of the film sort of exposed how gauche the series had become and how the focus had ultimately shifted from children being terrorised by a burnt maniac with finger knives to the Freddy Kruger show. This change had been occurred in pop culture long before FREDDY’S DEAD but it was this film which made that cultural switch implicit.

As such FREDDY’S DEAD is a film populated with ciphers and concerned with the nature of Kruger. We see way more of his back story in the film, we learn of the reason behind his powers, and we get closure on the series. The problem is that Freddy’s back story isn’t all that interesting outside of what we already know and in making Freddy the star of the show the film effectively neuters the one consistent element of quality in the series which was Robert Englund’s ability to switch between the broad comedy of the character and an almost startlingly level of hate and anger. Even in the DREAM CHILD Freddy maintained a hint of an edge, but in this film he’s practically vaudevillian and it defuses any tension whatsoever.
Where the film works for me, and doesn’t for a lot of others, is how far the film is willing to go with that vaudevillian tone. The film is pure camp. It’s illogical, it’s silly, it’s garish and it’s cheesy as all hell but it’s also far more memorable than Stephen Hopkin’s dreary previous film. Director Rachel Talalay does a lot with very little and even if ultimately the film doesn’t work, and it really doesn’t work at all, I still respect the ambition. The main problem with FREDDY’S DEAD is that it looks cheap and that’s because despite having a grander scope than the previous film it’s got the, allegedly, the smallest budget of all of the films in the series. Whilst there’s an attempt at a cartoony visual aesthetic it feels utterly flat compared to all but the second film in the series.
The film’s saving grace is a sense of humour which is kind of off kilter. Most people remember the film as being kind of retarded, but there’s something infectiously funny about certain moments in the film. Freddy beating the crap out of some kid with a power glove is just ridiculous, but the scene goes on so long and is film with such gusto that the concept actually transforms into something almost deliriously funny. The problem is that the film gets compromised a few too many times in the name of a quick joke and it feels like tonally the film doesn’t know what to do with itself. On one hand you’ve got Freddy at his broadest, most ‘anti-heroic’ and on the other hand you’ve got a group of kids whose back story is pitch black. It’s kind of odd that we’re watching a film where we’re expected to delight in the torture and murder of children who, it can be inferred, suffered all manner of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their parents. As such we’ve got Freddy in one dream sequence taking the form of one kid’s parent and attempting to recreate a rape but we’ve also got Freddy prancing around behind a deaf kid and shhing the audience. It’s an odd dichotomy and it brings the inherent conflict of the character to the fore. By highlighting and heightening these two conflicting ideas of Freddy as audience hero and Freddy as brutal, primal, force of horror it gives the film a weirdly unpleasant feel.
At the end of the day the biggest issue with FREDDY’S DEAD is that it feels like no one has a fucking clue as to what they’re doing.

The extended back story for Kruger is so boring and staid that it feels like we still don’t know all that much about the man, although learning about Kruger’s pre-burn life just seems to be a bad idea anyways, and the rest of the film just feels tonally dislocated. It’s populated with weird one-shot cameos that probably were a lot of fun at the time but just feel odd now. We’ve got Roseanne and Tom Arnold showing up for a few minutes, but because it’s not the early 90s anymore it just feels like we’re seeing some weird couple walk onto the film for a few minutes. Similarly Alice Cooper’s cameo in the film as Freddy’s dad only really works if you know its Alice Cooper and understand the context of why that was funny; within the film itself it just looks like Harry Dean Stanton walked onto set for a few minutes.

What’s frustrating is that stuff works in the film. Kruger stalking a deaf kid through his dreams shows perhaps the most interesting visual design in the entire sequence and it’s predicated on good idea, after good idea, but it goes on so long and ends on such an odd note that the piece feels deflated. Even the stuff with the stupid dream demons feels like it could work as part of a broader, more mythical, take on the character but despite these threats to expand the concept the conclusion of the film feels far too small and literal. After all the set up with dream demons, and Kruger’s back-story, and the idea of Freddy expanding his domain beyond the borders of Springwood the final confrontation happens in an anonymous basement. It’s frustrating and reductive and it feels like we’ve been watching the film spin its wheels for 80 minutes so that it could show us the really boring flashbacks of Freddy being an abusive husband and creepy child. The thing is that Freddy Kruger as a child killer brought back to haunt the dreams of children through sheer force of will is a far more terrifying prospect than Freddy Kruger, some fucked up kid who became a fucked up guy who sold his soul for more power.

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13 Assassins review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 9 September 2011 08:03 (A review of 13 Assassins)

I love Miike but this is definitely a step-up from his usual stuff, in fact I think it's really only equal to AUDITION in his filmography.

Now I'm a nut for samurai films, so I was immediately going to adore the film anyways, but I kind of liked how this film took usual samurai themes and explored them in different ways. A lot of the 'great' Samurai films deal with the conflict between what is right and what is necessary, what the heart wants and what the status-quo will allows. As such the great Samurai films tend to be about characters going against the grain, becoming rebels within a system that they can no longer take part in. What strikes me about 13 ASSASSINS is that in intent Lord Naritsugu, as Bailey pointed out in his amazing post, is the character most dislocated from the system and status quo. He's the force of change which seeks to shift the equilibrium and who is bound by his position, but whilst most Samurai protagonists are rendered inert by the tropes of feudal society, Naritsugu is sort of muzzled and corralled by it. He's a shithead, but he's also trapped within his own little world and there's this seeming radius of destruction that emanates from him.

What is also interesting is that the Assassin's themselves break the status quo of honourable combat. Most Samurai films tend to have the antagonists finally dispatch the protagonist by use of rifle or subterfuge as the protagonist is unmatched in honourable combat. In this film the protagonists know that an honourable fight is not what will win the day and the film seems to be about the assassin's slowly disassembling their own code so that they can become more ruthless, pragmatic, killing machines.

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Sucker Punch review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 8 September 2011 07:04 (A review of Sucker Punch)

I think my main problem with the film is that its attempts to pander were kind of obvious and kind of trite. It wants to engage a geek/nerd audience with images that seemed cool and it seems to showcase that Snyder only has a base understanding of why people react to images and ideas in certain ways. I think his completely lack of subtley when trying to pander to his audience is what undoes the film and I think is the chief reason for the backlash. It's a misstep, but there's a thesis behind the misstep which I find kind of fascinating. Snyder's attempts to equate the provocative dancing with the action-sequences the film was built on is kind of interesting and it's the sort of thing you'd expect from Haneke or Trier.

The problem is that I don't think Snyder is trying to troll his audience, but I do think he wanted to comment on the objectification of images. I don't think this film really has anything to do with female empowerment, except in the basest 'chicks with masculine characteristics = impowered' thinking, but I do think the film has a lot on it's mind about imagery and perception. Stuff like the Old Man* explaining that it's OK to shoot the clockwork German's 'cos they're already dead, to the way the mama-dragon taps it's dead baby with it's snout seem to make us want to question what we're actually watching.

The problem is that the action-sequences, for me, just aren't engaging enough to actually make the key thematics work. There's a sense of rhythm and beauty to the action-sequences but they feel almost entirely weight-less (although this is, barring the opening brawl in Watchman, something of an ongoing problem for me with Snyder). As such what should be visceral and unrefined (as per Sweetpeas criticisms of Baby Doll's dancing) is stuffily elegant. Then again I've had intellectual issues with the last three Snyder movies I watched. I think he's an amazing craftsmen in-terms of his aesthetic (and also casting, Watchmen and 300 feel perfectly cast for what they are and Sucker Punch is full of potentially great actors with little to actually do) but I've had fundemental problems with the core of his films (the politics in 300, the tone of Watchmen, the attempts at intellect in Sucker Punch).

I think Sucker Punch is the sort of thing that shoots itself in the foot almost immediately. The opening curtain-call gives a sense of unreality to what is essentially reality and then we have two more layers of unreality beyond that. However the few times I synched with the films rhythm (I absolutely adore the opening, even if it is completely ham fisted) I really got into it and I'm genuinely fascinated by the extended cut.

*The Old Man is a real issue for me, largely because the film is all about authority figures abandoing and fucking with these girls and yet the ultimate authority figure, who speaks in nothing but rules and commands, is presented as benevolent.

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A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child review

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 7 September 2011 11:59 (A review of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child)

Here’s something funny. Nothing happens of interest in The Dream Master, Freddy anonymously kills some kids and makes wise cracks. Tons of stuff happens in The Dream Child and yet it’s a completely joyless slog. In theory the different elements of this movie should stack up to something truly great, in actuality it just ends up being subjectively the worst of the Elm Street films.

The film opens with Alice and her boyfriend, aka the Random guy she nearly murdered by carelessness in the previous movie, fucking in that sultry, over lit, late 80s way. In a way this ties into the creation aspect of the other movies, with little baby Jacob being created in lieu of papier-mâché houses and razor gloves. This is perhaps the cleverest thing about the movie, which is a shame.

In this movie we get flashbacks to nun rape, we see Freddy being born and his little foetal self scurrying away in a direct homage to Alien, we get Freddy at his most outlandish and we get the creepiest child actor ever known to man. Unfortunately nothing comes of it and there’s an overriding sense of cheapness and listlessness to the entire thing. Stephen Hopkins as a director has this unusual talent for overseeing projects with interesting ideas and quirks and somehow making them look cheap and wretched. For all of the abuse Lost In Space got at release I’m sure a better director with that FX team and script could have created something special.

Whilst Renny Harlin could never be classed as a subtle or nuanced he actually managed to make his cast feel lively at times. The cast assembled for The Dream Child just never quite gels. There are five main victims in the film. One is taken out almost immediately, the other two dissapear until they’re needed and the other is literally in the film for three scenes, one of which is her BIG Nightmare moment. Like the original Alice feels utterly isolated, but unlike the original there’s no sense of menace or dread. Freddy just looks odd (check out his weirdo arms throughout the film) and has become the master of jokes. When you don’t give a shit about the victims Freddy transforms from being something horrific and becomes an almost vaudevillian figure, inflicting ironic punishment on people for our entertainment. As such there’s real spectacle to Freddy’s kills this time, people get Tetsuo: The Iron Man’d into a motorcycle, people are fed their own innards, at one point Freddy turns into a goddamn super-hero but because there’s nothing to hold it together they feel like skits more than anything else.

Even Englund, usually energised in his role as everyone’s favourite immortal paedophile, seems bored in the role delivering his lines like a washed up comic forced to do paid personal appearances and tell old jokes……there were supposed to be more paragraphics but aside from laying into the aesthetics of the piece (a brown filter? Really?) I honestly don’t think there’s much else to say.

Some people will say that this is a better film than Freddy’s Dead and I’d disagree for one key reason. This film tries to go out there and zany with it’s dream sequences but fails to be truly crazy, Freddy’s Dead for all of it’s failings feels like a legitimately crazy film and it becomes endearingly entertaining because of it. The Dream Child just feels like watching beige paint dry.

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