Archive for 2011

The Skin I Live In * * * * *

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on August 16, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Pedro Almodovar.
Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar, Agustin Almodovar.
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Blanca Suarez.

Any time I approach a film by director Pedro Almodovar, I know straight away that I’ll have to pay attention. He explores difficult and heavy themes but does them with such style and attention to detail that his craftsmanship cannot be ignored. For anyone wondering whether he achieves the same level of quality with this recent effort, then wonder no more. He does and more so.

Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a plastic surgeon who has perfected a new form of artificial skin. The problem with Ledgard though, is that he’s not entirely healthy of mind and as a test subject, he holds Vera (Elena Anaya) captive in his home to conduct his experiments. However, the arrival of a wanted criminal makes an appearance at his home which brings forth the dark history of the doctor and patient and how they came to be in their current situation.

Something that I have always tried to avoid when writing down my thoughts on a film is treading into spoiler territory. This is certainly one of those films that’s difficult to write about without giving away major parts of the plot. Suffice to say, Almodovar himself described the film as “a horror story without screams or frights” that was loosely based on the novel “Tarantula” by French writer Thierry Jonquet and inspired by Georges Franju’s 1960 film “Eyes Without a Face“. It also has an odd David Lynch feel to it, or more to the point, Lynch’s daughter Jennifer and her 1993 movie “Boxing Helena” (much more accomplished than that of course) In different hands this film could have fell into torture porn territory and ended up hitting the straight to DVD slasher shelf but with Almodovar at the helm, it takes on a whole new shape and form. His ability to construct an elaborate narrative cannot be questioned and he commands an audiences attention, while teasingly, revealing the layers to his story. Quite simply, he’s an artist! That statement alone should be enough to simplify this highly creative director’s impressive catalogue. Scenes are shot with such an eye for detailed beauty that you’d be forgiven for being reminded of classical pieces of art as he frames his picture like an expressionist painter. The production design is superb and visually, the film is simply beautiful. The beautiful look isn’t reflected in the material though. This is dark stuff and despite being, both shocking and bizarre, it possesses a sense of humour – all be it, a sick one. Almodovar’s recurrent themes and probing of the human psyche are also explored; masochism, transgender issues and repressed sexuality but ultimately this is a modern, twisted take on the Frankenstein story and one that he imbues with style and creative flair. But nothing is black and white here, he even toys with the morality of the audience in clever use of the Stockholm syndrome in which a hostage begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to their captor. As always with Almodovar though, there are a major plot developments that throw his films off-kilter and take such dramatic turns that they quite near takes your breath away. To reveal any more would be completely irresponsible and wholly unfair of me but rest assured that this is thought provoking filmmaking and a craftsman plying his trade at a very high standard. He’s also aided by superb performances by his leads; Elena Anaya could well be the next Penelope Cruz and it’s great to see Banderas deliver such an intense and brooding character, making you wonder why he and the Spanish auteur have waited 21 years before collaborating again here.

A provocative and macabre near masterpiece from Almodovar. It’s one worthy of attention and arguably his finest film to date.

Mark Walker

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Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil * * *

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags on July 26, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Eli Craig.
Screenplay: Eli Craig, Morgan Jurgenson.
Starring: Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Chelan Simmons, Brandon Jay McLaren, Christie Laing, Alex Arsenault, Travis Nelson, Karen Reigh.

Sometimes a film comes along that although completely preposterous and silly, it still possesses a certain charm. I grew up watching the likes of Bill & Ted and to this day, find them quite appealing. This first feature film from director Eli Craig isn’t far from that same brand of idiotic humour.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two gentle and likeable hillbillies who have purchased their own “fixer-upper” holiday home in West Virginia. With the beer and fishing gear packed they head there to relax and enjoy their new surroundings. On the way though, they encounter a group of spoiled college kids who judge Tucker and Dale on their rough exteriors. What ensues after that becomes bloody and messy and it’s not at the hands of the likeable duo.

On occasion, while commenting on films, you can find yourself being overly critical because it’s not normally the type of material that you’re interested in. When doing this, it can often be overlooked how well the film is actually structured or shot. I tried to be aware of this when I sat down to Tucker and Dale. Despite being a fan of Bill & Ted, I now think of myself a little too old to enjoy similar types of films anymore. Any that I do still enjoy, I put down to nostalgia. Of course, this is complete nonsense and now and again I should let myself loose a little and drop the critical barriers, so to speak. Well, in some ways, I did with this. I can obviously see it’s ridiculous premise and nature but there’s no denying that it’s actually rather fun and deserves recognition for putting a fresh spin on the usual horror conventions – the hillbillies are good, being hunted by bad college students. It’s a very appealing horror parody and is served well by two endearing leads in Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk (in roles originally intended for Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper before hitting the heights of “The Hangover“). They share a similar comradery to the aforementioned excellent dudes, Bill S. Preston esquire and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan and without their appeal, this film just wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does. I had admiration for the director and actors working on it’s tight budget and even the effective comedy of error moments. However, at a short running time, I still found it to overstay it’s welcome and towards the end, it became the very type of film it was sending up. Although the brand of humour isn’t entirely to my tastes, there will be an audience out there that this will most certainly appeal to. I don’t happen to belong to that audience but I can still appreciate the effort and talent involved. Not to mention, some good humour.

This was a film that didn’t receive much marketing and as a result featured in very few cinemas. It did, however, please audiences across the board at several film festival screenings and is no doubt a cult classic waiting to happen. Think Bill & Ted dicing with the Evil Dead and you pretty much get the drift of this one.

Mark Walker

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The Grey * * * 1/2

Posted in Action, thriller with tags on July 15, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Joe Carnahan.
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, Ben Bray, Anne Openshaw.

As much as I was a big fan of the TV series in my childhood, I was never really drawn to the recent film version of “The A-Team” – which was the previous outing for director Joe Carnahan and star Liam Neeson. If truth be told, I wasn’t really drawn to this film either but for one reason or another I found myself giving it a chance. As it turns out, this wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be.

On a return flight home, a group of oil drillers find their plane having problems mid-air. It crash lands, leaving a small number of survivors stuck in the Alaskan wilderness. The conditions they face are treacherous; it’s freezing and they have no food or shelter but their main concern is the pack of hungry wolves who are aware of their exposure and weaknesses and begin to pick them off one by one.

Neeson continues his emergence as an ageing action star and churns out a good performance here. He delivers his tough guy schtick with admirable ease, firing off some no-nonsense lines – “I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds” and is a convincing and commanding presence. He also shows a bit of heart and vulnerability despite the film being quite thin on characterisation. This is most apparent in the supporting characters who basically serve as no more than fodder for the big bad wolves. They introduce enough of a background to make you almost care but this would definitely have benefited from a bit more focus on the supporting roles. Maybe even throwing in a couple of familiar faces to make it less predictable and more able throw us off the scent as to who might be the next one for wolf meat. An almost unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney makes an appearance and an impressive performance from Frank Grillo aides Neeson’s plight in trying to shoulder a routine and formulaic script that’s been stretched from a short story into a two hour movie. There’s not enough material and it shows. Despite this, Carnahan and Neeson still manage to keep you watching. I found myself more involved in the second half of the film where it became more methodical and even existential in it’s approach but ultimately, this is an action/survival tale and despite attempts at something deeper and more meaningful, it remains what it is really; a thriller. Still, it’s a good thriller that benefits from a solid lead performance.

If you don’t expect too much from this, you might just find yourself having fun. It’s a film that, surprisingly, manages to have both a deliberate pace and a eye for action set-pieces. It’s not as purposeful as it would have you believe but it’s worthy on a suspense level.

Mark Walker

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Machine Gun Preacher * * * *

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on July 10, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Marc Foster.
Screenplay: Jason Keller.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael Shannon, Michelle Monaghan, Souleymane Sy Savane, Kathy Baker, Madeline Carroll, Grant Krause, Reavis Graham, Peter Carey.

Marc Foster is quite a versatile director that seems to be able to turn his hand at many different genres. His fantastical “Finding Neverland” and comedic “Stranger than Paradise” are a far distance from say, his gritty debut “Monster’s Ball” or even his foray into Bond territory with “Quantum Of Solice“. With this movie, he has changed direction again and it’s no less accomplished than his previous film’s.

Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is a drug using, violent biker who has just been released from prison. Upon his release he is soon back to his old wicked ways but having nearly murdered a man in defence of his best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon), he decides to turn his attention to God and find redemption. It’s at this point, that his spiritual journey begins and he finds himself taking up arms to liberate Sudanese refugee children from the LRA – the local militia, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The very premise of this film seems like it’s has been concocted in some executive Hollywood office. I can just imagine it being pitched and how ridiculous it might have sounded. However, this is actually based on a true-story and the real Sam Childers is still, to this day, fighting for the freedom of African Children. That being said, I had never heard of Childers before or the ongoing struggle he is directly involved in and as a result I was left with the unfortunate title of this film and it’s slightly off-putting poster as my only information. After a few mindless action movies under his belt, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this recent Gerard Butler film as being in a similar vein. After all, the poster depicts him brandishing a rifle with the obligatory cowering child, hiding by his side. This very imagery and the more than dubious title completely misleads. It’s actually quite far from that type of film and more of a human and political drama. Thankfully, I still gave this a chance and left it feeling quite satisfied indeed. This is thanks in large to a charismatic and very powerful performance from it’s leading man. There is a real intensity to Butler’s delivery and it’s credit to the filmmakers that the flawed and distasteful behaviour of Childers is not ignored. He wasn’t someone that you’d like to cross paths with, yet Butler plays him with just enough edge and compassion – never fully losing your support or feelings of isolation from him. His transformation from violent misogynist to redeemed man of God and ultimately, saviour and mercenary is believable, if a little unexplained. Yes, there are flaws in the character development but it’s proof that given the right role, Butler can certainly deliver the goods. It’s his committed and passionate performance that forgives some big leaps in character progression. Ultimately, this fault is in the screenplay as the supporting characters also suffer; again, they are not bad performances but their roles are very underwritten. Michelle Monaghan is good but distant and this could be said even more for the very underrated Kathy Baker, who has absolutely nothing to do as Childers’ long suffering mother but the biggest waste of talent comes in the shape of Michael Shannon. With an Oscar nomination behind him for “Revolutionary Road” and a superb leading role in “Take Shelter“, this man should have been utilised more wisely. He still manages a presence but really, him and the aforementioned actresses melt into the background.
Slight over-length may also be an issue here but trying to condense anyone’s life story without causing some major bum-numbing amongst viewers can’t be an easy task.

This is a film primarily about one man – Sam Childers – and thankfully, the actor chosen to play him is more than up to the task. Despite some flaws, this is still an admirable and thoroughly involving biopic.

Mark Walker

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Twixt * * 1/2

Posted in Horror, Mystery with tags on June 16, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Francis Ford Coppola.
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring: Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, David Paymer, Alden Ehrenreich, Anthony Fusco, Don Novello, Ryan Simpkins.
Narrator: Tom Waits.

Having crafted such classics as “The Godfather parts I & II“, “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now“, director Francis Ford Coppola was, rightly, considered one the heavyweights of cinema. However, he fell on hard times financially and most of his recent film’s have shown a shadow of his former self and have had people scratching their heads as to how someone so prominent could deliver such nonsense.

Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) was once a successful writer. His career has nosedived and he struggles to produce the material anymore. He comes to a small town during a book tour, and becomes involved in the murder investigation of a young girl. In a dream, he is approached by writer Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) and a youthful ghost named V (Elle Fanning) who is in some way connected to a local murder. Both inform him of the details but the connection to the murder is unclear.

As this film opens we are given a growling narration from Tom Waits about a small American town and an introduction to it’s inhabitants and our protagonist. The first thing that strikes you is Coppola’s perfectly refined atmosphere and obvious ability in framing a picture. Quite simply, the film is marvellously shot. The angles with the camera are impressively positioned and use of light and colour are sumptuous. At one point he introduces a monochromatic approach that further adds to the creepy ambience. From very early on, Coppola’s talent is still apparent but where he struggles, is in a particularly poor script. It comes across as an amateur horror and on this front, you wouldn’t think for a second that it was Coppola behind it. However, despite the the bad writing, it’s clear that this is a very personal project for the director; the idea originated from a dream he once had, which reflects in the story itself and the actual death of his son (Gian-Carlo Coppola) in a speedboat accident also has a heavy influence. The very premise, consisting of a writer in rapid decline also mirrors the director’s similar creative downfall. At one point, our lead character is asked the question “how does it feel to the bargain basement Stephen King?” and that’s exactly the feeling that this film gives off – a bargain basement horror. Whether this was Coppola’s intention is debatable but it still doesn’t forgive the muddled unravelling of the story. All this being said, I still found myself persevering with it.

This left me with very mixed thoughts. One the one hand, it struck me as an absolute low-budget turkey but on the other, it intrigued me enough to keep watching. If anything, just see what path the once great director is now treading.

To look into another of Coppola’s recent efforts, my next stop will be his 2009 film “Tetro“.

Mark Walker

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Coriolanus * * * *

Posted in Drama, thriller, War with tags on June 4, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ralph Fiennes.
Screenplay: John Logan.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom, Dragan Mieanovie, Jon Snow.

As a personal rule, I don’t watch adaptations of William Shakespeare’s works unless I’ve read the play beforehand. I like to have a frame of reference when it comes to the bard but in this case, I capitulated and couldn’t resist putting the film off any longer. I’ll always wish that I had found the time but that doesn’t diminish the overall quality or power of this interpretation from first time director Ralph Fiennes.

In a war ravished modern state calling itself Rome, where the people and the military have taken to the streets, hero General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is set to become the leader of the republic. Opponents across the political scale have other ideas though and attempt to orchestrate his downfall and banishment. Once exiled, the furious General forms an alliance with former nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and returns home, intent on taking revenge on the city that has scorned him.

Despite the modern alternative setting that Fiennes chooses for his adaptation, he still manages to retain the feel of a play. Some scenes reflect a classic BBC dramatisation and he employs some high quality actors to provide the goods. The classically trained actress Vanessa Redgrave is the most comfortable amongst the ensemble as the influential matriarch Volumunia. She delivers her lines with absolute confidence and such an understanding of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. She’s not alone though; for as little time as they get, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain delivers a reserved performance as Coriolanus’ disconsolate wife Virgilia and Gerard Butler proves that his talents lie beyond mere rom-com’s and mindless action movies as Aufidius, the rebel leader of the Volscian army. Butler’s fellow Scotsman Brian Cox also shows some real presence in one of his better roles of recent years as the Roman senator Menenius. But as the tortured and unrelenting protagonist Caius Martius Coriolanus, it’s Fiennes that takes centre stage, chewing it up in the process and delivering an intense and ferocious performance. It’s often forgotten how good an actor Fiennes really is but this is proof, once again, that given some meaty material, he can really sink his teeth into it. Shakespeare’s works tend to be all about the prose and the performers and as much as this film delivers on that front, it also delivers an effective modern setting with surprisingly brilliant action set-pieces. There is a real intensity to the politics involved and Fiennes wisely chooses to stick with the original material. It’s hard to balance Shakespeare’s writing’s in a contemporary way and for the most part, it works impressively. However, as the original play is based on a supposed Roman general during the 5th century BC, there are regular references to the common beliefs of this time. “The gods” is an often used piece of dialogue that doesn’t quite fit with the chosen setting and whenever the actors deliver lines with such, it jars slightly. The rest of the film though, is a towering and mesmerising take on the machinations and intrigue of political power.

As always with Shakespeare, it takes a while to tune your ear but the visuals are so effective and the performances so good, that it brings one of his lesser known tragedies, comfortably, to a wider audience. It also heralds the arrival of exemplary actor Ralph Fiennes as an exemplary new director.

Mark Walker

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Kill List * * * *

Posted in Crime, Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on May 25, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ben Wheatley.
Screenplay: Ben Wheatley.
Starring: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger, Ben Crompton, Robin Hill,

In 2009, Ben Wheatley made his directorial debut with crime drama “Down Terrace“. It gained him some recognition but he wasn’t overly talked about. A mere two years later, he delivered this. Like it or not, Wheatley has now captured the attention of many.

Having not worked for nearly a year, contract killer Jay (Neil Maskell) is nagged by his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) to start earning again. As a result, he takes on a new assignment with his partner Gal (Michael Smiley) to kill three successive targets that will pay lucratively. Things look simple on the surface but darker events soon begin to unravel.

As the movie opens, a white symbol scribes upon a black background. It almost resembles one of Anarchy or possibly the Occult. It could easily be ignored but it would be wise to pay heed as it may give you a better understanding of this discordant mystery. As quick as the symbol appears… it’s gone. We then delve straight into working class British drama territory; an arguing dysfunctional family, financial constraints and characters with dangerous demeanours. Credit must go to the director for his use of a rarely static camera in the opening. It adds to the complete involvement of the viewer and the contribution from his editor Robin Hill also deserves mention. The clever editing techniques add to an ever growing intensity as we become embroiled in bigger and more deadly affairs.
In gritty urban drama’s there are normally tortured or struggling souls but rarely is a deeper moral scale explored from the perspective of the everyday man. The lead character of Jay loves his family but he also happens to be a hired killer. Him and his friend Gal are painted as being human with in-human actions and they even see their murders as justifiable. They don’t conform to society as a whole and as we observe their “Kill List“, white captions appear on-screen informing us of who the intended victims are – “The Priest“, “The Librarian” and “The M.P.” Do these ‘hits’ reflect or allude to their eradication of religion, academia and politics from society? Their anarchistic behaviour alluding to the film’s opening symbol? That’s only part of the ambiguity involved here. Some actions from the key characters are unexplained, not to mention the unravelling of the film. There is an extreme shift in genre. It discards it’s dramatic approach completely and heads full-on into horror territory as it explores the possibility of inner demons and evil at work – this time, the allusion of the symbol being related to the occult. This in turn throughs up questions as to the stability of the protagonists mental health. The shift in tone is uneasy and it’s audacity throws you off but it’s nonetheless intriguing.
Whether there is a message involved or not, it will no doubt confound and provoke debate. That, in my eyes, is always a good thing and at the very least, there’s no denying this type of unconventional filmmaking is admirable and well delivered.
Director Ben Wheatley could very well have a big future ahead if this is anything to go by. The same could be said of the leads in Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley; they show a good camaraderie together and deliver realistic and powerful performances.

Be aware that the ending of this film travels far down the road of ambiguity. Don’t expect it to make complete sense but what you can expect, is for it to deliver visceral, unsettling and thought provoking material.

Mark Walker

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