Archive for March, 2014

13 sins (2014)

Posted: March 30, 2014 in Uncategorized
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With a pregnant wife and mounting debt, a salesman finds himself in deep financial peril when he loses his job on the eve of his wedding. A mysterious phone-call from an anonymous caller provides a possible solution, as he is offered money to complete thirteen tasks.

“13 Sins” is a remake of the 2006 Thai film “13 Beloved” (also known as “13: Game of Death”), directed by “The Last Exorcism” helmer Daniel Stamm. This film follows the plot of the original fairly closely, but, as is typical of Hollywood remakes, what made that film truly distinct has been ironed out. Gone are the quirkiness and odd humour that flavoured the original, replaced with a more conventional tone and stream-lined narrative. The end result is a generic high concept thriller that is enjoyable enough but essentially empty and anodyne.

Much like the recent “Cheap Thrills” and 2012’s “Would You Rather?”, this film marries the increasingly over-used concept of a powerful protagonist putting the main character through a series of trials with a none too subtle subtext about the way the elite control the poor using money. Unlike many of the vast multitude of other films with similar premises, here there is no rationale behind the tasks our hero has to undertake beyond a thrown away line explaining that they want “to show that anyone can be turned into a monster”, a murky, muddled explanation symptomatic of the film’s lack of commitment to it’s concept.

It is the unsubtle attempt to tap into the “We Are The 99%” sentiment that most rankles, feeling like film-makers looking down their nose at a problem they consider zeitgeist rather than truly engaging with it. This film doesn’t even have the guts to follow through on it’s premise, settling for a vague (possibly papal) conspiracy and a resolution that seems to suggest that it’s ok to be poor and have a messed up life as long as you act out once in a while.

While “13 Sins” isn’t bad, nothing truly stands out. Twists are signposted, thrills undercooked; even for a remake this feels stale and derivitive. It’s enjoyable enough if you disengage your brain, but we’ve been here before and seen it all done far better many, many times.

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Paul (David Keith) is a sound engineer and bespoke hi-fi installer who finds himself under suspicion when a series of housewives are murdered in his sleepy Arizona hometown. 
 
Donald Cammell has long been a mystery, an elusive cinematic genius responsible for only four full length films before committing suicide in 1996. His feature debut was 1968’s “Performance”, a film that failed to find an audience upon release but has grown in stature to the point where it is considered one of the all-time classics of British cinema. It took nearly 10 years for him to produce another film and when it arrived, in the form of 1977’s “Demon Seed”, it was equally polarising, with a reputation that has again grown over time. 
 
After another 10 year break he returned with “White of the Eye” which this month gets a plush DVD re-release from Arrow Films, complete with never seen before footage and a host of extras. 
 
Cammell was always a director with real visual flair and “White of the Eye” looks stunning, making full use of it’s Arizona backdrop as sparse hills fill the screen, rolling on for miles against striking blue skies. At first the film seems to be a kind of redneck Giallo (a “Yella”?) taking obvious inspiration from the motifs that populate that genre, particularly those of legendary Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. An early murder scene plays out through point of view tracking shots, and a gloved killer smashes a beautiful woman’s head into a pane of glass in a direct nod to one of the Italian maestro’s trademarks. Several times the film explicitly recalls Argento’s “Tenebre” with recurring close-ups on a dilating eye, and even the title itself sounds exactly like the name of mid-70s Italian thriller.   
 
The film builds up a rich picture of the little town these characters inhabit, full of odd characters whose histories remain beguiling out of reach, the spotlight falling on them one-by-one like the line-up of suspects in a standard slasher whodunit. Little clues and red herrings litter shots, inviting you to participate in the mystery, a seeming adherence to a clear formula makes it all the more shocking when the film reveals it’s true colours. A powerfully low-key reveal snaps the film straight out of the trappings of a typical genre flick and leaves you with a feeling that any rule could be broken, a dangerous air replacing the previously gentle pace and offbeat quirkiness. 
 
From there on in the film becomes increasingly bizarre, openly mocking the cliches of slasher films, thrillers and even the Hollywood notion of a dynamite finale in a bravura final act that still manages to feel strangely intimate despite it’s gloriously self-aware excess. These characters may not know they are in a film but Cammell has made them strangely aware of the roles they must play, at once hopping on the genre bandwagon while blithely flicking a middle finger at the driver; ticking off conventions one by one because the TV in their head tells them to.  
 
David Keith is perhaps best known for his supporting role in “An Officer and a Gentleman” but has never been better than he is here. A charming, amiable presence for much of the film, there is always a hint of danger coursing through his performance as the flawed hero of the piece. Cathy Moriarty, an actress who could have been one of the biggest stars of the 80s but for a car accident that robbed her of her prime years, is equally good as his wife, a role that was her first in 6 years. Both handle the final third shift in tone admirably, particularly Keith, keeping their characters believable as the action becomes ever more outlandish.  

 
“White of the Eye” is a film that was always going to feel strangely out of time, and it remains difficult to pigeonhole. Not salacious or trashy enough to be considered typical late-80’s slasher fare, and not slick enough to sit among the mainstream thrillers of the day, it is clear this was a film never intended to simply fit in. It was a brave move to couch a psychological thriller in the trappings of genre cinema, potentially alienating both it’s target audiences, but Cammell was never a man for compromise. Rather than following a formula, Cammell matched a style then undercut it, crafting a film that takes real glee in setting your expectations then blowing them apart. Quirky, stylish and distinctive, “White of the Eye” is a long lost rough diamond just waiting to be rediscovered. 

cheap thrills (2013)

Posted: March 18, 2014 in Uncategorized
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An eviction notice hanging over his head, newly unemployed family man Craig heads to a bar to drown his sorrows. There he bumps into an old friend and two strangers, a rich couple willing to give them money to take part in outrageous dares.

The full length directorial debut of E.L. Katz, “Cheap Thrills” is a horror/comedy that has been attracting a lot of attention at film festivals and will see a wider release later this year.

Essentially nothing more than a charmless and cobbled together extrapolation of Quentin Tarantino’s segment of the film “Four Rooms”, it soon becomes clear that no deeper thought went into this beyond raising the stakes of that premise. The only real highlight is the section most clearly inspired by that film (and the original Roald Dahl story on which it is based), a brief upturn that not only betrays it’s origins but also illustrates how poorly executed the rest of the film is.

“Cheap Thrills” may be nasty in tone but it still manages to be incredibly dull in execution; playing out like a kitchen sink drama that becomes increasingly horrific, with neither element done well enough to be satisfying. This is a film that tries hard to shock, but even at it’s most outrageous it still feels tepid. Alongside it’s underwhelming attempts at horror are overwrought drama and unfunny humour, constantly grating on your sensibilities like nails on a chalkboard.

It may have been possible to be more forgiving of the film’s flaws if the characters involved were likeable or in any way believable, if you cared about their predicament or empathised with their situation. Instead they evoke no sympathy or interest, especially as the plot becomes increasingly contrived and their behaviour ever more idiotic.

It is hard to know who this misfire was aimed at; it isn’t funny, scary, thought-provoking or even especially gory. Most damningly, “Cheap Thrills”, for all it’s desire to be provocative, is simply dull. A far greater torture than the acts these characters commit for money, would have been forcing them to sit through the full length of this mean-spirited and predictable movie.

in a world (2013)

Posted: March 12, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Carol is a struggling vocal coach living in the shadow of her successful voiceover artist father. When the chance to be the voice of an upcoming blockbuster trailer arises she must see off the challenge of his protege, the hot new set of vocal chords on the scene, Gustav Warner.

“In a World” is a comedy drama that marks the writing and directing debut of Lake Bell, an actress perhaps best known for scene-stealing supporting roles in big Hollywood movies such as “No Strings Attached” and television series like “Boston Legal” and “Children’s Hospital”. Tailoring the film to display all of the talents she has too rarely been given the chance to show, she is remarkable. A quirky, slightly skittish leading lady, she is a genuinely charming presence with adroit comedic timing both verbally and physically. Given the subject matter, her vocal skill was always going to be key to her believability in the role and she delivers in spades, with an array of perfectly performed accents and a powerful way with a voiceover.

Alongside her, left-field stand-up comedian Demetri Martin is lovable and bumbling as the love-lorn Louis, a perfect foil for Bell’s nervous energy, while Ken Marino is expertly sleazy as Carol’s nemesis Gustav. The use of comedic actors playing it relatively straight gives the cast an immense likability, especially at the more dramatic points. Exemplifying this are Rob Cordry and Michaela Watkins, who really make you care about their marital difficulties in a key subplot. They expertly convey the dynamic of a couple who have become too comfortable and complacent in their relationship, while always keeping it light and watchable no matter how dark it seems to get.

Bell’s naturalistic direction gives everything space, the contemplative pace bringing a mood of authenticity to the often absurd proceedings. Big comedy slides by, skilfully underplayed and then gone; like real life moments that just happen to be funny. Even when the film plays up the ridiculousness, like a late montage of the main players on audition day, there is always a notable subtlety and sincerity on display.

The banter between the characters is also beautifully done, backstories becoming apparent from the interactions and genuine wit effortlessly emerging from the interplay, never forced or trite. These feel like normal people; friends messing around with each other, couples who love each other, families with fraught relationships bubbling beneath the surface.

In many ways this would have made perfect Hollywood big dumb comedy fodder. It has the unusual but recognisable backdrop, the clearly defined ultimate goal, the deftly constructed comic scenarios and the well written one-liners. But Bell has done this her own way, telling her story at her own pace and leaving the hard edges un-smoothed. There is a message of empowerment at it’s heart, but it is never hammered home and it does not overshadow the rest of the film. In this world characters are imperfect while victories are bittersweet and the film is all the better for it.

“In a World” is a genuinely sweet and laugh-out-loud funny film, a feel-good marshmallow brave enough to have a melancholy centre.

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Everyone loves a good whodunit. A mystery is laid out and clues come thick and fast (along with a good dollop of red herrings), before the detective pulls all of the suspects into a single room and reveals how it was all done. The real joy comes from trying to guess the solution yourself, with the most successful tactic often being “The Columbo Rule”, that the culprit is the most famous actor in the supporting cast.

But whodunits are not confined to country houses and hardboiled detectives. So, here are 5 of my favourite examples of films with an unusual whodunit twist.

The Beast Must Die (1974)

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An eccentric millionaire gathers a disparate group of people in his remote mansion, as he believes one of them is a werewolf.

A bizarre genre mash-up from “The Studio That Dripped Blood” Amicus Productions, literally a game of “guess the werewolf” with a gloriously incongruous funk soundtrack. The suspects include Peter Cushing, Michael Gambon and Charles Gray with the cherry on the cake being a “werewolf break”; the film literally stopping when all the evidence is in to allow you to make your guess as to the identity of the beast. Deliciously hokey fun.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

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For much of it’s running time “The Usual Suspects” seems to be a straightforward crime drama, a heist movie with a ragtag crew, recounted after the fact. With hindsight it seems so obvious; of course it was a whodunnit, or rather a who-is-it.

You are presented with a list of suspects and a monster; “Keyser Soze”, a master criminal with a hidden identity. It is a testament to the skill of all involved that the film works even if you don’t realise there is a mystery at all.

Mindhunters (2004)

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A group of trainee criminal profilers are taken to a remote island to complete a training scenario. While investigating the carefully staged crime scenes they start falling prey to elaborate booby traps and soon realise that one of their number is a demented killer.

Essentially stealing the plot of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and mainlining it into the jugular of an extra long episode of “CSI”, “Mindhunters” is a hefty slice of modern schlock with little pretension. Awfully silly and far from perfect but with enough gruesome deaths and ridiculous twists to keep you entertained until the overwrought end.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

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When a scientist is left on the brink of death following an assassination attempt, a special submarine and it’s small crew are miniaturised and injected into his body in a last ditch attempt to save his life. However, when their equipment is sabotaged they realise that someone amongst them is not batting for the same team.

A rare science fiction whodunit, “Fantastic Voyage” is very much a product of it’s time in both the good and bad sense, but once it gets going it’s a lot of fun. You have to admire a straight laced genre flick that taught a whole generation about white blood cells, inspired an awesome 80s comedy with Martin Short and had a song by Coolio named after it. “The Columbo Rule” is very much in effect with this one, and the traitor may as well have “Yes, it’s me” scrawled on their forehead, but that only adds to it’s slightly dated, innocent charm.

The Cat and the Canary (1939)

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The film that really launched the career of comedy legend Bob Hope, proving that beyond his wise-cracking persona was a viable leading man. A family gather in a secluded house for the reading of a will, the threat of ghosts and an escaped serial killer hanging over their heads. Of course, the true peril comes from one of their number, or else it wouldn’t be on this list.

A relatively stagey affair, Hope’s one-liners are what make this fly, literally sailing into the film (in a kayak!) and instantly upping the energy level with his trademark patter, meta-jokes and winks at the audience. He even knows it’s a whodunit before the film lets on. A year later he joined Bing Crosby on “The Road To Singapore” and never looked back, although this remains his best performance, a real star-making turn.