Thursday, 13 September 2012

Film4 Frightfest 2012 Day by Day: Friday

After Thursday's manic rush I would probably have stayed in bed a few more hours on Friday and skipped the first film were it not for that film being Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut - my most anticipated film of the festival. So there I was at 9am shambling through Leicester Square like the walking dead trying to locate a Tesco's to pick up a bit of breakfast snackage in a hopeless attempt to rouse myself. At this point I was, at the back of mind, wondering whether this whole film festival lifestyle was for me after all. Nightbreed was going to have to deliver big...

Thankfully it did. Having never seen Nightbreed in its butchered theatrical cut it's hard for me to compare and make any statement as to whether the Cabal Cut is superior however I cannot imagine the film without ANY of the inserted footage and so surely that has to say something for it. The sentence may not make a lot of sense to people who know little about the project, I understand - How could I distinguish between the theatrical footage and the new footage? Well the "new" footage is recently recovered from long thought lost VHS tapes - not publicly released and mastered VHS tapes - but rough cuts for internal studio use (and trust me when I say that 20-odd years is not kind to VHS tapes left on the shelf gathering dust). Therein laid the problem for The Cabal Cut for most of the audience and myself to a degree. There's LOTS of new footage here from multiple sources and it's often a real strain on the eyes to focus on just what is happening in the shot. Combined with the constantly readjusting aspect ratio (which sometimes clipped over the top of the screen), the timestamps which appeared from time to time and the muffled sound it was hard to fully immerse yourself in the film. As the restoration director Russell Cherrington said prior to the screening though if we love the story we should be able to get past the disrepair of the image and it's a real privilege to have seen this film which could have quite sadly gone forever abandoned. It truly feels like a horror version of Star Wars by the time the credits role and I can't help but think that if only the film hadn't been chopped up and subsequently flopped at the Box Office we might have had a really great series of films under the Nightbreed name. For now though we have the Cabal Cut, a film well worth tracking down whilst its doing festival rounds before its Blu Ray release hopefully coming in the next couple of years.

Next up was an interview with Italian director Dario Argento - master of the Giallo film. Though the interview suffered a little bit from the language barriers in play there was more than a few interesting questions asked from Total Film's Jamie Graham, and certainly some interesting answers from Argento. One such anecdote involving Rutger Hauer, a bush and a young Russian girl being a particular highlight. The real let down for this (and its something the rest of the festival suffered from as well) was in fact the poor Q&A questions asked by the audience. Time and time again we were subjected to people coming up to the mic simply to profess their love for whoever was on stage, or to ask such inane questions as "Who are your biggest influences?" simply so that they could haul some free swag. Of course there is no way to truly counter these sorts of things, but the audience on the whole needs to take more effort to construct meaningful questions in order to earn their posters or t-shirts.

The films continued later on with Hidden in the Woods, a Chilean made piece which was one of those rape-centric films I talked about in Thursday's round up. Extreme, incomprehensible and on the whole a story not worth telling. I don't really care to talk about the film any more than that.

V/H/S was the first film of the evening and coming into the festival I had high hopes for it. When it finally came to watching the film I wasn't a fan. It's not so much the film that's so bad, I just feel that the overall concept of the film is a missed opportunity when compared to the finished product. The idea of someone stumbling a collection of VHS tapes full of scares should be nostalgia and creepy gold. Instead of making the anthology of films a mix of realistic, spine-chillers and paranormal mindfucks, all the mini-films are boring slashers starring detestable teenagers. There's no connection between any of the events in the videos, and even worse still one of the videos is in fact a recorded Skype conversation. Why even bother having them on VHS tapes? It makes no sense if all the film was recorded in the digital era. No logic, no fun, a truly wasted effort.

[REC]3: Genesis was a thankfully much better film than the previous two that day. Although opinion was split as to whether the foray into comedy was a good idea for the franchise (and I had my doubts myself) the film pulls it off effectively, as well as its romantic moments which I think worked really well into the realism of the franchise. I really hope to see the two leads return in [REC]4 in some capacity, ensuring that the film is not simply forever deemed as the red headed step child of the family, because it really deserves more than that. My only qualm here was being sat behind somebody wearing a large trucker cap which conveniently managed to cover the entirety of the subtitles from any comfortable viewing position.

Closing out the night was Stitches starring comedian Ross Noble as a killer clown. Whilst it was no classic, it was a more than competent entry into the horror comedy genre featuring some inventive kills and a surprisingly likeable cast of teenagers. Sure some of the jokes were a little Inbetweeners-lite and Ross Noble's brand of humor was underused, but it was certainly enjoyable and a great little film to go home on.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Film4 Frightfest 2012 Day by Day: Thursday

Frightfest may be a few weeks in the past now, but due to the nature of my rather uncompromising work hours since I returned, my time for writing has been slim to none. I managed to write short Twitter reviews for every film I saw and for most films those little ditties will suffice, however I feel a few of the films (and the event itself) were worthy of a few more lengthy passages.

The weekend didn't get off to a great start. Realizing I was sans mobile phone moments before the train was about to leave the station led to me being delayed an hour whilst I trekked back home to pick up the phone (being in a minor motor vehicle related collision and getting stung by a wasp on the neck in the process) only to be further delayed when in my frantic and massively excited state I managed to walk 40 minutes in the opposite direction to my hotel leading to my plan of spending the afternoon in The Captain's Cabin meeting and interacting with fellow fest-goers being replaced with a hurried race to Leicester Square in time to nab my goodie bag and pick up my festival pass. I did manage to have a swift pint in The Captain's Cabin after all which was - as I had been told it would be - packed with the most number of horror fanatics you're ever likely to find loitering in a pub. 

Once 5:30 rolled around and I headed over to the Empire after a most speedious bite to eat (and believe me speedy eating is par for the course if you want to catch as many films as possible over the weekend) I was positively gobsmacked by the volume of people gathered in the lobby. Actors, directors, authors, press, critics and of course horror hounds were all milling about and it was fair to say that everybody was buzzing with anticipation for the weekends programme.
After finding my seat in the gargantuan Screen 1 of the Empire things were kicked off with a humorous pre-amble from comedian Ross Noble before the opening film The Seasoning House got its world premiere. The film just about managed to balance on the very edge of being overly bleak thanks to its impressive production quality. Seasoning House was a fairly appropriate mood setter for the rest of the festival which featured a number of other films featuring uncompromising scenes of rape, something which I personally find to be a rather detestable trope in the modern horror film. I'm not saying that it's too extreme and shouldn't be shown in moderated circumstances, but I simply find it to not constitute as a scare, but more a cheap shock. A shock which at this point has been wrung dry and is no longer effective in all but the most scant number of circumstances. I digress however as The Seasoning House managed to just about pull it off and was a worthwhile if forgettable and flawed watch.

The Seasoning House was followed by the frankly pants Cockneys Vs Zombies - a film which managed to execute neither its comedy or horror elements, instead seeming juvenile and really quite boring. The humour was simplistic and cheap relying on the outlandish premise of it's title to entertain throughout a very stretched running time. Some people loved it so much so they compared it to Shaun of the Dead. If you like Shaun of the Dead, take my advice and just watch that again. You'll have a much better time.

Grabbers swooped in to save the night at the 11th hour (quite literally). The perfect midnight movie, not only was it much funnier than Cockneys, but it had real heart. Richard Coyle was excellent in the lead role and save for Russell Tovey (who was annoying and obnoxious, seemingly there to inject a modicum of unnecessary star power to proceedings) the rest of the cast were all great too and made the film the fun viewing experience it is. Not to mention the quite stunningly effective CG work. It's only a shame the alien wasn't somewhat less generic looking.

So at the end of the first day, 2 good films, 1 not so good film, nothing that I was desperate to put on my Blu Ray shelf. Friday was just a few hours away though and I knew I was in for a treat after a much much needed sleep.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Surrounded by Plebeians Film4 Frightfest 13th Coverage

It is now just less than one week away from Film4's annual London based horror film festival Frightfest. This is the 13th year of what has become the biggest horror festival in the UK, but this will be my first time in attendance. To be honest I had hardly heard of Frightfest (let alone given any thought to going to it) before this year, but I was unquestionably convinced I had to go soon after discovering it would be playing the UK premiere of a film which I have been waiting to see now for quite a long while.

That film is Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut. Yes, my most anticipated film I'm going to see at a film festival is indeed a redux of a 1990 commercial and critical flop. It's not really that film at all though, as this is the years in creation extended cut of the film more in line with director Clive Barker's original vision for the film. Barker has long been one of my favourite horror maestro's (I'm a huge fan of the Hellraiser mythos) however due to the rarity of Nightbreed (particularly in the UK where it has never seen a DVD release) I've never gotten round to watching it. The film has had a troubled but interesting history involving horrific studio cuts, years of long thought lost footage, and an abandonment of the finished film by both the studio and Barker himself upon its original theatrical release. In recent years however fans of Barker's, and Barker himself have worked tirelessly to resurrect the film, find the lost footage and piece it back together so that the film may be released and seen in the manner it was originally intended. Now in 2012 this complete 3hour redux is being shown across a limited number of cinemas in hopes that the buzz will persuade distributor Morgan Creek to give the film a full remaster on Blu Ray - something that is looking ever more likely as each showing passes. Up until now the film has been shown only across the pond, but next week the UK will get it's first ever showing of the film at Frightfest and I couldn't be more excited to be amongst the audience.

Strangely enough my second most anticipated film is yet another film dug up from the archives, this time James Whale's masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein. I've always enjoyed the old, Gothic charm of the 1930's Universal Studios horror films and I've been waiting for their Blu Ray remasters for as long as I've owned a Blu Ray player. A collection of the studios finest is about to hit streets in October, but in the mean time we have the new remaster of Bride of Frankenstein showing at Frightfest. I had the pleasure of seeing Frankenstein on the big screen a couple of years ago, so I'm really looking forward to being able to say I've seen the sequel too.
As for new films I've tried to go in with as little knowledge about them as possible, having watched very few trailers, so that hopefully I can be pleasantly surprised by a few of the films. The buzz surrounding a couple of the films however has me very excited, mostly Berberian Sound Studio which seems like a unique little claustrophobic picture, and V/H/S which despite getting mixed reviews overseas has developed a bit of a cult fanbase already. Also, let's not forget Rec 3: Genesis, which again has received mixed reviews, but I saw the first two films in the series a couple of nights ago and was utterly blown away.

Unfortunately due to work I'm unable to make the final day of the festival, so I'll miss out on films like American Mary and The Possession, which although I'm rather disappointed about, cannot be helped. During the festival I'll be posting tidbits and mini-reviews on my Twitter account, and in the week following I'll post full reviews and longer articles about the festival here on the blog.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Batman Begins (2005, Dir.Christopher Nolan)

In 2005 fans of Batman living in a post Batman & Robin world really had no idea what was in store for them prior to watching Batman Begins - the first film in what would become the definitive trilogy of Batman films directed by a then relatively unknown Christopher Nolan who at the time was best known for his cult amnesiac thriller mind bender Memento.

Prior to Warner's decision to reboot the franchise in this new dark, gritty and realistic way the plan had been for a fifth movie in the Burton/Schumacher series, again directed by Joel Schumacher, with Clooney set to return as Batman. The film would once again feature a number of villains including Man-Bat, Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow who would cause Batman to hallucinate seeing the Joker in a much anticipated return for Jack Nicholson. After the monumental critical and audience backlash from Batman & Robin however the studio dropped the project and looked for a new direction to push the franchise. After toying with a Batman Beyond film (based on the TV series in which a future Batman has taken the mantle from an aging Bruce Wayne) and an ultra realistic take on Batman directed by an early in his career Darren Aronofsky (who wanted Clint Eastwood to don the batsuit) the studio finally settled on Christopher Nolan directing a loosely adapted version of the much lauded origin comic book Batman: Year One by Frank Miller.

You'd think that after the debacle of Batman & Robin any actors worth their salt wouldn't touch a Batman film with a barge pole, however a cracking cast soon assembled who obviously believed in the script and vision of the film which helped add a lot of credibility leading up to its release. Admittedly however, thinking back the hype for the film wasn't really all that big before the reviews started rolling in. The film looked slow and was a stark contrast to the colourful Batman the public was accustomed to seeing at the time. It grossed a moderate amount at the Box Office but nothing compared to its sequels.

Anyway, as the titles implies its an origin story starting the tale of Batman afresh, however where the previous series merely touched on Bruce Wayne's childhood and subsequent maturation into becoming the Batman this film's purpose is to establish the forces and events which led Bruce Wayne to become the saviour of Gotham, explaining everything from his martial arts training, to the reasoning behind the choice of his bat based persona. For the first time on the big screen Batman/Bruce Wayne (played perfectly by Christian Bale who puts his trademark intensity to great use in the trilogy) becomes the star of the show instead of his gallery of villains who take an influential but more reserved role in this film. Interestingly for the first time also Bruce/Batman's gallery of allies play a large role in the story, every bit as much as the villains. This makes sense though as they are there throughout the trilogy and grow along with Bruce Wayne, but perhaps their most important role is to add credence to the Bruce here being an ultra-determined but altogether "normal" man as opposed to being the psychopath loner that Burton was so interested in depicting the character as in his films.

Nolan's finest achievement in the saga though is his characterization of Gotham City. Throughout all three films he continually builds upon the layers of the city - from the criminal fraternity run by the mobsters and gang bosses operating in the slums, to the rich, oblivious and often easily corruptible people who reign supreme over the upper city, as well as the outside forces manipulating the populace. The way the characters influence and attempt to control not just the other characters but the city itself gives Gotham it's own identity and it's parallels with American history compliments well the air of realism the city exudes from it's pseudo-Chicago architecture shot in beautiful warm orange hues by Nolan's long time collaborating director of photography Wally Pfister. Not only does it give the film a distinct look, but it invokes a pulpy neo-noir style which fits in well with the heavy emphasis on Gotham's criminal syndicates and gangsters which seem more at home in a 40's detective film than the kind of outlandish villains you'd expect to see in a superhero film.

The Dark Knight is consistently credited as having set the bar for the superhero film genre, but Batman Begins laid down the foundations. I'm a firm believer in the idea that not every superhero story needs to have an origin film, but anybody would be hard pressed to argue against Begins as being not only a great film in it's own right, but a marvellous introduction to Christopher Nolan's vision, without which the succeeding two films would have far less weight.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

My Notes on Bringing He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to the Big Screen

This week came the news that finally a new version of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was back on track towards getting a live action feature film helmed by Jon Chu, director of the upcoming G.I. Joe Retaliation. With that franchise and the Transformers movies churning out box office hits and with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot on the way from Michael Bay's production company Platinum Dunes it was inevitable that the other big 80's Saturday morning cartoons would be adapted before long. The two remaining ones which immediately come to mind from my youth are Thundercats - which has just aired a new anime style TV series which I have yet to see, but which appears to have been cancelled after just 1 season - and He-Man, the story of... well I'll just let the opening theme tell you-

As a child He-Man was a perennial favourite of mine so naturally the thought of a re-emergance of the franchise give me both nostalgic excitement and a bout of terrible nervousness. I thought the first live action Transformers was an interesting enough adaptation, but both sequels are absolutely horrible. G.I.Joe: The Rise of Cobra was just too far separated from its roots to really excite me, thought the trailer for its sequel looks at least a marginal improvement. In both instances I've found the emphasis on putting the characters in dark, realistic situations to be their downfall and the story and mythology behind the series' comes second to visual effects and painful attempts at humor. I still often get the urge to watch both the Transformers and G.I. Joe animated films on a regular basis, but never their live action counterparts, because frankly they're better in ever conceivable way.

Of-course MOTU itself had its own live action film long before Transformers and G.I.Joe, and even the original series of live-action TMNT films. Though the film is oft forgotten for good reasons I honestly find it to be enjoyable in a cheesy, campy way so long as I don't think of it too much as being a He-Man film (but then again I have a soft spot for trashy un-ambitious sci-fi and horror). It has a lot of charm, something which cannot be said of the recent revivals of its fellow cartoons. The one area where everyone can agree it did hit the nail firmly on the head (or skull to be exact) would be in He-Man's arch nemesis Skeletor, played by screen legend Frank Langella who absolutely stole the show from a well cast but poorly written He-Man played by old Drago himself - Dolph Lundgren. I've always thought that the villains of these old cartoons' were the most important and interesting characters of all, and Skeletor here is every bit the bad-ass villain you want him to be - a stark contrast to the live action versions Megatron who is just another indistinguishable CG render, and Cobra Commander who got all of 2 seconds screentime. The final fight between Skeletor and He-Man sits in the same part of my memory as the Luke vs Vader vs Palpetine fight from Return of the Jedi (with which is shares a lot of parallels) as blowing my mind as a young boy.

It's hard to think of anyone who could top that performance off the top of my head however my personal choice would be Michael C Hall who seems to have the right facial structure at least, and would probably be an interesting contrast to Channing Tatum who seems to be the front-runner for the He-Man role, though I'm not sure he could muster the over the top evilness he would have to bring to the role. As a more "out-there" choice however I think Michael Keaton would be very interesting and could bring just the right mix of tongue-in-cheek sinisterness that's required. Being slightly older I think he'd also compliment well my choice for He-Man...

...Matthew McConaughey. The man can do no wrong at the moment and has the long hair and physique that are perfect for the character. The hair in particular I think would be difficult to pull off for most of the potential actors going up for the role, but I think it's an iconic part of the character and needs to be kept. His diversity as an actor too gives me confidence that he could pull of the duality of the character as the bumbling Prince Adam as well as He-Man.

As for the tone and story of the film I would simply say keep it simple. There's no need to get hung up on complicated origin and back stories or making it dark and gritty. I just don't think it would suit the material. Make it a simple story of goodies vs baddies in a fantasy world and make it as fun as possible. I really don't see the harm in making the target demographic children. Childrens films seem to be dominated by original Pixar and Dreamworks creations, but I don't see why you can't put a big, colourful, live action cartoon up there on the big screen. I guarantee fathers and sons would eat it up, especially if the big name stars where there to give the film some credibility.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Review: Batman & Robin (1997, Dir.Joel Schumacher)

Here we are- Batman and Robin, one of the most universally despised and frequently slammed films of all time. Though, believe it or not I prefer it to Batman Forever. Controversial I know, but if you care to stick around for just a minute I would like to try to convince you to see eye to eye with me on this one.

Joel Schumacher returns to the directors chair for the second time here, back with Akiva Goldsman on full time scripting duties and Elliot Goldenthal composing. Val Kilmer is replaced rather oddly by George Clooney who has very little to do to show off his talents, but Chris O'Donnell is back as Robin, and Michael Gough is back to play Alfred for (sadly) the last time. Interestingly Gough and Pat Hingle who plays the rather minor role of Commissioner Gordon are the one 2 actors to star in all 4 of the Burton/Schumacher Batman films. Rounding out the cast is top billing Arnold Schwarzenegger as the puntastic Mr.Freeze, Uma Thurman as femme fatale Poison Ivy, and Alicia Silverstone as the unnecessary Batgirl.

It's easy to look at Batman Forever and Batman & Robin and simply say that the latter film is everything its predecessor is only amplified to 11 (neon EVERYWHERE, a huge array of two dimensional characters, action figure fodder left, right and centre), though it actually has something Forever doesn't have -  a sense of continuity. Where Forever's turbulent development process had resulted in an off-balance, un-commited and focusless mess of a film Batman and Robin is fully devoted to its purpose for existence - to be as over the top, tongue in cheek and campy as possible - and whilst that perhaps is something nobody back in 1997 really wanted from a Batman film, now that we have Nolan's seminal trilogy it's actually a curious oddity of a film which isn't actually too unwatchable if you put yourself in the right mindset. You can see Christian Bale play a straight up broody and serious Bruce Wayne 3 times, this film has an Oscar winning actor surfing through the air dressed as Batman - roll with it.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Review: Batman Forever (1995, Dir.Joel Schumacher)

After Tim Burton's (let's just say) overly auteuristic take on the legends of the caped crusader in Batman Returns didn't fuel the kind of box office numbers and merchandising opportunities that Warner Bros would have obviously wanted, it was inevitable that the studios would go back to the drawing board for Batman Forever. New Batman (Keaton out Val Kilmer in), new director(Burton out Joel Schumacher in), new composer (Elfman out Elliot Goldenthal in) and most importantly of all, new tone(Gothic out, Neon in). Despite these changes it should be noted that Burton's influence is here in some very minor capacity (for the final time in the franchise) though its obvious that the final product is as far removed from any vision that Burton would have had that its barely worth him having the Producer credit at all. Reportedly there is a "lost" extended cut of the film out there, parts of which can be found in promotional music videos and trailers for the film, which offers a much darker version of the story, whilst also helping to explain some of the more out of place and often toyetic scenes in the theatrical cut.

That remains hidden though so for now we're stuck with the theatrical cut of the movie which is just frankly not very good. And I'm not saying that it's terrible, just simply not very good. It just feels really disjointed both from an editing point of view and tonally. Its tongue in cheek moments are played too seriously and it's dark moments are shot too colourfully. It doesn't help that Gotham itself is utterly bland and lacking in character itself. Gone is the deco/expressionist architecture which created the world for Burton's characters, instead being replaced by some very shoddy looking CG buildings which lack any interesting attributes. Absent too is the misty, moody and dirty aura that drenches the scenes of the previous two films, instead being replaced by jarring neon lights covering well, just about everything. Everything just ends up looking too clean and uninhabited - not really Gotham City at all.

I hear a lot of people say they really rate Jim Carrey as The Riddler in this film, but this is just people from the general populace as opposed to people who's opinions I actually value. I love Jim Carrey don't get me wrong and I think he takes on the character his own way using his own personality traits to his benefit much the same way that Jack Nicholson did with the Joker. Catching that lightning in a bottle again though proved too much and as an interpretation of The Riddler character it just doesn't work for me. The wacky antics of the character and really rather rubbish riddles just make it hard to believe in him as a credible foe even to Kilmer's unenthused looking Batman. Still, as I said, I consistently have people trying to tell me they love Carrey in the role so obviously something here worked in the eyes of a lot of people (just not mine).

Tommy Lee Jones is equally as dumb and unimposing as the poorly translated to screen and horribly fleshed out Two-Face - notably in place of Billy Dee Williams who played Harvey Dent in Batman '89 and was contracted to reprise the role in a subsequent film in the franchise. His small part in Returns - where he was to be shocked by Catwoman and transformed into Two-Face in the finale - was re-written for Christopher Walken's character, and when it came to Batman Forever Joel Schumacher ousted Williams in favour of Jones (in return for a handsome pay off). Strange in that Jones never really seems invested in the character at all, but I guess it was just another step in separating the film just enough from its predecessors.

Batman's long standing sidekick Robin finally makes his debut in the series(again after being shafted out of the Returns script) played by Chris O'Donnell who seems to enjoy playing the character, but never really embodies the Robin we know. That was always going to be an uphill struggle with that naff earring in though - a poor effort to make the character seem hip and somehow relateable to younger audiences, but now serving only to date the film more than the terrible CG could ever hope to. The saving grace here really is that Christian Bale would thankfully fail in his audition to be cast in the role so he could go on to become Batman a few years down the line.

In all fairness, knocking the performances here feels like cheap and easy prey as they're just set up to fail from the get go thanks to the absolutely dreadful script which was obviously rewritten to death by so many scribes over the years that any semblance to the characters we hold dear are just scrubbed away and moulded into whatever ridiculous caricatures they need to be to fit the direction any particular scene wants to take regardless of the overall plot. Whilst Batman '89 finds the perfect middle ground between the darkness of Returns and the ├╝ber-camp of Batman & Robin, it's curious that the instalment that is actually sandwiched between them manages to get it so, so wrong.