Saturday, 21 May 2016

Bad Lieutenant

A vague remake of and/ or sequel to Abel Ferrara’s notorious 1992 movie, BAD LIEUTENANT - PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS (2009) comes from Werner Herzog, an unlikely choice as the director for such a project. With levee systems broken, post–Katrina, policeman Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), recklessly saves a trapped inmate from his flooded prison cellblock, and the cop receives a promotion for bravery, but also suffers a severe back injury. This prompts his painkiller addiction to cope with daily New Orleans’ grind of trying to locate and build a strong case against local gangster Big Fate (rapper Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner, at least making an effort to abandon the daft moniker by admitting his real name here).

While supporting his girlfriend/ hooker, Frankie (Eva Mendes, also Cage’s co-star for Ghost Rider), Terry indulges in coked–up zany mania (and such craziness is the key appeal of Cage’s favoured screen persona, of course), runs up big debts to ‘understanding’ bookie Ned (Brad Dourif, remarkably, so restrained, he seems like someone else), flubs a homicide case by threatening the granny of a witness, and then he loses said witness in a Biloxi casino. Mainstream crime drama is cunningly dovetailed with episodic surrealism enhanced by the haunting score.
 
With alligator road-kill, weird iguanas, break-dancing souls, Terry’s work and home life unravels gradually, due to unspecified psych disorder, and it’s all greatly amusing as unhinged diversion into unfamiliar territory rather than story interruptions for theatrical hallucinations. Sometimes it’s funny to a blisteringly mischievous degree, especially when Cage is quite un-hesitantly wringing a dozen shades of lunacy from his quirky or mildly ‘pretentious’, and even unadventurously procedural, dialogue. (“I’ll kill all of you. To the break of dawn... To the break of dawn, baby.”) Meanwhile, at other times, the film’s cloggy aural swamp feels like some already too creepy semi-Cajun soundtrack that’s been slyly remixed by David Lynch.
 


It’s worth mentioning Val Kilmer (nowadays seemingly intent on carving a niche as a proper character actor, if only to escape from motley mediocre supporting roles), and grossly underappreciated Fairuza Balk (Humboldt County, American Perfekt, The Craft), both of whom turn in solid but un-showy performances here that contrast with and inevitably elevate Cage’s unstable drifting away from routinely horrid reality. For the ending, there are more ironic twists and darker tragedies (albeit tinged with hope) than expected, making for a sublime pay-off. This is very highly recommended, whether you’re a fan of Ferrara’s classic sleaze–fest original, or not.   

 

 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

7th Dimension

British weird sci-fi horror THE 7th DIMENSION (2009) harks back to a time of subversive conspiracy theories of 1980s, filtered through surreal coincidences with a distinct Quatermass vibe. Students Zoe (Lucy Evans, Mayo, Rocket Man) and Sarah (Kelly Adams, Bronson, Holby City) visit a tutor’s flat, inadvertently meeting the computer hackers of ‘Beacon77’.  

Radical–atheist Declan (Jonathan Rhodes) is the amusingly prickly character who turns psycho, Malcolm (David Horton, Asylum Night) offers a voice of reason - but to no avail, and Kendra (Calita Rainford, Return To House On Haunted Hill) is an ‘assisted’ suicide case. Scurrilously indulgent anonymous Internet radio fills number-crunching break times, as our self-proclaimed hacker heroes crack Vatican security, to read bible code in the 4th dimension, scan torah pages, and hope to predict the future... any futures.  

Director Brad Watson might be the new Terry Gilliam, or John Carpenter. Weaving together manic dialogues and crazy genre notions, this recalls 12 Monkeys (without enough monkeys!), and Prince Of Darkness (sans gory zombies). Spectral visitors appear to be ‘remote viewer’ spies from a top secret Pentagon lab. Murder via mind–control is just one SF concept in the flurry of ‘pseudoscience’ gibberish that remains genuinely fascinating, and highly enjoyable. Despite this movie’s obviously low-budget production, it is imaginatively unrestrained with an instantly engaging sense of edginess and a fervently dramatic intensity.

As the miraculously-cured cripple’s consciousness uploads to a higher reality, and “the paper is burning” line refers back to destroying the sketch of metaphorical flatland, an apocalypse seems to face the surviving heroine. The 7th Dimension is heartily recommended to all fans of strange psychotronic movies!

 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Book of Eli

Directed by American brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, whose From Hell (2001) was a very worthwhile adaptation of the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore, THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) is a post–apocalypse epic, one that compares grandly and favourably to the utterly pretentious wank of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009).  
 
 

Denzel Washington portrays the titular character as a symbolic smidgen of hope, albeit in a form of religious dogma, for all that remains of humanity after WW3. Our stoic hero is a stone cold warrior of the wastelands, either slicing ‘n’ dicing or shooting up unwary ambushers and he’s extraordinarily capable, as a samurai/ gunslinger in this doomsday western scenario of a  scorched landscape where raggedy inhabitants pray for rain, beg for justice, and expect painful deaths. “This is a civilised town. We don’t eat humans.” Amen.

Eli’s a long walker, heading west on a hard trek through the wraparound greyed–out colour scheme of nuclear winter. A ruined and rebuilt town can recharge his MP3 player in trade (lip–balm or shampoo is preferred currency), but the tumbledown place is run by tyrant Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who really, really seriously wants a bible as the ultimate weapon of salvation, and Eli just happens to own last surviving copy of the King James version. Differing perceptions of biblical values serve to remind us of Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that perhaps greatest tragedy in history is that morality was hijacked by religion...
 
 

Carnegie’s concubine, the born–blind Claudia (Jennifer Beals), might be the only liberal conscience alive, concerned for the welfare of a daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), pimped out by Carnegie as a recruitment ‘favour’ to Eli, but rejected by the spiritual champion. Of course, wicked Carnegie wangles that magic book from honourable Eli’s possession yet - since Claudia has forgotten how to read Braille - Carnegie is left alone to preside over ill–fated pandemonium.

Along unhappy trails, Eli and Solara meet amusingly potty couple, George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour), who are like cranky old survivalist cousins of the Bloggs from animated feature When The Wind Blows (1986). After reaching the Golden Gate Bridge, the badly wounded Eli meets Alcatraz’s archive curator (Malcolm McDowell) who transcribes and prints a new bible edition. Although he is, eventually, revealed as a blind prophet (a “darkness on the face of the deep”), Eli ends up as the people’s hero, making The Book Of Eli a new Mad Max for 21st century... until George Miller’s excellent actioner Fury Road appeared to reclaim that territory.

 

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Argento-mania

While fans waited for Dario Argento’s latest movie, Giallo (2009), TERROR AT THE OPERA (aka: Opera, 1988), THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (aka: La sindrome di Stendhal, 1996), and THE CARD PLAYER (aka: Il cartaio, 2004), were all re-released by Arrow, with new painted artwork for their DVD sleeves. Even for horror fans, Argento can be an acquired taste... What one viewer regards as fascinating surrealism, another might judge to be incoherence. Although it often seems that the core values of Argento’s oeuvre flip-flop, from his imitation of Hitchcockian intrigues, to pure aesthetic and techno cinematic merits, there can be no doubt his commitment to a dazzling inventiveness for murder has given us more than a handful of genuine horror classics.
 
 

In Terror At The Opera, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) wins a coveted singing role, but the young diva soon becomes tortured witness to activity of that vicious killer who forces her to watch as helpless new victims die in agony. Some of the violence occurs off-screen, but our heroine’s terrified expression as unwilling observer sells a frightful impact, so we (probably) all prefer not having to look at every single gruesome thing that she sees, anyway. Despite creative misunderstandings of identity and some cunning narrative misdirects, Opera really stands or falls on its ingenious/ fascinating murder set-pieces, and Argento surpasses fans’ expectations with several brilliant and memorable kill-shots that are always worth seeing again.     
 
A shocker of challenging delirium, The Stendhal Syndrome pits detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) against serial rapist Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), who kidnaps her for particularly sadistic emotional/ physical mistreatment. In Videodrome, Brian Oblivion opined “the television screen is the retina of mind’s the eye,” and Max Renn soon discovered how powerfully disturbing ‘pirate-TV’ signals could be. Classic paintings have a similar psycho-sensual overload effect, granting interactive hallucinations for Anna, after memory loss following her art-gallery ‘episode’ and subsequent blackout. Troubled by her fantasy world of ‘psychic’ delusions, Anna cuts her long hair into a short bob, and adopts a masculine appearance (more gender uncertainty/ imagery follows, later) after that first nasty ordeal, and she bluntly rejects (“I’m not your woman”) her somewhat charmless boyfriend, before - at a therapist’s suggestion, taking a break from work to revisit her hometown. Even while on-going police investigation starts closing in upon the killer’s lair, anxious Anna winds up back in Alfredo’s clutches, again.

 
For The Stendhal Syndrome, the director elicits a stunning performance from his daughter, but it must be said that this is a rather curious and outrageous partnership of Italian auteur and genre-favourite actress who are so closely related, adding a scandalous frisson to an already suspect plot. Digital visuals open a doorway to exploit mental confusions, and explore haunting obsession. There have often been artistic threads and themes in Argento’s movies but, here, the paintings become vital parts of the narrative affect, defining mood swings and expressing tensions in a strikingly imaginative manner. Categorically, a tour de force by anyone’s standards of horror/ terror cinema, The Stendhal Syndrome is quite unforgettable and yet it still rewards repeat viewings. 

 
The Card Player’s crime-thriller formula repeat of a lady cop hunting a serial killer, with Stefania Rocca playing Anna Mari (the close similarity of heroines’ names here suggests that ‘female detective’ is a 21st century stereotype now), for cyber-slasher dud plotline that artlessly jumbles CSI forensics with offbeat characters. When a British girl is killed, Anna teams up with wretched Irish detective Brennan (Liam Cunningham), and they find teenage luck-magnet and poker genius Remo, ‘conscripted’ for life-or-death online gaming in a desperate bid to beat the kidnapper’s murder stakes. After Remo saves police chief’s daughter, the killer’s hand is forced. The showdown deal against Anna aims for bemusing farce, with both killer and heroine cuffed to railway tracks as poker game on laptop ensues. Apart from grisly ‘appeal’ of its snuff-video contrivance, some quite unsettlingly realistic mortuary examinations, and a great performance from Ms Rocca, The Card Player counts - unfortunately - as one of Argento’s weaker offerings. Win some, lose some...         
 
Now seeming like a time-warp trailer for genre TV series Masters Of Horror, re-released double-bill movie TWO EVIL EYES was made in 1989, and it features stories adapted from works by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by George Romero, The Facts In The Case Of Mr Valdemar is slow–burning intriguer about a treacherous/ adulterous wife, Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), scheming against her wealthy/ dying husband to break terms of his will and steal his fortune. Jessica’s lover Dr Hoffman (Ramy Zada, After Midnight) uses hypnosis to manage deathbed pain, but the embezzlers’ plot goes wrong when the old man dies, most inconveniently, in a trance, and his frozen body soon becomes a conduit for malicious ‘others’ to crossover from beyond death.


Argento’s dazzling remix of themes from Poe in The Black Cat is far more extravagant in scope and demented in style than its companion piece. Harvey Keitel, perfectly cast here as the pretentiously arty photographer Rod Usher, excels in a role balancing pure spite with gallows humour. Taking as its cause or purpose the ‘creation’ of horrific imagery, this psychodrama of alcoholic delirium, murderous rages, and some well-timed black comedy, boasts lurid visions of pagan sacrifice with a poetic-justice finale, as homicidal brute Usher gets his comeuppance in satisfactorily grim fashion. While Romero’s work concentrates on strong characterisation and narrative beats, that build up towards a supernatural conclusion, Argento conjures up a complex of nightmarish visuals with, as usual for his knowingly illogical oeuvre, no regard for conventional drama, common sense, or even the pseudoscientific rationality which often drives Romero’s films.

 

 

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Triffids!

“We leave for the Isle of Wight first thing in the morning.” Yay! A new BBC adaptation of THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (2009) seems markedly redundant after Steve Sekely’s deeply flawed but fondly recalled 1962 feature, and Douglas Livingstone’s memorable update for a 1981 TV series astutely directed by Ken Hannam. But John Wyndham’s novel is one of the cornerstones of popular British SF in ‘cosy catastrophe’ mode, so all fans of these near–mythical carnivorous plants with predatory intelligence against disabled humanity ought to welcome a fresh version (penned by Patrick Harbinson - Millennium, Dark Angel), highlighting 21st century concerns.

Dougray Scott (Perfect Creature) inherits the grim mantle of triffid farmer Bill Mason, bringing assertive melancholy to a benchmark scientist-turned-hero role. Joely Richardson (Event Horizon) is radio host Jo Playton – the heartening “voice of Britain” in wholly dystopian times. Eddie Izzard essays unstoppable opportunist dictator Torrence with the (do ya wanna be in my gang?) manners of a Bond villain. Vanessa Redgrave is great as traitor nun Durrant, while stalwart Brian Cox makes something worthwhile out of not much to go on as estranged–father stereotype Dennis, prepped for saving mankind from global apocalypse even if he cannot save himself.

Triffid mobility extends to climbing trees and they have slithering clutching vines that are strong enough to drag away even fiercely–reluctant victims. TV production values (black pall hanging over ruined London lacks impact) and family–audience–friendly plotting weaken possibilities for sci-fi drama. There’s some good acting but hardly any chemistry between the leads. It’s quite interesting to compare this restrained cautionary tale with the darkly compelling lack of subtly in Blindness (2008), where social breakdown is portrayed with far more nastiness, and an unsettling/ despairing abandonment of even the vaguest morality is much worse than anything that ratings–conscious telly bosses would ever dare foist upon home–screen material.

Over-familiarity is a big problem with this, but it’s still an intriguing disaster scenario for eminently watchable genre TV. Now, if only they’d make a transatlantic sequel out of SimonClark’s millennial novel Night Of The Triffids!

This review was published in BLACK STATIC #15 (February 2010). I also reviewed all this lot for the same issue: 

Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (1/10)
Street Trash (7/10)
Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead (3/10)
Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath Of The Dragon God (4/10)
House [aka: Hausu] (7/10)
Train (4/10)
Halloween II (1/10)
The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto (1/10)
Surrogates (8/10)
Tony (3/10)
Dante's Inferno (2/10)
In The Electric Mist (6/10)
Long Weekend (6/10)
Pandorum (4/10)
Cabin Fever (6/10)
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (4/10)
Wolfhound (7/10)
Triangle (7/10)

        Terror Triage: round-up
Sorority Row (2/10)
Growth (3/10)
Room 36 (5/10)
Whiteout (4/10)
Stan Helsing (1/10)
Malice In Wonderland (5/10)
Borderland (1/10)
Jennifer's Body (2/10)
Open Graves (2/10)
Paranormal Activity (1/10)