Exists (2014), An abridged Retrospective Review

Exists

Director – Eduardo Sanchez

Writer – Jamie Nash

Starring – Chris Osborne, Dora Madison Burge, Samuel Davis, Roger Edwards

After breaking out in a huge way by co-directing 1999 smash hit The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchez has largely failed to catch lightning in a bottle twice. So can a return to the genre that he helped pioneer (ignoring the Italian exploitation flicks that were notorious as opposed to successful), with a creature feature twist thrown in for works, be a recipe for success? The answer is….sort of?

Two brothers, Brian (Osborne) and Matt (Davis) travel to a cabin for a weekend break with a few of their friends. Matt’s girlfriend, Dora (Burge), Todd (Edwards), and Elizabeth (Denise Williamson) who it is revealed has a thing with Todd. Unfortunately, on the way there, they hit a mysterious creature with their car. Quickly, they find themselves under siege from the legendary Bigfoot.

Traditionally, the found-footage genre is a difficult one to review, because of it’s unconventional nature. Oddly here, a score is added, and the film is presented as being edited by a surviving character and released. Perhaps a design decision made to differentiate the film from the thousands of other found-footage films that pollute the horror genre, it actually causes the film and narrative a few issues.

The major issue is that it is suggested the footage was cut together and compiled into a feature documentary by a surviving character. This destroys a lot of the suspense, as we then know beyond doubt that at least one person survives. The use of score and editing techniques do differentiate the film from the countless other found footage films out there, but reduces the gimmick’s impact leaving you to wonder why he needed it that way at all. If you want to differentiate yourself from the other found footage films, why not just try not to make a found footage film?

Not helped by an odd script. Characterisation is minimal and no time is wasting explaining who everyone is. This is good for tension, as we are thrown straight into the horror aspects, but bad for caring, because we are given no reason to care about anybody.

Also, some of the characters change personalities oddly. Todd is pretty much calm and normal, until one inexplicable moment where he goes mad and gives everybody away. This, and the constant wondering of why the monster you hit with a car might be mad at you, makes almost all the cast unlikeable.

If it sounds all bad, it isn’t. The trade off for poor characterisation is genuine tension from the out. This is particularly effective early on, when we are only giving fleeting glimpses of the beast. Then as the film progresses and we’re shown more he naturally loses his impact, but high-fives for prosthetic work as opposed to CGI. Big thumbs on that one, and the beast looks great.

This is an odd film; it is heavy on the tension and atmosphere, but fails to make its mind up on the found footage gimmick, features characters with no depth whatsoever, and unfortunately loses its way after a solid start. This could have been a lot better with minimal effort, which makes it all the more inexcusable.

Final Rating – 3.2/5

Joshua Moulinie

 

 

Exists (2014), An Extended Retrospective Review

Exists

Director – Eduardo Sanchez

Writer – Jamie Nash

Starring – Chris Osborne, Dora Madison Burge, Samuel Davis, Roger Edwards

After breaking out in a huge way by co-directing 1999 smash hit The Blair Witch Project, whose commercial and critical success we have to thank for the found footage era of horror which seems only now to be winding down, Eduardo Sanchez has largely failed to catch lightning in a bottle twice. So can a return to the genre that he helped pioneer (ignoring the Italian exploitation flicks that were notorious as opposed to successful), with a creature feature twist thrown in for works, be a recipe for success? The answer is….sort of?

Two brothers, Brian (Osborne) and Matt (Davis) travel to a cabin for a weekend break with a few of their friends. Matt’s girlfriend, Dora (Burge), Todd (Edwards), and Elizabeth (Denise Williamson) who it is revealed has a thing with Todd. Brian documents proceedings under the pretense that he’s just making a fun youtube video. Little do the rest know that his Uncle has told him stories of the cabin and something he once saw in the woods, and Brian is intend on documenting it. Unfortunately, on the way there, they hit a mysterious creature with their car. Quickly, they find themselves under siege from the legendary Bigfoot.

Traditionally, the found-footage genre is a difficult one to review. One major issue is, traditionally, it means no score or cinematography work that one would typically critique in a film exist. Rather, we have to bend our critiquing to fit the style of film. Oddly here, a score is added, and the film is presented as being edited by a surviving character and released. Perhaps a design decision made to differentiate the film from the thousands of other found-footage films that pollute the horror genre, it actually causes the film and narrative a few issues.

The major issue is that it is suggested the footage was cut together and compiled into a feature documentary by a surviving character. This destroys a lot of the suspense, as we then know beyond doubt that at least one person survives. By process of elimination, and the fact that every other character calls Brian’s camera hobby annoying or stupid, so we can assume they know nothing about editing, even the slowest of film-goers can figure out that leaves Brian alive.

If you’re going to use found-footage as a gimmick, go all the way. Blair Witch looked as if some crew had retrieved the footage from the wild and pierced it together. As if those who shot it had all perished. That’s why it worked so well. The use of score and editing techniques do differentiate the film from the countless other found footage films out there, but reduces the gimmick’s impact leaving you to wonder why he needed it that way at all. If you want to differentiate yourself from the other found footage films, why not just try not to make a found footage film?

Not helped by an odd script. Characterisation is minimal and no time is wasting explaining who everyone is. This is good for tension, as we are thrown straight into the tense horror, and actually makes a welcome change from the traditional thirty minutes or so we spend during everyone of these movies getting to know characters that typically end up as caricatures anyway. We learn via dialogue that Matt is very bland, Todd is a strong contender for ‘most token black guy token black guy ever’, and the two females may as well be interchangeable as neither stand out from one another. At least they aren’t generic ‘sluts’ or shamed in anyway, they’re just very broring.

Also, some of the characters change personalities oddly. Todd is pretty much calm and normal, until one inexplicable moment where he goes mad and gives everybody away. And, also, characters ask throughout ‘what did we do to it?’ and nobody seems to give an answer. You bloody hit it with a car. Have you all forgotten? Does nobody go ‘Hmmm, maybe that thing we hit with a car the first night, that we caught on tape and was huge, furry and walked on two legs was possibly the sasquatch or a relation to, and that is why it is trying to kill us?’ It seems like a pretty logical conclusion to reach.

If it sounds all bad, it isn’t. The trade off for poor characterisation is genuine tension from the out. This is particularly effective early on, when we are only giving fleeting glimpses of the beast. Then as the film progresses and we’re shown more he naturally loses his impact, but high-fives for prosthetic work as opposed to CGI. Big thumbs on that one, and the beast looks great.

The actors are given basically nothing to do, except ‘look scared’ or ‘look like you don’t believe’ etc. When you’re playing caricatures, it’s very hard to act. None of them are awful though, and Osborne is pretty damn good as Brian. It’s just a shame they have so little to work with.

This is an odd film; it is heavy on the tension and atmosphere, but fails to make its mind up on the found footage gimmick, features characters with no depth whatsoever, and unfortunately loses its way after a solid start. This could have been a lot better with minimal effort, which makes it all the more inexcusable.

Final Rating – 3.2/5

 

Joshua Moulinie

Seven Years in Tibet (1997), An Extended Retrospective Review

Seven

Director – Jean-Jacques Annaud

Writer – Jean-Jacques Annaud

Starring – Brad Pitt, David Thewlis

This is an extremely moving, yet often sloppy and thoughtlessly executed portrayal of what is rightly considered to be one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.

Based rather inconsistently on the non-fiction book of the same name by Heinrich Harrer, the film follows the adventures of Harrer (Brad Pitt), famed Austrian mountaineer and explorer, who, following the unanticipated outbreak of World War Two, sought refuge in Tibet, and found himself cast as a rather informal teacher to His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

As the film is essentially divided into three quite different movements, similarly to the book, I shall review the film, section by section.

The first movement of the film deals with Harrer’s imprisonment in an Indian POW camp, his numerous escape attempts; his unlikely partnership with fellow Prisoner of War Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis,) and their subsequent journey across the Himalayas, before finally finding sanctuary in the forbidden city of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa.

This first half of the film I found to be often needlessly embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Contrary to the impression of Harrer we get from reading his memoires – a stolid, determined, and resolute character of immense patience and strength – instead, Pitt and Annuad’s handling of the character is to make him as self-centered, irascible, and obnoxious as possible. This tampering is simply absurd. To think that someone as impatient and petulant as the character depicted here by Pitt could ever have had the willpower to cross one of the most treacherous and difficult terrains in the world is simply insane and utterly unbelievable.

The dialogue during this section is also equally vapid and dire, and completely at odds with the memoires, so that, what could have been the characterization of a career, instead becomes an almost unwatchable caricature. The screenplay does its best to exploit a supposed rankling antipathy between Harrer and Aufschnaiter, which is nowhere to be found in the stolid togetherness we feel in the book. It is all too tedious a Hollywoodization of a hackneyed story arch – cynical egomaniac gradually becomes good man – ardent enemies become best friends – and, as a result, what could have been one of the most exciting adventures ever depicted onscreen, instead becomes a rather stupid, run of the mill affair.

Once we arrive in Lhasa, and the second third of the movie begins, the film takes a turn for the better. It is a delight to witness all the color, magic, and charm of Tibetan culture, and, after overwhelming us with his childish tantrums for the first half of the movie, Pitt gets put in the backseat for a while, and we just get to enjoy the many splendours of Tibet. As a lay Buddhist, with great interest in Tibetan culture and its Vajrayana and Dzogchen teachings, being able to admire all the clothing, architecture, customs, and religious iconography truly was an unparalleled delight to me, able to be a cinematic visitant to the glorious multi-coloured halls of The Potala Palace.

However, there are still many inconsistencies in this part of the film. Throughout, it is shown that Heinrich is altogether ignorant of the Tibetan language, when, in fact, both he and Aufschnaiter learned it competently rather early on. This niggling detail becomes all the more absurd when we learn that he is to be appointed as a tutor to the Dalai Lama! How could he have taught him, were he really unable to speak his laguage? Thus, the film displays most of the Tibetans speaking in English throughout. This is fine in all the scenes dealing with Pitt and Thewlis; but, to still have the Tibetan speaking in English to one another in scenes where they are alone is absolutely stupid. It would have added much to the depth and authenticity of the film to have a few subtitled moments, but ho hum. Subtitles are anathema to the ignorant, dyslexic West.

What really turns the film around is the appearance of the young Dalai Lama, played variously and seamlessly by Dorjee Tsering, Sonam Wangchuk, and Jamyang Wangchuk, depending on his age. As His Holiness had a very real interest in Western culture at that age, he takes an interest in Harrer, and employs to build a movie theatre for him and his people. All of the child actors do an absolutely magnificent job, displaying all the incisive wisdom, good humour, curiosity, warmth and compassion we have come to expect from His Holiness. His relationship with Harrer causes him to soften, and takes the edge off his abrasive personality (and acting!)

There are some really lovely moments here. The Tibetan builders slow down the construction of the movie theatre because they take care not to harm any of the earthworms in the soil as they dig. Frustrated by this obstacle, Harrer overcomes it by employing a team of Buddhist monks to diligently remove all the worms from the soil, and then re-house them elsewhere –a beautiful visualization of Tibet’s humanistic philosophies.

In the final third of the film, we deal with the unspeakable tragedy that was the Chinese Invasion and theft of Tibet. With merciful sparing of much of the unthinkable atrocities that were to occur – though there is brief, and very upsetting dream sequence that shows us but a few of them; the crazed slaughter of peaceful monks and sacred holy relics – we see the richness and color of Tibetan culture gradually usurped and upended by the drab banality and evil of the insanity that Communism was and still is. To witness statues of the Buddha destroyed and replaced with ugly paintings of Chairman Mao – undoubtedly one of the most evil men in history – is a crime that never fails to hurt my heart.

One of the most poignant moments takes places when some rude Communist cadres storm into a Buddhist temple, and demand an audience with His Holiness. Humbling  himself before their arrogance, The young Dalai Lama discourses on the beautiful teachings of Lord Buddha, in the face of intolerance and ignorance. Evil may arise, but it is but an ephemeral abscess in the face of the eternal truth of the Dharma.

In spite of its many glaring problems and thoughtless additions, Seven Years in Tibet is a supremely moving film, and one that, if you’ll allow it, may further open your heart. I just recommend not reading the book beforehand, so that you avoid running into the same problems as myself – you’ll enjoy it more that way!

Final Rating – 4.4

Reuben F.Tourettes

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Years In Tibet (1997), An abridge retrospective Review

Seven

Director – Jean-Jacques Annaud

Writer – Jean-Jacques Annaud

Starring – Brad Pitt, David Thewlis

This is an extremely moving, yet often sloppy and thoughtlessly executed portrayal of what is rightly considered to be one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.

Based rather inconsistently on the non-fiction book of the same name by Heinrich Harrer, the film follows the adventures of Harrer (Brad Pitt), famed Austrian mountaineer and explorer, who, following the unanticipated outbreak of World War Two, sought refuge in Tibet, and found himself cast as a rather informal teacher to His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

This first half of the film I found to be often needlessly embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Contrary to the impression of Harrer we get from reading his memoires – a stolid, determined, and resolute character of immense patience and strength – instead, Pitt and Annuad’s handling of the character is to make him as self-centered, irascible, and obnoxious as possible.

This tampering is simply absurd. To think that someone as impatient and petulant as the character depicted here by Pitt could ever have had the willpower to cross one of the most treacherous and difficult terrains in the world is simply insane and utterly unbelievable. The dialogue during this section is also equally vapid and dire, and completely at odds with the memoires, so that, what could have been the characterization of a career, instead becomes an almost unwatchable caricature.

The screenplay does its best to exploit a supposed rankling antipathy between Harrer and Aufschnaiter, which is nowhere to be found in the stolid togetherness we feel in the book. It is all too tedious a Hollywoodization of a hackneyed story arch – cynical egomaniac gradually becomes good man – ardent enemies become best friends – and, as a result, what could have been one of the most exciting adventures ever depicted onscreen, instead becomes a rather stupid, run of the mill affair.

Once we arrive in Lhasa, and the second third of the movie begins, the film takes a turn for the better. It is a delight to witness all the color, magic, and charm of Tibetan culture, and, after overwhelming us with his childish tantrums for the first half of the movie, Pitt gets put in the backseat for a while, and we just get to enjoy the many splendours of Tibet. As a lay Buddhist,  with great interest in Tibetan culture and its Vajrayana and Dzogchen teachings, being able to admire all the clothing, architecture, customs, and religious iconography truly was an unparalleled delight to me, able to be a cinematic visitant to the glorious multi-coloured halls of The Potala Palace.

In spite of its many glaring problems and thoughtless additions, Seven Years in Tibet is a supremely moving film, and one that, if you’ll allow it, may further open your heart. I just recommend not reading the book beforehand, so that you avoid running into the same problems as myself – you’ll enjoy it more that way!

Final Rating – 4.4

Reuben F.Tourettes

 

 

 

 

The Lazarus Effect (2015), Extended Review

Lazarus Effect

Director – David Gelb

Writer(s) – Luke Dawson, Jeremy Slater

Starring – Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger

 

As I continue to force myself to sit through every major horror release of note from 2015, I head into territory that traditionally I adore. That being the beautiful marriage of genres that is Sci-Fi and horror. In the past this beautiful merger has brought us such classics as Alien, The Thing and The Fly. Both genres deal with the fear of the unknown, and the idea that there is more to the world that we may believe, and when combined creates possibly the most effective of all the hybrid genres. This being said, I had high hopes for Gelb’s effort The Lazarus Effect; hoping that we could get something along the lines of the brilliant Primer, with a Lovecraftian/Frankenstein twist. Unfortunately, I was left severely disappointed.

A group of researchers led by Frank (Duplass) and his fiancé Zoe (Wilde) who’ve achieved the unimaginable – bringing the dead back to life. After a successful, yet unsanctioned, trial on a newly deceased animal, the team is ready to unveil their breakthrough to the world. When the dean of their university learns of their underground experiments, their project is unexpectedly shut down and their materials confiscated. Frank, Zoe and their team take matters into their own hands, launching a rogue attempt to recreate their experiment, during which things go terribly wrong and one of their own, Zoe, is horrifically killed. Fueled by terror and grief, Frank pushes them to do the unthinkable: attempt to resurrect their first human test subject. Initially, the procedure appears a success, but the team soon realizes something is wrong with Zoe. Only Eva (Bolger), a young student documenting the team’s efforts seem to have any understanding as to what they have really brought back.

My primary issue with the writing of this film is that it is, to say the least, extremely inconsistent. It begins as a slow crawling Sci-Fi drama; scientific jargon is deployed in a way that, from what I could gather, made a lot of sense. The idea that they are playing God already is toyed with, and ethical issues are brought up and discussed. It starts quite strongly, truth be told, and the first half hour is very interesting. Unfortunately, as soon as the main plot angle unfolds (Zoe’s resurrection) things go south very quickly. Not just in terms of the fate of the characters, but also the quality of the film on show.

What could have been a great Lovecraft throwback, in the lines of Re-Animator, or perhaps an interesting psychological drama about the nature of death and what happens next, turns into a slasher version of Lucy, with the rampaging Zoe turning into a demonic force of nature. The film also cannot make it’s mind up whether or not it wants us to feel sympathy towards Zoe. One minute it’s discussing the idea of hell as the repetition of your worst nightmare, which is actually a fantastic touch, and that Zoe is unhinged because of a childhood traumatic event that has haunted her entire adult life. The next minute she’s brutally murdering the innocent people who cared about her, seemingly for no reason.

Also, why does unlocking more intelligence turn her into a rampaging psychopath anyway? She becomes paranoid, irrational and aggressive; surely these are all traits we typically associate with those with less cognitive functions. If anything she should have transcended to some higher level of understanding and maybe left these human flaws behind her. Not that I’m saying that is what would happen, just that it would surely make more sense than the direction the writers headed in.

I don’t know where this Hollywood fascination with the idea that unlocking more than the ten percent of our brains we use at any one time, according to myth, would cause telekinetic powers akin to Carrie is beyond me, but

it’s probably time it stopped. Not only is it, frankly, ridiculous, but it can cause decent films like this to head down some ridiculous alley, and that’s my problem. This film can’t make it’s mind up on what it is, what it is trying to say, or what it is trying to do. It is as confused as the protagonist/antagonist of the film.

Which leads to yet another plot issue. Are we supposed to be rooting for Zoe, or against her? On one hand she is brought back from the dead against her will, which it is implied is unethical, so perhaps we should root for her on that basis. On the other hand, her husband did so not out of selfishness or in order to enhance his own career, he did it out of desperation and love, which in turn suggests we should feel sorry for him, and thus root against Zoe when she comes for him. There is a striking difference between ambiguous writing and confused writing, and this falls into the latter camp.

This confusion leads to no tension, a lot of ‘Oh really? Great?’ kind of groans’, and a pretty boring and predictable ending. Nothing here sparkles, it just sort of happens. The final ‘slasher sequence’, which is effectively Carrie meets Jack Torrance, is boring, plodding and devoid of any ambience. A vacuum of mood that simply exists without eliciting much reaction.

This is a damn shame, because the performances are actually all pretty good. Duplass’ holds an intensity beneath the waters of his character that means his sudden descent into mad scientist territory is believable. Wilde is great in the post-resurrection scenes, if she becomes unfortunately quite cartoony towards the end, and everybody else holds their own, more or less.

If I have one piece of major praise, however, it is towards the cinematography, which is brilliant. Fantastic composition and wonderful camera work creates a classy look which elevates it above the cheaper values of most horror flicks. It’s almost enough to make the film worth a viewing for alone,  unfortunately, it’s not enough to save it.

This is, unfortunately, a hugely missed opportunity. Beginning with genuine interest and tension, it sadly loses its way somewhere around the middle, and becomes a confused and, frankly, laughable endeavour. The horror doesn’t work, and what could have been a Lovecraftian masterpiece sadly becomes the horror equivalent of Lucy. Hardly terrible, primarily thanks to wonderful visual directing, it never elevates to particularly great, and will remain a sadly missed opportunity

Final Rating – 3.4

 

Joshua Moulinie

The Lazarus Effect (2015), Abridged Review

Lazarus Effect.jpg

Director – David Gelb

Writer(s) – Luke Dawson, Jeremy Slater

Starring – Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger

In the past this beautiful merger, the combination of Sci-Fi and Horror, has brought us such classics as Alien, The Thing and The Fly.  So I had high hopes for Gelb’s effort The Lazarus Effect; hoping that we could get something along the lines of the brilliant Primer, with a Lovecraftian/Frankenstein twist. Unfortunately, I was left severely disappointed.

A group of researchers led by Frank (Duplass) and his fiancé Zoe (Wilde) who’ve achieved the unimaginable – bringing the dead back to life. When the dean of their university learns of their underground experiments, their project is unexpectedly shut down and their materials confiscated. Frank, Zoe and their team take matters into their own hands, launching a rogue attempt to recreate their experiment, during which things go terribly wrong and one of their own, Zoe, is horrifically killed. Fueled by terror and grief, Frank pushes them to do the unthinkable: attempt to resurrect their first human test subject. Quickly, things go horrifically wrong.

The writing of this film is  extremely inconsistent. It begins as a slow crawling Sci-Fi drama before eventually ending us as a strange hybrid of Carrie and Lucy. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as Lucy, but it’s certainly no Carrie. It starts quite strongly, truth be told, and the first half hour is very interesting. Unfortunately, as soon as the main plot angle unfolds (Zoe’s resurrection) things go south very quickly. Not just in terms of the fate of the characters, but also the quality of the film on show.

The film also cannot make it’s mind up whether or not it wants us to feel sympathy towards Zoe. One minute it’s discussing the idea of hell as the repetition of your worst nightmare, which is actually a fantastic touch, and that Zoe is unhinged because of a childhood traumatic event that has haunted her entire adult life. The next minute she’s brutally murdering the innocent people who cared about her, seemingly for no reason.

I don’t know where this Hollywood fascination with the idea that unlocking more than the ten percent of our brains we use at any one time, according to myth, would cause telekinetic powers akin to Carrie is beyond me, but  it’s probably time it stopped. Not only is it, frankly, ridiculous, but it can cause decent films like this to head down some ridiculous alley, and that’s a major narrative problem.

Which leads to yet another plot issue. Are we supposed to be rooting for Zoe, or against her? On one hand she’s ripped back to life against her will, so we should feel sorry for that. On the other hand, she brutally murders a whole group of people. There is a striking difference between ambiguous writing and confused writing, and this falls into the latter camp.

Nothing here sparkles, it just sort of happens. The final ‘slasher sequence’, which is effectively Carrie meets Jack Torrance, is boring, plodding and devoid of any ambience. A vacuum of mood that simply exists without eliciting much reaction.

If I have one piece of major praise, however, it is towards the cinematography, which is brilliant. Fantastic composition and wonderful camera work creates a classy look which elevates it above the cheaper values of most horror flicks.

This is, unfortunately, a hugely missed opportunity.  The horror doesn’t work, and what could have been a Lovecraftian masterpiece sadly becomes the horror equivalent of Lucy. Hardly terrible, primarily thanks to wonderful visual directing, it never elevates to particularly great, and will remain a failed experiment.
Final Rating – 3.4

 

Joshua Moulinie

Sunset Boulevard (1950), a Retrospective Review

Sunsent Boulevard

Director – Billy Wilder

Writer(s) – Bill Wilder, Charles Brackett, D.M Marshall JR.

Starring – William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich Von Stroheim, Nancy Olson

Next stage of my cinematic odyssey that is IMDB’s top 250 takes me back to the fifties and on to what is considered among the greatest films ever made, and the greatest work of the legendary Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard. Restored to beautiful digital form in the early 2000’s, Sunset Boulevard has left quite the lasting impression on many great directors, including the iconic David Lynch, and his masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Winning academy awards for writing, and being preserved in the archives of ‘historically or culturally important films’, it has quite the legacy. Is it worthy of it? The answer, in short, is a resounding yes.

The story, set in ’50s Hollywood, focuses on Norma Desmond (Swanson), a silent-screen goddess whose pathetic belief in her own indestructibility has turned her into a demented recluse. The crumbling Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives with only her butler, Max (Von Stroheim) – who was once her director and husband  – has become her self-contained world. Norma dreams of a comeback to pictures and she begins a relationship with Joe Gillis (Holden), a small-time writer with whom she begins a romance that will soon end with murder and total madness.

It would be a cruel irony if, in a film that centres so heavily around writers and the writing side of Hollywood, the writing was poor. Fortunately, this is anything but. The dialogue is very stylised and not particularly naturalistic, but, considering the characters involved, this makes perfect sense. Swanson’s eccentric and dramatic actress Desmond would likely spout  such cinematic dialogue. It’s not a great stretch of the imagination either to suggest that a writer is likely to talk sometimes in what would be considered ‘cinematic dialect’. I know I myself have a bad habit of doing so sometimes. In that sense the writers were allowed to run wild here, and as such we get some of cinema’s all time greatest quotes.

I particularly love one exchange between Joe and Norma. He suggests she ‘was real big once’ to which she retorts ‘I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got smaller!’. It’s an immortal line that perfectly encapsulates her character. And who could ever forget the equally iconic ending of ‘I’m ready for my close up’? It’s more than slightly reminiscent of Norman Bate’s ‘I wouldn’t hurt a fly’ line from the end of Psycho; In terms of menace and delivery at least, not the mention the ever zooming close up.

It’s not just the dialogue that is magic and works wholeheartedly, the themes covered themselves are interesting and very meta, as a lot of the story deals with ideas that were revolutionary then, yet are still relevant today. The idea of a star from a former era clinging desperately to the fame she once had is all too real today, just ask Bono and U2. The depiction of somebody so used to the fame and the spotlight that their shallow ego will simply not allow them to believe the reality: that they are not what they once were is all too believable.

The story also covers the idea of the lost star who failed to make the transition from silent era to the talkies. This was an all too real career catastrophe that befell many poor forgotten stars of that era, and as such, it adds a sense of realism and emotional depth to the script, as Norma is, in all honesty, an arrogant and horrible character, but we can at least understand why she may have turned out the way she did. She manages to both be a nuisance and sympathetic simultaneously, which is an extremely difficult balancing act for a writer to get correct.

The film also has a lot of things to say about the Hollywood system itself; the struggling life of a writer who is often forgotten when people remember the movie, the producer as a God with the ability to control people’s lives. It’s a very meta film, very self-aware, particularly for the era, and is an interesting look into the murky world of Hollywood.

The characterisations are all rich and dynamic, with everybody fleshed out and unique. Joe is the struggling writer, down on his luck and looking for his break. Full of charm, with a slight aggression and menace to him, he is a complex character just trying to survive in a murky world. He is wonderfully played with a cold performance by Holden. Max’s faithful devotion to his ex-wife and now boss is beautifully touching, as he devotes his life to the show that is Nora’s life, this is brought to life with ease by the layered performance of Von Stroheim.

Even Joe’s alternate love interest and eventual writing partner Betty Schaefer is a solid character in her own right. Beautiful, charming, stubborn and determined, she is again portrayed very well by Olson.

Undoubtedly though, the true star of this show is Swanson who is simply magical as the eccentric Norma Desmond. At first seemingly quirky with a sense of arrogance, as we delve deeper into her life, and are shown a darker insight into her fragile mental health, she descends deeper into both delusions of grandeur and almost terrifying insanity. What begins humorous quickly becomes dark, and Swanson puts in the complex performance necessary to make this entirely believable. The late, great Roger Ebert once called it one of cinema’s greatest ever performances, and I’m inclined to agree with him. It demands a seeing, and is just the right balance between melodrama and despair that the character demands.

Of course, this will all have been impossible without Wilder’s direction, which is great. He clearly brings the best out of whoever he works with, and only dealt with truly sparkling screenplays. Whilst this film is never visually spectacular, it does exactly what it needs to, and the cinematography is solid if never fantastic.

This is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest films to come out of the 50’s, which was a fantastic decade in general for cinema, and the height of the Golden Age. Wilder brings together a fantastic screenplay with wonderful skill, and Swanson puts in a performance that will stand for eternity. A dark look into the darker side of Hollywood, this could be released now and still be relevant. That is the true definition of a timeless classic.

Final Rating – 4.8

 

Joshua Moulinie

Green Inferno (2013, U.K release 2016), A Review

Green Inferno

Director – Eli Roth

Writer(s) – Eli Roth, Guilermo Amoedo

Starring – Lorenzo Izzo,  Ariel Levy

From the man who brought us Hostel, who together with the Saw franchise gave birth to the torture porn genre, comes a visceral, raw and brutal nod to the infamous Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. The Green Inferno, despite being made way back in 2013 is only now being granted a nationwide UK release. So, is it worth a view?

Justine (Izzo), a college freshman at New York University, becomes interested in a social activism group on her campus, led by Alejandro (Levy) and his girlfriend, Kara (Ignacio Allamand). The group plans a trip to the Amazon rainforest to stop a company from logging and obliterating ancient native tribes there; the goal is to film the logging crews with cell phones and stream footage to raise awareness. After initial success, disaster strikes as the plane crashes, leaving the activists stranded in the rainforest. It quickly becomes apparent that the indigenous tribe are cannibals, and the activists are next on the menu.

To start proceedings, a disclaimer. This film will be inevitably polarising, for two major reasons; firstly, the fact that it’s central message appears to be one criticising activists for interfering with matters that do not necessarily concern them, and the irony of the very tribe they wished to preserve attacking them, which also suggests you should make sure you fully understand the dangers before putting yourself in any situation. Now, I personally agree with this message somewhat, and don’t find it offensive at all. However, if you are an activist, this will almost certainly bother you, so I advise you now to simply not watch this movie, because you won’t enjoy it. That’s not a generalisation either. Most activists tend to be very serious about their causes, and I can’t imagine this not offending them somehow.

Reason two is the depiction of an indigenous tribe as cannibalistic savages. Now, is this necessarily ignorance and racism? I’d say not, as it is clearly stated by Roth in press around the film to be an entirely fictional tribe. Perhaps you could argue it depicts the indigenous in a negative light, but I’d argue that’s not Roth’s intention. I’d lean more towards him deploying them for two reasons. One, because he liked the irony of the story. Two, because he wanted to make a throwback to those famous Italian films that caused a media frenzy. It’s never once implied or stated that all tribes are cannibalistic – merely this one. Does it perpetuate an existing stereotype? Potentially, but we do know that cannibalistic tribes do exist in the world. So should we never deploy them out of fear of offense and allow an entire film genre to fall into obscurity?  I’d say no, just be sure to make it clear that you are not tarring all tribes with one brush, and make damn sure the tribe depicted is fictional.

The writing is average at best, and the story is basic and raw, but it does at least make an effort to make an attempt at political commentary. In fact, it’s just given me two paragraphs to sink my teeth into before even getting into the technicalities of the film. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but I think it deserves some iota of credit for attempting the shot.

Izzo begins ropey with her dialogue delivery, and some early exchanges are cringeworthy, but she grows into the role and in the end gives a surprisingly strong performance. It’s no more than your traditional horror scream queen role, but she plays the part more convincingly than most. She also has some of the most attractive eyes I’ve ever seen on a person. I know that’s necessarily criticism, but it demanded a mention. Levy is ropey throughout, and the rest of the cast are solid but never dazzle.

Now, for the stuff you actually care about in a gore fest horror film. Visually, it’s surprisingly very classy, based more of an arthouse film than a cheap exploitation flick. The muted colour palette adds a sense of gritty realism, whilst still retaining the beauty of the surroundings. A wonderful juxtaposition to the horrors that proceed therefrom.

The violence is constant from around the half hour mark and I’m delighted to announce it’s all prosthetic work! As a throwback to those infamous Italian gore fiestas, I’d expect no less, and it is enough to delight even the most seasoned horror fan, whilst never being too much. The film toys with the idea of going beyond the limits of taste but never quite pulls the trigger, refusing to even try and match its spiritual predecessors for shock value. Whilst a fun tribute to those Italians efforts, it never comes close to the pure brutality and surprise they unleashed upon the world at release.Still, the level of brutality and the score keeps things nice and tense, with a certain dreamlike ambience perpetuating the picture.

This is a considerable increase in quality from Roth’s previous efforts, whilst never necessarily straying into great territory. Polarising and potentially controversial, whilst delightfully violent and tense, it ticks the box of emulating those Italian ‘classics’ it pays homage to. If you want a brutal and visually pleasing experience, this is worth a watch.

Final Rating – 3.8

The Pianist (2002), a Retrospective Review

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Director – Roman Polanski

Writer – Ronald Hardwood

Starring – Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann

The next stop on the Moulinie tour of IMDB’s top 250 takes me to the work of one of cinema’s greats, Roman Polanski. Though his legacy as a person may have been tarnished somewhat by legal troubles, his talent as a director cannot be questioned. The Pianist, based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman himself, is considered by many to be the last great movie Polanski ever made.

The film follows Szpilman’s (Brody) story, as he survives his way through war-torn Warsaw during the Nazi’s occupation through World War 2. Following five years of his life, we see Szpilman’s family torn apart, his comfortable days as a piano player for Jewish radio taken from him, and he falls deeper into a state of degradation as he tries desperately to survive the cruel conditions.

Hardwood’s screenplay is simply brilliant. Cold, harsh and realistic, it pulls no punches in its depiction of a war ravaged Warsaw, and the brutal story of Spzilman as things go from bad, to worse, to absolute deprivation. The story remains interesting enough to justify its two and a half hour run-time. Though it feels like a long haul, in many ways that could be the point. The war itself stretched on for longer than it needed to, after all. Perhaps Polanski himself wanted us to feel  this feeling of seemingly never ending dread. I couldn’t say, personally, but this is a long and harrowing journey.

The dialogue is crisp and naturalistic, and everybody talks like a human being as opposed to a film caricature. The best story-telling, though, comes later on in the feature, when there is a lengthy period without any dialogue. It’s tense and heartbreaking and resonates powerfully. I almost admired the complexity of the script. The Nazis are, for most part, the brutal killers we traditionally assume them to be, but towards the end we are shown a different and more human side. It reminds us that these were people too, and not all were sadistic maniacs. We see the Jews fighting among themselves, driven to a civil war of ideals by their oppression. It’s interesting stuff that covers new ground not often seen in mainstream cinema.

 A great screenplay though is nothing without great direction to match it, and Polanski absolutely nails this. The film is visually perfect; the cinematography beautiful without feeling overly stylised, which would in turn detract from the gritty realism on show. The colour palette is muted and washed out; a perfect aesthetic to match the mood and tone of the times. I don’t think I’ve used the word ‘perfect’ in terms of visual directing since I reviewed The Revenant, but I can honestly say that there is not a single shot in this film I’d have deployed any differently. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as close to perfection as you’ll ever get.

The amount of extras on show is also incredible for a relatively contemporary film, and harkens back to the golden age of cinema. Directing that many people can never be an easy task, and Polanski deserve his plaudits for that.

 What really works are the small moments among a sea of chaos. Polanski pulls no punches with the brutality on show, and as horrible as it is to see people shot like injured horses in the street, and a man in a wheelchair thrown over a balcony, it’s the smaller moments that really resonate for me. Like the dead bodies strewn over the ghetto that characters get so used to they simply walk over them, nonchalant. When society reaches a point where a dead body is an everyday occurrence, that is true horror.

Brody is the star of the show and effectively carries the film on his shoulders, and is tremendously impressive in doing so. Nuanced, subtle, performing the role absolutely perfectly, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. His physical transformation toward the end is astounding; eventually left as nothing but a cruel parody of a human being; dishevelled, desolate and broken down, barely clinging onto life. Brody must have seriously put himself at risk of harm to achieve this, and that willingness to go the extra mile deserves serious acclaim. He is well worthy of his Oscar.

The Pianist is a truly epic depiction of one man’s desperate struggle for survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It is dark, gritty and desperate, and resonates with you long after the final reel, showing us the darker side of human nature and a moment in history that we can never forget, and never repeat, whilst being visually gorgeous throughout.

Final Rating – 5/5

Joshua Moulinie

 

Crimson Peak (2015), a Review.

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Director – Guilermo Del Toro

Writers – Guilermo Del Toro, Matthew Robins

Starring – Mia Wasikowa, Tom Hiddlestone,  Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunman

In my desire to composite a list of ten films all horror fans must see from 2015, I’ve decided to watch as many as humanly possible. Next on the list comes Del Toro’s return to the genre, Crimson Peaks, which alongside It Follows, and the as-of-yet unreleased The Witch, has been considered a part of horror’s recent revival in quality, and was genuinely considered bloody scary. Featuring a stellar cast, and the visionary who brought us the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, what could possibly go wrong? The answer is a lot.

In 1887, young Edith Cushing (Wasikowa), daughter of wealthy businessman Carter Crushing (Jim Beaver), is visited by the ghost of her dead mother, who warns her to stay away from Crimson Peaks. Fourteen years later, supposedly wealthy Baron, Thomas Sharpe (Hiddlestone), arrives in America to ask for Cushing’s support in a clay mining endeavour, meanwhile winning the favour of young Edith. After turning him down initially, and then discovering a dark secret about Sharpe, Cushing agrees to finance his project on the condition he breaks his daughter’s heart, and promises to leave America. He does so, but in a twist of fate, Cushing is murdered later that night by an unknown assailant. With her father gone, Edith falls for Sharpe’s charms and moves to their run-down mansion atop a clay mine, and lives with his frosty and un-endearing sister Lucille (Chastain). Pretty soon bad happenings begin, and a mystery begins to unfold, as Cushing’s physician Dr.McMichael attempts to discover the truth back home.

Firstly, let’s talk about colour. The use of filters and editing throughout this film is erratic to say the least. Sometimes it’s a striking green (like The Matrix sequels), more towards the beginning, and it takes you right out of the story as it just feels overly stylised. Then, towards the end, the colour scheme takes a dramatic shift and puts a grey tint on things, which is actually really good, mostly when done outside. It’s erratic and inconsistent, and ruins the cinematography which is mostly good, and occasionally excellent.

The ghosts, which were the film’s major marketing point, are CGI monstrosities, in all the bad ways. They look more odd than terrifying, and the fact that they are pretty poorly rendered makes them almost laughable. If one compares it to Del Toro’s prosthetic work on Pan’s Labyrinth, the difference is remarkable. They simply don’t work at all, and for me dragged the whole thing down.

The story is sadly predictable; I had it pretty much entirely pegged half way through, including every single twist, which is worrying. Great cinema leaves you guessing and wondering, and this all very ‘well, I saw that coming.’ The screenplay is almost sadly predictable.

The characterisation is also really poor, and extremely disappointing. Edith is a writer; this means she should be intelligent and full of intuition, at least one would assume. Instead, she has the intuition of a loaf of bread. Lord Sharpe is simply broody, and a charisma and charm vacuum. Strange, because Hiddlestone is a pretty charismatic fella.  Arguably, the most interesting character is Lucille, Sharpe’s sister; she genuinely has an underlying sense of mystique and wonder to her. Unfortunately, she’s frosty from the start, so any ambiguity is out the window.

The tension is non-existent, I’m not even sure if I’d call this a horror film. If it was meant to be one, it completely missed the mark. It comes off more as a mystery film with ghosts in it…for some reason. Like an odd Hardy Boys spin off featuring the ghosts from The Pirates Of The Carribbean franchise, culminating in incest.

Oddly the film morphs into a slasher movie for the last third, that part is actually pretty bloody great. It’s quite tense, well shot, well executed, violent without being overkill…it works. Just a shame it comes right at the end, when it feels a little too late. It also hints at a much more interesting movie that could have possibly happened.

All said and done, in a year in which horror was reborn from the ashes like a great bloody phoenix, Crimson Peak has to be considered potentially the weakest of them all. Devoid of any mystery or suspense, as everything is sadly predictable, the film is left as absolutely nothing. A pointless exercise for all involved.

Final Rating – 3.3

 

Joshua Moulinie