Monday, 26 September 2011

The Woman Theatrical Release

The time is upon us. Finally The Woman sees it's theatrical release, a huge hit at Frightfest, and pretty much every festival it's screened out since it's premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
Having seen this twice and looking forward to seeing it again at the Prince Charles this weekend, I can promise you that it genuinely gets better each time.
Passed fully uncut with a strong 18 certificate, make no mistake, though it's paced and thoughtful, it's a harsh and shocking journey.
I nipped into the screening at Frightfest, catching the build up to the climax only to find a Frightfest volunteer head in hands and back to the screen mumbling something about "How can you like this? This is terrifying..." - I shit you not.
Rough Trade East's own Spencer Hickman reviewed it for us in July - Here
I covered it for The Quietus - Here 
Tickets and screen times for this weekend's Prince Charles screenings - Here 

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Blood Runs Cold

We find ourselves in snowy Sweden for low budget slasher Blood Runs Cold. When singer Winona seeks a bit of quiet time she heads off to her manager's secluded cottage. Creeped out thanks to the lonely old abode's creaking she heads off to town for a pint of courage. Running into friends along the way leads to drinks deep into the night, retiring to the cottage to carry on they find that something which was best left alone has dusted itself off and isn't very happy to have company.

Chelsea Films release this splatter fest  in early October.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Cigarette Burns goes to Frightfest - Part 1

Every year Film4 Frightfest takes over the Leicester Square Empire, straddling the August Bank Holiday, rain or shine, it charges forward, the mass of fans eagerly await that film that will blow them away, force their jaws to the floor and make them cheer. They await great kills, epic revenge, finger clenching suspense, toe curling gore and fantastic creatures brought to life from the pages of Lovecraft.  But Frightfest is as much about the films as it is the beers, as evidenced by the presumably gargantuan taking of the Imperial pub around the corner.
At the tables inside sit actors, directors, producers, organisers, bloggers, journos, fans and the confused tourist, all sharing pints. Frightfest is the great leveller.
Time and time again, industry folk will repeat “This is the best festival I’ve ever been to.” There’s a lack of pretence, egos are left at the door. Between, during and after films, people decamp to the pub en-mass to analyse, debate, deconstruct. For many, it’s the mere fact that here they are surrounded by genre fans, but not just fans, nearly everyone here is an expect. The chance to discuss in depth the films they are knowledgeable and passionate about, doesn’t come often. Watching these films on their own, or with a few mates is the best they can get. Spending five days deep in conversation with creators and supporters keeps the flames alive for many people. and is as much the reason they come as to watch the films. More than a few people buy full weekend passes only to spend the majority of their time, not in L18, but rather supping pints, safe in the knowledge that they can go see any film at any time.

Film4 Frightfest has continued to expand, now in it’s 11th year, it’s a massive beast of a festival, with no sign of letting up. Over a year in the making, sifting through nearly 400 feature length submissions and innumerable short films for a coveted slot in one of the most respected genre festivals in the world. Packed with premières, previews, sneak peaks and talent from around the globe, it’s astonishing that a mere four men and a small team of volunteers hold it all together, driven by passion and love. Nearly 40 feature films make the final cut, ranging from comedy horror to pure thrillers and everything in between. It’s not a bloodbath sprayed across the screen, but rather an examination of the full that extreme cinema has to offer.

Opening with the UK première of Guillermo Del Toro production, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark complete with a video introduction from Del Toro himself, apologising for his absence, gives you a sense of the weight Frightfest has. While this remake of a little known 70s TV movie has been liberally sprinkled with Del Toro’s pixie dust, it contains nearly none of the magic of his own features. One cannot be sure how much control first time director Troy Nixey had over this dark fairytale but ultimately with a weak script, he was never going to pull anything to grand out of the hat. Guy Pierce plays career driven Alex, who along with his girlfriend, Katie Holmes, are refurbished an impressive stately home when Alex’s daughter, Sally enters the frame. Ignored and unhappy, she proceeds to dig around said stately old home, unearthing things best left buried. While the original is a tight little 70 minute television play about a couple, Del Toro did a Del Toro-ism and added the child, for without a child, there can be no fairytale. But then again, without characters who behave in rational ways or swarming hordes of little monsters who choose the worst possible times to forget how to swarm, you end up with a fairly flat, forgettable film.  Ultimately a golden opportunity frivolously wasted.

Well respected distribution company Severin Films deliver their first theatrical production. Inspired by the Grand Guignol theatre of old, The Theatre Bizarre, is an anthology, six directors, six chapters and a wrap around. Inherently full of false endings, Theatre Bizarre suffered from a late night slot clocking in at almost two hours, it may have played better when people were more awake. A sprawling list of directors with industry heavy weights such as Tom Savini, the return of Richard Stanley, Douglas Buck, Karim Hussain, and others, this dark dream of a film was filled with pretence and self indulgence. All the directors were given the same budget, 10-20 minutes of running time and a general sense of where to go, and each delivered vastly different product. From cheating husbands and vengeful wives to 4 tittied frog queens, feeders and eye hunting memory thieves there is a lot to behold. Pretension and self indulgence isn’t always a bad thing and The Theatre Bizarre is a great example of art house horror, a fantastic collection of short films possibly not to everyone’s taste, but solid none the less and Douglas Buck’s The Accident may well be one of the most beautiful films to grace the Empire’s screen in a very long time.

Actor Cristian Solimeno settles into the directors chair for his first feature length endeavour with The Glass Man. Starring favourite Andy Nyman as a man banging on the door of a mental breakdown and featuring Neve Campbell as his wife. The Ghost Stories star and creator inhabits the sad and pathetic Martin Pyrite, a man who will do anything and everything to keep his picture perfect like look golden for his lovely wife. Entering the frame as a dreaming baby in bed, we follow him through his nightmare existence, fighting an uphill battle to keep his recent sacking and impending financial disaster hidden, we bear witness to his spineless struggles, from office mockery to street side muggings. Pecco played to perfection by James Cosmo, a man of mystery arrives at the door on the eve of a massive blow out with Martin’s beloved, informing Martin that he has bought one of Martin’s debt’s and threatening to take what little the baby has left, Pecco offers him an out “Help me tonight, with this one job, and I’ll wipe the slate clean.” What’s a man to do?
Engaging and beautifully shot, The Glass Man suffers from sloppy editing, a man of vision and framing, with the ability to capture great performances and weave a wonderful tale, Solimeno is in desperate need of an editor. Even after a reported 17 minutes had been chopped out, The Glass Man could lose another 15 easily, and be all the better for it.

It seems every year, there’s a film that graces the Frightfest screen that has been languishing in some studio’s back shed because they are not quite sure where it fits in with everything else. This year it was Tucker and Dale versus Evil, premièring at Sundance in January 2010, Tucker and Dale have been travelling from festival to festival in their broken down pick up truck hoping someone would give them the jump start they need. Finally cracking VOD in the US and seeing a DVD/BD release here in the UK at the end of the month. Tucker and Dale v Evil is a masterful send up of the classic hicksploitation genre. Poor, well meaning Tucker and Dale are just after a quiet weekend, fixing up Tucker’s newly acquired cabin when a bunch of obnoxious teens mistake them as maniacal backwoods murderers.While our heroes are out fishing, one of the girls falls in the lake, nearly drowning, Dale saves her and they return her to the cabin to recuperate. The teens mistake this as a kidnapping, in an effort to save pretty Allison, they proceed to accidentally impale themselves on just about everything they can run into, conveniently making it appear as though Tucker and Dale are responsible. Definitely one of the best horror comedies in years, Tucker and Dale v Evil produces constant laugh out loud moments, in spite of how much one might dislike horror comedy.

The Scandinavians seem to be on a roll, producing a steady stream of mind blowing releases, Sweden’s game changing vampire film, Let the Right One In, Finland’s twisted take on the Santa Claus tale in Rare Exports and now Norway corrects it’s minor Dead Sno misstep with Trollhunter. Found footage films seem to be the sub-genre we all love to hate, angry when they are solid and effective, perhaps begrudgingly allowing them a “eh, it’s good.. for what it is.” Digging into Norway’s own folklore director André Øvredal weaves a convincing tale of a trio of noisy student reporters who head out to get to the bottom of a recent spate of mysterious bear attacks and the even more mysterious bear hunter. It doesn’t take long before they find out that the silly stories their grandparents told them were more than just mountain tales.
Øvredal manages to avoid the pitfalls of sniveling, terrified, snot nosed actors, instead we have characters we can engage with, and believe in. Not to mention trolls. Trolls of all shapes, sizes and description. Trolls that looks and act every bit the troll of those books you used to read. This is the sort of film the Norwegian tourist board should give out to children, the kids will go mental and desperately beg their parents into taking them to Norway to go troll hunting.

Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree, sequel to Brit Folk Horror classic, The Wicker Man
sees it’s long dreaded European première. Let’s be honest, this was never going to be good. A story of two evangelical Christians, journeying forth like crusaders to a small Scottish village, just as they are getting ready for their May Day festivals. We knew where this was going before we even sat in our seats. Clumsy, quirky and nearly charming, containing moments of genuine head scratching, sadly, this novel adaptation never manages to pull it’s self up to the level of a Good Bad Movie. Even the inclusion of a Christopher Lee cameo, only succeeds in placing your face in your hands as you ask why.

Creating a massive stir upon it’s initial screenings at this year’s Sundance Festival, causing one woman to faint, followed by an outburst of disgust, caught on camera and eventually going viral on Youtube, director Lucky McKee’s The Woman was one of the most hotly anticipated films of Frightfest. Though not explicitly stated, certainly a spiritual sequel to Andrew van den Houten’s The Offspring, however the connections are more than just tenuous, as both are penned by Jack Ketchum, van den Houten produced The Woman, and Pollyanna McIntosh, the titular Woman, plays the same character in both. McKee, no stranger to acclaim with his first feature May, being one of the secret hits of the past decade, has proved once again, that he’s a force to be reckoned with. The Woman is an entrancing film, sucking you in from the off as we are first introduced to the Woman, a feral beast, living in and off the woods. Upstanding citizen and family man Chris stumbles upon her one day and takes her captive. When he requests that his family clear the cellar up, we already know that he is, without a doubt the Man in the house. Civilising and taming the Woman is Chris’ main priority, he’s done it before and the few times his wife steps out of line, we are swiftly and stunningly reminded that this is not her role.
McKee’s examination of domestic abuse is shocking and harsh. McIntosh’s portrayal of the Woman is defiant, proud and reserved as much as Sean Bridgers’ portrayal of Chris is calculated, evil and unhinged. The grooming of his son to his control over his wife and daughters, he never slips up. Convincing us that he is as evil as a man can be. After all, he’s been doing it for a while, so it’s not new to him...
Frightfest does not fail in it’s promise of delivering the cream of the crop with The Woman.

More to come...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Project Arrow: Phenomena

 Once again we find ourselves back in Vince's BD treasure trove as he picks through the mess for the finest offerings Arrow might have. Yes, it's another instalment of the Arrow Project!
Let's roll!

Project Arrow

Phenomena (Arrow Video Blu-ray release)

Ah, my second favourite Dario Argento film. Really. I know most fans would peg the renowned classics Suspiria or Deep Red, but for my money the top two personal favourites have always been Tenebrae and Phenomena. Like many people of my generation the first time I saw this flick it was forty minutes shorter and titled Creepers. Forty minutes – that's nearly unfathomable. But in that extremely truncated version, I still loved this film.

Phenomena features Jennifer Connelly as boarding school student Jennifer Corvino who is transferred to a European school, and who possesses a supernatural intimacy with all species of insects. Thus we begin an Argento film that really has more in common with Suspiria than either of Suspria’s own sequels.

The catalyst for Phenomena came from Argento's fascination with forensics. Specifically, the idea that there was a particular species of butterfly whose wing membranes would shatter if in the same room when a gun was fired. In Phenomena, he further explored the world of forensic entomology through a wheelchair-bound character played by Donald Pleasence, who due to his condition also owns a trained chimpanzee, an animal that becomes an integral part of the plot. This is not the first time Argento has played in the field of criminal forensics, but at least this time the key elements appear more scientifically sound than those used in Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Phenomena is truly Argento's crowning achievement in style over logic, something that has been notable in nearly all of his films but which has not been pulled off in a more gracefully cocksure way than here. Take for instance the opening scene of the film, when a schoolgirl is chased by an unseen stalker through canyon wall overlooking a waterfall, until she gets her head smashed through a plate-glass window, a window that really, has no business being in the rock-side of a canyon cliff. But the imagery is so rhythmic and exciting that we are easily lulled into this style-over-logic. Another memorable moment is the intercutting between Jennifer's first sleepwalking experience and the second murder of the film, which creates a world-within-a-world where Jennifer actually winds up witnessing this murder take place, but because she's technically asleep, she doesn't even realize what she's seen. Along with the visual style of the film we also have one of my favourite soundtracks. Argento's films are commonly accompanied by a highly stylized soundscape, and here he's hired ex-Goblin Claudio Simonetti, along with Fabio Pignatelli, Bill Wyman, and Simon Boswell to create the sometimes pounding, and always energetic, soundtrack.

Sleepwalking, supernatural powers over insects, chimpanzees, a serial killer, and incredibly, that's not all... while we have seen the giallo mixed with the supernatural before, in previous films such as Deep Red or Suspiria, such a convoluted plot in a horror/giallo is highly atypical. But it does make for a show-stopping finale.

Like the Tenebrae blu-ray from Arrow Video, Phenomena includes several hi-def extra features, but the original Argento commentary from the Anchor Bay U.S. DVD release has not been licensed. Additionally, the English audio track that was used to transfer the film was missing sections of the audio, something I'm not entirely sure about, the back of the box indicates in small print that these elements “were either never recorded or have been lost”. Yet the English audio on the previous U.S. releases have been more intact than it is here. The film does look amazing on blu-ray, although Phenomena looks almost too clean for nearly a thirty-year-old film, and there is some visual residue/evidence of Digital Noise Reduction. Of course, that being said, the film has never looked so glorious either, so this is definitely a case of “take the slightly annoying with the rest of the awesomeness.” I should also mention, for any North American fans who might be looking to purchase this blu-ray, that this is the European “Integral” Cut, which runs six minutes longer than the official cut of 110 minutes. Yet this doesn't actually explain all the missing section of the English audio.
End of the day: Highly recommended.

 Amazon Link
Arrow Web Store Link

Project Arrow is a joint effort along side Videotape Swap Shop and you can follow Vince's continuing adventures here

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Yellow Sea - bringing a knife to a knife fight

October sees the much-awaited release of The Yellow Sea, highly rated director Na Hong-Jin's follow-up to his incredibly popular thirller The Chaser. Paul Martinovic caught a preview and provided us with this review...

You may have seen an article recently by professional Hollywood shit-stirrer Joe Queenan regarding the pernicious influence of technology on movie thrillers, with his theory being that the advent of mobile phones and email are denying us all sorts of good yarns, purely because they would have stopped the plots of some classic movies – Jaws, Psycho, I Spit on Your Grave – dead in their tracks.

It’s a bit of a specious argument to say the least, but it got me thinking about other technology that has influenced film narratives over the years, for better or worse, that we don’t even notice any more because we’ve become so accustomed to them. My conclusion was this: technology doesn’t ruin films. Guns ruin films.

Think about it. How many films introduce a gun or guns as a tried-and-trusted way of injecting a bit of drama into proceedings? This is particularly egregious in British gangster movies – in a country where gun laws are extremely strict and their availability is till highly regulated limited, as soon as any real shit goes down everyone still gets tooled up like they’re about to take down a helicopter in Grand Theft Auto. It’s kind of insulting.

And are guns really that exciting? Sure, if you’re Michael Mann, Sam Peckinpah or John Woo you can make gunplay brutal, beautiful and exciting, but the vast majority of gun action in films is closer in execution to the clutch-over-then-keel-over-bloodlessly style found in old westerns, i.e. not particularly enthralling. Didn’t Indiana Jones indirectly prove that when he wearily took out that swordsman all those years ago? Guns are more practical than they are visually interesting. Imagine how much more exciting modern films would be if the crutch of automatic weaponry was kicked out from under it.

Which is an extremely roundabout way of saying there are very few guns in Korean action thriller The Yellow Sea, and this slavish devotion to non-shooty action is exactly what elevates it from an average if well-executed thriller to something that’s thoroughly, shamefully enjoyable.

The Yellow Sea is the follow-up to the well-received serial killer flick The Chaser from prodigious South Korean talent Na Hong-Jin, and after watching both films I think it may be possible that, in homage to Park Chan-Wook’s vengeance trilogy, he may be subtly putting a loose trilogy centred around melee weapons. I suppose The Chaser would represent blunt instruments, with a hammer being put to wince-inducingly effective use on a number of occasions, while The Yellow Sea is all about knives. Lots of sharp, pointy knives. Put simply, you’d have to watch a month’s worth of 80s slasher movies before you approached the level of hatchet and kitchen knife based carnage found on display here.

In between the stabbings there’s a story that manages to play out, however: Gu-nam (Ha Jung-Woo, The Chaser) is a cab driver living in the largely Korean-populated Chinese city of Yanji. A gambling addict, he loses what little money he has away in mah-jong games, all the while tormented by images of his wife, who he suspects of having an affair - she left for Korea six months previously with promises of sending money back to him, and he has yet to hear from her.

Submerged by his underworld debt, he is approached by serpentine mobster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-Seok, also of The Chaser) with a job: cross the titular Yellow Sea to Seoul to murder a man. Seeing the opportunity to both pay off his debt and re-unite with his wife, he accepts. However, when the time of the hit arrives, there is an unexpected complication, which leads to Gu-nam becoming the most wanted man in Korea, with not only the cops to contend with, but also respective might of the Chinese and Korean mafias...

The Yellow Sea is paced almost glacially (the ‘hit’ that sparks the chaos doesn’t take place until nearly an hour until the film, and the shorter, international cut still runs a lumbar-threatening 140 minutes), but the film is rarely anything other than riveting. This is partly down to the performances – Jung-Woo and Yun-Seok reverse their good-guy/bad-guy roles from The Chaser, yet are both just as convincing as in their previous collaboration, giving a pair of strong, nuanced performances, with Yun-Seok in particular gleefully terrifying as the psychotic Myun-Ga.

Mainly though, it’s on a technical level that The Yellow Sea most impresses – Hong-Jin proves a fantastic director of both action and suspense, which seems to be a relatively rare combination in modern cinema. The aforementioned first third is relatively action-free, yet still manages to be compelling thanks to Hong-Jin’s strong sense of composition and timing, wringing the maximum amount of tension out of his premise before the shoe finally drops an hour in.

The Yellow Sea is also beautifully photographed, with a bleached out colour palette that’s an excellent accompaniment to the tough, neo-noir storyline and becomes increasingly scuzzy as they characters descend into hell. I think that one of the reasons that Korean film-making has become so popular with Western audiences is that it imbues its adult dramas/thrillers with the kind of high-end, meticulous production values that Hollywood only applies now to comic book and children’s movies. The Yellow Sea also features one of the best ever uses of a particular bugbear of mine, the ‘shaky –cam’, using it in an atypically coherent fashion to conjure some of the best action sequences since Paul Greengrass’s Bourne movies.

And that’s essentially what The Yellow Sea is – a Grand Guignol Bourne movie. Hong-Jin is magnificent at constructing chase sequences (cf. The Chaser, natch), and there are a few brilliant ones here, including one that culminates in the best piece of lorry-centred action since The Dark Knight.

But it’s the blood-spattered knife-fights that stay with you. Not to mention the hatchet fights. At one point someone is thrashed to death with an enormous thigh bone. Many times a scene ends with a room literally showered with gore, and there’s an exhilarating aspect to the kinetic hyper-realistic style utilised by Hong-Jin in these scenes that is undeniably, if not a little guiltily, enjoyable.

Where Hong-Jin has a failing however is in plotting – while his films are technically masterful he’s yet to make a film that is wholly satisfying on a purely narrative level. The second half is packed with way too many twists, and some of the more emotional beats involving Gu-nam’s wife seem a little forced and trite compared to the ones found in The Chaser, which was genuinely gut-wrenching in its climactic moments. The Yellow Sea clearly wants to be a great crime film, like the ones produced by Hollywood in the Seventies: The French Connection, The Driver, The Yakuza etc. In this sense it doesn’t quite work. There isn’t much that will resonate from The Yellow Sea –the characters are a shade too thin, and the storyline too convoluted to leave any lasting impression. The impact of the film is ultimately almost entirely visceral.

But what an impact! Despite (or more likely, due to) barely a gun being fired during its ample running time, The Yellow Sea is a superior action movie, and one of the best thrillers to come out of South Korea or anywhere this year. Fingers crossed for the third part of the trilogy, Mace Island*, to be released sometime in 2014.

*wishful thinking

The Yellow Sea is released on October 21st in the UK in selected cinemas.
Paul Martinovic is on Twitter at @paulmartinovic - he also occasionally maintains a blog here.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Zipangu Fest

Another exciting film festival is coming up, this time with Japan as the main focus of attention, now in it's second year, Zipangu Fest hits London in mid November. More details below -


This year’s celebration of cutting edge Japanese cinema will get under way from November 17th to 24th

Following the success of last year’s inaugural festival, the second Zipangu Fest – celebrating the best of cutting edge and avant garde Japanese cinema – will be held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts from November 17th to 24th, before moving to venues around the UK.

Showcasing a selection of Japan’s finest features, documentaries, shorts, animation and experimental films, this year’s Zipangu Fest will include a retrospective screening of two rarely seen gems that have never been shown in the UK. One of these a pre-war horror title – has been subtitled especially for the festival.

Festival director and head programmer, Jasper Sharp, comments: ‘After the runaway success of last year’s festival, we are very excited about Zipangu Fest 2011. Our aim is to showcase the wealth of talent in the independent and experimental filmmaking scene in Japan by showing the sort of films that other festivals barely seem to be aware of. The beauty of Japanese film is that you know you’re always going to see something different, and this year we’ve got another exciting and diverse range of titles to challenge, provoke and entertain. We’re particularly thrilled that the ICA is hosting this year’s event, as it is the perfect venue for us, and with last year’s programme touring to cities including Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle and Tallinn in Estonia, we hope to continue with our goal of bringing these films to as wide an audience as possible.