January 5th: Food For Thought

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

 

You’ll note, so far, that I’ve avoided any spoilers in my reviews – and long may that continue. But who is reading this and doesn’t know the twist at the end of Soylent Green? Surely, surely there can only be a handful of people reading a movie blog who don’t know what happens. I knew. I knew because the term ‘Soylent Green’ has itself passed into popular culture as a ‘meme’ of sorts. It’s a replicating piece of knowledge that allows people ‘in’ to a joke or a reference. Chances are you’ve seen a parody or reference to Soylent Green several times in your life and you’ve asked someone or looked it up and, without actually having to see the film, you know. You know what Soylent Green is. So what effect does this have for a viewer of the film for the first time, abundantly aware of the properties of the titular substance? Well, it makes the film a bit dull to be honest. There was no tension to be had. Soylent Green may have been a shocking look at a potential world we might one day inhabit when it was released in 1973. Now though, the cultural reference has completely surpassed the film itself in terms of impact and relevance. But that’s quite a harsh review, Soylent Green has plenty to interest aside from the plot itself – it’s a wonderful window on the early 70s ideas of the future, especially the newly looming ecological awareness of the time. Charlton Heston as Det. Thorn is watchably brusque and caddish as he traverses the crowded New York City in search of answers. And finally for all the video game players, a sexy woman (amusingly called ‘furniture’ in future parlance as women come with the rented accommodation) plays ‘Computer Space’ in one scene – the first ever arcade game. Unfortunately though Soylent Green is hamstrung by its own kind of success.

Note: Soylent Green is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Surprise Ending Movies.

January 4th: Mondo Horror and Medical Thriller


Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

 

Dario Argento is the master of Italian horror cinema and, as a horror fan it’s an absolute disgrace that I’ve never seen anything other than Jenifer (2005) and Pelts (2006), his entries in the Masters of Horror TV series. Suspiria is widely considered to be the archetypal Argento film, so where better to start.

 

Suspiria is different right from the start, as plucky ballet student Susan rushes through the airport Argento chooses to focus on the mechanics of the automatic doors as they unlock and then stab back together. This innocuous event is set to the crashing maniacal music that of Goblin. Powering over the film, this bizarrely arranged mixture of pulsing electronic sounds, chanting and cackling is a real assault on the senses. It gives the first five minutes of Suspiria an awkward, eerie feeling that the plot itself doesn’t dictate. Couple this with the gaudy reds, sickly greens and yellows that shade over the film and the relatively run of the mill story about a school which acts as a cover for a secret society takes on a deeply unsettling tone. Suspiria is a film which demands your attention, it isn’t subtle but it is extremely effective. Special mention goes to the scene involving coiled wire (pictures of which were used to promote the film), a scene that combines all of the elements mentioned above to sickening effect.

Note: Cheers to Conor, whose Mum’s DVD I’ve had for a good few months – I’ll return it now!

 


 

Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978)

 

More airport novel films? Aye, but from the master of the airport novel, Michael Crichton. Despite it being on the BBC every month throughout the 90s I’ve never seen Coma before and for the first 40 minutes I understood why. It has aged badly in terms of its pace. However, when Geneviéve Bujold’s increasingly fraught Doctor begins to plunge deeper into the conspiracy of this medical thriller events begin to snowball with pleasing rapidity. Coma isn’t spectacular but it entertains as long as you ignore the outdated ‘moral question’ speech from Richard Widmark.

 

What interests me more about this film is that the lead role is certainly Bujold’s. Michael Douglas is the sceptical second fiddle offering meaningless platitudes for most of the film. Comparisons are very interesting with yesterdays reviewed film Kiss the Girls. In both the lead female character is a Doctor. Both are strong willed and outspoken and throughout the course of the film unable to maintain into a stable romantic relationship. Hollywood tropes rejoice – your position is not imperiled. It’d seem that if you are to be an independently minded female in a Hollywood narrative then you cannot also be part of a happy couple. Bujold’s character can’t maintain her lead status in the film though – during the climactic scenes Douglas has to save the day and Bujold’s life and the suggestion is that they’ll end up a happy couple at last; all she had to do was lie down and let the man do his bit, so to speak. Still, Coma was released before Lt Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Marge Gunderson (of Fargo) burst onto the screen and out of that lot only Marge got to kill the bad guy and stay married!

Note: Coma is in the Neon 1000 Essential Videos to Watch listed under ‘Hospital Movies’

January 3rd: Kiss This


 

Kiss the Girls (Gary Fleder, 1997)

 

Kiss The Girls is a James Patterson adaptation in every sense. Not only is the Alex Cross detective story adapted in plot format but the sensibilities of the airport novel have permeated the film. It is formulaic to a fault, average even in its very averageness. Only the performance of Ashley Judd raises any eyebrows as she believably emboldens her character in a way many of the current young crop of female stars are rarely challenged to do.

January 2nd: Pick’n’Mix

Great response and encouragement from people, it’s much appreciated. I’m warning you though – you mightn’t be so happy with some of the reviews. Please make your feelings loudly known, I love a good debate.

 

 

 

Crash (2004, Paul Haggis) #197 in IMDB top 250

 

Best Picture winner of 2006 and the first review of a film in the IMDB top 250. Crash has a lot to recommend it; a great cast, most of whom on good form, an important subject and a massive stack of awards. Meandering storylines intersect across the course of two days in Los Angeles as the characters illustrate the many differing ways in which racism and racial stereotypes are reinforced, subverted and challenged. Crash is a success, it’s a successful film in what it achieves and almost successful in the way it goes about achieving that. Where the film stumbles is in its desire to move towards the conclusion, certain scenes begin to take a contrivance that this viewer struggled to reconcile with character motivations. Whilst I believed in Terence Howard’s performance, I did not believe in the emotional crack that causes him to confront the police. It’s been pointed out to me that perhaps I’m over analysing this scene, that his breaking point has been convincingly lead up to. I remain unconvinced but I’d love to hear others reactions – am I wrong? Worse still is the conversation between Ryan Phillipe and Larenz Tate which is necessary for the story to reach its conclusion but badly written. Having said that, Matt Dillon is excellent and his weary casual racism is excellently played and written. Even more surprising is Sandra Bullock who flies in the face of quirky loveable characters with a brilliantly highly strung performance of nastiness. Crash is a good film and I’ve overplayed some very minor flaws in this review which is unfair, it’s an intelligent work that will challenge some of your own perceptions and force you to confront your inherent prejudices and for that it should be applauded.

 

And Thandie Newton isn’t annoying which is a major success for her.

 

Note: Thanks to Dorian Hawkins whose DVD I’ve had for about 2 years. I’ll give it back now.




 

Cold Prey (2006, Roar Uthaug)

 

***Important note***

Vetting movies before they get shown at my horror nights is pretty important given the horrific disaster when I didn’t check the wobbling shower of turds that is SARS WARS: Bangkok Zombie Crisis (2004, Taweewat Wantha) and inflicted it on my poor, poor friends. Hence this film is one of the films that will undergo the vetting process and will get a pass/fail at the end of the review.

***Important note***

 

Cold Prey is a Norwegian slasher film that got some good reviews when it was released a couple of years ago. Five attractive young snowboarders decide to go off piste in search of thrills. When one breaks their leg they are too far from their car to get back and decide to carry him to an abandoned lodge nearby. They break in and then things go a bit pear shaped when someone decides to take offence at their presence. Cold Prey is resolutely formulaic, it adheres to many of the rules of the slasher film, to the extent that I’d made a few well educated guesses that turned out correctly. However, that said, Cold Prey is exceptionally well made. It’s tight and tense, the scenery is beautifully photographed and the production design excellent. Without shaking any genre foundations Cold Prey is a lean and brutal success – and it features some attractive Scandinavian people.

 

A resolute pass.

 

Note: I’ve noticed that Cold Prey 2 came out in Norway last year so I’ll see about reviewing that too.

 



 

The King of Kong (2007, Seth Gordon)

 

The King of Kong charts the attempt by Steve Wiebe to break the internationally recognised score record on the video game Donkey Kong and the response of the score keeping authority Twin Galaxies and previous record holder Billy Mitchell. Whilst it is a compelling and entertaining look into a fascinating subculture The King of Kong is also a masterpiece of manipulation, it is very carefully edited to build an imagined enmity between Wiebe and Mitchell. It also goes to great lengths to make the Twin Galaxies organisation look like a self interested group concerned with satisfying their own ends and massaging Mitchell’s ego. There’s very little subtlety about this construction, it’s a really heavy handed approach and to an educated eye it completely undercuts Gordon’s intent. For all the criticism you can level at this method The King of Kong has been a considerable success for the director (Seth Gordon has gone on to make studio movies (Four Christmases, 2008)) and remains an entertaining watch.

 


Poseidon (2006, Wolfgang Peterson)

 

If Wolfgang Peterson doesn’t actually enjoy directing water based movies then he should go about telling someone because his directing CV is starting to look remarkably damp after Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. Watching Poseidon on a television is the wrong way to experience it, as several of the sequences were obviously designed for the ‘IMAX Experience’ release of the film. That said – it’s enjoyably stupid film and you can, as used to be the case in the big disaster films of the 60s/70s, play the enjoyable ‘spot the cameo’ game. Noticeable ones include Kevin Dillon’s ruffle shirted lothario, Freddy Rodriguez’ doomed minority and Black Eyed Pea Fergie as an inappropriately proportioned chanteuse. Some nice effects and suitable thinning of the cast made for a pleasant enough watch, which all but disappears from the mind immediately after.

January 1st: Hit the Ground Running

January 1st

 

1 day. 6 films. Hit the ground running.

 

Just past midnight on the first morning of the New Year I decided to get stuck in.

 

(I’ll hyperlink each film to its IMDB page in case you’d like some more information)


 

Assault on Precinct 13 (2005, Jean-François Richet)

 

A remake to begin with, a remake of a classic Carpenter film no less! Assault on Precinct 13 has some pretty cool, if not big, boots to fill. And I thought it filled them pretty damn well. The film strips away most unnecessary exposition and ploughs straight into the action. There is an admirable lack of sentimentality about the characters and about the way in which they are picked off. The casting is key in this film and whilst Gabriel Byrne is under-used (and subsequently looks uninterested) it’s nice to see familiar faces like Brian Dennehy and Drea De Matteo (Adriana from The Sopranos) get substantial roles. The action rolls along at a fair lick and despite a small lull about an hour in the tension is kept up. Special mention goes to Laurence Fishburne who seems to grow in stature through the course of the film.

 

 

Half Nelson (2006, Ryan Fleck)

 

A change of pace, from bullets and bravado to drugs and more than a dab of despair. Actually despair might be too strong a word for Half Nelson, in which Ryan Gosling gives an exceptional performance as a disenfranchised teacher who forms an awkward friendship with the student (Shareeka Epps) who finds him smoking crack in the toilet. It might be better described as a film about disenfranchisement, there isn’t any cheap redemptive message in Half Nelson and the characters aren’t limited to conventional arcs. The film is permeated by the softness of the descent of the characters, the ease at which they fall away from civilised society drifting from the mooring influence of their families. It’s a film with real heart which avoids the pitfall of a cheap resolution.

 

 

Man on Fire (1987, Elie Chouraqui)

 

The original adaptation of the A.J. Quinnell novel (latterly remade with Tony Scott directing and Denzel Washington in the lead) is a European production with a predominantly American cast and a style that gets lost somewhere in-between. Scott Glenn is Creasy the washed up CIA agent turned reluctant private hire bodyguard for the 12 year old daughter of a rich ex-pat family. The agent and the kid slowly become friends before she is kidnapped and Creasy cuts a bloody swathe through the Italian underworld to find her. Despite Glenn being as inscrutable and gruff as you’d like this is slow paced and clumsily scripted making for a less than enchanting first 40 minutes as the leads warm to each other. Makes you wish that the studio had trusted Tony Scott with making this version.

 


 

Enduring Love (2004, Roger Michell)

 

The opening scene of Enduring Love is phenomenal. Utterly brilliant in conception (from Ian McEwan’s novel), direction and finally in the edit (Nicolas Gaster deserves great credit). So good is it that it threatens to eclipse the rest of the film but it is a credit to the performances of Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans and the always brilliant Samantha Morton that Enduring Love emerges from the lengthy shadow of the opening. Sumptuously photographed and tightly paced – this is an exceptionally good British film.

 


 

Hostel (2005, Eli Roth)

 

The epitome of the derogatively termed ‘torture porn’ (or gore-nography if you prefer) category of recent horror films. Hostel plays pretty dumb on several occasions, referring to a non-existent ‘war’ in Slovakia that has rid the town of young men leaving a void that could only be satisfactorily filled by drunk/stoned Americans. The young American backpackers swallow the story whole. I’m willing to give Eli Roth the benefit of the doubt where other reviewers haven’t. I think Hostel, as well as being a typically gratuitous and blackly comic, is a sly little treatise on American international relationships. Roth suggests that Americans blithely think of Europe in only two distinct ways – the Western Europe of cultural significance and good times (Paris & Amsterdam) and the Eastern Europe of sad war-torn dilapidation, ripe for exploitation.

 

Grisly and upsetting, Hostel is much smarter than you might think.

 


 

The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

 

It’s a bit difficult to ‘review’ a film this old. So much has already been written and said – can I add anything new? Unlikely. I will say this, it’s aged really well. The story is gripping and fast-paced, the two leads have a genuine chemistry and the whole film is shot through with a black wit that still works in our, more cynical times. It’s a classic of British cinema and I should’ve watched it long ago.

 

Note. The 39 Steps is listed in the Neon ‘1000 essential videos to watch’ under the category ‘Chase Movies’.

Double note…
It might not always be this detailed so enjoy it whilst it is. The writing should improve though.

The New Site

 

Hi,

this is the new site for the Chris vs Cinema challenge 2009. My old site which ran from the 1st to the 9th of January and contained the first 18 films is located at http://chrisvscinema.blog.com. I’ll transport all that content over to an archive file here as and when I manage to figure out how to do that.

Many thanks to Rocky Howard for hosting and helping me to figure out this, hopefully more reliable, site.  Expect reviews 19 & 20 this evening and I’ll work on the archive migration too.

Chris.