March 7th: I Watch Them…

64. Watchmen: The IMAX Experience (Zack Snyder, 2009) #193 in IMDB top 250

I’ve been waiting. Waiting and worrying, pensive and excited, wondering whether or not it could be done. Can it really be filmed? Can Zack Snyder, maker of the adrenalised action heavy machismo festival 300 and the brilliantly brainless Dawn of the Dead, really be the man to do it?

Well, yes. It turns out he is. Watchmen is a slavishy determined adaptation of one of the best books written in the last century. The production design is absolutely top notch and it is a commendation to the artwork of Dave Gibbons that the film sticks to the articles he put in the frame all those years ago. This is the ultimate fanboy film filled to the brim with references that many (me included) thought would never make it to the screen. The story is retained almost wholesale despite notable changes to the final ‘event’. Snyder has very carefully altered minor details which have only had the effect of making the vision of the narrative more cinematic – including the denouement. Immense credit goes to Snyder keeping the edit as simple as possible by using only one camera for most of the action. It lends a sense of reverence to the film, allows the events to unfold without confusing the viewer. I’m very impressed Mr Snyder.

The performances are pretty solid throughout with three standouts. Billy Crudup’s delivery as the tenuously human Dr Manhattan is heart-breaking as he describes the events that lead him to his present condition. Jackie Earl Healey channels the most fascist of Clint Eastwood into his focused and disturbed Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is superbly sociopathic as The Comedian the character whose death in the opening sequence provides the catalyst for the events of the film. Following that stupendous opening scene you are treated to a stunning credit montage depicting the history of the Minutemen, the superhero team that begat the Watchmen. It’s jaw-dropping in its brilliance and set to the perfect sound of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A’Changin’. The music is a strong feature of the film, with the exception of one scene it is well judged and utilised. It’s heavily layered and far from subtle but effective and in the end – that matters the most.

It may have been the last chance for us to see an adaptation as faithful as this. The films setting in an alternative 1980s ruled by Richard Nixon in an unprecedented third term would have been increasingly difficult to portray as we moved further away from the period. Given this, and the remarkable faithfulness that has been shown to the source material then I can’t fail to be anything other than pleased and impressed with the final result. I’ve been unable to stifle a grin at the news that the film has suffered a tremendous second week drop in revenue in the US. The actors have sequel clauses in their contracts but there is no scope for a sequel. None. It does sadden me slightly that the business boys in Hollywood might swerve this kind of film in the future given the terrible word-of-mouth it has generated. I expect that it will slowly slide off the IMDB top 250 and that the majority of audiences mightn’t quite understand why it is so special and so different but it felt to me as if Zack Snyder made a film just for us, for the people who love this book. He’s even gone to the length of animating The Tales of the Black Freighter section and hopefully we’ll be getting a special sexy DVD release containing everything.

March 6th: Best served with noodles

63. Lady Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2005)

My only previous experience of Korean cinema was the excellent Oldboy, Chan-Wook Park’s second film of his thematically linked ‘vengeance trilogy’ (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance being the first film). From that I gathered that he is an extremely talented director who isn’t afraid to bring some really weird shit to the table in the stories he’s telling. Lady Vengeance brings these two facets into focus once more. Geum-Ja Lee is a woman who has been wronged. She was involved in a child kidnapping which resulted in the death of the boy and was forced to take the blame for the murder that she didn’t commit. Her revenge is plotted over the course of her stay in prison and upon her release the plan is put into action. The film plays out like the dark twisted twin sister of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. Flashback and incidental narratives are weaved into the story with great visual aplomb and the narrative continues to drop in surprising revelations so your attention doesn’t drop. Park toys with making Geum-Ja loveable but never really lets you side with her. The vengeance is so clinical and single-minded that your affections are an afterthought. But the film isn’t without humour. A consistent problem with foreign cinema, especially that from SE Asia is the reception of the humour by Western audiences – comedies from these territories rarely translate and are very rarely released. The humour in Lady Vengeance bucks the trend as it has a fine range of blackly comic visual jokes to lighten the grisly narrative. A really enjoyable gem of a film.

My Irish friend Derek did a truncated review that he thought covered all the bases. Looking at it I’d have to say that it has…

Derek on Lady Vengeance: “Batshit mad, but good, though not as good as Oldboy.”

March 5th: Child’s play?

***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***

62. Them (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I may be repeating myself but it matters not, French horror is in rude health and this is another perfect example of why. Them is tightly paced, clean of any narrative fat and about as mean as it gets. Clementine and Lucas live in an isolated country house, one night they are terrorized by a gang of hooded youths. That’s it. Nothing else. There isn’t any smart story, nothing clever, no twists, just 77 minutes of pure taut fear. A big fat PASS.

March 4th: Murder she planned meticulously…

61. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962) #112 in IMDB top 250.

A classic of Cold War cinema made possible in no small way due to the involvement of Frank Sinatra. Dislikeable soldier Raymond Shaw has returned from the Korean war along with the surviving members of his squad after they were ambushed. Or were they…? A plot slowly unravels that implicates Raymond and his squad-mates in a dangerous game of mind-control and assassination. The film doesn’t lack the courage of its convictions, it is pessimistic and dark. The outlandish politics on display are eerily reminiscent of the recent ideological battles in the US, no wonder that it has been recently remade. The Manchurian Candidate is a brilliant subversive film enlivened by fantastic performances – particularly Angela Lansbury as the nigh-on incestuous domineering mother.

March 4th: Oscar Fodder

60. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) #56 in IMDB top 250.

Bring on the Academy Awards it’s a film about the holocaust! That may seem needlessly pithy and snarky but the correlation is hard to ignore and pretty easy to explain. The Academy is made up primarily of old Jewish men, they are understandably open to a bit of heartstring tugging by a film that relates to one of the most devastating events of (just) living memory. Because of this bias it often unnaturally prejudices me against the films before I’ve seen them because of the idea that a potentially more deserving work will have been overlooked at the handing out of the gold statuettes. The Pianist is no different, I’ve regarded it with some dubiousness – wondering if it is able to really bring to bear the horrors described in the novel of memories by Wladyslaw Szpilman (which I had the fortune of reading some time ago). It succeeds, Polanski’s is an experienced hand which gently pushes Adrian Brody through the wringer as he transforms from the suave concert pianist to the desperate survivor traipsing around the destroyed Warsaw. His desperation is palpable as his life is systematically destroyed by the heartless advancement of Nazi plan, as every last vestige of civilisation is torn from around him. His story is incredible and despite his survival it is twinned with the equally sad story of the German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who helped and rescued him. Worthy but brilliant.

 

 

 

 

March 3rd: The other side of the coin

59. Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006) #194 in IMDB top 250

The second half of Clint Eastwood’s telling of the story of the battle of Iwo Jima is done from the Japanese side. Ken Watanabe plays General Kuribayashi, the man who masterminded the 40 day resistance against the unstoppable waves of American forces. This is an exceptional film for a number of reasons, it is Cint Eastwood’s only foreign language film, it has predominantly Japanese cast, it paints a sympathetic portrayal of Japanese soldiers and rather uniquely it has some tentative points of narrative crossover with Flags of our Fathers. It is a brave decision for an American film-maker to make a film that seeks to humanise and explore the Japanese experience of World War 2; I doubt that Clint Eastwood would have attempted this film 20 years ago.

I have a little knowledge about the way that the Japanese feel about their Imperial expansion. There’s a lot of shame and for a lot of Japanese there is a lack of education about it. It is almost as if there is some denial about it. There is an affirmation of this in the DVD extras as the Japanese cast members talk about their lack of knowledge about events during the war. Of course there was a government in place that suppressed any undesirable knowledge, which the loss at Iwo Jima certainly was.

I can heartily recommend Letters from Iwo Jima, it is a bitterly poignant and visceral telling of a story which can be too easily overlooked. How often do we get any history from the losing side? How often do we get English language films about the enemy from these wars? Rare exceptions exist Peckinpah’s excellent Cross of Iron being one (no, Valkyrie doesn’t count as it is essentially a resistance story).

March 1st: Oedipus Foe

58. Hallam Foe (David Mackenzie, 2007)

Shagging your mum is frowned on in most if not all civilised societies and with good reason. Hallam Foe is all about this unpalatable practice, in a round-about fashion. Jamie Bell is the titular Hallam, his mother died two years previously and his sister has gone to Australia, leaving him in the house with his father and step-mother. Step-mum is played by Claire Forlani who desperately wants rid of Hallam as there is a mutual love/hate between the two. Cue awkward fumbling with step-mum and Hallam does a runner to Edinburgh. In the city Hallam begins to obsess with a woman who looks like his dead mum. And he has a crack at her too. Dirty little bugger. Hallam Foe is an odd film, it’s certainly well acted and the script contains moments of real human awkwardness that translate well to the screen. It is a film about the damage and repercussions of the loss of a parent whilst at the same time managing to be about watching people and voyeurism. It manages to be funny and charming whilst confronting some serious and difficult issues about human desire and interaction.

March 1st: There’s more to Scotland than heroin and deep fried food

57. Restless Natives (Michael Hoffman, 1985)

In Edinburgh Will and Ronnie are a pair of hopeless idealists who decide to hold up tourist buses using props from the joke shop where Ronnie works. The police are on their trail in a roundabout fashion but they soon become folk heroes and a tourist attraction themselves. Along the way Will falls for bus-tour assistant Margot and Ronnie gets involved with Edinburgh’s criminal fraternity. Restless Natives is a gentle little feel-good film that remains innocuous whilst managing to raise a smile. The tone is the thing, whilst it flirts with danger the film remains within the safety net of the pleasant. There is some spectacular photography of the highlands where robberies take place and the score/soundtrack courtesy of Big Country fits perfectly. Ned Beatty turns up in it too, good for him.

March 1st: Satan is my co-pilot.

 

56. Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999)

Ang Lee is a consistently excellent film-maker from my experience and I’ve been looking forward to watching this film for some time. It was a Sunday and I was a bit hung over from watching Metallica rock Sheffield so I was in a pretty good mood for a Western. Lee doesn’t disappoint. The film is (and my knowledge of this period is pretty sketchy so correct me if I’m wrong) primarily about the Kansas/Missouri area during the American Civil War, told from the side of the confederacy. Sort of.

You see, these people fighting for the South in this area weren’t actually part of the army. They just organized themselves into localised militia groups and participated in what would now be referred to as ‘terrorist’ attacks (if that seems a little difficult to comprehend then forget I said it – this isn’t a political soapbox). They believed in a certain way of life (keeping slaves being a major thing that they quite liked) and wanted to fight for it. Lee manages somehow to present a portion of these people as sympathetic, as human. It would be so much easier to tell the other side of the story. To make the Southern characters ignorant and backward. He doesn’t do that, he portrays the human side of a war, the side that is the most complex and difficult to put across – especially from the perspective of those who lost the war. It’s not short at over 2 hours and it does meander between storylines, but the action is furious and brutal and the performances are confident and interesting. Even Tobey ‘Wet-eyes’ Maguire didn’t annoy me the way he usually does.

February 23rd: Cavalcade of Death

55. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

A micro-budget spookshow from 1962, Carnival of Souls is a lesson in how to elicit chills when your film has no money behind it. Church organist Mary is involved in a car accident with two of her friends which only she survives. Or so we believe. From that point onwards Mary is subject to visions of a strange pallid man who seems to be following her. She is drawn to an abandoned carnival building and finds herself isolated from the world. Soon she is unable to communicate with anyone – as if she doesn’t exist and he is still following her, almost calling out to her. Unusual and creepy, Carnival of Souls had the power to slightly unnerve me – it used its complete lack of production money to its advantage and that weird pale zombie bloke was quite freaky to look at. A hearty recommendation for fans of low budget chillers.

Carnival of Souls is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Zombie Movies’.