Blame! (film) – Review

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Maybe it’s just me, but I find Netflix’s rating system to be pretty useless. Lots of woeful content seems to inexplicably maintain a five-star rating, while really solid shows and movies get stuck with two or three stars. Blame! is the latest one to confuse me, the full-length anime movie debuting recently to a 2.5 star rating. I don’t know whether this is due to pissed-off hardcore fans, or low ratings from people who just hate anime, but I thought Blame! was pretty good.

Blame!: the movie is based on a 20-year-old manga, set in a (naturally) dystopian world dominated by a vast megastructure known as “The City”. The City was once controlled by technologically-advanced humans, but they eventually lost control, and humanity came to be viewed by the City as a disease which needed to be exterminated. The City therefore unleashed a variety of hi-tech entities, collectively known as The Safeguard, to wipe out the remaining humans (hints of The Terminator, then). With humans no longer in control, the City has expanded uncontrollably, and it’s hinted that the structure could have reached the size of a star. It’s an interesting concept with a great deal of potential, and Blame!’s setting is well brought to life by an impressive art style.

I’m a little surprised that they chose to make Blame! as a movie rather than a series, like fellow Netflix original Knights of Sidonia, as the scenario seems well-suited to the serial form. The movie’s plot covers the interaction between main character Killy, who is on an odyssey to find the “Net Terminal Gene” that could help regain control of the City, and a small community of humans known as the Electro-Fishers. The community is on the brink of starvation, and their immediate struggle to survive provides the kind of clear narrative hook needed for a film of this length. T. commented while we were watching it that Blame! does the same thing as Mad Max: Fury Road, using the silent loner character from a wider world to introduce a largely self-contained story. I found Killy to be a bit underdeveloped, but at least the supporting cast are varied; what’s more, characters you might expect to be completely useless actually end up contributing to the story, which kind of subverts your expectations. Blame! leaves you wanting to see more of its world, and I would certainly be interested in seeing a follow-up movie or, even better, anime series.

Visually, Blame! is really good, with solid animation and an appealing and coherent style. The art and animation reminded me a lot of Knights of Sidonia, and apparently they were made by the same people. I thought the sound effects were pretty good too, especially the satisfying clunkiness of the Electro-Fishers’ weapons and armour. The film’s main problem is probably its pacing: although it starts out very well – the opening sequences are breathtaking – its 106-minute run time is probably 15 minutes too long, and some sections could have been shortened or edited out. I found the repeated extreme close-ups of Killy to be somewhat naff, but fans of the source manga might be more tolerant of this.

Overall, then, Blame! is worth a watch for anime fans. It reminded me a lot of seeing Gantz: 0 a few months back – both times I went in knowing nothing about the source material, but was pleasantly surprised by the films and really enjoyed them. Here’s hoping we get to see more of Blame!’s unsettling world in the future.

7/10

Warlock (film) – Review

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Warlock is a campy 1980s Gothic horror film, featuring Richard E. Grant as witch hunter Giles Redferne and Julian Sands as the eponymous villain. The film’s plot bears a certain resemblance to The Terminator, as Sands escapes from the clutches of witch hunters in 1691 Boston and enters the present day  – well, 1988 anyway – in search of pages from an ancient grimoire which has the power to destroy the world. He’s followed through time by Grant, who sports a hilarious hairdo and silly outfit. Both of them really give it a go, and the film is well-served by having two such capable actors in the main roles. It helps elevate some otherwise silly fare.

The film also stars Lori Singer as Kassandra, who acts as Redferne’s reluctant helper and guide in modern America. The warlock casts a sadistic curse on Kassandra which makes her age 20 years each day, which obviously limits the amount of time she has to lift the curse. Allegedly, Singer didn’t want to wear the facial prosthetics designed to make her character look older, and this results in a somewhat unconvincing ageing process.

Sands is great in the title role. Films about witches aren’t that common – compared to, say, vampires, zombies, and ghosts – and films about male witches are pretty rare. But Sands’ character is as evil as he is powerful (read: very), and is established early on as a huge threat. Although the special effects are lacking, this is by no means a no-budget film, and it’s surprising to see some relatively gruesome content here reminiscent of so-called “video nasties”, which managed to make me wince. Sands is an effective villain and he carries out shocking and despicable acts in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Warlock reverses the normal trope of the witch hunters being evil: in this case, the witch hunters are completely in the right, and God help us all if Redferne is unsuccessful. Apparently writer David Twohy attempted to write a movie about the innocent victim of a witch hunt “escaping” to the present day, where he faced the same sorts of problems and biases as he did in the 1690s. However, Twohy gave up because it was too complicated, and so we have this instead. It probably worked out for the best, as Warlock is a really entertaining movie: it’s fun, well-paced, and you’re unlikely to tire of it before the end. The special effects look very, very bad these days, but this adds to the film’s undeniable camp appeal. It’s definitely worth a watch for all aficionados of horror and 1980s “style”.

7/10

Stake Land 2: The Stakelander (film) – Review

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2010’s Stake Land was a refreshing take on the vampire genre. It went against the grain at a time when franchises like Twilight and True Blood were going all-out to make bloodsuckers teen-friendly, glamorous and sexy. By contrast, the vampires in Stake Land are a brutal, feral breed with low intelligence but unmatched viciousness and ferocity. Set in a world ravaged by the vamp-ocalypse, Stake Land was a flawed but effective film that brought to life the sort of world familiar to fans of Fallout, The Last of Us, and The Road. The story was derivative, but felt substantive and well-paced enough that it made you care about its characters, and the end result delivered scares but also reflected on human relationships. Specifically, the film was a moving tale of the difficult necessity of maintaining links with other people even if the world is dying around you.

Stake Land earned a solid reputation and a decent following, and so a sequel was always a possibility. The daftly named Stake Land II: The Stakelander was duly released earlier this year on video-on-demand, and now finds its way to Netflix. Sadly, it turns out this is one of those cases where a sequel wasn’t really needed. The writers don’t seem to have anything new to say, and the film mainly consists of an inferior re-hashing of the events of its predecessor. The first big problem is that Stake Land 2 immediately negates the upbeat ending of the first film, callously killing off Martin’s family again in an apparent effort to recreate the dynamic between him and his erstwhile mentor. Hoping for revenge against the vampires who killed his family, Martin seeks out the vampire-slayer and general badass known only as Mister (Nick Damici). The script suggests the world is an even more hopeless place than it was a few years earlier, but the disappointing cinematography doesn’t really bear this out. Cannibalism is now rampant, and the closest thing to an organized human force is The Brotherhood, a far-right Christian outfit who are in cahoots with the vampires, who they think have been sent to “purify” mankind or something.

Mister has continued his one-man crusade against vampires and the Brotherhood since the first film, but it’s a losing struggle. Moreover, vampires themselves now seem to be developing a knack for organization and strategy which bodes ill for the few remaining human settlements. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t take this anywhere. Although in the first film the vampires felt tough and menacing, they don’t have the same effect here, partly because of how they’re filmed. They hardly ever go straight for their prey: normally preferring to knock people over, then scream in their faces for a few seconds, or however long it takes for someone to stab them in the back. Doing this once or twice is fine, but when it happens over and over again, it becomes really annoying. The lead vampire also makes liberal use of the head tilt, surely one of the laziest and most overused horror gimmicks around. In fact, the look and feel of Stake Land 2 reminded me of nothing more than 30 Days of Night, which is not a flattering comparison. That film was shit.

One of the big dangers in making a sequel like this is that it brings to light latent problems you couldn’t quite see in the well-liked original. As well as ruining the ending and sullying fond memories of the first Stake Land, Stakelander also has some troubling implications for its treatment of women. The main female character here is probably the vampire leader, who doesn’t have any lines, and who spends most of the film screaming and head-tilting; and, well, you can probably guess her fate. The other female character is an improbably well-groomed and attractive feral human who was supposedly raised in “the wild”. Mister and Martin sort of adopt her after rescuing her from some cannibals who were treating her as a pet/slave; she then bonds with Mister like a cat would with its owner. She doesn’t have any lines, either. The actress isn’t exactly given much to work with, but even so, it’s a pretty cringeworthy performance in a pitifully bad role.

One of the only things that Stake Land 2 has in its favour is its short length. It would be wrong to say it doesn’t outstay its welcome, because the film doesn’t have a good reason to exist at all. But a run time of 85 minutes goes by pretty fast. Even so, this is a hard film to recommend. Fans of Stake Land will likely be disappointed, and could find that this outing mars their enjoyment of that far superior film. And if you weren’t a fan of the original, why would you consider watching Stakelander in the first place?

4/10

 

The Raid 2 (film) – Review

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Within the scope of its limited ambition, 2011’s The Raid was a perfect action movie. The Indonesian film, written by Welshman Gareth Evans, featured astonishing action set pieces choreographed by martial arts experts Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. The film garnered a huge following, so it was no surprise that it was swiftly followed by a sequel. The Raid 2 is a much more ambitious film: whereas the first was set in a single tower block, the sequel is a sprawling two-and-a-half hour epic set across Jakarta’s criminal underworld. Taking place right after the events of the first film, surviving badass cop Rama (Uwais) is sent undercover to build a case against the corrupt senior cops who protect the city’s criminal overlords. Rama has strong personal reasons for agreeing, but it’s nevertheless one of those occasions where you don’t really have a choice: if he says no, Rama will almost certainly be killed, as will his family. The only way out is to keep moving forward, winning the trust of senior mob bosses while also managing incompetent and uncaring superiors in the police force. As someone points out to Rama later in the film, the only way to extricate himself and protect his family is to eliminate all the crime bosses, and their police patrons, for good.

The plot brings to mind movies like Infernal Affairs, and Rama is a very sympathetic character. He’s also, once again, an extremely effective one-man-army and the film features several lengthty and brutal fight scenes, both one-on-one and one-versus-many. The first film was very violent, of course, but The Raid 2 really ups the ante and features spectacular set-pieces and some quite gruesome executions. For the most part the violence makes sense, but the second half of the movie does see a move towards more stylized violence. We are also introduced to two assassins who are each based around the idea of a single gimmick: one uses a baseball and bat, and the other is a stylish young mute lady who uses a pair of claw hammers and always wears shades. These characters revel in brutal executions, and I really disliked their presence. They felt very out of sync with the sincere tone of the rest of the film, and more like a knowing nod towards the Tarantino style of ironical comic book violence. It’s a bad sign for the franchise, and I really hope that future films don’t go further down this path.

When the film is making an effort to be sincere, it is capable of producing decent characters. The crime family which Rama infiltrates is led by the gruff but charismatic elder statesman Bangun, while Rama befriends Bangun’s hotheaded son Uco, who looks uncannily like Bruce Campbell. Bangun’s consigliere Eka also gets a moment to shine towards the end of the film. Many of the film’s events are precipitated by Uco’s egotistical behaviour and desire to usurp his father, meaning he conducts an underhanded alliance with rival mobster Bejo. Bejo was one of the film’s problems for me, largely because he is devoid of menace, physical appeal, or any charisma. He also sports physical disabilities, which is fine in itself but taken with his lack of discernible mob boss attributes means he lacks credibility. He is often seen bringing in defenceless victims to be executed like beasts, but we never see how they are supposed to have been overpowered or defeated. The whole Bejo storyline feels incongruous, and I would have preferred they had cut him and his his faction (including the gimmicky assassins) out of the movie and shortened it by a good half hour.

Indeed, at 150 minutes the film is far too long, and especially considering the body count and level of violence, sitting through it is a test of endurance as much as anything. It’s a shame, because the film is not without moments of compassion and human feeling, but in the absence of any real humour (sorry, watching a girl slaughter a group of grown men with a pair of hammers doesn’t count), it turns into a slog. It’s an impressive film, with some wonderful technical and artistic achievements, but it only partly lives up to its lofty ambitions.

7/10

From Beyond (film) – Review

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From Beyond marked another collaboration between Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna and Dennis Paoli after their cult hit Reanimator. As with Reanimator, From Beyond saw them craft a new tale based on a HP Lovecraft story, and also saw Gordon cast some of the main actors used in the earlier film. Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton therefore make a return, alongside charismatic giant Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead. It’s something of a B-movie dream team, in other words, and it’s a bit of a shame that From Beyond never really lives up to its potential. Nevertheless, this is still a better than average horror movie with a few particular points of interest.

From Beyond’s first scene sees Combs’ character Dr Crawford Tillinghast activate a machine called a Resonator, which sort of blurs the boundaries between our reality and a nightmarish dimension’from beyond’. This other world is full of hellish creatures who basically want to devour humans, body and soul. In something of a role reversal from Reanimator, Combs’ character here is a relatively blameless research assistant, and it’s his boss who is obsessed with carrying out obviously crazy research. The Resonator has an affect on the pineal gland in the brain, and after the initial disaster which sees his mad boss decapitated, Combs is consigned to a mental hospital. However, he’s rescued from the asylum by Crampton, who plays a medical researcher keen to learn what Crawford and his boss discovered about the potential of the pineal gland. Yep, From Beyond makes healthy use of the trope that ‘we only know a tiny fraction of what the brain is capable of’. So, out of the frying pan and into the fire–Crawford leaves the madhouse to return to the mad house and have another go on the Resonator.

Most of the film subsequently revolves around Crampton, Combs and Foree investigating the Resonator, and dealing with the inevitable consequences. There are a number of interesting scenes, but the pacing feels a bit off and certain sections go on for too long. At times it feels like a haunted house movie, with characters entering trances and dream-states. Not only is there a dimension-bending evil machine in the attic, but Crawford’s boss was big into S&M and his bedroom is basically a sort of sex dungeon. Thankfully, the writers made good use of this by taking the opportunity to place Crampton in a dominatrix outfit, which was a scene I didn’t mind the film taking its time over.

The special effects are quite variable, and although the first scene features some really appalling, cheap-looking creatures, later on there’s some quite inventive and rather disturbing monster design. There is some real body horror here. Also, the, er, stimulation of the pineal gland leads to some quasi-parasitic results that might make you squirm and chuckle at the same time.

From Beyond is a movie all serious horror fans should see. It has an all-star B-movie cast and production team, and it’s also an interesting and somewhat entertaining film in its own right. Provided you don’t expect it to be as good as Reanimator, you shouldn’t end up disappointed.

7/10

 

Would You Rather (film) – Review

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Would You Rather is a consummate horror B-movie, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. The grammatically suspect title tells you what you need to know about the film’s simplistic premise, which sees a bunch of people forced to play a nightmarish game of ‘Would you rather?’ In terms of plot, this is about as basic as it gets. But within its rather limited ambition, the film manages to be very effective.

Would You Rather assembles a quite remarkable cast, with a keystone performance from Jeffrey Combs. Combs is something of a horror legend due to his role in the classic Lovecraftian 80s horror film Reanimator, but his movie appearances since have been sadly few and far between. It’s delightful that he has so much screen time here, and he shows his characteristic ability to inhabit weird and disturbing characters with a trademark fusion of menace, humour, and a disarming vulnerability. Combs is a special talent and he makes this film. He plays Shepard Lambrick, the wealthy head of the Lambrick Foundation, an ostensibly philanthropic body dedicated to giving down-on-their-luck Americans a second chance. Just so happens their way of doing this is by subjecting them to horrific torture in the guise of some kind of social experiment or as a means of ‘re-educating’ them. The film superficially satirizes inequality in modern America and particularly the philanthropy of the rich and powerful, but ultimately the story and script just serve to set the scene for ninety minutes of increasingly bloody action.

Would You Rather’s superb supporting cast features familiar faces from a motley assortment of movies and TV shows. As if Jeffrey Combs wasn’t enough, Would You Rather also gives us Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, Victor from Dollhouse, D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire, porn legend Sasha Grey, and the dad from Home Alone. What’s all the more amazing is that they all have proper parts. If there was any justice in the world then whoever cast this movie would have won an Academy Award.

Most of these poor sods have been lured to Combs’ mansion by the prospect of a lucrative prize if they win his mysterious ‘game’. Everyone involved has some kind of life problem that has rendered them desperate, mainly drug or gambling debts; while our heroine and main character (Brittany Snow) is trying to raise money to pay the hospital bills for her kid brother, who is dying from cancer. Everyone has agreed to participate in the event without knowing what is entailed, and they quickly find out that once they’ve started participation is no longer optional. Thus begins the world’s most sadistic game of ‘would you rather…?’, which quickly escalates into torture, mutilation and murder.

As you may have guessed, this is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart. But then you’re unlikely to come across this film by accident, and if you’re seriously considering watching it chances are you’re already a fan of the genre. Even then, this isn’t as nasty as some other more famous ‘torture porn’ movies, and on the whole it has a bit more of a black comedy feel than some other examples of the genre. If you find yourself short of a horror movie some Friday or Saturday night, you could do a lot worse than give this one a try.

8/10

Collateral (film) – Review

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As a huge fan of Michael Mann movies such as Heat and Last of the Mohicans, I was super-excited to see Collateral when it came out in 2004, and I wasn’t disappointed. Collateral is a taut, fast-paced thriller about a disciplined and clean-cut Los Angeles cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), who picks up the fare from hell one night. Said passenger is “Vincent” (Tom Cruise), a charismatic and ruthless hitman who bribes, then coerces, Foxx into being his designated driver for one night only, as he assassinates a bunch of targets across LA. It’s a simple premise, but thanks to some tight writing, stunning cinematography, and several excellent performances, it makes for an extremely entertaining and quite memorable film.

Collateral was one of the first movies to make extensive use of high-definition digital cameras, and you can really notice it. Mann has always had a talent for shooting cityscapes, especially at night, and that knack is evident here as much as in Heat, Thief, or his otherwise forgettable version of Miami Vice. The contrasting shades of blue, in particular, are really quite beautiful. One of the film’s most famous sequences sees a coyote trotting across the freeway just in front of Foxx’s cab: a completely unscripted event, of course, but one which the crew was able to capture with the new hi-def cameras, and it does add something to the final movie. Just as Collateral captures something essential about LA, from a technical point of view it also captures a moment in American cinematic history.

Cruise is a hugely charismatic actor but he is also a natural heel, and he is perfect for the role of Vincent, which must surely go down as one of his best roles. Vincent is a wisecracking, charming, and entertaining killer who is prone to backseat philosophizing but who has a fundamentally nihilistic view of the world. Collateral also featured a debut of sorts from Mark Ruffalo, who does well portraying the sympathetic LAPD detective Ray, on the trail of Max’s taxicab of death. Soon after this film came out Ruffalo became pretty much your typical jobbing actor, but back in 2004 I thought his character was the epitome of cool. I even wore my ear-ring the same way he did.

Of course, this was a break-out role for Foxx as well. Foxx is certainly a likeable actor, and here shows natural charm and a talent for comedy when given the chance. That said, I’ve never really bought into Foxx either as an everyman (as he starts out in this) or as a tough guy (as he ends up). T. pointed out that his role would have been perfect for Will Smith, and I absolutely agree that the Will Smith of 2004 would have taken this movie to the highest level. Jada Pinkett Smith is here, of course; maybe that’s what brought it to mind.

Collateral is a film you’ll remember for several of its scenes and conversations, as well as its cinematography. Pinkett Smith has a resonant monologue in the back of Max’s cab when she describes the pressures of maintaining a high-powered career, while Max finds himself having to talk round some extremely powerful and dangerous drug barons–something which just minutes before he would have thought impossible. This is one of the themes of the film: Vincent constantly harangues Max, teasingly trying to push him to make more of himself and realize his potential, yet never really meaning any of it; even while the situations he puts Max in force him into a kind of metamorphosis. One of the best sequences, though, is a shoot-out in a Korean nightclub, which stands out even today as a remarkable technical achievement and an awesome spectacle in its own right. The nightclub scene also features an extremely cool trance tune, a highlight in a consistently excellent soundtrack.

Looking back, Collateral stands out as a supreme technical and artistic achievement. My only complaint is that it peaks too early, and the last section is a bit of a disappointment, somewhat formulaic after 80 minutes of highly inventive and flawlessly executed action. Nevertheless, this is a classic American action film, and probably the last great film of one of the best filmmakers of his generation. Everyone should see it, and Blu-ray is the perfect format to appreciate its technical accomplishments. As Vincent might say, why wait for tomorrow?

9/10