Thursday, 26 May 2016

Attack of the Werewolves - Blu-Ray Review

Feel pity for the low budget horror comedy.  Not only does it have to be scary, but it also has to make you laugh; it’s not easy to do either.  Evil Dead 2 nailed it where many others have failed.  Shaun of the Dead hits the funny bone, has a nice bit of gore but doesn’t try to scare you.  An American Werewolf in London balances mirth with mayhem like a professional but in general, horror comedies tread a too thin line between making us feel fear and making us chuckle; one is just bound to cancel the other out.

Following successful efforts of the last few years such as Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Rubber and Cabin in the Woods, comes a Spanish entry into the comedy-horror hybrid genre.  Re-titled from the original Lobos de Arga into Game of Werewolves (why?) and then finally to Attack of the Werewolves (does what is says on the tin), this film is almost as confused as the people tasked with giving it an English title.

Beginning promisingly with an explicit graphic novel style introduction featuring plenty of sex and death, the film then flashes forward to commence with the story of Tomás (Gorka Otxoa).  The animated opening sets up a small rural village and a gypsy curse that befell it a hundred years ago due to some raunchy hanky-panky and gratuitous murder.  In the present, Tomás is a writer from the village of Arga who left when he was fifteen to live in Madrid and is now returning for a celebration in his honour.  On arrival, Tomás learns that he has actually been invited back to the village so the locals can spill his blood and finally lift the curse.

The early scenes are slow and sadly humourless before the pace picks up, the sinister locals show their true colours and the film transforms into a jolly romp featuring more werewolves than you can shake a stick at (or throw a stick for, as one character tries to do).  The film fails spectacularly to approach scary but the comedy does emerge as the quirky characters find themselves under increasing threat.

The interplay between Tomás, his literary agent Mario and his old best friend Calisto is occasionally very funny with the relationships being strained even as the werewolves multiply. Their methods for dealing with the dangerous situation are comical at best, and silly at worst, but do raise frequent smiles. Watch out for a great scene involving alcohol, severed fingers and a dog. 

The introduction of new characters comes a little late in the game but one in particular, the Guardia Civil (Luis Zahera) manages to make a memorable entrance and despite limited screen time, gets the big laughs. It’s a shame he wasn’t introduced earlier.

The make up and effects are refreshingly old-school with the werewolves being quite impressive creations and the inventive gore being very effective. The transformations are skilfully shot and edited resulting in a package that often looks better than its budget deserves.

It’s just a shame the film takes a while to get going and the gag rate is so hit and miss. With a title like Attack of the Werewolves you know what to expect and if you’re just after a bunch of old-school hairy beasts that aren’t created through hideously bad CGI or turning into bare-chested pretty boys like Taylor Lautner every five minutes, then this might just be the film for your Saturday night with a six-pack. Then again it’s Spanish and subtitled so you might want to take it easy on that six-pack.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues Review

Knights of Columbus! The news team return in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues after nine long years away. In keeping with the lengthy delay, this time it's the 80s; the hair is bigger, the music is arguably better and audiences of America are getting noticeably dumber. Can the second film be as instantly quotable as its predecessor?

Ron and Veronica are now married with an angelic little boy named Walter and co-anchoring the news from New York. Harrison Ford (in the first of one of many starry cameos) wades in as the station boss, quickly giving Burgundy the boot and Veronica a promotion. Six months later Burgundy has walked out on his family and is sozzled and suicidal at SeaWorld but soon called back into service by new 24 hour news channel GNN. Getting the old team of Champ, Brian and Brick back together is easy, but competing with the younger and better looking news teams at GNN is the tricky part.

In Anchorman 2, Burgundy, like Will Ferrell, is stuck in the good old glory days of the past and sadly often resorts to repeating himself. Scenes where he entertains kids while drunk, or ice skates suspiciously majestically or wrestles with vicious animals all feel familiar from previous Ferrell films. Anchorman 2 doesn't completely repeat everything that made the first film a success but it certainly doesn't feel as fresh as its predecessor. The anarchic delight of throwing any surreal improvised gag at the screen produces plenty of laughs but there are also plenty of lazy scraping the bottom of the barrel jokes.

While being incredibly silly, Anchorman 2 also dabbles with having something to say. With 24 hour news being the new name of the game and Ron desperate to gain bigger ratings than his new rival Jack Lime (a scene stealing James Marsden), the content of the show gets cruder, stupider and pointedly patriotic. Kittens, crack and car chases are the order of the day with Ron pushing the boundaries of what can be called broadcast journalism and helping to dumb down the entire nation Fox News style. The news team talk down to their audience and the flag waving patriots lap it up.

Anchorman 2 is actually best when  critiquing the decline of the news, parodying its graphics, stupidity and endless sensationalism, but on the other hand spends too much time in thrall to its idiotic central star.

Burgundy has a developing relationship with his young son, an extended period of blindness and isolation in a lighthouse and as a result the rest of the news team feel short changed. Burgundy's blundering ways with his African American boss (who inexplicably becomes his lady friend) and her family might give some good, if painfully obvious laughs, but the journey of Ron from selfish buffoon to responsible father detracts from the rest of the news team. Paul Rudd and David Koechner are underused and while Steve Carrell's loveable moron Brick gets a brilliantly silly subplot involving love interest Kristen Wiig, this is still very much the legend of Ron Burgundy, not the entire news team.

With Burgundy backed up by a supporting cast of crazy characters and cameos this good, it is a shame to waste so many moments on the pompous ass that is Ron Burgundy. If the legend continues in a 90s set threequel, more of Brick, Fantana and Champ and a little less Burgundy might not go astray.

Monday, 23 May 2016

My King / Mon Roi Review ( Starring Vincent Cassel)

There is a creeping sense of familiarity when watching Mon Roi, a drama that examines the complexity of the relationship between a husband and wife over ten years. Luckily though, Mon Roi never feels like ten years to watch, and in detailing the ups and downs of a modern marriage, it demands attention throughout. You can always depend on Vincent Cassel for a terrific performance and Mon Roi may just be one of his best yet, even to those with extraordinarily high expectations of the actor.

Mon Roi tells the story of the turbulent relationship of Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel), as Tony reminisces on the high and lows of her marriage while recuperating at a physiotherapy facility with a broken leg. The pair meet (in flashbacks) after Tony has already freed herself from one previous marriage, and Georgio’s charm and charisma win her over easily. Much to her brother’s vocal disapproval, Tony and Georgio fall madly in love, marry and have a child together. While in the present, Tony makes slow progress in getting her leg working again, she looks back at what went wrong in her marriage and reflects on the love she may still feel for Georgio.

Mon Roi means My King and it is an apt title for this story of one woman’s inability to move on from the problematic love of her life. Tony can be a frustrating character for not being able to see Georgio for what he truly is, and for constantly ending up back in his bed, even after it is clear he is an arch manipulator. The strength of Mon Roi lies in making Tony sympathetic throughout, even if she does make some poor decisions. Her love for Georgio is unquestionable and to writer and director Maiwenn’s credit, it is almost completely convincing that Tony would keep coming back for more from Georgio.

Vincent Cassel’s perfect performance is fearless in its deconstruction of this character. Cassel excels at the beginning of the film, showing exactly why Tony would fall in love with Georgio. He is funny, successful and devoted to Tony; that is until one of his exes slits her wrists and cracks start to develop in their relationship. Cracks become fissures and soon, with a baby on the way, the compatibility of these once joyful lovers is called seriously into question.

Cutting back and forth between the past and present makes Mon Roi a well-paced and involving drama at just over two hours in length. The scenes of Tony having physical therapy are quick and concise, until later in the film when she develops some friendships with the other patients with leg injuries. Director Maiwenn flits through the relationship; it’s like having a peek inside Tony’s memories as she attempts to heal her leg and her heart. Watching these characters grow, and more worryingly, repeat their same previous mistakes again and again is never a chore. The concern for the child growing up between them is felt more keenly as the film progresses, especially as it becomes clearer just how calculating and cold Georgio can be. It’s impressive that Cassel manages to keep his character from being utterly and irreparably infuriating.

The flawed characters make Mon Roi very convincing. This is a relationship plucked straight from the real world and by the conclusion, Maiwenn's story has a brief but potent tug at the heart strings. In a final scene of the film, her direction, the cinematography and Emmanuelle Bercot’s terrific performance culminate in a heart wrenching moment of clarity. The message is clear; you cannot choose who you fall in love with, though life could be so much simpler if only there was an off-switch for these feelings. It’s not an outstanding film but it packs an emotional punch without resorting to tragedy.

Watch the trailer:


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A Night in the Woods DVD Review

Fed up of found footage films?  Wish they would just stay lost in the woods?  Well this British Blair Witch from director Richard Parry isn’t going to do much to get you back on board as it’s more likely to leave your stomach churning from another shaky-cam extravaganza.  

That said, if you enjoyed the last couple of Paranormal Activity films or any other number of lazily shot and scripted found footage horrors from the atrocious The Devil Inside to 2010’s marginally better The Last Exorcism, you could do worse than this well-acted little shocker.

While A Night in the Woods adds nothing to the already saturated found footage sub-genre like, say, the super powered capers of Chronicle, it does have a vaguely interesting threesome of lead characters, admirably played by capable actors who improvised much of the dialogue.  We first meet brash American Brody (MonstersScoot McNairy) and his beautiful British girlfriend Kerry (Anna Skellern) as they prepare for a camping trip to Dartmoor’s Wistman’s Woods, stopping off along the way to pick up Kerry’s cousin Leo (Andrew Hawley).

The character dynamics are the most interesting element of the film and it feels as though more thrills, twists and turns and a far greater sense of dread could have been gleaned from the odd love triangle that develops between a boy, his girl and her cousin.  Yes that sounds weird but there are surprises in store as to the motivations of some of the characters and even who one claims to be.
Brody is amiable and amusing as the American belittling Britain’s Stonehenge in favour of his own country’s Grand Canyon and taking an instant dislike to the lothario Leo for reasons that become increasingly clear.  But as the woods grow darker and the night gets longer, it is clear that Leo isn’t the only one with things to hide.

The found footage technique is justified continuously by dialogue between the characters.  Kerry complains about Brody’s need to film everything.  Leo has even brought his own camera along for the trip allowing perspective to shift between the two characters’ cameras and finally to Kerry as she takes one of the cameras herself.  They watch previously filmed footage on laptops and an iPod, giving the film a clever way of showing revealing flashbacks about the characters.  It has to be said that this is actually not a bad looking film (for found footage) with the opening half particularly having some very attractive cinematography from DOP Simon Dennis.

It’s just a shame that it all descends into sub-Blair Witch running around in the woods, screaming hysterically, and getting bumped over the head by unseen forces, perhaps local legend ‘The Huntsman’.  These found footage films work best when a light on the camera illuminates the dark night, heavy breathing can be heard from the camera operator, and someone can be heard screaming in the distance. But when so many other films have done this to death, these scenes now drag and become quickly repetitive.  

It’s a blessing found footage films are so short as this one, like so many before it, fills most of the last twenty of its eighty minutes with shaky camera footage of the trees blurring past as a girl screams from behind the camera.  The first half’s interesting character relationships give way to something much less exciting but still a cut above many of the other found footage horrors of recent years.

See it if you like this sort of thing and you’re not looking for anything fresh, but if you’ve had enough of found footage, you’ll probably wish they never picked up the camera in the first place.

Monday, 16 May 2016

A Hijacking Review

A Hijacking. Not The Hijacking. This is not Hollywood and there is no pony-tailed Steven Seagal to save the day, no Tommy Lee Jones hamming it up as an unstable terrorist and not even an on-screen stunt-filled, action-packed hijacking. A Hijacking is so unlike a Hollywood style terrorists-take-a-boat action thriller, that it evens neglects to show the seemingly pretty damn crucial scene where pirates actually capture a ship.

This could be one of a thousand contemporary true stories. This is not the story of a hijacking. Rather it is an understated story of just another hijacked Danish ship, taken by Somali pirates in order to secure a large ransom.

The ships’ cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) is the focal point from the very first frame. But he is not a hero, or not in the typical Hollywood sense anyway. When Somali pirates board the ship, he is forced to continue his role as the ship's cook while being locked in a room with two crew mates, pissing in the corner and living in constant fear under the watchful eyes of the scrawny but well-armed pirates.

Meanwhile, back in Denmark the CEO of the shipping company is forced into tense and increasingly serious negotiations with the pirates and their head negotiator and translator Omar. Mikkel is occasionally dragged out of his hole to help with the negotiations, hoping simply for the chance to speak with his wife and young daughter and to eventually return to them.

Mikkel and his crewmates are not the action men of Under Siege. The CEO is no upstanding President desperate to do anything to get his boys back. A Hijacking feels frighteningly real throughout but not always because of the threats of the pirates. It is a modern tale of men in an impossible situation, negotiating for lives with vast sums of money but with little trust between each party. Even the Somali pirates are not cardboard cut-out bad guys, with odd moments of humanity in amongst the hard exteriors.

On board the boat, Mikkel and others are trapped and terrified. The stand off and negotiations take over 120 days allowing for plenty of time for their fears to fester and their hope of rescue to fade. There are rare glimpses of hope and even a potential bond forming between captors and captives. However these pirates are all business, as ruthless in their negotiations as any corporate big wig, just with the added bargaining chips of bloody great guns.

Whereas 120 days must seem an eternity to the men on board with pirates and the ship's crew alike all feeling cabin fever and wishing to go home, it flies by in the film. With regular on screen up dates announcing how many days the events have continued, the tension mounts as the negotiations continue and emotions escalate.

Families of the men left back home are rarely brought in to the story. Writer and director Tobias Lindholm's script rarely deals with straight forward, out in the open emotions. Crying wives and children feature far less than the cold and calculating men in the boardroom, negotiating the release. Søren Malling is magnificent as the under siege CEO, Peter who puts himself in the position of most power but also most pressure. An efficient and determined businessman, he ignores advice to bring in a negotiator and handles the communication with the pirates and Omar all himself.

Lindholm's script is sparse in terms of character motivation, back-story and depth. It is like a documentary that only captures fleeting moments over the 120 day stand off. Mikkel has a wife and child who he wants to get back to. The Somali pirates want money. They are thin, scruffy, armed and dangerous and presumably desperate. Why CEO Peter wishes to take on these toughest and most critical negotiations of his life is unclear.

That said, all the characters are completely believable. Their emotional ups and downs are convincingly realised by an excellent cast, including Gary Skjoldmose whose real life experience of dealing with pirates bled into his role as negotiating consultant Connor Julian. It is a testament to the reality of the script, shooting style and performances that the boardroom scenes are as thrilling and tense as the scenes on board the boat where guns are actually being put to heads.

The negotiations can be frustrating and the back and forth phone calls and faxes are both full of drama and down played. The skill of the negotiators and the seemingly cold efficiency that they deal with the hijackers makes way for a more personal and increasingly emotional tone as the film continues. It is fascinating to see the toll that the events are taking on all involved, from those on board to those in the safety of the boardroom.

The morality of all these players is never really dealt with. What is behind the motivation to negotiate? Is it simply to make both sides sweat on the way to a resolution? Is it greed, distrust or common sense? Risks have to be taken and the men with the money have to hold off paying up as long as possible. It really is an impossible situation but Lindholm's film captures it with all its moral complexities intact. 

A Hijacking might not have the explosive action its title might suggest in a Hollywood film but it has high tension, high drama and high stakes. Though it skips the actual moment of hijacking, it never flinches from the psychological repercussions on the main players. For the 120 plus days depicted, it is completely captivating.