Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Master (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Let’s be clear. This is not a film about Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix does not play a troubled Second World War veteran who starts a long relationship with Scientology after a chance encounter with L. Ron Hubbard. And Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play L. Ron Hubbard. With that out of the way let me explain a bit about this film.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled Second World War veteran (Freddie Quell) who, after a chance encounter with author and leader of the burgeoning religious cult The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has all sorts of beliefs about past lives and trapped souls and curing leukemia through “anti-hypnosis” (which, as is pointed out, seems an awful lot like hypnosis). He is also a terrible writer, with an uncanny ability to “discover” truths about the very essence of existence.

And that makes it sound far more exciting than it actually is.

Seriously.

Almost nothing of note happens in the entire film. No-one changes, no-one grows or learns anything. It’s the story of two troubled men who are just as troubled at the end as at the beginning, which is not surprising as nothing really happens to either of them. One is protected from the world by moonshine, the other by a fawning, downtrodden following. But perhaps that is the point. If so, I struggle to understand why it took nearly two and a half hours to say so. Indeed, it takes a good half hour or so before Dodd even appears, all of which is spent watching Freddie Quell running around being troubled.

At this point I should point out that I am not Armond White. I do not believe that the collected works of Paul W. S. Anderson (including the entire Resident Evil series and two AvP films) have more to offer to the medium of film than Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, I find the work of the former to be trash and found There Will Be Blood to be a fine film, in the best sense. I was looking forward to this.

So it brings me no pleasure to write such a scathing review. I went with two friends, both of whom also hated it. In fact, I was the most forgiving, which I suspect, was due to having been the only one of us to suffer through The Tree of Life in its entirety. So if you liked that, then you will probably love this.

Let’s try to find some positives.

First of all, it is well put together, with some nice sequences and tracking shots. It had a nice gloss and looked authentically like the 1950s (or at least, what I imagine the 1950s to have looked like). It has a couple of beautiful shots of the sea and there is a lovely setup in a prison sequence.

Then there was the acting. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great physical performance playing a troubled veteran with a number of war wounds, both physical and psychological. However, for a significant portion of the film I could not see the character as much more than Phoenix acting (what is commonly known in the industry as Ben Affleck Syndrome), even if it was good acting. As the film progressed I became less conscious of this, which may have been little more than indifference caused by increasing levels of boredom watching him walk back and fore across a room for 15 minutes, touching the wall, then touching the window.

Stealing every scene he was in and by far the best thing about this film was the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader, Dodd. He was outstanding in every scene and certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, at least. Personally, I would put him in the Best Actor category, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, though there might be some debate about that. I’d even go so far as to say a second statuette for the hugely talented actor would be well deserved. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix got a nomination as well, though I am not entirely convinced by his performance.

Another person who should definitely get a nod (this time in the Best Supporting Actress category), and who was by far the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the film was Amy Adams playing Dodd’s long-struggling, yet ideologically committed and articulate wife, Peggy. Having seen her in little more than films for children (Enchanted) and those with large amounts of black humour (Sunshine Cleaning) I was surprised to see her take on such a heavy role and even more so when she delivered a pitch-perfect performance. Though she has very much on the periphery, she has a number of key scenes in which she has an oppertunity to do something and in each she matches Hoffman. A win for her would not be undeserved.

Well, that’s quite enough of that.

There has been a lot of good things said about this film (as opposed specifically for the actors) and for the life of me I can’t see why. I attribute part of this to the cult that surrounds Paul Thomas Anderson, as it does with most famous and highly talented film-makers. People want to like it so talk it up. Another reason might be the similarities with Scientology (which it is definitely not about), but if anything this simply detracts from the film itself and adds to the mundane nature of the thing. If it’s anything else, I can’t see it. But perhaps that is the point, perhaps I just don’t “get it”. But I think I did, just as I’m pretty sure I “got” The Tree of Life.

I just didn’t like it.

I never walk out of films, and I didn’t walk out of this one, but the thought seriously crossed my mind, which was one of the first moments I realized I really didn’t like it, despite my best efforts to do so. I also found myself wishing that it was a documentary on Scientology, which would have been far more interesting.

In the end, this films fails to satisfy. It is not a exposé of Scientology (for legal reasons as much as anything else), nor is a particularly good film, though it was clearly made by a good film-maker. By the end I didn’t learn anything about anything, nor did I feel anything other than relief it was all over.

Yet technically, it was well made and some of the performances (particularly Hoffman and Adams) were terrific. I can only imagine how powerful their performances would have been, had this been a better (or even a good) film. As it is, I would struggle to recommend watching it for their performances alone because everything else is just so dull.

This is a hard film to rate, but in the end I think everything balances itself out, just about.

Grade: C

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Death Wish (1974)

by Steve Habrat

One of the most controversial and shocking films to emerge from the 1970s is without question Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, a big studio production that seems like it would have been right at home in a seedy 42nd Street theater during the heyday of grindhouse theaters. At the time of its release, most critics waved off Death Wish, which was based off of the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, as a tasteless and empty-headed exploitation film that advocates vigilantism. While the film certainly never judges Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, a liberal man who takes the law into his own hands after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by a trio of drugged out street thugs, Winner certainly doesn’t make this transition from mild-mannered architect into cold blooded killer look easy or glamorous. About as bleak and unsettling as they come, Death Wish certainly isn’t as dumb as it has been made out to be. Star Bronson has said that he doesn’t believe that the film promotes an ordinary citizen taking the law into his or her own hands, but rather points out that violence just leads to more violence. No matter which way you choose to read Death Wish, I think we can all agree that this a film that really sticks with those who have seen it. It certainly isn’t a film that is afraid to shake the viewer up.

Shortly after returning from a sunny vacation in Hawaii, liberal architect Paul Kersey (Played by Charles Bronson) and his wife, Joanna (Played by Hope Lange), return to their upscale New York City apartment. The New York streets are a far cry from the sunny and peaceful beaches that the Kersey’s were lounging on. Crime runs rampant through the city streets and the police appear to be helpless to stop it. One afternoon, a group of street thugs break into the Kersey’s apartment and viciously assault Joanna and their daughter, Carol (Played by Kathleen Tolan). The attack results in the death of Joanna and Carol is sent into a catatonic state. Devastated, Paul and his son-in-law, Jack (Played by Steven Keats), slowly begin to realize that the police have little hope in catching the men who are responsible for this heinous crime. After receiving a gun as a gift from a satisfied client, Paul begins taking shooting lessons and then takes to the streets to hunt down muggers who hide in the darkened alleys. As the crime rates begin to fall, the police begin to secretly debate whether they should allow the vigilante to continue fighting back against scum or if he should be arrested for the killing spree.

Death Wish certainly takes its good old time getting to Paul’s killing spree. His slow descent into bloodthirsty madness is eerily realistic, especially when he dashes home after claiming his first victim and then vomits over what he has done. His revenge doesn’t come easy and I’m glad that Winner points this out. It is painful to watch his hope die as he the police fail to deliver any answers. It makes sense that Winner lingers on Paul’s emotional turmoil, because if the film jumped right into the killing spree, the film would be wildly redundant. When the film erupts in its fits of violence, it will make the hair on your arms stand up. The sequence between the street thugs and Paul’s family will have your stomach churning and you may even cover your eyes once or twice, especially when Carol is sexually assaulted. The scenes where Paul confronts muggers on the New York streets are tense and unpredictable, as Paul throws himself into vulnerable situations, only to reveal a pistol and blow the bad guys away. It is truly terrifying the way Paul begins to enjoy his work, faintly smiling when he hears news reports where ordinary citizens praise his work and even offer up their own tales of brutally fighting back against the unruly crime. One story about a little old lady stabbing a thug with a sewing needle was particularly disturbing.

In addition to the controversial subject matter, Death Wish also contains a classic performance from Charles Bronson, the mumbling hardass with a mustache. Bronson’s Paul is a seemingly peaceful and loving family man, a man who was a “conscientious objector” in the Korean War. He appears to have a great relationship with his son-in-law, who is quite fond of calling Paul “dad.” Even when Paul begins to really loose his marbles, he seems like he is coolly in control of his appalling actions. After his first squeamish night, he develops an insatiable love for punishment. Keats gives a jittery performance as the twitchy Jack, who is constantly looking to Paul for some sort of reassurance. He paces and slicks back his hair as he pours over the comatose Carol, desperate for her to be the person she once was. Vincent Gardenia shows up as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa, the man tasked with tracking down the vigilante and bringing him to justice. I was genuinely captivated by his confliction over bringing Paul in for his nightly actions. Also keep a look out for a young Jeff Goldblum as one of the thugs who breaks into Paul’s apartment and Denzel Washington as a mugger who makes the mistake of trying to stick up Mr. Bronson.

Despite being released in 1974, Death Wish still resonates today, especially when you turn on the news and hear about mass shootings and other unspeakable acts of violence tearing through America. It’s message is certainly troubling, especially since it refuses to ever criticize the trigger happy Paul. Yet when viewed as a portrait of a man consumed by grief, Death Wish is about as haunting as they come. You weirdly root for Paul to make his escapes from the scenes of his crimes and when one thug stabs him, things really get intense. It is incredibly difficult to believe that Paramount Studios, a major Hollywood Studio, was behind a film that is loaded with this much unblinking violence. The real shocker hits about fifteen minutes in with the prolonged torture of Paul’s family, a scene that more than once crosses into exploitation territory. It is tough to find Death Wish entertaining but it certainly is a thought provoking reflection of the violence in all of us that you can’t pull yourself away from. A gritty and unforgiving vision that I would certainly consider one of the most disturbing movies you are ever likely to see.

Grade: B+

Death Wish is available on DVD.

Doomsday Book (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Director Kim Ji-woon has established himself as something of a genre-hopper, so it is always interesting to see what he comes up with next. From black comedy (The Quiet Family), to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters), to gangsters (A Bittersweet Life), to Korea-based westerns (The Good, The Bad and The Weird), to serial killers (I Saw The Devil), he has tried his hand at all of them and succeeded masterfully. His ability to blend action, comedy and horrendous violence has of course, made him an attractive proposition to Hollywood and 2013 will see the release of his first English-speaking film, The Last Stand. This will see him tackle a story about an aging sheriff, starring none other than the former governor of California (still can’t get over that) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In some ways, Doomsday Book can be seen as taking care of some unfinished business before leaving town. A bit of research shows that this is in fact not a new film at all and indeed dates back to 2006. It is made up of three short films, each of which was originally intended to be directed by a different director, but funding fell through after the first two segments were filmed and the project was shelved. In 2010 production resumed and a third segment was filmed to complete the piece. The first segment is directed by Yim Pil-sing, whilst the second is by Kim Ji-woon and the final piece is a collaboration between the two of them. So whilst is it is somewhat unfair to focus the introduction on Kim, he is by far the more successful director and (to me at least) this is an introduction to Yim. And boy, this is one hell of an introduction.

The three segments are linked by the common theme of the self-destruction of humanity through technological innovation. We get the sense that neither director is particularly enamored with modernity nor with the general direction of society, though it does not come across as preaching due to the plentiful helpings of comedy, satire and absurdity through which the stories are told.

The first segment, entitled Brave New World, is a love story set in the middle of a zombie apocalypse which spreads through the food chain and causes society to break down. It looks very good and there are some similarity in terms of camerawork and presentation of scenes that remind me of David Fincher’s turn-of-the-millennium work. It mixes the gruesomeness and the humour well and it is blackly comic. I can say with confidence that it is certainly the best zombie horror/comedy crossover I’ve seen since Shaun of the Dead (apologies to the makers of Cockneys Vs Zombies, but it’s true). From this, I can say with certainty that I will be looking at more of his work in the not-too-distant-future.

Another point of note is that this contains a cameo from Bong Joon-ho, who is one of South Korea’s most successful directors (probably best known for directing The Host, of which there was talk of an English-language remake).

The second segment, Heavenly Creature, changes the mood completely. Kim tells the story of a robot in a Buddhist temple which attains enlightenment and therefore whose very existence brings all sorts of existential uncertainties.

From this point Kim takes the opportunity to ponder some of the greatest questions about life and spirituality, about the effect of technology on human existence and the place of humanity in the world. As would be expected, it’s a far more meditative piece, though it certainly doesn’t skimp on the humour. Once again, it looks beautiful.

As does the third segment, Happy Birthday. This takes the crisis of humanity away from the spiritual and back to the materialistic as a meteor heads for earth and people try to prepare for the end of the world. This is certainly the most absurd, or at least the most symbolic, of the three. Again, it is high on laughs and the satire of the media and of TV Shopping networks is very entertaining.

This trilogy is very reminiscent of the excellent UK TV series, Black Mirror, which presents a series of not-too-distant-future scenarios where technology has had serious adverse effects on human life. It is unrelentingly bleak and brilliant and if you liked this movie, then you should certainly watch it.

These are three excellent pieces and they hang together well as a movie, but as with all such projects I find it difficult to relax and watch as I’m constantly aware that it is going to reset quite quickly. Still, this is an excellent piece of work and though it is very ambitious, it does succeed. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Grade: A

Doomsday Book is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Lincoln (2012)

by Steve Habrat

I’m starting to think that there is no role too great for Mr. Daniel Day Lewis. The man continues to top himself with each new role and with Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg’s new war drama, he may have given the performance of his career. With Lewis’ uncanny performance as the centerpiece, Spielberg, who blew us away last year with heartwarming boy-and-his-horse drama War Horse, spins a film so rich, detailed, and satisfying, it almost demands a second viewing to fully appreciate this towering instant classic on a technical level. I was in absolute awe over the fussy attention of each set piece, astonished by the grade-A lighting flowing into each scene, and fully immersed in this meaty slice of informative history that drops us right into the thick of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. But it all comes down to Lewis, hidden behind a beard and a few expertly blended prosthetics, as he settles into the role with a thin but warm smile. He is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a weight that he sometimes begins to collapse under but hides with a clever story that will lighten the mood when the tempers flare and the nerves churn around him. You can’t help but admire this man even when Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dare to shed light on him in his fits of desperation.

Picking up during the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s (Played by Lewis) life, the Civil War continues to rage and the battle to end slavery is heating up in Washington. Lincoln, his Secretary of State, William Seward (Played by David Strathairn), and cranky abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Played by Tommy Lee Jones) join forces to gather the number of votes needed from opposing Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteen Amendment. As he attempts to convince those stubborn voters, Honest Abe uses his down-to-earth charm and hilarious anecdotes to win them over. He also sends out a trio of lobbyists, W.N Bilbo (Played by James Spader), Richard Schell (Played by Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (Played by John Hawkes), to earn votes. As the pressure to pass the Amendment and end the war escalates, Lincoln battles with his grieving wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Played by Sally Field) over the death of one of his sons and pleads with his son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Played by Joseph Gordon Levitt), about enlisting in the army.

At two and a half hours, Lincoln is far from the typical biopic that we all expected it to be. In all honestly, I think the final product would have suffered and bored us to tears if it chose to dive into Lincoln’s early years. The film opts to pull the curtain off of the small details and reveal the smoky meetings in the White House, where Lincoln and his staff debate over the best way to earn votes and win the war. When they can’t agree, Lincoln pauses and offers a little story to lighten the mood. Some of these stories are so veiled that they even stump Seward, who replies blankly with, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” When we aren’t in the meticulous drawing rooms of the White House, we are crammed into the stuffy House of Representatives, where the men bicker, scream, yell, and argue until they are blue in the face about the Thirteenth Amendment. While it certainly is interesting to get a behind the scenes look at this historical moment, it seems to lack suspense, mostly because we know the that the Amendment is going to be passed. In a way, that is the precise problem with Lincoln. There is never a moment where you are caught holding your breath. Instead, Spielberg focuses on carefully telling this historical epic in the grandest sense.

Then we Lewis, who pours everything he has into Honest Abe and completely disappears into the role of the 16th president. Folks, there are just simply not enough hours in the day to rave about this spellbinding performance. You just can’t help but love Abe as his lanky frame lumbers into a room and warmly embraces every face he meets. Lewis plays Lincoln as a sly politician who can win you over with a few perfectly delivered jokes. As a husband and father, Lincoln isn’t great but he tries his hardest. You can’t help but feel for the guy as he gets ripped up one side and down the other over the fact that he suggested the Mary be checked in to a mental institution when one of their sons died. He also doesn’t win any points with Robert, who begs Abe to let him enlist in the army. He rants about his embarrassment over not being able to wear a uniform during a party at the White House. The moment that hurt the worst was when Abe tries to reason with Robert but Robert just storms away in anger. As Abe watches his go, he silently whispers, “I can’t loose you.”

Lincoln may belong to Lewis but the supporting cast members are all brilliant in their own ways. Fields is an emotional force as Mary Todd Lincoln, who grapples with a grief that sends her into shocking fits of hysteria. Every blow of accusation she dishes out to Abe is even more severe then the last. When it comes to her politics, she can really grab a room. She shares a scene with the curmudgeon Stevens that finds a whole room holding their breath. Jones brings his long face to the role of Thaddeus Stevens, who is a firm defender of the Thirteenth Amendment. He is also handed a number of punchy one-liners to help keep things a bit playful (there is a good one about his wig). Levitt, who has been everywhere this year, shows up here as Abe’s antsy son Robert. He isn’t handed infinite amounts of screen time but his desperation to join the war is brave. Strathairn is firm and no-nonsense as Seward, the prickly Secretary of State who gets a little exasperated with old Abe and his anecdotes. Spader, Nelson, and Hawkes are all tasked with lightening the drama as three hilarious lobbyists. Spader is especially hilarious as he jogs after opposing Democrats and breathlessly argues and bribes them for their vote.

Despite ignoring his early years, Lincoln ends up feeling like the ultimate biopic, one that is immensely infatuated with its subject. Spielberg goes to great lengths to paint Lincoln as a man who isn’t perfect but is trying so desperately to do the right thing. Clearly a passion project, Spielberg pours his all into this and it shows right up to the end, making him a strong contender in the Best Director category at the Oscars. Lewis, meanwhile, should just be given the Best Actor Oscar right now and save the Academy the trouble of sorting out that category. So the question stands, is this Spielberg’s finest hour? Well, it is certainly is a triumph and it certainly ranks with the best of his work. Whether you love Spielberg or hate him, you can’t deny the fact that Lincoln is a touching, thoughtful, intelligent, reflective, and towering piece of filmmaking that will certainly be remembered for years to come. Best see it now so it can be admired on the big screen because your television will not do it justice.

Grade: A

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)

by Steve Habrat

If you’re a grindhouse fan and you’ve had your fill of spaghetti westerns, ziti zombie trash, shoddy kung-fu throwaways, gritty revenge outings, and jungle cannibal gross-outs, perhaps you should jump into the women in prison subgenre. Heavy on the sexual content and graphic torture sequences, this sleazy subgenre was born out of producer David F. Friedman and director Lee Frost’s 1969 Nazi exploitation film Love Camp 7, which was the first of the Nazi exploitation films. With Love Camp 7 being a massive hit, Friedman developed 1975’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which has become the bloody face of the women in prison subgenre. Directed by Don Edmonds and penned by Jonah Royston and John C.W. Saxon, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is ranked among the most shocking exploitation films to ever grace a movie screen. Certainly living up to its reputation, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is loaded with eyebrow-rising sex scenes and queasy torture sequences which make it a chore to get through, but would you believe that the film is actually good? That’s right, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is actually a pretty good movie. For those who can take it, this nasty little film is actually morbidly entertaining and strongly acted, with special credit going to the sadistic Dyanne Thorne, who is game for pretty much anything. Believe me, there is a good reason why Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS has stood the test of time.

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS takes us inside a concentration Camp 9 run by Commandant Ilsa (Played by Thorne), a big-breasted SS officer who is out to prove to Hitler that women are capable of withstanding more pain than men and should be allowed to serve in the army. By day, she performs her macabre experiments with the help of her two blonde sidekicks and by night, she selects male prisoners to pleasure her for the evening. Disgusted that no man can pleasure her all night, Ilsa punishes the unlucky chaps by castrating them and sometimes killing them. Ilsa soon meets her match when her forces capture Wolfe (Played by Gregory Knoph), an American who is capable of pleasuring a woman all night long. As Ilsa’s experiments grow more and more horrific with each passing day, the prisoners begin to plot their escape and revenge on Ilsa. Their plan is further complicated when an equally psychotic Nazi general drops in to evaluate Ilsa’s work.

Probably the furthest thing from high art, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is certainly a grim and gruesome affair. In fact, Ilsa is so extreme that even Friedman changed his name on the credits and has admitted disgust that he is even attached to the film. Yet despite having a flimsy D-grade plot and lingering a bit too long on the countless nude women in the film, it is actually played shockingly straight which makes it weirdly likable. It never seems to laugh at itself, even when Wolfe delivers lines like, “When I reached puberty, I discovered something about myself that set me apart from all the rest of the guys.” The torture sequences are just as stomach churning as you would expect, one even involving a giant dildo capable of dishing out a whole lot of anguish. Another jaw-dropping moment comes during a dinner party sequence, with a nude female prisoner standing on a block of ice and a noose tied firmly around her throat. It really makes you squirm, especially as the perverted Nazi general and Ilsa laugh heartily in her face. Much has been made out of the idea that the gore is vaguely erotic but I have to disagree. It sets out to repulse and it certainly does, especially when we get close ups of third degree burns, cuts infected with gangrene, and severe lashings. Credit should go to Joe Blasco, who is responsible for the gore effects and is responsible for making us want to loose our lunch. The film also features a climatic gunfight that will have you cheering on the prisoners who are out to exact revenge on the depraved psychos who get off on disfiguring them.

In the end, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS belongs to Thorne, who plays Ilsa as menacing as she possibly can. Loosely based on real-life Nazi Ilse Koch, Ilsa is surprisingly terrifying as she stomps around in her thigh-high boots and blood stained medical coat. She will make your skin crawl as she stares down her nose at a quivering Nazi general who begs Ilsa to remove her britches and pee on him. Needless to say, you’ll fear for the men that are forced to ravish her all night, especially with the knowledge that they will surely be tied to an operating table and have their manhood removed as Ilsa’s henchmen giggle with delight. It is obvious that Thorne is hamming it up for the camera and that she enjoys showing off her curvy body and you honestly can’t blame her. One can’t help but wonder what Thorne could have done with a real script and a character that wasn’t designed to simply shed her clothing. Knoph is stone faced as the self-described “machine” that can “do it” all night. I suppose his heart is in the right place as he sacrifices himself and shares a bed with the devil. Tony Mumolo also has a bit part as prisoner Mario, who has been robbed of his manhood by Ilsa but is patiently plotting his revenge.

Despite being made on the cheap and shot on the leftover sets of Hogan’s Heroes, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is still an insanely efficient film. It is gross and it is graphic with the gratuitous sex sequences but it is damn near impossible to pull away simply because you want to see the devil get what is coming to her. I wanted Ilsa to suffer and I wanted the prisoners to get far, far away from Camp 9. Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS also managed to earn a nod in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 ode-to-all-things-sleazy Grindhouse, which featured a fake trailer called Werewolf Women of the SS, directed by Rob Zombie. That fake trailer featured a few topless blondes who looked suspiciously similar to Ilsa and her bloodthirsty sidekicks. For those looking to jump into the exploitation arena, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS would be one of the films to start with. It has the thrills, the chills, the gore, and the sleaze that would really cut the viewers teeth on exploitation cinema. Plus, it is worth seeing for Thorne’s priceless performance. Overall, people may think me crazy for saying it but I actually really like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. It has some strong performances despite goofy dialogue, the make-up effects will drive horror fans crazy, and the premise is just ridiculous enough to work. Just make sure you wait a half hour after eating before watching.

Grade: B+

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is available on DVD. However, it is extremely hard to find and if you own a copy, it is worth a hefty sum of cash.

Argo (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.

Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.

While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.

Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.

Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.

Grade: A+

Most Anticipated Holiday Release… GO!

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

by Steve Habrat

I wish that Martin McDonagh would direct more movies. We haven’t seen much of the Irish screenwriter and director since his small but darkly hilarious 2008 film In Bruges, the scrappy hit-men-on-holiday thriller that brought out the funnyman in Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. In Bruges turned out to be one of the strongest films of 2008 but it was sorely overlooked when the “Best of the Year” lists were published. After a lengthy wait, we finally have Seven Psychopaths, the equally hilarious and shockingly gruesome send up of the gangster genre and Hollywood action vehicles. With the tongue and jaw of Quentin Tarantino and enough gore to make any member of the splat pack blush, Seven Psychopaths is a minor effort, one destined for cult popularity and late night viewings with your friends. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with its instant cult status but it certainly makes the film a bit alienating to the casual viewer. While there is plenty to love in Seven Psychopaths, there are a few little annoyances with the script that prevent it from achieving the greatness of In Bruges, but the star power is McDonagh’s greatest strength here and he more than allows Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits to unleash their inner freaks.

Seven Psychopaths introduces us to Marty (Played by Farrell), a struggling screenwriter with a massive drinking problem. He spends his days in sunny Los Angeles with his buddy Billy (Played by Rockwell), an unemployed actor who kidnaps dogs with Hans (Played by Walken), a seemingly mild mannered man with a violent past. Hans and Billy then return the stolen pups to their owners and claim the rewards. After Hans and Billy kidnap a Shih Tzu that belongs to unhinged gangster Charlie (Played by Harrelson), Billy, Hans, and Marty go on the run from the ruthless gangster who will do anything to get his dog back. Meanwhile, Marty is scraping for ideas for a screenplay he is writing called “Seven Psychopaths” and seeking out individuals who consider themselves “psychos.” Along the way, he encounters Zachariah Rigby (Played by Waits), who traveled around with his wife killing serial killers and a masked vigilante who targets high-ranking members of the mob. As all of their paths cross, the bullets begin to fly and dead bodies stack up.

While the script is packed with plenty of comedic banter between all these wackos, Seven Psychopath hits a snag in the way it chooses to handle some of the characters. Olga Kurylenko shows up briefly as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela and Abbie Cornish is the in the mix as Marty’s fed up galpal Kaya but neither are given very much to do. While the death of one of these female characters is used to comment on the way that women are handled in action movies (it is hilariously dissected), I would have really loved to see one of them get down and bloody with the boys but that never happens. There is also another main character that I think was grossly mishandled and should have played a bigger part in the film, especially after the taste that we get of him. It is tough to discuss these flaws because Seven Psychopaths is just loaded with twists and turns that add to the fun, especially with its characters. I also think that when the characters step out of the sunny Los Angeles streets, things don’t run as smoothly as McDonagh thinks they do. There is still something to be said about the way that McDonagh spirals towards the ending, teasing us with ideas of a grand gunfight and characters dying in a slow-motion hail of gunfire, all while doing it behind a never-ending sea of hysterical one liners to keep things playful.

Seven Psychopaths is never ashamed to be a bloody character piece, one that has plenty of emotion weight behind each character. Marty wins us over almost instantly as a scribe perpetually recovering from the night before, shaking himself out of a hangover with a freshly cracked beer. He is basically the only (semi) normal one of the bunch and his reactions to the sudden violence thrown into his world are insanely realistic and knee slapping. Rockwell continues to prove why he is a talent to be reckoned with as mile-a-minute Billy, the eager chum who wants so desperately to help with Marty’s new screenplay. McDonagh hands him all the best lines of the film and he’s the one who gets to rant and rave about how he wants their situation to end. Walken is his usual self as Hans, a crafty old bat who just wants to take care of his sick wife. At times, Walken seems to be playing a cartoonish version of himself but he has never been as bad ass as he is at the end of this film (his reaction to someone aiming a gun at him is classic). Harrelson is a welcome presence as lunatic gangster Charlie, who will do ANYTHING to get his beloved dog back. He flits between menacing and hilarious in the blink of an eye, bring that demented gleam in his eye that we saw in Natural Born Killers. Rounding out the main characters in Waits as Zachariah Rigby, who gets probably the most shocking sequence of the entire movie. His character is as inspired as they come and the way that McDonagh weaves history into his character is downright brilliant.

While In Bruges certainly had its fair share of blood, Seven Psychopaths brings the blood, the guts, and splattered brains. There are jolting fits of violence and sudden confrontations that would make Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as giddy as as schoolgirls. The way that the film introduces us to each “psychopath” is also pretty inspired, some of them emerging from Marty’s own screenplay while others joining the “real world” madness. It may be gratuitous and it may be gonzo but Seven Psychopaths can catch you off guard with its serious moments, a trick that allows the film to linger a little longer than you may anticipate. Be prepared to be knocked down a peg here or there and be even more prepared to actually feel it. Overall, it may get a bit jumbled from time to time and you may need a second viewing just to put it all together (there are a lot of characters and stories here), but Seven Psychopaths is a witty and left-of-center comedic satire that, once again, leaves me wanting more from Mr. McDonagh. I just hope we don’t have to wait another four years for him to grace us with his presence. That is just too long to make us wait!

Grade: A-

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

by Craig Thomas

Indonesian films do not usually get much coverage in the UK. So it was with some surprise that I noticed The Raid: Redemption seemed to feature prominently on a variety of shows. Not only was it reviewed by the film critics, but it also appeared in features on general interest TV and even the news. The level of coverage for a non-English speaking film was somewhat perplexing. As a nation, we are not great consumers of the subtitled. So what was all the fuss about? Well, there was a lot of praise both for the film and it’s writer/director, the distinctly un-Indonesian Gareth Evans. The coverage was not so much about the film, but rather the story of a boy from Wales (For those who might not know, it’s a country next to England. Birthplace of Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Anthony Hopkins and technically, Christian Bale) who grew up, studied Scriptwriting in university, moved to Indonesia and made a successful movie full of non-stop action and horrendous violence. A proper kid done good story. And if there’s one thing we Brits like more than revelling in the failures of others, it’s undeservedly basking in their glory.

So what of the film? Well, it’s non-stop action in the truest sense. There’s two minutes of back-story for one of the characters, then five minutes of exposition in the form of a mission-briefing to a truckload of heavily-armed police officers, which can be summarized thusly; a very bad man owns a building and rents out the rooms to other very bad men. The police are going in to get the very bad man, but to do so have to go through all the other very bad men.

The next 90 minutes is a full-on assault of violence that would make Tarantino blush. People are shot, stabbed, garrotted, exploded, hacked, and subjected to non-stop barrages of the Indonesian martial art, pencak silat. That is pretty much the whole film, except it’s not. There’s a number of sub-plots that keep the momentum going and turn it into something a bit more interesting than people just beating each other up. I won’t go into these as it doesn’t add anything to the review and might detract from the film, but there are numerous twists and turns to give the violence some context.

It is always difficult to judge the quality of dialogue in a subtitled film, but it seemed well-written. Each line served a purpose, but also seemed natural, not just an attempt to shoe-horn in a plot point. There were also more than a couple of moments of black humour. It is very much a post-Reservoir Dogs action film, in that the juxtaposition of comedy and violence derives from the predicaments the characters find themselves in and is used to lighten the mood momentarily before plunging you back into the horror of the situation. This contrasts strongly with the action movies of the 1980s, which are seemingly (some might say unfortunately) making a comeback now, where throw-away quips are used to detract from, and almost legitimize, the extreme violence on display.

The script, like the film in general, is very lean. There is nothing here that is unnecessary or causes it to feel bloated. The editing is very quick and the camera movement means that the fight scenes do no blur into one another, and that the longer ones do not become a chore. This brings me to the most obvious thing about this film, namely the choreography. In a word, it is excellent. Making up the bulk of the movie, these scenes are expertly crafted and never feel stale nor repetitive and part of that is down to the good writing. There is a great deal of variety, without it drifting into the totally preposterous. As the tension increases, the weapons decrease (from machine guns, to hand guns, to knives, to whatever’s at hand, to bare hands) and the action becomes more elaborate, but somehow avoids becoming a farce. I can’t imagine the physical strain performing all those routines must have had on the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast and who make the characters compelling, even though there is virtually no back-story presented to the audience.

This is a very enjoyable film and manages to sustain the high-octane pace for the duration without outstaying its welcome. Visually, it is very impressive and the fight scenes are immense. Yet there are also a number of themes bubbling under the surface it which prevent it from becoming one-dimensional. This is a great action film with some brilliant fight scenes. That it was made by a fellow Welshman makes it doubly sweet.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I can confirm there will be both an English remake and an Indonesian sequel.

Grade: B

The Raid: Redemption is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Frankenweenie (2012)

by Steve Habrat

In the wake of his stellar 2007 musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton churned out two horribly inconsistent remakes that were typical exercises in pricey style over script substance. Alice in Wonderland found Disney filling each frame with sugary 3D effects and sprawling CGI landscapes that looked like it was inspired by Burton rather than actually crafted by him. The film was a disaster but I pointed my blame more at Disney than Burton. This summer’s Dark Shadows remake was another catastrophe that suggested that maybe Burton did deserve some of the blame for these movies flying wildly off their gothic tracks. Needless to say, I was a bit worried going in to Frankenweenie, the third horror-themed kiddie flick of the late summer and early fall (the other two being ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania). Well, after two massive duds, Mr. Burton is finally on the right track again and firing on all creative cylinders. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Frankenweenie ranks near the top as one of Burton’s strongest films in his vault. While some children and adults may be turned off due to the black and white presentation of the film and the morbid subject matter, Frankenweenie thrills, chills, and even tickles movie buffs with a strong affection for the classic Universal monsters, 40’s and 50’s B-movies, and Hammer horror offerings. Plus, it truly is difficult to resist a story about a boy and his undead pup.

Frankenweenie ushers us into the small town of New Holland, where we meet young outsider Victor Frankenstein (Voiced by Charlie Tahan), a lanky amateur filmmaker and brilliant scientist who adores his feisty bull terrier Sparky. Victor’s parents, Edward (Voiced by Martin Short) and Susan (Voiced by Catherine O’Hara), encourage Victor to step out of his comfort zone and join the baseball team at school. During his first game, the Frankenstein’s bring Spark to watch Victor play, but after he knocks the ball out of the park, Sparky chases after the ball and is hit by a car. Victor is devastated by the loss but his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Voiced by Martin Landau) inadvertently gives Victor the idea of using electricity to bring Spark back from the dead. Confident he can pull off the experiment, Victor rushes out to dig up his four-legged friend and reanimate him as quickly as possible. Determined to keep his experiment a secret, Victor is soon found out by fellow outsider Edgar “E” Gore (Voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who blackmails Victor into teaching him how to reanimate deceased pets for the science fair. Meanwhile, the cranky New Holland mayor, Mr. Bergermeister (Voiced by Martin Short) suspects that Victor is up to something strange in his attic laboratory. As more and more dead pets are unleashed on the town, Victor turns to his crush and next-door neighbor, Elsa van Helsing (Voiced by Winona Ryder), for help from the angry mobs who wish to send these abominations of science back to the grave.

With Burton in complete control of his vision and Disney doing very little to screw it up, he cleverly builds upon his 1984 short film of the same name. Frankenweenie is a ghoulish and cobwebbed celebration of classic monsters and dated creature features that inspired Burton as a young boy. I was consistently astonished the way that Burton works references to Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon into Frankenweenie and figures out a way to make all these films flow together without stretching it. These references absolutely hilarious, that is if you are in on the jokes and have seen the movies. If the Universal monsters weren’t enough, Burton also tosses in Godzilla, Vincent Price, and Hammer’s crown jewel Horror of Dracula just to let you know he loves those movies too. You may also catch a whiff of Edward Scissorhands with the overall look of New Holland and there is even a Nightmare Before Christmas aura in the pet cemetery where the adorable Sparky is buried. Frankenweenie also dares to be a little creepy in places, which was incredibly impressive considering most straightforward horror films can’t even muster an effective jump scare.

And then we have the wonderfully voiced and illustrated characters, all who despite being made of clay and plastic, jump to life in incredible ways. I absolutely loved the loner Victor and I could relate to his sadness over the loss of a beloved pet. I had to have both of my dogs put down in the same year and it was absolutely devastating. I just wanted to reach through the screen and hug the little guy. Then we have Sparky, the playful pup who enjoys passing a ball under his backyard fence to Elsa’s poodle, Persephone. I grinned ear to ear when she sniffed Sparky’s bolts and received a shock that left two white streaks that have her looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. While the adults are all fairly straightforward (Short and O’Hara voice stereotypical concerned yet hilariously oblivious parents), the kids are the real treat. The grave and monotone Nassor (Voiced by Short) will grab laughs as he commands his mummified Colossus to crawl from its tomb (wait until you get a look a Colossus) and Weird Girl (Voiced by O’Hara) is creepy fun as she walks around bug-eyed with her cat curled up in her arms. The chunky Bob (Voiced by Robert Capron) and the scheming Toshiaki (Voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao) hilariously compete with Victor and the results are as macabre as you can imagine. Ryder is appropriately mopey as Elsa, who I wish we would have seen more of and Landau purrs through his work as Vincent Price-esque science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who appears to have just rolled out of his grave.

While it is truly depressing that Adam Sandler’s limp Hotel Transylvania beat out Frankenweenie at the box office, it was really hard to see families flocking to a film like this. This is pretty bizarre territory but I sincerely hope that this finds an afterlife on Blu-ray, which I suspect it will, especially with the Hot Topic crowd who go bonkers for Jack Skellington. Personally, I feel like Frankenweenie was more appropriate for the fall/Halloween season as it does offer more than a few creepy moments that are sure to raise the hair on your arms. For the first time in quite a while, it seems like Burton is working from the heart rather than just rolling up his sleeves for a paycheck. I never got the feeling like he was bored with the material or under pressure from the studio, which was a relief. I absolutely loved the monsters-run-amok ending and I can honestly say it was much more thrilling than anything found in Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. And then there is the overwhelming emotion that takes hold in certain places, something that many can relate to, especially if they have lost a pet. It may be a small effort but it’s a passion project that pays off. While I loved the weird and wacky ParaNorman, I think I have to go with the heartwarming Frankenweenie as the best animated film of the year.

Grade: A+