A Horrible Way to Die – 7/10.

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Super bleak but powerful horror.

AJ Bowen puts in a charismatic performance

AJ Bowen puts in a charismatic performance

Far away from the seemingly endless stream of found footage movies and ghost stories currently stinking up theatre screens there is an impressive slew of underground horror directors slowly building momentum. Along with Ti West, A Horrible Way to Die director Adam Wingard is at the forefront of this scene following his success with You’re Next and his involvement with both the V/H/S and The ABCs of Death chronicles.

A Horrible Way to Die is an arty but brutal ‘what if?’ story in this case posing the question ‘what if your boyfriend is a serial killer?’. This question is a powerful one as it causes fear and uncertainty to breed in the one place that it never should – in your own home and in the arms of your loved one.

Amy Seimetz as the shell shocked and vulnerable Sarah.

Amy Seimetz as the shell shocked and vulnerable Sarah.

While not particularly high concept the constant extreme close ups and chilling choral score make for a unique and memorable viewing experience. This helps to frame three really top class performances with The Sacrament’s AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg acting as the perfect foil to Amy Seimetz tragic heroine. Bowen in particular is superb as convicted killer Garrick Turrell and a more cynical director could have made a horror franchise off the back of this performance but it is clear with Wingard as with West that the project is more important than the pay check and this is something to be lauded now more than ever.

A Horrible Way to Die is not revolutionary but it is a further example of the direction that horror films should definitely be going. Wingard’s next move will be to remake much loved and critically acclaimed South Korean horror flick I Saw the Devil… No pressure then.

The Saw Franchise – A Retrospective (Part 2)

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Continuing my look at a maligned but underrated series…

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Saw III is probably the strongest of all the sequels with Angus Macfadyen and Bahar Soomekh both excellent as Jeff and Lynn Denlon respectively. The strong performances from both actors plus the continued presence of Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith and Donnie Wahlberg along with the excellent plotting and breathtaking plot twists almost put Saw III on par with Saw.

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Donnie Wahlberg brought a welcome touch of class to Saw II in terms of acting.

The third Saw instalment also sees the introduction of Mark Hoffman albeit briefly who would go on to become the main antagonist in the later sequels.

The ending of Saw III in particular is a genuine tour de force with Jeff and Amanda failing their tests resulting in the iconic deaths of both Jigsaw and Lynn Denlon. The Saw franchise would struggle and indeed ultimately fail to match up to Saw III. Failing to sustain this level of quality only added to the harsh reception that the other sequels received.

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Jeff Denlon is one of the better characters in the sequels.

Saw IV brings with it a lot of things that would become criticisms of the later sequels. Overcomplicated plotting, poor acting and the feeling that the Saw films now exist solely to provide a platform for the increasingly elaborate and brutal traps.

The argument that the Saw sequels are more than just a series of death scenes can be found in the aforementioned criticism itself. From Saw IV onwards the plotting is complicated. This is not to mask the lack of ideas however. When watched back to back it becomes clear that there is an ambition in the writing that is so often missing from horror films. As I touched on earlier the Final Destination franchise ended up being a series of death scenes punctuated with terrible acting and Saw tends to be thrown in with that kind of film but as the sheer scale of the storyline becomes more clear we see that Saw deserves to be treated with much more respect.

Even though only a year separates each Saw sequel, the plot is so hard to follow and so many new characters are introduced that a lot of viewers were left alienated. It is only when watching the films back to back that the story makes sense.

One thing to consider about Saw IV is unlike nearly all other horror franchise’s the main villain is not miraculously returned from the dead. Jigsaws death at the end of Saw III is final and it is a testament to the series that the four films that follow don’t really feel forced despite the loss of the antagonist.

Something else that sets Saw apart from its peers is the decision to have all the leads as adults rather than teens which is almost unprecedented for a horror franchise and also means the general standard of acting is improved.

The story continues with Saw V. Here we have confirmation of Hoffman as the new Jigsaw killer and unfortunately the first big misstep in the series with the decision to bring agent Peter Strahm to the fore. Scott Paterson’s Strahm and Costas Mandylor’s Hoffman are too similar both physically and in acting style and this was one of the factors that encouraged heavy criticism of the Saw franchise for the first time with one critic commenting ‘Saw V is a particularly dull and discombobulated affair, shot and acted with all the flair of a basic-cable procedural’.

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Hoffman stepped out of Jigsaws shadow to be a sinister movie villain in his own right

Saw 3D aside, Saw V is the weakest of the franchise, although Strahm being crushed between two walls at the climax is the most memorable death scene since the difficult to watch pig vat trap back in Saw III.

Saw VI has the main plot focused around William Easton. The man who denied Jigsaw health insurance upon hearing of his illness. While the Easton story line is interesting and produces some of the best traps of the series (the shotgun carousel scene in particular), the tenuous link between Jigsaw and Easton grates slightly. Who is Jigsaw’s next victim? Someone who took his seat on a train in 1993? A man who once wore the same t-shirt as him at a party?

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William Easton was perhaps unfortunate to be targeted by Jigsaw.

The sub plot of Hoffman and Jigsaws wife Jill Tuck continues the linear feel of the previous films nicely and the climax of Saw VI is unforgettable. There is an annoying tendency in the horror community to beatify foreign language or underground horror films as somehow more violent and gruesome as their Western and more mainstream cousins. The Saw films were viewed as something as a joke at this point. Upon revisiting the franchise though it is clear that the Saw VI was still pushing the boundaries in terms of visual horror and violence. There is nothing in much revered shock horrors like Inside or Martyrs that makes them more sickening than Saw VI and the conclusion is grim and difficult to watch rather than gimmicky or ridiculous.

It is such a shame then that the lasting impression most people have of the Saw franchise is Saw 3D. The final instalment feels like the dying breath of one of Jigsaw’s victims such is its lack of punch or even cheap shock value. The Hoffman/Jill Tuck storyline feels stretched out. Wheeling out Cary Elwes Dr. Gordon for the finale feels strained and daft and Saw 3D is in no way a fitting end to what is a brilliant franchise. The fact that people are already correctly starting to realize that re-emergence of 3D was not only a bad thing but also a fad that will once again fade as it did in the 80’s, only adds to the sense of disappointment when looking back at Saw 3D.

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When considering the criticism of the Saw’s IV, V and VI it is important to put things into a bit of context. When compared to the later films in Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Hellraiser or Friday 13th franchise’s the Saw sequels can hold their head up high safe in the knowledge that in terms of consistency and ambition they deserve their place among horrors upper echelons.

The Saw Franchise – A Retrospective (Part 1)

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Following my reappraisal of the Foo Fighters discography, I decided to look back at something completely different this time…

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Saw was correctly praised as one of the most original and harrowing horror films of recent years when it hit in 2004. The series as a whole however has seen its legacy lose stock with every poorly received release, culminating in the critically panned final chapter Saw 3D. In the context of horror franchise’s though, should highly revered works like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween be considered classics whilst Saw is banished to the same torture porn and overly commercial dustbin occupied by Final Destination and Hostel.

In the words of Raoul Duke ‘it is time for an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene’.

One thing that isn’t in doubt is that the original Saw is widely considered a classic. This comes in despite of Danny Glover doing his utmost to undermine the whole thing with his over the top portrayal of crazed detective David Tapp, who one can only imagine is definitely too old for this shit.

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Glover aside, the rest of the cast is particularly strong for a horror film. Cary Elwes impresses in an unfamiliar role as Dr. Gordon and series co creator Leigh Whannell’s Adam is charismatic and likeable, even if Whannell’s acting is a little rough around the edges.

Series favourite Shawnee Smith also makes her first appearance as Amanda in the infamous reverse bear trap scene which is one of the most memorable of the entire franchise.

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This scene is a cause of consternation. Not because of the violence, but because there is a plot hole so huge that it threatens to undermine everything that follows.

In the sequels the Jigsaw killer John Kramer repeatedly delivers the mantra that he has never killed anyone and that he detests murderers. The whole point of the series is that Jigsaw is trying to offer his victims a chance of redemption, an opportunity to see the world in a new light.

During the reverse bear trap scene Amanda is tasked with cutting open a heavily sedated but conscious man who lies prone on the floor, to retrieve the key that unlocks the reverse bear trap. Amanda succeeds in this gruesome task and so walks free and learns to appreciate her life (and also becomes Jigsaws right hand man.)

The problem lies with the man who has the key inside him. What is his game? Where is his chance for redemption? This man is seen as little more than cannon fodder by Kramer. An afterthought even. Kramer treats the poor soul with the same contempt that he himself has suffered since being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. This smacks of hypocrisy on Kramer’s part and downright negligence on the part of the film makers.

The reverse bear trap scene aside though there is no denying that the inaugural Saw film was a shot in the arm for the horror genre that had been moribund since Blair Witch Project, and also a pop culture phenomenon.

Saw II, released a year later, saw a change in tone from the original but carried on with a linear story and was the introduction of the ‘house of horrors’ style set up that would come to frame the rest of the franchise.

Donnie Wahlberg becomes the protagonist and holds Saw II together in many ways as a lot of the acting is your standard horror film fare with the characters badly written and forgettable.

Alongside Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith’s Amanda comes to the fore and this is the first film in the franchise where we get a good look at Tobin Bell as Jigsaw.

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Bell, Smith and Wahlberg ensure that Saw II is a worthy sequel. The gloomy, psychological horror from the original is replaced by a more nasty and brutal feel – almost like an episode of the Crystal Maze as imagine by Edgar Allen Poe, with the emphasis strongly swinging away from the characters and towards the elaborate traps.

Saw II would set the blueprint for all five films that would follow it. Either a group of strangers wake up in a strange place and have to perform a series of barbaric tasks in order to escape or one person encounters a series of traps populated by people from their own life. This always ends with a big, Sixth Sense style reveal at the climax and the common theme that links all seven films together is sacrifice.

American Sniper – 7.5/10.

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He might shout at empty chairs once in a while but Clint Eastwood knows how to tell a story…

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First off, the elephant in the room. Any film about the war in Iraq is always going to be controversial. A film celebrating the life of a sniper in the U.S army who described Iraqi insurgents as ‘savages’ and also told of how he ‘loved’ killing them, takes this controversy to a new level. American Sniper is not a propaganda film or a recruitment video however. It is at its essence entertainment and should be treated as such.

With that out of the way is American Sniper actually any good? I am happy to say that it is mostly successful. Bradley Cooper continues his incredible trajectory with another confident and touching performance. To receive Oscar noms in three consecutive films as diverse as Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and American Sniper is quite the achievement for Cooper and all the work that he put in to become protagonist Chris Ryan pays off in spades.

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American Sniper does dip a little in the middle with a long Zero Dark Thirty style shoot out. I always think the most boring parts of any war film is the actual fighting itself which is one of the reasons I enjoyed Jarhead so much. Even in these moments Bradley Cooper injects a personal touch into what should be disconnecting fighting scenes.

Cooper smoulders with an intensity that bubbles under even in the quieter scenes and his co star Sienna Miller overcomes any doubts that anyone could have had about her ability to pull off a role as emotive as Chris Ryan’s wife Taya. Eastwood has a history of getting the most out of his cast and everyone in support seems to have bought into what is an astounding story no matter what your political alliances are.

Is Chris Ryan a hero? It depends who you ask. Does it matter? Not in the context of this film. A stunning return to form for Eastwood and more of the same from Cooper.

Stewart Lee brings his Room With A Stew tour to Doncaster’s Cast Theatre

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Stewart Lee

Coming off the back of his latest critically lauded series of Comedy Vehicle, Stewart Lee arrived at Doncaster’s Cask Theatre on typically confrontational form – ‘there used to be a perfectly good theatre here that I enjoyed playing in… it’s just fields now’. This wasn’t to be the only personal touch afforded to the Doncaster audience, ‘I see all of Doncaster’s guardian readers have turned out’, Lee noted. He later added ‘I might go over the allocated time tonight but let’s face it there is nothing else to do in Doncaster’. While Lee probably wasn’t joking, as he would tell you himself he rarely tells a joke, it is this all out assault on his long suffering audience that makes his comedy routine so unique and so polarizing.

His critics may call him a champagne socialist who isn’t funny but Lee had the full backing of a vocal Doncaster crowd no matter how much he tried to convince us that he didn’t. He repeatedly made references to the upper tier not understanding his act or having showed up to the wrong gig and almost twenty minutes were allocated to one unfortunate punter who had the temerity to show up late.

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Lee is at once like a fine wine and a forgotten carton of milk in as much his act seems to improve with age as he grows ever more sour and bitter. The argument that Lee has become a caricature is redundant when he is this funny, whilst still delivering biting social satire with a healthy dollop of the ridiculous. Lee is just as comfortable talking about Paul Nuttal of ‘UKIPS’ as he is imagining what the national radio station of Azerbaijan would sound like. Indeed, he seemed almost TOO comfortable with the latter as he spent a good fifteen minutes making random sounds and words to form a hypothetical Azerbaijani song. This was the closest Lee came to losing some sections of the audience, but that was always his intention, and he appeared almost annoyed that some people stuck with him throughout what was an absurd section.

Stewart Lee is a London based, Oxford schooled comedian but his left leaning politics, keen satirical eye and the fact that he is still happy to squeeze in a bit of potty humour, ensures that he will always have an adoring crowd in Doncaster. Come again soon Stew!

This article first appeared in Doncopolitan magazine:

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Kung Fury 7/10.

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Taking on the unenviable task of making 80s cop movies seem more ridiculous than they already are…

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Kung Fury is a homage/parody not just to buddy cop movies but to 80’s movies in general. Think Running Man, Lethal Weapon, Escape from LA, stuff like that.

The problem with parodying such a ludicrous era is that so much of it already feels like a parody of itself. Kung Fury really ramps things up though to the point that a lot of the visual jokes are so out there it is actually shockingly funny. Cult classic and blaxploitation parody Black Dynamite overcame a similar problem the same way.

A feature length film based around this concept would have been too much but thirty minutes is perfect for director/actor David Sandberg to see his project realized in spectacular fashion via a budget raised almost entirely from crowd fund project Kickstarter.

Sandberg is hilarious as well as being really really good looking and I would be interested to see him take on something else actually, such is the quality and imagination behind Kung Fury.

Any film with Adolf Hitler portrayed as a Nazi ninja called Kung F├╝hrer is worth looking into as far as I am concerned.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – 3/10

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Producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman continue to flog dead horses whilst ruining people’s childhoods.

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Contrary to popular belief I actually think that Michael Bay did a decent job with the first Transformers movie. It was pretty faithful to the cartoon and the child in all of us fulfilled an ambition to watch robot behemoths battling it out. The problem with taking on the turtles project isn’t just the execution but the source material itself.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had already spawned four feature length movies, various TV shows and endless merchandise before this project begun. There was a clamour to see a return of the Transformers by the time it was rebooted in 2007 but is anyone really interested in seeing the ailing TMNT brand rebooted? (apparently yes according to the box office results).

Anyone hoping for a nostalgia trip back to their childhoods will be bitterly disappointed. Some characters such as April O’Neil and Shredder are unrecognisable from the cartoon whilst others such as Casey Jones, Krang and Bebop & Rocksteady are absent entirely.

The only constant is the turtles themselves who are still stuck in a time warp of pop culture references and horribly dated 80’s pastiche. Even with comedic genius Will Arnett featuring prominently, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is never intentionally funny and the script throughout is unforgivably cheesy and cringe inducing.

People don’t particularly act in Michael Bay films but even with such low standards Megan Fox continues to be an annoyance and is woefully miscast as April O’Neil while William Fichtner and Whoopi Goldberg look faintly embarrassed throughout.

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All this equates to a franchise that didn’t need rebooting filled with rubbish acting and corny dialogue. Possibly the worst reboot of all time.