Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

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Brazil has long been famous for many things. Beautiful beaches, tanned gorgeous people, soccer, carnivals and more. But in more recent times, the movies emerging from the country have exposed a darker side, most notably in the drugs and guns of City of God (2002). Along similar lines was Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad (2007), which revealed a Rio of two worlds. The wealthy, idyllic side and the poverty of the slums. Caught between them were the police, battling both criminals and the temptation of corruption.

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Troll Hunter

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Buried amongst the recent glut of “found footage” horror films there is the occasional gem that raises a glimmer of hope that all is not lost to soulless studio systems and calculated money-men (unsurprisingly the US acquired remake rights for this before it’d even opened stateside). Troll Hunter is an independent Norwegian production that, along with titles such as Rare Exports and Dead Snow, once again goes to show the Scandinavians have more up their sleeve than Fjords and Black Metal.

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Love Exposure

Love-Exposure

Wow. Some films try to cover a fair bit of ground. Love Exposure is more like some vast, country-spanning blanket. A four-hour movie both epic and perversely intimate, it takes on religion, sexual awakening, abuse, family, relationships…oh, and the art of kung fu upskirt photography.

The story follows Tokyo teenager Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima) through a period of self-discovery in his life. His mother dies, and his Catholic priest father falls for a morally-dubious woman. Left feeling abandoned, Yu decides to sin just to have an excuse to see his father in the confessional.

The sinning quickly escalates as Yu shows a remarkable aptitude for the art of taking clandestine photographs up the skirts of young women in public places – with the aid of cameras on elastic bands, cameras on remote control cars and acrobatics. This proves too much for his father, who casts him out just as Yu has a passing encounter with the girl of his dreams, abuse-survivor Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). The problem? Yu met her while dressed in drag and now is forced to pretend to be a woman in order to be close to her.

Amazingly, that synopsis is only the tip of the iceberg. But rather than become a mess, this instead is a delirious ride that manages to blend introspection with giddy entertainment.

Director Sono Shion is best known for Suicide Club (2001), a satiric swipe at youth culture in Japan. With Love Exposure he takes on a larger palette of more universal themes. Yu is lost without his parents and seeks somewhere – anywhere – to belong. Yet all he really wants is the reunification of family. His father is torn between the lure of sex and the tenets of his religious devotion. Yoko is driven by hatred, yet desperate for love. Above them all is the temptation of a religious cult, of a place where they can give up responsibility or choice…but is it true happiness or just delusion?

There are a lot of elements to juggle in the 237 minutes of running time and for the most part, Sono Shion does a remarkable job by keeping the focus tight and following Yu through an often bizarre series of events. Perhaps things become a bit muddy in the final act and some of the thematic issues raised to not get wrapped up perfectly, but that is only a minor quibble against such an enjoyable film.

A rare beast that manages to be layered and thought-provoking, more than anything Love Exposure is just a damn lot of fun.

Available on R4 DVD from Madman.

 

Diary of the Dead

diary-of-the-deadGeorge Romero is rightly feted as one of the greatest horror directors of all time. Not for intelligent, underrated fare like Martin, The Crazies or Monkey Shines, but for the Holy Trilogy of Horror Movies – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.

To say Romero’s zombie trilogy changed horror is an understatement on a grand scale. The man’s ideas launched careers from their imitators and continue to do so to this day. They upped the ante for gore, for scale and sheer nihilism (particularly the black-as-pitch Day). But most importantly, they reminded everyone that horror could be the most potent vehicle for social commentary.

Dawn of the Dead rose to popularity on a wave of grue and the glory of shooting hundreds of zombies, but beneath it all was a vicious swipe at a consumer society. Its heroes hole up in a mall, that icon of consumerism, where they find they have all the luxuries of modern society – fancy clothes, video games, junk food and jewellery. Yet, in the end, it all counts for nothing, an empty Grail, and their sanctuary comes crashing down in a pointless war with another group for control of its useless store of gold watches and non-functioning televisions.

When Romero finally got a studio break in the wake of the success of the Dawn of the Dead remake, the result was the weak Land of the Dead. Whilst still bristling with zombie set-pieces and great effects, the subtext had become text. The commentary against the Bush administration in the US was heavy-handed and got in the way of producing an entertaining movie.

And so to Diary of the Dead. Hopes were high that this would show Land as being a mere glitch, that Romero could still hit one out of the park, even more than two decades after Day of the Dead. He was returning to his roots in more than one way, too – a cheap indie production using prosumer digital cameras and a return to the very start of the zombie outbreak.

But the results only showed that Land of the Dead was not the nadir.

The set-up for Diary of the Dead is that it has been edited together by a film student from footage shot by another film student – her boyfriend – during the first days of a zombie outbreak. We see first-hand as the students first hear of the disaster and then try to connect up with loved ones on a desperate road trip. Along the way they run into an infested hospital, wayward National Guard soldiers and a dynamite-toting deaf-mute Amish zombie slayer.

The commentary this time out had the potential to be interesting. The ‘point of view’ gimmick is used to ask questions about the nature of observation, especially through a camera. Do we care about anything, now, if it is not captured on video? Why do we upload every image, every experience, every opinion to the Internet? Does being behind a camera somehow remove us from the morality of the situation? Unfortunately, these questions – and possible answers – are not so much implied as stated. Literally, in a voiceover by one of the characters.

The result is a preachy lecture of a movie where the plot itself is nothing we haven’t seen in dozens of other zombie efforts and the characters are dull at best, cardboard at worst. It all culminates in a scene virtually identical to the denouement of Night of the Living Dead as the voiceover reaches a conclusion about the zombies that was already drawn by Doctor Logan in Day of the Dead, 20 plus years ago.

EXTRAS:
  • “Master of the Dead” – interview with George A. Romero with foreword by producers
  • “Speak of the Dead” – George A. Romero looks back on his career and his influences
  • “Into The Camera” – meet the cast in the film
  • “You Look Dead!” – a documentary on the make-up FX
  • “A New Spin on Death” – a look into the visual FX of the film
  • “A World Gone Mad” – delve into the cinematography and design of the film
  • “Character Confessionals” – never-before-seen footage from the characters in the film
  • “Familiar Voices” – discover the famous voices that were used in the background of the film
  • “The Roots” – interview with George A. Romero
  • “The First Week” – a filmmaker takes us through the first week of DIARY production
  • Original Trailer
  • Stills gallery

Let the Right One In

Let-TheAh, the poor vampire. As a movie monster, it has been used as a metaphor for everything from AIDS to drug addiction. It has been the staple of the housewife romance novel and even the teen celibacy parable. Surely its potency as an on-screen creature of the night as long since passed?

If that was the case, somebody forgot to tell the makers of Swedish flick Let The Right One In, which is not only the best vampire film of recent years, but one of the greatest of all time.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a young boy in a difficult time. His parents have split up and he is suffering from relentless bullying at school. In his loneliness, he collects newspaper clippings of tragedies and retreats into a fantasy world where he has the strength to lash out and kill his tormentors.

Then one night, a man moves in to the apartment next door with a young girl around Oskar’s age. She is Eli (Lina Leandersson), and as she explains, she has been 12 for a very, very long time…

Let The Right One In boasts a solid script as John Ajvide Lindqvist adapts his own pulp horror novel of the same name, but it is the elegance of the filming that lifts the whole beyond its b-movie roots. If there is a flaw, it is that the film remains frustratingly light on its meaning, preferring to gently touch issues of sexual awakening and confusion, of responsibility and the nature of supposedly loving relationships, rather than exploring them to any depth. But stacked against this is truly beautiful cinematography, stunning composition and a superb sense of pacing.

The deft touch director Tomas Alfredson brings is masterful. Subtle touches speak volumes, such as the way Eli first jumps down from a climbing frame outside her apartment building and lands just a little too lightly. Also, her voice is dubbed by another actress (Elif Ceylan) with a deep, almost otherwordly tone. The dubbing is carefully covered with very few shots of Eli’s lips throughout the film.

Oskar’s world is a cold, bleak, eerily beautiful Sweden of the 1980s. It is all white snow and blank concrete, with even Oskar’s own skin being pale to the point of near-translucence. Into this world comes Eli and the carefully drawn picture of these two incredibly lonely beings reaching out to one another is at once tender and unnerving as we know only too well, through bursts of violence, just how dangerous Eli is. Her own human protector is becoming old and ineffective, while Oskar finds in Eli the strength he needs to stand up to his bullies and, ultimately, the weapon to enact his vengeance.

Let The Right One In is fashioned with a delicate touch, horrific in its violence, beautiful in its relationships and sinister in its overtones and perversion of the classic coming of age love story. Powerful and poetic, this is one of the finest horror films of the decade.

Let the Right One In is available on R4 DVD from Vendetta Films.

The Walking Dead [Complete First Season]

92175358When American cable outfit AMC launched its series The Walking Dead in 2010, it quickly became apparent the channel had a hit on its hands. The show attracted 5.3 million viewers for its pilot episode in the USA, making it the biggest show in AMC’s history – no small feat, given the network boasts titles like Breaking Bad and Mad Men in its line-up.

Based on the graphic novel series of the same name, The Walking Dead did come with some level of built-in audience, but the popularity was far greater than that. Whilst zombies have long since become passe in feature films, comics, video games and other media, the idea of a full-on living dead television series was still original.

The series opens with a bang, as in the first episode Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is shot in the line of duty and slips into a coma. He awakes to find the world apparently deserted…except that the dead have come back to life with a hunger for human flesh. So begins a desperate hunt for his wife and son, all the while trying to avoid the roaming hordes of undead.

The pilot is, simply put, terrific television. It blends tension, pathos and elegance with some great set-pieces. Showrunner Frank Darabont (best known for The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist) shows a great eye for memorable visuals, such as when Rick stumbles across a rotting, legless zombie dragging itself through a lush green park in idyllic sunshine. The visuals are helped by the best zombies ever to grace the screen, bar none.

Executive Producer Greg Nicotero first cut his teeth doing zombie effects on George Romero’s seminal Day of the Dead, and he brings all the experience in the 25 years since to bear in the creations of The Walking Dead. Phenomenally detailed and almost beautifully hideous, the zombies here are individual, tragic and pitiful. Their realisation is almost worth the price of admission alone.

The production values in general are outstanding. This really is feature-film level stuff. The acting is also strong, although English actor Lincoln occasionally seems to struggle in keeping his Southern US accent in place.

Early on, the show has a real sense of urgency. Rick first has to get to Atlanta to find his family, which in the second episode becomes a case of trying to get out again. Then he and others must return to find someone left behind. But as the series progresses into its latter stages, the objectives become a little vague and more distant and the momentum of the show dries up. Proceedings get bogged down with soap opera bickering between the survivors and a rarity of genuinely likeable characters before it all winds up with a somewhat underwhelming finale.

The first season is only six episodes long, so the novelty of seeing a zombie series is enough to carry the day, but the patches of boredom risk being overwhelming in future seasons unless a more consistent plot can be put in place.

Overall, The Walking Dead: Season One can be considered a qualified success, creating a convincing and expansive post-zombie-apocalypse world. The stumbling scripting towards the end does threaten to hamstring the series, but the potential is there for the ship to be righted and a truly great show to emerge.

The extras include a decent 30-minutes look behind the scenes, which is a fast-moving look at a variety of the aspects of production and a variety of marketing fluff pieces under the banner, “Inside The Walking Dead”. These are five-minute featurettes typically following a cast or crew member around for topics such as a tour of Dale’s RV or a time lapse look at the make-up process for the pilot’s iconic ‘bicycle girl’ zombie.

One of the more interesting extras is a detailed step-by-step guide to a zombie make-up using commercially-available items. Headed by Greg Nicotero, the tutorial is a neat lesson for budding FX artists or just for those who want to put a bit of extra effort into their Hallowe’en costumes.

Available on R4 DVD from Magna Home Entertainment. 

Deadly Blessing

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Wes Craven has had a long and interesting career as a director. Working almost exclusively within the horror genre, he has turned out disturbing films (Last House on the Left), post-modern classics (Scream), underrated gems (New Nightmare), lousy cash-in sequels (The Hills Have Eyes 2) and complete disasters (Cursed). Such an erratic oeuvre over the years means a number of his films remain overlooked. One of these is 1981’s Deadly Blessing, which has had no form of DVD release…until now, with Umbrella releasing a region 4 version of the film. Continue reading

The Silent House

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With jaded modern audiences, in can become increasingly difficult for horror filmmakers to engage their audience with any kind of tension or scares. Some resort to extreme shock tactics, but there is also the ‘found footage’ subgenre, where the camera itself is part of the story in an attempt to fully immerse the viewer into the story. The Uruguayan film The Silent House uses a variant of this approach – keeping the documentary style, but shooting in real time. Continue reading

The Thieves [Blu-ray]

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The heist film has a proud tradition. Intricate scheming, double-crosses, unexpected hurdles and, of course, the Team of Specialists. South Korea’s latest entry into the genre, The Thieves ticks all the boxes and yet manages to still be a fun romp all the same.

The story centres on career criminal Popie (Jung-Jae Lee) and his tight-knit band of thieves, including cat burglar Yenicall (the gorgeous Gianna Jun from Blood: The Last Vampire and My Sassy Girl), veteran disguise expert Chewingum (Hae-suk Kim from Thirst) and safecracker Pepsee (Hye-su Kim from The Red Shoes), newly released from prison. Continue reading

Stephen Fry: Inquisitive Documentaries

Stephen-FryStephen Fry is described on the box of this collection as “Britain’s national treasure” and the documentaries presented here go some way to demonstrating why. Whether sweating in the jungle or exploring a traditional paper mill in Italy, Fry is witty, charming and urbane. This is a slower, more measured style of TV from what viewers of American-style documentaries might be used to – but once you adjust (or if, like me, you get impatient with the pervasiveness of reality-TV-style drama-at-all-costs) it’s very engaging.

This box set collects together two series (Stephen Fry in America and Last Chance To See) that he made between 2007 and 2009, along with a pair of TV specials – Return Of The Rhino and Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. They’re all eminently watchable, and Fry is an engaging host. If there’s one thing to complain about, it’s that the box perhaps misleads you into thinking you’re getting more than you are – Return of the Rhino is essentially just an extra episode of Last Chance To See, and The Gutenberg Press (while fascinating) is a single 56 minute TV special. That said, I’d still highly recommend it, especially if you’re already a Stephen Fry fan.

Stephen Fry In America

As Stephen Fry says in his introduction to this series, he was very nearly born an American. Just before Fry was born, his father was offered a job at Princeton University, in New Jersey, but chose to turn it down in favour of Hampstead. Out of an abiding fascination with the homeland he never had, Stephen Fry travels America in a black London cab, visiting each of the States in turn in an attempt to define the essence of the USA.

This turns out to be a difficult task. America is a stupendously huge country, and at a mere 6 episodes (albeit long ones) the series was always going to struggle to do justice to all the places Fry visited. As a result, the episodes feel incredibly dense (binge-watching them in order to write this review left me feeling like I had mental indigestion for a couple of days) and yet some of the states feel like they receive only the most cursory attention. In the end, it comes down to what Stephen Fry was interested in at the time, so your enjoyment is probably going to be fairly proportional to how much you personally agree with him. Fortunately for me, that was most of the time.

Stephen Fry is a practitioner of tact at all costs – he never disagrees with any of his hosts (at least, to their faces) and rarely directly criticises what he sees. If you’re looking for a Louis Theroux-style interrogation of the darker parts of America, you’d be better off elsewhere. Fry also has a somewhat simplistic and very English view of the essential America he’s looking for – big, brash, magnificent, and slightly ridiculous. This does add to the slightly shallow feeling of the series, but I found that his genuinely open-hearted sense of wonder and poetic turn of phrase counterbalanced this enough to keep me on board. It helps that the series is beautifully shot and evocatively (at times hypnotically and hauntingly) scored.

This is neither an effectively encyclopedic look at America, nor Stephen Fry’s best work. It is an engaging look at a fascinating and diverse country, presented by an entertaining host who is himself often entranced and delighted by what he sees. Recommended, especially if you’re already a Stephen Fry fan.

EXTRAS: Previously unseen bonus footage

DIRECTOR(S): John Paul Davidson, Michael Waldman | COUNTRY: UK | YEAR: 2008 | RUNNING TIME: 375 minutes in total | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9

Last Chance To See and Return Of The Rhino

In 1989, author Douglas Adams embarked on a trip with zoologist Mark Carwardine on a round-the-world trip to seek out endangered animals. This was documented as a radio series (and accompanying book) called Last Chance To See. 20 years later (and 8 years after Douglas Adams’ untimely death) Stephen Fry sets out on a new journey with Mark Carwardine, to see how the animals he documented in 1989 have been faring. Each episode they travel to a new location in search of one of the animals from the original series, and take in any incidental wildlife they come across on the way.

Stephen Fry is (as he says a number of times in the course of the series) not a natural choice for this sort of adventure. Very much a city creature, he misses his comforts and manages to break his arm about halfway through the first episode. In contrast, Mark Carwardine has always been fascinated with animals and has traveled extensively in order to photograph them. The evolving relationship between these two men (who each find the other initially somewhat intimidating) is a charming bonus, but the main focus is of course the animals.

Because the locations are so varied, the incidental wildlife often ends up being as interesting as the creature they’ve come to try to find. Trying, it turns out is a major part of this exercise as many of the animals they are looking for were elusive to begin with, and have become rarer over the last 20 years – but with such engaging presenters, the wandering about phases are very watchable. New Zealand audiences will particularly enjoy the Kakapo episode – if for no more reason than the novelty of seeing New Zealand and hearing the accent crop up in a non-NZ-produced series.

This is not whizz-bang documentary making in the Discovery Channel mould – even the formidable komodo dragon is described, rather than shown in action. However, in my view complaining about this would be to miss the point. Stephen Fry’s strength as a presenter is his enthusiasm, and this comes into full force here. Mark Carwardine is a font of information, and manages to keep him seemingly permanently enthralled – it’s a lot of fun to watch.

One of the more heart-breaking episodes focuses on the Northern White Rhino – which is declared extinct in the wild while the crew are in the country. In 2010, four Northern White Rhinos were sent home to Africa from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine return to document the process in Return Of The Rhino. This is essentially an extra-long postscript episode to the previous series. It’s a fascinating look at the many logistical struggles involved in a project of this kind, and provides an uplifting coda to the original series.

I’d recommend both of these – especially to fans of the older style of British natural history programmes, and of course to fans of Stephen Fry.

EXTRAS:Deleted scenes from Last Chance To See

DIRECTOR(S): John Paul Davidson, Tim Green | COUNTRY: UK | YEAR: 2009 | RUNNING TIME: Last Chance To See – 375 minutes; Return Of The Rhino – 71 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9

Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press

When the first printing press was built in the 1450s, it changed the world. Within a matter of decades there were presses all over Europe and the number of books in circulation skyrocketed. All this came from the work of one man, Johann Gutenberg. In this series, Stephen Fry travels to Germany to see what he can find out about Gutenberg, and commissions a modern-day craftsman to build a replica press, so he can do some printing of his own.

Gutenberg’s story is a fascinating one, with recognisably modern elements (industrial espionage and betrayal-in-business most notably) and Fry is clearly enjoying himself as he travels around significant sites and uncovers details. Back in England, the process of building the press itself is also incredibly interesting. Gutenberg’s original prototype was built before machined parts were available, so all the parts (screw threads etc.) need to be hand-made from wood. Stephen Fry also makes a side trip to a traditional paper mill so they can have authentic medieval-style linen paper to work with, and tries his hand at the arcane art of punch-cutting.

This is a fascinating look at a piece of technology that changed the world when it was built, and hardly seems less magical operating today. Highly recommended.

No extras

DIRECTOR(S): Patrick McGrady | COUNTRY: UK | YEAR: 2008 | RUNNING TIME: 56 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9

Available on DVD from Madman Entertainment.