Army of Darkness [Blu-ray]

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Has there been a movie in the horror pantheon as endlessly quotable as Army of Darkness? And a hero – not a villain, but an actual bona fide good guy – as enduring as Ashley J Williams? But amidst all the nostalgia and love for Bruce Campbell’s grandstand performance in the lead role, it is often forgotten what a mixed bag the actual movie is.

At the dawn of the 90s, Sam Raimi was not yet the household name he is today. Indeed, outside of the Evil Dead movies, he only had the minor success of Darkman and the calamitous failure of Crimewaveto his name. But the Evil Dead brand held a lot of stock, particularly amongst horror fans, and when the third was announced as being the big budget (relatively speaking), epic Grand Guignol capper to the series, anticipation ran high. Continue reading

Animal Kingdom

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Australian cinema is in the middle of something of a resurgence lately, with films across a wide variety of genres gaining international recognition and new voices rising to be heard. One of the most promising of these is David Michod on the strength of his powerhouse debut, crime drama Animal Kingdom.

“Crooks always come undone. Always. One way or another.” So says J (newcomer James Frecheville) in his narration early on in Animal Kingdom as he is brought into his criminally-active extended family. And so the story goes – in an inexorable, if not always totally predictable, downward spiral to betrayal and death.

After his mother overdoses on heroin, J moves in with his grandmother, ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his four uncles, Barry (Joel Edgerton), Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the absent Andrew ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn). When the police investigation of the fugitive Pope reaches boiling point, the family decides they need to react and the young J is caught in the middle.

In many ways, Animal Kingdom is a standard crime movie. You have the family, revenge, in-fighting and the usual escalation of events. But what elevates it is that Michod keeps the whole movie grounded in reality. With its casual Melbourne setting, unassuming costumes and low-key conversational tone, this feels like a familiar place – an underworld barely beneath the surface of any suburb. It is an approach that makes it all the more affecting. Continue reading

Cold War

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Hong Kong is proud of its police force. The ‘safest city in Asia’ relies on an efficient and effective structure of law enforcement. But what if, somewhere in its upper echelons, the internal struggle up the ladder of power would lead to corrosion from within?

When a police van, its weapons and the five officers within it are capture by a terrorist group while the Police Commissioner is out of the city, it is up to Deputy Commissioner Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai) to initiate Operation Cold War to salvage the situation. Given his son is one of those officers being held hostage, though, his second-in-command Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) questions his superior’s judgement and plans to usurp him.

As Lau looks for support within the force for his play for power, he quickly finds there are other forces at work, with an agenda of their own. Continue reading

A Cat in Paris

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Dino is a black cat leading a double life. During the day, he is the placid domestic pet of a little girl named Zoe, but at night he scales the rooftops with acrobatic burglar Nico as he conducts various daring robberies. Meanwhile, Zoe’s mother – the chief of police – is closing in on notorious gangster Costa, who also happens to be the man who murdered her husband.

It would be easy to describe animated French piece A Cat in Paris as ‘charming’, but it is a label the film more than earns. From the whimsical story concept to the hand-drawn aesthetic of the illustration, this is instantly endearing. The artistry may be deliberately crude, but it is deceptively clever, with the animated foibles of the feline lead character no doubt being extremely familiar to any cat owner.

At a running time of barely over an hour, the film does not outstay its welcome, but it does manage to pack quite a lot in and ticks along rapidly, right up to the climactic rooftop chase to the spires of Notre Dame. The plot is simple enough for children, but has some deeper, more adult concepts – most notably around the mother haunted by traumatic visions of the man who killed her husband…an event that has also left Zoe unwilling to speak. These aspects, combined with some menace from the villains may make this unsuitable for very young children, but otherwise it is a film that certainly earns the “all ages” label.

If there is a flaw in A Cat in Paris, it is that it all feels somewhat lightweight. It is never laugh-out-loud funny, nor tearjerking. It remains an enjoyable and warming watch, but rarely scales any great heights.

If you’re looking for a family film that is a little more offbeat, or even if you just want something heartwarming, A Cat in Paris is just the ticket. Sweet without being saccharine and with enough edge and danger to entertain, this is an animated treat.

Extras

The Madman Entertainment DVD of A Cat in Paris includes the theatrical trailer and both French (with English subtitles) and English language versions of the film. But the main extra feature is a short Behind The Scenes featurette. This focuses mainly on the French voice cast, with disappointingly little attention given to the animation and visuals of the movie.

A Cat in Paris is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Splice

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Ever since a 19-year-old named Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein, the scientist who plays God and creates life has been a staple of fiction. Indeed, Shelley realised her work’s place in a long tradition by subtitling it, The Modern Prometheus. From the dawn of cinema, the concept has been brought forward repeatedly by filmmakers, including in 2009 director Vincenzo Natali with Splice.

The world of splice is that of giant pharmaceutical company N.E.R.D. and its superstar geneticist couple Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). After successfully created new organisms from spliced DNA, the two suggest introducing human DNA into the process to provide donor organisms to cure all sorts of adverse genetic human conditions. When the company bosses baulk at the concept, the pair decide to go ahead themselves…in secret.

The resulting hybrid, named ‘Dren’ (NERD backwards, of course), grows at a rapid rate and Clive and Elsa struggle to keep its existence secret. Then Dren herself begins acting more unpredictably, with particular instability arising from her human side.

There can be little argument that the subject matter of Splice is well-worn territory. The usual questions of morality and creation are raised, but to Natali’s credit, that is not where he focusses the attention of the film. Instead, he makes it about a family unit, albeit one dysfunctional in the extreme, the cycle of abuse and the connections we form with each other.

Even more telling, Natali does not shy away from the sexual element of proceedings and this is surely the pivot for most audiences. If you are on board with the choices of Natali and the characters, this is a brave approach that escalates proceedings. On the other hand, it is easily open to derison and may distance a more cynical audience.

The film itself belies its modest budget and is superbly realised. Austere environments are carefully composed throughout, while Dren herself is an impressive combination of practical and digital effects throughout the stages of her life.

While treading a fairly familiar core plot, Splice takes enough adventurous steps to make this a superior sci-fi flick, with brains beyond its creature-feature roots. Highly recommended.

Extras:
  • Vincenzo Natali Interview
  • Featurette: A Director’s Playground
  • Behind The Scenes
  • Trailer

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Donkey Punch

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Things start very promisingly for this UK horror/thriller. Some naturalistic dialogue, a measured build-up and then a sudden mistake leading to recriminations and panic. Unfortunately, that is where the good ideas run out and the second half of Donkey Punch is formulaic and pedestrian, wasting a lot of promise.

When three Northern British girls (including Jaime Winstone, last seen fleeing zombies in Dead Set) head away for a holiday in Mallorca, they decide boys are most definitely not on the menu. That is right up until they meet three lads with access to a yacht, drugs and good times. Continue reading

A Band Called Death

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The exact birth of punk rock is an endlessly debated topic. Some say it began in earnest with The Ramones in New York in 1975, others with the punk explosion in the UK in 1976. But what nobody ever thought was that the first salvo of angry young punk rock was actually fired by three brothers in Detroit in 1973.

They were a band called Death.

Proto-punk and Detroit were not strangers at the time – acts like MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges were clattering up a storm, but Death had another thing stacked against them. They were black. And, in Detroit in the 70s, being black meant Motown.

The Hockney brothers – David, Dannis and Bobby – formed a band after their struggling family received an insurance payout. They practiced relentlessly, playing first a brand of funk before guitarist David saw The Who on television and announced they were to be a rock band.

Bobby was the bassist and vocalist, but David was the real force behind the group. He had big dreams and bigger concepts. After their father died, David announced the band was to be called ‘Death’. The others were non-plussed, but went along with it.

Their music was powerful, they seemed bent on success. Even mighty Columbia Records were interested. But there was one problem. That name. That name was impossible to market. If they were to change it, they would be signed and surely success would follow.

They refused to change.

A Band Called Death is a documentary that is less a story of a band and more a story of a family. The brothers Hockney would suffer trials and tribulations, but the bond between them would prove unshakeable.

The movie is primarily a retrospective, with a lot of talking heads and old photographs – although there is an attempt to add life and movement to the archive shots. For example, an image of David with a lit cigarette has a curl of digital smoke rising from it.

But the real story unfolds while the cameras are rolling. The lone single the band recorded starts to circulate as a pair of MP3s, nearly 40 years later, and a new audience finds them. Death were playing 80s US hardcore a good decade before anyone else. Truly a band before their time, they would find time finally caught up with them.

The tale is extraordinary, not least because of the emotions between the brothers. The laconic Dannis, the erudite Bobby and the doomed idealist David demonstrate that one brief flicker of magic can ignite even decades into the future.

Affecting and inspiring, A Band Called Death is a simply terrific doco. The pacing is measured, but deliberate for the emotional payoff in the final section. And it helps that Death is straight up a killer band even if, despite what the interviewees may say, it is not about music. It is about family.

The extras include a plentiful number of deleted scenes that are all quite interesting, but are also not really missed from the main narrative. Also present are a couple of songs played live by the reformed Death, including one at the band’s first gig in 34 years.

A film festival Q&A is the surprise highlight of the extras. Here, audience members share their stories and the impact the film had on them, and, in particular, Bobby Hockney talks about how the finished movie affected him. It is a lovely, softly emotional coda to the film and an excellent choice for inclusion here.

A Band Called Death is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Jug Face

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Deep in rural America, a backwoods community have their own way of doing things. Arranged marriage is the tip of the iceberg. In return for apparently supernatural healing, the people perform ritual human sacrifice to The Pit, a muddy hole in the depths of the forest. The method for selection is based on potter Dawai, who periodically slips into a trance during which he creates a jug emblazoned with the face of the person to be sacrificed.

When headstrong teenager Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) finds the latest jug face while still in the furnace, she is shocked to find it bears her own face. Rather than submit to death, she decides instead to hide the jug, an action that will have dire consequences for the community.

Jug Face began life as a screenplay by short film director Chad Crawford Kinkle, which went on to win the script section of the Slamdance Film Festival. On the strength of that, he approached the production team from The Woman, knowing they were conmfortable with more “out there” indie horror ideas. As well as getting a production deal, Kinkle further pushed his luck by showing them his short film, Organ Grinder and on the strength of that, got the directing gig to boot.

Kinkle’s inexperience certainly does not show in Jug Face. He gets top drawer performances across the board from his cast. Carter, as the lead, effectively carries the film with her wide-eyed pixie look that lends her vulnerability, but her performance makes Ada’s inner strength convincing. Alongside her is her fellow The Woman alum, Sean Bridgers as the simple Dawai, an innocent victim role that is virtually unrecognisable against his turn as the morally-twisted domineering patriarch of The Woman.

The core cast is rounded out by genre vet Larry Fessenden as Ada’s duty-bound father and, in a terrific turn, Sean Young as Ada’s mother. Young nearly steals the film with a fiery part that could have easily been a cardboard villain, but instead comes across as a broken woman with genuinely good intentions. It is one of the greatest turns in Young’s career, so many years after headlining major films like Blade Runner and No Way Out back in the 80s.

The result of so many strong performances is a convincing (albeit very small) group of people divorced from the mainstream, living in caravans and shacks. Even when they have an excursion into town where they sell their moonshine, the modern stores and streets somehow feel a million miles away. As Ada finds her rebellion leads to the denizen of The Pit taking matters into its own hands, she decides to go on the run. But the outside world is frightening and strange.

Jug Face is a horror film, but it works best as a ensemble character study. The plot plays out in predictable fashion as The Pit keeps taking victims as it demands the correct sacrifice. It felt like the story needed another dimension, another twist, to elevate it beyond a fairly rote progression.

Despite this, it is a very strong indie movie. It has an unusual feel about it, and the richly drawn characters and environment are compelling. It is disturbing in a more subtle way, with an undercurrent of organised religion or any system of control and what it actually means for humanity. Not that it is all suggestion – plenty of the red stuff flows and some pretty gory remains pop up frequently.

Unique, deft and intelligent, Jug Face is a cut above most indie horror offerings and is a quality piece of work across the board. It punches way above its budget and is definitely worth a watch for any horror fan.

The “making of” is a solid 30 minute piece focussing primarily on the likeable Kinkle as he explains the real-life inspiration for the script and then on into production. Larry Fessenden, all wild hair and enthusiasm, is a huge presence as well, managing to be both charismatic and humble.

The mini-doco packs a lot in, from the digging of the pit through to monster design and finally to the triumphant premiere at Slamdance, a year after Kinkle had won the script competition there.

The other key extra is the Organ Grinder short. It is not a very strong piece of body horror and feels surprisingly amateurish against the assured nature of Jug Face. It is a great inclusion to see Kinkle’s roots and an important element in the movie finding its way to production.

DIRECTOR(S): Chad Crawford Kinkle | COUNTRY: USA | YEAR 2013 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Modern Distributors/MVD | RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 1.33:1 | REGION: All / NTSC | DISCS: 1

Survive Style 5+

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A man with a seemingly unkillable wife. An advertising executive with ideas as bad as they are frequent. Unrequited homosexual love. A husband and father hypnotised into thinking he is a bird. All of these and much more are packed into the madcap Japanese cult hit Survive Style 5+.

The structure is of five interlocking stories, connected by the travels of a hitman from London (Vinnie Jones) and his business partner/translator. His catchphrase is the direct, “What is your function in life?” that he uses on his targets and pretty much anyone else who annoys him. When he is hired to kill a hypnotist (and does so, onstage!), he inadvertently leaves a middle class businessman stuck in the belief that he is a bird. The man’s wife and two children must then deal with life where the man of the house cannot communicate and spends his days on the roof trying to fly.

The most eye-catching of the stories, however, involves a man (Ichi The Killer’s Tadanobu Asano) repeatedly killing his wife (the impossibly gorgeous Reika Hashimoto) for reasons unknown, only to have her return again and again from the grave. Each time, she has new powers and a thirst for vengeance.

Director Gen Sekiguchi juggles these elements with a terrific line in dark humour and a visually dazzling style. Of particular note is the eye-watering production design, which crams a rainbow of bright colours into seemingly every shot. The detail is extraordinary, like an assault on the eyes, but perfectly fits the surreal world the plot plays out in – a world where it is fine for a woman to fire her arms like rocket launchers or for an assassination agency to have framed photos on its walls of the victims it has been hired to kill.

Although not an anthology film, the interlocking stories approach does lead to the flaw common with that type. The individual plots are simple and do not carry sufficient weight in terms of narrative to retain interest. Fortunately, Sekiguchi’s mobile camerawork, superb soundtrack and striking imagery more than make up the difference. And, despite the simplicity of it all, the film manages a gloriously happy ending that would affect even the sternest of hearts.

Frenetic and stylish, Survive Style 5+ plays out like the dictionary definition of a cult film. Energetic, fresh and absolutely impossible to watch without a smile on your face. It may not be high-brow or deep, but Survive Style 5+ is damn fun filmmaking.

Survive Style 5+ is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment

Bad Biology

Bad_Biology_DVDA woman born with seven clits. A man with a detachable penis that goes on a rape spree…no, its not Woody Allen’s latest…its the (semi) triumphant return of genre favourite Frank Henenlotter.

Like most Love & Pop readers (well, the older ones anyway) I first encountered the legend of Frank Henenlotter through the pages of Fangoria magazine. His 1982 film Basket Case was getting loads of press and the gory stills certainly piqued the interest and the film was certainly worth the wait. I mean it had 42nd st flophouses, porn cinemas, winos, prostitutes and, best of all, a demented killer being carried around New York in a basket by his brother.

Later Henenlotter films were also unique with Brain Damage and Frankenhooker most noteworthy. I wasn’t a great fan of the Basket Case sequels but they had their moments. Needless to say legions of gorehounds have been long awaiting the return of this maverick filmmaker and Bad Biology has all the trademarks of a Henenlotter film.

The story follows the two aforementioned sexual freaks, one created by nature, one created by misadventure and steroid abuse, destined to collide in a sexual Hiroshima.

Charlee Danielson plays Jennifer, an aspiring photographer born with the aforementioned seven clits. This proves problematic in her everyday love-life as her sexual trysts become so intense that she literally fucks her paramours to death. Another bizarre side effect of her freakish condition is a minute gestation period, resulting in deformed offspring being born mere hours after her latest coupling.

Batz (Anthony Sneed) is grappling (literally) with problems of his own. After a mishap at birth he was left with short-comings in the penis department. His answer to this problem is to inject all kinds of pharmaceuticals into his once flaccid doodle and create a cock that would make John Holmes envious. It’s not a perfect solution though. This cock becomes as demanding as the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, needing satisfaction and gratification and, along the way, deciding maybe it’d be better off on its own. This leads to one of the film’s most memorable sequences as the penis detaches and goes on a rape spree, breaking through walls and climbing up legs till it enters the warm and moist surrounds of fuzzy town.

Along the way we meet all kinds of patented weird Henenlotter characters including porn models, a crackwhore (brilliantly portrayed by Eleonore Hendricks, surely a shoe-in to play Nancy Spungen if they remake the “Sid and Nancy” story!), vagina-faced models, scream-queen Tina Krause playing herself and there’s even a cameo by grindhouse favourite James (The Exterminator) Glickenhaus. And only a select few filmmakers would show the view from inside a vagina looking out.

The film rolls along at a good pace and, like all of Frank’s films, is never boring or predictable. The only fault I can find would be in the (thankfully) short stop-motion sequence, it may be a tribute to the early stop-motion work in films like Basket Case (or not) but it’s decidedly clunky. Given that the leads have to date only ever appeared in this film they both do an admirable job carrying the movie.

Welcome back Frank, it’s nice to see you haven’t mellowed over the years.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.