Neon Demon

A beautiful model reclines on an ornate couch. She is motionless, illuminated by lurid coloured lighting that highlights the blood that has poured from her neck and around her. The camera pulls back, revealing it is all a set, a photo shoot. Welcome to the world of the Neon Demon.

The model in question is the wide-eyed Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has moved to Los Angeles hoping to break into the world of modelling. Her journey will take her through a mire of jealous models, predatory designers and lustful photographers, all of whom value her in different ways but all for the same thing: her beauty.

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The Bird With the Crystal Plummage [Blu-Ray]

Crystal-PlummageOrder Blu-Ray or DVD

Dario Argento is a towering figure in both genre and Italian cinema. But back in 1970 he had yet to direct a feature film solo and his first outing as writer/director would be a giallo. This sub-genre of potboiler thriller is so named because they are in the style of old pulp novels that almost invariably had yellow covers in Italy.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would turn out to not only be an exceptional giallo, but would also launch Argento into being arguably the pre-eminent auteur of the genre. He would subsequently branch out into horror and gain international acclaim, but it was in the murky world of serial killers and whodunnits that he made his name.

The plot here does have the familiar elements of a black-gloved killer of beautiful women, but it is a step above most in its style and pacing. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer relocated to the quiet of Italy in order to work better. Now, as his return home is imminent, he sees a knife attack on a woman in an art gallery. The police, believing this part of a run of serial murders, refuse to let him leave the country due to his status as a witness.

Sam finds himself a target of the killer, apparently convinced Sam saw enough to be a threat. The only option Sam has to protect himself and his Italian model girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) is to try and track down the killer, his only clue being his memory of that night.

The script is a bit infantile at times and contains some wild stretches of logic, but it sweep along with a broad sense of humour and is punctuated by the real strength of Argento – the set-pieces.

These are not as stylish as his later work would become, but there are the first signs here. The attack Sam witnesses takes place in a pure white gallery, with Sam trapped between glass walls, unable to intervene, framed against the black night. Elsewhere, an extended foot chase through darkened city streets and a bus yard is superbly staged.

Some more dubious Argento elements also emerge. One of the murders is sexualised – the victim changes for bed into a diaphanous piece of lingerie that would only be considered sleepwear in adult entertainment immediately prior to being stabbed to death. Sam’s girlfriend Judith is a simpering damsel-in-distress throughout and the female roles in general are underwritten to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, this is a superior giallo that never flags in pace. The importance of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in film history may rest primarily with its status as the launchpad for Dario Argento, but it remains an effective thriller in its own right.

Extras:

Trailers.

Valley of the Cycle Sluts

Cycle-SlutsOrder DVD

Tough ex-cop Wade Olsen (Jason Williams – probably better known as the titular “Flesh” of Flesh Gordon) is kidnapped by an all-girl gang of bikers known as the Sisters Of Love. They want revenge (Olsen has either busted or killed each of their men) so they stake him out in Death Valley and get ready to execute him. Since they each want to be the one to pull the trigger, the Sisters devise a unique way of resolving the dispute – they’ll each perform a striptease for Olsen, and the one who can get him hard first can do the honours.

With a synopsis like this and a title like Valley of The Cycle Sluts, you’d be forgiven for expecting nothing more than porn – but this is something much much stranger. There is soft porn aplenty – a good percentage of the film is given over to the striptease routines – but there’s equal time given to the back-stories of each of the men that Olsen put down or put away. These flashbacks aren’t standard porn-with-plot fare either – they’re violent, un-jokey, and there’s a weird amount of effort put into stunts, costumes, weapons, and pyrotechnics.

This strange devotion to the biker-gang backstory in what would otherwise seem to be a lightweight (if weirdly unsexy – we’ll get to that in a bit) biker-themed soft porn movie suddenly made a lot more sense when I did a little digging. You see, Valley (or to give it its full title, Valley of The Cycle Sluts: Enter The Danger Zone) is actually the fourth installment of a series of movies featuring Wade Olsen, which start with 1987′ The Danger Zone. These movies seem to have been passion projects for Jason Williams (he co-wrote and starred in all of them) and chronicle the adventures of Wade Olsen (a sort of poor-man’s Dirty Harry) in his fight against a gang of drug-dealing, kidnapping bikers led by a man called Reaper. I haven’t seen these (and information is thin on the ground) but on the basis of the flashbacks in Valley, they look like prime low-budget “video nasty” material, heavy on the ultra-violence and gratuitous boobs – and probably good fun.

Here, however, it’s the gratuitous boobs that are kind of the problem. The thing is, there are an awful lot of “Sisters Of Love” and after the third or fourth rendition, one amateurish striptease routine looks a lot like another and it all gets pretty dull. In addition, these striptease routines are all framed by scenes of the women saying how much they hate Olsen and look forward to killing him which rather wrecks the mood – unless that’s your (very, very specific) fetish. In fact, the main attraction of the striptease scenes rapidly becomes the spectacularly weird early-90s stripper-costumes the women have on under their biker gear – there’s a green bustier that appears to be made of skinned Muppets that deserves a special mention – you’ll know it when you see it.

Probably the strangest touch comes with the character of “Ol’ Zeke” (Barne Williams Subkoski – a veteran of previous Danger Zone movies) whose entire role is to hide out in the scrub and spy on the proceedings through binoculars, while commenting on the physical attributes of each of the girls. Zeke seems like he belongs in a completely different movie – possibly a light-hearted sex-comedy like the original Flesh Gordon. Between this, the gritty (if dodgy) flashbacks, and the off-putting stripteases, Valley Of The Cycle Sluts is totally unable to fix on a single tone and stick with it.

If you’re a fan of bad movies, you’ll enjoy this – the actors mostly seem like they’re improvising (badly), the plot makes not the tiniest bit of sense, and the whole thing seems to be cobbled together from disparate (and fundamentally incompatible) pieces. Or you could conceivably be a completist fan of the Danger Zone franchise, or morbidly curious about what happened to Jason Williams in later life. Otherwise, not recommended.

No extras.

The Thing on the Doorstep

Thing-Doorstep “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.” So begins The Thing on The Doorstep, a short story by the legendary H.P. Lovecraft, now adapted as a film by Tom Gliserman.

The story is recounted by Daniel Upton (David Bunce) and concerns his friendship with one Edward Derby (Rob Dalton). Edward enters into a whirlwind romance, followed by a rapid marriage with Asenath Waite (Mary Jane Hansen), a young woman reputed to have strange hypnotic powers. Almost immediately, Edward’s personality seems to change, and Daniel and his wife Marion (Susan Cicarelli-Caputo) begin to suspect there is something seriously amiss in this new relationship.

While he is currently considered one of the most influential horror authors of all time, Lovecraft has had relatively few film adaptations. This is partly because his mainstream popularity is a reasonably new phenomenon (compared to his contemporary Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example) and partly because many of his stories are not particularly easy to film. Lovecraft tended toward first-person narration (which can come off as heavy-handed when done poorly in film) and often refused to specify exactly what the horrors he described were like – a central trope of his is forces that are literally impossible for the human mind to comprehend. With this in mind, The Thing On The Doorstep is (while not one of Lovecraft’s best-loved stories) an inspired choice for adaptation, as it largely skirts the more cosmic horrors of Lovecraft’s universe in favour of more human-scale evil.

The film shift the action from 1933 to the modern day, but is otherwise fairly faithful to Lovecraft’s text. This is by and large handled pretty well – Upton’s wife (largely absent from the short story) is given a greatly-expanded role, and there’s an interesting conflict between her and Upton as to whether Asenath or Edward Derby is the dangerous one in the relationship. The downside is that while Lovecraft’s 1930’s “Arkham” (a fictional town, but one definitely located in his native New England) was a plausible place to find people who publicly dabbled in the occult and spiritualism, and were considered “intelligentsia” for doing so, this seems odd in a modern context.

This is compounded by a general lack of focus on the setting that lends the film a feeling of being set nowhere in particular. This is disappointing, because The Thing On The Doorstep is one of the stories which draws on Lovecraft’s invented geography for some of its horror – Asenath is one of the “Innsmouth Waites”, and Innsmouth is a town which has deep and unwholesome ties to occult forces. Innsmouth as presented in the film is indistinguishable from Arkham, and contains nothing more unsettling than a kid riding a bike at night.

The film also makes heavy use of post-production effects. Everything is in soft focus and stained a murky green. This seems like it’s meant to evoke a dreamy atmosphere, but actually tends to evoke a headache after the first 45 minutes. It also undercuts the (much more appropriate) use of such effects in the actual dream/hallucination episodes. This is a shame, because the film actually gets really great mileage out of limited (but effectively chosen) locations and sets, or it would have if they hadn’t been drowned in a layer of green sludge.

At base, this is a pretty good movie. The adaptation is handled skilfully, the dialogue has been updated well, the actors are clearly doing their best, and the ways that it chooses to diverge from the original short story all make good sense (as do the things it chooses to keep). When the effects are appropriate, they work really well (the titular “thing on the doorstep” deserves a mention here as an excellent practical monster effect) and the atmosphere builds steadily and effectively throughout. It’s just a shame about that green fog.

Recommended for Lovecraft and genre fans, recommended (though with the reservations noted above) for everyone else.

No special features, not even a title menu.

Available on DVD from MVD Visual.

Nightcrawler [Blu-Ray]

NightcrawlerThe opening shot of Nightcrawler is of a blank Los Angeles billboard. It is the perfect metaphor for the message of the film, a vacuum existing just to sell to people. A gaudy, dominating monument to marketing.

This is the world of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Bloom wants success. Success as Western capitalism teaches it. He’s not interested in improving the world, family or helping people. He wants career goals and money. He is modern ambition incarnate. A void of humanity, brought up on inspirational messages and business acumen one-liners.

We first see Bloom as a petty thief, but when he witnesses a video cameraman (Bill Paxton) filming the aftermath of a car accident to sell the footage to local television news, he believes he has found his calling.

Another theft gets him enough cash to buy a camera and a police scanner and he is off and running. Part of an underground of cameraman hunting news stories in the dead of the Los Angeles night, flocking to crime scenes like vultures. Bloom quickly learns that his lack of caring for ethics, people or their feelings makes him ideally suited to the work…and so his meteoric rise begins.

Nightcrawler is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and it is a spectacular debut. Gilroy’s previous screenwriting credits are underwhelming (the likes of Freejack, Real Steel and The Fall hardly boasted top tier scripts), but this is a superb piece of work.

The satire as vicious and the whole is reminiscent of Martin Scorcese. The dark streets, the vitriol directed at American capitalism of Wolf of Wall Street, the Taxi Driver-esque anti-hero in Lou Bloom.

But the true cunning of Nightcrawler is how it makes you root for Bloom. Part of this is down to the script, part down to the tense filming and part down to the clever score by James Newton Howard that provides revelatory, heroic tones even when Bloom is carrying out the most deplorable acts.

Gilroy pulls few punches with his attacks. Bloom spouts cheerful platitudes like, “a friend is a gift you give yourself” in between quoting self-improvement lines. Local TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) tramples over broadcasting standards in the rush for ratings, explaining to Bloom that what really sells is minorities committing crimes against whites in affluent neighbourhoods. There is no interest, she explains, in the poor preying on the poor.

All of this social commentary would be wasted if the film failed to engage – but boy, does it. Bloom’s escalations from indiscretions (moving a corpse at an accident into better light) through to orchestrating violence for his camera are riveting. All are shot beautifully and edited superbly, culminating in a high-speed car chase the equal of any action film.

Towering over it all is Gyllenhaal. As Bloom, he never convinces as an actual human being, but that is not his goal. His performance is hugely charismatic, his Bloom reptilian and ever-grinning with a smile that never touches his eyes. Gyllenhaal lost 28 pounds for the role and the result is a gaunt, skull-like figure that bristles with energy and barely-contained menace.

A terrific film that delivers on all fronts, Nightcrawler is a modern urban masterpiece. Unmissable.

Extras:

The extras include some interviews with Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and Russo, plus a fluff featurette mixing those interviews with footage from the film. A second featurette is a little more candid, but also quite superficial and brief.

The main addition on board is a commentary track. This is a breezy and highly-informative track featuring writer/director Dan Gilroy, his brother Tony (producer) and his other brother John (editor). As brothers, they are at ease throughout and discuss a wide-range of topics from the shooting style to the casting of Gyllenhaal through to their use of technical advisors for both the late-night camera operators (known as “Nightcrawlers” or, more common, “Stringers”) and the police in order to lend as much authenticity to the film as possible.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman Entertainment.

The Dead Zone

Via-VisionThe Dead Zone is a melding of two talents at the height of their powers. The novel was a number one bestseller in 1979 from Stephen King and director David Cronenberg was fresh off a string of brilliant, singular horror films. Despite this, The Dead Zone tends to be something of a forgotten King adaptation – something even harder to understand given this is easily one of the most effective.

It is a character-driven piece, centering on a small town English teacher with the paradoxically memorable name of John Smith (Christopher Walken). Just as everything in his life seems to be coming together, he leaves the house of his fiancée Sarah (Brooke Adams) to drive home in the rain and ends up in a traffic accident that leaves him in a coma…for five years.

When at last Smith comes round, he finds Sarah is now married with a child, his job is long gone, he may never walk without assistance again and, to top it all off, he may have the ability to see the future.

The novel runs parallel storylines but the script here (by Jeffrey Boam) wisely shifts the structure to sequential, with each of the three stages having a seismic impact on Smith’s character. The first deals with his accident and awakening, the second with his involvement in the hunt for a serial killer and the third with his interactions with charismatic senate hopefully Greg Stillson (Michael Sheen).

This approach keeps things tightly focused on Smith and his evolution from discovery to denial and, finally, acceptance of his powers.

The central casting of Smith is an odd decision. Walken is always an actor with an otherworldly, almost creepy feel and that plays at odds with what is clearly meant to be an affable everyman character. Walken turns in a solid performance, but his natural affectations combined with somewhat sinister wardrobe choices (by the end, Smith is always clad in a long black coat and walks with a cane) fight the empathy the story desperately needs the audience to have with its lead.

Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson seems well-cast, but somewhat overplays his hand. While all of the other actors (including an excellent Tom Skerritt as the world-weary Sheriff Bannerman) play it low-key and subtle, Sheen merrily chews the scenery as the unscrupulous politician Stillson. Considering he only appears in the final third of the movie, this is somewhat jarring.

Aside from the issues with his cast, Cronenberg directs in a clean, professional manner. In the wake of his independent body horror films, The Dead Zone was seen as something of a ‘gun for hire’ job for Cronenberg, but he acquits himself well here and an unorthodox graphic suicide scene certainly stands out as a signature flourish.

A measured, introspective film, The Dead Zone is possibly overlooked due to its lack of big set pieces, but it stands up thanks to a careful script and some real thematic depth. Plus, it has that rarest of Stephen King characteristics – a terrific finale.

Extras:

This is very much a bare-bones release. The transfer is grainy and a touch muddy and the extras consist solely of the film’s trailer.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Via Vision.

The Fall [Series 2]

The-Fall-2I love British crime series although lately they’ve really started to become crappy by jumping on board the whole exploitative missing kid genre. The Fall was one of the better shows of recent years and I was greatly anticipating series two. What makes the show so awesome (apart from Gillian Anderson) is that it totally feels like a show that could have come straight outta Scandinavia despite being set in Northern Ireland.

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The Double

DoubleIt’s easy to wonder if there’s a ‘better you’ out there. One who made different choices, one who was braver, one who works out and eats well, one who studies hard, one who takes that risk. It’s easy to wonder if your life would be better if you just were more outgoing, more confident, more forceful.

Now what if you met that ‘better’ you’.

And they wanted to destroy you.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is in a tough place in his life. Nobody at his soul-crushing job appreciates him, his elderly mother is dying in an uncaring rest home and Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the girl of his dreams, does not even know he exists. One night he witnesses a suicide and the clean-up crew that arrives explains they’re very common. They take one look at Simon and put him down as a future ‘maybe’.

Then a new worker starts at his bureaucratic place of employ. A bright young man introduced with fanfare ad excitement. A young man…who looks exactly like him.

Simon’s double is, naturally, named James Simon and while nobody else seems to notice the physical similarity, they certainly notice James. The boss loves him, the security guard is his immediate friend and his confidence and ease is everything Simon is not.

In return for covering for him at work, James takes Simon under his wing, offering to teach him confidence and how to win the heart of Hannah. But quickly it becomes apparent that actually what James wants…is everything Simon has.

The Double is the second feature film from director Richard Aoyade and, like his assured debut Submarine, shows him again making very shrewd decisions. He chooses once again an adaptation (this time, the Dostoevsky novella) and shows once more a superb visual eye. Where Submarine was all wide shots and symmetrical compositions of the Wes Anderson variety, The Double is all shadows and coloured lighting, with a period-less production design more than a little reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

The result is an underpopulated world that feels vague and dreamlike. It could be anywhere. It could be anytime. It creates an atmosphere where nothing can be trusted – are we seeing Simon’s perception of events? Or are we seeing things that are in Simon’s head?

This dis-associative approach allows the focus to shift from the mechanical to the philosophical. As Simon’s plight worsens – his job, his dream girl, even his apartment all being taken away from him – we cannot help but to project. What would you do in such a situation? Would you give up? Would you fight back? How can you fight back when your opponent is everything you are…but better?

Eisenberg plays to type as the stammering, awkward Simon, but shows a reptilian swagger as James. He is careful to not overdo it, though, and the effect is of two markedly separate individuals without ever having to revert to physical quirks for differentiation.

Wasikowska does well with what is a fairly limited, reactionary role and continues to prove herself as one of the most interesting young actresses around today. Her choice of projects remains impeccable and her name is quickly becoming an indicator of a film worth watching.

Darkly comic and wonderfully realised, The Double is a gem of a film. Evocative and yet leaving enough ambiguity for the audience to draw its own conclusions on standing up for yourself, what aspects of your personality are truly important, and thoughts of the road not taken.

Extras:

The extras on the Blu-Ray include a behind the scenes featurette which includes comments from the producers, Aoyade, co-writer Avi Korine (Harmony Korine’s brother, trivia fans!) and various cast members. It also gives a bit of a window into the complexities of motion control camerawork to include two Jesse Eisenbergs in so many frames.

There are also some fairly superfluous deleted scenes and also the full scenes of the TV show that is shown on background TV sets a lot – a micro-budget sci-fi action piece starring Paddy Considine.

Available on DVD and BLU-RAY from Madman Entertainment.

Enemy

Enemy

In a dark underground club, a crowd of men watch women perform various sex acts on stage. A woman walks on stage, naked except for high-heeled platform shoes and carrying a covered silver platter. She puts the platter on the floor, and lifts the cover to reveal a tarantula, which she slowly starts to crush under her heel….

Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a reserved college professor living in Toronto. His life revolves around presenting the same lectures again and again, and his relationship with his girlfriend cycles back endlessly to the same unsatisfying sex. On a whim, Adam rents a movie recommended by a colleague, and discovers a bit-part actor who appears to be his exact double. Adam looks him up, and discovers that his name is Anthony Claire and that he also lives in Toronto. Although initially resistant, Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal) eventually agrees to meet with Adam in a hotel room. The two men discover that, though their lives and personalities are very different, they are exact physical copies of one another, including a scar each man has on his abdomen.

Meanwhile, an enormous spider with hideously elongated legs stalks above the Toronto skyline, seemingly invisible to the city’s occupants and women with spiders’ heads walk the underground passages beneath…

Enemy is probably the most consciously alienating movie I’ve watched this year. The whole colour palette is a drab urine-stained yellow that makes everything feel tired and wearing. Adam and Anthony are both difficult characters, awkward or vicious in their relationships with women (which is the primary way we get to see their emotions) and the film works hard to keep us out of their heads and guessing at what makes them tick. And yet, there’s clearly a meaning here (if not more than one) and it seems tantalizingly close to the surface at times.

The two great strengths of Enemy lie in Jake Gylenhaal’s excellent, weird, haunted performance in the two leading roles and in its steadfast resistance to easy unpacking. There are great symbolic depths here, but they defy straightforward explanation in a way which is both frustrating and compelling. That there are already dozens of analyses on the web, none of which precisely agree on what’s going on, speaks to the film’s power and resolute mystery.

Enemy is probably not a film for everyone – it’s certainly not an easy watch, but it’s probably one of the most powerful and enigmatic films I’ve watched this year. It’s certainly the one which has stuck in my head the most.

Enemy is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman.

Recommended.

Cheap Thrills

Cheap-ThrillsORDER DVD

What would you do for money? How low would you go, if the price was right? That is the core premise of the deft indie flick Cheap Thrills, where the events all but beg the audience to consider what they would do in the same situation.

Craig (Pat Healy) is a loving husband and new Dad in financial strife. Battling with news that his young family will be evicted if he cannot find $4500 in back rent, he also gets sacked from his job. Seeking solace in a local bar, he first runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend from school. Then the pair meet an odd wealthy couple (David Koechner and Healy’s co-star from Innkeepers, Sara Paxton) who are throwing cash around like water.

For entertainment, the couple begin betting on everything and anything. These quickly escalate to dares and the cash-desperate Craig and Vince are more than happy to ride the gravy train. But as the rewards for the dares go up, so do the risks…

Cheap Thrills plays this simple structure superbly. The mystery of the next challenge – not to mention exactly what is going on – keeping ratcheting the tension up. Along the way, the relationship between Craig and Vince shifts around between friends to allies to competitors. While it may seem clear where the movie is heading, there are plenty of curve balls along the way.

Director E.L. Katz gets great performances out of all four of his leads. Koechner plays the obnoxious braggart part with ease as he has in the past in flicks like Thank You For Smoking and Paul, but also manages to inject an edge of danger and unpredictability. Every time he laughs to try and put everyone at ease, the insincerity is palpably malevolent.

Paxton plays her part aloof, bored, but with an enigmatic air. Is all of this being done for her benefit? She gives the sense of a deep current of darkness without having to overtly get all femme fatale on it.

But the heart of the movie is in Healy and Embry. Healy is fantastic as the everyman wildly out of his depth, torn, fractured and prone to lashing out. Embry manages to inject pathos into what could have been the comic relief loser character in lesser hands. It is their shifting relationship that is the backbone of the drama and is what elevates the story beyond its high-concept set-up.

There is a wide vein of black comedy through the film that also serves to keep it from getting too grim – although it certainly does get grim – as the challenges before the duo slide ever more into depravity. While this faintly cartoonish tone avoids the movie becoming too nihilistic, it is also somewhat distancing, keeping proceedings from being truly emotionally affecting.

A lean, wicked little thriller, Cheap Thrills is the kind of vicious outsider that independent cinema can produce and deserves to be championed. A black-hearted gem of a film.

Unfortunately, despite the fact the film has a rumoured budget of a mere $100,000, there is no ‘making of’ or ‘behind the scenes’ or even interviews or commentaries to talk about how the dollars were stretched so well. Just a bunch of trailers. Oh, well.

Director: E.L. Katz | Country: USA | Year: 2013 | Distributor: Madman| Running Time: 84 Minutes | Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 | Region: 4/PAL | Discs: 1