Movie Reviews

Banshee Chapter 3D

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

The second film of the weekend to utilise the third dimension, Banshee Chapter sounds at first conventional – a journalist, Anne (Katia Winter, of the Sleepy Hollow TV series) is shocked by the sudden disappearance of her friend James (Michael McMillan, True Blood) and so decides to investigate, which leads her into danger. However, when the MK Ultra experiments, numbers stations and a Hunter S Thompson-esque writer come into the mix, it soon becomes clear that this is something quite different to the norm.

Having a film surrounding the myths involving the MK Ultra experiments designed and shot in 3D sounded like a match made in heaven, but unfortunately the end results are disappointing. Even archive footage is converted for the extra dimension, which diminishes impact elsewhere, and the use of only natural lighting added to a lot of night or dark scenes prevent the 3D making the impact it could and leaving sadly a bit of a missed opportunity.

With that taken to one side, the visuals are often strong and in conjunction with fantastic sound design make for a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Pacing is tight, and performances are good throughout – as well as the lead Ted Levine (The Bridge, Monk) deserves note for a great turn as the Hunter S Thompson-inspired Thomas Blackburn.

Aside from the slight misstep with its treatment of 3D, Banshee Chapter is an excellent feature debut for writer/director Blair Erickson. Gripping, disturbing and properly creepy, it’s one I can’t wait to watch again. ****

Dark Touch

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

Every year, there’s one film at Frightfest that is best described with three letters – W T F. This year’s headscratching entry was to be Dark Touch, which tries to say something serious about the impact and repercussions of child abuse but has a habit of jumping so far into left field the viewer is left wondering if their drink has been spiked.

Daughter-of-Boyzone Missy Keating is Niamh, sole survivor of the horrific night that took the lives of her parents and brother. Taken in by Nat and Lucas (Marcella Plunkett and Padraic Delaney), they aren’t sure how to best deal with her increasingly clear troubles. Were her claims that the house came to life true, and is something else haunting her?

Performances vary immensely with Missy’s being one of the highlights; others particularly for smaller roles are at times so bad they become funny, which is furthered by occasionally truly groan-inducing dialogue. The biggest issue is that the film doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be at several key points – is it a serious commentary, a revenge opus or a full-on supernatural thriller?

Dark Touch does at least look the part, particularly during set piece scenes and when the scale gets ramped up. It may step into surrealism and silliness – particularly during the most bizarre doll picnic I am ever likely to see – but somehow in spite of everything it’s hard to really dislike the film. Just don’t go in expecting consistency or sense! **1/2

I Spit On Your Grave 2

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

Read the review of the first (remake) film here!

I wasn’t a great fan of the I Spit On Your Grave remake, which showed in Frightfest 2010, so decided to approach this sequel a little differently…

Things learned from I Spit On Your Grave 2:

  • A rape/revenge film makes for hilariously awkward introduction as compliments to lead actress Jemma Dallender become unfortunately creepy!
  • If you’re a naive attractive lady who follows a small ad for modelling, it’s likely to end up with someone trying to get you to take your kit off – and if you refuse, it will make you a target for Evil Rapist Types.
  • All men are either Evil Rapist Types, Evil Violent Types, combinations of those or so stupid/ineffectual as to be virtually cooperating with Evil Rapist/Violent/Violent Rapist Types – so are worth nothing more than torture, death or both.
  • As horrifying as beating and rapes are (fortunately less visually explicit than the first), they are not nearly as terrifying to a character as finding out they are in Bulgaria…
  • Always check under your rugs – they’re even better than posters of Rita Hayworth or Raquel Welch!
  • The revenge elements of the film are less cartoony than its predecessor but still pretty extreme, graphically portrayed (pop!) and show some originality.
  • While some of the cinematography is good, the look of the film makes characters look oddly waxy throughout.
  • Rape/revenge completists may want to check it out, but other than some inventive and nasty kills its appeal is limited unless on a “men are scum” kick.

**

The Last Days

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

With the rise of WiFi for Laptops plus tablets and smartphones, outdoor browsing has become much more common – chances are a proportion of you are reading this outside now. But what if you couldn’t go outside at all?

In The Last Days (aka Los Ultimos Dias) the world has been hit by a pandemic that not only makes everyone terrified of the wide outdoors, but to a level that kills them if they try. Trapped in his place of work, Marc (Quim Gutiérrez – stop giggling, you) must somehow get across Barcelona to find girlfriend Julia (Marta Etura), but avoiding exposure is far from his only challenge…

Made by brothers David and Àlex Pastor (Carriers) for around EUR5m – approx $7m – the striking visuals are immediately impressive and give a great sense of scale. Helped by the architecture of Barcelona itself, the imagery of a city where noone outside allows nature to take hold is equal to that of a banner Hollywood disaster/apocalypse movie, and is backed up by solid acting and a tight script. Also laudable is a good use of tension, with one scene in a church standing out – it doesn’t get quite unbearable, but certainly gives paws!

On the negative side, there are a couple of moments where coincidence or survival is more due to The Power Of Plot than anything else, and the ending won’t be to all tastes. But these are pretty minor quibbles as The Last Days stands out as an intelligent thriller with an edge of originality and a great look, and one of the bests of its type in recent years. ****

The Conspiracy

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

“I love humans”, said Paul McGann’s Doctor, “always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.” (apophenia, for linguaphiles) But what about when they are?

Aaron and Jim (Aaron Poole and James Gilbert – guess which is which?) are documentarians following a conspiracy theorist called Terrance, who promptly disappears. Piqued by the timing, Aaron follows up on Terrance’s theories in hope of finding him, while Jim is more sceptical. As more threads lead towards an organisation called the Tarsus Club, could a real conspiracy be leading the filmmakers into danger, or is Tarsus really – ahem – just bull?

The subject matter instantly means The Conspiracy is going to be a divisive film, and the very evenhandedness it shows can be spun into bias for either camp if starting with a strong viewpoint one way or the other. Filmically, it holds the documentary style well throughout, and while there is a touch of overly shaky camerawork towards the end, it is in better context than many where you would be rolling your eyes why the characters insist on keeping the camera on! Pacing is good and there’s a confident approach by writer/director Christopher MacBride for his first feature, with echoes of the 70s heyday of paranoia thrillers like The Parallax View.

Challenging the nature of viewer acceptance of what’s on screen, there’s lots of detail that will reward a rewatch, but ultimately your enjoyment of the film is likely going to depend on your level of interest and belief in the types of New World Order conspiracies it deals with. ***1/2

Dark Tourist

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

Grief/dark tourism, or thanatourism for those who like the extra scrabble options, is described by Wikipedia as “travel to sites associated with death and tragedy”. Places like Culloden, Ground Zero, and the London Dungeon are examples of the more common side of this, but in Dark Tourist Jim (Michael Cudlitz of Southland) prefers to spend his holidays visiting locations involved in the lives of serial killers. We follow Jim as he visits sites important to New Orleans mass murderer Carl Marznap, and the movie pulls no punches in its view into his mind and inner conflict.

Unblinking in its character focus and bolstered by an intense and believable performance by Cudlitz, it’s a gripping and disturbing piece of work. That Frank John Hughes only has one other writing credit (2011’s Leave, which had story cowritten by Rick Gomez) is testament to a clear talent on the page as well as onscreen – he is more recognised as an actor in the likes of 24 and Bad Boys.

The end result is chilling, a bit grimy and ultimately saddening; Jim may not be ultimately sympathetic but the view into his life shows the experiences and challenges that have led him to the path he has taken. Unfortunately, these are the very aspects that prove limiting as the film’s nature means you won’t want to make a return visit into Jim’s head anytime soon.

Like many visits to the sites involved in grief tourism, watching Dark Tourist is an experience that is appreciable rather than enjoyable. It’s certainly worth viewing once, but it’s unlikely to go on a most-frequently-watched list. Now, I think I need a shower… ***1/2

In Fear

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

I wonder if in these times of austerity, if director Jeremy Lovering had a conversation with production company Big Talk that went something like this:

“Hey, so I have an idea for a horror movie that will be really cheap – it’s called In Fear
“Good title! So how’s it cheap?”
“Well, there’s only three cast members for a start!”
“Go on?”
“Well there’s Tom, who’s played by Iain De Caestecker, and Alice Englert as Lucy – they haven’t known each other long, and he’s trying to impress her with a posh night in a fancy hotel before they head to a music festival. Well of course they get lost, and they’re on unfamiliar roads as it gets dark…”
“Ah, so most of the film takes place in the car? I can see how it’s cheap, but won’t that be kind of boring?”
“There’s an element of mistrust with a possible altercation at the pub where they started their journey, and their lack of familiarity is brought to the fore. And then it starts to seem that there’s someone – or something – out there with them too…”
“Intriguing! How will you keep up tension?”
“There’s the great trick – I’m not telling the actors about the plot in advance, and the script is secret for each of them so their emotions are going to be real”
“Careful, you’re going to be directing the first episode of the new series of Sherlock, you don’t need to be giving The Moff ideas for secrecy!”
“Sound plays a big part too, this is really a film about building atmosphere. You won’t realise it’s cheap when you see it”
“On the flipside, because its so psychologically focussed it’s probably the kind of film you have to be in the right mood to appreciate so to speak.”
“Agreed, but there’s alot to appreciate when you are”

It’s not quite the masterclass that the mainstream press have described it, but it’s a solid watch and bodes well for Lovering going in to Sherlock ***

Missionary

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

The Church of the Latter-Day Saints is not one that gets much attention in films (Saints and Soldiers and Orgazmo aside – which is likely the only place you’ll see those two films paired!), so it being held front and centre in all information for Missionary certainly tweaked my interest. The story centres around Katherine (Dawn Olivieri), who is raising her son alone after separating from her husband and moving back to her home town. Her eye is caught by Elder Kevin Brock (Mitch Ryan) while he is going door to door, and it isn’t long before the title of the film refers to more than just Kevin’s position in his chosen faith! When estranged husband Ian (Kip Pardue) then comes back on the scene making a concerted effort with his son, Katherine wavers – but Kevin isn’t so willing to let her go…

Anthony DiBlasi shows restraint in direction letting the actors tell the story, with occasional touches such as Katherine savouring the memory of a clinch with Kevin while driving nicely done – though she maybe should have been concentrating more on the road! Being primarily a character piece, performances are crucial, and are the real strength of Missionary; acting is natural and believeable across the board. Unfortunately the flipside of that is that I found Katherine quite unsympathetic in some ways as she has quite literally made her own bed…

Wisely, the film doesn’t take the easy route of blaming the character’s behaviour on their religion – Kevin is bending the tenets and statements of his faith to suit him rather than the other way round. The portrayal of Mormonism seems fair and even-handed and while less probing into the belief structure than Trey Parker’s works gives an interesting insight into the day-to-day life of the Elders.

Missionary is a solid if unspectacular thriller in the kind of mould of Fatal Attraction, though with gender roles reversed. There’s added interest in its integration of Mormon culture seen comparatively rarely, and though it’s unlikely to be a title you’ll come back to time and again it’s worth catching once! ***

Cheap Thrills

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

What would you do for $100? And what about if your friend was competing for the cash? That’s the core of Cheap Thrills, with recently fired Craig (Pat Healy) and old schoolmate Vince (Ethan Embry) getting sucked into the increasingly elaborate bets made by bored rich couple Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton).

David Koechner was apparently interested in the film as a way to move away from association with comedy, but in reality this is not much darker than his role in Final Destination 5. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case as while he is the centre of much of the humour in Cheap Thrills, it provides a welcome offset from the uncomfortability that comes from scenarios that have a disturbing ring of authenticity – that sense that this could happen, and probably already has!

With that sense of reality, the performances have to be up to the task, and the cast are uniformly excellent. Sara Paxton was great in 2011’s The Innkeepers and shows quality here in a totally different kind of role, and it’s difficult to see how anyone other than Koechner could balance manipulation, creepiness and affability in the same way.

Despite all that, I did find myself pulled right out of the film when it took a sexual turn that didn’t feel consistent with the characters as drawn to that point – granted it was predominantly a setup for one of the funniest scenes but was kind of jarring considering the believability to that point.

Overall, Cheap Thrills is successful in generating cringing for the right reasons. It’s well worth checking out, but you may find that its nature doesn’t inspire repeat watching. And who knows, maybe someday David Koechner will manage to shake the comic typecasting! ***1/2

R.I.P.D. 3D

Film4 Frightfest 2013

 

Take the first Men In Black and mix liberally with Ghostbusters. Add a sprinkle of Constantine and you have an easy description of R.I.P.D., the target of much critical vitriol on its US release.

Naturally, most of those completely ignored the film’s actual origin in the Dark Horse comic that began in 1999. Killed during a raid, Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself drafted to the Rest In Peace Department, who use dead police officers to capture the undead who have returned to Earth. Nick finds himself partnered with 19th century US Marshal Roycephus Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges) and they uncover a plot that could change the afterlife irrevocably…

Ryan Reynolds is generally watchable in an unusually flawed character for the kind of film, but the screen belongs to Jeff Bridges who is a hoot as the Old West lawman. The conceit used whereby the R.I.P.D. officers have avatars as they can’t look the same as their dead selves in case of recognition is fun too, and the humour in general may not be highbrow but is actually pretty funny.

The 3D is surprisingly decent as well – it’s not too gimmicky and scenes like an early shootout show a good understanding of 3D space in both design and direction. Unfortunately some of the other CGI effects come across less well as the elements to make the dead look disturbing make them stand out as different so instantly look a bit wrong to the eye; it’s a bit easier to make aliens in that respect as the viewer expects them not to look so, well, human!

While it does suffer from comparison to those similarities like Ghostbusters, and is hardly intellectually challenging, R.I.P.D. is fun popcorn entertainment. And it even has a role for Kevin Bacon that’s almost enough to forget the EE adverts! ***1/2

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