Monday, 28 February 2011

"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac

Year of Publication: 1958
Number of Pages: 204 pages
Genre: Travel, spiritual, drama

Summary: Late October 1955: Aspiring poet Ray Smith arrives in San Francisco and meets Zen Buddhist poet Japhy Ryder, who inspires Ray with his spiritual views, and vision of a "rucksack revolution" in which the young people of America, fired up by Buddhist philosophy, would walk and hitch-hike through America. Ray Smith joins Ryder on his journeys through the High Sierras, but finds that his enthusiasm for the spiritual life severely tested by the all-night poetry sessions, wild wine-fueled parties and orgies that make up bohemian life in San Francisco.

Opinions: This book is one of the classic works by "Beat Generation" author Jack Kerouac. The book is strongly autobiographical, all the characters were real people very thinly disguised. Ray Smith is based on Kerouac himself, Japhy Ryder is based on poet Gary Snyder (at one point in the novel Kerouac refers to Ryder as "Gary"). Fellow Beat Generation luminary Allen Ginsberg appears in the book as Alvah Goldbook, and one of the early scenes in the novel features the famous Six Gallery poetry reading at which Ginsberg first presented his classic poem Howl (which is named "Wail" in this novel). There is not much of a conventional plot in the book, it's written in a stream of conciousness style and tries to capture more his experiences and emotions. There is some beautiful, lyrical writing when he describes his mountain-climbing and some of the transcendental experiences. There are also plenty of amusing and interesting anecdotes of his hitch-hiking and travels cross-country. The book has been criticised for being inaccurate about Buddhism and Zen. Also, with the exception of Smith and Ryder, none of the characters have much of an in-depth treatment. By modern standards the book is quite politically incorrect at times. However it is one of Kerouac's most famous and influential works and is a must-read for anyone interested in one of the most important and influential American writers of the 20th Century. It is also very thought-provoking and powerful and contains passages of truly beautiful, poetic writing.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Natural Born Killers

Year: 1994
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Dave Veloz and Richard Rutowski, from a story by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield
Running Time: 119 minutes, and a 123 minute Director's Cut
Genre: Crime, thriller, action, satire, dark comedy

Opinions: Mickey Knox (Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Lewis) are a married pair of serial killers who leave a swathe of murder and devastation over the southern USA. They are chased by unbalanced celebrity cop Jack Scagnetti (Sizemore), who has a personal mission against serial killers, and sleazy Australian television personality Wayne Gale (Downey, Jr.), host and producer of popular true-crime show American Maniacs, alongside almost every law enforcement agency in the USA.
While seeking treatment for a rattlesnake bite, Mickey and Mallory are arrested, after a three week crime spree that has left fifty-two people dead. A year later they are in prison, and the warden, Dwight McClusky (Jones), enlists Scagnetti to help transport the two to a mental hospital with the understanding that they will be killed on the way. However, Mickey has plans of his own and agrees to a live TV interview with Gale as tensions in the prison approach boiling point.

Opinions: This film, based loosely on an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, was hugely controversial on its orignally release for its arguable glamorising of the violence. The movie utilises almost every cinematic technique in the book, the film stock changes seemingly at random, moves from colour to black-and-white, tinted images, weird camera angles, animation, on-screen captions, stock footage, distorted images, clips from TV shows and movies, a frenzied editing style and weird back-projection. Some scenes detailing Mallory's abusive family life are even shot in the style of an old TV sitcom. This is combined with a frenetic and eclectic soundtrack which blends in everything from classical to country to hard rock.
Woody Harrelson is genuinely terrifying as the charismatic but murderous Mickey, and he gets strong support from Juliette Lewis as the frenzied Mallory, both of whom manage to be genuinely touching in their romantic scenes. Tom Sizemore also works well as the sinister cop on their trail. However both Robert Downey, Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones are completely over the top as the TV journalist and prison warden respectively. Which does largely fit in with Stone's excessive style.
The movie is an attack on the way that the media ostensibly condemns criminals while at the same time glamorising them, which is not a particularly new point, and it's treatment here is not in any way subtle, but is effective.
The film is still shocking and disturbing though more for it's style than for anything really in the content. It has aged surprisingly well, and remains a striking and memorable viewing experience.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis pose for the camera in Natural Born Killers

Friday, 25 February 2011

John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Fear Machine

Written by: Jamie Delano, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman and Alfredo Alcala
Year of Publication: 2008, first published monthly as John Constantine, Hellblazer issue 14 (December 1988) to issue 22 (September 1989)
Number of Pages: 239 pages
Genre: Graphic novels, horror, supernatural

Summary: Occultist and magician John Constantine is accused of a murder he didn't commit. On the run in the English countryside he befriends a group of New Age travellers in particular a young girl named Mercury, who has strong psychic powers, and her mother Marj. He decides to join up with them, until one morning the camp is raided and Mercury is kidnapped. Constantine determines to track her down and follows the trail to London. He discovers that Mercury is being held by a sinister organization who want to use her psychic powers as part of a devestating new weapon known as the Fear Machine. However, Constantine soon realises that the Fear Machine is just part of a much wider conspiracy which reaches to the upper echelons of power in Britain. A conspiracy that is attempting to awaken a powerful supernatural force, older and more terrible than anything that Constantine has yet faced, and he may be far too late to stop it.

Opinions: One of the most striking things about the Hellblazer comic-book series is the way it blends supernatural horror with a recognisable, gritty reality. Another element that sets it apart is the character of John Constantine himself, a charismatic and fundamentally well-intentioned man who nevertheless is very much an antihero, who frequently manipulates, discards and endangers both friends and lovers, who frequently loses and who, when he does win, often does so more through luck than skill.
This story is a good example of early Hellblazer which, despite some of the aspects of the story coming across as quite dated now, nevertheless still stands up well. The only criticism really is that the conclusion is kind of rushed and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. However for the most part the story is interesting and complex and also very bleak, but it also features plenty of the comic's trademark strain of dark humour. Some of the artwork is a little crude when compared to more recent comics but it serves it's purpose, and the original issue covers by Dave McKean and Kent Williams (which are reproduced in this volume) are very impressive.
Another good point about the Hellblazer series is that it is relatively accessible to newcomers. Most of the storylines can be read without having read any of the others in the series, and this one is no exception although there are a few references early on to events that presumably occured in an earlier story.
While this might not be the ideal introduction to the Hellblazer universe, it can still be enjoyed by non-fans, and fans of the series will certainly like it.


Year: 2011
Director: Greg Mottola
Screenplay: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Jane Lynch, Sigourney Weaver, Blythe Danner
Running Time: 104 minutes
Genre: Comedy, science-fiction

Summary: Two British science-fiction fans, aspiring artist Graeme Willy (Pegg) and unsuccessful author Clive Gollings (Frost), visit the San Diego Comic-Con and go on a road trip to visit famous UFO crash sites. On their way they encounter foul-mouthed alien, Paul (voiced by Rogen), who crash-landed on Earth in 1947 and is currently on the run from the US Government. Graeme and Clive decide to help Paul, and so they set off across the US, along with devoutly religious Ruth (Wiig), who they are forced to take with them when she sees Paul. However, they are pursued by a trio of "Men in Black" type Government agents, headed by Agent Lorenzo Zoyle (Bateman), and controlled by the mysterious 'Big Guy' (Weaver). As well as Ruth's angry, shotgun-toting father (John Carroll Lynch).

Opinions: Actors and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have previously worked together on the television series Spaced (1999-2001) and on the films Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). This film has a slightly different flavour to their previous collaborations due to them working without their regular collaborator, writer and director Edgar Wright. It is slightly more commercial and sweet-natured then their previous work. Very few writers/actors have such a strong connection with their audience as Pegg and Frost. They portray the "nerd" world with genuine affection, because they are part of that world themselves. Fans of science-fiction movies and comics will love the multiple references to movies, TV shows, books and comics, in particular Steven Spielberg movies such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
The film is aimed squarely at the kind of audience who know about Comic-Con, and are avid viewers of science-fiction movies and TV shows, but there is enough genuinely funny knockabout humour to appeal to non-fans. The humour in the film is very broad and bad-taste, but it's also leavened with a lot of sweetness. The friendship between Nick Frost and Simon Pegg provides a lot of the film's charm, Seth Rogen has a lot of the film's best lines as the wise-cracking alien, and Kristen Wiig is engaging as the repressed fundamentalist who finds herself liberated through her travels with Paul and co.
The film is a must-see for science-fiction fans, but there is also enough to appeal to general comedy fans as well. For an evening's entertainment it is definitely recommended.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have a close encounter in Paul

True Grit

Year: 2010
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel True Grit by Charles Portis
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper, Domhnall Gleeson
Running Time: 110 minutes
Genre: Western, adventure

Summary: Arkansas, 1878: While collecting the body of her murdered father and settling his business affairs, fourteen year old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) decides to hire a US Marshall to track down her father's killer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Searching for a man with "true grit" Mattie decides to hire Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), an alcoholic who nevertheless has a reputation of being the toughest and most ruthless Marshall around. Eventually Cogburn reluctantly agrees to be hired by Mattie, however he is much less agreeable to her condition that she accompany him on the trail. However, she follows Cogburn anyway, and discovers that he has formed an uneasy partnership with a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Damon), who is also on the hunt for Chaney, who is wanted in Texas for killing a Senator. The three embark on the dangerous trail through wild hostile terrain on the hunt for Chaney, who has joined up with a gang of violent armed robbers.

Summary: True Grit was previously made into a film in 1969 with John Wayne playing "Rooster" Cogburn (a performance for which Wayne won the only Academy Award of his career) and has since become a staple of Sunday afternoon television.
The new version is certainly more intense and violent than the earlier film, but it also has more heart. It has a witty and intelligent script and makes good use of wintery New Mexico and Texan locations. It also boasts a strong cast with Jeff Bridges perfectly cast as the mean, tough, but fundamentally decent Cogburn, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (who was 13 years old at the time of filming) delivering a superb performance as the intelligent and determined Mattie. The movie also boasts a strong soundtrack, primarily consisting of 19th Century Church music which works perfectly with the film's time and location.
Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film, are among the best film-makers working today, and the film has a genuine stately grandeur in both it's powerful visuals and soundtrack, and also delivers in the all-important action sequences with some brilliant shootouts.
This film is a great return to the classic Western, which is a must-see for fans of the genre as well as delivering enough action and humour to appeal to those who ordinarily would never watch a Western.

Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges hit the trail in True Grit

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Rio Bravo

Year: 1959
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: James Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell
Running Time: 141 minutes
Genre: Western, action, drama

Summary: A small Texan border town in the late 19th Century: A brutal bandit, Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), shoots an unarmed man and is arrested by the town's no-nonsense sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne), and is locked up in the town jail. Burdette's wealthy rancher brother, Nathan (Russell), has employed a gang of hired killers who, along with Joe Burdette's friends, will stop at nothing to get him out of jail.
With only the town drunk, Dude (Martin), a garrolous, trigger-happy old guard, Stumpy (Brennan), and a young gunslinger, Colorado (Nelson), whose boss was killed by Nathan Burdette's hired killers, Chance has to keep Joe Burdette in jail for about a week until a US Marshall can arrive in the town to collect him.

Opinions: The movie was made as a riposte to the 1952 film High Noon, in which a town sheriff cannot find anyone willing to help him fight the bandits soon to arrive in town. In this film John Wayne has a number of people willing to help him, but repeatedly turns down their offers of help.
However this is very much it's own film. The film features a witty and intelligent script which has a good understanding of male camaraderie. It features some memorable action sequences and set pieces, in particular a lengthy wordless opening sequence where John Wayne saves a desperate Dean Martin from humiliation, with the look of mingled pity and disgust with Wayne regards Martin is one of the high-points of his acting career. In fact this is one of John Wayne's best movies, with the script and direction playing up to his strengths, basically he doesn't have to do much actual acting, he just has to stand around with a rifle and look tough.
Dean Martin also shines as the once great sharpshooter turned alcoholic laughing-stock, who has to battle with his addictions and personal demons throughout the film. It's Martin who provides the film with it's human drama elements, and he does it brilliantly. The only problem is that Ricky Nelson, engaging as he is in the film, never really manages to convince as a gunslinger.
The film also features a great score by Dimitri Tiomkin and, obviously enough with singers Martin and Nelson in the cast, there is a musical interlude where they both sing a couple of songs, but they're good songs.
This is a great slice of entertainment which has been a huge influence on action movies since. Hawks himself returned to elements of this film twice, in the films El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), both of which also starred John Wayne. The 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13, written and directed by John Carpenter, is almost an updated remake.

Dean Martin and John Wayne in Rio Bravo

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Year: 1919
Director: Robert Wiene
Screenplay: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski
Running Time: 71 minutes
Genre Horror, psychological, silent

Summary: A small town in Germany is holding a fair. One of the attractions is the "somnambulist" Cesare (Veidt) who apparently permanently sleeps inside a coffin-like cabinet and awakes only occasionally to do the bidding of his owner and master, the mysterious hypnotist and mystic, Doctor Caligari (Krauss). A series of bizarre murders starts around the same time that Caligari arrives. When Franzis (Feher) and his friend Alan (von Twardowski) visit Caligari's sideshow, Cesare predicts that Alan will be dead by daybreak and, sure enough, that night he falls victim to the mysterious killer. Naturally enough Franzis suspects Caligari and Cesare, however the truth is more complex then it seems.

Opinions: This film is one of the first horror films ever made and is arguably among the most influential being one of, if not the first, examples of a "frame story" and also a twist ending in cinema. Most films, even science-fiction and fantasy films, pay at least some kind of lip-service to some kind of reality. This film doesn't even bother. It belongs to the "German Expressionist" movement which was sweeping German art, theatre as well as cinema in the inter-war years. The film uses bizarre, skewed, flat, painted sets, strange camera angles, and weirdly designed intertitles. Part of the reason for the expressionistic style was the fact that the producers didn't have much money for sets and lighting.
The effect is a genuinely dreamlike experience. Almost every image in the film has some element that is slightly "off", whether in the bizarre angles or designs of the sets, or the exaggerated makeup and costumes of the characters.
It is a must-see for anyone seriously interested in horror films or in film history in general, however some viewers might be put off by the fact that it is a silent film, it moves slowly, the very obvious fakeness and staginess of the production and also the exagerrated and often histrionic acting that was a hallmark of silent films. however, if you can get past this, it is still a powerful and striking experience.
Another word of warning is that the film is in the public domain and therfore exists in a number of different versions and cuts, so as always "buyer beware". I saw it in the cinema with live music, and that is by far the best way to see it and if you ever do get the opportunity to see the film "live" as it were, don't miss it. If not, it is still well worth your time checking it out, but be careful that you get the best version.

Conrad Veidt flees with Lil Dagovar in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Year: 2009
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Marika Lagercrantz, Lena Endre, Bjorn Granath, Ingvar Herdwall, Peter Andersson, Tehilla Blad
Running Time: 152 minutes, 180 minute extended version
Genre: Crime, thriller

Summary: Mykael Blomkvist (Nyqvist), an investigative journalist with controversial magazine Millennium, loses a high-profile libel case and finds his reputation in tatters and his career potentially ruined. Deciding to take a leave of absence from the magazine, Blomkvist is contacted an extremely wealthy and powerful businessman, Henrik Vanger (Taube), head of the family run Vanger Group. Vanger is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his beloved neice, Harriet, some forty years earlier. He believes that Harriet was murdered by a member of their own family, and he wants Blomkvist to go over the investigation again in the vain hope that he might come up with some new leads or previously overlooked clue. Blomkvist agrees to the assignment.
However, he learns that his investigation is being closely monitored. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace), an expert computer hacker and investigator, who was hired to do a background check on Blomkvist prior to Vanger hiring him, becomes fascinated by his investigation. Fiercely intelligent, strong, uncompromising and not caring a thing about society's rules and conventions, Salander helps Blomkvist with his investigation. However, as they get closer to the truth it becomes apparent that they have powerful and ruthless enemies who will stop at nothing to keep the dark secrets hidden.

Opinions: The Millennium trilogy by the late Swedish journalist and author Steig Larsson (which consists of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2007)) has been one of the publishing sensations of the past decade. The books have sold millions of copies worldwide. The three books were adpated as a six-part Swedish miniseries (each novel being broadcast in two episodes.
This film is an edited version of the first two episodes of the mini-series. The film follows the storyline of the novel very closely and it does not suffer in any way from having it's origins on the small screen. Michael Nyqvist is engaging and likeable as the crusading journalist Blomkvist, but the film belongs to Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, "the girl with the dragon tattoo" of the title, making her both terrifying and sympathetic, sometimes at the same time. She also manages to make the extremely uncompromising and antisocial Salander consistently likeable, with an icily granite stare to rival Clint Eastwood's.
The film looks beautiful making good use of the Swedish countryside, and both script and direction keep a tight control of the material while successfully retaining Larsson's labyrinthine narrative.
Fans of the books will doubtless love the film, and it also manages to be engaging and entertaining for newcomers to the story.
An English language remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara is due for release in December 2011.

Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Saturday, 19 February 2011


Year: 1976
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel Carrie by Stephen King
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie
Running Time: 98 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural, high school, coming-of-age

Summary: Carrie White (Spacek) is a shy, unpopular and frequently bullied sixteen year old girl, who is frequently abused by her fanatically religious mother, Margaret (Laurie). The girls at Carrie's school frequently torment her. One day after a gym class, Carrie has her first period while she is in the showers. Not knowing what is happening and genuinely believing that she is bleeding to death, Carrie panics and her classmates respond by pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins while chanting: "Plug it up!"
This traumatic experience awakens in Carrie a previously latent power of telekinesis (the ability to move or cause changes in objects by the force of the mind). This power steadily grows in strength. Meanwhile, popular girl Sue Snell (Irving), feeling guilty about her part in tormenting Carrie, convinces her popular football hero boyfrend, Tommy Ross (Katt) to ask Carrie to the Senior Prom. Initially suspicious that it is a prank, Carrie eventually agrees.
Meanwhile, one of Carrie's principal tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Allen) and her hoodlum boyfriend, Billy Nolan (Travolta), plan a sadistic trick to completely humiliate Carrie at the Prom. However, now Carrie has the ability to finally exact her own revenge.

Summary: Carrie was the first novel by Stephen King to be published, and it was also the first of many to be adapted as a film. It is a powerful and disturbing piece of work, which will doubtless strike a chord in anyone who has ever been bullied or felt like an outsider. In the lead role Sissy Spacek gives a superb and sympathetic performance. The film's huge success didn't just kickstart Stephen King's career, it also made director Brian De Palma's name as a Hollywood director, and uses a lot of his trademark visual tricks such as split-screen, soft-focus, slow-motion, speeded up images, sequences shot in reverse and a mobile camera. It also helped to make John Travolta a star.
The film is made all the more effective by the blending of humour and high-school drama with the horror elements, which makes the story even more effective and disturbing. Despite obviously showing it's age, the film has dated well and remains both shocking and funny, sometimes even at the same time. Interestingly enough the film completely belongs to the female characters who make up almost all of the principal cast, both of the main male characters are completely manipulated by the women. Also, despite the violence of Carrie's revenge, she remains a sympathetic character, who just wants to fit in in the violent and cruel snakepit that is the average high-school.
The film was followed by a belated sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999), which received almost unanimously negative reviews and was a box office failure. The novel was also adapted as a Broadway musical in 1988, which was a legendary flop and closed after sixteen previews and five performances. In 2002 the novel was adapted as a television mini-series starring Angela Bettis in the title role which received mixed reviews.

Mother knows best: Piper Laurie comforts Sissy Spacek in Carrie.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Faculty

Year: 1998
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Kevin Williamson, from a story by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Bebe Neuwirth, Salma Hayek, Daniel von Bargen, Usher Raymond
Running Time: 104 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, horror

Summary: Herrington High School is a perfectly normal school in Ohio. The star quarterback, Stan (Hatosy), wants to quit sports to concentrate on his academic work. Stan's girlfriend, Delilah (Brewster), is the head cheerleader and editor of the school paper. The frequently bullied Casey (Wood) photographs for the newspaper and has a massive unrequited crush on Delilah. Zeke (Hartnett) is a very intelligent but lacklustre student, preferring to concentrate on selling fake IDs, pornographic videos and his own home-made drugs to his fellow students. While goth girl and science-fiction fan Stokely (DuVall) is happy being left alone. Meanwhile new girl Marybeth (Harris) is just trying to fit in and make friends in the new school.
However, they soon become aware of strange changes taking place in the behaviour of the staff and fellow students. They quickly begin to realise that the faculty and most of the students are being infected by mind-controlling alien parasites. The problem is finding out who is infected and who isn't and whether there is any way to stop the parasites before it's too late.

Opinions: A mix of science-fiction, horror and teenage high-school comedy-drama, this film is an entertaining blend of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Thing (1982) and The Breakfast Club (1985) all of which are explicitly referenced.
The screenplay is by Kevin Williamson, who at the time was one of the hottest scriptwriters in Hollywood having written Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Scream 2 (1998) as well as creating the TV series Dawson's Creek (1998-2003). The film features many Williamson hallmarks such as quick-witted dialogue, multiple pop-culture references as well as Williamson's genuine interest in and liking for his teen characters.
The movie benefits a lot from Robert Rodriguez's typically stylish and fast-moving direction. The main cast of young, up and coming actors are effective and receive good support from their more established adult co-stars, including Robert Patrick as the enjoyably sinister Coach, and Famke Janssen as a repressed English teacher. Also comedian, satirist, TV presenter and host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart appears as a science teacher and there is also a cameo from Harry Knowles, founder and maintainer of movie news and review site Ain't It Cool News.
This is an enjoyable and interesting variation on some familiar themes. Also a high school, with it's emphasis on conformity and the pressure to fit in, is a perfect setting for "mind-control" horror.

Shawn Hatosy, Josh Hartnett, Laura Harris, Clea DuVall and Elijah Wood in The Faculty

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Youth in Revolt

Year: 2009
Director: Miguel Artega
Screenplay: Gustin Nash, based on the novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne
Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Zack Galifianakis, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi, Adhir Kalyan
Running Time: 89 minutes
Genre: Comedy, coming-of-age

Summary: Oakland, California: Nick Twisp (Cera) is a likeable, intelligent, geeky teenager who enjoys arthouse movies and has no luck with girls. He lives with his divorced mother, Estelle (Smart), and her deadbeat boyfriend, Jerry (Galifianakis). When the family are forced to move to a trailer park in a small town to escape some sailors who Jerry owes money to, Nick meets and falls madly in love with Sheeni Saunders (Doubleday), anh intelligent and unconventional teenager who loves all things French and is convinced that she will one day marry a glamorous French man named Francois. However, to be with Sheeni, Nick has to contend with her strongly religious parents (Place and M. Emmett Walsh), Sheeni's seemingly perfect boyfriend, Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright), and the fact that Nick's mother wants to take him back to Oakland.
Sheeni promises to set up a job nearby for Nick's father, George (Buscemi), if Nick can get kicked out of his mother's house so he can live with his father near Sheeni. The problem is that Nick has spent his entire life being good and well-behaved and he doesn't know how to bad and reckless and so he creates an alternate persona for himself called Francois Dillinger (Cera again) who has a mustache, smokes and has an almost sociopathic personality. However, Nick finds it increasingly difficult to control Francois, and the course of True Love never runs smoothly.

Opinions: This movie is very much a quirky, semi-indie teen comedy, starring the undisputed king of quirky, semi-indie teen comedies, Michael Cera. Here he is once again cast as a quiet likeable nerd, the kind of role that he always plays well, but here there is an added bonus as he also plays the self-centered, charismatic, calm, but menacing Francois. The rest of the cast do well especially Portia Doubleday in her first major role as Sheeni, whom she makes pretentious, enigmatic and engaging. However, aside from Cera and Doubleday, none of the rest of the cast really have much time to make much of an impression, coming on and off stage like a series of extended cameos. By the way, Rooney Mara, who is soon to appear in the title role in David Fincher's film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has a brief appearance as Sheeni's schoolfriend.
The movie is very stylised, including a couple of animation sequences, and initially I found the relentless quirkiness quite annoying, but after awhile I got used to the style and the movie won me over. It's no classic, but it is entertaining and amusing, with enough surprises and sharp gags to keep the interest.

Michael Cera and Portia Doubleday discuss Youth in Revolt

Saturday, 5 February 2011

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Year: 1969
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, based on the novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern
Running Time: 120 minutes
Genre: Drama

Summary: Los Angeles, 1932: Robert Syverton (Sarrazin), who once dreamed of being a great film director, is standing trial and recalls the events that led up to him being there. Wandering into a dance marathon which is about to begin in a shabby ballroom, he is recrutied by the event's opportunistic promoter and Master of Ceremonies, Rocky (Young), as a partner for cynical aspiring actress Gloria (Fonda) after her own partner drops out due to suspected illness. The rules of the marathon are cruelly simple. There are 102 couples and they have to keep dancing basically until they drop or quit until there is just one couple left who will win a $1500 cash prize. They are allowed a ten minute break every hour but otherwise they have to keep dancing. As they keep dancing for hours which turn into days which turn into weeks which approach months, they're weaknesses exploited by Rocky for the amusement of the audience (who show they're approval by pelting the contestants with pennies) the contestants find themselves reduced to little more than animals.

Opinions: Even if you've never seen this movie or read the book that it's based on, you will probably at least be familiar with the title or some variation on it as it is referenced endlessly in popular culture. The film is an intense and gruelling watch. Set almost entirely in the claustrophobic environs of the ballroom and the small dormitories and offices set off it. While a film about a dance marathon may not seem particularly dramatic it still works due to the way it depicts the exhaustion and physical agony of the event as well as the desperation of the participants. The film is set during the Great Depression and that is a very important element in the story. The crew wore roller-skates to shoot some of the derby scenes in order to try to capture the sense of frenetic motion, and the film also makes extensive use of flash-forwards to depict future events, which is not a very common technique in cinema. Pollack gets great perfomances out of the actors, with Jane Fonda being particularly impressive as the bitter and cynical Gloria and Gig Young as the monsterous host of the event (with his catch-phrase "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!").
The film was obviously aiming at big themes, but these don't quite come across. However it is still worth watching featuring some great acting and also being genuinely disturbing. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won one (Best Supporting Actor for Gig Young).

Michael Sarrazing and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?


Year: 2009
Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Screenplay: Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Sam Niell, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas
Running Time: 98 minutes
Genre: Horror, science-fiction, action

Summary: By 2019 a plague has turned most of Earth's population into vampires. Those who are still human are hunted down for their blood or turned into new vampires. However, the human population has now dwindled to the point that the human race is virtually extinct, which would deprive the vampires of their food source. If a vampire goes for too long without human blood they begin to degenrate into a violent bat-like creature known as a "subsider". Edward Dalton (Hawke), who is sympathetic towards humans, is working towards finding a synthetic blood substitutewhich he hopes will allow vampires and humans to co-exist. However, his greedy boss Charles Bromley (Neill), intends for the synthetic blood to allow the human race just enough time to repopulate before he starts farming them again and selling the real blood for top dollar. After rescuing a group of humans from the police, Edward is contacted by Audrey (Karvan), leader of an undergound group of humans. Through her Edward meets Elvis (Dafoe) a man who accidentally stumbled upon a method for returning vampires to their living human states. The problem is whether the method can be duplicated and whether the vampires will accept it

Opinion: One of the most interesting elements in this blend of vampire horror and science-fiction action movie is it's depiction of a vampire world, complete with blood bags hooked up at the subway station coffee kiosk, windowless houses and shielded "sun-proof" cars, shot in muted colours where dull blues and greys predominate. The performances are good with Ethan Hawke engaging and sympathetic as the "good-guy" vampire and Willem Dafoe adding a lot of fun as the wisecracking Elvis. The action is well handled with a lot of exciting car chases, and plenty of explosive gore, and the whole thing keeps moving nicely.
This is one of those movies where it's best not to think about it too much after you've watched it because there are so many elements and explanations that just don't make much sense, but it will provide a fun hour and a half for action and horror fans.

Meetings of the Crossbow Appreciation Society tended towards the dull: Ethan Hawke, Claudia Karvan, Willem Dafoe and Vince Colosimo in Daybreakers