Disturbia (2007)

Disturbia was a huge hit in US cinemas long before its UK cinema release. Shia LaBeouf (star of Transformers) plays a teenager placed under house arrest, tied to his luxury pad by electronic ankle bracelet. Before you can say ‘this is just like Rear Window’, he notices that creepy neighbour David Morse bears a resemblance to a serial killer in the news bulletins. And that he has another new neighbour in the attractive shape of Sarah Roemer (who looks at least 25 but is mystifyingly in the same school year as our hero).

Anyway, it’s pretty tense, Morse is great as always, and it only goes off the rails in the last 20 minutes when it becomes predictable. A special mention should go to Aaron Yoo, who plays the most annoying comedy sidekick I’ve seen for a long time.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★½☆☆

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The Blind Dead Collection (1971)

The Blind Dead at the drive-in

For less than fifteen quid, I picked up Anchor Bay’s R2 box set, The Blind Dead Collection, which covers Amando de Ossorio’s 4-film series made in Spain in the early 70s. These must have been inspired initially by the success of Night of the Living Dead, and are not without their attractions: the blurb claims ‘a relentless onslaught of creepy atmosphere, shocking violence, forbidden sexuality, and the still-chilling icons of Euro Horror: the eyeless undead who hunt by sound in their quest for human flesh’. For once the blurb isn’t far off, though it fails to mention the terrible acting, dubbing and increasingly stupid plotting.

Anyway, the titular bad guys are heretic Knights Templar, who seem to get an overall bad deal in movies. The idea that you can keep quiet and avoid them is initially neat but becomes more comic with overuse.

Tomb Of The Blind Dead (1971) is the first and works very well in parts, though I’m not sure about zombies riding horses and trains. The confusingly-titled Return Of The Evil Dead (1973) starts to smell a bit like a cash-in, and the suspicion is confirmed in number 3, imaginatively titled Blind Dead 3 (1974). By this time, de Ossorio is tiring of the gore and adds a load of naked ‘models’ to the cast as well as turning the Blind Dead into seafaring zombies (maybe this would be a good idea if you did it as a comedy…) Blind Dead 4 (1975) was actually titled Night Of The Seagulls when I first saw it, and is for completists only. De Ossorio’s talent for creepiness is still apparent but he doesn’t seem bothered by plot, continuity or anything else you might take for granted.

The box set contains a fifth disk with documentaries about and by de Ossorio. The whole thing is very interesting if viewed in a historical context (Spanish film-makers seemed to go a bit nuts after Franco died, shovelling on the sex and violence for no good reason except they had it saved up; see also Josef Grau’s bizarre Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue from 1974) and if you’ve got a strong stomach and an endless supply of alcohol then this is highly recommended at the price.

The American R1 box set is a lot fancier, being coffin-shaped, and has a few extra uncut seconds but costs four times as much.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★½☆☆

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The Lookout (2007)

Initially, lots of things about The Lookout appear unpromising: not one but two actors playing ‘handicapped’, including a lead who used to star in a silly TV comedy, a hackneyed plot and a writer graduating to directing.

Anyone who avoided the movie for those reasons would not only be stupid, but would deservedly have missed a great thriller. This is the directorial debut of Scott Frank, previously best known for writing Out of Sight, Heaven’s Prisoners (for his brother-in-law Phil Joanou) and Minority Report. And more recently Marley and Me

The Lookout

The Lookout – Daniels, Gordon-Levitt, parking meter.

Anyway, The Lookout has a fine script but otherwise you’d never guess Frank was a novice; the movie has all the virtues you’d associate with veteran directors. The visual style, suitably bleak, is carefully controlled and the characters are given time to breathe without slowing the plot – more accurately, the characters are so well-written and played that we don’t really care that the promised heist takes a long time to arrive.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris, a teenager who has it all then throws it away in a car crash, sustaining brain damage and killing his friends. The story picks up when he’s moved in with blind mentor Lewis, played by Jeff Daniels, who brings some much-needed humour to the movie. Although this is advertised as a heist movie, the central thrust of the story is really Chris’ attempt to find redemption or at least rediscover some purpose and respect in his life. He gets a job as a cleaner in a small bank, and is soon befriended by a charismatic thug called Gary and his friend, a tart with the unlikely name of Luvlee Lemons (Matthew Goode and Isla Fisher, both managing credible American accents and better performances than in their other more famous movies).

You can probably see how the wheels of this plot are going to turn, but what makes the movie exceptional is the depth of the characters created by Scott Frank. All the leads are great but there are also two knockout performances from actors who have less to go on: Greg Dunham plays Bone,  Gary’s right-hand man, with a menace unequalled by any actor in recent movies; and Sergio Di Zio plays a friendly local deputy whose fate is telegraphed but manages to make it moving anyway. Small roles go to bigger stars, the likes of Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill and Alberta Watson, presumably happy to work with Frank again.

The second half of the movie focuses on the heist, and whether Chris has enough left to make something positive of the rough hand he’s dealt himself. It’s a terrific performance by Gordon-Levitt, managing to gain our sympathy for his plight without resorting to any obvious tics or over-acting. In the end, there are a couple of gaping holes in the plot, and it’s all a bit too conveniently resolved (the fate of one of the characters seems to have been left on the cutting room floor) but the investment in the characters pays off in a satisfying way. As with all great movies, you’ll be thinking about The Lookout long after it’s finished.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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Bruiser (2000)

I expected a lot from Bruiser, a new movie from my old pal George A. Romero, which arrived on Belgian (?) DVD with very little fanfare.  It’s a nice concept, about a man who is ignored to the point where he wakes up with a blank white mask for a face. The cast includes several strange choices:  Jason Flemyng plays the lead without ever really earning our sympathy, or explaining why a Cockney is working in Toronto, and Peter Stormare plays the ‘villain’ with more charm than the part deserves.

There’s the political subtext and the deliberate pacing and clever visuals you expect from George, and there’s some neat acting from a host of semi-familiar faces in the supporting cast, but you get the impression that he doesn’t really know where to go with the idea.

The later release of the movie on DVD in more accessible markets, with a commentary by Romero, meant I had to buy it again. I’m no wiser now, but George is as genial as always and the movie works better second time around. It’s no more disturbing, apart from finding out that the teenage girl dancing in a bikini is George’s little daughter. The first time he’s ever seemed embarrassed.

File this under ‘interesting failures’ and wait for Dead 4.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I'm talkin' to whoever's listenin' out there.

This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I'm talkin' to whoever's listenin' out there.

As late as the ‘eighties, before the studios knocked any genuine individuality out of their ‘product’,  and before Tarantino made it hip to drop lots of cultural references for no good reason,  it wan’t unusual to sit there surrounded by a largely baffled audience, most of them wondering if confusion was a good enough reason to ask for your money back.  A case in point was Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter’s affectionate tribute to Oriental action movies.

On the plus side – Carpenter’s usual visual panache (assisted by the great Dean Cundey) and thumping synth score, some great dialogue and pace that never lets up. The cast all seem to be in on the joke and throw themselves into it enthusiastically. On the minus side,  the UK audience at least had no context into which they could place the movie, apart from occasional glimpses of Bruce Lee movies. Another problem was that the hero, perfectly played by Kurt Russell, is an idiot, and I say that in a positive way.

All this flouting of convention is fine if your audience has the slightest clue what the conventions are. Looking back now, it all makes more sense, the jokes are very funny and even the cheesy effects add to the mix.  The humour is a lot broader than Carpenter’s early movies;  it’s the point where I started to suspect that he might be giving up on making serious movies, and it turned out that way.

Still, it’s got a lot of great quotes and you won’t have much more fun with any movie if you get into the right spirit.

The 2-disc DVD set is very well put together. The Carpenter/Russell commentary is almost as good as that for The Thing, and the other extras are fun without adding much. Crank up the volume for the terrific score but watch out for the dire music video on disc 2.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

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The Next Three Days (2010)

The Next Three Days

Banks and Crowe in The Next Three Days

I enjoyed Anything For Her (aka Pour Elle), upon which The Next Three Days is based, so I was initially unsure abut this. Added to that, the director is Paul Haggis, who used to have a solid career writing TV shows before creating preachy atrocities like Crash and Million Dollar Baby. Anyway, I decided that I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, as this could be a surefire attempt to go straight by remaking a fine thriller with a top cast.

Hmmm.  Haggis has the sense to retain the ominous opening scene, with its echoes of Reservoir Dogs, which lets you know that there might not be a happy ending. He also retains almost all of the opening two thirds, not just the script but also the visuals, to the point where you wonder why he bothered with the remake at all. The major difference is that he refuses to clear up  the question of the wife’s guilt or innocence until much later in the movie, which is an excellent idea and gives Elizabeth Banks much more to chew on than Diane Kruger had in the original.

Speaking of Banks – she’s terrific in this (as she is in most of her movies, usually against the odds) creating a believable flawed character. Crowe does his best impression of an Ordinary Bloke,  down to the stubble, badly fitting jeans and excess weight, but his past roles bring some unnecessary baggage and you’re never that surprised when he turns into an action man when required.  In that respect he loses out to the original’s Vincent Lindon, but on the plus side it’s easier to believe that he’s married to someone who looks like a supermodel.

So after 90 minutes of translating Paris into Pittsburgh, and some entertaining cameos from Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Daniel Stern, Kevin Corrigan and Jason Beghe  – you couldn’t film in Pittsburgh without Romero alumni – Haggis actually makes a bold move, and extends the finale by adding car chases and beefing up the role of Crowe’s fellow ‘single-parent’ acquaintance.  As she’s played by Olivia Wilde, nobody’s idea of a random woman,  it’s just another indicator of this movie’s fragile grasp on reality.

This is the main problem with Haggis’ adaptation. Where the original turned in at a mean and lean 96 minutes, this one clocks up 122 minutes, or 133 minutes if you’re in Australia. I’m all in favour of movies taking the necessary time to tell the story, but not when it’s already been proved that this one can be told quickly, and not when Haggis risks boredom and then adds an unnecessary ten minutes after the real action is over.

It would be interesting to watch The Next Three Days completely out of context, and I suspect I’d be a lot kinder, as it has two fine lead performances, and is a tense and well-acted thriller which mostly treats its audience with respect, but the last half is stretched out inexcusably; you’re likely to think so even if you’ve not seen Anything For Her.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

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Pour Elle (2008)

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Anything For Her (2008)

Kruger and Lindon in Pour Elle

I used to have  a well-earned contempt for French cinema, the only exceptions being the films of Claude Chabrol. However in the last few years, I’ve either been getting old or it seems that French film-makers have been attempting to make movies for audiences outside their usual target.  It’s hard to imagine Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension or the TV series Spiral as anything other than a reaction to the earlier cultural isolationism. Even more unlikely was the recent French adaptation of Harlan Coben’s typically American novel Tell No One.

Hard on its heels comes a similar edgy thriller, Pour Elle, retitled for the English-speaking world as Anything For Her. Vincent Lindon stars as a middle-aged dog-eared teacher who is inexplicably married to Diane Kruger, more famous as Helen of Troy. After Kruger is jailed for murder, apparently unjustly, Lindon works on a plan to free her.

postit The main point of the plot seems to be to demonstrate how difficult it would be for a normal respectable citizen to involve himself in the criminal underworld, where no-one can be trusted. Lindon is completely convincing in this regard, becoming even more dog-eared after getting out of his depth and getting a good kicking. Eventually he comes up with a plan and the question is not whether his wife is guilty- she isn’t – but how can he free her and start a new life with their son.

Anything For Her isn’t the most plausible story, but Fred Cavaye ensures that it rattles along without giving you too much time to question various events,  and films most scenes as if they were action scenes.  Lindon and Kruger appear mis-matched but manage a fair bit of chemistry to convince you to invest some emotion in their fate.

Even if you don’t like subtitles, or French films in general, you’re likely to find Anything For Her a watchable and involving thriller.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★½☆

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The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

Will Patton in The Mothman Prophecies

Another true story (said with tongue firmly in cheek) inspired The Mothman Prophecies. What we’ve got here is an X-Files-type story with a bigger budget, wrapped around the actual event of a bridge falling into a river in Ohio in the late ‘60s. This is connected to several appearances in the weeks before the disaster of a winged creature with red eyes. (In fact, wasn’t there an episode of the X-Files based around the mothman, or did I dream it?)

Anyway, this version is relocated to recent years, and has Richard Gere as a bereaved reporter drawn to a small town where he encounters lots of spooky events leading up to the disaster. Gere displays the complete range of emotions from confused to puzzled, but he’s helped out by some fine supporting actors including Alan Bates and the great Will Patton. Mark Pellington, who previously made another oddball thriller with Arlington Road, directs it extremely well and adds lots of stylish touches, although the concentration on atmospherics and lack of a concrete villain (or even a rubber monster) may well irritate most viewers. But given the title and the star, the whole thing is much better than anyone had a right to expect. Just don’t expect a man in a giant moth costume.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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Blade II (2002)

Blade II brings back Wesley Snipes as the ass-kicking leather-clad hero, and also manages to bring back Kris Kristofferson as his mentor Whistler, don’t ask me how.

As in the first movie, there’s a striking start and a neat set of special effects, and there’s also some additional exposition and a whole new set of baddies, including Luke Goss, but there’s not a single frightening scene in the whole movie. Guillermo Del Toro directs like his namesake in a china shop, but slows down enough at the end to give us one of the more memorable images in recent genre cinema. And near the start, watch out for Danny John-Jules in what looks like an unintentional joke.

The disk contains lots of good extras if you like the movie. Hard to figure why movies like this get made when we still haven’t had a decent version of  I Am Legend though.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★½☆☆

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