Dark City

Here’s a thing: I was never overly impressed with The Matrix — and even less so with its sequels. While that film does contain some incredibly impressive action sequences, and the Wachowski’s bullet time effect was a genuine innovation, I always felt that the plot was both clunky and incoherent. Part of this is, of course, down to the fact that the plot is both clunky and incoherent but I think my reaction was also affected by the fact that by the time I saw The Matrix, I had already seen a couple of films that handled very similar ideas in a much, much better manner. One of those films was eXistenZ, the other was Dark City.

After an opening monologue which (I believe) is cut from later releases of this film, we are introduced to John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) who has just awoken, in a bath, with no memory.

As Murdoch stumbles around, he receives a phone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) telling him to leave now to escape “The Strangers”. During the course of the call, Murdoch discovers a dead woman in his room, and we’re off.

Dark city has a very noir feel to it, not least in the design of the stylishly anachronistic city in which the characters find themselves. Not least of these is Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt), who is leading the manhunt for Murdoch, a suspected serial killer. Murdoch himself is trying to stay ahead of the police as he looks for his identity, and tries to determine whether he really has committed the crimes of which he is suspected. His estranged wife (Jennifer Connelly) doesn’t know who or what to believe, and then there’s Dr. Schreber whose motivations are kept deliberately unclear.

This makes for an increasingly engrossing film that is both a mystery and a thriller, all built on top of a very smart science fiction premise that leaves us asking even more questions, about what exactly is it that The Strangers are up to and what is the significance of Shell Beach.

Oddly enough, having the premise handed to us up front makes it somewhat unclear as to where the film is going. Initially, at least, but once you get a handle on what is happening it really is gripping.

And disorienting.

Ultimately, Dark City is a meditation on what it means to be human and the extent to which our memories make us who we are. It’s a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, slice of science fiction that is capable of promoting much subsequent discussion.

Braindead

Before he became justifiably famous for The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson made several wildly inventive horror comedies, the most wildly inventive of which was Braindead (also known as Dead Alive).

The film is set in Wellington in 1957 and centres on Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) whose overbearing mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey. She deteriorates quickly, and rather disgustingly falls apart — quite literally. Not long after she dies, and promptly returns.

If you’ve ever seen the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, and can imagine Hyacinth Bucket as a zombie, you’re pretty much there.

And then things begin to get really silly.

Lionel, still the downtrodden son, tries to cope as best he can without letting on the truth of his mother’s condition. Inevitably enough, things quickly spiral completely out of control and we are treated to an escalating stream of utter insanity.

Braindead is pitched as a horror-comedy and, while it is undeniably gory, the film is much more a comedy than a horror film. It’s a slapstick comedy with plenty of blood and some cracking one-liners that still have me laughing out loud every time I watch it.

Versus

Japanese zombies are different. They’re faster, smarter and more vengeful than their western counterparts, and less interested in brains. They also have a habit of popping up at the 444th portal to the other side — the forest of resurrection.

In pre-credits times, a samurai battled zombies here but now it’s just another isolated forest at which escaped convicts meet up with over-acting gangsters who insist that everyone wait for an unnamed leader.

Tempers flare, guns are drawn, and the inevitable ensues.

Versus is all style and very little substance. But the style, consisting of one fight scene after another, is incredible. In any other film any one of these gun battles, knife fights, sword fights, and more would stand out; in Versus, we get two hours of highly stylised extreme violence.

Versus is 100% entertainment, casually throwing together a stack of action and zombie tropes into a plot that does little more than get us from one stunning set-piece to the next. It really is a testament to director Ryûhei Kitamura’s sense of pacing that it all holds together so well.

Versus is sometimes tense, often silly and always worth watching.

The Hidden

The Hidden is a surprisingly effective mix of thriller, science fiction and horror tropes starring Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan. I generally try to avoid dropping spoilers when talking about films but, in this case, it’s going to be hard giving away more than I would normally like. Then again, the big reveal is so clearly telegraphed that it would be hard for anyone to miss it. So… you have been warned.

That said, it isn’t much of a spoiler to say Giant Space Slug! Because this happens pretty early in the film, shortly after a previously law-abiding citizen goes on a violently criminal rampage. Said citizen is finally halted and it’s while he’s in hospital that the Giant Space Slug makes his appearance.

Meanwhile, Detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) is assigned to the case and is rather annoyed to discover FBI Agent, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan, right after Blue Velvet) has also attached himself to the investigation. Gallagher is cagey about what he knows and somewhat inconsistent with what he tells an increasingly frustrated Beck. This, combined with MacLachlan’s effectively otherworldly performance tells you everything you need to know, and much of the fun of the film comes from watching the escalating carnage while Beck catches up with the audience.

To be fair to Beck, he does have a lot of catching up to do.

The Hidden is a much better film than its premise suggests. There are no surprises along the way, but it is a solidly constructed film that remains internally consistent and is a lot of fun to watch.

And Kyle MacLachlan fights a Giant Space Slug. What more could you want?

Perdita Durango

Also known as Dance With the Devil, Perdita Durango was directed by Álex de la Iglesia and stars Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem. The film is based on a book (59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango) by Barry Gifford. It’s a very strange film.

At heart, the film is a darkly humorous road trip, taken in the company of two people with absolutely no redeeming features. Perdita Durango (Perez) and Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem) meet each other on the Mexican border and embark on a cross-border rampage that embraces kidnap, murder and much, much else. There is also a MacGuffin about Dolorosa being hired to deliver a truck load of aborted foetuses to a Las Vegas cosmetics company, because if you are going to wallow in nihilism, then half-measures just don’t cut it.

Álex de la Iglesia is clearly setting out to push boundaries and the nature of the film puts it into very similar territory to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. What sets this film apart, though, is a self-conscious sense of irony throughout that ensures that the satirical point is never lost.

The film does have it’s lighter moments, most of which are provided by James Gandolfini’s appallingly accident-prone special agent Woody Dumas. Even here, though, the humour is so dark that you find yourself simultaneously cringing and laughing.

Ultimately, Perdita Durango is an amoral love story and a pitch black comedy about two people who have given up on society and whose casual malice challenges the conventions and tears away many of the illusions upon which we all rely.

The film ends much as you would expect but it is surprising just how much you come to care about them over the course of their journey.

Coffy

Back in my misspent youth, I watched — and accumulated — something of a stack of cinematic oddities. Exploitation films, cult films, independent films, and some stuff that I can’t begin to attempt to categorise. Since having kids, many of these have languished on high shelves because finding the time to watch them has become something of a challenge.

While putting together my recent Five Things post, however, it occurred to me that I do now have time to revisit some of these films. And what better place to start than Coffy?

Pam Grier plays the title character, a nurse whose younger sister is hospitalised by a heroin overdose. With the law apparently unable to take action, Coffy sets out to bring down the underworld. By herself.

And that’s pretty much all there is as far as the plot is concerned. That said, a simple plot well executed is better by far than a narrative that becomes bogged down in excessive complexity.

Coffy is an incredibly well executed film, and one that keeps you gripped for the entirety of its running time.

Jack Hill, who wrote and directed the film, launched his career with Roger Corman’s AIP studios and while he neither moved beyond the exploitation genres nor made a lot of films he was a demonstrably better filmmaker than many of his genre peers. This is most clearly apparent with with Coffy which he wrote with Pam Grier specifically in mind. He’d previously worked with Grier on both The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House but I doubt even Hill had realised what a superb performance she
would deliver as a shotgun-wielding vigilante determined to take down the whole of the underworld.

The film, of course, nods towards all of the genre cliches that you would expect but manages to rise above the average Blaxploitation film with some superbly outrageous fashion choices, spectacularly over the top action scenes and lashings of nudity and plenty of violence, some of which is surprisingly and disturbingly brutal.

What really makes the film stand out, though, is the fact that Hill is able to to reverse many of the stereotypes of the time by putting a female character at the centre of the film. Coffy is not just a nominal lead, either, but she is also both determined and proactive and not looking for help from anyone.

This, combined with a script that managed to also comment on race, corruption and the damage cause by drugs made Coffy a huge success, both financially and critically, and the film that established Pam Grier as a genre icon.

Arrival

Ted Chiang is something of a rarity. A writer who specialises in short stories and with a rate of output that is slow, to say the least. Yet every one of his stories is a perfect blend of fascinating science and memorable fiction.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone, therefore, that when I heard that a Hollywood adaptation of one of his stories was on the way, I was both thrilled and terrified. Mainly thrilled, though, so when I finally managed to see Arrival at the weekend my expectations were way too high. And it’s to the credit of all involved that the film managed to fully live up to those expectations.

When twelve alien spacecraft arrive on Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try to understand the alien language and, therefore, their intent. And then things get interesting.

It’s generally recognised that the language we use influences our perceptions, and you can find plenty of documentation outlining the many benefits of learning a second language. But what about an utterly alien language? And what if that alien language embodies a totally different perception of time to the one we are used to? How far can your perceptions be altered by learning another language?

Arrival is proper science-fiction, that takes an idea and thoroughly explores it. Layered on top of this is an overarching discussion about free will and personal responsibility.

This being a major film, there is plenty of dramatic tension, largely revolving around the perceived intentions of the aliens and the reactions of governments. None of this, though, distracts from the essential thoughtfulness of the film, which currently rates as the best film I’ve seen this year.

Parts: The Clonus Horror

Jay at Assholes Watching Movies recently reviewed The Island, a film that I didn’t see. In fact the only thing I know about this film is that when it was released, people started remarking on how similar it was to a 1979 film called Parts: The Clonus Horror. So much so that the makers of Parts sued Paramount for plagiarism, finally reaching an out of court settlement which is believed to involve a seven figure sum.

I do happen to have a copy of Parts: The Clonus Horror so, the other night, I decided to pull out the DVD and see how well the film stands up.

After a couple of opening scenes (one of which I will come back to), the film proper starts in an idyllic location populated by beautiful young people who spend their time engaging in a variety of sporting activities until they are deemed fit enough to travel to “America”. It’s fair to say that most of these individuals are none too bright and it’s when two individuals or normal intelligence, Richard (Timothy Donnelly) and Lena (Paulette Breen) accidentally meet that things start to go off the rails.

With the word “Parts” in the title and an opening scene that sees the camera panning through a roomful of bagged bodies, it’s fair to say that this is not a film that intends to spring any surprises on the audience. This film is very much a conspiracy thriller and, on these terms, it works reasonably well.

There are a couple of narrative conveniences along the way, but on the whole the plot does a solid job of building towards — and delivering — the horribly inevitable conclusion. This is helped no end that Timothy Donnelly puts in such a likeable as an innocent, confused and completely out of his depth.

While not the greatest film ever made, Parts: The Clonus Horror is a solid thriller and one that attempts — reasonably successfully — to examine some of the potential issues around cloning and the ways in which we can dehumanise people to achieve the most trivial of benefits.

The Call of the Wild

We saw this latest adaptation of the Jack London novel this weekend and… it was a lot better than I expected.

I should admit now that I haven’t read the source novel, nor have I seen any of the countless adaptations and the trailer really didn’t grab me at all.

My partner, however, is a big fan of the novel and so it was that we all traipsed out on Saturday evening for the 8:00 showing of the film. Other showings were available, but this was the only one that was subtitled rather than dubbed and I don’t think any of us were quite ready to hear Harrison Ford growling in Dutch.

Not being familiar with the source novel, and only having the trailer to go on, I was left with the impression that I was letting myself in for yet another family-friendly adventure centring on John Thornton (Ford) and his adorable new hound, Buck. It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong — the film is entirely about the dog. Indeed, Ford didn’t make a significant appearance until after the intermission, and even then he was very much the support to the canine lead.

Buck is a boisterous and poorly behaved pet until he is stolen and shipped north where he is sold to U.S. mail-folk Perrault (Omar Sy) and François (Cara Gee). Here he becomes part of a pack, of sled dogs, and begins to develop a sense of his worth — not as a pet but as a working animal.

All good things come to an end, though, and hard times follow for Buck as he falls into the hands of an arrogantly incompetent prospector before, eventually, finding himself in the company of John Thornton ready for the final part of his adventure.

The Call of the Wild is a really good film and one in which (apart from a few uncanny valley moments) Buck’s personality really does shine through and allows for some genuinely canine character development.

I really should go and read the novel.