638 Ways to Kill Castro: Documentary about some of the attempts – and alleged attempts – by various agencies and radical groups to kill Cuba’s charismatic leader. TNT filled sea-shells, exploding cigars, poisoned wetsuits, Mafia hits… it all sounds rather exciting, but after a jovial opening 10 minutes or so the documentary switches focus to a couple of right-wing ‘Terrorist’ factions, and shows how America hold double standards in the old Terrorist Vs Freedom Fighter debate… pretty deep, man. You end up spending more time than you’d want to with a couple of old guys regaling how they came **“this close”** to pulling it off, but there’s not a shred of evidence to prove that it isn’t all nonsense. More focus on the full list, or some detailed commentary on the where/how/why would have been more interesting; instead you get a bunch of American foreign policy bashing. The Doc was made for TV, and it doesn’t aim any higher: it’s all very low budget, feels unfocused and ill-disciplined, and is a bit too one-sided. Even worse, there’s not even that much footage of the titular Castro! Despite it’s sassy title, and a promising opening this is all just a bit dull considering the sensational subject matter.
The Exterminator: when his best friend, and fellow ‘Nam veteran, is killed by street punks one man goes on a vigilante rampage by baiting and killing the scum of New York. Unlike most of the ‘notorious’ video nasties this one feels like it ‘s actually worthy of the infamy; it gets pitch-black dark in places; the violence is slow and extreme; and is all the more effective for having such a baby-faced normal-looking everyman in the main role. There are however a couple of aspects that let the film down: in particular the comically stereotypical ‘street punks’ that have drug and sex parties in crack dens, and the action scenes feel very ‘budgety’ – particularly in the finale. The character development feels a touch over-egged as the plot focuses on the Anti-Hero and main policeman sharing some clunky similarities. It’s definitely a film of its era, with a thick layer of Post-Vietnam / ‘veterans in society’ commentary, as well as capturing the seedy streets of New York during its most dangerous period. Overall, The Exterminator is a film that has a message, and although it’s not particularly insightful, there are enough shocks and attitude to pull it off.
Day Watch (Дневной дозор): Anton is torn between the light (a love interest) and dark (his son) when he is framed for a murder that could start the next war between feuding vampire factions. Whereas Night Watch felt like a big-budget action movie Day Watch feels like it’s pulling in about 20 different directions; not simple enough to be mainstream, too vast and ‘out there’ to be an indie, too silly and eclectic to be ‘fantasy’, too grim to be a comedy… even the music baffles as it skips between a grand Mary Poppins-style theatrical score, cheap and tinny Russian nu-metal, and Euro-pop for the duration. Night Watch was also a little bit mental, but if you’re hoping for Day Watch to explain
everything anything think again. Face swapping, body swapping, an apocalyptic yo-yo, magic chalk, two levels of gloom… mix that up with new characters, unexplained and unrelated sub-plots, and general incomprehensible madness – it really tests your patience. The big finale has a lot of distracting slow-motion large-scale havoc and devastation for no reason other than ‘we can afford it’ – which significantly undercut the emotional climax. This isn’t helped by frenetic editing and direction, with lots of hard cuts between contrasting scenes that start and stop with no real warning or reason – a car chase stops for about 10 mins, then cuts straight back to the action. Whereas Night Watch was dazzling and busy enough to distract you from how weird it was, Day Watch really shows the how a visionary director without the budget, runtime, or discipline struggled to fully realise such an ambitious sequel: sure it’s bigger, louder, and more expensive but it’s defining features are that it’s overlong, over-complicated, and yet another round of light vs dark.
Body of Lies: while hunting for a big fish terrorist, power and the upper hand continually shift between the Americans, Jordanian secret service and the man on the ground trying to bridge the cultural gap. It has the look and feel of an action thriller, but there’s not a whole lot of action (although when it’s on, it’s fairly violent). There’s a romance corner, an espionage corner, a cultural differences corner – it juggles quite a few things, which are all are done reasonably well, and fused together nicely. The problem is that with all of these things going on, it feels less focused than something like Zero Dark Thirty – the peripheral stuff detracts from the central terrorist plot. Also, because the whole Jihad genre has had a lot of material lately, they all sort of blend in to one – it took took well over an hour to realise I’d already seen this. Acting wise, you completely buy in to Di Caprio‘s conflicted character; Crowe properly gets on your nerves as the brash and cocksure US agent; and you marvel at Strong’s portrayal of an old-school espionage master. Body of Lies looks and feels as slick as you’d expect from Ridley Scott; it’s also acted beyond what you’d expect from A-listers; unfortunately the plot feels completely borrowed and unimaginative. Despite looking a little worn and generic these days, it’s still completely serviceable modern jihad-thriller.
Videodrome: a sleazy horror TV exec is searching for new and extreme content when he stumbles across ‘Videodrome’, a pirate broadcast full of violence and torture. There’s only one thing better than a gory picture, and that’s a gory picture that has something to say, and better still when over 30 years later it’s more relevant than ever. James Woods is great as Max Renn; a character so jaded that he sees a snuff film and immediately falls in love with the plot and cheap production values. On both layers (the film’s plot and the movie itself) sex and violence no longer cut it as ‘extreme’, and both Renn and Cronenberg are pressing hard against the boundaries of sexual violence, perversions, pain for pleasure… Not content with just being ‘extreme’, Videodrome stands out as being unsettling in a number of ways; it intentionally blurs the boundaries between reality and off-kilter hallucinations; and contains stomach turning physical effects like the ‘gun hand’ – shucks, even seeing a living, moving, human-like TV set is disturbing. It’s been at least ten years since I previously watched Vireodrome and even though the sensational imagery and ideas have stuck with me for the entire time, they’re so twisted, unique, and eerily prophetic that they don’t lose any of their impact on subsequent viewings. A brilliant and intelligent horror director, grotesque physical effects sequences, and though-provoking ideas make Videodrome a timeless horror classic.
Arrow Films have just released the comprehensive 4-disc Blu Ray & DVD box-set of Videodrome, which includes 4 of Cronenberg‘s earlier movies and a shitload of interesting & rare behind-the-scenes footage and extras from UK and US TV archives featuring the likes of John Landis, John Carpenter, George Romero. More info here.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: two brothers struggling with debt hatch a plan to knock-off their parent’s jewelry store, but it doesn’t go down as planned. This must have had origins in a play or theater; it doesn’t feel remotely cinematic. Technically, it has the look and feel of a film-school project or directorial debut – not from the person that has brought us 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Network etc. It contains the worst use of zooming and jump-cutting in the history of cinema. Worst of all, the film thinks it’s smarter than it is, and spends the duration flopping all over the timeline – and assuming the audience is too dumb to follow, it brands the time on screen at the start of every scene. For such a respectable cast (Hoffman, Hawke, Finney, Shannon, and Marisa Tomei’s tits) they’re all hamming it up – but every character is completely one-dimensional. The gratuitous crass language annoyed me more than it should have – mostly because it felt sledge-hammered in to make the film marginally more outrageous. This hasn’t aged well at all: made in 2007, feels like a film from the 90s. Nihilistic, boring, pompously-theatrical claptrap.
Lucy: when a package of drugs erupts in her guts it begins to unlock the full capacity of Lucy’s brain, turning her into a superhuman. This is a beautiful film to take in; full of colourful, poppy, bright, neon visuals of everything from single cells to galaxies, the big bang to the future (in 85 mins!!) and huge sweeping shots of cities, cultures, and continents reminiscent of something like Koyaanisqatsi. To put it simply – Lucy is a full on Eye Boner, and the CGI shots in particular are world-class. The biggest argument against the film is that the ‘10% of the brain myth’ has been debunked… I don’t hear anyone letting the dodgy science of Jurassic World, or tech of the Avengers, or gravity in the Fast franchise ruin those films. This is Science FICTION; get off your high horse and eat a buffet of dicks. The idea makes for an interesting film, especially if you dig the ongoing next leap in intelligence debate. Scarlett – who is in almost every shot – is hypnotising as an increasingly cold and calculating being, but the real star is Besson who’s back on top form, taking a bunch of chaotic elements, making them look great, then slotting them together into an exciting and ambitious narrative. On paper Lucy’s individual components are everything I love about modern cinema; a great ‘world cinema’ director, Korean actors, bombastic action, high-concept / big ideas, colourful & stylish (Cinéma Du Look), and entertaining… what more could anybody want? It’s Limitless for Sci-Fi nerds; it’s infinitely more engrossing that the Tree of Shite; it’s arguably the best Sci Fi film since The Matrix. Although the film goes ‘all in’ with a single divisive plot point – and whether you buy in to it or not – there’s no denying that Lucy is (at the very least) enthralling and entertaining. Personally, I’d put this down as Besson’s masterpiece