The Autopsy of Jane Doe: two small-town coroners investigate a fresh “Jane Doe”, whose cause of death becomes increasingly difficult to pin down as they learn about the body. This film is the embodiment of tight and efficient: a brief 15-minute setup; 30 mins of live/real-time autopsy, and the last half the film shifts gears into a full-on supernatural horror / thriller. Not for the faint-hearted, parts of this are horrifying to watch; the autopsy is shown in all of it’s snapping, sawing, scalping glory, and is coloured with buckets of crimson – this will definitely root out the weak and the woozy. Although there are a couple of big (and cheap) ‘modern’ jump-scares the majority of the film’s tension comes through the satisfyingly old-school method of very slowly building a sustained and overbearing sense of dread; the film lets your imagination run wild, and shows some incredible restraint – a couple of moments even stray into ‘pure terror’. As mentioned above, it’s a very tight movie: tight script (tons of subtle clues that tie in together nicely); tight setting (claustrophobic, well-established, and inherently creepy morgue); tight cast (Hirsch and Cox are a great/safe pair of hands, with fantastic chemistry). In fact, the only thing that minorly lets the film down is the ending, which is good, but doesn’t do justice to the slow-cooker setup. A completely unrelated follow-up to the fantastic TrollHunter, Norwegian director André Øvredal is proving himself as a very strong and competent film-maker – once again his direction is meticulous, without being the slightest bit ‘auteurial’ or flashy. Few things excite me less than ‘modern horror’, yet because of its throwback sensibilities ‘Autopsy’ feels more a John Carpenter picture than the ‘Paranormal Conjuring 27’ films modern audiences are being served up.
To Live and Die in LA: when his partner is murdered by a counterfeiter a rabid secret serviceman will do anything to avenge him. All the classic cop tropes are in here: the three days left on the job veteran, mismatched and reluctant partners, etc etc. However, instead of the one-dimensional ‘good cop bad cop’, we get two complex and grey characters going through a moral minefield. For relatively unknown actors (at the time), the performances across the board are rock solid, particularly young Willem Dafoe’s slimy and menacing ultra-villain. The star for me is Friedkin; his direction here is outstanding and the opening 15 minutes or so has some bold editing, imagery, and musical choices – almost giving the film a bona fide arthouse vibe, and really putting the viewer on the back foot. Everything from an intense crazy car chase (wrong way through traffic) through to nail-biting tension (a split screen break-in) is handled superbly. The plot is the only thing that lets the film down a bit; it’s a simple revenge story that becomes unnecessarily convoluted through lots of tertiary characters and tangents. That being said, the film is always interesting and memorable – with the anti-hero cops on the edge, and characters on the fringes of society in out-of-the-ordinary situations (jail, strip club, dance troupe…) Depending on your tolerance, this film may be ‘too 1980s’ to handle: the fashion, dominating synths, neon title cards, and homo-eroticism that didn’t quite make it to the 90s. I feel sorry for William Friedkin: after two major successes (The Excorcist and French Connection) critics have been queuing up to stick the boot in to everything he’s done since. For my money he’s one of the most rock-solid film-makers, and one of the few that uses the medium to really get in your head – his framing, soundscape, editing, imagery, and commitment to shocks and disruption are awe-inspiring. To Live and Die in LA is an 80s cop film that stands the test of time because of the talent involved – not for the faint-hearted though.
Tenebrae (Unsane): the author of a string of successful-but-violent novels goes to promote his latest book in Rome, but someone is stalking and killing his fans & entourage. From the opening scene this is like watching the essence of the 1980s – it’s all very stylish, with flashy direction, bold wardrobes, striking locations, and modelesque actors. Most impressively, there’s a lot of impeccable camerawork – like a completely unnecessary, but nonetheless beautiful, elongated single-take crane shot (with Bonus double-kill!!) that circles a building for minutes. It’s also one of the most bright and colourful slashers you’ll ever see, with phenomenal lighting and particularly eye-popping greens and reds. The soundtrack is dominated by a catchy synth rock earworm, which may sound familiar as it was more recently sampled by Justice (original by Goblin.) It’ feels smarter and better planned than most other slashers as it sets everyone up as a potential suspect, then slowly kills them off one by one, ending on a stunning finale with around 10 minutes of sustained blood, gore, and multiple plot twists – which plays out like a precursor to later and more aware horror films like Scream. Other than being almost exclusively suspiciously sexualised nudey babes that are being butchered right left and center there isn’t much to complain about here. Tenebre sees a visionary Italian (and Horror) auteur crafting one of his most mainstream movies – a dual language whodunnit – at the height of his notoriety. A truly classic and top-drawer horror / giallo film that’s a crimson blueprint for subsequent slashers; it’s still great fun to watch, and easy to admire.
Lone Wolf and Cub – Baby Cart in Peril (AKA – 子連れ狼 親の心子の心 Kozure Ōkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro, Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage): Ito’s latest contract is to assassinate a killer of many samurai, but to his surprise it’s a lady with outstanding short-blade skills, and in a similar situation to himself… Oyuki presents a very strong female lead, something that the previous movies have had – but not taken this seriously. The very first frame is a tattooed boob, so it starts off great! But soon after there’s a bit of silly magic (face mask magic guy), some sizable flashback sections, and a lot more talking than previous installments. However, as good as the story and premise are, the Babycart films are never better than their action set-pieces: with Wakayama hacking, slashing, and literally flying around the frame – he can’t half move around for a big bloke. The now customary ‘final battle’ with dozens of enemies and a few ‘bosses’ is also great, and for the first time we see him properly injured/vulnerable too. More than anything, the film is a little confused about who the baddie is: the girl? Her nemesis? Itto’s old foe? The big hairy guy? By the fourth movie it does feel a bit like more-of-the-same but the film still pushes the boundaries, and does well to set up the one-armed swordsman myth.
Sunshine Cleaning: to ensure her son can get a good schooling, a struggling mum enters the lucrative, but stomach-turning, crime-scene cleanup business. The best part of this is that it’s fairly funny and upbeat considering the grim subject matter; the characters aid this most, other than the most annoying kid in history – If that was my spawn I’d have beaten him into shape by that age. Emily blunt looks great as an angsty goth, nails the accent and steals the show for me. Amy Adams was solid too – but was clearly during her ‘must have a scene in my underwear’ phase. Chloe form 24 once again plays her bread and butter TOTAL WEIRDO role – needs to diversify! The direction and story are both simple and effective, although it goes a little off-chorus in the final third, but enough groundwork was put in at the start to give this a nice indie sleeper-hit feel to it. Sunshine Cleaning cleverly walks the line between funny and serious, and successfully avoids become farcical or gloomy.
How to Train Your Dragon [Blu Ray]: a teenage viking wants to follow in the dragon-slaying tradition of his tribe, but comes up with an unorthodox plan when he doesn’t have the heart to kill one. As the story plays out it’s clearly well-written, with lots of details and nice touches – the father/Son angle in particular is very well-played, and the swash-buckling finale delivers more than your standard Statham flick. The voice cast is amazing, star-studded and everyone’s distinct – despite every Viking speaking in a ‘krrrayy-zzeee’ Scottish accent – annoyingly the whiny voice of main character is one of the weaker performances. The BD picture detail is jaw-dropping: barnacles, hair, fur, water will drop your jaw, and the colours are extremely vivid and vibrant – sound wise, everything from explosions to ambience punches through – no questions, it’s a must-own Blu Ray. You’d like to think that a film as solid as this would have been a warning shot at Pixar, but being followed by Megamind and a bunch of sequels/spin-offs it feels like more of a fluke – which is disappointing, as it showed progress for DreamWorks Animation. Pitching to both children and adults How to Train Your Dragon makes for a great kids film, but will also entertain the big kids!