This month: “Death Walks on High Heels”, “A Field in England”, “The Frozen Ground”, “Hellboy”, “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army”, “The House on Sorority Row”, “Moonlight Mile”, “Pacific Rim”, “Paris Manhattan”, “Sorority Row”, “To the Wonder” (pictured above), “World War Z” and “The World’s End”.
The average rating is 5.86/10 with film of the month being Pacific Rim. Follow @halfacanyon for more.
Death Walks on High Heels (1971) – 7/10
Original title: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Director: Luciano Ercoli
Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco
Starring: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu
“He was tired. He needed a vacation. I’m sure you’re on the wrong track, chief.”
Ercoli’s classic giallo is split into three parts of varying entertainment, all connected by a pair of kinky boots. At first, it’s a showcase for Ercoli’s wife (specifically her legs) as she escapes a gloved killer. She runs away with a sleazy businessman who can’t stop admiring her legs; it’s borderline creepy, yet slots in with the campy horror. Dreamy music plays at inappropriate moments, dripping with lurid colours and casual conversations, as if to say: let’s just forget about this murder mystery business.
When the killer’s storyline re-emerges, the drama bogs down with tenuous detective work. New characters emerge and they trade comically cliched dialogue. That is until, without spoiling anything, it builds into a tremendously nonsensical final act – the payoff murder mysteries usually promise, but this time it’s actually delivered.
Newcomers to the giallo genre will get a kick out of the grisly murders, loud twists and sensual intermissions. There’s plenty that would satisfy lovers of bad cinema (the early dance sequences in particular) but the trash mostly elevates to something vaguely arty and, at the very least, peculiar. It’d be rare for Poirot to spend much time return the power of sight to a blind man, and its shifting narrative is more intriguing than frustrating. See, murder mysteries can be fun.
A Field in England (2013) – 7.5/10
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Starring: Julian Barratt, Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith
“This war’s not to my liking. Too much fucking marching about.”
Accurately titled and also misleading, Wheatley’s pet project was filmed on a tiny budget in 12 days. It never leaves the field and stays black-and-white throughout, yet is luridly ambitious through truly adept technical skill: the cinematography, the editing, the sound, the performances.
One facet is the role of drugs within a Civil War setting, creating an amalgamation of immersive images that stay committed to an offbeat cause. This ranges from montages that act like a bulldozer, to a caterpillar peacefully crawling under the sun. All takes places while warlike noises and deafening screams run through the speakers.
It’s not just mysticism. The script takes advantage of its comedic actors with bawdy humour that didn’t do much for me, but at least created another layer. At its worse, it’s just watching people on a drug trip and exchanging bad jokes. When it gets moving, it sucks you in with the power of suggestion and leaves a delicious headache – a civil war inside your head.
The Frozen Ground (2013) – 4/10
Director/Writer: Scott Walker
Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, 50 Cent
“I should have killed you while I had the chance.”
A competent crime story that’s also a tremendous waste: Cage as the good cop, Cusack as the serial killer devoice of personality. Hudgens holds an irrelevant side-story (complete with 50 Cent as her pimp). It meanders along without anything spectacular, until one of the worst final lines from a film I’ve seen in quite a while.
Hellboy (2004) – 7/10
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Peter Briggs (story), Mike Mignola (comics)
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor
“If there’s trouble, all us freaks has is each other.”
Who is Hellboy? I’m not entirely clear, and that’s down to del Toro’s diversion from a by-the-numbers origin story. There are no radioactive spiders searching for a bite. No, it’s stranger and far more exciting: Nazis resurrect Rasputin open a portal that releases a baby devil. Grown up, Hellboy tosses out cheesy one-liners and an irregular likeability, as if he’s simultaneously the superhero and the bullied child inside.
Hellboy’s unnecessarily complicated quest doesn’t hold much weight. It’s really more about a crazy gang out for adventure. I doubt Selma Blair will ever find a more enticing role than Liz Sherman, a depressed pyromaniac superhero. The relationships snap concurrently with del Toro’s vivid creatures. It’s surprisingly warm and alluring in how it revels in its own strangeness.
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) – 5.5/10
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Mike Mignola (comics)
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor
“If you cannot command, then you must obey.”
There’s a version of Hellboy 2 I would have loved, one that concentrates on the comedic, introspective elements of being a superhero for an indifferent public. Hellboy and Liz are satirised on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show, and it’s a logical step for the offbeat charm of the first film.
Unfortunately, that potential is submerged in tedious CGI and a plodding storyline that brings moments of The Phantom Menace to mind. Some peculiar aspects shine through the holes (a bland, early Travis single somehow works) and at least it sets up the trilogy finale rather fittingly: why save the human race?
The House on Sorority Row (1983) – 6/10
Director: Mark Rosman
Writers: Mark Rosman, Bobby Fine
Starring: Kate McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Janis Ward, Robin Meloy
“You’re the last one of your friends alive. You’re the bait.”
I’m trying to work out if that title is a play on the word “horror”, especially if you say it quickly. That might be over-reading a fairly standard slasher tale: seven sorority sisters, one final party, an unidentifiable killer with a deadly cane. There’s nothing particularly revelatory (it’s tame and lacks any bonkers moment of ingenuity), but watchable through playful charm and suspenseful shadows. Trippy visions add a surreal touch to the swirling nature of losing your friends one by one, especially with hilarious cutaways to an 80s band to kill the mood.
Worth noting: Rosman’s most recent feature was William and Kate, which could certainly have been improved with a crossover.
Moonlight Mile (2002) – 6.5/10
Director/Writer: Brad Silverling
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon
“I went to a place where nothing’s right, where every moment hurts.”
The hook is delicious: Gyllenhaal moves in with his dead fiancées parents and sulks around the house. He then falls in love with a cheerful postal worker (who hasn’t?), which sets off a flurry of confused emotions. The death-obsessed storyline gently smothers in warm humour and (mostly) stays away from being too sentimental.
By sacrificing the darker tones, Moonlight Mile loses a bit of edge. “Well, duh,” you might say, but Gyllenhaal’s scenes with the father (Hoffman) are at times like eavesdropping on a real stranger conversing with his father-in-law. Strangely, the highlights are the romantic subplot and small moments that could exist in many other dramas. Gyllenhall is particularly well pinpointed as a small boy refusing to grow up, as evident by how he climbs out the window at night; like an extension of the lovelorn, naive shop assistant he plays in Love and Amazing or The Good Girl or maybe everything.
Death is handled in peculiar ways, and Moonlight Mile only scrapes the surface. No longer locked down, Gyllenhaal finds an escape in dancing to the Rolling Stones on a jukebox. It’s a poignant sequence, tinged by nuanced back story, and suggests there could be a brilliant midpoint between this and the frustrating histrionics of Silver Lining Playbooks, if only someone would make it.
Pacific Rim (2013) – 8.5/10
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Charlie Hunman, Rinko Kibuchi, Charlie Day, Idris Elba
“Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.”
Rather than aliens on spaceships, the future is threatened by Kaijus – massive creatures that emerge from the ocean. To combat them, humans develop enormous machines called Jaegers, which are operated inside by two pilots. Eventually, the Kaijus become adept to handling these mechanisms, and only two pilots can save the world: a has-been (Charlie Hunnam) and an emotional rookie (Rinko Kinkuchi).
It is made clear in the first few minutes that Jaeger pilots are celebrities who appear on talk shows. In other words, you’re not following a robot without personality, but a larger representation of Hunnam and Kinkuchi. So not the talking robots of Transformers.
At the same time, it’s impossible to hate the monsters. They appear in different forms, and each is stunning in movement. The battle scenes are breathtaking – I wouldn’t go as far as using the word “poetry”, but it’s briefly that great fighting can be a dialogue. The opening image inverts stars to the ocean, making clear that the action will take place over the clouds and deep under the water – so that’s above, below, and in your face (if in 3D). And yes, it’s spectacular.
Paris Manhattan (2012) – 3.5/10
Director/Writer: Sophie Lellouche
Starring: Alice Taglioni, Patrick Bruel, Yannick Soulier, Woody Allen
“You asked me why Woody Allen is so important to me. At 15, I thought Cole Porter was a pair of jeans. He showed the truth to me.”
This whimsical French drama borrows the spirit of Woody Allen with Taglioni playing an ultra fan. She talks to a poster of his face, quotes his lines and hands out DVDs to strangers in need. For instance, she thrusts Crimes and Misdemeanours upon a robber running out of a store. And… well, that’s it for examples. Unless you blog about him, you’re not a fan in my book/blog.
She wishes her life outside the films could resemble Manhattan or Broadway Danny Rose. Sadly, so did I. Even with a Parisian backdrop, the drama lacks zest when Allen isn’t the main topic. There’s little explanation as to why anyone else would care about this great filmmaker – if I wasn’t already a superfan, I’d wonder if her obsession was a childhood regression, like an adult collecting football stickers. I admire the intention, but Allen’s recent films do a better job of chasing the spirit of Annie Hall.
Sorority Row (2009) – 3/10
Director: Stewart Hendler
Writers: Josh Stolberg, Pete Goldfinger
Starring: Brianna Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis, Jamie Chung, Audrina Patridge
“Now let’s go wash the blood off in the lake, and get back to the party.”
The House on Sorority Row was such an average release (I am describing it as if I was alive in 1983 and didn’t just watch the DVD last night) that Sorority Row truly had to throw in a twist or radical makeover – otherwise it’d just be any other slasher film. It doesn’t.
It’s only after five minutes that the nastiness emerges where six of seven friends (one is deemed “Queen Bitch”) make quips about token Asian friends and how Rohypnol is a “great way to get laid and have a decent night’s sleep”. The moral grounding comes from Evigan whose recoil extends to, well, nothing.
A Rohypnol-induced prank goes awry and implausibly leads to someone accidentally stabbing one of the sisters. The ensuing murders aren’t explained; they just take place, as if the genre is a binding contract. Without any effort to build suspense or characterisation, it plods along without the original’s charm or sense of fun.
Not so much a modern remake, but a straight-to-DVD sequel with extra sex.
To the Wonder (2013) – 8/10
Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
“Love that loves us. Thank you.”
The Tree of Life stomped around end-of-year lists like an elusive CGI dinosaur, but I’m in a minority who greatly prefer its slimmer cousin, To the Wonder. The tone is similar with pristine, poetic shots of how landscapes carry the sadness of a Hollywood A-lister (whether Pitt or Affleck), yet more focused on a singular journey, as the title suggests. Rather than a lack of ambition, it instils a purpose that’s absorbing and – dare I say it – religious.
The relentless Christian message didn’t sway me from my Atheist tendencies, but I’m fully converted to the notion that Affleck should never speak again in a film ever again. He’s the lead with only a few lines of dialogue, with the rest muted by voiceovers. It reminds me of This Morning With Richard Not Judy when Stewart Lee wouldn’t let Trevor Lock speak because it’d involve paying him more.
Affleck is supported by more than silence, with Kurlenko and McAdams frequently twirling around him – as if Malick’s instructions were to be free, and they didn’t know what else to do. The flurry of images take over personalities, with layer upon layer creating a subtle struggle between nature and domesticity. Artificial architecture reappears frequently in a swimming pool, while a fence blocks off trees and wildlife.
I could watch To the Wonder on a continuous loop, unlike The Tree of Life. The cast are more dancers than actors, and they’re choreographed by a spiritual urge only discovered by Malick in post-production. His vision cuts sweetly in small doses; unspoken moments add up to a rewarding finish. Some patience is necessary, but it’s worth it for that final shot.
World War Z (2013) – 3.5/10
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Matthew Michael Canahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, Max Brooks (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox
“Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has.”
I haven’t read the original graphic novel, but I thumbed through Vanity Fair’s report on the disastrous production. In a rather rote zombie tale, the main layer of interest lies in knowing the final 30 minutes came from a reshoot – so it repeatedly went over budget, and the filmed final act was placed in the recycle bin.
The finished product isn’t particularly catastrophic (both as a viewing experience and in the fictional storyline edited for young audiences), just yet another zombie exercise. It glances over the origin of the virus and any biological intricacies of the infected, assuming its demographic will already be familiar or not care.
The running time is instead devoted to expensive scenes of mass chaos where gore and decapitations largely happen off-screen – not as an imaginative tool, but obstructive editing. Accidentally, the violence is desensitised and a distance emerges, which is worsened by Brad Pitt’s character amounting to little more than the Westerner who travels continents to save their cultures. Most of the other political aspects are possibly racist (I’m still processing some fairly crass analogies). I’m struggling for any fun moments, aside from Pitt’s product placement (when surrounded by zombies, don’t forget to open a can of Pepsi).
Instead of a climax, World War Z ends on a ridiculous game of hide-and-seek that’s less dramatic than avoiding someone you recognise at a supermarket. The final scene is a grating plea for a sequel; nothing is learned, nothing will be remembered.
The World’s End (2013) – 6.5/10
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike
“A man of your prowess drinking fucking rain?”
Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were infused by nostalgia for the early genre films of Pegg and Wright’s childhood; fittingly, the trilogy closes with a story about clinging onto the past. Five school friends return to their hometown for a pub crawl (12 pints of Fosters…) and very directly ask if they changed, or if something’s slightly awry in Newton Haven.
Aside from Pegg, the gang have indeed matured to having families, holding highly paid office positions, or starting a night off with tap water. Pegg nags incessantly in a rather unpleasant way that is initially quite challenging; his refusal to grow up is more obnoxious than endearing, and plays out like an extended edit of The Inbetweeners for much of the first half. Pegg’s dominance is at times rather nasty, with the rest of the comedy deriving from hackneyed verbal misunderstandings (“What the fuck does WTF mean?”) rather than smart wordplay.
The engagement levels pick up when sci-fi elements are introduced, as, unlike the dialogue, Wright’s direction is as fizzling as ever. Without giving anything away, the action combines a love of the genre with a playful tone. It also continues the trilogy’s trick of finding humour in mundane locations – a bust-up in Wetherspoons (I mean, “The Two Headed Dog”) is, for the first time, a decent proposition.
The World’s End boasts a soundtrack gloriously consistent to the early nineties, which maintains a strange tone that can only be created by a gang strutting to “So Young” by Suede, or popping into a pub blasting “Here’s Where the Story Ends”. A poignant detail reveals Pegg has kept the same cassette in his car since childhood. Even better is the cast’s chemistry (the best moments come from new additions Considine and Marsan) that encapsulates the “us versus them” scenario, even during petty squabbles.
Follow @halfacanyon for more.