Saturday, December 31, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Tucker and Dale Vs Evil

A group of college kids, travelling through hillbilly country on vacation, stop off at a gas station for fuel and beer. Two dungaree-clad good ol’ boys regard them with silent suspicion. Shortly afterwards, one of them approaches the kids. He’s carrying a scythe and grins as he asks them, “You kids goin’ campin’?”, following up the query with an edgy laugh.

Later, under the impression that these selfsame individuals have kidnapped one of their number – psychology student Alison (Katrina Bowden) – they surveil the ramshackle cabin in the woods to which the titular twosome have repaired. One of them draws the short straw and is elected to creep up to the shack for a closer look. As he does, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) comes running from around back, screaming himself hoarse, waving a chainsaw all over the place, wreathes of petrol fumes spilling out behind him. The kid flees, Tucker following at an uncomfortable distance.

There are perfectly innocent and reasonable explanations for both of these incidents and at its best – i.e. in its first half – ‘Tucker and Dale Vs Evil’ wrings maximum comedic potential from a series of misunderstandings which invariably leave Tucker and his well-meaning but chronically insecure buddy Dale (Tyler Labine) looking like a pair of psychos of the highest order.

And not just to the college kids. Two scenes featuring a curmudgeonly sheriff (Philip Grainger) see the lawman’s perception of Tucker and Dale alter from gay couple to serial killers.

It’s a fine joke, and writer/director Eli Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson sustain it brilliantly for about 45 minutes. I have to give credit where it’s due before the reluctant bit of criticism enters this review. For most of those 45 minutes I was laughing out loud. The chainsaw sequence, and its inappropriately hilarious punchline, had me in tears of laughter. I had to pause the DVD for a few moments.

It’s great when a film gives you so much of a kick. And while it was giving me that kick, I absolutely, wholeheartedly loved ‘Tucker and Dale’.

In the second half, sadly, it goes off the boil. Maybe because they were unable to sustain the joke, maybe because they felt the story needed a bona fide villain and a conventional final act, Craig and Jurgenson abandon the central conceit, jettison the laughs and deliver a boilerplate and increasingly laborious deranged killer finale. Just as bad, they contrive to split Tucker and Dale up, robbing the film of Tudyk and Labine’s marvellous interplay in order to incorporate a particularly unconvincing romantic subplot.

That ‘Tucker and Dale’ works so well to begin with is not because it spoofs the conventions of a horror movie, but because it’s not a horror movie. ‘Tucker and Dale’ is a comedy of errors which cleverly adapts the “waiting in the wings” concept of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ and relocates it to the deep south. Deciding, in the latter stages, that oh, actually, this IS a horror film after all is an aesthetic u-turn that comes depressingly close to sinking the movie entirely.

Fortunately, enough grace notes find their way into the second half – most notably a stand-off that turns into an impromptu therapy session – that it’s not entirely squandered. The direction is attentive and David Geddes’s cinematography exploits the backwoods setting well. Tudyk and Labine are terrific, clearly relishing the roles, while Bowden – very easy on the eye – makes for a sympathetic heroine.

In all, a flawed but fun movie. Can’t help thinking, though, that as a 40-minute short it could have been a masterpiece.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Genius. Pure genius.

I refer, of course, to the marketing of the film. (Of the film itself … well, all in due course.) “Old school American horror” snarls the DVD sleeve, following up this assertion with “it’s not a remake, it’s not a sequel and it’s not based on a Japanese” – a not particularly literate but certainly effective stiff middle finger to a decade or more’s worth of mainstream genre flicks.

Effective, that is, until you look at the two statements in a little more detail. “Old school American horror” suggests traditionalism: recognizable tropes, characters and imagery; whereas “it’s not a remake, it’s not a sequel and it’s not based on a Japanese” implies originality. Already there’s something of a dichotomy going on.

I’m going to make an assumption that writer/director Adam Green was intending to make a throwback to 70s/80s slasher flicks, on an appropriately low budget. The opening credits, set during Mardi Gras, demonstrate a fratboy aesthetic (beer, boobs and boorishness) unapologetically in tune with a less reconstructed time. While this kind of thing isn’t necessarily a negative, certainly for a horror film (the genre isn’t meant to be PC), there’s a kind of desperation to the way Green stages it. We’re not far off the tedious for-the-camera cavortings of a Girls Gone Wild video here.

The tits-out-but-no-actual-sex business continues as we’re introduced to our protagonists, two of whom – Misty (Mercedes McNab*) and Jenna (Joleigh Fioravanti) – are participating in just that kind of video under the direction of sleazoid Doug (Joel Murray**).

The rest of the gang comprise such finely drawn characters ciphers as Ben the dweeb (Joel David Moore), Marcus the cool kid (Deon Richmond), Marybeth the tough chick (Tamara Feldman) and Jim and Shannon the old couple (Richard Riehle and Patrika Darbo), all of whom set out for a bayou ghost cruise under the woefully incompetent stewardship of tour guide Shawn (Parry Shen).

En route through the murky, misty and atmospheric swamp (or at least it would be if Will Barratt’s cinematography wasn’t so flat and uninteresting), Marybeth recounts – as a corrective to Shawn’s half-arsed rambling – the legend of the deformed, spurned and resultingly psychotic Victor Crawley (Kane Hodder, he of Jason fame). Guess what happens next? The boat gets holed and sinks, our happy bunch find themselves stranded, and the hatchet-wielding Crawley comes raging out of the night to make mincemeat of them.

Anyone who hasn’t, by this point, identified the final girl and figured the black guy as expendable obviously hasn’t watched enough horror movies.

It takes Green half of his short (80 minute) running time to get to the blood and gore, but when he does he lets the broad comedy (the bitchy interplay between Misty and Jenna is cattily hilarious) take a backseat while the effects team deliver some decently visceral stuff in the face of what must have been a highly restrictive budget. There’s death by hatchet, death by shovel, death by handle of shovel, and mortal wounding by industrial sander (which, even allowing for the genre’s long-standing fascination with improperly used tools, is something I’ve not seen elsewhere). There’s also faces ripped open and limbs torn off, all of it accompanied by geysers of blood.

For all the “not based on a Japanese one” braggadocio, the OTT levels of blood-letting are entirely in keeping with the likes of ‘Machine Girl’, ‘Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl’, ‘Hard Revenge Milly’ et al. The presence of horror icons Kane, Robert Englund (a pre-credits cameo as a hillybilly) and Tony Todd (memorable but utterly wasted in a nothing role) point to more homegrown influences, and every situation the gang blunder into has its provenance in another, better, movie.

With more emphasis on the humour, ‘Hatchet’ could have been a piss-taking cult classic. Stripped of its pratfalls and leering douche-bagginess (amazingly, Word hasn’t underlined douche-bagginess, therefore it must be a legitimate expression – fuck me!!!), it could have been the down ‘n’ dirty throwback it was conceived as. However, it doesn’t go all out for either of these and therefore not only falls between two stools, but rips its own entrails out in doing so.

*McNab is still probably best known as the priggish Amanda in ‘Addams Family Values’.

**Bill Murray’s brother, believe it or not.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle

A veritable epic compared to its predecessor, ‘Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle’ clocks in, staggeringly, at almost an hour and a quarter. Okay, one hour ten allowing for an opening credits sequence that basically recaps the earlier film.

‘HRM: BB’ takes place an unspecified time after ‘HRM’ – long enough, it would seem, for Milly (Miki Mizuno) to develop enough of a reputation that Hura (Nao Nagasawa), a woman mourning the brutal death of her lover, seeks her out to ask her assistance in gaining revenge; but with earlier events still recent enough that the Jack Brothers’ associates Ikku and Hyuma* – themselves brothers – have only just picked up Milly’s trail in their quest for revenge.

Milly, living in heavily armoured isolation, is initially resistant to Hura’s request. No sooner has Hura arrived, though, than she is injured in an attack on Milly’s stronghold. Milly sees off her antagonists and takes Hura to a surgeon she knows at a fortified bazaar called Land where, it seems, everything is available – from medicine to weaponry to body art – if you’ve got the requisite amount of no-questions-asked cash.

The one element of its set-up that ‘Hard Revenge Milly’ failed to exploit beyond the odd moody visual was its implied post-apocalyptic setting. In ‘Bloody Battle’, wastelands and decayed cityscapes are the order of the day. With Land, there’s a sense of an edgy new society establishing itself. Enough ideas and images pattern the film to suggest that with a better budget and a little more depth to his scripts writer/director Takanori Tsujimoto might create something truly iconic. He certainly has an intriguing enough character in Milly (here given some pertinent backstory) and an athletic and strikingly attractive actress in Mizuno. And it has to be noted that Mizuno shows much greater facility in the fight scenes in this instalment.

Tsujimoto doesn’t quite up the villainy on this one, however, with Ikku and Hyuma coming on a bit like Laurel and Hardy if Oliver Hardy were gay. The fact of Ikku’s sexuality is questionable. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see the grubby old woman-in-peril scenario curtailed by Ikku grinding the would-be rapist’s face into a corrugated wall and grumbling about bisexuals. His assertion that he’d “convert” Hyuma if only the lad weren’t his brother, while wrong on many levels, is an unexpected moment of jaw-dropping bad taste humour in Tsujimoto’s otherwise po-faced script. Elsewhere, however, there’s a tang of homophobia that never quite goes away.

Although Ikku’s physicality is never in question – he almost defeats Milly in a manner no-one in episode one even came to close to – the film lacks the sheer arbitrary threat that the Jack Brothers brought first time round. This is absence is compensated for, though, by the ambiguous allegiances of Hura. Pretty much the only person in the whole farrago to get a character arc, Tsujimoto seems to be setting her up for a meaty role in the next instalment. (Though having said that, ‘Bloody Battle’ ends, unlike its predecessor, without a post-credits pointer to the next chapter.)

The downside of backstory, character arcs and other such subtleties is, of course, that ‘Bloody Battle’ is a slower, talkier affair. During the early scenes in which Milly wrestles with the decision to assist Hura or not, there are so many pregnant pauses that I wondered if a few pages of Harold Pinter hadn’t got mixed up with the shooting script. Maybe it’s a harsh comparison, given that the original is essentially a short rather than an actual feature, but the fact that, at just under an hour and a quarter, ‘Bloody Battle’ feels somewhat padded has to be counted as a flaw. It doesn’t help that while Tsujimoto’s cast look cool, none of them quite have the acting chops to carry to the non-smackdown business.

I can’t help thinking that if you took both Milly films, chopped about fifteen minutes out, and edited them into a single feature, you’d have something that equaled the sum of its parts.

*Again, a combination of unsubtitled end credits and sketchy IMDb information leaves me with no performers’ names beyond those of the leading ladies.

Monday, December 26, 2011


A note on the title: both IMDb and the subtitles on the print I watched have it as ‘Hard Revenge, Milly’; likewise the indigenous title (‘Hâdo ribenji, Mirî’) retains the comma. Which makes it sound like a comment, addressed to the eponymous Milly, regarding the nature of hard revenge. Rendering it, however, as ‘Hard Revenge Milly’ attributes the vengeful business to the protagonist – which makes a lot more sense to me. After all, you wouldn’t refer to Big Bad John as “Big Bad, John”, would you?

So: ‘Hard Revenge Milly’. At just 44 minutes (or 38 if you skip the credits, which I wouldn’t advise as there’s a Marvel-stylee post-credits coda which pretty much sets up the sequel), writer/director Takanori Tsujimoto’s gleefully excessive feature sometimes feels like a fleshed-out showreel and sometimes like the second half of a feature twice the length.

Here’s the plot: Milly (Miki Mizuno) reminisces, while driving to a run-down bar, about the weekend drives she took with her family two years ago. There’s a flash-forward where she cuts a guy in half with a sword and she muses that things are different now. The girl has a talent for understatement! At the bar, Milly speaks with former sword-maker Jubei* (shades of ‘Kill Bill Vol 1’ here) and gets kitted out.

Then she visits the gentleman we met in the flash-forward. We don’t get to make his acquaintance for much longer this time around.

Turns out he’s part of a gang, led by the loathsome Jack Brothers (insert ~ off, ~ shit, or I’m all right ~ fuck you gag here), responsible for murdering Milly’s family. (Flashbacks provide the gory details. And I do mean gory. There’s even a moment of baby conflagration that, notwithstanding the venal filth I’ve waded through during two years of Winter of Discontent, comes across as just a tad unnecessary.) Milly snaps a pic of the dismembered corpse, sends it to the Jack Brothers, waits for their arrival and protracted gunplay, swordplay, hand-to-hand combat and improper use of a teddy bear ensues.

Seriously: keep an eye on that teddy bear.

As a revenge thriller, ‘Hard Revenge Milly’ contains absolutely nothing it doesn’t need to. Even the motive behind the Jack Brothers’ attack on Milly’s family is immaterial (“they were just there when we wanted to kill someone”). There’s almost a purity to it: someone gets fucked over; they dole out a brutal fucking over in return. Job done. End of.

While considerably less silly than, say, ‘Machine Girl’ (Tsujimoto maintains, for the most part, a grimy, punkish aesthetic and makes good use of some post-industrial locations), it’s still as OTT in the blood-letting department and boasts some slapstick (if grotesque) moments, such as Milly impaling a corpse through the head to make him sit up, and one of the Jack Brothers taking a pratfall as he trips over a severed head. Or the perplexed manner in which a gang boss examines the conflagrant remains of a henchman.

The payoff to all this viscera requires an effect that is obviously beyond the production’s budget, hence its depiction as a piece of shadow-play. However, this last-minute revelation of Milly’s capabilities is less likely to leave you in a state of open-mouthed OMG-ness than make you wonder why she didn’t use it earlier and save herself a lot of pain during the climatic smackdown. Speaking of which, the over-foleyed thwack sounds do very little to disguise the fact that the combatants’ fists and bodies are demonstrably several feet apart during much of the shoddily edited hand-to-hand.

But this kind of thing exists in its own filmic universe and serves purely as a delivery system for tough chick iconography and massive gouts of blood. Mizuno fits the bill and then some as regards the former (in fact she’s second only to Christina Lindberg in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ when it comes to looking kick-ass and full-on vengeful in a floor length leather coat) and the amount of times gouts of blood spatter the camera lens is a testament to the latter.

Right, then. Off to watch the sequel!

*Apart from the leading lady, don’t ask me for any of the cast’s names. The closing credits were in Japanese and IMDb doesn’t marry up the actors to their characters.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I’m taking a wild guess here, but I very much doubt that Nico Mastorakis’s ‘Island of Death’ was bankrolled by the Greek Tourist Board.

Unless, of course, they wanted a 102-minute advert that basically says: “Come to the island of Mykonos, where the locals are friendly, sexually promiscuous and easy to kill if you decide their loose morals are an affront to the Lord God. Mykonos teams with wildlife, so if rampant goat-fucking before breakfast is the ideal start to your day, then don’t delay – book now. Mykonos, where life is cheap and the cops are remarkably ineffectual. Visit your travel agent today. Ask about special discounts for misogynists, homophobes and racists. Don’t forget to pick up our glossy, full-colour, blood-red brochure.”

Let’s meet the charming couple who have been the first to take advantage of the “see Mykonos and die” package deal. Christopher (Bob Belling*) is a handsome devil (nah, not really) who hates gays and foreigners and enjoys having sex with his consort in a phone booth while making a long-distance call to his dear old ma back in London. I use the term “consort” since Celia (Jane Ryall) is variously identified by Christopher as his wife and his niece. Truth be told, she’s neither, although they do turn out to be related. Less said about that, the better.

Christopher and Celia are on the run from an English detective of Caribbean heritage named Foster (Gerald Gonalons) – or, as Christopher wincingly describes him “that funny n*gg*r who thinks we’re killers”. Turns out, boys and girls, that actually they are killers. Although Celia’s not enjoying the carnage as much as she used to; neither is she too keen at being pimped out to a predatory drug-addicted lesbian barmaid just so that Christopher can convinced himself that said individual is lacking in virtue and therefore deserves to have her face burned off.

Oh, it’s a nasty little number, all right, is ‘Island of Death’. In addition to the above mentioned sexism, xenophobia, bestiality and a demonstrable absence of equality and diversity training, Mastorakis offers up a melange of rape, voyeurism, urolagnia, beatings, shootings, stabbings, hangings and incest. He also contrives to get his leading lady naked as often as possible, to the point where even a low-key scene of Christopher and Celia playing dimp-the-cigarette requires Celia to be outfitted in this ensemble:

While I’m tarnishing the already tattered reputation of this blog with images from this rancid piece of celluloid, it’s perhaps worth remarking that ‘Island of Death’ is the kind of film in which gay couples look like this …

… a lesbian seduction is depicted as thus …

… convenient murder weapons are just left lying around …

… and a retributive attack on two hippies who try to rape Celia concludes with this example of unsophisticated iconography:

These images, dear reader, may have hinted to you that ‘Island of Death’ is somewhat grubby piece of work. Alas! – the truth is far worse. Many, many things conspired to make this film one of the worst you will ever see. With almost reverse serendipity, these aesthetic failures – each of them ranging from noteworthy to utterly staggering on their individual merits – meshed together like the finely calibrated components of a huge and terrible machine.

Take Jane Ryall’s blank reading-off-a-cue-card performance. It could have killed any movie stone dead. Or the manic overuse of the fish-eye lens during most of the kill scenes. Or the offings themselves, shot with absolutely no flair or frisson and designed purely to provoke controversy. Or the last minute twist that completely obviates the religious dementia element and seems to have been incorporated for no other reason than to offend what few remaining masochists (or curious cinephiles – I’m still debating which category to place myself in) are still giving this POS their attention come the end credits.

Or take the unbelievably inappropriate score. That Mastorakis manages – within the same work – to prove himself staggeringly inept in three disciplines (writer, director, composer) is a jaw-dropping feat that all but demands respect … albeit in an Edward D Wood Jnr kind of way.

Now blend all of these elements into an hour and three quarters of tired, shoddy and desperately attention-seeking filmmaking. The result is something that, while it deserves both its bad reputation and its sojourn on the “video nasties” list, is more likely to induce tedium or a profound sense of depression than actively corrupt or deprave.

*i.e. Robert Behling, who appeared in ‘Smile’, ‘The Enforcer’ and ‘Cujo’ before committing suicide in the early 1980s.

Agitation of Arabia

In December 1919, while changing trains at Reading station, T.E. Lawrence mislaid the thousand-page manuscript of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. His reaction? He re-wrote the whole thing from memory.

In December 2011, while sitting at a computer desk in Nottingham, Neil Fulwood kissed goodbye to a half-written review of ‘Island of Death’ when his laptop crashed and the auto-recovery function decided not to work because the file was corrupt. His reaction? Swear, open another beer and start rewriting. Expect review at some point in the next few hours.

Monday, December 19, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

As I mentioned in my review of ‘Mardi Gras Massacre’ a couple of weeks ago, those bastions of public morality and censorial hyberbole the BBFC and the DPP drew up their “video nasties” hit list based on little more than dodgy-sounding titles and lurid VHS cover artwork; therefore anything from the terminally dull and chronically inept (the aforementioned ‘Mardi Gras Massacre’) to challenging arthouse oddities (‘Possession’) found themselves rubbing shoulders as the slavering UK press decried them as depraved filth that needed banning.

Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ – a harrowing and brilliantly visceral cinematic experience that exploits its grainy film stock, gauche performances and low-budget aesthetic to unforgettable (and, indeed, uncomfortable) effect – has the words “chain saw” and “massacre” in its title.

You don’t really need me to spell this one out, do you?

The biting irony is that ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ contains exactly two onscreen deaths, neither of which are courtesy of said power tool. Which is hardly a massacre in anybody’s book. One less and it’d be ‘The Texas Didn’t-Actually-Use-a-Chain-Saw incident’. A couple more and you might get away with ‘The Texas Non-Use-of-a-Chain-Saw Spree’. But two? What the fuck kind of title does that give you? ‘The Texas Double Homicide, No Evidence of a Chain Saw’?

You see, BBFC and DPP people, the title is a hook. It’s designed to get people to hand over their spondoolies at the box office and park their posteriors on a movie theatre seat.

So, putting aside the hype and allowing that “chain saw” and “massacre” are more a tag line than an actual précis, how come Hooper’s most (in)famous film remains one of the 1970s’ most gruelling and unnerving works? Quite simple: it throws an ominous, doom-laden shadow over its protagonists from the outset and sends them deeper and deeper, with each passing scene, into a primal landscape (both geographical and emotional) where intellectual and civilized retardation reach a point of brutal mockery where the concepts of family and home are exploded and reimagined as something out of Hieronymous Bosch.

The film starts with brother and sister Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A Partain) journeying with a couple of friends to the isolated cemetery where their grandparents are buried. Reason for the trip: concern that the graves have been vandalized (i.e. the first hint that we’re entering cinematic territory where moral concerns and civilized behaviour are not to be relied upon). They pick up a hitchhiker who works at a nearby slaughterhouse (cue an unflinching montage of almost documentary precision which demonstrates exactly how cows are turned into hamburgers), who proceeds to whip out a knife and go beserk.

This is merely the prelude. Our already freaked-out group soon encounter Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), and Hooper shifts things up a notch, the second half of the film playing out as (by turns) poetic, surreal, disturbing, exploitative and ludicrously amusing. Nominally based on the life and crimes of Ed Gein, ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ pays homage to its twisted muse in an especially eerie sequence where Sally, prowling nervously through the Leatherface household, comes upon a room filled with strange bone sculptures and clumps of feathers. The effect is more chilling than any amount of blood and gore. Elsewhere, the emphasis is on the comedy of the absurd, as in a character managing to escape when Leatherface’s geriatric father – given the job of dispatching them – proves unable to grip his weapon of choice (a hammer), and the implement keeps slipping from his fingers.

It’s a damn shame that ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ owes much of its reputation to the “video nasties” witch-hunt. It’s a much better, much more genuinely scary movie than its title suggests. It lingers in the mind, it reminds you how anodyne many modern horror films are (even as they cut loose with the blood and guts like there’s no tomorrow), and it makes you wonder why the hell Tobe Hooper never went on to make anything even remotely as good.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Man, this one started unpromisingly! Imagine you’re the writer of a ridiculously successive pair of novels featuring an iconic, kick-ass heroine. You sit down to start work on volume three. What do you do: have your iconic, kick-ass heroine taking the fight to the various individuals who have conspired against her throughout her life, or have her laid up in a hospital bed while a rumpled middle-aged reporter pursues the same kind of plodding investigation he undertook in the previous books?

Me, I’d have gone with the former. Larsson – and director Daniel Alfredson – opt for the latter. Thus, the first half of ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ has Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) even more backgrounded than in the previous instalments, recovering in hospital prior as the public prosecutor puts together a case against her courtesy of those pesky fingerprints on Bjurman’s gun from ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’, while Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) unravels an ever-wider-reaching conspiracy against her.

The next problem is that the nature of the aforementioned conspiracy is detailed in endlessly boring scenes of old men in suits sitting around in blandly anonymous rooms talking in hushed tones. Imagine a third-rate John le Carre homage delivered with all the dynamism of a party political broadcast and that’s basically how the first half of ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ plays out.

A double-assassination attempt at the hospital and some mounting pressure against the staff at Millennium (Blomkvist is racing against time to publish a special edition blowing the lid off it all before the powers that be can have Lisbeth sectioned again) enliven things slightly, but the absence of Salander as a pro-active character drains the life out of the proceedings.

As the second half got underway, with the trial looming, I could feel my will to live evaporating. Full disclosure: with the exception of a couple of Sidney Lumet films, I can’t stand courtroom dramas. By their very nature, they make for a static and visually uninteresting drama.

My surprise was palpable, then, when things pepped up no end, the legal shenanigans juxtaposed with an official investigation against the conspirators. The courtroom scenes, while betraying an absolute lack of realism (so much new and illegally obtained evidence introduced at the last minute without the judge batting an eyelid? are they really that liberal in Sweden?), benefit from Salander’s powers of photographic and verbatim recall. Her reduction of the prosecutor to bamboozled idiot is beautiful to behold, as is the arrest of a key prosecution witness, hauled out of court on child pornography charges.

A coda wrapping up the almost obligatory loose end finally gives Salander the chance to kick out the jambs in the action stakes. All told, though, ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ is as big a plod as it’s immediate predecessor, and a not a patch on the watchable (but hugely overrated) ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Here’s to David Fincher giving things a shot in the arm!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Girl who Played with Fire

The only instalment of the trilogy whose English title is anywhere near an accurate translation from the Swedish, ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’ is even more disappointing than its predecessor in backgrounding the fascinating Lisbeth Salander (played to perfection by Noomi Rapace) in favour of a plodding journalistic investigation undertaken by the hangdog Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist). It also disappoints in that Daniel Alfredson’s direction isn’t a patch on Niels Arden Oplev’s and the entire production betrays its made-for-TV roots so shabbily that it makes ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ look like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

The next problem requires me to hoist the jolly SPOILER ALERT for a paragraph.

‘Dragon Tattoo’ ended with the much-misused Lisbeth fiscally benefiting from the downfall of Blomqvist’s corporate nemesis and sunning herself in the Caribbean on the proceeds. Which, after all the shit she’d gone through, seemed only fair (if a tad deus ex machina-ish). Thus ‘Played with Fire’ opens with some extended and not particularly interesting business regarding her return to Stockholm, her acquisition of property, and her loaning out of an apartment to a lesbian entrepreneur who owns a sex shop (cue graphic and narratively pointless – but, if I’m being honest – still very watchable girl-girl scene). She also checks up on the loathsome Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) in a tortuously contrived sequence, the only purpose of which is to get her prints on a gun.

(Lower the jolly SPOILER, first mate!)

Meanwhile, Millennium magazine have hired wannabe crusading journalist Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) who wants to blow the lid on a prostitution ring uncovered by his girlfriend Mia (Jennie Silfverhjelm) whilst researching her thesis. Dag and Mia are trying to track down the shadowy “Zala”, reputed to be the sex trade kingpin; Blomqvist throws in his tuppence-ha’penny worth by confronting some of the men who have availed themselves of Zala’s service.

No sooner does Blomqvist discover a link to Lisbeth than Dag and Mia are murdered. Blomqvist hurriedly tries to make contact with Lisbeth, unaware that their parallel courses are about to … yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah.

‘Played with Fire’ desultorily sketches out two narrative arcs that are so depressingly derivative that it’s almost impossible to care by the time the overwrought and laughably ludicrous finale roles around. (How ludicrous? Imagine the “lonely grave of Paula Schultz” sequence from ‘Kill Bill Vol 2’ redone without Tarantino’s knowing sense of irony, throw in a Bond villain type cipher who’s blond, Aryan, built like a brick shithouse and incapable of feeling pain, then have Blomqvist walk manfully into the middle of the whole farrago as if he were Clint Eastwood.)

If ‘ Dragon Tattoo’ was little more than bad Agatha Christie with rape scenes, then the touchstone for ‘Played with Fire’ is more along the lines of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. If I’m spoiling anything by referring to this as the “Lisbeth, I am your father” episode, then I make no apologies whatsoever. There is one standout scene, dealing with Lisbeth’s clinical take-down of a couple of bikers, and it’s pretty cool to watch Rapace capitalizing on the victim-turned-angel-of-vengeance personification of Salander from the first movie and turn her into an authentic kick-ass action heroine.

That said, I’m not holding out much hope for ‘The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’.

Monday, December 12, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have an inverse-ratio reaction to hype. The more the masses are clamouring to read something or watch something, the less my inclination to approach that work. Mainly it’s because I recognize my own capacity for disappointment, partly because I’d rather wait till all the fuss is died down, and not a little bit because I’m because a contrary old bugger.

I steered clear of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy while it was pitching its tripartite tent on the higher slopes of the Times bestseller list and beating off all competition with a stick. I’d heard various opinions, from “riveting if not particularly subtle thrillers” to “second-rate Agatha Christie with some nasty anal rape”. I still haven’t approached a single volume.

The film versions bypassed me on the big screen. They were truncations of Swedish TV productions, each three-hour adaptation shorn of about forty minutes’ for its big screen release to conform to a more commercial running time. I had it on good authority that if you weren’t familiar with the books, you’d be in for a lot of head scratching.

Then the trilogy in its uncut nine-hour epicness hit the shelves in a stupidly cheap box set and – finally – curiosity got the better of me.

The title is something of a misnomer*, indicating that Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) – she of the oriental-themed ink-work – is the protagonist. Actually, she’s pretty much second fiddle (although a pretty bloody essential second fiddle, particularly in the last act) to Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist for radical magazine Millennium who, as the story starts, is facing a three-month custodial sentence after a major corporation take him to court over an article. It soon becomes apparent that Blomkvist was set up.

With six months until he has to serve his sentence, Blomkvist accepts an assignment from Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the octogenarian senior partner in a major manufacturing company. Vanger wants him to investigate the disappearance, forty years ago, of his niece. He is convinced she was murdered and that one of his family is the killer.

Salander, initially hired by the corporation responsible for prosecuting Blomkvist to hack him, becomes drawn to his investigation. She has a troubled background, having torched her abusive father as a girl (the backstory is a tad sketchy, though the image of a man in flames plunging out of a BMW is certainly memorable!) and is currently paroled under the supervision of a “guardian”. This, ahem, “gentleman” is Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), a controlling sadist who blackmails her into sexual services, then assaults and anally rapes her. Salander’s revenge on him, somewhere around the mid-point, is a textbook exercise in “an eye for an eye”. Or in this case a – … actually, I’ll just let you find out for yourselves.

The “eye for an eye” aesthetic is apposite, since Salander twigs to a Biblical clue in Blomkvist’s investigation and the two become unlikely allies. Once again, Blomkvist finds himself up against corruption in big business, ties to Sweden’s pre-war Nazi sympathy movement, and a sadistic antagonist with a Fritzl-like prison/torture chamber basement conversion.

It’s to director Niels Arden Oplev’s credit that he doesn’t let this miasma of fascism, corruption, degeneracy and misogyny descend into the lurid depths it could so easily have plumbed. In fact, the thing that struck me most about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was its portrayal of evil as something bland and almost desultory. There’s nothing gothic or grotesque about the villain’s basement, even when he opens a cabinet the inner surfaces of which are decorated with photographs of his victims at point of expiration. Au contraire, it’s a utilitarian and rather mundane set-up, as if Ikea had designed a range for the psychopathic rapist on a budget.

The made-for-TV origins of the project leave a few other scenes looking unintentionally bland, as well (which is why I’m looking forward to seeing what a great visual stylistic like David Fincher will do with the remake), with only Blomkvist and Salander’s connect-the-dots dash around Sweden as they revisit old murder scenes and clues fall into place, breaking out into a truly cinematic sequence.

It’s a curious piece of work, all told, and I’m tempted to approach the books now, just to see if the same dichotomy is present. There’s a sense that a real socio-political statement on twentieth century Sweden is being striven for – one, moreover, that’s wrapped up in an indictment of misogyny – and yet the plot points, narrative tropes and dramatic set-pieces employed to reach it are pure pulpy hokum.

Still, it benefits from solid performances all round, with Nyqvist convincingly essaying a world-weary but idealistic protagonist and Rapace – in her breakout role – fucking owning the film as the tattoo’d, leather-jacketed, studded-collar-wearing angel of vengeance that is Lisbeth Salander. A heroine of our vicious times.

*Both book and film in their indigenous language go by the title ‘Men Who HateWomen’.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

At the touch of a button, my arse

When my internet connection decides to run at a speed slightly sprightlier than a snail with an anvil strapped to it, therefore enabling Blogger to upload a mere three screengrabs in significantly less time than it takes for a new planet to come into existence, terraform itself and support life, normal service will be resumed.

I'm hoping tomorrow, but I'm not putting any money on it.

Friday, December 09, 2011


Imagine two scenarios, both involving a writer/director and a producer discussing ideas for a movie project. In the first scenario, both individuals are out to make a quick buck from a down ‘n’ dirty exploitationer. They’re drinking beer at 10am while they discuss the project and smoking dope. In the second, at least one of these gentlemen is of European extraction, they’re discussing the project over lunch at a pavement café and drinking mineral water.

Scenario 1: “Dude, I’ve got this great idea,” says the writer/director; “Horror movie set in the back of beyond, where we can film on the cheap and not worry about permits. We’ve got a sheriff who’s a little bit edgy, a seedy dude who runs a motel, some hot French chick in a soft-top and a killer on the loose. We can shoot it in a coupla weeks for chump change, play the festivals and turn a decent profit on DVD.” The producer likes the sound of this but opines, “It’s kinda been done before. We need a hook. Something different.” The writer/director tokes some maryjane: “Dude, I’ve got it. The killer is a tyre!”

Scenario 1: Scenario 2: “You see, the basic concept is a mise en scene drawn from the tropes of American low-budget horror cinema – therefore we have the world weary sheriff, the twitchy and secretive owner of an isolated motel, and we have a role for Roxane Mesquida as a mysterious woman to whom the antagonist is drawn. But instead of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ or ‘Vacancy’, we deconstruct the material into a surreal anti-narrative which juxtaposes the narrative conventions of the road movie with a philosophical discourse on the nature of illusion and the role of the audience in the story’s development.” The producer lights a Gitanes and nods appreciatively. “Tell me about the antagonist.” The writer/director smiles: “Ah, he is the key to the entire film. His name is Robert and he is – how you say? – un pneumatique.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about as close as I can come to doing justice to ‘Rubber’. It is either an arthouse masterpiece or a piss-take of the highest order. Either way, you should absolutely make the time to see it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Christina Lindberg

Exploitation icon and star of the gruellingly unforgettable 'Thriller - A Cruel Picture', the stunning Christina Lindberg celebrates her 61st birthday today.


In this charming romantic comedy, our affable heroes Ricky (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan) – two fine upstanding college lads – make an intriguing discovery during a field trip and learn value life lessons about the value of friendship, the innocence of youth and how the love of a good woman just plain clinches the deal.

Meanwhile, back in reality and here on The Agitation of the Mind, Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s thorny and cynical ‘Deadgirl’ concerns the edgy friendship between the moderately douchey Ricky and his full-on douchebag best bud JT, a friendship which is tested and found wanting when they cut class and head for a decaying and abandoned building that used to be a mental hospital.

Before you can say ‘Session 9: Douche Babies’, they’ve chugged some beer, tossed around some cuss words and smashed the place up a bit. Next stop: the basement. ‘Tis hear they discover the eponymous dead girl. Although ‘Undeadgirl’ would be a more appropriate title. Or even ‘Undeadnakedgirl’.

You see, our teenage twosome come across a woman (Jenny Spain) with the body of a model, the snarl of a wolf and the guttural communicative style of something Neanderthal; she’s manacled to a gurney and, of most pressing interest to JT, she’s stark naked. Deciding from the off that a naked, chained and (given the length of time the institution has been shut down) forgotten woman presents opportunities of the own-personal-sex-slave variety, JT gets in touch with his inner rapist.

The slightly more responsible Ricky reasons that they should just let her go, adding that they might go to jail if they keep her in captivity and force her into non-consensual sexual acts. Acute grasp of the law, this lad. An argument erupts and JT demonstrates a capacity for violence. Ricky slinks off, cowed, and goes back to his dead-end home life, his mom working all hours God send while his loser stepfather scrounges off them and taunts him about “acting like a man”. He tries to re-engage with his studies while carrying a torch for willowy redhead Joanne (Candice Accola), the girlfriend of jock asshole Johnny (Andrew DiPalma). But gradually he gravitates back into JT’s orbit, only to find that JT has reconfigured the asylum’s basement into a bona fide fuck pad and cut loudmouthed slacker Wheeler (Eric Podnar) in on the action.

Wheeler’s tendency to talk when he should be listening attracts the unwelcome attention of Johnny and his fellow jock asshole pal Dwyer (Nolan Gerard Funk) who insist on muscling in. They discover a morbidly transformed and dangerously purposeful JT, who eggs on Johnny to an act of fellatio. I’ll use the term “gag reflex” and leave it there. Johnny, injured right where it hurts, soon finds he has a much bigger problem than penile trauma when it becomes apparent that the dead girl is carrying some kind of infection. JT’s already disturbed mind leaps to the conclusion that he can use the now considerably-past-her-best dead girl to create other undead sex slaves.

Does it sound sickeningly exploitative, all this? The kind of thing that might send you running back to ‘Strange Circus’, ‘The Candy Snatchers’ or ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ just to top up on something lighter and more life-affirming?

‘Deadgirl’, for all that it sounds like a horrible conflation of ‘Porkys’ and ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’, is pretty well-made film with some intelligence behind it and a definite and unflinching agenda. It’s about misogyny, misconceptions and how terribly easy it is to simply be complicit. JT emerges as the villain of the piece straightaway, in no small part thanks to Segan’s smirkingly convincing performance; but it’s Ricky who is proved a moral coward, a silent accomplice and, finally (SPOILER) the keeper of JT’s legacy (SPOILER ENDS).

Some scenes are truly despairing, and surprisingly they’re often the quieter, least explicit moments: JT’s heartlessly casual remarks about needing to invest in lubricant (“bone dry down there”); a picture cut from a porno mag placed over the dead girl’s face after she sustains extensive bruising; Ricky fantasizing about Joanne in a series of dreamy soft-focus tableau while he tries to put the dead girl’s ordeal at JT’s hands out of his mind; Wheeler stringing Christmas lights around the basement, presumably to create a more romantic ambience. And there’s also a scene of politically incorrect hilarity where JT and Wheeler attempt to kidnap a heftily built good-time girl only to discover that a tyre iron to the back of the head not only fails to incapacitate her, but provokes a humility ass-whupping by way of a counterattack.

It treads a fine line, does ‘Deadgirl’, and its denouement sails very close to outright melodrama. But the directors, working from a script by Trent Haaga keep the focus on character, situation and the ambiguous no-man’s-land of Ricky’s moral conflicts. The result is a film I’d be surprised if anyone enjoyed but which makes its point without pulling its punches.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


Has anything good ever come out of the movies-based-on-videogames subgenre? Is Uwe Boll’s reputation as the man who does for cinema what Jack the Ripper did for escort agencies actually deserved? To try to answer these two questions, I watched ‘Bloodrayne’.

Fuck my life.

The answer I’ve arrived at regarding the first question is: only if you’re a thirteen year old boy and the idea of Lara Croft being incarnated by Angelina Jolie, Alice from the ‘Resident Evil’ games by Milla Jovovich or Bloodrayne by Kristanna Lokken is enough to give you a stiffy without even watching a single frame of the resulting productions. Let’s face it, only a thirteen year old boy besieged by hormones and obsessed with video games could possibly feel any stirring of excitement over these largely sexless opuses.

So kudos to Uwe Boll for at least putting one sex scene in ‘Bloodrayne’, even if it is utterly joyless and perfunctory.

Are any more kudos due to our much-hated German director? Well, let’s spend a little time with the movie and attempt an answer.

‘Bloodrayne’ is about a vampire called Rayne (Lokken) who is first introduced in captivity, being paraded as a sideshow freak. Um. No. Let’s back up a tad. Rayne is sort-of vampire. A damphyr (I’m guessing at the spelling) – in other words, a product of a vampire/human union. The union in question being the rape of her mother by sadistic patriarchal vampire Kagan (Ben Kingsley).

Yes. Ben Kingsley. Sir Ben Kingsley. The guy who played Gandhi. In a Uwe Boll film.

Fuck my life part two.

Anyway, Rayne’s out for some payback against Kagan, while Kagan is more concerned with protecting his fiefdom against the ministrations of the Brimstone Society. This organisation is headed up by Vladimir (Michael Madsen), a man who comes across as a somewhat podgy Van Helsing with a haircut redolent of Bon Jovi circa 1986. Vlad’s retinue include Sebastian (Matthew Davis) and Katarin (Michelle Rodriguez). Katarin’s loyalties to the Brimstone Society are compromised by her relationship with her manipulative father Elrich (Billy Zane).

Vladimir and his team are seeking to destroy Kagan, Elrich has his own agenda, and all of the various parties have a vested interest in Rayne. Despite an attraction to Sebastian, Rayne’s own agenda – the simple, powerful and unambiguous desire for vengeance – dictates her choices, and she embarks on a quest for three talismanic items guaranteed to vouchsafe her an audience with Kagan. The risk is considerable, however, since to reunite the purposefully scattered talismans could provide Kagan with his passport to true immortality and absolutely power.

All of which sounds promising, ja? Vampires, vampire hunters, court intrigue, Machiavellian power plays … throw in swordplay, explosions, nudity and intense people galloping full tilt across rugged landscapes on horses, compress it all into a 90 minute running time and surely this has got to emerge as some kind of ballsy, fast-paced guilty pleasures and never mind the 2.8 IMDb rating. I mean, surely?


‘Bloodrayne’ is quite frankly dull. Boll clearly has no idea about pacing, characterization or simply engaging with his audience on even the most basic level. Some of the blame has to be laid at the door of screenwriter Guinevere Turner – virtually every line of dialogue is stilted and unconvincing. Not that Boll (yup, we’re back to the main offender) even tries to get more than the most lackadaisical line reading out of his cast. And anything approaching an actual performance – fuhgeddaboutit! Lokken, not the greatest thespian talent to begin with, handles the swordplay decently and looks hot in a leather waistcoat, but remains a bland heroine. Madsen is embarrassingly miscast. Rodriguez, always one of my favourite tough gals in the movies, looks cool but is given sod all to work with. Only Meat Loaf – deliberately hamming it up as a dissipated nobleman …

… and Billy Zane, who tosses off his few scenes with all the glib sarcasm the production deserves, emerge as memorable. It is better that we do not speak of Ben Kingsley. I will assume he had severe gambling debts, desperately needed the work, and not speak of his involvement in an Uwe Boll film again.

Every aspect of the film is perfunctory, as if Boll had a checklist that read: hot chicks, swashbuckling, neck-biting, crossbows, tits, blood; and randomly threw one or more of these elements into whatever scene he was currently filming. As a result, what should be trashy is tedious. What should be exploitative ends up an exercise in ennui. What should be a blood-drenched, decadent hour and a half seems to last twice as long. No joke, I can’t remember looking at my watch this often during any film I’ve seen in the past few years. Nor did I hit pause so many times to slope off for a pee, pour another drink, make some toast, watch cars passing on the street below or check Facebook. Somebody had posted a picture of their Christmas tree. It made for more entertaining viewing.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Amanda Seyfried

The very glamorous Amanda Seyfried - on whose account I could actually consider watching 'Mamma Mia' - is 26 today. She shares a birthday with Julianne Moore. There's a scurrilous joke about a certain Atom Egoyan movie in there somewhere, but I'll simply lift a glass to the lady in question and not lower myself ...

Thursday, December 01, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Switchblade Sisters

Meet the Dagger Debs, a girl-gang who are the de facto consorts of the Silver Daggers, a leather jacketed crew of high-school greasers. The Debs are led – rather implausibly – by Lace (Robbie Lee), a whiny pipsqueak with a lot of attitude but the kind of physicality that would see her defeated by your average Women’s Institute Committee member. Her right hand man woman is Patch (Monica Gayle), so named after her eye-patch, which she wears for no discernible reason other than ‘Switchblade Sisters’ came out a year after Christina Lindberg made the look iconic in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’.

One day the Debs are happily terrorizing people at burger bar when new kid on the block Maggie (Joanne Nail) decides not to take Patch’s shit and effortlessly gets the drop on her. The cops break up the scene and Maggie finds herself in the slammer with a group of potential nemeses. A bull dyke (apologies to my lesbian friends, I’m simply mirroring the unreconstructed stereotypes the film trades in) warden gives Maggie a hard time and, putting their differences aside, the Debs intervene on Maggie’s behalf.

Later, when Maggie is released, she agrees to pass a message to Lace’s boyfriend, Silver Daggers supremo Dominic (Asher Brauner). Yes, folks, we’re watching an exploitation film where the gang leaders are called Lace and Dominic. But fear not – this isn’t the Noel Coward drive-in movie. As is immediately proved by Dominic’s decision that he kind of likes Maggie: he makes an overture by way of forcing his way into her house, forcing himself on her and terrifying her parents. Understandably, Maggie isn’t overly impressed with Dominic; nonetheless, she finds herself inducted into the Debs and part of the fight when Dominic’s high-school supremacy is threatened by the arrival of a new, politically motivated, gang headed by the sartorially-challenged Crabs (Chase Newhart).

Crabs and his boys come off more like a Morris dancing troupe with behavioural problems than an actually badass gang, but then again Dominic and Silver Daggers all look about a decade too old to be in high school, so who’s counting when it comes to verisimilitude? Besides, the real star of the show is director Jack Hill, already an exploitation veteran by the time he shot ‘Switchblade Sisters’, having already chalked up ‘Spider Baby’, ‘The Big Doll House’, ‘The Big Bird Cage’, ‘Coffy’ and ‘Foxy Brown’. Any man who can lay claim to directing not one but two Pam Grier blaxploitation classics is a director worth celebrating.

Hill brings his blaxploitation credentials to the table big stylee after an attack on Crabs’ boys goes tits up, Dominic’s followers are decimated, Lace is injured and Maggie responds to her inherited leadership of the Debs (now renamed The Jezebels) by hooking up with militant Afro-American girl-gang leader Muff (Marlene Clark) and her highly trained and motivated crew. In the film’s best sequence, the girls take it to the streets and royally kick the arse of their male counterparts. Think grindhouse version of ‘Battle of Algiers’ and you’re on the right track.

Hill could direct the hell out of an exploitationer, no question about it. ‘Switchblade Sisters’, with its touch of ‘Othello’ (think Patch as Iago and reverse engineer it from there), its plentiful action set-pieces and its cheerful amorality is never less than entertaining. And there are touches – such as a knife fight played out in balletic silhouette – that demonstrate a cinematic talent as laudable as any of his 1970s peers.

If there’s a criticism to be made it’s that no-one in the cast demonstrates as iconic a presence as Pam Grier in ‘Coffy’ or ‘Foxy Brown’. Lee never really convinces, Nail gives the impression of a girl-next-door trying to be badass, Gayle leaves you thinking she might have been pretty awesome if given more to do than lurk in background scowling, and not only do Crabs and co. more than earn the above insult but the other gentlemen of the cast project so little physical danger that they’d get their arses handed to them on a plate in a straight fight with the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

Still, if it’s trashy fun you’re after, ‘Switchblade Sisters’ definitely entertains.