Saturday, 31 October 2015

Movie Review: Lead Me Astray (2015)

In another dual example of “Australian indie production” and “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into”, we have today’s film. Now, between its one-night-only screening in my area and its local production, I knew that I had to check it out. What I didn’t realize was that it was an official red carpet premiere. Almost everyone is in black tie, and there I am in my green pocket-T, hoodie and jeans. I’ve always felt out of place in film circles, but this is the first time that I’ve had that fact hit me square in the face; this is the kind of situation that separates the hobbyists from the professionals (or, in my case, the fanatics). So, when faced with the crowd of people who came to see this movie, I just shuffled into the cinema as soon as the doors opened and found my seat, doing as best I could not to draw attention to myself. With how similar this situation has started out, was this going to result in another Quarantine Hauntings bout of shame, or am I in for another beast altogether? This is Lead Me Astray.

The plot: Alexis (Jace Pickard) lives a relatively stable life with his girlfriend Lacey (Alannah Robertson), something that comes crashing down when a confrontation with a young thug brings Alexis to kill. When Lacey is kidnapped by the thug’s colleagues in retaliation, Alexis is forced to action once again and his mysterious past is brought screaming to the surface, even after he and Dr. Seward (Tim Page) had tried so hard to repair the damage it had done to him.

Much like Quarantine Hauntings, this is an extremely local production made on a microscopic budget, only we’re dealing with an even smaller wallet size here at only $10,000; approximately one-sixth that of QH. To put this into perspective, Clerks, an American independent classic that is filmed primarily in a convenience store, was shot on a budget of approximately $27,000. Considering all of this, the film looks remarkably good in terms of production quality and its monetary constraints only become evident in a few regards. For example, every time the cinematographer (also director/writer/producer/editor/actor Tom Danger) decides to use a panning shot, it appears that random frames are missing from the take. Not only that, the sound mixing is inconsistent with moments of clipping, hissing and painfully noticeable dubbing, and the limited access to actors shows through when you have them portraying characters that are clearly much older than they are, without the aid of prosthetics to go full Benjamin Button on the situation. Somehow, unless we’re talking very specific and/or illegal circumstances, I doubt that the mother of a 3-year-old would still have braces. However, this is a legitimate case where these flaws can be forgiven when brought into perspective considering the budget, as most of these problems are purely technical. Even with this in mind, it seems like Danger and co. knew how to put their money to good use: The shooting locations are well-utilized, even considering a pivotal scene is shot in a Blockbuster video store, the camera stock looks decent and the lighting, while haphazard in the exterior shots, shows a lot of attention to detail and a lot of Dario Argento worship that ends up working in the film’s favour for the interior shots.

And speaking of Argento, this is a film that very much wears its influences on its sleeve for all to gander at. Whether it’s the aforementioned lighting that echoes Argento’s coloured gel trademark, a book by Argento clearly visible in the shots taken of Alexis’ home, the shameless name-dropping of a couple of John Carpenter’s works, right down to a rather obvious bit of character influence with Dr. Seward being this film’s Dr. Loomis. In fact, that last part kind of throws my previous nit-picks about the accessibility of actors into question, as they seemed to have spent enough time to find an actor who looks rather similar to Donald Pleasance. He even gets a monologue where he talks about Alexis’ mental condition that feels pulled right out of the original Halloween. However, even with all that said, this goes beyond simple mimicry and actually manages to create a distinctive identity for itself. It may take lighting tips from Argento, but the lack of access to the more showy examples of light cues gives it a grungier texture, making locales like the abandoned prison where the majority of the action takes place look even more unnerving. As for Dr. Seward, his relationship with Alexis almost makes this come across as a more what-if story concerning the silent slasher of the 80’s: What if that same killer got the psychiatric help they clearly needed and their doctor became their closest ally? Now imagine if this same idea wasn’t done by Rob Zombie and actually pulled off competently, and you have a good idea about how this turns out, thanks in no small part to the cast involved.

The acting is wobbly at first, but seems to improve alongside the rest of the film as it progresses. Pickard’s quite prominent lisp is distracting in earlier scenes, particularly when he’s conversing with Robertson, but whenever things get intense and he needs to show that he can fight, he more than delivers and only grows more primal and vicious as the tension rises. He pulls off the dichotomy of appearing meek one moment and ferocious the next with astounding ease. As much as I want to complain that Robertson does nothing but cry in her scenes, she still shows all of the emotional duress her character is under well; that, and she is genuinely proactive in a few key scenes. Tim Page as Seward, when coupled with Addi Craig as the child Alexis, makes for easily the best moments in the film. He delivers the main monologue detailing Alexis’ condition and what happened to him with the right emotional punches to keep what is essentially a big exposition dump from descending into tedium. He also has remarkable on-screen chemistry with Craig, making their dialogue comes across as remarkably realistic given the circumstances of their meeting. I would also feel remiss if I didn’t highlight Craig for being easily one of the best child actors I have seen in a long time, balancing naivety, confusion, rage and even a few drops of menace in his scenes astoundingly well. Greg Eccleston is… just plain weird in his role as a detective that interviews Alexis and Lacey after the Blockbuster incident; probably because his wisecrack about the state of DVD stores nowadays reaches the stage of ‘insensitive yet depressing true yet funny’. While the majority of the thug antagonists are just okay, Logan Webster as their leader does come across as intimidating at points. When he’s first introduced, the first shot we see of him is amazingly creepy. Once you see him and his mask up-close, though, that creeping sensation gives way to awkward giggles. Then, as the get-up starts to become familiar, his demeanour and his banter with Alexis ventures right back into creepy again.

This film’s moral stance(s) are probably the most interesting part of the entire production, on a purely critical basis. It brings up the old vigilante question of what gives a single person the right to take the law into his own hands and peppers it with conflicting perspectives that, ultimately, highlight our own hypocrisy surrounding the matter as a whole. It’s a safe bet to say that human society as a whole has moved past the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ mentality that it once clung to. However, while we aren’t likely to admit it, there are occasions where we genuinely feel like death is the only punishment that fits a certain person’s crime. Take someone who harshly protests the use of capital punishment, then bring that person face-to-face with a convicted and unrepentant murderer; chances are, when confronted with someone of that calibre, they’ll end up thinking twice. Not that this is cut-and-dry what the film’s stance is overall, as we see Dr. Seward in deep internal conflict over wondering when a person crosses the line into becoming abjectly ‘evil’ when it comes to taking a life. All of this comes to a head in the film’s climax, where this question explodes into the kind of irreversibly grey tone that will keep the conversation going long after the credits roll. This is the kind of writing that makes me forgive a lot of the technical faults this film may have, as its heart is most certainly in a solid place in terms of pure filmmaking.

All in all, this is the kind of film that shows the guerrilla approach at its best, taking what little resources are available and pushing them to their breaking point in order to make the director’s creative vision work. Even with the moral questions of the script, the commendable acting (despite the stunt work being a bit shaky) and the grimy set design, this film succeeds on a purely visceral and emotional level, following in the footsteps of its stylistic predecessors and tapping into our instinctive sense of dread to create something truly amazing to behold. This has been billed as a ‘thriller’ with good reason, as this is easily one of the most chairarm-clutching sits I’ve had the fortunate to get all year. Even with the technical hiccups and awkward writing moments, out of execution alone, this film shines and knowing that it managed to do this much on as low a budget as it had, honestly, makes it even better. It ranks higher than Sicario as, while that film was undoubtedly being better made, this film succeeds on a more immediate level that makes for an ultimately more entertaining watch; hell, even its flaws add to its charm. However, in terms of it felt as the credits rolled, this film’s ending left me feeling a bit cold which makes it just rank below It Follows, which made for a much more satisfying conclusion. I can only hope that this film does well enough to warrant a wider cinematic release, or even a home media release, because this is most definitely a film to see for those with a taste for the darker and moodier side of cinema.

[2017 Update] It took a while but, finally, Lead Me Astray is available for home viewing through Ozflix. If any of the above sounds even remotely interesting to you, please, check out the film proper because this is an Aussie production that definitely deserves to see some profit.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Movie Review: Legend (2015)

In the world of film, there are very few prospects with as high a grade of difficulty as the dual role. On the surface, it’s an actor’s greatest dream: A chance to showcase range within the confines of a single film, be it for comedy like with the cinematic works of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, for dramatic purposes like with the HBO adaptation of Angels In America or even to add a touch of the surreal like with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. However, this is assuming that all actors are able to maintain multiple personas at once on set, and even then it can just as easily be used for evil as it can for good. One look at the Seltzerberg catalogue shows a ready use of this technique, with frankly embarrassing and nipple-twistingly painful results. A good rule of thumb when attempting this on film is to stick with characters who will naturally look like each other to begin with: Basically, clones or identical twins. As such, today’s film seems to be a decent place to try this out, not to mention bringing in a capable actor for it in the form of Tom Hardy. But intentions are one thing; do they actually pull it off? This is Legend.

The plot: Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) are the crown princes of the London crime world, with the former serving as the gentleman gangster and the latter as a one-man wrecking crew. As seen through the eyes of Reggie’s wife Frances (Emily Browning), we see their rise to the upper echelons of British gangster legend, the attempts of Detective Read (Christopher Eccleston) to bring them down and the rift that formed between the Krays and their closest allies that eventually led to the twins’ downfall.

I know how much my readers love it when I get all preachy, but it looks like it’s Soapbox Time again. Now, differences between the real-world facts and what makes it on-screen have rarely if ever bothered me because I got it in my head early on that any film based on actual events is bound to take some form of liberty with the source material. I would never be able to catch my breath if I found outrage with every instance of it. That said, I mostly definitely have a problem with what this film has changed from the accounts; namely, the sexuality of the Krays. And no, I’m not going to bring up certain allegations of twincest that have cropped up because I’d rather keep to relatively substantiated notes concerning the two and not halfway house gossip. In real life, Ronnie Kray made it emphatically clear that he was bisexual (even stating quite clearly that he wasn’t gay in The Kray Tapes) and there are reports that Reggie was much the same. In Legend, while Reggie’s orientation isn’t directly stated, Ronnie directly mentions that he is homosexual in his very first scene and makes frequent mention of it from then on. Now, while I could bring up how this fact kind of dampens his words about being open about what you are, I’d rather delve into the annoying and frankly unsettling precedent that this follows: Cinema’s lack of portrayal of bisexuality. Seriously, while we have been getting depictions of gay and lesbian characters for decades now (for better or for worse), I can think of all of one time that an admitted bisexual character was in a film; that being in 2004’s Dodgeball, and even then the revelation was treated as more of a punchline than anything. It feels like it’s furthering the way of thinking that says bisexuality doesn’t really exist, can be hidden so that it need never be addressed and is mainly a label for someone who is just confused about what they want. Or, to put it in the words of a guy I once chatted up at a bar, “Any hole is not a goal”. It’s patronizing and more than a little insensitive, not helped by how invisible the problem seems to be for most people.

Now that that rant is over, and my potential bias for this film is out in the open once again, let’s get into the performances proper for the reality of the situation. Tom Hardy, thankfully, actually takes the time to give both brothers their own presence and identity on screen. As Reggie, his charisma and cool-headedness creates a fantastic straight man, while also depicting his hideous fall from grace at the end of the film and staying in character. As Ronnie, to put it simply, he is pretty much the most awesome thing I’ve seen all year. Seriously, that entire paragraph about my misgivings concerning his sexuality on screen, especially considering how prominent it is within the writing? All of that isn’t nearly enough to detract from just how amazing Hardy is in the role. His air of intimidation on screen, his twisted yet respectable morals and stance of honesty, his manic attitude to his and his brother’s work like someone who grew up obsessed with gangster flicks; this one performance, regardless of what else I have to say about the film, made the entire film for me.

Beyond our high-profile double act, we have Taron Egerton as Ronnie’s boyfriend Teddy, who steals his share of scenes particularly when’s cheering on Ronnie during one of his more impulsive moments, Eccleston does well enough as Read, even if he doesn’t have the best material to work with, and then we have Emily Browning as Frances, effectively our viewpoint character. Now, Emily Browning has a pretty bad track record in terms of filmography: A Series Of Unfortunate Events was average, Sucker Punch was irritating, Sleeping Beauty was boring, The Host was outright infuriating and Pompeii… well, click here for my thoughts on that embarrassing retread. All that in mind, this is already the best film she has been attached to; however, beyond that, it’s also her strongest performance to date as well. Initial credit for pulling off the accent but, as the film progresses and her relationship with Reggie starts to crumble away, the physical and emotional effects of the events around her are quite visible in her performance: More irritable, wasting away, hazed, almost as if she’s sleepwalking through her life but here, unlike almost every other instance of this I’ve seen, it’s intentional and pays off for the most part.

Then we reach the finale, where the film starts to seriously waver. By contrast, this is also where Browning and Hardy as Reggie get their true chance to shine. Now, up to this point, the film has had its fair share of writing problems: The pacing would be off at times, some characters felt like they had a large amount of their scenes cropped out and, even with what we saw of it, not enough screen time was devoted to the specific criminal exploits of the Krays. However, the performances from our cast and mad genius Carter Burwell’s approach to the soundtrack were just that good that it forgave all sins. Then, right near the end, we reach the moment that breaks Franny and Reggie’s relationship for good. Now, while the scene itself leaves a lot to be desired, not the least of which being that it involves a writing trope that just needs to stop without question, the real issue comes from its aftermath. From here on, the pacing just zooms past the audience’s ears as the actions taken by both Frances and Reggie feel way too sudden all things considered. Not to say that such actions aren’t justified, as they both portray their characters’ respective descents well, but it feels like the film is hurrying to get it all over and done with. It doesn’t help that the narration provided by Frances reaches a point of ridiculousness that I thought was reserved for only the most pretentious schlock out there. In the process, it comes dangerously close to negating all the good work she did in portraying the conflict her character was going through and why she took the actions she did.

All in all, this film has been highlighted for Tom Hardy as the two male leads with damn good reason. Even with how rushed the writing and pacing may be at points, Hardy’s performance along with Browning’s surprisingly good turn makes all of it palatable, especially Hardy as Ronnie whom might be my new favourite character in cinema this year. Given the abnormally strong misgivings I had about this film beforehand, the fact that the subject of my worries ended up bolstering the entire production should prove on its own how amazing the role is. It ranks higher than The Book Of Life, as Ronnie alone is a more engaging character than the entire cast of that film; a feat, considering how fun those characters are to begin with. However, even with how cheesy it is, The Martian made for a more fulfilling watch as an overall film and leaves the audience on a far better note.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Movie Review: Crimson Peak (2015)

With the established horror classics of The Amityville Horror, The Shining and Poltergeist, the haunted house sub-genre transformed into one of the foremost horror film premises. True, much like most peoples’ assumptions concerning Halloween and slasher films, haunted house fare existed long before these three films, but this was the period where it truly entered the Hollywood zeitgeist. Just look at the most prominent horror film series of today with Paranormal Activity which, while starting to drift in quality, also makes for one of the better examples of doing the premise right since the inception of the idea. From the old-school revivalism of James Wan to the annoying failure at parody of Michael Tiddes, it’s quite clear that this isn’t going to go out of fashion any time soon… even if the idea itself is beginning to grow stale. Well, here comes Gothic horror devotee Guillermo Del Toro to give his own take on the idea; with any luck, this will fare better than last time he attempted this with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. This is Crimson Peak.

The plot: Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a writer with a preference for ghost stories, has been able to see the dead ever since she was a little girl. When dashing aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives, sparks begin to fly and they are eventually wed with him bringing her to his stately manor nicknamed ‘Crimson Peak’. This is the same place that Edith’s mother has been warning her about for most of her life. As things begin to go bump in the night and Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) continues to act cold towards Edith, she begins to think that she might not be safe within those walls after all.

With as much praise as I’ve given Del Toro’s body of work, I’ve always felt that the man is at his best when he’s indulging in his poppier side like with Pacific Rim and his comic book adaptations. He lets his surprisingly fun dialogue shine through and his ability to create memorable characters gets put to better use. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking anything away from The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth; I am not so blind as to ignore the clear effort that went into those works. I just bring this up to present my own bias going into this, since I believe in transparency in critical opinion. That, and the casting of Hiddleston and Wasikowska made me think that this was going to be another vampire film much like Only Lovers Left Alive. That said, Del Toro’s definite affinity for all things dark and gloomy probably serves him best here than it ever has before, as he makes the titular character worthy of being labelled as such. Every crack in the foundation, every preternatural creak heard as the eastern winds pass through, every insect that hugs the walls as a means for Guillermo to fulfil his insectoid fetish quota; they all give atmosphere and a form of character to the house. Trust me, I say this with far more sincerity than the majority of dodgy real estate agents who regularly do so.

What makes this even better is that the reasons why it has this atmosphere is kept on this side of the realms of reality… which actually makes things even creepier. The thought of all that liquid clay seeping through the walls and turning the snow blood-red, the winds that make the house sound like it’s breathing; this is yet another case of realism creating greater scares. This is greatly helped by the effects work, which follows Del Toro’s intuition concerning the ratio of practical/computer-generated effects and when to use them. The violence, while incredibly gory in places, is well done with some of the most realistic-looking seeping wounds I’ve seen in a film in a long while, something bolstered by the neat idea to make it as vivid a red as found in most old-school Hammer Horror productions; among other things, like most great directors, Del Toro is a classics nerd. The ghosts that appear frequently throughout the film, all expertly portrayed by regular Guillermo collaborator Doug Jones, shift around on camera like The Faun’s more fleshy cousins and makes for one of the more interesting visual ideas concerning ghosts, creating an effect that looks like their skin has rotted away and left all the red muscle sinew behind. Gruesome done right.

The film, admittedly, starts out on a rough footing. The meet-cute between Edith and Thomas is riddled with some unnatural romantic clich├ęs, like the father trying to bribe the love interest to stay away from his daughter and Thomas’ advances start to enter the realm of creepy stalker which, given the jokes that are still being made about Edward Cullen, kept making me think back to vampires. However, once they reach the titular locale, the film begins to improve at breakneck speeds… and also seems to defy its own genre classifications. Now, as someone who regularly goes on about expectations when going into a film, I freely admit that superficial labels attached to films ultimately end up doing more harm than good. This is why I bring up umbrage with the two main labels that are attached to this film, and while I will try and keep things minimal here’s a *SPOILER* tag just in case. As a ‘ghost story’, the film seems to refute that on its own with the words of its own female lead: “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a love story that just happens to have ghosts in it.” Basically, for anyone who has seen The Devil’s Backbone (which I honestly hope is most of you), you’ll be familiar with how Del Toro and company treat ghost stories. As for the romantic side of things, it’s a little disappointing because of how straight the relationship between Edith and Thomas is played, but it helps that the film at least seems self-aware about how unhealthy it is for both of them. However, what really makes this film is another romantic connection that I won’t spoil here, but it ends up weirdly paying off in terms of delivering a true romance story for the production. It may be a little obvious what direction it will take, but points on the execution and effect all the same.

The cast list is surprisingly small, especially for a rather high-profile production such as this, but who we get are very good for the most part. Wasikowska, who has never really impressed too much save for the aforementioned Only Lovers Left Alive, does a good job as the assertive and strong Edith; Tom Hiddleston, in a role/performance destined to make the dreams of Hiddlestoners everywhere, takes a more morally ambiguous role than his work in the MCU and creates a rather charming and kind of sexy aristocrat; Chastain is rather unnerving from the offset and only gets worse as the film progresses, helped by some choice characterization; and Charlie Hunnam and Burn Gorman, both carryovers from Pacific Rim, honestly carry about the same amount of impact to the film as each other, which kind of sucks considering the latter was brought on as a cameo appearance. They’re still okay in their roles, just that they pale in comparison to our main three.

All in all, this is probably the best haunted house movie of the last several years, thanks to the locale, its concrete-thick atmosphere and the surprisingly compelling mystery that it presents. This is all bolstered by a great cast, primarily Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain who form a great triple act that tie the production together and create a breath of clay-infused air that horror films of late sincerely needed. Guillermo Del Toro got a chance to let out his ever-prevalent Gothic influence at full force and what we get is easily among the better of his more artistic efforts. It’s better than Irrational Man, which was mostly good for its script whereas this has a lot more going for it overall. However, out of respect for a film involved in several things that I hold very dear (or, in layman’s terms, for the most subjective reasons possible), Top Five ranks just above this.