Movie Review #42 / 250 : ‘PEEPING TOM’

I don’t normally do this, but, Spoilers.  Seriously.  There was sod all to talk about here unless I spoil a lot of it.  A good sign, I find.

Evening, WordPress.  Remember me?  I’m not sure I do.  I digress.  Let’s just crack on with talking about films, eh?

‘Peeping Tom’ is widely revered as a killer thriller tour de force.  It’s been in the cinema mill for absolutely donkey’s years, and from what I understand, it was one of the very first to push a cold-blooded psychopath to the forefront, to almost protagonist status.  It also got banned, cut, slashed, what-have-you, in reverence of the sheer gratuituous horror it purveys.

So, this got me thinking.  A film that’s maintained notoriety for well over fifty years has to still carry some sort of shock factor these days, doesn’t it?  I mean – Psycho still gets some people.  Christopher Lee’s fanged menace still sends chills. Peeping Tom is a film that I first heard about years back, and have been so mesmerised by the almost hushed chatter about its infamy that I’ve choked back several chances to watch it.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been away all this time – maybe I’ve been stunned by either its majesty, or by its brain-freezing horror.

Sadly, it’s neither.  Before I fly into my opinions (as I am wont to do, dear reader), let’s have a look at the plot.  Mark Lewis (Carl Bohm) is a bit of a weirdo.  A repressed, reclusive chap, he’s a jobbing cameraman for his local film studio, while taking bawdy shots of willing lasses for paying pervs.  Only thing is, Mark’s camera isn’t just his work tool.  He’s obsessively attached to it.  Disturbing accounts from his childhood unveil how he has a rather unsavoury habit.  That is, he gets his jollies from filming women, killing them, and capturing their final moments of terror on celluloid.  He then catalogues it all in his gloriously over-the-top filming library in his penthouse flat.  The film surrounds an unwitting new friend, his ground-floor neighbour Helen (Anna Massey), being sucked into his previously private world, and her incredibly slow realisation that the bloke she’s showing interest in is a bit of a psycho.

It’s a great concept.  There’s some brilliant story touches throughout that help establish Mark as a troubled man, one with a bit too much investment in his whirring little moviebox, and of course, in his thrill of knifing women in the neck while recording the moment to eat popcorn over (euphemism).  It’s a classic slasher story, only this one is vaguely different in that it foregrounds the killer as a protagonist.  Most of this genre sees an unwitting innocent or future victim pushed to the front of the story, with the killer acting as a forever shadowy menace, antagonising behind the scenes.  For its time, this is daring.  Absolutely so.  It’s most definitely creepy, and to have a story stitched so tightly into its character’s frankly mental childhood is a move unseen.  Sadly,. it doesn’t hold up against absolutely monstrous pieces of cinema such as Saw, but then, sadly again, that’s going to be expected.  Very much like I’d explained in my review of the original Ladykillers, concepts of humour and horror change.  They evolve, and stuff dates.  Sometimes terribly.  Often terribly, in fact.

Peeping Tom does actually date quite badly.  The performances aren’t amazing, and the characters are beyond paper-thin (excluding Mark).  While I’m taking into account time’s hideous weathering effect upon cinema, however, there is one element in this picture that I simply cannot escape scrutiny, nor childish derision.  If you’ve seen Peeping Tom, you know where I’m going, and you may skip to the end if you wish.  Mark is meant to be British.  He has a distinctive and inexplicably German accent.  Granted, his actor is German, so that’s a given, but – there is absolutely no piece of dialogue, nor story footnote, that alludes to why Mark should be German.  His Dad was British, we assume his mother was.  He was brought up and has lived in Britain all of his life.  Why does he have a German accent?!  Don’t get me wrong – Bohm plays his part better than anyone else in the picture – but it’s jarring.  It’s like if Norman Bates in Psycho had a French accent despite a blatant American upbringing and heritage.  It’s a really weird touch that I can’t un-notice.

Despite that last point, it doesn’t really ruin things.  But I was pretty underwhelmed.  I think, taking into account the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and my expectation given its holy reverence, seeing Peeping Tom as being anything other than disappointing from the off was perhaps a massive given.  A shame, really.  It’s an absolute milestone of cinema.  And it’s pretty damn creepy.  But, here’s the thing – you won’t care.

BEST BIT : Mark unveiling his grand scheme to Helen in the last two minutes of the film.  Superb last-minute unveiling, it has to be said.

WORST BIT : Mark’s accent.  Or the awkward sequence where that bloke goes in to the newsagent’s to buy porn.  You know, the one that lasts about twenty minutes.  Still.  Has to be the accent.

RATING : 4 / 10.

UP NEXT : ‘GROSSE POINTE BLANK’.  God, I hate Minnie Driver.  But John Cusack is always worth watching.  This could be messy.  Good to be back, folks… here’s hoping I can stick with it!

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Movie Review #41 / 250 : ‘ATTACK THE BLOCK’

Remember how I’d said Videodrome was completely off the wall in both its concept and its execution? Remember how I pretty much labelled it as the most insane screenplay I’ve ever come across? Of course you do. It was only yesterday. No offence to any of you that may or may not be goldfish, obviously.

Attack The Block is probably one of the most original films I’ve seen so far. While I’ve misled you into thinking it’s confusing, it’s far from that – but it is cheerfully mental. The movie focuses around a gang of British teenagers against the gritty urban backdrop of an inner-city tower block, roaming the streets in a pack, generally causing mayhem and chaos. So it’s a social study, right? It’s going to be a no-holds-barred depiction of urban Britain in the 10s, right?

It looks that way, at least until the gang’s mugging of a young nurse is interrupted by the explosive crash landing of a furry white alien with no eyes and lots of teeth.

Bear with me.

Rather than chaos breaking out, however, the gang hunts down and kills the creature without a second breath, and keeps the corpse as a trophy, celebrating the victory as if they’ve just won a game of FIFA. However, it’s not over. As the gang retires into the solace of their weed-growing neighbour atop the tower block, scores more bigger creatures fall from the sky, and seemingly start to hunt down the killers of their original fallen. What snowballs from here is a totally unexpected change in style and pace, as the characters in the block begin to fight for their lives in a scenario not entirely dissimilar to your archetypal zombie flick. This is an urban drama that crashes head-on with a sci-fi twist, and it works brilliantly well.

There’s an absolute bumload of stuff to talk about with Block. It’s a film that’s taken me by surprise in all honesty – and I’ll run through a handful of what I reckon are the more important points. Firstly, what I was genuinely scared of was that I’d be unable to connect to the main characters. As any law-abiding person living in Britain and over a certain age would tell you, characters like Moses’ gang are all too real (and some are nowhere near as sympathetic). Having characters initially portrayed as willing villains of polite society evolve into the protagonists of the movie (and, furthermore, the good guys) is a concept that doesn’t sound amazing on paper.

And yet, it excels on screen. As these characters are so real and believable, their skirmish against the aliens becomes far more enjoyable than if we were given a cookie-cutter set of character types (tough guy, smart guy, sarcastic guy etc), I think I seriously would’ve enjoyed the movie a lot less. The reactions, the decisions and the rationale of these characters, while they’re all flawed in one way or another, feel absolutely natural. It’s this that helps get rid of what could’ve been a heavy coating of sci-fi bumph over the top. But, no. The only information we get about the beasties is the information the characters realise, and of course, what we see. We’re also handed very little awkward character bumph.

That leads me into my favourite scene in the movie, where our perceptions of the gang are first pulled into check – as the kids decide to face the alien onslaught head-on, they choose to storm down the tower block, one by one splitting away to go into their own homes to retrieve weapons. It’s here that we get given brief, but telling snapshots of what sorts of lives each if them leads – and they’re all extremely normal, adjusted, and lacking the broken home scenarios we were all (admit it) expecting. Whether this scene was done for laughs or not, it doesn’t matter – it’s a brilliant piece of cinema, and it totally arrests you to the gang’s side for the rest of the film. The leader, Moses, has quite a different story that gets hinted at later on, though it really doesn’t kill your faith in him.

So, yeah – I’n not going to talk much longer on this. The concept is fantastic, the characters are real and deep enough to carry a story, and the sci fi elements are so low-fi that you’ll barely call this much more than a survival picture. While it’s really not everyone’s cup of tea, and one or two of the characters don’t work brilliantly (pretty much everyone bar the central kids, in all honesty, pales in comparison), this is a real gem buried amongst piles of box office dreck. If you want to see it, I wouldn’t advise hesitation, as it’s a real marvel.

PRO: Amazing concept. Brilliant visuals. Characters that grow on you. Good pacing, and as long as it needs to be. Some great little touches that show care has been taken.

CON: Some of the characters are flat. Themes and style are a bit exclusive. Little more than a survival flick wrapped up in a character study.

9/10. So far, this is the only film I would recommend at all cost. A brilliantly low-budget little film that avoided big bucks at the box office, as a debut for director Joe Cornish, it’s something on the stupendous side. Well worth an hour and a half of your life.

Movie Review #40 / 250 : ‘VIDEODROME’

I’ve been lost for words in my reviews previously. Whether that be down to the movie I’ve seen having awestruck me into abject silence, or whether I’ve been dumbfounded by the likes of M Night Shyamalan or Paul Blart, this phenomenon has reared its ugly head before. Only, this time, I think ‘confused’ was what the director was aiming for.

Yep, we’re back to David Cronenberg, who I last looked at in my review of The Fly, which as it turns out, I hugely enjoyed. Videodrome precedes Fly by a few years, but this didn’t deter me – I’m sure all Dave’s films are as enjoyable and as gripping as the last. Right?

Videodrome… God. Erm. Even Writing the synopsis is tricky. Videodrome focuses on the main protagonist, the sleazy Max Renn (James Woods), an executive for a pornography-and-violence TV channel way off into the (obviously dystopian) future. Via an equally sleazy video pirate, Renn comes across a transmission of simulated torture like he’s never seen. He immediately wants hold of this project for his own station – despite being warned from most angles. It transpires that Renn should have heeded warnings while he could, as the transmission not only starts to play with his own perception of reality, but also leads into a much more sinister project beneath the surface.

That’s really as basic as I can dilute it. The first half an hour builds up to a revelation you were expecting from the first few scenes onwards, and from then on… just get incredibly surreal. Like the world in which Renn inhabits, the movie’s narrative, and its reliability, start self-destructing before our eyes. The horrific twists slide in almost effortlessly and without warning or indeed much foreshadowing – and by the final act, the viewer (well, definitely me, in any case) is left at a bit of a loss as to what in the name of all that is holy is going on.

Let’s focus on the positives. The acting, for the most part, is actually pretty natural. There’s very little ham in the characters. That, as you’ll soon discover, is left up to the amazing visceral body horror that genuinely puts other rubbery guts-and-gore scenes out of films like The Thing to shame. The effects here are just as shocking, and as effective, as those that Cronenberg would pick up again for Fly a few years later. The pacing is also marvellously speedy, with little time spent on exposition, or on allowing any one scene in particular to get stale too quickly.

This is all fine. This would all be put to brilliant use if the story, the twists and turns, and revelations, weren’t so confusing, nor haphazard. Videodrome prides itself on being a philosophical work; and it’s unfortunately clear that this self-awareness clouds the enjoyment factor. For anyone paying even close attention, this is a verychard film to follow – but, as a ‘surrealist’ movie, I guess that’s already a given.

While Videodrome is definitely memorable, it’s probable it actually suffers from its advanced pacing – very little about the scary future the movie is based in is given any airing, nor are we given much chance to digest the various lumps of surrealism that fling themselves full on into our faces. It seems to be a movie focused on honing and delivering its message in the way it sees fit, neglecting the needs of the audience somewhat. This is why, despite it being pretty damn impressive in visuals and concepts, I was left pretty underwhelmed.

PRO: Great cast, great visuals and effects.

CON: Actually suffers from lack of exposition and extended sequences. Confusing and twisting narrative. Excludes the audience.

5/10. Not terrible. Not in the slightest. But, despite it having been critically lauded, it’s perhaps a little too thick on the surreal to be transferable to a general audience. But then, it’s not for a general audience. It feels like a blockbuster movie that decides it’s an arthouse film halfway through. How am I going to cope with Naked Lunch?!

MOVIE REVIEW #39 / 250 : STAR WARS : RETURN OF THE JEDI

Well, strike me silly.  You wait two weeks for one review, and two come at once.  What a treat, eh?

Alright, alright.  It’s hardly been long since I last trod into the world of intergalactic Jim Henson puppets, but having been left on such a low note from my last review, I felt I needed to get myself a guaranteed kick from somewhere familiar.  I’d rated New Hope as 8, and Empire as 9.  Things can only get better, right?

So, basically, things pick up in Jedi where Empire left off, as you’d hope, really.  The main gang set off to get Han Solo out of carbonite and out of intergalactic crook Jabba the Hutt’s swinging underground lair, and this naturally leads to scenes of chaos, fighting, more chaos, more fighting and talk of the force.  Only this time, it’s final.  The stakes are higher as the dreaded (and more to the point, informed) evil empire begin building their second Death Star, and up the ante on both annihilating the rebellion, and naturally Vader still has unfinished business in wrangling his son Luke to the Dark Side.  This time around, there’s ewoks, too.  Annoying doesn’t cover it.  But, never mind.

It’s kinda sad to draw this saga to a close (before you say it, no.  Check the list.  NO.  Forgot to include them here, but, no.  NO.), but Jedi pulls everything to a suitably dramatic and, of course, explosive close.  There’s even more reliance here upon lengthy action sequences (can’t say too much of this stuff is my kind of thing, but hey, think about what we’re dealing with) than there is in the two preceding films, and it’s definitely more interesting to look at.  What Empire was missing was the weird legion of beasties that clogged up the Mos Eisley cantina in New Hope – fans of rubbery weirdos will be well at home in Jabba’s palace, and the new monsters that are introduced here are fantastic.  Not much gets added to the story nor the saga as a whole other than a climax, though – Jedi is the archetypal closing chapter, so it’s probably a bit late to be wading in with much more on the story front.

What sets this finale apart from any other, though, is that it’s not rushed.  Oh, no.  Not by halves.  The story may be thin, but every last drop is milked – everything that can blow up, does.  It’s not the shaggy dog story of Empire, and nor is it the complete story of New Hope – it’s an all-singing, all-dancing bookend, basically.  I still definitely appreciate Empire more for its contribution to the story and for its character development – Jedi takes this development and, admittedly, doesn’t do much with it – but ensures that there’s still a few tricks up the old plot sleeve.  There’s a few unexpected character twists along the way that bring everything to a really satisfying conclusion.

Ewoks are annoying.

So, yeah.  I really don’t have much left to say about Star Wars.  It’s been a long time coming for me to finally sit down and appreciate all three of the original films (even though the version of Jedi I’ve just watched had HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN show up as a hologram for ten seconds), but I’m really glad I have.  Like I’d said initially when I first sat down to watch New Hope all those weeks ago, I don’t think I’ll become one of those people that dresses up as Boba Fett and shells out £600 to go geek it up with hundreds of people that have analysed how many trees appear in the woodland chase sequence in Jedi… not yet, anyway.

PRO : Visually amazing, brilliant visual pace and variety, great acting, awesome score.

CON : Action sequences milked to high heaven.  Little plot on top of Empire.  Ewoks.

7/10.  I like to think the first two were better, but it’s a great finish.  The end of an era.  I’ve watched the original trilogy, and the end of what has probably been the dullest set of reviews on the whole of the blog.  Right then.  Now what?…

Movie Review #35 / 250 : ‘THE PRESTIGE’

Erm.  Abra… cadabra?  I know, I know.  I’ll get me coat.

Christopher Nolan.  If you recognise the name, he’s very quickly become quite the cult director in the past ten years, having helmed the Batman reboot Batman Begins and its sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (out July as far as I remember), and everybody’s favourite kaleidoscopic-dream-hopping-adventure Inception (it’s on the list).  He also directed The Prestige, which is full of his trademark confuddling plot twists and closed-book characters (and Michael Caine).

Nolan films aren’t everybody’s cup of tea.  They require a lot of attention, and, surprisingly, quite a bit of coherence.  If you miss one or two slight touches or turns in the entire movie, you’ve blown your chance of appreciating it to its fullest.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The Batman reboots have been lavish and multi-layered as a result, and Inception was in IMDB’s top 5 movies ever for an extended period.  But, digressing.

The Prestige is essentially the continued one-upmanship between two rival magicians (or illusionists, though ‘real magic’ as opposed to ‘illusion’ is discussed several times here – whether you like it or not), played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.  It all takes place in Victorian England, where the hats are lofty, and the accents are either plummy or missing their ‘H’s.  The dominoes start to fall when Jackman’s wife is killed in a trick where it’s unclear if Bale was responsible – but consumed by grief, Jackman chooses to make it his life’s work to outdo Bale, while Bale similarly gives as much as he receives.

That’s pretty much your plot.  There’s not much to it other than that, and that’s probably a good thing.  There is an intense amount of detail added into the tricks, the scheming and both the politics and ‘religion’ of what it means to be a practicing magician that fill up the plot, and Nolan’s trademark twisting and turning about all over the place work really well here.  Sometimes, such depth and such convolution comes off as smug or conceited – and in some places, Prestige is very conceited – but as we’re dealing with tricksters, we as the audience surely don’t mind being tricked ourselves.  Do we?  I didn’t.

This is a very angry, brooding film with very little in the way of joy for its characters, but I guess that’s not really the point here.  It’s all about the spectacle, watching the two magicians play off against each other, and wondering who will win right through to the climax.  As a movie, it’s a brilliant mental spectacle, and there’s an absolute bumload of clever surprises.  None so grand as the finale, where, if you didn’t see it coming from the clues (and they’re there, believe me – right from the beginning), you’ll either find it maddening or marvellous.

What bothers me most about Prestige is not the length, nor the persistent gloom – they’re both fine and necessary – it’s who we’re meant to be rooting for.  Even after at the film’s end, I was still behind Jackman’s increasingly obsessed character, despite the film flip-flopping between him and Bale for role of heroic protagonist all the way through.  Maybe, given both their stories (which I’m not spoiling, though this is making this particular entry a wee bit sparse), we have to take them on equal merit.  They’re both as cunning and as sleazy as each other.  Plus, I plain don’t like Christian Bale.  I don’t know why.  I think it’s the whole saga he had with that cameraman on the set of Terminator Salvation years back.  Or, it could be that I find him immensely over-rated.  I unwisely chose to publicly claim George Clooney and his nipples to be a better Batman (something I’ve since detracted for the sake of my own teeth).

For a film so amazingly over-the-top, and so desperately, gloomily serious all of the way through, I’m finding it hard to say much else.  I think it’s a good one to see once.  If you like twists and turns, it’s one to watch.  If you like Nolan’s other stuff, it’s one to watch.  If you like going away from a film content with what you’ve seen, feeling warm and fuzzy and without any further questions, avoid it.  I don’t think I’ll watch it again, purely because I know its secrets (how ironic!).

PROS : Good acting, even for Bale.  Great twists and moments of surprise.  Great visuals.  David Bowie suits a moustache.

CONS : If you lose concentration for ten seconds, you’ve lost the whole movie.  Desperately intense and poetic.  Not much joy.

OVERALL : 7/10.  Erm, see above.  I needed to cool my brain down afterwards.  How will I cope with Inception?  Find out in July.  I’m taking a seven-month break from Nolan.  I need it.

Movie Review #34 / 250 : ‘SHALLOW GRAVE’

Ok, a hypothetical question for you, if you will. Say you’re letting out a room to a shifty lodger. A few days into the tenancy, and he’s dead – leaving behind some Class A medication and a briefcase chock full of cash. Do you, A) Inform the police, and leave the money alone, B), inform the police, and pocket the money, or C), hack off the corpse’s hands and feet, remove any sign of identification (including disfigurement, where necessary), bury it in the back of beyond, and then pocket the cash?

Of course, dear reader, you would pick A). As any truly sane and law-fearing denizen would. Option C, however, is the choice of three flatmates who find their new housemate a stiff, and with a bumload of capital in a box. Shallow Grave is a British, character-driven story that focuses on the psychological journeying of the trio (Kerry Fox, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Ecclestone) as they each come to terms with their dark deed, and of course, as they struggle to maintain innocence in what becomes fairly grim psychological slapstick.

It’s a great idea for a plot, isn’t it? There’s a whole host of avenues for tension to scale up here, and mostly, it succeeds. Eccleston, as meek accountant David, shines best as he struggles to survive mentally after disposing of the lodger (Keith Allen, no less), and the focus switches to him as the remaining duo struggle to keep him above water, as it were. Things really pick up in the last third as the jig starts to look as if it’s up, and by the end, it’s every flatmate for themselves.

That said, good god, there’s a lot of problems. For a character-driven film, you need rounded, deep, and attractive personalities – characters you can invest in, if you like. Shallow Grave struggles with this. A lot. The first fifteen minutes of the film focus on the trio looking for a new lodger, and while the sequences try to be quirky and poetic, they only end up making the heroes (if you like) appear smug and hierarchical. It’s kind of the same problems Scott Pilgrim has. While I guess we’re not supposed to fully like or understand these people, closing them off to such an extent early on, and giving barely any backstory or development (beyond dancing into the land of the loopy) later on, the suspense and tension is lost massively – as we’re not connected to the characters. In short, I didn’t care about these people. I wanted them to get caught, or killed, or both. I’m not sure that was director Danny Boyle’s point. The acting is fine – far above it, main and supporting – but the characters are hard to connect to, and thus much of the film’s intentions are sadly lost.

There’s quite a few throwaway moments here and there too which aren’t particularly monopolised upon – Ken Stott’s potentially monstrous policeman would’ve been nice to see more of – and a relationship that begins between two of the characters late on seems shoehorned and distracting. But, getting away from the meat of it – I think this needs at least another half an hour, maybe fifteen minutes of runtime – simply to let the characters breathe, and maybe to give a few of the side plots a bit more focus. Otherwise, nice plot, great acting, but fairly hollow in its execution.

PROS: Good ideas. Good tension in places. Good acting.

CONS: Poor characterisation. Too short(!). Intensely smug in places.

OVERALL : 5/10
Bit disappointed with this, to be honest. I can see why it’s called a ‘cult classic’, but it’s hardly a ‘classic’ in its own right. Unlike Network, though, there’s enough here to justify the ‘cult’ part.