Monday, April 14, 2014

STAGE FRIGHT




Proudly being marketed as a cross between “Glee” and “Scream”, “Stage Fright” is the (surprisingly) much hyped feature debut from director Jerome Sable.  Similar to this film, Sable’s short film “The Legend Of Beaver Dam” is a hybrid of the horror and musical genres and is loved by all that have seen it.  “Beaver Dam” was staged around a campfire ghost story that somehow awakens an evil spirit that terrifies the campers.  Having great success with the short film, it is perhaps no surprise that Sable has chosen another musical / horror film for his debut, this time a riff on 80’s slasher films.  Did Sable succeed in proving that lightning can indeed strike twice?

“Stage Fright” begins ten years prior to when the bulk of the film takes place, as we are witness to Kylie Swanson, mother of twins Camilla and Buddy, being brutally murdered just as she was on the brink of stardom.  Kylie is killed by a masked bandit; the same mask which happens to be worn by her co-star in the play she is acting in, “The Haunting Of The Opera”.  Leaving her kids orphaned, Roger McCall (the theatre’s artistic director and producer) takes up the position of guardian and raises and brings up Kylie’s children.  Cut to ten years later and McCall’s career is basically dead in the water with him now running a musical theatre camp where the twins work as both cook and cleaner.  McCall sees one final chance to revive his former glory by producing a new version of “The Haunting Of The Opera” (a play that has not been performed since the brutal murder) and impressing an important theatre critic.  Casting of the project begins immediately and surprisingly Camilla shows an interest in reprising the role that would have made her mother famous.  Against McCall’s better wishes, he agrees to let Camilla audition, who succeeds in being one of two actresses groomed for the main role.  However, while the girls compete with each other to get the coveted opening night performance, a much more serious issue is affecting the camp.  A serial killer who despises musical theatre is offing camp members at an alarming rate, but with all his hopes and dreams (not to mention money too) attached to this production, McCall is reticent to call the whole thing off.  However, by the time opening night comes around, will anyone be left to perform in the play?

The combination of comedy, horror and music must be a hard thing to get right and yet surprisingly there are a number of great examples of it coming together perfectly.  Films such as “Phantom Of The Paradise”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Repo! The Genetic Opera” are all examples of the horror musical working at the peak of its powers.  Sadly, “Stage Fright” is an example of the opposite.  The problem with the film is that Sable has failed to get the balance right between the horror and musical elements.  It is much more successful with the musical elements, with the scenes of horror falling very flat.  They are very bloody and I appreciate that the majority of the gore effects were practical, but there was no set up or build up for each gore gag.  With little or no suspense, it feels as if people just suddenly die.  Also there is a surprising number of off-screen killings where we only see the aftermath of the mayhem, which is a little disappointing.

Another big issue I had with “Stage Fright” was the decision by Sable to make the killer’s identity a mystery because it is anything but.  It is very easy to work out just who the killer is because it can really only be one person.  Once the mask is removed and we see who it is, it is like “Well, duh”.  Even the design of the “metal killer” has been handled poorly, with the dark variation of the kabuki mask looking rather ridiculous, and those lame songs that he randomly belts out………do not get me started.

As I mentioned though, as a musical “Stage Fright” is much more successful with a number of the songs (particularly early on) being very catchy and filled with some quite clever lyrics; in fact the opening half an hour of “Stage Fright” is when the film is at its most enjoyable, even though most of its comedy falls embarrassingly flat.  The film’s hyper-colourful style also seems most appropriate during these early scenes too.

In terms of acting, no one really impresses although I enjoyed seeing Minnie Driver on-screen again (what did happen to her career?), even though it was far too short, and I thought Meat Loaf did his best with his underwritten role (and at least he impressed lyrically).  In fact that is a problem with all of the characters; there is nothing to any of them and they are totally interchangeable, making it hard for us, the audience, to care for them and for an actor to inject any personality or emotional honesty in their roles.  The person who struggles the most though is poor Allie MacDonald who plays our lead Camilla.  She is just terrible, giving a flat and lifeless performance.  Even musically she sounds shocking, making it hard to believe she would ever legitimately get the type of role she does here.

So did I like anything about “Stage Fright”?  Sadly, the answer is not much, although I thought the casting couch antics of the director and his two stars were slightly amusing.  The other thing I liked was the film’s amazing retro poster that captures the 80’s spirit perfectly; something the film was unable to achieve.  Also while I initially liked the trailer for “Stage Fright”, after seeing the movie now, I can say it gives away too much of the film leaving no surprises.

Overall, I wanted to like “Stage Fright” so badly, but in the end I just couldn’t.  The film suffers due to a lack of balance between the horror and musical scenes and the mystery of who the killer is, is anything but.  Sadly my recommendation in regards to “Stage Fright” is don’t believe the hype; there is nothing special to see here.


1.5 Stars.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET




I have a soft spot in my heart for director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his films.  Due to the fact that I am a massive fan of his 1994 film “The City Of Lost Children”, I actually named my first daughter after the main character in that film; Miette.  However, recently his films just haven’t grabbed me like they once did.  I am first to admit that I miss his darker style that he shared with co-director Marc Caro in the early films they made together, but even though his newer films are more light-hearted I always look forward to the latest work from Jeunet.  “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is just that, and judging from the promotional material for the film, it appears that this is yet another film of whimsy and charm from this talented Frenchman.

T.S. Spivet is a young ten year old boy who lives on a ranch with his mother, father and teenage sister in Montana.  He is a bright and intellectual boy with knowledge well beyond his young years, in fact his intelligence eclipses most of the adults he is in contact with.  He is a big fan of science and in his quest for scientistic discovery, he designs an invention that can illustrate the phenomenon known as “perpetual motion”.  His design ends up winning a prodigious award, where T.S has to collect his prize in Washington D.C in person.  Due to the fact he is so young in age, he is weary of revealing his true age and identity, in case it deems him ineligible to accept his prize.  The fact that he is also the black sheep of his family, he knows that no-one will understand the significance of such a prize, and as such T.S. decides to take the journey from Montana to Washington D.C by himself.  We follow the boy on his journey as he leaves his house in secret and attempts to make it to the nation’s capital.  However, if he ends up succeeding, he then has to work out how to explain how a ten year old boy came up with such an invention.

This is a strange movie; it is technically a very well made film, but from an emotional standpoint, the film is ultimately benign.  I really wanted to love this film, but I just didn’t feel anything for the characters in the film at all.  As is the norm for a Jeunet film, “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is a stunning looking film with glorious visuals and an extreme use of colour.  Jeunet’s choice to use the colours of yellow, green and particularly red, is extremely bold and it works to great effect.  The film is very stylized because of these colours but because of this, never comes across as reality.  There were numerous times in the film that Jeunet’s camera moves reminded me of films from his past, particularly “Amelie”, but sadly this film had none of that film’s charm.

The problem with “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is that the film never soars.  It is consistently one paced, which is never a good thing.  You always feel it is building to a grander moment and yet, it never does.  Also the whole tone of the film seems considerably off.  Although my synopsis above does not reveal as such, T.S used to have a twin brother, Layton, who sadly a year prior lost his life to an accidental gunshot wound.  Although Layton is barely in the film, the weight of his passing is felt throughout and is heavy on T.S’s shoulders who feels he is to blame for his brother’s death.  So we have a story filled with melancholy that has strangely been presented via the use of whimsy, and as such the two styles clash and actually cancel each other out.  Whilst I understand that the light and fun tone is needed to best present T.S’s boundless imagination, and this is where Jeunet shines his brightest, but it is the darker undercurrent that ends up getting neglected and thus the movie loses its heart.

When T.S finally does make it to Washington, the story takes a sudden and abrupt turn as T.S is sudden exploited by the adults around him for their own gain.  It just seems to come out of nowhere and is never convincing in its portrayal.  It is also never really explained what the adults want out of the boy and why they are exploiting him so.  Especially in a world like today, a scientific discovery is not something that would get the attention it deserves, so it seems strange that they treat the boy as they do.  Also the scene that takes place at the talk show, is cringe inducing, even though it does include the film’s best and most real emotional exchange between T.S and his mother.  While no doubt condemning these types of talk show hosts that we are inundating with these days, it is done in such an obvious and shallow way, with the talk show host being a total caricature.

In terms of acting, everyone is competent but that is it.  No one stands out with the exception of Judy Davis and sadly it is for the negative.  She is terrible in her role, and so over the top with she has a penchant of doing from time to time, and again her character is a total caricature, never once showing an honest emotion.  She is also at the centre of the film’s worst and most baffling moment when she fires an expletive towards the young boy she is in charge of.  It is such an odd moment that has no justification for being in the film.  In fact, I was stunned when it happened and couldn’t believe I had heard what I had heard.

For a road movie to succeed, the characters that our main character meets up with on his journey have to be interesting, and yet again, they are not here.  While it does give Jeunet the chance to cast his regular muse, Dominique Pinon, in the role of a drifter named “Two Clouds”, his scene with T.S just falls flat like most of the film.

Overall, while I thought the film looked amazing and had the imagination that only Jean-Pierre Jeunet could supply, ultimately “The Young And Prodigious T.S.Spivet” falls emotionally flat.  It is a film that has been expertly made but is ultimately anaemic in a dramatic sense and a tone that is all wrong for its melancholic story.  Its biggest crime is that the film should have been so touching and even heartbreaking but ends up meaning very little.  Sadly, “The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is a major disappointment.


3 Stars.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL




Around twenty years ago (has it really been that long?), I attended a screening at the legendary Valhalla Cinema (R.I.P) in Melbourne, where I was witness to the greatest double feature of action filmmaking I had ever seen.  The two films were John Woo’s “Hardboiled” and Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master II” and both represented the action peak of their respective genres.  In all that time since, no other film has come close to replicating the awe and excitement I got that night while watching those classic Hong Kong films……until today.  Gareth Evan’s sequel to his blockbuster hit “The Raid” may be the best action film I have seen on the big screen since that memorable night over two decades ago.


The story picks up immediately after the finale of the original film, with Rama meeting up with a contemporary he trusts, who convinces the rookie to go undercover in a Jakarta jail in an attempt to infiltrate one of the two big gangs that run the city, and then weed out all of the corrupt cops that are on their payroll.  Rama’s goal is to befriend Ucok, who is the son of gang boss Bangun, and then be invited to join the gang once released from prison, which he is successful at doing.  However, Rama’s new “friend” is an impatient one, and in an attempt to move up the food chain quicker, Ucok starts a gang war between his father’s gang (without Bangun’s approval) and their Japanese rivals with the plan that he and his partner on the side, Bejo, can then secure whatever territory is available after the war.  Suffice to say, poor old Rama gets caught in the middle of the gang war with the added pressure of trying to keep his true identity a mystery from everyone.


It has now become very clear that Gareth Evans is the new master of action films.  In fact he is the only director going around these days that seems to have a clear understanding on how to shoot action that is both believably fierce and easy to follow for the audience.  Not only that, but he also has a keen eye on how to edit these scenes too.  While he showed promise with his 2009 film “Merantau”, he expanded his ability ten-fold when it came to his follow up, “The Raid”.  The original film absolutely blew my mind with its ingenious and brutal fight scenes, and amazingly Evans has been able to top his phenomenal work with “The Raid 2”.  Although the two films are completely different in style, Evans has been able to keep the intensity from the original film and implant it into the sequel.  As everyone knows by now, “The Raid” was set entirely in an apartment building which gave the film a claustrophobic feeling and an energy that was combined with a breakneck pace.  With “The Raid 2” Evans has opened up his world considerably exposing a universe that was only hinted at in the original film.  We are introduced to a large number of characters and at times it can get confusing just who everyone is and where their loyalties lie.  In fact, my one negative of the film is that it is overly complex for a plot that doesn’t demand it.  I suppose it is true to state that while Evans is an expert at creating and filming action, his handle of plot and narrative is not yet at the same level.


One thing that Evans does have a handle of is creating style, which is something “The Raid 2”has a plethora of.  Just his choice of framing, when to move the camera, how he moves the camera and things like when to use slow motion, is so impressive.  Even though the films they make are not similar in the slightest, I was constantly reminded of golden age Dario Argento films whilst watching “The Raid 2”.  Truthfully, I am not sure why that was but I am assuming that it had to do with Evan’s attention to detail with certain objects and the film’s operatic visual style.  As I alluded to above, Evans does a sublime job with the editing of the film too.  It is all so seemless, particularly with the action, that every punch, kick, elbow and slash is felt to its maximum effect.  What I love about the action in these two films is that they are always of a high intensity due to the fact that the characters are in a kill or be killed scenario, and because of this the action is also extremely brutal and bloody.  The use of a knife in “The Raid” films is always deadly, but that is true of all weapons here.  Speaking of weapons, Evans has created two memorable characters in the film that go by the monikers of “Baseball Bat Guy” and “Hammer Girl”, and no points for guessing what their weapons of choice are.  They are a brother/sister team of assassins, who although have limited screen time, their presence when on screen is amazing and you cannot wait until Rama is finally forced to face them both.


Let’s talk about the action scenes in a little more depth, shall we?  Thanks to the two and a half hour running time of “The Raid 2” it gives plenty of time to fill the film with a large number of amazing action scenes without making it feel too much and making it too repetitive.  While I am not sure how many action scenes there are in total, the number is at least in double digits, with the best one being the amazing duel at the finale set in a kitchen.  As great as the Rama versus Mad Dog fight was in the original film, Evans has bettered it with the final fight here.  It is such an intense and bloody duel that has to be seen to be believed.  Speaking of Mad Dog, YayanRhuhian (who was the actor who played him) shows up again in the sequel, this time playing a hitman named Prakoso.  Again with limited screentime, Evans and his actor are able to create a truly memorable character and it is a moment with this hitman that turns out to be the film’s most heartfelt.  It is a brilliant and surprising scene, as we are compelled to feel so much for this doomed man.  However before this, Rhuhian is able to show off his amazing skills in a number of fight scenes.  Another favourite action scene of mine was the thrilling and complex car chase towards the end of the film that sees Rama fighting within a car that is weaving in and out of traffic.  The sheer volume of action in this film is unheard of and it is all spectacularly choreographed by our lead, IkoUwais and the aforementioned YayanRhuhian.  The duo performed the same duties on the original, but their work here is more complex if that is possible.  One scene that did disappoint me a little was the much lauded prison brawl.  Because everyone ends up covered in mud, it becomes difficult to work out who is who, and as such the scene fell a little flat for me.


Overall, “The Raid 2” is an amazing piece of action cinema and is a film I do not want to say too much about in the fear of ruining it.  Suffice to say that it has been expertly put together and directed by Gareth Evans who continues improving with each film he makes.  One thing I failed to mention above is his use of sound that is so intuitively brilliant in that he just knows when to remove the sound or add it at precisely the right moment to much a scene that much better.  The film is style personified and as much as I love the film, I may even love its style more; it is that impressive.  For a two and a half hour film, “The Raid 2” just flew by, leaving me wanting more and to see it again as soon as possible.



4.5 Stars.