Monday, May 23, 2011


It is no secret that I am a huge fan of cinematographers and the work they produce for a film.  Obviously because film is a visual medium, I believe that the image or visuals are the most important aspect to a film.  Even if a film is bad, it can still keep me interested if it is filmed imaginatively.  While there are a huge number of cinematographers that I admire and respect, (like Michael Ballhaus, Robert Richardson, Rodrigo Prieto, Jack Cardiff and Roger Deakins, to name but a few) there is only one that will make me search out a film just to see his work within, and that is the Aussie ex-pat Christopher Doyle.  He is an absolute genius with light and composition, and I first became acquainted with his work during his incredible run of films that he made with director Wong Kar-Wai.  Since then, whenever Doyle adds a new film to his filmography, I do everything in my power to find it and check it out (even if it means suffering through M. Night Shyamalan’s terrible “Lady In The Water”).

“Passion Play” is a recent film that Doyle worked on, which has unfortunately been sitting on the shelf for a while.  After its recent release, it appeared to be obvious as to why as the film was savagely trashed by both critics and movie-goers alike.  However, none of the negative press was going to stop me from seeing the film for the reasons I mentioned above.

“Passion Play” is the directorial debut from writer Mitch Glazer and also happens to be a “passion” project for him, as he has been trying to get this film made now for around twenty years .  In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Nate (played by Mickey Rourke), a washed-up musician who in a previous life actually used to be somebody and was quite famous but ended up losing it all to women and drugs.  He is now a shell of his former self and plays in tiny bands at clubs or at functions for basically loose change, struggling to make ends meet.  While sleeping at his (very) modest apartment, he is awoken by a gangster, beaten, thrown into a car and driven out to the desert where he is to be murdered.  His crime: he had slept with the wife of kingpin gangster, “Happy” Shannon (Bill Murray).  However just as his life is about to be snuffed out, he is saved by a group of passing Indians who kill his supposed assassin. 

From here Nate picks himself up and wonders the desert looking for a way home, when he stumbles upon a carnival.  Figuring that there must be a phone within, he enters the carnival and ends up coming across one of the carnival’s main attractions, “Lily, The Bird Woman” (Megan Fox).  Lily sits in a glass booth that is enveloped in darkness until a customer enters her tent, where she slowly brings up the lights for the stranger to stare at her.  As soon as Nate lays eyes on Lily, it is love at first sight and after the show he goes to her trailer to convince her to leave the carnival with him.  It is while he is at her trailer that he finds out that the “bird-woman” thing is more than just an “act” and that Lily’s wings are in fact very real.  After convincing Lily to leave, Nate finally thinks his luck is changing, and he even thinks of a way to make good with “Happy” and to get his life back.  However things are not that simple and Nate learns quickly that it is always a dangerous thing to make a deal with a gangster, but “Happy” isn’t the only person he has to worry about as Sam (Rhys Ifans), the owner of the carnival, is tracking him down to get his star attraction back.

As I mentioned earlier, this film has been trashed almost unanimously, however I really enjoyed the film.  I must admit right up front that I may have been seduced by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous images into thinking this is a better film than it is, so my opinion may not be reliable in this instance.  An example of Doyle’s exquisite work is the first meeting between Nate and Lily at the carnival.  It is so beautifully shot, and starts on Nate’s “side” of the glass while he is staring at her, and the camera moves slowly until the image is reversed and it is Lily staring at Nate.  It is classic Doyle and it create a moment, and it is easy to see why Nate so easily falls in love with her.

Another thing that I really liked about the film was the quiet atmosphere that it possesses.  It just has a serine quality to it, (almost to the point of whimsy) that creates a kind-of magic realism that made it easy to enter into this world.  It almost feels like a dream in certain parts of the film.  However as the reviews seem to suggest, this is a film with a number of flaws.  Unfortunately the performance from Megan Fox as Lily just isn’t strong enough and you can see her struggling to emote.  Being alongside such great thespians like Murray and Rourke doesn’t help her cause, and while you can see that she is trying, ultimately it just feels so forced, with it never once feeling real or in the moment.  The biggest problem with Fox however, is actually her appearance.  While it is known amongst my friends that I am not a fan of Fox at all, there is no denying that she is naturally a very attractive girl, so it is shocking to see what she has done to her lips in this film.  They appear to be so full of Botox that they do not move (which also doesn’t help in trying to emote) and actually look quite disgusting with their plastic appearance.  Even worse is that they are so distracting that they take you out of the film.

Apparently Mitch Glazer and Mickey Rourke are lifelong friends and it appears that Rourke has taken the role to help out his mate to get the film made.  It is not that his performance is bad, he is too good a performer for that, but it feels more like he is going through the motions rather than this was a project that he fully believed in and wanted to do.  I will say that there are a couple of moments where he is really brave and does excel in, because there are times when Nate’s life mirrors that of Rourke’s own life (particularly the fact of once being a huge star and losing it all), and he embraces these moments and exposes some of his own pain in them.

Originally the role of “Happy” Shannon was to be played by another actor altogether but he ended up leaving the role after a couple of days because he felt that he was inadequate in the role and couldn’t match it on-screen with Rourke (who he apparently idolized).  Another of Glazer’s friends ended up stepping into the role to save the film, and once again Bill Murray is excellent as “Happy” and really seems to be enjoying himself.  However he does have a dreadfully corny moment (which is more a problem of the writing, rather than the performance) when he explains why he has always hated his nickname of “Happy”, only to end the tale by saying this is the first time the name is apt (give me a break!  Where is a bucket?!?!)

The biggest flaw of “Passion Play” though is it’s ending, which just does not work at all, and worse, it makes everything that has gone on before it, false and pointless.  I know that this is a project that meant the world to Mitch Glazer, but it appears that in this instance he was too close to the material.  He really needed to step back from it and notice that the ending didn’t work.  You would think that in the two decades he has been trying to get the film made that somebody would have mentioned just how bad the ending was.  This may be the reason for the terrible reviews, and although I am not going to spoil the ending here I will say that this is the kind of film that does not need a twist ending.

Reading back on this review, it certainly sounds like I disliked the film, which just isn’t the case at all.  I actually had quite a good time with “Passion Play” and have no problem recommending it, but I was not oblivious to its flaws.  The main reason I saw the film was for Christopher Doyle’s cinematography and he does not disappoint (he rarely does), the film is consistently stunning to look at and if for just this reason alone, it is worth checking out.

3 ½ Stars.

Incidentally since this film, Christopher Doyle has gone on to lens four more films, all Asian, the first being the very hard-to-find Chinese film “Showtime”, another Chinese film called “Til Death Do Us Part”, and two strange Japanese films, “Rabbit Horror 3D” and the soft-core “pink” film “Underwater Love” (which thankfully has just gotten U.K distribution, meaning it will eventually be easier to find).  I look forward to them all!

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I must admit that I went into this remake of “Mother’s Day” with very little expectations.  In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why because I have actually enjoyed the majority of director Darren Lynn Bousman’s previous work.  He was behind the best “Saw” film in the series, number 3 (he also did the very good second film, and quite average fourth film too) and was the co-creator of the insane rock-opera “Repo! The Genetic Opera”, but even after these films I was still hesitant.  I think the fact that the film was finished a while ago and had yet to receive any distribution in the U.S (it has played throughout Europe, though), that I took that to signify that the film was a dud.  It may have also been the fact that the original 1980 film that this is based on was made by schlock studio “Troma”, but whatever it was, when I finally did sit down to watch “Mother’s Day” (on mother’s day, no less), I was not expecting much, but the film ended up blowing me away.  I was surprised at just how good and intense the film was (and by how idiotic U.S distributors are for not noticing the film’s worth and releasing it).

The film starts with three brothers on the run after a botched robbery attempt, which also led to one of the brothers receiving a life-threatening gunshot wound.  The brothers are on their way to the house where their mother and sister reside, in the hope that their mother can clean up the mess they have created, by giving them money to flee the country.  After bursting through the front door, it doesn’t take the three boys long to realize that their mother no longer lives at this address.  In fact, a young married couple had recently purchased the place for a bargain a few months earlier, when it was foreclosed.  At the moment of the break-in, the couple (Beth and Daniel) are hosting a party downstairs in their basement, for Daniel’s birthday.  After hearing the commotion above, Daniel goes up to investigate, and is immediately set upon by the criminals.  Soon after Beth heads up to see why Daniel is taking so long, and she too is held by gunpoint by the confused bandits.  They want to know just how many people are downstairs and where the hell is their mother.  After Beth explains the situation and how they came about owning the house, she also mentions that one of their guests is a doctor and may be able to help the injured robber.  The doctor, George, is then dragged upstairs and is told that if he doesn’t save the life of their brother it will cost him his.  Both Daniel and Beth are then sent downstairs with the rest of the guests who are then ordered to lay on their stomachs and to dispose of their phones and wallets.  The atmosphere created by thieves is one of extreme tension and fear.  However, it isn’t long until “Mother” arrives and she is not happy.  She does calm the situation down somewhat, by treating her hostages with more respect than her son’s were doing, but that soon changes when it is realized that the money that her boys had been sending her at this address (and that she obviously hadn’t received) has disappeared, and the current residents swear that they never received any money what-so-ever.  Unsure whether or not she can trust the couple, “Mother” decides to round up all the ATM cards from the wallets, get the pin numbers for them, and then makes Beth accompany one of her sons to the banks to help withdraw all of the money.  She is told that if she tries anything, her husband would pay for it with his life, and vice-versa, if Daniel tries anything, “Mother” would order her son to assassinate Beth.

The relatively short running time of “Mother’s Day” means that the story is told very economically and that there is very little fat to it.  Right from the get-go, we are thrown straight into the situation and the tension and suspense never lets up until the very end.  Bousman does an excellent job setting up this atmosphere and he gets the tone of the film spot on.  The film is much more realistic than most horror films (think along the lines of the recent remake of “Last House On The Left”)  and does not have any “cool” or stylized murder scenes.  When violence is portrayed in “Mother’s Day” it is painful and not just used to show off a cool gore gag.  This is a nasty little horror film, and while there is violence, you wouldn’t call this a gory film, instead it is all about the tone.

I’ve read that some people think that “Mother’s Day” is a step backwards directorially for Bousman, mainly because they believe he has fallen back on themes that he has examined before in the “Saw” films.  While it is true that the theme of humans doing anything, even to their friends, in an attempt to survive, is something he tackled in those “Saw” films, I believe that the way he tells this story is actually a step up for him as a director.  With “Mother’s Day” he appears to have matured somewhat as he lets the story be told through performance and well composed shots that are traditionally edited together, as opposed to the overly hyper-kinetic cuts he used in his “Saw” films, where it is almost impossible to understand exactly what is going on all the time (and I often think is used to hide the deficiencies of a director).  Here he lets the story itself by the star, without imposing a “style” onto it, and the film is all the better for it.

For a film of this sort, it is also impeccably acted with Rebecca De Mornay being the standout as the matriarch of this demented crime family.  She is stunning in the role and equally terrifying but she does so without grandstanding or screaming her lines which you would assume so many actors would have chosen.  Instead she delivers her lines in a quiet and calm manner which somehow makes it all the more chilling, because it is obvious that she is comfortable in all the madness that surrounds her, which really is quite disturbing.  What is even more disturbing is the fact that she is the only character in the piece that truly understands what family really means.  She would do anything for her children, as opposed to everyone else, who while initially they may stand up for their friends, end up only looking out for themselves and their own survival when push truly comes to shove.

The rest of the cast handle their roles admirably, with no one standing out due to a bad performance.  Personally I loved seeing Deborah Ann Woll on screen because I am a huge fan of her work on “True Blood”.  Here she plays Lydia, the sister of the boys, who always seems unsure of the things she is doing and whether or not she wants to follow in the footsteps of her murderous family.  She is twitchy and nervous throughout and ends up bonding with the character of George, and may be the key to everyone’s survival.

Overall, this version of “Mother’s Day” turned out to be a massive surprise.  While the film is not perfect (some of the character’s motivations and actions, especially Lydia’s, seem muddled), director Bousman does a lot right with this film.  By surrounding himself with great talent both in front of and behind the camera, he has created a very tight and intense film that works (almost) right to the end (ok, that last scene is a little hokey), which would probably be more accurately described as a dark thriller rather than a horror film.  Whatever it is, I definitely recommend it, and I now look forward to Bousman’s next film, the numerical horror film “11-11-11”, which is already in the can.

4 Stars.

Just thought that I should mention that I haven’t seen the original “Mother’s Day” so I cannot comment, as to how similar the two films are, but from just looking at the trailer for the 1980 Troma original, I can safely say that the two appear to be considerably different.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Guest Review: Written by my wife.

I’m a Robert Pattinson Fan, so much so that I flew interstate for the weekend to attend the Australian Premiere of this film.  I waited in a Sydney CBD street for almost 14 hours to get a glimpse of the man. He signed my WFE book, I took a gazillion photos, then ran like the wind down the red carpet to make it inside to see Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and the Director, Francis Lawrence introduce the film.

Jacob Jankowski is a 90-something year old man (Played by Hal Holbrook) who wanders out of his retirement village when he hears the Circus is in town. We then hear Jacob tell the story of his life to one of the Circus staff;  A story of Love, Loss, Life and above all else The Circus.

Jacob’s (Pattinson) life story is set in the early 1930’s, during prohibition, depression and generally tough times. Whilst sitting his Ivy League College Exams to become a Veterinarian (as his father before him), Jacob is told that his parents have died in a car crash. The bank keeps all the family’s assets to repay debts and Jacob is left with no home, no money and no family. He starts walking, ends up jumping on a passing train, a Circus Train and this is where the real story begins. 

August (Christoph Waltz) is the equally charming and disgusting owner of the “The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth”, his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is his Star Attraction. Marlena is a picture of perfection as she rides the majestic horses and wows the crowds with her elegance, beauty and sex appeal. Enter Jacob Jankowski who after a rocky circus start, embraces the role as Circus Vet and thus becomes very close to August and Marlena. 

As was common in the 1930’s Circus scene, when one circus falls apart, another is just around the corner to acquire it’s talent at a bargain basement rate. It’s in this vain that we meet Rosie, a 9000 lb Polish Elephant who steals your heart the moment you meet her. Jacob feels a kinship with his animals and also with Marlena. August isn’t oblivious to their obvious attraction and this will spell the demise for the self proclaimed "Most Spectacular Show on Earth".

In the interest of full disclosure I have been upfront with my love for Pattinson, but up until now my love has been based more on his dashing good looks rather than his acting cred. All that changed in this film. He’s still smoking hot, but he’s so much more than that in WFE. When Rob (I can call him Rob, we’re that close...) was cast alongside Waltz and Witherspoon I was very worried, oh so very worried. I’ve seen all his movies and to his credit he is getting better and better in each one and WFE is absolutely no exception.  I felt like he had real charisma on screen, a real presence which I haven’t felt before.  He dons the American accent flawlessly and his chemistry with Witherspoon feels authentic. I also loved seeing him with Rosie (the elephant), it looks so natural, so real. I can’t wait for the Blu-ray release in the hope there will be some extra footage of their interactions. Rob still has a long way to go, but it's wonderful to see just how far he's come already.

Watching At the Movies last night with Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, Margaret made the comment that we should thank Quentin Tarantino for introducing us to Christoph Waltz (cast in Inglourious Basterds). I couldn’t agree more. I adore Waltz, he has the uncanny ability to be totally charming but absolutely terrifying at the same time. He plays August brilliantly and even though he is an abusive, violent, selfish pig of a man, you can still see the reason why Marlena marries him in the first place. There are scenes in the film where August appears almost fragile or broken, and you can’t help but pity him. Then there are other times when you hope the elephant steps on his head, twice. Waltz was perfectly cast and I can’t wait to see so much more of him in the future. He is by far the stand out performer in this film.

One of my favourite films of all time is Man in the Moon, It’s Reese Witherspoon’s first movie. Made in 1991, I was 10 at the time and remember watching the movie after my mum recommended it. Since that day, Man in the Moon has become part of my soul. So I suppose you could say that Reese and I go way back, however skip to today - she is simply perfect in WFE. Reese did 5 months of “Circus School” and did all, except 1, of the tricks in the movie. Remember that when you see Reese on the elephant because it really will blow your mind. Her character, Marlena is a bit of a puzzle. She’s raised in foster care and marries August, at the ripe old age of about 17, when the circus comes into town. She does what she needs to survive and have a family, she never wants to live with strangers again. Marlena is strong but fragile at the same time. After some discussion with my husband about this, I'm not not sure whether or not I believe Marlena was in love with August, or whether she was in love with the life. Having a home, a family, and being a "Star Attraction" are so very important to her. Reese is beautiful as Marlena, she lights up the screen and you believe every word that comes out of her mouth. 

Water for Elephants will find an audience with men and woman alike. It’s a romance at its core, but it has so much charm that you can’t help but get caught up in the magic of it all. Women will see it with their girlfriends/mothers/daughters and men will see it with their wives/girlfriends and they might not admit it, but they will enjoy it. Forget that Robert Pattinson is from Twilight – leave all your preconceptions at the door, Water for Elephants deserves your full attention. 

In recent days WFE has been getting a lot of unwanted attention regarding the treatment of Rosie the elephant. Whist making the film, Rosie was never mistreated and there was always an 'animals advocate' on set, the production company has been very clear on this. However, recent information has come to light that says Rosie was abused and mistreated during training in 2003, and as such, certain animal rights groups are calling for a boycott of WFE. I think this is very unfair. If an actor is abused in childhood, should you never see their films? Should they never be allowed to work again? Such a notion is ridiculous. The people who abused the elephant in 2003 deserved to be punished, no one else.

Water For Elephants is based on the book of the same name by Sara Gruen. I didn’t want to read the book before watching the movie, I wanted to experience the story for the first time in the cinema. As such i am reading the book right now, and it’s beautiful. I love the old version of Jacob, he’s very witty and his story is heartbreaking. So far the movie is a carefully crafted adaptation and one of the better ones I have seen.

4.5 Stars


Sunday, May 15, 2011


“Hobo With A Shotgun” originally started life as a faux trailer.  It was the winner of a competition that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino ran during their promotion of “Grindhouse”, which was to create a trailer for a non-existent film in the style of the grindhouse films of the 70’s and 80’s.  Jason Eisener won with his crazy and over-the-top “film”, “Hobo With A Shotgun”.  The best part of the prize was that when “Grindhouse” screened theatrically in Canada, the trailer for “Hobo With A Shotgun” was attached to it.  Audiences loved it and it soon became a favourite on youtube as well.  Fans demanded that it be made into a feature film, and that is exactly what they got.

“Hobo With A Shotgun” is about an unnamed hobo who, after riding the rail (unsure of his destination), ends up in a town named “Hopetown”.  However hope is something that this town offers very little of, as it is over-run by crime and criminals, and human life is considered a very cheap commodity.  At the beginning, although the hobo is sickened by what he sees, he tries to mind his own business and not get involved, but after being witness to a very public and graphic beheading, the hobo decides that he cannot sit by and do nothing.  It doesn’t take him long to work out that the town is run by the evil “Duke” and his two sons “Slick” and “Ivan”, and after witnessing Slick’s attempted rape of a prostitute, the hobo decides that his first act of rebellion is to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the sexual deviant.  However the police are as corrupt as everything else in the wretched town, and as soon as he hands over Slick to them, he is released and along with his brother, is given the opportunity to beat the hobo up.  The brothers continually beat him and carve the word “scum” on his chest, before he is thrown into a dumpster.  Left for dead, the hobo crawls around the town searching for the prostitute he had just saved.  She ends up returning the favour by looking after the hobo until he has healed, and once that happens he sets out to buy the lawnmower he had been saving for (in an attempt to start his own business and get out of this dead-end town).  Just as he is about to buy it, a group of armed thieves burst into the pawn store and take hostage a customer’s baby, threatening to kill it, if the owner doesn’t give them everything in his cash register.  This is the final straw for the hobo, who just snaps, picks up the shotgun which is for sale, hanging up next to him (which hilariously costs the exact amount the lawnmower was to have cost - $49.95) and blows away the gang.  He then declares war on the criminals of “Hopetown”, claiming he will take them down “one shell at a time”.

“Hobo With A Shotgun” is exactly what it sounds like, good, cheesy fun.  It is an incredibly violent film, and constantly pushes the boundaries of what it can get away with (a scene where Ivan and Slick set fire to a school bus full of kids, is just one example).  It is gloriously over-the-top, with the performances being no exception, but the film knows what it is and doesn’t try to be anything else.

As “big” as the film is, what grounds it in a reality is the performance of Rutger Hauer who plays the titular hobo.  He plays the role absolutely straight and (similar to Rainn Wilson’s performance in “Super”) he needs to for the film to work best.  His character anchors the film with both emotion and heart.  The casting of Hauer is quite a coup for Eisener and company because it has been a long time since we have seen him on the big screen (he will next be seen in Dario Argento’s version of “Dracula”) and he is fantastic. 

In the trailer version of “Hobo With A Shotgun”, the hobo was originally played by David Brunt and it was nice to see that Eisener found a small role for the actor here to play a dirty cop, especially because it had always been Brunt’s dream to play a cop.  As I mentioned, the rest of the cast are all hilariously over-the-top where they appear to shout their lines as opposed to deliver them in any sort of realistic fashion, but it works with the insanity of this crazy flick.

The script is full of silly one-liners that would be groan-inducing if ever said in the real world, but as a part of this deviant world portrayed here, the dialogue is often hilarious and works nicely.  A couple of my favourites are “I’m gonna wash this blood off with your blood”, and “I’m gonna sleep in your bloody carcasses tonight” and the ridiculous “When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat……covered in razor blades!”

The highlight of “Hobo With A Shotgun” is the cinematography by Karim Hussain and the bold use of colours throughout.  Unlike films of today, films of the past seemed to experiment in the use of colour a whole lot more which led to some amazing results (Argento’s “Suspiria” and “Inferno” are prime examples that immediately spring to mind”).  There is nothing at all realistic about it, but it gives the film a distinctive “look”, which is certainly beneficial for a small film like “Hobo With A Shotgun” to make it stand out from the rest of the pack.  To be truthful, the constant colour work (full of bold primary colours) is probably over-used here and starts to become a little ineffective and repetitive, however I’m willing to look past this, just for the fact that the filmmakers are trying something a little different.

To help set the mood just right, the music and score is full of homages to the kinds of music heard in the grindhouse films of the period.  The film opens with a riff on the Ennio Morricone music that he would produce for Sergio Leone’s westerns.  It is certainly effective in this opening scene, with the hobo entering “Hopetown” and gives the moment an epic feel.  Later in the film, the score becomes more electronic in style, similar to what John Carpenter would use in his own films like “Escape From New York”.  It is all good stuff and adds to the picture dramatically.

One of the things that I was surprised about was the quality of the gore effects.  I do not know why but I was expecting them to be much cheesier than they were.  This is an incredibly violent film so there are plenty of chances for the make-up crew to show off their impressive skills, with beheadings, gunshot wounds, shotgun wounds, knife wounds and even a strange tentacled monster that appears to have wondered onto the wrong movie set entirely.

Overall, this is a silly but always entertaining (and violent) homage to the grindhouse films of the past.  Although the content is derivative, the film itself is an original (is that a contradiction of terms or what?!?) and as you must know by now, this is something that I support wholeheartedly as opposed to the crap sequels and remakes we are constantly spoon-fed these days.  The film is nothing but pure entertainment, there is no message here folks, and in that regard is succeeds.  I finally must make mention of the font used for the opening titles of “Hobo With A Shotgun” because it is the same font used for the American re-titling of the grindhouse classic “Thriller: A Cruel Picture”, which was changed to the awesome  title of “They Call Her One Eye”! 

3 Stars.