Monday, June 17, 2013


Brian De Palma is a filmmaking god in my eyes, and my equal favourite director (along with Martin Scorsese and David Lynch), so it should come as no surprise that his latest film “Passion” was my most anticipated film of 2013.  His previous two films fell significantly short of what I was used to from this great director (even though “The Black Dahlia” improves with each watch), so when De Palma announced that his latest film was going to be a return to the genre he is a master at, I was beyond excited.  De Palma’s greatest films have all been thrillers, from “Dressed To Kill”, “Blow Out” and “Body Double”, so to see him go back and potentially give us another classic in this genre was mouth watering.  Then came the catch; “Passion” was actually a remake of the French film “Crime D’Amour” by director Alain Corneau.  “Crime D’Amour” was a film that I hated and thought for a thriller, had very little thrills in it, so my immediate excitement for this new De Palma project took an early hit.  However once the film premiered at Toronto back in 2012, it was made very clear that De Palma had taken this material and made it his own.

The film is set against the backdrop of a high powered advertising agency where two of its most important employees find themselves in a battle of power and office politics.  What starts off as a beneficial “friendship” between Christine, the boss of the firm, and Isabelle, her very talented protégé, soon turns into a very intense rivalry that initially starts with a theft of credit over an idea but quickly escalates into public humiliation and murder.

What surprised me most about “Passion” was just how true it was to “Crime D’Amour” and its original story.  Both films have the same dramatic beats, but thankfully De Palma is able to infuse the story with a sense of fun, making “Passion” anything but a chore to sit through.  Do not be fooled by going into this film thinking that you will be watching a serious dramatic thriller because you will be sorely disappointed if you do, instead understand that this is De Palma having fun within the genre, and this unpretentious quality serves the film well.  De Palma understands the ridiculousness of the story he is presenting and thus the film never takes itself too seriously.  A comparison with another film from De Palma’s oeuvre, “Passion” is much more along the lines of “Raising Cain”, than the serious political thriller “Blow Out”.

Much has already been made about the fact that “Passion” is really a film of two halves and it is in the second half of the film that De Palma makes it all his own.  After one of the characters has a serious emotional breakdown, she turns to the help of drugs to get her through, and it is here the film diverts from the original film and visually from what has come before it.  Due to the fact that this character is struggling to work out what is real and what are dreams, the film begins to work almost in a dream logic sense as De Palma’s regular themes and fetishes suddenly find themselves entering the world of “Passion”.  The film becomes full of dreams, dreams within dreams, identity confusion, twins and murder.  From a visual standpoint, this is when all of De Palma’s tricks finally become the star of the show too: split-screen, split diopter shots, dutch angles, slow motion, he opens the whole bag and uses each one of them all brilliantly.

De Palma hired Pedro Almodovar’s regular cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine to perform the same duties for him on “Passion” and his work here is wonderful.  The lighting that is seen in the first half of the film is what you would normally associate Alcaine’s work with Almodovar, it is very simple and brightly lit which makes all of the colours within the film bloom and stand out.  Once the second half begins, all the colour of the film is drained, and “Passion” then becomes a visually dark film.  Sunlight disappears from the film altogether and suddenly shadows are everywhere.  The second half of the film is shot like an old 1940’s film noir, particularly with the constant presence of shadows made from the slats of unseen horizontal blinds.  For a film that started out quite subdued visually, it ends in quite a display of visual pyrotechnics with complicated shots and strange angles becoming the norm.  As you would expect though, Alcaine handles himself admirably through both parts of the film.

The casting of “Passion” is really interesting in the fact that when I first heard that Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace had been hired for the parts of Isabelle and Christine, I initially envisioned them both in the opposite roles they ended up playing.  Christine is a manipulative and very bitchy boss willing to use anyone as long as it benefits her; I honestly didn’t realize that McAdams had this in her but she is fantastic here.  She is really believable playing this very nasty person that the audience will find easy to despise, she really plays against type of her “All-American Girl” persona she seems to have made for herself.  Meanwhile, Rapace is so well known for playing such strong female characters (particularly Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) that it is initially a shock to see her playing Isabelle; an emotionally fragile girl who is not at all confident in her abilities especially in a large group of people.  Personally I believe that Rapace’s performance is the highlight of “Passion” particularly the scene when she has her big breakdown in the car park.  The entire scene is done in one lengthy shot that starts in her office, continues into an elevator and all the way to her car; the whole time Isabelle is getting more and more distraught.  What is so brilliant about her performance here is that she does not overplay the scene, she is actually quite restrained until the big breakdown itself which makes it all the more heartbreaking.  Noomi Rapace’s performance in “Passion” is yet another example of why she is currently considered one of the best actresses working today.

One way that Brian De Palma altered “Passion” for the better in comparison to “Crime D’Amour” is with the character of Dani, who is played by German actress Karoline Herfurth.  Dani is Isabelle’s assistant and in this version of the film she ends up playing a big part in the actual proceedings of the tale.  In the original film, the assistant character is actually a man named Daniel and is really just a minor character that has little to do.  In “Passion”, Dani is madly in love with Isabelle and because of this will do anything for her.  While her performance is not quite to the level of McAdams and Rapace, Herfurth does a fine job in the role of Dani, and I just adored her hairstyle in this. 

Whatever you think of “Passion”, if you are a De Palma fan of any kind, you are going to be blown away with the last ten minutes of this film.  Seriously, it makes the whole film worth it; I was giddy after seeing this scene.  Without a doubt, it is the best moment De Palma has created in arguably twenty years.  It is a perfectly created suspense sequence that just ends the film on an absolute high.  Sure, it is as derivative as hell (if you are a fan of the man’s work, you will notice a number of techniques and shots from previous films) but it is pure De Palma and it has been immaculately put together.  There are so many little pieces to this sequence, so many shots and bits of film to put together to make this thing work, but De Palma is just so in control of it all and proves that he has lost none of his talent.  Most impressive is just how perfectly edited this sequence is and how it fits Pino Donaggio’s very familiar score liked a (leather bound) glove.  Speaking of Donaggio, there is another reason to celebrate the release of “Passion” because it is the first time in twenty years that Donaggio has scored one of Brian De Palma’s films (“Raising Cain” from 1992 was there previous collaboration) and as usual he has created another memorable and thrilling score.

So are there any negatives in regards to “Passion”?  Well frankly “yes” would be the simple answer.  With the exception of the leads, most of the performances are rather poor and stilted.  Some of De Palma’s dialogue is shoddy at best, and entire scenes don’t seem to fit the picture at all.  One scene I felt that was incredibly odd was when Christine was explaining to Isabelle a tragedy from her childhood and the fact that because of it she has never felt loved since.  It just seems to come from nowhere and her sudden pining for love seemed strange.  I get the fact that Christine is being manipulative, it is just the scene doesn’t start on a realistic level.  As beautiful as the film looks, I must admit that I was also disappointed that De Palma didn’t exploit the beauty of some of the Berlin architecture.  During production, location photos hit the internet and looking at those buildings you got the sense they were going to be used a lot differently then they ended up being.

Overall, while I was not totally blown away by “Passion”, it was still an incredibly fun movie and one with immense re-watch value.  What did blow me away, though, was that final scene which to date is the single best scene I have watched in 2013 and an indication of just how much talent Brian De Palma still has in him.  It was great to see the master back near the top of his game after a couple of misses with “Redacted” and “The Black Dahlia”.  This is not a film trying to say anything, there is no message (although I was impressed at the way De Palma looked at modern technology and the way it effects our lives today), this is a film that has been made by a director in total control of his art with a purpose to just entertain his audience, and he certainly achieves that; Brian De Palma’s “Passion” is fun, fun, fun.

3.5 Stars.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


To say that my opinion of the original “V/H/S” was strong is an understatement.  I thought it was deplorable, a stylistic mess and worse of all, the film just was not scary.  Going into watching the film, “V/H/S” had received some very good online reviews and I was actually excited to see it, even giving up the chance to see the new Abbas Kiarostami film “Like Someone In Love” in favour of “V/H/S”.  Never had I regretted a decision more because I loathed the film and then swore that if any sequels were ever produced, I would never go near them.

Cut to a year later when sure enough a sequel did appear and a familiar pattern started to emerge.  “V/H/S/2” (then titled “S-VHS”) had just premiered at Sundance and immediately after its screening, word got out that it was fantastic.  Apparently it was better than the original in every way; it was actually terrifying and was the shot in the arm the “found footage” sub-genre needed.  The hyperbolic statements came thick and fast, as a feeling of déjà vu permeated my mind as I was reminded of similar reviews granted to the original “V/H/S”.  I was determined not to be burnt again by this, now, horror franchise and thus was very weary to all of the positive reviews, and yet with each review I read, I couldn’t help but start to actually get excited for “V/H/S/2”.  So did history repeat itself or was I pleasantly surprised by a “found footage” gem?

I am quite surprised to say this but believe the hype about “V/H/S/2” because it is fantastic.  This is one of those rare horror sequels that actually surpasses the original in every aspect possible (granted, though, it didn’t have much to beat).  The producers of “V/H/S” appear to have identified just what went wrong with the original film and has set out to rectify these mistakes.  First and foremost they realized that “V/H/S” was just far too long.  A two hour running time for this kind of film is counterproductive because by the time the audiences have reached the final story, their patience has waned.  “V/H/S/2” has a user friendly running time of around ninety-five minutes, which was smartly achieved by reducing the number of segments from the original’s five to four here.  The good news is that all four of these stories are better than anything in the first film and by a long way too.

The first story, entitled “Clinical Trials”, is about a man named Herman who, after badly damaging his eye in a car accident, agrees to have a camera implanted in his injured eye for free, in return for letting the scientists to be able to record what he sees and correlate that data for their research.  The only problem is that his new bionic eye makes the previously unseen world of the after-life very visible, as Herman now has to face life being aware of and hunted by some very pissed-off ghosts residing in his house.  This segment is directed by Adam Wingard, who also plays the lead role of Herman too, and he does a great job of presenting this scary tale while imbuing it with a good sense of humour too.  While the whole “point of view” shot is obviously a gimmick, Wingard does it well and actually makes this future technology believable, although I will say that this segment has the most gratuitous scene of nudity I have seen in a film for a very long time.

The second segment, which is titled “A Ride In The Park” and is directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, is arguably the worst of “V/H/S/2” but you could hardly consider it bad.  In fact the central idea behind the segment is quite brilliant, it is just the execution of the idea hasn’t been pulled off as well as it could have been.  This story starts with a guy just hopping on his bike to go out for a ride; a camera mounted on his helmet, who after stopping to help an injured or possibly dead woman he encounters on the side of the bike path, is then himself fatally mauled by a zombie, resulting in the man turning into a zombie too.  From here we get the rarely seen point-of-view of a zombie as he roams the countryside mindlessly looking for food.  While this story isn’t really scary, it is incredibly bloody and yet, it has a surprisingly emotional and poignant finale which takes place during a massacre at a children’s birthday party.

If you have read any of the positive press regarding “V/H/S/2”, you will be aware that the third segment, entitled “Safe Haven” which has been co-directed by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto, is meant to be the crown jewel of the entire project.  It is the longest of all the segments running a total of thirty minutes and is easily the most disturbing and terrifying of the lot.  The less you know going into the segment, the better it will be for you but briefly the story is about a group of investigative journalists who are granted access to the compound where a cult resides, as well as an on-camera interview with their leader, on the exact day the Apocalypse descends upon the world.  That is all I will say about this segment except that the journalists have a number of hidden cameras attached on their bodies, clothes and equipment, thus giving us many different camera angles and stretching the “found footage” angle to its limit.  Again, believe the hype about “Safe Haven” because it is a stunning achievement and one of the best horror shorts I have ever seen.  The whole segment is imbued with a sense of dread right from the opening frame that continues to build until the bloody and crazy finale.  There are so many scenes in this segment that are just so disturbing and unlike anything else in either of the “V/H/S” films.  It is also amazingly gory, whilst never feeling gratuitous; this is true horror guys!

The final segment by Jason Eisener, titled “Alien Abduction Slumber Party”, is an amusing and again, scary tale about a teenage slumber party that is interrupted by some pesky aliens intent on abducting the kids.  Initially this segment is very jokey, mainly due to the number of pranks the kids play on one another as they are just having a good time, but once the aliens make their presence felt, the film changes tone dramatically and it becomes quite an intense experience.  Due to the fact that the majority of the footage comes from a camera strapped to a pet dog, stylistically this segment is the most messy and there are times when it is hard to make out exactly what is going on.

Just like the original film, “V/H/S/2” has a wraparound segment, titled “Tape 49”, that loosely connects all of the segments.  The plot is about a couple of private detectives who are searching for a missing teenage boy.  They break into the boy’s house and watch his video tapes, desperate to find some sort of clue that could be used to locate his whereabouts.  The videotapes the detectives watch are the subsequent segments that we are witness to.  It has been directed by Simon Barrett and is much more effective than the similar wraparound from “V/H/S”, mainly due to the creepy atmosphere that is held throughout.  I will say that its finale is surprising and very good but is let down by a jokey gesture right at the end.

Overall, “V/H/S/2” is a massive step-up from its predecessor.  It excels in every department from production value, shooting techniques, visual style and most importantly, scare factor.  It is not a perfect film by any means, as the conceit behind some of the camera placements are tenuous at best and the placement of segments within the whole actually defies understanding; how they did not end “V/H/S/2” with the powerhouse segment “Safe Haven”, I will never comprehend.  Still these are minor complaints and I must give credit where credit is due; after a very lackluster film with “V/H/S”, the producers have gone back and worked out how to improve what came before.  “V/H/S/2” is a great horror film and if future sequels are of this quality, I will definitely be watching them.

3.5 Stars.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Director Calvin Lee Reeder makes films that have a very limited audience.  Often a mix of black comedy and insane surrealist horror, Reeder’s films are very distinctively his own and have the ability to exhilarate or alienate viewers in equal measure.  Due to the huge quantity of strangeness often found in his work, Reeder has often been compared to David Lynch which is initially how I became aware of this director.  After watching his debut feature, “The Oregonian”, I found myself disappointed in the comparison even though I found the film to be incredibly bizarre.  I thought that “The Oregonian” was just weird for weird’s sake (something I do not believe Lynch’s film are) and I was actually frustrated whilst watching it.  At the same time though I thought Reeder did have talent, especially at creating a kind of unnerving suspense but I just couldn’t really get into the world of “The Oregonian”.  However the film stayed with me and I actually sought out Reeder’s previous short films which I ended up enjoying a great deal.  My favourite was a short called “The Rambler” which Reeder has now expanded on and made into a feature.

The film is about an unnamed man who after being released from a stint in prison, thumbs his way across America in an attempt to reach his brother’s farm and re-connect with his family.  Along the way, the rambler meets and comes into contact with a number of increasingly weird people as he heads towards his unknowing fate.

That synopsis of “The Rambler” that I have just written, whilst correct, does not give you any real indication of just what this film is really like.  Like Reeder’s previous film, this is a seriously disturbing and very weird film, however compared to “The Oregonian”, his latest feature is a much more successful effort.  Again, what I loved most about the film was the atmosphere that Reeder creates.  The film is almost set in a nightmare reality where nothing ever makes sense.  Things appear to be set in reality except everything is slightly skewed.  At the beginning of the film, the rambler’s interactions with the strangers he meets come across as very funny (in the blackest sense), but the longer his journey continues, the darker and more weird and horrific these meetings become.  Somewhat surprisingly, I think that the film is much more successful during the first half of the film when it is actually quite funny.  The transition to the horror of the second half is actually quite jarring and I do not think has been handled very well at all.  It just sort of happens without any explanation, but once you are in what is now a journey through hell, it is still quite enjoyable.

Having been a fan of the short film, I was aware at some of the places this feature was going to go, as certain scenes have been totally recreated for this feature.  The Rambler’s meeting with a scientist who has the ability to record people’s dreams onto VHS (!) is all from the short but I thought this expanded version was a much richer and funnier experience than in the short.  The joke is that the machine doesn’t work, rather it explodes the head of the person it is placed on, and it is the way that both the scientist and the rambler react to each failing that makes it so funny.  It is not the horror that they have just killed someone, but rather disappointment that they have failed yet again.  It is dark comedy but I found it hilarious, especially the rambler’s non-reactions.  The other story that I loved was the hustler that the rambler meets and who convinces him to go into bare-knuckle fighting due to the fact that he cannot lose.  Again this is another hilarious segment, particularly the way the hustler ends one of the fights when it isn’t going as he planned. 
The horror comes in the second half and mainly comes to fruition when the rambler meets a young girl who he falls in love with (played by regular Reeder muse, Lindsay Pulsipher).  What initially starts out as a retreat from all the weirdness heaped upon him, turns out to be the beginning of a much bleaker hell as he regularly sees the girl dying or maimed in the most bloody of ways.  Strangely though, the girl keeps reappearing along his journey only to die yet again, and these scenes play out like a nightmare or fever dream.  It is this section that the film becomes incredibly bloody and obsessed with fluids of all kinds, as there is also a disgusting extended vomit scene here too. 

What holds all of this insanity together is an amazing performance from Dermot Mulroney who plays the titular character.  He just gets the movie and the character he has been hired to perform, he really is brilliant.  He comes across as a cool guy, where nothing ever fazes him.  He breezes through life without a care in the world even when the world he is living in is insane.  However, as cool as the rambler appears to be on the outside, if you take it that the majority of the events of the film reflect what is going on in his head, he is a seriously messed up individual.  I guess his lack of reaction to all the horror around him just highlights this.  In the original short film, Calvin Lee Reeder himself played the rambler and very well too, I might add.  When I heard that he had hired an established actor like Mulroney for the feature, I wrongly anticipated that it would not work, but Mulroney underplays his role to perfection.  The film relies more on his reactions than him expressing himself through dialogue and in my opinion, he gets it spot on.  As I mentioned above, Reeder regular Lindsay Pulsipher shows up yet again and is also excellent.  Having appeared in all of Reeder’s shorts and features, she obviously understands his point of view on the world and what he wants in a movie, and she never appears overawed by some of the extreme things she has to do in any of his films.

“The Rambler” was shot on a very small budget; it is your typical indie film, but the way the film looks, you would never have guessed it.  The beautiful lighting and widescreen compositions from cinematographer Dave McFarland give the film a look much bigger than its budget would have allowed.  It is so professionally put together that even when the visuals on-screen become confusing, you find yourself still admiring them for their beauty.  Visually the film looks like a big budget western, even though the finished project is anything but.

Overall, “The Rambler” is a film that is going to appeal to a very small audience, and yet Reeder not only knows this, he embraces it.  He has made the film he wanted on screen and hasn’t pandered to anyone to make it more understandable, which you really have to respect him for.  While the film is definitely episodic, for the majority of the film, I really enjoyed going on this insane trip with “The Rambler”, but I honestly do not think I could recommend the film to anyone else I know.  It is far too out there, for them to enjoy.  For me, though, I think this is a film I will revisit (if just to try and work out what exactly is going on in the second half of the film – did I mention that the film gives no answers to the questions posed within?) and it has made me want to go back and watch Calvin Lee Reeder’s previous feature “The Oregonian” again.

3.5 Stars.