I was looking forward to this new chapter as much as the next gore-hound, and my sickly heart was prepared for a flagrant exercise in stupidity... but what I got was a truly dumb, half-assed rehash that feigned originality and cashed in on creativity.
Most fans would agree that James Wan and Leigh Whannell's original SAW was a modern horror masterpiece, which stands on its own as a bonafide classic. And most fans are also prepared to conceded to its sequels with the promise of a fun and ingenious franchise. With each instalment came a new assembly of kills, each one as sick and twisted as the last, and the series offered a villain who earned his place amongst horror royalty. Of course they became progressively more ludicrous and the plausibility (within the realms of it's established universe) was stretched to the max.
And so we arrive at JIGSAW (I guess the elaborated title is supposed to freshen things up) and what a stinker it is. From its poorly written opening scene, to its ludicrous police-procedural structure and every mechanical kill in between... with its stodgy performances and its uninspired set pieces, the movie equates to a cinematic death-rattle.
This is an unfortunate turn of event for the Australian Spierig Brothers (Predestination, Daybreakers & Undead) who have, until this point, proven to be a couple of genre legends. Their previous work is inspired and audacious, and bares no resemblance to the lacklustre nonsense they offer us here. One can hope that they aligned themselves with a bankable franchise purely in order to cement a handsome deal on a future project, such as their upcoming film Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built starring Helen Mirren... They certainly bring nothing new to the Saw table and their input into the series is daft.
SAW is a series that helped define the modern term “Torture Porn” (an evolution of “Video Nasty”) and with eight instalments comes an expectation that it will up-the-ante. But not only does it tone down the gore, it damn-well flinches away from it. There's a lot of deception at play here with too much horrible stuff happening off-screen, and audiences are right to feel ripped off. Oh and the story and its revelations are fucking stupid too... but no spoilers here (see for yourself if you're so inclined).
Some fans will celebrate the return of SAW without considering its merits (or lack thereof) while others will raise an eyebrow and wonder what happened to all of the good stuff? (that's me).
Suburbicon is Clooney’s sixth outing as helmer and it is his clunkiest offering to date. Opening with a classic 1950’s land-development commercial, the film establishes its period effectively and spreads a wholesome gloss across the screen. We are taken back to “simpler times” when neighbourhoods were full of families and safe places to live. Kids played in yards and the postman knew everyone’s name. And then, within the blink of an eye, we are reminded that what may have been “simpler times” for some, were awful and oppressive times for others.
CLICK HERE TO READ FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
When's the last time a third instalment in a franchise was superior to its predecessors? Never. And that's precisely what THOR RAGNAROK is! In fact it is immediately better, and the tone of the film is set within seconds. We are re-introduced to Thor as he is suspended above the fiery pits of Mespelheim by the fire demon Surtur. None to concerned about his predicament, Thor does what he does best and with a kick-ass Led Zeppelin soundtrack he swings his mighty hammer and lays rest to countless monsters. And from the moment the THOR title card slams on to the screen, all all bets are off and a new type of Thor movie is established.
Taking massive cues from Guardians of the Galaxy, this new chapter sees the Marvel property reinvigorated with a sorely needed dose of humour, while simultaneously progressing the pre-established storyline. This is not a feat that the old school of Hollywood seem able to wrangle, as demonstrated by Kenneth Branagh and Alan Taylor in the first two films, but it is a challenge that the new school are completely equiped for. Repeat after me “80's, 80's, 80's”. With cinema currently experiencing a wave of 1980's nostalgia, it is the children of that era who have grown up and are reliving their youth. And to the delight of audiences they are injecting their affection into modern cinema in a way that that is both exciting and strangely sentimental... even if it is becoming a little too commonplace.
Frivolity is exactly what the Thor franchise needed and Waititi has delivered in spades. The story mostly takes place on Thor's home planet of Asgard, as well as the planet Sakaar which is a dumping ground – of sorts – where species from farther realms find themselves stranded after being consumed by the planet's neighbouring wormhole. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) becomes captive (again) by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who rules the planet with a childlike obsession with games. He forces Thor into a gladiator-like battle, whereby the loser dies. To Thor's delight his opponent is HULK, and after a long dual followed by an arduous identity crisis they re-team along with a group of renegade allies to return to Asgard to defeat the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchette).
It is a convoluted synopsis on paper, but rest assured it unfolds simply and proves to be one of the most adventurous and side-splitting chapters in the entire Marvel Universe. Waititi's direction is on-point and with a considerable amount of creative control he has also managed to place a basket of easter eggs throughout the film for his Australasian friends at home. From spaceships being named after Holden cars (The Commodore, The Statesman & Torana) to an Indigenous flag-inspired colour design, and a rock monster with an affectionate Maori accent (voiced by Waititi himself). It is fair to say that THOR RAGNAROK is a smorgasbord of in-jokes and references for those nerdy enough to identify, and with a whole lot of other stuff that's best left secret (you're welcome) there's never been a more Aussie-centric and appealing superhero movie (it was also shot in Oz... but I'm sure you know that).
Every performance is perfectly measured, and all players have embraced the comedic nature of the script. Hemsworth is in his element and reveals a new side to Thor that comic-book geeks might have feared (they can rest easy). He is joined by Mark Ruffalo who also nails his comic timing, as well as revealing a smidgen of drama. The rest of the supporting cast includes the return of Tom Hiddleston Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins, who are joined by Marvel newcomers Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban and Tessa Thompson... there's also a slathering of unexpected appearances, some appearing briefly and others in a larger capacity. Again, this is a movie full of surprises.
So what now? THOR RAGNAROK has re-energised the series, but can it be repeated? James Gunn attempted to recapture the magic of Guardians in Vol 2 to a somewhat lacklustre effect. That impact of the original's humour was lost in the sequel, with the element of surprise all but gone. So too could be the fate of another Thor sequel. We've been treated to such a spectacle, with such a delicious flavour, that to go another round might risk bursting the bubble. Given that I disliked the first two movies so much, I would be entirely content leaving it be. Three is enough, and what a way to close!
I am cautious of any low budget movie with “incident”, “project”, “experiment” or “encounter” in the title and so THE GRACEFIELD INCIDENT was an immediate red flag, and were it not for an appealing poster I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought... but I'm glad that I did. The film presented a fresh take on the genre (well, fresher anyway) and my inherent snobbery was exposed.
A video game designer, Matthew, loses his eye in a horrific car accident, and during his recovery he designs a hi-def micro-camera inside a prosthetic eyeball. Naturally this allows him to record everything his missing eye would have seen. It's a stupid idea when you stop and think about it, but for the sake of something different within the genre, it's an easy idiocy to ignore. A year later Matthew and his friends spend a weekend at a luxurious cabin where they witness a meteorite crash in the nearby woods. Naturally they venture out into the darkness to investigate and find themselves being hunted by an alien.
As with almost every entry in the found-footage genre, THE GRACEFIELD INCIDENT is another Blair Witch-inspired thriller that exploits every trick in the trade and rehashes the same concept. But what it offers in addition to the usual gimmickry is an intriguing first person point-of-view perspective, and an accomplished use of special effects. The concept of some guy with a camera-eye is dumb, but it nevertheless gives this story an alternative focal point that provides the filmmaker an excuse to reduce his use of hand-held 'shaky-cam' (which is a welcome point of difference).
The expected jump-scares are riddled throughout the movie, and they are executed with precision. But director (and lead actor) Matheiue Ratthe also uses a slow suspense method of terror, which gives his film a much needed advantage over other entries in the genre. For example, the audience is well aware of the lurking figure behind. We see those terrifying alien hands rising up above the character's shoulders... and we are well ahead of the poor fools on screen. And this was, for me, a refreshing tweak on the overdone tropes of so many movies before it.
The acting leaves a lot to be desired, and there isn't a convincing performance to be seen. A lot of the rules of the found-footage genre have also been abandoned (intentionally, or not?) which detracts from what is otherwise a skilful and impressive little film. But... but but but... given the fact that THE GRACEFIELD INCIDENT is a first time feature length film from an emerging independent filmmaker, it's an impressive and engaging chiller. The special effects are the real saving grace and I would recommend the movie for all inspiring filmmakers on how to get bang-for-buck.
The latest offering is 1922, based on a novella from King’s anthology book Full Dark, No Stars. The plot follows a down-trodden Nebraskan corn farmer, Wilfred (Thomas Jane), who plots the murder of his wife (Molly Parker) and manipulates his son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to help. The land’s title is in the wife’s name and she wants to sell up and move to the city, but when Wilfred and Henry refuse to leave… they ply her with alcohol and hack her to death in her sleep.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
Twelve-year-old Cole (Judah Lewis, Point Break) is the only kid in his neighbourhood with a babysitter. But he doesn’t mind because she’s a super cool, totally hot teenager who has his back when local bullies bring him down. Her name is Bee (Samara Weaving, Ash vs Evil Dead) and on this particular weekend she’s tasked by Cole’s parents to look after him while they’re away. After Cole’s bedtime she invites a group of friends over, who participate in a game of spin-the-bottle, and with Cole spying on them from the top of the stairs, their night takes a sudden turn that sets in motion a night of murder, mayhem and gore.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
The series has been steered in various directions over its course, and where the first three instalments towed a serious horror/slasher line, the rebranded sequels took a comical approach and did away with the “Child's Play” moniker, focusing on the “of Chucky” handle instead... Bride of Chucky offered a quirky, yet sinister story while Seed of Chucky busted it's nut on the comedy. It was a miscalculation that threatened to derail the franchise and as far as worried fans were concerned, it was the end of the line. And then after a 9-year hiatus the series creator Don Mancini returned with Curse of Chucky and brought the damn thing back to life again. And much to the audience's delight, he returned to its horror roots, crafting a dark and twisted nightmare.
And so we arrive at Cult of Chucky, the latest instalment, which picks up where the previous movie left off, and sees the return of Andy Barclay, the 6-year old boy from the first two movies (his character was also in number 3, played by Justin Whalin). The original actor, Alex Vincent reprises his role (he briefly appeared in Curse) as an adult Andy and helps bring the series back to it's true Child's Play roots. And the result is a strangely hypnotic descent into psychoville, where nothing is what it seems and genre-tropes are flagrantly exploited.
Following the events of Curse of Chucky, Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) finds herself committed to a psychiatric hospital, where everyone is convinced that she is a deranged killer. Meanwhile Andy Barclay lives a reclusive life in a remote cabin, knowing that Chucky's rampage isn't over. Throughout the course of the film our sadistic plastic friend breaks into the asylum and sets upon killing the patients, of course, but not before fucking with their heads. It is a silly but violent outing that adheres to the horror origins of the series while injecting some of that humour back into the fray. The story arch holds a lot of revelations and to reveal too much would be to spoil the fun for those who haven't seen it. And it IS a lot of fun!
It has to be noted that CULT OF CHUCKY is very dumb. The asylum setting alone is all too stupid, with it looking like some sort of archetypal 19h century loony bin. And for all of its size and grandeur, there appears to be only half a dozen patients verses three actual staff members (the precise amount of humans to facilitate the story, and probably as many as the budget could bare). But of course who are we to give a shit about such things? We came to see a killer doll and we expect to see murder! And to that note, CULT delivers in spades.
This instalment, like the one before it (and each before the other) is unlike any Child's Play movie we've seen yet, and it is Don Mancini's “never repeat oneself” mantra that makes this one of the most enduring horror franchises of them all. Where other horror properties have racked up countless instalments, none of them have had the original creator steering every move throughout, nor have they been so bold as to present each chapter in new and refreshing ways. And while none of the individual films push the genre into new places, they do embrace different horror sub-genres and exploit those tropes to the max. Where CURSE gave us a haunted-house inspired thriller, CULT takes a stab as the loony bin story. Furthermore Mancini has upped the ante and made his latest outing the most gruesome of them all. It is a deliciously grotesque and gratuitously gory Chucky movie that will delight fans of the series and the genre alike.
Brad Dourif returns as the voice of Chucky, and relishes every morsel. Despite being 67-years old he shows no signs of slowing down and he delivers Chucky's lines as enthusiastically as he did in 1988. Alex Vincent's return is a very welcome adage to the series and he resumes the role comfortably. He seems to be comfortable on screen and hopefully he'll stick around for a few more turns. And of course Fiona Dourif fits in with the series nicely. Her on-screen persona bares an eerie resemblance to her co-starring father which, needless to say, is made for horror. And come to think of it her place within the mental asylum, along with her familiar expressions, recalls her dad's incredible performance in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. And then there's Jennifer Tilly... sigh (read in to that how you will).
What matters is that CHUCKY lives on... and the series has become a fan-service franchise, where outsiders need not apply. Long-serving fans will eat up all of its gnarly treats, and they will celebrate the return of a horror icon. They will relish the wonderful set design and express a sign of relief knowing that Mancini does away with his reliance on CGI (as flaunted in CURSE). Most of the film's effects are achieved practically and the movie proves that there is plenty of juice left in the tank. It shows no signs of slowing down and, of course, the post-credits teaser promises an absolutely KICK ASS eighth instalment. Yes please!
Perhaps the most well regarded if these is Darren Aronofsky's 2008 Mickey Rourke kickstarter, THE WRESTLER, a low budget affair that garnered both its stars Oscar nods and a few more years of paid work. A fictional narrative that blurred the lines between fiction and reality while always hinging on perhaps the only thing that traversed the two worlds; raw emotion.
It's no surprise that others should try and emulate Aronofsky's success, JCVD most notably, casting has-beens as has-beens with a wink and a nod and a tongue in the cheek. And more often that not those aping the formula have a legitimate legacy to capitalise on and exploit.
Then up pops Ryan Phillippe in his directorial debut. You remember Ryan Phillippe. He was the other guy in I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER and 54. He was the baby-face heart-throb that tried being a tough guy in THE WAY OF THE GUN. Sure, you remember Ryan Phillippe. The guy who is currently starring in the Netflix TV remake of Antoine Fuqua's SHOOTER. Of course you remember Ryan Phillippe.
So here he is, directing, starring and writing his own film as a washed-up actor who gets kidnapped in the back woods of Louisianna by some disgruntled cajun's. He is chained to a pipe, abused for 90-minutes, and taunted with 'gators for something he claims he didn't do. A curious redemption story, right? If, indeed, it IS actually a self-conscious nod at a redemption story. Because it may simply be a wildly good time. Which, thankfully, it is.
Shot in 2014 it's inexplicably taken 3-years for CATCH HELL to reach our shores and it's a shame, because it is a tidy little film. Phillippe is, obviously, giving it all he's got in front and behind the camera. The bayou locations are humid and steamy and authentic and the threat feels very real, even if we have seen it a dozen times before (see UNKNOWN, SAW, FIVE FINGERS, ALBINO ALLIGATOR, DELIVERANCE, etc).
There's some fun to be had if you don't mind the dank, sleazy turgid kinda stuff and for all its nastiness it's a relatively undemanding watch, purely because it is so derivative. Is it great? No, not even close. Is it competent? Yes, it is very assured. Does it show promise for Phillippe as a film maker? Absolutely! Let's see what this washed-up former pretty-boy will do next.
CATCH HELL IS AVAILABLE ON DVD THROUGH EAGLE ENTERTAINMENT.
Set in the year 1987 a young teenage girl, Vicki, (Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues) sneaks out of her mother's house to attend a nearby party. Along the way she is offered dope by a friendly couple (Stephen Curry, The King and Emma Booth, Gods of Egypt) who are driving by. She reluctantly agrees and they invite her into their home with the promise of scoring weed, alcohol to bide the time, and a phone to call a taxi with. It isn't long before Vicki's vision begins to blur and she realises that she's in a lot of trouble. The couple chain her to a bed and unleash hell upon her. And so begins a relentless campaign of rape, bruised knuckles and depravation.
HOUNDS OF LOVE is a difficult watch to say the least, yet unlike other films of its type (such as The Berlin Syndrome or The Girl Next Door) it offers a psychological exploration of its antagonists, and presents the viewer with an examination of domestic violence, male dominance and psychological mind control. And while the content is certainly confronting, first time director Ben Young handles the material with great skill. Much of the horror is accompanied by a mesmerising soundtrack, including popular songs from the era, which adds beauty to the heinousness. This also provides a point of distinction from the likes of Snowtown, whereby the grim nature of the story is counterbalanced with an unexpected (uncomfortable) line up of music that stirs a disoriented uncertainty within. On one hand it's awful to consider that this is an “enjoyable” film yet on the other hand it delivers a challenging and provocative character study. There is no doubt, in my mind, that HOUNDS OF LOVE is absolutely enjoyable, but that “joy” should not be misunderstood. It is an emotional reaction to having seen a film that is about as close to perfection as is possible.
Much of the film's power is owed to the incredible performances of its three lead actors. Each have such a pivotal part in the story that it would be a disservice to call any one of them “support” players. Ashleigh Cummings gives a gut-wrenching performance as the tortured girl, and her commitment to the film is a testament to her talent. She is put in the most vulnerable and taxing position of the three, and her reactionary performance is quite incredible. Emma Booth's turn as the devoted wife should be an example to all aspiring thespians. It is a complex and harrowing performance, which borders on sympathetic and may ring true to many women watching... albeit to a heightened degree. She switches from monster to victim all too easily, and blurs the line between being a complaint facilitator (and participator) to an oppressed woman unable to escape the evil clutches of her husband.
And then there's Stephen Curry. Wow. This is a guy who has struggled to shake off his “Dale Karrigan” persona for two decades (despite his accomplished performances in films like The King and The Cup) and if HOUNDS OF LOVE doesn't break that mould, then nothing will. This is a career defining role that reminds us of the breakout performances from Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper, Eric Bana in Chopper and Daniel Henshall in Snowtown. Curry's portrayal of the serial killer John White (a character inspired by killer David Birnie) is akin to a possession. He emits charisma and terror in equal measure and walks in his killer's skin all too comfortably. It is a terrifying performance and when his creepy winks and depraved fetishes are paired on screen with 60s and 70s pop music, the result is transcending. I honestly don't think I will ever listen to the song Knights In While Satin the same again.... stunning stuff.
Ben Young's debut feature film is about as impressive as they come, and given his immaculate style, brilliant use of slow motion, and meticulous production design there is no doubt that he's set to become a filmmaker of his generation (we can hope). Hollywood have already poached him and his next film will see him reunited with Emma Booth, as well as an ensemble of players such as Lizzy Caplan, Michael Pena, Mike Colter and Lex Shrapnel amongst others. We can only hope that he is afforded the freedom to be as audacious and ingenious as he was with HOUNDS OF LOVE.
HOUNDS OF LOVE IS NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY & DVD FROM SHOCK.
Starring horror legend Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, Critters) RED CHRISTMAS takes place on Christmas Day, at the home of a family in rural Australia. The American mother has invited all of her adult children to spend one last Christmas in the family home before she sells up and sets off on a trip around the world. Their festivities are interrupted by an unexpected guest; a robed stranger with a message. As the mysterious man begins to spout religious verse it doesn't take long to realise that he is, in fact, the mother's aborted foetus from many years ago, who was salvaged and raised by a religious fundamentalist. And so the scene is set for a gnarly slasher film that boasts an array of grisly deaths, and gleefully flirts with religious doctrine.
The movie gets off to a shaky start whereby the production's paltry budget is exposed by the unnecessary daytime setting, and the story struggles to resonate in its real location (as opposed to a contained studio environment). Fortunately the script is tight and the performances are good, and these earlier moments are easily overlooked when director Craig Anderson turns off the lights, embraces the night and unleashes hell upon his characters. That moment when darkness falls is a welcome relief as the house suddenly becomes a surreal chamber of horrors, full of colour and confusion.
The cast is good, and despite a few caricature characters amongst the flock, the family dynamics are well written and strong. Wallace does a wonderful job as the family matriarch, and offers a performance that is beyond the worth of such a small movie. She invests a great deal of emotion to her role, and presents the audience with a multilayered character who is unaware of her own capabilities. The cast supporting her is impressive, too, with the likes of Geoff Morrell (Rogue, Oscar & Lucinda), Sarah Bishop (Crushed) and David Collins (The Umbilical Brothers) all giving measures performances. They are also joined by Gerard Odwyer, an actor with down syndrome whose on-screen presence not only brings a huge amount of joy to the film, but also provides an important vulnerability to the unfolding events.
Craig Anderson is better known to some people as a comedy writer and actor, having worked on television programs like Black Comedy, Double the First and Review with Miles Barlow... and yet his flair for horror, as demonstrated in RED CHRISTMAS, suggests that he has a seat at the genre table whenever he so chooses. With the know-how from his production designer Emily Borghi, Anderson has turned an actual house location into a nightmarish slaughterhouse. All of the rooms are lit with a saturation of reds and greens, and with fog-covered surroundings, decorative lighting and police lights the night time exteriors accompany the mayhem with an added surrealism.
And of course RED CHRISTMAS is chock-full of deliciously inventive kills, gratuitous gore and one of the most peculiar villains you're likely to see on screen for quite a while. His name is “Cletus” and he's one hell of an abnormal guy. His introduction leaves a lot to be desired, which takes place in those unfortunate opening daylight scenes, but as the cloak of darkness falls, and his motives become apparent he adopts a strangely sympathetic nature, forcing the viewer to decide whether they want to hug the guy or lop his head off.
Each year we are given new festive horror treats, and RED CHRISTMAS is certainly one of the more memorable. It might not boast the same production value of other recent titles such as Krampus or Rare Exports, but it shares the same visceral inventiveness as movies like Silent Night and Black X-Mas. So turn off the lights, relish its festively vibrant colours, and lap up all of its wonderfully grotesque goodness.
RED CHRISTMAS IS NOW AVAILABLE TO RENT OR BUY AT UMBRELLA ENTERTAINMENT.
Home Again marks Meyers-Shyer’s directorial debut and at the age of 30 it is a mighty impressive one at that. That’s not to say it is a great film by any means – in fact, it is a relatively unremarkable one, wearing its protective pads on its sleeves – but it does play to its target demographic reliably and doesn’t give much cause for harsh criticism.
READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SCREEN REALM.
His directorial debut, EAT LOCALS, is, on paper at least, a barmy ride into comedy-horror territory that splices together the likes of UNDERWORLD, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, however the end result has none of the style of the Underworld, the laughs of American Werewolf nor the genius of the Living Dead.
Set over the course of one night EAT LOCALS has the last eight vampire overlords of Britain arriving at a country house for their bi-centennial meeting to discuss the game-plan for the next 50-years. Before too long they are joined by a kid from Essex, Sebastian, a horn-dog who thinks one of the overlords is a MILF he's got a chance with, and the Vatican's vampire assassination squad who'll stop at nothing to eradicate the blood-suckers once and for all.
Seems solid enough, right? The biggest problem with EAT LOCALS is that the audience always feels one step behind the gang onscreen; as if we haven't caught up on the in-joke between mates at a party and we're that friend-of-a-friend who doesn't understand the humour of the clique.
Through years of working with every thespian under the sun, Flemyng looks to have amassed an army of pals willing to spend a couple of weeks helping the bloke get a directors notch under his belt, but that's exactly how EAT LOCALS feels - like a bunch of mates getting together and doing their own thing with little consideration for who is watching.
It's never particularly as funny as it should be, as violent as it could be, and the cast don't seem to be giving it their all. In fact, most of them just look bored.
All that said, the movie is visceral and not as poorly directed as it could have been for a first-time director. But while there's a confidence and a sense of ease on display, one can't help but feel that casting someone other than your mates would have served the film better.
We are thrown into the world of Blade Runner with a title card reminiscent of the first film, which updates the audience on the status of replicants. 30-years have passed since the original film and a new model of replicants, the Nexus 8, has been integrated into society. Unlike the older models they have been equiped with longer life-spans, and many have been incorporated into the Blade Runner devision of the LAPD, employed to hunt and “retire” (destroy) older models.
Ryan Gosling stars as K, a Nexus 8 and we are introduced to him as he arrives at a remote protein farm on the fringe of the urban sprawl. A replicant is detected and “retired”, but K uncovers a secret before he leaves, which sets him on a course of self-discovery and revelation. His own identity is questioned, and as he begins to dig deeper he find himself going against his superiors, as well as being hunted by the powerful Tyrell Corporation (the same corp from the original film). Of course I am avoiding spoilers, and the simplicity of my synopsis suggests a carbon-copy of the first film, but you can rest assured that it is a legitimate and smart expansion of the Blade Runner narrative.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a triumph as far as storytelling is concerned, and its relevance to the original is precise. Writers Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) and Michael Green (Logan) have remained true to the overriding narrative, and have assembled a group of characters which would comfortably fit into the previous instalment without question. Fancher and Green's attention to detain and the pacing of their story suitably reflects the Blade Runner that fans hold so dearly, and their vision represents not only the 1982 film but also the book and it's subsequent sequels.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) committed himself to a colossal undertaking and, perhaps, bit off more than he could chew. His previous work places him as one of the most visionary filmmakers of the past decade, and on face value made him an obvious candidate for a Blade Runner sequel. And it was a project that posed the obvious “damned if you do, damned if you don't” conundrum. If he were to adhere to the exact vision of the original he would be chastised for being unoriginal, yet if he strayed too far he would be maligned for pissing on a legacy. And so his direction of BLADE RUNNER 2049 is clunky, and in balancing familiarity with originality he has created a patch-work production design that lacks consistency. Of course he's a skilled filmmaker and every single frame of the film looks incredible, but when attempting to put his “Villeneauve” stamp on the film he inadvertently fractures the aesthetic.
Where the production design works so well is in recreating the congested, neon-charged city life. The consumerism and corporate saturation are palpable as giant holographic signs invade personal space, and a toxic fog lines the pavement. These are the qualities and textures that made the original a work of art, and when used in this follow-up there's a tangible connection between the films. The familiarity is comforting and I can't imagine that any discerning fan would pass it off as disingenuous. To the contrary, when the story moves beyond the urban sprawl we are taken to new landscapes, where the atmosphere and aesthetic bare a stark contrast. From misty farm-fields, to desolate wastelands and dust-ravaged cities, there is something off about all of the – shall we say Velleneauve-tricities. These are not places you can easily imagine existing in the original film, be they on screen or off, and despite them boasting magnificent cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins, they just don't gel with the established Blade Runner verse. The script is also laced with profanity, which didn't sit well with me, and I see no value in lazy F-bombs. The '82 film never used them... so why now?
The cast is excellent with Ryan Gosling giving a solemn lead performance that rivals Harrison Ford's original role. He understands the weight of the character and allows the existential characteristics to unfold naturally. Through minimal expression, an introverted demeanour and an unwavering toughness Gosling commands the screen to equal effect, and helps place the viewer back into the world of Blade Runner as we remember. His support comes from players such as Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista and Jared Leto, who are all worthy additions to the legacy. Leto's performance as the merciless Tyrel Corp engineer is slightly overplayed, and feels (to me) like a heavy-handed attempt to mirror Rutger Hauer's villainous place in the story. Nevertheless his on-screen presence is engaging and he embodies the character as only he can. The stand-out performance comes from Ana de Armas, who plays K's holographic female companion. She brings a welcome level of humanity to the story and her presence nurtures and guides K through his identity crisis. She is a wonderful addition to the story.
And of course there's Harrison Ford reprising his role of Rick Deckard. Ford is absent for 2-hours of the film, which effectively builds anticipation amongst the audience. And with a heavy 163-minute running time, he still manages to wrangle a decent 40-minutes worth of screen time. It's exciting to have Deckard back on the screen and seeing Ford step back into character does trigger the sentimental fool within, yet he falls into is recent habit of giving very little. He is not the Deckard that we know, and Ford doesn't dig very deep to bring the character back to life. “Harrison Ford as Harrison Ford” is a more suitable billing and much like his recent appearance in The Force Awakens, he offers little more than a phoned it performance.
Negativity aside, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a feast for the eyes and boasts boundless wonders. It is a visceral, multicoloured slice of eye-candy, and a treat that demands to be seen theatrically. And it would be remiss of me to ignore the phenomenal score by Hans Zimmer, who builds upon the original sound design with a bold and all-consuming score that permeates your entire body. Suffice to say when BLADE RUNNER 2049 works it works brilliantly, and when it doesn't work it remains a thing of beauty. It may be aesthetically disjointed but it's always awe-inspiring. Being nearly 3-hours long the film begs for another cut, and perhaps in true Blade Runner style we might just get a “director's cut” in 10-years time, followed by a “Final Cut” 15-years after that.
Stories of the Holocaust have been told ad nauseum over the years, and while preserving historical records is absolutely important, very few films have made a significant impact in the last decade. The Zookeeper's Wife recently failed to stir an emotional response from audiences while Alone In Berlin didn't really resonate either, and then Denial made no impact at all. I guess as time passes us by, the personal connection to those dark days has faded, and those who tell the stories rely on context being passed down to them. The distance between now and then, as well as the abundance of relatable films in the past, has made those stories less relevant and with so many new horrors consuming our world, there hardly seems time to look back anymore.
Fortunately BAG OF MARBLES comes to us fresh, and because the story is seen through the eyes of children it strikes an effective balance between historical drama and childhood adventure. The film follows two young brothers, Joseph and Maurice, who live a happy life in Paris. Their days consist of attending school, playing marbles and riding bicycles, but when the Nazis force their way into Paris and occupy the city their parents send them away. Given a map to follow, and money for travel, they are told to find their way to the demilitarised zone in the north of France, where their parents would find them when it is safe to do so. As the brothers make their way across the increasingly unstable country, their paths cross with an assortment of characters, including merciless members of Hitler's army and fellow Jews who are also fleeing.
On the surface the story is conventional and it is the type of narrative that we've seen many times, however the performances from the two leading children are wonderful and they give the film an energy that few similarly themed titles have done before. As the brothers cross picturesque French landscapes and pass through beautiful villages, their youthful innocence paints a stark contrast to the horrors that surround them. And as their story unfolds, and the weight of their ordeal builds on them, we bare witness to a remarkable coming of age story.
The brothers are played by Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial, who have very little film-work between them. Together they bring an energetic and youthful zest for life to the story, and with very innocent and photogenic faces they light up the screen, offering the audience a tangible point of emotional connection.
Of course the film is full of horrors, and the severity of Nazi occupation is represented. Director Christian Duguay (Scanners 2, Screamers, The Assignment) cleverly aligns these moments in such a way that we catch fleeting glimpses of the atrocities, before the camera turns its attention to the boys and hones in on their reactions. It's a smart point of direction and to watch the Nazi occupation through the eyes of children makes for a unique and sincere viewing experience.
There aren't many qualms with BAG OF MARBLES, aside from it's lengthy duration. It overstays its welcome by ten to fifteen minutes and would have benefited from a tighter running time. Fortunately the stuff that the film could do without is found somewhere in the middle, leaving the first and final acts with the strength to maintain the viewer's attention. And what is presented is a heartwarming - often heartbreaking - coming of age story of brotherly love, hope and resilience. The real shame is that with all of the other Holocaust films that have missed the mark this year, a real gem like this is the one that receives the least attention and barely makes a bleep on people's radar. So track it down and check it out.
BAG OF MARBLES IS NOW AVAILABLE THROUGH UMBRELLA ENTERTAINMENT.