Monday, 25 November 2013

Drag Me To Hell [2009]

I woke with a sense of disparagement. It was a Thursday morning. There was no obvious cause for this mood. There were, as can always be said, many insignificant reasons as to a foul taste, but with some consideration, none seemed a suitable enough cause, neither singularly nor collectively. It was perhaps, just 'one of those days'. I am familiar with them. At my age I have experienced a great many. However, as a man, I harbour a reluctance to admit to myself that I, like all of man-kind, can be governed by my emotions.

This was the pattern of my day until I watched Drag Me To Hell. I am unsure what it says about my character, that a movie with such a title should be what cheers me up and rouses me from my melancholy, but this is an amusing motion picture.

From the outset, I found myself ticking off the Sam Raimi signatures, evident in most of his work; though I will need to watch this one back to check for Bruce Campbell. His trademark auto-mobile can be seen parked at the home of the gypsy woman; there is a liberal use of traditional special effects accompanied by more contemporary digital enhancements; the soundtrack and score, where it doesn't follow a typical horror genre format, lightens the mood and comes across as almost pantomime-like. It is difficult, without research, to make claims at Raimi's intention, but Drag Me To Hell certainly does not come across as a serious, dark, supernatural fright-fest and seems deliberately tongue-in-cheek.

Alison Lohman plays the lead, a slim, blonde all-american type from the country (farm land more precisely) who is struggling to break free of her 'chubby' youth and make it in a city bank, competing with an arrogant male compatriot for a managerial position whilst attempting to impress the overly snobbish parents of her professorial boyfriend, played by Justin Long. Will she crack under the pressure to get ahead or perform a moral good-deed for a struggling old gypsy woman, unable to pay the mortgage on her home of 30 years? Of course, there would be no tale of battling with a gypsy curse if she were to be a good Samaritan. Though it could be pointed out that a 'gypsy' should not have been living in a 'house' for as long as she claimed to be, and equally that her reaction to the situation was entirely unreasonable, however much at one time or another we have all felt a flash of anger towards an employee within a financial service.

This is essentially the depth of the plot and I will attempt not to spoil too much of what follows. If you are a fan of horror (as I would claim to be) you will be familiar with the array of standard issue tools and rules to achieve a jump/squeal/gasp or two from the viewer and the typical use of score to build tension. These and the usual faux-jumps, stereotypical characters and vaguely nonsensical occurrences are evident meaning that this movie does not disappoint.

Do not expect to be genuinely afraid though. Talking, possessed goats, screaming incarnations of a deceased old lady on an outdated mobile phone screen and being slapped by a shadow-spirit in broad daylight happen and are just highly amusing. Justin Long and Alison Lohman are less than convincing characters, 'he' being a typical 'smarty-pants' about nothing in particular (by this I mean to say he is a professor but shows frequent naivety and selective stupidity in order to remain unaware of his girlfriend's paranormal issues) while 'she' displays few moments of fear in favour of a child-like curiosity. Rather than this being a negative detail, for me it worked in favour of the narrative, keeping the pace regulated, the laughs coming and ones empathy for the leading lady at arms length. Whereas in my previous review of Gravity, I made the point that caring for the demise of Sandra Bullock was pivotal in the film's success, this piece doesn't need this level of rapport. Here it doesn't matter what happens to whom. Each character is as likeable as they are detestable. Each in their own way does something they shouldn't, for the benefit of themselves or to the detriment of another. This lack of purity (which is arguably the one horror genre staple missing from this conforming piece) works delightfully in favour of the entertainment.

Worth watching for the effects. A pretty decent horror to watch with a girlfriend or family. If you liked Raimi's Evil Dead or Army Of Darkness, or Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow perhaps, then this is one to add to your list (if you compile such things).


Monday, 18 November 2013

Gravity [2013]

I felt much less than my preferred sense of anticipation going into this movie. Generally speaking I'm not a big fan of either lead here (though I have enjoyed a good few Clooney flicks on DVD/TV of late) and don't know enough of director Cuaron's work to arouse my excitement. That being said, post-Gravity experience, I have made the effort to attain more information and note his involvement in various projects that I thoroughly enjoyed (Pans Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children Of Men & Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban) in his relatively modest body of work.

It should also be mentioned from the outset that Gravity will not appeal to all and certainly not those anti-Hollywood-Blockbuster-cinema-goers, for despite Cuaron's perceived mainstream anonymity, this is a big budget, talk-of-awards blockbuster with two big Hollywood stars at its epicentre. BUT... if you are a lover of cinema; a lover of leaving the house, travelling, sitting in large foam-backed seats, with arm rests for oversized soda drinks, big paper bags of popped corn, huge screens, loud noises and sharing the experience in an unspoken manner with a large group of strangers, then this film is a must see. It shouldn't be approached only as a movie, but as an experience.

The tone is immediately set with a bone shuddering instrumental that grows in power and impact, gradually and smoothly climbing to almost unbearable heights until...! Instant silence. A silence so loud it could have been the crescendo that you would be excused in thinking was coming. This cleverly used juxtaposition of volume and silence reflects much of the film; its staggeringly beautiful visual depiction of the space station's orbit of the Earth and the bleak nothingness, so obviously devoid of life, while the main protagonists discuss tales of events and relationships on the life-giving planet beside them. For me, this theme ran strongly and with great effect throughout. Reverberating, IMAX loudness and utter silence; detailed natural/scientific beauty and man-made, crisp destruction; perfect calm and breathless panic. No obvious grey area. Simplification of black or white in a balanced and delicate fabrication of an alien (not literally) event.

For all its great work and attention to detail, Gravity is not without fault (what movie is?) and in true sci-fi style it takes elements of what we know (or could find out) to be true and with use of artistic license, manipulates the laws of physics and likelihood to maintain the ebb and flow of the plot. (See: for an informative response to the reality of space walks)
Without going into too deep a monologue about humanity and its lack of definitive knowledge on 'all things' and self-righteous position to incorrectly declare something 'impossible' or not, this, like others in the sci-fi genre is a work for the purpose of entertainment and it was the decision of the vast team that made it, to pay attention to certain details and make things as plausible (or not) as they saw fit, for their creation to work; and as stated by former astronaut Garrett Reisman, should be treated as such.

Gravity is, in a manner of speaking, a disaster thriller, with a tiny cast, little dialogue and arguably the most superb special effects and use of 3D-IMAX technology to date. It is a hugely immersive experience with the camera work swapping between POV of Dr. Ryan Stone and its smoothly oscillating third person view of the action, mimicking the gravity-less motion of an object in space. There is never a still moment; barely time to catch breath and an unerring sense of inclusion in what translates as a simply terrifying occurrence. Unlike other big sci-fi flicks, the temptation to deviate is avoided. You don't once see a cut to 'Houston on the ground' nor a wide panning shot of machinery exploding or vaporising in the void. At the heart of the 'disaster' aspect is a very basic premise: a chain reaction of debris is hurtling at unimaginable speeds round the orbit of the Earth and threatens to destroy anything in its path. In another film, this could easily be treated as a less significant event in a greater, more complex plot line (imagine an entire episode of the Star Wars saga based around one woman's struggle to survive when the Death Star is destroyed) but Cuaron makes it the focus; and rightly so.

For the eagle-eyed (and slightly geeky) there are lots of interesting  and sometimes questionable details that are infinitely more entertaining in 3D, such as the apparent abundance of pens on space stations that regularly float across the screen whilst trailing a flustered female doctor in tight shorts and tank-top; or the water droplet/bubble that bursts and leaves a mark on screen while in a third person view. There is a welcome moment of comic relief when Dr. Stone references Wall-E and uses a fire extinguisher to stabilise her trajectory and make her way to the Chinese space station. A moment of resourcefulness from a character that grows in strength from the time we are first introduced to her as an inexperienced hospital doctor with no fully explained reason for being present on a mission that Clooney has a bad feeling about.

Throughout this exhausting fight for survival-against-the-odds, death rears its head time and again, each time in a slightly differing way, encouraging us, the viewer, to side with and care about the demise of Sandra Bullock (who for me can get somewhat annoying, but perhaps that is a previous character hangover I'm unable to shake at times). In movies such as this, siding with the lead, liking them, relating to them is of the utmost importance, otherwise (as was a criticism of Prometheus) who really cares what happens to the characters. [SPOILER ALERT] Gravity needs you to want Bullock to live and achieves this when you see everyone die around her after learning she also 'had' a little girl back on Earth. Even when she attempts to give up and control 'when and how' she dies after admitting her fear at knowing 'today' would be the day she died, you side with her, empathise with her realisation and forgive her for wanting to go painlessly while being sung to 'sleep' by a doting father, singing his baby to sleep, picked up on a radio frequency.

You might be one of those cinema goers that enjoys a final twist at the very end, such as when an Alien hybrid bursts from the chest of one of the Predators in AVP, or the moment of realisation in Seven Pounds when you learn the final part of Will Smith's plan for redemption, but this movie will disappoint in that department. I would be lying if I stated I wasn't sat prepared for one last twist in the final moments after Bullock flirts with death once or twice more before hauling herself from the bank of an Amazon-esq river bank; but no disappointment. Just the chance to exhale.

Boldly, I would say that this is the best piece of cinema I have seen this year, not for its performances, script or complexity, but as a cinematic experience that will probably be unrivalled for some time to come. Highly recommended here and goes some way to providing evidence that 3D movies can work if dealt with correctly.