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Friday
Sep072012

WHITEOUT: A RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW

After an auspicious start in films like Much Ado About Nothing and The Last Days of Disco, British actress Kate Beckinsale has struggled to be taken seriously. She's talented and beautiful, but her choices have been questionable. I submit her barely-seen 2009 thriller Whiteout as Exhibit A....

Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Machet, Alex O'Loughlin, Tom Skerritt and Columbus Short.
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey W Hayes, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber; based upon the graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber.
Director: Dominic Sena.

Rating: 1.5/5

Gallons of the titular correction fluid may have helped Dominic Sena’s abysmal thriller if it had been applied at just about any juncture during the graphic novel-to-feature film script stage. Despite the occasional upside (some cool special effects – no pun intended – and the always reliable Tom Skerritt), Whiteout is an icky, snowbound murder-mystery of absolutely no consequence at all.

The only people who get off lightly are the fanboys who will watch for their latest, sweaty glimpse of English beauty Kate Beckinsale. The star of Underworld and, more recently, the much-maligned Total Recall reboot, gives her fans a lingering glimpse of her pristine tighty-whiteys, mooning the camera during the opening credits; if that’s all you’re after, you’re free to go at the 8 minute mark.

Kate's undie-flash aside, the most thrilling scene in the film is a pre-credit flashback that puts the viewer in the midst of a shoot-out on board a huge Russian aircraft, circa 1987. The plane crashes into the brutally inhospitable nether-regions of Antarctica and is lost to the elements until 20 years later, when some personnel from the Amundsen-Scott Research Station stumble upon her and her valuable booty.

Sena, who peaked early in his career with the terrific Brad Pitt/David Duchovny thriller Kalifornia (1993) before thriving with Hollywood hokum like Swordfish (2001) and Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) before bottoming out with the Nicholas Cage travesty Season of the Witch (2011), borrows some cues from great snowbound thrillers such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – in fact, any tension that floats to the surface in the film’s first half comes from not knowing what all the fuss is about (is it alien?) and why men are dying because of it (SPOILER ALERT – it’s diamonds...yawn).  Beckinsale plays the outpost’s Federal marshal, Carrie Stetko, serving out a period of self-banishment after a drug bust in Miami ended with her partner dead. (Miami to Antarctica?? That’s a lot of guilt she’s dealing with!)  

Things go particularly bad with the introduction of UN investigative officer Robert Pryce, played by Gabriel Macht. Not just because he is a totally irrelevant character whose presence is never more than a plot red herring, despite extended dialogue and some lacklustre romantic chemistry with Beckinsale. The real downside of the character’s introduction is Macht who, as evidenced here and as the title character in that other dire graphic novel adaptation The Spirit, is one of the worst actors in Hollywood today.

A well-staged battle with the killer in a driving snow storm holds attention momentarily, but there’s no saving Whiteout from the brown heap of really bad American movies of the last few years. It’s doubly confounding that it should be such a misfire, coming as it does from the Dark Castle Entertainment, the horror genre arm of mega-producer Joel Silver’s Warner Bros-based production company that is overseen by Robert Zemeckis.

And Kate Beckinsale needs to pry herself free of the influence that her husband and Underworld director Len Wiseman has over her career choices – there is a fine actress behind all this macho-genre crap that his resume suggests he favours and in which she keeps appearing. Anymore stinkers like Whiteout and she’ll find herself TV-bound to topline another mediocre cop show (‘CSI: Anchorage’, perhaps – she’s already got an audition reel....)

Sunday
Jul292012

THE BURROWERS: A RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW

First glimpsed by Australian audiences at the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival, J.T. Petty's The Burrowers all but vanished from the public's eye. SCREEN-SPACE's second Retrospective Review aims to bring this undervalued creature feature the prominence it deserves.

Stars: Clancy Brown, William Mapother, Karl Geary, Doug Hutchison, Laura Leighton and Jocelin Donahue.
Writer/Director: J.T. Petty

Rating: 3.5/5

An atmospheric, slightly loopy mix of western lore and monster movie shocks – best described as The Searchers meets The Thing – The Burrowers is a very cool movie. Director J.T Petty's nasty romp followed up Alex Turner's Dead Birds (2004) and preceeded John Geddes Exit Humanity (2011) in Old West/monster movie mash-up genre; it may well be the best of them.

In 1879, the earliest white settlers are barely surviving in homesteads far removed from civilisation. When a young family goes missing, a band of misfit idealists and gruff men of the land set out on a journey into the Dakota wilderness to find them. For Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), the mission is personal - he was to marry the beautiful Maryanne (Jocelin Donahue); Will Parcher (William Mapother) and John Clay (Clancy Brown) are experienced Indian fighters, convinced the local natives have abducted and murdered the family.

At first relying on the sociopathic leader of the local army battalion, Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison, a veteran of similar monster-movie madness, having starred as ‘Eugene Tooms’ in The X-Files), the group soon break away to travel the open plains alone. But it is when night falls, and the long grasses near their campfire hum with the drooling evilness of the creatures from beneath the earth, that the film takes flight as a monster movie of shuddering effectiveness.

Petty adapts his own episodic internet series with many of the same cast, including Brown and Mapother (cousin of Thomas Cruise Mapother III). He knows these characters very well and fleshes them out to terrific comic and dramatic effect. But best of all, he knows what scares us. His sinewy monsters, stalking the unaware on all fours, their boney elbows and knees protruding like those of bats scurrying across open ground, are very effective. He keeps them and the mystery of their existence hidden for much of the film, finally unleashing their physicality and true horror in a final reel shocker.

Though shot on a measly US$7million budget, The Burrowers recreates the early West and envisions pure evil with an A-grade attention to detail. As a throwback to the great B-movies of years gone by, it echoes the middle America-vs-monster movie Tremors (1990), the astronauts-vs-monster movie Alien (1979) and the lost campers-vs-monster movie Prophecy (1979). Like those films, The Burrowers is a choice example of this paranoid, claustrophobic, tummy-tightening genre.

Friday
Jul132012

THE COLLECTOR: A RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW

Pulled from its planned Australian cinema run by a tentative distributor, Marcus Dunstan's 2009 horror opus The Collector has gone to find much favour amongst DVD cultists. With the announcement at the San Diego Comic-Con this week that Dunstan is nearing completion of post-production on its sequel, The Collection, SCREEN-SPACE examines where the collecting began in the first of our new Retrospective Review series.

 

THE COLLECTOR

Stars: Juan Fernandez, Josh Stewart, Michael Reilly Burke, Andrea Roth, Madeline Zima and Karley Scott Collins.
Writers: Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan.
Director: Marcus Dunstan

Rating: 3.5/5

Bestowing any worthy words upon the repellent genre known as torture-porn immediately induces stomach- twinging pangs of guilt, but it is impossible to deny that Marcus Dunstan’s The Collector is a film of considerable style and effective story-telling.

Our reluctant hero is petty crim Arkin (Josh Stewart), whose job as a security-systems installer for wealthy home owners allows him to case mansions, aiding his true vocation – burglar. Late one night, he returns to the isolated country home of Michael (Michael Reilly Burke) and Victoria Chase (Andrea Roth), assuming the house to be empty. To his growing horror, however, he realises he has stumbled upon a full-blown nightmare of carnage and sadism, as the Chase family has been made playthings for the sick mind of The Collector (veteran character actor Juan Fernández, unseen behind a leather mask).

The Collector has wired the house with a variety of brilliantly malicious booby-traps, all designed to a) ensure that escape for anyone inside the house is impossible, and b) provide the most cinematically-graphic means of support-character disposal as possible. Initially, Arkin just wants out but, having bonded with the youngest daughter Hannah (Karley Scott Collins) and learning of her presence in the house of horrors, he turns saviour; he also met teen-vixen older daughter Jill (Madeline Zima), though her sexually-aggressive antics condemn her under horror film rules, so little time or effort is invested in her character.

Writer/director Dunstan, emerging from the ‘creative’ team behind a bevy of the Saw films, takes this relatively simple conceit and milks it for maximum chills. That said, much of the film’s gut-level effectiveness comes from his staging of some truly hideous moments; scenes involving fish-hooks, cockroaches, Alsatian guard dogs and bear traps go pretty close to crossing the line, as does the involvement of pre-teen actress Collins, who is party to several particularly heinous acts. (And cat owners...trust me, avoid at all costs).

There’s a 1980s ‘video-nasties’ nostalgia about the horrors on show in The Collector. Dunstan relishes in the details of his villain’s handiwork – a notable trait from a time when the likes of Friday the 13th’s Jason Vorhees, Halloween’s Michael Myers or ...Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger were who the crowds came to root for. Unlike those films, who cast support roles based upon how loud auditionees could scream, The Collector has a strong co-lead in Josh Stewart; empathy for this wayward character and a depth that some deftly-handled backstory provides is very welcome. 

Collaborators on the film all seem at the top of their game – the film benefits from atmospheric, dreamlike lighting; Jerome Dillon’s music nods to electro-soundtrack maestros, Tangerine Dream; and restrained, precise editing, especially of scenes shot in slow-motion, adds to the overall ‘waking-nightmare’ impact.

The ending, staged with a wildly-indulgent sense of Grand Guignol, certainly points to the forthcoming sequel with visions of a multi-episode slasher franchise featuring the hooded torturer a very likely home-video prospect.

Friday
Jun082012

FREAK ME OUT AT SFF 2012

The Sydney Film Festival’s resident ghoul Richard Kuipers, curator of this year’s Freak Me Out horror movie strand, has programmed six cutting-edge works from diverse corners of the globe – the US, UK, France and Japan (as well as shorts from Australia and Spain). We take a look at what to expect from the world’s most warped visionaries.

HAROLD’S GOING STIFF

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Wed 6 Jun 8.30pm; Wed 13 Jun 8.15pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Fashioned in the style of a BBC regional documentary about a sensitive local health issue, Keith Wright's very funny and surprisingly touching tale investigates 'Onset Rigors Disease', a mystery illness turning men in the north of England into something resembling bloodthirsty ghouls. Complete with a hilariously inept vigilante squad of gormless gits whose members are more brain-dead than the monsters they're hunting, Harold's Going Stiff is a truly original horror gem.
What the critics say.... – “Harold’s Going Stiff plays out the anxiety surrounding ageing in a bittersweet, engaging story, as embodied by professional actors and non-actors who really make you care about their characters.” Keri O’Shea, Brutal as Hell.

KILLER JOE

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Thur 7 Jun 9.00pm; Thur 14 Jun 9.10pm.

What the SFF Program says....- Veteran director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) gets down and very dirty with this juicy crime noir. Sleazy, salacious, darkly comic and with jaw-dropping scenes of conduct unbecoming even the low-lifes depicted here, Killer Joe is killer stuff.
What the critics say.... – “The William Friedkin of The French Connection and The Exorcist may be but a distant memory, but Killer Joe proves that at 76 the Academy Award-winning director is certainly no back number.” Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter.

LIVID

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Fri 8 Jun, 8.45pm; Fri 15 Jun 8.30pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Vampire ballerinas and some particularly nasty ghosts run amok in this scary and visually stylish slice of gothic horror. Filmmaking duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo weave a tingly atmosphere of dread around Lucie, a young homecare nurse whose decrepit and apparently comatose patient is said to have hidden a fortune somewhere in her creepy old mansion. Evoking the classy Euro horrors of past masters Mario Bava and Jean Rollin while dishing up a very modern helping of carnage,  Livid is primed to please gorehounds and arthouse buffs alike.
What the critics say....- “LIVID feels poetic and entirely drenched in the nightmare logic of more stylistically-concerned foreign horror. It’s exciting and enthralling, and showcases some of the best imagery, production design and art direction you’re likely to see this year.” Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria.

OK, GOOD

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Sat 9 Jun 9.00pm; Sat 16 Jun 9.15pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Director and co-writer Daniel Martinico constructs a riveting and suspenseful portrait of a performer whose growing inability to communicate in situations where there's no script is turning him into a ticking time bomb of inner rage. With a powerhouse central performance from actor and co-writer Hugo Armstrong, this slow-burn portrait of isolation and alienation achieves maximum results from its minimalist structure.
What the critics say....- “Through the slow, steady accumulation of seemingly random but increasingly portentous details, helmer Daniel Martinico fashions a riveting portrait of an actor on the verge of a nervous breakdown -- or, quite possibly, something worse.” Joe Leydon, Variety.

EXCISION (pictured, above)

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Sun 10 Jun 9.00pm; Tue 12 Jun 8.30pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Psychodrama, melodrama and surreal shock-horror collide memorably in the story of Pauline, a very bright and very disturbed high school student who isn't kidding when she says, "I have borderline personality disorder." AnnaLynne McCord (pictured, left) is a knockout in the lead, and Traci Lords proves yet again she's the finest actress ever to emerge from adult films with her spot-on performance as Pauline's stitched-up mother. Look for Malcolm McDowell as a teacher and cult film kingpin John Waters as a church minister (!) on a hopeless mission to help this most difficult of young parishioners.
What the critics say....- “Ms. McCord's consistently unhinged performance...makes Excision so much offbeat, creepy, challenging fun.” Scott Weinberg, FEAR.net.

THE WARPED FOREST

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Mon 11 Jun 9.00pm; Sun 17 Jun 9.30pm.

What the SFF Program says... - Dreamt up by Japanese cult figure Shunichiro Miki (Funky Forest: The First Contact) this beautifully designed and photographed exercise in unrestrained imagination is frequently hilarious, sometimes grotesque and constantly compelling in the very strangest and most delightful of ways. Highly unlikely to ever pop up in multiplexes, but is sure to linger long in the memory of anyone willing to approach its wonderfully eccentric charms.
What the critics say....- “This one-of-a-kind pic makes no apparent sense, but is compelling in the strangest of ways.” Richard Kuipers, Variety.

Tuesday
May222012

CANNES CRITICS MAUL DARIO'S DRACULA

The Croisette ran red with the blood of Argento's Bram Stoker redux, so cutting were the critics reactions.

The latest opus from horror legend Dario Argento was met with jeers and walkouts at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Revered for his horror classics Suspiria, Deep Red, Inferno, Phenomena and Tenebrae, the Italian ‘Maestro of the Macabre’ has spent the last 36 hours on the media merry-go-round, fielding questions regarding the dismal response to his latest work, Dracula 3D.

A lurid adaptation of Bram Stoker’s literary classic shot in the rich reds and blacks for which the director is famous, Argento corralled a cast that includes Rutger Hauer as vampire-hunter Van Helsing, the director’s daughter, screen siren Asia Argento (left, with her father at the Cannes premiere), as Lucy and respected German actor Thomas Kretschmann (Below, clowning with his director) as The Count. Shot in ‘Stereoscopic 3D’, the grand production is a French/Spanish/Italian co-production budgeted at Euro5,000,000.

In the film’s festival press-kit, Argento somewhat abstractly states “I was very faithful to the story, but not to the character of Dracula as we’ve come to know him all these years. In fact, I added many aspects to his personality from my imaginary world.”

The internet was buzzing with negative feedback to the trailer, but any work from the Giallo master is keenly anticipated and the film had been afforded the first Midnight Screening slot at the 2012 event – a prestige placement reserved for significant genre works.

But it was soon clear that Argento’s latest was far from his best. In one of the first reviews published, David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter called it “risible gothic trash.” Observing that Argento was “a director stuck in stylistic gridlock for well over a decade now”, Rooney went on to observe that Kretschmann “heads an old-school Europudding cast – an orgy of different acting styles, poorly post-synched into stiff English” and that “the 3D serves mainly to make the whole sad, cadaverous enterprise more ludicrous.”

Soon, the wave of negative opinion in the wake of the screening surfaced. The horror-friendly site Film School Rejects was gentler than some, saying “In short, it’s shit, but that doesn’t mean people won’t still love it;” Chris Haydon of Filmoria.com said it was one of “the most boneheaded, preposterous and inane versions of the story I’ve ever seen;”

Movie.com’s Eric D. Snider was amused, suggesting the film would be “laughable if it were the first film by a Hollywood producer's nephew.” But he soon sharpened his critical claws, stating “As the twenty-first feature by a 71-year-old genre veteran, it's embarrassing.”

Dracula 3D’s theatrical fate remains uncertain. So fiercely underwhelming was the response from the Cannes media, it is unlikely the film will travel into foreign cinemas. That is an pricey predicament for the producers of the relatively expensive film and particularly dire given the full effect of the 3D technology will be lost as a home video item.