Signs (2002)

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SignsWhat if extra-terrestrial life actually existed? And how would you react if amidst the resulting worldwide confusion, they actually turned up on your doorstep? Upon the presumption that no everyman would simply be able to infect the alien’s computer grid with a virus and be done with it, M. Night Shyamalan approaches the subject in a mood far more thoughtful and restrained than most of his predecessors. Because while intrigue certainly features, the focus of “Signs” is undoubtedly on a family drama unfolding in eastern Pennsylvania between a widowed Mel Gibson, his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). For long portions of the film, from the characters’ initial disbelief through their gradual encroaching on the humans, the alien life-forms remain in the shadows, importantly rooting the film in reality while equally adding the other dangerously Shyamalan horror undercurrent.

Unidentified flying objects are spotted over Mexico city and around the world but after mysterious crop circles appear in his cornfield, retired reverend Graham Hess (Gibson) and his family quickly need to come to terms with the fact that a close encounter with E.T. might be closer than they had initially thought. The family dogs begin acting strangely, shadows steal about the farm at night, certain radio frequencies pick up odd interference and a general sense of foreboding prevails the whole area. Even when his slightly eccentric children decide to don tinfoil hats as a precaution, Hess is far from convinced and is determined to hold the family unit together. M. Night Shyamalan movies are often hit-and-miss affairs, and his follow-up to “Unbreakable” treads a similarly fine line between thrills and the ridiculous: On the one hand “Signs” sells itself as a deep and contemplative family drama, successfully posing a what-if scenario with an added element of psychological horror for vast stretches, while on the other is Shyamalan’s palpable itching to remake “Independence Day.” One can easily get the feeling that the director would have relished a go at a straight-forward alien invasion movie à la Emmerich.

The resulting film is one of baffling paradox and for all of Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix’s fine acting and intricately wrought suspense throughout, the climax is painfully (or laughably depending on your mood) capricious and underwhelming in every way. The sad truth of the matter is that the blame must be laid exclusively at Shyamalan’s door as his screenplay shovels itself a hole it can never climb out of in a satisfactory manner. The world of a film should develop from A to B rather than try desperately try to find its way back to A, no matter how external the forces acting on characters. Similarly, detractors will be quick to point out the director’s reliance on creepy young children as a way of inflating chills, a method that paid far more dividends in the superior “Sixth Sense.” It’s a shame that these flaws and missed opportunities are so marked as they cloud over what is the basis for a genuinely good science fiction premise. The isolated and disconnected farm homestead and local community looking to its priest for guidance is positively brilliant, as is an utterly heart-wrenching last-supper scene (though the religious overtones are thankfully kept in check). “Signs” remains a missed opportunity for many reasons and it remains far more satisfying to watch Steven Spielberg tackle the same subject, something he twice managed masterfully.

Signs OSTJames Newton Howard, Shyamalan’s composer of choice has served the director well, often delivering music superior to what the film deserved. However the music for “Signs” sounds a little like an extended development of “The Sixth Sense” that would only come to full fruition in Howard’s score for “The Village” two years later. That is not to say the score doesn’t fit the film however, in fact quite the opposite: A repeating piano figure of three notes heard in the opening “First Crop Circles” and again throughout the score treads a fine line between delicate beauty and suspense. The alternating chord patterns make the theme suitable for both wonder and fear in the face of new discovery and Howard successfully leans into both. The closing “The Hand of Fate – Part II” rounds out the satisfying copious performance of this theme. The crashing dissonance that defines cues such as “Main Titles” and “Asthma Attack” and represents the aliens is far less interesting however and for listeners will return only for the first theme. Overall, “Signs” is beautiful in parts but not quite on par with some of Howard’s later work for Shyamalan, especially the aforementioned “The Village” and “Lady in the Water.”

“Signs” often displays flashes of brilliance but without the firm grounding of a satisfying resolution (and it’s not easy see how that could have been put together) the entire film seems somewhat pointless. Sci-fi fans might appreciate it but even they will be pushed. It needs to be said: Watch “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” instead.

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3 Stars

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3 Stars

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Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)

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Lesbian Vampire KillersCheap horror schlock has continually existed on the fringes of more mainstream horror most of which is thankfully condemned to the direct-to-video graveyard. With “Twilight” hysteria kicking into overdrive with “New Moon,” and the franchise bordering on parody or many viewers, 2009 saw a resurrection of a different sort but the days of Christopher Lee and Hammer horror sadly now exist as a distant memory. And with a title every bit as daft as the film itself, it may come as a surprise that anyone actually went to see it; at least no one can claim they weren’t warned. It is possible to view the whole affair with a belly laugh and a bunch of mates (and perhaps some alcohol) – the concept is obviously not intended to be taken entirely seriously. However, what Phil Claydon and his unfortunate cast and crew present is nothing short of a new and embarrassing low even in a genre that consists almost exclusively of lows.

It is doubtful whether any plot summary is even necessary. The story of two mismatched friends Fletch and Jimmy (James Corden and Mathew Horne), one of which bears an uncanny resemblance to Robbie Williams, who end up in a gothic rural village ridden by a terrible curse is a tale as old as time, even if the vampires of said curse are predominantly skimpily clad size-zero models with horrendous accents. There’s a few other bits in there somewhere, suffices to say it’s all an excuse for excessive amounts of pointy-toothed canoodling, lobbing of axes and swords with penis handles (appropriately given the title Dildao), and covering as many actors with copious amounts of the sticky creamy-white fluid which here plays the part of vampire blood. It seems what will be deeply traumatising for most of us, it’s as if the entire film plays as out as a highly bizarre wet dream for the writers. As previously mentioned, it would be possible to take the concept lightly and could even service as a time-killer (unintentional pun) if it weren’t so grossly devoid of real laughs. With innuendo jokes that would fall flat even at a drunk party, the writers have clearly not done their Kubrick homework (that would be a reference to the cut pie-fight scene from “Dr. Strangelove”).

Similarly, it seems utterly pointless to flag either the wooden acting, stale script or indeed fallacies of logic. Particularly this latter point, is a recurring problem for the film. As what it presents is essentially soft-core pornography, the vampires’ attraction to the male characters is curiously at odds with the concept and come to think of it, most of the homo-erotic “action” is understated as well, something that is sure to have certain feminist movements up in arms and leave certain other fetishists severely disappointed. Such discourse is of course a waste of valuable words but it all leads to an overwhelming conclusion: this is not a good bad film, it’s just a bad bad film, no in fact it’s an atrociously bad film or, as White Goodman might say, a skid-mark on the underpants of society. Even approaching the film with the lowest of expectations will fail to yield any satisfaction whatsoever. As such it’s a surprise that no Razzie awards were forthcoming (“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” took that particular “honour”).

Lesbian Vampire Killers OSTWhat confirms “Lesbian Vampire Killers” as a true film of paradox however is its musical score composed by Debbie Wiseman. Not a huge name in Hollywood, Wiseman did however seriously impress with her music for french crime-thriller “Arsene Lupin and this dreadful movie provides the perfect opportunity for a parody score of epic proportions. Removed from the context on album, the score really shines with both orchestral and choral bombast turned up to maximum levels throughout, ripping off almost every vampire score in history but also finding it’s own gleefully grand voice. The title theme whether performed by soaring vocals or blaring horns is an easy match for the best gothic horror score that even masters like Christopher Young could come up with. Picking out one highlight cue is nigh impossible but the six-minute “The Dawn of the Red Moon” is certainly a strong contender. A harmonious statement for Fletch and the Vicar (an ex-Doctor Who looking suspiciously like Kim Newman) heard in the middle of “The Crypt of Carmilla” is another of too many strong points to mention. All in all, this score reinforces the fact that sometimes the best music is written for the worst films. An excellent effort and though the score can in no way redeem the film, it’s a glorious listening experience on its own, deserving of the highest mark.

By all means invest in the soundtrack but otherwise run from “Lesbian Vampire Killers” as fast as you can. It’s viewing films like this that provides constant pessimistic reminders of humanity’s seemingly endless ability to produce trash, an utterly depressing fact, sad but true. You’d be better off watching “Twilight.” And that’s saying something.

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Please don’t ever watch this film but if you do, please leave a comment about how bad it was. You can rate it by clicking on the stars above. Also, please follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading and all the best!

Cloverfield (2008)

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CloverfieldAfter its early post-teaser-trailer hype and no doubt to the great satisfaction of producer J.J. Abrams, “Cloverfield” was filmed in complete secrecy. Thus what began as a low budget horror and monster-movie turned into an international smash-hit that proves once again how possible it is to make money without financial clout or big star names attached. The concept is as simple as it is terrifying in our media-saturated age of citizen-journalism, on the spot as news breaks: Think of “The Blair Witch Project” relocated to the big apple and crossed with “Godzilla.” Whether or not the film is a mashup of previously existing documentary and monster conventions is a valid question and debatable but the attraction of “Cloverfield” will be its execution and its fresh if not unique style.

The film is presented as a home-movie, initially to record testimonials at a going-away party in Manhattan, complete with grainy and shaky footage as well as the obligatory running commentary by the operator. The party is abruptly interrupted by a huge explosion in the lower city and (in a great “Escape From New York” tribute) the Statue of Liberty’s head flung down on of the avenues. As the tagline taunts – something has found us. And whatever that something is, it’s pretty angry. In the ensuing panic five friends, played by Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller (as the cameraman), Michael Stahl-David and Mike Vogel stick together to try and rescue an injured friend across New York, filming as they go. It’s a harrowing experience for the viewer as well as the characters as they dodge between explosions, an evacuation, the home guard and the something itself. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard mercilessly (yet, one feels gleefully) exposing us to horror after horror and teasing with as little background as possible (the addition of CGI is prominent yet not intrusive, a welcome feature) to root the film in a sort of bizarre reality most films can never get close to.

Amidst the non-stop action and truly terrifying suspense there’s little room for respite, just enough to catch a breath with some trivial but nevertheless touching footage of what was previously recorded on the tape. The impact and importance of the human story of “Cloverfield” cannot be understated and as is so often the case with sci-fi or fantasy, it can accurately reflect struggle and suffering in a disaster zone without becoming laden with sentimentality. Reeves never allows the story to descend into simple bravado action and even his shaky first-person view seems to enhance the experience on a level that goes beyond mere effect or technique to suggest insecurity. In these moments, it’s place in the the horror genre comes into its own and leaves even the toughest viewer shaken. So much so in fact that on release some theatres displayed a notice, warning of side- or after-effects similar to sea-sickness. If that isn’t convincing enough for you, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

Cloverfield OSTOfficially, “Cloverfield” contains no original score. To aid its docu-style, this feels natural but it didn’t prevent Abrams from asking regular collaborator Michael Giacchino to compose a suite of music for the end credits. The result, “Roar!” otherwise known as the “Cloverfield Overture” has to be one of the most bombastic single cues on film in a long, long time, featuring a full orchestra, bolstered low brass and some very haunting female vocals over the top. Giacchino provides us with twelve minutes of a glorious and very memorable over-the-top action-romp and as such it’s a shame that the idea couldn’t be explored over an entire film. While it pays significant tribute to Akira Ifukube (the Japanese “Godzilla” composer), the piece is littered with Giacchinoisms, a style that would find further exploration in his score to “Super 8” three years later. The piece is only available for digital download but considering the price, every film-score enthusiast should have this in their collection.

While the idea behind it may not be very new, “Cloverfield” is among the best hand-held camera films out there and makes for thoroughly gripping viewing throughout. If you’re looking for some mind-numbing thrills and are prepared to suffer some nightmares afterwards, J.J. Abrams has created the perfect film just for you. See it if you can.

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Black Swan (2010)

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Black SwanFor his sixth feature film and following his success with “The Wrestler,” director Darren Aronofsky turns once again to his favourite theme of self-destruction as the basis for a psychological horror thriller in the world of ballet. And while comparisons with the Mickey Rourke picture and perhaps also with 1999’s “Requiem for a Dream” will abound, “Black Swan” has been received positively, by critics and audiences alike. Particular praise has been showered on the performance of Natalie Portman in the central role and on Aronofsky’s superb visual style in creating a fascinating if disturbing drama that never lets up until the very end. It’s a pretty damning look behind the scenes of an art that is as cruel and brutal as it is enthralling and exquisitely beautiful in its search for perfection. Professionals in the field might contest this but the portrayal of the extreme pressure these dancers are placed under, and place themselves under for that matter, isn’t always as graceful as it always looks on stage.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is a highly disciplined and dedicated dancer in a New York ballet troupe, preparing a superior performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Driven by her own ambitions and particularly those of her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina covets the part of the Swan Queen, a dual part of the white and black swans that define the ballet. After auditions, she is indeed given the part by director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who sees in her the perfect incarnation of the white but not necessarily that of the black swan. Nina is caught between his arrogant and manipulative nature as well as new arrival, understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) who seems to embody the black swan perfectly. Afraid she will loose the part, Nina drives herself ever further towards a precipice, her life clearly beginning to mirror that of the character turning into the black swan. Her self-destruction is imminent, both her body (a rash continually grows on her back) and mind being tortured by a sexual awakening and hallucinations. It comes to the point where the audience no longer know what is real and what is happening inside her head. As a piece of psychological horror and madness it functions extremely well as it leaves a (very much intended) disturbing aftertaste. Like most of Aronofsky’s works, this is not a film you will want to see multiple times for fear of your own sanity.

Actors can always earn themselves brownie points if their immersion in a role is complete – think of Robert DeNiro. Portman too is as dedicated as her character (hopefully without seeing things), spending several months in ballet training, the result being that her part is entirely believable – even for those who have no knowledge of ballet whatsoever will find an accessible way into her performance. Dancing aside, Portman captures the essence of the fragile yet determined Nina, it seems, effortlessly. Most importantly of all she can prevent the drug-induced hallucinations and scares from running away into the realm of more generic horror. Aronofsky deserves equal credit for drawing out the nuances of her performance with photography and style that is at once disconcerting as it is obsessively thrilling to watch. The camera sticks very close to the action, handheld camera adding both a unnerving “shake” without ever becoming cliched as well as capturing the fluid beauty of the ballet. The horror elements when they come rely on relatively classic scare techniques – “it’s behind you,” “creepy bath scene” et al – but Aronofsky makes them feel fresh, perhaps because of their incongruous placement in the midst of ballet. Many subtle visual effects are employed at intervals of increasing frequency, particularly to grant Nina’s rash lifelike qualities. One minor disappointment is the underwritten role of Winona Ryder as a prima-ballerina past her prime, but on the whole almost every aspect of “Black Swan” is worthy of high praise.

Black Swan OSTComposer Clint Mansell enjoys considerable popularity with a younger generation of fans that value his minimalistic synth tendencies. An Aronofsky regular, Mansell’s major task for “Black Swan” was to adapt and incorporate Tchaikovsky’s masterful music with his own work. The result of his efforts consists of adding groaning synthesisers and other horror-like sound effects over the top of rather than truly manipulating the ballet music. That music forms a central and very memorable element of the film is beyond doubt, however credit is due to Tchaikovsky and not Mansell. While a certain amount of “mangling” may be effective, the Russian composer’s music is itself filled with such terrible beauty that it would have been suitable on its own as in the film’s opening dream sequence. If you seek a souvenir from the film, buy one of the many recordings of “Swan Lake” for truly great music. Mansell’s contribution on the soundtrack is not recommendable.

Chilling and at the same time breathtaking to watch, Natalie Portman’s performance is what drives this great psychological thriller. To see her loose out on an Oscar for it would count as a major upset. As for Aronofsky, the director has found regular form again. Yet however masterful his films are, they certainly do not make for easy viewing.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

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Sweeney Todd - the Demon Barber of Fleet StreetMovie musicals are usually bright, cheery affairs. Devotees of these should be wary then because it was clear from the outset that Tim Burton’s adaption of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical was going to be anything but bright and cheerful. The Tony Award winning musical is a tale of betrayal and bloody (very bloody) revenge. Wrongly accused of a crime by Judge Turpin, who covets his wife, barber Benjamin Barker returns from the prison stay in Australia to his home in London as Sweeney Todd, a ghost-like figure of his former self. He finds that things have changed: His wife was taken and abused by Turpin who now holds his daughter Joanna as his ward. Renting out the studio over Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop in Fleet Street, he goes on a killing spree, providing the necessary fresh meat for her pies which prove an immediate success with London’s citizens. At the same time young sailor Anthony who befriended Todd on the voyage falls in love with Joanna and intends to rescue her from Turpin’s clutches. Not to spoil anything but it all ends in a horrific bloodbath. It’s an interesting if very disgusting premise, taking a musical and placing it into the gory depths of the horror genre.

Tim Burton’s actor of choice is always Johnny Depp whose Sweeney is incredibly brooding. What’s clear is that he’s channelling Jack Sparrow in terms of voice and acting style but that works very well in this instance. His voice is rather thin and not what you might expect from someone who has to sing several songs and difficult ones at that. But this thinness too works very well as Todd is as much a demon or ghost as he is a real person. While some of the songs require him merely to speak in tune, others like “My Friends” allow some breathing space. Helena Bonham-Carter’s singing impresses also, her songs are far more difficult and she hits all the notes perfectly. “By the Sea” is a particular cracker in that sense but she makes it all look incredibly easy. All the other cast members also perform well – Alan Rickman as Turpin, Timothy Spall as the Beadle, Jamie Campbell-Bower and Jayne Wiesner as the star-crossed lovers and one hilarious cameo from Sacha Baron-Cohen as sham barber Adolfo Pirelli, clearly relishing every second of faux Italian accent. Another standout is the young Ed Sanders as Toby who can sing extremely well.

Indeed the shortcomings are less the fault of the cast or even Burton but lie within Sondheim’s musical. The plot never really goes anywhere, it just knows its premise and wants us to recoil at the gore. This is so overdone with fake blood that finding part of a finger in a meat pie is unlikely to elicit even a shudder from the audience at the end. Sweeney himself just sits in his lair slitting throats waiting for Turpin to appear for his revenge, and the whole “By the Sea” sequence bears no relation whatever to the plot. As the screenplay already drops songs like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from the original, maybe this could have been done away with as well. Thus, what begins as a gruesomely stylish insight into the downsides of the Victorian period, all becomes rather pointless towards the end. Yes the art-direction quite rightly got an Oscar nomination – it all looks fabulously disgusting – but on the whole the story just doesn’t have enough bite to enthral us. Anyone who can’t see blood of course shouldn’t go near the theatre when this is on.

Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street OSTThe best thing that Burton ever did for his “Sweeney Todd” was to employ Sondheim himself to look after the score. Sondheim painstakingly reworked all of it, orchestrating for a 78 piece orchestra rather than the original 27 parts. The result of this is astounding with real depth to the cues, both underscore and songs. Right from the opening organ statement we know that this is going to be darkly epic. Songs like “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest” really shine in the film and on album as well. They just get better and better when divorced from the images. Two versions exist, a regular album and a collector’s edition with a few songs more. Very, very enjoyable.

Despite mostly positive reviews from other critics, I find that the tale of Sweeney Todd gets tiring even if the songs do not. Tim Burton and Co. have clearly put in a lot of effort and are to be commended for it, but all the best effects in the world can’t compensate for the lack of plot development underneath. It’s a wonderfully gothic gore opera in a way but if you seek some of Burton’s best work, this film isn’t among them.

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I’m not generally a fan of horror or gore but I sure do love these songs! What did you think of Mr T? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts or feedback. You can also follow me on Twitter if you were so inclined. Until next time, have a spooktcular Halloween!

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