September 2007

Iceman

Iceman DVD Iceman opens in the Arctic with a team of scientists retuning to their base with a frozen mammal. As the name of the film implies, this is not just a mammal but a man – a 40,000 year old Neanderthal to be precise. And, as the scientists start to thaw out the body, it turns out that the specimen is a lot less dead than originally assumed.

This turn of events gives rise to a conflict between the Arctic scientists. To the surgical team, led by Dr. Diane Brady (Lindsay Crouse), the Neanderthal is a medical resource to be investigated in order to discover how he managed to survive, frozen, for so long. The anthropologist Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), he is a window to our past to be learned from.

A compromise, of sorts, is reached and the iceman (John Lone) – whose name turns out to sound a lot like Charlie – is placed in an enclosed facsimile of his prehistoric world. Here, Shepherd is able to interact with Charlie and, as the two men slowly begin to understand each other, a bond begins to form between them…

On the face of it, Iceman is a film about science, about scientists and about the conflicts that can arise between different disciplines and over different priorities. Unfortunately, this part of the film didn’t really work for me primarily, I think, because the conflict as it was presented felt very artificial. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the interactions between the scientists were remarkably unengaging and some of their behaviour – especially on the part of Stan Shephard – struck me as downright unprofessional.

However, the film is more than redeemed by John Lone’s superb performance as Charlie the Iceman. Here, we really do get a sense of a man out of time, trying to make sense of his surroundings and trying to express himself to Shephard.

Lone’s performance also brings out the best in Timothy Hutton and, as the two men spend time together, a real sense of camaraderie develops between them that informs Shephard’s subsequent attitudes and behaviour.

Director, Fred Schepisi, takes frequent advantage of the Arctic landscapes to remind us of the isolation in which all of this is happening – and the photography is utterly breathtaking. However, it’s not until the end of the film that the setting is used to its full extent – but when it is, the results are both powerful and moving.

Iceman is much more a drama than a science fiction film, but as a drama it is very effective indeed. The film takes an essentially simple premise and expands it into an engrossing story about the meeting of cultures and what it means to be human.

The|Demons|Among|Us

The|Demons|Among|Us Although a huge number of horror films are being released these days, there are very few of them that manage to combine originality, intelligence and a visceral punch that stays with you for days afterwards. Dante Tomaselli’s films manage to do this, as did Nathan Hynes and Chris Power’s Long Pigs. And, to this list, I would add Stuart Simpson’s Demonsamongus.

The film is set in Miranda Falls, a small, quiet country town where Joe (Nathaniel Kiwi) is staying while he works on his thesis on the effects of advertising on our society. But all is not as it seems and Joe soon finds himself being stalked by a demonic presence in the isolated house in which he is staying.

Not surprisingly, Joe flees the house and soon finds himself covered in blood, running half-dressed through the forest at night and being hinted not only by demons but also the police, foe whom he is the primary suspect when the bodies start being found.

Meanwhile, Ed Winters (Peter Roberts), an aggressively amoral advertising executive now living in Hollywood is called back to Miranda Falls when his ex-wife and family turn up among the dead…

The early – establishing – scenes for this film had a very gritty quality reminiscent of the horror films of the 1970s, but once the horror starts, Simpson really does let rip. The result is an incredibly atmospheric, and genuinely nightmarish experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you try to keep up with what is, or is not, really happening.

Nathaniel Kiwi puts in a superb performance as a man hunted – and haunted – by the strangeness going on around him. Also worth mentioning is Laura Hesse who, as Kylie Fitzgerald, goes through a range of emotions and responses to the changing events and manages, very successfully, to maintain the believability of her character as she does so.

But what really makes this film stand out is the cinematography which, combined with an excellent soundtrack, really does evoke the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare. And it’s this dream-like quality which makes the film both engrossing and disturbing.

On top of all of this, Stuart Simpson also has much to say about consumerism in general and the advertising industry in particular. Gratifyingly, he doesn’t feel the need to beat the audience over the head with his message, preferring to trust the audience to be smart enough to understand what he’s saying.

All in all, Demonsamongus is an outstandingly good horror film, and one that recognises that atmosphere is more effective than gore when trying to scare an audience. It’s also a very intelligent film that successfully embeds its social commentary into the plot in a manner that is both unambiguous and unintrusive.

Stuart Simpson has set the bar very high for himself with this film and I will be very interested in seeing what he does next.

Exiled

Exiled poster Set in Macao in 1998, just before the handover of the colony from Portugal to China, Exiled (Fong Juk) is a story of gangsters, loyalty, honour and courage.

Wo (Nick Cheung), an exiled gangster, has unwisely returned to the area with his wife and child and now two pairs of men are looking for him. The first two to warn him of the danger he’s in, the second two to execute him. Wo is not at home when the men come looking for him, so they wait. As they do so, it emerges that they know each other – and they know Wo.

When Wo finally puts in an appearance, two of the waiting men follow him indoors and the first of many spectacular set pieces follows – this one being a shootout that is one part Mexican standoff, one part western style gunfight.

The action is halted by Wo’s crying baby and the men agree to sit down and talk. But before they can do so, they repair the damage and help Wo bring his new furniture indoors. Over dinner, it emerges that all five were childhood friends and all five became mobsters together and, even now when they are on opposite sides, old loyalties remain.

Between them, the five men come up with a scheme that honours both their old loyalties and the new realities. Once they try to put their plan into action, however, things start to go horribly wrong.

Visually, Exiled is a spectacular film, packed with iconic images drawn from Sergio Leone by way of early John Woo. Johnny To’s films have been described as a hallmark of quality filmmaking in Hong Kong over the last ten years and, in this film, you can see why. Every time you think he’s exhausted a particular scene or sequence, he demonstrates how much more can be done with an inventiveness that leaves you stunned.

But the film is much more than a series of action set-pieces. The plot itself is pretty straight-forward and, in lesser hands, could well have started to drag – especially in the few cases where the characters’ behaviour appears to be driven more by the need to keep things moving than any aspect of their personalities so far revealed.

The film is redeemed, however, by both the playful sense of humour that is apparent throughout the film and by the characters, who – while not being entirely likeable – are certainly well-rounded enough for you to genuinely care about what happens to them.

All five of the lead actors put in very solid performances here and play well as an ensemble, allowing their characters to develop and their history and conflicts to emerge naturally. But the real driving force of the film is Josie Ho who, as Wo’s wife, really does stamp her powerful presence on the proceedings and drives things forward to film’s spectacular conclusion.

All in all, then, Exiled is a full-on action film and one that expertly makes use of all the tropes of the various action sub-genres. It is, by turns, a gangster movie, a western, a road movie and a tragedy – and there are also plenty of dramatic and comedic moments thrown into the mix as well. Johnny To brings all of these elements together expertly to make a film that is not only spectacular but also takes a long look at modern ideas of honour and loyalty.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Now You See Me, Now You Don��t Usually when I come to review a film, I start by running through the synopsis until I reach a tangent on which I can go off and talk about the film more generally. This is not an approach that I feel I can take with Now You See Me, Now You Don’t (Most Látszom, Most Nem Látszom) because of the way the story slowly develops as the film progresses. And it is a superbly told story.

We’re introduced first to the overly protective mother (Dóra Létay) of the family, who is struggling with her son, Alex (Vitéz Ábrahám) who hasn’t spoken to her for days. Dad (Ernõ Fekete) isn’t much help either. He’s been working at the lab for the last few days, and when he does return home he’s remarkably distant.

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Alex can no longer be seen.

At heart the story that slowly emerges here is quire a very simple one, albeit one with a very effective twist to it. But what really makes Now You See Me, Now You Don’t stand out is the genuinely chilling atmosphere in which writer/director Attila Szász manages to steep the whole film.

Visually, it is stunning. Every frame is beautifully shot and flawlessly captures both the mood of the scene and the emotional state of the characters involved. And, appealing to my own liking for surrealism, the film is packed with symbolism.

But this isn’t just a case of style for its own sake. The imagery and the score all combine perfectly with the exceptional performances of all three of the actors to really get inside their characters. The symbolism, too, is constrained very firmly by the need to either progress the story or to add depth to the characters. Even if the reason for an image isn’t immediately apparent, it will have become so by the time the credits roll.

Stunningly shot and strongly acted, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t is a genuinely moving ghost story and one of the most memorable films I’ve seen all year.

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love Back in the 1990s someone noticed a loophole in the UK censorship laws that allowed soft porn films to be sold through normal channels as long as they included some educational element. There followed a small flurry of films which featured a series of sex scenes, each followed by a talking head discussing what had just happened – these were the films for which the fast forward button was invented.

Kama Sutra: The Secrets of the Art of Love is very much in this mould. What we get this time around is a series of couples simulating sex in a variety of positions while a breathy woman provides a voice-over commentary.

Beautifully shot and sensually lit, and presented in both standard and 3D versions, this film is clearly aimed at couples.

Between them, the three – very attractive – couples in the film work their way through a total of fifty sexual positions, each with the obligatory voice over. But in a 75 minute film, that doesn’t add up to a great deal of time for each position.

It also became noticeable as the film wore on that, although fifty positions are featured, there are a lot less than fifty ways to film them. The commentaries also ran into a similar problem. Individually, they were all very well done but, as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is a limit to the number of things you can say about any given position.

All of this makes it very much a film to dip in and out of rather than one to watch straight through. But, if you have a reasonably open-minded partner, this is also a film that could well inspire a whole weekend of fun.

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