Blu-Ray Review: The Killing Fields

Director: Roland Joffé
Screenplay: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands
Producer: Lord David Puttnam
Country: UK
Running Time: 142 min
Year: 1984
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Killing Fields is a classic British film which I’ve avoided for a long time. I’ve had it on DVD for years, but an ‘issue’ war film which looked weighty, worthy and bleak didn’t always appeal when I’d flick through my collection for something to watch. When a shiny new 30th Anniversary blu-ray was offered to me I finally gave in though and decided to give it a whirl.

The ‘issue’ under scrutiny in The Killing Fields is the Cambodian civil war and the atrocities dished out by the Khmer Rouge during their infamous ‘year zero’ cleansing campaign as well as looking at the poor handling of the situation by the American military. However, the film’s plot doesn’t spend too much time delving into the political machinations, it’s more a tale of friendship, loyalty and survival set amongst the carnage of civil war and ethnic cleansing. Based on a true story, The Killing Fields follows the relationship between Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times, and his Cambodian aide Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor). Pran, being well educated, is a prime target for the Khmer Rouge and chooses to stay with Sydney early on in the film when he has a chance to leave the country so, later on whilst his American friend is evacuated, he is sent to one of the notorious ‘re-education camps’ where he is savagely treated by his captors.

I find that epic, award winning war films can often be overrated, especially over time as their presentation becomes more dated. However, The Killing Fields has stood the test of time rather well and remains a powerful experience 30 years on. A lot of this is due to the fact that it is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of war, more so than a lot of other films of that genre and era. It’s a bloody, dirty, often chaotic film which throws you into the madness of what was happening and rarely lets you take a breath. A portion of the third quarter which sees Pran, Sydney and his fellow journalists held at the French Embassy is the only time the film really calms down, but wisely this time is used to develop the friendship between the lead characters as well as to deliver the most tense film developing scene I’ve come across.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: The Babadook

 

 

Ba Ba-ba DOOK DOOK DOOK!!

Silly made up sounds to fit a children’s verse or shudder-inducing syllables to remind you of the darkness that exists in all our souls? In the case of first-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s critically praised creeper The Babadook, it’s not an either / or situation. The cute can definitely coexist with the terrifying.

Young Samuel typically celebrates his birthday in tandem with his cousin even though the date isn’t right. His mother Amelia likes to avoid discussing his actual date of birth since it was the rather auspicious occasion of the car crash that took his father’s life (as he drove Amelia to the hospital to give birth). As he closes in on turning 7 years old, Amelia seems to be having a harder and harder time coping with single parenthood. Samuel is a handful as his imagination gets the better of him on a regular basis – his certainty that monsters are after him, his magic tricks and his creative construction of weaponry are all putting Amelia right on the edge. One night she finds a storybook called The Babadook that she’s never seen before and they decide to read it together. It illustrates a tall, top hat-wearing, cloaked in black man-beast called The Babadook who will come a calling and knock three times. And Once you let him in…he never leaves.

The book seems to leave quite the impression on Samuel as he starts worrying about the dagger-fingered Babadook and warns his mother repeatedly about it – especially after something knocks on their door one evening. Amelia’s sleep patterns start getting messed up, Samuel appears to be harder and harder to control and she starts having issues at work. She’s a complete wreck and begins pushing away those that can and want to help her – she is caught up in a crushing concern for her son while also being way past the frustration point with him. The house starts closing in on her…

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Dead Snow 2

 

 

It must’ve been the easiest elevator pitch ever…

 

“Nazi zombies…[pause for effect]…in the snow.”

 

The film I’m referring to, of course, was Dead Snow and it delivered on its premise…A field full of dead German WW II soldiers are awakened and then begin to spill the blood of a group of young adults all over fresh pristine snow. It was funny, gory and even a little bit scary. With an audience, it was a thing of beauty from the first zombie hand breaking through the cold white crust to the last open-ended moments where the sole-survivor realizes he may not yet be out of the woods. Which brings us to the sequel…

Though I guess they didn’t have to do an elevator pitch this time around (since the first film was somewhat successful), I suspect it would have gone something like this:

 

“More Nazi zombies plus Russian zombies plus more zombies, more offensive humour, more gore, more outlandish situations, more, more, more.”

 

Note there were no pauses for effect there. As a matter of fact, to give the same sensation as watching the movie, you shouldn’t have any pauses at all while you say that sentence (preferably delivering the entire pitch all in one fell swoop without taking a breath). Dead Snow 2 (subtitled “Red vs. Dead”) piles ridiculous onto ridiculous onto a mound of bodies and doesn’t wait for you to catch up with the story. It’s a pretty straightforward tale anyway: the Nazi zombies want revenge on the town that killed them and now that they have a purpose (and a tank), the only way to stop them is through a rival army of zombies. The chosen horde here is a set of Russian soldiers that had been put to death by these very same Nazis now laying waste to small Norwegian towns.

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Blu-Ray Review: Youth of the Beast

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Ichirô Ikeda, Tadaaki Yamazaki
Based on a Novel by: Haruhiko Ôyabu
Starring: Jô Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji
Producer: Keinosuke Kubo
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 15


I‘ve been aware of Seijun Suzuki in the Japanese cult cinema landscape for some time. I’ve seen his two most famous classics, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but I haven’t ventured beyond those yet, which is a bit mad seeing as I enjoyed both quite a lot and he’s directed over 50 films so far. His career has been an unusual one though which resulted in (supposedly) quite a hit and miss collection and his story is possibly more well known than his films have actually been seen.

In the mid-50’s, the Japanese entertainment company Nikkatsu started producing films again after a hiatus which began during WWII and, in a bid to keep productions fresh and exciting, they hired a number of young assistant directors from other studios, promising to promote them quickly to full director status, which was unheard of in the traditional Japanese studio system back in those days. Among those directors were Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Whereas Imamura started making his unique glimpses of the underbelly of society pretty much straight away, Suzuki found himself churning out cookie-cutter releases for the studio by the dozen, largely yakuza/gangster pictures. By all accounts, most of the 20-odd films he directed in his first 7 years or so at the studio weren’t particularly memorable. However, growing tired of this workmanlike practise and getting jealous of the freedom allowed to his peer Imamura, he finally tore off his shackles and made what is considered his breakthrough film with Youth of the Beast in 1963. It didn’t make much of a mark at the time, but in retrospect, it paved the way for his most highly regarded period which culminated in Branded to Kill which may have got him fired from Nikkatsu, whose head thought it was “incomprehensible”, but cemented his name in the pantheon of cult classic cinema.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Time Lapse

 

Opening with a shot of swirling red paint, which then has tiny flecks of white thrown into the mixture to disturb the surface and complicate the image, Bradley King and B.P. Cooper’s Time Lapse shows just how bloody far you can go with a tiny budget, a great prop and two locations. The script here is a beauty, that finds new ways to look at time travel causality (or rather the dangers of perceived causality) along with the good old genre standby of the ‘big bag of money’ landing in your lap. To prove they are the real deal, the film also diligently delves into trust-issues that develop amongst friends when a morally questionable opportunity in life presents itself.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Predestination

 

Never do yesterday what you should do tomorrow, reads a sign in the early minutes of The Spierig Brothers’ delightfully loopy new film. Another reads, If at last you don’t succeed never try again. There are many of these twisted bon-mots lifted verbatim from Robert Heinlein’s short story, “All You Zombies” and scattered throughout its film adaptation, Predestination. Here is the thing about time travel movies: much time is in fact spent waiting around for things to catch up, even if it is only for that moment when Doc Brown sends his dog Einstein 60 seconds into the future. It leaves plenty of time to read the signs.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Zombeavers

 

The best thing about Zombeavers is that it isn’t much more than its title implies. It creates a toxic spill in a remote area then plops a bunch of college kids in a cabin right next to it. Voila – zombie beavers attacking young co-eds. It also stays true to its 80s horror antecedents by making most of the gore and effects practical. CGI beavers would have ruined the film entirely, whereas these stuffed critters with partial animatronic characteristics and clunky tails do the trick nicely. When they come crashing through floor boards, they almost feel like they could chew your foot off. Of course, they are also just slightly ridiculous enough to laugh at when they suddenly show up in a bathtub or at the front door. Especially with their light blue glowing eyes…

The worst thing about Zombeavers is, well, that it isn’t much more than its title implies. Now that shouldn’t be taken necessarily as a criticism…It’s just that when the film works, it works so very well. So when it doesn’t, it’s somewhat disappointing. The film handles its action sequences very well and has moments of pretty inspired humour & gore, but then there are several scenes of bland, lengthy or even pointless chatter between the characters. Given the funny outtakes at the end of the film (some of which felt a bit like those line-o-rama special features many comedies have these days) and considering Judd Apatow, David Wain and others are thanked, I couldn’t help but want a bit more ooomph to the script. In fairness, my complaints are along the lines of wanting more than I’m really entitled to or should in any way expect. But it’s to the film’s credit that at some point – I did expect more.

Another thing about Zombeavers is that it sometimes is actually a bit more than its title implies. Think you know who’s going to get it next? Think the kills will all be based on levels of morality? Think you know how the beaver bite transforms its victim? Probably not…Not that the movie rolls out loads of surprises, but just enough so you aren’t completely sure of what the next scene may bring. One might even say that there’s just enough subversion of this type of genre to raise the eyebrows of those looking for simply a genre-throwback. On top of that, the cast does quite well with the material and only falter during some of those slower spots (though those moments could easily be “blamed” on pacing issues or editing). All three of the leading ladies (Cortney Palm, Rachel Melvin & Lexi Atkins) acquit themselves quite nicely through tears, screams, laughs and loads of prosthetics.

In the end, it’s a movie about beavers who become zombies. That alone should be enough, but you get more (including a great final “stinger”). So go enjoy Zombeavers.

Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Hellmouth

 

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen McHattie is always a pleasure to see up on the big screen. From supporting roles in Hollywood films like The Fountain, Watchmen and A History of Violence, to central performances in indie Canadian productions like the criminally underrated Pontypool, and now John Geddes’ Hellmouth. At 67, there are entire lifetimes written on his face, even as the rest of him remains lean and spry. McHattie is a conundrum, seemingly young and ancient at the same time, and is perfect here as the reluctant Charlie Baker, caretaker of his own personal abyss. Given more than three quarters of the script to himself in the film, his quivering yet authoritative gravelly voice is beyond reproach. If all of the artifice in the green screen CGI around him, is not entirely as engrossing as the man standing in front of it, it mostly is in service of the lead character, and that is miracle enough these days.

“Keep this box within 10 feet of you, at all times.” An instruction that several characters keep giving Charlie Baker, but it is more of a state of mind than a direct order. Having worked all of his life as a grave digger and maintenance man in a remote (and digital-backlot stylized) cemetery, Baker is minutes from retirement and still worried about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s regarding the local vandals might be moving around the tombstones in the cemetery. The ensuing countdown is wrought with both humiliation and diffidence that the film might be also called “About Soavi” (that is, for fans of Dellamorte Dellamore). The box is given to him by his overbearing employer, as he browbeats Baker into ‘one more job.’ As much as it is a literal object, the box is his lonely trapped career, his spent life and impending death.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: ABCs Of Death 2

 

A Better Compilation? Definitely!

Appreciate Being Chilled, Distressed & Entertained?

A Barrel Containing Demonic Enticing Fun.

 

However you want to say it, ABCs Of Death 2 easily outpaces its predecessor in pulling together 26 stories (from 26 different directors/director teams) marked with mishaps and killings. When I saw the first in this series (let’s assume right now that number 3 will be in the works soon if not already), it was easy enough to count the solid segments on one hand. With their follow-up, the producers have gathered a completely new group of directors (many of whom have had films at previous After Dark festivals) and reversed the trend. I can only think of 4-5 stories that didn’t work for me or had major issues. If your 125 minute anthology film is firing on all cylinders for 80% of its runtime, that’s a damn good ratio.

The lesser stories certainly stand out…P is for P-P-P-P Scary may have been trying for something different, but seemed out of place, unfocused and intentionally somewhat annoying. L is for Legacy suffered hugely from easily the worst acting and special effects of the entire omnibus. A shame since you don’t see a great deal of genre fare from Africa (at least not in any potentially wide released film). There was an attempt to try things from a different angle as the story uses an African myth of the supernatural avenging the wrongly accused, but its execution is simply poor. And I is for Invincible failed to do anything interesting with its tale of a family trying to get rid of their rich matriarch.

These lesser segments impact the flow of the film somewhat, but even so, they are spread out and never drag things down. At 4-5 minutes a segment, this enables the 2 hour film to move at a pretty brisk pace. It all starts well with an amateur assassinator’s idealized view of himself and a pompous British personality getting bested by mutated badgers. It’s at this point that the audience started to settle into their seats and realize that talk of the sequel being an improvement was bearing itself out. The mix of styles starts to show here too – while ‘B’ is a stripped down “single shot” from a TV cameraman, both ‘A’ and ‘C’ have top notch production values and special effects. D is for Deloused is a grotesque, but fascinating stop-motion animation (very similar to a Tool video) and Bill Plympton uses the letter ‘H’ to contribute a manic wordless hand-drawn view of the deleterious effects that can arise from the head games couples play. A high point of the film is its actual centre: a slo-mo mountain of a man terrorizing a sidewalk in M is for Mastigate and Larry Fessenden’s marvelous convergence of events in N is for Nexus.

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