THEATRE REVIEW: Biohazard The Stage

Biohazard The Stage

As previously documented, my long-standing relationship with Resident Evil (or Biohazard, to give its original Japanese title) has been somewhat tortured of late. Therefore, the prospect of going to see a stage adaptation of the franchise (having already spun-off into films, books, comics, and theme park interactive experiences) was met more with caution than excitement, but still a morbid curiosity. What form would it take? How would it work? Would it be scary? Embarrassing? Hilarious? Awful? Given that it tied in nicely with a trip to Tokyo and I would be accompanied by a friend with a similar take on all things Resident Evil, how could I not go?

Performed at Roppongi’s swish, new EX Theater, with a short run in late October/early November, Biohazard The Stage (a glorious linguistic misfire of a name) is set sometime between the events of RE5 and RE6, in which a virus outbreak turns the staff and faculty of an Australian university into zombies and fan “favourites” Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Piers Nivans have to contain it. The plot devised by Capcom is not based on any one game, but follows the same predictable narrative beats that would make it fit neatly amongst the official chapters. As such, it won’t surprise anyone who has played any of the games (and God help you if you see this without any prior experience), or probably anyone who has encountered a work of fiction for that matter. Will the scientists with the wonky tie harbour a dark secret? Will the bleach blonde guy in the red shirt turn out to be a bit of a bad’un? Will the mysterious stranger with the leather jacket hold the key to everything?

Perhaps this is more a ‘greatest hits’ package, assembling these well-worn elements (and fairly cohesively) as a nod to the fans. And there is certainly fan service on offer, notably flashbacks to RE0 and RE1, as well as appearances from those infamous door animations, a rocket launcher and even a First Aid Spray (no typewriters or item chests that I can recall though). These winky references are to be expected, and as cringe-inducing as they may be, they made me smile, in a chucklesome “oh, you went there, didn’t you” kind of way. The same can be said of the staging, a large shifting multi-tiered set onto which are projected different foregrounds and backdrops to change location. And yet, these projections are low-resolution and/or created with crummy CG, unintentionally mimicking the basic polygon models and basic textures of the original game. It’s a shame though that the key thing lost in its translation to the stage is the horror. What little blood and gore and gruesomeness there is in Biohazard The Stage is largely confined to pre-recorded video, nothing especially scary happens, and the zombies are disappointingly unthreatening. It doesn’t help that the action gets repetitive quickly, with scene after scene of our heroes darting into a new location, popping some caps, fisting some cuffs (in a reminder to just how much the games have been influenced by the films, there is an awful lot of kicking and hand-to-hand combat), and making their way to point B. But at least the actors are no slouches in that department, maintaining an impressive energy level throughout.

In fact, for all the inherent silliness, the cast are completely committed to the premise, taking everything very seriously, as if a stage adaptation of a video game franchise is just as legitimate as Pinter or Beckett, or at the very least a jukebox musical. And why not? That a stage version of Phoenix Wright was playing down the road suggests this wasn’t as novel a proposition as it first appeared. Though the principals are mostly culled from TV dramas and idol groups, Sonny Chiba (best known in the West for the Street Fighter – not that one – movies, and Kill Bill) lends the production a bit of emotional heft and gravitas, though the best character is the impossibly-monikered Posh Brown, a jittery security guard whose comic relief antics, while played broad, break the po-faced earnestness elsewhere. During the interval, my friend and I joked that what it really needed was a musical number, and lo and behold, the second half commences with a big zombie scuffle choreographed to a hi-NRG dance-pop tune. There are some other fun stage effects and ideas too – the backstory for the Umbrella corporation features actual umbrellas twirling on stage, text messages are projected onto the backdrop, a genetic mutation happens with the aid of simple but effective costume trickery.

So, for better and for worse, Biohazard The Stage is a faithful adaptation of the Resident Evil games as they currently exist. It is closer to the games than the live-action films in execution, and while it plays like one long cut-scene, it’s at least more interesting than the straight-to-DVD CG offerings. Faint praise, maybe, and there’s certainly nothing there for anyone but the most dedicated fans, but despite feeling burned out by all things bio-weaponry, it was not the abomination it could have been.

A DVD release is due in January with English subtitles, but I imagine much would be lost removed from the live setting (where at least there is something fascinating about experiencing it in the flesh with an audience). Viewed through a screen, I can see it becoming especially tedious. One for only the most hardcore/foolish (delete where applicable) Resident Evil enthusiast.

Triple Feature of Terror!: The Babadook, The Innkeepers, and It Follows

For a time, horror was my default genre of choice, but recently my interest has fallen somewhat by the wayside, so it was a nice coincidence that in the past couple of weeks I watched three contemporary examples that offered modern and/or alternative takes on familiar tropes. They’re not exactly linked in any way, but they rekindled my passion for spooky movies.

The Babadook

The most acclaimed horror film of last year, The Babadook, certainly warrants its acclaim and attention, though it is its emotional impact that has garnered most praise, and rightly so. As a mother struggling with her increasingly disruptive and seemingly disturbed son (Noah Wiseman) and burdened with grief following the tragic death of her husband, Essie Davis gives a superb performance, believable and raw in the face of unexplained events, tied to a fiendish character from a mysterious pop-up picture book, that push her to breaking point. You can certainly see how We Need To Talk About Kevin has been raised as an interesting parallel. Debut feature director and writer Jennifer Kent succeeds in conjuring an atmosphere thick with dread, playing with shadows and sound in a house designed to discomfort, and Mister Babadook himself feels like a boogeyman for the ages. Yet, the film itself is unlikely to cause much in the way of sleepless nights – my strongest reaction came when Daniel Henshall appeared in a supporting role, though that says more about how much Snowtown has stuck with me than anything (the director of which – Justin Kurzel – is married to Babadook’s Davis, fact fans). But the pervading sense of despair and melancholy is what lingers longest, setting it apart from the other monsters-in-my-closest fair. As strong a calling card as you’re likely to find.

While James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson et al have been the key figures responsible for shaping the landscape of American horror at the box office (with the likes of Saw, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, Sinister, etc. to their names), another close-knit group of writers/directors/producers/actors have been bubbling away just beneath, carving out their own identity. Often sharing DNA with ‘mumblecore’ movies (to the extent the term ‘mumblegore’ is a thing), the likes of Adam Wingard, Ti West and Joe Swanberg have been knocking out low-budget horror films together (though in Swanberg’s case more indie dramas than anything) with varying results, though still often interesting and efficiently put together. They all contributed to found-footage anthology V/H/S, Wingard directed West and Swanberg in You’re Next, West directed Swanberg in The Sacrament…you get the picture.

The Innkeepers

But it is West’s The Innkeepers from 2011 up for discussion today, with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (who would more recently appear again together in the grimly comic Cheap Thrills) as staff in a soon-to-close hotel, waiting out their time spooking themselves silly by investigating the supposedly haunted establishment’s dark past and trying to record paranormal activity. But of course it’s all fun and games until things start to get really freaky.

Both Healy and especially Paxton excel in their roles which, while not comic, are imbued with a natural sense of humour and well-observed character traits. Their dialogue exchanges are what makes The Innkeepers feel different and enjoyable and the characters feel like living, breathing people rather than simple slasher-fodder or audience ciphers (to give you an idea of how it’s pitched, there’s even a Lena Dunham cameo). But at the same time, as nice as these moments are, they slow the pace of the story. Given the things that go bump in the night aren’t anything especially new, even if they are effective, the film starts to drag before it really gets going, failing to really satisfy either the ‘mumble’ or ‘gore’ camps, or meld the two together. Which is a shame, as there are still very good elements of both here, but had the whole film been leaner and snappier, it would be easier to recommend.

Finally, my pick of the three is a new release, the much talked-about It Follows. As with the best of its kind, it is reverential and referential, but offers a new twist or take on established horror formulae. In this case, a sexual encounter leaves Jay (Maika Monroe, last seen in Wingard’s The Guest) with an apparent curse in which she is pursued by an unknown entity that takes the form of different people, strangers and familiars alike, but only she can see what’s coming after her. And she must pass it on if she is to survive.

It Follows

From the set-up to the execution, there are clear antecedents. The curse itself shares similarities with the tape from Ring, the unseen predator (and the presence of swimming pools) recalls Cat People, and the sex = life/death motif runs deep throughout so much of the genre it’s hard to know where to start. But It Follows is knowing enough to play with these influences, indulging them some times and subverting them others, without winking to camera.

Perhaps the most obvious influence is John Carpenter’s Halloween, primarily in its cinematography and music. Mike Gioulakis is responsible for the former, beautifully framing and filling each shot such that it feels like a widescreen movie with a capital WIDE. It also plays with perspective, as you are sometimes viewing the action through Jay’s P.O.V. but not always (like the phantasmagorical gimmickry of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts), but mostly the camera feels removed, dispassionate, even voyeuristic, forcing you to scan the margins for when a slowly walking presence might emerge to track down Jay. Anything that can make scenes set in broad daylight unnerving is doing something right. And with Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace (probably best known for the soundtrack to twisty platform-puzzle game Fez) providing a gorgeous, haunting, squelchy synth score, it feels both like a clear harking back to the late 70s/early 80s, while also feeling strangely timeless.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell knows his horror onions and is clearly technically accomplished, but he also does a fine job at making his teenage characters sound and behave like teenagers. The cast handle the dialogue and emotional beats in a way that feels authentic, and far removed from your typical scream teens, but Mitchell also understands a balance needs to be struck, and this is a more successful melding of indie sensibilities and spooky goings-on than The Innkeepers. With its stripped back approach, it may disappoint audiences more used to the ‘boo-scared-ya’ blockbusters. And there’s a case to be made that it is the least out-and-out scary of the three. But It Follows is certainly the one that has lingered around in my mind the longest and the one I feel I will return to most often.

 

FILM REVIEW: I Declare War

ideclarewar

Regulars to this blog (if they even exist) will note my predilection towards films depicting kids that kill. Be it Battle Royale or Who Can Kill A Child?, I seemingly can’t get enough, so without wishing a a psychoanalyst upon me, it meant when tiny Canadian indie flick I Declare War appeared on my radar, my interest was certainly piqued, and a recent UK release was most welcome.

With a cast exclusively comprised of actors for whom having reached double figures is still kind of a big deal, two groups of kids pitch battle in the great outdoors, with sticks and twigs as firearms and water balloons as decisive ‘blood grenades’. What turns a simple childhood game into something different is that the film-makers give life to their imagination, arming them with ‘real’ guns, ‘real’ ammunition and ‘real’ explosives.

We’ve all waged make-believe warfare, long summers spent in the woods recreating whatever ridiculous action movies we recorded off late night telly without parental guidance (in that sense, this is something of a distant cousin to Son of Rambow). So there is something thrilling about the action sequences in I Declare War, which are surprisingly effective and exciting. But it is also inherently amusing. The kids fit comfortably into war movie archetypes – the joker, the religious nervy one, the ruthless general, the mute at one with nature, etc. They are suitably obnoxious: foul-mouthed, violent and cruel, so a fairly accurate portrayal of kids being kids. It’s surprisingly successful in being both a parody and fine example of war on film.

Yet, it also understands there is something unsettling about all this young unfettered bloodlust. As one might expect, it can be fairly on the nose with its messages –  war is pointless, nobody wins, military powers behave like squabbling tykes, yadda yadda yadda. However, its frequent scenes of kids with guns, intentionally or not evoking images of child soldiers and school shootings may be little too close for comfort for some – personally, I didn’t give it much thought, and nor do I think film-makers  Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson specifically set out for simple shock tactics. Better handled is how through the prism of conflict some pretty heavy emotional truths hit home, the kind that feel particularly brutal in childhood. Friendships are tested to breaking point, cliques are torn apart, bullying both physical and mental come to the fore – it’s tough being a kid some times, and I Declare War doesn’t shy from it.

It helps that there are some pretty good performances amongst the cast, some admittedly more so than others, but as PK, Gage Munroe is a force to be reckoned with – a pipsqueak with braces on the outside, but a cold heart and steely tactical brain inside. And Michael Friend as Skinner and Siam Yu as Kwon do well selling the tension of their scenes as captor and captive. But other performers are not so well handled, as much down to inexperience as ideas that perhaps looked better on the page and weren’t pulled off effectively in the finished product. The blurring of reality and fiction works well with the gunplay, but one character’s imaginary superpowers feel disconnected from the rest of the film, while a subplot with the only female character and her lovey-dovey daydreaming is a fumbled ball.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to admire about I Declare War – it is ambitious and fufils the potential of its premise, even if when it extends its reach, it comes up short.

Film Review Round-Up 2014 Part I

Over on my Tumblr page, I’ve been posting mini-reviews, both Film 2014 (for new releases this year) and Catch Up Cinema (those not released this year) varieties, whereas saving the main blog for bigger articles, features and more in-depth reviews. But I figured that not might always be clear, and with the nature of Tumblr being comparatively ephemeral, I thought I might gather a round-up of reviews you may have missed. They are an odd bunch collated together, but an enlightening peek into my bizarre viewing habits I suppose. This is Part I and thus covers everything worth linking to up until this point, and perhaps a Part II will no doubt arrive in a few months time. Couple of proper reviews and full pieces coming soon though (as well as another Listening Post)!

FILM 2014

CALVARY

“There are individual moments when you feel it almost has meaning in its grasp, and some isolated scenes (and the magnificent scenery) trick you into thinking the film will fulfill its potential, and yet it never shakes the sense that it is merely a series of disconnected events and disjointed characters in search of something deeper. Not a total loss, just a disappointment.”

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET / 12 YEARS A SLAVE

“…it’s brimming with energy, making directors half his age seem old hat. Keeping it all together (well, losing it completely) is DiCaprio, his best performance since (the not too dissimilar) Catch Me If You Can, who shows hitherto untapped resources as a great physical comedian and willingness to debauch himself in all kinds of ways.”

12 Years A Slave is a very well made film – a terribly upsetting story told in a considered and respectful manner, unafraid to shy away from brutality or difficult issues. The way the film is composed, through its editing, cinematography, and sound, is close to faultless. And yet, and I wonder if I’m alone in this, the performances are a real mixed bag.”

AMERICAN HUSTLE

“I wanted to like American Hustle a lot more than I did, and there are excellent moments peppered throughout. But it’s this year’s Argo, a hollow period confection that seems to please crowds and awards bodies alike, though its charms seem lost on me.”

 

CATCH UP CINEMA

LOGAN’S RUN

“Despite its effective premise, time has not been kind to Logan’s Run. Of course, a certain amount of dating is to be expected, but there is little interesting in its design or notable about the execution for it to get by on kitsch factor alone.”

TEQUILA SUNRISE

“…there is one outrageously hilarious hot tub sex scene…with lots of steam, reflections, slo-mo, cross-cutting and saxophone (the credit for Saxophone Solos appears very high on the credit list), culminating in Pfeiffer spooning yoghurt into Gibson’s gaping maw.”

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME

“…still an effective and engaging little thriller, with some neat camera tricks and surprisingly grim ideas.”

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

“…the first film is marginally better, mainly as a result of Francis Lawrence’s sure if unremarkable direction compared to original director Gary Ross’ more interesting choices. Both films continue to bungle the Hunger Games section itself though, with messy action sequences and a lack of energy or excitement, the build-up and aftermath far more interesting overall.”

WAKE IN FRIGHT

“Chilling, hysterical, upsetting, hilarious, shocking, tense, exciting – Wake in Fright is all these things, yet it also maintains an intelligent and deeply thoughtful core, a stark portrait of the nature of bravado, machismo and our strengths and weaknesses.”

ROBO-G

“Crowd-pleasing and easy-going it may be, but there’s more to Robo-G than meets the eye.”

1941

“…there are so many disparate threads, it’s hard to keep up with its myriad characters, who are either goofy caricatures or lightweight love interests. And, even in its truncated form, it feels a good half-hour too long. Yet, there’s something peculiarly charming about its madcap energy.”

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN vs CHRONICLE

“…much too much has already been said about how a reboot came only a decade after Sam Raimi’s first take on the webslinger, but in comparison to Chronicle, it really is a long tedious bore.”

LA BELLE ET LA BETE

“I enjoyed its humour, the costumes, the performances, design (especially the Beast’s impressive make-up), but it all felt a little flat, the editing – particularly between story threads – especially lacking, rendering it a series of neat moments rather than a fully engaging whole. “

FILM REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

grand

The Grand Budapest Hotel feels in many ways the culmination of Wes Anderson’s sensibilities as much as it is his ensemble (though other films have had as many recurring cast members, with newcomers to his company including Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson etc., it is particularly starry). Setting the film in the fictional, but definitely European, Republic of Zubrowka on the eve of war in 1932 – somewhere between, but separate from, WWI and WWII – seems incredibly appropriate for Anderson, and while other works of his certainly have elements of created worlds, this feels the most clearly imagined, a confection of influences and ideas that make you nostalgic for a past that never existed in a place that never existed.

As you might expect, Anderson goes to town on the design, revelling in the artifice of the titular establishment and its environs, but not at the sacrifice of story and, for which he is often unfairly criticised, warmth and emotion. It looks exquisite, with the hotel itself a wonderful creation, and the lovely miniature work shows a continuation of the effect Fantastic Mr Fox appears to have had on his style. Though Anderson is often given kudos for witty dialogue and quirky characters, he is rarely praised for his comic timing and framing, something that he truly excels at here, able to extract humour from incidental details, finding potential in the simplest things, and filling the screen with great visual gags akin to Aardman animations or early silent comedy. This is Anderson at his most composed and constructed, but that just means every shot raises a smile.

Even Anderson’s films at their leanest can suffer longueurs, but pleasingly that’s not the case with The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film moves at a rollicking pace, constantly propulsive, with a screwball energy that keeps the ever snowballing troubles of our central mismatched duo engaging and exciting. And although newcomer Tony Revolori acquits himself well as the hotel’s new lobby boy, it’s Fiennes as Gustave who is the masterstroke of casting. Charming, professional, but peculiar and prone to profanity, master concierge Gustave is a character that could easily lapse into caricature or end up one-note, but there’s a depth to his performance that might otherwise have been missed. Delightfully and deftly played, it’s a reminder that Fiennes doesn’t need to take himself seriously to deliver a brilliant performance (see also: In Bruges).

If there is fault to be found, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film of frequent minor pleasures, a rapid stream of amuse bouches, or a bag of pick ‘n’ mix, than a fully fledged banquet or buffet. It is a consistent joy to watch, and there are so many magic moments that spring to mind, but while it flirts with some more substantial concepts, it never quite commits. That may be ultimately a good thing (The Darjeeling Limited for example is derailed by its loftier ambitions), it may mean others will find it somewhat lacking. But all that aside, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a genuine pleasure.

FILM REVIEW: Under the Skin

Under the Skin

If we’re being glib, Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature film (after Sexy Beast and Birth) largely consists of ‘Scarlett Johansson in a van’. Oh, and she’s an alien. And she’s driving round Glasgow.

Glazer strips back dialogue, narrative and exposition to its bare essentials (adapting with Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s debut novel). Little is made explicit, much is inferred, and that is one of its key strengths. Getting bogged down in the hows and whys would ultimately dilute a film that is something to be experienced, not explained. These voids are filled with such startling imagery, bolstered by a dark, hypnotic score by Mica Levi (of Michachu and the Shapes) and drenched in a rich, tense atmosphere, anything explicitly explained would detract from the experience, and an excellent one at that.

From its arresting opening filled with strange shapes, playing with macro and micro scale – with what appear to be celestial bodies revealed to be parts of a human body in extreme close up – and in near-monochrome, almost like shadow puppets, Glazer’s visual sense, honed by years of commercials and music videos, comes to the fore.  This contrasts with the urban reality in which Johansson’s character navigates the city streets (much filmed with hidden cameras), enticing unwitting and unattached men into her vehicle, returning them to her home and, well, once their fate is revealed, the true horror is terrifying, twisted, and beautifully disturbing. Sure, it brings to mind the schlock of Species, or maybe that Outer Limits episode when the lady does a sex and absorbs the men inside her. But in fact, Under the Skin reminded me most of the original Hellraiser – though steeped not in gothic gore, but minimal otherworldly surrealism.  Once the film breaks out into the wider landscape, the Scottish wilds look just as incredible, and reality and the ethereal unify, the alien rendered mundane, the mundane alien.

Given that the focus is entirely on Johansson and from her perspective (Glazer remarks how it was the aspect of viewing the world though an alien lens that put him on to the project), there is much subtle complexity behind the blank canvas. Unaware of social prejudices and seemingly incapable of discrimination, she can appear disarmingly open and unjudgemental, but it also means she can be dispassionate and dangerously cold. Her appearance is also played up and played upon, a comment on sexual objectification (one of many themes that can be unpacked from the film), toying with the audience as voyeurs as much as it does those who fall under her spell.

Under the Skin is not going to please everyone, and is sure to infuriate many, but it is a hard film to shake off. I hope it stays rattling around my mind a little while longer. And I’ve no doubt it will.

FILM REVIEW: The Kings of Summer

The Kings of Summer

On the surface, The Kings of Summer may seem like a familiar hybrid of Stand By Me, Moonrise Kingdom and Superbad, but debut feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ and screenwriter Chris Galletta’s tale, of a trio of teenagers who decide to abandon civilisation, and their parents, and go live in the forest, is a wonderful work all of its own.

It perfectly captures the spirit of the summer project – of finding some creative endeavour and dedicating all your free time and energy into something ostensibly inconsequential but ultimately meaning far more to you than anyone could possibly comprehend; in which time would seemingly stretch to infinity until the advent of a new school year would pop your bubble of bliss. Here, beautifully photographed montages of their life in the wilderness appear jumbled, which could just be bad continuity, but reflects the temporal warping of schedule-less summer months. But this isn’t just some over-earnest paean to youthful misbehaviour, for The Kings of Summer is still a comedy, and a very funny one too.

Hilarious from the off (I must have laughed out loud four or five times in the first 10 minutes), the film is filled with brilliant dialogue, with a staggering gag hit rate most mainstream ‘frat-pack’/Apatow offerings fail to achieve, and plenty of familiar faces for comedy nerds. And the situations the group encounter as they attempt to survive in the wilderness are affectionately played as far grander exploits in an adventure of their own making – they trek through the woods, brandishing swords, to Ryan Miller’s magical score that often sounds like it comes from a SNES fantasy RPG. In a way, this sense of adventure reminded me more of The Goonies than anything.

Of course, out of the three ‘Kings’, much focus will be on oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias), who isn’t so much weird as positively alien and certainly gets some of the best and strangest lines, but its Joe (Nick Robinson) and his relationships with his domineering single father (Nick Offerman) and with best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) that really ring true and which serve to ground the more fanciful elements. Robinson is terrific, and carries off everything the story has to throw at him, Basso too, especially when having to deal with his insufferable parents (Megan Mullally and Mark Evan Jackson). But in all fairness, it’s Offerman who makes off with the lion’s share of the scenes – undeniably Swanson-esque, but more of a dishevelled pathetic grouch than Pawnee’s grumpiest government official, his deadpan delivery is a constant joy. Yet none of the humour is at the expense of its genuinely earned emotional moments, making it a well-rounded and wholly satisfying movie like few I’ve seen this year.

Fantastic, refreshing and just damn funny, The Kings of Summer is an absolute treasure.