June 20, 2008

Murder-Set-Pieces (2004)

When it comes to movies there are a couple of things that will immediately put me off watching them. One of them being incessant hype surrounding it. I'm all for promoting a movie, but sometimes it gets to be too much. I know I will eventually cave in and catch the movie but don't smash me around the head in order to get me to watch it.

That being said I tried to ignore as much hype and gum-flapping surrounding Murder-Set-Pieces as possible. Of course I had heard of it, and I had heard about both the positive and negative press about it. However, all I had really read, and properly digested, was an article in an issue of Ultra-Violent. That did get me interested, but I still didn't get around to watching it, probably because the price tag was too high.

One thing I was sure of though is that I did not want to watch the Lionsgate release, without having seen the unrated version first. If I am going to watch something I want to see it as it was originally planned by the director. Fortunately I recently acquired a copy from a friend (cheers squire) and a couple of days ago sat down to watch it.

The plot, of which there isn't an awful lot of in all honesty, surrounds the exploits of a photographer, who happens to be a Neo Nazi, that likes nothing more in his spare time than to rape, murder and generally abuse young women.

The bad news for camera boy is that his current girlfriend's younger sister Jade (Jade Risser) has her suspicions about him, not that anyone believes her of course.

So the movie alternates between the two characters right up until the very end.

Murder-Set-Pieces is an incredibly nasty movie from start to finish, and credit must be given to director Nick Palumbo for bring a character as repellent as the Photographer to life. Here is one person that has no qualms about who he kills, which does include children, or about how he goes about killing them. nasty doesn't even start to describe him. Actor Sven Garrett really did give an excellent, if chilling, performance here.

Murder-Set-Pieces also has cameo performances by Tony Todd, in an amusing Porn Store scene, as well as Gunnar Hansen as a Nazi gundealer. The rest of the cast do perform quite well, especially young Jade Risser, who probably had the hardest role to play of them all.

This is also a rather well made movie, surprisingly so in-fact. From the lighting and sound to the quality of the film itself, i have to say I was impressed.

Despite all this though I did feel slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience. It could have used a little more in the plot department, as we don't really get to know much about the Photographer's background other than his apparent family links to the Third Reich. I just would have liked to have seen a bit more in there to beef it up a little.

There is also a scene that some may well feel goes a little too far involving an infant. I didn't feel it was necessary to the movie's development as we already know the lead character is a despicable asshole. If it was an exercise to see how far Palumbo could push what is acceptable then I guess he succeeded, even if it the scene mentioned is not in the slighest bit graphic, it was still disturbing.

That aside Murder-Set-Pieces is a good movie, not great, but certainly one that grabs your attention and holds it until the end.

So, regardless of all the hype surrounding it, I would definitely recommend catching this at least once, especially if you like your movies on the brutal side. All I'd say though is you try and catch the unrated version, as I really can't imagine what the R rated version would be like, apart from very short!

Rating 2.5 stars (out of 4)

Review by Jude Felton

Dead Silence (2007)

Clowns and puppets are two things that seem to creep the fuck out of a good many people. Personally I love clowns, but puppets, well there is something not quite right about the evil little bastards if you ask me? Don't get me wrong, I'm not likely to have an episode if confronted by one, I just think there is something inherently wrong with them.

So, with that in mind, I was actually quite looking forward to watching Dead Silence. Here was a chance for a movie to elicit a few chills down the old spine; something that is all too lacking in movies these days. The fact that is was written and directed by Leigh Whannel and James Wan, the creative force behind Saw, only heightened my expectations. After the success of that movie, and its subsequent sequels, it would have been quite easy for them to make another visceral and altogether more brutal movie than the movie they did make. More power to them though, as Dead Silence, despite a few shortcomings, turned out to be a fairly well crafted movie that relies more on the scares than the blood and guts.

James Ashen and his wife are having a pleasant enough evening at home when he receives an unexpected package. There is no return address, just his name on it, so of course he opens it. Inside is a puppet, which wasn't really unexpected to tell the truth. Anyhoo, James pops out to pick up Chinese for dinner not realizing that this is to be the last time he will see his wife alive.
Of course, despite his grief, James is the number one suspect in his wife's murder, something that isn't likely to change when he tells the police that he heard his wife calling him when he returned to the apartment. Best thing to do is blame the puppet, which goes down even worse with the police!

Despite being the only real suspect the police let him go giving him the chance to further investigate the murder; an investigation that leads him back to his home town of Ravens Fair and the legend of Mary Shaw.

Mary Shaw, although once a renowned ventriloquist, has now become the thing of nightmares and urban legend. Being killed by the townsfolk many years ago did not stop her from coming back to have her revenge.

On the surface the story here is a little unbelievable, in fact if you really think about it, it's just plain daft. However, it is put together in such a way that you can't help get drawn into it. I'll even excuse the fact that the police allowed James back to his apartment, even though items that could be classed as evidence were still there.

What really sold this movie to me was the inventive camerawork, the sense of dread throughout the story and the wonderful score by Charlie Clouser, which only added to the film's ambience. At times the film felt almost dreamlike; from the eerie ghost town of Ravens Fair, the use of fog and the muted color of the visuals. This is a movie that relies more on chills than on graphic scenes of butchery. In fact it is a relatively bloodless affair aside from the odd death scene, of which there aren't that many really.

Technical aspects aside, the movie also wouldn't have worked for me had there not been a decent cast to back it all up. Good thing that the majority of the cast here were spot on. Donnie Wahlberg was excellent in combining some quirky humor into his role as the detective investigating the murder. Apart from Wahlberg the rest of the characters, including Mary Shaw herself, the local Funeral Home director and his wife, James' father and stepmother were all impressive. In fact the only weak point to me was James himself, he just seemed a little bland, but that could have been down to the eccentricities of his fellow cast-members.

After not being quite sure what to expect from Dead Silence I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. It was creepy, atmospheric and, if you excuse a couple of plot-holes, one of the more enjoyable big budget horror releases I have seen. It was definitely a pleasant change of pace from some of the more violent movies that have been so prevalent recently.

Pan's Labrinth (2006)

Although I enjoyed Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy, Blade 2 and to a lesser extent Mimic, I have always much preferred his Spanish language movies The Devil's Backbone and Cronos. They might not have been the visual extravaganzas such as Hellboy was, they were however beautiful, almost poetic pictures, all in all far more satisfying viewing experiences. So quite why it took me so long to get around to watching Pan's Labyrinth is beyond me; unfortunately it never screened at a theatre near me, and for one reason or another I never picked up the DVD. Obviously that has changed now, and all I can say is that I am kicking myself for not catching this amazing movie sooner.

Set to the backdrop of the days following the end of the Spanish Civil War, the story follows a young girl named Ofelia who travels with her pregnant, but sick, mother to live with the baby's father. The father also happens to be a Captain in Franco's army, and is hellbent on flushing out a group of rebels from the surrounding hillside. Here Ofelia discovers an ancient ruined Labyrinth, within which she meets the titular character who explains to her that she is indeed a princess, but in order to prove this she must complete three tasks.

The fantastical story of Ofelia slowly unfolds against the horrors of the aftermath of war, which shows her stepfather to be not only a tyrannical Captain, but also a maniacal one. He's determined to find the rebels, whilst also ensuring the safe birth of his future child.

Pan's Labyrinth is quite simply a great movie, one of stark contrasts between harsh reality and this wonderful but quite often disturbing other realm. At times beautiful to watch, yet at times you almost have to cover your eyes during some of the scenes, this is at times a very dark film. Despite the sometimes shocking tone though the whole movie flows seamlessly reaching an emotional level not often seen in films of this scale. By the time the closing credits rolled I was absolutely drained, I say that in a good way though as I had a huge smile across my face at the same time.

The cast were universally flawless, in particular though Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, who gives a tremendous performance, one that belies her age, and also Sergei Lopez who plays the Captain. His is truly a powerhouse performance of pure evil, his cold detachment from everything except his mission and future child is quite chilling to watch as he progressively get more and more violent. This isn't to take away anything from any of the other cast though as they were all superb.

The movie itself was visually stunning, switching from a very cold and wet looking war ravished Spain to the wonderful world of the labyrinth; say what you will about CGI effects, here they could not have been put to better use if they had tried. Along with the cinematography and terrific script the whole movie was finished off with a haunting score that, whilst it never intruded on the movie, it did at the same time add another level to the storytelling.

There probably aren't quite enough superlatives to describe Pan's Labyrinth, so if you haven't seen it yet I suggest you do. Don't be put off by the fact that it is a Spanish language movie as this probably wouldn't have worked as well had it been filmed in English.

Violent, beautiful, cold, uplifting and an absolute joy to watch, Pan's Labyrinth is quite possibly one of the greatest movies of modern cinema.

Rating 4 stars (out of 4)

Review by Jude Felton