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The Veil

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Cult leader, Jim Jones, and his followers served more than a passing influence for Ti West’s The Sacrament. The spirit of Jones is once again resurrected in this lightweight horror from director, Phil Joanou (State Of Grace, U2 Rattle & Hum).

Jessica Alba plays documentary filmmaker, Maggie, who is looking to put together a film about the Heaven’s Veil cult whose members all committed suicide 25 years previously. Making contact with sole survivor, Sarah (American Horror Story’s Lily Raba), Maggie encourages her to join her crew as they revisit the site where the cult used to hole up. Unbeknownst to everyone, decades earlier, the cult’s leader, Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane), had been experimenting with the spirit realm – because everyone needs a hobby – and now his ghost haunts the very grounds that the crew are walking. As do the spirits of his followers, all of whom are looking for fresh bodies to possess.

The Veil is the kind of VOD affair that you may have seen several times over. From its spooky forest setting to its séances, it’s a catalogue of horror movie tropes. Obviously this doesn’t mean that a film is flat out bad, but it’s all played out so dryly that it becomes a chore. The strongest reason to stay with it is Thomas Jane, clearly relishing playing a domineering, and slightly unhinged, man. We get to see the man at work through “found footage” that the film’s victims watch just before they croak, and if the rest of the film could have kept up with Jane’s momentum, it would have had a better chance of keeping you on board. As it is, The Veil is merely a passing distraction, and not a very good one, that perhaps would have disappeared amongst the herd if it wasn’t for its cast.

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: The Hateful 8

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With an obvious affection for life’s reprobates, Quentin Tarantino – as both writer and director – had made a habit of populating his films with all manner of psychos, deviants, criminals, sadists, bullies, brutes, and blowhards. But usually in amongst the muck, there’s a (slightly tarnished) white knight or a tough gal with a heart of gold, or at least a very bad man grasping at some form of redemption. Even the tough-guys-aplenty masterpiece, Reservoir Dogs, boasted a few moments of honest-to-god sentiment. Well, with his latest film – the literate, outrageous, and wholly uncompromising western, The Hateful 8 – Quentin Tarantino has taken it right to the edge by crafting a work in which the heroic, traditional white hat is literally non-existent. This is a film of bad guys (and one bad girl), so enter at your own risk. Yes, it would have been nice to have a slightly decent character to hang onto, but if you’re willing to mix it up with the worst that the west has to offer, then you’re in for a double barreled treat of true Tarantino trademarks: vivid characters, wonderfully full-bodied performances, razor-sharp dialogue, and epic violence.

Set in the harsh, lean years after The Civil War, The Hateful 8 opens on grizzled, determined bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is pounding through a wintry, unforgiving landscape towards the remote hamlet of Red Rock, where he intends to bring his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to justice. On the road, they encounter two strangers: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former union soldier turned bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be Red Rock’s new sheriff. Stuck in a blizzard, the group seeks refuge at a stagecoach stopover on a mountain pass. When they arrive, they are greeted not by the proprietor, but by four suspicious men: Bob (Demian Bichir), the fill-in boss of the stopover; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the hangman of Red Rock; cow-puncher, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). With a storm swelling and booming outside, a greater rage oscillates inside the stagecoach stopover, as John Ruth realises that not everybody is as they seem…

Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Shooting in the antiquated, wonderfully expansive 70mm format, Tarantino (and virtuoso cinematographer, Robert Richardson) gives The Hateful 8 an epic intimacy. The film looks and feels big, but it’s essentially a chamber piece, reliant on a small cast, and all taking place (for the most part) in one interior location. It makes the exteriors all the more spectacular, and the need for escape even greater as the blood starts to spew, and the characters reveal themselves to be a truly venal bunch. There’s a sense of consistent, blanketing cruelty here that has been largely absent from Tarantino’s previous work (though he has, of course, dabbled), along with a gleeful wallowing in the resultant unpleasantness, but these are minor quibbles. No other filmmaker is more obviously excited by the possibilities of the art form of cinema than Quentin Tarantino, and The Hateful 8 is a big, slamming salute not just to the lurid possibilities of the western genre, but to movies in general.

For such a noted movie buff, however, Tarantino is pretty much a non-entity when it comes to his film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases. The features on The Hateful 8 are limited to a four-minute EPK piece with the usual compliments from cast and crew, along with a considerably more interesting potted history on the old days of cinema presentation, when films would show in 70mm complete with intervals and overtures, as The Hateful 8 did on its wonderfully retro “roadshow” release. Again, it’s almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in length, but it’s a worthy addition to the minimal features package here.

Hateful8_Filmink_1040x90

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Queen Of Earth

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When Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) breaks up with her boyfriend, she seeks comfort in the company of her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston). But sharing space in the lakeside home owned by Virginia’s parents turns out not to be the solace either of them expected. Haunted by memories of a previous summer in the house, both women realise how far they’ve grown apart.

Taking its cues from the psychological thrillers of the 70s, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen Of Earth is a raw, compelling film bolstered by the performances of its leads. Whilst they occupy the same rooms, the two friends rarely share the same space. In a telling scene near the front of the film, Perry has the women discuss former lovers in separate monologues. Failing to interact, they simply wait for their turn to speak. It defines the relationship throughout the film, as do the flashbacks woven into the film of the previous summer. With Catherine’s boyfriend being around for that trip, the suggestion is that the women’s friendship was tumultuous at the best of times.

As Catherine’s mental health begins to deteriorate through the film, Moss runs through a gamut of emotions. Wandering languidly around the home, she becomes a spectre to a friend who, in turn, doesn’t understand enough of Catherine’s issues to help. Waterston, for her part, is equally strong, trying to rein in frustration and wash her hands of the whole affair. Also of note is how gorgeous the film looks, with its pastel colours and soft focus. It takes on an almost ethereal quality; a daydream being recounted by Catherine to a therapist in the future. If hell is being trapped with other people, then Perry’s Queen Of Earth suggests that actually knowing them doesn’t make it any easier.

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Hyena

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Hyena, a British cop drama from writer/director, Gerard Johnson, perhaps owes a little debt to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy with its bleak narrative and neon colouring. Peter Ferdinando (300: Rise Of An Empire) plays DI Michael Logan, an uncouth drug squad officer who may get results but, along with his team, has his fingers in an awful lot of criminal pies. Most of them containing drugs.

When he witnesses one of his drug connections getting hacked to death by a couple of Albanian gangsters, Michael finds his carefully constructed world about to collapse. Caught in the middle, he tries to cosy up to the gangsters in order to recoup his financial losses, whilst pretending to his superior and former friend, DI David Knight (Stephen Graham), that it’s all about getting intel for a big bust. It’s clear to the audience that he can’t keep up this charade, and Johnson plays the tale of Michael’s downfall as a matter of how not when. As the DI-under-pressure, Ferdinando is believably cocksure, and at times, it’s actually enjoyable to see him get his comeuppance.

And yet, a moment of redemption does arise when Michael stumbles upon an abused sex worker, Arianna (Elisa Lasowski), belonging to the Albanians. The word “belong” being a complete understatement. Rescuing her from their clutches, Michael effectively ties one hand behind his back in the fight to keep his position in life. One of the weakest parts of Hyena, Arianna’s scenes often seem exploitative in contrast to the rest of the film’s matter-of-factness. She becomes less a character and more a token to be traded in for some goodwill. Which is a shame, because in this desolate narrative, there are very few people we can root for.

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Break Point

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Break Point opens with brash tennis player, Jimmy (Jeremy Sisto), going full John McEnroe on an umpire after a perceived bad call. Ranting and raving, the film quickly emphasises why no one wants to play with him anymore. Once a teenage prodigy, he now struggles to find anybody willing to be his doubles partner in the qualifying tournaments. Swallowing his pride, Jimmy turns to his brother, Darren (David Walton), to join forces. Unfortunately, Darren, now a substitute teacher, wants nothing to do with him and his undisciplined behaviour. As the tournaments loom ever nearer, can the siblings overcome their differences before the big game?

In a parallel universe, Jimmy’s near-alcoholism and fiery temper would be the perfect vehicle for Will Ferrell. However, instead of 90 minutes of nearly endless jokes about balls, Break Point’s actual stars, under the direction of Jay Karas, give the film a depth of humanity that, whilst not making for a hilarious film, is at least enjoyable. J.K. Simmons also gives the film some gravitas playing the brothers’ veterinarian father, even if he isn’t given much to do outside of rolling his eyes and wondering what’s to be done about his two boys.

Enjoyable as it is, Break Point feels predictable and limited in its scope. It has a clear destination and nothing and no one is going to get in the way. At times it can be a little too on the nose, with creaky dialogue reminding us why the brothers are at odds. “Your game is conservative,” cries Jimmy. “And your game is reckless,” fires back Darren in an exchange which will rise a sigh out of most. Overall though, Break Point, for all its rigidness, is a pleasant enough dramedy about the complexity of families that will raise a smile or two.

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Rise Of The Footsoldier Part 2

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Surprisingly, seeing the original Rise Of The Footsoldier is not a prerequisite for understanding the sequel, being as it is a standalone story of a man being drowned in the quagmire of his gangster lifestyle. Ricci Harnett returns as hooligan-turned-gangster, Carlton Leach, constantly looking over his shoulder for fear of being taken out by the same men who killed his friends many years ago. As well as returning to star, Harnett takes on roles as both writer and director.

This is one of several films over the last 16 years to take its cues from Terry Winsor’s Essex Boys. Starting off with flashbacks based on the true life Rettendon murders – also known as the Range Rover murders – Rise Of The Footsoldier Part 2 follows Carlton as he fights with his employers, his wife, his mates, his enemies, and literally anyone else who looks at him the wrong way. Occasionally, he pauses to stare out into the middle-distance whilst a voiceover dishes out dialogue like “to survive in this world, you have to fight till your lungs fill with blood.” He’s a man clearly on the fast train to his grave.

There’s a strange hero worship mentality to the proceedings, as if Carlton is a victim of his own anger and vitriol. Admittedly, such accusations can be thrown at films like Bronson and Chopper, but as film characters, they at least felt rounded. Here, Harnett tries to craft a tragic hero from a one-note thug, with a script that uses the f-word as noun, verb, adjective, and punctuation. What the film does have going for it is skillful direction from Harnett. This is his directorial debut, and there’s certainly a lot of promise on display as he shows restraint where his dialogue doesn’t. It’ll be interesting to see what else he has under his belt.

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Deadpool (DVD, Blu-ray Review)

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It’s been just three months since Deadpool was released in cinemas to become the unlikeliest comic book success story since Guardians Of The Galaxy. Point of fact: Deadpool was actually a more lucrative venture than both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice! So how does the film stack up a quarter of a year later? It’s still a whole lot of fun, despite a pretty generic plot and a tofu-bland villain. A big part of that fun comes from Ryan Reynolds’ career defining performance, and a knowing, clever script. Plus the ultra-violence. Ya gotta have the ultra-violence!

In terms of the digital release, however, it’s all about the extra features, and on that front, Deadpool does not disappoint. Included is the obligatory gag reel, which features a few isolated chuckles, but is hardly unmissable. Then there’s 20 plus minutes of deleted and extended scenes (presented both with and without commentary). There’s solid stuff here, including a great sequence called “Cancer World Tour”, which adds more depth to the relationship between Wade and Vanessa (the heart of the film). Pacing wise, you can see why it was cut, but it’s worth checking out for completists or folks who just want more Morena Baccarin.

Over 80 minutes of short “From Comic To Screen…To Screen” documentaries give an insight into the film’s long and often painful development process and, of course, there’s an audio commentary from Ryan Reynolds and the other principals. Rounding out the package is “Deadpool’s Fun Sack”, which basically collects the movie’s glorious and clever marketing clips, internet videos, and general fourth wall-breaking malarky. Deadpool’s digital and DVD/Blu-ray release won’t convert those who are immune to the appeal of the merc with a mouth, but for those of us who aren’t dead on the inside, it’s a good-sized package that may find a perfect fit inside you.

Deadpool is available on Digital from May 11. Get it here on iTunes. Deadpool is available on Blu-ray and DVD from May 25.

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Review: Daredevil: Season 2

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Daredevil season 2 – released in its entirety by Netflix on Friday – belongs there, and nowhere else. Following Daredevil’s highly acclaimed first season, Charlie Cox returns as Matthew Murdock, the blind, masked vigilante – attorney by day, and The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen by night. As the series begins, he is confronted by two new players who also don’t mind taking the law into their own hands…though they do things a little differently. Neither hardened war vet, Frank Castle aka The Punisher, nor Murdoch’s ex-girlfriend/martial arts master, Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), mind rendering the bad guys unconscious…they just don’t want them to get up again.

Revitalising the Daredevil brand following the justly lambasted 2003 film, the TV show has similarly succeeded in giving two of the comic series’ most iconic villains/anti-heroes the calibre of adaptation and screen-time that they’ve long deserved, following more than one ill-advised outing. Allowing the scope and space for in-depth exchanges that hinge the characterisation and development of a character on more than sound-bites or one-liners, as is too often the case with many film adaptations, key characters are given time to delve into their motives and intent, with a detailed-filled night of action taking place over the course of a few episodes instead of a few minutes.

Of all the dimensions to be unpacked in Daredevil’s latest season, nothing features so strongly as the exploration of the moral dimension of Matthew’s actions, depicted explicitly and thoughtfully through a prolonged courtroom drama where our hero, confronted with an adversary, is forced to grapple with the rights and wrongs of his own vigilantism. Challenging the moral compass of its protagonist through battle with a seemingly insurmountable foe, Daredevil has gone down the path of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, with the second series drawing many less than casual allusions to the blockbuster.

Having rid the city of organised crime elements in his first outing, and maintaining an amicable if strained relationship with the police force, those inspired by Daredevil similarly take the path of vigilante justice. Emboldened by Daredevil’s disregard for the law, an unhinged gunman wreaks havoc on organised crime and anyone who gets in his way. Able to emerge only as a result of Daredevil’s actions, The Punisher challenges Daredevil’s moral self-righteousness, and – as The Joker does – vehemently denies that he is deranged, justifying his rampage and all but proclaiming, “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.”

Towards the later stages of the season, Daredevil reasons, as Batman did before him, to forgo his moral code in order to defeat the bad guy and safeguard the very values and way of life that he knowingly forsakes. Ninjas abound, a district attorney is not only a central figure but a key target, an assault on a hospital takes place, and the penultimate sequence includes of all things a night-time raid on an empty building site where innocent civilians are being held. Thrilling if not overtly recognisable, Daredevil explores greater facets of its vigilante’s struggle over the course of 13 episodes than The Dark Knight ever could over its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

Reflecting the long-term planning and investment exemplified by The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s gradual build-up to The Avengers, the frequent and now more obvious tie-ins to last year’s Jessica Jones will delight fans waiting for a much anticipated crossover; it’s inevitable in a collection of series where shrewdly-drawn storylines and adversaries mercifully and thrillingly stretch over years and into each other instead of being cut short by a perfunctory season conclusion.

As accomplished as it is, Daredevil is by no means perfect. Unlike Jessica Jones, which also underlies its key protagonist and villains with a great deal of thought, the treatment of Daredevil’s supporting, non-heroic characters ranges from the dull to the overly distracting. When Matthew isn’t on screen, and either Foggy (Elden Henson) or Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) are running the show, the dialogue and minor storylines are neither as compelling nor emotive. Foggy’s scenes are a collection of the show’s worst moments, heralded by an actor visibly less capable than his co-stars, leading to many of the show’s crucial sequences between Matthew and his oldest friend falling flat.

Moreover, Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen does not embrace the modern age and technology as well as Jessica Jones’ titular private eye. Set currently, despite the frequent need for communication, the show’s characters seem to have very little use for mobile phones, which rarely appear: Matthew receives a phone message from a restaurant maître d; everyone gets their news from the paper; and for research, the crew pore over newspaper clippings instead of their browsers. The show, featuring a semi-fictionalised setting espousing the classic image of Hell’s Kitchen, could just have easily been set in a different decade, and may as well have been. Depicting its neighbourhood as at the mercy of rival gangs, and fraught with unstoppable rage and violence, today’s Hell’s Kitchen adjoins highly-frequented business and entertainment districts including Broadway, and caters widely to the upper-end of the housing market.

By no means detracting from the overall quality of the show, Daredevil’s lack of regard for its context and modern advancements in technology, while in one sense a hark-back to the original comics and iterations that made it so successful, is in this day and age needlessly distracting. Regardless, Daredevil is one of the only examples of an adaptation of a successful comic series with the breadth and wherewithal to do real justice to its subject matter which, thankfully, has again been championed by showrunners responsible for taking a chance and delivering a second thrilling season.

Daredevil: Seasons 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones are currently streaming on Netflix.

 

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