Bio-Zombie (1998) review

The second-best ‘zombies let loose in a shopping mall’ movie ever made, the Hong Kong horror comedy Bio-Zombie came out before all things zombified came back in vogue, and is a total riot. Similar in tone to Edgar Wright’s later Shaun of the Dead, the film has a lot of fun goofing off zombie tropes and expectations whilst also clearly in love with its ancestors. There’s lots of cool gore but also some surprisingly poignant moments – you might not expect that from the beginning, given that right from the off there’s an anarchic, hilariously scrappy approach, as our two lead characters/idiots yak over the film’s own opening credits, which they appear to be watching inside the movie we’re watching.

No lie, the cocky, arrogant and very shouty Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and his cocky, arrogant and very shouty deputy Crazy Bee (Sam Lee) are proper slackers/jerks straight outta Clerks/Mallrats who run a pirate DVD stall in the local mall. Don’t like what they’ve sold you? Think it’s a badly shot bootleg? Get lost, but take a couple of pornos with you on your way out, just to shut you up. When they’re not selling hooky films, they’re gambling, mugging, ogling women and winding up the local security element. Amazingly, these two remain strangely likeable. Maybe because they’re just babies underneath all that swagger. Their attempts to talk tough towards bigger, tougher men fail miserably. Even the bit when they mug beauty salon worker Rolls (Angela Tong) shows just how incompetent they really are. Even when Bee admits that the one thing on his bucket list is to kill another person, I thought aw, bless him. Rolls, by the way, is blatantly coveted by the sweet sushi restaurant worker Loi (Emotion Cheung), and it’s killing him to see her out on a date with the bounder Woody, even if she’s only agreed to go out with him in order to get him drunk and fess up to his earlier crime. There’s also the bloke who runs the mobile phone shop who is such a dick to his wife that he comes off as the film’s real villain. Anyone who boo-hissed at Dylan Moran’s David in Shaun of the Dead will find plenty of cowardice and outright twattery to despise here.

Oh yeah, there’s a zombie element! Forgot to mention that. Turns out that the government have got their hands on some nasty bioweapon that can transform its subject into a fully fledged, paid-up member of the walking dead, and when some suits observe an already transformed zombie on display in a warehouse, things go appallingly wrong. The zombie escapes, kills a few people and the one survivor who flees the scene with a sample of the bioweapon is knocked down by Woody and Bee’s car. Situation follows crisis follows misunderstanding, and what follows is a small-scale zombie siege back at the mall. It’s a camp, gooey, energetic and often very funny ride – the characters are engaging, the blue-tinged, mirror-walled (there’s a great split-screen reveal gag) décor give off a colourful, vivid atmosphere and there’s even a sweetness to some of the quieter moments, not to mention a willingness to take no prisoners on the body count that makes for some surprising and genuinely effective dispatchings. As for the splatter, it’s gory but never nasty, even if there is a nod to one of Dario Argento’s more disgusting moments from an earlier film of his (hint: it’s from Opera), the comedy is the kind of highly strung, manic kind that fans of Return of the Living Dead and Braindead will appreciate and there’s even a video game influence during a bit when the film adopts what I can only describe as a character statistics sequence later on. Director/writer Wilson Yip and co-writers Matt Chow and Siu Man Sing are having an absolute ball with their inventive set-pieces, hyper-violence and gleeful energy.

As a horror film Bio-Zombie is not scary, but it’s not really aiming for that – what it is is exciting, surprising and very funny. Genre fans will love it, and even in this day and age of zombie overload, it stands up very well. I’ve only seen the subtitled version, but apparently the US dub is hilariously silly. Also, did a particular energy drink manufacturer realise that their product was going to be used like this? Admittedly, the film doesn’t paint the drink itself as bad, but I certainly didn’t fancy any glucose-fuelled refreshment after it was all over!

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Midnight Special (2016) review

MidnightSpecial

This review contains spoilers.

One thing you might hear is that this Midnight Special is some kind of indie take on the kind of alien movies we watched when we were kids, stuff like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Starman. If that was the intention, then director/writer Jeff Nichols certainly saw fit to remove any traces of humour, lightness or charm from his approach. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that – you know, I like serious movies. However what irritates me about this film is that it’s just so sodding obtuse – Midnight Special doesn’t even seem to bother acknowledging the many plot holes in its narrative, simply preferring to ride over them without expecting us to notice the dip in the journey. By the end, the film’s certainly been a bumpy ride, but not the kind the filmmakers had intended. If they had, then fuck me they must be difficult people.

Alton (Jaeden Liebeher) is an eight year boy with mysterious special powers who seems to have been held against his parents’ wishes in some religious commune. When the film starts he has already been rescued by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and they are on the run, with the help of Roy’s childhood buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton) – the FBI are after them too. The commune, led by Sam Shephard’s pastor, believed that Alton’s bilingual streams of tongue-speaking were signs or messages of some sort. He also can’t be exposed to the sunlight. Later on, it turns out that was never really a problem. One thing for sure is that he emit beams of light from his eyes. It’s cool, like when that bloke with the comedy accent did it in Ghostbusters II – not as scary as that admittedly, but certainly more destructive. There may be something profound in his torch-eyes condition though, because some bloke can’t resist removing the kid’s goggles and staring directly into them. So, what’s the explanation for that? Is this kid an alien? I mean, his birth parents are human, so how does that work out? The film does not explain any of that. Alton’s mother is played by Kirsten Dunst, who is reunited with her son after Roy and Lucas bring him to her, shortly after Alton brings down a satellite that was spying on him, the debris of which kills absolutely no-one. Phew, wouldn’t want to make our little kid utterly unlikable if something like that had happened. Through some decoding of the co-ordinates from Alton’s visions, Roy has worked out just where it is they need to go. The FBI’s lead Alton expert, played by Rylo Ken (much friendlier this time), has worked this out too. We, the viewer, have not. It doesn’t matter – what matters is getting Alton to the spot on Earth where it will all come together.

There’s a lot that’s special about Midnight Special. The nocturnal mood and the atmosphere in the first half is moodily powerful – at times the runaway element combined with the characters living a life on the road with only petrol stations and motels (where they have to board up the windows to block out the daylight) reminded me of the vampire movie Near Dark from 1987. When daylight does make a proper entrance in the film, it’s like a shroud (or tinted goggles in this film’s case) has been removed from your eyes. It’s lovely. The short, sharp punches of action are brilliant and intense. The performances are spot-on – Michael Shannon is doing his Shannon thing with added paternalism, but he does it so well. I believe him and Dunst as parents. Liebeher is good. Edgerton is good. Adam Driver is good. Sam Shephard is good. These are all good actors. It’s not until some time that I realised just how good they are, because these characters are not very interesting, and they have essentially been given superficial weight by some very solid performances. They don’t even have erm.. personalities. The kid is just somebody to rescued, hidden, carried and chased after. There’s nothing else to him.

Obviously this is a one-track situation, a goal-driven plot – get the kid to the magic spot, so maybe these characters aren’t going to have time to show us what they enjoy doing in their spare time, or have time to have a laugh and a chuckle, or show us their quirks, and I guess in real life we’d be this determined and serious. There wouldn’t be anytime for eating, dancing, pranking or stuff like that. But I just ended up not giving a shit. The Joel Edgerton character is pretty much pointless when you think about it. We could have focused on the relationship between mother and father, but instead we have an old friend thrown into it who doesn’t really add anything besides access to bulletproof vests, and his presence cuts into any time the parents could have spent together, or developed some kind of screen relationship we could have been interested in. As for poor Sam Shephard’s pastor – well, one of the more interesting characters is completely forgotten about in quick time.

At the time of watching this though, I wasn’t too bothered by this because I thought, maybe it’ll all come together at the end – I had heard that the final stretch would be something close to a mindblower, but it isn’t really, just a lot of pretty architecture which if the filmmakers had been smart, could have been named Alton Towers – maybe our best theme park is just not that well known outside of the UK. It’s a seemingly game-changing moment for the population of Texas at the very least, but the film doesn’t seem to care that loads of people have just witnessed extra-terrestrial life on Earth and their lives have been permanently altered. No, it’s all about the family, that family who we never really get to know because despite the seeming abundance of thoughtful moments, dramatic reflection and moody silence, this is a film that left me unmoved, cold and, thanks to the lack of explanation or reason, irritated too.

Normal Life (1996) review

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Film noir, and especially the old hook of the bad, mad, dangerous to know girl, drives this contemporary melodrama from the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – it’s as overheated, wildly intense and as hair-trigger as its lead characters. It was based on a true story, that of husband-and-wife bankrobbers Jeffrey and Jill Erickson, and was unfairly shoved to the sidelines by its studio, Fine Line Pictures. Admittedly, it does feel like something closer to an HBO movie than anything blatantly cinematic– still, even though it has mildly televisual trappings, it’s loaded with sex, violence and swearing to give it that extra edge or two. In the end, it’s a great B-movie, stopped short of exploitation thanks to two seriously good lead performances that help it rise above the norm and into the realm of admittedly ripe but effective drama.

Seemingly straight-laced Chris Anderson (a pent-up, simmering and bloody good turn from Beverly Hills 90210‘s Luke Perry, complete with immaculately neat ‘n tidy moustache) is the only cop in his unit not prepared to bend the rules, refusing to cover for a brutish fellow officer who got a bit over enthusiastic with a perp, for example. Yet even he can’t resist the gorgeous, unpredictable Pam (Ashley Judd, absolutely magnetic) from the moment he sees her in a bar. Right from the off his warning signs should be flashing, given that she smashes a beer glass with her hand in a moment of fury after being berated in public for being ‘crazy’ by two already-burned patrons, but he’s already lost in love, helping her to bandage her wound and asking for a dance. For Chris, whose only release seems to be in his preference for firing one of his many guns (he’s a good shot too), the unshackled, dreamy but damaged Pam is too much to resist, and he wants to spend his life with her. They could have a normal life together, you know? Marriage, a house, bills paid, dinners cooked, the whole business.

It doesn’t really work out that way – Pam’s too prone to boredom, recklessness and downright selfishness, Chris is too down-the-line, too straight-and-narrow. It’s not long before it all starts to fall apart. Yet while some of Pam’s behaviour is genuinely shocking, manipulative and disturbing, some of it is also bleakly funny – when she shows up to a funeral in rollerblades, I got the sense that McNaughton was occasionally treating this extremely fragile, desperate marriage as a bit of a sick comedy. Nevertheless, there is a real charge to the couple’s explosive arguments, their ecstatic highs and horrible lows, and despite Chris being the seeming protagonist and lead character, the film is more fascinated and sympathetic with Pam. From the viewer’s point-of-view, I guess a lot of is down to how much you can tolerate her, and yes, how much you fall for her, and this is where Judd delivers the goods. This is definitely the best performance I have ever seen her give – excitingly unpredictable, wildly sexy, desperately sad and extremely emotional, she gives it everything. You can totally see why Chris can’t stay away from her, how much he’s addicted to her (and it’s not just a sexual thing, it’s definitely an everything thing), and while she can be manipulative, this is no mere good guy/bad girl set-up. Culpability is definitely toing-and-froing in this relationship, no one person is entirely to blame for what happens and, indeed, you can say that the most reckless decision in this film is definitely made by Chris when the film shifts gears (and then some) around two-thirds in.

Special mention must also be given to Perry, who never made it as a leading star (the 90210 curse, I suppose), but he’s surprisingly excellent here – he has the less showy opportunity of the two leads, but his quieter performance is a perfect counterpoint to Judd’s full-on turn. The final ten minutes are a bit rushed and at times pretty ridiculous (the scene in the lift, in particular – really??) and the film is so bound for tragedy that there’s not even much suspense in the whole ‘will it work out for them?’ scheme of things – indeed, the film does not end on a happy note. In fact, it even ends on a mildly dismissive touch, if that dropped ice cream is anything to read into. Still, this is a gripping, effective and powerful drama, worth seeking out. Additionally, fans of The Wire will be pleased to see Prez himself, Jim True-Frost (here billed as simply Jim True), as Chris’ best friend who unsurprisingly gets neglected once Pam enters the scene. There’s also a role for Tom Towles, who played Henry’s horrendous friend Otis in McNaughton’s earlier Portrait of a Serial Killer.

PS: When Pam marries Chris, her surname becomes Anderson. Just saying.

 

A Snake of June (2002) review

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Unsettling, perverse and weird, the Japanese and disturbingly erotic A Snake of June is a film from Shinya Tsukamoto, the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), which is one of the most horrifying, head-fucking, bad-trip SF films of all time. That film involved a man who started to mutate into a cyborg in the messiest, most nightmarish way imaginable. This 2002 film isn’t as horrifying in terms of sensory overload, but it’s still quite a ride – transgressive, troubling and compelling.

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) is a call-centre worker for what I assume are the Samaritans, and she’s married to Shigehiko (Yuji Koutari), who spends all the time he’s not at work obsessively cleaning their home. It’s a very neat, tidy environment and a very neat, tidy relationship, but Rinko’s serenity is disrupted when she recieves some photos in the post, photos taken of her by a stranger without her knowledge, and these are pictures of her trying on a mini skirt alone at home and as well as pictures of her masturbating. There’s also a mobile phone in the delivery, and it turns out that the photographer is someone she helped via her call centre work. She saved his life, and now it’s time to save hers, or at the very least ‘liberate’ it. This means getting her to embrace her desires, such as having the nerve to wear that mini skirt she put on in private out in public, as well as buying a vibrator and… well, I won’t spoil anymore of it, but the first half of this film is a classic of escalating tension. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio tightens the frame and emphasises the claustrophobic, inescapable situation poor Rinko finds herself in. Then there’s the blurring between what clearly looks, sounds and well, is victimisation but also suggests sexual freedom – could it be that her mystery tormenter is genuinely helping her? It’s a grey area, and one that’s as disturbing as it is beguiling. The decision to tint the picture in a cool, serene blue only helps to lure us further into this troubling world. It also rains all the time,  which could represent the deluge of sexual abandon that’s unstoppable once it’s been tapped.

I suppose it should be stated that the world in which Rinko and her husband live in seems very repressed, and not just their home environment. It’s precisely the cityscape where wearing a miniskirt in a world of suits and buttoned-down decorum really is going to turn heads, where the only evidence of a sexual undercurrent is the out of the way shop where Rinko is forced to buy her vibrator. Yet as inevitable as the rain, repression will only push things to bursting point, and by the end the film is pretty much out there in a back street masturbating in a downpour in a scene that is exhilarating as it is weird. I have to say the film loses focus for me when it decides to follow the husband on his journey, mainly because he’s not as sympathetic a character, plus Tsukamoto (who interestingly, also plays the part of Rinko’s tormenter) throws in some surrealistic, mad elements such as a freaky peep show, a smackdown involving a tentacle (natch) and some odd behaviour with a gun that don’t have the same punch as the scary intimacy of the first half. Nevertheless, it’s a striking, beautiful, disquieting experience, and at only 76 or so minutes, it does what it does with lean, effective brevity.