Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Practical Magic - review

1998 (USA / Australia)

Contains spoilers.

What? The Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman oestrogen fuelled whimsical nineties Wicca rom-com? The one with an ancient hereditary curse, husbands who die young leaving broken hearts and orphan girls with the often poor choice in boyfriends? That's the one. Okay, I was probably very much like you are now, a year or so ago, and despite owning this DVD the best part of fifteen years, and doing this here zombie thing, I'd always shrugged off the idea that it might be worth another look, even if the z word is on the back cover. Well enough is enough, as one, Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic), said poor boyfriend of Gillian, the more feisty and independent of the Owens sisters (Nicole Kidman), does die and is resurrected as something dark and wicked, and two, and I'm not going to hide this, I've always held rather a soft spot for this flick.
Practical Magic is the story of condemned and thwarted love. Two hundred years ago, Maria Owens is exiled with her unborn child after a failed execution on the count of her being an active witch and her neighbours being judgemental and ignorant arseholes. When the father and her lover fails to show for the rescue, she throws down a curse so that she shall never know love again, only such was the heartfelt strength of her sorrow and anger that after she died it failed to lift, instead transferring down and condemning her bloodline forever. Jump forward to Gillian and Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock), two orphaned girls with the gift, forced to live with their Aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) after their parents too, succumb to the Owens curse.

Well, the girls grow up, they learn the craft, Gillian runs off to party, play and frolic with the sort of boys a good Christian mother wouldn't be happy about and Sally, the more down to earth stays and has a go at making house with all the dire consequences one would expect. This set-up is charming, the characters coherent and inviting and the world the perfect mix of real and magical; of a society full of intolerance and prejudice underpinned by fear, and by that fantastical belief that darkness can always be vanquished by the light of love. But what has this got to do with Zombies?

Well, Gilly's love of 'wrong 'uns' eventually catches up with her in the guise of Transylvanian heart-throb Jimmy Angelov. Not just into drinking, drugs and debauchery, Jimmy also has a bit of an obsessive compulsive disorder for keeping the object of his desire very much in check, both emotionally and physically. Out of her depth, Gilly calls on her deep bond with Sally, Sally comes to her aid and before the night is over they manage to poison Jimmy, resurrect him then kill him again. It's never a good idea to bring someone who's previously really tried to hurt you back to life, especially with the additional caveat they're going to come back even darker, but that's what the girls do. Jimmy, in his initial Zombie form, actually doesn't hang around long, mere seconds, before being dispatched again but he's definitely not the fully compos-mentis Jimmy that was alive, albeit very drunk, earlier that day. 

It's Jimmy, in his second Zombie form, that's occupies the most screen time and is arguably the more interesting. Though is he really a zombie? Though dispatched for the second time his spirit remains and it's neither happy or at rest. At first a nuisance he soon becomes quite attached once more Gilly, literally, and the story becomes one of possession, exorcism, and banishing lost souls and evil spirits (albeit in such a way to bring the townsfolk together, lifting the ancient curse, finding Sally her true love, and bringing harmony and love to all mankind.) I know I've previously stayed away from the subject of possessed souls and zombies; that of a person with their will suppressed, and another non-corporeal will imposed and in command, but in many ways it warrants that the question be asked. Back before Romero when zombies were New World, voodoo and mind control it was merely will over another to do as they commanded that justified the z moniker; and in many ways how is this different, other than the will is of someone / something specifically not of this world. Suffice it to say I don't think it's time to start to adding every possession film to the list just yet; there's a traditional and contemporary idiom that dictates what is or isn't zombie and I need to tread carefully. Here though, with an actual zombie a few moments earlier I do, finally, feel safe to at least include the film and touch on the subject.

Yes Practical Magic is slushy, romantic, emotional, does attempt an uplifting 'and they all lived happily ever after' moral finish, complete with lively country soundtrack, and you can watch it with your children (though some of the bringing back from the dead and possession stuff is perhaps a little much for little ones). Yet it's confident and successful in all that it sets out to achieve; harmless, fun, entertaining and full of feels. Practical Magic is in my opinion an exceedingly joyous way to spend an hour and a half of your family friendly time; that is as long as your black, cynical and miserable heart, or what's left of it, still has room - 8/10.


Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Versus - review

2000 (Japan)

Contains spoilers.

Director and co-writer Ryûhei Kitamura's Versus is the story of life, death and resurrection; the eternal battle of light vs darkness made incarnate and flesh. It's a stunning visual tour de force; graphic, beautiful and indulgently crafted; and also breathtakingly unremitting, inviting the viewer to join with it to rejoice in a perpetual martial arts, sword and gun-play master class. It's also, when all is said and done, a tad boring.

One has to admire what Kitamura has put together. Versus really is a visual treat; dare I say it's visual art. Grand sweeping pan shots, extreme zoom in and outs, the great use of pausing and time, all help build a believable yet mysterious, ethereal other-worldly sand-box for the various characters to play in. The faultless display of highly choreographed, sumptuously stylised and captured martial arts, all of the highest calibre also makes Versus an absolute film making triumph; it's faultless; it's performance art.

There's a old adage though, that one can certainly have too much of a good thing and at two hours even the most hard-core fighting fan would start to find the endless barrage of video-game-esque dueling wearisome, however polished it all is. And that's the rub because outside the fighting, the narrative, such as there is, is so minimal, so enamoured with ambiguity, mystery and what hides in the shadows that the bust ups alone are relied on to solely to carry the film; and they just can't do it. That's not to say what little there is, is bad. Kitamura's esoteric mantra, the deliberate design to permeate intangibility across all two hours brings with it an alienness, a transcendentalism that one can't help but admire. But, critically, it rarely made perfect sense, seemed at times to contradict itself and more than once seemed forced so as to justify the next big duel.

Versus is the story of Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) and his eternal struggle against The Man (Hideo Sakaki) and his undead cohort. There's also The Girl (Chieko Misaka), a gang of Yakuza goons, various assassins and some cops. In a what appears to be an endless cycle The Man keeps waiting for the The Girl and KSC2-303 to return resurrected to the world, or more precisely to the Forest of Resurrection, where he can hopefully, this time, perform a sacrifice or something, open one of the 666 portals 'to the other side' and gain some great unimaginable power. All the while the Forest of Resurrection behaves as one would expect bringing any others caught up indirectly in the manage-a-trois death party back as zombies. 

Combine sadistic Yakuza, blood thirsty undead and an ultimate samurai driven callous by the ravages of immortality, but in possession of a really big sword and a plethora of modern weaponry, and you have quite the recipe for an excessive blood bath and Versus delivers, in bucket loads. Whether it's heads, hands, innards or all three, exorbitant but delightful attention has been given to making the zombie or human deaths as memorable and colourful as possible. Scenes are audacious and shocking, and even a bit daft at times, but this is never a Dead Alive (Brain Dead) or Dead Snow; the melancholic atmosphere is always dutifully adhered too, even as twisted zombie caricatures are literally sliced and diced Fruit Ninja style in laughably long and exaggerated set pieces.

Sublime, surreal; Versus is a hard film to judge. A hyper-stylised excess of violence; as a Japanese close combat film it excels in all areas. Except, when your first twenty drawn out duels are as good as the last, when it does get to the big finale where immortal fights immortal and the fate of mankind hangs in the balance, it just fails to deliver the kind of punch you'd expect it to; especially when you'd already enjoyed them going at it together a good few times before. Certainly a zombie high-octane experience, there's much to recommend with Versus and certainly I can understand many shouting it's the best film evar; I'd also go as far as proclaiming it art in both form and function; and yet as a complete cinematic feature it just didn't quite do it for me with just too much, well, everything, 7/10.