Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter - review

2016 (UK / France / Germany / South Africa / Canada / Japan / Australia / USA)

Contains mild spoilers.
Well it's been a long ride for Alice (Milla Jovovich). Resuscitated with memory loss, attacked without mercy by the scourge of the undead and their corporate overlords, then over the decade hunted and beset by all the increasingly monstrous and depraved super mutants that director Paul W. S. Anderson could conceive. She's been shot, stabbed, sliced, diced and blown from the sky. She's been cloned, watched good friends die, learnt the dark secrets of her past and witnessed the world she knew torn a sunder. To say she's due a break is an understatement but with this instalment, it would appear Anderson might just be finally letting us, and her, enjoy some kind of rest to the madness.

Over the ten years and six chapters we've slowly but surely witnessed a profound cinematic transition to style over narrative, characters, or any real attempt at substance. It's as if someone gave control of the crazy dial to a young excitable boy and then kept ploughing him with coke long after he'd definitely had enough. From a gritty, claustrophobic and earnest debut, success turned into cash, then into budget, and finally unfettered approval to bring life to the most fantastical scenes and effects, and thus did story, congruence and any concerns for character arcs, in turn, fall to the way side. Part five was the epitome of action surplus; a cacophony of battles and over the top and never-ending lunacy that failed utterly to actually be engaging or rewarding precisely because of this deficit accrued. With The Final Chapter I'd argue that while the giddy young fella seems relieved from his sugar purgatory, this is for all intents and purposes the grand finale, and as such, why is there a want to temper things now. Whilst one can see a whisper of desire to return with Alice and the entourage to Racoon City, and to the intimacy and cinematic authenticity of where and when it all began, there's too much water under the bridge; too much superficial silliness to ever really think they could.

By now we understand that it's not the gold star action and cinematic wizardry that will let a Resident Evil film down but the downtime, the moments of peace between the double back flip, the Matrix style kung-fu, or the triple barrelled shot gun into the giant toothy flying mutant of doom (I think a Kipepeo). Yet I've seen The Final Chapter come in for a lot of criticism about how it's all been cut and spliced together. Ultimately I think it comes down to personal taste, as I didn't mind the frantic and chaotic shaky cam approach; in many ways recognising it as a nod to the perils and confusion of war. The fact that so much of it was shot in near darkness however, I did, especially as Anderson to his credit does manage to return the simple un-mutated zombie back to the forefront for a large swathe of the film, and it would have been nice if we could have really seen them in all their glory.

Another recurring problem I have by now, is Alice's invulnerability. I'm all for the epic hero, the Thor or Beowulf blessed by the Gods with incredible fortune as well as strength, but as all about her fall and as buildings tumble, one never get the feeling, not for one second, that's she's actually in any real danger. The problem with winning the no-win scenario, is how do you follow it but with an equally implausible one. It's the magicians conundrum. Day one it's escaping from a box, Day 100, it's escaping from a box suspended over the Grand Canyon, on fire with a rat in your underpants. Watching Alice, yet again dancing with the big Resident Evil brute +1, or the next CGI enhanced video game inspired super boss, there's nothing really new, never any real tension and no tangible threat. Yet again, dare I say, it's all a tad stale and insipid, and no, adding another rat or maybe a cat to the pants won't ever really fix the fundamental problem.

The Final Chapter isn't as bad Retribution but that would have been a hard thing to have accomplished. At least here there is a semblance of a narrative to make sense of the carnage, even it deviates on what we've been told before, and makes a mockery of all the heroes and villains that have come together to give her a final send-off, with what in effect are short meaningless cameos. Through in truth, if anyone is really watching Resident Evil for any semblance of a coherent narrative or intelligent by this point, they're way off the mark. With action this undeniably good I'd be hard pressed to say there isn't something of merit watching Milla's perfect death bringing choreography, or any of the big picture perfect explosions; and I did find some nostalgia in the final scenes despite them ending up an insulting mockery. So as I said, better than the last, but I had very low expectations - 4/10.


Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Train to Busan - review

2016 (South Korea)

Contains mild spoilers. 

Hype always makes me nervous. It raises expectations and thus investment; and it raises the bar such that any wrong step can feel like betrayal. It also makes it harder to be impartial as the mob has already ruled, and laid a pejorative marker against any who might disagree. It makes it hard insomuch that one doesn't just want to be seen going along with the herd, and the herd are very much on the side of Director Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan. Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead called it the "best zombie movie I've seen in forever", and professional accolades and plaudits have been thrown by dozen. Well hands up; sometimes the herd can be right. I'll say upfront, Train to Busan, is arguably one of, if not the, best and most complete zombie film ever made.

Twenty or so minutes in I could feel it. There's a moment near the start of every great disaster movie, before the horror, action and actual catastrophe, where all the trepidation, anxiety, fear and excitement you know is soon to come is tantalisingly tangible. It's like being seated on a roller-coaster, slowly rising up towards the first hundred-mile-an-hour gut-wrenching plummet that you know is coming, yet can do nothing to stop. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and daughter Soo-An (Kim Su-an) have boarded the early train for Busan, some 453km away. Fleeting and fragmented phone calls and news flashes point to some greater and more expansive violence and confusion in the inner cities. And a lone very poorly woman stumbles quickly onto the train unbeknown to the guards and crew. It's as near a perfect application of the genre; the passengers embark and settle down for the long haul, and it's impossible not to lean forward with sweaty palms, heart racing and a grin from ear to ear. It's the zombie trope, but Sang-ho proves why tropes are tropes; if done properly they can be beautiful and timeless.

Then it begins. To say the ride is relentless would be putting it mildly. One becomes two, then three, four, and before anyone has any clue, the train is a claustrophobic maelstrom of screaming, running and blood. The following hour and forty is a barrage to the senses; perfectly paced, unremitting in its savagery and able to totally subsume the viewer so that there's a coming together to share each high and low as one. It's as finely crafted a zombie experience as I can recall. The train is the perfect vessel to constrain the tension and the roller-coaster is the perfect analogy. There's no escape, no  getting off; just helpless surrender to the ride ahead.

The few confused and desperate passengers that survived the initial onslaught are shaken and desperate, yet as a disaster movie and into the chaos, the experience is ultimately only as good as how they respond. An action horror spectacular it is, but Train to Busan is also an emotional narrative on good vs evil, of self-serving vs self-sacrifice. The zombies are at the end of the day quite neutral; they're automated killing machines driven entirely by instinct to spread the infection and never actually conscious and therefore responsible for their actions. To call them evil would be to call piranhas evil; they're nippy little shits yes, but they're just doing what they're designed to do. 

It's the passengers and the conscious decisions they choose to make in reaction that defines, in this instance, morality. This self-serving; looking after oneself at the expense of all others, versus, sacrificing oneself, or putting oneself in harm's way is the recurrent theme throughout the feature. It's deliberate that Seok-woo has a career that's perceived as selfish and his charge, Soo-An, is a small girl with a huge heart. It's also no coincidence one of his first decisions is whether to pull shut a door guaranteeing the safety of his daughter, or risk everything to let Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a working man who ultimately comes to be Seok-woo's moral gauge, and pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) through. His becomes a journey of discovery, of redemption, and the narrative an overarching exploration contrasting the best and worst of what it is to be human. 

Impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery and World War Z should be proud that Train to Busan has adopted their vision of the zombie and, other than their own origin stories, I could easily see each sitting comfortably in the others universe. Both share the upgraded 28 Days Later zombie for velocity and ferocity. Both share the rather demonic and inhuman veined appearance, and irregular and violently fitful movement model. And both imply the same viral contagion, where it's all about the infection wanting to spread with as much virulence as possible and not actually about anyone eating anyone else. Brad Pitt may have spent a purported $190m, but Sang-ho with his $10m easily keeps up, and watching each and every new vicious and rabid frenzy of anger and teeth scream to life, ready to join the hunt, is always exhilarating, and never gets old.

I don't recall a movie, never mind a niche zombie one, that so consistently got so much right. An action spectacular, a tense disaster drama, a human tragedy; it convinces on all fronts. Yet still at heart it's a fearless zombie film, unashamed to wear the crazy undead gnasher loud and proud, front and central. Yeon Sang-ho has given the tiring genre a more than welcome shot in the arm with a visual and audio feast that, as said, is just about as good as you're going to get. And yet for all these plaudits, it will be the friends you've made, and the friends you've lost, that you'll mostly recall when thinking about it. It is complete and masterful storytelling that excels in all areas and a privilege to watch, 10/10.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Fear The Walking Dead Season 2 - review

2016 (USA)

With Season 2 and the group forced to flee a ruined Los Angeles up in flames, it's back to more familiar The Walking Dead ground. I say ground; as led now in part by Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), a single minded entrepreneur for want of a better word, the group are actually out seeking misadventure and intrigue on the high seas.

Setting the heroes on a boat and not on land was an inspired writing choice differentiating the series at the earliest opportunity from the mid-country claustrophobia of The Walking Dead. That being said the narrative is the same; with the companions dealing with increasingly maladjusted and dangerous situations, all the while picking up the skills they'll (some of them) no doubt need to survive into seasons 3 and 4. I say some; not everyone is made for the end of the world, but it's not as obvious as before, with all characters more closely vying for ineptitude and naivety.

The first eight episodes very much take over from the first series. Theirs is a discrete road (ok boat) journey of discovery; both literally to Mexico, and metaphorically, as they're actually forced to come to the conclusion that the shit-show is real, and there's not likely to be some magic paradise at the end of it. It's good post-apocalyptic drama, well presented and written, though now, out of the apocalypse into the post-apocalypse the characters aren't quite enough to keep things feeling as original or fresh. The journey being a tad too linear and the trials and douchebags on the way a tad too familiar. Then just as I was starting to worry, bang!

Whatever the reasons for what appears to be the huge injection of confidence and cash, the second half of Season 2 literally explodes in scope and ambition. Scattering the characters and their aspirations across a suddenly complete and city full of communities, power-play and danger, Fear The Walking Dead turns the dial up a notch and the results are stunning. The Mexican city of Rosarito and its surrounding area makes a great playground for the characters and also differentiates itself from The Walking Dead, with what appears to be lower population density; and hence fewer zombies, and an entirely different culture and landscape. The Americans too are the outsiders, itself creating a new dynamic in the story.

I've always been surprised how quickly and efficiently zombie survivors adjust to bashing in skulls and sticking sharp things into eyes and ears. One minute it's doing chores or revising for a mock history exam, and the next it's slicing and dicing like a seasoned killer; and to say the group's young'uns Alicia Clark (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Christoper Manawa (Lorenzo James Henrie) and aforementioned Nick haven't adjusted to the bloodshed would be an understatement. Then again, stories are told by the victors; those that did survive for them to be told. Just mulling over my own existence and all the coincidences and wins that would have to have occurred to each and every ancestor, however big or seemingly insignificant, is it not plausible that the survivors of zombie dramas such as this, could be as capable, or fortuitous as they are? Take Nick; the guy who stuck poison in his veins in Season 1, and the guy who thought he could walk with the zombies. The odds of him not only surviving all the things thrown his way in both Seasons, let alone come out of it all with a girl on his arm, is astronomical and it could almost be too glaring; too incredible; yet Fear the Walking has the feel of a great epic and it doesn't seem too much at all.

Finishing Season 2, I feel here is a show that's finally found its confidence. With a more expansive playground and seemingly larger budget the already well developed characters have found their post-apocalyptic strength, and yet still haven't succumbed to the despair and resignation that seems to be main ongoing trait for Rick and his gang. Also, yes, other humans did once again rise to take centre stage, and that's a small pity in my mind, but it's still top tier zombie story telling with huge promise and mammoth potential - 8/10.


Saturday, 2 September 2017

Fear The Walking Dead Season 1 - review

2015 (USA)

2015 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray R(Free)

Contains mild spoilers.

Say what you will, as to whether AMC and Robert Kirkman should have ever gone ahead with yet another unapologetic heavy post-apocalyptic zombie drama at a time the phenomenon was beginning to show signs of consumer fatigue. Then also perhaps overlook the rather trite moniker. The fact that we have got yet another big budget and meticulous zombie spectacular, no less, right back to the beginning, with all the confusion, discovery and false hope this brings, is a joy to behold. Where-as it's big brother is now nearly a constant slog of dark and bleak, but no less agreeable, with other humans the increasing major threat, it's refreshing to have the zombies once again front and centre. Also whereas Rick and the gang are now, with their years of weary survival drudgery, most definitely the definition of the walking dead, here it's still early days and, though yes it's not exactly all the fun of the fair, optimism is still tangible and ok, and the walking dead are still the ones with the gnashing chops and lumbering shuffle.

This again is not to argue that it's some watered down teen sideshow; a Return of the Living Dead Part II. It's just that this is still a world where it's ok to have inner moral conflict; where maybe people can be given the benefit of the doubt and perhaps strangers should be welcome with open arms rather than be suspected of owning an automated cannibal murder factory. Ok, for Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) and his extended family, innocence won't last forever and by midpoint second season the same cynicism and, some might say, realistic sobriety has finally made its point and been taken on board. But I get ahead.

The Walking Dead didn't go right back to the beginning. It started with the apocalypse in full swing, and the dead out numbering the living a fuck-tonne to one. Fear doesn't just fill in the missing weeks, but goes one further, back to the minutes and hours most people thought things might still actually turn out ok (cue the laughter).

First time it was to see whether the cable audience would take to prime time zombie horror, and with its record cable audiences and Golden Globes, we know how they did. This time, I'd argue the six part teaser / trial was to see, first off, if people were ok with more of the same, and second if people would take to more disjointed and delicate, but more realistic and normative characters, and with a tighter, more insular family driven story.

Rick Grimes was, from the start, the gun toting, self-reliant larger than life comic book character and his companions and nemesis on the journey complemented the excessive story telling that became such a phenomenon. Without the comics central to the narrative, writers Kirkman and Dave Erickson present, with Fear, quite the different, more subtle, to start with anyway, world. If we're honest, from Rick to Shane to Daryl to Michonne or even The Governor, characters had identity tied to role and purpose. Yes there's character development, but true to its roots it's more caricatures with either something to offer or some deep flaw.

The Manawa / Clark family immediately offers something different. There's quirky dynamics, unspoken tension, complicated logistics and everything you'd expect in a modern mid-American family set-up. Ok, it helps to secure the characters before everything's extreme and everyone's under pressure, but even looking to The Walking Dead's flash backs, it's not hard to argue there's far more depth and ambiguity to the relationships even in these earliest moments. I don't think I was alone in taking some time to warm to them all; Travis was a bit stiff, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) too sullen a matriarch and as for the rest I struggled to remember names or what they were really for; and it was precisely because they weren't as discretely defined.

It was Nick, (Frank Dillane), the brilliantly cast son of Madison who broke me though. The difficult junkie drop-out, and first to witness the return of living dead, is perhaps the gateway drug, easily type-cast, his demonstrable nuance as he deals what he's seen, and struggles with what he should do, amid his heroin come down craziness, and the way this permeates through the family brought everything together. I stopped seeing the characters as isolated identities but as social and broken beings and it all came to life.

Fear also packs the zombie punch, delivering all the highly polished horror goodness we'd expect from the now seasoned production team. The end of the world is brilliantly crafted and by the end of the series perhaps I grasped the Fear bit of the name I initially frowned upon. The undead are scary again, even on their own. They're not yet, anyway, just the obstacle, the problem to solve, but the unknown and incongruous other. They're also in this first series a temporary devastation; because of course things will get better and return to order. The world has yet to fully fall and the full consequences are yet to be grasped by minds that are clearly not ready to process such information. And it's engaging, surprising, both heart-warming and despairing, and utterly enjoyable as one would expect - 8/10.