Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 13 Review

Two fierce, angry men are planning war against one another. Both have a team of loyal and dedicated soldiers ready to fight the opposing side. As well as this rivalry, there is a seemingly never-ending hoard of the undead that always need to be getting the sharp end of each side’s sticks. The social politics of The Walking Dead has continually been the backbone of many of its episodes, though for episode 13 it’s undeniably obvious.

Major spoilers follow

David Boyd, television director/cinematographer, whose work includes Deadwood and Firefly, clearly understands the cool aesthetic of the Western genre. That’s why “Arrow on the Doorstep” begins like a fine Leone film. This comparison, albeit, is only minor as it is mainly the first four minutes that capture the silent, multiple angle set-up of the Spaghetti style. Nevertheless, it builds up a dread that all great Walking Dead episodes need to have. Rick tiptoes through an abandoned barn whilst Daryl and Hershel watch guard from the outside. We don’t understand what they’re up to until Rick comes eye to eye (no pun intended on the cyclopean villain) with the Governor. Cue creepy credits.

So just who is the bigger man in The Walking Dead; the boss/the alpha male/the don? Almost the whole of this episode looks at this query – with Rick and the Governor sitting down negotiating matters of territory and brethren, Daryl and Caesar showing off their slaughtering skills, and Glenn and Merle shouting and sparring. For Rick and the Governor it’s a subdued cock fight with words and reasoning being used as the figurative swords. We all side with Rick but we also understand the Governor’s desire for Michonne being handed over – after all, she did “kill” his daughter and leave him with one eye.

“One woman worth all those lives in your prison?” is a rational question to be asked, and in all honesty it’s tough to decide on whether Michonne is. On the one hand, she’s a kick-ass fighter and on the other she’s a mysterious, unreadable member of the group. Still, as Hershel says at the end, she saved a lot of the groups’ lives. Rick tells everyone he will go to war (never mentioning the Michonne-bargaining to anyone but Hershel) but only wants to be talked out of it. Could part of being talked out it lead to Michonne’s handing over; Hershel and his daughters’ lives in jeopardy over one newcomer? That’s a development that’ll make the next few episodes very interesting.

As well as our hero and villain in disagreement, their human side-arms are similarly quarrelling (though just as respectably). Daryl and Caesar showing off their walkers killing technique is peacocking of the highest degree, but for no woman. Andrea is present (before she rolls her eyes at them and leaves) though it’s a test to see who has the better slice, whack or stab when it comes to killing zombies. Daryl obviously wins and earns Caesar’s respect as the two chat post-rumble. As it is with Rick and the Governor and Milton and Hershel (discussed soon), it is the discussion of loss that breaks the tension between the two enemies (even if only briefly).

Milton and Hershel are the two that connect the most. Milton is ingeniously collecting notes on the events of the apocalypse for future generations to look back on, something that Hershel (and most of the audience will) find endearing. Milton’s avid curiosity about the time of infection, amputation and healing of Hershel’s amputation breaks the ice, with an additional quip from Hershel. As men of medicine, here is a pair who would be a great duo were it not for the divide of colonies. It’s something that might develop later on (perhaps if the war is won by Rick, Milton may join with them).

As the two parties separate after lengthy discussion – to be resumed again at a later date – the episode ends with a juxtaposed feeling of divide and familiarity. Talk of war may be exciting for the action-loving audiences but as Rick mentions, it’s not a sought-after outcome (especially now that they have all talked with one another). Maybe war will not come and The Walking Dead will throw another curve-ball. As of now, we have our heroes on edge at the prospect of battle – “They need to be scared...’cause that’s the only way they’ll accept it” as Rick tells them. He’s right in a broad sense; not all of them are intent on risking their lives but if it is the only way, that’s what needs to happen. That’s a common theme of the series – the last resort – and the viewer continues to ponder over the extent/limit of it. 

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone Review

Director: Dan Scardino

Writers: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley

Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr

Synopsis: Burt (Carell) was never a popular boy at school and neither was his best friend, Anton (Buscemi) but together they used magic to find happiness, and worked so hard that they became a hit Vegas act as adults. However, after many years doing the same act friction is developing between the two and hot new magician Steve Gray (Carrey) is jeopardising their hopes of an ongoing career.

Comedy of the last century has been mainly irreverent and extremely adult. The Hangover, Superbad and Bridesmaids are all the polar-opposite of family entertainment. The other lot of hit comedies have been mostly irrelevant; 12A releases like Little Fockers, Grown Ups and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. That’s unfortunately one of only ways to categories successful comedy cinema of late – a collection of cheap or crude clowning around. The cast and premise of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone looked as though it could change things up somewhat but it sadly reiterates everything that’s wrong with contemporary comedy.

Starting off with a clichéd set-up of Burt Wonderstone’s youth (bullies chasing him home, an uncaring mother and a nerdy kid as his only friend) does the film no favours in making it seem fresh. The only stand-out aspect of the opening is a beautifully surreal piece of casting with Alan Arkin as a famous 80s magician introducing his “how-to” magic video on Burt’s TV. Arkin will later settle into his familiar grouch persona but his briefly jubilant and over-the-top acting (perhaps only funny to those aware of Arkin’s persona outside of the film) is amusing.

As cruel as it is to criticism the child actors, these particular two playing young Burt and Anton are beyond awful, hamming it up (maybe under Dan Scardino’s direction) to within-an-inch of the film’s “life”. As the film moves into present day, with Carrel and Buscemi, it’s a slight relief to have the children gone. Nevertheless, despite Carrel and Buscemi as the leads, they are equally terrible. Carrel puts on an incredibly forced deep voice (a characteristic better suited to Will Ferrell) whilst Buscemi quietly reads through his lines, none of which enable him to get a laugh.

With a cast as hilarious as this it’s a profound shock to see everyone doing so badly. Jim Carrey occasionally delivers a quip or performs a comically contorted face, bringing some humour back, but these moments are few and fleeting. Carrel and Carrey back together again after Bruce Almighty was a definite selling point but something about how the characters are written leaves you wanting to see none of them. Burt is a bastard throughout most of the film and so is Grey; the only difference between them is that the former redeems himself (though even then he still appears fairly cold by the film’s joyous end*).

The funniest scene (and it really does get the entire audience howling) is in the last 5 minutes. In most cases this would be a fantastic way to end a comedy – going out on such a high – but instead, it reminds you of just how unfunny the last 95 minutes were.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone brings dangerous attention to the tawdry aspect of performance and showmanship. Burton and Anton's show is funny because it's terrible; captured so well because we are looking at it from within a poorly-constructed presentation (an Inception-esque exercise in criticism). The irony of the title is so well-pronounced - it's a critic's dream tool.

*I would have added a spoiler tag but the film is so predictable you know the course of its narrative from the get-go.
By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 12 Review

Often in assessing The Walking Dead I forget about the scale of the show; mostly I look at the writing and the direction, but rarely the design and set-pieces. Watching episode 12 was wonderfully eye-opening for immediately drawing my attention what I usually forget about it.

Major spoilers follow

“Clear” is a fantastic return to a singular narrative strand. It’s not often that the various stories are diluted down to a particular character or small group, so episode 12 feels nicely refreshing. What’s more, it also brings us back to Rick, Carl and the late Lori’s hometown.

Before we reach the long-left homeland of Rick and family, we are taken on the journey there. The car ride consists of a fretful Carl, worried about Michonne’s company, and a hysteric hiker yelling for them to stop the car and pick him up. I was excited to see a new, loner figure emerge in the chaos of The Walking Dead’s world as I always welcome a new story and character (the world of the graphic novel/TV series must be exceptionally rich for possible stories). Sadly, he’s ignored as Michonne speeds on by him. Afterwards, Carl, Rick and Michonne find themselves slowing and sticking in a road collision site, a muddied track keeping them momentarily static. There is then a sudden zombie attack but it’s quickly over. Two exciting elements are introduced – a new character and a hairy fight – but quickly deserted, leaving me entertained but also disappointed at lost story and action opportunities.

We then enter King County and your mind and eyes are rapidly attuned to detail. The detail of props and set-design is astounding – the place is littered with graffiti, signs, animal cages, and defences rigged up. The police artillery barracks has been raided and only a pile of burned bodies shows for walker-action. In a few minutes an overwhelming sense of history is created.

“It looks like somebody’s already made this theirs” says Michonne. It certainly appears that way and whoever is behind the odd DIY fortification has clearly spent some time securing their home. A zombie then shuffles in, showing some “life” to this silent town. As they go to kill the walker a bullet shatters its skull and our heroes are quickly alerted. The gunman demands they leave, sans weapons. Of course, Rick having come all this way to fortify himself for the Governor is not going to leave with fewer guns then he started with. A worrying bullet ballet happens but it’s eventually Carl who shoots the assailant, revealed to be none other than Season 1’s Morgan.

And so our interest is fired up to 11. They bring him back to his fortress – a home with more traps than Home Alone and Skyfall combined. Inside are the guns, a ton of them (“He’s been busy” is an understatement, Rick). Grabbing all they need – and more – Carl and Michonne set off to find a family photo of Carl’s. Left with the unconscious body of Morgan, we’re expecting a great reunion. Noting, however, the message-covered walls, Morgan’s mind may not be all it used to be (and with a son who has “turned”). Waking up he is crazed and confused. A brief tussle and Rick finally gets him to the point of reminding him of old times.

Lennie James as Morgan was a brilliant actor to start off the programme – another Brit who was making a grand and impressive entrance into mainstream American TV. Leaving him was a huge loss but having him back is a fantastic surprise. Having a lot to play with, in terms of character, James steals the show. The two men whose minds are not all there is a dangerous combination, but they balance out each other well. Rick, for the time being, has to return to “normal” in order to calm Morgan and we see Andrew Lincoln as the head-strong hero we love him for. It’s a stirring episode hearing about Morgan’s huge loss, loneliness and lunacy. Cries of anger and sadness are not uncommon in this programme but when paired with a cared-for character (like Rick when he found out Lori was dead) it makes for teary television.

Meanwhile, Carl’s desperate attempt to get his family photo from a zombie-infested restaurant gives us a bit of action and gore.  Using Morgan’s traps they distract the walkers, but only for a few minutes as one of the rat-traps open and the undead follow the scurrying vermin. Michonne uses her sword skills and we see bursts of blood and decent effects (enough to satisfy the action-adorers). As he and Michonne fail to quietly and safely enter, Michonne then goes back in and emerges with the sought-after photograph. Carl finally sees the good in her, and her place in the group has been cemented (as Carl reiterates at the end of the episode).
“Clear” finishes with Morgan choosing to stay in his kitted-out habitat. It’s a shame he couldn’t have joined Rick but two damaged minds would certainly jeopardise everyone. It also adds to the poignancy of the episode leaving Morgan with the ghosts of his past – a theme repeated with Michonne mentioning how she used to talk to her dead boyfriend, in a conversation about Rick’s ghoulish hallucinations. 

A really tremendous episode that has everything going for it – A-grade writing, acting, direction and design. Now with all the guns and ammo taken we can expect an epic war to be fought, though I hope the writers don’t forget smaller stories such as these as they are expert examples of engaging television.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 11 Review

As always: major spoilers ahead.

“You’re slipping, Rick. We’ve all seen it” growls Hershel at the start of episode 12. And he’s damn right, too – our hero’s mind is torn and he’s losing respect all round. Carl offers some guidance about relaxing for a while but whilst this is a caring thought from a loving son, it’s by no means realistic with the Governor’s malicious “knock” on their door.

Episode 11 is less action packed than the previous and analyses the opposing groups as they plan out tactics for war. This is mostly an Andrea-focused episode as she becomes the middle-man (gender-specifications gone to hell there) between the two camps. Andrea has gradually turned into an iconic female-figure of the series but her worrisome tidings between either the Governor, Milton or Rick et al does make her somewhat dull.

The Governor’s ultimatum to Andrea that if she goes to the prison, “stay there”, couldn’t be more desirable if a fan-boy started writing episodes. Andrea needs to be back with her original group so it’s unfortunate that as she quickly settles back in after travelling over, she decides to head back to Woodbury by the end of the episode. More disappointing is the Governor’s pull on her that a tried assassination fails – her plan to stab him in his sleep would end all the conflict (though, it would also leave The Walking Dead with little going on) and break his spell on her. Alas, the Governor lives for another day and another episode, surviving to add some more drama.

Adding tension in the prison is the inclusion of Merle. As Glenn understandably wants him out, Rick and Hershel see him as either useful or just simply tied to Daryl. Hershel is one to pacify the situation by talking to Merle one on one. In this scene we learn a little more about Merle, mainly his learned library lessons.  Momentarily, we see him as a neutral sort in amongst the crowd, offering his services to better the situation for his brother (and maybe the others if he’s found a new respect for them).

As Rick’s group has a crisis of opinions, the Governor’s army is building. The Tyreese-led group has left after Rick’s outburst and have found the company of Milton and Andrea. The former takes them back to Woodbury and they exchange words of hate for the violent Rick. It’s now a big band of aggressors versus our little troop of heroes.

“I Ain’t a Judas” is not a bad episode as everything in it is crucial for the development. It’s just a 40 minute exercise in exposition, however. Not as boring as some of Season 2’s episodes but certainly the most dialogue-heavy of Season 3 so far.

Maniac Review

Director: Franck Khalfoun

Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg

Starring: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, Liane Balaban, America Olivo, Sammi Robtibi, Joshua De La Garza

Synopsis: Frank (Wood) is the owner of a mannequin shop. His private life is made up of brutally murdering and scalping young women and attaching their hair to his private collection of models. One day an innocent woman (Arnezeder) comes to look at the restored mannequins for an art show, befriending Frank in the process but dangerously unaware of his psychotic alter-ego.

Elijah Wood has made it clear that he does not want to be solely remembered as a kind, loveable Hobbit all his life. During and after The Lord of the Rings trilogy he made a string of anti-Frodo films including Green Street, Sin City and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Sin City was the main game changer that showed off a very different side to him. Just after the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in which he reprises his role as Frodo Baggins, Wood returns to screens with a similarly caustically contrastingly role and film – Maniac.

The main issue with Maniac (and a pull for some critics and a push for its promotion) is a nearly- unbroken point-of-view shot that hides Wood away from the audience. We hear his voice and occasionally see his face in a reflection, but his talent at embodying that character is seldom seen. Kudos to the actor despite this though; he creates a realistically eerie horror character using mostly his voice.

As the original brought the audience closer to the killer’s mindset with a narration, 2012’s remake takes it to the next level with an utterly immersive design. The POV shot that makes Maniac appear like a FPS is handled with a decent amount of tact by director Franck Khalfoun. However, for some audiences it may be more disorientating than the shaky camera work of found-footage horror. Or, worse still, too involving for some (Maniac sets up each kill to make it seem as if you are part of it), and upsetting beyond comprehension.

The second – and last – point of praise for Maniac is frightfully realistic make-up and special effects. The scalping was gruesome enough in the original but with today’s standards the scalping shot never looked so (horribly) real. Helped with Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography (a talent seen with The Hills Have Eyes and The Crazies) the aesthetic and content of Maniac is, at times, powerfully unnerving.

The set-up and effects may not be the only aspects to confuse or unsettle viewers – the script and basic premise is never completely worked out. The reason for Frank’s serial killing is hinted at regularly though we never know the full extent of his reasoning. This wouldn’t be an issue with regular slasher flicks but for a film intent on exploring the mind of murderer, it leaves out more motive than it cares to address. 

Maniac's main strength may well be its weakness - an almost continual POV shot from the perspective of the killer that immerses you in the act of killing, yet drains the film of required tension. Knowing the whereabouts of the killer gives you very little to rely on when it comes to scaring the audience; it is the brutality that Maniac frightens you with, which it does pretty well. Wood is – when you can remember it’s him – pretty stellar. The remaining cast are banal clichés, written in with little effort or care. Try as it might to look and feel like a new cult classic (with a score that is desperate to be Drive) it will stay with you for a few hours after, but Maniac eventually becomes another forgetful modern horror. 

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Broken Review

Director: Rufus Norris

Writers: Mark O’Rowe

Starring: Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Rory Kinnear, Eloise Laurence, Bill Milner, Denis Lawson, Robert Emms, Zana Marjanovic

Synopsis: Chronicling the lives of three neighbouring families, mainly Skunk (Laurence), her dad (Roth), brother (Emms), nanny (Marjanovic) and her nanny’s boyfriend (Murphy).

British film may be most identified as “kitchen-sink dramas”. It’s by no means a negative perception of the country’s style and focus; it has been seen as such because it does it better than nearly any country. Broken is another entry in the British film catalogue that excels at what it’s doing. Portraying drama, humour, love and violence (especially in the same film) cannot always work tonally yet Broken resonates realism. Theatre director, Rufus Norris is, perhaps due to his creative background, a natural at presenting Mark O’Rowe’s upsetting story.

As well as the director there is another new addition to the film world – one Eloise Laurence, who shines throughout. Leading a cast of already well-recognised players, Laurence could have been overshadowed by actors such as Tim Roth or Cillian Murphy. However, often is the case she steals the scene from them, and a few others.

Broken’s greatest achievement is its ensemble who never hit a bum note in the 90 minute run. With actors playing rough, almost clichéd working class fiends, or mentally challenged loners, there is the chance that one would stand out like a sore-thumb – over or underplaying that particular role. This is never the case, and with the horrid Oswald clan or the jittery Rick character their casting has been carefully chosen to make their scenes stand out as much as the lead’s.

The atmosphere that the cast and crew have so skilfully created is, unfortunately, quite muddled at points. This is what leaves Broken from becoming a flawless film. Tonal shifts from dark, nightmarish drama to jolly, comedic antics are jarring when they switch so suddenly. This isn’t to say it undermines the realism as, of course, life is full of changes. But for what Broken chiefly appears to be (a “kitchen-sink drama”), moments of juxtaposition can clumsily contort the ambience.

The creation of the film’s mostly bleak mood has been masterfully arranged with a score and cinematography. Each household with its own identity and each character with a very distinctive personality – like any good mise-en-scene in film, it pronounces itself to make the actors and director’s job just that bit easier. You can see all the elements working together to make Broken as human and relatable as any typical drama.

Hopefully the average viewer won’t have experienced the violence shown in Broken but there is never a moment where it feels alien or over-the-top. In fact, the last 20 minutes of the film are so heart-pounding and probable that you are left emotionally drained. Edited with skill and directed with such precision, this is drama that has put British film on the map. Consider Lyne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher, Ken Loach’s Kes and, to a degree, Mike Hodges’ Get Carter and you know what to expect in terms of heart-break, an analysis of adolescence, and violence.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

The Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 10 Review

I labeled episode 4 of Season 3 “arguably the ‘best ever’” which I still stand by. However, in terms of the direction and editing of action, “Home” is superb. We pick up from the end of “The Suicide King” with Rick still hallucinating. One may wonder if it will become an episode dealing with the psychological trauma that Rick is undergoing; in a sense, it is. Whenever the scene focuses on Rick we are analysing his fragility, his strength and his sanity. 

The opposing Woodbury group are similarly shown in a meditative light to begin with; Andrea, Milton and the Governor under close scrutiny as to who is loyal. The Governor stays loyal to Andrea, promising her pacifism toward the prison group. Though, to the ever-wary audience, this just appears to be another one of his Machiavellian statements.

Cut to the newly formed third-narrative strand and Merle and Daryl are wandering the woods looking for food. This, at least for me, is what I wanted to see. Daryl is one of the best characters (if not, the best) character in the series and any chance of him disappearing would quickly sour the show’s sensationalism. And whilst seeing the two brothers up to very little is not everything we expect and desire it’s still better than nothing. Luckily, uproar and tension arrives with an isolated incident on a bridge with a group of survivors under attack from a hoard. In this brief but bloody scene Daryl shows off his independent, heroic, bad-ass persona – freeing the viewer from any worry about his future as a dullard double-act with Merle.

This scene’s violence and effects is top-notch and only a mere burst of energy compared to what’ll come later. One zombie drops to the ground, head by the wheel of a car, and has his head explode under the force of the tyre. It’s a small but excellent example of the effects team’s skill.

Balancing out the drama and action we return to the prison where Axel and Carol are having a friendly chat. This is the first instance where Axel’s character has been explored. He has never appeared malicious or unfriendly. The moment you finally say to yourself, “I’m liking this guy” his head snaps back with a sniper’s bullet. Sudden and completely unexpected it’s a bold move from the writers to kill off a character just about to be properly introduced. However, it was the case with Oscar and the original prison leader – dead within the space of an episode – and the no holds barred approach to story-telling is what makes The Walking Dead (and other hits including Breaking Bad and The Wire) so damn thrilling.

And so to the aforementioned action...

Axel falls, Carol lies behind his body; Rick, out in the fields trying to capture the Lori phantasm, leaps to safety under a bridge amidst the barrage of gunfire; the rest hide in the prison fortress, desperate to provide some cover fire. As unexpected as it seems, this is the Governor with a definite plan. With bullets aiming to hit as many of Rick’s group as possible, he adds walkers to the equation by driving a van through the gates and releasing a small swarm (followed by walkers surrounding the building). This has all happened within the space of two or three minutes and ends as quickly as Axel’s life. Speaking of Axel, the poor bastard is riddled with bullets as Carol shelters behind him – a weirdly noble sacrifice.

Just as each of our hero’s lives seem in dire jeopardy, the Governor leaves. Danger is not absent however, and the walkers still surround and invade the territory. No one is more vulnerable than Rick on the outskirts of the forest. He shoots and whacks his way through a few but looks surely to get injured. It’s here where the episode could likely end – leaving us with a spectacular cliff-hanger. Still, what happens next is even better. A close-up shot of Rick and a zombie’s gaping, biting mouth inches apart and then the beautiful sight of Daryl’s arrow piercing its way through the undead’s forehead. It is a moment of pure joy knowing our favourite has returned, and with such brilliant timing. Of course Merle is with him but in that moment it’s not an issue; just to see Daryl back where he belongs is divine.

The episode draws to a close with Daryl, Merle and Rick dashing back to the security of the prison walls. Nothing much needs to be said (that’ll be the next episode’s job), it’s a simple declaration of war.  

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth