Once Were Warriors


Viewed – 03 April 2018  Blu-ray

I remember really liking this gritty drama back when I watched it in the mid nineties.  It made a bit of a name of actor Temeura Morrison, who went on to play Jango Fet in the Star Wars prequels amongst other movies.  This tells the story of a New Zealand Maori family headed by Jake, a charismatic tough guy prone to violent outbursts and a liking for alcohol.  However it’s his wife who keeps the family together whilst he gets drunk with his friends at the local bar, and it’s her we follow as this brittle family try to stick together during increasing hardships.

Once-Were-Warriors

An authentic look at suburban Maori life and the society they inhabit, with local gangs and homelessness and the constant threat of violence.  It’s gripping and has a resemblance to movies like Boyz N The Hood and Menace to Society whilst at the same time having it’s own aesthetic and sense of time and place.  The good times are portrayed with more than a little cheese however with characters breaking into singing to portray happiness, but it’s the hard times the movie excels at and doesn’t shy away from the horrors of domestic abuse.  This is unflinching stuff, elevated by some decent performances especially from Rena Owen and an electrifying, career defining turn from Morrison.  However support actors come off as rather amateurish and you get the impression, perhaps for realism the director may have cast one or two non-actors.

This remains a tough watch even today and makes for a engrossing and thought-provoking experience.  Another gem from the 90s that you may not be that familiar with but is well worth you time.

The Blu-ray, to my knowledge the first time the movie has been given the HD treatment, is pleasing but underwhelming.  I found the image, whilst clean seemed overly soft, and the rather drab colour palette used doesn’t help.  However it’s still the best the movie has probably ever looked.  The soundtrack is in both uncompressed 2.0 stereo or DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and delivers clear dialogue and impactful music when used.  Extras consist of a detailed ‘where are they now’ documentary, an interview with director Lee Tamahori and a trailer.  Not too shabby.

Verdict:

(the movie)  4 /5

(the Blu-ray)  3.5 /5

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Night of the Living Dead


Viewed – 31 March 2018  Blu-ray

Criterion Collection

Growing up in the 80s and 90s I had a taste for zombie movies, and cut my teeth on movies like Return of the Living Dead parts 1 & 2 and even obscure oddities like The Video Dead.  However the much celebrated godfather of the genre, George A Romero mostly passed me by, and I hadn’t been that taken by Dawn of the Dead.  You see, I was more into the practical effects, and a sillier vibe to proceedings rather than the much talked about social commentary and seriousness of Romero’s approach.  So of course I never even got around to the 1968 genre-defining original that started it all.

Night of the Living Dead zombies

Although not the first zombie movie, for it’s time it seemed daring and streets ahead of what had been seen before (with the unusual casting of a black lead actor).  It presented a new type of horror that wasn’t set in a haunted house or the Carpathian mountains … but in a world we exist in, with familiar locales and normal people beset by extraordinary events.  When a young woman witnesses her brother get attacked in a grave yard by some strange man, she runs for safety, and eventually holds up in a seemingly abandoned house, where she’s soon joined by a man who quickly takes charge of the situation.  There the two barricade themselves in and gradually witness the undead march on the house.  Will they survive the night?

Night of the Living DeadDirector George A Romero presents a striking and effective, if rather rough around the edges experience, helped immeasurably by unconventional camera work and a claustrophobic setting.  His editing and direction cranks up the intensity, with a group of characters all offering up different viewpoints.  Performances aren’t that great however, and I found myself irritated by how pathetic female characters were, especially the character of ‘Barbara’ despite a strong introduction.  Yet working with a very low budget, applying at times experimental guerrilla film making techniques this still somehow achieves genuine shocks and an unpredictable narrative filled with creepy imagery.    With this taken into account and despite it’s age and at times amateurish performances … I had a better time than expected, which proves just how much it set in place, and still stands as the blue-print for what was to follow.

NOTLD CriterionThe Criterion Blu-ray is jam-packed with extras, but firstly I’ll say the classy black & white 4k-restored image presented in 1.37.1 ratio (yep we get black bars either side of the screen) is vivid and detailed.  It’s grainy but not overly so and generally creates an effective almost film-noir look that I appreciated.  The soundtrack whilst only in it’s original mono is sharp, has clear dialogue and the various moments of orchestral score (taken from believe it or not, stock library audio) is used well and at times creates a welcome Hammer-horror / 50s b-movie aesthetic.  We also get two commentaries, both from key members of the cast and crew, recorded in the 90s, and there’s several new featurettes / interviews covering the impact the movie has had on popular culture (with interviews with Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Rodriguez) along with archival footage.  For fans of the movie, this feels like the definitive release, and anyone who has never seen it before, especially if you are a fan of the genre horror – this is the version to own.

Verdict:

(the movie)  3.5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

Midnight Special


Viewed – 20 March 2018  Netflix

I certainly love me some science fiction, especially if it’s offering something different or unusual than I’ve seen before, not just alien invasions or space exploration.  Here we’re presented with what appears to me a rather X-Files-like scenario of a young boy who has been taken from a religious group and reported abducted.  Police and shady government officials, along with members of the religious group are hot on his trail and that of his kidnappers, one of which turns out to be his father.

Midnight Special

A cast headed by an actor increasingly becoming a favourite, Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire) also see’s Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst along for the ride..  The mystery surrounding the child and just why everyone seems out to nab him is intriguing and what transpires certainly kept me hooked.  However with somewhat subdued performances, especially from a rather sleepy Shannon who normally delivers such intense characters, I was left a little frustrated.  Nobody seems all that affected by the increasingly bizarre or life and death situation they find themselves in … bar perhaps Edgerton who isn’t evenly emotionally connected to the situation other than being an old friend of Shannon’s.  Add to this an under-explored backstory (just how did the boy become a part of the religious group, what happened to the mother…and who was she?) this is a movie that leaves a little too much unanswered to be satisfying.

Jeff Nichols’ direction however is solid, at times eerie and atmospheric, decorated with some impressive visuals. Along occasional heart-in-mouth moments (the motel), I still had a good time with this, despite it not being the complete package.

Verdict:  3 /5

Annihilation


Viewed – 18 March 2018  Netflix

As much as I’m a fan of Natalie Portman, I confess to not really seeking out her stuff since the acclaimed Black Swan … strange when I consider that one of the best movies of the last ten years.  So I jumped at the chance to check out this latest Netflix Original movie.  Portman plays a biological scientist who following the mysterious disappearance of her military officer husband (Oscar Isaac) gets recruited by a government organisation headed by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  You see, a strange alien encounter has occurred affecting a now closed off area where a strange vapour has cut communications and anyone who has ventured inside, has not come back.

Annihilation

This gritty and scarily-convincing sci-fi drama is helmed by Alex Garland, the man who made Ex Machina, another great thought-provoking piece of sci-fi.  This guy clearly understands his subject and has delivered another very effective experience.  The entire movie has a tone to it that’s rather dream-like and sometimes messes with one’s head; trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.  Add to this flashbacks exploring Portman’s and Isaac’s relationship, with several revelations along the way and this proves a meatier story than it first appears.  The alien ‘presence’ and how it effects the female scientists who go looking for answers is also handled imaginatively and gives an interesting spin on the whole alien-encounter subject, with truly unnerving possibilities.

It takes a while to get going, and is marred by some questionable CGI, and the logic behind the expedition left me a tad puzzled.  However, with strong performances across the board, especially an excellent Portman – this is well worth checking out … especially if you’re after something that will leaving you really thinking afterwards.

Verdict:  4 /5

Red Sparrow


Viewed – 07 March 2018  Cinema

When Prima Ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) injures herself during a performance, she turns to her shady uncle on realising the ballet academy are no longer going to fund her accommodation or the care of her ill mother.  So she reluctantly gets enrolled in ‘sparrow’ school where young students are trained to use their minds and bodies as weapons.

Red Sparrow

Once released from the school she gets her first mission and along the way catches the attention of undercover CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who see’s potential in her and attempts to get her to cross over to the Americans.  Lawrence, initially an unusual casting for a Russian character seems to easily deliver a convincing accent and demeanour, whilst using her ‘impossible’ situation to her advantage.  She’s sexy and dangerous and Lawrence nails it in a provocative and daring turn.  Edgerton increasingly an actor I enjoy watching is again very good and perfect support, and add to this a decent turn from Jeremy Irons (another long time favourite) and this makes for an above average thriller.  I liked how the focus was more on psychological manipulation than action, and we may not get car chases or fist fights, but what we do get is much more affecting.  Lawrence may shed more than a bit of clothing but it’s never gratuitous, instead presenting the character’s (and actress’s) obvious good looks and sexuality as a suit of armour throughout.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games) fashions the movie with a careful balance of gritty realism and eye-catching style,  It also doesn’t shy away from the more violent aspects of the subject with gruelling torture and interrogation scenes that pack a punch.   Although it gets rather muddled in the middle of the movie with a side story involving Lawrence’s room-mate, this remained gripping and daring viewing leading to a particularly satisfying conclusion.  An easy recommendation.

Verdict:  4 /5