The 405 Film Awards

An article I contributed to.


Monsters Review

Two American get stuck behind the Mexican border, and have to take an extended to get back to their home country. This would be simple enough, were it not for a large section of the US being under quarantine thanks to an alien invasion several years earlier. This is a love story by the way.

The strangest part of Monsters is that it works, both as an idea and as a completed film.  Director Gareth Edwards took a small crew and two actors to Mexico, with a basic plot and storyboard, and let them get on with it. He then took the resultant 100 hours of footage, cut it down to ninety, and then added in the aliens in his bedroom.

What has emerged is a film with a great atmosphere. This is a world that has moved on from the invasion, and Mexico has ended up somewhere between nonchalance and decay. Signs of destruction are everywhere, be it a crashed plane or a mural of an alien attack.  It might be slow-paced, but the movie draws you in, which considering the intrinsically silly premise is all you can ask.

Yet there is more to it than pretty special effects. Monsters might look like a film about immigration, but for me the main theme is the beauty and danger of nature.  Footage of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Tsunami could easily be slotted into the destroyed American town Mexican “jungle”, and the parallel between the creatures from the sky and the ones at the bottom of our ocean are clearly made. Edwards makes us very aware of us a beings surrounded by and a part of nature, and as much as we try to control it, all we can do is look on in wonder.

There are a few duff lines, and the ending is a little underwhelming, if beautiful. Some of the more romantic moments border on cliché, and what actions scenes there are borrow heavily. But if you are looking for something really different, it’s worth a look.


The Way Back Review

The Way Back follows seven Gulag escapees and a Polish woman as they trek from Siberia to India to escape communist oppression. It is a film of human beings getting swallowed up by nature, with no way to beat it except to struggle on.

And my goodness does nature look beautiful. An easy mistake to make with a film like this is to assume that you can just point a camera at the natural world, and create instant cinematography. This is not the case, and Director of Photography. Russell Boyd must be commended for capturing the wonder and danger of planet Earth. Kudos must go to the location manager for finding such incredible spots across the continents. For a film about walking, there are plenty of little moments that keep it alive. Be it a deer stuck in mud, eating snakes, or snow masks made of hastily cut wood, what could be so monotonous is always fascinating.

And yet what is strange about the film is despite the subject matter, it isn’t actually that harrowing. There is the odd image of rotten teeth and septic feet that are wince inducing, but it never quite gets as awful as it could be. The start is horrific, and after the first few nights in the Gulag I was expecting something much stronger. Instead the journey is arduous, but seemingly bearable for most of its participants.  Some of the moments by the lake are actually rather pleasant, and it’s only when things get to the desert that their trek really gets nasty.  There iso doubt these people suffer, but perhaps they get swallowed a little too much by the landscape; their pain becomes a little oblivious.

This would ruin the film utterly, were it not for the strength of the actors, who are fantastic across the board.  Jim Sturgess provides a solid role as Janusz, and is an actor to keep your eye on for the future. Ed Harris as strange American Mister Smith has grown into a grizzled old man that we always knew we would. Colin Farrell as the psychotic Russian prisoner Valka is wonderful, both terrifying and vulnerable at the same time. The others are a little mix and match, but all have at least one great scene.  You really care about the characters, and the fact they don’t go through the blender as much as potentially possible isn’t boring but a relief.

If judged as a gripping movie about the Russian Gulags, or the horror of war, then after the first twenty minutes you might be solely disappointed. Strangely, The Way Back celebrates beauty and friendship, not suffering, and despite lacking realism, is a wonderful piece of fiction.


The 405: The Next Three Days Review

Worth a look in my opinion!

A Serbian Film Review

Now it has been out for a while, A Serbian Film has not really lived up the controversy, and seems to have fallen by the wayside. The plot follows a retired porn star named Milos as he gets involved in one last production, with dire consequences.  This film is disgusting, and extremely violent. But I refuse to accept it is shocking. Much like the other big “gross out” film of the year, The Human Caterpillar it is simply all too ridiculous to actually have a real emotional impact. The fact that the BBFC have decided to cut over four minutes from it has only added to the needless controversy. Again, I’m being honest when I find it confusing to imagine what has been cut- there is nothing we haven’t seen before.

The most surprising aspect of A Serbian Film is how well made it is. The cinematography and direction are good, and Srdjan Todorovic as Milos gives a passionate, if over exuberant performance as Milos. There are a couple of nice moments, and some really creepy scenes.  But anyone with a good interest in horror can list of dozens of much more interesting titles. This certainly is not a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Salo.

There really isn’t a great deal to say about the movie, which considering its supposed films is a big disappointment.  Overall, if you are a gorehound you will check this out, and not be disappointed. But wait till DVD at most. This is not a classic of the genre, and certainly not cinema’s zenith of controversy and shock.


Catfish Review

To confirm, I’m giving nothing away about this film’s plot. Just go see it- there will be plenty to discuss.

The most exciting part of this film is the sheer exuberance of the filmmakers. They have stumbled across an amazing story, and the freedom, kit, and technical know-how to pull it off.  This really pays off when it comes to the cinematography, and even the most impromptu filming is beautiful. There have been doubts about its authenticity, and it would seem that some scenes have been manipulated for extra drama .However, in my own experience situations like this can arise in documentary filmmaking, and though some scenes do seem a little forced, it’s worth remembering this is ninety minutes from thousands.

There are points where the filmmakers do slip into exploitation, but it is forgivable. It shows the dangers of the virtual world, not just social networking, but even emails and text messages. This is pure voyeurism, where a beautiful man is better than an ugly woman, and the latter is stalked from all angles. She may have deceived but ultimately it is her who is now a worldwide laughing stock.  This is just as much a story about them exploring as it is the consequences. The final result isn’t actually that amazing; it is much more the fact it actually happened. Catfish’s real awkwardness is that it can be hard to choose who to cheer for.

As with all good documentaries, it’s the little truths found in every scene that make it a classic. Three New York hipsters wondering round an empty farmhouse is both remarkable and chilling. Abigail’s disabled children are heart breaking. It is the film that has physically affected me most this year, and I can’t recommend it enough.


Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of The Dawn Treader Review

The Narnia trilogy have been a strange series of films. They have never received the prestige bestowed on Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and have suffered from criticism of their Christian themes. With Disney pulling out of co-producing, and at the time of writing Dawn Treader is slipping down the box office, the continuation of the series seems in the balance.

The plot follows Edmund and Lucy from the first two films, and their obnoxious cousin Eustace, as they splash down in to Narnia aboard The Dawn Treader. A new evil has arrived, and it’s up to them to bring peace to the land once again.

What narrative there is sticks together, but its real problem is the lack of any true threat. The main baddie is nothing more than an evil mist, and despite claiming to make your worst nightmares come true, in reality seems to deal more with minor insecurities. The peril never gets beyond Saturday morning cartoon level, and this is the series planting its flag purely in the children’s market.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but must be judged as such.

As with Harry Potter, the franchise got lucky with its child actors. Prince Caspian is a bit of a wet blanket, but Reepicheep and the other Narnians are very strong . Eustace could so easily have just been silly, but has real moments of humour that shine through.  The best part of the Narnia films have always been the special effects and this instalment is no exception. Aslan looks better than ever, and there is a real weight and life to all the talking animals. Dawn Treader may be light, but it builds a great atmosphere. The editing seems a little choppy in places, but the whole “islands with different dangers” archetype is a strong one, and really works. If only there was little more risk to the adventures, and this could have been a top notch picture.

This is very light fare, but good special effects and  a half decent plot keep it going .This film is not a classic, and not even the best of the series. But as an enjoyable Christmas movie, it’s worth checking out.