The Orphange (El Olfanato)

 ★★★★☆ 

Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the abandoned orphanage where she spent her childhood, intending to reopen it with her husband and young son, Simon. Simon has several imaginary friends, but are they so make-believe? Or in fact, former residents? Soon after, he disappears and in desperation Laura tries to believe in his stories in the hope they will lead her to him.

The Orphanage is a good old fashioned ghost story. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, this is a perfect companion to Pan’s Labyrinth or his earlier Devil’s Backbone. The story is detailed and in fact, director Juan Antonio Bayona spends as much time on the back story as on the scares, both combining to make one very memorable film. Nothing original really, but ghost films like this are few and far between, especially ones that get it so right.

It is frequently and genuinely scary, though not gory (except for one brief moment), relying instead on suggestion and sound. The DVD mix is superb with the creaky old building groaning so much you’ll think someone is crawling around your own house. As with a lot of stories of this type, it perhaps loses a little pace in the third act as it has to start to tie everything up, however, tie up it does and in the most beautiful fashion. Maybe you’ll guess the outcome, but you should still find it a moving conclusion. The story is clever enough to offer a variety of interpretations and as such I expect it will keep coming back to me. One scene in particular with the sinister, masked Tomas is very ambiguous. It’s got a great cast and Belén Rueda’s brilliant and intense performance as Laura unravels especially holds it all together.

Elegantly written and the photography is wonderful throughout varied weather and seasons. Inside, the house always seems warm, but with scary potential. That can’t have been straightforward because after all, for the story to work, we have to believe it can be a welcoming home for children, not just a hell mouth, so to speak. However, it is foreboding, especially in a greenish night vision sequence that will have you biting your finger nails down to nothing!

If you haven’t tried foreign films before, this and Del Toro’s others are an excellent place to start. Hollywood forgot how to make scary yet substantial films ages ago and so you’re selling yourself short by ignoring Spanish and Asian releases.

From Dusk Till Dawn

 ★★★★☆ 

I love this movie. One of my favourite horrors when you need to see some straightforward balls-out vampire killing action!

I wish I could have seen it without knowing what it actually was, because the shock of the switch from thriller to horror would have been great fun. It’s great that Rodriguez put full effort into that first half to give us well rounded characters, because a problem with a lot of horror films is the thin characters. What’s also lacking is a sense of humour, but last section is full of laughs, especially Tom Savini trying to hide his new teeth! Or the vamp that disintegrates on a pool table and his eyes roll into the pockets!

Speaking of which, the gore never gets boring. So many gags, you could watch this several times and still see something new and disgusting. The script is fantastic, full of quotable lines, but you need a good cast to deliver it and this lot are dead-on. Even Tarantino, working to his, erm, strengths. Juliette Lewis I thought would be wrong, but she strikes a good tone between schoolgirl and temptress to Richie’s nightmare. Harvey Kietel is as dependable as ever and Clooney is obviously having a riot. Well, I say “obviously”, but the outtakes show him frequently pissed off and without his usual humour, so maybe it just proves what a good actor he actually is. And it does no harm to have room for cult favourites like the afore mentioned Tom Savini and Fred Williamson.

Everything oozes confidences in this movie. All the scenes have that little extra they didn’t actually need, but looks cool anyway. It will possibly always stand as Rodriguez’ best film because it’s the most perfect fit for his seat of the pants directing style and there aren’t many stories that can stand such a change in tone and still work fully committed to both styles.

“And I don’t want to hear anything about “I don’t believe in vampires” because I don’t believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw is fucking vampires!”

28 Weeks Later

 ★★★★☆ 

Following the events of 28 Days Later, a devastated Britain is being repopulated now that the Rage virus is under control. But a family coming back together proves disastrous and it’s on the move again.

28 Weeks Later starts with an incredible sequence featuring survivors in a farmhouse coming under a vicious attack. Dom (Robert Carlyle) is the only survivor, leaving his wife for dead, running from what can only be described as a swarm of infected. The shot of them sweeping down the hill is incredible.

The missus pops up later on surviving because she is a carrier; unaffected by the virus but still contagious. Her son is the same and 28 weeks after the outbreak, he and his older sister return to Britain and their dad, now living and working in the green zone. This family is the films focus and strength. While they expand the story logically and present a terrifyingly feasible Britain completely broken, the story stays grounded by sticking with the family.

It’s incredibly bleak and gory. A sequence with a helicopter and field full of infected should go down as a horror classic! This visceral, in-your-face style in unrelenting, an improvement on the original I feel. There are holes in the story if you want to be picky, but first and foremost this is entertainment.

28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead caused debate amongst horror fans about what type of zombie they thought was correct: runners or shufflers. I prefer the latter, but I think the full speed zombies can be excused here because they aren’t dead; they’re poorly.

But regardless of your opinion, this compares rather too well with its contemporaries. I liked Diary of the Dead, but what that film gains in social commentary it loses in sheer entertainment value against this. Romero needs to step up a gear and show his slow zombies are still a viable threat in cinema. His touch of humour was desperately needed here.

Otherwise, this is a great sequel. It takes what made the original great and expands on it. And the end is still open so maybe a franchise beckons.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 ★★★★★ 

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Mesmerising, haunting, beautiful and challenging. A remarkable film about a remarkable man (well, two). I cannot recommend it enough.

The plot is very simple and all you need to know is in the title, which is so long it doubles as a synopsis. Jesse James, in the twilight of his career, is unsportingly shot in the back by young Robert Ford, who had grown up idolising James and dreaming of riding with his gang. The story starts with Robert trying to ingratiate himself with Jesse having been introduced by Charley Ford, his brother. Jesse’s original gang has been decimated and he now rides with anyone who wants to come along. They do one more train robbery and then Frank James leaves. This was pretty much Jesse’s last robbery, though he speaks continually of doing more, despite his paranoia (oft justified) making him unstable. All the while the relationship between himself and the obsessed Robert is getting more and more complicated.

This is an unusual film. A western about a notorious thief, murderer and folk hero yet has very little solid action across it’s two and a half hour runtime. Instead of gunplay, we get a thoughtful work of art, quietly narrated, and with some of the most beautiful photography seen since at least Dances With Wolves, possibly earlier. You may think it sounds slow, but it is absolutely engrossing, the time flies by and it never loses focus or confidence in its themes and characters. The pacing is just perfect.

This is in no small way thanks to the brilliant cast. Sam Rockwell plays Charley Ford, always on the sidelines, becoming more panicky. Sam Shepard has a relatively tiny role as Frank James, but he seems to resonate throughout the story. At the centre are the two main men and both Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are astonishing. Pitt is incredible; an air of quiet almost constant authority, broken by sporadic violence and a maniacal laugh, but still demands your sympathy. Affleck’s is a nervy and slimy character, who never seems comfortable, perhaps until the end, when the consequences of his actions change him. Note that comfortable is not necessarily happy.

Overall the story deals with the notion of celebrity and media, so has a clear relevance today. Jesse James is at once an outlaw and a hero, struggling to balance a true and worthwhile family life with psychopathic obsessions, paranoia and depression; Ford has grown up hearing about the hero and meets the charismatic outlaw and he’s a constant mess of emotions. His act of cowardice (born out of fear) is briefly congratulated, but quickly ridiculed, eventually leading to his own rather more random assassination.

This film is not for everyone, but everyone should try it. You may be surprised. On a side note, I was intrigued to notice that Ridley Scott was a producer. Reviews of his biographical true story American Gangster often noted that although it is very good in general, it has little of his original flair and could be accused of being pedestrian. Almost like he used to sacrifice story for flair, now it’s the other way around. Not to take anything away from Scott, but with this film director Andrew Dominik proves you can have both. I’m particularly fond of a trick he uses where the edges of the frame are soft focus (much like the photographs from the era); the whole film looks gorgeous and the very final shot lives on in your mind.

Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut

 ★★★★☆ 

Payback was released in 1999, based on a book called The Hunter by Richard Stark, the same source material for John Boorman’s Point Blank starring Lee Marvin.

When Payback came out I really liked it, though flawed and a bit of a mess. It was the same story, but low key and to the point. And the point was usually being used to batter someone, grimy, violent little film that it is! But the film I saw in 1999 wasn’t what was originally intended. Apparently it didn’t test well, so Brian Helgeland the director was kicked off because he refused to change it, a new section filmed with a new ending and the whole thing edited different. Now Brian has gone back to his original footage and pieced it back to how it originally was. I did like that theatrical version, so I was reluctant to get Straight Up, especially when you think he directed The Sin Eater, so maybe he doesn’t know what the heck he is doing and perhaps the theatrical Payback was a rescue job.

On the contrary, Straight Up is better than the standard Payback. Leaner and meaner, it harks back to the 1970s (Helgeland’s original intention) and removes a lot of stuff that was added just to spell things out to the audience. It’s lost some humour, but the stark brutality makes more sense. The theatrical version was always a bit silly, especially the absurd kidnapping sub-plot, now entirely excised.

If you like gritty 1970s style crime films, I recommend this. If you’ve seen the original Payback, I really recommend it, if only for novelty value. But if you don’t fit either of those slots, I still implore you to give this a try. The DVD includes extra features that give a fantastic glimpse into the bonkers world of Hollywood. Payback demonstrates all that is right and wrong and right again with the filmmaking business, and the ‘Making of’ featurette is one of the best I’ve seen.

Normally in situations like these you have to wait until someone dies (Orson Welles for Touch of Evil) or it becomes tit for tat grudge crap (The Exorcist: Dominion) before you see definitive (or hacked!) versions. Here though, the ‘making of’ is made up of interviews by people with only positive things to say about the whole affair, including Mel Gibson. They still stick strongly to their original intentions, but I think the fact Straight Up exists at all is miraculous. They are all gracious about each others opinions, so it’s a pleasant half hour. Parts of the interviews, especially the composer of the new score, are often quite moving even. And Brian Helgeland has the last line and tearfully puts everything in perspective, especially if you were starting to think of Gibson as the villainous producer.