Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

In preparation for the release of the final season of SpartacusWar of the Damned, I worked my way through the entire show, season by season. 


Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Overview

Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a strange brew of Rome, 300 and FHM, a sword-and-sandals epic for the lad-mag generation where gratuitous sex and violence meet cod-Shakespearean dialogue and togas. While many of us are familiar with the revolutionary leader Spartacus would become (think Kirk Douglas and all those people standing up), this season attempts to fill in some of his back story. We see the unnamed Thracian warrior forging an alliance with the Romans, led by the nasty Legatus Claudius Glaber, to defend his village, only to turn against them as they abandon his fellows to pursue their own ends. Captured, the warrior is sentenced to death by armed combat but manages to best his would-be executioners. Spotting an opportunity for career progression, gladiator-owner Quintus Lentulus Batiatus purchases him for his ludus, bestowing upon him the name of Spartacus. What follows sees ‘Spartacus’ trying to earn freedom for himself and his wife by undertasking training, becoming in the process both people’s favourite ‘the champion of Capua’ and an important figure in all sorts of political machinations across all levels of society.

This series comes from the Raimi-Donen-Tapert production house, and two of those names were responsible for Xena: Warrior Princess. With Xena herself, Lucy Lawless, in the cast, thoughts of this previous show were never far from my mind.

Weaknesses

You get the impression that the showrunners were hoping for outrage from conservative viewers, and certainly take full advantage of the openness of cable television to nudity and gore, but the violence is so cartoony and the sex so harmless that, for the most part, the spectacle merely bores. The look of the show is successful to varying degrees; while the interiors and sets are solid enough, the BBC documentary-style special effects recreations of the arena and city leave much to be desired. In terms of direction, the opening episode is jam-packed with ‘floating-leaf’ moments, overwrought televisual shorthand for emotional depth or artistic flourish that probably look good on paper but almost never translate to the screen without being inadvertently comedic. This is fortunately reined in with later episodes, but there are still occasional attempts at visual poetry which fail either due to their sheer incongruity or the lack of budget. The frequent use of naff green screen special effects and slo-mo fight sequences (the usual jaw crunches, blood splatters and heads flying) also grate. On a slightly churlish note, the main characters do seem rather too kempt for ancient Italy.

One of the main problems with the show is the wildly varying tone. While some of the cast seem to realise that the low budget and excessive sex and violence mean it all comes across as somewhat camp, and pitch their performances accordingly, others approach it as though it were deadly serious. This odd mix, together with the vast range of accents (who knew there were so many Antipodeans in Italy back then?!) occasionally make it feel like a late-night equivalent of one of those Australian children’s programmes that CBBC was full of in the mid-nineties. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I doubt it was the intention of Steven S. DeKnight when he created the show.

Strengths

The undoubted highlights of the show are John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as power-hungry ludus owner Batiatus and his wife Lucretia. Both get their characters spot on from the off, playful yet menacing and with a nice line in meaningful scowls. Lawless also does well when paired with Viva Bianca as spoilt rich girl Ilythia, wife of Glaber and a nasty piece of work. Their bitchy one-upmanship lights up the screen. The titular Thracian himself, model-turned-actor Andy Whitfield, is certainly charismatic and brings a certain amount of gravitas to the role. Sadly Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer after this season and was unable to return to the series before his untimely death at the age of 39, so we won’t know what else he could have done with the character. Other cast members who give particularly worthy performances are Jai Courtney as Varro, a character so nice that you know he can’t be long for this world, and Nick E. Tarabay as Ashur, one of those brilliantly oleaginous characters you just love to hate.

In fairness, later episodes do use the sex and violence to better effect, as the writers seem to realise that both only work as useful narrative tools in the correct context: a bout of sex between unwitting enemies and a heartbreaking duel between friends show how effective they can be when done right.

Verdict

Spartacus: Blood and Sand gets to live, but only just. It starts poorly, but if you manage to work past the early episodes it develops into an oddly addictive watch. By the time the season reaches its conclusion, in a very satisfying bloodbath, you will definitely want to know what happens next, with a final speech from our hero promising that the true fight has only just begun…

2.5/5

MP

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Lords of Salem (2012)

Image: Anchor Bay

I have had a rocky relationship with Rob Zombie’s horror films. From excellent word of mouth I was sure that I would enjoy House of 1000 Corpses, but I ended up really disliking it. I found it soulless and messy, only rescued by some good acting. The sequel The Devil’s Rejects I liked more but, while it smoothed out some of the roughness of the first film, it still left rather too bitter a taste. Again, though, acting was mostly exemplary. Then came his divisive Halloween remake, which I loved, against my prejudices. The love affair was short lived, however, as the version released on DVD, apparently the director’s cut, was full of the sort of pointless graphic excess which had been mercifully absent in the cinema version. Finally came Halloween II, which I was not alone in regarding as far too oddball a film, spinning off from the established formula into a strange world of Zombie’s own. While innovation should be applauded, the jump just didn’t work for me. As usual, though, the acting was strong, with Malcolm McDowell and Brad Dourif especially giving a pair of tours de force.

Now Zombie has returned with The Lords of Salem, an homage to the occult cinema of the 70s and 80s. His wife and muse Sheri Moon Zombie plays the central role of Heidi, a Salem DJ and recovering junkie who receives a personally addressed LP from ‘the Lords’. The playing of said LP draws Heidi into a living nightmare in which she seems fated to end up an integral player in the machinations of a coven, led by the spirit of long dead witch Margaret Morgan, looking to end the heathen reign of the Church and bring back Lucifer, taking their revenge on the people of Salem in the process.

If one thing can be said of Zombie, it’s that he has a unique style. While it might not always agree with me, there is a certain frisson that is unmistakeably his. That being said, this is certainly his most referential work. The City of the Dead-style opening sets the tone for the witchy business of the film, far closer to Bava’s Mask of Satan than to any straight effort like The Crucible. The crumbling apartment building where Heidi lives is an amalgam of the buildings from Suspiria, The Shining and Tobe Hooper’s remake of The Toolbox Murders, with some very familiar camera angles on creepy corridors. The overall plot is a Rosemary’s Baby sort of affair, with flashes of other Satanic favourites in there as well. Zombie certainly knows and loves these films and the tributes are reflective of this.

Overall, however, this is far looser an effort than Zombie’s Halloween (still my favourite of his films by some distance). The reheated plot is left to bubble along with no real effort made to spice it up until the conclusion, but then the sudden inrush of trippy rock video imagery strikes an incongruous note against the pleasantly sedate style of the first half. Before the halfway mark is definitely the strongest part of the film, with a nice slow-burn tension – I was reminded favourably in parts of Ti West’s masterly House of the Devil – but this build-up is unfortunately not paid off in the finale. It's a shame about this damaging tonal misstep, because Zombie does conjure up some strikingly idiosyncratic images, especially the burnt-faced people who appear in a variety of bizarre and sacrilegious outfits, most memorably in papal regalia surrounded by an entourage of goat-headed nudes.

As I have come to expect from Zombie’s work, the cast is where the film’s true strengths lie and this one is all about the women. Sheri Moon Zombie gives a nicely measured performance which is thankfully far closer to her excellence in Halloween than her oddness in Halloween II. Her creepy landlady Lacy is played by the marvellous Judy Geeson, who for me will forever be the star of trashy exploitation flick Inseminoid, even though she’s done a large number of more mainstream films as well. Lacy’s equally worrying sisters are played by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Patricia Quinn, as terrifically vampy as you would hope, and ET star Dee Wallace (Stone), finally allowed to play nasty and relishing the task. Meg Foster gives a solid pantomime performance as Margaret Morgan, though it’s a shame she didn’t get more screen time. The men are sidelined but Bruce Davison and Jeff Daniel Philips do make an impression as the nice guys.

Far from being Zombie’s worst film, The Lords of Salem still remains something of a mixed bag. While the first half promises much, the conclusion sadly goes for quirky spectacle over anything truly affecting. A trashy revisiting of familiar horror territory, the cast and the occasional creepy flourish make this one to try and catch, but not unmissable.

3/5

MP

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Au Bonheur des Ogres (The Scapegoat) French Trailer

A veritable modern classic in France, Daniel Pennac's quirky comedy thriller (the first of his Malaussène Saga of books recounting the exploits of professional scapegoat Benjamin Malaussène and his huge family of half-siblings and adopted waifs and strays) is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Hopefully this will change with the release of Nicolas Bary's film adaptation, which should benefit from the presence of Bérénice Bejo, still a shining light internationally thanks to the success of The Artist.

Sadly, despite what it says on the trailer, the film has been delayed until October 2013, so we will have to wait until then to see whether Benjamin Malaussène will find success on the big screen. The English-language release date for the film remains TBC.

MP



Traduction Francophile (par FG)

Un vrai classique moderne en France, la comédie thriller excentrique de Daniel Pennac (le premier de sa Saga Malaussène qui raconte l'histoire du bouc émissaire professionnel Benjamin Malaussène) est relativement inconnu dans le monde Anglophone. J'espère que ça va changer avec la sortie de l'adaptation cinématographique de Nicolas Bary, qui devrait bénéficier de la présence de Bérénice Bejo, toujours un fer de lance grâce au succès international de The Artist.

Malheureusement, malgré ce qu'il dit dans la bande-annonce, le film a été retardé jusqu'à Octobre 2013. On devra donc attendre jusque-là pour voir si Benjamin Malaussène va trouver le succès sur le grand écran. La date de sortie pour le film en anglais reste à confirmer.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Iceman UK Trailer

Feast your eyes on the new UK trailer and poster for Ariel Vromen's explosive thriller The Iceman. Based on the true story of serial killer Richard Kuklinski, The Iceman is one of the best movies Fohnhouse has seen so far this year. It hits our appropriately cold shores on the 7th of June.

Image: Lionsgate



FG