Madison County (2011): A Southern Slasher on the Cheap

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Madison County is a low-budget “slasher” horror film that was filmed in and around Russellville Arkansas. Written and directed by local boy Eric England, the film looks good. The production values are incredibly good, no doubt because England shot the entire film on the Sony Red digital camera.

I’ve written about the Red before in an earlier post: Film-making, the Times they are A-Changing. Monsters (2010). I was most impressed with the ability of the film-makers on Monsters who used the Sony Red exclusively on their film and actually used common software to edit the film in their hotel rooms while on the shoot.

I have no idea whether England did the same, but his film has the same high quality look as Monsters. Also, for a low-budget horror film, the sound is outstanding. Phillip Bladh who was the production sound engineer did a superb job of not “drowning out” the actors with the soundtrack.

My only complaint about the sound was the ADR which sometimes did not completely match the actors when they were speaking. This did not happen often enough to be really noticeable but it did show, perhaps, some of the actors’ inexperience with the whole “looping” process.

The film opens with an homage to Tobe Hooper‘s 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This opening shot told me two things: 1) That the director was a horror fan, and 2)That this film was going to be a ‘cut’ above the rest of its low-budget peers. I was not wrong. While the film received mainly negative reviews when it premiered at the LA Screamfest; Dread Central gave it an overall favourable review with a 3 out of 5 star rating. *Screamfest and Dread Central information courtesy of Wikipedia.*

Uh-oh, wheres old leather face?
Uh-oh, wheres old leather face?

The film follows the story of a group of college kids who are travelling to Madison County to interview the author who wrote an account of a local serial killer.  When they reach the area that the writer lives in, they stop “in town” for directions. They go into the local general store/gas station/diner to get information on the writer.

The lady running the diner tells the kids that the writer doesn’t live there anymore and that local folks don’t care too much for outsiders. One of the funniest lines in the film occurs in this little exchange. One of the boys asks if the whole town suffers from “staring disease” as the full diner’s occupants all stop and stare unabashedly at the group when they enter the premises.

The scene outside and in the diner also seemed to give a nod towards another film dealing with the vagaries of the south and its denizens, Deliverance.

"We don't care much for outsiders here, young man."
“We don’t care much for outsiders here, young man.”

Once the group go off to find the writer, we reach the heart of the story and the action. Nothing too blazingly original here, but England’s choice of location serves the film well and the introduction of a “pig-headed” serial killer (with one eye staring off to the corner of its socket) is a great touch and the actor who played the killer Damien (Nick Principe) does a great job interacting with his victims.

And now that I’ve mentioned one of the actors, here is the entire cast list:

*Courtesy of Wikipedia.*

Despite an ending that was “signposted”, the actual end of the film did surprise me a little as it came from a quarter not entirely expected. This film definitely did not deserve the negative reviews it received, I’ve seen much worse (just in the area of production quality alone, we won’t talk about sound) and in fact watched two films prior to Madison County this evening that were pure unadulterated dross and this  was head and shoulders above these films.

The lead protagonist James is played by another local lad, Colley Bailey; this was his first feature film and he did a passable job. He must be doing something right as he is still working in the industry. The whole cast acquitted themselves admirably on a location that must have been full of ticks, poisonous snakes and spiders and incredibly rocky terrain.

That section of Arkansas has more ornery critters per square inch than most other locations in the US. It also has an overabundance of rocks; ask any farmer. I probably enjoyed the film more than most, because it was filmed in an area just 2 hours away from where I grew up. This “inside” knowledge of the surrounding area increased my viewing pleasure.

My final (and slightly biased) verdict for the film is a 3.5 stars out of 5. Mainly for the pig-headed killer and the excellent production values of the film. I could not find an estimated budget for the film, but I am very willing to bet it was way under the million dollar mark. Yet the film does not look it or sound it. A great popcorn movie of the southern slasher variety.

Body language.
Body language.

Just another helpful tips from the helpful folks at WordPress.com

The WordPress.com Blog

When you become a part of WordPress.com, you’re actually getting two awesome services for the price of none: your blog plus your Reader, which brings every WordPress.com blog together in one easy-to-search place. Your blog is where your ideas come to life, and your Reader is where you connect with other WordPressers, our community hub. It’s the place to find bloggers who inspire you, teach you, tug your heartstrings, and make you laugh — and who just may be your next biggest fans.

When you log in to WordPress.com and go to the actual http://wordpress.com — as opposed to going directly to your blog — you’ll land in your Reader. It looks a little something like this — familiar?

reader

With several ways to discover content that speaks to you, it’s a powerful tool not only for finding great reads, but for making connections. We call it “your” Reader on purpose…

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The Raid (2011): Insane Indonesian Action Thriller

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I picked up this high-octane insane Indonesian action thriller for the unbelievably low price of 6 pounds stirling (that’s about 9 US dollars) Looking at the DVD art and reading the “preview” of the film on the back of the DVD, it looked and sounded like it could be a sort of distant cousin to the French film The Horde.

It isn’t.  Although the basic premise itself is…a little.

Both films deal with police converging on a criminal  for personal rather than legal reasons; but that is the only similarity that the two films have. It did not mean that I was disappointed with The Raid: Redemption. On the contrary, I loved it.

Written and directed by Gareth Evans and starring Iko UwaisAnanda George, and Ray Sahetapy The Raid is about a 20 man SWAT team who are after a Jakarta gangster kingpin who lives in a high-rise derelict apartment building that is considered impregnable. The team is composed mainly of new recruits with only a few members having any real experience in the field.

The reason that the building’s considered to be impossible to breach is down to the fact that the kingpin has filled it with criminal types and lower-income people who “owe” him for giving them a place to stay.

On the way to the building the SWAT team leader explains that the kingpin, Tama Rihadi (Sahetepy) has two “right-hand” men. One is the extremely dangerous Mad Dog  (Yayan Ruhian) and the other is the incredibly intelligent Andi (Donny Alamsyah). Once the team arrives they split into two groups and begin to take the building, floor by floor, room by room.

Moving up floor by floor.
Moving up floor by floor.

After they reach the sixth floor, Tama finds out that they are in the building. He makes an announcement over the buildings loudspeakers that whoever helps him to repel the intruders will be allowed to live in the building rent free for life. He then tells the apartments occupants to enjoy themselves.

Thus begins a battle of life and death for the beleaguered and outnumbered SWAT team.

The film uses a high-speed mix of gunplay and martial arts to move the action forward. It is incredibly fast paced and the action is relentless.

And relentless is a good way to describe the martial arts fight scenes. Like the 2008 film Chocolate and it’s follow-on film (not really a sequel than another vehicle for the film’s star JeeJa Yanin) the 2009 film Raging Phoenix the choreography for the fights look brilliant. Each sequence must have taken weeks to shoot and the effort shows. The stuntmen must have been black and blue for months after filming had finished.

Each fight scene is complex and they look so real, you start looking for real blood; incredibly impressive and not let down by the film’s gunplay. When the films main protagonist Rama (Uwais) fights his way through wave after wave of bad guys in the building’s hallways, it puts the fight scene out of Chan-wook Park‘s 2003 film Oldboy to shame.

In fact the fight scenes all feature such meticulous choreography that there are no obvious misses or “close-call” shots that show clearly that these battles are faked. Realism is the order of the day and that is what impresses most of all about this film.

Ouch.
Ouch.

Interestingly enough this is the first Indonesian film (that I’ve seen) that started life as a non-Indonesian project. Gareth Evans had to “translate” his English script to Indonesian in order for it to be made. The film ultimately benefited from Sony taking it under it’s entertainment wing in terms of distribution.

It opened with generally favourite, if not rave, reviews and has been accepted very well by audiences and critics alike. Shot on an estimated budget of just over one million dollars, the film looks anything but low-budget. *On a side note, isn’t funny to think that anything under 10 million dollars is considered “low budget?”*

Of course it is even more surprising when you consider that all the weapons used in the film were Airsoft replicas and not functioning firearms. All the shots of the guns action’s:  cycling, muzzle flashes and casings ejecting were added digitally. *Courtesy of IMDb.*  Considering how many “rounds” were expended in this film, I would have thought that would have cost a fortune.

This is a great action thriller and I’m not alone in my opinion. The Raid: Redemption has garnered quite a few awards and the film’s creator has hinted that this is part of a planned trilogy. I cannot wait to see what happens next.

I also have to mention the films score by Mike Shinoda. The soundtrack fit the film’s scenes and themes like a skintight glove. Moving the action and accentuating the constant flow of the story.

All the actors gave a believable  performance with “hats-off” to Iko Uwais as Rama and Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog. Ruhian as the rat-faced inhuman martial arts killing machine was impressive beyond belief. He was like a walking advert for homicidal ADHD (ADD). I can describe his fight scenes with one word. Wow.

Mad Dog. Scarier without the gun.
Mad Dog. Scarier without the gun.

Great film and I’d recommend watching it with subtitles versus the dubbed versions. There appears to be a sound problem with the dubbed version and I’m pretty sure that any dubbing would take away from the films impact anyway.

My final verdict is a full 5 out of 5 stars for insanely fast paced film that kept me glued to the screen for the entire film. Great fight choreography and the final fight scene is worth the price of admission alone.

Rama, getting ready for another wave of attackers.
Rama, getting ready for another wave of attackers.

A keeper.

*Check out  the special features for Lee Hardcastle’s Claycat’s The Raid claymation short. It is Brilliant, gory, fun.*

Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control…

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I honestly believe that there is no other phrase in the English language that can so instil a sense of dread as the preface of “Due to circumstances beyond out control.”

It not quite “heart stopping” nor is it so alarming that visions of death and destruction immediately spring up full-blown in your imagination. But what it does instead is get your Spidey senses tingling.

Why?

Well, mainly because it signifies that something has gone wrong or at the very least not as expected. Of course the worry that this detour off into left field is somehow your fault also adds to the worry quotient that this phrase conjures up. What ever the reason or cause of this “change of events” it is a signal or signpost that the journey is not going to be as smooth as you originally expected.

Of course I use the term (or word) journey as a sort of “catch-all” metaphorical image of what ever this “due to…” effects. But whether the thing altered because of these circumstances is an appointment (which in this case was a surgery follow-on appointment) or an agreement or the cancellation of a favourite telly program; it generally evokes images of disaster.

I guess I’ve always found the phrase to be the precursor to an announcement of death. Almost every time I’ve seen this particular phrase it is immediately followed by information that the person you were scheduled to: see, talk to, meet with, or watch, has died. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly and certainly most inconveniently.

The only other phrase that will guarantee a rise of blood pressure is the “In memory of ‘insert name here’ at the closing credits of a film. Although the individual that the film-makers want to memorialise can sometime be so eclectic that you may never find out there connection to the film or if they died during the making of or whether their death was just while the film was awaiting distribution.

While writing this post – which, by the way, was prompted by a letter I received yesterday – I had a brief childhood memory jump up out of the recesses of my ageing brain.

See if this rings a chord or bell with any of you:

Now I don’t think I was the only kid whose heart-rate sped up along with his blood pressure rising to dangerous levels when this was broadcast. The second this came on the telly, my flight or fight mechanism kicked in. After watching this on YouTube, I found that it still does.

Walk down memory lane over…

So I am a little bit curious. What phrases or sounds (or sights for that matter) instantaneously cause your blood pressure to rise and your heart-rate to double. I am really only looking at the “fear factor” here; not the similar bodily reactions to a pleasure stimulus. Let me know.

Maybe you have a similar reaction to mine to this foreboding phrase. If you don’t come up with anything, I’ll assume that you were stopped by circumstances beyond your control.

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Paranormal Activity 4 (2012): Flogging a Dead Horse

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After watching this fourth trip to the Paranormal “well” several metaphors sprang immediately to mind. The first one became part of the title; Flogging a dead horse, the second was hinted at in my first sentence; going to the well once too often and the third was, appropriately enough, trying to get milk when the cow’s run dry.

I am sure that I could think of more “sayings” to describe my feelings about this film; I know I had 97 minutes to come up with as many as my little brain could conceive. Since this fourth bite of the Paranormal Activity apple (see there’s another one) was poorly conceived and perhaps the most boring of all the PA’s to date.

Just in case you’re interested, and I realise that you probably aren’t but bear with me here, the film was directed by the team of  Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman which actually amazes me. This is the same team that brought us the incredible and exemplary 2010 documentary film Catfish and the “miles-better-than-this-rubbish” 2011 Paranormal Activity 3. It completely boggles the brain that two such capable film directors would willingly put their names on such dross.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like the Paranormal franchise. I enjoyed the first ultra low-budget film and did not mind the second one with its slightly larger budget. And since the third one took the story in a different direction, I quite enjoyed that one as well. I did think, however, that they should have stopped at 3.

The film starts with a short “home video” of Aunt Katie (the crazy one from the first film) bringing a present to nephew Hunter. The location is Carlsbad, CA and the setting of the second film – sis’ house. The screen then goes dark and proceeds to tell us that Hunter was kidnapped.

Auntie Katie trespassing...uh-oh.
Auntie Katie trespassing…uh-oh.

We are then treated to a replay of the end of the second film. Okay! With me so far? Now at the beginning of the film no mention, however oblique, is made of the third in the series. It will be referred to later but in a very off-handed fashion and you have to be looking for it. I was bored so I noticed it.

After being treated to a “soccer” game with a group of young boys, one of whom is not playing but standing at one end of the pitch with what appear to be giant worry beads around his neck, we meet our main protagonist’s for this part of the saga.

Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), older sister Alex (Kathryn Newton), Mum Holly  (Alexondra Lee ), Dad Doug (Stephen Dunham ) and a little later boyfriend Ben ( Matt Shively ). This is the family that will be drug into the paranormal verse. We also meet their next-door neighbours son Robbie (Brady Allen ) who gets taken in when his mother gets sent to the “hospital.”

It will come as no surprise that Robbie’s “mother” is Katie (Katie Featherston ) from the first film.

The plot device in this version of Paranormal Activity is the use of mobile (cell) phone cameras and webcams (or Skype or iChat) to record the events as they “oh so slowly” unfold. Despite the use of sound (they utilise the “rumbling” sound to the maximum extent possible) the pace and the tension are just not there.

In this film they included the ability of the “demon” to manifest in daylight and someone came up with the bright idea of using the Xbox Kinect “night-vision” setting to “see” the demon or deity or whatever it is in the dark. I got quite annoyed. My Kinect doesn’t have that setting and if it does, I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. So you have to ask yourself the question. Does Kinect really have that capability or is this a phoney baloney device set up by the film’s producer’s and director’s?

I want to see scary shit with my Kinect damn it!
I want to see scary shit with my Kinect damn it!

Who knows?

More importantly, who cares?

Certainly not me, I felt incredibly let down by this film. It did not look like the rest, even with the re-appearance of Katie from the first film. The family was too attractive. They did not have the same “real” look as the other casts for the other films. Alex and her family looked like any casting director’s idea of an upper-middle class American as apple-pie family. Although I could be wrong about their salary tier. I’m not sure how many houses in America have a computer to tell them that: “The garage door is opening.”

On a side note, I noticed that Jennifer Hale, the voice actress for the female Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect verse was credited as doing some voice-over work in the film, I wonder if she was the computerised voice that announced the doors opening and closing. If she was, how cool is that! 

Okay, geeky fanboy rant over, I’ll try to sum up my lukewarm feelings about the film.

I’d have to give it a 2 stars out of 5 and it only gets that much because I did jump once during the film. I am glad that I did not see this at the cinema as I would have thrown my popcorn at the screen and demanded my money back. Okay, I am exaggerating a little bit here, I wouldn’t ask for my money back.

Avoid this fiasco of a film and if it comes on regular telly…change the channel.

Even Alex is unimpressed by this film.
Even Alex is unimpressed by this film.