Saturday, March 7, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Curse of the Werewolf, The Salvation, The Raid 2

The Curse of the Werewolf
directed by Terence Fisher
This film is a favorite which I just watched again. I am on something of a Hammer binge lately. The Curse of the Werewolf was a classic Hammer Film and AFAIK its only take on the werewolf myth. It's a film that I think I must have first seen when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. I can't be sure. I am certain however that I would definitely not have watched this film with my parents. It just wasn't that kind of movie. I would not have been comfortable. There would have been a pretty good chance during a certain scene I might have heard something along the lines of  "Shady, I'm not sure this movie is for you". Snicker. And that would have been that. The Curse of the Werewolf did leave an impression on me, not just because of the gravity defying nature of Yvonne Romain's bountiful charms but also because of the essential unfairness and arbitrariness of the titular curse which afflicts Oliver Reed (seen here in one of his earliest film roles before obtaining his famous facial scar in a bar fight). This was Reed's first lead role, though ironically he doesn't appear on screen until about halfway thru the film.  I sometimes tend towards the cynical and fatalistic so Oliver Reed's smoldering cursed from birth protagonist appealed to me. Reed's character was literally born under a bad sign, as the Albert King song would put it. His fate was fixed. 

This film is comfortable with Eros. The werewolf is representative of man's hidden sexual urges. But repression causes worse future problems. Leon's (Oliver Reed) curse becomes ever more apparent as he ages and becomes sexually mature. The Curse of the Werewolf is unusual for a Hammer film in that it's the male sexual awakening and not that of the female which brings terror. This film is set in 18th century Spain and has more of a romantic than gothic feel. Hammer had sets left over from an aborted Spanish project so with typical pragmatism the producers and director decided to make use of them. The film changes a few werewolf myth trappings. The Curse of the Werewolf also has a class analysis subtext. The sequence of catastrophic events is started by the decadent and wicked noble class, here embodied by the Marquis Siniestro (Anthony Dawson). The Marquis is a greedy, cruel and capricious man who guards his wealth like a wolf guards its kill. On the Marquis' wedding night, a desperate starving beggar (Richard Wordsworth) tries to crash the party. Peasants and a sympathetic guard warn him away but the beggar persists. In a rare good mood, the Marquis invites the beggar to his table. The Marquis is content to throw leftovers at the beggar, mock him and make him dance. But when the beggar relaxes and presumes to "congratulate" the Marquis on his wedding night the Marquis takes offense. His essentially vindictive nature reveals itself. The Marquis orders the beggar's execution but is convinced by his wife to imprison the man instead. Decades pass during which the Marquis is widowed and the beggar rots forgotten in the dungeons.

As a child the jailer's daughter helped to feed the beggar. But now that she's become Yvonne Romain the insane and incredibly hirsute beggar looks at her with a different hunger. The dirty old Marquis has also noticed the remarkably curvaceous young woman. She resists the Marquis' advances. She is imprisoned and attacked by the dying beggar, now more animal than man. She escapes the prison. A local scholar Don Corledo (Clifford Evans) finds and tends to the woman. Later she dies giving birth to a boy. Don Corledo raises this baby as his own son though his housekeeper is wary. It's considered sinful to be a bastard born on Christmas Day. Leon's experiences confirm the housekeeper's suspicions. Leon is haunted by strange incidents and bizarre dreams. The visions temporarily abate during his love affair with the beautiful Christina ,(Catherine Feller) daughter of his employer. But can true love overcome a curse? Hammer was very well known for its sets, costumes and cinematography. This film doesn't disappoint with its lush, lurid palette. Red is always very prominent. It's not just the spurting blood either. All the contrasts are very nicely done. The special effects were decent, considering the period. Although this was considered bloody and risque for its time, compared to today's grindcore styles this is tame indeed. The Curse of the Werewolf was one of Hammer's better films. 

The Salvation
directed by Kristian Levring
American fantasy is often dominated by reference to European medieval and more specifically British motifs. Maybe it's a fair turnabout that one of the better Westerns I've seen in a while is a Danish-British production which was shot primarily in South Africa. Some of the South African landscape is a dead ringer for the Old West of the movies. The Salvation is not a deconstruction of the Western. It's a classic Western with subtle updated nods to the genocide of the First Peoples. It has a very powerful traditional revenge story at its center but also (purposely?) raises questions about the guilt or responsibility of settlers coming to the West in the first place. The big bad is Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). His ease with violence grows from his actions in the US Army where he helped expel or exterminate many Native Americans. Delarue is nothing if not pragmatic. And his followers are the same. If they see something they want, they take it. Morgan's height and sense of physical comfort add a lot to his character's authority. He dominates most of the scenes in which he appears. Delarue is someone you'd follow into battle without hesitation. The only problem is that he's a bad man. He inspires fear, not respect. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is a quiet and happy Danish immigrant to the western town of Black Creek. This man who had so much to live for suffers an unthinkable tragedy. In the aftermath the character is effectively numb. There is a certain chaos and malevolence in the world which is not easily explained. Job asked God for an explanation and was told to stop asking questions above his pay grade. Why do some wicked people live long healthy productive lives while some children die from leukemia before they reach their teen years? I can't explain it. This movie doesn't try to either. It avoids getting bogged down in theodicy. There's no time for that. Jon tries to set things right, or as right as they can be after his loss. It's an understatement that he will never be the same. His brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) comes to Jon's aid. Blood will be shed.

The Salvation also stars French bombshell Eva Green in a speechless role. Her character was previously mutilated and thus can't talk. So Green has to do all of her acting with her large eyes and facial expressions. This is much more effective than you might imagine. There is no toplessness or nudity from Green here though there are some uncomfortable sexually charged scenes. Her role is almost but not quite camp. It is something that would have fit Helena Bonham Carter a few years ago. Although you will recognize the story as one you've seen before the film has more than a few surprises and treats wrapped up in its minimalist visuals. H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories in which his characters, coming face to face with inhuman entities, struggled to explain what they were experiencing. Well, just like those H.P. Lovecraft characters you may occasionally wonder what color you're seeing in some scenes. There's a yellow or gold overcast to a lot of the film, something that tends to make you almost feel the dust and wind that constantly flows throughout the film. Keane (Jonathan Pryce) is the town's undertaker and mayor. I didn't think he had quite enough to do but Mikkelsen, Green and Morgan carry this grim film well enough. Watch this film and enjoy the ripoff/homage to Sergio Leone style Techniscope look. After watching this movie you probably won't have any greater understanding of why evil exists in the world or why bad things happen to good people but you might appreciate more what your response should be. Mikkelsen and Green were also in the film Casino Royale; I knew Morgan primarily from the first two seasons of Supernatural. This was a good albeit not great film. I enjoyed it and you might as well if you like Westerns. 

The Raid 2
directed by Gareth Evans
Second verse, same as the first. Rama (Iko Uwais) was among the few police officers to survive the massive trainwreck that was the raid on the apartment complex in the first Raid movie. In the opening scenes of this film, Rama's brother (who saved his life in the first film) is killed by a rising affably evil gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad) for reasons which aren't important right now. Needless to say Rama is highly upset. He wants revenge. Rama is also disturbed to discover that part of the reason that everything went to crap in the first film was because of police and political corruption. The criminals knew the raid was coming. However Rama's approached by an internal affairs officer who thinks Rama can bring down the entire underworld superstructure. Rama can get revenge on Bejo, obtain evidence on the corrupt police commissioner and his previously untouchable political friends who make everything run smoothly in the underworld. Rama must go undercover as a criminal. He will hookup with Uco (Arifin Putra) the spoiled and dissolute son of the local boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Uco is doing a short prison bid. Internal Affairs can insert Rama into the prison as an inmate. After hopefully winning Uco's trust and that of his notoriously paranoid father, Rama should be able to rise through the ranks and get hard evidence of links between the upperworld and underworld.  And then he'll be able to get Bejo, legally if possible but if he has to use other means no one will mind. Does that sound like a well crafted plan to you? No, well it didn't really appeal to Rama that much either but he doesn't think he has many options. Corrupt ranking police officers suspect he wasn't killed in the raid and want to know why. His family could be in danger.

Where the first Raid movie used the claustrophobic settings of an apartment building to rustle up the scares, the sequel moves Rama through many different locales. He's kicking behind and taking names in prison, the alleys, warehouses, restaurant kitchens and several other places. But unlike the first film where it was very obvious to Rama who was on his side and who wasn't here he's undercover. He must engage in certain unlawful activities or watch people do things which violate both the law and his personal principles. Rama has to be on his toes as he's working with much more powerful, vicious and intelligent criminals than the street hoodlums he previously encountered. He can't trust anyone. Rama also finds himself in the middle of an Oedipal struggle between Uco and his father. That's a bad place to be, particularly when tensions rise with the Japanese syndicate headed by Goto (Kenichi Endo). It's not just the double cross you have to look out for in this milieu. Everyone takes that for granted. Beware the triple cross. Bejo has three top enforcers but the two who almost steal the film through sheer bloody minded dexterity are the aptly named Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and her extremely protective brother Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman). Sorry there are no bonus points for guessing their preferred weapons. This, like the first film, is a martial arts extravaganza. It has a larger than life operatic style. The colors are solid. The director uses the entire color spectrum to give the film a modern hyperrealistic look. If you like these sorts of movies, you really need to see this film. It's a keeper. The fight choreography and camera work are top notch. It's a bada$$ ballet. Uwais could do for Silat what Bruce Lee did for Kung fu. The movie runs a little long at 2.5 hours but most genre fans probably won't mind too much. Almost everyone in this movie is too cool for words. I imagine Hollywood will remake this some day and mess it up entirely. 

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