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DVD/Blu Ray New Release Round Up Monday 3rd September 2012

02/09/2012

Last week may have had little in the way of major releases but this week everything else is nestling in the shadow of one blockbusting behemoth in the shape of Lionsgate’s big budget adaptation of THE HUNGER GAMES. If, like me, you haven’t actually read the books you might not realise that it’s about a dystopian future where kids between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery to compete in the Hunger Games where 24 young people have to fight each other to the death, allegedly as a punishment to the various “Districts” for an attempted rebellion in the past but actually seems to be more about entertaining the masses and reducing the chances of such a rebellion happening again. In essence what we have here is a different take on the likes of THE RUNNING MAN and BATTLE ROYALE (by way of LORD OF THE FLIES) tailored for a somewhat younger audience which seems to more or less work. Although it works in its own right, if you do happen to be one of the twelve people on Earth who haven’t read the books you may feel you are missing something – I got the sense that there were elements which were included which would hold more significance for fans of the novels than they did for me – although it certainly manages to be a coherent, self contained story which anyone can enjoy. WINTER’S BONE’s Jennifer Lawrence shines in the lead as Katniss Everdeen and there are some neat supporting roles from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland. All in all I was pleasantly surprised.

Violence is something of a recurring characteristic this week with pretty much every release featuring people meeting a grisly end. Take ELEVATOR for example, one of those “strangers trapped together in a deadly situation” movies that sees nine people stuck in an elevator on the way to a corporate party. The only problem is, one of the nine has a bomb. Can the rest of the elevator passengers survive the impending threat of death by explosion? I’ll let you find that out for yourself if you decide to watch this somewhat average thriller that over promises and under delivers. The problem with this kind of film is that to feel any great sense of threat you have to be able to empathise with at least one of the people threatened by the disaster and here I felt very little empathy for any of them. This is a shame because the build up isn’t too bad otherwise (apart from the somewhat superficial attempts to deal with racial profiling and social injustice, oh and a really annoying child actor) and it’s nice to see Devin Ratray (who you may remember as Buzz from the HOME ALONE series) being kept in work.

More terrorists can be found in SOFIA only this time they find themselves on the receiving end of a vigilante assassin’s bullets instead of being the ones doing the killing. Christian Slater stars as Robert Diggs, a former FBI agent brought back into the fold by the American Embassy in Bulgaria (by Donald Sutherland, in his second appearance this week) to investigate the killings and pretty soon he finds himself embroiled in a web of intrigue and danger. Timothy Spall has a (somewhat bizzare) supporting role as the psychotherapist he lends a hand in a film that sounds not bad on paper but suffers for poor execution. Digital movie cameras may have aided the democritisation of the filmmaking process but there’s always the danger, as here, that in unskilled hands they can make your feature feel more like a bad TV movie rather than a “proper” film. It’s not that it looks cheap so much as it just seems to lack any of the basic elements of cinematography and editing as most people know them and the “twists” are so blatantly telegraphed as to render them pointless.

You might not think that SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (billed as “The British comedy of the year” by Woman & Home), the story of a Scottish scientist who is recruited by a Yemeni Sheik to help introduce salmon into a river that hasn’t been built yet could have much in common with any of the above but yet again (perhaps not such a great surprise given the setting) we get a peek of some fundamentalist terrorism among the feelgood romance and mild humour. Adapted from the Paul Torday novel of the same name it’s a bit of a mixed bag really that left me wondering if Ewan Macgregor has ever been really great in anything he’s done since TRAINSPOTTING. I’ll be honest (as long time readers will know) I’m a little bit allergic to this kind of heartwarming fare, and while its musings on faith and human endeavour have potential there are disquieting distractions to be found in the various plot threads, not least of which the unconvincing relationship between Emily Blunt’s character and her special forces boyfriend. It’s certainly not up to the standard of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL but if you like rites of passage, burgeoning romance, people triumphing over seemingly impossible odds type films then you should get something out of this.

Heading back to Europe from the Middle East we have the somewhat savage Icelandic thriller BLACK’S GAME (executive produced by DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn). According to the opening credits it’s “based on shit that actually happened” and it plays out like an Icelandic GOODFELLAS only here the gangsters have none of the panache and all of the savagery of Henry Hill and friends as Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson) gets sucked deeper and deeper into Reykjavik’s criminal underworld before going on to become a key player in one of Iceland’s most prolific drug smuggling gangs. Dark and unrelentingly violent, it presents an all too familiar story of excess, paranoia and ultimate self destruction all portrayed with unflinching honesty. It’s not difficult to see why Refn was happy to attach his name to the project – it’s reminiscent in a lot of ways of the Danish director’s PUSHER TRILOGY – but that doesn’t mean it’s some copycat wannabe. Writer/director Oskar Thor Axelsson holds it all together in style and manages to inject creative visual flourishes without compromising the overall sense of menace.

More gangsters are up to no good, this time on the streets of Amsterdam in AMSTERDAM HEAVY. Gangster J.D. is sent by his partner Gunther to establish a drugs connection with a gang in Bangkok. While there, he is double crossed, narrowly escaping with his life but struggling to remember who he is or why he was there thanks to the Thai gang’s chemical induced interrogation. Piecing together the leads he discovers it was Gunther who double crossed him and so he starts to tear up Amsterdam in his pursuit of vengeance. A strong start (with a cameo from Michael Madsen no less) gives way to a much weaker film that never really fully ticks any of the necessary boxes. Whilst the idea of filling a film with real life K1 and MMA martial artists to give your fight scenes a greater sense of realism might sound good on paper it doesn’t pay off in the long run. Not only do you sacrifice acting ability (of which there is woefully little on show here) but you end up with fight scenes that may well be realistic (although in this instance, they are not) but which are markedly uncinematic. Largely in movies the quality of a fight scene boils down to how well it’s filmed and edited and AMSTERDAM HEAVY misses its mark completely in this area. There’s an art to making a fight look good on screen, an art that consists of more than getting a couple of gurning martial artists to slowly hit each other while you thrash a handheld camera around.

I’ll admit to anticipating an overdose of handheld cameras being thrashed around in REC: GENESIS, the third instalment in the Spanish horror franchise. Certainly initially it feels as though it’s going to be more of the same. A found footage recounting of the zombie-virus of the previous films (this time in the form of a nicely stylised wedding video) kicks us off before director Paco Plaza abandons this formula for a more conventional movie. While the first two films are most readily compared to ALIEN and ALIENS in terms of approach, this has more of a RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD type vibe, an almost tongue in cheek approach to the subject of horrible zombie diseases and gore soaked carnage. The title is a bit misleading as this doesn’t feel like a prequel as much as it does a companion piece to the first REC, the events seeming to start from the same point but it is an excuse for Plaze to flex his comedy horror chops and throw some gags into the mix (something noticeably absent from the first two rather scary parts of the trilogy). It’s nowhere near as terrifying as its predecessors but what it has is buckets and buckets of well executed gore and a cheeky twinkle in its eye. I reckon most horror fans should get a buzz out of it, especially if they are fans of the series.

This week’s PICK OF THE WEEK is the tremendous LET THE BULLETS FLY. Written and directed by veteran Chinese actor Jiang Wen, who also stars alongside the mighty Chow Yun Fat, it’s a Leone-esque sweeping epic, set in 1920s China, that sees a bandit leader (Wen) assume the identity of the Governor of a town run by Chow Yun Fat’s gang boss. As the two men’s factions clash they are pitted against each other in a battle of wits as each tries to undo the other through subterfuge and politics rather than straightforward violence. Brimming with action, comedy and a wonderful sense of morality it’s a film as beautifully performed as it is photographed and the chemistry between Jiang Wen and Chow Yun Fat is extraordinary. It’s nice to see Chow Yun Fat play the villain for a change, his trademark charisma lending a chilling air to ruthless gang boss Master Huang and provides a lovely contrast to Wen’s more straightforward, likeable bandit chief Pockmark Zhang. Simply tremendous.

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