Groundhog Day (1993) Review

Readers who had the misfortune to see Year One (2009) may doubt this, but there was a time not too long ago when Harold Ramis was considered one of the sharper comedy filmmakers in the business. Co-Writing and Acting in two Ghostbuster films, as well as Directing Analyse This, he certainly made his mark felt on Late 80’s and 90’s cinema. But he will, perhaps, be best remembered for Groundhog Day, a 1993 feature film on which he acted as co-writer and director (he also takes on a small supporting role as a doctor).

An overlong but original blend of comedy, drama and romance (emphasis on the comedy) it continues to feature in ‘greatest film’ lists almost 20 years after its release, and remains Ramis’s best film, and one of the  best comedies of the 90’s, if not quite the masterpiece its reputation suggests.

Following a rather bland opening sequence  (fast moving clouds), and wonderfully jaunty piece of title music (sadly not featuring heavily in the film) we are introduced to Phil Connors (Bill Murray) a egocentric, sarcastic (and rather rude) Weatherman: ‘Out in California they’ll have warm Weather tomorrow, gang wars and some very overpriced real estate. Up in the Pacific Northwest as you can see, they’re going to have some very, very tall trees…’

His attitude to work and his colleagues has not gone un-noted however, and for the fourth year in a row he is sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the local Groundhog Day festivities. Every February 2nd locals gather to see a Groundhog (named Punxsutawney Phil) emerge from his nest, and dependant or not on whether he sees his shadow ‘predict’ if the town will see a few more weeks of winter.

Accompanying the reluctant presenter are rookie Producer Rita (Andie MacDowell in a charming performance) and jovial cameraman Larry (a less memorable Chris Elliot).

Once there Phil reluctantly gives his report then persuades the others to leave town as quickly as possible. Much to his annoyance a freak blizzard shuts down the roads out of town and the trio are forced to bed down in Punxsutawney for another night.

Although in the preceding twenty minutes there are several killer one liners (‘This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather’), it is here that Groundhog Day really kicks off.

Phil wakes up the next day, and to his mingled bemusement and annoyance the snow has seemingly totally cleared overnight, whilst the ‘guys on the radio are playing yesterday’s tape’. Walking downstairs, bemusement turns to outright confusion, and quickly, fear, when he realises that everyone else in the hotel, in fact in the town, is repeating their actions of the previous day.

It soon becomes clear to Phil that he is stuck in a time loop that only he is aware of, his initial shock turning alternatively to joy (he becomes efficient at the piano, hijacks a car and robs a security truck amongst other things, rightly confident that his actions will go unpunished) and despair (the film features the most awkwardly amusing suicide attempts in 90’s cinema) as he is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over again.

As the weeks wear on he falls in love, and becomes increasingly desperate to find a way out of the cycle, whilst gradually realising he now has a chance to become a better person…though of course he has a lot of fun in the process…

It’s a neat concept, one that could prove too complex or repetitive in the wrong hands, thankfully Ramis is more than up to the task, in both his main roles. The film is expertly scripted throughout (Ramis worked from a draft by primary Screenwriter Danny Rubin), a number of memorable one liners (mostly from Phil’s mouth) feature, none of the main characters come across as short changed, in what is essentially Murray’s show, and for something potentially confusing the film is very well structured and inventive in the way it ‘repeats’ scenes to the audience, but most importantly, the film is quickly, and consistently very, very funny.

Ramis’s background as a comic actor is immediately evident, he gets strong performances out of the leads, contributes some of the best lines to the witty script, and has a wonderful sense of comic timing and structure (the humour veers from the absurd to inspired, but always feels totally convincing as a whole), making the film’s odd premise much easier to accept. It’s hard to think of another film where suicide and kidnap attempts provide belly laughs, yet still move you as an audience member.

The film is confidently shot and edited; the few ‘set pieces’ (A chaotic night-time car chase, and a…snowball fight, for instance) providing welcome departure from the dialogue scenes, though they never jettison the films basis in character and comedy.

Ramis’s is remarkably successful in staging the same sequences repeatedly, there are few noticeable continuity errors, running gags largely remain fresh and funny (though you do begin to wonder why Phil doesn’t just change his daily routine-if I were bumping into Ned every day I certainly would!), though, there may be too little of the town shown in the film for some viewers (on the other hand it was probably better not to show what Phil would have got up to in an public swimming pool…)-the walk through the town park for instance does get a little repetitive (and the song being sung in the bandstand grows ever more irritating).

For some viewers the thought of watching the same scene repeat half a dozen times may not be a particularly enticing one, nor seem a very innovative concept for a film (the most cynical may view the central concept as an excuse to cut production costs). Whilst such viewers do have a point-the film does occasionally over extend itself (it is perhaps, ten minutes too long), and Ramis’s cameo (amongst other scenes) comes across as self-indulgent, by and large it succeeds its keeping a one-gag premise feel fresh, due in no small part due to Murray’s warm, understated performance, arguably a career best (somewhat surprising considering the character he’s playing).

Generating laughs with ease, but handling the tragedy of the character equally well he anchors the film (there is rarely a camera shot without him), and bounces off Macdowell to create a delightful onscreen pairing. Though Phil remains a resolute bastard for much of the film, he quickly becomes a likeable bastard all the same, just one more oddity at the heart of a very odd, yet very likeable film.

The supporting cast have varying degrees of relevance and screen time in the film, and the performances differ likewise. Some of the cast seem unaware it’s a comedy (whilst some of the extras seem unaware it’s a film) but Stephen Tobolowsky comes close to stealing Murray’s thunder in a brilliant turn as annoying Insurance salesman Ned ‘Bing!’ Ryerson (who finds himself on the receiving end of the most satisfying screen punch of the 90’s), it’s the mark of a good comedy when even the most annoying characters make you wish they had more screentime…

Even the obligatory love story entertains, though bordering on cliché at points (you just know that Phil will fall for the woman furthest from his personality) it’s a charming (and hilarious) bedrock on which the film is anchored, and provides further meat for two excellent lead performances…and an excellent slapping montage. 

As mentioned not everyone will find the central concept agreeable, but all the same there is often pleasure to be had in watching the same scenes play out slightly differently (the film has great ‘replay value’-many critics have commented on noticing new things on subsequent viewings), Phil’s increasing exasperation, and the ignorance of his fellows proving ample opportunity for great running gags to reach their true mileage (waking up to the same banter on the radio, treading in the same puddle, for instance). Somewhat boldly Ramis never provides answers on how or why Phil was cursed (a mooted voodoo curse sub-plot was mercifully jettisoned from the shooting script), it may be a cause of annoyance for a minority of viewers, but it’s a testament to the script-you simply don’t care to find out, the vagueness being part of the magic, Phil’s story being the emotional hook.

Punxsutawney may at first glance seem a little odd of a setting for a comedy (though ‘odd’ is a definite benefit to the film) and it isn’t one that will necessarily find immediate favour with non-American audiences, used to Hollywood excess and flashy production design (some of the towns inhabitants veer towards stereotype, and the ‘set pieces’ and few and far between).

But that’s precisely the point, by and large this isn’t an overtly ‘American’ film, or a ‘Hollywood Comedy’, the ‘small town’ setting and lack of Hollywood stars (Murray excluded) actually end up being benefits. It’s smaller scale than many other comedies, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm, the smaller budget and scope forcing ever more inventive gags and a greater emphasis on character, despite its premise, this is really quite a universal film.

In some ways then, it is a shame that Ramis surrenders the film to a predictable (and rather sudden) happy ending. Although it still feels like it fits with the preceding narrative, and certainly ends the film on a high, you can’t help but wish for something a little more surprising.

Put simply Groundhog Day isn’t quite as clever as its thinks it is; an overlong mid-section, occasional clunkyness, and annoyingly predictable resolution to the story, mar an otherwise well structured, well-made film. Despite this, Groundhog Day is largely a triumph, it’s optimistic heart, the warm performances, and some very crass humour combine together to make an odd, but compelling (and very funny) mesh, that is sure to entertain audiences who can accept its central concept.

Not quite a masterpiece, but very nearly a classic.


Paul Ashwell

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Badlands (1973) Review

“It’s still the best work I’ve done”

-Martin Sheen.

1973 remains a key year in American Filmmaking for several reasons. The year of The Exorcist and American Graffiti, it came at the height of the so called ‘New Golden Age’ of Hollywood, and spawned many remarkable films. Amongst them, two very different, but equally brilliant directorial breakthroughs, those of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), and Terrence Malick (Badlands).

Said films, and directors could have hardly been more different. Scorsese, son of Sicilian Immigrants and ‘movie brat’ from an early age, had been baptised on the ‘Mean Streets’ of New York (hence the film’s name), his Catholic upbringing and fascination with cinema immediately evident in his hit saga of Little Italy hoodlums.

The Texas-born Malick (a former Journalist, Philosophy Teacher, and son of an Oil Executive) on the other hand, had chosen filmmaking because it seemed ‘no less an improbable career than anything else’. Such a sentiment fits his later fortunes, Badlands was only a moderate commercial success, Malick’s follow up, Days of Heaven (1978) fared little better, despite both films receiving critical acclaim. The jaded director took a 20 year hiatus (turning down lucrative offers-The Elephant Man and Second Unit Duties on Apocalypse Now, amongst them) before producing his next feature (The Thin Red Line), and his films (a grand total of six in a forty year career) remain either unknown or unloved by most of the cinema going public.

For some readers (especially those familiar with his later, more ‘arty’ films) then, it may come as a surprise that Badlands is not only a well-made, easily accessible, and very entertaining film, it’s an solid debut, and one of the most striking films of the Seventies, though fans of Malick’s will probably get more from the experience.

Loosely based on the story of real life Mass Murderers –Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate (Previously dramatized in the 1963 film The Sadist), Badlands is by turns disturbing, absorbing, and beautiful in its depiction of a cross country killing spree, and although it owes a certain debt to Bonnie and Clyde (a similarly themed hit six years earlier) Malick makes his own mark felt (for better or worse) immediately.

Late 50’s America, Kit Carruthers (A brilliant Martin Sheen) is an aimless South Dakotan oddball, a garbage man and loner (and possible Korean War Veteran) who fancies himself as an outlaw: “I always wanted to a criminal” he later states. After a chance meeting he falls in with the equally odd Holly Sargis (Carrie’s Sissy Spacek), a Fifteen year old high school student at odds with her father and neighbours.

The pair soon become lovers, and when the efforts of Holly’s father to force them apart end in tragedy, they flee into the wilderness of the American Southwest. What follows is a strange but gripping blend of love story, road movie, and increasingly violent exploration of the American Mythos, though it also works throughout as an accessible, if off kilter thriller.

Badlands is an unconventional, but always gripping, and very clever film, which will not be to all tastes, nor is it not without its flaws.

Malick was lucky the film was even released; Badlands had a notoriously troubled production, made worse by his approach to filmmaking. Operating from a (even then) small budget of $350,000 (large amounts of which were raised outside the industry) the neophyte director eschewed Hollywood protocol, employing a non-union crew, and shooting the film almost entirely on location.

One of the film’s biggest set pieces went wrong in spectacular fashion, seriously injuring crew, and destroying all of the cameras, key crew members fell ill, and three different directors of photography are credited.

Although three years had be spent writing the script, he soon adopted an impulsive approach to shooting, changing schedules on a whim, and jettisoning dialogue at the suggestion of his leads. Such an approach sparked a largely negative response from crew members, by the end of production in late summer 1972, a now obsessed Malick was $35,000 in debt and almost alone in having seen the project through to the end of filming. More re-shoots and almost a year in the editing suite followed before the film’s release in 1973.

Considering all this it is remarkable just how well Badlands works, infact the above often work in the film’s favour. Tightly paced at just under 90 minutes, the film remains the most structured of Malick’s films, a simple narrative and small cast (there aren’t a dozen credited actors) make it very easy to follow the film, whilst the meandering visual metaphors of Malick’s later work are kept to a minimum. Although the limited budget betrays itself occasionally (extras look the same, and don’t always convince, there are several glaring continuity errors and the ‘set pieces’ aren’t massively cinematic), it generally proves a blessing, the film retains a tone of its own, and is blissfully ignorant of Hollywood convention when telling the story (how many other films have you seen containing a mass-murder’s treehouse?), it doesn’t have the sheen or finesse of bigger budget rivals, but due to its freewheeling spirit, its rarely a comparison you care to make.

The dialogue is sharply and cleverly written, and despite its chaotic shooting schedule the film feels like a unified whole, improvised scenes with the lead actors-a dance in the midst of a forest hideout, and a railway trackside argument add to the film’s character, whilst showcasing two strong lead performances.

Although at first glance Martin Sheen (31 at the time of casting) does look a little old for the part of Kit, he quickly proves himself perfect casting. A pleasant lead and terrific actor, he successfully channels the nuances and instability of a murderer, yet remains likeable throughout the film, it’s a hard balancing act, and a difficult part to play, but one he handles with ease (Sheen himself stated he’s never been better, and it’s hard to argue with him).

Kit isn’t a typical murderer (Nor Malick a director, he reportedly told Sheen to ‘think of Kit’s gun as a magic wand with which he bats away small obstacles’)-less an insane killer, more a disturbed kid trying to act sane, admittedly some viewers may find the character a little too odd to relate to, but Badlands is rarely as conventional as it appears, and is generally all the better for it. In any case Sheen anchors the film and shares a convincing chemistry with Sissy Spacek (He would work again with Malick 25 years later on The Thin Red Line, though his scenes were deleted from the final cut).

Sissy Spacek’s Holly is, if anything more effective, remaining passive and directionless throughout the film, seemingly only staying with Kit because she has no better ideas, she makes for a disturbing protagonist, and totally convincing teenager (Spacek, 24 at the time, owes the film rather more than a career boost, she and art Director Jack Fisk have been in a relationship ever since), though admittedly such a role in the narrative gives Spacek much less dramatic meat to chew on. Indeed, despite serving as the protagonist, sometimes she feels like a secondary lead under Kit’s shadow, even though this was probably a purposeful decision by Malick, (and certainly makes sense in the film), it can be a little annoying all the same. 

For some viewers the contrasts, and the oddity shared between the film’s leads may be too ‘obviously’ at odds with the simple narrative, whilst this is a point-even in ’73 the young killers on the run thing’ had been done many times before, and (particularly with Holly) the film sometimes tries too hard to prove it’s points, by and large the film succeeds in making the pairing convincing, and the ‘fish out of water’ scenario gripping, inventive viewing.

Visually the film is breathtaking, stunning long shot compositions, and an expertly staged car chase, fight to divert attention from the dramatic landscapes on show (No Hollywood filmmaker quite shoots landscapes like Malick), whilst investing the film with a dreamlike (yet also stark), beauty. It does the film no disservice to admit its gripping even with the mute function on.

For a novice director Malick brings a genuine camera eye to the film, employing naturalistic lighting and putting inventive camera set-ups to good effect, the film (visually at least) has a timeless quality to it, aging surprisingly well (that’s more than can be said for Holly’s fashion sense), and despite the regularly changing crew, it has a professional, seamless tone throughout. A small team of editors worked on the film, some of the cutaways come across as pretentious, and the opening act could have been tightened  (feeling somewhat at odds with the later story) , but overall it’s put together very well and Malick’s bold (although some would say inexperienced) approach to direction makes for an engrossing, highly individual experience.

The only other notable role in the film-Holly’s dad is wonderfully played by Warren Oates, (though even as the main catalyst for the narrative, he is given too little screen time to be truly memorable), whilst a succession of bit-parters and extras do little more than fill out the background, but for fans of Malick, the film holds a special treat. The famously publicity shy Director (He hasn’t given an Interview since 1975, and didn’t attend the 1999 Academy Awards when nominated for The Thin Red Line) has two cameos in the film- a brief appearance in newsreel footage and a small speaking role as a salesman, he acquits himself well in both cases, though there is a definite undercurrent of awkward reluctance!

Of course good (and ‘easter egg’) performances generally aren’t meaningful without a clever script, and a strong director behind them, as noted Malick excels in both capacities, though as with much of the film he eschews the conventional.

Though the film largely follows a ‘conventional’ structure (i.e. no flashbacks or complicated narrative arcs) and the sudden bursts of violence generally come as expected (that said one death in particular remains very shocking), Badlands is often a film of contradictions, (the rundown streets of small town America versus the bright outdoors of the West, the energetic musical score accompanying the horrific acts of violence), ‘hidden’ messages, and  shrewd metaphors, making the film a joy to watch (even on my fourth viewing I was discovering new things about the story). It makes you think as much as it entertains, and although it will certainly provoke accusations of self-indulgence or pretention, it’s hard to deny Malick knew what he was doing, when such a short film can prove so deceptive.

The brutality of the Midwest is cleverly juxtaposed with the leads pop-culture obsessions-Holly’s dog is shot by her dad for hanging around with Kit (who bares more than passing resemblance to James Dean), the duo Dance to Nat King Cole in the light from their Car’s headlamps like any other couple, oblivious to the dangers of capture by the police, whilst Holly is a slave to Hollywood gossip magazines, testing Kit’s knowledge of the celebrity marriages and Hollywood gossip they are supposedly fleeing from. It’s knowing and ironic (the film finds time for black humour about Kit’s sexual prowess), and far from dating the film has only increased its validity in an age obsessed by celebrity and image.

Throughout the film Malick deliberately keeps a distance, rarely filming in close up and refusing to pass judgement on the leads, even in long shot we aren’t quite given the full story. It’s a clever approach as it gives the leads more room to experiment, and makes the casualness of the killing spree even more shocking.

 Holly’s narration is somewhat at odds with what on screen:

‘It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know them’ is one comment reflecting on Kit after a victim is killed, she frequently focuses on small, irrelevant details (what kit said, where they slept etc) whilst her onscreen persona flits between adult (smoking, fighting with Kit) and child (‘Is that your spider in that bottle?’ is her inquisitive comment to a dying man). Homing in on so many disarming small details could in the wrong hands be a confusing idea, but here it adds a kind of odd romanticism to the film (Holly’s voiceover often reads like a diary entry), it works well with the visual style, and adds a great deal of depth to the film. That said, leaving so much up to the viewer doesn’t always work-in parts the film is vague or distant, to the point of being unnecessarily misleading, and of course, it’s an approach that won’t please everyone.

Although both the leads were grown adults, and there is little outright sexual or violent content, some viewers will find the central concept of the story (15 year old girl falls in love with an unstable 25 year old mass murderer) disturbing, or in bad taste. There is nothing wrong with such having such opinions, but the film never comes across as perverted or glorifying the violence (it seems relatively tame by today’s standards), any unsettlement in the audience hopefully being intentional. But, it is an adult film with adult messages, and it doesn’t pretend to be completely universal.

In conclusion Badlands is a film both frustrated, and made, by Malick’s inexperience and peculiarities as a filmmaker-it’s clever, fresh and brutal, as much as it is poetic, uneven and self-indulgent (a conclusion that could be taken of any of his films-though to greatly varying quantities), it works as a stripped back if lyrical thriller, whilst also serving as a reflective, if uneven art-house essay. The limited budget and non-union shoot generally prove bonuses (visually and verbally it’s hard to find massive faults with the film), though infrequently highlight those failings of above and bring new ones into focus. It is definitely Malick’s most accessible work (but not necessarily his best), and as stated works as a straight forward film, but even with his idiosyncrasies toned down, it remains an acquired taste.

Ultimately though, for all its flaws and indulgences, ‘cleverness’ and hidden qualities, Badlands would be an empty nothing if it didn’t hook the audience emotionally. Though the end result isn’t perfect, and it certainly won’t sway all viewers, through the glue of clever scripting, perfect casting and confident direction, enough of Malick’s oddities and ideas are put together in just the right way to make a compelling whole story, a near classic film, and kick-start one of the most individual filmographies in Hollywood.


Paul Ashwell

Readers who enjoy this film would do well to check out True Romance (1993) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) two similar, and similarly strong features.

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Ghost Ship Review (2002)

Ghost Ship is both an appropriately brief title and a concise summary of the film’s hackneyed plot; a mysterious ‘Ghost Ship’ is boarded with unforeseen and ultimately deadly consequences (a phrase that could be applied to both the cast and the viewers’ brain). It’s a short, but messy film right from the very start, and the filmmakers make little effort to complicate things…in fact they make little effort overall.

Whilst the film certainly has agreeable elements, it rarely, if ever justifies its existence as a whole (or indeed memorable) feature, the uneven pace, sporadic shocks and weak script all serving to draw attention away from its few strong points. It’s similarity to other films in the genre may at first glance be a positive to genre fans, but it quickly becomes annoying how predictable the characters are, few of the shocks are genuinely shocking (although, admittedly one massive twist comes out of nowhere) whilst the signs of studio interference are all too obvious.

By turns uneven, clichéd and downright boring, Ghost Ship is certainly an uncomfortable experience, but not for the reasons intended, not good enough to love, and not bad enough to hate, it is in all senses of the word ‘mediocre’.  It is worth noting it is unrelated to the 1943 (and probably superior) film of the same name.

On a 1962 Cruise Liner the warmth and pomp of an upper class party is shattered in amusingly (perhaps not intentionally so) gory fashion, with a wire cord put to inventive use in the film’s opening sequence (one of the film’s better ones).

Forty Years later said event has ‘surprising’ (i.e. cheesy and predictable) repercussions for an American Salvage Ship and its crew.

Gruff Sean Murphy (Gabriel Byrne-following further the path into mediocrity) a man who’s seen ‘strange things happen in the Straight’ is the proud Captain of The Artic Warrior, a somewhat spartan salvage ship. Celebrating a recent success at a bar with his small (generic stock character) crew he is approached by Jack Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) a weather service Pilot, and signs up for a potentially lucrative contract: Investigating a mysterious ship floating in the Bering Strait.

Reluctantly bringing Ferriman along for the ride, Murphy and his crew set sail, cuing some surprisingly good music, and a predictably bad script. The slow beginning is full of bad, banal and boring dialogue- ‘Do you want me to come down there and kick your ass? Because I’ll do it’ being a typical example, whilst attempts to build atmosphere and characterisation largely fall flat. Whilst this slow start lets us get to know (or, perhaps more accurately get to hate) most of the characters, and admittedly is different to what you’d expect, it only ends up being annoying. It almost feels like the filmmakers are trying too hard to make the viewer care, (though based on the script it’s obvious they weren’t) before the inevitable gore and deaths start coming.

The script reportedly went through several re-writes just prior to the start of shooting, and it shows, besides pacing and dialogue issues (which are recurring in the film), the film bares the hallmarks of two distinctly different spins on things-psychological horror, and slasher film (the latter being far more evident), though such a mix could be potentially interesting, neither element is handled brilliantly in the film-either separately or when shoehorned together, with the surprising result that the film feels convoluted and overstuffed, no mean feet considering its less than 90 minutes long.

Whilst the script ultimately proves fatal to the film, there are certainly things about the film that can be appreciated, more so for genre fans.

The cast all seem suited to the subject matter, though as it’s so dumb that isn’t necessarily a complement. Gabriel Byrne and Julianna Margulies are most effective as the leads, charismatic and convincing, whilst Isaiah Washington, Emily Browning and a pre Lord of The Rings Karl Urban are given juicy supporting roles, and make their presence felt positively.

As mentioned the deaths, and scares soon begin to pile up once the ‘Ghost Ship’ is boarded: mysterious noises are heard, ghostly visitors are encountered, and supporting characters are violently turned into bright red mist, it may take half an hour, but the film does gets going and almost becomes the film you want it to be.

Although none of the deaths or shocks is particularly surprising, it is here the film is at its best. The camerawork is far more effective at creating tension than the dialogue, and the set pieces are uniformly well staged, gory, action packed, and very appropriate, it’s never intelligent, or particularly memorable, but dare I say it…kinda fun, and sure to entertain slasher fans. A long, but interesting flashback sequence reveals the relevance of the opening sequence (and is arguably the film’s highpoint), whilst demonstrating once more the film’s strong soundtrack.

The film packs a surprisingly (and unnecessarily) large amount of plot twists, some of which are very well thought out and executed, though others are as creaky as the floorboards of the title ship, it’s yet another reason why this film is frustrating. Although some credit is due to the writers for successfully hiding the main twist for the bulk of the film (although it’s a horror so you know the ending’s going to be grim), it demonstrates that even at its best, Ghost Ship only partially succeeds.

An action packed (though annoying) final ten minutes gradually pulls the film to a shock ending…which not only ends the film appropriately…it makes the film seem largely pointless.

Ghost Ship is an occasionally enjoyable film, but largely a frustrating mess, what could have been a dumb but fun horror, becomes well…just plain dumb. Treading water in search of a decent narrative, the technical prowess, few good performances, and decent shock twist on display, only intermittently distract from the poor script, ill thought out structure and confused story, and certainly can’t make up for it.

Not exactly terrible, but rarely become interesting it to have impact of any sort, Ghost Ship will probably entertain Serious Slasher fans, though other viewers are likely to come away disappointed.


Paul Ashwell

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The Blair Witch Project (1999) Review

‘In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…A year later their footage was found.’

As the opening caption of horror ‘mockumentary’, The Blair Witch Project states as fact, said footage purportedly forming the  basis of the film, a film which kick-started a whole style of filmmaking and (somewhat perplexingly) continues to feature in ‘Greatest Horror films’ lists.

Operating from a comparatively tiny budget of $25,000, Co-director-editor-screenwriters Daniel Myryck and Eduardo Sanchez hit on a novel way to stretch their resources, rather than churn out another gory slasher on the loose horror, they went for something less (well thought to be at least) commercial, an atmosphere heavy, largely ad-libbed ‘mockumentary’…it was a gamble that paid off in spades. Opening to massive business in 1999 (With a worldwide gross of over $230 million it became the most profitable film in Hollywood history) and rapidly gaining something of a cult following, the Blair Witch project would go on to spawn an unnecessary sequel, and a legion of imitators.

Whilst the recent glut of (repetitive) ‘found footage young adult on a run’ films may have robbed it of its impact a little (Everything from Cloverfield to Paranormal Activity owes at least something to The Blair Witch Project), and it certainly isn’t as ‘classic’ (or indeed scary) as its reputation suggests, it is by and large a well-made, well intentioned horror, with a gripping finale and impressively naturalistic performances from the cast, which largely draw attention away from the problems Myryck and Sanchez’s production methods unfortunately create.

Young, headstrong, aspiring film director Heather (Heather Donahue) sets of for Burkittville Maryland with cameramen Josh (Joshua Leonard) and Michael (Michael Williams) (It’s not entirely clear if the leads were playing ‘themselves’) to shoot footage for a documentary investigating the legendary ‘Blair Witch’, allegedly responsible for a string of local murders.  

Following cryptic interviews with locals and a wrong turn in the woods the trio’s initially cheery disposition turns sour, menacing signs begin to appear, strange noises are heard, and tempers begin to fray as the film as the film gradually builds to its gripping ending….

It’s a simple plot, and the film makes no attempt to complicate things, we learn next to nothing about the characters (even their surnames prove elusive), the ‘story’ could play out in a quarter of the running time, and right from the moment the woods are entered its obvious there can be only one conclusion to the film. None of these are exactly ‘issues’  as it’s what you’d expect from the genre, but even so more seasoned horror fans (or attentive viewers) may find the film a little too easy to anticipate.

A short running time of 78 minutes means the film is hardly a struggle to get through, but as mentioned above, the film feels overlong. The first half of the film is slow burning, introducing the protagonists through predominantly improvised (and often clunky) dialogue, and setting up later scenes with some intriguing foreshadowing (Once you’ve heard several consecutive warnings from elderly locals you know the outcome can’t be good for the trio) it’s not necessarily ‘boring’, but it does very little to help the film’s pace, for such a simple plot it’s surprising how much of the film feels redundant (Oh look they’ve argued next to more trees!). Some viewers may argue such a slow start helps builds tension for the latter half of the film, but that just isn’t true, the latter halve builds tension quite adequately on its own.

The film soon switches tone and becomes more recognisably a horror-though not of the visceral gore fests favoured by today’s audiences. As the trio become ever more disorientated and scared, a baffling series of signs and objects cross their path- oddly piled stones, and effigies hanging in the trees for example, whilst it lacks the shocks of say, Saw, such moments make for absorbing viewing,  and soon build a sense of unease, which only increases as the film progresses. 

Admittedly some viewers may find the absence of gore or ‘set pieces’ confusing, and the reliance on the ‘cheap thrills’ of scary noises and dark rooms in the film may be an acquired taste, but as proven time and again, what we don’t see is often as effective as what we do, and The Blair Witch Project is at its best when it strays from the ‘commercial’. It’s an approach that won’t convince all viewers, but those hooked will stay hooked until the end.

These encounters also act as jump off points for three convincing performances from the leads, although the ad-libbed dialogue isn’t always of the best quality (Oh, look! They’re talking about tress now!), the trio are excellent, their nervy, strained chemistry fits well with the tone of the film, and anchors even the slower scenes, whilst several unknown actors and locals fill out the small cast, with varying degrees of success.

Even upon its release The Blair Witch Project drew complaints for its reliance on handheld camerawork, yes it does get a little annoying in some of the dialogue scenes, and yes the sudden whip pans and zooms can be a bit nauseating to watch (precisely the point) but it works very well in the film (its usage actually seems quite tepid compared to more recent films), and coupled with its grainy, dirty look (achieved by filming on videotape then transferring the raw footage to 35mm) visually at least the film is very convincing.

The film comes together in a riveting final five minutes (oddly reminiscent of a scene from Silence of the Lambs), which, although rather easy to anticipate, still proves shocking and appropriate… even if it leaves the audience with more questions.

Technically impressive, well-acted and obviously very influential, The Bair Witch project is an short, uneven, and surprisingly ‘tame’ horror, but a reasonably enjoyable one nonetheless.

5.5/10 Paul Ashwell

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We Are What We Eat Review

Watching his fellow students arrive reluctantly at school one day 15 Year Old Sam Toller was hit by a sudden thought; ‘What if they all turned into Zombies?’, not the dead eyed, late night Call of Duty addicts suffering from Caffeine withdrawal that his teachers had to deal with, but the flesh eating living dead popularised by George Romero. It was a thought which lead him eight months later to ‘We Are What We Eat’ an uneven, but generally impressive 10 minute short film on which he acted as writer-director. The influence of existing features is clearly evident in the film, though Toller brings a few nice touches of his own in his debut.

Shot over the course of just Two Days, the film juggles an overly familiar storyline with a novel setting-Secondary School, and a subtle social commentary about the mechanics of the British Education system, but still finds time for a few metaphoric cutaways and an amusing homage to Shaun of the Dead (which lifted said reference in turn from the Dawn of the Dead franchise) despite its slightly less than 11 minutes running time.

Karl and girlfriend Nicole are typically blasé Secondary school students; arriving late for class (with different excuses) they get little sympathy from their Teacher (A delightfully grumpy Chris Bearne) and make plans to meet up after lesson. Later Karl falls ill and attacks Nicole, she escapes, the next morning finds things between them back to normal…although normality is about to be shattered in Bloody fashion…

Despite the untypical characters and setting, at first it is entirely possible to see where the story is heading, and for this reason alone the film may endear itself to, or put off viewers (yes, shuffling zombies and ‘edible’ corpses both make appearances). The two halves of the film-before and after the Zombies arrival don’t quite gel, an atmospheric first half giving way to a more generic ‘chase’ sequence (though both halves entertain), and the rather sudden, open-ended resolution may not be to all tastes.

Perhaps realising this Toller soon introduces an elliptical editing approach; key information is often only hinted at, and bold jump cuts keep the pace fast, it certainly makes the storyline more interesting, though some viewers may find it an annoying or confusing decision.

Whatever it’s other flaws the story is well structured with few ‘dramatic gaps’ and no obvious plot holes, and it is clear Toller was having a ball making the film.

The cinematography, editing and framing is first-rate, creative camerawork and assured direction keep the film visually interesting and make up for the lulls in the story (although a couple of shots come across as random or self-indulgent) – an tracking shot down a corpse strewn corridor, and a point of view death scene stay in the mind as much as they as impress. A low key but appropriate musical score makes a welcome appearance, and In contrast to many other short films isn’t overused, although other issues with the sound levels (the dialogue is too quiet) are a recurring, and annoyingly obvious diversion from the impressive visuals.

Despite the limited budget and production schedule, Toller was able to secure the services of several Industry professionals; Make Up artist Alex Whelpton and actress Lucy Joyce (Nicole), the effort paid off. The Makeup and practical effects are very good and convincing (although occasionally the illusion is broken by inappropriate close ups). Joyce makes a very likeable protagonist and anchors the film with a nicely modulated performance, although some of her dialogue delivery is a little wooden (as is her reaction to finding her classmates dead…), it is a small gripe and Joyce’s chemistry with Zak Ozturk (Karl-Ozturk’s acting debut) is immediately noticeable on screen, other performances in the film are a bit hit and miss.

Many of the issues listed above can be put down to the inexperience of its director or the constraints of the limited budget and production schedule, none are entirely fatal to the film, and some won’t matter to all viewers. Whilst ‘We Are What We Eat’ ultimately offers little not seen before, for fans of the genre or curious readers it should prove an entertaining viewing experience.

Visually the film is great, the effects and music work very well and Toller’s sheer daring should be applauded, but the predictable plot and variable performances (surprising considering Toller himself is an actor) prove problematic. In conclusion ‘We Are What we Eat’ is an inconsistent but generally compelling film which serves as perfect inspiration for young filmmakers nationwide.

A bright future for Mr Toller beckons, and if he gets access to increased funds, and more time it is a future, I for one would be intrigued to watch unfold.

Paul Ashwell

The complete film can be viewed at this address:

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Prometheus Review (2012)

In 1979 filmgoers left the ground-breaking original Alien with a variety of emotions: nausea, fear, and in some cases bafflement. Along with the now infamous chestburster scene, one fleeting moment in the film has continued to instigate debate: exploring the dingy corridors of a crashed spaceship the crew of the Nostromo come across an enormous mummified humanoid (slumped at the controls of what seems to be a cockpit), a massive hole in his chest, his name and race unknown. Later christened by fans as the ‘Space Jockey’ his origins were left unexplored in the sequels, but the mystery of his identity continued to interest Sir Ridley Scott, as much as the fans.

Almost Thirty Years after the last Visit to the desolate wastes of LV-426, such thoughts act as the jumping off point for Prometheus, a part-prequel to Alien and the first film in a mooted trilogy. Working from a muddled script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, Ridley Scott’s return to the Sci Fi Genre (answering the above question at last) is refreshingly bold for a summer blockbuster, but too uneven to be an entirely successful film.

In 2089 (roughly 30 years before Alien takes place) Astrophysicist Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace-Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and her down to earth partner Charlie Holloway (newcomer Logan Marshall Green) uncover a cave painting confirming the existence of an extra-terrestrial race predating Modern Humanity. Christening the mysterious figures ‘The Engineers’ the duo put together an exploratory team, with the financial backing of aged, wealthy businessman Peter Weyland (A miscast Guy Pearce), and voyage to the figures apparent Home world, on the Spaceship Prometheus, looking for answers.

Ill prepared for the events about to unfold, the Seventeen Man crew touchdown on the planet, the Android David (Michael Fassbender) and Company Executive Meredith Vickers (Charleze Theron) add mystery to proceedings, their secretive agendas gradually revealed as a life changing discovery is made…

Whilst as first glance it follows a similar plot to its successors, and features some of the same characteristics- a shady Cybernetic Human, extended chases down dimly lit corridors, a slow start (a recurring issue in the series-made worse in this film where many such slow points don’t even add to the story) and a strong willed female protagonist (with a fondness for skimpy underwear), Prometheus should not be viewed as a mere Alien Prequel.

It works well as a standalone film, its tenuous links to future events remain relatively shadowy until a gripping final Ten minutes, which goes a long way to answering three decades worth of questions (in surprising fashion). The ‘Engineers’ are very different antagonists, action is largely Earth (well LV-426) bound, and newcomers to the franchise should have little trouble following the storyline, even if they may have some enjoying it. That’s not to say fans of the franchise and Sci-Fi in general won’t enjoy the film, the expected set pieces and scares are present, and it is worth noting the 15 certificate is certainly merited, the film doesn’t shirk on coarse language or gore (though neither are as prevalent as you’d think…or hope).

Whereas the original Alien was a straight forward, tension-wracked Horror film in space (Albeit it one with the shadow of the AIDS epidemic hanging over it) Prometheus feels at once both more Epic…and less exciting. An over the top, over prevalent musical score removes a lot of dramatic tension and rarely merits inclusion, the deaths come gorily and relatively quickly, but most are predictable and hampered by the film’s 15 rating (only a DIY Medical Procedure performed by a patient on their own body truly stays in the mind), and neither the tautness of Alien or the Testosterone driven action of Aliens is reproduced here, though that doesn’t seem to be Scott’s Goal.

The biggest issue is the script, many Intriguing story ideas: Creationism versus Evolution, the relevance of Religion in the Modern Era, and most importantly the question where did we come from? Whilst commendable in a sea of predictable Shaky Cam Sequels, are poorly handled. Subtle metaphors all too often give way to in your face speechifying, significant characters have predictable clashes of personality (more minor characters often having no personality) and the frequent stop-start pacing does the film few favours (Despite its running time of 127 minutes the film feels overlong). Dialogue tends to be better thought out than the film’s structure, but even so there are a few cringe worthy one-liners best not repeated here.

Whilst not all the (fairly numerous) set pieces create the tension or impact they could have, they are staged well on an mix of colossal Soundstage Sets and imposing Icelandic Scenery, the film looks and feels expensive (Budget-£84 Million), and the visuals often outrank its predecessors. Drawing from HR Geiger’s original artwork CGI and Practical effects are put to extensive, effective use, dank, atmospheric corridors are juxtaposed with striking Alien creatures and futuristic spacecraft design, whilst a visually inventive Holographic sequence provides the first real reason for the film’s (for once quite impressive) 3D effects. Visually at least Scott return’s to the Sci-Fi genre is a welcome one, though admittedly his evident enthusiasm does very little to cover the bigger holes (or cavernous cracks) in the script.

The truly bizarre opening sequence sets the tone of the film well, and immediately showcases Scott’s famed attention to detail, dramatic camerawork and flawless editing hammers home the scale of the film, whilst the final set piece is an exciting, appropriate end to the film…if very ‘sequel baitish’.

Though few of the ship’s crew are given much purpose in the film (some are little more than bit parters), Scott guides several cast members to impressive performances, Rapace dominates proceedings with an emotional draining performance, which comes close to rivalling Sigourney Weaver at her best, Fassbender is on typically brilliant form in a surprisingly human turn (for an Android) as the Naïve David, and Idris Elba has fun as the gruff Captain of Prometheus.

Prometheus is something of a mixed bag, lumpy storytelling and easy to anticipate set pieces are balanced by Interesting Visuals, skilled Direction and Several Notable performances. For some viewers the thrill of revisiting old locations and receiving long awaited answers will make up for these flaws, though for others the differences/ similarities to previous films in the franchise may prove a turn off.

In conclusion it is best to come into this film with an open mind and low expectations, so disappointment won’t hit so hard. Prometheus it is far from a terrible film, and its pros outweigh the cons, but it is not the masterpiece it could have been, and frankly isn’t the prequel Alien Deserved.


Paul Ashwell

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RocknRolla Review (2008)

Despite his fresh success with the back to back Sherlock Holmes films, as recently as four years Ago Guy Ritchie was a director shunned by both audiences, and Critics. Riding high on the Success of his breakout films Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch, he alienated his new found fan base with a pointless remake of Swept Away, and the self-indulgent Revolver. Opening to largely negative reviews and disappointing box office, the consecutive flops forced a rethink.

For his next feature Ritchie made a return to his roots, (well, partially at least) with 2008’s RockNRolla. Shot entirety in London, with an impressive cast and reasonable budget at its disposal it was marketed as a return to the ‘Cops and Cockney’s’ of Ritchie’s earlier work-just a bit slicker.

Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly a triumphant return, whilst the larger budget and Ritchie’s increased experience certainly work in the film’s favour, its sluggish pace, immediate sense of familiarity, and crucially, a dull story prove near fatal issues. There are certainly things to like about the film-namely the cast and Direction, but neither of these cover up RockNRolla’s main problem – for a ‘guns and geezer’s’ film it simply isn’t that entertaining. Admittedly fans of the Gangster Genre probably won’t care about character motivation or shot construction, but RockNRolla largely fails to work as an enjoyable Gangster flick or even on a simple entertainment level, and the issues listed only serve to highlight this.

An Opening Monologue appropriately introduces the film and its tone: ‘…We all like a bit of the good life. Because a real RockNRolla wants the f****** lot…’ (Ritchie’s approval of swear words hadn’t changed at least)

Archibald (The in-everything Mark Strong) is the right hand man to bad tempered London Gangster Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) a man ‘with the keys to this booming city’…or so he likes to think, but times are changing in the capital. With a recent property boom, a wayward drug addled stepson, and a muddled script to bear in mind, Cole finds his work cut out to stay in the game, as foreign competitors start to move in on his turf.

Meanwhile the oddly named One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), leaders of a small time crew (‘The Wild Bunch’), find themselves caught in the middle. Enticing opportunities come their way, just as a stolen painting, seemingly indestructible Russian Heavies and innovatively put to use crayfish appear in the neighbourhood…

As this brief synopsis shows it’s a linear but quite bloated storyline, grimmer and a little more ‘grown up’ than Ritchie’s early features, it certainly seems to have enough ingredients to come out entertaining on the screen, unfortunately it is anything but. Feeling and unfolding very formulaically, it somehow manages to be predictable, boring and confusing all at once. Serving as Both Writer and Director Ritchie only really succeeds in his latter capacity…the script can honestly be described as terrible.

 At no point are there any big surprises, almost all of the characters could be cut and pasted from any other gangster film, whilst the resolution is obvious a third of the way into the film, clichés may arguably be expected, even so it’s annoying how lazy the film feels. Many Boxes are ticked, but it’s often the wrong ones, or done half-heartedly. What is surprising is how long it takes to get to the ending.

Running just under Two Hours RockNRolla was shorter than many of its competitors, yet doesn’t feel it. The simple storyline is stretched out for little discernible reason, things such as character motivation and structure often take a backseat in Gangster films due to pacing reasons or to make room for set pieces, but neither seemed to be a concern for the producers. The film unfolds at a slow pace, the lulls in the simple story are filled with little of any meaning, and the sporadic set pieces are quickly over with and mostly concentrated towards the films end.

Irrelevant diversions and random secondary characters make regular appearances, (taking away screen time from more important characters) and increasingly confuse or annoy as the film progresses, it is at least half an hour before the plot really gets going and there is a very limited amount of ‘action’, not only is it slow paced and confusing…it can honestly be described as boring.

Repetitive conversations and an attempt to address the morals of the ‘Gangster’ lifestyle only come across as annoying; there is little of the glamour or Gore some viewers may have expected from the genre, and it’s well over halfway into the film before there are any significant set pieces.

The witty dialogue that populated Ritchie’s first two features is noticeably (and unfortunately) mostly absent, most of the humour comes visually- a protracted foot chase with an overweight Heavy and a badly thought out carjacking add welcome laughs, an abundance of inventive swearing features in the film (well matched by the comic timing of many of the cast), but there’s only so many times you can hear the word ‘F***’ before it becomes, well, F****** annoying.

Characters tend to be introduced as lately and conveniently as possible, there is quite a large cast of characters, but few serve much purpose in the film, which is a shame, as the cast is one of the films few strengths.

Tom Wilkinson and Mark Strong add gravitas to quite predictable roles and play off each other well (the two are rarely seen on screen separately), whilst Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy and Idris Elba have fun as the leaders of ‘The Wild Bunch’, none of the main cast bring the expected baggage with their names (The film was released before their ascension to the A List and the blockbuster school of filmmaking), but the performances are near uniformly excellent. Only Thandie Newton struggles to make an impression, handed a small, thankless role as the generic, barely featured Love Interest.

Ritchie is far more successful behind the camera than as scriptwriter. His visual approach is a little more toned down than usual to match the performances, whilst occasional instances of smash cuts, and slow-mo make unwelcome appearances, by and large the camerawork and editing is muted, but assured, it never looks massively cinematic but always professional. A wide variety of locations paints a more interesting portrait of London than normally seen (in contrast to Lock Stock, a large part of the film takes place in the Suburbs), whilst the few set pieces are well choreographed.

Ironically though these very strengths also demonstrate RockNRolla’s biggest flaw. Richie’s earliest films worked because they were fresh and simple, not bogged down with attempts to be ‘clever’ or showy direction, the strong visuals and performances in this film, whilst certainly not a bad thing, add up to nothing when there isn’t a fun story for them to tell.

At the end of the film, it notes somewhat optimistically ‘Johnny, Archy and the Wild Bunch will be back in The Real RockNRolla’, although judging by this first film, it will be a largely unmerited return.

RockNRolla is a largely charmless, forgettable return to the Gangster Genre for Guy Ritchie, technical flair, and clever casting can’t cover the numerous plot holes and slow patches, whilst the sense of familiarity that pervades in the film does it few favours. Unassuming fans of the genre may well gain limited enjoyment from watching this film, but anyone else is likely to forget the film in a hurry, though not perhaps the sense of boredom.

4/10 Paul Ashwell

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